Day 0 – 21st August
I couldn’t fully relax until our luggage emerged on the carrousel at Luleå airport. Being on a tight schedule we couldn’t afford for it to go missing. Luleå is the capital of Norrbotten County, the northernmost county in Sweden and our jumping off point for Sarek National Park.
The passengers on the fully booked flight from Stockholm soon went their various ways in cars and taxis, leaving Chrissie and myself waiting half an hour for the airport bus. It was after 9pm and the sun had just set, however the sky would remain light for another couple of hours. The bus itself is a bargain for Sweden at around £1.50 for the thirty minute ride into town.
At 10pm on a Friday night Luleå is about as far removed as it is possible to be from the UK. The streets were eerily quite and lacking gangs of identically dressed young men going through mating rituals or out looking for a fight.
The Comfort Hotel Arctic is handily placed opposite the train station and booked in advance was a bargain at £49 for a single room each. We went to our separate rooms where I spent an hour repacking my rucksack, double checking that I had everything I needed. I have to admit that I find the whole packing process a little stressful, my main fear being of leaving something important behind. I spent a restless night worrying about the logistics of purchasing gas and getting to the trailhead the following day.
Day 1 – 22nd August
It was a beautifully crisp morning, banks of fog drifting under a crystal clear blue sky. The breakfast at the hotel was typically Swedish. Freshly baked bread, cheese, cold cuts, eggs, salad and various jars of herring. Plenty of strong coffee on tap.
The first job of the day was to find the supermarket and buy a few provisions for lunch. At 9am on a Saturday morning the city centre was even more deserted than the night before. It looked like the human race had vanished, soon after giving the place a good clean. Luleå is spotless, even the windows were gleaming under the late summer sun.
A Swedish supermarket is always worth a baffling browse, I am always amazed at the sheer number of products that come in large squeezy tubes. Thankfully bread, cheese and biscuits are easily recognisable.
The main thing that I had been worrying about before leaving home was the purchasing of gas for our stoves. I had emailed the Luleå Naturkompaniet store six months before, asking if it would be possible to purchase gas in advance and have it delivered to our hotel a short walk away. This was agreed and the hotel said that they would keep it at the reception for us. This would have enabled us to catch the 08.30 train, connecting with a bus to get us to the trailhead in time to get a few kilometres under our belt that day. When I emailed two weeks before the trip I just hit a wall of silence from the store, whilst their head office said that it would not be possible. This sadly meant that we had to catch the 10.47 train instead, the connecting bus not being scheduled to arrive until nearly 17.00.
I was therefore waiting outside the outdoor shop when it opened at 10.00 and was pleased to see a large pile of Primus gas canisters near the till. Chrissie had been left with our packs at the station and I got back to our platform with plenty of time to spare.
We caught a train that was travelling all the way to Narvik in Norway, our station being in the small village of Murjek a couple of hours away from Luleå. The train was initially virtually empty until we reached Boden where it filled to bursting point with hikers and their huge rucksacks. It must have been one of the highest concentration of backpackers in the world! I began to worry that they would all be getting off at Murjek and the bus would not be able to fit everyone on. As it turned out only a handful got off with us, everyone else must have been heading to Abisko and the northern terminus of the Kungsleden trail.
The Murjek to Kvikkjokk bus must be one of the slowest and most leisurely in the world. It only travels about 160 kilometres yet takes nearly four hours. The scenery gets progressively more spectacular the nearer you get to Kvikkjokk, the last part being along a series of huge lakes with a backdrop of mountains. It’s just a shame that it does not stop at the large sign showing that you are crossing the Arctic Circle.
We finally arrived at the church in Kvikkjokk, a short distance from the STF hostel where we had arranged to leave a bag so as to lighten our loads. It was 17.00 yet still baking hot, the sun hammering down from one of the deepest blue skies that I have seen. This meant that clouds of mosquitoes were buzzing and biting due to my failure to bring along any repellant. They should have died off at this time of year. Sadly the hostels tiny little shop had sold out (along with gas canisters so I was glad we had not relied on them to get any) so I spent the rest of the week begging the odd spray from Chrissie.
It was with a bit of excitement that we finally shouldered our packs and headed north under the large Kungsleden sign.
Even though the shadows were lengthening it was hot and humid in the forest, especially felt on the long and steady climb. The trees mean that the view is restricted, but the forest itself is beautiful, a mix of pine and birch with the ground being covered in bilberry, juniper and dwarf willow.
The path alternated between wide and rocky with numerous tree roots to navigate, to marsh with long sections of duckboards to protect the fragile ground.
Finally we came to a clearing and voices indicated the first suitable area to camp since leaving Kvikkjokk. Places to pitch a tent can be few and far between in the forests, the ground being a thick tangle of vegetation or bog. Sadly there are not many nice grassy meadows.
The clearing was full of long shadows and early autumn colours under the setting sun, clouds of mosquitoes hanging in the air.
Between the two bridges marked on the map there are a few places suitable for pitching a tent. The popularity of the Kungsleden means that you have to pitch on bare earth, areas with vegetation left being far too stony. I was glad that I had brought a tyvek groundsheet to keep my tent floor clean.
It remained very warm all evening and I ended up sitting cooking outdoors with my windproof on to stop the mosquitoes biting through my merino base layer. I had to resort to a head net at one point, the buzzing and biting getting too much.
We both felt a bit daft sitting there fully protected against the insects when a giant of a man passed dressed in only shorts and t-shirt. Five minutes later he came back carrying a large tree under one arm. He said something that translated roughly as, “Me man, me make fire”. I had visions of him snapping the tree into logs over his knee.
As soon as the temperature became bearable we escaped the insects for the sanctuary of our tents. It was far too warm so late in the evening, especially considering that we were in the Arctic. It would be days before I wore more than a baselayer, even at night.
There was a fair bit of nocturnal rodent rustling in the night, the patter of little feet on the tyvek groundsheet in the porch. Luckily nothing was eaten or chewed. I fell asleep with the thought in my head that the trip would start properly the following morning. We would leave the busy Kungsleden and cross the boundary into Sarek.