The interval between blog posts seems to be lengthening – this has as much to do with the activities we’re involved in as the availability of internet access. Since our last posts from Flam in Norway we’ve kayaked on the fjord, walked a 14km round tip to an historic hill-side farm overlooking the fjord, driven to the dizzying heights of the mountain look-out, packed up and left Flam at 8.00am and drove the 550km through Oslo to Karlstad in Sweden, watched the athletic hordes of Karlstad compete in a gruelling cross-country-obstacle course on a beautiful sunny, family Swedish Saturday, accompanied by the somewhat incongruous sounds of a couple of death metal bands playing from outdoor stages, scootered until our knees bled around the campsite (if we were under 12) with other blond scootering kids, barbecued our supper dodging the Stuka aircraft-sized mosquitos as they dived bombed us with their terrifying wail, visited the very interesting and brilliantly curated Karlstad Varmland museum, traipsed around the inevitably vast Ikea, and stuffed ourselves with their delicious meatballs for Sunday lunch. Phew. And as with Flam, we have no real internet access here, so this post will have to wait until we get to Stockholm tomorrow.
That’s the abbreviated version – for those who’d like more detail, here goes:
Thursday morning greeted us with the first glimpse of blue sky breaking through the thick blanket of cloud that had been with us since our arrival in Flam. We were ready early for our kayaking adventure on the Aurlandsfjorden which leads into the Sognefjorden. We walked the short walk to the small beach opposite the village and cruise-liner berths, and met our guide and his assistant Asbjorn and Johnny. Asbjorn gave us a thorough briefing in his warm, soft but very clear and firm English before we set off, Charlie and Geoff in one kayak, George and Frances in the other. The fjord was absolutely still and crystal clear, and as we paddled alongside the vast cliffs soaring up from the water’s edge with waterfalls cascading down their flanks, one couldn’t help but marvel at their majesty and one’s own insignificance! Asbjorn gave us a quick lesson in geology, explaining how the cliffs and fjords were the result of the up-thrust of the sedimentary rocks with resultant shearing to create the escarpments, followed by successive periods of extreme cold causing the glacial erosion of vast u-shaped valleys followed by warmer temperate periods in which rivers cut deeper into the valley floor. Interestingly, this lead to incredibly deep fjords, over 1,000m in places – in marked contrast to the shallow depths of the North Sea we’d witnessed on the crossing to Esberg. We paddled on, and beached at the foot of the Kings Path, named after the route was discovered by King Sverre and his men as they retreated over the mountains from King Magnus (I think!) before his subsequent victory to briefly unite Norway for the first time under one King.
We climbed the slippery path with mud squelching through our toes in our trusty multi-coloured crocs (Charlie electric blue, George green, Frances light blue, Geoff red) through the trees and crossing the river on rope bridges stopping for Asbjorn to introduce us to edible leaves, wild raspberries, and the story of the Kings until we reached the object of our hike, the impressive waterfall dropping from the cliffs above. With so much rain earlier in the week the waterfall was absolutely crashing down, throwing off a curtain of spray which created a beautiful rainbow effect on the rock face opposite.
As we paddled back, we skirted the rocky foreshore, putting our team-work, paddling and rudder skills to the test. We spotted a seal sunning itself on the rocks, cormorants diving for fish, and learned of the other wildlife to be seen including a Golden Eagle spotted by Asbjorn recently before we made it back to the shore, tired but very fulfilled – and before we landed, Asbjorn and Johnny demonstrated their Eskimo-roll skills in the cold waters of the fjord – thankfully not requiring us to copy!
Asbjorn and Johnny were terrific guides – we were very lucky, as we’d caught them on their last day of the season. As we discovered later that evening when Frances and I joined the guys in the local brewery-pub for a beer, Asbjorn was about to head off to the lake district and the University of Cumbria to continue his Masters in outdoor activity leading, studying the British, German and Norwegian approaches to personal development though outdoor pursuits.
His breadth of knowledge and engaging approach particularly with George and Charlie who he encouraged to lead the group on the hike made the day very rewarding. Johnny, a South African married to a Norwegian was in training for a planned solo paddle the length of the fjord to Bergen, some six or so days away. We had a very enjoyable if eye-wateringly expensive couple of beers in the pub, exchanging travel and adventure stories and photos, email and blog addresses.
On Thursday we set off to walk to Otterness, the historic hillside farm which we’d seen from the kayaks. The farm and several of its collection of cottages and farm buildings date back to 1700, with other more recent buildings marking the progress of Norwegian farm-life over the intervening centuries. Having spent the afternoon at the Volks Museum in Oslo with its collection of historic farm buildings it was fascinating to see these in a real working farm context. After walking around and picking apples from the trees and broccoli from the vegetable garden, we were invited into the farm kitchen of the most recent house for tea and pancakes. The woman who looked after us had grown up on the farm and lived there with her family and subsequently her children until the 1990s. Her characteristic Norwegian warmth and softness were reflected in the cosiness and simple comfort of her family home – and in contrast to the rugged landscape and presumably harshness of life in the winter months. As we left, she hugged the children and shook our hands as though we were family leaving after a Christmas gathering.
As Frances and I walked home, George and Charlie scootered ahead of us. The scooters have been fantastic – small and reasonably light, they give great mobility and independence to the kids. The rattle along making a terrible din, really in need of a better service than I with my sparse toolkit can afford. They made it back to the village some time ahead of us, calling to us across the bay with our family ‘coo-ee’ learnt from Australia.
As soon as we arrived back at the campsite, we jumped in the car and headed off to drive to the lookout recommended to us by the campsite owner. We followed the winding mountain road is it followed a switch-back route up the mountain side. We stopped at the first look out, at which Frances declared that enough-was enough and sat down by the road-side. George, Charlie and I headed on, reaching the second look out with its cantilevered glass-ended wooden observation platform jutting out over the precipitous valley. Even though it was solidly built I felt pretty uncomfortable! I understand there’s a similar platform over the Grand Canyon –except that it has a glass bottom! The views were breathtaking – glaciers a little above us on the other side of the fjord which stretched away to the west in the afternoon sunshine. By the time we’d arrived home we had worked up a real appetite and wolfed down the delicious fish pie which Frances had made – amazing how well we’re able to eat thanks to her cooking in the caravan.
We were up early on Friday to make a good start for the long drive to Karlstad. We managed to get away shortly after 8.00am, heading back the way we had come through the Laerdals tunnel and up into the cold clear air of the mountains. It was a stunning day – blazing sun, clear blue sky, not a breath of wind. Our ascent back to the ski-resort and over the mountain pass was smooth and easy, the car pulling the load without much fuss. We hit the roadworks and saw they’d made good progress, and in the dry conditions were able to navigate through it with reasonable ease – much better and less surprising than in the other direction. And then we were heading down the mountain, stopping for fuel after some 310 miles including crossing the mountain in both directions – the economy is really not too bad. The journey back towards Oslo was fabulous – the roads improved as we descended, the views across the many rivers and lakes glittering in the brilliant sunshine were spectacular, and the traffic was very light until we hit Oslo. We chugged through the inevitably clogged urban routes, emerging on the E18 East to Stockholm in the afternoon sunshine and drove on towards the Swedish border. Other than the cunningly disguised speed-hump which caught me by surprise as we approached the border crossing, testing my reactions, the brakes and the car and caravan’s suspension to the max, the roads continued to improve as we drove on through the flatter lower lying lands of central Sweden. We finally arrived in Karlstad at about 6pm after a 10-hour drive (very tiring due to the intense concentration required all of the time), and made camp in the very big but largely empty campsite on the shores of lake Vanern. Despite the beautiful weather and lush grass, conditions were too wet underfoot to put up the awning, so we set ourselves up without, had an early dinner and went to bed.
Saturday dawned clear, bright and pretty cold, even in the caravan (thanks largely due to the roof hatches being wide open all night!). The heater and bedding are actually very effective and thus far the cold hasn’t worried us at all – I think it won’t even as we head towards November. The campsite borders a large forest and the vast lake (inland sea?) Varnen which stretches away to the south. It’s a huge site, obviously a major resort in the summer. Adjacent to the site a big fun-run was set up, skirting the site and running about 10kms through the forest and along the lake, with major obstacles en-route such as hurdles, slippery mats, scramble nets, muddy ponds and even a gauntlet of summo-suited teenagers to run through. Very fortunately I discovered this as I went for a morning run, equipping me with a cast-iron excuse not to enter myself! We watched the runners around the course accompanied, as mentioned above, by two death-metal bands grinding out their thunderous rock music. It’s hard to imagine a less suitable entertainment – the musicians were typically un-athletic and their music totally anti-social and anti-establishment, in absolute contrast to the community and family atmosphere of the event!
As this all took place right by the campsite, Frances and Charlie took advantage and did a huge load of washing. And George and Charlie teamed up with other kids of the campsite and spent much of the day careering around the site’s roads, leaping off kerbs and over obstacles on their scooters until they both returned to the caravan in search of first said for their inevitably grazed knees. Although there was little verbal communication possible, they enjoyed the company of other kids, particularly their generosity in buying them drinks! We had a barbecue in the evening. Despite the cold evening temperatures the mossies are still out in force and are huge, flying around in menacing squadrons looking down for easy prey before dive-bombing any uncovered flesh they spot below.
Sunday permitted us a bit of a lazy start before heading in to discover the delights of Karlstad. We drove into the town centre and made our way to the Varmland museum. This proved a gem, beautifully laid out and curated, painting a clear picture of the inventiveness and industry of the area. Varmland (the county) is rich in resources (timber, water for hydro power, iron ore). Karlstad is built on a series of islands in the delta to Lake Vanern. It’s a big, orderly, smart but at least at first glance unremarkable town but clearly plays an important role in Sweden’s economy. After the museum we headed for the massive out-of-town Ikea on the way back to the campsite. George loves Ikea (I’m not really certain why!), and despite myself (I loathe big shops like this) I have to admit that I enjoyed our guided wander. It’s exactly like any other Ikea, with a marked path taking punters through every tempting department and depositing them all in the canteen-like cafeteria. We queued up for our meatballs like locals, and had a hearty and tasty lunch, before escaping the clutches of the bargains at the exit.
We’ve now returned to the campsite for a rainy afternoon ‘in’ – a good opportunity to type this entry even though I won’t be able to post it until we get to a site with decent internet access; and for the kids to unwind with their own books and activities. We’ll head to Stockholm tomorrow – we haven’t confirmed which site yet, but will do so later today