A Trip to the Arctic Circle: the Lofoten archipelago
January 1, 1970
I am on a plane, high above a thick blanket of fluffy white cloud, the red tips of Norwegian’s wings contrasting the absolute blue of the sky. Somewhere to my left, we have just passed Amsterdam, and soon the winding path of the Thames, and the neat patchwork of fields of southern England will once again be visible.
I am returning from a trip to Lofoten, an archipelago off the north west coast of Norway, just inside the arctic circle. It was not my first thought when pondering my next place to go, but with a friend currently living in Oslo, and an idea already in the works, a few conversations later and I was digging out the winter clothes. Whilst not the cheapest of short adventures, the stunning landscapes, marked by short sharp mountainous peak, exceptional weather (lucky doesn’t cover it), and the spectacular dance of the Northern Lights, made it an all-round unforgettable experience, and has left me with feet itching to get to the next place.
The flight from Oslo to Bodo is half the length of the country. The airport in Bodo is small and just a short walk from the town if you have time to kill. Its huge, however, compared to that at Svolvaer, which is basically just a patch of tarmac and a room, where the security all clock off in the hours between departures. It only takes 25 minutes for the little wideroe propeller planes to go from Bodo to Svolvaer, and you get a spectacular view of mountains on one side and sea on the other. There is something about Lofoten sitting at the top of the gulf stream which makes it a bit of an anomaly – from Oslo to Svolvaer it got warmer.
In Svolvaer we picked up a couple of campervans we’d hired through AirBnB. Whilst the VW worked great, the Hymer had a couple of broken windows and a seriously funky smell, but packing 10 of us in between them, they did the job and meant we could explore as much as possible in a short space of time.
Having stocked up with food, we headed slightly north of Svolvaer on the first night and parked up in a picnic spot surrounded by mountains and sea, and a village to the right where the little fishing boats, lit up on the water, looked like floating little houses. We didn’t really want to pay for campsites, so other than stopping for a couple of showers, we just found scenic places to park up as the sun went going down. As long as you’re not blocking any roads or entrances, it’s basically ok to stop anywhere. In mid-October sun-down was about 6 o’clock.
There’s really only one main road through the island, the E10, so getting lost would be difficult. Around Svolvaer we took a scramble up the Svolværgeita, or ‘the goat’, named because the peak looks like horns. With walking boots though you can only get so far -its difficult to walk up in Lofoten as the short rising peaks make it more of a climb, and tricky without the right equipment. As far as we could get though, after a friendly local pointed us to the right gap in the trees, still gave us a great view over svolvaer.
We spent that night parked up on a beach named Hauklandstranda. It was dark when we arrived, with the moon casting a shadow of the mountains across the still sea. Scrambling out of the vans in the morning, however, the view was one of quiet, impressive beauty. It was another sunny day, although with the sun remaining low, there’s a permanent feeling of early morning or late afternoon.
Henningsvaer and Nusford
We headed further down the island, faces pressed to the window as mountains were followed by mountains, and on the horizon appeared almost like a mirage.
We stopped at Henningsvaer and Nusford in those few days. The first is a small fishing village, where although not many wandered the streets, it felt like people lived there throughout the year. Exploring down by the harbour we scrambled around in the rock pools, awed at huge starfish clinging to the rocks where the sea came in.
Nusfjord is one of Norway’s oldest fishing villages, which in the past must have been filled with the stench of from codliver oil production, but now is preserved as a visitors centre with cabins for rent and a few general buildings, all painted in classic reds and yellows. As across the rest of the island, Nusfjord also has the wooden racks used for drying fish. It all gives a sense of what it must be to live in such an isolated place.
Heading on to Reine on the Island of Moskenesøya at the southern end of the archipelago, we’d been told this is where to go for the most beautiful sights of Lofoten – the ones that come up in that pre-trip googling.
You definately need to do some hiking if you want to reach the best views. The view from the top of Reinebringen is truly spectacular.
Be careful as the path is questionable and it’s a very steep accent and descent. It’s only a short climb, just over an hour up and the same down but it does get a bit dodgy and I wouldn’t recommend if it’s really wet – unless of course they have rebuilt the path in which case it may be different.
The Northern Lights
We pulled up that night on the side of the cliff just off the road past Reine. We’d brought wood at the supermarket and there were the remnants of a bonfire by people before us, so we gathered as much wood and kindling as we could from the area and set a fire looking over the sea. Our flickering campfire would have marked a little glowing beacon on the cliff if looking over from Reine. Huddled around the fire, under the light of a full moon, with a guitar being played, it was basically a cliché, something that you see in brochures and often doesn’t accord with reality.
As we sat and watched, a soft green light appeared in the sky. This first sight of the Northern Lights filled us with excitement, but what on an SLR came out as a brilliant green ribbon, was more like a green smudge through our own eyes. No less excited, we watched as the green drifted, faded and returned, wondering whether the images and stories of the aurora were overblown. Yet as our chances of seeing them seemed slim anyway, we were awed nonetheless.
The following night proved our scepticism wrong, and gave us the best possible send off to out brief time in Lofoten. Parked in a picnic spot near Moskenes, distracted and laughing, we weren’t looking for the lights that night, as is often the way – watched pots and all that. But as cars started to pull up around us, we sensed something happening outside, and jumped out to see the aurora in their full, fabled glory, making yesterday’s scene look feeble and near non-existent. This time, the ribbons of green were not just the preserve of camera lenses, as the lights danced before us, infused with pinks and oranges as the leapt and swept over the mountains and sea. It’s a sight quite hard to capture in words. The sky becomes a light show, everywhere moving and changing, as vast sweeping winds of soft green dominate the sky above, and before you the aurora appears to reach down, tantalising, to the earth. It is otherworldly and unforgettable.
When we boarded the ferry back to Bodo on foot at Moskenes the next morning, therefore, it was with a sense of wonder at our luck, and in full respect of what these tiny, isolated islands have to offer. On foot the ferry is just under 200NOK (c. £20), so much cheaper than flying, and only takes about 4 hours, so I’d recommend it. As a foot passenger you also don’t need to worry about booking, just pay as you walk on.
As we waved goodbye to Lofoten, the sun rose in an exquisite blend of pinks and oranges, giving us one last awe inspiring view from this strange, beautiful place at the northern edge of the world.