A Travellerspoint blog

July 2009

Beach Life at the Arctic Circle

After a long debate, many calendar- checkings and phone calls, emails and instant messages later, my two friends Paula and Susanne, and at the last minute, Susanne's boyfriend Emppu and I finally set the date for the long drive up to Oulanka National Park in Kuusamo, which borders on Lapland and criss-crosses close along the Russian border. We'd mainly wanted to go because this was the year we all turned 30, and we all had a long list of things to do before thirty. Unfortunately, we realised that it was now too late to actually write a Nobel-winning novel or to get a record deal. So we had to scale down our aspirations and instead, went for something we'd always wanted to do: trekking 63 kilometres of the most beautiful Finnish scenery there is.

Now, I am, by no means, a hiking/ camping/ wilderness -type of girl. I much prefer complicated cocktails, seeing up-and-coming bands or trying on clothes I can't afford. But I seem to do these things, mainly because the scenery and the experience is almost always unforgettable, and also because I kind of like to push myself a bit. Anyway.

Oulanka national park was recently featured in the National Geographic due to it's unique soil, ecosystem and scenery, so it seemed like a great way of seeing a bit of our own heritage. All of us, Paula, Susse and I have never really travelled in our own country, too busy roaming around abroad, so one sunny afternoon in Southern Finland, we packed up a car with (other people's) camping stuff, and drove 750 kilometres to Kuusamo.


The trail, called Karhunkierros, which roughly translates to The Bear trail, or Bear's Loop, has various starting/ finishing points, and is altogether 80 kilometres long. I'd been adviced by a friend that the last part of the trail is actually quite boring, so we decided to skip it, mainly because I occasionally have to work and therefore it's a good idea I'm in the right town, and Paula has two small daughters. So four days on the trail it was.

Upon arriving, it rained and because, to our outrage, you had to pay for the camping grounds, we decided to camp on the parking lot. As you do. We lit a disposable grill and prepared a few sad-looking sausages. It wasn't the greatest start, but at least the raincoat my mum had forced on me came in handy.

Camping at the parking lot

The fantastic thing about Oulanka is that it is completely free. There are no entry fees, and the camping grounds, traditional leaning huts, lappish teepees and wilderness huts are free to use. According to the ancient wilderness tradition, and the strange finnish logic, it works on a "last to arrive, first to be served" -basis; a person arriving first should always give their space to late-comers, because the last person to arrive is usually the most tired one. Hmm. I wasn't buying that; last one to arrive is probably last because they spent the previous night drinking and therefore hike slow, and deserve to be eaten by huge, mutant-size mosquitoes. Luckily, it never became an issue as there was always room.

Traditional leaning hut

Four days of hiking in a sunny, humid, but essentially cold forest is not always easy. At the start, the ground was flat-ish, with lots of marshes and lakes, and not a lot of other people. We carried all our food for the four days, filling water bottles in the streams, and so every steep rise uphill was bit of a battle- some of them so steep we literally went up in all fours. The first day was also the roughest- 17 kilometers before we arrived to a beatiful little hut with a campfire already lit. As a little extra evening work-out, we climbed up to Oulanka Canyon, with stunning pine-forest views across the park.


Surprisingly, we all felt quite good about the hike the next day; as an unexperienced hiker, I'd been a bit worried about coping with lots of walking- they'd said on the brochure that the trail requires good basic fitness and some camping experience- basic fitness? Camping?? Does camping in the backyard when you're seven count??

First off, we crossed a few hanging bridges, a source of lot of photos and fun- Fred came out from my backpack and joined in on the fun. We followed the trail up along a big cliff, looking down on the river and the endless forest below, before finally seeing some people, and more hanging bridges suspended over rapids.


What we loved most, though, was the deserted campsite on the second night by the fast-flowing river Oulanka. Not only was it wonderfully surrounded by the forest and hidden from view, but it had, to our surprise, a sandy beach lined with flowers. As it was a sunny evening, and as the sun never sets in Lapland in july, we spend ages jumping in and out of the, admittedly, freezing water.
Finnish people have a saying which means a place where the soul rests. This was it. It was perfectly still, quiet and harmonious. We felt like we were the only people in the world.


oulanka canyon


The last day of hiking was by far the hardest. I'd ran out of clean shirts by then and everyone complained about having smelly socks. We'd stocked up on food, but as we had heavy tents and torches (clever move in a country where the sun really doesn't set in July), we'd left the clothes to a minimum. Even then, it didn't really matter- we've all been friends since early school years, and seen each other looking and smelling far worse. The only exception might have been Susanne's new boyfriend, but then again, he's a bloke so he probably didn't care.
The trail followed the river for a few kilometers, sometimes disappearing almost completely- it was the first time we actually had to look for the yellow markers which line the path. We crossed a dozen fallen trees and climbered up cliffs, all the while trying not to fall to the river. Getting to the campsite felt like a wonderful achievement that night, and we celebrated by having a drink by the fire, and cooking all the rest of the food we had- a lovely mixture of noodles, soups, soya pieces and raw carrots. Fred also had a drink and got a bit rowdy... bad giraffe.

It wasn't the easiest of routes...


Fred celebrating the final day of hiking

The last day was an easy stroll from the last wilderness hut to the car; we hardly counted that as hiking at all, although it did include some of the steepest staircases up. We'd deliberately stayed in the park for the last night, as we had no intention of camping at the gloomy parking lot again, nor did we want to pay for a campsite at Juuma, where the trail ended. The last 10 kilometres joined in on the pieni karhunkierros, or Small Bear Trail, which is essentially a 12-kilometre loop around Juuma, meant for day trek. It felt almost polished in comparison- steps, proper river crossings, and yes, lots and lots of people, looking glowy and happy and carrying small daypacks. We felt like some sort of forest gnomes, emerging from the woods without having seen a hairbrush in days. They also seemed stunned that we'd walked all the way from Hautajärvi- do we really look that unfit?? People seemed, as they always do, intrigued by Fred, asking if he was a bear-repellant. Which was odd. At least three people said that. I've never known inflatable giraffes to repel bears, but there you go.

So, Sunday morning at the local petrol station, again in the drizzling rain that had miraculously stopped while we actually walked, we took stock of the whole trail. Yes, it was beautiful. Yes, it was challenging enough without being too extreme. Yes, the huts and the campsites were well looked after. But although we liked it, I felt like it didn't quite hold enough to be stunning. I don't know why, but scenery-wise, I was left wanting just a bit more. Something really stunning and unique. Or maybe it's just because I am finnish and therefore used to the scenery. I don't know, but I'm very willing to go to Lapland again, maybe to another national park, and give it a second go.


Posted by Ofelia 02:22 Archived in Finland Tagged ecotourism Comments (0)

Beautiful People

Remember the days back in your teenage years when a really beautiful bunch of trendy girls and boys ruled the school? They were impossibly fashionable; they had highlights when you still wore scruntchies and they co-ordinated their pens to match their nailpolish. The boys were athletic and popular, the girls giggly but grown-up. I spent most of my school years in the art classroom, elbow-deep in oil colours, sometimes squinting as I came out of the dark room after developing "artistic" photos of leaves and other interesting things. Then, after school, you say your good-byes and never see them again, right? Wrong. I met the whole posse on Saturday. For the first time in eleven years.

I went to Lahti, the ugliest city in Finland and possibly in the world (and I have, after all, visited Coventry and Leicester) for a friends' wedding. Lovely as the day was, the city was drab and forbidding. Every second person carried around a dirty plastic bag of cheap beer, the buildings reminded me of the charming soviet style which was so popular in Finland some decades ago. Everyone looked as if doomsday was just around the corner. I met some of the other wedding guests in the tiny hostel (ran by a russian woman whose face seemed somehow distorted- like it was put together by Picasso) and decided to go for a walk before getting ready for the ceremony. Everyone at the hostel (staff as well as the guests) seemed horrified by this. For a walk? In Lahti? Surely not.

There is indeed something seedy about the city. It has all the same coffee shops, pub chains and shops as most large cities in Finland, but they seem almost fake- like they are not really expecting to sell anything. I wouldn't be surprised if all the fancy bits were simply card-board cut-outs, planted by the city commission to make Lahti more appealing to tourists. And, when the beautiful, popular girls arrived, the dark city offered a magnificient backdrop for them; they are still, very much so, beautiful. And the same. Now, everyone has the latest little mobile and more professional highlights, but they are, essentially, the same. I felt like an awkward adolescent all over again. At thirty, that's not good.

The wedding took place slightly outside the city, luckily, in a small island-type setting on a lake. The happy couple got married under birch trees, and the whole ceremony was short and sweet and informal. Just my kind of wedding. In a true Finnish style, instead of a car, they had a rowing boat awaiting which took them to the restaurant at the tip of the island.

At one point there was cheesecake involved, but I won't get into it now as it's hardly the point of this blog entry.

The beautiful people have done well in life. All but one, they are married, and we are expecting the last remaining one to get married any day now. They all have mortgages, few have kids, all have careers. Not jobs. Careers. And unlike most beautiful, successful people, they are actually nice.

Dancing, eating and (quite a bit of) drinking later, and one of them told me how she had always expected I would be a bit different to the rest of them (elbow-deep in paint at school wasn't enough of a hint?) and how, compared to me, they were all so middle-class. I haven't yet figured out if she meant this as a bad thing. I didn't take it as such.

We got drenched in the pouring rain walking back (me to the hostel, they to an all-inclusive hotel) at 3am, and the next morning, although the sun shone, it did little to improve my outlook on the city. I wouldn't want to come back. I put my nice dress in my backpack, said bye to my gorgeous school friends, and headed back home from what was a very surreal weekend.

(and yes. I know. I'm no longer travelling, so I shouldn't really write a blog anymore. But i'm hoping domestic travel does count, at least a little?)

Posted by Ofelia 04:14 Archived in Finland Comments (3)

What's the Deal with the Giraffe?

One time, probably in Livingstone but it could have been elsewhere, I ordered two glasses of wine from the hostel bar, and as the bloke behind the counter corked the Merlot, I plonked Fred on the bar stool next to me, and placed the other glass infront of him. Like I always do. A German girl and a guy with a strange accent eyed me, first with suspicion, then with amusement bordering on worry. Why did this weird girl have an inflatable giraffe with her?

Well, excuse me. Fred is, in deed, an inflatable giraffe, but not only an inflatable giraffe. He is, actually, a wine-loving, gay zambian alcoholic albino giraffe (inflatable). And if I could've had a penny everytime someone asked me "what's the deal with that giraffe?", I'd still be in Africa, wandering happily around the savanna and being quite a wealthy woman.


Fred was purchased from a very posh toy store in Lusaka. I saw him in the display window, and it was love at first sight. My friend Hanna was with me when I announced that I simply had to get that giraffe. He was not cheap (quality giraffes nowadays don't come cheap) but anyway, he has provided me with hours of fun. Not like that. Obviously. I said he was gay.

Fred was officially first blown up on the day before Christmas, in Livingstonia in Malawi, high up in the mountains where no giraffe has ever gone before. He quickly developed a taste for red wine, which we supplied to him in vast quantaties, since it was, after all, Christmas. Since then, it's become a bit of a habit. He danced with the owner of the campsite, and almost melted by the fire, passing out before he could reach the tent that night. It was one heck of a way of coming into the world, I tell you.


Why he is named Fred is a bit of a mystery. He looked like a Fred, and I wanted a name that was simple and easy and would work pretty well in Finnish as well as English. He is gay, because, well, he is. He didn't choose so; it was the way the people in Taiwan manufactured him. As for being an albino, we're going through the motions of anger, denial, bargening, depression and acceptance. He is doing very well.

As for the mystery reason of travelling with an inflatable giraffe, there are none. I liked him, and he provides me with amusement when I'm bored- I can dress him up in clothes or take funny pictures of him (although my mum did note that it might be time to have a baby), and he is a fantastic ice breaker in conversations. Forget a hippo in the room- giraffes are the way to go!

So far, Fred has made tons of friends from all corners of the world, and is happy to chat to anyone about his travels, as long as you buy him a glass of wine to keep him going. He can tell you about his experiences sandboarding, playing in a band, scuba diving or meeting other, non-albino, giraffes. He's been in trains, planes, cars and minibuses, and even been involved in a police matter (although I will not divulge the details here). And, for some reason, whenever people meet him, their instinct is to do something less pretty to him. Hmm. I can grant access to the private photo gallery on request.

Fred is currently taking a break from travelling and living in a big house in the countryside of Finland with a nice family. He is planning on doing hiking in Lapland this summer, and returning to Africa a bit later on this year, via London and Copenhagen. If you see him on your travels, come and say hi. Preferably with a bottle of red wine in hand.


Posted by Ofelia 05:37 Archived in Zambia Tagged round_the_world Comments (2)

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