It’s now 2014 and after enjoying cycling around Iceland so much last year I thought I’d repeat the trip format and spend my Summer days wondering when the current climb is gonna ‘top out’ and my Summer nights in a tent being terrified by animals. This time though I swapped the volcanoes and glaciers of Iceland for the forests and fjords of another pristine piece of Scandinavia in wonderful Norway.
In the days leading up to departure I was beginning to regret booking the flights; trying to set up for a cycling trip in another country is a darn sight harder than an ordinary holiday. Rather foolishly I’d booked my flight for the morning after I finished work and the final couple of weeks were much busier than I’d have wanted. Trying to make sure the bike was in working condition and that I had the myriad bits and pieces needed to set up a nightly camp and repair the bike if anything (simple at least) went wrong left me with an overly stressful last few days- quite different to how you’d want to feel when embarking on holiday.
I then had a pretty dreadful first few days as despite getting up at 5am to be on time for my Gatwick departure, the plane left an hour and a half late. This meant I missed my Oslo to Tromso connection til the next morning, and as the Norwegian Airlines customer service rep told me “As your connection time was under 2hrs you’re not entitled to a complimentary hotel”. So in an unwanted introduction to Norwegian prices I had to spend £70 on a dingy hotel room at Oslo airport with no food as I had no cash. After getting up at 6am the next morning to catch my flight I again wasn’t delighted with the news that there was a 3hr delay to my flight. Eventually I arrived in Tromso 24hrs late and not massively happy.
As I learnt in Iceland however, probably the worst parts of a cycling holiday are the beginning and ending of the trip- once I got off the plane into gorgeous sunshine and got the bike rebuilt I started feeling much, much better about things.
I started in Tromso, visiting the Arctic Circle for the first time; I was worried the weather would be overly inclement for cycling but I arrived in a record breaking Norwegian Summer. In the land of the midnight sun the first week was in perma sunshine and 25 degrees as I found myself sunburnt daily in shorts and a t-shirt. Tromso is by far the biggest city in the North and in the 24hr sun and fjordside location has something of an ‘end of the world’ feel to it, like a Northern version of Ushuaia in Argentina. In the Summer it felt very quiet but reading about the heroic exploits of Amundsen and Nansen in the Arctic museum felt a bit surreal in the languid sunshine.
After a couple of days there I took a night boat to Harstad with incredible views of the coastline in the midnight sun and then started the cycling odyssey in the Vesteralen islands.
It wasn’t a bad place to start. As the memorable character Slartibartfast states in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: "Look at me - I design coastlines. I got an award for Norway... I've been doing fjords all my life...for a fleeting moment they become fashionable and I get a major award”.
And indeed whilst a few other countries like Thailand, Croatia and Vietnam would be in the hunt, Norway would I suspect be the bookies favourite for most beautiful coastline in the world award. TheVesteralen and Lofoten islands are the bits poking out off the Western Norwegian coast in the North and I covered the 300km to the succinctly named Southern tip of Å in about 3 days. Lofoten means ‘floating’ in Norwegian and whilst Norwegian mountains are generally of the more rounded variety, the vast grey rocks of the islands shoot very steeply up giving the impression from afar of giant granite sails ‘floating’ on the sea. The mountains are so steep that at times it was hard to see where the people could live but there was always just enough space on the coast for small fishing villages to settle. The coastal roads wind along these narrow strips and gave my first sight of the awesomeness of Norwegian engineering.
I was kind of left thinking that Norwegian boys have posters of tunnel engineers and bridge builders rather than the fighter pilots and footballers that they might in the rest of the world. Maybe only Japan ranks alongside Norway in terms of the ingenuity they’ve showed in managing to tame their wild Geography and connect up the entire country. To get between the islands there are a series of spectacular cantilever bridges which could be several kilometres long and have to be steep enough to allow oceangoing boats to be able to pass through. On a bike they could be ‘very challenging’ to climb up and then get down the other side but they afforded wonderful views and added a strangely uplifting human element to the wild natural landscape. Perhaps more spectacular still were the road tunnels that were particularly plentiful in the Southern fjords. For longer ones bikes aren’t allowed but on shorter ones I’d have to ‘tunnel up’ (put lights and reflectors on) and grind through them- annoying and a bit scary but definitely a better option than climbing the mountain it bored through. Amongst the more memorable ones I went in was one near Stavanger which had four different routes meet at a roundabout all underground and the 24.5km world record long Laerdal tunnel which is so long they’ve had to include special pale blue lighting and rest areas every 6km in order to stop drivers becoming disorientated! Amazing achievement.
After a few days hiking and relaxing in the fishing villages on Lofoten I got a boat back to the mainland then a night train took me to the lovely third city of Trondheim. I found that whilst cycling and camping in the middle of nowhere you have only a limited ability to interact with people and see how the majority of the population live. I managed to visit the 5 biggest cities in the country however, and spending a bit of time in them definitely led me to the (deliberately sweeping) conclusion that Norway is ‘the best country in the world’.
From an outsider’s point of view, literally the only bad thing I could say about Norway is the price of things… but then that’s because I don’t earn Norwegian average wages of 45k Euros per annum. It is deeply ironic that the country’s most famous painting, Munch’s The Scream has come to symbolise the agony of modern man better than virtually any artwork.
A more accurate representation of the country would have a healthy, toned, attractive person heartily smiling whilst expostulating on how great life is.
Norway has been top of the world Human Development Index since the turn of the century and has won the UN’s ‘best country in the world to live in’ award for the last fourteen years. With an almost perfectly functioning democracy and welfare state, virtually no rich poor gap to speak off and world class public services it’s difficult to see almost any problems at all within the country. In a country where bus drivers and doctors earn remarkably similar salaries, I’ve certainly never been anywhere where even in low level jobs people seem genuinely content with their lot. They’ve successfully cultivated a healthy, well educated, easygoing, positive (and, it must be said very beautiful) population and it’s no surprise that they’re ranked only behind Denmark in the UN global Happiness rating. Throw into the mix theworld’s lowest rating on the ‘Glass Ceiling Index’ (by law Norwegian boards must be 40% female) and in short, Norway sets the standard the rest of the world should be aiming towards.
This would be is the tricky part however; much of the reason Norway is in the privileged position it finds itself in is due to its huge oil reserves. When oil was discovered in the 1960’s the government rather intelligently and with a sagacious degree of foresight started putting the money earned into a sovereign wealth fund. The money was used wisely to build the welfare state (but well within their income so they were saving) and in a country of only 5million the fund has grown so successfully (now worth about $800bn) that they’re in the enviable and quite remarkable position of living off the interest on it. Whilst not every country is going to have huge oil reserves or has a much larger population to share the wealth amongst, the commitment to erasing a rich poor gap through a strong welfare state and the subsequent effect on people’s mental health is surely something other countries can aspire to. As when visiting other Scandinavian countries and even somewhere like Japan, Norway (and Norwegians) reconfirmed my belief in a ‘managed capitalist system’ as the way countries should be run…
After a bit of socio-political analysis I then headed South to some national parks in the centre of the country where the biking got just a bit harder than the coastal roads of the Lofoten islands. Central Norway is very much the heart of the Scandinavian mountain range and it’s here that much of the Norse folklore and mythology comes from with tales of evil and heroism from Loki and Thor and a creeping fear of the untamed upland home of the trolls and giants. I had the single hardest day of the trip in the Rondane national park; after starting the day by climbing 400m in about 4km (roughly 10% average gradient) via a series of switchbacks I carried on climbing up into the park for another 20km. When I got there I then spent 5 hours climbing the highest mountain in the park before the scary descent back down left me so tired to have a nap in a park before going back to my tent. Whilst the highest mountain is under 3000m, hiking in Norway is harder than it sounds as the rock type tends to be granite or other harder rock types. Well above the treeline the rock is so hard that erosion is limited and even in the busier national parks ‘paths’ don’t really get formed, you simply scramble over and up the rocks. This gets very hard on your feet and means you rarely get ‘easier sections’ as you’re constantly having to watch your feet. It’s all worth it though, as like in Iceland last year, the views from the various summits I did across the country were incredible with the fjords, lakes, glaciers, waterfalls and rock formations below creating a veritable smorgasbord of geographical features to feast your eyes on.
After the Rondane and the wonderful Jotunheim I hit my highest point on the road of 1389m after a gruelling 12km climb into a headwind before an epic and unbelievably fun 70km long descent to the mighty Sognefjord the next day. At over 200km long it ranks as the longest fjord in the world and it took me 3 days to cycle along it to the sea. The cycling here was near idyllic as whilst it was overcast rather than sunny the rain stayed away too and the quiet, flat roads meant finding a place to set up camp was extremely easy. This plan went well ‘til the last night by which time I’d reached the North Sea and took a ferry across the fjord for the last time. I cycled 5km out of the ferry port without seeing a single house then set up camp off road basically in the middle of nowhere, I had dinner etc. then got into my tent until about 10.30pm in the dusk….
At which point I had one of the more terrifying experiences of my life.
Basically out of the utter silence I suddenly heard branches breaking and something obviously quite big running away. It then moved back and started, if not quite roaring, then barking or braying very loudly in a circular motion maybe 10-20m around my tent for about 5 minutes. My initial petrified reaction was “Oh my God is that a bear?!!!” After a bit of reflection I thought it more likely a deer or moose but that would still be not much fun. Being alone in a tent (so you can’t see anything) several km from any potential help was utterly terrifying and eventually I couldn’t take the fear anymore and jumped out naked armed only with my Chinese made penknife ready to just leg it. Somehow it did the trick and ‘it’ shuffled off, although it did come back the next morning and bark a few more times it stayed for only a couple of mins this time. Checking up on the internet later it was indeed a moose call and not something I wanna experience again. Ever.
2 days later I then had another pretty atrocious night camping just outside the rather lovely 2nd city of Bergen; about 5pm the wind really started picking up and by 9pm was into gale force or 9-10 on the Beaufort scale. I was in a relatively sheltered position (i.e. 3 sides blocked off) but I would describe it as being about as bad as can be tolerated in a tent. For about 6-7hours I used my weight to hold the tent down and spent a sleepless night hoping it wouldn’t fly away or poles break etc. Thankfully about 4am it died down but cycling into town the next day I saw lots of branches and even a few trees down all over the city and I felt I’d had a relatively lucky escape.
After all this excitement I was very pleased to have my Bavarian friend come out to join me for the next couple of weeks. I don’t think I’d be able to do a cycling trip for much longer than a couple of months as one of the things that defines it as a mode of travelling is how ‘moody’ the experience is and I’d struggle with this over longer periods by myself. When things are ‘good’ there is almost literally nothing else I’d be happier doing. When the weather is good, the road is quiet and fairly flat and the scenery is attractive, I don’t think there is a better way of seeing the world and the gradual absorption of the landscape has an almost cathartic quality to it. In contrast when things are ‘bad’ it really isn’t enjoyable and you wondered why you came in the first place.
I’d been very lucky in the opening couple of weeks, only experiencing rain twice and generally just not having any issues with either bike or body. Unfortunately for my Bavarian friend he did not have that luck. After the first day we hit an almighty rain band which seemed to track us as it rained on and off (but mostly on) for the following 2 days and it continued to rain fairly frequently over the fortnight. Quite quickly we developed a theory of ‘degrees of rain’; when you’re on a tight time budget you have to cycle through light rain if you want to make any progress but if it gets heavier you simply have to stop as if you can’t see properly then it’s dangerous. Over the following weeks we spent a few too many hours stuck in bus shelters or spending nights in barns discussing whether it was too heavy to cycle in, trying to use humour to laugh the situation off as best we could but largely just getting bored.
Throw in a couple of mechanical problems and cycling 40km to catch a ferry that no longer runs and cycling doesn’t seem such a fun holiday idea. One 24hr period perfectly captured our fluctuating mood as a beautiful ride along the Hardangerfjord was ruined by rain all morning only for an agreeably long lunch to be followed by the rest of the fjord being bathed in sun for the afternoon. After reaching our destination my Bavarian friend took a masochistic dip in a glacial lake and we set up a truly spectacular camp on the beach as the mountains rose all around us. An amazing evening was followed by having to face Mr. Hyde again the next morning, as having to catch a bus up to the plateau above us meant we had to pack up again in the pouring rain. Not so good.
I found on a day to day basis the worst period of the day was having to pack up after breakfast but then once I got on the bike I felt much better and it was the same that day as we did a pretty memorable cycle across the Hardangervidda, Europe’s largest mountain plateau. The road started off looking down the county’s highest waterfall and in swirling mists of as little as 20m or so visibility we slowly inched across the treeless, eerie landscape. Having got up to the plateau we then had to get down and did so by completing the famous Rallarvegen (Navvy Road). The trainline from Flam at sea level up to the plateau is one of the steepest in the world but in order to transport the materials there needed to be a road to transport materials, which you can now cycle. Most people rent mountain bikes and do about 2/3 of the distance but we had a cold night camping at the base of a glacier near the beginning, then the following day cycled the 80km long unpaved route with our fully loaded bikes. Neither of us had mountain tyres and the extra weight on the bikes makes them much harder to steer and balance than a normal mountain bike; whilst we kept going as much as we could we frequently had to simply get off the bikes and push as the road deteriorated. Whilst over the course of the ride you descend over 1300m, about 400m of this were done in one 1.5km or stretch by the side of a waterfall. My God I was scared, as bringing back memories of the Death Road in Bolivia, you squeeze your brakes as hard as possible and hope you make the series of hairpin turns OK as the waterfall crashes down beside you. Not a day for them to fail, I was truly delighted to get to the bottom and complete the 11hr day with a lovely gradual descent to the stunning fjordside village of Flam. We celebrated by a hearty handshake (in true British style) followed by a couple of cans of the local cider. Happy, happy day.
Drinking was definitely not something we did a lot of though; in a bar the cheapest pint would be £7.50 up to £12 and even in the supermarkets were at least £2.50 a can. The costs were definitely the worst thing about travelling in Norway- it may be the ‘best country in the world’ but it’s also one of if not the most expensive. Whilst everything is pretty expensive it was probably food and drink where you notice it most- the cheapest sandwich would cost about a fiver and the supermarkets just don’t really offer many deals or discounts. You kind of get used to it but we certainly didn’t feel the urge or desire to splash out on big nights in Norway which was a bit of a shame.
Thankfully the last week afforded us much better weather and after saying goodbye to my German pal in the lovely ski resort of Voss I took the train to my final destination of Oslo. I had four days there and thought it might be a day too many but it turned out to be about right as I spent a couple of days sightseeing and a couple of days happily lounging around pretty wooded islets of the Oslofjord. It has the reputation of one of Europe’s most amenable capitals and I couldn’t disagree with that as the locals enjoy such a high standard of living either on the surprisingly peaceful waterfront along the fjord or the wooded hills above.
I felt visiting the museums also gave quite a useful insight into how Norwegians see the country too. For such an old culture, Norway is actually a very young country; Norway tended to get the worst of centuries of near interminable wars with their neighbours in Denmark and Sweden throughout the middle ages and left them as something of a vassal state throughout the 18th and 19th centuries before they finally got independence in 1905. Similar to Britain’s treatment of Ireland, their Danish and Swedish masters operated little more than a feudal system forcing Norwegians to fish and farm the country only to remove all profits back to Copenhagen or Stockholm. Living in near penury, when the opportunity arose most of the population fled to the New World as soon as they could- there are actually more Norwegian Americans than Norwegians. The country’s economic situation didn’t drastically improve ‘til well after WWII and the discovery of oil but I got the impression the country is well aware of its change in circumstances. Dotted around central Oslo are several huge murals including some by Munch and are reminiscent of Rivera’s works in Mexico City. They show the agricultural and fishing heritage of the country morphing into the developed, cosmopolitan 21st century Norway and this seems to be a key part of their identity. The people are happy and know they’re affluent but it’s with the knowledge that the country and their ancestors have been through much tougher times. The consciousness of this change in circumstances is what keeps the belief in hard work and humility quite visible but also one of the things which makes Norwegians so likable as individuals and as a society. Rather than the flashy, ostentatious displays of wealth in some of the Gulf countries, showing off and splashing money around is not viewed upon positively in Norway. They could quite easily have fallen into the Wildean trap of Barbarism to Decadence almost overnight but the value system in the society has ensured they turned into and remained one of if not the most civilized country in the world.
Like Iceland, the country is so consistently beautiful you could stick a pin anywhere into the map and land somewhere interesting and this makes it a fantastic place to visit for a few weeks. However, when you ally that with the quality of its society and the individuals that it produces and the realisation slowly creeps in at this point in time that in many ways Norway is maybe as good as it gets on this planet.