On an extreme snowmobile safari from Finland to the frozen wastes of Russia, a noisy 540cc beast soon becomes your new best friend
For getting blissfully far from your comfort zone, you need a flight to Rovaniemi in northern Finland and a snowmobile to take you over the Russian border and into the frozen emptiness of the Kola Peninsula. The Finns have concocted something rather special for their long winters: the extreme snowmobile safari. Ours was to take eight of us from nearby Salla to Murmansk across the Russian border, 450 kilometres and two-and-a-half days' hard riding away. And then back again.
Snowmobiles are noisy 540cc beasts with a finger throttle, no gears and nearly the acceleration of a motorbike up to a top speed of 70mph. They should also come with a warning sticker about how much fun they are. A single caterpillar track powers the machine, which is fitted with two skis at the front. Cornering involves leaning right over to the opposite side of the turn, but the uneven terrain over low hills and woods on our trip meant a mixture of alternately rumbling and blasting along.
We were staying in one of the cosy apartments at the Revontuli hotel, complete with its own sauna and, being made entirely from pine, a wonderful pine scent. Fortified with eggs, cheese and meats, we set off early the following day. Reaching the border in an hour and a half, it looked like something straight from a Bond film. I nervously went behind a bush for a pee, acutely aware that these are the kind of places that are liberally sprinkled with mines. Thinking that we had seen the last of the AK-47-packing Russian soldiers at the border post, we hadn't counted on the dutiful Igor and Alexei. This serious-looking but friendly pair were to ‘escort’ us on the journey to Murmansk, beyond which lies nothing much except a few polar bears and the North Pole. English tourists are something of a curiosity here.
Barriers raised, we had a congratulatory shot of Russian vodka, hung an unsteady left turn down a forest track and let the emptiness engulf us. The Kola Peninsula truly is the middle of nowhere; 40,000 square miles of snow-white low hills, woods and frozen rivers deep inside the Arctic Circle. There were no planes in the sky, no houses for miles and just the occasional brown bear hibernating underground. The snow was up to two metres deep, meaning a lot of digging our machines out. Because we were on the ‘routebreaker’, laying the trail for that year's safaris, the riding time was also much longer than normal.
My fellow tourists, Alistair and Reg, and I were the first English people to go on such a safari, although Kola Extreme Safaris – the Finnish snowmobiling outfit – attracts a lot of German customers. Reijo, our guide, cheerfully informed us that the temperature dropped to -58°C not long ago. I kept one eye on the skies and hoped I had brought enough thick socks.
Past a display by the northern lights after sunset, our group raced north to Kovdor, yards from an electrified border fence. By the time we arrived at 1.30am we had been riding for 17 hours – a typical day's ride is usually eight. Kovdor – a frozen industrial town with a big smoking chimney – seemed like Heaven. "I feel like I'm in a parallel universe," murmured a suitably spaced-out Alistair, as Harri, one of the more excitable Finns, shouted "Champagne!" and cranked up the hotel stereo to play Chris Rea’s 'Road to Hell'. The hotel was basic but the beer was cold and the sauna outstandingly hot.
When Kola Extreme Safaris and their entourage of thrill-seeking Westerners arrived for the first time in Kovdor, the Kovdorians genuinely thought they had come from outer space to solve a local dispute. Amid the identical grey apartment blocks and strange little kiosks selling flowers and sweets, our small group certainly stood out. We were soon in a restaurant proposing all sorts of wild toasts to international friendship and drinking too much vodka.
Our most northerly point, Murmansk, turned out to be larger and colder than Kovdor, with yet more apartment blocks and smoking chimneys. Not far away, Severomorsk is the home of the Northern Fleet, as well as much of Russia's nuclear arms. The nearest our tour bus took us to military hardware was to pass by a Mig jet that used to defend convoys and is now on display overlooking the nuclear-powered icebreakers. The anchor of the first Russian icebreaker to reach this barren place also lives here, a relic of the time when the British coerced the Russians into making Murmansk a supply port following the discovery of a northern sea route in the 16th century.
In the town's finest hotel for lunch, a Russian choir in traditional costume invited us to sample salted bread and vodka, then burst into beautiful song. After Ukrainian borsch and cod from the Barents Sea, they sang folk songs and made us dance, finishing with 'Back in the USSR' in Russian.
On our last day, picking up the trail from the first night of madness, our column of eight snowmobiles finally reached the road and raced back down to the Russian/Finnish border, kicking up a 60mph snowstorm on a frozen road that crackled like the Cresta Run. Farewells were bade to Igor and Alexei, whom we had grown to like. At the second and last border post before re-entering Finland, Harri, the Finnish journalist, went all out and gave his name as "Bond, James Bond". The Russian officials were amused, thankfully.
Finally back in the deliriously warm hotel in Salla, Reijo congratulates us: "You have not betrayed your country; you are now Extreme Men." Harri, however, wanted more. He was driving for 50 hours on his own snowmobile back to Joensuu in eastern Finland. Even the Finns agreed that he was bonkers.