Norway’s 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, however, was not to sightsee so much as to find the quickest route to get from point A to point B: A being Hammerfest, the northernmost city in the world and B; Honningsvåg, the other northernmost city in the world. These two compete for the honour and 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 had been exploring Finnmark, Norway's most northerly county, about 1,000 kilometers above the Arctic circle. The last few days, I had travelled from Alta through Skaidi to Hammerfest. Now, Honningsvåg, or more correctly North Cape, was my destination. It was a bit of a drive. It included a few hours backtracking, so I was happy to discover I could take the much shorter and even more scenic sea-route. After establishing that the Coastal Express also served as local transport, and that I could take the ugly greenish-yellow little Opel Corsa on board, I left Hammerfest bright and early.
This morning, the deck of the Midnatsol contained about 20 seniors: Germans, Americans and a few locals. As I was the only one under 75, I was an attraction and the subject of quite a few minutes of video filming, probably labelled a local curiosity. An elderly German gentleman tried to strike up a conversation when his wife broke in with a determined look. Under no circumstances was she returning home without a troll, she stated. Not a hideous troll, but a friendly one. His face seemed to be saying: Yeah well, with you around the house, who needs a troll?
As I was pondering how the Express could get by with so few passengers, more people swarmed out on deck and into the panorama lounge. After a while, the lounge was full of travellers enjoying their after-breakfast coffees. Better then to go out on deck to wave at the Richard With, the southbound Express, whose passing was announced in three languages as a major event of the morning. When the ships passed one another, each gave off three loud honks. Not much else seemed to be happening.
The only intermediate stop on my route was the fishing village Havøysund, home of Fruholmen, the world’s northernmost lighthouse. Records of extremity abounded up here. At Havøysund, the ship stopped for about 20 minutes, just long enough for a person of average agility to sprint quickly into town, snap a few pictures and run back. I didn't. Instead, I hung about the harbour and attempted a chat with a slightly sinister-looking Russian woman who sold socks, sweaters and assorted woollens from the boot of a car. As soon as she discovered I wasn't buying, she shot me a venomous glance, got in her car, slammed the door shut and lit a cigarette.
I had more luck with a sweet, old local woman who sold her woollens from a picnic table in front of her house. She was happy to talk and told me all about her three dogs. When the daily horde in brightly coloured clothing emerged from the hold for a 20-minute stroll, off they went on their bark fest.
For the rest of the trip to Honningsvåg, I stayed in the lounge, reading yesterday’s news kindly provided per telefax by Good Morning News in Brussels. I was soon joined by a seventy-ish woman with lavender-grey hair, very talkative. I was being my usual anti-social self. Whenever I looked up from the fax news, though, she tried to sneak in a word. I finally gave in and smiled. She immediately began a monologue. Her name was Dora Lee and the pastor from her church back home in Texas had recommended the Coastal Express. Twice widowed, she was the only single one in her tour group. Whenever a man helped her with her bags, she confided, his wife would invariably get jealous, especially those wives who were on their second husbands. Ah, the intricacies of tour groups; they would make such interesting socio-anthropological study projects.
I was beginning to feel sorry for her, when, with a devilish smile, she admitted she just might be looking for husband number three. Those wives apparently had cause for concern. At that moment, Mr. Troll walked by. I don't know what came over me – a little cruel streak perhaps – but I introduced them. Dora Lee licked her lips, beamed like a cat with an extra large bowl of thick cream in front of her, and set off on her mission. Last I saw, he was nodding politely while desperately scanning the room. When he noticed his wife striding purposefully towards them, relief was written all over his face. I guess the troll you know is better, after all. I left before it got ugly.
In Honningsvåg, I had to remain on deck until the tide was high enough for cars to disembark. It was either that or risk a head-on with the quay, followed by an Arctic dip in the sea for me and Corsa. While I waited, I watched the stevedores unloading cargo, running forklifts and swearing like it was going out of style. Meanwhile, the seniors got on excursion buses to go to North Cape.
Finally I took off for the 31-kilometer trip. The road up to the Cape was gorgeous. Tall peaks pierced dove-grey clouds and cerulean lakes shimmered at the bottom of sheer drops. Then there were alluvial plains, an almost lunar landscape and wide open spaces. Cairns were built all over the place, even though signs asked us to leave the rocks alone. The Arctic nature is incredibly fragile and removing stones to build cairns leaves lasting traces. Yet, all over the Norwegian Arctic, I had noticed this incessant need for people to leave their mark.
Why do people build cairns? To immortalise their travels in some small way? To say, like Kilroy, I was here? Some cairns were small and modest; others potent and commanding. Could it be the anthropomorphic qualities of cairns; Did they perhaps represent their builders? I noticed two brawny cyclists I had passed several times along the way north. I wondered idly if they were among the perpetrators.
Not another soul was in sight for a while. I amused myself driving on the British side of the road. Soon I switched from lane to lane, like an arcade game. As I approached the North Cape plateau, fog quickly set in and visibility changed to a few metres. Arriving at the gate of the North Cape Hall, I paid a shocking entrance fee of 175 kroner (it's an even steeper 195 kroner in 2007), and tried to dodge the rain while running indoors.
When I learned that the entrance fee included a contribution to preserve the delicate Arctic nature, I felt better. So much better, in fact, that I dished out another 150 kroner to become member number 35598 of the Royal North Cape Club – membership only available by personal appearance. Included is a pin, a certificate and free entrance to the plateau for the rest of my life, though I'm not likely to become a regular visitor here at the end of the world.
Apart from the compulsory café and souvenir shops, the Hall also contained the non-denominational St. Johannes' chapel. For many, being at the edge of the world is a religious experience, so there’s great demand for a quiet place to ponder. Popular for weddings and christenings, the chapel was futuristic, cool and appealing. I was pleased to hear Jan Garbarek’s mellow saxophone on the surround sound system.
The 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. He set off on a journey north. Arriving as the first tourist at the Cape, he said something 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 Philippe 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. They had to ascend the 300-metre steep cliff on foot. As I hadn’t suffered any strenuous climb to get here, I thought it would be appropriate to at least expose myself to a little physical discomfort, so I braced the elements and went outdoors. A virtual gale was running and when I extended my arms, they stayed up without any effort on my part. All by myself out there, I felt pretty tough. I leaned into the wind and looked towards the sky until the icy raindrops stabbing my face began to feel painful. When I reached the lookout by the globe, the symbol of the Cape, there wasn’t much of a view. I rather liked that. A picture perfect day somehow wouldn’t have been right here near the end of the world. It was harsh and rough; yet oddly mystical.
Much as I relished standing there, getting soaked, I had places to go. As I left the Cape, a white reindeer suddenly emerged from the fog. Like an apparition, it crossed the road before me. For a moment, we locked eyes and I suddenly felt an inexpressible joy; some sort of recognition – like waking up from a dream and wanting it back. Then quicker than a flash, it disappeared back into the fog and a sadness, a melancholic longing came over me.
North Cape is often thought to be the northernmost point on the European mainland. Actually – and somewhat disappointingly – it isn’t. Nearby Knivskjellodden is. Tapering gently into the sea, Knivskjellodden has none of the dramatic nature of North Cape and, I suppose, doesn’t give you the same edge-of-the-world experience. I did consider doing the nine-kilometer hike, but I chickened out when I found out it meant another two and a half hours coming back. The drivers of the 20 cars in the nearby car park had no such qualms. They were mostly locals, probably trotting down for an invigorating Arctic dip, then jogging back up and home in time for dinner, a bit of fighting, a quick shag and some heavy-duty all night drinking.
Neither North Cape nor Knivskjellodden are the most northerly points on the European mainland, since they’re both located on the island of Magerøya, connected to the mainland by a nearly seven-kilometer-long sub sea tunnel. The actual northernmost point in Europe is called Kinnarodden.
The excursion buses had departed well ahead of me. As I descended, the fog lifted and the road stretched out forever. No one was about, so I did that arcade game thing again, until a German camper van nearly hit me head-on; a German camper van going faster than the usual two-kilometer per hour, no less. I'd even driven without the seat belt on. It seemed the solitude of my lone drive was making me a little batty.
I made it to Honningsvåg in time to see the Midnatsol pull out. The sweet old ladies were on deck, braving the weather and waving to me yet again, thinking: there's that strange girl in the ugly car again, driving around all on her own. The poor dear probably doesn't have any friends. As I approached the North Cape tunnel, I was beginning to think they might be right.