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So in April I became 30 years of age and whilst 30 is a whole 10 years short of a mid life crises it's leaving your 20's behind and having the ability to do and say stupid things and being able to get away with as "I'm only young" that's problematic. Whilst I couldn't find justification for dying out my grey hairs or afford a sports car the only thing left for me was to forfill some dreams.
About 6 years ago with my tea on my lap I remember watching a BBC programme about adventure holidays which featured a trip to Sweden involving building a raft and sailing down the river Klaralven, the longest river in Sweden. Around this time I was running a Scout group with three good friends Andy, Charlotte and Tim and on our Friday night regular meeting the discussion of the programme and the holiday arouse, which intrigued us all. Whilst we all had good intentions of booking the trip and having the holiday of a life time together, like most things in life nothing of this little dream materialised and the thought fell in a pile of other dreams concentrated at the back of my mind.
Just before I hit 30 however, I was having a discussion a friend (Gemma) about the Swedish dream when she suggested "thats a great idea we should go?". Before I knew it, Gem being as smart and organised as she is, had research the whole trip travelling, expenses, dates etc; and booked the holiday, just sending me an email as confirmation, I could hardly believe it.
The trip comprised of 8 days on the river Klaralven sailing 100km downstream on a traditionally hand built raft constructed by ourselves. The trip started in the North of Sweeden almost on the border of Norway in a place called Branas where we were to build the raft and set sail through the forestry and villages of Sweden to a place called Gunnerud. During the sail we were completely at our own peril, eat if we bring enough food, catch fish if we remember the rod and bait, pull over if we needed the toilet, get wet if we didn't lash the raft properly and survive if we avoided encounters with brown bears. There was an emergency phone number to ring if we needed help, that is of course provided we had a mobile, reception and enough battery to use the phone.
I've used the term sail (above) although these rafts weigh upwards of 2 1/2 tonnes each, in addition to all the equipment we carry on board, whilst we had paddles to manover the raft and long wooden poles to push ourselves of the river banks and away from 'back water' sailing the raft would imply we had some control over its direction, or we could use wind power to assist our journey ,but to be honest, No! A better term to describe our journey would be 'drift', as trying to paddle a 2 1/2 tonne raft between two of you is impossible and although we had a canvas for weather protection, this wasn't intended to be used directly as sail.
Our trip including building the raft, the journey and dismantling the raft would take us 8 days, which seemed a little short for our adventure so Gemma being the Guru of European city breaks decided we should extend our holiday before and after touring Stockholm. I could hardly refuse especially after I was going to drag her through the forest for 8 days with nothing but me for company, a paddle to warn of bears and a spade and baby wipes for the toilet, I think I owed her some luxury before and after. So it was decided Gem would handle the city break and I would take care of the wildness tour in true 'Bear Grylls' Style.
After months of research, collecting equipment and preparation we left York on the 6th July bound for Manchester airport, final destination Stockholm Sweden. I had no idea where we were staying in Stockholm at this point as this was Gem's part of the trip and she wanted it to be a surprise.
We left York in good time but the weather was poor raining heavy which caused a backlog of traffic. I'm not used to wearing a watch, but would consider myself competent enough to tell the time on any clock however, the excitement of the journey must have blinded me as I began to panic we'd miss the plane for the traffic delays. Gem was doing her best driving in the rain although felt slightly concerned I had my head glued to the windscreen with wishful thinking the traffic and rain would somehow magically disappear, as we were embarking on an adventure and couldn't be late. Fortunately my panic reduced when Gem decided to check the time and realised I was an hour faster than the rest of the UK on GMT, panic over! In my mind I must have been a few hours ahead and already in Sweden.
We arrived in Stockholm after a trouble free two hour flight and got the Arlanda train straight out of the airport to Stockhom Central Station where Gem revealed our first Hotel. Gem had booked us into the Nordic Light Hotel (http://www.nordiclighthotel.se/en/) just outside the station less than 1 minutes walk which was ideal as I was carrying a 28kg backpack and Gem another 17Kg (smart thinking Gem).
The Nordic Light Hotel is a fantastic modern hotel situated right in the centre of Stockholm. It has a huge foyer with giant fish tank and enough elevator lifts to transport two of everything . The rooms are typically modern and Swedish, with pictures of Stockhom City on the doors and walls, equipped with large comfy beds, large flat screen TVs, ensuites, complementary bottles of wine and Swedish chocolates (although Gem has hinted she paid for these as part of the supprise). Of course the room was also furnished in typical Swedish designed furniture, simplistic and smart.
The Nordic Light hotel is famous as it has the worlds first ice bar, a bar made completely from Ice, including seats, walls, drinking glasses everything is made from ice.
After a short walk round the city and some quick tea we headed back to the hotel to take advantage of the red wine and chocolates because accordingly to Gem we had a busy day coming up!
After a good night's sleep we were up early. Before the trip Gem had advised I take some clothes for the city and not just for the forest as I may stand out a little wandering round Stockholm dressed like a cross between Ray Mears, Bear Grylls and Mick Dundee. After slipping into some suitable clothing and eating our continental breakfast we headed of into the City Centre.
I have never been on a European city break before and didn't quite know what to expect, but Stockholm is beautiful. It is the capital and the largest city of Sweden and constitutes the most populated urban area in Scandinavia, has a population of around 2,119,760 and is home to approximately 22% of Sweden's population.
Stockholm has long been one of Sweden's cultural, media, political, and economic centres. Its strategic location on 14 islands on the coast in the south-east of Sweden at the mouth of Lake Mälaren, by the Stockholm archipelago has been historically important.
Stockholm has also been nominated by GaWC (Globalization and World Cities Research Network)as a global city, ranked 24th in the world, 10th in Europe, and first in Scandinavia. Known for its beauty, its buildings and architecture, its abundant clean and open water, and its many parks and is sometimes referred to as Venice of the North. Stockholm is the site of the national Swedish government, the Parliament of Sweden (riksdagen), the Supreme Court of Sweden (Högsta domstolen), and the official residence of the Swedish monarch as well as the prime minister.
Anyhow enough of Stockholm and back on with the day........ (extracts from Wikipedia)
After a short walk we arrived at the Grand Hotel in Ostermalm (http://www.tripadvisor.co.uk). Gem had secretly checked us into a massage parlour where we were to learn the art of Swedish massage followed by a Sauna and wash down in the biggest shower you have ever seen in your life.
Whilst Gem has small and supple hands, mine are more like snow shovels and although I loved learning I think the experience was probably better for me with Gem and a Swede rubbing me down rather than for Gem, even the Swede had to comment on how big my hands were. We were shown a technique of rolling our hands under the neck and massaging the neck muscles with your knuckles. Whilst this was easy for Gem (clever sod), my attempt was more difficult as when I curled my hands beneath Gems neck I must have lifted her about 4 inches of the table. She said it was lovely, but I think she was lying not to damage my confidence. After the massage we were allowed to Sauna and shower in what can only be described as a shower version of a car wash. This shower thingy was huge and had jets squirting water in every direction to clean every orifice of your body, being in the shower itself was like a massage and I loved it!
After feeling relaxed we took a stroll into Djurgarden, to visit the Vasa Museum (http://www.vasamuseet.se/en/). Well I say a stroll, but I happened to see the bill for the massage which Gem so kindly bought me for my 30th birthday and collapsed, so Gem carried me to the museum, "Sweedens bloody expensive".
The Vasa museum was a must see on our list whilst in Stockholm. The Vasa is a large timber vessel constructed between 1626 - 1628 which set sail for her maiden voyage in Stockholm harbour. Within minutes of being afloat she listed and sank to the bottom of the water where she lied undisturbed for 333 years until in 1961 when she was salvaged and reconstructed. The ship now displayed at the museum has 95% of the ships original features, with splendid hand carved sculptures and artefacts which remained preserved lying on the sea bed without damage. The museum is a fantastic attraction which you could spend hours in looking at the ship restored to its original glory and all its artefacts. Learning about the salvage attempts and difficulties in restoring such an ancient piece of Swedish history, it is without a doubt a fantastic insight into 17th century Sweden.
We finished the day with a trip around the city centre, before a quick wash and change ready to hit the city for tea and drinks. It would however, have been rude to have left the hotel that night without visiting the Ice bar, so we donned our warmest pants and jumpers, gloves and a poncho ready for the coledst drinks of our lives (Absolute-Icebar-Stockholm/).
The Ice bar if you have never been is fantastic, everything in the bar is made from ice, the floor, walls, seats, bar and even glasses. The ice is sculptured forming cosy seats and windows and the walls are carved with maps of stockholm city, it really is a work of art. Of course its bloody freezing as the bar is maintained at - 5° to prevent everything from melting and the bar only serves spirits as the beer would freeze (brilliant).
Stockholm has so many places to eat and drink and we found a fantastic little sushi restaurant on the main street (Kungstaten). After a few drinks we found ourselves at midnight strolling into a Jazz bar. The rest of the night was spent dancing to some old school Jazz with a DJ who played records not Cd's which was full of 20's - 30 year olds who didn't have a clue what they were listening too, but were having the time of their lives.
Awoke early at 7 am and slightly hung-over, a few too many drinks in the Jazz bar I think. Before we knew it we were packed and heading for the train station where we were catching a 3 1/2 hour train ride to a little village called Karlstad in the North of Sweeden. When we arrived in Karlstad we had around an hour to buy food supplies for our rafting trip before getting a bus ride for another 1 1/2 hours North to Gunnerud. After playing the quickest game of super market sweep we proceeded to walk with our ammunition of chopped tomatoes, potatoes, pasta and river bog (Swedish for spam) to the bus stop.
Unfortunately we got lossed and after taking advice from a bus conductor we marched all the way back towards the train station from where we had just come a 10 minute walk, laden with gear. Alright, that might not sound bad but when your loaded with 28kg on your back plus at least 15kg of food to carry its a bloody long way. After reaching the train station sweating like a pig and making some more enquires, we learned the bus conductor was wrong and had been looking at our map upside down, apparently we'd been heading in the right direction in the first place and our destination was only yards from we had come, Grrrrrrr. So we packed up and headed back growling at the bus conductor on the way by.
When we arrived at the bus depot we had literally minutes before the bus left, so I dropped my bags and ran into the station to buy the tickets. We made it on the bus, but as I had dropped my bag the neatly packed bottle of gin in the top decided to explode and my bag pack was dripping with pure blue sapphire gin. It wasn't customary to suck the gin from my bag pack so instead I let it dribble down my back as we loaded it onto the bus. I speant the journey wondering how many of my clothes and books had been washed out. It was so annoying that we'd walked 20 minutes in the wrong direction, been loaded with excessive weight and also lost a bottle of gin in the hurry, so It was decided we would blame the bus conductor for our grievance, whilst we got high on the smell of gin leaching from my t-shirt.
When we arrived in Gunnerud luckily the transferr bus was waiting and took us the short journey to the Vildmark i Varmland campsite where we were to spend the night in our tent and gather supplies before heading of to Branus in the morning to start building our raft. The staff who all work for the Vildmark i Varmland expedition centre were so friendly and after signing the paperwork / contract saying they're not liable if we drowned or were eaten by bears, we sat down to be educated on how to constructed the raft, tie lashings and ask any questions (they were talking to a former scout and I was ahead of my game!).
All done we headed off into the woods to find a nice place to pitch our tent for the night and find the amenities. After pitching the tent in record time (well done Russ) and putting the other campers to shame, I decided to gather some dry kindling to take with us on the raft (forward thinking). All was going good until I gathered some dead pine braches which were covering a wasps nest and was very quickly introduced to a swarm of angry wasps whichdescended upon my presently, beautiful and unmarked bare legs, giving me a real sting. Luckily however, non of them made it up my shorts and
I'm not allergic so there were no drastic effects other than a dint in pride.
Heading off, toilet roll under one arm to find the local amenities which comprised of nothing other than a wooden shed with a toilet seat cover, lifting the cover and finding the seat was merely a perch above an open woodland sess pit, ha-ha Gem going to love this - Not!!!!!
We had a great night cooking tea before being invaded by a group of French scouts who were doing a canoe trip down the river. Kids as you would expect were noisy, mainly boys playing up for girls and girls singing and being silly in front of boys. The boys thought it would be a good idea to light a fire so also decided to gather some wood. Yes you guessed it, they headed straight for the pine branches and although I could have said "Look out" my French isn't that good and plus the noisy sods were getting slightly on my nerves spoiling the peace Gem and I were enjoying before their arrival, so I sat back in the tent listening out for the screams. Within a few minutes they had found the wasps nest or should I say the wasps found them, and Gem and I finished our beers and went to sleep as it was another 7am start.