South Africans in the Arctic Circle

I love to reminisce. Especially of the time I spent studying in Jonkoping, Sweden, 11 years ago. When I do go into daydream mode, one very memorable trip comes to mind- our trip to the town of Abisko (AKA the Arctic Circle or Lapland).

Myself and my friend/ study partner/ roomy/ fellow South African,  Lelani, decided that we had to do the trip to Abisko, nestled in the north of the country, for a number of reasons:

  1. The Ice Hotel
  2. The Northern Lights
  3. Dog Sleighing

I was adamant that I would not set foot back on South African soil until I had experienced all of the above (and I am quite a stubborn one!).

In hindsight we were just two silly South African students with no clue about this trip we were about to embark on. I think if we had known, we might not have gone, but I am thankful we did.

So the day finally arrived to depart and we got onto our train at Juneporten station in Jonkoping. Bags packed with clothing made for sub-zero temperatures, thanks to my Swedish host family… (we were going to just take some jeans and our good old K-Way jackets from Cape Union Mart back home).

So how long is the train trip? Only 24 hours with a stop (or two). It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but riding in a train for 24 hours with no cabin to sleep in is no joke. Finally after what felt like a lifetime (it was over 24 hours if we count stop-overs and stand-stills due to technical problems), we arrived at Abisko.

We get off the train and there is a teeny tiny train station, a red house (how surprising) across the railway line and nothing else but snow and mountains for miles and miles and more miles. The accommodation confirmation page had an address, but there were no other houses in the vicinity (that I can recall) and this red house was not on a road, but rather wedged into a forest.


The amazing picture I am painting of the beautiful scenery is accurate, however, the way we were feeling at that moment was anything but calm and tranquil. We were tired, we were cold, were in the middle of nowhere by ourselves, we had no phone reception , we were not sure if this house across the railway was our accommodation or not and we were flippen terrified.


We decided to go to the house across the track. It was our only option. We get to the door which is wide open, but there was no one in sight. We spot a whole stack of snow “onesies” and snow boots at the entrance. I decide to call “Hello?” Nothing. Again, “Hello!”. Nothing. Lelani encourages me to go up the staircase to see if I can get someone’s attention (while she bravely waits near the door). I start climbing the staircase and calling out. Eventually someone emerges!

An old Swedish guy holding some kind of an animal bone (which we later found out was the last remnants of his Moose meat lunch) happily greets me “Ah hej (Hello in Swedish), you are the South Africans?”.  I am relieved we are obviously in the correct place, but this seems dodgy. My mind is doing 360’s …alone, desolate, girls, old man…this was like a scene out of a horror film (I think that being South African makes it even worse, because we are taught to be vigilant and not put ourselves into situations such as this one).

Anyway, Mr Swede (cannot recall is name) shows us around the house including where to find what in the kitchen to make our own food, and to our room which is small with a single bunk bed and a table. He then asks us what we plan on doing and seeing while we are there. I repeat my 3 points previously mentioned.

He then says very calmly, ” You might not see the Northern Lights as they come and go quickly and you may miss them. I will need to book you into the dog sleighing with Thomas, but we will need to make sure he isn’t fully booked. The Ice Hotel is in Jukkasjarvi which is quite a distance from here and the next bus going there is on Sunday (when we plan to go home btw), so not sure you will have enough time to go there.”

WHAT!? I was fuming. I did NOT just travel to the North Pole basically, to be told that I cannot do or see the things I came here for! I was not taking no for an answer. We eventually sorted it out (Swedes are not confrontational people and avoid complaints and complaining). To my satisfaction we would be doing the sleighing with Thomas the next day and we would be catching the bus early on Sunday morning to the Ice Hotel so we could check it out before travelling back. The Northern Lights? Well, we obviously couldn’t blame the old moose-eating Swede if we didn’t see them.

One additional activity he did mention was the sauna. He told us how all the tourists loved to sauna and when they are steaming hot they run outside and have a roll in the snow. Sounded amazing. Until he dropped the N bomb. Yes- NAKED. No one was permitted to go into the sauna with any kind of clothing, bathing suit or towel. Just a tiny square towel was issued to you, to sit on. To add insult to injury he mentioned that himself or Thomas often joined their guests! NO thank you!

Eventually we decided that before sunset we should go and explore the area a bit. We got kitted out in one of Mr Swede’s snow suits and were offered ski shoes. Yes you read that correctly. There is so much snow that you could just ski around instead of walking. Sounds very fun, until you realise that you are South African and skiing is not even part of your vocabulary. To save face (literally), we opted for the snow boots instead.


That evening we locked ourselves in our room, understandably, and played cards and drank much needed vodka that we brought along. Mid-game we hear a loud knock on our door and a female voice shouting “Northern Lights! Northern Lights!”. We knew this was the opportunity we were waiting for so we were not going to miss this. I quickly put on my takkies (sneakers), grabbed my camera and ran outside. I had just had a shower so I had wet hair, a t-shirt and sleeping shorts on. Hardly suitable for temperatures around -15 degrees Celsius.

The beauty of this phenomenon was worth the freezing conditions. The green lights danced above us for only a few seconds and moved along as quickly as they appeared. I could not believe we had been so lucky! Our cameras were not able to capture the beauty but my memory certainly did!

We felt a lot better knowing that one of our three reasons for our mission had been ticked off the list.

Fast forward to the next day and dog sleighing. We thought we would sit in this sleigh which will be controlled by Thomas and pulled by a pack of Huskies while we take in the amazing view and enjoy the ride. Wrong. We would each have six Husky dogs to control and steer by ourselves. What an exhilarating experience. Besides the time that I jumped off my sleigh to run and assist my dogs on the uphill (which Thomas recommended), and then could not manage to get back on as the dogs started to pick up momentum (think trying to get back onto a moving treadmill).



Eventually Sunday rolled in and it was time to catch the bus to Kiruna and then onto Jukkasjarvi to the Ice Hotel. We arrived and were just in awe of this amazing creation. Every Winter the ice hotel is built from- you guessed it- ice, from the Torne River. Every year the design is different and when Summer arrives is all melts away again. We unintentionally disturbed a wedding in the ice chapel while we were snapping away with our cameras, and we got to enjoy a delicious Absolut Vodka drink  (and eat the ice glass when we were done!).

When I think about this trip, I am so grateful to have experienced what very few have or will ever experience in their lifetimes. This trip will go down as one of my most memorable ever!

Have you experienced this beautiful part of the world?

Much Love,






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