Posts tagged ‘backpacking’

September 13, 2014

Into the wild – alone in Sarek and Padjelanta part one

by backpackingbongos

Prologue

For me wild land and wilderness is like a drug. Once I have a taste I want more, what previously satisfied me no longer has an effect and I want to move onto harder and harder stuff. It started off with Kinder Scout but I quickly found that I needed to visit Wales and the Lakes to get satisfaction. They would soon no longer give me the same effect so I endured longer and longer journeys to get to the Highlands of Scotland. Mountains do not automatically qualify as wild so I was soon seeking out the fringes; remote uninhabited coastlines and Islands. All very good but they still don’t qualify as bona fide wilderness. I then heard about Sarek and started doing research on the internet. I found myself being sucked in by the ‘Last Wilderness in Europe’ moniker. I had to go and travel north of the Arctic Circle to have a look for myself.

Travel

After two flights and a night in an airport hotel in Stockholm I found myself exiting the airport at Luleå, the capital of Norrbotten county. Swedish efficiency had meant leaving the aircraft, picking up my luggage and stepping onboard the airport bus all in the space of ten minutes. I’m not a city person so this part of the trip had left me feeling the most nervous before setting off. I had to get off in the centre of town, find an outdoor shop, purchase gas and some lunch, get to the railway station, buy a ticket and get the train to Gällivare. The reality could not have been any simpler. The exceptionally helpful bus driver told me when to get off the bus and where to find the outdoor shop. For anyone visiting Luleå I went into the well stocked Naturkompaniet where I marvelled at the high price of Outdoor gear in Sweden. The shop was a Hilleberg and Fjällräven fetishists dream! With gas successfully purchased and after a trip to the supermarket to get some bread and cheese, I found the railway station where I settled down for a couple of hours to wait for my train. My worry that the connection from plane to train was too tight was unfounded, Luleå is nice and compact and easy to walk around. It’s worth noting that neither the bus or the unmanned train station take cash for tickets, annoying when I was carrying enough Swedish Krona for the whole trip.

Norrtag run a couple of trains a day between Luleå and Kiruna, stopping off at Gällivare along the way. The large, clean and empty train was a dream for someone used to the often dirty and cramped services in the UK. It whisked me silently north across the Arctic Circle through a landscape dominated by trees. The view for two and a half hours was a wall of pine and birch.

The helpful tourist information centre at the railway station at Gällivare pointed me in the direction of my booked accommodation. Being on the outskirts of town I had worried that it would be a long walk. Gällivare however is compact and it only took ten minutes to reach. If you find yourself spending a night there I cannot rate Gällivare Bed and Breakfast enough. Single occupancy of a room came in at 440 SEK which is around £40. There is a kitchen to use to self cater and the price includes breakfast. The owner Marita is super friendly and let me store a bag whilst I went off into Sarek. She even washed the clothes I travelled in so I would be sweet-smelling on the way home. Gällivare town centre on a Saturday night was like the set of a very tidy post apocalyptic movie. A town with hardly anyone on the streets is rather unsettling and the thought of winters there when it is dark for weeks on end made me feel rather depressed.

Länstrafiken Norrbotten is the main bus company in the north and I caught the number 93 to Ritsem, a three hour journey. It took half of that time to get over the shock of paying 347 SEK (£32) for the privilege. The journey itself is spectacular once the bus turns off the main road, travelling alongside a series of lakes with huge mountains rising beyond. The driver gave bits of commentary pointing out the mountains of Sarek in a confusing mix of Swedish and English.

Ritsem has a bleak frontier feel to it even on a warm sunny day with light bouncing off the huge lake of Akkajaure. It is basically a scruffy caravan park, a scattered STF hostel and a large car park. A functional staging point for Sarek, Padjelanta and Stora Sjöfallet National Parks. A boat takes passengers across Akkajaure to the pier at either Anonjalmme (45 mins) or Vaisaluokta (65 mins). With the Ritsem pier being a good ten minutes walk away the bus driver offered to take people down on his return trip to Gällivare. This gave me ample time to enjoy a freshly smoked Arctic Char and Sami flat bread. A very enjoyable lunch.

Day 1 – 24th August 2014

Day 1

As the boat was being prepared there was a loud splash in the water. A panicked German man quickly scrambled off of the pier to try to retrieve the detached pockets of his pack which were now floating in the lake. He had managed to knock them into the water whilst busy taking photos. Luckily after they initially started to float off towards Sarek the breeze pushed them back to shore.

It was an enjoyable crossing in the worlds slowest boat, the huge bulk of Ahkka dominating the view to the south. It cost a hefty 250 SEK (£23) for just a few short kilometres. At least my wallet was to remain firmly closed for the next eleven days. There was nothing available to buy even if I had wanted to.

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After everyone had got off the boat I waited at the shore for them to sort their packs and then start the climb towards Akka. I wanted to sit in the sun for a while and get my head around what I was about to do. To travel all that way and then disappear into the wilds was a big thing for me. It was well past 3.00pm by the time I hoisted my pack onto my back and set off south along the Padjelantaleden.

Within about half an hour I was cursing my rucksack, heavy at 25 kilos with eleven days food packed inside. Luckily my plan was to take it easy over the next three and a half days, travelling about fifty kilometres in that time. By then I would be fitter and my pack lighter.

The trail that day was easy, a succession of duck boards over the damp sections giving swift walking. It led through birch forest, leaves just beginning to turn golden with autumn coming. The splendid peak of Ahkka which rises to 2015 metres dominates this section, glaciers filling the gaps between its jagged peaks.

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The river Vuojatadno could be heard long before I caught sight of it. Even in dry conditions it is a mighty foaming beast, draining a series of lakes in Padjelanta National park. I walked across the bouncing suspension bridge, butterflies in my stomach as I stood in the middle and watched the angry water below me.

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On high ground above the river I made a phone call to my wife, Ritsem was still visible on the other side of the lake and the signal was good. I then turned my back on civilisation and continued along the trail.

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For a while the Padjelantaleden left the cover of the birch woods and I frequently found myself stopping and looking at Ahkka. I tried to imagine what the view would be like from the top. It would be great one day to return and stand on its summit. It all looks pretty daunting on the map though.

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I was getting tired and suitable pitches were not forthcoming. Even with all that space pitching a tent in the far north can be surprisingly difficult, especially at lower altitudes where various tough vegetation dominates. I would often wish for the lush grassy pitches of home. In the end I made do with a well used spot complete with picnic benches and a toilet. I’m never keen on pitching on compacted bare earth and it did not have the feeling of being in the wilds. However it was flat with water running nearby. I chatted to a young English lad for a while who had walked the Padjelantaleden from the south in four days. With a can of beer and a fag on the go he was disappointed that the toilet did not have any loo roll. I suppose we all prioritise what is important to us when packing.

Keen to spend my first evening enjoying a bit of solitude I went and sat by the stream to cook dinner, resorting to wearing a windproof to stop the mosquitos biting. It was the only night where I used a bug nest inside my shelter. Later tucked up in my sleeping bag it was a cool and still night, the quiet occasionally punctuated by the howls and shouts of a large group of youngsters camped somewhere in the woods.

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Day 2 – 25th August 2014

Day 2

A cool still night in woodland next to a stream led to copious condensation. I had planned a very easy day, just a few kilometres into Sarek itself. Therefore I was happy to lie in my sleeping bag until mid morning and wait for the sun to dry everything off. The past three days of travelling had really tired me out and it was good to stop moving for a while.

The trail to the bridge over the Sjnjuvtjudisjahka is once again easy, although it feels like there are more ups and downs than the map shows. With a heavy pack I continued to take my time, I did not want to get an injury at this early stage.

It was whilst sitting having a rest that I learned to never judge a book by a cover. A large figure with an even larger rucksack bumbled into view clutching a two litre coke bottle full of water. He was perspiring heavily and appeared to be struggling, I thought to myself that he is not going to get very far before having to return to the ferry. However after speaking to him I discovered he had walked all the way from Narvik in Norway and was continuing south on the Nordkalotteden trail. Expensive, modern kit does not make a backpacker, grit and determination does.

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The bridge over the Sjnjuvtjudisjahka marked my entry into Sarek and the surrounding area was probably the busiest spot of my entire trip. There were many folk going to and from the nearby STF hut at Kisuris. I looked for the boards that mark the coming together of Sarek, Padjelanta and Stora Sjofallets National Parks. Somehow I failed to find them, perhaps they were across the smaller bridge over Sjpietjavjahka.

After a short break I hoisted on my pack, turned my back on the crowds and headed into the wilds of Sarek.

I completely cocked up the first few hundred metres. I got drawn into following a path alongside the Sjpietjavjahka which was nice and easy until it disappeared into a tangle of vegetation and boulders. The contours on my map are at twenty metre intervals which failed to show that I should have been on the bank high above to my left. A loose scramble up the steep slope soon had me back on track and I watched a couple below also make the same mistake.

Once I was on the path it was very easy to follow across an open landscape dotted with a few trees on a wide strip of land between two rivers. This became ever wider as the rivers went their separate ways and I continued above the Sjnjuvtjudisjahka.

It was only 3.00pm when I spotted an idyllic flat grassy spot above the river. My schedule still gave me two full days to reach the centre of the park at Mihka so why not get my shelter up, relax and enjoy the glorious surroundings? That is what I did and I enjoyed a fine afternoon reading and generally being a backpacking slob.

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As afternoon slipped into evening I was treated to a magical sunset that highlighted the first hints of Autumn showing in the trees and vegetation. With a mug of coffee in my hand I sat for an hour above camp and watched the surrounding hills light up. I was finally in Sarek and there was nowhere else I would rather be.

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September 9, 2014

Video diary – alone in Sarek and Padjelanta

by backpackingbongos

For the first time whilst backpacking I kept a video diary of my trip. The idea did not occur to me until the end of day four when I had possibly my most spectacular ever wild camp. There is no fancy editing, time-lapse or music score, so Terrybnd does not have to worry about the rug being pulled from under his feet! There is just me, my mobile phone and some of the best scenery in Europe. An honest account of spending eleven days on my own in some proper wilderness.

For some reason the quality defaults to 360p, I recommend changing the setting to 720p by clicking the little wheel symbol at the bottom right hand corner of the video.

 

 

 

 

September 7, 2014

Back from Sarek – a few photos

by backpackingbongos

There is the temptation to write a long list of superlatives to describe my trek through Sarek and Padjelanta National Parks. Eleven days on my own where I only saw a handful of people, mostly from a distance. It was truly humbling to be able to pass through such a vast landscape. I have never felt so committed as when I reached the mid-point, escape was several days walk in any direction. Twinges of anxiety were a constant companion and I felt alone but never lonely. It was an experience that I will never forget.

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August 15, 2014

Black Mountain Magic

by backpackingbongos

I am quickly coming to realise that it is pointless weather watching during the week leading up to a backpack. Each day the forecast changes and you watch in dismay when the promised sunshine is replaced by a weather warning. In the end I took it as an omen that the Lakes should never be visited during the mad season called the School Holidays. Instead I headed south to the Black Mountains, a promise of sunshine and a much quieter weekend in the hills.

14 kilometres with 640 metres ascent

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A small car park in the Olchon valley is a superb high level springboard for the narrow ridge that leads to Black Hill. It was a bit of a challenge finding it though the maze of narrow high hedged lanes. As I locked up the car the heavy rain on the journey south had been replaced by shafts of sunshine piercing the heavy brooding clouds. After being cooped up in the car for four hours, Reuben was given his freedom. He was lucky enough to be off lead from the moment he left the car until he got back in it the following afternoon. I’m very happy to say he acted impeccably, remaining within a couple of metres of my side the whole time.

The ridge to Black Hill is a gem. It’s nowhere near knife-edged but contrasts greatly with the surrounding rolling hills. Height was quickly gained, although I frequently had to stop to look at the views. The mountains of Wales finish abruptly and meet the green rolling English countryside. It really is rather beautiful and there is a good feeling of height walking the eastern Black Mountain escarpments.

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One final shower had me hurriedly pulling on waterproofs which were soon removed again. A warm and windy afternoon followed which made me glad that I had decided not to go to the Lakes.

Hay Bluff is a cracking viewpoint and the only section of my route that could be considered busy. The Gospel Pass gives easy access and there were also folk climbing up from the car park directly below. Looking north into the hills of Wales I once again told myself that I will have to at some point put some time aside to walk the Offa’s Dyke Path.

Descending towards the Gospel Pass the scourge of the Brecon Beacons shattered the peace. A trio of trail bikes were speeding down the path from Lord Hereford’s Knob. A cloud of dust, the whine of engines and the smell of petrol followed in their wake. Not a good mix with the hikers, families and dogs enjoying the hills. They also churn up the hills as I was soon to see.

On the summit of Lord Hereford’s Knob (or Twmpa) I found myself humming Half Man Half Biscuit as we sunned ourselves in a sheltered hollow.

Twmpa Twmpa, you’re gonna need a jumper

It gets a bit chilly on Lord Hereford’s Knob

Thankfully it was a warm and sunny August afternoon on the hill.

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The walk along the escarpment towards Pen Rhos Dirion was a delight in the late afternoon sun. The Brecon Beacons rolled off into the distance, the distinctive summit of Pen y Fan easily identifiable. There were still a few people out enjoying the hills, everyone friendly and happy to be out. One family was jealous of the fact that I was going to be spending the night pitched high on the hills. I did not envy them that they would soon have to return back to their car and civilisation. Walking on I have to admit that my hackles did rise a bit due to the state of the path, wide and rutted by the passage of many motorbikes.

I found an idyllic pitch right at the head of Cwm Cwnstab, so before putting up my shelter I went in search of water. I was pleased when I found a tiny trickle but less than impressed when right next to it I discovered a turd and piece of toilet paper. Instead I moved on wishing the culprit a slow and horrible bowel related death.

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In the end I settled on a substandard pitch on the moors above Grwyne Fawr, hidden from sight from anyone using the track. It was only during the night when I discovered just how substandard it was. It was both lumpy and on a slope. I had put some silicone on my groundsheet to stop my mat slipping off. This worked. However it did not stop me sliding off my mat. Every time I adjusted my position I could feel gravity slowly exerting its force. It felt like a long night.

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Day 2 – 13 kilometres with 530 metres ascent

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I had plenty of time during the night to ponder the importance of selecting a good pitch. Reuben had no such troubles, curled up on his mat he snored the night away. When we got up we surprised a nearby group with their long hair and long faces. I don’t think it had crossed their minds that a man and dog would emerge from the pyramid pitched in the middle of the moor. The whole family stood there in a line watching us, Reuben providing the most interest. If we moved then dad would rush to the front of the group and flex his muscles before they all backed up and reformed in a line. Mum had lovely long blonde hair which nearly reached the ground. It was awkward performing my morning ablutions in front of them but they did not appear too bothered by that.

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Leaving the Welsh Mountain ponies behind we retraced our route back to the track. This quickly led us to the Grwyne Fawr reservoir and typically I spotted loads of idyllic looking camping spots along the way. I was tempted to pop down to the tiny bothy but really could not be bothered to bash a way through the tall bracken. Having visited a few times in the past it’s not one that I would be interested in staying in unless in a real emergency. It’s far too accessible and small.

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After the relatively easy stroll the day before, I now had the challenge of crossing the grain of the Vale of Ewyas. This first involved a climb up to the intervening ridge, a long descent to Capel-y-ffin, followed by a bracken dominated climb to reach the Offa’s Dyke path on the border ridge. The route was stunning, the vale a myriad of greens and the general buzz of summer. The only downside was that much of it involved bashing through various tunnels of bracken. Half of the time I only knew that Reuben was there due to him banging into the back of my legs with his pack. I think he was glad of the shade from the summer sun though.

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There was one more long descent, this time down into the Olchon Valley. On the way I found a spring gushing with the coldest, tastiest water imaginable. I drank until my throat was numb and wetted my cap to cool my head. A lofty perch was found to sit and eat the rest of my food and take in the extensive views.

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We were once more descending through bracken and into the depths of the valley. It’s a quiet hidden place and I enjoyed the stroll through the fields and woods. There was some impressive fungi growing from a dead tree near the river.

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The handily located car park which I left the previous day was not so handy on the final climb of the day. The contours had not seemed very significant when I had been hurriedly throwing together the route. It was good to get back to the car and get my steaming boots off. Reuben quickly fell asleep on the backseat and provided no input on the drive home.

July 27, 2014

Planning for a trek in Sarek National Park – route, travel and costs

by backpackingbongos

Sarek map

Around February this year all my waking thoughts were dominated by my planned trip to Sarek National Park later this summer. If I was not trying to find blogs in English I was watching YouTube videos, anything to give me a sense of what I am letting myself in for. Maps were bought and a route painstakingly plotted out on one that had to be imported from Sweden. This still proudly sports the price sticker, and it was not cheap! Sadly there are currently no guidebooks written in English. With a route finally worked out I then had a rough framework on which to organise travel to and from the trailhead. By the end of February this was all pretty much done and with months still to go I managed to shove it to the back of my mind. Now at the tail end of July and with only a month to go it is beginning to dominate once more.

Before I go into some detail about the route I have planned and how I am getting there I think that I should extend a big thank you to Mark Waring. Mark has provided me with a wealth of information about Sarek and trekking in Sweden generally, patiently answering my many emails. He has helped me translate various timetables from Swedish and generally been a good sport. Thanks Mark!

Travel

It is often cited that the journey is just as important as the destination itself. The journey to where I will start walking is a long and convoluted one. It goes as follows: Three hour train to Manchester airport. Two and a half hour flight to Stockholm. A night in Stockholm. One and a half hour flight to Luleå (dash around an unknown town to pick up some gas). A two and a half hour train journey to Gällivare. A night in Gällivare. A three hour bus to Ritsem. The final bit of travelling will be a forty five minute journey by boat to Anonjalme where I start walking. A mere fifty hours from my front door.

Thankfully getting home is a much less convoluted affair. I need to reverse the journey to Gällivare by boat and bus and spend another night in the town. I then fly all the way back to Manchester in a day on a single ticket. I do have to wait around some major European airports for a few hours but at least I will be in my bed the same night.

After the trip I will do a write-up about the journey there including timetable links etc. This will hopefully be useful to other folks travelling to Sarek from the UK.

Costs

The main elephant in the room is that Sweden is not a budget destination, but I think you already know that. However with a bit of judicious planning you can make travelling there a bit easier on your wallet. On my last trip to Sweden I walked into the Kebnekaise mountain station and paid their service charge (to use the shower, toilets and kitchen facilities), brought some couscous, biscuits and a can of coke. It came to £50. I still have not recovered from the shock of that. This time round I’ll make sure I have enough food with me in the mountains and not worry that I’ll be smelling like a restaurant wheelie bin on a hot summer day.

With the modern miracle of the internet I paid and booked much of the travel and accommodation several months ago. Advance planning really does pay off. The two flights to get me to Stockholm and then Luleå came to a total of £135. The additional train, bus and boat look like they will come to around £90 on top of that. My return flight to Manchester from Gällivare cost £150, with an additional £60 to cover the return boat and bus trips.

Therefore all transport is likely to come to around £435, give or take a few pounds. It sounds a lot but to put that into perspective the fuel and ferry to get the Bongo to Harris and Lewis earlier this year did nearly £400 of damage to my wallet.

Accommodation in Sweden can be booked fairly reasonably if once again you do this in advance. I have managed to book three nights in hotels for £140 in total, probably cheaper than you can get in the UK.

As I will be taking my backpacking food with me (some of which will be homemade and dehydrated) there are not that many extra costs. I will need to eat out on the journey to and from the trailhead. Alcohol will probably be avoided as from experience that is not cheap! There will be the option of mountain huts at the start and towards the end of the trek, these could be tempting if the weather is bad. They come in at between £30 and £40 a night for a bed, adding on another £10 at STF (Swedish Tourist Association) huts if not a member. I did not stay at any when I trekked the northern section of the Kungsledden but sticking my head in they always looked clean, warm and comfortable (but basic).

The Route

The route that I finally chose takes in three national parks, these being Sarek, Padjelanta and Stora Sjöfallet. When I first laid the map on my lap there was the temptation to try and do too much and cover too much ground. Although the Calazo map that I purchased is pretty good, it is a very poor relation to the Ordnance Survey we have in the UK. For a start the scale is 1:100,000 and there is nowhere near as much detail. Translating what is on the map into what will be on the ground has been tricky for someone used to the OS. On the plus side my whole route is on one lightweight map and it is printed on Tyvek so should not fall apart if it gets damp.

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 (Click on map to enlarge)

I have ten full days in the wilds between travelling, plenty of time for a good exploration and to get a feel for the place. Being a bit of a slackpacker I decided that I did not want to overstretch myself. The aim is to spend an extended period of time in the wilderness, soaking up the atmosphere and exploring its hidden corners. I do not fancy rushing though, head to the ground in an attempt to eat up the mileage. I would much rather be enjoying a camp days from civilisation. I’m lazy like that.

With ten days food and no chance of resupply my pack is going to be heavy. Another reason to keep the daily mileage manageable. I decided that I would stick predominately to the valleys, without any major ascent and descent. I also wanted to keep clear of the numerous glaciers, not places to explore solo when you have no experience of them.

In the end I came up with a nine day trek of 144 kilometres, leaving me with one day spare in case of bad weather. The route splits nicely into three sections of equal distance with each section having a different character.

Section one takes me from the pier at Anonjalme and along the Padjelanta trail through mixed birch forest to where the three National Parks meet. I then cross over into Sarek and follow the impressive Ruohtesvagge south-east into the centre of Sarek. Although this is not a marked trail it is meant to be easy to follow and probably offers the easiest way into the National Park. Although I am following the valley bottom I will be walking at altitudes of up to 9oo metres, much of it above 800 metres. Not to be taken lightly when you are north of the Arctic Circle. I plan to camp at Mikkastugan which is the centre of the park, several long valleys radiating from this point. There is a locked hut there which I am sure will tease me if the weather is bad.

Section two will be a bit more difficult as I follow another long valley called Alggavagge to the west. As I approach the lake of Alggajavrre there will be the challenge of head height dwarf willow to push my way through along boggy ground. I will then come to a Sami chapel and (hopefully) a bridge over the Mielladno. Once across the bridge I leave Sarek behind and cross into Padjelanta. I then head across trackless country via the large lake of Alajavrre to get to the Sami settlement at Arasluokta. This could prove to be the trickiest day as I will be crossing a high plateau, I just hope that the clouds do not roll in. Once at Arasloukta the hardest trekking is behind me and I have the option of staying in a Sami run hut. Apparently there is a shop there which sells smoked fish and maybe bread, although this is not something that I will count on.

Section three should be the easiest as I follow the Padjelanta trail back to Anonjalme and a boat back to Ritsem. Three days on a good trail with the option to sleep in huts if I fancy it. The final day will be a repeat of the first. However there is the option of branching off and taking the Nordkalottleden trail to Vaisaluokta where I can pick up the boat back to Ritsem.

I am hoping that it will be a fine walk in the largest wilderness area in Europe. A couple of weeks ago when I was casually Googling Sarek I came across a website from 2006 in which the exact same route as mine was taken. It is good to know that it is doable and the photos have whetted my appetite even more. The only difference is that they took thirteen days to walk it, compared to my nine. The website can be found here.

Finally I will leave you with the best videos I have found on Sarek. Excellent stuff.

 

 

 

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