Driving in Sweden: Elk, reindeer, and road rage

Fresh from another near miss with a hulking behemoth of an elk, ex-Londoner Paul Connolly offers up a theory on how the prospect of imminent collisions with wayward wildlife affects the driving habits of Swedes up north.

Driving in Sweden: Elk, reindeer, and road rage

The elk seemed to come from nowhere. One second I was barrelling down the road in my old Volvo on the way to pick up yet more baby items delivered to the local post office; the next this huge, ugly creature (looking remarkably like Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand close up) was hurtling from the bushes to my right and straight into my path.

Both my feet hammered down on the Volvo’s 25-year-old brakes but nothing happened. The elk, of course, just stopped in the road and gazed curiously at the ancient blue car careering towards it. He may have been pondering just how ugly humans are, especially those with eyes and mouths as round as moons.

The elk almost certainly heard the wide-eyed, open-mouthed idiot in the car yelling curses at him through the open window as he somehow managed to guide the car around him, missing the elk’s big, floppy gob by perhaps 20 centimetres. He would have allowed himself a brief elk chortle as the blue car drove along the next 50 metres of the road, half-in and half-out of the roadside ditch, picking up an assortment of vegetation and rubbish as if it were serving a community sentence as punishment for being a crap car.

When I did at last manage to drop anchor, around 100 metres up the road, I got out of the car and looked back to see the elk lying down in the road, looking very relaxed. I may have hollered something insulting in its general direction – I’m pretty sure it had heard it all before.

I’ve driven a lot in my life. I’ve undertaken ten American road trips, covering around 75,000 kilometres, and a similar number of European odysseys. My first ever job was as a driver. I’m by no means a perfect driver (I may be a little heavy on the gas) but I’m not a bad one. The wildlife up here, however, would provide German Formula One race driver Sebastian Vettel with a test of his reflexes. I’ve had four near misses with elk and three with reindeer – each time the margin of error could be measured in centimetres not metres. In all my time driving through 45-odd American states I encountered one suicidal rabbit. Here, the bunnies (giant Arctic hares the size of dogs), are almost queuing up waiting for a car to pass so that they hurl themselves in front of it.

The reckless wildlife up north might explain the drivers. Something has to. Anyone who has spent any time driving in the US will know that many Americans are appalling drivers – they drive as if they’re in a bubble and pay no attention to other drivers, to the point of being dangerous. The northern Swedes aren’t quite as bad (I’ve actually had two of them say ‘thank you’ for letting them out at a junction – show other road users such kindness in the US and you’ll be blithely ignored at best, furiously middle-fingered at worst).

But they do fall into two categories. By far the largest category is the cautious driver. These must be those who have actually hit an elk. They crawl along the country roads, twenty extra headlights ablaze even during full daylight, their heads moving as if they’re watching a tennis match, always on the lookout for a depressed elk or reindeer about to throw itself into their path. But they’re going so slow it’s unlikely a moose would even notice if it was hit.

The other type of driver has either never hit wildlife or hit so many animals he no longer cares. He’s usually the sort that won’t bother to overtake you on a straight road (plenty of those up here), preferring instead to wait for a blind bend, in order to get the juices really flowing. As in the UK, these adrenalin junkies of the tarmac tend to drive a white van. And are almost always on their mobile phones.

Suicidal critters and bad drivers aside, however, northern Sweden is a paradise for motorists. Unlike the UK, if a destination is a one hour drive away it will take one hour to get there (elk permitting). You will not encounter traffic jams (unless you drive through the centre of Sundsvall, Luleå, Umeå, or Skellefteå at rush hour – in these teeming cities you can be delayed by up to five minutes at peak times). And you will never see road rage (far too confrontational for northern Swedes).

Now all someone needs to do is invent an elk radar.

Paul Connolly

Read more from Paul here, including his Northern Dispatch column

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What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

With the cost of airline tickets increasingly discouraging, is driving from Scandinavia to the UK becoming a more attractive option? The Local Denmark editor Michael Barrett gave it a try.

What’s it like driving from Scandinavia to the UK with a young family?

This summer has seen the return of large-scale international travel after a couple of Covid-hit years that have not been a picnic for anyone.

While the end of restrictions came as a relief, severe delays and disruptions at airports have added a new uncertainty around travel in 2022.

Scandinavia has not been an exception to this, with strikes at Scandinavian airline SAS and delays at Copenhagen and other airports among the problems faced by the sector.

Additionally, the increasing price of airline tickets in a time when inflation is hitting living costs across the board has become another factor discouraging air travel.

Finally, there’s the impact of air travel on climate to be considered. So is there an alternative?

The plan

Unlike colleagues who have made long distance journeys from France and Sweden respectively by rail, our plan was to make the trip from our home in Denmark to the UK by car.

There are a few reasons we picked this less climate-friendly option. I’ll readily admit they were driven (no pun intended) by our own needs, and not those of the planet. I hope we can offset this by using the train more than the car for longer journeys within Denmark, where costs are competitive.

Once we decided not to take our usual Ryanair flight, we only really considered driving. This is primarily because we have a toddler (age two), and felt that on such a long journey, the ability to control the timing and length of our stops would be crucial.

Secondly, the route would have taken longer and been more difficult logistically by rail, and would also have cost more. For example, we arrived at Harwich International Port late on a weekday evening, from where onward travel was to rural Suffolk. The thought of doing this on multiple local rail (possibly bus) services with a tired two-year-old makes me shudder a bit.

The route

From our home in central Denmark, we set out on a Monday morning and drove south on the E45 motorway, crossing the German border and continuing past Hamburg. We then got on to the A1 Autobahn and made for Bremen, where we stopped overnight.

Travelling non-stop, this journey takes just under four hours. It took us around five and a half. We stopped twice and were caught in traffic at Hamburg, where there is lot of construction going on around the city’s ring road.

Leaving early (just after 6am) the following day, we drove southwest and crossed the border into the Netherlands after a brief stop, but then managed to complete the journey to the port town Hook of Holland without a further break.

Our ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich was due to leave at 2:15pm and check-in time was an hour before that. This was the only deadline we had on our journey that would have been problematic to miss, so we gave ourselves plenty of time for the drive from Bremen. We arrived in Hook of Holland at around 11:30am.

Next was a six-hour ferry crossing to the East Anglian coast. We booked a cabin – they are inexpensive on daytime crossings – which gave us a chance to relax after the drive and our daughter a comfortable spot for her afternoon nap.

After a queue at customs in Harwich which took around 45 minutes, we were driving through the Essex countryside just before 9pm local time. The final drive to our destination took an hour and a half.

What went right

It’s not the most relevant information for anyone considering a similar trip, but I have to mention our car. A 2003 VW Polo we bought two years ago that has never had any mechanical issues, I was nevertheless braced for possible problems given its age (and ensured I had roadside assistance for outside of Denmark, more detail on this below).

However, there was not so much as a hint of an issue of any kind at any point during the 900 kilometres it covered on the journey, nor on the way home. Respect.

Our plan to split the trip into two days paid off. I think you could do it in one day (there are also overnight ferries) if you shared the driving and needed less flexibility. I should also recognise here that we live relatively close to Germany and our destination was close to the east coast of the UK. If you were travelling, for example, from Copenhagen to Cardiff, you’d have significantly more driving to do.

For us, knowing we could take long breaks if we needed them took a lot of stress out of the journey and allowed us to adapt to our toddler’s needs – changing nappies, finding a service station playground or stopping for an ice cream.

Stopping overnight also gave us the chance to see some new places (we switched things up on the way back and stayed in Groningen in the north of the Netherlands, instead of Bremen) and gave us a feeling of being on our own little bonus holiday.

What went wrong

In all, things went as well as we possibly could have hoped for and our conclusion after we got back home was that we’d like to travel this way again.

We were stopped by traffic police in Groningen city centre because I failed to understand signs showing we were entering a public transport-only zone. The officers who stopped us then offered to escort us to our accommodation a few streets away.

The ferry, operated by Stena Lines, had far less to do on board than we’d imagined there would be on a six-hour voyage. Two tiny off-duty shops, a cinema showing a superhero film and a minuscule play area (which our daughter nevertheless enjoyed) were about the extent of it. We hadn’t downloaded any films ourselves or brought much entertainment with us from the car, so we got a bit bored during the crossing. This is hardly a serious gripe and an easy one to rectify on the return trip.

The practical stuff 

Roadside assistance is obviously crucial for a journey like this, and it’s also important to double check your insurance is valid once you leave the country in which your car is registered and insured – Denmark, in our case.

Foreign authorities can check your insurance is valid. You can document this with the International Motor Insurance or “Green” card, which serves as proof you have motor insurance when you drive outside of the EU (you don’t need it within the EU).

This means that (in theory) you can be asked to present it in the UK. We weren’t asked for it.

The Green Card can be printed via your insurance company’s website. You’ll need your MitID or NemID secure login to access the platform and print off your document. Here is an example of the relevant page on the website of insurance company Tryg. If you can’t find the right section on your insurance company’s website, contact them by phone.

A number of Danish companies specialise in roadside assistance, including Falck and SOS Dansk Autohjælp. You can also include roadside assistance as part of your motor insurance package. We have the latter option, but in either case, I’d recommend calling your provider to make sure you are covered for breakdown in the EU and non-EU countries like the UK (if that’s where you’re going). Obviously, you should add such cover to your existing deal if you don’t have it, or change to a different deal.

The company which operates the ferry from Hook of Holland to Harwich is Stena Line. Both directions have daytime and overnight departures.

There is a range of prices, and I couldn’t cover all the options here if I tried. However, I’d recommend a cabin on the daytime departures, because it’s inexpensive and gives you a bit of personal space and privacy, which is useful with children.

After calculating what our approximate fuel costs would be, the price of the hotel stays and ferry tickets, we found that the trip cost around 1,500 kroner more than we would have paid to fly from Billund Airport to London Stansted with checked-in baggage with Ryanair on the same dates. In return, we could take as much luggage as we want with us (and back), we got to see Bremen and Groningen and had our own car with us in the UK. This was more than worth the additional expense.

I also spent 50 kroner on a “DK” sticker for the tailgate of the car (because the car is so old it predates the EU number plates that include the country code) and 70 kroner for some headlight stickers which prevent full beam headlamps from dazzling oncoming drivers when you are driving on the left in the UK.

As I busily fixed them onto my car as we waited to disembark the ferry, however, a lorry driver parked next to us said these were, in fact, entirely unnecessary.