15 Jul 2016

On Your Bike: 700km in 5 days through Lapland

John’s solo trip - cycling in Norway & Sweden

This mini adventure begins close to the Arctic town of Narvik, a smudge of civilisation at the northern tip of Norway’s “Nordland” district. It cowers rather ruefully on the shores of Ofot Fjord, and wouldn’t exist at all were it not for Sweden’s need to export its vast reserves of iron ore from the huge open pit mines in Kiruna.  25m tonnes of the stuff pass through Narvik every year – one of the benefits of its status as an ice-free port, warmed as it is by the Gulf Stream.  Sweden’s own northern ports are frozen over in the winter months and so Narvik’s commercial prosperity seem set to continue.

But this prosperity has not always been a blessing. During WWII, Narvik came to the attention of both the Germans and allies as they fought a bitter campaign in 1940 for control of the port.  Churchill was desperate not only to cut off the supply of iron ore to Germany but also to maintain the supply routes north to the Soviet Union.

But I decided to stay in Bjerkvik, a small hamlet just north of Narvik, at the imaginatively named “Bjerkvik Hotel”. Any weary traveller faced with this sober façade, peering weepily through the drizzle, may well feel they have discovered the font of Scandinavia’s brooding melancholy.  

But inside the reception is warm and friendly and, of course, spotlessly clean.  My room is on the 3rd floor looking out over the fjord, which, even at midnight, is bathed in an ethereal glow, filtered by the blanket of cloud hovering over it.  Fortunately my bicycle has travelled well on the flights from London, wrapped only in cardboard and cling film!

Day 1: Bjerkvik to Abisko
Distance: 78km
Ascent: 1,028m

After a large breakfast and a leisurely start, I headed East on the E6, enjoying the relative lack of traffic, which plagued my ride up the E4 from Stockholm 6 years ago. I stopped and watched a young bull moose standing just 10m from the road, frozen still, with plants hanging from his mouth.  One great thing about Norway is how courteous the drivers are.  This is probably to be expected from a nation of milk drinking, woolly jumper wearers, but it’s still a very pleasant surprise coming from the UK.  On steep twisting roads, which in Africa would have been strictly the domain of kamikaze boda boda drivers and impromptu picnickers, the Norwegians hang back for cyclists before eventually overtaking more cautiously than Abu Hamza putting his contact lenses in.

But no amount of courtesy can make the long mountain tunnels any less daunting. I wondered whether bicycles are even allowed to use them, but there seemed no alternative and so I had no choice but to submit to the gravitational pull of these black holes, the arteries of Norway’s mountain roads.  The darkness vibrates with the rumble of oncoming (or even more unnervingly, overtaking) freight before it thunders past. Each time I thought what an unglamorous ending it would be, under the wheels of an iron ore truck being driven by a Noel Edmonds look-a-like.  But fortunately Norwegians are the second largest consumers of coffee in the world, and their road safety statistics are impressive.  And so after leaving the tunnels intact I was able to relish in the serenity of the rising Lapland plateau as I approached the Swedish border.  The border is manned but open and a large EU sign marks the entry into Sweden.

My first stop on the Swedish side is the small supermarket in the isolated and rather lunar looking landscape of Riksgräsen.  Although not great examples of their kind, I can’t resist buying 2 “kanel bullar” - cinnamon buns which are a staple of the Swedish “Fika” ritual.  From here I pressed on eastwards, finding that I could comfortably manage 40km/b (kilometres per “bulle”)

Arriving at the mountain station at Abisko, I couldn’t help feeling that despite the great location and super cleanliness, this was not great value for money.  A six bed dorm (which I shared with 5 women) cost a reasonable 395SEK a night but the extras, including 60SEK for a towel, 110SEK for breakfast and extra for sheets, seemed steep.  After a much anticipated sauna, I headed to bed and feigned interest in my book as bras were discarded around me.