“Do you know where the trailhead is to climb that peak?” We were sitting outside our tent contemplating the possibility of thickening our pasta sauce with instant oats when this question interrupted us and we looked up to see a group of three people.
“We’re not sure, but there is some sort of track that begins just behind our tent,” we replied, and with hasty thanks they were on their way, disappearing behind some lush vegetation and climbing steeply up the slope. Only after they had gone did we realize one peculiar aspect of their intended trip – it was 11.30 at night and they were setting out on a three hour hike.
Crawling into the tent we appreciated our beautiful location where the sun had not set and would not for another six weeks at least. Watches and clocks are not essential at this time of the year on the Lofoten Islands – a chain of islands 70 kilometers off the coast of northern Norway. Being above the Artic Circle means one can happily go hiking in full daylight at midnight if one is so inclined. As we tried to force ourselves to sleep with the sun shining down on us, we heard the group returning down the rocky path and they briefly told us how it had become steeper than their nerves could handle so they had turned back. We decided to head up there the next morning and have breakfast at the top.
As we made our way up the following morning in a thick fog we enjoyed the well maintained trails so common in Norway. The low clouds destroyed any views we had hoped for, but we continued anyway. The amazing array of summer flowers around us reminded us of the hardy yet fragile flora which covers many alpine areas in the Australian summer. As we neared the ridge we noticed the fog thinning and this afforded stunning views of jagged peaks jutting out of a sea of clouds. For two young Australians accustomed to the more rounded peaks of the Victorian high country the whole view took our breath away. Were we really standing here?
We were brought back to earth by the trifling realization that our lighter had not made it into the pack and we had no way to light the stove for our morning porridge. No problem, raw oats are tasty enough when the views are so good!
Continuing along the knife-edged ridge we were thankful that we had stashed our packs at the start of the hike. Having heavy packs on our backs would have made our precarious route along the steep and mossy ridge much more dangerous. After taking a mass of photos that did not really do justice to the impressive scenery we laughed about how everyone living in the towns below would probably be thinking it would be a grey and overcast day. As we made our way back down the mountain the clouds began to rise engulfing the view making us even more appreciative of our early start.
Later that day we restocked supplies at Norway’s most scenic supermarket and jumped aboard a small passenger ferry for the ten kilometer trip up the fjord to Vindstad – a small community of half a dozen homes linked by a single dirt track. There are no cars, shops or businesses in this remote part of the islands. Traditionally its inhabitants were fisherman but they have now been replaced by artists.
We made our way on a cobblestone path over a saddle to the abandoned beach settlement of Bunes. This would be our idyllic campsite for the next three nights and our base to explore the surrounding snow-covered peaks and sand dunes. The huge amounts of dry drift wood scattered along the beach allowed the luxury of a fire, something that had been missing from the previous month spent bike touring around an often wet southern Norway. A fresh water supply of melted snow, soft level grass to pitch the tent, a 610 meter cliff behind us to provide shelter from unwanted winds and a multitude of boulders for climbing practice, made the campsite just perfect.
‘Free camping’ is very easy in Norway thanks to what is known as ‘allemands rette’ a law which directly translates to ‘every man’s right’. According to this you are allowed to pitch your tent anywhere in the country for up to two nights, provided it is 150 meters away from an inhabited building and not on cultivated land. For example, it is entirely within your rights to park your car on the side of the road, jump a fence into privately owned farmland and set up a campsite amongst some grazing cattle and spend a weekend doing whatever it is that one does when camped in a paddock, though of course it is more normal to ask the landowner first. This law clearly reflects the liberal and outdoorsy nature of most Norwegians, where getting outside and experiencing nature is prized above all else.
Various daytrips followed; on our second day we tried to reach the top of Helvestind the 610 meter high cliff directly behind our tent, via a scrambly route on the south face. Despite earlier decisions to follow the ridgeline, we were blinded by eagerness and our enjoyment of the climbing and this resulted in us rushing up the slope with little consideration given to the descent route. After a few hours we were within 200 meters of the summit but were unwilling to continue further as we did not have any ropes, harnesses and rock climbing gear with us. The climbing was becoming increasingly difficult with tufts of grass uprooting when we pulled on them and boots slipping on mossy wet rock. We realised that going any further would be unsafe and a desire for some chocolate made us start looking for a descent option. After a tiring three hours of sweaty palms and four letter words we reached the bottom, both agreeing that next time we would be a little more cautious in our route planning. A lesson well learned.
Other daytrips included a walk to the DNT maintained Munkebu hut. ‘Det Norske Turistforening’ is an association devoted to encouraging appreciation of nature and ensuring its protection, through maintaining hiking trails, running instructional courses, selling maps and giving advice on planning trips. They maintain some 430 huts around the country which members can stay in overnight for a small fee. The facilities vary but often comprise dormitory-style accommodation and the option of paying for a home-cooked meal, thus eliminating the need to carry heavy packs. The DNT is extremely popular with a membership of 207 000.
Our walk to Munkebu began from Sørvågen, meandering up through the village and quickly rising above the tree line exposing glacial lakes. It was another great trail marked with the easily recognizable, red ‘T’ symbols found on all paths throughout Norway. As the track climbed the lush greenery and numerous streams gave way to a rockier terrain. We were reminded of our Arctic location when we found ourselves trudging through soft snow and all signs of vegetation disappeared. As usual we were impressed with the warm, comfortable looking hut at the end of the trail. This was a far cry from the dilapidated, mouse ridden cattlemen huts of the Australian high country where we have spent many a wintery night.
Enviously staring through the windows of the locked hut, we munched on our day-old kneipp bread and got chatting with a Danish family visiting the islands on their summer holidays. Interestingly, they relied on the abundant supplies of cod fish in the ocean. Every day they went fishing half an hour before the evening meal, knowing that there would not be a long wait. Luckily for us one morning the family had caught more cod than they could eat and, while sitting around the fire, we were invited to join them for a lovely breakfast of grilled fish washed down with a morning cuppa.
We enjoyed a week on the islands in this fashion, going bouldering or hiking when the weather was good, eating when we were hungry, sleeping when we were tired, and generally ignoring our watches completly. It was bloody lovely. Then it was onto the ferry back to the mainland of Bodø, and 2 days of travel back down to my family in Denmark.
Post Script. Please excuse the somewhat base descriptions and explanations throughout this report. Also the lack of emphasis on active side of the trip, which I realise many of you may find irrelevent. But I suppose it reflects this trip well, as it wasn't about pushing ourselves to any limits or covering as much ground as possible, but rather about simply appreciating this incredible area. Credit should also go out to Doug, for many of the photos, the text (we jotted it down together) and his keen sense of experimentation when it comes to food preparation (a recipe for fried moss will be uploaded soon...).