Friday, 26 February 2016

A Little Walk to the Top of the World

Chris Raven on the Knivskjellodden trail. (Photo © Simon Raven)
Sparking up their Vauxhall Corsa hatchback the Raven brothers drive to the top of Norway with a mission to walk the Knivskjellodden trail. 

By Chris Raven

I've always been intrigued to find out what lies at the very top of Norway, 500 miles beyond the Arctic Circle and at the very top of northern Europe. So, here I am with my brother, Simon, at the start of the Knivskjellodden trail, waiting patiently for an Arctic storm to pass by. The radio in the small $500 hatchback that we've driven up here from England isn't working. Instead we occupy ourselves by munching on stale custard creams and reading the information on the back of a bottle of suntan lotion.

Mission: To walk the Knivskjellodden trail (18km return – starting point just off Highway E69 before Nordkapp entrance toll).

Location: Mager√łya Island, Finnmark, North Cape, Norway – 3,330 km from London – 500 miles north of the Arctic Circle and 1,306.3 miles from the North Pole – 71°11’08″ latitude.

Fellow adventurers joining the mission: Simon Raven (my long-haired brother - a passionate explorer with exceptionally long piano fingers).

Arctic Experience: A little (I once built an igloo in the garden when I was seven).

Clothing & equipment: Scarf, hooded top, walking boots, gloves, binoculars, umbrella and one dollar plastic ponchos (forgot to bring a waterproof coat).

Risk factor: Medium/high (may trip over rock, stray off trail, fall off a cliff or get eaten by a reindeer).

Reindeers on the move. (Photo © Chris Raven)
With the worst of the Arctic storm over, we collapse out of the car and inhale the fresh polar air. With the thick mist rapidly clearing, we look in the direction of the North Cape Plateau over a flat, barren, boulder-littered tundra. It’s 6:00am, and it’s not as cold as you might think considering we’re in the Arctic, approximately 5°C. Fearing the storm might return we throw on some warm clothes, remembering the wise words of a mature Swedish gentleman we'd met a few days ago. "There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing." According to our guidebook, the Knivskjellodden trail will lead us to roughly 1,500 metres further north than the supposed Nordkapp latitude, saving us both money on the overpriced entry fee to visit the Nordkapp tourist centre and placing us at the true northerly point of Europe. Crossing the car park, we find the start of the trail and make our way across the flat, spongy, treeless tundra with its sharp craggy rocks and boggy puddles. We drift off the trail at various points and stumble across areas of land still covered in snow. Struggling to see the orange markers painted on rocks through the mist, we're forced to backtrack in a bid not to lose our way in this inhospitable terrain.

Danger of getting lost: Mist making the hike extremely difficult. (Photo © Simon Raven)
After an hour or so, we begin to make our descent down to sea level. The mist has completely lifted now, and the views of the deep blue waters of the Barents Sea and the eerie black cliffs of North Cape are clearly visible. With the temperature slowly rising, we begin to see the presence of more wildlife, and a herd of a dozen reindeer’s pass by with a couple of young fawns hugging their mother’s side. A dotterel sings a warning call at us from a rock feet away from the trail, and we're astonished how unthreatened it is by our presence. A skua swoops overhead and crash lands on a small blue glistening pond to our left. The Arctic seabird flaps its wings and dips its head under the water before going airborne again and disappearing over the hills. We seem to be the only people on the trail and, sucking in a lungful of air, we enjoy the notion that we're possibly two of a very small number of humans enjoying the countryside all the way up here in the Arctic.

Amazing views of the Barents Sea. (Photo © Chris Raven)
The clouds overhead begin to look menacing again, casting shadows over the landscape. It feels eerie and prehistoric. The orange arrows keep us marching in the right direction and, scrambling down a steep slope, we finally make it to the open sea. A massive white-tailed eagle launches itself off a jagged ridge in the cliff face, and we stand in awe and watch this giant bird of prey circle overhead and glide on the air thermals. Making our way cautiously over deep crevices, we eventually arrive at the bottom of the cliffs, and scramble over more boulders to the left of the headland until we reach the furthest point north. Breathless, we watch as a cormorant skims the ocean and seagulls cry out as they glide past. It feels like we’re the last humans on the planet. 
  “Look over there!” Si smiles. 
 In the distance I see a round pink buoy and a spike with a yellow ball stuck on top of a concrete plinth. It's the finish line of our trek, marking the furthest point north. Looking out across the Arctic Ocean, as the waves swell and crash against the cliffs, I smile at where we are on the map. Iceland is a long way south of here. We're closer in latitude now to Greenland and Alaska. The island of Svalbard is the next big land mass before you reach the North Pole, and I feel privileged to be able to stand here with Simon and experience this amazing Peninsula; just as the great English explorer Richard Chancellor may have done when he passed by this exact point in 1553 as he went in search of the Northeast Passage.

Marking the furthest point north. (Photo © Chris Raven)

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