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North Cape: On Top of Europe…Sort Of

Much is made of the legendary capes that so many explorers had to navigate in the southern hemisphere in their search for new, unexplored lands. Many people would be able to tell you where Cape Horn is, but I’m guessing that less would be able to tell you where Nordkapp (North Cape) — the northernmost point on the European mainland — is.

The Nordkapp Point Marker

The famous point marker at Nordkapp.

I was certainly one of those people before I started researching Lapland and the fjords of northern Norway. I had heard of Nordkapp, but I was surprised to find that the northernmost point on mainland Europe is actually on an island (the island of Magerøya to be specific). That makes total sense, right?

It turns out that the northernmost point of the actual European mainland is actually Cape Nordkyn, a lonesome point to the east of Nordkapp that can only be reached by a multi-day hike (23km each way). Nordkapp isn’t even the northernmost point on the island of Magerøya — that distinction is held by Knivskjellodden, a peninsula to the west that also requires a 18km round trip hike to access it.

Knivskjellodden from North Cape

Knivskjellodden, the actual northernmost point on the island, seen from North Cape.

So really, North Cape is the most tourist-friendly and glamorous point that is close enough to try to lay claim to the northernmost point, so it has. And when I visited, I was okay with that. In the summer, I would have liked to hike to Cape Nordkyn or Knivskjellodden; in the weather that we had in late winter, I much preferred traveling by bus on a Hurtigruten shore excursion.

As part of that shore excursion, we had a tour guide named Renald who was all smiles and good quotes. As we left Honningsvåg (a city that has its own “northernmost” title of “northernmost city in Norway”), he filled our heads with so many interesting facts that they won’t fit in this post. Tomorrow there will be a post dedicated to Renald and his stories of growing up on Magerøya.

Driving Towards Shipfjord

Driving towards Shipfjord from Honningsvåg.

We traversed around Shipfjord and a few other scenic fjords before reaching a fork in the road. One road — the one we were not taking — led to the small fishing village of Skarsvåg. The other led to Nordkapp but was blocked by a signed barrier. Knowing we’d be curious about what was going on, Renald explained the convoy system.

A Magerøya Snowplow

Following a snowplow across Magerøya.

For the entirety of the winter — which on Magerøya lasts for 7-8 months — only people traveling in convoy can use the 15km of road between Skarsvåg and Nordkapp. Convoys run on a regular timetable twice a day in each direction. The rules for convoys are strict:

  • It must be led by a snowplow, because during the worst storms, the road can be covered by up to 1cm of snow per minute(!!) due to the fact that there are no trees to block the snow from being picked up and whipped across the landscape. Snowstorms can even be whipped up without snow falling.
  • It must have a following car that can radio the snowplow to stop if something happens within the convoy.
  • The plow and following car are stocked with enough provisions and sleeping bags that everyone in the convoy could survive for around 24 hours if they get stuck.
  • All vehicles put on their emergency lights, which we soon realised are often the only way you can tell where the vehicle in front is.

We couldn’t have asked more of the weather on the drive there. The cloudy (but still obviously blue) sky was a stark contrast to the white snow that had been whipped up into interesting patterns all around us. Even though we were only seeing a very small band of the colour spectrum, the landscape around us was still awe-inspiring in every direction, especially as we began the climb up to the plateau and the fjords stretched out below us.

Gorgeous Fields of Snow

Gorgeous, treeless fields of snow on the Nordkapp Plateau.

At 71 degrees north, we knew that weather couldn’t last — and it didn’t. By the time we arrived at North Cape Hall (usual entry fee a rather steep 235kr), the wind had become blustery and snow had started to fall. It was nice having a large, open hall where we could look out at the cape without actually going outside, but we all had to go out and experience it at least once.

By this point, it was difficult to walk in a straight line. We all staggered out as though we’d had one too many shots of Absolut, trying to make our way across the slippery landscape to the globe marker that stands at 71°10’21. The fresh snow was almost as slippery as the huge swathes of ice and more than a few people found themselves a bit closer to the ground than they would have liked. My Yaktrax definitely came in handy, as they had in every icy situation I’d found myself in so far.

Tourists Swarming Nordkapp

Tourists trying to navigate their way around the Nordkapp point marker.

I had my obligatory photo in front of the globe before I tried to explore a bit further afield. Statues that were part of a yearly art exhibit stood in the middle of an icy plain, but after a few bouts of ice skating I gave up on getting very close to them. Instead, I followed the cliff line, which actually offered a much better view of the Nordkapp marker and the crashing seas far below (at least, when the snow being whipped up from the cliffs wasn’t enough to block the view). The lone outpost sticking out into the sea as the chaos of the weather set in was a truly dramatic scene; it really did feel like the end of the world.

The End of the World at Nordkapp

Feeling like the end of the world at Nordkapp.

The trip back showed exactly why convoys are required at this time of year. Falling snow + a landscape devoid of trees + white buses in front of us meant we often couldn’t see anything except the faint blinking of emergency lights. We made it safely to Skarsvåg but one of the cars behind us didn’t; in a moment of no visibility, they ran into a bank of snow and had to be towed out. I think it’s much better to delay a few buses and be towed to safety rather than having to possibly spend the night in a snowbound car! This video shows a bit of what it was like, both at Nordkapp and in the bus:

 

I’ll be the first to admit that no, I didn’t make it to the northernmost point on mainland Europe. But did that matter? Not really. Nordkapp was still a striking, humbling place. Even in its perch well above the meeting of the Norwegian and Barents Seas, its size was dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of the ocean beyond and the weather pressing down. The feeling of being there, a mere speck trying not to get blown down, was what mattered.

Now that you know that Nordkapp isn’t quite the northernmost point in Europe, would you still visit?

I visited Nordkapp as a guest of Hurtigruten, but all opinions stated here are my own. Hurtigruten runs shore excursions (950kr) to Nordkapp from its northbound services, which dock at 11.45am daily. Bus services are also available on Boreal in the winter; round trip tickets cost 475kr.

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