I am writing this from a hotel room in Honningsvåg on the island of Magerøya. Honningsvåg is the «northernmost town on mainland Norway» although technically it’s on an island, so arguably, it isn’t! It’s also one of the smallest cities in Norway, having been given its status in 1996, one year before legislation was brought in stating that Norwegian cities must have at least 5,000 inhabitants.
It’s very much the stereotyped end-of-the-road place. I am reminded of Scottish towns like Campbeltown, Stranraer and Thurso as they were when I was younger. Nowadays, I think most of those remote Scottish towns have caught up with the money to be made from tourism and are now filled with friendly cafes and upmarket shops selling highland-cow aprons and novelty fudge shaped like sheep droppings. But Honningsvåg is still utilitarian. The houses are scattered along the single road, with a few a little higher up the hillside. Though they are painted in different colours, they were built for practicality, with no thought for aesthetics. There’s a toy-shop with faded lettering. The main street is stippled with chipped paint and grey, harled walls. The harbour is charming though.
We drove up over three days, though we only spent three to four hours travelling on each of them.
Day one. We stopped off at the Sami shop on the E6 north of Bardufoss. I have driven past a few times, but have never stopped. I was surprised to find a fire in the tent, near the entrance. It was set in a fireplace with a well-designed chimney and was very welcoming. We might stop for coffee on the way back, but we were less than an hour into our journey, so we decided to push on.
It was a beautiful day as we drove along the sides of fjords and through mountain glens. We reached our desination: a cabin near Skibotn, which I had found on AirBnB. The cabin I had booked was very basic: two bunk beds and a stove, but happily it was a campsite where we were able to upgrade to a cabin with a toilet and shower. These campsites are very common in Norway. The cabins are designed to be slept in, by as many people as you can fit in the available space, and not much more. This was a typical example. There were three bedrooms, two with a bunkbed each and the other with a bunkbed and one very squashy single bed. There was a table and chairs, but nowhere else to sit. There were two electric rings for cooking, but pans and plates had to be borrowed from reception. Deciding quickly that we would eat out, we dumped our things and headed out to explore.
We passed through Skibotn without seeing anywhere to eat, but stopped to air the dog (translation from Norwegian) on a pebbly beach on the edge of the fjord. While Anna and Andrew skimmed stones, and Triar gambolled about, I investigated possible eateries on my phone.
There was a hotel nearby, which seemed like a possibility, so we headed back to the car and drove to it. It seemed deserted and somewhat surprisingly, there was an area temporarily walled off with what appeared to be a stage in the background. Sliding in through the gap, we made our way inside to ask about food. A couple of tantalising cup-cakes lay on what looked like the remains of a conference lunch, but there was nothing available right now. There would be later though. The stage would be in use for Guffstock! Guffstock being a small festival. Who was playing, we asked. Ove Schei was on first at eight, followed by a band called Royal Jam at ten. We’d not heard of either of them, but thinking back to the cabin and its lack of a sofa, we glanced at one another and bought three tickets for the evening.
We found some food at Circle K. Norway doesn’t have many motorways except around Oslo and there arek no service stations by the main roads. Instead, almost all the petrol stations serve hot food and lots of them have a few seats. Two pizzas later, we headed back to the cabin to wait for the evening’s entertainment.
Though the inside of the cabin was rudimentary, the setting was beautiful. We wandered along the valley floor, admiring the flowers and the river, and finding our eyes drawn upwards to the overhanging mountain tops and the tree-lined lower slopes, where the autumn colours were beginning to emerge.
We returned to the cabin and decided to play cards. I had bought a little box of games a couple of years back, when holidaying in Yorkshire. We opened it to find three sets of cards: Donkey, Snap and Old Maid. I had expected them to be basic, but functional. They were worse than expected: roughly cut with a tendency to stick together. We played Old Maid first and had fun, despite the unwieldy, badly drawn cards. Of course, I was left with the Old Maid card. Next, we looked at the rules for Donkey and laughed, because as I had thought, Donkey and Old Maid are the same game. We played it anyway, passing cards round, pairing them up, and teasing one another mysteriously about who had the Donkey card. We were well on through the game, before I noticed as I looked round the hands we were holding that there were only four cards left. I hadn’t been passed the Donkey card at any point, and had rather been wondering about it. I looked round again. Definitely only four cards.
I looked across at Anna, and then at Andrew, who was sitting on my left. «Does anyone actually have the Donkey card?» I asked.
Both of them shoot their heads and we grinned at each other. So not only were the cards badly made, but they hadn’t even managed to insert the essential Donkey card in the pack.
Despite not having heard of the bands, we had a wonderful evening. Rather than their own songs, both Ove Schei and Royal Jam played a lot of classic tracks and before long, we were clapping along. It’s a long time since we’ve seen any live music and here we were, outside as dusk fell and the sun dipped behind the mountains behind the stage. It was a wonderful end to the first day of our journey.