Back in issue 18 we heard from ABR reader Paul Holroyd on the eve of his ride to the Arctic Circle on a Honda Varadero. We catch up with him to find out how he got on…
With my limited experience I find that the hardest part of writing is actually making a start, and so I will start with a bit of background information as to why I would want to ride to the frozen north at the beginning of an arctic winter.
It is a fact that I am not right in the head, a bold statement, but one brought about by a series of events leaving me sat in the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of extreme stress and a course of happy pills.
As the summer passed I began to prepare for my now long awaited adventure and word got around about my trip. Aside from the less than positive comments about everything from frostbite to polar bears, I was very lucky to gain a few sponsors to help me on my way.
It has to be stated that the biggest boost and, having arrived home safe, most appreciated help was from the motorcycle clothing company Halvarssons. The company, based in Sweden, very generously donated a new set of riding gear, including gloves and even merino wool base layers. Little did I know how important this equipment would be as I travelled north…
1 Rotterdam, Netherlands
2 Hirtshals, Denmark
3 Amli, Norway
4 Kongsberg, Norway
5 Ringebu, Norway
6 Trondheim, Norway
7 Mo i Rana, Norway
8 Fauske, Norway
9 Vilhelmina, Sweden
10 Malung, Sweden
11 Odense, Denmark
As the sun dropped over Hull I set sail on what was an uneventful overnight trip to arrive at Rotterdam’s Europort by around 8.30am. To be honest, I couldn’t get out of Rotterdam fast enough; the three lanes of highway were packed, not dangerous in any way, just a fast moving busy highway and I wanted out. It wasn’t long before I was crossing into Germany.
I headed for the main route north; the E45, not a remarkable ride, but keeping a constant speed, the steady drone of my bike making easy work of the flat agriculture land, a gusty side wind keeping me on my toes until soon the signs for Hirtshalls were appearing, with the kilometres dropping with every turn of my wheels.
There were four bikes in the queue for my short trip into Norway; me, two Norwegians and a guy called Michael, riding a Yamaha Tenere from Germany. Luckily his English was excellent, my German is none existent and so we started chatting. He had a few days for a mini adventure to Norway as his wife and daughter were away.
Riding off the boat at around 3.30pm, we were quickly riding out of the town and following the E41 north into the most spectacular scenery that I have ever seen. Beautiful forests and lakes, the temperature already dropping.
We rode on for a few hours, stopping often for photographs before finding a sign for camping just north of Amli. Turning left along a minor road, there were various tracks leading down to a large Fjord. Michael asked, “Do you want to wild camp?” It was the perfect idea and end to the day when we set up camp on the shores of the Fjord, totally alone.
In to the Wild
As darkness fell, the fire crackled and I remembered the gift of a bottle of whiskey a friend had given me before I left. The idea was that with alcohol being so expensive in Norway, I would make new friends with my bottle of Scottish cheer. Michael stated that he wasn’t a fan of whisky and I definitely don’t care for it, but we had a wee dram to keep the night chill away. We laughed and chatted the night away, until tiredness from the long day started to kick in. Grabbing my bottle I was shocked that we had all but drunk it. This was confirmed when I tried to get up from my place at the fireside, which being too much effort altogether, I decided to stay and finish what we had started.
The next day the weather stayed fine, the scenery stayed dramatic, but it was bitterly cold, or so I thought. Little did I know just how cold it would get.
Luckily, campsites are frequent along the E6, and so I knew that there would be no problem finding a much needed hot shower at the end of the day. I continued riding alongside the Losna Fjord with views of the Gudbrandsdalen mountain range heading for Ringebu.
It was still only mid-afternoon and so I decided to visit the stave church (a medieval wooden church), which is just outside the modern centre of town.
Although not the most famous or indeed ornate stave church in Norway, the Ringebu church dates back to the 13th century, built entirely from the slow grown Norwegian timber, it really is a fantastic feat of primitive engineering. The church is still used for daily services by the faithful of Ringebu, as it has been for a mind-boggling 760 years.
The next day I was looking at the map and planned on heading for Dovrefjell, a high altitude plateau, home of wild Reindeer and the last stronghold of Norway’s magnificent Musk Ox.
Leaving the E6 for the day I decided to take the lesser route 27, joining it just north of Ringebu. The road twists and turns as it climbs, and you can literally feel the drop in temperature around every climbing bend.
Something that I learned very quickly about Norway is that of altitude; it is plain to see the change in vegetation as you climb. I know this is not a necessary skill to have on a bike, because my runny nose tells me that it is cold, as do my frozen feet. Anyway, if you are in a nice warm car with the heater on before you open the door, only to be shocked by the cold, then altitude can be judged like this. Lush green conifers interspersed with green leaved birch trees equals lowland, and so relatively warm. Sparse straggly conifers and yellow leaved birch; it’s getting colder. Stunted bare birch trees; now it is cold!
My ebay sourced temperature gauge states that it is -8 degrees, I really don’t know, but it is very cold. There is a stark beauty about these vast upland places with nothing for as far as the eye can see, but as I think about how dangerous these exposed places can be, it starts to snow, only lightly, but it is snowing.
The road seems to go on indefinitely and I am conscious that I am still climbing; how stupid, why didn’t I stick with the E6, that’s the road that I set out to ride? I realise that my jaw is aching, but this is not through cold, more that I am tense, I want the road to descend, I want to see houses or cars or something, anything. An hour later the road is starting to twist and turn downward as I follow a raging river to my right. For mile after mile the foaming waters chase my progress and as my confidence builds the swooping bends once again become a joy to ride. I feel as though I have survived something that probably wasn’t there except in my own mind.
Still bitterly cold, I re-join the main carriageway descending into the bustling northern capital city of Trondheim, Norway’s third largest city. Trondheim used to be Norway’s capital. St Olaf died here (King of Norway 1015 to 1028) and it boasts a picturesque location on the southern shores of the massive expanse of water that is Trondheimfjord.
I slept quite well, but woke shivering in the early hours. Still half asleep I just put my fleece on, snuggled down and finally woke at around 8am. I had quite a surprise to find that my bike was completely covered in thick ice. I guess that the sunny days that I have experienced so far on my trip are a double edged sword. With clear nights the temperature plummets once the sun goes down, meaning a cold night and a late start the next morning.
I packed up as the sun rose once more above the surrounding mountains. Setting off today I am immediately aware of the icy conditions as the road is mainly in shadow. A few twitches from the back wheel remind me of the perils of a hasty ride. Also, for the first time I have all of my layers on and the heated grips are working at full. I have my Buff over my face and inside my helmet it also covers my ears, it is so cold. At times thick fog hangs in the air waiting for the sun to reach it and burn it away.
I am sure that if I do unexpectedly hit the tarmac that I will probably bounce like one of those guys in a sumo suit or roll off down the nearest hill like a barrel, but must admit that I am for the first time since the start of this adventure not at all happy about the conditions, and whenever the road opens up and the sun shines through I am temporarily relieved and can relax for a while. Following the Namsdalen, progress is steady with only the odd HGV for company until around lunch time when the winter sun is high in the sky enough to warm the road. My destination is Mo I Rana and the official start of the Arctic highway.
Crossing into Nordland I pass beneath the famous road sculpture, that with its vertical tubes reminds me of a church organ. The sun is now at its peak. A hunter has stopped at the roadside. He tells me that the snow is not far away, thanks for that!
Mo I Rana eventually appeared along the road, and being the largest settlement in Nordland or Helgeland, it is not as spectacular as I had envisaged.
Passing through the scruffy mining town of Storforshei, my journey enters the Dunderlandsdalen, with its small cattle farms. The road climbing steadily once more as the temperature plummets and the stands of spruce give way, firstly to birch, before the trees are once again left behind, and with hardly any vegetation it is bitterly cold, the scene is that of a strange lunar quality.
A sign soon tells me that the Polarsirkel Senteret is now only a few kilometres away, and in what seems like the blink of an eye I am turning right into a massive totally abandoned car park.
Alone in my achievement, I set my little camera up for a celebratory photograph by the Polarsirkel Monument that declares that I am indeed at the significant line of latitude of 66 degrees 33 north and altitude is 610 metres, just over 2,000 feet above sea level.
No pop of a champagne cork or fanfare, just me and my bike now being watched by a couple of Japanese tourists who are wisely staying in their car.
Back on the E6 as it follows the edge of the fjord, a number of short tunnels helping to straighten the road. I intended to visit the Blood Road Museum, which, as I half guessed, was closed for the winter. In 1942 three German troop ships set out with 8,000 Yugoslav prisoners. They arrived around Rognan in summer, with no knowledge that their destination was the arctic, wearing their best clothes, brought there to work on the roads, but with no possessions they arrived in summer to work on the highway when conditions were bearable. It was only when the long arctic winter set in that their fate was sealed and they died in their thousands. It was not only Yugoslavs who were involved in the slave labour; Russians and Polish prisoners were also forced to work on the highway and in 1995 the E6 arctic highway was officially recognised as the Blodvei (Blood Road). A museum was opened, or in my case, sadly closed now for winter.
Arriving in Fauske, a pleasant and neat mid-sized town, the sun is dropping along with the temperature. After a quick stop for cash I find the town of Lundhosda, camping just on the outskirts. The only sign of life is the very big old Norwegian guy in a beat up Volvo.
Following a good night’s sleep, I return to the E6, signposted for Narvik, which, with a quick calculation, lies just another 150 miles north. This means another 600 miles to Nordkapp. My bike twitches with even the slightest blip of the throttle, I am tense and hardly dare lean even at 20mph, leaving me veering toward the white line on right hand bends and almost mounting the verge when the road bears left. After just a short distance in what seems like ages I leave the industrial suburbs of Fauske and enter a flat land where farms sit back from the road, I trundle on at 20, sometimes 30mph, now around 150 miles into the arctic circle.
All of my senses are telling me to turn around, but I continue on, hoping that as the day warms things will improve. Eventually, rounding a bend on a road where the trees are white with frost and the mist is hanging, I see blue lights flashing. A HGV has slid across the carriageway some time earlier, leaving the steel barriers bent like fork prongs. I trundle past and give a nervous wave to the four policemen who just stand there shaking their heads at me in disbelief.
A little further and I stop for a reality check, I am torn between my mission and self-preservation and refer to the map for answers that nobody can give me. Growing up near the sea I know for a fact that the salt air makes for an ice free environment, that could be the answer, it could keep the adventure going, after all, the meaning of adventure is to have an exciting experience with an uncertain outcome, to undertake a bold or risky undertaking, I have had my fill of those elements to be honest. The Atlantic highway sounds like a plan and it is the national tourist route number 17, bonus!
Heading back south – rather than north to complete my mission – I pull over for cars to slowly pass. Where the ice is particularly bad I revert to my hazard lights and grit my teeth, I really don’t like it but I can’t stay in Fauske forever, or even until spring.
Eventually, the sun hits the road and normal riding resumes and by lunch time I have all but forgotten about the morning, the only reminder being my aching jaw from hours of gritted teeth.
The road twists and turns, rises then plummets back to sea level in ice free bliss, I am making good progress and the panoramic views of the Atlantic ocean come and go as I once again head south and then east into Sweden for the long ride home back to England, having not quite made it to the Arctic Circle.
Paul would like to thank Halvarssons for the kind donation of the kit.
WHAT PAUL SAID ABOUT HIS TRIP AFTERWARDS…
“I generally go with the flow with most things in life but I had to use my head not my heart when making the decision to turn back. I had to think logically, put my work hat on and do a risk assessment. Quite frankly, all of my trips are meant to be fun, it is my hobby and my time-out from the norm, I am a motorcycle tourist. It became a chore and no fun riding at 20mph with my feet down on the ice and just thinking, ‘I have another 450 miles of this if I keep riding north and it can only get colder, then I have to ride back, what if I drop the bike, breakdown, slide into a ditch miles from anywhere.’ No, the only sensible decision was to turn back. I did think about what people would say or think and it worried me, was I being a coward or just sensible, I thought about the Ed March presentation that I had seen (Ed rode to the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter on a Honda C90, one of the most heroic adventure bike riding trips ever completed). I thought about my friend and extreme adventurer Sjakk Luckansen and his Polar ride, but they are not me. The adventure still continued after my decision, just not in the same direction. I rode part of the beautiful Atlantic highway before heading east to explore Sweden, I had an amazing adventure and ticked all of the boxes for Scandinavia. Of course I could never see everything in one trip and will return with Maria, my wife, one day, but a little earlier in the year when it’s warmer. She is after all a descendant of Norway, my own Viking princess. To summarize, Norway is a phenomenally beautiful country if not a bit expensive, the roads are good and the people friendly and generous. I will return one day to finish my mission, but for now I have new adventures formulating in my head, some of them a little more closer to home. And possibly to warmer climates!”
Photos: Paul Holroyd