Carvings, Trees and Finnish Hospitality

It’s hard to cycle in Norway without coming across a tunnel or two. It is said that if Everest was in Norway, there would be a café at the top and a tunnel underneath. The Norwegians have tunnel construction down to a fine art and have used north sea oil revenue to dig out quite a few to connect island communities and take the ascents and descents out of driving. The longest tunnel of our trip lay ahead as we cycled south across the island of Magerøya away from Nordkapp. To get back to the mainland of Norway we had 3.5km of fast downhill under the sea before starting the long plod back up 3.5km to the coast on the other side. The tunnel was dimly lit and it took our eyes a little time to adjust to the darkness. Each kilometre through the tunnel was a lit sign informing us of how far through we were. This was particularly helpful on the uphill out as it gave us a sense that the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ would eventually appear.

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Cycling through the Magerøya tunnel


The air at the bottom, half way in was very stale. There is a massive echo inside each tunnel and so the roar of a vehicle approaching starts long before it whizzes past. The echo comes from both directions making it very difficult to tell whether the lorry is coming from in front or behind. The tunnel was curved so it wasn’t always possible to see the vehicle until it was very close. Not the most relaxing ride, but not so scary either. The drivers were pretty respectful of us and gave us a good clearance as they passed. After only about 45 mins we were out in the fresh sea air again.

Our route from this point on took us through a treeless undulating, landscape of rough grassland. The road roughly followed the coastline for 30 – 40 miles before we stopped near the head of a small fjord to camp beneath a grey, sandstone cliff in the evening sunshine.

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Campsite beneath the cliffs

Looking out the tent door, across the blue sea in the bay, we saw a Minke whale break the surface a few times before it splash dived and disappeared from view for the night.

Travelling south the next day, we climbed up a long, wide river valley filled with birch trees and Norwegian summer houses. From time to time, occasional reindeer wandered languidly across the tarmac to reach fresher grazing. Several cycle tourists waved enthusiastically as they passed us heading north to Nordkapp. After 20 kilometres or so, we climbed out of the valley and up onto a greenish, lichen and heath plateau that looked like the northern tundra of my imagination. Here was wide open space in every direction with rounded hills stretching away into the distance. Just one road crosses this bleak landscape and we were cycling it. Looking up a long straight a familiar figure rode in to view. It was Elsa, a solo cyclist from Germany who we had met on a ferry just north of the Lofotens and who we had camped with the same evening. She had turned up at our tent that evening with Gin and Tonic and a packet of liquorice. Very civilised.

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Elsa, the bringer of Gin and Tonic

She was with us in the tunnel the next day when Jerry’s hub broke and we caught up with her again on Tromsø campsite. It was just delightful to see her again, only two or three days from her destination of Nordkapp and to catch up on each others news. We hope to visit her in Berlin in the autumn.

About 20 minutes later we were greeted by shouts from a track up to our left. This time it was Christian, one of the Swiss cyclists we had met on the same ferry as Elsa and with whom we’d shared a BBQ and a whale supper in Tromsø. He was also heading to Nordkapp but had stopped to fill up with water and to check out the camping potential. He was excited about the prospect of camping high on the plateau and invited us to join him. Not long after, we were all pushing our heavily laden bikes up the rough stony track to get up onto one of the rounded hills. With fantastic views across the whole plateau, we cooked supper together and later wandered further on up to see the sunset. It was a privilege to be able to spend a night in such a location.

The next morning we said our goodbyes and went our separate ways. An hour later we were over 50 km apart, on our way down off the tundra plateau in opposite directions.

As a child, I was fascinated by pictures in books of animals carved and drawn on rock by early humans. I’m not sure that I saw any personally, but the idea that someone, thousands of years previously, had taken the time to create an image which would still be visible today seemed amazing. A way of living on long after our death and communicating with generations years beyond our imaginations. 6000 years ago, people came to the shores of ‘Norway’ and carved images in the red iron oxide coated rocks just above the shore line. 1000 years later, due to the land rising with the removal of the weight of the ice from the last ice age, these carvings were now several metres up from the shoreline and less visible as the iron oxide had washed from the rocks. So new images were carved on the red rocks just above the shore. This process happened several times over a 3000 year period, then no more images were carved. Lichens and vegetation covered the rocks and it was the 1970s before they were rediscovered. A man and his son took an evening stroll near the shore and sat down on a hillock for a smoke in the evening sun. They noticed marks in the rock that resembled an Elk. Clearing the lichen and vegetation they found other carvings. We went to view the, now extensive, rockcarvings at Alta on our journey south. Some of the carvings have been painted red which makes them much more visible.

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The rock carvings of Alta

There are bear paw prints marching across the rock, men fishing, elk, reindeer, boats, fish. All the animals and methods of hunting that were used by these hunter gatherer communities 3 – 6000 years ago. We were blown away. All of them were carved into the rock using stone chisels and hammers. Now, we can only speculate as to their significance to the people at the time. Perhaps spiritual, perhaps communal.

After Alta, we turned inland and heading up south east into Finnmark and Lapland. The days were getting shorter by about 11 mins each end and we needed to get south before the cold weather arrived. Roger, the son of some friends of ours, who lives in Finland recommended we visit Kautekeimi in Finnmark, Norway to find out more about the Sami people and reindeer herding. We had discovered that the museum was open week days until the end of August so we planned our days to arrive in to town on the Monday morning. Unfortunately, when we got there it was shut. The museum had decided to revert to it’s winter timetable when the schools had gone back the week before and so was no longer open on Mondays! We did see four older Sami out and about in town dressed in their traditional bright blue clothing with braid trim.

Later, as we travelled through Lapland we did find out a bit more about the lifestyle of these people. Reindeer herding and management takes place across Finnmark and the northern half of Finland. The nomadic lifestyle was severely curtailed by wars and border fences erected in the last century. Now they have houses and summer camps. The population density here is low. The first municipality we travelled through has 2000 residents in total in a total of just over 8000km². That is one person per 4km²! The land is covered in trees, mostly pine and birch, and there are few roads. Find the right road out of town and then you’re on it for the next 30km before you come to the next junction. In Finland we navigated with a map a third the scale of what we had used in other countries with few difficulties until we were within 75km of Helsinki in the south.

To get south faster and out of the Arctic circle, we decided to do larger distances and so we averaged 100km (60 miles) each day on the whole of our journey south from Nordkapp to Porvoo, close to Helsinki. It took us 20 days. For seven of these, between Alta and Rovaniemi we saw only trees on either side of the road, plus the occasional view of a lake or river. That’s a lot of trees.

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Trees, gravel road and trees

After that the amount of farmland slowly increased, but even in the south, the trees are everywhere. Needless to say, its not the most inspiring cycling.

What made Finland special were all the hosts with whom we stayed. We interspersed nights in the tent with couchsurfing, Warmshower hosts and staying with Quaker Friends near Helsinki. The Finns are quiet and reserved on the outside and rarely smiled as we cycled by but our hosts were warm, welcoming and very generous. Staying with hosts has been such an enriching experience, we learn so much about a country and the subtle differences from place to place. Staying with Jani, Eva-Lisa and family, in a small settlement north of Jyväskylä, we were treated to a Finnish sauna. The Finns love their saunas, and all modern houses and apartments seem to have one built in as standard as part of the bathroom. Eva-Lisa and I went first and alternated sitting in the sauna with trips to the shower. The men went next and went between the sauna and the balcony. Jerry tells me that it was dark by then!

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Eva-Lisa, Jani and Johanna at lucky 13

Jani joined the Warmshowers community to encourage his sons to learn English. Guests come from around Europe and they all use English as the international language. So good luck boys with your studies!

Just north of Helsinki, we stayed with Hilkka, a friend of a Quaker Friend. Immediately on arriving, she invited us to hot smoke a side of salmon in her back garden. We lit a small bonfire of dried, split birch logs and then lifted a small barrel on top. When it was hot, Hilkka scattered wood chips inside and placed the salmon on the internal shelf. 10 minutes of conversation later and the salmon was a golden brown colour and ready to eat.

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Home smoked salmon the Finnish way

In Porvoo, Kaisa and Christoffer, warmly welcomed us to their 19th century wooden house and, after a shower, fed us an absolutely delicious vegan dinner. They regaled us with stories of their own cycling adventures which, with their creative talents, they turn into comic books. Besides inviting us to stay a second night so that we could explore the historic wooden old town, they generously lent us their map of the Baltic States for our journey south.

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Porvoo Old Town

Sakari invited us to his home about 40 km north of Helsinki after I got in touch with the Quaker meeting in Helsinki. He and his wife, Anneke, spent two days showing us around their local area and Helsinki. We went to see the house of Jean Sibelius where he composed much of his music. Apparently colours had different keys for him and so his wife, Aino, carefully chose the interior colours to sing music to him. Yellow and green were particularly prevalent, one of which was the D major chord. We also toured his sauna and bath house and walked around his orchard and garden ground. Sakari’s ancestors have lived in the area around Nurmijärvie for a long time and he delighted in showing us where they lived and sharing memories from his childhood. If you have read the blog about our travels in Norway then you will know that at one point I was fantasising about an all you can eat restaurant. Sakari and Anneke satisfied this fantasy when they took us out to lunch at a favourite restaurant of theirs that serves Finnish food from a revisitable buffet. There was soup, followed by fish and cold meat with salad, sausages and roasted vegetables finished off by a dessert of mousse, cheese and sweets. Delicious.

So we left Finland with a warm, fuzzy feeling, though not before I had yanked my back turning my bike around on the day we left. For a moment, I couldn’t move for the pain and thought I wouldn’t be going any further.

(If you are on Facebook, and would like more regular brief updates on our progress, send a friend request to ‘Johanna Babbs’).

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4 responses to “Carvings, Trees and Finnish Hospitality

  1. Sheila M Wardell

    hope your back has recovered, Jo

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  2. Compelling reading Johanna! What amazing places and delightful people! There’s a sense of regret with each experience you leave behind, they’re so fascinating and individual. Good luck with chasing south after the light…
    xx

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  3. I love reading about your travels Jo. Your writing is so engaging and full of wonderful insights. I can’t believe it’s already 2 months since you were riding through Finland. I hope your back has recovered and I look forward to hearing what you have been up to in the meantime.

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