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Norway's Arctic Highway

Norway's Arctic Highway

Excerpt:
Introduction


Contents list | Introduction | Planning your trip | Driving the Highway | Sample route guide


Norway's Arctic Highway is one of the world's great roads. For around 1500km it runs from Mo i Rana, just south of the Arctic Circle, north to Kirkenes on the Norwegian�Russian border. Seen simply in terms of latitude, the road gets to within nineteen and a half degrees of the North Pole; roughly as far north as central Greenland. Almost as remarkable, it reaches as far east as Istanbul.

The Highway is a relatively modern road; the product of an evolutionary process in the early days and then of a conscious aim to give Norway a coherent and unbroken land link through its most remote Arctic fylker (counties). Roads are dendritic, they have their branches, they grow and their shape changes and adapts to circumstances. In the case of the Highway, early development was characterized by the joining up of the links which were North Norway's historic local tracks. Nothing was to stand in the way. High plateaux and mountains were to be crossed; freezing and desolate tundra wastelands conquered.

Even when seemingly complete, the road had a further obstacle to clear. Norway's fractured west coast was seen to be the next challenge. When, just over sixty years ago, the Highway was deemed to have been completed there were still no less than ten sections where the link was not a road but a ferry. With the ingenuity and audacity which are the trademarks of Norway's road engineers, these were gradually reduced by bridging or tunnelling until today only one ferry remains in the Highway's path.

Judicious pruning, effected by straightening, widening, raising, re-routing and more tunnelling, has produced a road that, given the hostile environment, can be described as truly remarkable. And there's surely more to come. The Arctic Highway and its branches are still being developed. From the early, quite simple concept the Highway has taken root and refuses to stop its ambitious programmes of improvement.

When I first travelled the Highway just thirty-five years ago, the road for the greater part of its length was water-bound gravel and so narrow in parts that passing another vehicle could be difficult. Today the Highway is close to being an all-weather road suitable, at least in summer, for any roadworthy vehicle.

Is there still a challenge to drive the length of Norway's Arctic Highway and explore its branches? The answer has to be yes. This is, after all, a long road across one of Europe's most remote and least inhabited regions. It is even quite a challenge to reach its starting point, Mo i Rana. The surfaces, widths and configuration have improved but the natural hazards remain. The climate is unpredictable; mountains still have to be crossed. The old targets can still be set: to reach the top of Europe at North Cape, to make it to the border with Arctic Russia, to experience Lapland. And, of course, there is the stark beauty of the landscape. Arctic Norway must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
This book is written to guide you through this near-polar wonderland along a quite exceptional road. The first three parts deal with the practical matters of preparing for the journey and the logistics of getting to the Highway. A brief historical background to the Highway and its setting is also included. The main body of the book (Parts 4 to 9) describes the Highway from Mo i Rana to Kirkenes in six sections. It also includes descriptions of some of the Arctic Highway's more alluring branches which are easily accessible. It is unlikely that you will manage them all unless time is no constraint but, given their attractions, it is worth considering the merits of as many as can be fitted into your programme.

Although reference is made to conditions in winter, there is a general assumption that you will be travelling during the short summer period. After all, unless you live in a similar environment, driving the 1500km on snow and ice may well be a challenge too many. And why drive through such a beautiful land when it is dark for most of the day?

Norway is an expensive country by any measure but, like much of Scandinavia, there is a vast range of accommodation options including excellent self-catering cabins. Guideline prices are given but remember that prices change, usually upwards! Likewise, new options may become available and others may change character with new managements.

Part 2 contains a very brief note on the Sami but anyone interested in their background and culture will find that there is a wealth of literature to consult. A glossary of words and word endings is in the Appendix, p302. Most Scandinavian and Finnish place names are descriptive of their sites or locations and the glossary should help you interpret them.

No apology is made for the frequent references to the Arctic Highway's historical place in World War II. The German occupation of Norway is a largely forgotten chapter in an otherwise well-documented story. Not so to the North Norwegian; even by those who had no experience of the war, this period in their history is still vividly recalled from the accounts of those who lived through it. As time passes, it seems that consciousness of this horrific period grows rather than diminishes. New war museums open and new monuments are erected.

The Highway's place in the war is at once peculiarly poignant and ambivalent. It was the occupying power that carried out significant improvements to the road, but at a cost. The work was done by slave labour, largely Yugoslavs and Russians. Thousands paid the price of a better road with their lives. The people of Arctic Norway do not forget this. For them the Arctic Highway is the Blodvei, the Blood Road.

Norway's Arctic Highway

Excerpts: