Trip duration: 10 days | Approx cost: £1,000 | When: July
Doinit factor: Driving a car to the Arctic is up there with some of the best adventures you can have.
Exploring our arctic regions can evoke assumptions of expense, precision preparation, and lengthy expeditions through snow-torn landscape utilising equipment reserved for the specialist. The reality is that Europe’s share of the Arctic Circle is quite accessible throughout the summer months. The sun shines 24 hours each day, and temperatures can reach 12 degrees Celsius, meaning that the region can be reached even by the fool-hardy. From the people who brought you the Banjul Rally comes the spin-off event: introducing the Murmansk Rally, where amateur adventurists take to some of Europe’s most northerly and remote roads.
Preparation can, and that’s not to say it should, be kept to a minimum. In fact, the only necessary prep work is to obtain a Russian Visa if you’re planning on going the full length. Our adventure starts a day behind the official start date thus behind the rest of the teams. The major benefit to travel with other cars in a convoy of sorts is the security (or perceived security). Should you break down, friendly faces are available for help, moral support, and even a lift. But for us the first leg of the journey is a solo effort from London to Prague by plane where we pick up our rally car, one we’d left with a mechanic six months earlier on an ill-fated rally attempt; but that’s another story. Our K (1995) Reg Vauxhall Astra 1.8 diesel rolls out of a storage unit behind the airport, it’s red bonnet emerging from a black cloud of smoke churning in the confined space. Luckily, it started on the first attempt. We load up and within minutes head off on our arctic adventure.
Off to a bad start
The first point of call is a petrol station, and not far off the Western suburb of Prague, we pull in for a quick “service.” We fill up the tank, check the oil, tire pressure, top up the water in the coolant-tank, pay the attendant, as we hastily pull out of the forecourt gaining speed on the single county road. Suddenly, we hear something flying off the car and see a flicker in the wing mirror. Quickly we both my co-driver Jiri and I realise what I had done. I’d placed the cap for the coolant tank on the roof. Ops! Breaks are quickly applied, followed by hazard lights as we jump out. There’s no cap in sight. It must have bounced off the tarmac into the ditch, or into the soft verge overgrown with singing stinging nettle and brambles. This was not the right moment to be wearing shorts as I wade through the thick hostile vegetation. After about 45 minutes of searching, enduring honks from the traffic flying by and narrowly avoiding being struck, we make the decision to cut our losses and leave. It’s a gamble driving without the coolant cap and we can only hope the liquid within the engine doesn’t evaporate before we can find a solution. Nervously driving along, keeping an eye on the temperature gage, we drive through a town where we luckily find the Czech equivalent to a Halfords store that is able to sell us a replacement.
Above: Car picked up and packed
We finally begin easing into our journey as we race (obeying the speed limits at all times) north through the Czech Republic and into Germany. We have about 8 hours before we need to board the last ferry from Poland for Sweden. The sun gradually sets as we pass the blue EU sign welcoming us to Poland and by the time we arrive at the ferry port night has truly set in. We’ve arrived at the Polish ferry port in the town of Swinoujsci with 15 minutes to spare and with just enough time to purchase our tickets (approx. 170euro – one way for one car + two people). Finally we can relax: it has been an exhausting first day.
The ferry crosses the Baltic Sea overnight, taking about eight hours. The ferries are very much what you’d expect crossing the English Channel. Cabins are available, but as we’re on a tight budget we do what so many around us do: lie on the floor in our sleeping bags between a row of seats, crack open small cans of Czech beer, and toast our travel to date before trying to squeeze into an appropriate sleeping position and finally get some shut eye.
Above: Jiri preparing us dinner on the ferry | Surrounded by nice modern cars bound for Sweden
Starting in Sweden and finishing in Finland
The ship’s tanoi makes an announcement in a language I assume to be Swedish, with a further assumption that we have arrived as the next day begins, at 6 AM. We roll out of the ferry, which double up as our accommodation for the night for the night and drive out of port, map in hand, and ready for adventure. Jiri my co-driver, who hasn’t driven a car in the ten years since he passed his test, (and I have no intention of changing that during this trip) assures me he knows which direction to head as us out of town in the direction of Stockholm!
The Swedish motorways are good to us. There’s not much traffic, and the roads are well-surfaced with pleasant, green-rolling scenery but the rain is torrential and our wipers can barely keep up. Still a day behind any other British bangers, we’re reluctant to stop and actually place our feet on Swedish soil only to take fuel at a petrol station, check the oil, water, and once again, almost driving off with the caps on the roof! Hours fly by as the motorway bypasses Stockholm and we see the city skyline, church spires piercing though the urbanity of it all. We joke that it’s our last chance to come to our senses and board a low cast airline home. After many hours we’re driving along the Sweden’s coastline and the Gulf of Bothnia.
As we travel northward the feeling of remoteness starts to subtly set in, as well as sadness that my first visit to Sweden is bound to be a fleeting trip confined to the driver’s seat, yet in our minds it’s crucial to reach another team before we press through to Russia.
Above: Long drives over good roads but the weather had a tendencies to change quickly
At these longitudes the summer days are long with night barely managing to creep in for a few hours. Before long there will be no night at all. Closer to evening the repetitiveness of it all does start to cause fatigue. You’re eager to pass something of significance: a border, a town, a river, a taller tree, anything that will give some sense of the distance travelled. It’s a simple sign demarking the Finnish border that gives us something we need, a sense of achievement; we made it to Finland!
We make the call to end our monumentally the long day near the town of Kemi (just past the boarder). On the outskirts of the town, we find a small lay-by where we park up. It’s 4 AM and it’s light out, and we’ve just calculated that we’d driven for 21 continuous hours, interrupted only by the inevitable stop to refuel.
Too tired to faff around with a tent we try to make ourselves comfortable in the car, amidst the mess, man-sweat and trace fumes of fuel. It’s amazing how much mess can accumulate in a car carrying two men over a couple of days. I opt for the back seats, uncomfortably twisting in to my sleeping bag and wrapping a t-shirt around my eyes to block the sunlight. Jiri looks even more uncomfortable in the front seats. As I closing my eyes, the image of never-ending road seems burned to my retinas, but its not long before I fall asleep.
A mammoth run to Murmansk
It’s a few hours of uncomfortable shut eye and it doesn’t take much for us to wake and to get back on the road. By mid afternoon we come across a nice little unexpected surprise. Appearing suddenly out of the wilderness are signs for Santa’s workshop, along with a large sign welcoming us to the Arctic Circle. A line drawn across the road depicts this invisible line of demarcation between the extremities of the “midnights sun” and the polar night. From here on in the sun will never set during the summer months; this is now the land of 24 hour sun light. Taking the obligatory photos of the Arctic Circle sign is a must, while using our phones to confirm the GPS coordinates is just a bit of fun, the large Santa souvenir shop slightly does cheapen the experience.
Above: We have reached the Arctic Circle | Jiri needs to check the coordinates are accurate with his GPS
Deep in Finland’s north country, we slice through the forest on long, single-lane roads, continuing north when suddenly the road widens and the walls of trees, once inches from our windows are now a 100 feet away. Unsure what this Finnish road-feature means, I let off the accelerator and coast on the car’s momentum for a while. An examination of the road markings draws us to the conclusion that the massive longitudinal tarmac could be an emergency runway incorporated into the road.
Coincidently this is where we encounter our first reindeer. These massive, majestic creatures cross the roads calmly, almost oblivious to traffic. This is their land and drivers will stop for them until the reindeer decide they’ve paused long enough allowing traffic to resume.
This also sparks up a discussion on “the difference of elk, moose, and reindeer,” which becomes a recurring theme in our conversations for the reminder of our trip (until finally settled by Wikipedia upon our return). Relaxed into our journey we nearly forget about our rendezvous with other teams as we casually pull over every so often to stretch our legs, even managing a little toe-dip in a lake. The air is fresh and piney, inviting us to snap pictures at our leisure.
Of course, some stops are more of a necessity as nature calls to my co-driver. He disappears to do what many often ask if bears do in the woods. Waiting for Jiri I flick through the map and run my finger over our anticipated route along the page. A few minutes later, Jiri comes running back from the woods, waving invisible beasties from his body and shouting “Go go go! They bite!” It’s like a scene from a comedy movie. As we set of he explains how a swarm of midges and/or mosquitoes in hiding, waiting to ambush him at the sound of his belt unbuckling. It’s hard to concentrate on driving through the laughter, as Jiri laments that he’s been bitten in the most sensitive areas
Above: Travelling through Finland – the land of vast forests, 1,001 lakes and lots of reindeer
We reach the Norwegian border with little drama other than the odd raindeer disrupting our pace. Again there is no customs border to negotiate, just a sign welcoming us to the Kingdom of Norway. The landscape changes subtly for a few miles, but after awhile, much of the forest disappears, giving way to hills, and then mountains. It isn’t until late afternoon that we finally catch up to another banger team.
After a some introductions we conclude Dave and Zol seem like a decent couple of blokes who would give us a ride back home should our car decide to give up. With that in mind we push for the Russian boarder before it closes at 10 PM. We race through the relatively short Norwegian leg, stopping only to refuel (my “co-driver” eagerly reminding me not to place the fuel cap on the roof). Indeed, we make it to the border in time. This is the first real border check, and we’re prepared for this to be a thorough one.
Russia has a reputation for bureaucracy. This compounded with the fact that old British bangers trying to enter Russian territory through a far off, lonesome outpost not being something the guards come across often, means we’re in for a proper going over. First we approach the Norwegian customs post, where they check our passports and happily wave us off. A brief yet slow, and cautious drive over no-man’s-land takes us toward what we’ve mentally prepared ourselves for. It’s strange how simple things such as foreign border guards can get the butterflies flapping in one’s stomach. Surely the worst thing they can do is deny you passage and send you back… or could they arrest you for spying and send us to a gulag?
It’s too late we’re committed! We exit the vehicles and enter the customs building with all our papers in hand. One by one we are inspected by the official. He checks our passports and visas thoroughly before turning his attention our vehicular paper work. “Opel?” he asks in a firm way, I consider correcting him by explaining it’s a Vauxhall, but decide this isn’t the best time. As I approach and pass him the paper for the car, in broken English he explains that I need to fill out temporary import papers for the car and lends me a pen. The boarder official continues to explain that our vehicle can stay in Russia for up to six months, however I cannot leave without the car. No pressure I suppose, as it’s only 15-years old and has a history of breaking down. I fill out the comprehensive form and hand it over minutes later. He sighs and passes me a fresh blank form; I’d filled out a wrong field. Oops! Repeat the process, and I’ve cocked it up again! Clearly nerves and the tiredness have caught up to me. On my third attempt, the official is satisfied. During the paperwork formalities and stamping of passports our vehicles are being searched by the border guards. By know I begin to think these formalities aren’t as difficult as I expected, and in a little under an hour we are allowed to continue on our travels… into the largest country in the world.
It’s 10pm and while it’s been a long day we are expecting to be in the city of Murmansk in a few hours where we’d finally be able to check in to a hotel, have a shower and treat ourselves to little comfort. Indeed, Murmansk in only a few hours away from the border providing you take the correct road and not the unfinished motorway with prematurely erected signs suggesting it’s open.
Above: Just through the Russian boarder and now for a long drive on bad roads
To call this the worst road I’ve ever driven on is unjust, as the road has not actually yet been laid yet.
The final push to Murmansk is a demanding one. To call this the worst road I’ve ever driven on is unjust, as the road has not actually yet been laid yet. It’s a very wide mud track, where land has been cleared in preparation for the upcoming road to be laid. We’ve no idea how long this goes on for hopping that after each turn, over year horizon we’ll see the city of Murmansk, but no; this unfinished road seems never ending.
Tiredness really starts taking its toll and I struggle to concentrate on maneuvering the car though the path of least resistance, progressing at what appears to be a snail’s pace avoiding holes, bumps, and scraping the undercarriage. At least with every bump, hump, knock it prevents the danger of us falling asleep. But it’s the fear of what damage we must be doing to our car that delivers true insomnia. A light fog lines our route and the surrounding moorland, almost like a smoke machine’s be left on, providing eerie feel to the drive. It’s hours before we finally come across tarmac, and though it is completely riddled with pot-holes, we can finally increase our speed and make actual progress to Murmansk.
The route takes us over an old metal-framed bridge spanning a powerful body of water. As we near the other side Murmansk comes into sight. This city home to some 300,000 people. Surrounded by forested hills on one side and heavily industrialised on the water-front with a sea port, the city is positioned along a wide sea inlet on the bay, some 12 km inland from the Barents Sea. The horizon holds a truly stark contrast of naturally lovely landscapes and large, grey, Soviet-era buildings.
Above: The long road to Murmansk travelling with Dace and Zol also in a Vauxhall
Made it to Murmansk
There’s little in the way of touristy “stuff” to see and do in Murmansk, but wandering through the city is an experience itself. Crossing large boulevards, walking past massive concrete structures with facades depicting the classic communist hammer and sickle is arresting. Some of these buildings are clearly in a severe state of disrepair, and as with so many Russian stereotypes, statues of Lenin aren’t difficult to find. When the sun shines, it’s surprising how many different shades of grey are noticeable around the city. I begin to feel strangely attracted to this domineering city, like a flower blooming amidst this vast concrete jungle.
There is a museum for those interested in the region’s art, history, or proud shipping and naval heritage. A worthy place to visit is the nuclear icebreaker docked nearby, where guided tours take you through the world’s first nuclear-powered surface ship. Overlooking much of the city is the Alyosha Statue, a massive 30-meter tall statute of a soldier, which is accessible by car.
Above: We spend a day wondering around Murmansk and visit the Nuclear Ice Breaker before we meet up with the other teams for some drinks
Accommodation in Murmansk is not really tailored for those on a shoestring budget, so do not expect hostels or bunk houses. Instead, there are hotels which cater to business men. Nevertheless, you can still find decent offers, like the city’s Park Inn. If you’re after a pub, you may struggle a bit. That’s not to say there aren’t any—just that they’re not easy amidst the sea of grey communist exteriors. It’s easy to mistake the local pub for just another housing block. But it’s fun to get lost in the town and to ask locals to point you in the right direction. The younger people here can be very friendly and eager to practice their English. After a short conversation, they’re happy to help, suggesting the best places in town.
After catching up on sleep and enjoying long showers in our hotel, it’s time to decide our next move. We’ve met more teams over drinks and dinner at a local restaurant. They decide that their return-leg will be head south through Russia to St. Petersburg, and then through the Baltic states before heading back to the UK. We opt for a different route and start planning our quickest way out of Russia, determined not to push our luck with our car.
From Russia with Love
The next day we head toward the border from which we came. However, this time we take the correct single-lane road, and this time it really takes only a few short hours before we reach our destination, with only the odd military checkpoint.
Our route also take us past the town of Nickle, close the boarder. We’ve herd this a heavily polluted industrial place named after the mineral its been processing for decades. From the distance it looks like a bleak can depressing place and after taking a few photo’s we are moved by an agitated police office who has appeared from nowhere.
Above: A quick stop on the out skirts of Nickel
We arrive at the border post and go through the same procedure of checking papers, the guards joke with us: “same passports, same car,” clearly remembering us from a few days before. They check our “Opel” and rummage through our messy boot before waving us off. Eager to leave the clutches of Mother Russia, I place the key in the ignition, give it a turn, and… nothing, oh dear. I try again. Nothing. We really didn’t want to break down in Russia, and of all places to attract attention, the worst possible place is where we are, surrounded by armed officials at a northerly outpost. We seriously consider pushing our car over the border, if they let us, which they do. We pop the bonnet and I remember a piece of advice someone gave me about disconnecting the battery for 30 seconds (something to do with establishing a new current). I reconnect the battery, try again, and violà! Much to our relief, the engine comes to life and we make our way back into the Kingdom of Norway.
Above: Cooking and camping on the side of the road in Norway
Day six, seven & eight
Norway can be a great place to drive, and the scenery is truly stunning as we steer around wide fjords, traverse steep hills, and pass though quaint towns punctuated with the brightly painted buildings associated with Norway, which have been positioned throughout the countryside forming from a distance what looks (respectfully) like a neat little Lego town. Well-kept narrow roads, comparable to Europe’s B roads, are the main roads you’ll find here. They are well- maintained, but can be narrow in places, as they twist and turn through the landscape following routes dictated by the glaciers that carved the landscape thousands of years ago.
We set our sights on visiting Nordkapp, Europe’s most northerly point. At these latitudes, despite the summer months, it’s noticeably cooler. The landscape is cloudy and misty, rain drizzles for much of the day, and the sea breeze is quite fresh. The official northern-most point is a six hour hike, but we’re happy to leave the car and get some exercise.(read about our Norkapp hike here)
Above: The weather turns bad as we head to Nordkapp | We see more Reindeer | The hike to the most northerly point in Europe is a muddy one
Drivers can’t rush anywhere on these roads: there’s not much opportunity for anyone to build up much speed before they need to change gear to negotiate a hairpin turn or steep climb. Being stuck behind tractors also does not really help one gain speed, and over-taking is not worth the risk. Often, a waypoint of your next destination can seem relatively close as the bird flies. But you won’t be travelling in a straight line, as you meander along and more often than not, often traveling much slower than the bird flies. It’s best not to overestimate one’s progress.Norway is a very safe place and we “wild camped” on a gravely lay-by for the night with the only hindrance being the continuous light. So, if I could recommend anything to anyone, it would be for campers to bring eye covers for their roadside wild camping adventures in Norway.
Above: Drying my boots on the roof of the car | Norwegian landscapes | This time we drive out of the Arctic Circle
After a couple of days traversing these landscapes, we decided to head toward Sweden, where we could expect a faster pace of travel as the dramatic landscape eases into a more mellow, flatter expanse, where man has been able to tame the land. The return journey is much like the trip up, with the exception that we opt to enter mainland Europe not by ferry, but rather by Denmark’s amazing bridges. Costly tolls (approx. 30 euro) bridge the two countries over the sea below. The bridges are long, and it can seem that you’re in the middle of an ocean until roads starts to dip towards a man-made island and transform in to a tunnel in the middle of the sea. On your horizon, you see the sea as cars are channeled below the water level though this dark orifice. On the other side you, emerge in Denmark. Almost home! From here on, it’s a pretty sight! No more highlights, just an incredible urge to surround yourself with the luxuries of home. It’s amazing to think how much we can see and how far we can travel in just ten days.The Murmansk Challenge is a great way to see a large portion of Scandinavia. The beauty of this trip is that you’re really free to explore as much or as little as you want. There’s no real need to make it all the way to Murmansk or Russia if that’s not quite your cup of tea. But to me, this blitzing visit to a tiny fraction of such an enormous county has definitely challenged some of my preconceptions!