Norway’s Hurtigruten (Coastal Express) passes through the most stunning scenery as it voyages from Bergen to Kirkenes, next door to Russia’s Kola Peninsula. The entire round trip takes 11 days and is a leisurely way to see the ruggedly beautiful skerries.
My mission this morning, however, is less about sightseeing and more about finding the quickest route from A to B: A being Hammerfest, the northernmost city in the world, and B being Honningsvåg, the other northernmost city in the world.
The two compete for the honour and the local pride that is at stake. If it were just a matter of latitude, Honningsvåg would win, but what constitutes a city? That’s the question.
For a while, I have been exploring Finnmark, Norway’s most northerly county, about 1,000 km above the Arctic Circle. The last few days, I have travelled from Alta through Skaidi to Hammerfest. Now, Honningsvåg, or more correctly North Cape, is my destination. It’s a bit of a road trip, and includes a few hours backtracking.
Then I discover I can take the much shorter and even more scenic sea-route. After establishing that Hurtigruten also serves as local transport, and that I can take my hire car on board, a venom-green little Opel Corsa, I leave Hammerfest bright and early on a fine September morning.
This morning, about 20 seniors are milling about on the deck of the MS Midnatsol (meaning midnight sun): most seem to be Germans and Americans, as well as a few locals. I am the only one under 75, so I become an attraction and the subject of quite a few minutes of video footage, probably labelled a local curiosity. An elderly German gentleman tries to strike up a conversation with me when his wife breaks in with a determined look. Under no circumstance is she returning home without a troll, she states. Not a hideous troll, but a friendly one. His face seems to be saying: Yes well, with you around the house, who needs a troll?
As I am pondering how Hurtigruten can get by with so few passengers, more swarm out on deck and into the panorama lounge. After a while, the lounge is full of travellers enjoying morning coffee.
Bit crowded, so I go back out on deck to see the Richard With, the southbound ship, whose passing is announced in three languages as the major event of the morning. When the north- and southbound ships pass one another, each gives off three loud honks. Not much else seems to be happening.
The only intermediate stop on my route is the fishing village Havøysund, home of Fruholmen, the world’s northernmost lighthouse. Records of extremes abound up here.
At Havøysund, Hurtigruten stops for about 15 minutes, just long enough for someone in pretty good shape to sprint quickly into town, snap a few pics and run back. I don’t.
Instead, I hang about the harbour and attempt a chat with a slightly sinister-looking Russian woman peddling socks, sweaters and assorted woollens from the boot of a car. As soon as she discovers I’m not buying, she gives me a dirty look, gets in the car, slams the door and lights a cigarette.
I have more luck with a sweet, old local woman who sells her woollens from a picnic table in front of her house. She is happy to talk and tells me all about her three dogs. When the daily horde in brightly coloured garb emerges from the hold for their 15-minute stroll, off they go on a bark fest.
For the rest of the journey to Honningsvåg, I remain in the lounge, reading yesterday’s news provided per telefax by Good Morning News in Brussels. I’m soon joined by a seventy-ish woman with lavender hair, very talkative. I’m being my usual anti-social self, burying my head in the faxed news. But she is not easily deterred; whenever I look up, she tries to sneak in a word. I finally give in and smile. She immediately begins a monologue.
Her name is Dora Lee and the pastor from her church back home in Texas recommended Norway and Hurtigruten to her. Twice widowed, she is the only single one in her tour group. Whenever a man offers to help her with her bags, she confides, his wife will invariably get jealous, especially those wives who are on their second husbands. Ah, the intricacies of tour groups; they would be such interesting socio-anthropological projects.
I’m beginning to feel sorry for her, when, with a devilish smile, she admits she just might be looking for husband number three. Those wives apparently have cause for concern.
At that moment, Mr. Troll walks by. I don’t know what comes over me – a little cruel streak perhaps – but I introduce them. Dora Lee licks her lips, beams like a cat with an extra large bowl of thick cream in front of her, and sets off on her mission. Last I see, he is nodding politely while desperately scanning the room. When he notices his wife striding purposefully towards them, relief is written all over his face. I guess, the troll you know… I leave before it gets ugly.
Onwards to North Cape
Bye bye, Midnatsol
In Honningsvåg, I have to remain on deck until the tide is high enough for cars to disembark. It’s either that, or risk a head-on with the quay, followed by an Arctic dip in the sea for me and the Corsa. While I wait, I watch the stevedores unloading cargo, running forklifts and swearing like it’s going out of style. Meanwhile, the seniors get on excursion busses to visit North Cape.
Finally, I can take off for the 31-km drive myself. The road up to the cape is gorgeous. Tall peaks pierce dove-grey clouds and cerulean lakes shimmer at the bottom of sheer drops. Then there’s alluvial plains, an almost lunar landscape and wide-open spaces.
All over the Arctic – all over Norway, actually – I have noticed this incessant need for people to leave their mark. Why is that? To immortalise their travels in some small way? To say, like Kilroy, I was here? Some cairns are small and modest; others potent and commanding. Can it be the anthropomorphic quality of cairns; do they perhaps represent the builders?
Whatever the reason, cairns are all over the place, even though there are plenty of signs asking us to please leave the rocks alone. Nature in the Arctic is incredibly fragile, plants and shrubs grow in the shelter of rocks for protection against the elements. Removing them leaves lasting traces. As if that isn’t enough, it can also be dangerous, even fatal, for hikers who rely on marked stones to find their way, especially in misty weather. So no cairn building, y’hear?
I notice two brawny cyclists I have passed several times along the way north and idly wonder if they are amongst the perpetrators.
Not only cairns along the road
Not another soul is in sight, so I amuse myself driving on the British side of the road. Soon I switch from lane to lane, like an arcade game. As I approach the North Cape plateau, fog quickly sets in and visibility changes to a few metres. Arriving at the gate of the North Cape Hall, I pay a shocking entrance fee of 175 kroner and try to dodge the rain while running indoors.
Learning that the entrance fee includes a contribution to preserve the delicate Arctic nature, I feel better. So much better, in fact, I dish out another 150 kroner to become member no. 35598 of The Royal North Cape Club – membership available by personal appearance only, right here. Included is a pin, a certificate and free entrance to the plateau for the rest of my life. Though I’m hardly likely to become a regular visitor here at the end of the world.
Apart from the ubiquitous café and souvenir shop, the Hall also contains the non-denominational, ecumenical St Johannes Chapel. For many, being at the edge of the world is a near-religious experience, so there’s great demand for a quiet place to ponder, I’m told. Popular for weddings and christenings, the chapel is futuristic, cool and appealing. I’m pleased to hear Jan Garbarek’s mellow saxophone on the surround sound system.
Baptismal font in St Johannes Chapel
Visitors through the ages
North Cape has seen many prominent visitors: The English seafarer, Richard Chancellor, passed by in 1553, looking for the Northeast Passage to China. He is credited as the man behind the name North Cape.
People have lived around North Cape for 10,000 years. In 1664, Francesco Negri, an Italian priest from Ravenna, wanted to investigate how people managed to live in extreme cold, and set off on a journey north. Arriving as the first tourist at the Cape, he said words to this effect:
I’m now standing here at North Cape – at the outermost outpost of civilisation – and I can say that my thirst for knowledge is now quenched. I now depart for home – God willing.
In 1795, French prince Louis Phillippe d’Orleans stopped by. King Oscar II of Sweden was here in 1873 and King Chulalongkorn of Siam visited in 1907. The latter is properly commemorated with a Thai room in the Hall.
They all arrived by boat at this rocky headland and had to ascend the 300-metre steep cliff on foot. As I haven’t suffered any strenuous climb to get here, I’m thinking it would be appropriate to at least expose myself to a little physical discomfort, so I brace the elements and go out the door. A virtual gale is running and when I extend my arms, they stay up without any effort on my part. All by myself out here, I feel pretty tough. Leaning into the wind, I look towards the sky until the icy raindrops stabbing my face become painful.
When I reach the lookout by the globe, the symbol of North Cape, there isn’t much of a view. I rather like that. A picture-perfect day somehow wouldn’t have been right here near the end of the world. It’s harsh and rough, and oddly mystical.
North Cape is often thought to be the northernmost point on the European mainland. Actually – and somewhat disappointingly – it isn’t, as it’s ‘only’ at 71°10′21″N.
47 seconds (and 15 km) further north, at 71°11′08″N, nearby Knivskjellodden gets that honour. Tapering gently into the Barents Sea, Knivskjellodden has none of the dramatic nature of North Cape, and I suppose, doesn’t give you the same edge-of-the-world feel. I consider hiking the nine kilometres from the car park but chicken out when I discover that means two and a half hours round trip.
The drivers of the 20 cars in the carpark (yes, I counted) obviously have no such qualms. Mostly locals, they’re probably trotting down for an invigorating Arctic dip, then jog back up and home in time for dinner, a bit of fighting, a quick shag and some heavy-duty all night drinking.
Now, if you want to get all technical, neither North Cape nor Knivskjellodden are the most northerly points on the European mainland, since they’re both located on an island. Magerøya is connected to the mainland by a nearly seven-km-long sub-sea tunnel. The actual northernmost point on the actual mainland is at 71°8′2″N and called Kinnarodden (Cape Nordkinn).
More extremes: Skarsvåg, the world’s northernmost fishing village, 14 km from North Cape. Population: 60. (And yes, that’s the local post office.)
Much as I relish standing at the plateau, getting soaked, I have places to go, people to see. As I leave the Cape, the fog lifts and a white reindeer suddenly appears. Like an apparition, it crosses the road before me. For a moment, we lock eyes. Then, quicker than a flash, it disappears. I feel a great sense of joy mixed with a curious melancholy; like waking up from a dream and wanting it back.
Leaving the plateau, I notice that the excursion busses have departed. Good! I rather like having the road to myself. No one is about, so I play the lane changing game again, until a German camper van nearly hits me head-on. A German camper van going faster than the usual two km/hr! Have I reached the Twilight Zone at last? Seems the solitude is making me a little batty.
Au revoir, Honningsvåg
I make it to Honningsvåg in time to see the MS Midnatsol pull out. The sweet old folks are on deck, braving the weather and waving to me, probably thinking there’s that strange girl in the ugly car again, driving around on her own. The poor dear can’t have any friends. As I approach the North Cape tunnel, I’m beginning to wonder if they might be right.
This article was first published in Boots’n’All with the title A Lone Drive to North Cape
Update September 2021
You will have noticed this article is from another era. The photos (scanned prints), news by fax on board…
Also, forking over 175 kroner to enter the North Cape Hall doesn’t seem so exorbitant now. (You won’t be surprised to hear the entrance fee has increased – up-to-date prices and opening hours can be found here). Other than that, things remain much the same.