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A rugged fjord landscape, snow, and the northern lights — what more could you want? Well yes, there is something: a vehicle that can stand up to all the challenges involved.
I fulfilled a dream I’ve had ever since my childhood by outfitting a G-Class in a way that enables me to travel without having to rely on paved roads or the conveniences of civilization.
Ever since I received my driver’s license, I’ve loved to take road trips of every kind. This enthusiasm started when I traveled across the Alps with my parents in a W124, and it grew steadily during various road trips throughout Europe in my yellow W123, which was built in 1980. In a camper van that I rented in the USA, I experienced for the first time the advantages of a large vehicle in which you can sleep comfortably. That’s an advantage a nature-loving camper like me quickly learns to appreciate, especially in the winter.
An idea was born
Accompanying me on more than half of my road trips was André Haspel, a college friend and colleague who is always ready to help me carry out every crazy travel plan. Before this particular tour, I had already traveled with him through 17 European countries, from Gibraltar to North Cape. I no longer remember how or when I had the idea of visiting the wonderful landscapes of Norway and North Cape once again during the winter. But this idea firmly established itself in my mind.
And in spite of the bitter cold and the dark of the Arctic night, my friends greeted it with unanimous approval and lively interest. However, most of my potential travel companions ultimately got cold feet. Only Leon Schell, another college friend of mine, firmly promised to join us. The three of us would be able to sleep in a space that was just 1.40 meters wide, and my car was big enough for that.
Within six weeks I mastered the challenge of outfitting my newly bought car, a G 300 turbodiesel (built in 1998 and with a mileage of over 330,000 kilometers), as a camping and expedition vehicle and preparing it for Arctic conditions. In addition to building in a full-surface roof rack, a ladder in the back for our baggage and equipment, and a folding bed, I also wanted to be well-prepared for the changing moods of the Arctic winter.
I carried out a complete maintenance of the car, made sure that all of the operating fluids would work at temperatures of -45°C, and imported winter tires from Finland. I also equipped the G with work lamps, a reserve battery, a power inverter, an electric engine preheater, additional LED high beam headlamps, and a Webasto air heater for the interior. And because I’d rather be safe than sorry, I also added snow chains, reserve gas canisters, and emergency rescue equipment.
Part 1: The people
We finally started our journey in the morning of December 16, 2017. The first and longest day of driving took us to André’s sister Janina in Aarhus, Denmark. During the two days we spent there, she gave us many insights into the Danish Lifestyle.
On the following day we drove to Copenhagen, and after that we crossed the Öresund Bridge to Sweden, where we spent our first night in the car. Converting the car from its driving mode to a place to sleep was initially rather complicated, but with increasing practice we were able to carry it out smoothly after just a few days.
After that we drove toward Bergen via Oslo, Kristiansand, and Stavanger, visiting some of my favorite places from previous road trips. Here in southwestern Norway, the craggy landscape is especially varied and impressive.
Unfortunately, we were a bit unlucky with the weather, experiencing temperatures between zero and 10°C and several rainy days. In Granvin on the Hardangerfjord, we experienced the fabulous hospitality of Scandinavia. André and Leon had met Eline, a woman from Norway, a few months before that in Cuba, and she had invited us to visit her in her homeland. We were part of her family for two days.
We immediately received a warm welcome, were integrated into their daily lives, and were introduced to their friends and relatives. This was the last time we were able to enjoy the conveniences of civilization.
Part 2: Untamed nature
After saying farewell to Granvin and driving northward from Vossevangen, we finally experienced real winter weather. The temperature plunged, and it started snowing heavily. We had a lot of fun sliding across a huge empty parking lot covered with 20 centimeters of new snow, and that night we set up our campsite there.
We quickly created an awning made of two tarpaulins and two tent poles. When it was fastened to the back of our vehicle, it offered us protection from the weather for cooking and eating. It fulfilled its purpose beautifully, but setting it up and taking it down was a bit complicated, and we were happy that this was the first and last time we needed it. We had the weather to thank for that!
On Christmas Eve we went to church in Trondheim and then drove off into untamed nature. As we looked for a place to camp for the night, we experienced the G’s reactions to winter road conditions, and on two occasions we made a 90 degree turn and skidded across the road. Fortunately, there was no oncoming traffic and we had no accidents before we were able to find a place to spend the night. We enjoyed our modest dinner on a lonely, snowy dirt road, illuminated by our improvised Christmas tree and a couple of flare boxes.
After that we continued driving north and reached the Arctic Circle Centre in the Saltfjellet Mountains. This visitors’ center is closed during the winter, but we had good memories of this place of pilgrimage, which is always overrun with tourists in the summer, so we felt we had to make a stop here. Fortified with all of our winter driving equipment, we struggled through the deep snow to the Arctic Circle Monument so that we could at least take a few snapshots. We then drove a few kilometers further in order to find a place to park for the night. For all of us, the most beautiful Christmas present was the Northern Lights, which we saw that night for the first time on this trip.
Starting on December 26, we experienced what is officially known as the polar night. For the next seven days of our trip, we never saw the sunrise. But nothing changed for us except for the fact that the days kept growing shorter. Because the weather was so cloudy, we had not seen the sun at all since we left Aarhus. A ferry took us from the town of Bodø to the picturesque village of Å on the Lofoten Islands. Because these islands are so beautiful, we spent two days there, and in our opinion this was the most impressive part of our road trip!
We left the coastal road as we traveled toward Sweden, because we wanted to take a look at the world’s biggest underground iron ore mine in Kiruna. It was noticeably colder in the mountains than it had been along the coast. We experienced our coldest temperature of the trip — -32 degree — around noon in the vicinity of Abisko National Park. At temperatures like these, everything freezes immediately and it even becomes hard to breathe.
Although we never allowed the car to cool off completely, the food we were carrying in the stowage compartments in the trunk froze solid. In Kiruna we went to a spa in the evening, and when we pulled out of the parking lot we managed to get stuck in the middle of the city in our G. It was all my fault. Driving through a snowdrift on our way from the parking lot to the street had not been a good idea after all. We paid for this fit of overconfidence by shoveling snow for 20 minutes — and that was the end of our evening of rest and relaxation.
Because of the extremely low temperatures, even cooking our evening meals took much longer than usual. Fortunately, our heating system operated flawlessly at night, so we were able to sleep comfortably. On the following day we went on a tour of the mine. We were impressed by the gigantic electrically operated machines that are used for mining today.
After the tour, we started driving back to the town of Alta in Norway. We also made a stop in Hammerfest, which used to be the world’s northernmost town, and then continued our journey to North Cape. On the morning of December 31, we were standing in a long line of cars waiting for the snowplow that was to lead our column for the last 13 kilometers to the Cape. We were astonished to see that there were so many other Germans waiting with us: Almost half of all the cars around us had a D on their license plates. After reaching North Cape, we spent only two hours there, but of course we took the obligatory photos in front of the Globe monument.
During the next part of our journey, my G finally got a chance to serve as a rescue vehicle. Thanks to our heavy-duty snow chains on all four wheels and locked differentials, we were able to easily pull a VW bus out of the mud after it had slid off the road.
After that we continued on to Alta. During our stay at North Cape we had gotten to know some people who were traveling in a camper van. They cooked a meal for us, and we celebrated a wonderful New Year’s Eve together. On our way to Finland, we were accompanied by a hitchhiker named Ben for a couple of days. The four of us visited Santa Claus Village on the Arctic circle near the town of Rovaniemi and took a look around the town itself.
Part 3: City tours
The last third of our journey was dominated by civilization and took us through a number of cities. We had planned to cross the border to Russia near Helsinki, the capital of Finland. We had received our visas, but we were still just a bit nervous. Crossing the border was an extremely lengthy process, because only about half of the customs officials could speak English. We nonetheless managed to make ourselves understood, mostly through gestures, and crossed over into Russia without any problems. We still don’t know whether our auto insurance was valid in Russia, because fortunately no accidents occurred.
After spending a night in the car, we drove on to St. Petersburg, where we visited all of the main tourist attractions on foot. Toward evening we started looking around for some nightlife — and discovered that the Russians really know how to party!!! It was a wonderful feeling to see the sunrise, which brought us the first sunshine we had seen for three weeks. St. Petersburg… What a city!
We left the Russian Federation and entered Estonia after a much quicker and easier encounter with the Estonian customs officials. For the rest of our trip, we were in the EU. In the next four days we quickly checked off the cities of Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, and Warsaw. We only drove through Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, and had lunch in Pilsen before starting out for home. We arrived home in Swabia a day earlier than planned — rather exhausted, but very happy.
The last word
In the end, what remains with you are the impressions — experiences and images that you never forget. As I sort out my photographs and write my blog entries, I’m carried back to certain moments, I have to smile, and I feel a longing to be on the road again.
Crossing the borders of 11 different countries 14 times in all — that can’t fail to make an impression on you. The three of us were on the road for exactly four weeks this past winter, and we traveled for 10,420 kilometers in all. That’s more than a quarter of the Earth’s circumference. During this journey, my faithful and reliable G had no technical problems whatsoever. The engine was satisfied with just one liter of motor oil, and just a bit more diesel than expected flowed through the tank. To be exact, our gas costs accounted for almost half of our travel budget.
All in all, the “G North Run,” as we affectionately called our road trip, was a fantastic experience. For that I’d like to thank my fellow travelers André and Leon, as well as everyone else who supported me before and after the journey. An especially heartfelt “Thank you!” goes to my family, my girlfriend, the other inhabitants of my co-op, and my coworkers for their understanding and their assistance.