Back in 2008 my Dad visited Norway with my mum on his GS. He retired this year and wanted to take a trip with me back up to the Lofoten, a group of islands in the north west of Norway, sort of like the Norwegian Outer Hebrides. I had done some research on Norway and decided it would be good to visit Geiranger and ride the Trollstigen (Troll road) on the way. While planning the route over a few beers we figured if we were going as far up as Lofoten we may as well carry on to Nordkapp. A few beers more led us to decide if we were going that far then we may as well head east after Nordkapp and go to Russia. So that was our rough plan.
We were both riding Africa Twins adorned with metal panniers and various Touratech and Rugged Roads farkles. Loaded on the back were our tents and camping gear. Ferries were booked and last minute visas were arranged for Russia. There is no longer a ferry from Scotland or England to Norway. When my Dad last visited he got a ferry to Bergen from Newcastle and returned to Scrabster but we had to make do with the usual Newcastle to Ijmuiden sailing. We had twenty three days to do our trip. We figured it to be about 5000 miles and wanted to spend a couple of nights at a few places. This would mean a few longer days on the bike but our goal should be pretty achievable as long as nothing went Pete Tong.
I was getting quite nervous on the lead up to the trip. Pre trip jitters are common for loads of folk, but on the day we left I was feeling pretty low, I don’t know what was up with me, but I didn’t feel too great waving goodbye to family and friends that had come to see us off. Luckily the feeling passed, an hour or so on the bike heading down to England sorted my head out and by the time we arrived at North Sheilds for the ferry I was feeling good.
On the ferry. My holiday haircut and Faithir with no breeks.
Charley enjoying a continental greeting from me.
The ferry is a great start to a bike trip. You either meet loads of folk like yourself who are heading off on their own adventure, or you meet people who are heading home and are buzzing from their holiday. We met up with my mate Charlie and his family who were heading off in a camper van and looked over our maps. Dad and I never really had a proper plan. No accommodation was booked, no route was planned. When we arrived in Ijmuiden we just set the sat nav for Sweden and set off. My sat nav was well out of date (I’m too tight to pay the £70 to update the old Zumo 550) and Dad had forgotten to update his, making navigating our way out of Holland a bit hit or miss. Never mind though, the sun was shining and in no time we had battered out of Holland, across Germany and into Puttgarden where you catch the ferry over to Rødby in Denmark. Recently, the charges to use your mobile phone in the EU have been dropped, so while we were sailing to Denmark I phoned Carina back home. She was in front of the computer at the time and a quick Google suggested a campsite for us in Maribo, just a few kilometres from Rødby.
Maribo turned out to be a great shout. It’s a beautiful wee town right by a lake on the Danish island Lolland. It was the perfect place for our first night. We got the tents up and wandered into town for some food before chatting with Michael over a beer back on the campsite. Michael was a Polish guy who lived in Nottingham and rode a V Strom. When we told him about our plans Michael said he’d pretty much planned the same trip, but circumstances back home mean he couldn’t make it. We were riding his dream! It makes you feel pretty lucky to be setting off on your trip when someone says that to you.
Crossing the Øresund using the famous tunnel/bridge and we were in Sweden with only a quick friendly stop at the border. We joined the E6 and headed up the west coast of Sweden. The E6 is a road that goes all the way from the south of Sweden, up through Norway and across to Kirkenes at the Russian border. It would be a major part of our trip that we would leave and join a few times on our travels. A Burger King, Gothenburg’s rush hour and several hours of Swedish motorway saw us to a rest area. We checked the map and the internet on my phone and found a great campsite on Tjörn, an island linked to Sweden’s west coast by a couple of bridges. We’d be staying in a Hytte, (pronounced “hyit-eh”) a small cabin with basic facilities. You’ll find loads of Hytte all over Sweden and Norway. They’re reasonably priced and offer an affordable alternative to tents. The west coast of Sweden has some great scenery which would be worth taking time to explore, but that will have to wait for another trip. Our goal was to get into Norway.
Swedish border check.
Sunset in Sweden
Just south of Oslo is the Oslofjord Tunnel, this allowed us to skip out Oslo completely and head west away from the E6. I had been told that the E6 north of Olso was dishwater dull and to choose a route over the hills instead. We carried on west, heading through Drammen and further west towards the 40. Since coming into Norway the low speed limits were being observed fanatically. Norway has some of the strictest speed enforcement this side of Switzerland. Getting caught a few kph over the frustratingly low speed limit results in trip finishing fines. Slow and steady was the way forwards.
We joined the 40 at Kongsberg. I had spent so much time on long straight motorways and A class roads that I thought I’d forgotten how to corner, the 40 soon reminded me how to. Even with the 80 kilometre per hour speed limit the 40 was a great road and I quickly got used to chucking the Africa Twin about, the Continental Trail Attack 2’s I had fitted are a great road tyre, giving great confidence when hustling the bike up the 40’s riverside curves, trying to keep the bike at 85 kph everywhere. Another Hytte was found at Norefjord for the evening’s accommodation where the evening was spent watching a local guy pull wheelies everywhere while looking at maps and drinking beer. As always I was jacked into the Wi-Fi and according to folk on facebook we were in for a good run tomorrow.
They were right. Riverside roads climbed Alp like switchbacks out of the trees on to high open plateaus. Mutant shaped mountains wore snow caps and signs appeared warning us to keep an eye out for reindeer and moose. Before Norway had looked a bit like the Black Forest or Austria, but now it was showing some of its own personality. Geirangerfjord is one of Norway’s most famous landmarks and, along with the Trollstigen, a bit of a mecca for bikes. We were lucky to hit it a bit later on, I don’t get all these people who get up early, like everyone else, to get the roads to themselves, have a long lie and get there fashionably late, you’re on holiday! The road is stunning, the sun pumping out 26 degree heat while the lakes were still frozen and the roadside a patchwork of snow. I was stopping every few kilometres for photos, Norway really is a place you can wear out your camera. The scenery is mindblowing, and it keeps getting better and better. After a while it becomes ridiculous, you need to just pull the bike over and build up a tolerance to stop overdosing. Researching the trip I’d seen plenty photos of Geiranger and the fjord, but when I got there and saw it with my own eyes I actually blurted out “Fucking calm doon Norway!” It is incredible.
As you can imagine, somewhere as stunning as the Geirangerfjord attracts plenty tourists. The town of Geiranger is quite small so we headed over another set of awesome switchbacks, through the hills and down to Eidsdal where you get the ferry over to the 63; the famous Trollstigen. Dad had stayed at Eidsdal before but unfortunately the campsite had been taken over and closed to the public. Luckily there was another place a few kilometres along the road at Norddal, we got the tents up and I rode back along to the shop. Everyone had said that Norway was expensive, however we’d found it to be relatively OK so far. Well this shop held on to the stereotype with both hands. The shelves were pretty bare. As I hunted for something we could make a meal of I was mentally exchanging currencies. To be fair it was 7pm so understandably the bread had all been bought. I got some cold meat, some cheese, Ritz crackers, two apples, a double Snickers bar and six beers. The cost in pounds? Forty two quid. Ooya! I had two boil in the bag veggie curries from home and dad had some cup-a-soups. We were just setting up to tuck in when some Norwegian’s came over to say hello. They’d had a barbecue and had loads left over. Suddenly our snack had turned into a feast. A couple in a car had turned up while this was going on and were in the process of cooking their evening meal. The Norwegians had given us loads of food so we shared it with the couple, who turned out to be Americans who had flown over to tour Norway and do some walking. We had a great night speaking with the Americans and the Norwegians, all who had a good interest in bikes. I finally got into my tent at 2 am. It had barely gotten dark.
Dad leaving Geiranger.
Ferries in Norway are cheap and hyper efficient. In no time we were riding north on the 63 towards the fabled Trollstigen, or Troll Road. I don’t know if the previous day’s scenic overindulgence had blunted my appreciation, or if I’d built up a strong tolerance to stunning scenery, but the Trollstigen, for me, wasn’t a patch on the road to Geiranger. I had been told by one of the Norwegians from the night before that it’s much better riding it from north to south. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not shit, far from it. But it didn’t have the “calm doon Norway” element. Dad noticed a big difference since his last visit. He said that at the top there used to be a bunch of little huts selling the usual tourist stuff, whereas now there’s a big, fancy modern looking visitor centre.
Everything calmed right down as we rejoined the E6. 80 kph feels really slow on such an open road. Really slow. With no corners or overly dramatic scenery to occupy my short attention span my concentration started to waiver. I really found the run up to Mo i Rana a long, tough drag. Who’d have thought going so slow was so tiring? We spoke to a lass with a tuned up gixxer thou at a fuel stop. I was thinking how frustrating it must be having such performance at your fingertips but such Stasi like speeding laws.
“Have you been caught speeding?”
She had. 96 kph in an 80 zone. The fine? The equivalent of £450. Ouch. She reckons its money well spent.
Mo i Rana is quite a large town just south of the Arctic Circle. Being Saturday night Dad and I wandered into town for some food, choosing a nice pizzeria. There was some seriously nice machines driving around, from big American muscle cars to an immaculate Z1B kwaker. After our pizzas we wandered around the town for a bit, checking out the Havmannen, a huge sculpture in the sea just beside the town, before stumbling upon a woodcutter themed pub. A couple of beers each later (forty quid) and we headed back up to our digs. The pub had been slightly disappointing as we were the only people in the place. Norway seems to lack any real pub or café culture so it was a bit harder to meet local folk, something I enjoy about travelling. Facebook on the other hand was reeling in the results. I had found a Norwegian bike group and put up a recommendation request for any accommodation that was available near Å on Lofoten. Ole and Lena responded saying they had a “small house” just up the road from Å that we could have, no charge! Dad literally couldn’t believe it. He kept saying
“So this guy, who you’ve never met in your life, is letting us use his house?”
“Yep Dad, good eh?”
“He’s letting ye use his house. For free. And you don’t know him at all?”
“Aye Dad, he’s called Ole.”
Our Mo i Rana accommodation was a wee apartment beside the campsite, Dad wasn’t keen on the tent and there were no Hytter available. In the apartment next door was Björn and his wife. Björn was a whale hunter from Tromsø. We’d brought some Whisky with us from back home which we shared with Björn and Mrs Björn. (I’m terrible with names) Björn had been to a fair amount of places on his boat including Murmansk, one of the major destinations on our route.
“What do you think of Murmansk Björn?”
“Murmansk? Murmansk is a fucking shitty city. They’re corrupt motherfuckers. They’ll steal anything. Your bikes, they won’t be safe.”
Needless to say, Björn wasn’t a fan of Murmansk. The conversation then turned to Björn’s line of work. I said I wasn’t going to sample any whale meat while on our travels. I’ve never even seen a whale in the flesh, so I didn’t want to start shovelling said flesh into my guts. Björn got a bit animated by this, asking if I thought that he shouldn’t be allowed to make his living hunting whales. I told him that whale hunting was part of his country’s culture and it wasn’t really my place to judge. Sure I don’t agree with it, but whale watching is more popular back home. I guess part of travelling is meeting different cultures and practices. You’re not going to agree with them all.
We carried on our discussion into the midnight sun. Björn assured me that whale hunting is sustainable and showed me photos of the tools of his trade which he said gave minimal suffering to the whale. It was good speaking with Björn, he wasn’t shy to share his opinion, when we first met him I though he was a bit of a tool, but in the end I enjoyed his company. I still never tried any whale though.
We awoke to a wet morning, the first real rain of our trip so far. About an hour or so north of Mo i Rana the road begins to climb steadily up before opening out to another plateau. This one felt different, it was a fair bit colder and the rain added to the atmosphere. Shortly after we crossed the Arctic Circle, the first real milestone that I had for the trip. We visited the Arctic Circle Centre, another tourist magnet, but definitely worth pulling in to see. Postcards posted, pannier stickers stuck, we set off again heading for Bodø where you get the ferry over to Lofoten. After navigating our way through some pretty severe roadworks we arrived at Bodø ferry terminal to be met by a long queue. The ticket collector was pretty confident she could squeeze us on so we went to warm up in the ferry terminal. There was a couple of hours to spare but it wasn’t till the last minute we decided to try and get a couple of beers for that evening. The only problem being it was Sunday and hardly any shops were open. I jumped on the Africa Twin and raced off into a Dakar Dale Winton supermarket sweep, somehow finding my way into a closed supermarket. It turns out that no alcohol at all gets sold from shops in Norway on a Sunday. Still, it gave the folk who were restocking the shop a laugh. Making it back to ferry with literally seconds to go, bikes were secured and we found some seats. Hotdogs seem to be the only real affordable food in Norway and they’re served up everywhere, from ferries to petrol stations. (Petrol stations also serve up good coffee and other food. I accidentally bought a £14 “Dallas burger” on the way to Geiranger, I’d thought it was a fiver.) Hot dogs were ordered and questions asked.
“Are ye sure this guy’s for real? What if he’s taking the piss?”
“I reckon it’s all good Dad.”
“And he’s giving us this hoose for free?”
Ole had messaged me directions to his house and instructions on how to get the key. I’d asked if he’d be coming to meet us, but Lena and he were away to Oslo.
“I cannae believe that yer getting a hoose for fuck all. That’s mental…”
Lofoten is crazy. The scenery is so dramatic it’s hard to get your head round it. You could literally stop every fifty meters for a photograph. I rode off the ferry with some apprehension. What happens if Dad was right? The ferry gets into Moskenes just north of Å. Ole’s directions memorised we rode south. Ole’s “small house” appeared as we rounded a corner. It wasn’t that small either. After getting the key and assuring his neighbour that we were allowed to be there, we unpacked the bikes. Lena and Ole’s house was phenomenal, a special wee sanctuary that I couldn’t believe we’d been given for free. Ole had sent me the Wi-Fi password and everything. “There’s beer in the fridge too.” What a guy.
We spent two nights at Ole’s, exploring Å and the surrounding area, catching up on laundry and generally relaxing. Everywhere you go you’ll see these large wooden racks that are used for drying the Stockfish. Stockfish is the Lofoten’s main source of income. Stockfish is unsalted dried fish, usually cod, which hung in pairs over the wooden racks to dry in the cold arctic air. I tried some in Å, it’s very meaty and quite nice. There’s a lot of eating in it though, I couldn’t finish mine! There’s a Stockfish Museum in Å. It’s worth a visit and gives a good idea of what Lofoten life is like. When we were there lots of the wooden racks were covered in cod heads. Most stockfish gets exported to Italy, Cod tongue is a Lofoten delicacy and the rest of the head is dried and exported to Nigeria where apparently people eat them! I found one cod head in the ground, so that came on the Africa Twin with me.
Fully refreshed and with laundered laundry we said goodbye to Å. We had been so lucky in getting the house from Ole. If you are planning to visit Lofoten and want to stay in Å then make sure you book accommodation in advance. While wild camping is allowed in many parts of Norway I saw loads of “no camping” signs on Lofoten, especially around Å, so plan ahead.
Norway was back to its full on, 100% pure, unrefined crazy, dramatic scenery. I had to stop myself from stopping all the time for photos as we rode north on the E10, which runs from Å up to Bjerkvik were it joins the E6. If you’re planning a visit to Nordkapp, make sure you take a visit to Lofoten. Words like “awesome” and “phenomenal” are often overused. They just don’t cut it on Lofoten. Sure, it’s expensive but man, you need to see the place, its phenome… its awes…….. It’s really, really fucking good.
Back on the E6 I noticed a distinct change from when we’d turned off to Bodø. It was far colder, all the hills were covered in snow and the landscape was opening up, trees thinning out and being replaced by tundra. It began to feel like we were far away. Towns grew further apart and shrunk in size, the traffic thinned out and the amount of reindeer cutting about the place increased. The photographically heavy ride up from Å had taken most of the day, so we only rode for an hour or so on the E6 before finding a Hytte for the night.
Giving a couple of Italian Harley riders a look at the map.
Inside a Hytte
Everyone had told me that the E6 from Lofoten to Nordkapp would be a long, boring, tick box exercise. It was wet, cold, windy, exposed and I thought it was amazing. I really felt like we were somewhere that not many people go. It felt far away from home. There was snow at the side of the roads, loads and loads of reindeer and not too many other folk on the road. I’d stopped for a photo when another bike rode past me and stopped in by Dad. The guy was Alexandr, a Russian from just outside Moscow. Alexandr was also headed for Nordkapp on his Varadero. We spoke with Alexandr for ten minutes or so. He had booked a place to stay up the road in Alta, whereas Dad and I were planning to carry on a bit further. We agreed to keep an eye out for each other on the road to Nordkapp and set off.
Dad and Alexandr
We found accommodation at Oldefjord in the form of a tiny Hytte. Oldefjord is at the junction of the E6 and the E69, the road to Nordkapp. All that’s really there is a petrol station, a campsite and a hotel that also has a restaurant and a souvenir shop. We cooked a basic tea in the hytte and had an early night, the next day we’d hopefully get to Nordkapp.
Nordkapp. Nordkapp is the furthest north you can drive in continental Europe. Technically it isn’t the most northerly part of mainland Europe because Nordkapp is on a wee island linked to the mainland. But come on, who’s got time for that sort of pedantic shite? We arrived there around lunchtime after a wet, windy but very enjoyable run up the E69. I wouldn’t describe it as busy, but you need to keep your wits about you to dodge the occasional motorhome, tour bus or reindeer, none of which seem to bother what lane they use. Despite the weather trying to give us a beating, I was buzzing when we finally got to Nordkapp. Even when a thick fog blew in just five hundred meters from Nordkapp I didn’t stop grinning. You need to pay a fee to get to Nordkapp itself. People complain about the 270 NOK (about £25) but when you consider where it is, and the infrastructure that’s been put in place to allow tourist to visit, I think it’s worth the price. We bought souvenirs, ate some waffles, posted post cards and watched the brilliant short film in the cinema. Alexandr turned up and we all congratulated each other on making it to Nordkapp. Photos were taken then we jumped on the bikes and headed south.
Faithir and I at Nordkapp
We got back to Oldefjord and refuelled the bikes. We had planned on trying to get a bit further east towards Kirkenes, but there was space in the hotel and already there were a few bikes parked up. I smoked a big cigar I had brought with me to celebrate getting to Nordkapp while having a beer with Tomas, a GS rider from Switzerland. Alexandr arrived and I shared the last of my whisky with him, Tomas and Dad. We all headed to the restaurant for a meal and a beer. We were sitting sharing travel tales when out of the window I saw a guy ride up on a tiny moped towing a bicycle trailer.
“Check out this guy! I’m going to have to go out and find out what he’s up to!”
Mats Hallin lives just outside Stockholm. He was riding to Nordkapp on his tiny, 50cc moped. He had carrier bags on his hands to keep warm and dry and wellies on his feet. He was doing his trip to raise money for a mental health charity. I invited him to join us and bought him a beer. We were all feeling like awesome adventurers having ridden to Nordkapp on our big bikes when Mats comes along on his wee 50. It just shows you, you can tour on any bike.
Alexandr tries out the Africa Twin
Alexandr joined us on the ride to Kirkenes. We got on booking.com and got accommodation in the same place he’d booked, just five hundred meters from the Russian border. The sun was back out, keeping us warm as we headed east, the E6 following the Norwegian/Finnish border. I was riding along thinking about how over the other side of the river to my right there were different laws, languages, currencies and cultures. Borders are strange things. Russia had been playing on my mind the closer we got. Even while being blown away by the scenery of Lofoten, or buzzing at arriving at Nordkapp, there was a Russian niggle in my guts. It wasn’t the border crossing that I was worried about, it was more a mix of the horror stories we’d been told and the great unknown. I had a rough route in mind but would the roads be open? Will the bikes be safe? Will we need to bribe the police and other officials? What about the bikes? Would we have secure parking? What about insurance? I kept telling myself there was no point in worrying about any of these questions, as we wouldn’t get any answers until we arrived in Russia. Even Alexandr didn’t know the answers. One thing I knew we had to get was insurance. I had been informed on various internet forums that we’d need to purchase third party insurance. It wasn’t worth the paper it was written on, but if we didn’t have it and we were stopped by the police our bikes could be impounded.
Riding to Kirkenes with Alexandr.
Along with all the others, the insurance question would have to wait until the following day to get its answer. We found our accommodation easily, over the road was a very Grand Designs looking restaurant right on the banks of Neitijärvi Lake. Joined by a German GS rider, we had our last meal in Norway while looking over the lake to Russia and the border crossing.
That's Russia over there.
International Party! The last night in Norway for Alexandr, Dad and I.
The border crossing into Russia was relatively straight forwards. We had to fill in various bits of paperwork about ourselves and the bikes. Some of these were in Russian and I had to get shown what to write in each box. It took an hour then it was back out to the bikes where a serious looking Russian woman wanted to inspect the bike and my stuff. It was nearly comical going through all my stinking clothes and showing her all the stuff I had with me. They even wanted to see inside my tent! They kept pointing to the cod head that I had cable tied on to my crash bar. Alexandr came to translate.
“This, no. No. Not in Russia.”
Gutted, I thought I have to get rid of my cod head that I’d carried from Lofoten. I got my knife out, which didn’t bother the border guards at all, and cut the cable ties.
“Put it in the box?” I asked pointing to my pannier.
Big smiles all round. “Da, yes yes. This is good.”
So the cod head could go in to Russia, just not be visible. Welcome to Russia.
I had also asked everyone about insurance. We couldn’t buy any at the border, but the border control staff said we could maybe get it in the nearest town. I even had the word “страхование” on my phone to help with translation. Alexandr was a great help and he thought he knew a couple of places where we could get it. The barrier went up and we were in Russia. There was a big sign saying in various languages that tourists were only permitted on a few roads. Nikel, named after the big nickel factory there, is the closest town to the Russain border. I had been told we could buy insurance there, but there was a wee problem, we were allowed to drive to Nickel, but we weren’t sure if we were allowed out the other side, meaning we’d have to come back to the border then head over to Murmansk. Welcome to Russia.
Alexandr didn’t have time for the detour so we headed towards Murmansk with a plan to get insurance on the way. Sure enough, and a very cheap fuel stop Alexandr discovered that we could get страхование (insurance) just a few kilometres down the road.
Even just over the border Russia was different. Gone were road markings, signs and health and safety. There was loads of roadworks which you just figured your own way around while the diggers swung about. I quickly discovered if someone comes flying up behind you the best thing to do is to move over and give them some room. They’re going to come past anyway, whether there’s oncoming traffic or not. The army are everywhere, places like Sputnik are just big military bases. This means no photos. You can see it all on google earth though. With all the army came checkpoints. These are weird places. It looks like if there’s been a major car crash in the area the vehicles are brought to the checkpoints and left on the roofs of the buildings. Like the border crossing, the checkpoints are pretty straight forwards. We were only ever asked for our passports and all they checked was that our faces matched the photo.
Zapolyarny was the name of the town Alexandr had been told we could get our insurance. It just seemed to appear out of nowhere. A lot of the roads have raised verges that look like they’re made of excess from a mining slagheap so we didn’t really see Zapolyarny till we were there. Coming from Norway just a few hours before, the poverty in Zapolyarny was shocking. I’d like to try and pull some positives out about the place, but it was a complete fucking shithole. There were huge potholes everywhere, no pavements, dogs roaming about and rubbish lying all over the place. The buildings were all big concrete Soviet efforts that looked like they’d had no maintenance at all since they’d been built. We followed Alexandr around looking for the office to buy insurance, but with no signs on the buildings we couldn’t tell if a building was a shop, an office or just someone’s house. Alexandr asked a few people for directions, eventually we seen some police driving past, Alexandr got directions and off we set again. After another five minutes of dodging brick filled pot holes we arrived outside a building that looked like all the others.
“You wait. Wait here” Alexandr wandered off. Then came back.
“You stay with bike. Do not leave bikes alone. Many theft.” Pointing at our tank bags. Off he went again and disappeared into a block of flats. Ten minutes later he was back. “Mike, you come with me. I find the insurance.” Alexandr went back into the building. Leaving Dad out in the street with the three bikes, I followed Alexandr through the heavy metal door into the building. It was pitch black inside till I fumbled my way through the next door which took me out into what looked like a stair of a set of flats. All the doors looked the same. I was about to start knocking on them when Alexandr poked his head out the door in front of me. “This way Mike!” Through the door I found myself in a 70s style wood panelled office. Alexandr helped translate for before leaving me with the insurance girl and heading out to make sure Dad was fine with the bikes. Despite having limited English and me having zero Russian we got the insurance sorted for both bikes. The cost? About a tenner for the month. As Alexandr kept saying to Dad, “Welcome to Russia.”
On the whole the road surfaces were pretty good as we carried on to Murmansk, with only the occasional deep gouge or pot hole to avoid. Riding along looking at the scenery you’d think you were in Finland if it wasn’t for the occasional road sign, giant industrial factory and all the Ladas. Most of the other folk on the roads were relatively courteous. Bikes all gave the usual big wave and I only saw a few folk driving like maniacs and one blatantly intoxicated driver. We pulled over beside the busy Murmansk junction. This was where we said goodbye to Alexandr. He’d been great company and a great help getting us through the border and finding our insurance. Through the power of Facebook we still keep in touch with him now.
Dad and Alexandr chatting.
Welcome to Russia.
I had to navigate our way to the Hotel in Murmansk. Our sat navs didn’t have any Russian maps at all, I had basically memorised the route and saved the google maps to my phone which was in the wee window of my tank bag. In the city the quality of the road surfaces deteriorated quickly. It wasn’t as bad as Zapolyarny, but they still seemed to fill the big pot holes with old bricks or any other rubble they could find. Luckily the route was straight forwards and in about 15 minutes we found ourselves outside the huge Azimut Hotel, the tallest building in the Arctic Circle and supposedly the best hotel in Murmansk. Bling bling indeed. Dad stayed with the bikes out the front of the hotel while I went in to sort stuff out.
“Is there secure parking for the bikes?” This had been my major concern. Everyone, and I mean everyone, had said that we needed to make sure our bikes were secure.
“Yes, just leave them in the car park outside the hotel.”
Shit. This isn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted a Fort Knox-esque guarded vault where no one could even see my bike. Our European insurance didn’t cover Russia and the insurance we got in Zapolyarny wasn’t worth the paper it was written on. Shit. Shit shit shit shit.
“Are you sure the bike’s will be safe out there?”
“Of course. This is Murmansk, not Moscow.” The guy said with a laugh.
I wasn’t laughing.
I went out and told Dad the news. We moved the bikes right beside the front door and started to unpack them. What else was there to do? Once the bikes were unpacked we chilled out with a beer. My panicking nerves were eased a bit after a discussion with the hotel security. This guy looked like he’d made a career out of hurting people. Despite speaking no English he assured me the bikes were safe, showing me all the CCTV cameras pointed at them and promising he would keep an eye on them for us, the whole time grinning a mouth full of gold teeth.
The hotel was pretty posh, there were two weddings going on that seemed to be attended by female supermodels or male bodybuilders. We went for a wander around the town where I noticed more Russian stereotypes. 80% of cars you see are normal, driving around just above the speed limit. The rest of the traffic is made up of cars that have been in some sort of accident and are missing parts, usually bumpers. The last 5% are high end cars which were seemingly immune to the traffic laws. We saw a big black Bentley screaming around the city centre at three times the speed of everyone else. It wasn’t uncommon to hear sport bikes accelerating hard through to the top of third or fourth gear. They weren’t hanging about. On the opposite side to Mr Black Bentley were the behemoth Gangster types driving little Ladas with blacked out windows. At least they were gangsters in my mind, and that’s the thing. If I saw these folk in France or Italy I wouldn’t be concerned at all. Undoubtedly there were a few shady characters were cutting about the place, but the majority of people were just normal folk out enjoying their Saturday evening.
We returned to our fancy hotel, there was a cocktail bar on the top floor which turned out also served great food and offered panoramic views over the city. For me Murmansk had a certain Soviet beauty about it. We enjoyed our meal and had a few drinks, reflecting on the harsh contrast between where we were now, and what it was like in Zapolyany earlier. I hadn’t taken many photos in Zapolyarny, not because I was scared of anything, but because it didn’t feel right, swanning in on my fancy bike and taking photos of with my expensive camera. I regret it now of course. I’m sure the people of Zapolyarny didn’t give two shits about the three bikers riding around their town in circles.
A white russian of course.
Murmansk, about 3am.
The restaurant became a night club as it got later. It didn’t get dark at all in Murmansk, (it hadn’t since well below Mo i Rana) so they pulled black out blind down when the DJ started up. It was surreal sitting smoking a huge hookah and drinking cocktails as the sun pokes out from behind the blinds. Every now and then I’d nip down to check on the bikes. Every time the security guard was there, giving a gold filled smile and a friendly thumbs up.
With slightly dull heads the following day, we wandered off to meet Yaroslav. I met Yaroslav Lukomskiy through Facebook while researching the trip. Yaroslav is the Murmansk tourism expert. He used to work onboard the Lenin, the first nuclear icebreaker, and he’d offered to give us an English speaking tour of the boat. Dad used to work in the nuclear industry so he was pretty keen to see round the vessel.
“We are looking for zee nuleear wessels” he kept saying, trying to imitate Chekov from Star Trek.
Yaroslav gave a great tour. The only other people in our group were an English speaking French/Belgian couple who were lucky enough to be hanging around when we met up with Yaroslav. After looking round the Lenin we went for a coffee and discussed life in Murmansk with. Yarsoslav told us about the northern light tours he organises, describing the stunning displays they get up there. He also said that people in Murmansk get an extra month’s paid holiday a year in recompense for the six weeks of darkness they get in winter. It was good to chill out and have a day doing something completely non bike related. Days off the bike are just as important to me as days on it. I’d rather spend an extra couple of hours riding to get a rest day here and there. For me it makes the trip more of a holiday and less of an endurance event. Its great meeting people and learning their cultures and interests.
Yaroslav shows us around the Lenin
Thankfully the bikes were just as we left them when it came time to leave. Again I had committed Google maps to both the phone’s memory and my own. We set off after I stalled Dad for a bit by buying post cards and the few souvenirs I could find. I was pretty adamant that I wasn’t going to ride in Russian commuter traffic after seeing one too many dash cam videos on YouTube. I navigated the way out of Murmansk with relative ease, once more being surprised by how suddenly the city ended and we were once more in the rural Russia. We were following the E105 south to Kandalaksha, a relatively well used, scenic road that cuts through the mountains and passes the lakes of the Lapland State Nature reserve. On the other side of the road to the lakes however was a huge factory and some sort of mining operation. Welcome to Russia.
Apart from loads of other motorists flashing their light at us to warn of speed traps the ride down to Kandalaksha was pretty uneventful. The petrol station we planned to stop at was where the map said it would be and the road through Alakurtti to the border with Finland was not only open, it was tarmac the whole way. The only other cars we seen on the Alakurtti road were the police and military, a guy towing a trailer with an old Lada and another old Lada that’s rear axle had fallen off. There had been some serious fighting in this area during the war, remembered by several monuments to fallen soldiers of different nationalities dotted along the road. We had a couple of straightforward check points and after some lovely, freshly laid, sweeping corners we were at the border with Finland. There’s a small fuel station beside the border where we filled out tanks with the last cheap Russian fuel of the trip. Dad also noticed a small gouge in my tyre. A closer inspection showed nothing to be concerned about, no foreign bodies had went through, all we could see was a small, round indentation in the tyre. Anyway, on to the border. We had safely kept all the relevant paperwork we had been given on the way in and after a border guard had a brief glance in each pannier we were through the Russian border in about 40 minutes. A quick visit to the bizarre duty free shop in no man’s land got rid of the last of the Rubles and we were through the Finnish border in a couple of minutes.
Russia had been great, but it was a weight of my shoulders returning to a place where I knew I had the safety nets of insurance, breakdown recovery and an alphabet I could understand. We had an easy ride through Finland forest to Kemijärvi where we pitched our tents. I think Dad would have rather had a Hytte, but I wanted my own space. Hytter are ok, but you’re always sharing the space with someone else. When my tent’s up it’s like having your own room. I think it’s important to make sure you take time to yourself, especially if you’re travelling with just one other person. It stops cabin fever (or should that be hytte fever?) setting in.
We only spent that one night in Finland and man, are the stories about the mosquitoes true. My head was like a Braille novel I had that many bites all over it. Another easy day’s ride saw us to the north coast of Sweden. I had read about Seskarö, a small island linked to the mainland by several bridges and causeways. It was only a few hours ride away, which was fine after the previous days run down from Murmansk. There’s only one campsite on Seskarö which we found easily enough, although I managed to get my bike stuck in some sand getting to my pitch. We spent the evening in the company of a Finnish guy who told us some crazy stories about Russia. He’d been going over since the 90’s with his carpet fitting business and had run ins with gangster, had two very expensive cars stolen, one of which he had to buy back and he’d been in the Kremlin. I was pretty grateful we were hearing these stories after being in Russia and not before.
We had a week left to get down to Ijmuiden for the ferry, another two night stop would be great so we decided to put a big day in. 650km of boring, wet motorway down Sweden’s E4 got us to Bergafjärdens Campsite just south of Sundsvall. I was feeling fine but Dad was pretty cold so we opted for a Hytte for the evening. The campsite was a big commercial effort with a bar and restaurant on site. We were chatting away at the bar when two Norwegians clocked out accents.
“Are you guys Irish?”
It’s a common question us Scots get.
We ended up having a great night with Jonatan and Martin including an alcohol fuelled rendition of “Sweet Home Alabama” except in Norwegian, “Sweet Home Mo I Rana.”
4am songs, pissed up with Jonatan and Martin
Surprising fresh considering we’d caught the sunset/sunrise at 4am before bed, we carried on south on the E4 before cutting across to our campsite in Norbeg. It was nice to get off the main road and see some of Sweden, even if the views were mostly trees. The campsite at Norbeg is a great wee place, there’s big American muscle cars all over the place and many of the people on the site are there for most of the summer. We walked into town for a kebab and some supplies from the shops. I got some surströmming to take home. That’s the rotten fish stuff that everyone spews their ring trying to eat on videos online. I just hoped it didn’t burst in my pannier. We spent the evening chatting to other folk on the site and watching them play Kubb, a traditional Swedish game. It’s harder than it looks!
Gränna on the shores of Lake Vättern was our next destination. Another sunny Swedish ride south was going well. We were about three or four kilometres from Gränna when my bike began to feel a bit funny. It that a weave I can feel? My mind fleeted back to the wee mark that Dad had noticed in my rear tyre at the Finland/Russia border. A handful of throttle confirmed that yes, there was a weave under acceleration. The slip road to Gränna was just up ahead. I gingerly went round the corner, a wee squirt of gas and the back end slid out. Aye, the back tyre was fucked.
Upon inspection we discovered a gash like The Joker’s smile right in the middle of my tyre. “Don’t worry” I said to Dad. I have “Honda European Assistance.” I was going to be proven wrong.
Long story short, Honda European Assistance didn’t assist. We waited at the side of the road for over five hours. The real frustrating thing was some local bikers had told us there was a shop 30 kilometres down the road in Jönköping that would have a tyre to fit. If I’d been assisted within the 90 minute timescale I was told I would be, we’d have been back on the road in no time. Anyway, the recovery truck arrived. Honda Assistance hadn’t given them any instruction or came up with a solution, so the guy took us to the campsite in Jönköping, the idea being if the local bike shop had a tyre we could get going the following morning. A group of young German’s were also at the campsite with their own bikes. When the seen me shoving the Africa Twin in with the flat rear tyre they brought a couple of beers over for Dad and I. Great guys!
Unfortunately the only shop that was open on Saturday morning had no tyre. Honda Assistance didn’t know where the Honda dealers were, or even where I would get a tyre and suggested I just wait in Jönköping till I could get a tyre on Monday. I explained to them that I had to get a ferry from Ijmuiden on Tuesday and told them to keep trying to find somewhere that stocked a tyre. I had put a post up on the Africa Twin facebook group asking if anyone knew where I would get a tyre on a Saturday in Sweden. I had a reply! Björn was just a couple of hours along the road from Jönköping near Gothenburg. He had a tyre I could have, all I had to do was get to his house. Perfect! I gave Honda Assistance a call to tell them the good news. Unfortunately they didn’t want to give me or my bike a lift to Björn’s place. Instead their solution was to fly me home, send the bike somewhere to get a new tyre, then fly me back to get the bike. Instead, Björn, a guy who I’ve never met before in my life, took a four hour round trip to bring me the tyre. He even brought all his tools and fitted it for me too. It’s people like Björn who keep my faith in humanity and the biker spirit alive. Dad and I had made sure the old tyre was off for Björn arriving, so once we were all cleaned up we set off. I was absolutely buzzing. Thanks to Björn I would make my ferry. Don’t get me wrong, I was still loving the trip, but I was also looking forwards to getting home and certainly didn’t want to be flying about all over the shop to collect my bike.
We arrived back in Maribo at around 8 that night. It had been a great place on the way out and it was on our route back. What a greeting we got. There was a big Jazz festival on and people everywhere. They gathered round the bikes asking where we’d been and where we were going. The lady that ran the campsite gave us a discount and we camped in her overspill area beside a bunch of Dutch folk who were on their way home after a crazy car trip in a Wartburg and a Volvo estate with a huge loudspeaker on the roof.
We decided we’d push on and try and spend our last couple of nights somewhere in the north of Holland. It started to rain as I took the tent down which stayed with us on the short ride to the ferry. I paid for our tickets and we went on. The lady directed us to lane one on the far left, dad was in the right hand lane so I shouted “Lane one!” over to him as I rode past.
I heard a big crash from behind me and the horrible noise of metal sliding up the road. In the mirror I could see dad sliding up the road with his bike on top of him.
By the time I rushed back he was already up which I took to be a good sign. He said he was OK, so I got the bike up. He hadn’t seen the raised metal divider between the lanes. As he cut across the bike went down on its left hand side. I picked it up expecting smashed plastics and broken levers. There wasn’t a scratch. Even the Touratech crash bars and Bumot panniers that had taken the brunt of the impact only had minor scratches. The only thing that looked bad was a few scuffs on the hand guard. I pushed his bike up behind mine. Dad only had a few seconds to get his shit together before the ferry staff were shouting at us to ride on board. On the boat we had a better chance to inspect the bike. Dad said his front brake wasn’t feeling right and he had a bad limp. We found a seat, Dad was looking pretty pale. A coffee and a rest as we sailed to Germany got him feeling much better. Off the boat we rode down the road for a bit before pulling over, something definitely wasn’t right with Dad’s front brake. We had a good look over it at a petrol station. The brake disk must have caught the metal divider Dad had slipped on. It was pretty badly warped. We had two options. Phone Honda Assistance to see if they’d recover the bike, or keep going at an easy pace. By the time we pulled in for fuel somewhere in the north of Holland it was pretty obvious Dad was toiling. Asking around, we were told that Sneek (pronounced Snake) was a great little town and only five kilometres down the road. We headed along and found a hotel. Dad’s ankle had swollen right up and he was walking about like a cross between John Wayne and the Elephant Man. We got a taxi into town for a pizza before walking/hobbling round the corner to Café Cheers, a pub playing some good music. Everyone turned to look at us as we walked in and I’m sure the music nearly stopped. 15 minutes later we’re being treated like locals. Albert the owner was chatting away while Jacky the barmaid gets a stool and an icepack for Dad’s ankle. Over several beers many thing were discussed, one topic was our accommodation for the following night. Sneek was full apart from one hotel that was charging 160 euro a night. Jacky came up with a solution. Her aunt had a room which she let out. A quick call confirmed that the room was free so that was that. Two nights in Sneek.
We rode across town for a brief visit to Café Cheers for a coffee while we waited for Patricia, Jacky’s aunt, to come home from work. She just lived round the corner and even had a space in her garden for the bikes. We chilled out in Patricia’s garden for a bit before she gave us a lift back to Cheers. We had been invited to their barbecue that evening, a popular eat what you want, pay what you want event they do most weeks. I went for a wee wander to sample Holland’s, ahem, herbal side before floating back to Cheers. Sneek really is a beautiful town. It a popular place and worth a visit, a sort of mini Amsterdam but without loads of tourists and a red light district.
A long lie was followed by another visit to Café Cheers for breakfast. We thanked Albert and the Staff for their hospitality. They really had helped us feel great after Dad’s wee fall.
Two hours later we were at Ijmuiden in the que for a ferry.
Want to ride to Russia?
How long to take off work?
If you’d just like to do Lofoten and Nordkapp you could do it in two weeks from Calais assuming you ride six to seven hours each day. Add an extra week if you want to come back via Russia. We took 25 days including the overnight ferry. This gave us time to have three two night stops.
How much will it cost?
Scandinavia is expensive, there’s no getting away from it. I’d say a bare minimum budget will be £1500, not including the cost of getting to the continent. This is assuming you’ll camp the whole way and occasionally wild camp. Plus you’ll burn through a pair of tyres and you’ll need to make sure your bike has had a service. £2000 spending/fuel money per person would give you some more luxurious options such as Hytte accommodation and an occasional meal out, plus a wild night and a good hotel in Russia.
To get around all the different currencies we used a pre-paid travel card. We went for the Revolut card (https://revolut.com/) as it gave the best exchange rates with no fees. Once set up, it’s easily topped up from an app on your phone. The only downside was it didn’t work at pay-at-the-pump fuel stops, which is all they seem to have in Sweden. You can pay by card pretty much everywhere in Scandinavia and North West Russia. I’d still advise on carrying some local currency, even if it’s just a small amount.
How to get there?
As there’s no longer a ferry from anywhere on the UK to Norway you’re options are either the crossings around Dover, the ferries from Hull or the Newcastle to Ijmuiden ferry that we used. We rode up to Norway through Denmark and Sweden taking the ferry from Puttgarden to Rødby then crossing the Øresund Bridge. Your other option would be one of the ferries to Norway from Hirtshals in the North of Denmark. Whichever way you go it’ll be around 5000 miles. Our trip was just under 5500.
When to go?
For visiting Nordkapp by bike, the best time is the end of June, July and the start of August. It can still be very cold and wet up there, even in “summer.” It doesn’t get dark so remember your eye mask.
What Documents do I need?
The usual documents like passport, V5 and insurance documents for the bike. We were advised to get an international driving permit for going in and out of Russia, although we were never required to show it. Carry a high viz for you and your pillion. If going to Russia you should buy insurance at the border, or if they don’t sell it there you should get it at the next town or petrol station. Look for “страхование”. We never had to show our document but were warned if we were stopped and never had one, our bikes could be impounded.
If your bike has a tank range under 160 miles I would advise carrying a few extra litres of fuel when in the far north or in Russia. In Norway, Sweden and Finland there are obvious signs telling you how far away the next fuel is.
Getting a Russian Visa is pretty straight forward. First you need to get your invitation. This can be bought online for around a tenner. You have to make sure you get an AUTO TOURISM visa for you and your bike. Next, go to http://ru.vfsglobal.co.uk/online_application_form.html and fill in the online application. Make sure all you passport numbers and any other detail is spot on. You’ll the have to go to a Russian Visa Application Centre. There’s one in London, one in Manchester and one just up the road from me in Edinburgh. If there’s any mistakes on you application or invitation you’ll be sent away. You will need to take your passport and all your bike documentation, although they only checked the V5 when we went. If all is good then your fingerprints will be taken and you’ll pay for your visa. They keep your passport as the visa is put on one of the pages. You can have it posted out to you by courier for £20 but we chose to pick it up. The cost for the visa was about £110 for me and my bike.
We both rode 2016 manual Honda Africa Twins. Both bikes were fitted with Honda’s high screen and recently upgraded heated grips. Both which worked well, especially up at Nordkapp. Both bikes were fitted with Touratech upper crash bars. My bike had Touratech Zega Mundo Panniers. Dad’s bike had Bumot panniers. Compared with the Touratech boxes they have the edge in terms of build quality, but they were a wee bit more expensive and don’t sit on the bike as well as the Zegas, especially if you take a pillion. My bike was also fitted with a Booster Plug, giving it a bit more tractability further down the rev range. We both ran Continental Trail Attack 2 tyres which were great wet or dry. We both ran Scottoiler systems which worked faultlessly.
I wore a Halvarssons Prime jacket. This is a great piece of kit. Warm enough for Nordkapp while just being ventilated enough to keep the hot days bearable. My TCX X- Desert Goretex boots kept my feet dry, but my toes were cold in the far north. Alpinestars 365 gloves were about the same in performance as my boots. I’ve been told not to use heated grips with Goretex gloves, but that all goes out the window when its 5 degrees, pishing doon and blowing a gale. My grips were on high and my hands were toasty. Last up was my old BMW Leatherguard trousers. Not the most stylish option out there but they keep you warm and dry. I also ride with a Forcefield Blade back protector. It’s nice and comfortable, if a bit sweaty.
Want to tour Scotland with Mike? Give him a shout at Passing Places Tours!