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The Murmansk Challenge

Trip ReportJames HipkissComment

"Exploring our arctic regions can evoke assumptions of expense, precision preparation, and lengthy expeditions through snow-torn landscape utilising equipment reserved for the specialist. The reality is that Europes share of the Arctic Circle is quite accessible throughout the summer months.

The sun shines 24 hours each day, and temperatures can reach 12 degrees Celsius, meaning that the region can be reached even by the fool-hardy. From the people who brought you the Banjul Rally comes the spin-off event: introducing the Murmansk Rally, where amateur adventurists take to some of Europes most northerly and remote roads. Preparation can and that's not to say it should be kept to a minimum. In fact, the only necessary prep work is to obtain a Russian Visa if you're planning on going the full length. Our adventure starts a day behind the official start date (thus behind the rest of the teams). The major benefit to travel with other cars in a convoy of sorts is the security (or perceived security). Should you break down, friendly faces are available for help, moral support, and even a lift.

For us the first leg of the journey was actually from London to Prague by plane to pick up our chosen rally carone wed left with a mechanic six months earlier on an ill-fated rally attempt, buts that's another story. The K (1995) Reg Vauxhall Astra 1.8 diesel rolls out of a storage unit behind the airport, its red bonnet emerging from a black cloud of smoke churning in the confined space. Luckily, it started on the first go! We load up and within minutes head off on our arctic adventure. Of course, the first point of call is a petrol station, and not far off the Western suburb of Prague, we pull in for a quick service. We fill up the tank, check the oil, tire pressure, top up the water in the coolant-tank, pay the attendant, and hastily pull out of there, gaining speed on the single county road. Suddenly, we hear something flying off the car and see a flicker of something in the dark in the wing mirror. Quickly we realise what I had done: Id placed the cap for the coolant tank on the roof. Ops! Breaks are quickly applied, followed by hazard lights as myself and my co-driver jump out. Theres no cap in sight. It must have bounced off the tarmac into the ditch, or into the soft verge overgrown with vegetation. Wearing shorts, I wade through the stinging nettles along the roadside. After about 45 minutes of searching, enduring honks from the traffic flying by and narrowly avoiding being struck, we make the decision to cut our losses.

We leave, deciding to risk driving without the coolant cap and hoping all the liquid within doesnt evaporate before we can find a solution. Nervously driving along, keeping an eye on the temperature gauge, we drive through a town where we luckily find the Czech equivalent to a Halfords store that is able to sell us a replacement. Finally easing into our journey as we race (obeying the speed limits at all times) up north through the Czech Republic, conscious that the last ferry departing Poland for Sweden leaves in eight hours time. The journey is a pleasant one as the Czech motorway twists and turns, passing through the mountainous region of the Sudetenlands before the gradient levels out and we pass into Germany. Enjoying the renowned German motorways, we pass signs for Dresden and, a few hours later, Berlin. Hours of continual driving fly by and as the sun sets, we pass the standard blue EU sign welcoming us to Poland, it and the change of the roads surface serving as the only indication that weve passed into another country.

As darkness starts to set theres little to report back on the scenery here, so I just concentrate on getting us on the ship on time. We pull into the Polish ferry port in the town of Swinoujsci with 15 minutes to spare and purchase our tickets (approx. 170euro - one way for one car + two people). Finally we can relax: it has been an exhausting yet exhilarating day. The ferry crosses the Baltic Sea overnight, taking about eight hours. The ferries are very much what youd expect crossing the English Channel. Cabins are available, but as were on a tight budget we do what so many around us do: lie on the floor in our sleeping bags between a row of seats, crack open small cans of Czech beer, and toast our travel to date before trying to squeeze into an appropriate sleeping position and finally get some shut eye. The ships tanoi makes an announcement in a language I assume to be Swedish, with a further assumption that we have arrived as the next day beginsat 6 AM. We roll out of the ferryour hostel for the nightand drive out of port, map in hand, and ready for adventure.

George my co-driver (who hasnt driven a car in the ten years since he passed his testand I have no intention of changing that during this trip!) assures me he knows which direction to head and the number of the road we need to take. Relatively easily, he navigates us out of town (with the help of plentiful road signs) and onward towards Stockholm! The Swedish motorways are good to us. Theres no traffic, and the roads are well-surfaced with pleasant, green-rolling scenery broken only by a lake. Still a day behind any other British bangers, were loath to stop and actually experience any of this, our feet on the ground only to fill up at a petrol station, check the oil, water, and again almost driving off with the caps on the roof! Hours fly by as the motorway bypasses Stockholm and we see the city skyline, church spires piercing though the urbanity of it all. Here, we joke that its our last chance to come to our senses and board a low cast airline home. Hours of driving fly by, fuelled by determination to make good time along Swedens coastline at the Gulf of Bothnia. The view is almost uninterrupted forest, save for the road, which seems stark by comparison. More and more hours pass and the landscape seems the same as two hours previous.

The feeling of remoteness grows, as well as sadness that my first visit to Sweden is bound to be a fleeting trip confined to the drivers seatyet, in our minds, its crucial to reach another team before we press through to Russia. At these longitudes, the summer days are long with night barely managing to creep in for a few hours. This helps with visibility. As we head farther north, the days get longer until there is no darkness at all. Closer to evening, the repetitiveness of it all can cause fatigue. You're eager to pass something of significance: a border, a town, a river, a taller treeanything that will give some sense of the distance travelled. Finally, a sign for the Finnish border appears. We decide to end the long day on the Finnish side, near the town of Kemi. On the outskirts of the town, we find a small lay-by on the countryside. Its 4 AM, its light out, and weve just calculated that wed driven 21 continuous hours, interrupted only by the inevitable stop to refuel. Were too tired to fluff around with a tent, so we try to make ourselves comfortable in the car, amidst the mess and man-sweat and trace fumes of fuel. Its amazing how much mess can accumulate in a car carrying two men over a few days of driving! I decide to try and lie on the backseat, crawling into my sleeping bag, and wrapping a t-shirt around my eyes to block the sunlight.

My co-driver fends for himself in the front seats. Closing my eyes, the image of pristine, never-ending road seems burned to my retinas, yet I soon fall asleep. Four hours later, around 8:30 AM, were both unpleasantly awoken by flies and midges, which have no doubt been attracted by the smell emanating from the slightly-open car window. Hopping around any exposed body parts, I try in a half-sleep to wave them away, but they are a consent irritation, landing on my lip, my one exposed ear, really anywhere that isnt covered and a million places that are. Theres no option but to admit defeat, so we jump out of the car and prepare for another Le Mans-esque feat. Pesky flying beasties circle us, even beyond the cars walls, waiting for moments of absolute stillness to land on us again. Annoyed and grumpy, we jump into the car, open all the windows, and drive off, trusting the airflow to vanquish any leftover intruders. Our route takes us farther north, though Finlands northern wilderness.

Finland is know as the Land of a Thousand Lakes, and as our route meanders through the wilderness, we feel like we've seen most of them as the sun reflects off the surfaces of these enormous bodies of water through thin green blanketed with forestry. The road skirts the banks of these shores, marked with trees on the other side. Its as if the Finns who laid these roads wanted to treat drivers to a wonderful picturesque scene, maybe even reward them for making the effort to travel so far north and the enchanting idyll is certainly appreciated. Although not too dissimilar from what we've experienced throughout our drive through Sweden, the Land of a Thousand Lakes is somehow more rewarding: the trees seem thicker, more dense and green, and the lakes somehow more large and picturesque and the roads have an unvanquished feel about them.

Relaxed, nearly forgetting our rendezvous with other teams, we casually pull over every so often to stretch our legs, even managing a little toe-dip in a lake. The air is fresh and piney, inviting us to snap pictures at our leisure. Of course, some stops are necessary, for another kind of nature calls to my co-driver; he disappears to do what if many often ask bears do in the woods. I flick through the map and run my finger over our anticipated route along the page. A few minutes later, George comes running back from the sylvan roadside, waving invisible beasties from his body and shouting Go go go! They bite! Its like a scene from a comedy script. We set out as he explains how the swarm of midges and mosquitoes hid in the dark woods, waiting to ambush him at the sound of his belt unbuckling. Its hard to concentrate on driving through the laughter, as George laments that hes been bitten in the most sensitive areas. Mid-afternoon takes us to one of the highlights of our road trip: appearing suddenly out of the wilderness are signs for Santas workshop appear and finally a large sign welcoming us to the Arctic Circle, complete with a line drawn across the road depicting this invisible line of demarcation between the extremities of the midnights sun and the polar night. Taking the obligatory photos of the Arctic Circle sign a must and using our phones to confirm the GPS coordinates is fun, even if the large Santa souvenir shop and cafe ever-so-slightly cheapen the experience.

Deep in Finlands north-country, we slice through the forest on long, single-lane roads, continuing north when suddenly the road widens and the walls of trees, once inches from our windows seem now to be 100 feet away. Unsure what this Finnish road-feature means, I let off the accelerator and coast on the cars momentum. With an examination of the markings, it dawns on us that the massive longitudinal tarmac could be an emergency runway incorporated into the road, and why not if you've got the space! Coincidentally this is where we encounter our first reindeer. These massive, majestic creatures cross the roads calmly, almost oblivious to traffic. This is their land drivers will stop for them, passengers admiring the close encounters until the reindeer decide they've paused long enough, allowing traffic to resume. This also sparks up a discussion on the difference of elk, moose, and reindeer, which becomes a recurring theme in our conversations for the reminder of our trip (until finally settled by Wikipedia upon our return).

As we drive north, our trips progress is occasionally disrupted by a herd of reindeer walking across the road. The sun gleams much longer then were accustomed to, and as we progress to the Norwegian border again without customs or border processwe encounter a simple sign welcoming us to the Kingdom of Norway. The landscape changes subtly for a few miles, but after awhile, much of the forest disappears, giving way to hills, and then mountains. It isnt until late afternoon that we finally catch up to another banger team. After a few introductions and a sigh of relief that we have a ride back home should our car decided to give up, we decide that we can just about make the Russian boarder before it closes at 10 PM. We race through the relatively short Norwegian leg, stopping only to refuel (my co-driver eagerly reminding me not to place the fuel cap on the roof).

Indeed, we make it to the border in time. This is the first real border check, and were prepared for this to be a thorough one. Russia has a reputation for bureaucracy. This, compounded with the fact that old British bangers trying to enter Russian territory through a far off, lonesome outpost not being something the guards come across often, means were in for a proper going over. First we approach the Norwegian customs post, where they check our passports and happily wave us off. A brief, slow, and cautious drive over no-mans-land takes us toward what weve mentally prepared ourselves for. Its strange how simple things, such as foreign border guards, can get the butterflies flapping in ones stomach. Surely the worst thing they can do is deny you passage and send you backor could they arrest you for spying? Its too latewere committed! We exit the vehicles and enter the customs building, all our papers in hand (What papers?! See below!). One by one, we are inspected by the official.

He checks our passports and visas thoroughly before turning his attention our vehicular paper work. Opel? he asks in a firm way, I consider correcting him by explaining its a Vauxhall, but decide this isnt the best time. I approach and pass him the paper for the car. In broken English he explains that I need to fill out temporary import papers for the car and lends me a pen. He continues to explain that our vehicle can stay in Russia for up to six months, however I cannot leave without the car. No pressure, I suppose, as its only 15-years old and has a history of breaking down. I fill out the comprehensive form, and hand it over minutes later. He sighs, passing me a blank formId filled out a wrong field. Oops! Repeat the process, and Ive cocked it up again! Clearly, nerves and the fatigue of driving are catching up to me. On my third attempt, the official is satisfied.

During the paperwork formalities and stamping of passports, our vehicles are being searched by the border guards. Admirably these formalities aren't as difficult as I expected, and in a little under an hour we are allowed to continue on into the largest country in the world. By 10 PM, its been a long day, but we expect to be in the city of Murmansk in a few hours where wed finally be able to check in to a hotel and have a shower and treat ourselves to little comfort or so we thought. Indeed, Murmansk in only a few hours away from the border, providing you take the correct road and not the unfinished motorway which prematurely erected signs suggest is open. The final push to Murmansk is a demanding one. However, to call this the worst road Ive ever driven on is unjust, as the road has not actually yet been laid. Rather, its a very wide mud track, where land has been cleared in preparation for the road to go down. With no idea how far the track went on for, after a few hours, we are sure well reach our destination after the next gradual bend or hill in the clearing. Yet each horizon only exposes nothing new.

The sun disappears behind dark clouds, yet its still light out, which helps. In the early hours of the morning, tiredness really takes a toll as we struggle to concentrate on maneuvering the car though the path of least resistance, progressing truly at a snails pace as we avoid holes, bumps, and scraping the undercarriage. Each vibration and knock helps to prevent the danger of sleep kicking in. Its the fear of what damage we must be doing to our car that delivers true insomnia. A light fog lines our route and the surrounding moorland, almost like a smoke machines be left on, providing eerie feel to the drive. Hours later, we finally come across tarmac, and though it is completely riddled with pot-holes, we can finally increase our speed and make actual progress to Murmansk. The route takes us over an old, metal-framed bridge spanning a powerful body of water.

As we near the other side, Murmansk comes into sight. This city, home to some 300,000 people, is an architecturally interesting place. Surrounded by forested hills on one side and heavily industrialised on the water-front with a sea port, the city is positioned along a wide sea inlet on the bay, some 12 km inland from the Barents Sea. The horizon holds a truly stark contrast of naturally lovely landscapes and large, grey, Soviet-era buildings. Theres little in the way of touristy stuff to see and do in Murmansk, but wandering through the city is an experience itself. Crossing large boulevards, walking past massive concrete structures with facades depicting the classic communist hammer and sickle is arresting. Some of these buildings are clearly in a severe state of disrepair, and as with so many Russian stereotypes, statues of Lenin aren't difficult to find.

When the sun shines, its surprising how many different shades of grey are noticeable around the city. I begin to feel strangely attracted to this domineering city, like a flower blooming amidst this vast concrete jungle. There is a museum for those interested in the regions art, history, or proud shipping and naval heritage. A worthy place to visit is the nuclear icebreaker docked nearby, where guided tours take you through the worlds first nuclear-powered surface ship. Overlooking much of the city is the Alyosha Statue, a massive 30-meter tall statute of a soldier, which is accessible by car. Accommodation in Murmansk is not really tailored for those on a shoestring budget, so do not expect hostels or bunk houses. Instead, there are hotels which cater to business men.

Nevertheless, you can still find decent offers, like the city's Park Inn. If you're after a pub, you may struggle a bit. That's not to say there aren't any just that they're not easy amidst the sea of grey communist exteriors. Its easy to mistake the local pub for just another housing block. But its fun to get lost in the town and to ask locals to point you in the right direction. The younger people here can be very friendly and eager to practice their English. After a short conversation, they're happy to help, suggesting the best places in town.