Norway Cycle 2004

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Friday 25 April 2014

Norway Cycle 2004

Reaching the highpoint of the Rallarvegen
With 2 summers travelling on the rails in 2002 an2003 we wanted to try something completely different in summer 2004. I'd been getting more and more interested in cycling as a hobby and Esther was super fit from her National Championship win in the lightweight double sculls, so we thought "let's travel by bike". Of course it was a bit more complicated than that and led on to a lot of other questions like "what panniers should we use", "where are we going to find decent bikes from" and most importantly "where are we going to go".

I can't remember how the idea first arose but we started spending more and more time considering Norway as an option. It has beautiful, green countryside. It's close to Britain. It's west coast is part of the North Sea Cycle Route and the Norwegian national tourist office produces a series of Cycle Guides for tourists that we applied for online and were sent a few days later with detailed route cards for every kilometre of various long distance routes. As we pored over the guides and maps we pieced together a loop itinerary. We could fly into Haugesund on the west coast with Ryanair, head north to Bergen then head inland through the southern part of the fjordlands towards Oslo before heading south down to the coast and back around the North Sea Cycle Route. Total about 1500km. Simple!

The logistics and other questions took a lot more work than our Interrail trips which had involved buying the ticket, booking a flight and putting lots of clothes into a rucksack. (Back in 2002 and 2003 you didn't need to decide on travel days with an Interrail ticket, you could just use it when you wanted to during the validity period). We were lucky that we were both given some rear panniers as a gift from Esther's Oma and Opa and borrowed some front panniers and a nice lightweight bike for me from a friend. Esther settled for a £99 bike from Halfords. We even splashed out £20 on a lighter, smaller tent (also from Halfords) and picked up some very thin sleeping bags and air mattresses from eBay. Clothing wise we each had 2 sets of cycling gear along with a pair of trousers and a jumper, some cheap waterproofs and a poncho, so travelling light(ish). 

In the past 10 years we've learned the importance of good, high quality kit for comfort and safety. But 10 years ago price was our main decision point, partly as we were thrifty and ignorant of what else was out there, but mostly as we had no choice. 

Dressed for summer!
Flights booked, bikes wrapped in lots of bubble wrap and were off. Landing in Norway at this remote airport our trip started well when we saw the bikes tossed unceremoniously from the plane hold straight to the tarmac. Great. While other passengers collected their cases and headed off for a taxi to wherever they had to go, we got out our tools and started putting pedals the right way round, straightening handlebars and fitting panniers. The only part of the bikes that had been damaged in transit was Esther's rear brake handle had snapped off. I bodged a repair with some cable ties that she could pull on but it was less than ideal. Esther was not a regular cyclist and it would be over a week and lots of steep hills before we found a replacement part!

Finally we set off towards Haugesund town, a fishing village on the west coast about 20km north. About 500m from the airport it started to rain, so we slipped on our cheap and not very waterproof waterproofs. About 10 minutes later the rain got harder so we put on our rubber ponchos. 10 minutes after that it was a deluge. We were soaked, our gear was soaked (our panniers were water resistant, not proofed and the carrier bags containing our clothes were not enough to keep the water out) and our optmism was pretty soggy as well. We looked at each other and thought "This is a summer holiday!?! Why are we here!?!". When we finally arrived at Haugesund camping we were relieved to find they also rented huts, like big sheds with bunk beds, and promptly parted with the extra krona required to get one. It was still pretty cheap, as were all the campings we used in Norway where wild camping is legal thanks to the Allemansretten. 

We stayed In Haugesund the next day, ate a good meal and dried everything we had and started to feel energised again after the stress of packing before hitting the road to start the first real leg of the journey we had mapped out. We had planned to cover about 50 - 60 km a day and the Norwegian route maps had accommodation options marked on them that made this seem possible. So we headed off into the drizzly
weather, taking boat rides between the islands on the west coast, crossing massive bridges and grinding up and down big hills. The scenery was amazing and would stay like that for the whole trip. But we started to discover that the accommodation options in our cycle guides were not always accurate. Some of the B&B's and campsites either didn't exist at all or were closed. Or the hotels were much more expensive than we could afford. Unfortunately, when we reached our target for the day it wasn't there, or at least we couldn't find it. So we pushed on, and on and on a little more. The ride was amazing but we ended up covering 160km and got all the way to Bergen which was our target for 3 days of riding. We arrived at about 9pm in the dark and fortunately stumbled upon a campsite outside leisure centre where we showered, popped the tent up and were asleep very soon aftewards.

Sunshine in Bergen
The next day saw the sunshine arrive and we packed up for very short ride into Bergen centre and find a pension for the night to rest from our long day. Bergen was a fantastic, very beautiful place to spend a sunny day and we wandered around and ate lots. We didn't know it at the time but this would be our last proper bed for some time, but we made the most of it and washed all of our kit from yesterday, making the room look like a laundry. 

Tunnel time
Setting off East into the mountains and fjords the next day we had a our first minor scare when heading around a massive fjord a dog appeared from nowhere and started chasing us down barking in what sounded like an unfriendly way. I tried to stay calm and dropped behind Esther to "deal with it". I have no idea what I would have done but fortunately for us we started going downhill and the dog got within a few metres before running out of steam. Crisis over. We also came across our first tunnel. We stopped, fitted out lights, put on a high vis jacket and set off into the dark. The road swung left and there was the exit. The tunnel was only about 30 metres long, we just hadn't been able to see it! Oh well, better safe than sorry. 

It took us 2 days riding to reach Voss, through incredible scenery. The sun was shining and we pedalled on and on for 2 long days feeling completely happy and peaceful. We ate when we needed to, picking up food at grocery stores when we could and cooking pasta in the evenings. So far the campings we were using all had hotplates so we didn't have to use our gas at all. After Voss the road carried on heading East down the Fv307 (a minor road) that just went up and up and up, eventually turned into a dirt track and then after about 50km there was no more road. We were heading across the mountains and planned to pick up the Rallarvegen, the navvies road that tracks the Oslo-Bergen railway. But there is a short section where you have to hop on the train to pass through the mountain, from Uppsete to Myrdal. So far all road tunnels we'd found had a pedestrian/cycle tunnel alongside them (how thoughtful!). This time we waited for the train concerned that we had no booking, no ticket and no way of buying one. But we needn't have worried as the train guard was friendly and helped us on for the short journey to the Myrdal station where we got to enjoy one of the most dramatic rides we've ever seen.

Contemplating in Flam
The famous Flam - Myrdal railway is a scenic railway that runs from Flam on the shores of the Aurlandsfjord to the Myrdal station where it connects with the main Oslo-Bergen line. The valley it travels through is majestic and it turns out there is a road that you can ride down as well - awesome. We enjoyed the fruits of our mornings labour covering the 20 or so kilometres easily sweeping all the way down to find a camping.

The next day we cheated a little and caught the railway back to Myrdal to start the Rallarvegen through the mountains. This would be the most sustained leg of off road we'd travel and we had been concerned if our gear was up to it, but we needn't have worried. There were lots of cyclists and hikers on the path, many of which caught the train to one of the minor stops along the way and hiked back. The path climbed, steeply in places, to the high point at 1341m above sea level, getting more and more rugged and remote with snow still lying on the ground and lots of tarns and larger lakes in the distance. Again we'd planned to take 2 days over the 100km of the Rallarvegn but ended up pushing on and in just one day we covered another 120km to Geilo where we rested and stayed put the next day as well to rest our tiring legs. 

The weather was being very kind to us and we had sunshine again when we set off to detour from our planned route to go to the Vassfaret Bjornpark (Bear park) at Fla 50km away. It was the first time we'd seen bears and their cubs and the work they do at the park was amazing.  There we also met 'Brutus' - our first Norwegian Moose! We got back on route the following day by doubling back to Nesbyen and climbing continuously for 28km before descending into the valley and reaching Rodberg that night.

The following day was another 100km day to Kongsberg where we would visit the silver mines the town is famous for. We also rested for a day and got our hands on a disposable barbeque for a feast which we felt we'd deserved after covering so much ground so fast.  The next 3 days were all long (~100km) with a stage to Larvik on the coast and 2 long days along the North Sea Cycle route to Kristansand. At Kristiansand we rested for a day and visited the local wildlife park (Dierenpark) followed by another barbeque feast. 

Dinner time
It had not been almost a week since we left the fjordlands and it was starting to dawn on us that although we were enjoying the riding and the pace of life, the scenery was much less dramatic by the coast and we did regret going to quickly earlier in the journey. Our plan had been to follow the coast all the way back to Haugesund but we didn't want to just be counting down the miles while we dreamed of the fjords we'd left behind. So we visited the Kristiansand tourist office and discovered a new cycle route that headed due north inland up the Setesdal valley through more mountainous terrain. We bought the guide and set off on our impromptu detour.  

We reached Evje where we camped up and took a hike up the valley to find a beautiful remote peak.  The next day we found an outdoor centre where we decided to splash out most of our remaining krona on white water rafting, which was brilliant. Oddly enough, in the middle of a Norwegian Valley all 12 people on the raft except me were Dutch! Unfortunately after almost 3 weeks on the road my nails needed a trim so when I had to haul one of my Dutch crewmates back into the raft for capsize drills I cut his shoulders so deep it drew blood - how embarrassing. 

Getting a bit hungry now....
Leaving north the next day we had almost no food left at all, just one lump of bread and cheese between us. It was 80km along the Byglandsfjorden until we eventually found a shop next to the bus stop where we'd catch our ride back to the North Sea Cycle route at Sandnes. There were shops in the valley, but the cycle route we were following was designed to stay as remote as possible so they were always on the opposite side of the fjord. I think we cleared that store of cakes when we finally arrived. 

We rested in Sandnes for a couple of days, visiting the Kongenpark theme park, which was a bit young for us really but it didn't stop us having fun even though we probably looked a bit out of place. We also visited Badeland, a swimming baths with many water slides and rubber rings, where we spent about 4 hours - just getting clean really. 

After resting we took a short ride to Stavanger where we met Esther's parents and celebrated her fathers birthday with a meal out (our first meal not cooked ourselves since arriving) and a fjord cruise to see Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock).

Finally with 2 nights left until our flight we rode north, catching ferries across the islands back to Haugesund and the original camping where it all began. We had one day left in Haugesund and would have treated ourselves to a cabin again, but everywhere was full as it was the annual Herring Festival! We camped in our £20 tent which had acquitted itself well over the past month, until this last night when it downpoured and due to silly pitch selection we found ourselves in a little tarn which formed in the field and leaked through our cheap groundsheet. Never mind, we had a few hours to dry things before the flight.

We felt melancholy riding back to the airport on the last day. We'd seen and done so many amazing things, not least the 1500km we'd cycled and the sheer pride we had in doing something so adventurous for the first time. We had planned and completed a real outdoor expedition on bikes and felt very proud of what we achieved but also deeply sad it was over. Even now, writing this 10 years later I have a strong longing to go back and repeat the journey, or something very similar, probably spending more time in the more northerly fjords.

The traveling teds reach the summit after enjoying the long bike ride!

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