Friday, 24 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: days 14, 15 and 16

I woke before the sunrise at Sundsvall. I was very glad I did. We had parked the motorhome facing the view, so the minute the kettle went on I opened the blinds to check what the morning was threatening to bring. The timing was perfect. A deep and dark blue sky was giving way to an orange glow from the east, directly opposite our pitch. I got out of bed and walked carefully (it was very icy and steep) down to the water's edge to get a better view of the sun rising over the opposite side of the bay. There were huge chunks of ice floating in the water at the edge of the campsite, bobbing in the tiny swell. While I had recently walked on frozen lakes and rivers and been in a vehicle driving over an ice road to an island, it was still an inspiring experience to see chunks of ice in the sea. You should never get blase about sea ice. And while it was warmer than it had been, it was certainly pretty parky. Later on I actually regretted not stripping off and taking an icy dip. Which is all very well with hindsight I suppose.
The drive on day 14 brought us to Gothenburg, some 400 miles to the south. While there was still ice and snow in the city, it was warmer and the countryside became less and less white the further south we travelled. I began to miss it. Instead of bright white fields, frozen trees and snowy roads we returned to the greys of winter like we have at home. That was a bit of a come down. But it also meant our adventure was coming to an end.

Day 15 started unlike others in that we had an appointment with Volvo cars at their enormous plant in Gothenburg. After a quick press call outside the factory (the motorhome had to hang back on this occasion) we took a factory tour in a little train. Sadly we had been booked on a Swedish language version of the tour so, whole the tour guide was very nice, I, for one, understood nothing of it. So let me tell you that it's an enormous place where they don't allow cameras or phones. Around 30% of the workforce are women and there are lots of robots doing welding and putting things together. The plant is on a vast scale, very clean and ruthlessly efficient (or so it seemed) and a little bit frightening if I am honest. But that's the nature of the car biz.

Before the day was out we crossed the magnificent Oresund Bridge from Sweden into Denmark. It's an absolute cracker at 5 miles long. It also turns into a tunnel when it 'lands' on an artificial island and then goes underground for another 2 miles. I can't say I have ever crossed such a wonderful bridge and it was a real honour to be able to. Another remarkable experience on this once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Arctic.
The trip as a whole offered me some truly unique opportunities. While the driving was tough the moments between - meeting Santa, seeing reindeer, driving the ice road, crossing the bridge - will stay with me for a long, long time. The team were exceptional company and the vehicles and Bailey caravans and motorhome outstanding in that they were warm and comfortable and dry. And with a steady supply of jelly babies to keep us amused during the long hours at the wheel, we pretty much had it all.
The final day presented the biggest driving challenge of the trip. Around 500 miles to Hook of Holland for the ferry home to Harwich. We left at dawn and arrived at the port at around about 8pm. A real heavy duty day. But no matter. We were only 24 hours from home.

So. Who said you can't camp in winter? Not me.

Check out the arctic adventure on Bailey of Bristol's blog. It is inspiring stuff.

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Days 12 and 13

I had been in Sweden for a few hours when I enjoyed my first interaction with a Swedish person. I'll get to the point in a minute but need to tell you about how I got there first. My contact came on our first Swedish campsite, just across the border with Finland. The site was deep in snow, its glamping pods half buried in white, and the pitches cleared between deep drifts. We had arrived from Ivalo, having said a fond farewell to the film crew earlier in the day. Of course we would miss them - and their vegetarianism - but, on the plus side it meant that our group of hungry, carnivorous males could enjoy some meat. I promised them all a reindeer curry (ironically, honestly) once we arrived at our next overnight.

So that brought me to being in the kitchen block at the campsite, which just happened to be next to the sauna. Every campsite has a sauna. Did I neglect to mention that? Anyways, I was cooking the curry and needed to wash my hands so I went out into the changing rooms to do so. When I came out of the loo I almost bumped into a naked Swedish lady coming out of the sauna, presumably on her way to rolling about in the snow. I apologised in a very British way, as you do, and she said it was no problem before I dashed back to my curry. Why tell you this? I'm not one for stereotyping or for playing to them. But if you are going to have a cliche, you might as well make it one that celebrates life, fitness and a joy for living. Top marks Sweden! It certainly beats roast beef and umbrellas.

No Rudolfs were harmed during the making of this curry
Okay, let's stop the sniggering and get on with the story. The curry was fabulous, a beef rogan josh with home made pittas, spinach and garlic, and rice. Bart, who had joined us in Ivalo for the return leg, fished out a guitar and sang us a few ditties while we drank beer and enjoyed a relaxing night in a snowy campsite, somewhere near the arctic circle. Perfect.

The morning brought more snow, perhaps unsurprisingly. It also brought a change of scenery. Instead of the long straight roads through snow and forests of pine and birch, we hit bridges, fjords, the coast. We crossed rivers and cruised around bends, past open farmland with painted wooden barns in typical Nordic colours: ochre, battleship blues and cool, burnt yellows. It was a blessed relief to be honest, although the pines and birch forests were still pretty much omnipresent between the items of interest.

Our campsite on day 13 was in Sundsvall, a town on the Baltic coast about half way down Sweden's east coast. We arrived late, as usual, and then dashed into town for food before bunking down for the night. It wasn't until the next morning that we were able to appreciate the full beauty of the location. But that's for another day.

Tuesday, 14 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Days 10 and 11

After our visit to Santa we schlepped through the snow and ice to Ivalo, our final destination in Lapland. Ivalo is home to Milbrook’s Arctic Testing Station, a place where winter tyres are tested to their limits in serious conditions. It was much the same with us. On arrival we met up with the team from The Caravan and Motorhome Club, the PR company and a couple of journalists. For us, the core team of drivers and crew, it was a chance to drink some pop, eat some good food and let rip. So it was all back to the motorhome after dinner to raid the drinks cabinet, play some tunes and party into the arctic night. It wasn’t pretty.
We were a bit late getting to Milbrook the next day. And a bit cold. One of our Volvos lost all power so we had to drive there with no heating, windscreen blower or lights, which made for a very uncomfortable few miles from the campsite to the testing station. The temperature was minus 8 degrees.
Once at Milbrook we were invited into a gorgeous round, wooden Lappish Hut for a briefing. Then the team’s drivers headed out to do some braking testing with the caravans and cars. As it turned out the results were better for the cars with caravans when the brakes worked than for the cars themselves. Who’d have thought? After lunch the team got to play about in the snow on the test track, which was exciting… it’s not often you get the chance to play about like Top Gear in the Arctic!

That evening we ate a magnificent Lappish meal in another Lappish hut. It consisted of reindeer, mushrooms, salmon and salads… there was something really earthy and of the forest about it and everyone loved it. That night we also saw a lunar ring, a phenomenon where by the light of the moon passing through ice crystals in the air creates a halo effect.

Saturday was adventure day for most of the team, and for me too. While the crew went out on a skidoo safari I went shopping for ingredients to cook a seafood chowder over a fire for lunch. It was a big challenge for me as I haven’t cooked for that many people (18) and in that kind of extremes before. The team pulled together to help me get the fire lit, prepare salads and get it all ready, so by the time lunch time came around we had chilli pasta, a seafood chowder cooked in my Kotlich over a fire and a whole range of salads ready to go. Using the Kotlich pan is a bit of a showpiece but everyone seemed to love it – and the chowder tasted great!

 That evening we ate at a hotel and then took to the wild to chase down the northern lights. While we shivered in a layby at the side of the main road (it was minus something ridiculous) that consitiuted the wilds we caught glimpses of the ‘merry dancers’ between the clouds. At first we could only capture them on camera but after a while we caught a long streak of green as it flickered across the sky. It wasn’t the best aurora that has ever been seen but it was ours to treasure.
A great moment and an ambition fulfilled.

Monday, 13 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Day 8 and 9

We woke up at Kuopio camping to more deep snow. It had snowed overnight and the skies were still leaden with the weight of more. It wasn’t a heavy day as far as driving was concerned as we had a crew to pick up from Bailey and Truma, the heating people. They arrived at Oulu airport and met us at the airport hotel where we had lunch before heading out to Finland’s longest ice road. It crosses the Baltic sea to an island and is 15 kilometers long. We parked up the vehicles by the ferry port and prepped the vehicles and film crew before the first caravan headed out onto the ice. The ice is apparently 50 centimeters thick and can carry weights up to 3.5 tonnes, which is about the weight of a Volvo plus fully laden caravan. So prepping the vans simply meant lobbing everyone’s luggage out onto the ice.

I went over in the motorhome with Bernie for the journey out and then back with Niall, from Practical Caravan Magazine. It was one of those experiences that sounds more exciting than it probably was, simply because of the fact that you are driving on ice. The driving itself was straightforward: don’t go too fast, don’t stop and don’t be too heavy. Ice being ice there were a few cracks, some with water bubbling through them, but we didn’t stop to find out if it was dangerous.
The locals seemed pretty blasé about it and we were overtaken once, which seemed to be pretty stupid. But hey, if they can overtake on blind bends and summits, why should an ice road be any different?
That evening, after trekking on to Ranua Zoo camping, the closest all year camp site to the Arctic Circle, we pitched up in the dark to the sound of howling wolves from the zoo. That was a bit weird. There were a couple of other motorhomes staying on the site, which is always nice to see. We aren’t the only ones daft enough to camp in minus temperatures!
The morning brought more snow and lovely thin light. Perfect for taking our first steps into the Arctic circle, just 50 miles to the north. We set off. I wasn’t sure what to expect but I understood that we were heading to Santa World on the circle itself and had to hurry because we had a private audience with him before they opened for business. To be honest I was expecting a line of white painted stones on a lonely stretch of tundra. Some things just don’t turn out that way though do they?

We met Santa alright, just before he went on shift at the Santa World theme park. As theme parks go it wasn’t bad. There were reindeer and skidoos and huskies and lots of pointy hatted elves with bells on. I was frightened. But, of course, when we met Santa (the queuing system was very impressive) he was a very jolly fellow with red cheeks and woollen boots and a lovely Finnish accent. What more could you expect? It was, honestly, one of the most enjoyably bizarre experiences of my life. I felt like a kid and a grumpy old bugger all at the same time, filled with wonder and a touch of cynicism. It really made the trip for me.
We had our picture taken with the big fella and then were ushered out because his shift was about to begin. The punters were getting frisky outside.

It’s always Christmas in Lapland!

Friday, 10 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Day 6 and 7

 The city campsite in Helsinki was surprisingly busy, considering there were a couple of inches of snow on the ground. Most were motorhomes, perhaps city workers, and a couple of families. We pitched up after 11 and then left early, but not before I had cooked up a full breakfast for all our team. Who said you can't feed 10 out of a van?! So we were in Finland at last! We still had a long way to go. A relatively late start (10 am) saw us weave our way out of the city and out onto the highways. Temperatures were around minus 2 degrees so there was a lot of sow and ice, but relatively little on the road surfaces. Until we got further north, that is. We drove another long day, arriving at a beautiful lakeside campsite late in the evening. Along the way we stopped to take pictures of the convoy by the side of a frozen lake. I walked out onto the ice to get a good view of the landscape. The causeway across the lake was a good place for the film crew to grab some aerial shots so we drove over it in convoy. The results are stunning.

That evening I cooked again. This time a rice dish for 10 hungry campers. I actually really enjoyed it as it gave me some head space outside of driving. Cooking can be a calming experience sometimes.

The following day saw the worst driving yet, especially in the evening after another long stint on the road. The wind blew flurries of snow across the road and the caravan in front of us (we took the spot at the rear of the convoy) blew up vast could of white. Visibility was terrible at times. When trucks came past it was virtually a whiteout. All you could do was hold on and keep the thing in a straight line. I was very glad to be in Bernie's company as he is a very experienced driver and kept me calm. he also did a lot of the driving as I wad doing the cooking. A fair trade I thought.

Monday, 6 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Day 4 and 5

Being in Poland was like being in a film. It felt familiar, and yet not, like you'd seen it somewhere but couldn't place it. We passed wide open fields, forests of pine and birch, brown fields, frozen lakes and tumbledown wooden  shacks and farm houses. We passed through industrial towns with chemical plants, disused railways and blocks of depressing flats. But we also passed picture perfect shacks, beautiful lakes and rows upon rows of well tended allotments, each with tiny homes, sheds or summer houses. A place to call your own when you live cheek by jowl with your neighbour in a Post Soviet block? Perhaps.

Our route, from Torun to Vilnius, took us across country, which meant it was slow and long. But a stop by a lake for lunch turned out to be a highlight. I cooked pasta for everyone, which we ate in a wooden pavillion over looking the lake. It was a restful place during a hectic driving day.
We arrived in Vilnius after dark and parked up outside a city centre hostel. By the time we got there (and partly due to the time difference between Poland and Lithuania) it was way past tea time so we hit the hay for an early start. So please don't ask me what Vilnius was like. I have no idea. The hostel was nice but the traffic was bad when we set off at 7 on day 5. What we did see was a lot of modern architecture along with soviet era trams and buildings - a real mix of styles. There is wealth here, but also more villages of humble allotments.

The road to Latvia was easier by a long way. We did a stretch on a motorway then more on good single carriageway roads. Almost as soon as we got into Latvia we hit snow, a fresh dump from last night. The road was icy and windy and we all had a bit of a wake up call. If the road was like this for the next thousand miles we'd be in trouble. Going was slow and nervous, and it looked like more snow was on the way. But, just as suddenly as it had appeared, the blanket of white faded away and the heavy grey sky was replaced by blue.
We made another stop for lunch, this time where the road skirted the coast. I cooked another lunch and then went for a walk on the beach - my first view of the Baltic. There was a wall of ice at the high tide line and the sand was frozen solid. The strangest beach experience I have ever had. But the stop was another chance to take a break from the monotony of fields and forests of pine and birch for miles and miles on end.

So where are we now? We made it to Tallin and on to the ferry to Helsinki (via the cheap alcohol warehouse at the port). With stage one complete we camp in Helsinki tonight and then head further north tomorrow.

The Caravan and Motorhom Club, who are sponsoring the trip, have a comp running at the moment in which you can win a motorhome trip to the USA. Check our to keep up with our journey and win a trip on Route 66.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Days 2 and 3

Day 2 saw the convoy or caravans and a motorhome and campervan leave Bruges early for a 500 mile autobahn slog to Berlin. The roads were really busy, which meant traffic was slow and the day was very long. We can only travel as fast as our limits will allow, which meant travelling often at the same speed as lorries, getting stuck behind arctics or hemmed in. I had imagined the autobhans to be free flowing and fast but not so busy. We drove for 12 hours, following the back ends of the caravans as they weaved and wobbled between the trucks. I drove two shifts and Bernie drove two, with stops for tea and sarnies between. Being in the motorhome meant that we had easy and instant access to tea making facilities so the caravan driving teams often 'popped' round for a cuppa at rest stops. The advantages of travelling by motorhome, eh?
We arrived at the campsite in Berlin at around 7pm, set up and then went straight out to eat at a traditional restaurant with two of the team at Truma, the company providing the heating for the caravans. We ate traditional 'baumkoche' a ringed 'treecake' that's made on a spit.

On Day 3 one of the caravan and the motorhome set off at 7am to snatch a few shots at the Brandenburg Gate while the rest of the team stayed at camp to set up a breakfast shoot and prepare for the day's drive to Poland. The day didn't start well for me. I felt awful from the previous day's drive, with a crushing chest and pain across my rib cage. I have had heart infections in the past so this was a worry, verging on panic if I am honest, which is never very helpful. I went off to the local hospital with the campervan to get checked out while the rest of the convoy set off for Poland. An ECG, scan and blood tests later they declared me (in a very nice way) that I was fit and, more than likely, suffering from musculoskeletal pains due to being folded up in the van for so long. Phew, but be warned... don't forget your EHIC card! I had to pay €100 just to be seen as I'd forgotten it.
It's been a hectic few weeks with long days, overnight drives and a busy time judging motorhomes for the Design Awards at the NEC - as well as trying to keep the home life happy - so worry and stress probably didn't help.
I was, of course, determined not to let this health blip spoil the trip for me or the rest of the team, so caught up with them at Torun, our Polish overnight stop. The Polish roads were a total contrast to Germany. They were clear and fast, with little traffic and good, smooth surfaces. A welcome change form slogging on the autobahn.

Torun is a medieval city and a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is absolutely stunning with a grid system of silent cobbled streets (no traffic) and stunning architecture reflecting a couple of milennia of development. I would like to have explored more but that will have to wait for another time. We ate traditional Polish 'pastztechiki' (an eastern blcok version of the Cornish pasty - home from home) in a restaurant that was straight out of a shrek-like vision of what yore looks like. The hand dryer in the loo was made from an old milking pail. That gave me  quite a shock. But the pasties were good and the team content with a great meal, a few well deserved beers and half decent wifi after a tough couple of days.

We continue onwards... northwards towards Finland. Tonight Vilnius.

Toodle pip for now.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

The Arctic Adventure: Day 1

Milbrook to Bruges

Ok. The Arctic Adventure got off to an early start at Milbrook vehicle testing station near Luton, arriving just after 8 to make the most of ‘quiet time’. The plan was for our little convoy of vehicles (a motorhome, two caravans and a campervan) to set off around 0930 after shooting some stills and video of the ‘big departure’. But, of course with cameras and action deciding the action we did a few takes until we just sort of set off for the motorway and the first few miles of the 5000 we have yet to do on this most marvellous of adventures.
We hit the M1, the M25 and then the M20  before cruising down the M20 to Ashford and the Chunnel. It probably took as long to load as it did to make the ‘crossing’ of the Channel to Calais. It seemed to be over very quickly.  But at least we could dive into the back and lounge around in the motorhome. You can’t do that in a caravan on the tunnel so we soon had a few wandering visitors looking for a comfy seat.
There are 10 of us on the trip. Bernie is my co pilot in the motorhome. Then there’s the film crew and photographer, Alan from the Caravan and Motorhome Club, then Simon and his team from Bailey and Lee, fellow motorhome design award judge and writer, plus John from the PR company. We are a varied lot, nine men and one woman, most of us over 40, many with lots of years of experience either making or camping in caravans and motorhomes.
I shall be cooking later in the trip when the press junket arrives and at desperate times, but tonight we ate out at the campsite restaurant, a Chinese. We are just outside Bruges, having driven a little over 200 miles from Milbrook. Might not seem like much but we’ve still been to 3 countries and crossed the Channel. Only 4800 to go until we get home in 15 days’ time.

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