Waves rolled gently up the rock and then receeded back to the green/grey sea carrying our St Kilda mailboat out into the Atlantic Ocean. A small, hand made wooden ship attached to a flotsam fishing buoy contained postcards written the previous evening. Carefully wrapped in plastic bags and tape, the cards requested the finder to write their name and the place of finding on the cards and place them in a postbox. This was August 1988 and we were spending the summer working as Nature Wardens on St Kilda, a remote island archipelago 40 miles (64 km) west – northwest of North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, Scotland.
The first St Kilda mailboat was sent in the winter of 1876 by John Sands, a journalist stranded during a famine on the islands. The idea caught on with the islanders who used it more to amuse and entertain tourists than as a life saver. Good job too, as our mail boat was picked up by the gulf stream and travelled over 1000 miles (1600km) across the north Atlantic, eventually being found 5 months later on a beach in the Lofoten Islands of Norway! Ever since then we have wanted to visit the place.
Twenty seven years later, when we were exhausted climbing up and down the hilly roads of the Gudbrand valley north of Oslo, it was the dream of reaching Lofoten that kept us going aided by beautiful scenery.
The first four days cycling in Norway were very tough on our legs. Not surprising really, as we had pretty much been travelling across flatlands for the previous two months. Now we had to pedal our bikes, selves and kit up hill after hill after hill. At home we did hill rep training for about an hour, even when we were training for the Ironman Triathlon. Here we were doing it for eight hours a day. We were shattered and our thighs and knees were protesting. ‘Well’, I said, climbing into the tent perched on a tiny blaeberry knoll, the only bit of flat land for miles that was not built on or farmed, ‘we’ll be so proud of ourselves when we get to Trondheim’. ‘Mmm..’ Jerry replied, ‘At this rate, I’m not sure we’ll get to Trondheim in time to catch the ferry’. It was a low moment for both of us and we needed a plan.
Waking the next morning, after a good night’s sleep, we decided to make the short 8 mile (14km) journey to the next town, Ringebu, and there have a rest day, doing shopping, sightseeing and washing. After that we would work out how many kilometres it was to Trondheim and divide it by the maximum number of days we had before the ferry to Northern Norway departed. This would become our daily mileage target.
The morning was dreich with low cloud hanging in the glen. We pushed our bikes up a zigzag road taking us up and over a truncated spur high above the valley bottom. We were relieved to reach the top about an hour later, only to discover that the tarmac surface changed to gravel for the downhill and was equally as steep! We had to stop three times on the decent to stretch out our hands that had become fixed in a curled position around the brake levers. In Ringebu, the rain started and lasted all day.
Ringebu has one of the few surviving Stave churches in Norway. Very picturesque, they are called after the method of construction. The first churches in Norway were constructed with poles placed directly into the ground. Over about 100 years, these poles rotted where they went into the soil and the churches had to be rebuilt. Stave churches have vertical posts and wall planks that rest on sills (ground beams), reducing the rot. No nails are used in the construction as the joints are all dovetailed. Diagonal cross braces and rounded arches act as the braces, strengthening the construction.
Christianity replaced Norse Mythology and worship in medieval times, but it took sometime and to hedge their bets, the locals at Ringebu painted images of Norse gods high up on the pillars on either side of the nave. Ringebu is the largest stave church in Norway and remained largely unchanged until the Reformation in 1536. Then, as time went by, decoration in the church became more and more baroque in style with imposing and intricate woodcarvings. Church doors were made very narrow to prevent worshippers taking evil spirits in when they went to services. In the 1820s, the church door here was widened and changed to opening outwards following a fire in another church where 113 people died in the flames when they were unable to escape. The dragons’ heads in the roof are also to scare away evil spirits.
Outside the church, in the continuing rainfall, we bumped into two rather damp walkers, Jenny and Synneva, wrapped in colourful waterproofs, with heavy backpacks. They were walking on the St Olav’s Way that runs 643km from Oslo to Trondheim, camping and staying in hostels along the route. Each year, particularly during July and August, a few hundred walkers make this pilgrimage, often arriving in Trondheim for the St Olav’s festival at the end of July. Jenny and Synneva were following a route that dates back to the middle ages, to visit the relics of St Olav in Nidaros Cathedral. Both were a little weary of the wet weather and whilst Jenny plodded on after their lunch break, Synneva decided to take a break at the nearby Pilgrim’s Hostel and encouraged us to join her. We spent a very pleasant evening, chatting, sharing food and swapping travelling stories and tips.
Sometimes on a trip like ours things just work out better than can be imagined and the next day dawned bright and sunny. We couldn’t have chosen better weather, if we had tried, to climb up 1000m over the high mountain massif of the Rondane, a barren, rocky, and mountainous terrain dominated by lichens and heathers. This area was Norway’s first National Park and is very popular with walkers in summer and skiers in winter. For two and a half hours we walked and cycled our way up the steep road taking in the ever increasing views across the high lands of central Norway.
To distract myself from the effort of pushing my heavily ladened bike, I took to waving to the car drivers coming down the hill. Many were entertained to see us struggling our way up with the bikes and most waved back. As we reached the plateau, we looked back to the southwest and spotted the snow covered Jotunheim away in the distance. Star War fans out there will know that this was the place where the snow scenes in Star Wars ll/V were filmed.
The Rondane reminded us a lot of home. Lochans, moorland, burns and hills. The spicy scent of bog myrtle wafted on the warm breeze and birch woodlands with Scots pine nestled in the glacier carved corries. At a picnic site, near the highest point, we lingered to drink it all in. Stunning, simply stunning.
Having made our way through the cow jam, we sped down the other side. Our top sped recorded was 66 kph (about 41 mph), now we were travelling faster than the cars and campervans! Jerry arrived at the bottom exhilarated and relieved to have made it down alive!
Tootling along the glen on the other side, we tarried a while at a sculpture view point built especially to take in a famous view that Norwegian artist, Harald Sohlberg (1869 -1935) took 14 years to paint. Winter’s Night in the Mountains
The Norwegian Tourist Route Department has engaged more than 50 designers to create artworks along the tourist trails to reinforce the character of the route and suggest other narratives. They placed an emphasis on innovation and creativity. This view point in the Rondane was the first of many we visited. I liked the structure’s sinuosity and the wood grain marks left in the concrete from the former.
A tough day climbing was followed by a wet day riding. Bredraggled and decidedly damp, we stopped into Eystein church at the top of Hjerkinn mountain pass which was open to the public and Pilgrims. The host for the day, took pity on us and after a guided tour of the church showed us into the sacristy for us to warm up, dry out and eat lunch.
Three cups of tea later and full of bread and brown goats’ cheese, we pulled on our soggy waterproofs and headed out again into the rain. Luckily for us, after a few hundred metres uphill, the next 40 km were downhill. It was at this point we realised how much we must have climbed up since leaving Oslo. The only downside about cycling downhill at speed is you get very, very wet and by 17:00 we were soaked through with cold, wet feet. A campsite came into view and we decided to check in. Our first campsite stay since leaving Germany and it was a great one, with a drying room and a communal kitchen. The next morning, though cold (4deg), was sunny and our spirits lifted. Two days later, after some scenic cycling through the dales of western Norway we arrived on the outskirts of Trondheim and camped on a hill overlooking the city.
We ended this phase of our journey by joining in the family service at Trondheim Cathedral. A beautiful, communal celebration, with many other ‘pilgrims’, of a journey’s end. I can’t say our singing of hymns in Norwegian was up to much but our spirit was there (as well as our bodies and bikes!).