DRIVING through the wilderness of northern Scandinavia, hours can pass by before you see another car. The roads in the Arctic Circle are every bit as spectacular as some of the world’s most celebrated driving routes, but much less travelled.
There’s only one snag as my friend (a fellow petrolhead) and I begin our journey to the North Cape – and that’s ice, lots of it. At our starting point in Luleå, Sweden, the sea surrounding the archipelago is buried beneath a shimmering white glaze.
How on earth will a car designed for conventional roads cope in these extreme conditions? It’s a Mazda CX-3, the sort of SUV cum crossover more commonly seen on the schoolrun in Surrey than forging through blizzards in Scandinavia. Happily it holds a pair of aces up its sleeve; four-wheel drive and studded winter tyres.
We’ve also packed a snow shovel, tow rope, blankets, spare fuel and a fire extinguisher to see us through the race against time to meet the snow plough that will lead us the last couple of miles to Nordkapp this evening.
We barely need to glance at the sat nav or even a map. It’s pretty much a straight line from south to north, taking in just four roads. The CX-3’s grip, whether accelerating or braking, is impressive given that we’re driving on ice. Even so, if we’re not to end up in a snowdrift, I have to steer with a composure I haven’t displayed since taking my driving test.
“The further north we venture, the more striking the scenery becomes”
Local laws say that when a driver has five or more cars following, they should pull over and let them pass. We barely see five cars in an hour, let alone all at once. The roads are owned by huge articulated lorries. They don’t slow down for anything, and blow cars about in a frightening fashion.
One truck driver we meet at the boundary of the Arctic Circle (where, incidentally, the “Polcirkeln” sign is punctured by three scarily large bullet holes) tells us the hazards increase in Norway where empty trailers can topple over in the wind. Yesterday, a truck jack-knifed, and a following lorry ploughed into the snowbanks to avoid it.
Runaway trucks aren’t the main concern, however, or even the bears and wolves along the route. Nearly a fifth of accidents in Scandinavia are caused by elk or reindeer.
Sure enough, not long after passing through Finland and crossing the Norwegian border, we come across a flattened reindeer. As we slow down, a man emerges brandishing a knife. “It’s my reindeer,” he states, calmly slicing through the animal’s neck and lifting the head by the antlers. “I’ll make something nice with this,” comes his deadpan delivery, before he shifts the corpse clear of the road.
It’s the way of life out here. Animal skins and antlers adorn the outbuildings in the hamlets we pass, where sleds and snowmobiles are left unsecured outside houses. Other than an elderly man being pulled on his sleigh by a St Bernard, we see precious few people. The shops that sell tourists trinkets pulled down their storm shutters and locked up months ago.
The further north we venture, the more striking the scenery becomes. Fjords and frozen waterfalls lie beyond each twist and turn. Our CX-3 is making good progress. It’s responsive and agile, and will cruise comfortably between 60 and 70mph on the straights, but through bends it occasionally wags its tail to let you know that you’re carrying too much speed into the turn.
When we spot the first sign for Honningsvåg, it’s dark and the wind is howling. Not a moment too soon, we enter the Honningsvåg and North Cape Tunnels.
By the time we reach the other end, we’ve missed the snow plough and must wait until sunrise to complete the last leg of our journey.
There’s only one road now, the E69, which leads all the way to Nordkapp. With the snow plough leading the way, we climb the road as the sun rises above the hilltops. After covering 500 miles on the previous day’s 15-hour drive and arriving in one piece, it’s tempting to kiss the ground when we finally reach our destination, but we’d rather not leave our lips behind, stuck to the ice.
Instead, we take a moment to admire the frozen landscape. We may not have made it in one day, but it’s been one heck of a journey.
When to go: February or March
Stay: Scandic Honningsvåg (scandichotels.com)
Eat: Reindeer steak
Listen to: Led Zeppelin, Immigrant Song
Bring home: Fur-lined boots for her and wooden sled for the kids
More information: visitnordkapp.net/en/