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Northern Lights

Leader 1

Ray and Gretel from Dubai UAE Chapter recount their adventure that covered more than 7,500km across the Scandinavian and Baltic States

Sitting in the Middle East, more or less the centre of the conventional map of the world, we’ve coincidentally been going to the different ends of the earth in each of our motorcycle road trips. It started with western Canada  when  we  went  north right next to Alaska (north-western corner); then it was South Africa, right down to the Cape (southern corner); next in line was New Zealand with  its tip of Bluff, Invercargill (south eastern corner); and this time around we went up to the amazing Nordkapp in Norway (northern corner).

It goes without saying that these forays also resulted in the acquisition of T-shirts from the southernmost and northernmost Harley® dealers in the world – McIver & Veitch in Dunedin New Zealand and Arctic Harley in Tromso, Norway.

After acclimatising in Oslo for a couple of days – a big change from all the sand and heat of Dubai – we landed up in the ‘Lazy Boyz Speed & Custom Works AS’ dealership to pick up an ’09 turquoise and ivory Ultra Classic, which was to be ours for the next 22 days. As we finished the rental paperwork and loaded up, we couldn’t ignore the overcast sky, which seemed to be getting heavier by the minute to hang lower and lower. By the time we left the dealership there was already a drizzle in the air, which turned to rain by the time we hit the highway – I guess that was Norway welcoming our ride.

It rained almost every day (at least during the Norwegian legs of the trip) but somehow it was never that bad. Visibility was still good enough to enjoy the scenery and ride safely and  our  gear had certainly improved over the past experiences – no more icy drench spots around the neck. Oh yes, it was cold and kept getting colder the further north we went.

The original plan was to take a detour through the fjords of Geiranger and hit Tromso in six days, catching a coastal steamer next day to reach Honningsvag, close to Nordkapp. But the first day’s rain regretfully convinced us to skip the scary fjords of Geiranger and head north for an overnight stop at Dombas instead. From then on we continued twisting and turning mostly along E6 all the way to Tromso with stops at Namsskogan (where we were the only guests in quite a large, empty hotel); Storjord (a fantastic campsite just north of crossing the Arctic circle); and Ballangen before reaching Tromso a day in advance.

Up here the traffic was minimal and the scenery was an out-of-this-world experience. Being originally from Pakistan, I’ve seen more than a few magnificent mountains, but some of the fjords and mountains we passed were spectacular.

The glaciers had cut and shaved them smooth into sculptures like a heavenly form of modern art. Numerous waterfalls banded the lush cliffs heading for the lakes and deep valleys below. Multicoloured alpine moss and flowers carpeted the high mountain passes, and, corner after corner, kept throwing a more stunning view than before. Sparsely spread small settlements were dotted with colourful houses and pretty little ‘Hyttes’ (cabins) with grass growing on their sloping roofs, and early signs of autumn colours were beginning to show.

Tromso itself was an island city of many superlatives associated with the phrase ‘World’s Northernmost’; these included the local Harley dealership and a fine brewery called Mack. Spending a couple of easy days there, we boarded our ‘Hurtigruten’ coastal steamer ‘Nordkapp’ to reach its namesake. The journey was unspeakably incredible, despite the piercing cold in the observation decks that offered the best uninterrupted and panoramic views of the fjords and the little islands.

The sunset came soon enough but seemed never-ending this far north, creating a gradual transformation of colours in the sky, the land and the water. The absence of any trees, and low-lying snow from the previous winter still lingering along the e slopes barely above sea level, was further proof that we were in the polar regions; the Taiga had given way to tundra. That night I barely slept and was already up in the observation deck even before the morning twilight, freezing but feeling more alive than I ever did before. A short stop in Hammerfest by dawn afforded the opportunity to stroll its sleepy streets, contemplating the meaning of life, but back in the ferry I was glad to be revived with hot coffee and breakfast with my warm wife; that was the meaning of it all I guess.

Later, at noon, we disembarked the ferry at Honningsvag and took a short ride onwards to Nordkapp before heading down south. Though the ride was nothing short of ecstasy, Nordkapp itself was a bit of a disappointment, mainly due to its commercialised ticket sales centre, which sanitised the romance of the experience away. On the way back we crossed our longest tunnel yet (7km under the sea).

In Norway we had our fair share of assorted tunnels – there were wet ones, dark ones, foggy ones, craggy ones and twisty ones. We also came across our first reindeer encounter in Nordkapp. In fact, for a couple of days we probably came across their entire world population – the reindeer reigned Lapland, requiring extra vigilance from us on the roads throughout.

The next stop in the town of Karasjok right next to the Finnish border offered comfortable accommodation, excellent meals and an appointment with a dentist’s assistant for poor Gretel, who had been suffering with a nasty toothache. Entering Finland the next day, villages and settlements were few and far between, traffic sparse but black plastic bags tied along the highway by the local Sami herders indicated reindeer grazing and the need for extra caution. The dramatic and desolate tundra scenery continued, but scanning the horizon we seemed to be leaving the mountains behind and entering flatter terrain.

The constant rain throughout the latter part of the day and the gloomy hotel at Sodankyla didn’t help much to brighten our moods, and the next day was no better. In fact, just after about a couple of hundred kilometres we decided to call it a day and made an impromptu stop at previously recommended Rukatunturi.

This turned out to be a very pleasant surprise – a fantastic hotel at a reasonable price when we needed it most. Being next to a ski resort with a distinguished jumping slope, it offered fantastic views over the surrounding plains below.

Feeling revived the next day, we managed to make up for lost time and rode almost 600km to arrive at Kuopio via Lentira, mostly on secondary roads along the Russian border. The scenery, particularly along the minor roads, was terrific – the sky, lakes, forests and farms all swinging along the sun and clouds’ game of peek-a-boo. We took some more remarkable suggested diversions and mainly continued along secondary roads to stop at Lahti, and reached Helsinki early in the morning to catch a ferry to another world.

The unique skyline of Tallinn peered back at us with indifference; we were the ones filled with awe. The town centre was even more fascinating; it felt like we’d hopped aboard a time warp to the medieval ages, quite literally so in some of the empty cobbled streets where we were clearly misfits, camera-laden tourists! A couple of days there and we experienced enough culture, the road was calling us, so off we went again exploring the unknown.

So far, detailed and accurate GPS maps had guided the way, but from now on we only had limited data of main highways and capital cities. We reverted to old- fashioned maps in a very alien place with unfamiliar language and infamous yarns, heck… this was going to be real explorer-type stuff!

We rode through the picturesque Lahemaa National Park and then headed south, crossing the border into Latvia, stopping at the pretty little town of Cecis. The next day we crossed through Riga heading west via the Kolka coast detour. Turning south from Kolka it got quite nasty as, all of a sudden, the tarmac gave way to gravel and then the gravel turned to boulders in a long stretch of road still under construction (the price of progress). We dodged trucks, respired dirt, and kept the wobbly bike skating straight until we eventually reached solid ground close to Ventspils, where we called it a day.

Continuing southwards we crossed the border into Lithuania and took a short ferry ride from the port city of Klaipeda to the Curonian Spit, a rare and peculiarly shaped 100km-long peninsula, with the highest drifting sand dunes in Europe.

The charming town of Nida (at the southernmost point of our journey) offered some relaxed respite and fantastic picture prospects including glorious sunrise views. Next evening we said goodbye to Lithuania as we boarded our final ferry from Klaipeda headed for Karlshamn in Sweden.

The Baltics were a one-of-a-kind experience with diverse perspectives, a blend of old and new world as well as first and third world. Vast characterless concrete blocks festered between charming farms with the prettiest of flower gardens. Decaying remains of the Iron Curtain still lay rusting among the new land of the free market and progress; prosperity flourished among lingering traces of adversity.

Disembarking our no frills passenger/ cargo ferry in Sweden, I had my first breathalyser test ever at 9am in the morning (back to civilisation I guess). We headed north towards Jonkoping taking as many secondary roads as possible. The road conditions, markings and signage, vehicles and traffic were all just faultless, the scenery was pretty and pleasant with scattered farms, forests and lakes but mostly flat. By the end of the second day Sweden at a stop in Mora, we were longing for the mountains. We were so desperate to see some again before the trip was over and realised that we had to get back to Norway as soon as possible.

We crossed back into Norway the next morning and, as we did so, quite predictably, three things happened in the stated order: the roads got bumpier, the landscape became breathtaking and it started raining again. We didn’t mind the roads or the rain, we just loved being among such a majestic vista. We began to wonder why we ever left Norway. We rode and rode until our butts were sore, eventually stopped at an excellent resort on top of a mountain pass before Ringebu on route 27. I felt fortunate and gratified for this amazing ride as the next day was to be our last. The morning of the September 21 was cold as hell (at least for us desert creatures), as I had to scrape the sheets of ice off the bike before leaving. We took a nice winding detour on route 255 and reached back at the Lazy Boyz dealership in one piece, after finally clocking a total of around 7,500km in 22 days. More than 6,600km of this was on two wheels, with the rest on ferries.

On a closing note, special mention must be made for Tor Arne in Oslo and Reidar in Ballangen dealerships, as well as the Harley-Davidson Jonkoping folks – it was a great feeling to be treated like a friend and not a customer. There were also  some helpful tips for the trip from Terje (Ostfold Chapter), Kari (Capital Chapter Finland) and Jarmo (Helsinki Chapter, who as I found out, lives right here in Dubai… small world).

Another extraordinary ride is over and life is back to normal again, and we all know that ‘normal’ these days is pretty insane. 

I keep the memories of the trip close and daydream about the next one to come (planning will begin in a while). Perhaps we’ll continue on our quest to reach the far corners of the earth?

The next logical direction to head for would have to be the south-western corner of Chile and Argentina, which sounds fascinating enough; unless we take a Harley® to the ‘road of bones’ in Siberia, the daunting north-western corner.

Who knows where the adventure will take us? Just one regret from the trip in the land of the northern lights: although September’s not the best time, we still would have loved to see the Aurora Borealis, even if just for a few seconds 

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