Fittingly, rain falls like bullets on the one night I find myself camping in an abandoned Nazi bunker, deep in the Arctic Circle. Along with my friend Troels, I have driven nearly five thousand kilometres up Scandinavia in a station wagon to get here, crossing Denmark, Sweden, and north into Norway. One can only spend so many nights sleeping in a car. Allemannsrett, or Everyman's Right, is a Norwegian law that allows anyone to camp anywhere, so long as it's not encroaching on someone's home or privacy, and does not cause any damage. We’d camped beside highways, in mosquito infested forests, on concrete parking lots - but nothing quite as sinister and spooky as these deep, dark concrete tunnels burrowed into the port town of Narvik’s surrounding hills
There were no checkpoints or guards when we crossed the northern border from Sweden. In fact, there’s not much up here in the tundra, where vegetation seldom grows beyond knee height, and blue ice forms natural sculptures even in summer. We often have to stop the rental car to allow reindeer herds to cross the highway. Reindeer jerky procured from a gas station has a reddish tint to it. I think about Rudolph, and wonder if my snack had a red nose. Oil rich Norway, once a colony of Denmark, is the wealthiest country in Scandinavia. At one point, it even conducted a study about redistributing the vast cash surplus to its five million citizens without social structures collapsing. Norwegians are only too happy to enjoy poll position on the podium of a historically competitive region. It can also boast Scandinavia’s best scenery. Just about every corner unpeels the wrapper of eye-popping fjord candy. Dramatic mountains and clear glacier lakes contrast Denmark's flat, prairie feel, and Sweden's never-ending, pine green forest. I am here in June, the height of summer, and one of the only months many northern roads are actually open. The first glacial lake we encounter is so pristine one can drink and swim simultaneously, which is exactly what I did. Twelve seconds later, I’d drunk my fill and almost frozen to death in the process.
As I make my way south, the first city we come to is Narvik, scene of an epic WWII battle between the Nazis and Allied troops. A major iron ore producer, Narvik was strategically important to both sides, and having occupied the region early in the war, the Nazis quickly fortified their position. The town’s war museum creates a moving sense of this history. We pick up supplies (including Norwegian salmon, of course) and drive on narrow roads and narrower bridges looking for somewhere to camp. That's when we find a muddy turnoff, and follow it towards the fjord. At the bottom, there are two paths, one towards a house, and another towards the water. How many adventures result in the road not taken? We turn right, away from the house.
Twenty feet later, we spot cannon turrets and the entrance to a bunker. It is eight in the evening although thanks to the Midnight Sun, the light feels like early morning. With three months without stars every summer, you can kiss your moon goodbye. On the dark side of the moon, Arctic Night deprives the region of sun for four months, so unless you're a vampire, don't look for a tan in northern Scandinavia. Fully prepared for any eventuality, I dust off my flashlight and investigate the labyrinth of concrete-lined tunnels connecting the bunkers. They are damp, cold and muddy, but surprisingly clean of garbage, graffiti or human occupation. Perhaps the bunkers are too remote for Narvik’s teenagers to haunt. Perhaps there are too many bunkers in the area for them to take notice in the first place. Rusted barbwire increases the illusion that we are treading on the past, and then I find a bent, blackened spoon with a swastika engraved on the handle. Just a spoon, but one that tingles my spine. How unnerving to encounter black and white history in the full colour present. Still, the bunkers provide some shelter from the elements, and a place to camp for the night (that's really a day). The view can’t be faulted either: facing me is an exquisite fjord beneath steep, icing-frosted mountains.
Photo: Ronald Sivertsen
In search of more information, we knock on the door of the neighbouring house. An elderly couple offer us tea and biscuits. They tell us four hundred Nazis were stationed in these narrow bunkers, which run far deeper into the hills than we realized. Supplied with fresh drinking water, we return to the largest bunker to make dinner over a gas stove, pitching a tent rather than sleep inside. Too many horror movies, too many ghosts haunting the past. At one in the morning, the sun still shining, I am wide-awake, thinking about the past inside a Nazi relic.
We return to the war museum the following day, where we find no further information about our bunker discovery. Back on the highway, driving south, the scenery continues its spectacle - bigger, sharper mountains, nightclub-roped by deep, turquoise fjords. Every corner brings another "whoa", and I eventually stop taking pictures because they can do no justice. Norway is also famous for its tunnels, without which the country would be impassable. Marvels of engineering, some of these tunnels clock in at over five kilometres in length. We drive through fifty of them, relishing the brief darkness they afford.
Our last night in the Arctic Circle is in a trailer park, and I spend it in a wooden cabin that smells like a Viking's loincloth. I’d spent two weeks under the midnight sun, two weeks discovering the extreme beauty of Norway, a country where even a simple road can stir up a smorgasbord of emotions.
Please come in. Mahalo for removing your shoes.
After many years running a behemoth of a blog called Modern Gonzo, I've decided to a: publish a book or eight, and b: make my stories more digestible, relevant, and deserving of your battered attention.
Here you will find some of my adventures to over 100 countries, travel tips and advice, rantings, ravings, commentary, observations and ongoing adventures.