This was the coolest damn adventure of my life. Think Into the Wild meets The Amazing Race. Or at least those are two comparisons I kept receiving from the drivers who picked me up along the way.
I found out about the European Hitchhiking Championship just after moving to Europe. How convenient. Then I learned that the starting point was Leipzig, just south of Berlin where I am living now. Even more convenient. Perfectly, it coincided with a gap in my summer holidays where I didn’t have anything already planned. Am bequemsten. Because of all this I knew I had no choice but to compete.
This was the seventh iteration of the annual race, organised for free by members of the German hitchhiking community. Always starting from the organiser’s flat in Leipzig, the finish lines are typically in warmer locations–think Casablanca, Palermo or Baku. But this year, the direction was north. The northernmost point in Europe, in fact.
Day 1: Leipzig 🇩🇪
On the evening of day one, the competitors from all around Europe (Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Spain and Russia–me and a Tunisian guy who was also living in Europe at the moment were the only non-Europeans) descended upon Matti’s flat to meet each other, learn the rules and prepare to race.
Dinner was a beautiful banquet consisting entirely of ingredients found through dumpster diving. How fitting. Afterwards, we played a round of the iconic German drinking game, Flunkyball. Wie typisch.
The rules explained to us over dinner were simple.
- Public transport is only allowed within cities
- Catching a long-distance bus or train without paying does not count as hitchhiking
- The only ferry permissible is that between Tallin and Helsinki, otherwise you may only travel by road
Simple as! That night we all slept on the floor of the gym in the same apartment building.
Thanks to an app built by the race’s organiser, all of our locations would be visible in a shared map as we checked in at different points across Europe. We also had a WhatsApp group which we spammed at all times with updates of our adventures.
Day 2: Magdeburg 🇩🇪
In the morning we went to the main square of Leipzig to start. We then all sprinted to the train station to get to our preferred hitchhiking spots.
Those teams (almost everyone travelled in pairs except for me and one other guy) heading via the Baltic States and Finland headed east, while those of us heading via Denmark and Sweden went north.
In my experience, Germany is terrible for hitchhiking, so I thought I’d try my luck at a petrol station recommended on HitchWiki. I probably waited around half an hour which is excellent by German standards. I realised I was so lucky because my driver was not German but Pakistani. He was returning from Italy, where he purchased clothes in bulk to then sell wholesale in Germany.
Being Australian, I felt obliged to bring up the sport which unites our two countries more than anything else: cricket. It turned out this guy was actually in the reigning champion team in Germany’s amateur cricket league! He was kind of confused about the race and unsure if I would actually make it, but happy to be of assistance nonetheless.
As he was heading into Magdeburg where he lived, I asked to be dropped a fair bit before the city so I could hopefully catch a ride going around it. How foolish I was. I ended up at a rest stop–that is, a barren parking area with no petrol station or fast food restaurant–with almost no traffic heading in.
The odd cars which did come in were elderly Germans who seemed petrified at the sight of a scruffy hitchhiker. I tried to hail traffic from the entrance of the rest stop, a method which had worked in other countries, but alas I was in Germany so of course nobody stopped.
After four hours of waiting, I realised I had to get out of here. My only options was to climb into an over pass, jump a few fences, walk through some fields and then follow a dirt road for agesssssss. After two hours of walking I arrived in a small town with a train station that was close enough to Magdeburg to not be cheating. Hungry and dehydrated, I bought food in the city centre then caught a bus back out the the western outskirts.
Long story short I had no luck at all. I eventually decided to call it a night and camp in some bushes. Then it began to rain heavily. I really should’ve brought a tent with me.
As I was near a road leading to the autobahn, I could faintly see a neon sign for a highway motel. That was my only option as it was too late and I was too far away to go back into Magdeburg.
What a crap way to start the race.
Day 2: Bremen 🇩🇪
After showering and drying off all my gear from last night’s rain, I walked for a few more hours to find an actual petrol station on the westbound side of the autobahn.
After a while of getting frowns, confused looks and obscene hand gestures from grumpy German drivers, a nice couple who were heading back home to Cologne from a wedding picked me up.
Their Volkswagen Lupo was already filled with stuff so me and my enormous backpack barely squeezed into the seats. On the bright side, they had a massive sunroof and the weather was beautiful.
As heavy traffic started to appear on the autobahn, my driver decided to roar through backstreets and tiny towns. His driving was crazy, but we did beat he traffic and I was in a race after all! As we approached Hannover, we agreed it yes best for me to head north so they drove around a bit looking for a petrol station. Of course, there was nothing so I finally insisted just to drop me off at a petrol station away from the highway so I wouldn’t keep wasting their time.
From here I walked for an hour to another empty rest stop, before heading back into the outskirts of town and trying my luck at the traffic lights.
A middle-aged German couple picked me up after initially frowning and giving me two simultaneous 🤷♂️ 🤷♀️ gestures. I think they must have felt sorry for me, as they were totally new to the idea of hitchhiking. While both friendly and supportive, the both thought the race was “insane” and again doubted the feasibility of completing it.
As with my previous drivers, this was a great opportunity to practise my German. Having not spoken a word of English with anyone all day, I’d say it’s the best way to improve language skills as the conversations are at just the right level. All this occurred while cruising down the autobahn at 250 km/h in their Audi RS6. Not that you’d feel it; German cars really are built differently.
They dropped me at an autobahn petrol station in Bremen. After maybe an hour of trying, I decided to call it a day and explore Bremen as a tourist for the evening.
Day 3: Copenhagen 🇩🇰
This was the day I finally made progress. Perhaps I wouldn’t come dead last after all!
After finding an ideal petrol station on the autobahn using Google Maps, I caught the train as far as I could and then walked for an hour.
Within no time a camper van picked me up. My driver was heading northeast to Hamburg for a festival. He was basically living life like that now–driving and living wherever he wanted.
He had had a long career as a documentary cameraman and had travelled extensively through Asia, Africa and South America for work. But although this sounds like a dream job, he had grown tired and jaded, hence why he quit and decided to live off his savings driving around Europe.
He was also the first driver to be a bit more supportive of the race. He was really excited about the sense of adventure, although we agreed the finish line was still a long way away. We talked a lot about travel, in fact, and we were both unsurprised to find out we both had the same favourite travel destination: Ethiopia!
He also had previous experience with hitchhikers when he was a child! He told stories of how his mum would pick them up when he was little, something I would encounter towards the end of the race.
This guy was great and he knew an awesome petrol station to drop me off at. Very soon I was picked up my a German couple going on a road trip to Denmark.
Both were special-needs teachers, a job demographic that I had encountered disproportionately during past hitchhiking experiences. As they were heading to the west coast, they dropped me at a petrol station by the main highway in southern Denmark.
As soon as I crossed the border out of Germany, my luck improved so much. Finally away from the [mostly] grumpy German drivers, locals started picking me up in quick succession.
First a guy originally from Bhutan gave me a lift to the next major city after just recently getting engaged. Then an older Danish guy who hitchhiked a lot when when he was younger took me to the next major town. Everything was going great and the kept leaving me in good spots!
Then two German guys on a road trip to Scandinavia took me the rest of the way to Copenhagen. I never expected my drivers to be younger than me (they were 18 & 19, I was 21) but it was very cool and I was genuinely impressed, especially considering their nationality 😉
I stayed in Copenhagen as it was a city I actually wanted to see. It was small but pretty, and the atmosphere seemed really cool.
One of my favourite things about Denmark was smørrebrød. An open sandwich, the meal consists of rye great and typically Scandinavian toppings such as cold cuts, seafood and/or spreads. It seemed pretty gourmet for the price!
I ended up spending the whole evening in Freetown Christiania, which was definitely the right choice. Christiania was a large military barracks. In 1971 when the military moved out, squatters moved in and formed a commune independent of Danish law. The place is now a kind of commune, with its own common law based on consensus. While hard drugs are strictly banned, you can buy pretty much anything else openly on Pusher Street, the main drag.
The atmosphere was totally different to the rest of the city. Similar to another commune I visited, everything seemed tranquil. People were relaxed and the streets were quiet. In order to protect the character of the space, photography forbidden or at least discouraged in most of Christania.
Day 4: Stockholm 🇸🇪
This was the day of the shortest and longest rides of the whole race.
I thumbed a ride at the entrance of the Øresund Bridge which links Copenhagen with Sweden. The “bridge” actually starts out as a tunnel on the Danish side before breaching the water halfway across the strait to become a suspension bridge. There good reason for this compromise. A bridge tall enough for container ships to pass through would interfere with air traffic at the adjacent Copenhagen airport, so a half-tunnel-half-bridge allows for both ships and plains to move about. Coolest piece of civil engineering I’ve ever seen.
I got picked up by an awesome Danish lady who was in the process of moving Sweden. This was because she was unable to marry her husband, who was living in Denmark illegally as a refugee for the past few decades. I don’t remember the exact legal reasons, but they could only marry and live legally across the border in Sweden.
As we crossed the bridge she asked me if I had a visa and if I had any drugs in my. While both Denmark and Sweden are part of the Schengen Area, Swedish borders have been somewhat fortified to stop the free movement of refugees in recent years. She explained that her husband was often heavily scrutinised by the border police, and that I should have my visa ready to show. Of course, when the border police saw our skin colour they waved us through without even checking our documents. They don’t even pretend to hide the racial profiling.
Sadly, one of the other competitors in the race actually did get stopped at the border. Because she was trans, the gender on her national ID didn’t match with how she presented. Although she had supplementary documents to prove her identity and that she was trans, the police detained her for quite a few hours apparently. Incidents like these two remind me how lucky I am to pass through borders with such ease.
The awesome Swedish lady dropped me off in Lund, just on the other side of the bridge, and said farewell. She was one of the coolest drivers I had and we clicked immediately. I wish she had intended to drive further!
From Lund I got extremely lucky. As I was waiting at a rural bus stop by the highway, my next driver pulled in within about 5 minutes and said asked me where I was headed.
“Helsingborg,” I said anticipating I would then find another ride from which to head north.
“Yeah I’m going through there.”
“I’m on my way to Stockholm.”
“Oh. Can I go with you to Stockholm then?”
At the time I didn’t realise how creepy this sounded, suddenly changing my claimed destination while getting into a stranger’s car. But perhaps because of my wide eyes he simply replied, “sure!”
It was an extremely long ride but it wasn’t boring or awkward one bit! We clicked really well and talked for ages about travel and cars, our two shared loves. I also learned so much about the places we passed from him, be it about the castles, factories or lakes of southern Sweden.
This was, he told me, the south. The centre of Sweden is Stockholm, and anything above that is the north. And to think I believed it was really that simple…
When we arrived, he was even more excited than me to have become my longest single hitchhiking ride yet at 604 km. My previous record had been from Berlin to Warsaw (575 km). The fact that he was already quite excited by the idea of the race compounded his happiness. It was great to have a driver so personally invested in my trip!!
Before we said our goodbyes, he took me to his mother-in-law’s house which once belonged to the king’s personal doctor. It was more or less across the road from the palace which is still in use. He explained that the people who lived in this area had all gone crazy from being too rich. And just as he said it, one of the neighbours roared down the street in a fully-customised, bright orange Range Rover. She drive like a maniac and in the back were her two enormous greyhounds. The Range Rover, kitted out for some serious off-roading, never made it further than the supermarket, my driver explained.
I decided to be a tourist once again and spent the night in Stockholm’s old town. It was boring as fuck But thanks to my progress, at least I was back in the race!
Day 5: Sundsvall 🇸🇪
I caught the train to the outskirts of town early in the morning. Then I walked about an hour or so through the woods to find a petrol station by the highway. It’s incredible how OpenStreetMap included dirt walking trails that are nowhere to be seen on Google Maps!
It was at this point I realised that the ease of hitchhiking in Sweden was a double-edged sword. While plenty of people stopped to offer rides, most were only going to the next major town, Uppsala, a measly 70km away. At one point a trucker who had offered me a lift to Uppsala (where else!) decided to ask around in the radio for anyone going further. No luck, of course, but his generosity really boosted my morale.
Eventually I caved in and said yes to a lift to Uppsala. My driver was a student the same age as me but probably cooler than me. He spent most of his free time cutting down trees–both as a hobby and for a living. Strange life, but he seemed to be addicted to it! As a student in the town, but from Stockholm originally, he mad a point to tell me that Uppsala was the actually demarcation between what Swedes consider the north and the south.
In Uppsala I decided to do something I’d never done before: make a sign. While I usually prefer to use my thumb so that people will stop regardless of there their destination is, I realised that I needed to become picky with the overly-generous Swedish drivers who stopped I droves to offer me short rides.
This technique worked a charm and within 5 minutes I scored a ride to Gävle with a foreman who travelled all around the region for work. This guy also knew a thing or two about Swedish geography, and insisted that anything before Gävle was the south and that anything beyond is as finally the north. Thanks to his knowledge of the area, he also offered to make a brief pit stop at Dragon Gate.
In the 1990s Chinese businessman bought a Volvo and loved it. He loved it so much, in fact, that he also fell in love with its country of origin, Sweden. In 2004 he decided to consummate this love by constructing an enormous, Chinese temple-style building in the middle of nowhere but still right next the the highway. Welcome to Dragon Gate.
The complex includes a luxury hotel, restaurant, conference centre, museum and temple. The only thing it lacks is people. Only half of the facilities were ever opened, and even then they were hardly patronised. Who would drive all this way to chill by the highway? Nowadays the entire site is abandoned, with the exterior covered in graffiti and the interior dilapidated. My driver said that they occasionally hold raves here, but other than that it sits completely vacant.
We continued on to Gävle, where I had trouble getting anyone to stop. Eventually I was picked up by a somewhat-dogmatic Christian couple who took me all the way to Sundsvall. They were of course lovely people but I could only humour their rants about working in the Salvation Army and doing missionary work in Zambia for so long. All I can remember was the husband yelling that “THE WORLD NEEDS JESUS” as his wife reminisced about “Africa” in her faux leopard print jacket.
Sundsvall was an awesome town. In the mid-1800s, this sleepy patch of Swedish coastline suddenly boomed into one of the largest sawmill districts in the world. The town had the perfect combination of abundant forests to cut down, several rivers to drive the sawmills, and a deep bay sheltered by the island of Alnön from which to export the finished timber. Poor labourers and wealthy businessmen alike flocked to this town in search of fortune, until it was destroyed by a fire in 1888.
The economically-important town bounced back immediately, being rebuilt with fashionable stone buildings. New ways of life flourished among the industrious pioneers. Sobriety Lodges and parishes of the Free Church spawned rapidly. Unions emerged to be a driving force in the town’s affairs–most notably in the 1879 strike against wage cuts, in which some 6,000 sawmill and forestry workers participated.
After the Great Depression, export demand for timber slumped somewhat and never recovered. But the town of workers, perhaps encouraged by their successes in trade unionism, agitated for progressive housing developments, regulation of the labour market, and more-accessible education. It was through this that the modern Swedish welfare state–the folkhemmet or People’s Home–reached men, women and children in even the smallest and most rural settlements.
Sundsvall is one of the few places I stopped at on this journey I could recommend as a tourist destination. The town is beautiful, there is some semblance of nightlife, the museum is free and excellent, and the are plenty of outdoor activities to be done in the forest and on the water. I loved it so much I spent most of the next day just wandering around.
Day 6: Lövånger 🇸🇪
I set out late in the afternoon because Sundsvall was just so nice! Unfortunately there were no good spots to hitch near the highway, so I had to resort to one of the many small on-ramps.
After a long wait I was picked up by someone who could’ve been one of the coolest drivers of the trip, but who was actually the worst.
In the back of this guy’s car we’re two enormous hunting dogs. They were beautiful and so well behaved, and I even got to walk them at a rest stop. This guy used the dogs to hunt elk. He was so good at it, in fact, that he even had the blessing of local authorities to track and kill injured elk which had been hit by cars. He was also a bit of an elk meat connoisseur, and offered me some of the elk pasta in the back of his car. It was tough but tasty, and gave me a great sense of connection with the area.
On top of all this, he was driving a long distance. All the way back to his family’s home town, in fact. This was because he was attending his father’s funeral. The big pot of elk pasta was for his family. His pressed black suit hung form the rear ceiling handle.
Problem was, he was super fucking racist. Like within the first 5 minutes he was making disparaging, throwaway comments against Muslims and refugees. Later, he began to rant about how the country his father knew is now gone. By the end, he started at pointing at hijabi women we drove past to voice his disgust. Shit was fucked.
I was so glad to finally get out of the car of what would otherwise been an awesome driver. I quickly thanked him for letting me try the elk meat and accidentally said “my dad will die when he hears about this”, as we’re both obsessed with trying new foods and elk is not something you come across in Australia. The driver looked me dead in the eye and said: “no he won’t.”
I had been dropped in a very small town by the coast, so I decided to find somewhere beautiful to camp. After following trails for a bit I found a mosquito-infested swamp which I initially mistook for the ocean. But after I unpacked I decided I couldn’t be bothered moving again, so I would have to douse myself in insect repellent and put up with the bugs all night long.
Day 6: Kittilä 🇫🇮
I had to wake up super early to make up for my lack of progress yesterday. I had once again fallen towards the back of the pack and was now worried I wouldn’t make it to the finish line in time to regroup with everyone else!
As the sun rose, I was picked up by a bus driver in a beautifully-restored Opel Corsa from the 80s. He was going to work in the next town, Skellefteå, and kept saying how much he loved his job (he drove school buses and coaches, not urban commuter buses).
In Skellefteå I was picked up by one of the coolest drivers of the trip. This guy had worked seemingly every job imaginable despite still being in his 20s. Now he works as an outdoor educator for troubled teens, a job which he not only finds rewarding but also well-matched with his skill set and concentration ability.
Halfway though the ride we stopped at his girlfriend’s house to change cars. Then out of nowhere he decided to take me fly fishing. There were plenty of fish biting but none of the got caught before the hook snagged on a log. Nevermind, because we just went back to his place to play Super Nintendo and drink his family’s hembryggd–Swedish homebrew which is about 50% strength and tastes like goddamn rocket fuel.
After drinking, he did what any responsible person would do–show me his gun collection! While he didn’t have a license, Swedish law permits ownership of guns manufactured before 1890. Which meant that his guns were beautiful. Holding an original 1800s muscat and revolver was surprisingly thrilling.
My driver had bought the guns at the loppis, a kind of flea market that every town seems to have. Having traversed the entire country, I saw signs for these every 50km or so. It’s also where my driver found all his half-restored motorbikes what were crowding his garage.
Anyway, because the guns were so old, they require a thorough cleaning after each use. Additionally, the bullets and ball-bearings they fired haven’t been in production for a century, so he had to forge them himself. Therefore we didn’t actually fire them, but it was still pretty damn awesome. Being Australian I of course cherish strict gun laws, but there was just something so damn cool about playing with these beautiful yet powerful antiques.
My driver drove me back to the highway where I was quickly picked up by a train driver, and after that a retired mining executive going to his holiday house.
After that I was picked up by an ex-professional dancer, who had performed all around the world and all over the Arctic in particular. I was discussing potential routes with him, as he knew how much traffic certain roads got but also what towns would be most interesting to stop at. He suggested I cross into Finland as soon as possible because I would be more likely to get a ride, and then head north on the Finnish side rather than the Swedish side. He also recommended I visit the town of Kautokeino. In the end I ended up following all of his recommendations.
As we neared the border with Finland, he suggested we visit his favourite bakery for a butter cake. How could I say no? As we had no knife, we just pulled chunks out with our bare hands as we cruised down the highway. It was damn blissful.
But what came next was one of the most emotional moments of the trip. Part of his work was teaching dance to underprivileged kids. In one town, he worked with a couple of kids whose families were the only refugees in town. Everybody hated them, he said, and the kids constantly felt ostracised from everyday life.
The kids were talented, and thanks to his instruction, the improved even more. Eventually they formed a group and entered a national televised talent content–and they won! They became town heroes overnight. The small town was suddenly thrust into the national spotlight. While nobody’s worth should be determined by how talented they are, or how much fame and fortune they bring others, this was a beautiful, true story about how passion and performance can heal wounds and foster understanding. The story sounds cliched but at the time we were both holding back tears. It was such a nice contrast to my racist driver the day before.
While eating the cake, he asked for sip of my water. I explained that it was homebrew, to which he replied that he now worked to promote sobriety after dealing with is own struggles. Oops. At that moment we arrived at his destination, the towns of Haparanda and Tornio, on opposite sides of the seemingly non-existent Swedish-Finnish border, respectively.
It was getting dark by the time I was dropped in Finland, and as soon as I walked to the road heading north, it started to sprinkle. I was about to call it a day, but I thought I might as well try in the hope of seeing everyone at the finish line. It was at this moment I was reminded how receptive Nordic drivers are to hitchhikers. After about 5 minutes I got a ride from a family with their young son in the back. I was blown away that they would pick up a hitchhiker with a kid in the back; let alone after dusk in poor weather.
They were heading north to spend the weekend with the wife’s family. She was, like seeming half of my drivers of the day, an elk hunter, and spent most of the ride explaining the gender politics of the Finnish hunting scene. Basically, she said, it’s still quite unusual for a woman to hunt, but she can hold her own and has earned the respect of the men she hunts with.
They dropped me in the town of Pello. It was dark now, and properly raining, but I was happy to camp under the verandah of a closed shop. The family insisted on giving me their number and address–just in case!
Just as I cracked open a can of baked beans for dinner, I was messaged by the race’s organiser. He had seen me check in at Pello on the app and was worried I was still too far south to make it in time. Most people were due to arrive the next day, and the first team had already arrived and left! I said “okay” and walked back to the main road. It was dark and raining but I was determined to see the others at the end.
Astonishingly, I was picked up. A group of drunk soccer players from Oulu were driving to the ski resort of Kittilä to play a match. They were all frustrated about having to play so far away, and also because half of the team called in sick (likely related to the first reason, they reckoned). But their spirits changed when we stared talking. When I told them about the race–where I came from and where I was headed–they reacted exactly how you’d imagine a car full of drunk Finnish soccer players to react. It was awesome.
The car was packed with big guys and their stuff. There was barely any room for me and my huge backpack, but that just made the whole thing funnier. Back in Oulu they had picked up two crates of surprisingly strong cider. They had made a serious dent in the first crate already, so I was more than happy to oblige when they asked me to join them.
These guys were heaps cool and the ride was full of drunken banter. Eventually, they turned off the road heading north to head east toward Kittilä. They knew where I wanted to go, and I knew which road we were on, but none of us said anything. We were just having too much fun. Eventually, they insisted that I had no choice but to spend the night partying at the chalet they had rented out for the team. I definitely needed a shower and warm blankets, but I was most excited just to hang out and party with the first people kind-of-my-age that I’d spoken to in ages.
We get to the chalet. Some of the other team members had arrived and are already making dinner. There’s limitless beer. The others were kind of surprised to see this scruffy Australian guy wander into their place, but that just made everything even funnier.
The team were down so many players that they begged me to play with them tomorrow. I hate sport and I’m way too uncoordinated to play soccer. In high school when it was compulsory for me, I just tried to stay out of the way as much as possible. But because we were all so drunk, my feeble declines fell upon deaf ears. The next morning, they said, they would look around for a spare jersey and boots for me. I had a race to lose but this seemed kind of fun so I was happy to sacrifice half a day.
The night went on and I was supposed to have my first introduction to the infamous world of Finnish saunas, when suddenly I woke up. On a couch. And some of the other guys were on other couches, or beds which weren’t theirs. I guess we all passed out 😵
I found a spare bed (the chalet was enormous!) and continued my messy sleep. At midday we all woke up pretty hungover. Some of the guys made a great, meat-heavy breakfast and we just played FIFA for a while. Then the captain told me he couldn’t find any spare kit for me to wear. I was kind of relieved that I wouldn’t have to play, and although I did end up losing half the day, it was totally worth it for the first fun night since Copenhagen.
Day 7: Kautokeino 🇳🇴
I set out with no more food, a dead phone and a SIM card which for some reason didn’t even work in Finland. I had made quite a diversion from my planned route, and we were staying in the woods quite far away from the town centre. The team captain was pretty concerned, worrying that I get lost in the forest without a ride. I gave my usual response: “nah, nah I’ll be fine, don’t worry.” But then he thought to himself for a second. Having reflected on how far I had come already, and the circumstances in which they picked me up, his face changed. With warm grin and a tear in his eye, he simply replied: “of course you will.”
Not many people drive from Kittilä back to the road heading north. Luckily, the lovely Polish couple from the travel blog TamBylcy stopped for me. They made a cosy space for me in the back of their camper van, and we set off. The whole time we kept spotting reindeers, a first for me (at least while sober, considering the previous night).
Not only was I grateful to have been picked up by people wandering the remote regions of Finland (who else would be around to pick me up?!) but also to have drivers who shared the same lust for travel and adventure that I had. I was great to talk about travel, far-flung destinations, and the region we were currently driving though.
Team TamBylcy were heading to the tripoint between Finland, Norway and Sweden. So once the road stopped going north, they dropped me at the fork and headed northwest. I put my thumb out waiting for a ride due east.
My next ride were also tourists, but of a domestic sort. Like the soccer players, their car was full of guys and their stuff. They were heading into the remote forests of northern Finland for some kind of wilderness survival retreat. Basically they would be left to their own devices in the wild… I’m not exactly sure what part of this program necessitates having to pay money to an organiser, but it sounded really cool nevertheless. They dropped me off at Hetta, the forebodingly quitter last town before the border with Norway.
I spent hours in Hetta. Hours. The weather was constant drizzle, the only shop there was a tiny petrol station, and there was absolutely no traffic heading north. The only exception were Norwegian grey nomads who are apparently the only people worse than Germans at stopping for hitchhikers.
The one saving grace were a pair of fellow hitchhikers I met. I asked them where they were going: Nordkapp! Where they had come from: Sweden, Denmark, Germany… Where they are from: Prague. And finally, when they began their journey: a day before the hitchhiking race. These guys totally should’ve joined the race!!! They would’ve passed near Leipzig just as we set out, and they took a very similar route to me.
When they realised that no grumpy old Norwegian would stop for three(!!!) scruffy hitchhikers, they went back to the petrol station to ask people in person. It was their preferred method anyway, while I always tried to avoid that as I’d rather have a cool driver voluntarily stop for me than a boring driver who says yes to me because they feel some kind of guilt or obligation.
We were all stuck here for hours, so much so that the lady running the petrol styling gave the boys some coffee and cake, which the immediately shared with my by running over in the drizzle. They were really sweet guys 💜💜
Just as the sun set, a taxi stopped for me. I politely told the driver that I had no money, but he said in broken English that it didn’t matter and gestured that he understood I was hitchhiking. I was saved! But what about he Czech boys? As soon as I got in, I explained there were to more boys coming in the same direction and asked if I could call them over. The driver smirked, said “I don’t know,” and sped off towards the border.
I asked where he was heading. “Guovdageaidnu,” he said proudly. I racked my brain; there were very few settlements in this area, and I thought I had memorised all the ones in this road from simply looking at the map so much. The it hit me. “Ahhh, Kautokeino,” I said sheepishly. “No, Guovdageaidnu, the Sami name,” he replied.
Many of my drivers had spoken about the indigenous Sami people as I neared and entered the arctic circle. However much of this discussion seemed ignorant and patronising–I knew unfortunately because it was exactly the same way most white Australians speak about Aboriginal people. Even those with the best of intentions used dehumanising, othering language when referring to Sami people.
But finally I had a Sami driver who was excited to tell me all about his culture! He told me about Kautokeino Guovdageaidnu, explaining that around 90% of the population speak Northern Sami as a first language. He did too, and he had the accent to prove it.
We moved into the topic of reindeer. After being picked up by so many hunters, it had been drilled into me that elk are fair game but reindeer are legally and morally off limits as they are all domesticated and belong to Sami people. Even the reindeer roaming along the highway are simply grazing, not wild. My driver said he of course owned reindeer. It was also his favourite meat to eat, and you can cook it any way imaginable, he said.
Then I fucked up. I foolishly asked how many reindeer he had. My driver quickly became flustered. “I don’t know.” A silence followed. Then, he clarified. “Maybe I have 1 reindeer, maybe I have one thousand reindeer,” he said. “I don’t tell anybody, and nobody asks.” His English was limited but he was able to communicate to me that reindeer are a commodity–he used the analogy of asking how much I had in my savings account. I still can’t believe I asked that, but thankfully my driver was very understanding even though he got offended initially.
As the conversation ended, we reached Guovdageaidnu. He went home, and I found a cabin to spend the night in. The town was definitely an awesome place to stay, being one of the major centres of Sami culture. There was a decent ethnological museum, which although closed during my visit, had a publicly-accessible, open-air exhibit of original Sami housing. There’s also the Sami University of Applied Sciences and several Sami-language media outlets based in the town. My dancing driver from Sweden was right in recommending this town.
Day 8: Nordkapp 🇳🇴
Today I was determined to reach the finish line. I was on the home stretch, but most of the other contestants who had already spend a night or two at Nordkapp were planing to head home today. I needed to make it in time to see them.
There is just one road going through Guovdageaidnu, running directly north/south. I walked to the northern town exit and stuck my thumb out. And waited. Waited for ever. In the drizzle, with almost no traffic.
I managed to have both breakfast and lunch at the petrol station on the northern exit of the town. I waited that long, around half a day, and was close to conceding defeat. It would be impossible to be picked up by one of the handful of Norwegian grey nomads passing through.
Suddenly, a small van pulled over. I was so jaded that I had to do a double take. The driver asked me where I was going. “Alta, Karasjok… anywhere,” I said. In truth my plan had been to go north to Alta, then on to Nordkapp. But by this time I was willing to take a ride anywhere that wasn’t south just so I could get out of this lovely but dead town.
“We’re going to Alta!” the two women replied. Thank god. The back of their van was absolutely full of stuff, seemingly a common trend among arctic drivers who picked up. It was mostly camping gear and diving equipment, as the two were on a road trip around Samiland and both avid scuba divers.
I had actually seen their van coming from the other direction and pulling into the petrol station. They had been camping just outside of the town and needed petrol before they continued north. They explained that they felt sorry for me that I was still waiting by the time they had finished eating lunch at the petrol station. I told them I had been waiting since morning and that I was so incredibly thankful that they took pity on me.
We talked about where we were both heading. It turns out they were going to Alta, and then planned on going to Nordkapp after that to scuba dive. However as soon as I said I was in a race to Nordkapp, they changed their plans and decided to go to Nordkapp today and visit Alta on the way back instead. Amazing people.
I messaged the other competitors that I had finally gotten a lift all the way to the finish line. I was still 5 hours away but at least I had a fairly accurate ETA.
Of course, my two drivers were not Norwegian. In fact they were two microbiologists from Italy’s and the Czech Republic who were living and working down in Oslo.
Just like the Finnish mother from yesterday had explained, the trees were indeed getting smaller and smaller as we went further north. We passed rivers and waterfalls, and the suddenly: coastline.
We passed through a tunnel to the island of Magerøya. By no there were no more trees. Sheer cliffs emerged from the rolling hills. What few settlements there were was devoted to fishing. Before I knew it we had arrived.
I ran to the globe at the end of the peninsula to take a photo for our group chat. It was the last piece of evidence needed to show that we had all (well, most of us) completed the race. Two people replied immediately. They were still there! I ran into the restaurant and we all hugged. Out of all the people I was hoping to see at the end, these two where the ones I was hoping for the most.
But then I saw two people who I hadn’t hoped for–not because I didn’t want to see them, but simply because I didn’t at all expect it. It was the Czech boys from Hetta! It was amazing to see them again too, and I was glad to hear that they did manage to get a ride after I had left.
Everything had turned out great, but I still needed somewhere to sleep. The other contestants had stayed in a secluded public hut a few kilometres back from the cape itself. While most people had left, the organiser still had a day or two to kill before his flight home. So of course I decided to join him in the hut.
Walking would take hours. Not only was it a longish distance, but it was late. Visibility was made even worse by the extreme fog; even with their headlights on, drivers couldn’t see anything. The narrow road went diagonally down the side of a mountain, meaning I’d have no choice but to walk on the road rather than beside it. It was an accident waiting to happen.
So I did what I’d been doing for the past week–I hitchhiked. Or at least, that’s what I tried to do. Waiting at the entrance to the car park, I politely asked visitors if I could have a lift down the road. Thumbing was impossible in this weather. People were mostly polite but they were either going to sleep in their campevans or didn’t have room for an extra passenger. One grumpy-looking, middle-aged overheard me and started watching from a distance. Just what I needed…
Suddenly, a woman in a suit asked if I needed help. I told her I was looking for a ride 5 minutes down the road and that it was impossible walk. She said she was a tour guide, and that one of the people on her tour said I looked like I needed a lift. She pointed at the woman from before. Turns out she was not a grumpy but rather a caring Swedish woman who was simply doing a good deed. My heart melted. When I explained where I needed to go, the tour guide just said she’d need to check with the driver. He needed no convincing.
So standing in the stairwell of this coach, I slowly made my way back down the mountain towards the hut. All three people were so lovely and helpful, and when the tour guide announced my presence on the bus through the loudspeaker, everyone welcomed me with open arms. I remembered where the hut was because I had seen it in daylight. I asked the driver to stop, but everyone seemed a bit concerned. It was dark, slippery and wild. Nobody could see the hut (it was faint even during the day) and people were worried I’d get lost in the cold. I reassured them I’d be fiiineee, and after they remembered how far I’d come already, their tone changed to one of encouragement.
I shone my headlamp to get the attention of the organiser, and I saw his shining back faintly through the fog. But the hut was still at the other side of a lake, and the only way around was to scramble over streams and slippery rocks on a steep hill. It took a while, but I finally made it with the organiser waiting to greet me with open arms. My journey had been arduous yet adventurous, and it could take a lifetime fo fully reflect on the places I saw and amazing people I met along the waz. But for now I was most happy to finally get some rest.
Two of the other competitors made amaying vlogs which probably do a better job at capturing the experience than this post. The videos are auf Deutsch and en español, but it’s still easy to follow along if you don’t speak those languages.
What an adventure!!! Hitchhiking through five countries by no means is an easy feat. But your story reminds us the invaluable experiences we will get when we do things out of our comfort zones. It’s sad that you encountered a very racist guy, but then you also learned about a story of refugees who made their community proud. Many people often fear what they don’t know. They only base their prejudice on what they hear or read. But they actually make the effort to know people who are different from them, that’s when suspicion turns into openheartedness. By the way, it’s good to read your stories again, Zac. It’s been a while.
Yep, definitely loved pushing myself and meeting [most] of my drivers! The contrast between those two in particular was pretty confronting; still don’t know what to make of it.
And thanks, it’s great to be back online. I certainly have a lot of reading to catch up on 😉
What an amazing adventure! The opportunity to meet so many people sounded wonderful – even if not everyone shared your own beliefs and opinions, it sounded like you handled these diplomatically! Great storytelling too, I felt as if I was with you every step of the way!
Aw cheers! It always pays to be somewhat diplomatic when then person you disagree with is giving you a ride 😉
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What an epic adventure. The places you went, the people you met, and the conversations you had sound amazing.
wow! This is amazing! What an adventure you had! Great job on finishing this race! I hitchhiked before but not like this at all. 🙂 It feels so good when people pick you up and you can talk about your travels and their adventures or culture. But sometimes it feels also really good to get out of a car when you realize the driver was kind enough to pick you up but, seems to be a bit of an asshole as you get to know him or her a bit better. 🙂 I would love to discover Lapland and learn more about the Sami culture. Good to know already that you don’t ask how many reindeer they have. I would have asked the same question for sure! Keep on going on awesome adventures like these and keep on sharing them!
Thanks so much! You captured it perfectly—the ups, downs and new experiences.
This reminds me of a ‘jailbreak’ charity thing we often do at university or sports clubs in the UK. They do it in many teams though and I have always wanted to try and do the hitchhiking and exploring that is involved. The idea of sleeping in a German hedge during the rain does not sounds appealing though!
This was one of the most interesting reads in ages. Thanks for that. Wow, what an epic journey. You had me laughing and a bit afaid at some parts. Amazing how mnay different people and stories you heard and encountered along the way. This should be a movie!
Whoa, I’ve never heard about the European Hitchhiking Championship. Sounds like a truly unique race! I think that would be quite a challenge to hitchhike your way through Europe. But I bet you meet some interesting people in the process. Too bad you didn’t win, but I bet it was quite an adventure.
What a beautiful adventure as you covered so many places and too with lots of fun and new experiences. I never knew about Hitchiking championship before and also not don hitchiking before but reading your post tempted me to do it once in lifetime. Thanks for sharing this app and I would definitely try to follow it.
This is the first time I hear about the European Hitchhiking Championship and I must say I’m really interested in it. It seems to be the adventure of a lifetime, the kind of thing you’ll tell you grandchildren one day 😀