“When you can scarcely afford to take a two-week holiday from work, you’ve got to be damned sure you don’t waste a single day.”
David Forbes’ nagging concern is pretty common among two-wheel adventure-seekers stuck in an office for too long each year, calculating the age-old equation of time and expense against experience.
So, as he signed off his own precious leave away from the architectural practice he’d started 10 years earlier, he reckoned a camping tour of Scandinavia with a bit of the Baltic tagged on ticked every box.
“I have an ordinary desk job, so the aim was to get out on my bike and do something extraordinary with the average fortnight most people take for their summer holiday.”
Doing 4,500 miles without a GPS and relying solely on an innate sense of direction and a yellowing road atlas would only add to the heightened sense of freedom and doubt.
“I went there to explore the minor roads and gravel tracks. If I needed to get somewhere in the west, I’d head in that general direction and see what turned up, and that was an incredible feeling,” he said.
First stop on a circular route with his new Tiger XCx was Gothenburg in Sweden – an early chance to put the ‘visit a new world in a fortnight’ attempt to the test: “The further north I went, there were few roads, little traffic and lots of wilderness, but the doubt as I pressed on made it even more of an adventure.”
Like all motorcycle adventurers, David drafted a ‘back of an envelope’ checklist on the giant ferry from the UK… to ride the roads around the fjords, cross the Arctic Circle, visit the Baltic using only smaller roads and sail on a commercial boat. One down.
What followed was an unforgettable trip through landscapes that changed as often as five times every day. From arable farmland to snow-capped Alpine plateaux and from glaciers to Alpine valleys and, of course, the fjords.
“There is something about going somewhere so remote and so beautiful on a motorcycle. People are friendly because they know you truly want to be there and you realise that whatever happens, people will always help you out and you’ll be OK,” he said.
“It’s all about using our doubt to give us the energy to just do it.”
Don’t want to waste your holidays in vain? Join David for a taste of his Scandinavian break from the mundane.
After arriving in Gothenburg at dawn, my only plan was to head north, roughly in the right direction. Destination Lillehammer.
The roads meandered through a Scandinavian rural idyll, with timber farmhouses and outbuildings littering the landscape. The day rolled easily by and I was soon entering Norway.
Slowly the scenery became more mountainous than the rolling Swedish hills and by late afternoon I was in Lillehammer, a small town dominated by the ski jumps on the hill overlooking the houses. It’s a pleasant place, but by early evening all of the shops and cafes were closing, so I headed on.
The small town of Dokka is a little further west than Lillehammer and lies on the route I had planned to the fjords, but my search for a free place to camp ended with the realisation that in this area of steep, heavily forested mountainsides, every vaguely open and flat space is inhabited.
Eventually, I just grabbed a space not far from the road where my tent and bike would be out of sight.
Iceland in a day
I awoke with only the fjords on my mind, but my dreams of what they would be like didn’t come anywhere near the reality of their utterly astonishing beauty.
After my shabby overnight spot, Geiranger was the next overnighter, a place I’d chosen purely for the roads in and out of the town. My route slowly climbed up to a 2,000-metre Alpine plateau as the temperature dropped.
Rain fell, but I couldn’t care less. Wide-open space was dotted with small villages, and sheep and goats wandered across the road without a care. As I rounded a corner, grazing right on the edge of the road was a moose. Man they’re big!
I dropped down and the fjords appeared like a vision through the drizzle and low cloud. My travels took me through tunnel after tunnel, some up to about 6km long, and spat me out at one of the ferries that shuttle backwards and forwards across the pristine-looking waters between huge tree-covered mountains.
Up the side of a fjord to Skjolden and up and up I rode into one of the most unique and mind-blowing landscapes I’ve ever seen. Around 2,500 metres high and with snow still covering much of the ground, it left me dumbfounded.
I laughed out loud as I swept along the road, weaving its way up and down, winding its way through the wide-open barren expanse and I remember thinking, ‘this is what Iceland must be like’.
There was no rushing through here. I stopped frequently, despite the low temperatures and constant damp. Around halfway across, I found a skiing and snowmobiling centre, a lovely new building from whose warmth, with a cup of coffee in hand, I watched people out on the snow on skis. In July!
Dark rock rising
The road down through the clouds led to a very Alpine-looking valley; some sunshine and warmth.
Heading vaguely east, the roads became less and less populated and turned into wide-open stretches of tarmac with no one on them, as the surroundings changed from lush green to moorland wilderness.
The surrounding mountains were foreboding, more rocky and less forested. It felt like I was riding into the end of the world, a sensation added to by an enormous mountainside like a huge, slab of slick, dark rock rising vertically in front of me, its top hidden in cloud.
If someone put it in a film, you would simply assume it was CGI and that things like that don’t really exist.
From this ominous junction, the road led straight to Geiranger. When I say straight, I mean anything but! I rode down the steep switchbacks and hairpin bends as altitude rapidly dropped to sea level. I hadn’t realised quite how high up I’d been, but it explained much of the cold, sparse landscape I’d just seen.
The rain and low cloud initially obscured the view of the town, but as I drew closer and the traffic increased, I saw that Geiranger was a busier little town than I’d imagined. I made my way to a small campsite just outside town by the water’s edge. A spectacular setting to end what had been one of the most exciting, surprising and rewarding day’s riding I’ve ever had.
If you’re going to ride one road…
Following my nose north, I rose before anyone else to leave Geiranger and within minutes was at the peak of the mountain looking back. Morning summer sun shone down on a spectacular and beautiful landscape of mountains, plateaux and valleys, the clear air allowing a clarity of vision never experienced in Bristol.
I drank in the view, wanting to remember what I was seeing and the sensation of having this wonderful place to myself, if only for a while.
As I headed roughly north knowing that sooner or later I’d end up in either Trondheim and/or the Swedish border, I took a road that ran along the side of a bright turquoise fjord, heavily laden with minerals washed down from the mountains by the melting snow. Waterfalls cascaded down every rock face, joining other watercourses to form huge rivers gushing down before becoming lost in the mass of the fjord.
The increasing altitude would have been imperceptible but for the cultivated greenery slowly making way for a more rugged and wild landscape. The temperature dropped, despite continuing blue skies and sunshine. Rivers through this wilderness crashed their way through rock-filled beds into frothing rapids. I had come here to experience untamed open spaces and had found them.
The road down from this beautiful spot was bound to be spectacular. I got an idea of just how spectacular when I pulled right over to let a camper van, creeping up the mountain, pass and saw the road ahead carved into the side of an almost vertical cliff.
The road switching back seemed almost directly below me. I gingerly wound my way down the mountainside, waterfalls soaking the road until the relative sanity of hairpins, switchbacks and the valley floor.
I’d just inadvertently ridden the Trollstigen, and I’d only found it because I took a right at a T-junction because it looked nicer – proof that the ‘follow your nose’ method of navigation is better than a satnav.
“Around Trondheim, the road came as a bit of a shock. Busy, multiple-lane modern roads like I had not seen since the UK motorways. Although that had only been a few days ago, it seemed like weeks.
The rural idyll of the south had become widescreen vistas of forested mountains and hills as far as I could see, a situation which only changed with a reduction in the height of the peaks as I crossed the border from Norway back into Sweden.
I was looking for wild camping spots, but was struggling until my Tiger XCx came to the rescue. I found a small disused gravel track and decided to explore. The Tiger ate it up for a kilometre until it became quiet and secluded. I couldn’t hear the road, nobody passed by and I settled in for a good night’s sleep after another long, but hugely satisfying day of riding.
The perfect circle
To the tip of Sweden, land of the midnight sun, and another thing off my checklist as I crossed the Arctic Circle. It was something I had to do and possibly something mainland Europeans take far more for granted than people from the UK and States.
After there it was back down through the middle of Finland, a country whose north is flat, vast and uninhabited and full of reindeer. The first time I saw one it blew my mind, but then as the traffic increased, their numbers dwindled.
Finland doesn’t have the same geological wonder of Sweden and Norway, but Helsinki is lovely. The one thing you do notice is that as the traffic increases, people become less friendly. It’s as if northern Scandinavia is how the world should be.
As a rule of thumb although obviously you can’t generalise, the further north I found myself the more welcoming people were. I guess that’s because the locals are delighted that you’re there truly experiencing their homeland in the truest way possible… on a motorcycle.
I’d planned to visit Russia but unfortunately it wasn’t an option as I could not get a visa sorted out, though I’m still not entirely sure why. Even the person I met at the Russian visa office thought it didn’t make much sense.
It seems that for various reasons I didn’t fit neatly into either the tourist or transit visa categories. If I decide to go to Russia in the future I’ll use a third party visa company to handle it even though it’s more expensive.
So now I have got a bit more time in the former Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania before heading home through, Poland, Germany, Holland, Belgium and France. They were beautiful but a lot faster and busier in terms of traffic, almost as if I was returning back to a slightly more cynical world.
There were memorable moments – like trying to find my way through Latvia’s capital Riga – but it will always be the Scandinavia leg of the trip that takes my breath away.
I was there for just two weeks but I have memories that will stay with me for a lifetime.