Destination Nordkapp

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There is somewhere where you can ride for 2000 miles in one direction without ever touching a motorway, seeing a traffic jam, discovering a poorly surfaced road, or fearing for your safety should you get lost or break down. Somewhere the vistas are so enormous, so dramatic, and so alien that you feel you’ve slipped into a CGI world created for a film backdrop. Somewhere where the daylight is as vibrant at midnight as it is at midday, and the sun never quite sets. And you need to go North to find it. The best riding on Earth is in Norway.

While you could stick a pin anywhere in a map of Norway and uncover a great road, we wanted to be a little more scientific, so embarked on an epic ride from Oslo to the most northern tip of mainland Europe, Nordkapp (the North Cape), clinging to the West coast all the way. Bring on eight days, 3355.3km and a total disregard for sleeping…

Day 1: Oslo to Fosnavag 531.1km

Within minutes of leaving Oslo the landscape is already opening out, like an enormous unfurling 3D map. The views are already beautiful, and the instant familiarity of the Africa Twin means that there are no distractions vying for my attention. Fjords and forests pass in a patchwork of rise and fall on roads that seem to shun straight lines in a way the Romans would never understand. Then we’re climbing, scything through graceful curves into an increasingly vertical landscape – and the temperature is abandoning us. Oslo’s 19-degrees has slipped to 13, and there’s snow on the mountain peaks as we navigate the Beitostolen Pass to our lunch stop above lake Vinstre. It’s even colder here, and many rifle through hastily packed panniers in search of extra layers.

The landscape feels like a marriage of Scotland and Switzerland, but there’s an overwhelming sense that over each horizon there’s just more of the same – with no end in sight. With hot broth, coffee and chocolate pushing against our ribs we crack on. There’s 550km on the roadbook today.

Descending from the pass reveals another world. The vegetation changes to Pine forests and cyan lakes, the smell of freshly cut hay filling our nostrils, as warmth seeps back into our extremities. Then we’re climbing again, and the rain comes as the temperature plummets once more. As we climb past a frozen lake the rain becomes a full-frontal blizzard of crisp sticky snow, clarting us and the ATs with a comical arctic layer. We flea for Geiranger on an insane descent of dizzying switchbacks, colossal cruise ships resting in the fjord hundreds of feet below looking like children’s bath toys from up here.

Back on the road it’s a plunging rollercoaster through the mountains as the smell of the sea seeps into our nostrils. The coast arrives with a series of bridge-linked island hops and the trip meter reveals that we’re close to the end of day one. A last push and suddenly we’re in Fosnavag, 531.1km after leaving Oslo. Dinner passes in a blur of superlatives and assertions that it can’t get much better than this. Which proves to be very wrong indeed…

Day 2: Fosnavag to Trondheim 446.8km

Sporadic sleep revealed that the sun sets for barely an hour this far north, the night gloom more thanks to cloud and rain than any lack of sunlight. We’re promised some amazing roads today, as we cling to the Atlantic coast road, and head for a series of islands and bridges that have long been lodged in my mind’s eye as a must-ride destination.

A quick blast to the first of the day’s three ferries saw us dodging showers through a monochrome landscape of islands and inlets. The roads undulate through gently rising mountains that remind me again of the Scottish Highlands. A second ferry took us to Molde, via occasional glimpses of the open sea towards the Faroe Islands – we’re already a long way north, the whole of the UK well below us, and Iceland barely above.

Effortlessly flowing roads suddenly leave us exposed to the deep blue Atlantic, and myriad rocky islands linked by a strip of tarmac clinging impossibly to craggy outcrops and man-made stacks. In the distance looms a launch ramp that looks like a forgotten stunt prop from one of Evel Kneivel’s record attempts. My pulse is racing, and I can’t quite believe that I’m here, two decades after I first saw a picture of the crazy curving arch bridge that peaks a dizzying 75ft above the crashing Atlantic. Spanning 850ft, there’s a pronounced crest and left turn as we summit the Storseisundet bridge, revealing yet more island-hopping links and an increasingly filmic landscape beyond. It’s too good to let it pass, so we pull in to a layby, retrace our steps and do it again. And again. And again.

The third ferry of the day, from Rykkjem to Kvanne, leads us to a huge river valley, riding the banks of the Surna between steep carved valley walls. The clouds have receded, and as we drop down into Tronheim in early evening, sunlight bounces off the brightly painted riverside buildings of the historic old town as we meander through quiet streets to our city centre hotel. For a supposedly bustling student town, it feels pleasantly quiet – the sort of venue you could imagine flying in to for a weekend city break.

Day 3: Trondheim to Bronnoysund 445.7km

“Now the roads start to get good,” says Erick Courly, the man who scouted this mind-bending route for us from Oslo to Nordkapp. We thought it was pretty good already. But with Trondhem rapidly disappearing behind us, we jump on the only ferry of the day, land in Rorvik 25 minutes later, and embark on over 400km more of increasingly beautiful riding.

It feels like we’ve switched countries again, each day unfurling like a progressive world tour of the greatest roads on Earth. Now the E6’s light tarmac, yellow centre line, and flowing curves that cut a groove through the endless pine forests past crashing rivers and over delicate suspension bridges reminds me of the Californian hills above LA. This is Norway’s main road, but you’d never guess. It doesn’t even widen to a dual carriageway, and nor does it need to. Traffic fluctuates between non-existent and light, and a good percentage of it appears to be other motorcyclists, RVs and cyclists.

Gone are the shifting mizzle and cloud, and we’re baking in 23-degree heat under clear blue skies as we pass enormous mirror-flat lakes and the most extreme landscape yet. Fittingly, a garish archway over the E6 declares that we’ve reached Nord Norge, the gateway to North Norway. It feels like a small victory already.

There’s a unanimous voice of agreement over dinner, as riders from all over the world concede that we’ve never had it better. Erick laughs with the confidence only a Frenchman can muster, and says: “You’ve seen nothing yet – wait for tomorrow.”

Day 4: Bronnoysund to Glomfjord 269.3km

Affectionately dubbed ‘Ferry Day’ this was destined to be one of the lower mileage riding days. The assertion that even the reduced distance would render the previous days as average by comparison still seemed unlikely, and the roads to the first ferry didn’t suggest any great elevation in epicness. But they were just the calm before the storm.

Ice blue fjords and unimaginably large landscapes unfurl, laced together with roads that persistently blew our tiny little minds. Sunburn was suddenly a real risk on every ferry, the temperature soaring to 28-degrees C, making the roads sticky even for the AT’s mediocre Dunlops, and the riding pace was now being determined by the roads, not any fear of the invisible police. The only thing slowing us down was the relentlessly incredible geographical tapestry we were passing through. I’m lucky to be well travelled, but there’s a scale and drama to Norway’s coast that’s truly awe-inspiring.

While the ferries could have been frustrating, they actually provided a chance to take stock, to soak up our surroundings, and relive the last tranche of roads in our minds. With superhuman eyes we could have looked out across the Atlantic to Iceland, and yet we were basting gently in our riding kit, and seeking shade on the ferry decks – the snow and shivering discomfort of day one a distant memory. Ironically, as we lounged in T-shirts and jeans on the deck of one of the longer ferry crossings, we passed the globe marker that denoted our crossing into the Arctic Circle. It all felt a little surreal.

We were warned that the stretch from Foroy to Glomjord would be an impressive climax to the end of the day, the Fv17 clinging to the twisted volcanic vista, while glaciers reached with prehistoric fingers down to cyan fjords that looked like they’d been painted with a vivid brightness that had no regard for reality.

Cold damp tunnels cut through impassable mountain ranges – some as much as 7km long, and so steeply cutting into the earth that your ears popped and the burden of all the rock above weighed heavy on even the least claustrophobic minds. Then we’d burst out into the light to a different world, and often different weather, before plunging into another tunnel, to be released into yet another reality minutes later.

The final leg into Glomfjord saw some of us throw caution to the wind for a ride that more resembled a public time trial. Buzzing and exhausted on arrival at our less than salubrious hostel in the tiny town, we headed out by coach to jump on a boat over to Svartisen Gard, where an isolated cabin was the setting for dinner under the gaze of Norway’s second largest glacier.

Despite lumpy beds and a complete lack of nightfall, it was an exhausted sleep that closed out the best day I’ve ever had riding a motorcycle. 

Day 5: Glomfjord to Camp Lofoten 253.4km

The shortest riding day of the trip was, by simple maths, unlikely to deliver the highest number of great roads – but it proved not to be so. The morning’s route was dominated by amazing bridges (check out Saltstraumen on Google maps, the maelstrom of whirlpools and drama unfolding beneath), disorientatingly mirrored lakes and fjords, and coast-hugging endlessly arcing roads. But after an early start to reach our last ferry of the trip in good time for fear of missing it, we fell foul of numerical bureaucracy, and suffered the most tedious seven hours of our eight-day adventure.

Cruising through Bodo, the Norwegian equivalent of the worst of Calais (and the only ugly place we saw), we were glad to be in good time to exit it for the 3.5hour crossing to Lofoten island.

If Mordor were coastal and beautiful, this place is the real embodiment of its ethereal drama. Mountains rise from the sea like they were pushed forth with the most beautiful violence. Tiny clusters of red and white timber houses cling like limpets to the shores, and there are acres of drying racks where stinking fish lose their moisture to the air. The only economies in this remote region are fishing and tourism, but if a lottery win ever befalls me, the petrol stations will do a good trade because I’ll spend the rest of my days riding the roads on Lofoten.

At just gone 10pm we finally roll into camp, and mop up the remains of the beach barbeque the rest of the group had enjoyed four hours earlier. Of course, it was still broad daylight, and with the ferry misery long behind us it was impossible not to be wowed by the setting. The Caribbean would struggle to offer a better beach, and the phenomenon that was unfolding on the horizon was enough to confound every one of us. As the sun got to a fist height above kissing the ocean, it just moved horizontally right. It never touched down, and as ‘morning’ approached, it simply started to rise again. Surreal.

We saw it all, too. Sleeping in a tent in such an incredible spot seemed like a waste, so we pulled our camp beds onto the beach, dragged some reindeer skins from the main tent, and slept on the sand under the never-setting sun. 

Day 6: Camp Lofoten to Malangen 463.4km

Morning arrived with no discernible change from night, the general hubbub and smell of breakfast wafting down to the beach the only giveaways. Back on the road, anyone who’s ridden the best that the Alps has to offer would feel well at home on Lofoten. The weather still gracing us with warmth and sunshine, we’re deep in troll country now. The Norwegians have an affection for the imaginary subhuman critters that most adults would find tedious, but they’re everywhere – and seemingly venerated by the locals.

As we push North, the dramatic mountainous incisors that poke skyward from the ocean at Lofoten soften to a rolling carpet of densely forested mountains, peaked by snowy caps as we swoop along the E6, heading ever-northward. The sheer relentless indulgence has led to an almost musical rhythm to the miles. We’re rarely bolt upright, and the constant adjustments and focus mean we never tire, never switch off or become saddle sore.

And then there’s another change. The lush Alpine landscape suddenly peppered with oppressive black mountains brooding like storm clouds on the horizon.

A section of fast and wide off-road, so compacted that it’s barely less grippy than your average UK B-road, on the final approach to Malangen spits us out on an even faster mountain descent to our fjord-side rest point. The Malangen Brygger Resort is picturesque in the extreme. Clusters of red and white stilted chalets dotted along the shoreline affording us a welcome level of opulence after the previous night’s beach sleep, and the ratty hostel of the night before.

Our motion-addled brains find it hard to compute that we’re now well north of Iceland – and most of the rest of the globe, too. Norkapp, which has seemed so far from us for so long, suddenly looks almost local.

Day 7: Malangen to Alta 454.7km

The morning is marred by drizzle, and an uncharacteristically dull circumnavigation of the peninsular, before we pick up the pace again and start threading our way between the black and menacing mountains of the north. It’s like a film set for Game of Thrones. Winter’s coming, you know…

The fjords seem to last forever as we’re forced down one side, only to swoop through a U-turn to cling to its opposite coastline, the E6 now feeling like a much-magnified version of Scotland’s A9 from Glen Morangie to Thurso. A roadbook error (ours, not its) see us cruise past the lunch stop, and it’s another hour before we realise. We’re not going back, so we make our own arrangements at a local café, and eat pizza slices next to a pretty harbour. Our ineptitude meant that we missed an apparently stunning section of off-road up into the mountains near Birtavarre. But we weren’t short of our own views, and as the lead riders eventually stirred us from our increasing slumber at the small harbour at Sorkjosen, we fuelled up for the run into Alta, and some of the biggest scenery of the whole trip.

The E6 is still giving. Perfect radius bends are stitched together with longer straights that run fjord-side, and suddenly we’re climbing from lush sea-level switchbacks up to a little over 1300ft for a snow-filled stunning view over the islands of Skopa and Noklan. An impromptu off-road opportunity is visible from the road, and a small group of us detach to ride through icy puddles of meltwater as snowdrifts tower above our heads. Filthy and invigorated from our endeavours, we re-join the E6 and start the long descent to Alta, dodging panicked herds of reindeer trapped between sheer cliffs to the right and a perilous drop to the ocean to our left. After a Norwegian standoff, they eventually baulk past us close enough to touch. I’d swear the leader had a slightly red nose…

Day 8: Alta to Nordkapp to Alta 484.3km

After a week of riding towards never-ending horizons, our desitnation feels disappointingly close. Just 240km of road separates us from Nordkapp – mainland Europe’s most northerly tip. It’s ostensibly what we came for, but now it’s so close, it’s lost its appeal – because it’s the end of the road.

The weather matches our mood. The sunny 30-degrees of yesterday has become 14 beneath low cloud and light rain. Our excitement is tinged with sadness. We can’t afford to let our energy wane though, once we get to Nordkapp we have to turn around and make it back to Alta, meaning nearly 500kms are on today’s roadbook.

A sinuous climb out of Alta is rewarded by a desolate plateau. The stark tundra peppered with huts so remote that it’s impossible to conceive of their use. This is about as good as the weather ever gets up here, and in winter the sun barely rises at all, while snow will bury them to their roofs.

Finally the E6 runs out, becoming the E69 as we turn left along the coastline on the final run to the cape. Naked rock towers to our left, flat blue sea to the right as we speed on through cove after cove, sporadically diving into freezing tunnels where the mountains won’t allow us to go round them. The damp is cloying, and the temperature plummets each time we plunge into the darkness. With each exit there’s a new view, with scant greenery clinging to the most protected bits of coast, postcard-pretty coastal getaways perched on little islands and beaches. We stop for fuel in an industrial port, bumping in to a couple of guys on yet another Nordkapp schlep in their globally well-travelled modified Citroen Traction Avant – before the spectacular climb up onto the cape.

Predictably the cape itself is somehow lacking in impact. In itself the barren rocky outcrop is impressive enough, but after 3113.8km of views you’d pay an artist to paint onto the walls of every room in your house, it’s – well – unspectacular. There’s nothing north of here but Svalbard, and the North Pole is 2093km away. I’d be tempted to keep going if anyone had thought to build a road.

News reaches us that the police have tired of reports that a large group of riders have been less than attentive to their holy speed limits, and set several traps on the way back to Alta, so on pain of trouser-staining fines we decide to limp legally back to the hotel. It’s a slightly ignominious end to a life-defining experience, elevated by the smug satisfaction at eluding the Norwegian fuzz.

It’s been extraordinary. 3355.3km of euphoria on roads that beat anything I’ve experienced in the last quarter century of riding all over the world. However you make it possible, you have to experience them too.

 

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Richard Newland

By Richard Newland

Editor