Baltic Sea Circle Challenge: Epic 7500 km road trip without GPS – Part 1/2

26 March 2023Maybritt Bos

The Baltic Sea Circle Challenge: the world's northernmost rally, in which you cover no less than 7500 km in 16 days with a car at least 25 years old and without GPS! Me and my boyfriend Stefan were immediately enthusiastic: Challenge accepted! I want to take you on our exciting adventure with our green T3: Bert. The Baltic Sea Circle Challenge starts in Germany and then takes you through Denmark and Sweden. Then you reach enchanting Norway, where you explore the beautiful Lofoten and the impressive North Cape. You then travel back south, crossing Finland and the intriguing Baltic States, finally ending in Poland. And then you will (hopefully) reach the finish line in Hamburg. It's quite a journey, but we couldn't wait to get started!

But before I share our adventure, there is another story that needs to be told. As a participant, you have to collect €750 for a good cause, a wonderful initiative, so that in addition to your own fun, you're also doing some good for others. Flashback to 2020 in Mexico. We bought a Volkswagen T2 to travel around for six months. After some refurbishing and a name (Bert), we were ready to go. But 2020 had other plans: COVID-19 interfered with our journey. Fortunately, we found Misión Surf Mexico, a shelter for orphans and children without a safe home, founded by the Australian couple Alan and Pam. They dedicate their lives to breaking the cycle of poverty, inequality and abuse and providing opportunities for every child. We have seen for ourselves what a great job they do. So when we had to choose a charity for our North Cape challenge, we didn't hesitate for a second: of course, it was Misión Surf Mexico.

From garage to limitless adventures

A few things have to happen to prepare a T3 Synchro from 1986, after more than eight years of standing still, for a journey of 7500 kilometres. Fortunately, one of us, I won't mention any names, is extremely handy and has done a lot of work. We worked on the T3 until the day of departure. Even that morning, it was still up in the air, and it was only at noon that we could finally start our journey. With our favourite Spotify list at full volume, the first 500 kilometres flew by, and upon arrival in Hamburg, the drinks came cold from the fridge. Our road trip had started perfectly!

Once we arrived at the site of the start of the Baltic Sea Circle Challenge, we did a tour around the other participating vehicles. It was interesting to see what other cars, vans and campers were there. Everything passed by, from small ducks to large Landrovers; even a Unimog drove along! We also received the road atlas. The route is broadly mapped out, including useful tips for the road. Every day has an assignment, so you have an extra challenge to keep you awake during those long drives! In the evening, we climbed into our roof tent in time because we had an exciting day ahead of us. Would everything go well? Imagine if we came to a standstill or got freezing cold at the polar border! We would find out soon enough…

Morning gymnastics and an unforgettable start

After a good night's sleep, it was finally time! The first eggs slid into the pan, and the first cup of coffee simmered (that's always delicious). Because the T3 Synchro rides quite high on its wheels, we could only take down the roof tent from the roof rack. Quite a job, but well, we considered that our morning gymnastics!

After the roof tent was neatly back in its cover, the breakfast stuff was tidy and (hopefully) everything was secured, we drove to the starting line, where we were lined up in rows with German precision. Apparently, 150 cars had already left the day before. A total of 270 cars participated! The atmosphere was very cheerful, and everyone was walking around to have a chat with each other. After a welcome talk, we heard the starting gun and crossed the starting line.

At the first corner, we discovered we had forgotten something essential: the route plans! Besides having to avoid the highways, you're also not allowed to use a navigational system. Of course, we hadn't bought a road map yet either, so when we got to the bend, the choice 'left or right' came a little too quickly. We saw some cars going left and some right, so we turned right too. To overcome this slight setback, we quickly turned on the maps app on our phone and wrote down some intersections. According to our book, we were allowed to take some highways on the first day to get to Sweden earlier. We took the ferry to Denmark and crossed over to Sweden via the famous Oresund Bridge. The first part of the route was not very special, but after the bridge, we left the main road and the vast Swedish countryside, with a sinking sun, certainly did not disappoint us.

Viking rituals and enchanting views

Our first assignment required us to collect five sacred Viking elements along the way:

1.      Sand from the Danish coast

2.      A green twig from a Swedish tree

3.      Water from the Baltic Sea

4.      A piece of Scandinavian iron

5.      Wind from the ocean

So we stopped at a lot of places to collect these special items, and then you're getting somewhere. The purpose of collecting these elements was to hold a traditional Viking ceremony with them. This ceremony would bring good luck and a good trip, and we could use that! We did this at one of Sweden's largest Viking monuments: Ale's Stones. This place is also called the Stonehenge of Sweden. This rocky outcrop is located on a cliff with fantastic views and is featured in many myths, legends, and unsolved riddles. No better place to perform a traditional ritual!

So far, the weather hadn't been great, but once we got to Stonehenge, the sky opened up, and we could enjoy the view of the sun setting over the sea. Unfortunately, we couldn't sleep here, and as night fell, we had to look for a place to sleep. The advantage of Sweden is that you can camp in nature, which is wonderful! Strolling for a nice spot to stand is really the ultimate feeling of freedom. Unfortunately, it was not easy to find a spot by the sea, and after our rumbling stomachs got the upper hand, we finally had to settle for a spot in the woods. Which was fine, but there was one drawback: mosquitoes! As a result, we were once again confronted with the facts: we had forgotten long trousers for Stefan. Perhaps not very wise during a trip to the North Cape…

Tip: If you are looking for a place to wild camp, you can do this by following dead ends via Google Maps, for example!

Special cemetery

When we woke up the next morning, we still had our sights set on waking up on the coast. So, before our first cup of coffee, we quickly looked for a spot by the sea. It was a beautiful day, and luckily we quickly found a spot where we had a delicious breakfast.

Touring through Sweden, our route took us further and further north, where the vast landscape full of lovely villages slowly changed into pine forests and mountain lakes. The roads became quieter, and the radio could no longer find a channel. On the way, we visited a special cemetery in the town of Ryd: a scrapyard in the woods. The day's assignment was to find Abba's old tour bus that was supposedly 'buried' here. An extraordinary place to stretch your legs!

We ended the day in the middle of Sweden in the lake district near Örebro. Shortly before we arrived at our destination, we took the wrong turn for the first time. That was quite a bit of off-road driving! Which was actually very cool in a van that is so high on its wheels. Despite the extra kilometres, we didn't want to miss this because this was a beautiful detour. The sinking sun above the coloured lupines… it was like a fairy tale! Fortunately, we finally arrived at our destination; a wild camping spot on the lake. We unfolded our chairs and enjoyed a delicious meal. This is exactly how we imagined camping in Sweden!

The shopping Valhalla

We deliberately went to sleep a little closer to the 'big' city of Örebro because we planned to drive past a car parts store the next day. We had some problems along the way with our big friend Bert, who sometimes seemed to have trouble accelerating. After some fiddling and looking under the engine hatch, we discovered the ignition clamp was loose. As a result, the ignition timing was off. We had tried to tune the sound of the engine by feel, but it was still far from perfect.

Unfortunately, the first store didn't have the stroboscope, but they referred us to Biltema, a paradise for Sweden fans and camping enthusiasts. This store really had everything: camping gear, boat and garden tools and of course also car parts. We lost ourselves in this crazy store for an hour but finally succeeded in our mission and left with the stroboscope and some extra equipment, such as a jerry can and a pump for the camper faucet. Good purchases, as we suddenly had running water and a drain, a luxury!

While there were a lot of kilometres still to go, it wasn't a punishment. We enjoyed pit stops for Swedish kanelbullar with coffee, had lunch by a serene lake, and admired reindeer and breathtaking scenery. While driving the rally, we were constantly coming across other rally drivers. It was so nice to see how everyone waved to each other and conversed pleasantly at gas stations. Although we didn't drive together, our paths regularly crossed, which turned out to be surprisingly fun.

The race against time

That evening, over dinner, we discussed our route. In two days, we had to be in Lofoten for a party that was being organised for all participants. We had already read that you could get there by boat or in your own car. We chose to drive so we could see more of the area. However, when we studied the map while eating, we understood why so many people chose the boat. We had to get almost to the very tip of the Lofoten. You can get here by a (rather popular) ferry. You can also get there by car, but you have to drive all the way north, across the islands to the south, and back up to the North Cape.

Here is where we made a bit of a mistake. We quickly grabbed the ferry booking site, but all interesting crossings were already fully booked. There was space on the ferry for people who drove up at the last minute, but that was a gamble. The safe option was to book the only crossing available, which would take seven hours instead of three hours. This meant we would leave Bodø the next day at 5 pm, which was still 800 kilometres away. It was going to be tight. We made our decision, booked the tickets, threw the dirty dishes in the sink and got back in the car to go.

Behind the clouds, the (midnight) sun shines

The biggest disadvantage of the Baltic Sea Circle Challenge is undoubtedly the enormous distances that have to be covered in a short time. We realised we had better plan ahead, not just for the next day. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the beautiful evening ride thanks to the long days in the north of Scandinavia. When we stopped at a lake at 11 PM, we remembered why we made this trip: nature is truly breathtaking.

The next morning it was much cooler, and after a cup of coffee, we left for the Norwegian border. On the way, we spent our last Swedish kronor on kanelbullar, warm socks and a hat. Once in Norway, the landscape changed, becoming rougher and busier on the road. After a stop at the Arctic Circle, we continued to Bodø, where our ferry to Lofoten would depart. Although we arrived in plenty of time and were soon in the company of other rally drivers, we were not lucky enough to get on the faster ferry. Nevertheless, we remained positive and looked forward to the beautiful view during the long journey. Unfortunately, the weather turned, and we were battered by rain and wind, which made the trip even longer than planned.

At 2 AM, we arrived in Moskenes, it was stormy, but strangely enough, it was still light. An amazing sight, that midnight sun. We found a place to sleep together with another Dutch rally team and slept that night in our van instead of the roof tent. Despite the tiring journey and disappointing weather, we kept our spirits up, although we fervently hoped for better weatherduring our time in Lofoten. However, things weren't looking very rosy...

Stay tuned: next time, I will tell you about the second part of the Baltic Sea Circle Challenge. With even more spectacular adventures, amazing landscapes, unexpected twists and exciting activities. You won't want to miss it!