Chapter 23 Norway
As we approached the border the van stopped. The petrol gauge persisted in indicating a quarter full, but I had long since ceased to believe it. The boys went for petrol, and with a little persuasion the van started again. While I was filling up, the petrol gauge began to dance around and then collapsed on zero. The speedo also gave a shudder and died in sympathy.
The scenery had changed, harvesting was nearly completed.
"You would think we were back in Australia."
"Yes that's right. I think it is the height of the mountains, not as high as in Switzerland, but much higher than Holland and Denmark. When we get to the fiords on the west coast, you'll notice a difference."
It was pouring with rain, just as in Australia, when we drove into Oslo. Saturday afternoon, not a thing open, so we followed directions to the nearest camping ground.
Stopping at the booking office, we were accosted by an Australian couple who claimed to have 'done' Europe in three months, finding very little to their satisfaction. They were anxious to get home to impress their friends with the extent of their travels, but I wondered, what had they really seen? Luckily the Australian couple we camped next to had a different outlook. Like us they regretted the many things which had to be omitted.
"Could you let me have a little salt? I brought with me a container full, which I thought would be enough, but it hasn't quite lasted the distance."
"Certainly. Send one of the children over with your container. Do you try to calculate the amounts you need too?"
"Which way have you come? I wonder what the roads are like between here and Bergen?"
"If you've managed this far you should be OK. The roads are like main country roads back home. All the ones we went on were sealed. But it's a long way between towns so be careful to fill up. Nothing like the outback though. No need to worry.
"What about Oslo? What's here?"
"Oslo is wonderful. You know the population is only a quarter of a million. For the size of the place there is a terrific lot to see. The ski jump and the ski museum, the Viking museum, the 'Fram' and the 'Kon Tiki'. Don't miss it."
We took their advice. The ski jump was very exciting. We went up in the lift, then climbed to the doors from which the skiers begin their descents, before they take off into space. There was no snow (the 'season' had not started). But the view was magnificent and frightening just to look down the jump.
"I'm afraid they'd have to push me," I admitted. "Like jumping out of an aeroplane."
The ski museum underneath the jump was small but full of interesting exhibits, from a two thousand-year-old ski, to equipment used by Scott in the Antarctic.
The Viking museum
The Viking museum was even more fascinating, the building having been designed especially to house three reconstructed ships. The biggest and most decorated of them had been restored almost to its original condition. The others are not so well preserved, but this does not detract from the feeling of awe when looking at them. After walking all around, you can climb up to the balconies to look inside, to experience in fantasy some of the excitement of a journey. People gazed and gazed, talking in awed whispers as if they were witnessing a miracle.
The Viking museum
Reconstruction is a fantastic task. When a ship lies under the mud of an ocean floor, it remains in a good state of preservation, as the mud inhibits decay and movement. Some cloth has even been recovered. Enormous care must be taken as soon as anything is touched. Divers number every tiny piece before anything can be brought to the surface. Sometimes a cofferdam is built all round the site, and the water pumped out. Then follows the meticulous work of coating each piece with a wax preservative, to prevent drying out. Without this, the wood crumbles into dust very rapidly. A new frame is built, the exact shape of the original. If a ship is in good condition, the frame can be removed later. Many different kinds of vessels have been recovered in Scandinavia; merchant ships, deep-sea traders, ferries, long ships, funeral ships. The latter contain objects which chiefs took with them on their last voyages. The most remarkable relic is a beautifully and elaborately carved chariot, in an excellent state of preservation.
Nearby is the 'Fram', built for Nansen's voyage in 1893-6, and later used by Amundsen in the Antarctic. It is now in a building designed so that stuffed Polar bears and displays of equipment surround it, and visitors can clamber all over the ship, peer into the cabins, sit at a table set for dinner at sea, stand at the helm, or inspect the galley.
Across the road is the 'Kon Tiki', definitely not to be touched, but displayed with great ingenuity. On the ground floor you see the raft which drifted five thousand miles across the Pacific. It is surrounded by some of the statues from Easter Island, which prompted the expedition, and photos taken before and during the voyage. Then you go downstairs and look under the balsa raft at some of the other forms of life, which accompanied the five men. It was easy to re-enact the intrepid voyage in imagination.
"Did you see the photo called 'One day's catch'? Quite a few sharks as well as other fish," said Peter.
"Yes, and did you see the pictures of how they built the raft? I think I'm going to have to read the book again. It will be much more meaningful after seeing this."
One Day's Catch, Kon Tiki
The folk museum, consisting of a hundred and fifty wooden buildings, and displays of items representing Norwegian urban and rural culture, was set in a large parkland. Until recently there were only wooden buildings in Norway, as the country has little natural stone but plenty of forests. Many houses and huts have turf roofs, and sometimes the soil supports not only grass but bushes and small trees. In some cottages industries such as pottery were being demonstrated.
The folk museum
The most exciting building was a stave church, completely of wood, and somewhat reminiscent of a pagoda. The Viking influence is evident; when Christianity was adopted in Norway, it was modified to suit their previous pagan beliefs and practices. The church has six roofs, each smaller than the one below it, little wooden crosses on the ridges being the only concession to indicate its affiliation with Christianity. Guides, mostly women in national costume, explain the details.
The next day we left for Bergen on the west coast. Past a few small towns, lots of lakes, miles of forest, some prosperous looking farms where harvest was nearly complete, over mountain after mountain, around lakes along rivers. Then we climbed higher and there was less vegetation. The road was lonely, few people live here and the tourists had gone. This was E68, European road number 68, but could have been somewhere near Mt Kosciusko on a quiet day.
About five o'clock we arrived at Resneves Ferry, after driving a couple of hundred miles. It seemed we would not reach Bergen that night. When the ferry arrived, a lad told me,
"We are going to Kaupaya. This is the last ferry from here today, but you might get the one you want if you cross to Kaupaya."
Once we were on board, he gave us a schedule, which showed that there was another ferry from the point we had just left, so we returned to Resneves, and luckily were just in time for the next ferry to Gutwangen. However it did not please me to pay fares to and from Kaupaya.
"What organization," I thought. "This is the main road between Oslo and Bergen. You suddenly run out of road at Resneves, and there is no other way except by ferry. But this is not as expensive, even with the van, as any of the fiord excursions."
The Fiords of Norway
The scenery became more and more spectacular as we entered the narrowing arms of the fiord in the gathering darkness. Hundreds of waterfalls tumbled over the cliffs into the calm water of the fiord, sometimes so close we could feel the spray.
At the junction of two arms, the ferry stopped alongside another, and most of the passengers changed mid stream. It was almost dark and beginning to rain, when we reached the head of the fiord, where the valley was so narrow that a small river and the road had to compete for space, the road constantly crossing back and forth.
At the nearby camping area, members of an English Youth Club came to greet us.
"It's been raining here for a week," they told us. "Ever since we got here. We came to do some climbing, but it's more like swimming. There are hundreds of waterfalls now where there were absolutely none before. We've come rather late in the season, I expect."
It rained nearly all night. The volume of water pouring over the mountainside had increased overnight; the river was in flood. A few miles further on there was a sign 'engage low gear', and as I slowed to cross a bridge, I suddenly realized that the road, now gravel, went almost vertically up the opposite cliff; it then took an unexpected sharp turn, past a series of powerful waterfalls, so close that the spray wet the road, no safety fence and a single track all the way... the most terrifying piece of road I have ever been on.
"If I had known what they had meant by 'engage low gear' I would have turned round and gone back to Oslo," I said as I tried to unclench my fists around the steering wheel.
"We couldn't do that," said Peter, being practical. "We would never make it to the ferry back to England."
"Yes, I know, but I mean I'm glad I didn't know about that before, and once we had started, there was no chance of turning around, I just had to keep going."
Once above the cliffs, the road once more sealed, stopped trying to imitate a goat track. We were following a river, which flowed south, to the Hardanger Fiord. This is renowned as one of the most beautiful in southern Norway, a source of inspiration to authors, artists and composers. We were again among towns and villages, farms and light industry, all clinging to the mountain or huddled in small flat areas beside the fiord.
It was another fifty miles to Bergen, and it had become evident to me that it was too risky to drive that distance, as progress was slow and we had to retrace our route, along the Hardanger Fiord. If I could have been certain that the journey to Kristiansand would go smoothly, I would have detoured to the west coast, but without that assurance, I decided we must begin the last stage of our expedition. But it was difficult to say 'when'. Every bend brought different views, mirrored in the still blue water.
"We'll go as far as that village ahead. Then I'll turn round. Look at those beautiful autumn trees."
"You said that before. There's always something else you want to see."
Finally the road left the fiord, and began to climb into the hills, so at that point vacillation ended. We retraced our route to Kvandal, enjoying each vista a second time. Another ferry took us across the Hardanger Fiord, at a point where Sorfiord pierces the massif to the south, and the road now followed the indentations of the smaller fiord.
"I like this one better than the bigger fiord. Look, there's even a glacier."
"I think the fiords are more spectacular as they get narrower. If we had followed Hardanger Fiord to the east instead of toward the sea, it would probably have been like this, narrow and winding with steep sides. The further into the mountains they go the more waterfalls and glaciers."
"Look here's a big town, it is really strange to see a place like this on a fiord, polluting the atmosphere," remarked Peter who was absorbing some of my conservationist attitudes.
This was one of the few towns along the three hundred miles. The road itself was really remarkable, clinging to the cliffs above the fiord, sometimes with bulges like bay windows over the water; at other times it entered the mountains, and wound through long tunnels. Sometimes it snaked down to a deep valley. The whole length was narrow without a half mile even approximately straight, and very lonely. And no road service!
Toward evening we came down a steep, twisty road to an exquisite little village, Roldal, which shared a valley with a small lake. It was too inviting to pass. The facilities of the camping area were being renovated and they had not thought to make allowance for latecomers.
"You'll have to climb over the timber to the toilet. And we'll have to collect water from that tap outside."
"This is a nice place, but it's funny that they close everything down for the winter. It's still autumn."
"Perhaps we have been lucky with the weather. Maybe by this time of the year they usually have snow. No tourists would come then. Most of these roads would be closed, so it would be a waste of time for them to keep camping grounds open when the season has officially ended. That is hard for Australians to understand."
"Do they make enough money in a couple of months to last the rest of the year?"
"Some of them may. Maybe they go somewhere else to work in the ski resorts in the winter. Some of them work at home making things to sell to the tourists next season."
"When does the car ferry leave? How much further is it?"
"It's about half a day's drive. The ferry leaves the day after tomorrow. We should get there tomorrow easily, and have Thursday in Kristiansand, and be in England on Friday."
"Do you think we could look in that little church over there?"
Inside Roldal church
"Yes, we'll go in the morning. The guidebook says it was built in the thirteenth century, which makes it very old for a wooden building. Until roads were built recently, the priest could only come across the mountains in summer. Originally the floor was bare earth. It says the church is beautifully painted inside and has a lot of carved figures and a special crucifix. Thousands of people came here to be cured of diseases, as there was a legend about miraculous healing. They must have had to walk over the mountains in those days."
"That seems strange because it is such a small place, and so far from anywhere."
"There are probably lots of villages in all the valleys, and some people would be prepared to travel long distances for cures. It's a beautiful spot isn't it? Life would be very tranquil here, especially after the tourist season has finished. It's really lovely with the trees just turning yellow. I'm so glad we camped here. It's a place I want to remember. It wasn't mentioned in the books I read, and I sort of feel I have discovered it."
I was also glad that we would soon be home, and able to settle in one place again, and not have to worry about foreign currency, where to camp, where to get petrol, how much petrol I had left, about getting sick or having an accident or car trouble. We had made it now. Not everything we had wanted to do. But on the whole... we had succeeded.