Lapland: Regal splendour
High in Swedish Lapland, beside glacial lakes and snow-tipped mountains, Rhiannon Batten is captivated by the 'King of Trails'
Saturday 23 August 2008
Cresting a snow-covered pass, I climbed carefully over springy turf to a point where the landscape suddenly unfurled in a frenzy of ice-age drama. On this cloudless day the shards of snow, rock, water and lichen that spilt out below across mighty Tjäktja valley were so dizzying that I feared I might tumble right over the edge of the mountain and be swept away from this mesmerising spot before I had time to take it in.
The air was lung-piercingly crisp. A gurgle of meltwater and a vague, whispering wind were the only sounds. The closest road was two days' walk away. I could not remember the last time I'd been so far away from civilisation. Yet the scenery was too uplifting for me to feel lonely.
Visitors to Tjäktja valley come to this corner of Lapland via the Kungsleden trail. Sweden's finest long-distance footpath, this "King of Trails" runs for 440km through the north of the country from Abisko at the top, to Hemavan in the south.
Completing the whole thing takes around a month but most hikers cut it into roughly week-long sections. And, of those, the six-day section from Abisko to Nikkaluokta is the most popular, taking in the highest point of the trail – the 1,150m Tjäktja pass – and skirting the tallest mountain in Sweden: the 2,104m Kebnekaise.
Like two-thirds of the five thousand or so hikers who do the Kungsleden each year, this was the section I was walking. However, though this part of the trail was originally mapped out in the 1890s and has been a mainstream element of Sweden's tourist scene since the 1970s, only a handful of British hikers come here each year. UK tour operator Nature Travels, which specialises in outdoor trips to Sweden, is hoping to change that.
This summer it launched small group tours along the trail, run in conjunction with the Swedish Tourist Association (STF), which manages most of the accommodation along the route.
The starting point for the trip is STF's Abisko Mountain Lodge, which isn't as hard to reach as you might think. Though the untamed scenery might suggest otherwise, Abisko is little over an hour by train from Sweden's northernmost city, Kiruna, linked by comfortable sleeper trains and daily flights to Stockholm.
There to meet me at the lodge, which lies just across the tracks from Abisko's tiny
rail station, was my guide, Olle Rydell. He is a literature-loving vet and Kungsleden expert who has led more than 40 groups along the trail since he first walked it in 1975. Joining us on the hike would be three other women – a Finnish political scientist, a softly spoken teacher from the south of Sweden and a Scottish health-and-safety adviser.
Before a dinner of freshly grilled Arctic char and home-made berry crumble, Olle gave us a quick run-down on the week ahead. We would be walking between 12km and 25km per day, with stops for lunch and cups of tea, and stays in STF's mountain huts each night. These would have duvets, pillows, bunk beds, wood-burning stoves and gas hobs but no running water. We would be responsible for cleaning up after ourselves.
Every other hut would have a sauna, where we could wash with the luxury of hot water, and a shop (re-stocked by snowmobile each winter), so we would only need to carry food for the days in between. We should try to pack as light as possible, he advised, and send any excess baggage to be stored at the end of the trail ("This is the land of the midnight sun. You won't need a torch," he laughed, when I later asked him to help fillet my pack.)
The following morning, loaded up with eggs, bread, cheese and coffee, we set off along the first section of the trail. Hiking through Abisko National Park to the STF huts at Abiskojaure, it wasn't long before we started to disconnect from city life. "Try some of this: it's delicious," said Olle, bending to scoop a cup of icy water from a river. There would be so many drinkable streams crossing our path, I later discovered, that I needn't have bothered packing a water bottle.
Having Olle to guide us was even more useful when we arrived at Abiskojaure. Adjusting to life without mains water isn't complicated – and each hut has plenty of running water nearby in the form of ice-cold streams – but it helped to have someone there to explain patiently the system (and to point out what each hut's series of metal buckets and basins was for). "The toilets are over there," said Olle, pointing to a row of long-drop cabins at one side of a clearing. "Over there is where you go to fill up buckets of water for cooking and drinking, there is where you empty out dishwashing water and compostable food, and behind those trees is the bathing area."
After a nervous dip in the lake the following morning and a giant bowl of Olle's special "mountain" porridge (made with blueberry soup instead of water), I was looking forward to the second day's hike.
Taking us on to the huts at Alesjaure, the route left Abisko National Park behind and led up through much higher and wilder scenery. Above the tree-line, in hot sunshine, we followed a string of painted rocks across a plateau of shimmering glacial lakes, with snow-strewn mountains and herds of Sami-owned reindeer in the distance. Where the going was boggy, a ribbon of boardwalks had been laid out to protect both hikers' feet and the fragile ecosystems beneath them (the boardwalks also seemed to be a preferred hiding place for the local lemmings, who would scurry beneath them for self-preservation whenever they heard a step on the wood).
This was one of the most striking things about travelling along the Kungsleden. Though there have been calls to develop the area further, what exists at present seems to offer a perfect combination of wilderness experience with just enough comfort to make it safely accessible. So, there are cosy places to stay along the way but they don't have satellite TV or hot showers.
With few restrictions on camping, more experienced hikers often pack a tent instead and just pitch it when they feel ready to stop. Boardwalks and suspension bridges have been built where the going is too treacherous on foot, but unnecessary infrastructure has been avoided. The result is that the Kungsleden isn't the preserve of the very rich or the very intrepid but is instead open to a cross-section of people. During my week on the trail I met everyone from parents with young children, to a 60-year-old camper with her daughter in tow, to a couple hiking together with their dog (also wearing a backpack "because he has to carry his own food"). One 18 year-old girl was hiking the route for the first time alone after years of visiting with her parents.
Just how welcoming the Kungsleden can be was highlighted the following day when we were met at Tjäktja hut by Monika, its smiling host, who bore glasses of fruit juice. Set just below the highest point along the trail, there was a real high mountain feel at Tjäktja, with the roar of meltwater rushing past below and a rug of flowers surrounding the wooden buildings. There was plenty of time to take in the scenery here, as we had finished our day's hike in time for lunch. This was one of the few downsides to being in a group. One member of the party led a rapid walking pace and insisted on a daily 6am start, so instead of getting up at a more reasonable 7am or 8am and taking time to enjoy the landscape along the way, we tended to march from one destination to the next as quickly as possible, usually arriving hours before dinner.
"We don't normally go this fast," agreed Olle, when I asked if this was normal.
This was why, having discreetly asked a sympathetic Olle if it would be OK, I decided to descend from Tjäktja pass on my own. Staying to have a hot chocolate at the top and admire the astonishing view, I watched the group cross the horizon ahead of me with a sudden blissful sense of freedom.
Later that afternoon I would drift steadily down towards the huts at Sälka and enjoy a sauna, then over the next three days our group would detour off the Kungsleden to Kebnekaise Mountain Lodge and finally to the end of our hike at Nikkaluokta.
I would picnic by a lake in hot sunshine, dip my swollen feet into ice-cold mountain streams, brush my teeth in the open air surrounded by late-night sunlight, and trek out over jagged rocks to the glacier research station at Tarfala to sit eating home-made cinnamon buns and drinking tea overlooking "the roof of Sweden", as Olle described this shimmering panorama of mountains and glaciers. But for now, I was happy to stand and soak up the view over Tjäktja valley.
For Olle, like many people I met along the way, the Kungsleden is not so much a long-distance trail as a way of life.
"I always try to come once each summer and once each winter," he admitted to me. "Last year I didn't come in winter and, when I came the next summer, I kept feeling that I was missing something."
Up here, I understood exactly what he meant.
Most visitors fly to Stockholm and take the train from there. A berth in a shared couchette on sleeper trains from Stockholm to Abisko (00 46 771 757575; www.sj.se) costs from Skr95 (£8) each way if you book well in advance; otherwise, singles start at around Skr280 (£24).
There are also flights from Stockholm-Arlanda to Kiruna with Scandinavian Airlines (0870 60 727727; www. flysas.com) or Norwegian (00 47 2149 0015; www.norwegian.se).
Stockholm-Arlanda is served from the UK by SAS, British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com) and Sterling (0870 787 8038; www.sterling.dk).
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce My Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
The huts between Abisko and Nikkaluokta are open to hikers from mid-June to mid-September. Nature Travels (01929 463 774; www.naturetravels.co.uk) offers seven-night guided trips along the Kungsleden trail from £502 per person, including accommodation, all meals, and the bus from Nikkaluokta to Kiruna at the end of the trail.
Visit Sweden: 020-7108 6168; www.visitsweden.com
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