“Being out of the vehicle for any length of time could prove fatal.”
That certainly had my attention. Until that point I’d assumed that the road trip I was about to take would be a little easier than the destination suggested, these things usually being managed to avoid getting into horrendous difficulties. Or ending up dead.
My journey started at Heathrow airport and involved six flights on ever smaller aircraft to ever smaller airports with an ever more ‘enthusiastic’ pilot. Honningsvåg, Norway, was the destination – the small town has a hotel that’s the nearest you stay to Nordkapp, the very northern most point of mainland Europe. The next land mass is the polar ice cap, and that’s not even land.
Waiting for me the next morning, under the low arctic sunrise, was not a Land Rover Discovery, a Toyota Land Cruiser or a Jeep Wrangler, perhaps kitted out with a winch, massive balloon tyres and a boot full of flares, just in case things go wrong.
No, instead I’ve got a Mazda hatchback. It’s the CX-3, so a mini-SUV if you like, and comes with four-wheel drive. However, apart from studded tyres it’s entirely standard with no special provisions made for the deadly terrain ahead.
There was one concession for the trip north; due to the dangerous nature of the roads I had to follow a snow plough. This one was driven, I assume, by Kimi Räikkönen given the speed he shot up what barely qualified as a road. Snow plumes were sent high, visibility was down to zero at times, but the CX-3 made the short hop with ease and the reward was the most magnificently crisp and clear environment I’ve ever seen.
The blue sky and bright sun was misleading, as a howling wind chilled me to the bone, then through the bone, then right out the other side again. My shirt, jumper, fleece, coat, gloves and hat stood no chance.
I was at the very top of mainland Europe and, whilst I wouldn’t want to be left exposed out there for too long, it at all seemed rather easy. There was the small matter of getting the little Mazda back again though, and this time it wasn’t a 21 mile run to Honningsvåg, but a 500 mile slog to the harbour city (and home of Facebook’s European data centre) of Luleå, Sweden.
This was going to be altogether more challenging. Fortunately Mazda’s people took the time to explain just how the four-wheel drive system in the CX-3 works, and it all sounded rather impressive. Rather than simply measuring grip levels through the wheels, Mazda’s system takes in readings from all sorts of sensors and tries to predict if you’ll need all the wheels being driven rather than just the front two. Are the wipers on? How cold is it? What angles are the wheels at? There are around 200 data points a second from 27 sensors that help the car make a decision before you know that a decision needs to be made. The result is a level of confidence that quickly grows as the car understands quicker than the driver just what is required from the wheels.
Heading out into wild Norway, sun blazing on the frozen Christmas-card like snow blanket, the sheet-ice road ensured attention levels were high, but very soon the scenery demanded more than a passing glance. Flat plains sat behind plunging mountain roads that took me to the coast and along roads sandwiched between beautiful but deadly waters and equally beautiful but deadly craggy cliff faces. The odd tunnel punctuated proceedings, with one that descended beneath the sea being more than five miles long.
I had a walkie-talkie to keep in touch if things went awry, but very quickly it was obvious that me and my co-driver were on our own, the next nearest car in this most relaxed of convoys being beyond the five-mile range of the radio. As the landscape changed to vast desert-like plains of pure white, uninterrupted by anything as uncouth as service stations or a fast food restaurant, the isolation made itself keenly felt. The light-hearted banter in the car subsided, and a more contemplative atmosphere filled the car. The danger suddenly felt very real.
With those tyre studs forcing themselves into the ice, roads that went straight on for 10 miles, next to zero traffic and good visibility, the pace was picked up. Soon the little Mazda was travelling at speeds that would have attracted the attention of the constabulary along any road in the UK but out here, in the wilderness, it seemed perfectly reasonable. Anything to get nearer to civilisation.
In reality, as we passed through the narrow strip of Finland we were actually getting closer to a snowstorm. Even the ‘normal’ conditions we faced would have brought the UK to a standstill, but out here it was just another Wednesday. That was until the snow started falling. Quickly it turned to something that would close Heathrow, and the road started to white over. With so little traffic, the snow settles quickly and the edges of the road disappear, which is made all the more alarming when a truck approaches from the other direction.
Used to the conditions, they don’t slow down for anything or anyone, making the road feel alarmingly narrow. The cloud of snow left behind is blinding, adding to the drama, but the weather was deteriorating so quickly that visibility was an issue even in the clear. Speeds were reduced, and Luleå started feeling a long way away.
The sensation wasn’t helped as the fuel warning light flickered. In all the excitement, concentration, awe and excess, I’d not spotted the needle dropping. The computer was reading around 40mpg, which wasn’t a bad result considering the fuel-sapping tyres and rather enthusiastic driving style, but the tank in the Mazda is a tad smaller than you might like in these conditions. Fortunately, given the remote nature of the land, Mazda had included a couple of jerry cans of fuel in case we ran things just too fine. Fortunately a fuel station appeared before I ran dry, offering relief from the fuel woes – I really didn’t want to be at the side of a road in zero visibility filling up the tank.
Fuelled up – both the car and me – and on the road again, the weather cleared and Finland’s barren landscape gave way to the picture postcard beauty of Sweden, densely forested but still covered in snow and ice.
One final stop was planned, albeit a rather obvious one. The Arctic Circle is clearly defined, and the Swede’s have been good enough to put a large parking area by the line along with a whacking great big sign. Clichéd photos taken, it was time for the final 80 mile slog to Luleå.
I’m sure it was purely coincidental, but as I left the Arctic Circle behind, the weather conditions changed once again. The temperature rose a couple of degrees and the snow gave way to light rain, creating a wet road surface that was (mostly) free of ice. While this made progress a little easier, the studded tyres created so much noise that I was soon wishing the trip would be over. Soon Luleå came into view – a few more urban streets to navigate and then I’ll have done it.
Over a reindeer steak and a local beer, each driver in the convoy reflected on what we had just done. A small family hatchback had taken us through some of the most inhospitable terrain on the planet, and come out the other side as if it had just gone to Waitrose. It was comfortable, reliable, surprisingly entertaining and pretty frugal.
For the perils of a Cambridgeshire winter, I’m sure the front-wheel drive version of the little Mazda would suffice, and that would save around £2,000. But if you want to feel like Fiennes, Scott or Hubert without exposing yourself to too much danger or inconvenience, then pick up a Mazda CX-3 and just drive north.
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