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Written by TimSearle on 11 Jan, 2006
After relaxing for several on Norway's rivers I shook out of my increasingly doe-eyed reverie and boarded the train for more rugged pastures, the mountains between Oslo and Bergen. The two largest cities in the country, they are connected by a truly epic railway line…Read More
After relaxing for several on Norway's rivers I shook out of my increasingly doe-eyed reverie and boarded the train for more rugged pastures, the mountains between Oslo and Bergen. The two largest cities in the country, they are connected by a truly epic railway line that peaks at 1222 metres ASL and is half buried in snow shelters or tunnels. My first stop was in Geilo, a ski resort on the eastern ranges. If autumn had been a hint on the coast, here it was: a full-blooded cry, nature’s rage against the dying of the light, and any other cliché you care to quote. Huddled by a lake in the bowl of an east-west valley, the small town appeared almost engulfed by an inferno of birch, and next morning, I hastened out to explore it lest the weather should change. I need not have worried for the only thing to stay in the pack, for almost the whole week was my Goretex - this, for Norway, is special.
My walks led through the forest above the tree line to the tundra plateau, offering a grandstand view of the valley below and to the bulky ice-clad summit of Prestholtskarvet beyond. It looked dark and brooding, even menacing, shielded by cloud but all around me was vivid red and gold and brown of smaller plants, shrubs and dwarf trees. The paths wound past small ponds and lakes, many home to small clusters of huts, holiday or weekend homes for seemingly half of the population of Norway. One day I passed a family walking to their weekend hut (or hytte), probably a 3 mile walk gaining 500 hundred metres in elevation. The children, no more than 5 or 6 years old were tackling it with the sort of nonchalant gusto common among a people simply brought up in the outdoors, playing with the dog, calling to their parents. The huts themselves were modest, mostly wooden, tidy and well serviced, but with not a trace of vandalism. Most had stoves although taking local wood from the forests would be prohibited, and I imagine that hard labour, helicopter, or snow mobile would be the way to get fuel to them. I wondered what rules govern their seemingly random presence and lunched over daydreams of plonking my own little homestead down in the midst of this splendour.
Of course, there would be days when the places were almost unreachable but many looked well prepared for winter use, especially for the many local ski routes. Ah the ski routes. Only one thing blotted Geilo’s copybook for me and that was the ever growing swathes cut through the forest to facilitate the winter fun. I have a photograph that shows the grey scars of clearance amidst the glowing forest and looking at it now it grates as much as when I first saw it through the viewfinder. Understand, I’m not against skiing, but surely it’s a sport as much about its setting as the process of speeding down a hill? In winter, of course, these scars would be hidden and the barren passages filled with the joy of sport. But for now, it looked ugly in the battle to attract ever more skiers, and I hastened by on the way home. From Geilo I took the train to Finse 1222 at the summit of the railway (1,222 metres above sea level, if you were wondering). Wouldn’t you know, but there were engineering works that day requiring a bus for part of the journey - even in Norway.
Finse was bleak and grey but still a dramatic taste of winter to come, the bare rock harbouring only a few determined plants and distant glaciers and snow fields disappearing into threatening cloud. There is a plush hotel and a mountain hut here (hut as in sleeps about 100 people) and the inevitable community of private huts, but only the hotel and station showed signs of life. After an afternoon in the area I took the train to my final night’s destination at Vatnahalsen. The hotel is a mile from the main line but right beside the famous branch line to Flam with its astonishing figure-8 tunnels and one 18-grade (to give you an idea, the steepest ‘normal’ line in Britain is around 1-30). That would wait for another visit, but the hotel had a commanding position above the Flam valley, and the view from my window stretched over forests, lakes, and mountains.
With only 2 other guests, I could choose not only my room or table but my floor and lounge - it’s a family-run hotel with much history and the décor and artifacts to support it. A furtive glance at the function room record collection raised my eyebrows but hell, if time can’t pass slowly here, then where can it? Outside, my ears rang with the roar of near but unseen waterfalls and I was frustrated at having so little time when enticing trails stretched off in all directions. A small porch cried out to be sat on with a coffee and Danish, but it would have to wait. A train to Bergen beckoned - too soon I was homeward bound.