“Darkness rises from the grave, seeming as limitless as the sky above us,” wrote Peter Hoeg of Greenland in ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’. Here too the dark sky sits very low. Sharing the same latitude as the novel’s setting, the Kiruna region is known as the last untouched wildness in Europe. [PHOTOS ]
I’m above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland. The landscape is kilometer after kilometer after kilometer of fresh, unblemished snow, interrupted on occasion by charcoal-colored wiry tree branches.
It is freezing, -15°C or perhaps lower, and it’s snowing. The cold has a sharp edge that penetrates layers of clothing right through to your bones.
This is a region of extreme weather contrasts. During the summer the sun hardly sets; it shines 24 hours a day for about 50 days with temperatures rising to as much as 30°C. The winters, on the other hand, are very long, with life suspended in Arctic darkness and temperatures dropping to as low as -40°C. This is when the magical northern lights appear.
I’m here to test Volvo cars on ice. The Swedish firm takes pride in its cars’ ability to function under extreme weather conditions. So much so that it started testing its cars in Swedish Lapland as far back as the 1960s.
Today it has both a modern testing facility outside Kiruna and one on a secret site. All new production cars are brought here, put through rigorous tests that include driving 20,000 km on ice test tracks and country roads. Even older models are tested at time to time to ensure standards don’t slip.
Everywhere is drenched in darkness as we set off on our journey late afternoon from Kiruna airport. The car on test is the new XC70 sport-utility-vehicle. It is elegantly styled in the kind of timeless simplicity and unassuming luxury we have come to expect of Scandinavian design. And, it has actual off-road capabilities.
Foot on the gas, we drive slowly taking in the silence of the night on the seemingly endless road towards Narvik in Norway. From time to time a warning sign appears ‘beware of the elks’, ‘beware of the reindeers’.
The journey is made even more surreal as the all-white view gives the illusion that the landscape is flat – not too dissimilar to Chinese paintings where the perspective is such that the image appears two-dimensional.
We turn at Riksgränsen at the signs for our hotel by the same name. It is admittedly basic, a bit like student accommodation with small single or twin bedrooms, and a simple dinning area and bar.
But for those looking for a new take on boutique hotels, there is also a famous ice hotel in Jukkasjarvi where customers literally sleep in sleeping bags on blocks of ice. Although from personal experience, I wouldn’t recommend this for the timid. There is also another spectacular hotel under construction in the Loussavaara Mountain.
Driving on ice
The early morning air is a sharp wake-up call as my driving partner John and I practically slide down the hill towards our car. Once rescued from beneath the fresh heap of snow, we set off on the road to Narvik, the world’s most northerly ice-free port.
We have a long journey ahead that takes us further north and across the border to Norway. Little distinguishes the neighbouring countries. Covered in an even blanket of snow, the two, not always the best of friends, are indeed more similar than they think at this altitude. The Swedes used to look down on the poor Norwegians, viewing them as their lesser neighbour. But then the Norwegians discovered oil, and lots of it, and the rest is history.
We cruise along the main highway, with the only visual distraction being the occasional village and towns, Alta and Bjerkvik, which seems almost devoid of people. Houses are made of wood, which helps with insulation, and are propped on wooden stilts in case of heavy snowfall. The occasional human presence is covered from nose to tail in heavy clothing.
Like much of Sweden and Norway, this is a prosperous region. Up until the 17th Century the indigenous Sami people lived here in relative isolation, feeding off herding reindeer across the country, a trade they still live by today.
Mainland Sweden discovered it by chance when some southern folks came across iron ore of extreme good quality, consisting of almost 100% pure magnetite with an iron content of between 60 and 80%. By 1903 a railway line, Iron Track, had been constructed to transport the iron ore from the mines in Lulea for 475 km to the port of Narvik. The iron has not only helped prosper this region, but it also contributed to the success of the Sweden’s economy.
We stop to take photos of the magnificent formation caused by iced mini waterfall. I spot a reindeer across the road. I catch his eyes for a split second, but he abruptly turns and runs off into the whiteness ahead.
We pass through Gratangsbotn and Tennevoll, carry on around the magnificent Lavangen peninsula, with the Lavengen fjord to the north and the Gratangen fjord to the south.
Lunch is a delicious local feast at the Tinja Fjellgard restaurant in Norway. There are dozens of varieties of salmon to sample, each preserved, cooked or smoked in one fashion or another. The area also offers local lobster, and seafood that tastes as fresh as the sea. Stomachs full we head back to Sweden for some proper winter sports fun.
There is more to Swedish Lapland than reindeer, elks and Father Christmas. By 2012 it will home to the new Virgin Galactic spaceship that will take hyper-wealthy adventurers for a bit of space cruising.
There is also hiking and skiing, though, from what I see, isn’t for the lighthearted. Instead we head to the ice racetrack, an iced up lake, which in the winter months serves as a recreational testing ground.
It is extremely fun testing cars on pure ice. Our four-wheel-drive car has instant traction, which ensures good road grip; hill decent control, which controls the car’s speed when going down steep hills; and dynamic stability and traction control (DSTC) an active safety system which reduces the risk of skidding and helps control the car on ice.
I’m driving with a track expert who promptly turns the DSTC. Admittedly it is even more fun without; you have to trust the car, and your own natural instinct.
We end the day with snow mobile racing on ice. It is pitch black now and the only source of light on the lake is from our vehicle lights. It is also unbearably cold, slivers of ice hitting our faces as we explore the vast lake. In the distance we spot smoke coming out of what looks like a largish tent. Inside is a fire, and bubbling over it a pot of delicious fish soup.
Feet up by the hot fire, I enquire about life in this remote place. “I wouldn’t give it up for the world,” says one of the guides. Yen is tall, stocky, chiselled-jawed and resembles my notion of a Viking. But what do you do for fun, I ask. “There is so much to do here, we teach skiing and snow sports, and in the summer I head down to my beach house in southern Sweden.” Sounds ideal.
Back on the bikes, an aroma of barbequed meat guides us up and up the hill to Lappis, the only restaurant in this vicinity where a huge open fire is slowly roasting up an entire reindeer. Inside is like an Ikea showroom, blond wood, and simple pragmatic design. We are treated to a feast – scrumptious earthy local food. And it is true the cold brings out the beast in you.
“You must come and see the northern lights,” one of the waiters runs in shouting. Being a northern light virgin I rush out into the open air, so excited I leave my coat behind. Oh and it is a magnificent spectacle -- more incredible than I had dared to imagine.
Light emerges as if from nowhere, it glides towards the other batches of lights, whispering colours fade into one another as they do a little dance, and then, poof, they fizzles away. It is like an orchestrated symphony. I lie on the snow staring at the magnificent view. I could stay here forever if it wasn’t for the ice filtering into my bones.
Our return journey to the hotel is back to basics. Handed a plastic tray, the only way down is literally to revisit memories of childhood. Backsides on tray I allow the snow to direct me safely back home. [PHOTOS ]