Niall HamptonSee other Blog articles filed in ‘Travel and touring’ written by Niall Hampton
A few minutes into our drive on the ice road, the thought strikes us that this might not be such a good idea after all.
A 7.5m-long coachbuilt motorhome, loaded close to its fully laden weight of 3500kg, is tackling the frozen expanse of the Gulf of Bothnia en route to the island of Hailuoto.
Between us and the sea below is a thick sheet of ice. Approaching us as we drive steadily at 30mph are what look like cracks in its surface, occurring as randomly as veins running through a slab of Stilton Blue.
It’s a substantial six miles in each direction, and having travelled at least two miles from the mainland, we’re fully committed to our journey.
An Arctic adventure
But are these actually cracks in the ice, or something more serious? We look around for reassurance, and find it in the behaviour of other road users.
A Finnish-registered car hares past us at double our speed, and a snowplough that’s much bigger and heavier than our ’van powers over the ice. Well, if it’s good enough for them…
I’m in Finland, having joined up with the team taking part in Bailey’s Arctic Adventure.
This is an endurance test designed to push the manufacturer’s leisure vehicles to the extreme: an overland haul between the Millbrook Proving Ground and Finland that has to be completed in eight days.
After several days spent inside the Arctic Circle, where daytime temperatures struggle to better –5C, the convoy sets off on the return leg to Blighty.
Over 2000 miles completed...
The route had taken in sights including Brugge, Berlin, Torun, Vilnius, Tallin, Helsinki and Kuopio, a modest total of 2141 miles.
I’d been following developments on social media (#ArcticAdventure) before flying out.
So far, everything seemed to be going to plan – and there had already been some memorable moments, like visiting Berlin’s iconic Brandenburg Gate.
The schedule had been relentless, though. Daily mileage targets dictated by ferry crossings and campsite bookings forced a brisk pace.
By the time the convoy pulled up outside my hotel in Oulu on Day 7, team dynamics had clearly bedded in and anecdotes garnered over the past few days were being energetically traded.
It was clear a lot of fun had been had, despite the early starts and late nights. And it was just as well – we’d be calling on this camaraderie as we gingerly crossed the ice road later that morning.
I’d be tracking the progress of the Autograph 75-2, as driven by Martin Dorey, presenter of BBC Two’s The Camper Van Cook, and Bernie Jones, who runs motorhome manoeuvring courses for the Caravan and Motorhome Club.
Martin had a vital role on the Arctic Adventure: in addition to sharing the driving, he cooked regular meals for the whole party, whipping up tasty arrays of much-welcomed sustenance and giving the galley of the 75-2 a proper workout in the process.
Martin and Bernie were the Tail End Charlies of the convoy, providing the backstop to the two touring caravans led by Simon Howard, Bailey’s marketing director.
Day 7: Kuopio to Ranua via Oulu (279miles)
The Gulf of Bothnia is the sea between the west coast of Finland and the east coast of Sweden.
Its northernmost section, the Bothnian Bay, is covered with sea ice over winter and provides Finland with its longest official ice road, which connects the mainland with the island of Hailuoto (alternatively, there’s a ferry crossing).
Although it wasn’t necessary to follow the ice road to get to that evening’s destination, Ranua, taking the ice road offered the kind of challenge which was in keeping with the spirit of the Arctic Adventure.
So after forming up in the car park next to the Hailuoto ferry, the vehicles set off one-by-one across the ice.
Taking things at a pretty sedate 30mph (50km/h), Martin pointed the ’van’s nose towards Hailuoto.
Tackling the ice road
The Bailey coped well with the conditions, with the windscreen heater on full tilt to stop the glass from icing up.
The perceived cracks in the ice, of which there were many, weren’t as unnerving as the sat-nav display – worryingly, this showed us driving over a rather large expanse of water.
It’s not every day one can say they’ve done this kind of thing, but once again the locals showed us the way.
Outside, in the freezing cold, two ice skaters glided past, as nonchalantly as if they were on their daily commute.
After turning around on Hailuoto, I took the motorhome’s controls and we made it back to snow-covered land safely.
Having ticked off the ice-road experience, we continued our journey to Ranua, arriving after nightfall.
The overnight stop was much discussed en route: we were pitching up at the Ranua Zoo campsite – cue much gallows humour about our party being devoured by hungry polar bears in the small hours…
Day 8: Ranua to Ivalo via Rovaniemi (225 miles)
Fortunately, the only polar bears spotted were confined to a bag of minty sweets.
After a snap breakfast, the convoy formed up and headed north towards the Arctic Circle.
Now, as every young child knows, Santa Claus lives at Rovaniemi, the capital of Lapland and right on the Arctic Circle. It would have been remiss not to have called in on our way past.
Amazingly, Santa had heard all about the Arctic Adventure trip and was really pleased to see us. Or was he like that with everyone? It was hard to tell.
We were lucky, he said, because this time of year was usually more cold. It didn’t bother him because of his big beard and red suit, he boomed, waving us on our way via the gift shop, where there was a trinket or bauble to satisfy every possible Santa-branded need.
Keeping toasty at sub-zero temperatures
Delightful as it was to see Herra Claus, we had to push on. The day’s ultimate destination was Ivalo, 284km inside the Arctic Circle, and halfway through the journey I took the wheel from Bernie.
First away from the pit stop, we led the convoy and enjoyed good visibility along the E75. The road was covered with snow, but with wheel tracks to follow.
Even though the outside temperature reading was –5C, the Bailey felt remarkably well-planted while cruising at 50mph, because there wasn’t any ice on the road. “It’s below freezing but there’s no moisture in the air,” noted Bernie.
The only impediment to our progress was when we caught up with an articulated lorry, which threw up swirls of snow in front of us. It was like driving into a wall of cotton wool, so I fell back to get a better view of the road ahead.
Again, we were overtaken by local cars really caning it, but winter tyres are compulsory here.
Autograph on song
Pulling up at the Ivalo River Camping site later that afternoon, conditions had warmed up a little, but it was still around –4C.
Unlike our caravan compadres, pitching the ’van was as simple as reversing on to our pitch, deploying the silver screen, hooking up the mains and firing up the Alde heating.
So we were soon able to repair to the site’s café-bar for a well-deserved sundowner after another busy day on the road.
Turning in later that evening, the Autograph’s Alde heating had maintained an agreeable temperature.
Little wonder, though… this Scandinavian-designed system was merely doing what it was intended for, coping easily with a workout far beyond the needs of most users.
Day 9: Ivalo Test World
The next morning, the raison d’être of the Arctic Adventure – driving on snow and ice at Ivalo Test World – hoved into view.
And the weather truly showed up for us – a flawless canopy of blue sky with glorious sunshine raising the temperature.
First things first, we sat down for a safety briefing and backgrounder. Automotive manufacturers from across Europe use the facility to test their products in a variety of cold-weather situations.
We were offered the opportunity to take the Bailey Autograph 75-2 on a deceleration test on snow. The procedure was simple: accelerate to 30km/h as quickly as possible, then slam the brakes on.
Satellite tracking equipment would measure the ’van’s performance, which would be compared to that of a benchmark vehicle, a VW Golf undertaking the same manoeuvre.
Preparations made and safely strapped in, we made four attempts. And given the relative size of the 75-2, it performed well when compared to the car.
The ’van came to a complete stop in a straight line every time – there was no back-end swing and I always felt in complete control.
Anyone having reservations about driving a 3.5-ton motorhome in such difficult conditions would have been completely reassured.
Next up, after a hearty lunch including a delicious reindeer soup, we were offered the chance to drive the Golf on a slalom course, and on a circular track at speed to assess the handling on snow and ice. It was an exhilarating end to an interesting day.
That evening, following a brief spot of tobogganing in nearby Saariselkä, we had a barbecue meal in a traditional Lappish hut.
The temperature had dropped to –8C, so we were thankful for the roaring fire in the middle of the hut, around which our meal was being prepared.
Following some cold meats including reindeer steak and tongue, we tucked into smoked salmon, baked potato with sour cream and herbs, all dispatched with a local brew. Kippis!
Day 10: Ivalo
Overnight temperatures may have fallen to –11C, but I’m happy to report that the Autograph 75-2’s Alde heating and Grade 3 insulation had done its job again.
Sadly, the Northern Lights had failed to show for the second night running, but at least this gave us an uninterrupted night’s sleep (there had been talk – crazy, in my view – of camping outside to witness this incredible phenomenon).
We still had an early start, though, as there was one final activity to partake in before returning to the UK by air – a two-hour snowmobile safari around Ivalo, which was a bracing start to the day.
After that, it was time for us part-timers (aka ‘media guests’) to head to the local airport and reflect on our experiences in the Arctic Circle – not for us the 2430-mile slog through Sweden, Denmark, Germany and the Netherlands.
Ambitious in scope and complicated in the planning, Bailey’s Arctic Adventure certainly achieved its objectives, proving that extreme conditions are no barrier to touring in a motorhome.
A week following my departure from Finland, the Arctic Adventure convoy arrived back at Millbrook safe and sound. Almost 5000 miles had been clocked up, with no damage to the vehicles.
Along the way, there had been a lot of fun. Thanks to social media updates, I had a good sense of what had already transpired before arriving in Finland.
But the one thing the social media blizzard couldn’t convey was the camaraderie, of people enjoying shared experiences together on the road.
Now isn’t that what motorcaravanning is all about?