A Lappish journey

From fjord to fell, and back again. And in between: the finest waffles in all of northern Sweden. The calorie reload was truly deserved: anyone who thinks that the plateaux of the SwedishNorwegian fell landscape are in cycling terms genuinely flat is very much wide of the mark. Up hill and down dale, over stick and stone, and all the time at constant risk of the severe consequences that can arise from being distracted either by the breathtaking panoramas all around … or by the roaming reindeer herds.

The deep north

It was too good an opportunity to miss. Our friends Edgar and Roby, formerly wardens at the Hochmölbing hut in Austria’s Totes Gebirge, own a second hut in Kiruna, Sweden. (It’s generally described in our friendship circle as “their Hütten-Gspusi”, or less neatly in English: “their hut that is their ‘bit on the side’ ”.) And we had been invited to pay a visit and spend two weeks riding around the Swedish-Norwegian border. Here, where the Kungsleden and the Nordkalotten trails meet. Where salmon and reindeer wish each other good night and where on warm summer days swarms of airborne creatures bite you mad.

Of midges and other pests

We have no problem with these little monsters at the airport, but half an hour later, we get out of the car in a marshy area by the river Torne and: boom!, we can scarcely see, let alone take a breath. But all we need to do is take a couple of brisk steps and we’re free from their torments. When I ask whether it’s possible to get used to them, the answer isn’t what we’d hoped: “Sure, in a couple of years”. Great. Should we have a bike adventure or simply jump on the next plane home?

We’ve decided to take the first option, and have retreated into the hut with a couple of polar bears, i.e. Isbjørn, a beer that is named after the local apex predator (literally “ice bear” in Norwegian). The bikes are still somewhere in central Sweden. Our Edgar and Robi are bringing a new kitchen and are covering the 3700 km from Ennstal in Styria in their car. If Robi hadn’t filled up with petrol instead of diesel, somewhere near Gothenburg, they would also be enjoying cool blond polar bears by the campfire. But rescuing an engine at the weekend in Sweden doesn’t really happen. So the bikes have got two days off and are enjoying the fine trails in the south and we’ve got some time to get to know the area directly around Kiruna a little more closely. Always in the company of thousands of those midges.

Bikes ahoy!

Finally our bikes arrive, and it’s not long before we’re pedalling out into the wilderness. Edgar has made good use of the enforced break and worked out a welldefined plan of action. We listen carefully, and understand not a word. The Sami placenames are hard enough to grasp in written form; understanding them via Edgar’s excited voice just doesn’t happen. But we get the gist of it: pack, sit, ride.

Because the weather also seems to have found the plan hard to understand, we decide to shift our base camp to Norway. Southeast of Narvik a warm hostel/campsite near Ballangen is waiting for us. The perfect starting point for rides around the Narvik fjord.

Water power to the rescue

Savage granite slopes from summit to fjord. Every MTB rider’s dream. But first they need to be climbed. We follow a gravel road along the Sorela river up through the nature reserve, passing one spectacular waterfall after another. Much beholding of our surroundings constantly takes our eyes off the road, at some risk to ourselves.

Hooray for hydroelectric power! A service road for a pumpedstorage power station deep in the Norwegian fell terrain gives us an easy route towards the Reinnefjellet. At a small lake we take a scarcely discernible path heading west, i.e. towards Newfoundland. It’s very obscure. Normally we rely on Edgar for navigation, because he’s a human compass. But he’s also very shortsighted, so now he rides at the back: we want to get to the summit today.

First summit conquered

We’re riding on granite, and the trail soon disappears completely. Our human compass starts to deploy his skills; we urbanites prefer to pull out a GPS to show us the most direct route to the summit. The last metres of ascent need to be covered on foot, so we leave our bikes while we finish the job.

Photo, some brief poetry for the summit book that sits in a steel case attached to the rock, ritual kisses left and right (we’re Austrians) and back to our lonely bikes. Now it’s time for some granitesurfing. As we ride over the grey armoured side of the Reinnefjellet down to the fjord we almost feel like we’re floating, although it’s not without effort. A few hours and many fine experiences later, we cross a bridge over the fjord and it’s a hard right, first building on the left, hot stove, good mood, hunger, polar bears …

Transalp, Swedish-style

From Norway to Abisko in Sweden. Past the Reinnefjellet, further east, and a gentle but constant climb takes us towards the Swedish border. Even though the ride is fairly plain, we are soon transfixed by the vast cliffs that surround us. The terrain is gentle with us. This, however, turns out to be the calm before the storm – as is so often the case.

Shortly before a hut which is a) the last hut this side of the border with Sweden, and b) has a completely unpronounceable name, the path gets trickier, the obstacles more challenging, and we need to start concentrating a lot harder. We’re starting to flag, but we reach the Cunoja´vri Hut (would you like to try saying that, in a Sami accent?) just in time. We point at tea, at coffee, at cakes and make hungry expressions; this works well enough.

A sauna on every corner

Soon we’re riding along Lake Cunojärvi, genuinely struggling through the numerous small streams and battling with some exceptionally demanding technical sections. Feeling like noble knights of the pedal, we vanquish all comers to successfully reach the Swedish border. Half an hour later our quest is over: we’re at the Unna Allakas hostel, where beds are waiting.

Cooking, drying clothes, drying people, eating, polar bears, sauna and sleeping … Real luxury: even here in the middle of nowhere this very basic hostel has its sauna. After two or three blasts of heat, interspersed by streaking sessions in the fresh air, we collapse into our beds.

The next day starts early, for the 45 km ride to Abisko isn’t something to be taken lightly. We immediately start repeatedly encountering narrow plank bridges, deep fords, and sections where we have no choice but to get off and push. Good morning Sweden! At least it gets our circulation going… We encounter very few people, but often have reindeer crossing our path. We think of an alarming video we’ve all seen, where an MTB rider in South Africa is rammed by a springbok. Fortunately, with a ride as exciting as this there’s little time for the mind to wander. And look, here’s another stream to cross!

In the early afternoon we reach the Abiskojaure inn and like wild animals we pounce on the food that’s brought to us. After our wellearned break, we start out on the first stage of the famous Kungsleden longdistance path towards our goal: Abisko.

Lofoten, here we come

Meanwhile, the weather has caught up with us and the rain is really starting to make its presence felt. A quick glance at the map together with the weather forecast and it’s clear that we’re going to be visiting the Lofoten archipelago. From previous visits we know a gorgeous place to stay near Kabelvåg that’s owned by old friends of ours, so we make a reservation. The wood stove will be lit before we arrive… The managers, Maren and Seth, know how to make sure that it’s somewhere good to put your feet up and feel comfortable. The cold, wet weather had really taken it out of us; this was going to be just what we needed.

Drinks on the rocks

The next day begins gently, with a dayride up above Henningsvær, to the Festvågtinden. When we reach the top we encounter a vast array of electricity generators, cables and loudspeaker cabinets. When the soundcheck starts up, the thumping bass almost blasts us off the summit. We discover that Sondre Justad, a Norwegian singersongwriter, has a concert planned for today.

The views over the island village of Henningsvær are oneofakind and fill us with desire. Desire for more Lofoten, more islands, more summits, more polar bears, more trails, more granite, more days of holiday.

North of the sun

Back at the hostel Peer, the owner, introduces us to the intricacies of the Norwegian taxation system, with a focus on regulations pertaining to the production of beer. In summary: it’s not financially viable to make beer solely for sale within the brewer’s hotel/hostel. For this reason, Peer gives this amazing craft beer away free of charge. Because the barrel only has a few litres left in it, we’ve helped out with some brewing work, and the season is almost over, we’re allowed to drink the barrel dry.

We wake up the next day feeling wellfed and wellrested, and head to the west of the archipelago. Not far away lies a rather inaccessible beach where a few years ago two Norwegian guys spent a winter surfing. Using the driftwood and rubbish that washes up on the shore every day, they built themselves a shack to live in. They’d only planned to stay a few days, but the days turned into weeks, the weeks turned into months. A video, “North of the sun”, tells the amazing story. The junkcabin, and a giant swing they also constructed, remain to this day. And it’s situated at the foot of the mountain that is our destination for today. Even though the ride down to the beach is more than tricky, there’s no way we can miss this iconic site.

We continued to rattle over all the rideable mountains in the area, enjoy free (and potent) beer, ate great food with Maren, Seth and Peer, hunted polar bears in the supermarket, listened to more summit music (this time from down in the valley), jumped out of the sauna into the pitchblack fjord, until one day we had to face up to the fact that our time here at the end of the earth was drawing to a close. We’ll be back, no question. Norge vi ses!