Our journey through Sweden & Norway
We have just booked our ferry away from Norway to Denmark for the next leg of our journey. When discussing where to go prior to our departure, we thought Scandinavia would be the best place to start. We were hopeful that Sweden & Norway wouldn’t be too cold in autumn, clinging to our belief that September often brought settled weather. We quickly progressed Northward through Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark, anxious to reach Sweden where we felt our journey would truly begin.
We enjoyed Holland with its perfectly neat, well ordered farms and good campsites and because it gave us the opportunity to meet up with our Dutch friends. We met Mickey and Ed on a campsite in Northern Portugal last summer and bonded when Steve went over to help tie down their tent awning during a nigh-time storm. We think it was the action-man-esque cut Steve sustained on his cheek from a flying guy rope that elicited their sympathy – the bond later cemented over a meal at a local village eatery.
Mickey and Ed recommended a campsite to us in Polderland and met us there before taking us out for dinner. We enjoyed another meal catching up and hearing of Mickey’s adventures with a bear in the US this summer. I know Mickey can laugh about it now, so won’t mind that we still chuckle at the image of her achieving a turn of speed worthy of Yussain Bolt as she sprinted away from the bear with Ed shouting “don’t run Mickey!” to her disappearing form.
Since become addicted to the Nordic Noir series ‘The Bridge’, we always knew that our route into Sweden would be from Copenhagen to Malmo via the series’ eponymous structure. Entering a tunnel adjacent to Copenhagen airport, we were surprised to emerge directly onto the bridge, it’s familiar pylons just visible as the apex swept into view ahead of us. Our excitement at being on the bridge rapidly evaporated when we reached the toll on the Malmo side. We hadn’t registered there would be a toll, let alone that it would demand an eye-watering £45. Given the frequency of Saga Noren’s journeys across the bridge we assume the police travel free of charge! This was an early indication of what was to come throughout Sweden and Norway.
Having recovered from the loss of one day’s travel budget on the bridge toll, we quickly fell in love with Sweden. The autumn colours were stunning and, although cold, the weather was largely settled. As we travelled north, however, things began to change. We spent one very damp evening sheltering in a log hut just off the road, managing to light a fire which provided more cheer than warmth. The heater we’d installed in the Land Rover became our most valued piece of equipment, as we piped warm air into the roof tent, maintaining a cosy environment to sleep in.
It was becoming apparent that we would have a smaller window than anticipated for travelling and camping once we reached the Artic. We therefore headed north as quickly as possible, with only a short diversion to travel the Vildsmarksvägen – The Wilderness Road – from Stromsund as far as Saxnäs where we would re-join the northward route. The Vildsmarksvägen didn’t disappoint. Emerging above the treeline north of Geddede, the landscape was spectacular and we encountered our first herd of reindeer on the high moors. This generated a fair bit of excitement and scrambling for the camera until, descending back into the trees, the numbers of reindeer swelled to hundreds. They were clearly being farmed and herded with what appeared to be a local reindeer market in progress. From then on we saw so many reindeer both domestic and wild, that we became immune to them, generating no more excitement than a flock of sheep.
The Vildsmarksvägen furnished us with a stunning camp spot next to a river, with mountains in the distance and woodland all around. The fire we lit that evening took Steve’s constant attention to keep alight, hissing and steaming as it tried to consume the saturated deadwood we had gathered.
Having crossed the Arctic Circle just south of Jokkmokk, we continued north, leaving Sweden to cross the narrow finger of Finland that pushes between its two Scandinavian neighbours. We were disappointed in our hope to find a camping place in Finland, as possible wild camp locations became fewer and campsites were closed to anyone not wanting to rent a cabin. We managed to find a small takeaway kiosk offering burgers for a hasty meal, before leaving Finland and entering Northern Norway.
By now the soft golden forests and lakes of Sweden had been replaced by a harsher arctic landscape with fewer, smaller trees; almost exclusively silver birch and mountain ash. Everywhere the ground was covered in dense carpets of plants with leaves varying from dark green to deep russet. Norway is stunning and we loved being in the arctic but this presented us with challenging camping options. Not only was the temperature plummeting, but the weather became more and more unsettled with strong wind and persistent rain.
We headed for Nordkapp; Norway’s most northerly point, but found it enveloped in cloud with visibility of around 50 metres. The dramatic Barents Sea was invisible to us, as were the reindeer that suddenly appeared out of the mist and on to the road. We took refuge in a hotel near North Cape that was comfortable but, like everything in Scandinavia, cost about twice what we would have expected to pay for similar elsewhere.
We attempted North Cape again the following day in the hope of clearer weather. The entry fee was £22 each but this included permission to camp overnight in the Visitor Centre car park. Enticed by the promise of a warm visitor centre including free wifi and a cinema showing a 15-minute panorama film of North Cape through the seasons, we decided to go ahead. In retrospect this may not have been one of our better decisions. The Visitor Centre was warm. We did get free wifi and we enjoyed the panorama film, which was surprisingly dramatic and engaging. But the car park was barren and windswept, offering no shelter but a small staff accommodation hut. We parked alongside the south wall of this, convinced by the weather forecast that the wind would come from the north.
By 3pm, the Visitor Centre had closed (no more warm free wifi) – the entrance barrier left open and the toll hut deserted. Anyone could now enter the car park and walk to the North Cape monument for free. A few breaks in the cloud meant that we did glimpse the Barents Sea but for the rest of the time we huddled in the car, heater on, looking out into nothing but cloud. The wind persisted in coming from the West but our faith in weather forecasting kept us committed to our choice of location, convinced that when the wind swung to the north, we would enjoy a calm, sheltered night. It didn’t and neither did we. The wind did not change in any measure other than its strength. We were relentlessly buffeted all night, making sleep impossible and tempers short.
Up as dawn broke, we found no lessening in the wind but an improvement in visibility. We returned to the North Cape globe for a final view of the arctic seas before resuming our travel southward towards the fjords and what we hoped would be better weather.
This was when we reached the point where a) we abandoned all faith in artic weather forecasting and b) we realised the naivety of our expectation of a calm settled September in Scandinavia. As we talked to more locals in Norway, we learned that wind, rain and storms are typical at this time of year. We learned that this is referred to as ‘fall storms’. We learned that things would get worse before getting better.
We also learned another difference between Sweden and Norway. Being largely flat, places to wild camp in Sweden were plentiful. Being largely mountains separated by fjords, places to wild camp in Norway were scarce. Motorhomes and caravans tend to opt for roadside laybys, but eschewing the association with this type of camping, we preferred somewhere more hidden and solitary. Driving a Land Rover opens up possibilities denied the motorhomes but even so, places were scarce. Mostly we relied on the flattest clear areas we could find in woodland by rough tracks. Keeping in mind the rule that you are not allowed to camp within 150 metres of a dwelling, this was not always easy. One night we found a lovely spot on a stony beach in the bend of a river. At least it was lovely until heavy rain during the night swelled the river at an alarming rate, forcing Steve up twice to check that we weren’t in imminent danger of being washed downstream.
These difficulties, together with the exorbitant cost of being in Norway, forced us to leave sooner than we would have liked. Deciding on a Hurtigruten ferry to take us all the way south from Lofoten to Trondheim (about which we will write separately) we quickly headed inland and south – away from the coastal wind and rain and towards the ferry that would take us from Oslo to Fredrikshavn in Denmark.
We have loved Scandinavia, and especially the arctic. Something about the harshness of that environment draws us both and we were genuinely sad to leave. But there is only so much cold, wind and rain that you can stand living outdoors so if we are to visit this beautiful place again, it will have to involve a more permanent dwelling, hopefully allowing us to experience the different seasons, midnight sun and midday darkness, and the Northern Lights, which no doubt put on a spectacular show invisible to us above the unremitting cloud.