In a bid to finish a once-failed family trip to the North Cape, Greg Dickinson explores the bleak but beautiful northern coast of Norway.
I was just four years old when my family set out in a knackered 1956 Land Rover Discovery to the North Cape of Norway, over 2000 miles away from our Hertfordshire home. My brothers were six and eight and, as is often the case, my memories of the trip are little more than a muddled tapestry formed by the photos I’ve seen and the stories I’ve been told. It was an ambitious trip and, in the end, we were forced to turn home just half way up Norway’s coast after a series of catastrophic breakdowns.
Twenty years have since passed, and I decided it was time to set out and finish the expedition to the North Cape once and for all. Even if it would be on my own.
I picked up our journey in Bodø, a compact town just within the Arctic Circle and the last stop on Norway’s railway. Beyond here there are no trains heading north. Instead, a fleet of ferries weaves through the fjords, transporting mail and passengers up to Tromsø, Hammerfest and right around to Kirkenes on the Russian border. Without a Land Rover to my name, I would complete the voyage to the North Cape by hopping between Norway’s coastal towns.
My Hurtigruten ship (a name that is impossible to say without sounding Norwegian) was scheduled to leave in a few hours, leaving me just enough time to board a RIB Safari to the Saltstraumen Strait, the world’s strongest tidal current some six miles southeast of Bodø.
Kitted out in oversized fluorescent safety garb, we zoomed out of the foggy port in a supercharged dinghy and into the open waters. Bodø dissolved into the white behind us like it had never been there at all. After cruising for twenty minutes the engine croaked to a halt. The boat, however, continued to move. We were in a whirlpool. In fact, we were in a whirlpool surrounded by dozens of other whirlpools, each vortex threatening to tug us into its turquoise heart before our driver revved the boat to safety at the very last minute.
My face reddened after two hours of exposure to the biting wind, I returned to land and boarded the ship northbound to the Lofoten Islands. Comprising countless islands and twice as many forking inlets, the Lofoten archipelago is one of those rare places that is as immediately and effortlessly breathtaking as people say; a steep, undulating terrain with burgundy wooden houses blemishing the green at random intervals. As I travelled between the islands a low cloud clung to the hills, I could happily have stayed for weeks, but my journey to the North Cape beckoned.
The night passed without going dark, not even nearly dark, and the following day I travelled north through narrow fjords to Tromsø, the largest settlement in northern Norway. Many visitors will head straight from Tromsø Airport to their husky safari or wilderness retreat (the town is nicknamed the “Gateway to the Arctic”, after all) but it would be a shame to overlook the town. During my afternoon here I wandered past what must be the only guitar emporium and head shop in the Arctic Circle and over the looping kilometre-long bridge to the pyramidal Arctic Cathedral, a forceful piece of 1960s architecture that punctures Tromsø’s otherwise shallow skyline.
North of Tromsø the word ‘bleak’ gains new meaning. Our ship kept close to the craggy, subarctic coastline, where waterfalls hang frozen or fluid at their own discretion, and thick blots of snow defy the 24-hour summer sun. Occasionally we would pass a lone fisherman or a small cluster of pastel-coloured houses, but after arriving in the tiny villages of Gjesvaer it soon became clear who Norway’s north coast belongs to.
A few kilometres off the coast of Gjesvaer, the Gjesvaerstappan Reserve is home to one of Europe’s densest populations of seabirds. Ferried over by a few locals, I was greeted by an almighty flock – from kittiwakes and gannets to guillemots and auks – swarming above the rocky islands like mosquitos to flesh, while thousands of puffins and razorbills flitted in synchronised chaos just above the water. This is nothing short of a seabird metropolis, with a higher population of birds in just 1.7 square kilometres than the entire human population of northern Norway.
Shortly after the seabird safari, while crossing Nordkapp’s semi-tundra interior by bus, I finally saw the North Cape plateau in the distance, headbutting the sea with its sudden cliff face. The imposing steel globe stood perfectly still among the shuffling silhouettes of a dozen fellow pilgrims. At 71 degrees latitude, this is continental Europe’s final frontier, with nothing but the Barents Sea separating it from the wild shores of Svalbard and the North Pole beyond. To me, however, it was simply the conclusion to a bygone trip that I neither remembered nor had ever forgotten.
Greg travelled with Hurtigruten, who have been serving Norway’s coast since 1893. Foot passenger tickets start from £10. Cruises (without flights) from Bergen to Kirkenes start from £884 per person. RIB Safari and bird watching excursions can be booked through Hurtigruten. Visit www.hurtigruten.co.uk or call 020 3582 6642 for more information.