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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Day 2 – 25th August 2014
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.
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.
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.