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Gotska Sandön: Baltic tranquility

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09:56 CEST+02:00
This weekend offers the last opportunity to visit a sandy, car-free outpost of Gotland. Fiona Basile finds camping out on Gotska Sandön to be a magical experience.

Summer might be coming to an end in most of Sweden, but there's one part of the country where the season continues for longer than elsewhere. The Baltic island of Gotland is milder than much of the mainland, and it's not unknown for summer warmth to continue into October.

This weekend sees the last opportunity to visit a distant outpost of Gotland: Gotska Sandön. One of the most isolated of Sweden's islands, Gotska Sandön (literally 'The Gotlandic Sandy Island') is situated in the Baltic Sea 38km north of Gotland and 85 km south east of Landsort. It's only a small island, 9km long and 6km wide, but that's plenty when the only mode of transport is your feet.

The ferry lands at Las Palmas beach, 3.7km from our camp. I say ‘land' because passengers disembark from the ferry wherever the wind takes it. The ferry pulls straight up onto shore, and we clamber down the stairs onto the beach. We soon realize we're among the lucky arrivals; others have had to walk the full 9km length of the island to get to camp. With no roads, there's no transfer bus, but we are welcomed by our guide Erika Liljegren.

Our bags and food provisions are loaded into a massive tractor trailer, one of the island's few concessions to wheeled transport. Everyone has brought enough food for the duration of their stay, plus an extra day just in case. I later find out that 100 campers were stuck on the island for an extra four days due to stormy sea conditions. Not that they were worried: there was plenty of food, free accommodation, and still lots to see and do on the island.

The initiation walk takes us through the heart of Gotska Sandön's pine forest, which covers 85 percent of the island, with the rest of the island covered by sand. Part of the island was designated a National Park in 1909, with the remainder being deemed National Park in 1963.

After two hours walking (including stops for photos and rests) we arrive at the island's well-equipped campsite. Neat rows of small Swedish houses (the typical red paint with white window sills and verandas) surround an open eating area. There's a fully-equipped kitchen, buzzing with activity, and aromas wafting through the open doors. The well-maintained toilets and wash areas are a big plus for those unaccustomed to roughing it.

Nearby, the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency has provided a nature centre with an exhibit of the island's natural and human history. Archaeological evidence indicates that people have been visiting the island to hunt seals since prehistoric times. However the first permanent inhabitants settled on the island in the 18th century, establishing sheep farming, and later crop and cattle farming.

These days, the island's small village houses the only four permanent staff. Employed by Gotland's County Administrative Board, they are Gotska Sandön's Mr Fix-its, and are charged with maintaining the three lighthouses that operate on the island. They're also contracted to other Swedish agencies, providing assistance in sea rescues and maintaining the regular reports to Swedish Weather Bureau SMHI. It's a tough job, but Daag, one of the four men, tells me he “wouldn't trade it for the world”.

Meanwhile back at the camp, three seasonal staff take care of the daily demands of the visitors and the camp site. About 4,000 campers visit the island annually between mid May and mid September. They come mostly from Stockholm and surrounding areas, with the rest venturing from Gotland. During my two-night stay, there are 152 campers in total (a maximum of 165 campers are allowed on the island at any one time).

This sense of space is evident when setting out on our big trek the following day. There are plenty of paths inland or along the coast to choose from. Feeling the need for a challenge, we pick the long inland trek of 9km through the heart of the island, to the opposite southern side. This path takes us past the island's wooden chapel, where Jonas the parish priest conducts a service every evening. This track also leads to the sand dune which boasts the highest point on the island, at 41 metres.

Eventually we make it to the southern beach of Tärnudden. As we continue along the west coast, heading north, we keep an eye out for hares and toads (the only four legged animals living on the island) and hope in vain to spot an infamous colony of seals. We twist and turn through the windswept forests of Högaland (High Land), where beautiful flowers that sprout from the earth. This truly is a nature lover's paradise.

Trekking on, we discover wild strawberries poking out from among the low lands. This is followed by a well-earned rest in the calm meadowland of Madame Souderland's historic homestead; she was one of the first women to live on the island with her family in the 18th century.

Eventually, about 9 hours and 24km later, we make it back to camp. A hearty serve of macaroni bake and a big glass of red wine, and I'm in heaven. Taking pole position on a sand dune on the nearby western beach, we witness the sinking sun transform the sky into brilliant pinks and flaming oranges and yellows. Now this, I could really get used to.

Fiona Basile

Getting to Gotska Sandön:

Gotska Sandön is open to visitors between mid May and 9th September. The ferry operates on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays (and on some Tuesdays during the peak summer period). The ferry departs in the mornings from Nynäshamn on the mainland and in the afternoons from Farösund, on Gotland.

For more information about accommodation and bookings see:

www.resestugan.se or

www.gotskasandon.se

Telephone: 0498 24 04 50.

Email:info@resestugan.se .

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