Man v Nature

From the May 2016 issue.

Transporting acid and fish pulp in the wild north of Norway is one of the most dangerous freight tasks to be found on the European continent. A German expat specialises in going where even locals don’t venture if they can avoid it.

Bodo Falkenstein can only vaguely recall the feeling of being stuck in traffic on a congested German freeway, nervously eying the clock ticking on the dashboard in front of him. After moving to the far north of Norway in 1997, the infinite white of the arctic winter has long overshadowed the dreary memory of rush hour traffic in grey German city centres.

Instead of navigating the busy CBD of Dresden, Falkenstein’s new job is driving a rigid and two-axle dog combination from Finnsnes, a small township south of Tromsø, to Flakstadvåg on the small island of Senja.

Up here, some 2,500km north of Oslo and a day’s drive south of the North Cape, the landscape is rough and unforgiving, with small and winding roads leading up and down snow-covered mountain ranges and through the eternal darkness of the polar night.

The dramatic landscape in Senja is most impressive during the cold season, when a thick layer of snow covers the entire island in a white blanket, says Falkenstein, who visited a friend in Tromsø during the 1990s and was so impressed that he came back to stay. “It’s a wild, but beautiful country up here,” he says. “Especially in winter.”

With its location in the rough Norwegian Sea, the weather on the island is almost unpredictable during that time of the year, but Falkenstein claims he thrives on the challenge. “In winter, we mainly cart concentrated acid and waste to and from the fish farms in the area,” he says. “We typically carry the acid to the farm, where it is diluted and mixed with shredded fish waste. This forms a thick pulp which I bring back to the mainland for processing.”

According to Falkenstein, only a handful of transport businesses dare venturing out to Senja when it is covered in snow. “Even the locals have respect for driving in Senja,” he says. “Nothing ever goes ‘the easy way’ on this island. There is only three or four companies in the country that send trucks out here.”

Steering his MAN across the bridge connecting Finnsnes and Senja in the early hours of the day, the scope of the freight task quickly unfolds – and with it the secret beauty of trucking in Norway: At first the high beams seem to fumble aimlessly on the white snow, with almost no tracks to be seen for miles on end. But at dawn the scenario suddenly changes, with the weak morning sun covering the rugged mountains in intense colour as it peeks through the dense clouds.

Unfortunately the moment doesn’t last long, as the winter days in Senja are short and cold, but Falkenstein says the focus has to be on the road anyway. With the weather changing so quickly, what has been a simple hairpin corner on the way to Flakstadvåg could become a death trap on the way back, so he tries not to get carried away by the beauty around him.

Instead, the focus is on simple technicalities, like using snow chains or not. The decision to use them is with Falkenstein alone, and most often his gut feel has proven him right. He says getting stuck on a tight mountain road would be a nightmare for any driver, especially out here on the island, so he is careful to not make a swift judgement when it comes to traction.

In line with that, Falkenstein has some margin during the loading process and is allowed to fill the compartments inside the tank in a way so that the drive axles get some excess weight for the first, difficult stretch back to the mainland. Later, but still on the island, Falkenstein opens the valves and allows the load to disperse so that the maximum axle loads are not exceeded.
“It’s not easy,” he explains, noting that even local drivers don’t often venture that far northwest. “But this job suits me perfectly and I never ever want to shift back to a regular road transport fleet.”

A metal worker turned truck driver, Falkenstein is employed by Akva-Ren, a company that trades in the by-products of fish farms and operates its own fleet of trucks. His truck of choice is a brand-new four-axle MAN that was delivered in January, boasting a D38-engine with an output of 560hp – a lot for a European truck, but just enough for the transport task at hand. The body work and tanks are a bit older and were manufactured by Finnish body builder Nordic Tank, he explains, saying the robust design will last for 10 to 15 years and outlive two or three trucks during its lifetime.

With its six axles, the whole combination has a GVW of 50 tonnes, but at 22 tonnes, the tare weight is comparatively high. “The pumps and everything else have to be acid proof, which adds to the weight,” Falkenstein explains. “The load capacity [therefore] only reaches around 28 tonnes, which is pretty close to the maximum at times.”

Maxing out the payload is only part of the challenge, he adds. “Sometimes, when it’s really cold, I have to fill glycol in the pump to keep it going,” he explains. “And the locks can freeze too, which is why I carry a gas burner with me, even though it’s not in use very often. When the loading is done, we try to make sure there is not much liquid left in the hose before it’s stored away so it doesn’t freeze on the inside.

“Additionally, I have a lid for both openings of each hose just to be sure there’s no liquid that may freeze. The actual cleaning is then carried out in a heated garage back home.”

Some of the hoses are also fitted with a heating system, he adds, and the electronics on the combination have to be winter proof too to survive in Senja, which, by comparison, is located about 1,000km further north than Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland.

Both tanks on truck and trailer are insulated, but not heated, as neither acid nor pulp freeze on the seven or eight-stop run across Senja. Despite the small size of the island and the rough terrain, though, Falkenstein accumulates some 130,000km every year – a feat made possible by the special nature of his freight: In Norway, the transport of fish waste is a special off-beat business that doesn’t demand using a tachograph. It is only in summertime, when the butcheries calm down, that he has to mind the electronic guard: “In summer we move to carting food stuff to fox or mink farms in Finland. These loads then fall under regular time restrictions.”

With that in mind, Falkenstein’s favourite time of the year remains the winter season, when the arctic sun hardly ever peeps more than a hand span over the horizon. Too much does he enjoy tackling Senja’s unforgiving landscape and steep mountains, and the beautiful white scenery around him.

“Trucking on Senja is one of the last big challenges of our trade. With all the beauty around yourself, though, you can easily forget that the narrow winter roads are a great challenge, even for an experienced driver,” he says. “Especially when you’re driving downhill you can feel the trailer pushing. Quite often you just don’t really know what will happen next. The only way to make it is to drive slow and carefully.”

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