A journey into the raw beauty of the Arctic circle in Lofoten - by Simon Revingon
The plane crests gently left and I look out at a cragged, scarred black and white landscape. Beneath me, huge boulders of dark stone, draped in thick blankets of snow with jagged patterns cut deep by ancient glaciers. My eyes trace the enormous sloping lines which tear their way through the snow covered earth. Towering peaks shelter frozen lakes from the sun and candyfloss white clouds hang in a crisp Arctic sky. This is quite a welcome and unlike any landscape I’ve ever seen before, an electric thrill of anticipation jolts through me.
I am visiting Norway’s Lofoten Islands, located in the Arctic Circle and known as one of the world’s most naturally beautiful, unspoiled places. The country recently voted to block explorative oil drilling in this vast, pristine wilderness and having followed the story with interest, I can’t wait to experience the area’s rugged beauty.
For this trip I am travelling with my wife, master navigator and fellow travel addict. Our plane lands spectacularly, skidding to an unsteady stop on the runway, a cold blast of ice screaming into the early morning air. We head south from Tromsø, first collecting the campervan that will be our home for the next two weeks then setting out for Bardufoss. I struggle to keep my eyes on the road as it curls and dips around corners and fjords, each bend bringing picture perfect postcard views. We find our first camping spot for the night and before darkness falls I push out up into the hills to start exploring the stunning scenery.
Donning snow boots, jacket and beanie, I tackle the peak on the far side of the valley, my feet crunching over a thick carpet of snow. Deer tracks zig-zag through the wintery landscape and the peaceful quiet is only interrupted by the occasional snow pile falling lazily from the spruce trees lining my path. The scenery is breath-taking and for all its reputation for hardship, not to mention the biting cold wind cutting relentlessly through my jacket, I can’t help but be stunned by the sheer wonder of this Arctic wilderness.
An early start the next morning as we set out for the Lofoten Islands, driving through a brilliant white wonderland, the wind whipping relentlessly across the bare land. Screaming, it skims the hard packed snow that covers the roads. As we cross our first bridge, leaving the frozen mainland behind, a surreal view unfolds before us, so unique I’m stunned. Turquoise waters, clean and bright, dazzle below us under the soft sunshine like some Mediterranean paradise mistakenly wrapped in the icy depths of winter. Through the cracked snow, vivid colours scream out, the pristine water so clear you can see the bottom.
We round another bend and suddenly grand, ragged peaks crowd my view. They reach up into a bright blue sky basking in the gentle afternoon sunlight, the entire landscape bathed in its warm orange glow. I feel like we’ve arrived in Valhalla and begin to understand the inspiration behind the Nordic legends I’ve read.
We make camp in Hammerstad and our host is generous with her time. She tells us about the long winter the country is just now emerging from, blinking into the sunshine after months lived in near constant darkness. We camp right up against the fjord, its banks offering a front row seat to the two ice capped summits standing guard over our van, immovable and protective.
In the morning, brilliant sunshine as two Arctic swans swim elegantly downstream. Revived by cups of scalding hot coffee we continue through this magnificent landscape towards Svolvær, an historic fishing town that clings to the coastline. The town is the jumping off point for visiting the iconic Trollfjord area and we head out onto the open water of the fjords by boat, the glacial wind cutting into hands and slapping our faces. I have never experienced such unrelenting cold and am immediately happy that we are wearing jumpsuits and goggles. Far from land, looking out across the water as steep-sided mountains disappear into the tumultuous dark blue waves below, it is easy to lose yourself to the brilliant wilderness of this landscape. A place removed from time, it is as peaceful as any I have known.
Still enthralled by the beauty of our trip through the fjord we set off to the even more remote town of Hov Gård on the island of Gimsøy. We follow long, straight roads in the pale light of early evening, the sun-washed sky a glowing palette of pink and pastel orange.
We’ve been told by many of the people we’ve met along the way that Hov is one of the best spots to see the northern lights. Looking skywards from the beach I’m not overly optimistic as clouds roll in and the sun sets, swamping the sky in a thick, swirling grey blanket.
But the wind changes direction. Suddenly patches of sky become visible and the patches soon become swathes until, like some unseen hand removing a blanket, the sky abruptly reveals its hidden treasures. Stars sparkle brightly against a inky dark sky. And then it begins, the world’s oldest, most dazzling lightshow.
The first, faint glimmers of green flicker across the sky. A figment of our overeager imagination or Aurora’s whispers? Growing bolder, the lights dance and tease above us, shimmering across the sky’s carefully laid stage. On cue, a crescendo, the unheard music peaking, light bursting and racing breathlessly through the sky. Brilliant green flashes through the night sky in perfect waves of light that ripple across the darkness. Reflected nakedly in the water below, the light is graceful and ethereal, breathtaking in its reckless beauty.
The next morning sees an early start as we embark on horseback from Hov, climbing the steep, slippery mountain paths. Our Nordic horses expertly navigate their way over the icy rocks, slick with melting snow. The occasional snort the only signs of mild annoyance at having to listen to the awkward commands of such an inexpert rider. Some wannabe Arctic cowboy. On horseback the countryside seems wilder, as though you’re connected with a past long gone but which still echoes across its untamed landscapes.
Everywhere there are signs of the past, from fishing towns that grasp limpet-like to the jagged shoreline to the racks called ‘Hjell’ that dot the hills. Their precious white gold haul still the lifeblood of these towns and for so long the engine room of the country’s economy. So many still depend on the powerful cod that spawn in the waters here each year. As we ride, tiny fishing boats bob up and down on the dark blue waves as they head out to open sea, retracing a journey taken thousands of times before.
We leave Hov on icy roads and in bright sunshine as we head towards Unstad, a remote town that has become renowned for its surfing beaches. The chance to surf in the Arctic is not one I’m going to miss and I’m thrilled when Oscar, the surf guide, says that the weather is perfect for a session. He is all enthusiasm as we strap boards to the top of the van and head out in search of waves.
Ice and snow cover the beach and as I step out of the van to collect my board, I’m immediately aware that my wetsuit is probably not much of a match for temperatures well below zero. No matter, excitement and anticipation will have to make up for it. I start the slippery walk across clear ice, my surf boots offering no grip on the frozen path. Oscar is already far ahead of me, bounding excitedly down the beach, seemingly oblivious to the biting wind and snow-capped peaks that surround us.
A moment of surreal clarity; I’m about to surf in the Arctic. I cross a small inlet, my feet cracking ice underfoot, and finally I’m on the beach. After a brief introduction on what to expect, we’re off into the water.
I try to get it over with quickly, plunging determinedly ahead, expecting a bracing, roaring cold to wash over my body. Instead the water feels refreshing, crisp and exquisitely clean. The feeling is a visceral jolt, like an electric current pulsing through my body. I am alive. Vividly alive. The waves roll in endlessly, and I rise and fall, waiting. Biding my time and watching the half dozen other surfers drift and work.
I turn my board, a half glance behind me confirming my hunch that the next wave offers everything I’m looking for. Furious paddling. I fight the water for momentum, the swell rising underneath me. I feel the board lift, the Arctic waters carrying me like a piece of aimless driftwood. I pop up off the board, pivoting my feet and turning to take control of my momentum. For a second, complete freedom. I’m suspended in time, the world on a string as my board crests the wave. And then it is over as I plunge back to Earth into the pristine winter water below, wiping into rumbling white chaos as control deserts me. Thrilled, excited and stunned, I paddle immediately back out to deeper waters seeking the high of adrenaline fuelled thrill.
Having driven back to Tromsø we drop the van off and spend our last night in a hotel overlooking the harbour. The feeling of a solid bed and room service are a million miles from where we’ve come. As we pack and I look back over the time we’ve spent in Lofoten I’m struck by how untouched and exciting the world has seemed. I desperately hope that the islands will remain as they are, protected, wild and untameable. They will stay with me always.