What do you do when you need a holiday after a couple of years being stuck at home because of successive Covid-19 lockdowns? You drive to the Arctic Circle of course! That was exactly what IAM RoadSmart member Zak Southwood, and his girlfriend Darcy McGowan did at the start of this year; fulfilling Zak’s long held ambition to take the trip to the outer reaches of Europe.
Zak, who lives with Darcy in Herefordshire, says he was inspired by a family friend who used to drive from Dubai to the UK. “That sort of opened my eyes to long road trips. I remember him always telling me, if there's a road, you can get there by car. And you can!”
So at the start of this year, after yet another pandemic-induced lockdown, Zak and Darcy decided they needed an adventure. Originally considering a drive “up north somewhere”, they hit on a trip to the Arctic Circle in Sweden.
Preparation included Covid passes for Zak and Darcy (though as Zak points out they were only asked to produce them once – in a McDonalds in the Netherlands!) and an Animal Health Certificate for their eight-month-old Labrador puppy Otto. They also spent a couple of weeks mastering some simple Swedish, although Zak says most people they met spoke English.
And so in the early hours of a February morning this year, they set off from home for the Continent via the Channel tunnel. All overnight stays were pre-booked via Airbnb, but fully refundable in case of another Covid-induced lockdown, with their trip taking them through France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Denmark, and Sweden.
Their car of choice was a Volvo S80, with a five-cylinder, twin turbo diesel engine and 110,000 miles on the clock. Zak bought it as a lockdown project at an auction in 2020 during furlough to replace his previous car that was written off when another driver fell asleep and hit him head-on. “I was off work for three months and then we went into lockdown. I desperately needed another car, but I was in a leg brace, so it had to be automatic. I found the Volvo at my local auction. It was damp and mouldy inside and the front end was damaged, but I knew I could fix it up.”
The first leg of the trip was through France and Belgium and into Germany for their first night in Dortmund – around 600 miles. Regular stops were scheduled for Otto, who Zak says loved his first road trip. “He was absolutely brilliant. He slept a lot of the time while we were driving, but we also had lots of stops, plus treats, chews, and toys for him.”
The following day was a long, 700-mile drive into Sweden…and a battle to get ahead of Storm Eunice.
Says Zak: “The crossing from Denmark into Sweden includes four kilometres of tunnel, plus another four kilometres of island and an eight-kilometre bridge. It was during this crossing that Storm Eunice decided to arrive. There were lorries in the middle of the road because they were being blown around so much.
“And then it started heavily snowing. So it took us about 40 minutes to cross the bridge because everyone doing about 10 mph. And when we arrived in Sweden we were met by a massive snowstorm – and that was our first taste of things to come.”
Zak and Darcy had allowed themselves four days to reach the Arctic Circle, meaning drives averaging around 500 miles per day, splitting the time behind the wheel between them in six-hour stints. The Volvo typically has an 800-mile range on one tank, but Zak points out that petrol stations were few and far between in the northern most reaches of Sweden, so forward planning was important. Plus, of course, they’d packed for the cold weather – with skiing gear to deal with typical temperatures of minus-15 degrees, but sometimes hitting minus-36 degrees, a shovel, spare food, and blankets.
Their first night in Sweden was eventful in that they’d just stocked up at Lidl when an elderly lady – also driving a Volvo, drove into the side of their S80. Luckily, there was little damage, and no one was hurt.
The following morning was the first leg of the main trip north, through Sweden to the Arctic Circle. Says Zak: “We really hadn’t considered just how big Sweden is, but we’d already covered about 1000 miles, and we still had around 1,200 miles to go.”
Their second night was spent in a log cabin just outside of Stockholm, before the drive to Arbortrask, just outside the Arctic Circle.
Zak continues: “It was an amazing drive; it gradually became increasingly snowy, which meant the two-lane motorway was suddenly just one lane.” Zak’s Volvo was fitted with Michelin cross-climate tyres – technically all-season tyres, but classed as winter, snowflake rated tyres in Europe - a legal requirement in Sweden between October and March. And they certainly needed them because as they drove further north the roads effectively became just sheets of ice.
“We drove about 150 miles on ice-roads, which was interesting,” says Zak, adding: “At first we stuck to 40 mph, and we had massive logging trucks passing us. But once we got used to it, we were happily doing 70 mph. You get used to the car sliding a little underneath you and just letting it do its thing. But that’s where IAM IPSGA really came in because you really had to get everything right – from your gear to positioning on the road.
“You don’t want to get into circumstances where you have to hit your brakes. You have to appreciate that everything takes a lot longer when you’re trying to stop on ice, so you have to use all the information that you can see. For instance, if you see a moose a quarter of a mile or so ahead, you need to start planning there and then and allow extra time to respond so you don’t end up in a snow bank.”
Zak admits that anyone who hasn’t completed IAM RoadSmart’s Advanced Driving course (he’s also done skidpan training) might struggle in such challenging conditions, He says Darcy, a very good but not an Advanced driver, found the conditions challenging. “I think it’s a confidence thing, knowing you have the solutions if something goes wrong,” he adds.
The Volvo took it all in its stride, aside from a small issue outside of the Article Circle when a warning light flashed on the dashboard that the Volvo had a coolant issue. “It was minus 15 at the time, so I didn’t think the car was going to overheat, however, it did stop the heater, so we had to wear our coats and gloves in the car and just use our heated seats.
From Arbortrask it was only a five-hour drive to the Arctic Circle, however, the heavy snow had even beaten the locals. “When we got there, we stopped at a visitor centre, but that was closed because the snow was so deep, and that’s when we saw our first reindeer.
“We stayed up there for a week in a lovely lakeside log cabin. We went for adventures, and cross-country skiing. It was so cold that when people went into shops they just left their cars unlocked, engines running. It’s such a different world up there, every morning we’d wake up and there’d have been a snow storm, but the snow ploughs would be out clearing the roads and the people just got on with their lives.”
Zak says the locals were surprised they’d driven so far, but also friendly and welcoming. “One person told us they’d never seen a car with UK plates in that area before. And once they knew we were in a Volvo, they all said ‘oh you’ll be fine, there’s a Volvo dealership in every town. One person told us that the dealers would probably fix the car for free if needed, because we’d driven so far!”
Zak’s advice to anyone planning a similar trip? “Be prepared. Looking back we probably didn’t have enough back-up, but we did have European roadside assistance cover and I obviously had European insurance cover.
Make sure you’ve got a safety net for if anything goes wrong – a Plan B, but mainly I’d say…Just do it!”