Norway can be a splendid country to visit by motorcycle: creepy old churches, grimacing trolls, majestic fjords… and elk, writes Kevin Turner
There are many, many reasons to visit Norway, but cheap beer is not one of them. I realised this one murky afternoon when the sky was grey and the grass wet, and I stood pondering the alcohol counter at a supermarket near Geiranger. A tent-based evening was all but guaranteed and I needed supplies to while away the time. A four-pack seemed expensive, but needs must … So I headed over to the counter to pay, only to realise – egads! – the price was for a single can! That would buy me enough fuel to cross Finland, the next leg on a long run from London to Moscow, being undertaken for reasons best explained elsewhere*.
So I skulked back to my little tent, pulled a poncho over my already drenched clothes and settled down to watch the clouds drift along the fjord, a majestic sight (the clouds, not the poncho), though one that would undoubtedly have been elevated to the ‘spiritual’ were it not for the absence of a refreshing beverage, or four.
Ignoring the steep costs of just about everything, Norway is as wonderful a place as you could hope to visit in the Northern hemisphere. It’s like the old Norse Gods had a point to prove: snow-capped mountains, tick; thundering waterfalls, tick; vast, eternal fjords, tick; sunshine … ah, Odin, you missed a trick my friend.
It rained a lot while I was in Norway; not always, but a lot. In Sweden I had been advised to head towards the coastal town of Alesund and bask in the splendour of its art nouveau architecture for a day or so. It did indeed look splendid. At least on the postcards, but that’s as close as I got; the journey along treacherous mountain roads leading down to the west-coast archipelago was so horrible that after two hours battling freezing fog and saturating rain I pulled the plug, turned the Kawasaki around and headed back towards Geiranger, to enjoy another expensive night in a cold tent.
My journey so far had taken me from London, across the Channel and up through Denmark, across those hellish miles-long bridges where the wind howls and lashes up from the foaming sea and the mean gusts sweep you across lanes of traffic like flotsam in a bad surf. Few things shake me on a motorbike these days, but those bridges …. dear god, those terrible bridges ….
By the time I reached Norway a few days later the weather had improved no end and a jubilant, early evening sun shone down on the quiet roads that took me up through Lillehammer and Otta and then on towards Lom, Bismo and Grotli.
When the rain clouds pass and the sun shines on the smooth asphalt that threads through the mountains, Norway is transformed into an absolute paradise.
There are the fjords of course, which justifiably take the lion’s share of the accolades, deep and awesome, they somehow intimidate the soul. They are like nature’s pyramids, existing for some higher purpose than mortal man could comprehend, and one can’t help but wonder if the spirit of some long-passed deity isn’t housed deep within. Could there be a more fitting tomb for a Norse God?
Then there are the lakes – smooth as polished marble; the waterfalls – some playfully tumbling down gentle inclines, others hurling themselves with abandon from rocky crevices hundreds of feet above; the stave churches like the one at Borgund, that are as exquisite as they are creepy; the endless miles of lonely, rock-strewn emptiness that make you feel like you are the first or the last of some moribund tribe, seeing the world as it was many eons ago, or will be in ages come to pass; and of course, there are the elk.
Ah, the elk… At a campsite somewhere in Norway’s wilderness I set up shop for the night and quickly drifted off into a deep slumber, only to be woken not very much later by the strangest noise I had heard for quite some time. Not a bark, more a deep moan, but higher up in the register than you would expect from any real-world animal. I carefully unzipped my tent, not fully, just enough to beat a quick retreat should some fang or claw or mad trawlerman’s fishhook present itself in the semi-darkness. Instead, greeting my started gaze, silhouetted against the forest, were about 18 sexagenarians gazing into the darkness with binoculars held high while one of their group, who had positioned himself about three feet from my tent – my pillow infact – held his hands to his mouth and coo’d and moaned like some fairly unhappy spectre. It was a strange situation to wake to and one for which I was not well prepared.
I slipped back into my tent, slapped myself a few times to make sure I wasn’t dreaming, and re-emerged to question these curious folk as to what in the name of all that was holy were they doing? And – perhaps more pertinently – why were they doing it so close to my tent?
As it turns out, I had pitched pretty much exactly on the spot where these folk gathered once or twice a month during the season in the hope of summoning elk from the forests. I couldn’t quite determine whether this made me very lucky or extremely unfortunate, but either way, I was soon a party to this strange event with little option but to stick around for the duration.
The cooing/groaning/mooing man kept at for about another 10 minutes and I was about to lose patience – I was very tired – when out there by the edge of the forest emerged three dark shapes which quickly manifested into three beautiful elk, two cows and a calf; they ambled closer, casually munching the scrub, oblivious to their own majesty and the awe-struck crowd silently tramping my belongings underfoot.
Elk in the middle of the night – the kind of extraordinary treat that Norway throws at you when you least expect it. Perhaps I should not have been so surprised; this is after all troll country, and mischievous happenings should be expected.
You will find many trolls scattered around Norway, peeking out from merchandise stores or brazenly exhibiting in town squares, covered with excited children and, occasionally, the odd hapless biker. But if you want to find the real deal you need to venture up through the sinuous switchbacks and craggy heights of the Trollstigen – a serpentine route that reaches high up into the mountains, linking the towns of Andalsnes and Valldall in the few months when the snows don’t blanket it metres deep.
As I slowly navigated the Kawasaki up though the 11, wet, slippery hairpins that comprise the route, I could practically hear the trolls sniggering at my consternation. A very close encounter with a tourist coach that plunged out of the mist near the summit had the little buggers in hysterics.
At the top of the Trollstigen there is a café and a viewing station, where you can peer down on the perilous path you have just ridden, flanked by gnarled and ageless mountainsides streaked white here and there by tumbling waterfalls.
It is spectacular and worth every drop of rain – nothing in this life is free, but a little drenching now and again seemed a very cheap price to pay for such an experience. It reminded me of that line from Withnail and I: “Free to those who can afford it; very expensive to those who can’t.”
That summed up nicely my limited experience of this stunning country: if you want to enjoy it in comfort and luxury then it will be very very expensive and you will likely be missing the point anyway. But if you can afford to get a little wet now and again and don’t mind being woken up in the middle of the night by strange, moaning elk spotters, then you will find Norway to be a most generous host, handing its treasures over freely.
However, my time in the country was at an end. It had only ever been intended as a diverse stopover en route to the main destination, the Russian showstopper. But had I known how special it would turn out to be, how much more of it there was still to enjoy, and how badly shredded my nerves would be as I aimed the Ninja towards Moscow, I might well have stayed put for a few weeks longer. But at the time Russia still seemed like a good idea so I packed up, heading west for Stockholm and boarded a deranged, all-night ferry to Turku, followed by a long day’s ride across Finland under the shadow of a monster hangover. Then onwards, into the abys, to Moscow.
* From Crystal Palace to Red Square: A Hapless Biker’s Road to Russia, Veloce Publishing Ltd, 2014
Review available here