Friday, 20 August 2010

Norway 4 - The Far North

Our route through Norway's far north

The Vesterålen islands – Friday 30th July to Monday 2nd August 2010

We left the Lofoten islands as we had arrived, on a ferry in the rain. Only this rain was lighter, the clouds higher and we could see the towering mountain skyline as the tiny port of Fiskebøl receded behind us. The ferry journey was much shorter too, at 25 minutes to cross to the town of Melbu, at the very southern tip of the Vesterålen islands, which lie to the north of the Lofotens and just off the main Norwegian coast. Unlike the Lofotens, which form basically one long line, the Vesterålens have a convoluted geography, and the main islands are pierced by fjords great and small, gentle and steep, pointing in all directions, which make them resemble random splashes of paint on the map.

Vesterålen view – Eidsfjord

The Vesterålens, despite some wonderful scenery, are overshadowed by their southern neighbours and thus get only a fraction of the tourists. In some ways this is nice – there are vehicles other than tour buses and motorhomes on the roads – but in other ways it becomes more difficult as the facilities in some areas are fewer. We drove the length of the scenic Eidsfjord without a single picnic or parking area that suggested itself for an overnight stay, but eventually, following our by now well-honed instincts, found a suitable glade in the woods inland, by a long single-track gravel road leading up to a lake.

Vesterålen view – Forfjord with glacial morrains in the foreground

We moved on in slow stages. A wet Saturday was spent largely on the internet in rain-soaked Sortland. It also saw us in almost comical efforts to find a chemical loo dumping point at a garage. It turned out to be an unmarked manhole cover in the roadway that we had walked or driven over five times before the exasperated staff came out to physically point to it. That’s another disadvantage of less touristy areas, you start to become obsessed by taking in water and emptying out t’other.

Vesterålen view – Nordmela on Andøya

Still, once all the practical jobs were out of the way we managed to find another beautiful camping spot by an unmade road just past the hamlet of Myrland, this time with a fjord view – Godfjord. Rob tried his Ray Mears best with a fire, but the day’s rain had soaked all the wood around.

Myrland camping spot by Godfjord on Hinnøya (Vesterålens)

“Heard of reindeer?”
“Of course I’ve heard of reindeer.”
“No – there – down the road. It’s a herd of reindeer!”
And there ahead of us, on the tiny road back from Myrland the next morning, we spotted a group trotting ahead of us. We kept a respectful distance, not knowing the usual way to behave around these creatures. There was no person in sight, so we don’t know if they were fully or semi-wild. Eventually, and seemingly without acknowledging our presence, they turned off onto a track through the birch and we last saw them crossing the sandy shore of a lake for water.

Reindeer near Godfjord

Ever changeable, the weather on Sunday was sunny and hot, and out came the T-shirts again for our move north onto Andøya island, where consideration for tourism picked up in the form of a series of gravel parking areas all along a lovely stretch of coast. We camped there by the open sea, facing the setting sun. It sank behind clouds before reaching the horizon, but we estimated sunset as probably no earlier than 11:15 p.m.

Andøya (Vesterålens) – Camper van alley

The Vesterålens start in the west and the south almost as craggy as the Lofotens, but as you move further north and east the parapets soften and the summits get lower, until on Andøya the mountains are more grassy, whale-backed fells that are reminiscent of the Carneddau in North Wales, so that for a while on the way to Andenes I (Rob) imagined driving from Bangor to Llandudno with the lofty smooth-topped hills to my left.

 Andøya coast – Hills near Stave and Nordmela

That night, on the coast of Andøya, I (Rob) was still up at 1.30 a.m., and glancing out to sea I was certain that I could see a number of whales cavorting (for want of a better word) some way off the coast, in a flurry of finned backs and tails rising from the water. Seeing whales here did not seem very surprising for Andøya is a prime whale-watching spot and several ports offer ‘whale safaris’, although at prices that made me choke. I woke Lesley, who was as captivated as I was until she said ‘why are they always in the same place?’ With a slight seed of doubt in my mind along with a desire to see more, I set out on my bike at two in the morning to find a closer vantage point along the coast. In the few minutes it took me to get there, all whale activity had ceased. There were in that direction, however, occasional glimpses of submerged rocks. Now I may have indeed seen a group of cavorting whales but on balance I think it more likely that I saw waves forming over undersea rocks at a certain point in the tide, the shapes of which looked black in profile in the twilight, and that my imagination did the rest. I would still rather it had been whales.

Nordmela coast – Camping spot, early morning – There be whales!

Senja – Monday 2nd  to Thursday 5th August

We caught the 5:00 p.m. ferry on Monday 2nd August from Andenes in the Vesterålen islands, to tiny Gryllefjord on the island of Senja, which lies adjacent to the Norwegian mainland and on the way to Tromsø.  On Senja we were back in true fjord country again, where sheer rocky hillsides fell straight down to long narrow inlets of steely grey sea. It was steely grey of course, because the sun had disappeared behind another layer of low cloud that decapitated all the hills under a level white blanket, but at least we were spared any serious rain.

Andenes-Gryllefjord ferry, approaching Gryllefjord on Senja

It was off the steep rocky shores of Senja that we cracked the art of Norwegian sea-shore fishing, at least for beginners. The secret lies in where you fish – a place with no fish = no luck, but a place with plenty of fish – well it’s almost embarrassingly easy, as the coley, and if you’re lucky the cod, just throw themselves at your hook. There is no doubt an art in placing yourself correctly, but we found a few good spots. The outside edges of harbour walls are great if you dare clamber on the rocky ledges. The technique is not complex (once you know how to cast – see the Lofoten post for our experiences on that front), and involves repeatedly hurling a small metal fish-shaped lure with three large hooks at its tail out into the ocean, and reeling it in before it snags on weeds or rocks and you lose it.

Fishing – Coley again!

By the time we moved on from Grylleford harbour wall, with our wealth of coley, evening was drawing in. We picked up some Czech hikers, who’d been trudging up the hillside since the 1:00 p.m. ferry. Passing places where we could park up for the night, we did our good deed and took them to the next village. Though for the whole journey the poor girl who had “stolen” Charlie’s seat had to put up with him lying at her feet throwing reproachful looks in her direction. “I don’t think he likes me sitting here,” was her comment – in excellent English of course.

Gryllefjord view

You would think that doing good deeds might bring something in the way of karma, but no – having doubled back, tried another damp squib fire (Ray Mears must always carry a trailer of dry wood you know), set about cooking our very fresh fish – the gas we bought in Mo i Rana ran out. Lots of bad words from Rob along the lines of – this was a 5 kg bottle of butane and it only lasted 2½ weeks, compared to our 907 Camping Gaz bottles of propane at 2.9 kg lasting almost as long. He wasn’t much calmed by me pointing out that actually meant they weren’t as expensive as we thought they were.

Gryllefjord view

Tuesday dawned with yet more rain. If you were here on a two week break you’d be pretty miffed at this weather. As it is, we can afford the luxury of sitting and waiting around until some decent scenery emerges from out of the shrouds screening our views. It does give us time to read, write and get some housework done. Yes – housework – all ten minutes of it. Such is the joy of living in a small van!

Mefjord morning from our overnight spot

We followed the coast around the north of Senja, moving from one steep sided fjord to another via the series of long tunnels (some 500m, some 1km long) bored through the granite mountains. Luckily they are well lit, but I (Lesley) still found them a bit disconcerting and spooky in the way they twist and turn, so that you appear to be driving directly at a wall of rock. I’ve never liked rocky tunnels much since a 1970s episode of Dr Who. Rob, however, kept saying how he’d love to cycle through them – such madness is beyond my understanding!

Multebaer  or cloudberry – Norway’s most expensive berry – one plant bears one fruit

We ended up on Tuesday by Mefjord, and parked in a picnic layby, looking back on the busy fishing port of Senjahopen and its baby brother, the prettier village of Mefjordbryggen, where Rob had earlier caught yet more coley and some small cod. As he was shutting the van blinds for bedtime, he called me over, saying there was an elk coming up the road. Unlike his whale safari, this time it was the real thing, a gangly-legged nervous young elk, which was obviously aware that we were in the van and desperately wanted to trot past. It kept edging closer, then moving back down the road. In the end it braved it and climbed as high up the cutting beside the road as it could, before passing on down the road and back into the scrubby, stunted birches growing on the lower slopes of the mountain.

Senja - Mefjord

Mefjord was classically deep and sheer sided, as was its neighbour Husøyfjord, both providing a wealth of spectacular views over sparkling waters towards dizzying heights. The small village of Husøy lies on an island at the sea end of the fjord and is joined to the main part of Senja via its harbour wall, which is strangely painted in two garish shades of blue. Luckily that doesn’t detract from its general attractiveness, with wooden houses in a multitude of shades – petrol blue, cardinal red, yellow ochre and white – and all of them held firmly to their rocky island via thick cables. We hadn’t noticed this really before Husøy, but seemed to see it everywhere for a while after that. We’d moved on to Botnhamn (bottom harbour) to catch the 5:30 p.m. ferry and make our way back to the mainland, but sunshine and craggy sided fjords combined in the evening to keep us on Senja for another night. We explored several great wild camping spots before settling high up at the tunnel mouth before Husøy, where the view was fantastic and the occasional thunder of a vehicle approaching sounded eerily like a phantom train. Rob got his wish and cycled through the tunnel to go back down to Husøy to fish and to stop every few yards to admire the view – something I’d been reticent to do in the van.


Back to the Mainland – Thursday 5th August

We caught the morning ferry from Botnhamn to Brensholmen on Kvaløya, our last Norwegian island, and drove to Tromsø, crossing a bridge that brought us back onto the mainland. We managed 120 miles today, which is a long way at our kind of pace. Compare that to fellow British passengers aboard the same ferry who were taking three and a half weeks to go from the UK to the most northerly point at Nordkapp, and back again!

Tromsø Domkirke

Tromsø is a thoroughly likeable little town – whoops, main city of this region – and we found plenty to hold our attention for the duration of our two hour parking ticket. The place has retained a 19th century feel due to the many wooden buildings which recall the boom times when its fishing industry was at a peak and there was an ongoing barter trade with Russia. They give the place a sort of American frontier town feel. There’s a very elegant wooden cathedral from 1861 and another catholic church of similar age and style. Across the water the 1960s Tromsdalen kirke, more popularly known as the Arctic cathedral, is a soaring construction in white concrete. It also looked interesting from what we could see by peering through the open doors and the side windows, being unwilling to pay 30 kr each for what we knew would be a ten minute visit! We gave the cable car to Tromsø’s heights a miss since the weather changed again, in the space of our two hour parking, from warmth and clear skies to blustery with clouds which had descended low enough to hide said cable car.

Tromsø Arctic Cathedral

We left Tromsø on the main E8 road south, having duly noted down the co-ordinates, thanks to Garmintrude, of the most northerly place we’d ever been and planned (at this time) to be on this trip. Finding a place to wild camp along a major road is perfectly possible, but we always seem to do better off side roads and so turned off to drive along Ramfjord, which turned out to be very agricultural and littered with small settlements. Those conditions rarely provide any wild camping, and we passed a couple of possibilities early on, driving past in the hope of something better turning up. Since we rarely turn back once we’ve done this, don’t ask why, we just don’t, we carried on, with the ensuing heavy sighs and loud tuts becoming more and more frequent until man and dog were fed, which always settles them both somewhat and reduces the whining.

Camping on the Lyngen Peninsula

Giving ourselves a time limit – we will stop here unless we find somewhere better by 9:30 p.m. – which we then added ten minutes to, again and again actually, we ended up in one of the best places so far, towards the end of Sørfjorden on the Lyngen peninsula. This only goes to attest to the truth of my (Lesley’s) theory that something better in the way of camping spots always does turn up if we are patient and don’t just pick any old place from panic.

Lyngen glaciers

The mountains on the Lyngen peninsula are known as the Lyngen Alps, and for the next three nights we camped in a lovely spot at the water’s edge, where we enjoyed a constantly changing light show on the bare sides and glacial peaks towering above us. We built fires to our heart’s content and collected our own fresh spring water from the icy stream that cascaded over rocks and into the fjord. We found it very hard to tear ourselves away from the sunshine, the evening skies of deepest orange and pink and “real” camping - so we didn’t – we stayed until almost total lack of electric output from the van’s leisure battery forced us to get it in motion. Next time we do this we will have solar panels, of that we are both determined.

Lyngen glacial light show and glacial lake

We took the fridge starting to defrost as a sign that we should move on, after all, I’d put a message on Facebook saying we’d be in Finland by Thursday evening and it was now Sunday morning. However, by Sunday evening we were still not in Finland, we weren’t even heading towards Finland, as on a whim we’d decided to continue driving north, not to Nordkapp, but as far as Alta, to see some more of the arctic fjords as well as the Finnmark landscape (or Lappland to most of us), the traditional homeland of the nomadic Sami peoples.

Disused Sami hut

The drive to Alta took us back onto the E6, which is the main motorhome superhighway to Nordkapp, and after the relative isolation of the previous few days we were again seeing dozens of our fellow hobbyists each hour. You are never in fact far from a motorhome in Norwegian fjord country, as this style of holidaying is very popular among the Norwegians themselves, who often turn up on the smallest roads seeking quiet spots for fishing or a weekend away, and many who use them do not travel that far. Up here there are also a fair number of Germans, Dutch and French, but surprisingly we noted in the far north a great number of Italian motorhomes, more than any other foreign group. The Norwegian tourist board must have been working overtime in Italy!

Lyngen to Olderdalen ferry by the E6

The E6 drive over the next two days was particularly scenic. First we passed the Lyngen Alps on their east side, and their craggy skyline and glinting glaciers looked spectacular in the sunshine. At another point we cleared a headland to see an archipelago of islands below us in the Kvænangen gulf, before twisting around more inlets to reach broad Alta fjord, hemmed in by more mountains and islands. On one  stretch before Alta, reindeer roamed at will across the road, forcing us to slow down many times. We gave a lift into Alta to a French hitch-hiking teacher who was spending the summer in northern Norway, and had a special interest in the Sami, or Lapps are they are often known in English. We last saw him striding off into a municipal woodland in Alta, on his way to seek out a Sami sacred stone.

Reindeer on E6 above Langfjord

It was Tuesday evening when we arrived in Alta, and we carried on for a bit to look for a nice overnight spot. We eventually took a dead-end road leading to the coast at the northern edge of Alta fjord, opposite the islands of Stjernøya and Seiland, and stopped for the night by a little-used jetty outside the village of Mikkelsøy. I (Rob) tried midnight fishing but to no avail. The next day was beautifully warm. An old woman who came to talk to us told us that we would have to go further round the coast to catch any fish, so we decided to do that, and the day being as nice as it was we decided to stay in the area for another night. We camped early on Wednesday evening, above the water near the village of Nyvoll, and saw reindeer nearby. We cooked over a fire, and at midnight I had a little more luck fishing, including my first ling. We noticed in this area for the first time that the forests were beginning to show the golds and browns of autumn, and this on the 10th of August.


70 degrees 13 minutes 35 seconds. That is the furthest north we got. It is higher than Iceland, or most of Alaska, and lies on a par with the Siberian tundra, Baffin Island in Canada, or the middle of Greenland. We were little more than 100 miles from Nordkapp at one point but decided against going there because: we had never intended to aim specifically for Nordkapp; it is a very long cul-de-sac; it is not even the most northerly point in Europe; everyone goes there despite this; it is dominated by a ghastly and overpriced ‘visitor centre’; we now have a deadline to get to Helsinki, and would have had to rush without doing the trip justice; and finally, we just felt our time was more enjoyably spent chilling by these beautiful fjords for a couple of days.

Bird on Skillefjord – We wish we’d brought a bird spotting book and binoculars with us!

Finally we headed south, and left Norway for Finland on Thursday 12th August. We had stopped in Alta for some shopping, then headed inland across the Finnmarksvidda, an undulating upland of birch forest and swamp that is cut by fast-flowing rivers on wide stony beds. Alta was a very spread-out town of wooden villas stretched around a wide bay, and merging gradually into the surrounding woods, but its centre was a post-war grid of spacious pedestrian boulevards, whose oldest buildings betrayed a 1950s origin. This was no chance town improvement scheme, but part of a wholesale reconstruction of the towns of Finnmark after the second world war, when in a final act of wickedness the German Wehrmacht systematically burnt and destroyed every town and village they passed in their retreat before the Red Army in 1944. There are very few buildings remaining in the far north, east of Lyngen, from before this date.


Our last town in Norway was Kautokeino, which is called Guovdageaidnu in Sami, and is basically a Sami town. It has no real centre but largely blends into the birch forest that surrounds and almost envelops it. We stopped to visit the local museum, which inevitably focused on the Sami, although it was rich on costumes and artefacts but poor on descriptions of history and culture. One interesting aside was that from the 1940s to the 1960s goods travelled into and out of the area in winter by means of a sort of sled-train hauled by a bulldozer equipped with a snowplough.

Kautokeino – Pikefossen waterfalls, hay drying and a Sami lavvu (wigwam)

Around 20 kilometres later we were in Finland.

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