Fun and fungi in Sweden’s forests
Enjoy an easygoing fly-ride adventure through the forest trails of southern Sweden
MOOSE TOWER. TWO words that don’t seem right together, like ‘roadkill milkshake’, ‘flatulence festival’ or ‘President Trump’. But tour guide Mats Jonsson insists that’s what the wooden structure at the side of the road is. An elevated platform to help you spot a moose from a distance? A higher safeground to help you escape a charging male? “It’s so when you shoot the moose, the bullet goes down in to the ground and doesn’t carry on out the other side,” he explains. Welcome to Sweden.
It’s the kind of culture clash that might make me feel a long way from my non-moose-sniping home — only I’m not. This morning I woke up in my own bed, drove to an airport and boarded a plane. Two hours later I landed in Gothenburg and met Mats. After lunch I climbed onto one of his Yamaha XT660R hire bikes, rode into a forest and learned everything about moose towers. Small world.
Sweden, however, is huge. It’s more than twice the size of Britain, with only a sixth of our population. Instead of houses and humans, it’s populated by trees and lakes. And filling the space in between them is an intricate network of gravel trails that are
just ripe for riding. These are not treacherous, fiendish, enduro-expert Dakar stages, but easy, unsealed, purposeful pathways. You could have never ridden an off-road bike before and you wouldn’t struggle.
That’s Mats’ thinking behind his tour company, Magic Motor Experience. His fly-ride guided excursions are aimed at riders with any amount of adventure experience, right down to complete novices. He organises everything – the bike, petrol, insurance, routes, schedule, hotels and meals – and then personally leads each small group of around four riders. A support car follows carrying your overnight luggage. If you’ve never turned a knobbly wheel before, he can even offer tuition. All you need to do is turn up with
your riding kit. It’s the perfect entry to the world of adventure riding.
During our four-day taster of what Mats can offer, most of the miles are on easy trails that snake gently through a mix of open farmland and vast forests. These dense walls of pine and spruce blur past on both sides, tower overhead and smell amazing. The surface varies — there’s sandy soil, hard-packed dirt, chunky gravel, a few grassy sections — and the frequent rotation between them keeps you on your toes (sometimes literally). You quickly learn how the bike reacts differently to each one. At times you can simply sit in the XT’S seat and ride it like you’re on tarmac; at others you need to be stood up on the pegs, steering by shifting bodyweight.
When the going is easy, the bars feel solid and stable in your hands but when the gravel gets deeper, you can feel it shimmying and slewing. Speeds vary with the conditions. Sometimes it’s rolling along gently in second gear, ducking under tree branches and picking lines around comically vibrant giant red mushrooms. Sometimes it’s fast and wide open in top gear, eyes scanning the distance with well over 100kph (60mph) on the digital display. Most of the time it’s an easy, steady 70kph (45mph) or so in third or fourth. Having Mats set the pace up front is a huge help.
There are regular stretches of road too. Some simply offer a breather to break up the off-road runs, some help cover the distance more effectively, and some are put in for their own sheer entertainment. There are several stunning, soaring sweeps through forests, the bikes’ slim, tall, knobbly tyres doing nothing to hold back the handling or enjoyment.
Whether on-road or off, most of the time you’re the only vehicles around for as far as the eye can see or the ear can hear. At first it’s disconcerting, but then it’s surprising how quickly you get used to the solitude and the freedom — and then how you come to expect it. It took two and a half days before I had to stop at a junction to wait for a car; somehow it still irritated me. Particularly when you’re riding off-road, the trouble with there being no other traffic for 99% of the time is the 1% when you’re wrong — when you’re actually startled to see that you’re sharing the trail with a walker, a cyclist, a Peugeot 308 bouncing along through the middle of nowhere, or a gargantuan Scania tree-felling truck parked across the path. Or even — and I swear this is true — the MV Agusta F4 1000 we encountered on one gravel trail.
The pace is never pressured. There are breaks every hour or two to rendezvous with the support car for the all-important
fika — the sacrosanct Swedish tradition of stopping for coffee with pastries, cookies, cakes and conversation. Mats was born on the farm he runs his business from, so he knows a huge amount about the areas the tours run through — the history, economy and geology. Almost all of the houses here in Småland (a single province in southern Sweden that’s larger than the whole of Wales) are painted the exact same shade of red. The colour comes from local copper mines, but Mats jokes that it’s also because it’s cheap — Smålandians are famed for their
“It’s the perfect entry to the world of adventure riding”
“Disused military storage depots are hidden in the forest” “Mats knows the area’s tourist attractions, including the Ikea museum”
frugality. “We are known as the Scots of Sweden,” he smiles.
But Mats’ even more valuable knowledge lies in his painstaking research — estimated conservatively at hundreds of hours — spent scouting and planning his routes. You could fly to Sweden and try to hire a bike, or you could ride your own machine the 1000 miles through France, Germany and Denmark, but without Mats you still wouldn’t have the first idea which trails you could or couldn’t ride when you got here. With a guide navigating, knowing exactly which paths to take and which barriers can be ridden around, these leafy labyrinths hold no fear.
He knows the area’s secrets too. Disused military storage depots and a two-mile concrete runway are hidden deep in the forests. A haunting scrapyard of 150 cars left to rot in the woods for decades has become a curious kind of twisted art gallery. There’s even an enduro track set back from a main road where we’re free to bounce our bikes around for a lap or two. Mats also knows the area’s tourist attractions, including the Ikea museum in Älmhult — in the same building where the firm’s first store opened — which lets you put your face on the cover of a catalogue.
The XT660R is absolutely perfect for everything the trip has in store. You can’t buy one of these new any more — its single-cylinder motor doesn’t meet the latest Euro4 emissions standards – so Mats is lucky to have a well-maintained fleet of them. It’s smaller, lower and lighter than giant GSS and Tigers, making it so much less intimidating on tight trails. Yet it still has a road bike’s familiar friendliness, with none of the tiny, hollow, angry feel of a skinny, sharp enduro. The XT’S motor, like the suspension, is soft, smooth and forgiving — rugged, rudimentary and reliable. It’s punchy enough that you can slide the back end out of line at will on the looser gravel, but there’s no overwhelming excess of power waiting to catch you out. Stand up and it feels genuinely capable off-road; sit down and the seat is a welcoming place to park your posterior. After 500 miles in four days, I can’t think of another bike I would rather have ridden.
The XT also sets the tone for the trip. It’s a road bike because Mats is aiming his tours at regular riders — not hardcore rally daredevils and trials perfectionists, but normal folk like you and me. People who might own a peaky lid and boots with buckles, but whose heart still starts to beat slightly faster every time they turn off the tarmac. People who like to spend their evenings in nice hotels eating gorgeous two-course meals, not self-sufficient overlanding lunatics who’d gleefully camp inside the hollowed-out carcass of whatever was caught for dinner. If you’ve ever done an off-road school, you’re already more than qualified. And if you haven’t, Mats can sort you out.
If the idea of switching off from the normal world and disappearing into a forest for a few days sounds appealing, or you just want to try something different from the usual destinations, then you’re the perfect candidate. Off-roading through Scandanavia might sound like something other people do, but thanks to Mats, it’s never been this easy. It’s an accessible adventure — two words that sound much better together than ‘moose tower’.
Track conditions vary from compact dirt to loose gravel
Easy-going riding as a group makes for a very enjoyable day
The Yamaha XT660R hire bikes are light, agile and with enough grunt to have some fun