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Big Trip special: All the reindeer and cod you can handle on Artic adventure

Published: 03 January 2008

Updated: 19 November 2014

Cambridge-based Fil Schiannini and wife Nikki thought they’d travel north for a touring holiday with a difference. Here Fil talks to MCN’s Events Editor Dave Rawlings about their Arctic adventure.

My Dad is a geologist and has spent nearly all his working life in warmer, southern climes. When we decided to take a trip together on our R1200GS and K100RT BMWs he said the furthest north he had ever been was Edinburgh so we made our destination North Cape, travelling through Sweden, Norway and Finland.  

We chose North Cape as it’s the most northerly point in Europe so it seemed to fit in with dad’s ambition.

My dad rode up from Italy through Germany, Denmark and into Sweden where he met us at Gothenburg. We started travelling north straight away.

The trip took us past the biggest lake in Sweden, the Vanern, through Sweden along the road that skirts the Gulf of Botnia. From the Finish Border we headed up to North Cape.

There are some huge differences between the life we’re used to and theirs. One is that next to shop checkouts in the UK there will be chocolate bars; in Sweden they have hunting knives next to the till!

Another is that you’ll see racks of cod hanging everywhere with no security, cod is one of the largest exports in the area and everyone seems to leave them alone. We were free to wander around warehouses full of them with no one bothering us to get out.

It was quite bizarre because if it was over here they’d be pilfered in an instant.

The journey through Sweden went smoothly and we saw our first reindeer as we crossed over into Finland. It was lying in the middle of the road and was totally undisturbed by our bikes.

It gave us a brief glance, but it knew it was the king of the road, not us. At one point we came to the entrance of a tunnel and there was a herd of reindeer hanging around stopping the traffic, all the horn-beeping and engine-revving didn’t bother them at all!

A local bloke came out, started waving his arms and making a clicking noise; this scared the life out of them and we were back on our merry way.

The reindeer were one of the biggest problems of travelling on a motorcycle; they don’t career towards you like other wild animals. Reindeer come flying out of forests and run along next to you for a while, which is very unnerving.

We’d be riding along not quite sure what to do. They never got really close but we had to stay totally focused.

As we crossed into the Arctic Circle it was amazing how quickly the landscape changed. Within a short time of crossing into the circle there was nothing taller than a foot high.

All the trees disappeared and it didn’t get dark; even at midnight it was similar to dusk. That, in turn, really helped us.

We would set off at about 3am, have the roads to ourselves and then stop at a campsite in the early afternoon to get refreshed.

We very rarely camped at the sites, instead hiring one of the little wooden cabins which are plentiful throughout Scandinavia. They always have some bunk beds, a two-ring stove, electric light and a table and chairs where we had our dinner after a cocktail aperitif of our own invention called “Arctic sunset” (the recipe for which is highly secret!).

They often also had a fridge and other amenities, which just made the trip easier not have to put up and pull down tents each day. It didn’t work out much more expensive than a two-tent pitch either.

We set up camp in Russenes, 130 miles from North Cape with a view to coming back the following day. North Cape is on the island of Mageroy which you reach through a tunnel which goes 226 metres under the sea. The tunnel is absolutely freezing.

We got to the famous metal globe monument on the cliff-side, took our pictures and headed off when we saw a convoy of (in this instance) Japanese tourists who were being escorted there in a number of yellow buses.

We came back through Honningsvag where we saw some tourists climbing on to a small motorboat. Nikki, my dad and I all looked at each other as the same thought passed through our minds at the same time.

We found the tourist office and finally managed to obtain a phone number for someone who had a boat in Skarsvag (Nikki is half Swedish so she helped immensely with getting us through the language barrier).

With the necessary arrangements made we doubled back on ourselves and headed to the charming village of Skarsvag (which is only a few miles from Nordkapp). At around 11pm we were met by our guide who we initially thought was trying to rip us off by hiring two boats, but he explained that if the fog came in we would never be able to outrun it in just one boat.

Nikki went in one boat with our guide and I went in the other one with my dad. The sea offers no protection and the spray we kicked up when we hit a wave was freezing; but this didn’t bother us too much as we were still wearing full all-weather bike kit. Puffins flew past us, just inches from the water’s surface.

At midnight we were at the junction of the Barent’s sea and the Arctic Ocean, significantly further north than Nordkapp and our guide decided it was time to do some fishing! It was miraculous.

In no more than a couple of minutes we had four cod longer than my forearm. So we had a go; Nikki got caught twice as me and my dad threw our rods and hooks about with reckless abandon. We ended up catching the smallest fish of the evening.

It was 2am before we were back on dry land and we still had 130 miles before we were back at camp. Even though we were exhausted, the ride back was so surreal, with our watches telling us it’s 3am while the sun is high in the sky. 

We started the journey south via the Vesteralen and Lofoten islands which were irresistibly beautiful. Here we ran into another problem; the side winds were so strong on the bridges that we were both gripping the handlebars so hard we got arm pump.

A trip out on a boat from Andennes took us to see some whales and we lost time here too easily. The ferry back was only a few days away and so we cut short the intended route of coming back through the Norwegian fjords and headed inland.

As we headed south we were reunited with familiar sights like darkness, traffic and rain.

When we got back to the UK we had what should have been a three-hour ride to Cambridge, but the rain was so bad we couldn’t see the road markings.

It was at this point we had our final heart-stopping moment. My dad had been travelling abroad for so long that when he realised he’d taken a wrong turn he pulled over on the motorway to look at the map – in the fast lane! After a few panicky moments we managed to get him on the correct side of the road.

I had to go back to work but my father was going south once again back to Italy. Nikki jumped on his bike and went with him!

Ferries can be caught from Newcastle into Gothenburg. The roads are extremely well maintained due to the high rate of tax out there.

October through to April, when weather conditions are favourable, you can see the Aurora Borealis as it lights up the winter sky. May to August provides long days with bright nights.

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