Riding in the Land of Trolls and Vikings
My tent is shaking heavily from the wind outside. The poles are stretched to the limit and they squeak and bend constantly. It is 2 a.m., the midnight sun is preventing me from sleeping and it is very cold. I am four hours away from Nordkapp, Norway, in a little town called Alta. I was supposed to reach Nordkapp already today, but a snow blizzard in the mountains made that impossible.
Nordkapp is putting up a fight.
I am on a motorcycle expedition around the world from Africa on my trusted Yamaha Super Tenere, and Norway’s Nordkapp has been my main target (and, as it turns out, my nemesis) from the beginning. I entered Norway from the south, in the beginning of May; some say it was the perfect time for the southern Fjords, and very wrong time for reaching Nordkapp. Nothing could have prepared me for this kind of environment and shocking beauty.
Once I passed Oslo, Norway’s large but compact capital (the second most expensive city in the world, next to Singapore), I headed to Hardangerfjord, a popular destination for cruise ships. The road winded beautifully through the mountains (as do most roads in Norway), where the snow is present till late June.
I was in a dream, the motorbike purred happily as it tackled every tight corner and passed every mountain. It is hard to concentrate on the road when you are surrounded by so much diversity: lakes that mirror perfectly the mountains above and rivers so green in color you think someone has Photoshopped them. Long tunnels dig into the belly of the mountains and as you emerge on the other side, large valleys open up, filled with blooming cherry and apple trees in their thousands.
The variety of landscapes and extreme temperature changes – from 2 degrees Celsius (36 F) on the mountains to 20 C (68 F) down by the fjords in matter of minutes – make Norway a very unique country on this planet. And the locals know it too. Their prices don’t belong to Planet Earth: $3 per liter of gas ($11/gallon), $8 for a loaf of bread, $1.50 for 1 egg at the grocery store, etc… Norwegians are proud of their inheritance. They show it with the superior quality in everything they do and a self-sufficient attitude that expresses confidence in their position in the world.
Norwegian genius can be seen everywhere (infrastructure, buildings, design), but for me, a biker from Canada riding more than 3000 kilometers (1864 miles) in their country, what shocked me the most is how the Vikings tamed this wild and rocky country and made it accessible by air, road and sea all the way to the Arctic Ocean in the North. I crossed 16 mountain passes, with the highest at 7200 feet. I road through several tunnels, including the Laerdal Tunnel, which bores through a mountain of solid granite and at 25 km (15.5 miles) is one of the longest tunnels in the world. These engineering feats all made me wonder how long and how hard has it been for the Norwegians to conquer and tame this wild environment. Even now, with good roads and service areas, it was impressive and a very humbling experience to ride a motorbike in this country.
From Hardangerfjord (which is the fruit belt of the country, supplying 60% of the nation’s fruit demand, with over 400,000 trees crammed in a space of about 30 km [18.6 miles]) I rode through massive mountain chains to Geirangerfjord, a small and narrow fjord, but spectacular in its position between two peaks rising almost vertical straight out of clear sea waters that are not stirred by even the slightest wind. I was expecting to see the giant Trolls appearing at any moment from around the corner.
The Geiranger village is small but is home to hundreds of thousands of tourists every year, as it is one of the most popular cruise ship destinations in the country. One of the Geiranger attractions is the local Jordnaer Chocolate Company, started by a former Physiotherapist, who decided that he wanted to do something exciting with his life. He calls his chocolate: “Chocolate with a view”, not necessarily because it is made in the beautiful fjord, but, as he put it, “a chocolate with a point of view”, because he makes strange combinations of tastes: blue cheese chocolate, whisky chocolate, Gouda chocolate, etc. Apparently, it is so famous it is on the list of 100 things to eat before you die, according to Norwegians. Bengt, the name of the owner, was one of the four people who spoke to me in more than three weeks in Norway. Vikings live up to their name and rarely speak to strangers.
The road from Geirangerfjord rises sharply to the mountain peak with extremely sharp curves snaking their way to the top. I rode mostly in third gear and even down to first gear to be able to navigate the twisty road. From the sea level I arrived at the mountain top in about 15 minutes, climbing more than 1400 m (4921 ft.) in that time. It is a dizzying experience.
Next was Trondheim, with its colorful houses on stilts lining the channel all the way to downtown. Trondheim features a beautiful cathedral and university, giving it a unique, northern touch. It felt good to walk the streets of the city for two days and not see high mountains. From here the road is straighter, and as I was heading to Mosjoen, the weather showed me that I was approaching the north. Bitter winds, low temperatures, and freezing rain battered me all the way.
From Mosjoen, I reached the Arctic Circle after Moi i Rana, where the snow was about 10-feet high and bitterly cold. It was a lonely place, up in the mountains and the Arctic Centre was open but empty. The girl at the counter told me that it was way too early for visitors. This would be the leading phrase in my journey to Nordkapp: Way too early!
Next was Narvik fjord, where I camped wild for the first time in Norway. Scandinavia has a system called Right of Access, where you can camp in any place that is not private property or cultivated and make use of the local resources free of charge: Fishing, firewood collection and picking berries and mushrooms for your consumption. It is a great way to show respect for their nature, but due to the cold, I only used this system once, in Narvik.
From Narvik, the landscape changes dramatically to a real Arctic environment: Round-top mountains, lots of snow and desolate places. Villages are fewer and farther in between. Even the smell of the air is different. It reminded me of my Nunavut expeditions in northern Canada a few years back; desolate hills, small Sami villages and powerful winds. I reached Alta in the late afternoon and pitched camp at Alta River Camp. Nordkapp was looming beyond the horizon and I shivered thinking of what might wait for me there…
May 23rd, 2014
It is 5 a.m., and 1 degree Celsius outside with 45 mph winds. I am packing fast, so I don’t freeze before I even start the day. I head out at 6 in the morning, with the roads desolate and quite a bit of ice on the tarmac. There is no one on the road at this time of the day and as I leave the camp, I look towards the mountains and they are covered in low, dark cumulus clouds.
I climb the mountain pass in second gear, with both my feet down to counterbalance the strong side wind that pushes me out of the road. The going is slow, challenging and downright dangerous. As I round the top, I suddenly come upon ice on the tarmac. Even though I wasn’t doing more than 60 km/h (37 mph), I try to reduce the speed by going into lower gear without touching the brakes. But it is not enough, as the wind pushes from the right side and my tires (knobby, dual-sport tires) do not grip the road enough, so I am sliding fast into the drop on the left. In the last moment, I spot a snow bank with the corner of my eye and I head straight to it. Better there than down the mountain in a ravine. I hit the snow hard and I stop.
I look up and down the road… no one in sight. The wind is blowing hard, adding to my stress by the noise it creates in my helmet. I breathe deeply to calm down and try to figure out a way to get out of this mess. I cannot push the bike out, either forward or backwards. I start digging the snow from around the wheels and I jump back on the bike and open up the throttle and ride it back on the road. I ride the rest of the mountain pass in second gear, both feet down and shaking; cold was one of the reasons…
Every kilometer I make towards Nordkapp is buried in my subconscious. I am already frozen and I still have 100 km (62 miles) to go. As I pass Olderfjord, the road narrows and it is squeezed between the churning sea on the right and the high, broken cliffs on the left. I inch my way slowly towards Honingsvag, the last community before Nordkapp. There is a 7 km (4.3 mile) tunnel before Honingsvag that goes 5 km (3 miles) under the sea. It is dark and cold under there and I have serious doubts that I will ever reach Nordkapp.
Midway through the tunnel, I make a U-turn and stop the bike. It is dark, lonely and very cold; the draft from the tunnel is freezing my face. I do not have a full face helmet and my gloves are African gloves, good for dust, not for 0 degrees. I made the decision to not go on with this madness and to turn around and head for Finland. I start the bike and as I put it in first gear, there was something coming out of the depths of my soul, a rebellion of some kind, basically forcing me to reject my natural instinct and to go against my will.
I do a U-turn again and head towards Nordkapp.
I manage to ride out of the tunnel and I have 13 km (8 miles) left. From Honingsvag the road narrows as it climbs the last mountain to reach the Cape. It is about 4 m (13-feet) wide and the wind, unrestricted by any trees or obstacles, is pushing me dangerously towards the cliff’s edge.
I reached Nordkapp (71.10.21 N) at 10:45 a.m., 24,525 km (15,239 miles) from Livingstone, Africa, where I started and 3100 km (1926 miles) from the southern border of Norway. The young man at the gate is shocked to see a biker this time of the year. He welcomes me to Nordkapp and says: “200 Kronor to enter” (about $40). “If I strangle him now”, I thought, “It won’t help much. The boy just works here.”
“I’ll just turn around”, I say.
I climb down from the bike to take a photo but the wind is so strong I cannot move away from the bike. I take the photo while pushing with all my strength into the bike with my left leg and then I climb back on and head south to Finland.
Frozen, wet and miserable, I cross the Finland border filled with awe, amazement and respect for the country I just rode in. Norway is by far the most shocking country I have ever had the privilege of visiting. If you are lucky enough to ride your motorbike in Norway, like I did, you will be closer to the spirit of the Vikings that roamed this country in centuries past.
I know I do!
John Nomad writes from his RTW expedition: www.nomadsportsacademy.com.
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