When you reach the top of Norway, walk on
Nordkapp is sold as Europe's northernmost tip. In fact, the real land's end is two miles west of this imposter. Mark Rowe reports
Sunday 23 August 2009
Year after year, 200,000 people fail to make it to the northernmost point of Europe. They travel to northern Norway, usually on packages that guarantee you will reach the North Cape, or Nordkapp, a tourist trap marginally less tacky than Land's End. There, they take pictures of one another, arms raised in celebration by a globe, before buying a souvenir cuddly troll.
But when they study their photographs later they may just notice a straggly peninsula in the background, finger-like in aspect and almost wagging in triumph. For the real North Cape lies two miles west of its imposter, and protrudes 1,457m (1,593 yards) further north. Not far, but far enough.
If you're into bagging extreme outposts, or just like being correct, this is where you need to be. The tourist industry – aware that it is much easier and more lucrative to process visitors in buses to a large flat plateau than to send them on their way with a map and a compass to a tapering point of granite – has shamelessly elected to ignore this awkward fact.
Norway is not alone in this. Many geographical extremities are contentious or just wrong, even in the UK: it's reasonably well documented that John O'Groats is not the most northerly point of the UK, but even Land's End is not the most westerly point, an honour that goes to Dr Syntax's Head, an outcrop of skerries a few hundred metres further out to sea.
The good news is that the true most northerly point of Europe, Knivskjellodden (the convoluted name is another reason why North Cape was probably preferred), can be visited on a magnificent 11-mile round walk that allows visitors to appreciate a marvellously wild landscape. Knivskjellodden, like the faux-North Cape, is located on the northern coast of the island of Mageroya. The name originates from the Norwegian word for knife, and is so named for a shellfish that resembles a knife, which leads to a rough translation of "place that looks-like-a-Norwegian-mussel-that-looks-like-a-knife". Nordkapp fits more easily into tourist brochures.
Mageroya is a superb place, wide open and uncluttered, and surprisingly lush for somewhere so far north. There are few trees, but the Gulf Stream moderates temperatures, so that in summer you can bask in an average 1C (54F), while in winter it drops no lower on average than minus four or five. This is the land of the midnight sun, which keeps above the horizon from 14 or 15 May and stays there until 2 August. What ever time you visit, though, the light can be breathtaking. Each day as summer heads to winter, seven minutes of light are chalked off at dawn and dusk, with proportionate increments after the winter solstice. Stay a few days and you can almost feel the earth turning.
The walk to Knivskjellodden, though, has a short window. It takes around six hours to complete, but the route is usually impassable with snow even at the start of June and you only have enough light to comfortably negotiate it until mid-October. When it rains, it seems to rain nails, so hard does it fall; when the northerly winds, fresh from the North Pole, around 1,200 miles away, whip across the flat and wide plateau you can feel like a pea in a game of blow football.
The starting point for Knivskjellodden is well signposted, 15 miles north of Mageroya's only town, Honningsvag. The track, often rocky or boggy, is waymarked all the way with giant cairns. The landscape is stark, yet infinitely varied, and drably beautiful. In late summer, cotton grass leans with the wind, while under foot are cloudberries and the only tree, the stumpy, wind-pummelled dwarf birch, barely a few inches high. You pass mournful lakes and small tarns, one of which is perfectly circular and overlaps the lip of a cliff edge. Great chunks of quartz, mantled with lichen, punch up through the peaty soil.
After a mile or two, the North Cape Tourist Hall heaves into view, across the Sandfjorden, on a monumentally staggering cliff top, whose flanks swoop vertically to the sea 309m below. Near its base, a pyramid of rock juts upwards. It is a breathtaking landscape. The walk has other natural wonders. You descend into a textbook glacial valley, carved out by the retreating ice at the end of the Ice Age. You first see this giant bowl from a ridge, peering down into its amphitheatre. Erratic boulders, smooth as giant marbles, lie scattered around. The last section of the walk, from the bottom of the valley across the exposed peninsula, is a painstaking affair, because you must shift this way and that through large and lopsided slates, as well as the inevitable bogs.
And then, suddenly there it is. A beehive-shaped obelisk, comprising 12 layered slabs of granite, each smaller than the one below, located at 71 degrees, 11 minutes and 8 seconds north (the North Cape hall's vital statistics are 71 degrees, 10 minutes and 21 seconds). I had walked to the end of Europe.
A few yards away stands a tin box. Inside lies the walker's logbook, where you can record your visit for posterity. You sign against a number, which entitles you to a certificate and a pin, for a small fee, which goes towards the path's upkeep. A few yards further on, and the Arctic Ocean washes on to the rocks. Across the water, the Nordkapp cliffs loom ever bigger.
Puffins, cormorants and razorbills scuttled across the sea, while gannets and huge black-backed gulls soared upwards on the thermals. The Arctic Ocean narrowed into fjords either side of the peninsula, refusing to relax. The spines of the surrounding ridges were patrolled by reindeer. The end of Europe really did feel like the end of the earth.
How to get there
Mark Rowe flew to Tromso and took the northbound Hurtigruten coastal boat for one night to Honningsvag. He returned from Kirkenes via Oslo. Hurtigruten (020-8846 2666 ; hurtigruten.co.uk) can arrange port-to-port journeys. SAS (020-8990 7159; flysas.com) offers flights to Oslo, Tromso and Kirkenes. For stopovers, the Radisson BLU at Oslo airport (00 47 63 93 30 00; radissonblu.com/hotel-osloairport), offers B&B from £127.
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