Arctic Escape

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Arctic_overland_adventure The adventure begins... : credit: © Arctic_overland_adventure

A pandemic wasn't going to stop this adventure-seeking couple, who switched their planned overland trip from the south to the north of the Equator

We thought we’d be rounding off the year somewhere between the Kruger National Park in South Africa and the Egyptian Pyramids, on our Cape Town to London trip. But, like many, our 2020 didn’t go to plan, and after shipping Tango, our freshly kitted out Defender 110 to South Africa, Covid lockdowns forced us to ship our home-on-wheels back to the UK, and head back to the drawing board.

Fast forward to October and with worldwide travel restrictions in effect, we have to get creative. Where could we head to tomorrow, if and when the tunnel of opportunity opens? Scotland? Easily. Wales? We could head there this afternoon. But, our desire to always push further lingers over us, like the elephant in the room, and we know something right in our backyard won’t fill the void left by the cancelled trip to Africa. As we scour our map, a near-perfect route presents itself, leading straight up to a place we’ve dreamed about for years: the Arctic Circle.

Tango charging into the Arctic

With a budget and looming timeline, we opt to keep things simple and practical: a DIY bed platform, two Therm-A-Rest inflatable sleeping pads for comfort, and two Therm-A-Rest -30C sleeping bags for warmth. Other mods include BFG KO2 tyres, a Dometic fridge, a DIY drop-down table for cooking inside, and a dual battery setup complete with two Odyssey batteries and a Redarc BCDC charger.

On December 3, perfectly aligned with the completion of our winter modifications, we hear news of the first big snow in the Yorkshire Dales. We head north knowing this is our only chance to test our set-up before heading to the Arctic. Two nights later the verdict is in. Flawless.

A hot brew in the chilly north

It’s now December 7. With the near-impossible maze of COVID-19 related restrictions and slew of lockdowns happening across Europe, our chances of heading to the Arctic look slimmer and slimmer by the day. It’s now or never, though, as we’re due back at work in mid-January.

After eight hours of pre-recorded messages, thick accents, and multiple “No’s”, we get the green light from enough embassies for a modified route. Ecstatic, I share the news with Andy. Within three days we are packed and driving south to Folkestone en route to the Arctic Circle, to catch the sunrise in France. With the current restrictions, we must forgo the normal tourist pit-stops and instead pound pavement through four countries to make a 9.00 pm ferry in northern Germany.​​​​​​

France. Belgium. The Netherlands. Germany. After a quick visit with the Front Runner team in Hanover, we pull into the Rostock port at 7.00 pm with just enough time for a parking lot taco night before driving onto the ship and settling in for the night in our cabin. What an absolute whirlwind day. But, we made it.

The fog horn lets us know that our six hour sail is over. We’ve officially made it to Trelleborg. We’re still over 1000 miles from the Arctic Circle, but as we roll off of the ship and onto Swedish soil, it finally hits us – this is really happening.

A few hours later we hit the 1000 mile mark of the trip. Everything is going to plan. Then, just as we finish up our lakeside breakfast, Andy spots an issue. Our drive member is coming loose. Two of the bolts are snapped off into the hub assembly and another one is completely missing.

We detour to Ground Zero 4WD, an independent Land Rover shop tucked inside two large red barns, scattered with Land Rovers of every make, model and year. I spot an old Series fire truck with the perfect patina, but my attention is quickly stolen by a Defender 130 camper conversion, a build I’ve always dreamed of but never seen in the flesh. The British ladies who own it have just completed their own lap around the Arctic. After a few hours exchanging banter and stories, we’re back on the road and headed north with a fixed hub assembly and a renewed appreciation for the Land Rover community.

Mary Hannah waking up to the winter wonderland in Örnsköldsvik

We make it to Sweden’s High Coast and settle in for the night on Lake Koltjarnen. It’s time to crack open a cold one and celebrate today’s milestone: beating our northernmost latitude record, previously marked in John O’Groats (58° N). Now, sitting at 62° N, we sit back and take in Mother Nature’s firework show of shooting stars.

The following morning Tango won’t start. And this time, it’s not a quick fix. It’s the ignition barrel. A couple hours of persistent problem solving, with invaluable input from our social media following, and a few zip ties later, we’re on the move once more. Tango’s drivable, but it’s only a temporary fix. We head to Örnsköldsvik, a nearby town, where a fellow Land Rover enthusiast, Matts, offers to let us use his address for our Euro4x4parts shipment.

Andy with Matts at a frozen riverside camp spot

We spend the next six days exploring the winter wonderland, zip ties still in place. Matts gives us the full Swedish welcome. He leads us through the local trails in his supercharged Range Rover, introduces us to an epic riverside camp spot with a free-to-use hut and fire pit, and even whips us up a traditional Swedish meal, known as Pyttipanna, around the campfire. We make ourselves at home and settle into the riverside way. Life is good.

Excitement as we mark the moment we cross into the Arctic Circle

At the end of the six days, it is hard to leave. We love it here, but with the new ignition kit now installed thanks to Andy’s parking lot mechanics, and only three days until Christmas, it’s time to push north if we want to spend it in the Arctic Circle. The days get shorter, colder and darker by the mile, the telltale sign that we’re getting closer to JokkMokk, a quaint, snow globe-worthy town that marks the start of the Arctic. And, then, we see it, a massive sign spelling out Arctic Circle. We burst out with excitement. We’ve officially made it.

We make our final push north to Abisko and the highest point of the trip (68° N). The following morning, we wake to a breathtaking Christmas view. The sky is on fire thanks to what is known as the Polar Night, a period in which the sun stays below the horizon line for 24 hours a day, giving us four hours of a dream-like golden hour glow.

The frozen lakes of Norway

Too in awe of our surroundings to stay in one place, we go for a drive. We drive, and drive, and drive, until we hit the Norwegian border. Jagged snow-covered mountain peaks, frozen lakes and rivers, and wildlife foraging alongside the road. This is the Arctic we’ve dreamed of.

Around 1:30 pm, as the day begins to darken, we pull into camp. The awning is out, a pot of mulled wine warms over the open campfire, and a Christmas feast is in the works. A few hours pass, and as the fire dwindles, we crawl into Tango to escape the wind and -13°C temperatures, FaceTime with friends and family around the globe, and watch a few Christmas classics. A Christmas unlike any other.

Stopping to take in the first sight of the sun, after two weeks of the 'Polar Night'

We spend the next week exploring the bone-chilling North. Without a diesel heater, the only place to truly escape from the cold is zipped up inside of our sleeping bags. With the temperatures lingering around -15°C all normal aspects of day-to-day life are more challenging. Each morning we wake up to Tango’s interior frozen solid, with icicles forming. Anything liquid that doesn’t make it into the fridge, from dish soap to milk, is frozen solid.

We make our way down to Nikkuolata. This area is known for its extreme temperatures and tonight will be one for the books. It’s forecasted to get down to -20°C. We find another small wooden hut and make ourselves at home. The fire is roaring. Our bodies begin to thaw, but we know it’s fleeting – we only have enough logs for another hour. As the final log simmers, we make a Thermos of Yorkshire tea, and head back to the safety of our sleeping bags inside Tango. The following morning, blissfully unaware of the freezing temperatures outside, we wake up in our cocoons of warmth.

Mary Hannah gears up for the overnight snowshoe hike in Nikkaluokta

A few nights later, we set back out to experience the Nikkuolata cold once again, this time on foot. An overnight snowshoe hike completes our time in the region and we head on, now switching gears to search for more wildlife. Reindeer, moose, weasels, hawks, foxes – you name it, we see it. Wildlife aside, this drive is absolutely incredible, hugging the Lule River before reaching Lake Akkajaure, one of Sweden’s largest reservoirs located within Stora Sjöfallet National Park. The area is ripe with views making it the perfect place to ring in the New Year.

Preparing to snowshoe back to Tango, after a night under the stars

We make it to Ritsem at last light and take in the soft golden glow reflecting off the frozen lake and surrounding mountains. Just as we get settled in for our planned New Year’s Eve bonfire, the wind picks up and forces us to rethink the evening. We pack up and drive on.

The weather picks up, and the visibility lessens. Just as we’re about to call it a night, we see a man frantically waving his arms through the white-out conditions, begging us to slow down. We’ve only seen one vehicle the entire 90-mile stretch. Where in the world did he walk from?

Putting the Wacaco to good use

We stop. Cautious, we roll down our window as he tries to catch his breath. “My son... Our car... We went off the road!” I can hear the sincere panic in his voice. He’s in a thin jacket, no gloves,and no hat. He’s been battling the -13C temperatures, woefully unprepared, for over an hour attempting to reach their hotel 12 miles away for help. I clamber into the back, sitting atop our duffle bags, lodged between the fridge and the ceiling-high pile of wood that Andy had collected earlier in the day. He squeezes into the front seat and we set off, on the hunt for his son and vehicle.

After what feels like an eternity, we spot the small rental, nose down in the ditch. His 14-year-old son springs from the car arms waving overhead, still unaware that his father is in the front seat with us. What happened next was a moment to remember. As Mario stepped out of Tango, his son, realising his father was out of harm’s way, sprinted into his arms. Holding back tears they both gripped each other tightly for a few moments, savouring the moment.

The practice run in the Yorkshire Dales pays off

Andy, in his element, puts our Warn winch and trusty MaxTrax to good use. Within 30 minutes, their rental is back on the road. We follow them back to their lodge for good measure, knowing the roads are narrow and icy.  As we say our goodbyes, they invite us in for dinner. For the next hour and a half we exchange life stories over home-cooked meals, reminisce on the good, bad, and ugly of the year, and try to make light of the recent close call. As we head back out for our final hours of 2020, we can’t help but smile. It’s these, raw, unfiltered moments that make these trips so special.

For a final hoorah, we head to Åre, a world-renowned ski resort. We hug the western mountains, cranking out the miles, basking in the first rays of sunshine in weeks, and soaking up every reindeer sighting. Two days later, after a full day of snowboarding, we hop back in our orange trusty steed and head to Stockholm.

As we cruise into the night, Andy realises the odometers just hit the 50k milestone. We celebrate and sing Tango’s praises. Then, no more than 20 miles later, we hear a clunk and just like that: the kiss of death. Tango won’t go back into gear. After trying everything we can think of, we call for recovery. It’s -21°C out, the coldest night of the entire trip. With no heater we hunker down in our sleeping bags and mentally prepare for the wait.

The long wait for recovery

Two hours pass. No sign of the driver. Our phone rings. They’ve given him the wrong coordinates. Disheartened, I look up, taking in the impossibly clear night. Then, I see it. A pop of colour. “I must be seeing things, we’re too far South,” I thought. But it persists.

As the Northern Lights brighten up the sky, our spirits soar. What a silver lining!

After four hours in the sub-zero temperatures, the tow truck arrives. We finally make it to the hotel around 3:30 am and say our goodbyes to Tango. Before we know it, we’re on a flight back to the UK. Tango, too, will return to the UK in a few short weeks, after an extended holiday in Sweden and a joyride covered by our European Breakdown Cover.

Looking out of the plane window, with Sweden shrinking below us, we can’t help but look back at the trip and realise just how lucky we are. This entire 4000 mile journey was bound together by an overwhelming sense of community, a love of Land Rovers, and a desire to explore, with each obstacle serving as an opportunity to slow down and soak it all in. This truly was an Arctic adventure of a lifetime.

 

TOP TIPS for your own Arctic adventure

Andy scoping out the OnX Off-Road App to see what trails are nearby

Definitely consider getting a diesel heater! We didn’t have one on our trip, and it’ll be the first thing we install before we head anywhere cold again.

• As you start to plan your trip, write it all down (route, gear needs, vehicle upgrades, etc.). We’ve found this is the best way to get things in motion, and can serve as a to-do list to get it all done.

• Invest in a cold weather (-20C/-30F) sleeping bag, even if you have a diesel heater. It could quite literally save your life.

• Get snow-rated tyres but if you’re going to be up there for a full winter season, consider getting studded tyres. But, if you’re going to be driving through multiple countries like we did, with varying terrain, an All-Terrain is the perfect choice.

• Have a back-up means for communication. Satellite/GPS messaging device works great for this. The service was surprisingly incredible in Sweden, but in those kinds of conditions you never want to risk being out of range of a lifeline.

• Check out apps like iOverlander and Camp4Night for finding camp spots along your route. And, since there’s only four hours of daylight in the Arctic during the winter, consider marking potential camp spots along your drive, using apps like OnX Off-Road or Google Maps, to ensure you always have back-up options once it’s pitch black.

• Treat yourself to the best Breakdown Cover your insurance plan offers. We had European Breakdown Cover through AA on this trip and it was a lifesaver when we encountered some engine problems.

• Hand warmers are a godsend when you’re in sub-zero temperatures. Put them in your pockets and you can tuck your hands in every once in a while to regain some warmth.

• Don’t underestimate a fridge in cold weather. Ours came in so handy to keep food, water, and even dish soap from freezing.

• Invest in good recovery gear. Often times you’ll be on your own out there, so making sure you’re comfortable with problem solving and recovery drills will come in handy. At a minimum we’d recommend a snow shovel, a hi-lift jack, and MaxTrax, but a winch is always a good shout.

• If you’re cooking with fuel, go for the -27°C or below extreme gas.

• Skip the big Land Rover garages, and instead opt for smaller independently owned garages for better service and more technical know-how on older Landys.

• Grab yourself a pair of large rubber gloves to slip on over your thermal gloves when you’re washing the dishes. This will keep your gloves nice and dry, and muck free.

• Consider sleeping inside, instead of a roof tent. This will keep you better protected from the harsh conditions.

For more of Tango's adventures, go to Instagram @expeditionrove