Driving through the forests of Finland is cold, lonely and dark and this white sedan with a Stuttgart licence plate felt as out of place as a UFO.
But friends were close at hand when it came to charging this UFO, which is actually an electric car that was much in need of juice.
When you stop at a charging station, even three hours north of the Arctic Circle, you wind up chatting with other electric car drivers who are also powering up their batteries.
Here, at the only charging station within a radius of over 100 kilometres, such chats are almost inevitable, even in the middle of the night.
Other drivers ask me about my journey and I tell them why I’m driving from Germany to cross the Arctic Circle in an electric car, to see how electric driving works in the thinly populated north and east, in ice and snow and freezing temperatures.
My vehicle is the Mercedes EQS, a good choice as it’s comfortable considering I drive for 16 hours or more some days. My vehicle also thankfully has around 670km of standard range. While the 523hp are just as unimportant on this tour with almost continuous speed limit as the 210kph top speed, the all-wheel drive is useful.
In Germany, I found the charging infrastructure good, and crossed into Poland. After Warsaw, I took smaller roads through Lithuania to Latvia and found charging was no longer quite so easy.
The pillar in front of the hotel only works with a domestic app and on a rainy night, it took me a while to find someone to help with the translation.
And because you need credit first, but international credit cards are not accepted, I needed someone to accept cash and deposit it online. Thank heavens they have the euro here – and were kind enough to help me out.
I am driving around the Baltic and the eastern coast seems strangely quiet in these late winter days. The roads are empty and the landscapes vast. And as the free Porsche charging station at my Pärnu hotel only charges at 11kW, I have time for some breakfast, a wellness stop at an old bathhouse, a stroll through the spa district to the beach where I see ice floes.
Manufacturers say time and again that cold is bad news for batteries. It takes a lot of energy to keep them at the ideal temperature. But at over 400km, the range is better than I expected. The EQS uses energy for heating and comfort but the strict speed limit here helps.
Also, it isn’t as cold as I feared. There are ice roads around Haapsalu, connecting the mainland with islands so you don’t need a ferry in winter, are already closed as the ice is too thin to support cars. I hear the ferry ploughing through the ice in the channel, though, with a deafening crash.
In Helsinki, the infrastructure is even better and even Plug & Charge, which lets you charge automatically without an app or charging cards, works flawlessly.
But the bad news is Helsinki is drowning in snow and the motorway heading north is frozen. Winter dominates the landscape and for kilometres the route leads across iced-over waterways.
When I finally see trucks driving over a lake beside a bridge, and not just snowmobiles, cross-country skiers and dog sleds, I feel safe enough to try it too, even if the EQS weighs 2.4 tonnes.
I keep heading north, past the Christmas village in Rovaniemi and finally across the Arctic Circle. I drive pass herds of reindeer and holiday farms where guests fly in to zip through the forest on dog sleds.
All that’s missing are the northern lights though the Aurora app says I have a 75% chance of seeing them.
Without warning, as I pass through the Lyngen Alps, the sky suddenly opens up and swathes of light dance above the fjord and the mountain range.
I came from Alta, my northern-most point, after endless expanses and forests without charging stations, thankful for my four-wheel drive, crossing icy mountain ridges and passing fjords as I headed south.
The flickering, dancing lights in the sky make my stop in Lyngen a highlight of my trip
But here in Northern Norway, there are precious few charging options – and I can only make three quarters of them work. I don’t go beyond the range the car is showing me so I charge where I can, and thankfully, many of the charging points are fast.
I’m getting more accustomed to the rhythm of charging and driving. And sometimes when I stop, the charging point is near a charming cafe or supermarket next to them.
Things only get critical once on the Lofoten Islands, where it’s stormy. First, there’s half a metre of fresh snow, then a thaw with winds of more than 100kph and the roads are covered with a layer of ice as thick as my ankle.
Then the road ahead is suddenly closed due to an avalanche, and the bridge back is closed due to the storm. I start some anxious calculations, nervous as there is no charging station in between. How How long can an electric car with the heating on stay in a traffic jam? How would I get away?
Luckily the bridge is free again after three hours. I feel a lot calmer later on, when I reflect on that moment later in the evening over a beer in the sauna in the harbour basin of Svolvær i Lofoten.
Relaxed, I continue south, again crossing the Arctic Circle and taking a short detour to Arjeplog in Sweden, where car makers test their prototypes, then onwards to Norway.
The further south I go, the more the journey becomes routine. As the population density increases, so does the density of charging stations. While I wind up waiting several times, I also enjoy many interesting conversations.
Feeling pretty sad that my journey is nearly over, I board the ferry to Denmark in Stavanger. Then back to Germany’s autobahns.
That gives me pause to think. Two futile charging stops show that communication between car, map and charging station is far less good here than in some other countries along the route.
Also, the stretches without a speed limit seriously cut into the range.
Twelve days, eleven country borders, 9,117km and three dozen charging stops later, my journey ends. Back in central Germany, my on-board computer shows I drove an average of 66 km/h and 25.6 kWh/100km. It does not show how much richer I am for all of my new experiences.
Sure, electric mobility is possible on long-distance journeys, even under adverse conditions. Yes, you have to plan a bit better and you can’t be as spontaneous about your plans as you can in a car with a combustion engine.
But on the other hand, you can connect everywhere and make a few new friends – even north of the Arctic Circle. – dpa/Thomas Geiger