Thursday, August 25, 2011

Free falling - Geiranger and Gjendesheim

That's your Norwegian grandfather fishing in his undies - just sayin'.

When you're backpacking for some time through Europe there is always that problem that you're going to look daggy. Wandering down the streets of Rome in your cargo pants and hiking boots always makes you the tourist, always makes you the dag. Not in Norway though because everyone dresses this way - everyone looks like they're fifteen minutes away from hiking a mountain or wrestling a polar bear so it's easy to fit in here - this country is built for daggy tourists. Anyhow, after the Stryn shenanigans, it was time to move on. Our trip took us through the Geiranger (pronounced gay-ranga, I kid you not) Fjord which is a UNESCO listed heritage site.

Again, another beautiful fjord to ferry down. Does it sound like I'm getting fjord fatigue? Not at all - every one is special. For example...

...this one had the advantage of having Voldemort's face imprinted in the cliff face.

The town of Geiranger itself had its requisite number of trolls...

...and Ruth indulged in some $87 apple cake.

Leaving Geiranger the next day, we hit some pretty bad weather. So bad that the bus driver only had 10 metres worth of visibility. What's that in the distance?

Oh one of those ubiquitous oversized camper vans that terrorize Norwegian roads trying to squeeze between a bus and a cliff face on a three metre wide road...

Good job it was happening on the Trollstigen (translation: Troll's Ladder), an impossibly narrow, steep road with a thousand hairpin turns. It's one of those roads those Top Gear guys try to kill themselves on and today the Norwegian weather was attempting to do the same.

We then took "the world's most scenic rail trip" which should have had the disclaimer of "the world's most scenic rail trip through fog." I'm sure it's lovely when the sun is out.

Our eventual destination Gjendesheim, a small town (as in one mountain hut and a shop) where we hoped to do the Besseggen walk. The Besseggen walk is essentially a seven hour hike over a high ridge between two lakes and one of Norway's most famous and scenic walks. Unfortunately, with me still recovering from the Mt Skala walk and Ruth's leg still not quite mended, we deemed it impossible to undertake. Fortunately for us, we were told there was a much easier walk along the fjord that takes 3-5 hours (with breaks) and is suitable for the elderly or people with kids. The walk is so easy it's not even marked and is probably as easy as strolling down to your local cafe for coffee. Once again, Norwegian humour was at play.

The next day we caught a small boat to the starting point - it was quite cold and both Ruth and I dealt with it in our own way.

Despite being cold to start off with, the sun had started to shine and taking a cue from my Scandinavian peers, I found a walking stick. Scandinavians love walking with sticks which on investigation makes hiking a lot easier on the body. The other thing Scandinavians love is to ask us why "did you go to Norway when New Zealand is so close?" Good question as both countries look like Middle Earth, have abundant fjords and speak a funny language no one understands (aww low blow but I was born in NZ so I can make jokes about it). I guess we picked Norway because it's in FRICKIN' Europe where we were going. Anyhow, here's me with my new stick attempting to look like Gandalf but looking more like a smug hobbit.

Ruth had no other pretension apart from hobbitdom. If anyone is still casting for the new Hobbit film, give me a call.

Anyhow, the walk started well, a gentle stroll along a beautiful fjord in the sun. Look at that, the stick in action.

Things got slightly more complicated when that old Norwegian 'easy' track started to kick in and we were suddenly crawling on our hands and knees through treacherous terrain. The path suddenly got much harder with sections where it dropped away altogether leaving you to step gingerly on loose stones sticking out of the fjord like above. There were also waterfalls to traverse as well as sheer rock faces. I forgot when the instructions said it was suitable for the elderly that they meant the Norwegian elderly who are genetically engineered superhumans who can leap mountains in a single bound and eat hot dogs wrapped in bacon without even flinching. As the rain started, things got a little scary.

How so? Well, here's my confession: while I love hiking and the outdoors in general, I'm a bit shit at it. If you were walking behind me on a hike it would be like walking behind a drunk playing imaginary hopscotch - I think the technical term is that I'm a bit unco. As such, with the combination of slippery rocks, a treacherous track and my unique brand of uncoordination, it was inevitable that I was going to fall head first into the fjord at some point. This would be a disaster as a) it'd probably hurt, b) I can't swim and b) Ruth is half my size and probably couldn't rescue me. Even the stick wasn't going to save me this time.

And so it was, I had two spectacular falls - one where I lost my balance when my foot got caught in a rock and I almost tumbled over the side of the track into the fjord. Miraculously, my instincts kicked in and I saved myself by clutching to two small trees - thanks small trees, you saved me (again). We then had to cross a sheer, slippery rock face and I lost my footing on the last stone and started sliding towards the fjord. I saved myself with my knees. Here's what I looked like after my flirtation with disaster:

Sad, wet, and dirty. When you take a tumble (or two), it's very hard not to feel vulnerable and it was at this point we lost the track - you know the track so easy it doesn't need to be marked. My intuition was that clinging to clumps of daisies with a sheer 20 metre drop into the fjord below was wrong and it turned out my intuition was pretty spot on. I then had a minor melt down and panic attack because, oh yeah, in addition to not being able to swim and being totally unco, I'm afraid of heights - sorry ladies, this shining light of masculinity is taken! It was time to "man up" and that's exactly what Ruth did and found the right track.

While extremely beautiful it seemed as if the countryside was trying to kill me so every step closer to the end was a triumph. Here's my "don't even think about it" look after crossing another waterfall.

The constantly evolving weather did make for some spectacular scenery though and as we headed towards the finish, it started to fine up somewhat.

Here's Ruth sauntering towards the finish and the final view back across the fjord. The 3-5 hour walk (with breaks) actually took us 7.5 hours but who's counting? It was still an incredible accomplishment to finish a twelve kilometre hike and not die - good work everybody.

Our next day was a long one - we were stuck in the small town of Otta for seven hours. The main excitement in Otta is when the train comes through town - I kid you not. LIKE OMG, IT'S THE TRAIN!

However, on a serious note: People of Norway, do not put panniers on your dogs - they don't like it and it's kind of cruel. Carry your own goddamned crap or the dogs will rise up and eat you in your sleep.

Our wait in Otta was rewarded by a night train to Bodo where we were to catch a ferry to fabled Lofoten Islands and stay in the incredibly succinctly named town Å. But more on that later, just be kind to your dogs ok - they're hungry.


Saturday, August 13, 2011

Death from above: Stryn, Mount Skala

You'll remember in my last post I mentioned the first casualty of the trip was me treading in a gigantic cowpat. Sadly, the second casualty was Ruth waking up the next morning and having either torn or pulled a muscle in her leg and being barely able to walk. Unfortunately, hiking duties for her have been put on hold. As such, we took it easy and made our way to Stryn. We like to pronounce it as 'Strine' because if you say it quick enough it sounds like you're a idiot saying 'stralian. However, it was pointed out that it is actually pronounced 'Strin' and the locals think we sound like morons. Touché.

The main reason to come to Stryn is to hike up Mount Skala. It was Ruth's dream to make it to the top and stay the night in the circular tower at its peak. The walk should take 3-5 hours up and about 2-3 down. Yeah right. However, with Ruth out of action I decided to take on the challenge myself. With Ruth's spirit in my heart and chocolate chip cookies in my back pack, I decided I would scale it for us both.

Things didn't start well in that within the first 200 metres I was confronted by an angry cow. Seriously, where is the cow hate coming from? Is it because I gave up being a vegetarian and ate your family? Oh right...

The trip started well as there was a sign for Mt Skala that pointed in two directions. One direction the easy way and one for the difficult way. Obviously, I took the easy one - this was going to be a piece of cake. Unfortunately, after half an hour of walking, both tracks meet up and there was one single impossible path to the top.

The cow had obviously sent word up the mountain because it wasn't long before the path was blocked by angry sheep. I'm sorry, lamb is such a tender and delicious meat...

It wasn't long before I was making progress above the clouds but as I have learnt from bitter experience on more than one occasion, if Norwegians say that something is a gradual climb they literally mean it is just short of a sheer cliff face.

The Norwegian sense of humour also refers to the 1000 stairs which turned out to be about a trillion. Ahahahahahar! Kill me!

I can say without exaggeration this was the hardest hike I have ever undertaken in my life. The path was jagged and uneven and sheer in places which made my heart pound like a looter in Tescos and sweat in unnatural ways that I'm sure some doctors would like to study for the sake of science and evolutionary theory.

Norwegians love camping and hiking like fat kids love cake and this climb seemed like nothing to them. As I was almost crawling on my hands and knees, I was passed by little kids (as in ten years old) and pensioners (as in sixty years old) as if it were a casual stroll in the local park. The couple in this photo were really lovely but they totally kicked my arse. Oh yeah, and almost all the Norwegians were shirtless or in some state of undress - I had a fleece and a beanie on.

There was a raging stream that flowed in parallel to the track and it turned out that it all flowed from a beautiful blue pool of water which you can see to the right. This was where the naked Norwegians got even more naked. Please note: there was snow next to the lake which is obscured by the ridge on the left. I had reached this pool after about three and a half hours of climbing. Every single pore of my body ached but I had resolved I would not be beaten by some crappy Norwegian mountain.

After another hour of climbing, I reached this point. I met a guy coming down who said the summit was another hour's climb. With my body shattered and a deadline to get to a bus back to Stryn, I decided I'd had enough. The Norwegians I had spoken to on the way up thought I was crazy to give up as I was so close but the mountain had won. I wasn't getting to the top - not without the aid of a helicopter or hallucinogenic drugs.

It was just at the top of that ridge but you know what? I couldn't give a toss, I was about to die from exhaustion.

Anyhow, here is the view from where I gave up.

As anyone who has climbed stuff like this knows, coming down any mountain can be hard on the knees. Here's a little known fact about myself: in Townsville (1995) I slipped on some gravel and basically fell down a small hill forever ruining my right knee. Within an hour of starting my descent I was in excruciating pain and could barely walk. I soon adopted a walking stick and hobbled down the hill like an eighty year old much to the amusement of everyone around me. I did so listening to the new Gillian Welch album which sounds like this - it was a little weird I have to admit. Here's me and my stick...

After three hours of hobbling, cursing and sweating I made it to the bottom. See all those cars, there was about 60-70 people on that track and I was probably the only one who didn't make it.

I abandoned my faithful walking stick as walking on flat ground is fine. I just can't walk up and down stairs, hills or bunk beds. At least now neither Ruth nor I can walk.

I sure could have used one of those yesterday.