To Hell and Back
Taking on the Arctic winter in a Fiat 126, in search of the Northern Lights.
After the Mongol Rally, I found myself the proud owner of a Fiat 126, and having rapidly concluded that it was the car from Hell, we decided to drive it to Hell, near Trondheim, that winter. The subsequent 4,000 mile trip to see in the 2007 New Year, before carrying on into the Arctic, in search of the northern lights, was nothing if not eventful. Scroll down to see some of the photos from the trip, and read an account of how it went.
Set free by the polished ice, our rear wheels jumped suddenly sideways as we crested the rise. Brummy tried to correct the slide, but the rear-engined Fiat promptly fishtailed back the other way. One more desperate attempt to regain control, and all was lost. Helplessly wedged in the back seat, I looked on as we hurtled backwards towards an icy fjord, its dark surface brooding ominously in the half light.
“Brake!” I yelped.
“I am flipping breaking!” Brummy replied stoically.
We hurtled through the night, our wheels clipping the fjord’s bank as we left the road, careering onto the only flat bit of grass for miles. Wheels glissading over soft snow, the Fiat slid to a halt less than 20 feet from the water’s edge. After an endless silence, I managed to speak.
“Right, that’s it. I’m driving.”
Our Arctic adventure had seemed like a much better idea a few months earlier, when I’d just become the custodian of a Fiat 126 and as a stubborn Mini fan, had taken quite a dislike to it as I drove it home. That evening, its fate was discussed in the pub, and with perfect closing-time logic we decided to drive it to Hell - where it belonged.
Hell is a small village near Trondheim, Norway.
Brummy’s enthusiasm for the idea was such that he splashed out on another ‘126 to accompany mine – a bright yellow one with flames painted dubiously down the side. And so on Christmas Eve, three people and two little Fiats left Plymouth, intent on spending the New Year in Hell, then going on to explore the wide open spaces and incomparable scenery of Norway’s Arctic highway – one of the planet’s great roads.
Sadly, the ‘yellow peril’ only managed about 60 miles before developing a violent misfire and breaking down, leaving us with little choice but to cram three of us into the remaining car and push on regardless. And so, following our respective family Christmases we did just that, setting course for Dover on a foggy Boxing Day night.
After driving through the bitterly cold night, during which ice in the carburettor caused us to visit the hard shoulder no less than eight times – a fine omen for a trip to the Arctic – we crawled into Dover at daybreak, just in time for the ferry. Belgium and Holland were just as cold as the UK, and our tally of breakdowns soon reached double figures, but we reached Germany that evening, where we spent the night in Dortmund with some deeply confused friends.
“Why are you driving to Hell? It makes no sense.”
“Because it’s a fun way to spend the New Year. And because we can.”
“But there is nothing there. Why drive for days for nothing?”
“Where is the fun of being crammed into a tiny car for days? There is no fun in this.”
“You Germans have absolutely no sense of humour.”
Following a thorough investigation into the beneficial properties of German beer we headed north, and I sampled the Fiat’s luxurious rear quarters for the first time. Wedged beneath a pile of rucksacks, I was reduced to thinking warm thoughts while being blasted by icy air spilling in through the ill-fitting doors.
We chugged across Denmark and Sweden overnight then spent the following day coaxing the ice-encrusted Fiat onwards to Lillehammer, and a well earned beer.
Our first round came to £18, and the evening went predictably downhill from there. With battered wallets, we ended up in a local’s bar, where Jim and I left Brummy chatting to a rather patriotic Norwegian (“don’t mention the Euro. I mentioned it once, but I think I got away with it”) and returned to the hotel. Which we promptly woke up by warming up the Fiat. I then disconnected the battery and strolled back to our room with it tucked under my arm, much to the confusion of the hotel’s receptionist.
December 31st consisted of a hung-over drive to Trondheim, where we saw in the New Year, before completing the road to Hell the following morning, driving onto the station platform for some photos with the famous “Hell – Gods Expedition” sign; all because of a drunken pub conversation a few months earlier.
Continuing northwards, it became disappointingly cloudy and snow showers mocked our progress. Tarmac gave way to a graded ice surface which was surprisingly easy to drive on, enabling us to plod along at 40mph, surprised at how far we’d come, and gaining confidence in the Fiat’s ability to reach the Arctic with every mile. And as our confidence increased, so did our speed, until Brummy flew over that sweeping crest next to the looming fjord, and the Fiat bit back, almost spinning us into the icy waters.
Chastened, we continued more sedately towards the Arctic.
The Highway reaches the Arctic Circle on a suitably bleak plain, where the graded ice-road merges almost imperceptibly with the snowy expanse through which it meanders. We stopped at a sign which read “Polarsirkel-senteret” and took some photos, lit by a few shafts of moonlight trickling through the overcast.
Continuing north, we swept through vistas of plummeting cliffs and perfect mountains, the clouds thickening above us. The temperature plummeted beyond -10°C as winter took control of the landscape, the drifts of snow lining the road becoming ever higher. And then the clouds were behind us, the crisp snowscape painted hauntingly by the full moon.
The further we went, the more beautiful the empty landscape became. Flooded by moonlight crystalline in its sharpness, the fjords became more precipitous and foreboding, the mountains reached closer to perfection, and even the star-drenched sky seem to move nearer. And then, framed by the long suffering Fiat’s windscreen, a faint emerald curtain draped itself across the heavens, and began to shimmer.
We pulled over to watch as the aurora built in intensity, hypnotised by its movements. It cascaded above us, shimmering playfully then disappearing, before building again with a dignified intensity only nature can produce. Sometimes, rather than sweeping through the skies, it simply hung in the same place for minutes at a time, only to rush off again without warning.
After watching the awesome spectacle for a while the cold overcame us, so we piled back into the Fiat and continued north, stopping every so often when the skies lit up so stunningly that it seemed disrespectful to drive through the display.
During the early hours, Brummy and Jim slept while I drove in a state of near euphoria. Hundreds of miles of empty perfection swept past the little Fiat, which a few days earlier had seemed incapable of even leaving the UK. Often, I would stop to photograph yet another glistening mountainscape, or find myself cruising down a perfect valley, the path of the ice beneath me being mirrored by the northern lights shimmering high above.
Even the Fiat finally felt right. From thinking it the car from Hell a few months previously and cursing its stuttering progress at the start of our journey, it had shown itself to be a car of character. Few other cars could have made the Arctic experience so memorable. Certainly, no new car could compare. Its rear-engined, rear-wheel-drive layout was great for traction on the ice, while fast, light steering made sliding the car around an easy joy. In the bitter cold of the Arctic night, I warmed to the pugnacious little Fiat, and its big heart.
Jim took over driving at about five AM and I slept blissfully, buried on the back seat beneath a pile of sleeping bags, completely content with the world, as if coaxing the Fiat to the Arctic was the most natural thing in the world to do; my calling in life.
A crisp twilight grew as we reached the remote port of Narvik. This far north, a winter’s day is almost apologetic, consisting of a few dim hours. The sun wouldn’t rise again for nearly a month.
We went for coffee, silencing the overworked engine for the first time in 14 hours, only to find that the superchilled battery was too cold to restart it. Fortunately, 10 minutes of being cuddled by Brummy beneath his fleece warmed it back into life, so we headed onwards for a quick look around the Islands of Lofoten and Vesteralen, which rise jewel-like from the ocean, 130 miles beyond the Arctic Circle.
As the light faded, we retraced our path through the bewitching, now familiar landscape, with 2 days to catch our ferry from Bergen, 1,000 miles away. During the night a blizzard descended, transforming our view into a hypnotic blur of snowflakes warping past, and hiding the road beneath a churning sea of spindrift. The weather became so bad it blocked the road, but fortunately a snowplough rescued us, escorting us south through the storm.
Beyond Trondheim, the E16 snaked through the darkness, its sweeping curves rising and falling at the beck of Norway’s endless mountains, and testing the Fiat’s traction to the limit. We passed through the Lærdal road tunnel – at 15 miles the world’s longest – before sweeping through Voss and reaching Bergen with a few hours to spare.
Predictably, the long ferry journey back to the UK was an exercise in drunken relief, and it was three weary, hung-over people who pulled up at passport control.
“Just the two of you in there?” The policewoman asked.
“Nope, three.” Jim replied, as a passport appeared from within the cocoon of sleeping bags on the back seat.
“Wow, you must be really good friends!”
“We are now!” Brummy barked with wink and a grin, as we clattered triumphantly back onto English soil.