I say without any hesitation or trepidation, but this is definitely, out of any kind of travel that I have done, my absolute favourite and all-time, most memorable travel experience. And it’s going to take something pretty damn good to take the number 1 spot back from this! We’re going back to August 2009 with this one, but like all my Finland travels, I have no problem remembering since it was so amazing! But this part of the trip… This was an actual adventure!
See, most of the travel I had been doing to this point was outside of Finland. There were some good trips to Rovaniemi before, Tampere, Turku, Helsinki. Great places to be, but, given Finland’s population is so well decentralised, there’s so many places in between. This trip would take us out of Finland again, but it would also take us through some of the most amazing bits of nature you’ll find in the World, let alone Finland! The journey was long (as is this post, so grab some tea!) but it was more rewarding and amazing than I could have ever hoped.
There were so many amazing things, that I could hardly fit it into the two parts it will cover… This is part 1: The Finnish leg of the trip.
Plotting a course
We’d thought of this for a few weeks now. We’d drawn out a nice little plan of what we were going to do, what we would need and where we would go. It was a pretty ambitious plan! Here I was in Finland, in the middle of Summer. It’s not the largest place, so going to the Arctic was easily done at this time of year… But then from there, where could we go? We thought we could add Norway into the mix and head to Nordkapp… And of course we got a little excited! I have a cousin in Stockholm in the south of Sweden and, of-course, we could just catch a ferry back to Turku! So there it was… An epic roadtrip, starting in Varsinais-Suomi driving to Rovaniemi, into Norway, up to Nordkapp down to Narvik, cutting through Sweden to Stockholm and a ferry ride back to Finland. It was the ultimate drive through Nordic country!
Unfortunately, the entire majesty of this trip wasn’t quite realised, thanks to an ever reliable Peugeot which just gave out at the halfway point… but that didn’t make it less enjoyable, not by a long-shot! So we set out to Rovaniemi, where we were staying in a friend’s apartment for a night before setting out into the Arctic!
Treks, Tents and Antlers
If I can think of a ‘spirit animal’ for this road-trip, it’s definitely the Reindeer (you’ll see what I mean). Having revisited Rovaniemi (famous for a design inspired by Antlers) for the night, we were up at an early hour for our first destination. A national park about 200kms north, Pallas-Ylässtunturi National Park near Muonio, smack in the middle of Lapland/the Arctic. And yep, we’d be camping!
After a couple of hours’ driving, we came to something I’d not seen before… Reindeer in the road. They’re really stubborn too, and simply won’t move for cars… so best go around them… Eventually, we came to the single road into the park and drove right up to the end. I’d realised at this point, a critical detail had been kept from me… Where our trek was starting, there was also a hotel! To be fair, I didn’t want to stay in a hotel, but it was particularly funny as I never realised how much I’d be stepping out into nature and loving every minute of it!
Our trek would take us over a couple nearby mountains (arctic hills really… look it up) where we would camp, returning the next night. Thankfully in Summer, the eternal sunlight meant we could keep going without worrying about getting too cold or having to stop in the darkness. A few hours later, we reached a point between the two mountains, just as the sun started going lower (not down!). There is no one here… All you hear is the sound of the breeze and an uninterrupted view of both the North and the South beneath the mountain… Not a person, building or car to be seen, no planes overhead. This is proper isolation in one of the least populated areas on Earth.
We wouldn’t go far from here. The top of the mountain was rocky and not very sheltered, so we walked a little further to set up camp for the “night”. We found a nearly perfect spot… A small, fresh-water creek running from the mountain, out of the sun, but enough to see the midnight sun shining on the top of the mountain behind us. We set up the tent on soft ground, cooked some dinner and had a good bit to eat in nearly complete silence… Until a cow-bell started ringing… it got closer and closer, accompanied by the sound of heavy running… A herd of Reindeer was passing, on a path higher up, over the mountain… As I said, this was nearly perfect… I do not exaggerate, however, when I say we were being followed by an insane cloud of mosquitoes! I have never had so many of these fuckers around me at once (scarf as a mask, for example), but they did little to ruin the beauty of this place.
After a solid sleep, a quick (and bloody cold) clean in the creek and getting packed up, we set off for day two. This was a day of agony, walking down to the hut where we were thinking of staying the night before, we finally reached where we had wanted to be, but felt challenged to make it back to the car that same day, despite our legs being totally ruined. On the way back, it became quite warm, about 22 degrees actually… Which made it even weirder when I turned around to see a bunch of snow on the side of the mountain!
Our return felt much quicker and smoother, but we were exhausted and hungry having pushed ourselves. So, we treated ourselves to a dinner at the hotel before going to sleep… In the car… Funnily enough, I couldn’t sleep, so set up the tent in a clearing near the car. We slept much better for the next part of the trip to Saana.
The Hand of Lady Finland
Look at a map. It can’t be unseen. Finland is a woman with a waving hand! To get to her hand, you have the amazing job of driving along Kilpisjarventie, a road which takes you along the Katkasuvanto, a river that runs along the road (nearly the whole way from Muonio to Kilpisjarvi), one bank being Finland, the other being Sweden! We stopped to take in this landscape, unfortunately, stopping was where I noticed a terrible grinding noise… Our brakes were in very, very bad shape! We stopped in a tiny town, on the river where you could cross to Sweden, called Karesuvanto (my translation, somewhere between nowhere and nothing!). Lucky they had a mechanic… unluckily, all our brake pads needed replacing as well as two brake rotors… Shit! We hadn’t budgeted for that… We could only go for 2 brake pads and keep the trip financially viable!
Luckily, we didn’t need them much! There’s enough straight, flat road in Finland that you could probably drive the whole country and only brake twice! So we pushed on to Saana at Kilpisjarvi. Saana is a huge plateau, surrounded by mountains and lakes. As we pulled into the town, I was dumb-struck. It’s 20 degrees (celcius to be clear!) outside and the mountains are covered in snow! It’s amazing… But, it was time for an argument. A fun one nonetheless (mostly due to being stuck in the car too long)… There was a mountain on our left, very high with sheer cliffs and we could see little dots on it. I was convinced it was Reindeer, but my travelling companion thought it was rocks and that it couldn’t be Reindeer (It seemed impossible, how could they get there? but I was convinced). Thankfully, she’d brought a camera with an awesome zoom, so I zoomed, focused… and yes, they were Reindeer! It was a hilarious moment for us both… Until she touched the brake pedal… Grinding, worse than before… And we’d just reached Saana. Luckily Kilpisjarvi had a mechanic. Turns out a brake rotor had cracked… It NEEDED replacing! Unfortunately, they didn’t have any…
This was putting the whole trip in jeopardy. We couldn’t go into Norway without brakes… But we didn’t want to turn back… So a compromise… We could go on for maybe another 1,000kms. We had to skip Nordkapp… and we definitely wouldn’t make it to Stockholm… But it was all good, because we’d live to tell the tale! We’d go through to Narvik and back to Rovaniemi via Sweden. But first we needed to conquer Saana!
An Arctic Summer Dream
Kilpisjarvi is a nice little town. You find yourself next to a large lake, between the mountains, at the point where Finland, Norway and Sweden all come together! The mountains are large and covered in snow, even in the middle of summer where the sun never sets. And there is one which stands out. It doesn’t have any snow at the moment, but it is by far the largest. The path to the top of Saana starts with a 2km walk, followed by 747 steps… Unfortunately, they’re bigger than normal steps (slightly) and only take you 1/4 of the way to the top! We made camp at the campgrounds, sitting in Saana’s shadow and set off… The round-trip would take about 4 hours!
It’s at this point, after all our trekking so far, the general lack of sleep and slight stress over brakes that we were a little tired… But the higher we got, the more amazing the scene became… There’s an appreciation you gain from seeing things from above. At the top of the stairs, we stopped and rested, turning around to see another path wander through the mountains, down to the road that would take you to Norway. Rising higher over Kilpisjarvi, the mountains in the background rise up to surround the lake, which gets wider and we realise the true scale of the place we are in. Once you pass the steps, the remaining 2 (maybe) kms is very rocky and pretty steep. After another while of pushing up… we came to the summit. A huge pile of stones, set upon the peak. And a guest book… I was the first Australian signing this book (I’m sure others had signed it before, but they replace the book every now and then!). At this point, i’ll let the photos do the talking:
There is little else that could top this. It was an amazing reward for our hike, but of course, we needed to go back! It took another 2 hours to get back to camp (a half hour less than going up!) and thankfully, I was able to cook some shitty packaged pasta on the gas stove! At this point, it was 11pm. We were tired, exhausted from the days of walking! But I will never forget the feeling of making it to the top and writing in the guest book, signed “Anthony – Sydney, Australia”. I was too tired to do much else and after a bight to eat, I decided I’d sleep.
Thankfully, though… My girlfriend had it in her to stay up just a bit longer and catch a few shots of the Sun at Midnight!
This is the end of the 1st leg of the trip… Join me again for part 2, driving through Norway with rickety brakes and a brief encounter with Sweden.