Kungsleden Photographs

Photographs from the Kungsleden; Sweden’s spectacular Arctic wilderness.

In the summer of 2014 I walked about half of Sweden’s Kungsleden (it translates as the King’s Way or the King of Ways, depending on who you choose to believe).

The Kungsleden begins well above the Arctic Circle in Swedish Lapland and follows a trail through valleys, over mountains and across rivers and lakes. Although there are camping huts spaced roughly a day apart, for the most part this is true wilderness with the nearest road often being several days walk away.

Basic food supplies can be bought at some of the huts, but for the most part you have to carry everything you need. The food in the huts is of the dried, canned and processed variety as it all has to be brought in my snow-mobile in March when the snow is at its deepest. It then has to last till the end of summer.

Water for washing and drinking is taken from the lakes and rivers and is some of the purest I’ve ever drank (and washed in).

I’ve put some photograhs (actually, I’ve put a LOT of photographs) on Flickr, but even the best photography can’t do justice to the beauty of this place. It’s one of those places you just have to see for yourself.

Click on the image below to access the album.


Researching and writing

I’m working hard on my book at the moment. Even to the extent of inventing my own language! (Dutlish anyone?)

After a lot of research into travel books (good excuse to do lots of reading) I’ve come to the conclusion that most books have around 200 pages and 100,000 words. Give or take 10-20%. This is reassuring because this is what I’m aiming for with the book I’m trying to write at the moment. I’m not looking at bestselling travel writers as they tend to have much longer books, but more the sort of writers you only discover when researching books on a particular region or way of travelling.

At the moment I’m about a third of the way there with around 32,000 words. I’ve divided the writing of my first draft into three phases:

Phase one was typing up my diary notes. I kept quite a detailed diary as I was walking, but as I was hand-writing and, more importantly, not wanting to add a huge notebook to my load, it was in note form. My typing up in phase one involved writing it up into proper sentences and paragraphs rather than just copying up notes. As I’m a fairly fast typist this was completed quite quickly.

I’m now working on phase two, which is much slower going. Phase two involves the factual side of my walk and means lots of research. One of my USPs (unique selling points) is that the book will be useful for anyone planning, or thinking about, a walk along the Kungsleden. Although it’s not intended as a guidebook, I do want to get quite a lot of solid information into it. One of the reasons I wanted to write this book is because so few people in the English speaking world are aware of this walk and there is very little written on it in English. The very reason I want to write the book is also the reason my research is going quite slowly – there’s very little written on it in English.

I’m finding quite a lot on the internet, but it tends to be in Swedish. Although I picked up a few Swedish words, my language skills are definitely not of the proficiency needed for reading Swedish websites. I’m ploughing through, picking out the words I know and finding myself doing a complicated process of translating into English via Dutch. Yes, Dutch. When I was in Scandinavia in February I noticed how a lot of the words in both Danish and Swedish seemed to share a similar root to Dutch. I don’t speak Dutch, but my Dutch vocabulary is far more extensive than my Swedish vocabulary and whilst I was travelling over the summer I found this came in very useful. I’m finding it just as useful now. When I’ve read through a page and got the gist of it in Dutch and English (Dutlish?), I’ll put any relevant bits into Google translate to double-check. Although it comes up with a few strange translations and the word order is sometimes rather jumbled, I’m quite impressed with it. I wouldn’t use it to translate anything of importance, say a legal document, but for my purpose it’s fine.

Once I’ve done some research and made my own notes, I’m then inserting this into whichever part of my draft I think it’ll best fit. This is all taking quite a long time. I’m aiming to have roughly 50,000 words by the end of the phase two. That’ll be half the book dedicated to my first USP. Only 18,000 words to go then …

Phase three will be dedicated to my second USP which is something along the lines of stressed, middle-aged woman/teacher gives up job and goes for a long walk in the Arctic wilderness. I think I’m going to enjoy writing this part. Not that I’m not enjoying what I’m doing at the moment, but I’m conscious of time and want to get as much done as possible before the need to pay bills means I have to go back to work. 

Of course, once it’s all done, that’s only really the start of it. My first draft will be a collection of disorganised ramblings and will be in need of some serious editing. But I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.

Goalless Walking

My time in the wilderness has taught me that the goal of not having a goal can be the best goal to have.

I mentioned previously that my long walk in Sweden had given me a new mindset on walking. So, what would that be then?

In the past I’ve always seen a walk as a kind of challenge: a list of places to be ticked off; a certain time to get somewhere; a set-in-stone quota of miles to be covered. This hasn’t been something I’ve done consciously as my main reason for walking has always been that it’s something I enjoy. But because I do enjoy my walks, I’ve always found it easy to get distracted. I’ll sit and gaze at an idyllic view for twenty minutes, then spend another ten minutes trying to take a perfect photograph of a leaf. Add in distractions like tea-rooms, old churches or obscure little museums and my walk can easily take twice as long as it’s ‘supposed’ to. Although I finish my walk happy, I’ll have a little niggle at the back of my mind telling me that I haven’t done well enough. On the other hand, when I have to rush to finish the walk to make sure I’m in time for the last bus or that the gates on the car park aren’t locked, then I don’t feel so happy. I feel like I’ve missed out.

It should be obvious really shouldn’t it? That I should walk with the intention of doing what I want, when I want and enjoying myself rather than trying to achieve some self-imposed target. However, it took a long walk in the Arctic with plenty of thinking time for me to figure this out. 

At first I was concerned that I wasn’t putting enough miles in each day; that I was starting too late in the morning; that I was taking too many gorgeous-view breaks. I justified it by telling myself I’d never be here again. If I don’t absorb the view fully, or camp at that amazing spot by the waterfall and enjoy pottering around in the sun the next morning, I’ll never get another chance. In the Peak District, I can always nip back for another look. In Swedish Lapland? Not so easy. Not when I have to take a plane, then a very long train journey, then a bus ride of several hours to the end of the nearest road, and then walk for a few days to get there. It’s easier to come back and walk a part of the trail I haven’t touched on, than it is to go back to the sections I’ve already walked just to see a bit here and a bit there because I rushed it first time round.

Once these thoughts started to sink in I began to relax and enjoy myself a lot more. I was learning to stop feeling guilty about something that there was no reason to feel guilty about anyway. I met lots of Swedish people, including some quite young ones. Although some were rushing along with only a few days to complete a long section of the trail, others were enjoying moving slowly and making the most of their time spent in the wilderness. Rather than rushing from target to target, their goal was to find a nice campsite, cook some good food and chill.

Swedes seem to have a different attitude to the great outdoors. From an early age, it’s quite normal to spend time walking, carrying a pack, wild camping and jumping in rivers for a wash. Have you ever tried walking with a five-year-old? If so, you’ll know how long it can take to even get a few hundred metres down the road. Everything is fascinating to them. They have to turn every stone, pick up every stick and sometimes sample every worm. Give them a backpack to carry and the chance of finding bits of reindeer antler in the stream beds and you’ve no chance of getting very far. This is fine. The point of the trip isn’t to walk a long way, but to enjoy being in the wilderness.

Once they hit their teens they’re chomping at the bit to get out there with their mates. No grown-ups allowed. And you know what? The grown-ups are fine with this. They walk a bit further than when they were younger, but still seem to get far more out of ‘just being there’ than they do for breaking records of distance or speed walked.

As adults, the annual trip to the wilderness is a time to de-stress away from busy lives in Stockholm or other cities. It’s quality time with family and friends, or time to be perfectly alone with no-one else to worry about. Yes they have targets; goals they want to achieve, but the targets are not the main reason for being there. 

So why do I always have this feeling of needing to achieve a goal? Is it a general British attitude to walking? There’s no point doing it unless you’re going to achieve something? I don’t think I’m alone in feeling this. Is it because we don’t have any ‘real’ wilderness to spend days alone in? Even the remotest parts of Scotland are not that far from civilisation. I could have driven to the Highlands three times in the time it took just for the train journey from Stockholm to Lapland. Does this mean we never really shed our city feelings of targets, goals and everything at a specific time? Is it because walking is an ‘adult’ pastime and so we never have the opportunity to learn lessons from five-year-olds about the joy of going slowly? I know some Brits will take their children on short walks, but I don’t know any who wouldn’t shudder at the thought of taking them into the wilderness for two weeks at a time.

My time in the wilderness has taught me that the goal of not having a goal can be the best goal to have. Of course sometimes it’s good to challenge yourself; to keep yourself on your toes rather than sat on your bum taking yet another gorgeous-view break. And sometimes there is no choice in the matter. Why do so many last buses depart at 5pm even in the long, light summer evenings?

So how am I going to apply these lessons now I’m home? I’ll still walk according to other people’s criteria, whether that’s people I meet (it only took us three hours) or what the guide-book says. Or, more importantly, what the bus timetable says. But I also want to walk without a plan or goal. To just wander wherever I think looks interesting. To stop when I want and where I want for however long I want. Will I achieve this goal? Or am I just setting myself another target that I’ll feel guilty about not achieving? Is it even possible to have a target of not having a target? Watch this space …

When your campsite looks like this, why would you be in a hurry to leave?

I’ve returned … what next?

After a summer spent walking in the Arctic wilderness I’ve come home to no job, but lots of ideas.

I’ve been home for about 10 days now and I’m slowly getting myself sorted out. As planned, I’ve spent the summer on a long walk in a long country. I aimed to walk the Kungsleden trail in the far north of Sweden and managed to complete just under half of it before my knees gave out. Although it’s disappointing not to have finished the whole thing, I really enjoyed what I did and developed a whole new mindset towards walking. I’ll write more about that in another post. I’ve also got an excuse to go back next year.

Before I went to Sweden, I left my job. Drastic but sometimes these things have to be done. I was getting less and less time to do the things I want to do with my life and to spend time with the people I want to spend time with. Work was, quite literally, taking over my life. I feel a lot calmer and more in control of my life since finishing work. Unfortunately, as I’m not a rich heiress or lottery winner, and I don’t have a sugar-daddy to hand, I’ll have to find some other means of earning a living. But this time I want it to be on my terms. In the meantime I want to spend some time focussing on things I want to achieve personally.

One of the items on my list is to write a book. I’ve had ideas roaming around inside my head for years, but they’ve never seemed quite right when I’ve come to put them down on paper. My time walking in the wilderness gave me lots of thinking time and I now feel I have the right ideas for a book. I had thought about writing up the walk even when I was at the planning stages. There is very little written on it in English so I’d hope it would be helpful to others wanting to do something similar. This would be one of my USPs. Yes, I’ve been reading up on what helps a piece of writing to sell and found out all about the need for a USP (Unique Selling Point). I have two USPs. Is that a good thing? The first, as mentioned, concerns the lack of writing about this trail that is currently available in English. The second goes something along the lines of ‘stressed, middle-aged woman gives up job and goes off alone for a wander round the Arctic’.

I kept quite detailed diaries whilst I was away and I’m now in the process of writing them up and adding to them. As I read back over them and think about fleshing them out, the book is almost writing itself in my mind. I have so many ideas. I think I’m almost glad I only completed half the walk as I definitely have enough material for one book already!

A long walk in a long country

I’m going to spend very long hours of daylight walking a very long trail in a very long country.

So I was lying in bed, sipping a mug of coffee, flicking through my Lonely Planet Guide to Sweden, thinking about getting up and actually doing something. I really hadn’t got the use out of my LP Sweden as I only bought it to use for a few days and it turned out there were only a couple of pages dedicated to Malmo where I was planning to go. In fact, so little of the book concerned Malmo I did something I have never done before. After much deliberation I decided I really didn’t want to carry the whole book around, didn’t have time to copy the relevant pages and so, I’m really struggling to say this, I (deep breath) ripped the pages out. Now I was thinking I really should get some more use out of this mutilated book.

Malmo is right at the bottom of Sweden, just over the Oresund Bridge from Copenhagen. It’s a very nice place in what seems to be a very nice and very long country. As I’ve been to one end, maybe I should go to the other end? And, as the other end is in the actual real Arctic, as soon as this idea popped into my head, it seemed like a very good idea indeed. I turned to the Arctic section of the book and the page fell open on the description of a very long walk in this very long country.

The walk is called the Kungsleden Trail (means the King’s Trail or the Royal Trail, depending who you believe) and the whole thing is over 400km through beautiful wilderness. Ok then, that’s my summer holiday planned. My very long walk in this very long country will take place during the very long days of summer (are you seeing a theme yet?)

A few weeks later sitting in brother’s kitchen in Germany I had time to do a bit more research. Apart from a few blogs and the official website and one not very well-known guidebook, there’s very little written on it in English. This is all part of the attraction. It’s something not many Brits either know about or will have done. I’m sold.

A talk on the Arctic and Antarctica

From East Africa to the Arctic and Antarctica. Including Shetland. Gavin Francis has led my idea of a dream life.

Last night I went along to Lerwick library to listen to Gavin Francis talk about his two books. I can’t believe I’d not heard of him before as I consider myself to be quite aware of all the travel writing books on the Arctic and Antarctica. I only knew about last night’s talk because of an article in the Shetland Times promoting the event. The article mentioned he’d started his Arctic journey in Unst which is another reason I’m surprised not to have come across him before as I’d thought I’d read all the travel writing books which mention my favourite island in my favourite archipelago.

Gavin Francis is a medical doctor who had spent some time working in East Africa and at the end of his stint he felt the need to go somewhere completely different to the heat and crowds of Africa. The Arctic is a bit different to Africa so this was where he headed using the Great Bear as a defining boundary (he visited places the constellation can be seen from) and concentrating on the European Arctic rather than the American.

He followed a route that led him from Shetland to the Faroes and into Iceland and Greenland, before exploring Spitzbergen and Scandinavian Lapland. To add extra interest to his journey (as though these places aren’t already interesting enough!) he followed routes documented by early writers. Shetland, for example, was written about over 2000 years ago by an early Greek traveller, Pytheas, who visited around the time the brochs were being built. As his journey went on he followed the writings of far more up-to-date and modern explorers e.g. the Vikings. 

Obviously he didn’t get cold enough in the Arctic because not long after he headed off to Antarctica to spend a year working as the resident doctor on British Antarctic Survey’s Halley Base. It took a while to get there on a boat that went via the Falklands, South Georgia and Bird Island. Once there it was all hands to the deck unloading two thousand drums of kerosene. A couple of weeks later, when the unloading was done, the ship left and it was time to settle in to life with just 13 other people.

About half the people on the base are scientists of various disciplines and the rest are support staff, such as the doctor, a chef, mechanics and engineers. He says he hasn’t gone into much detail about his role as doctor due to there being so few people it would be too easy for people to know who he was talking about and this would of course break medical confidentiality issues. Instead he talks about his time spent partaking in non-medical activities, such as trips out to visit the neighbours; a colony of emperor penguins. With the onset of 24 hour darkness there was plenty of time to observe the night skies and become familiar with constellations and blase with auroras. He also found time to write ‘True North’, his book based on his Arctic travels. Since returning home to Scotland he has written his second book; ‘Empire Antarctica’.

His talk last night, was divided into two half hour sessions, one for each book, with a 15 minute break between and a Q&A session at the end. The talk was engaging and interspersed with a few short readings from his own books and those of relevant others. He also passed around a few artefacts, such as his boots and gloves (big, bulky, heavy) and an emperor penguin egg (pointy, bumpy, slightly larger than a duck egg). The library was full, with people even sitting upstairs in what would have originally been the choir (it’s in an old church). Many of them were older and although there were a lot of locals present, there were tourists other than myself. I sat next to a Dutch lady who was in Lerwick with her husband on their yacht. They have sailed all over the world, including all the places Gavin spoke about. They funded their nomadic, floatational lifestyle by running a yacht business and the lady also wrote books and magazine articles on sailing and their travels.

Now I have even more ideas buzzing around inside my head. I love all the inspiration I get up here from all the amazing people I’m constantly meeting. I hope I continue to get ideas and inspiration from Orkney, though I’m sure I will. I leave on the ferry tonight.