Northern Norway, where Reindeer Outnumber People
By Matthew MacDermott
Given its location perched proudly atop Europe, it is not surprising that the far northern reaches of Norway are dominated by ‘northernmost’ claims to fame.
The northernmost cathedral, university, brewery, bar, bridge, hotel, park, camping ground, Christmas decorations shop…
These, one would imagine, self-appointed titles come thick and fast as you head further and further above the Artic Circle on the way to the granddaddy of all Norway’s northernmost monikers: Nordkapp (North Cape) – the northernmost point of continental Europe.
Reindeer outnumber people
North Cape is the main reason why tourists venture to Norway’s remote northern wilderness, which stretches out above its neighbors Sweden and Finland and shares a western border with Russia.
Here the reindeer outnumber people and bring the traffic (our bus) to a standstill.
To the Tip
Our expedition to the very tip of Europe was in the later days of the northern summer – too late for the midnight sun and too early for the northern lights, although these local phenomena are known to not always stick to rigid timetables and can surprise out-of-season visitors.
The fog, wind, rain and, yes, even sunshine that we encountered during our summer visit, coupled with the dramatic emptiness of a landscape totally devoid of trees and dominated by rock, sends the imagination running wild at the extreme isolation and harshness of winter in these parts.
Despite its location and climate, this is no undiscovered frontier land and the steady stream of northernmost signs outside shops and the most obscure of landmarks highlight the desire of locals to lure and capitalize on the passing tourist trade. However, all roads lead north for the tour buses which all share the same destination – North Cape.
The imposing North Cape with its flat table-top headland providing perfect access for buses is northern Norway’s undisputed king of northernmost claims. But the thing is, it isn’t even Europe’s most northerly point!
The real northernmost point of Europe
That honour belongs to the neighbouring peninsula Knivskjellodden, which doesn’t have any bus access and is only accessible by an 11-mile (18km) return hike.
Getting to Europe’s real most northerly point doesn’t come easily. Setting off from the road leading up to North Cape, the Knivskjellodden walk slowly descends down to sea level over a mixture of spongy tundra, wet bog and sharp, craggy rocks. The surface is challenging and you have to keep your head down, despite the spectacularly unique surroundings and the brooding atmosphere. It actually does feel a little bit like walking to the end of the earth which, in a way, it is
Rock governs the entire landscape, even down to the balancing rock sculptures that have been made by previous walkers to help guide the way when the thick sea fog rolls in, which is both regularly and rapidly.
Walking tracks in Norway are generally not as defined and clearly marked as in other countries, with hikers here often preferring to ramble their own way across the terrain.
However, there are intermittent red crosses, set on high poles to poke above the snow in winter, indicating that you are heading in the right direction and these combine well with the art-like balancing rock formations to provide a rough path to Knivskjellodden.
We were fortunate to have relatively clear weather on our trek and the steep cliffs of North Cape dramatically appeared on our right as we made our way out, providing further guidance and inspiration for the journey.
Because of its inaccessibility to tour coaches, the arduous nature of the hike and the unpredictable weather conditions, Knivskjellodden is a secluded spot and lacks the bells and whistles of its illustrious southern neighbour North Cape, where the humming tourist hive includes a huge car park, various tourist shops, cafés, restaurants, monuments, a chapel, its own post office and post code and, even by Norway standards, an expensive entrance fee.
In contrast, the real northernmost point of Europe is marked by a modest monument highlighting its latitude, 71° 11’ 08” (which is more northerly than North Cape’s 71° 10’ 21”) and a small wooden box housing a book where you can record your name and visitation number. You can later claim a certificate honouring your achievement, of course for a small fee, by quoting your number at the nearby Kirkeporten camping ground – ‘the northernmost in the world.’
Looking back at Europe’s most northerly point
The real prize at reaching Knivskjellodden, though, is the sense of achievement, and also the absurdity, of looking back at what is widely regarded as Europe’s most northerly point.
The serenity of gazing northwards and dreaming of nothing but water to the North Pole as well as the abundance of sea life, bird life, wildflowers and berries, all make the trek a highly rewarding experience.
Sitting there catching your breath and resting your legs at the half way point and highlight of the journey, you can’t help but take pleasure and pride from the fact that the real northernmost point of Europe is a true wilderness area befitting such a title.
There is some small comfort in knowing that the rampant commercialism of modern society has not, yet, reached all edges of the globe – although it can be found in all its souvenir-selling and restaurant rip-off glory just down the road.
The walk back from Knivskjellodden belies the gradual descent down. There are some real air-gasping and leg-burning moments on the ascent and each red cross and balancing rock marker is appreciatively welcomed.
North Cape’s unique sunset
Despite the inaccuracy of its claim to fame and its strong commercial bent, North Cape itself is also well worth a visit. It is unlikely that you would come all this way and not bother or be put off by an entrance fee.
Sunset is the time to visit, which can be very late in the peak of summer. It was at 9:13 pm when we visited in late summer.
The blending of sea and sky and flickers of light on both seen from the sheer sea cliffs of Europe’s second most northerly point is a truly spectacular sight for as long as you can stand the wind and cold.
Matthew MacDermott is a freelance travel writer who calls Australia’s Sunshine Coast home. He is always on the lookout for ways to break up the monotony of endless days of sunshine and has roamed through many parts of Asia, America, Europe and the UK.
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