‘…Bergen? Rain and dank mountains’ said Jo Nesbo in his 2005 novel The Redeemer.
Flam is a small village in the floor of the Flamsdalen valley at the beginning of the Aurlandsfjorden, about 165kms north east of Bergen on the E16, the major route connecting Bergen to Oslo. It’s one of the innermost points of the fjords, where cruise ships dock in the summer, disgorging their waddling passengers to flood into the souvenir shops, buy their over-priced made-in-China memorabilia of Norway, scoff some authentic Norwegian burgers and ice-creams, and waddle back on-board satisfied that they have ‘done Norway’.
Fortunately it isn’t summer!
Unfortunately, while the ships aren’t here and we have this most spectacularly, hauntingly beautiful place to share with just the locals, a few hardy fellow campers and the occasional coach load of Japanese tourists (who waddle off their coaches into the souvenir shops…well, you get the picture), it does mean that Jo Nesbo was right – it rains, rains and rains again!
We arrived here from Oslo yesterday. The drive, about 330kms, was exceptionally scenic, winding our way through the heart of Norway past beautiful fjords, lakes, farming country and more mountainous woodlands. The forests are mixed deciduous and coniferous, and are just beginning to develop their autumn hues. For most of the journey the roads were reasonable, although as we our distance from Oslo increased they narrowed and turned and twisted in ever tighter convolutions, climbing deeper into the mountains. In several places, carefully managed road works saw us restricted to a single lane as the road was being widened and improved. Until, that is, after a particularly narrow stretch in which we had to pull right over to the edge to allow oncoming trucks to hurtle down past us we suddenly, without any warning, dropped off the smooth bitumen onto a rough un-made surface and found ourselves literally in the middle of a massive road construction programme. We bounced and rattled our way along for what must have been 10 or more kms, dodging the behemoth earth moving machines, and coming to abrupt halts as we tried to interpret the haphazard signs indicating which bits of the rubble we were supposed to drive on. The car and caravan ran doggedly on, and we even managed to laugh at the extraordinary change in road conditions on this, one of the most important road links in Norway. And then as suddenly and without warning as it had begun, we were back on smooth bitumen, winding our way up to the summit of the pass at about 3,000’ and through a reasonably big ski resort.
As we began our descent the road improved enormously and we made good progress towards the Laerdals Tunnel, at 24kms the world’s longest road tunnel. We had a good view as we approached, and all gulped as we entered the black void. George and Charlie had to accept defeat quickly – their normal game of holding their breath through tunnels was over almost before we’d begun. The tunnel winds its way down through the mountain cutting out what must have been a very long and challenging pas. Along its length it emerges three times into larger caverns, brightly lit in blues and greens. Finally, after driving what must be a similar distance to the channel rail tunnel, we emerged just a couple of kilometres before arriving in Flam. It is a truly awesome feat of engineering – how on earth the planners, geologists and engineers managed to conceive a tunnel of such incredible length, plot its route through the mountain, and then actually build it is almost beyond comprehension and deserving of the greatest admiration.
So we arrived at the campsite at about 3.30pm (we’d managed to get away from Oslo at a very respectable 9.30am) and were shown to our pitch by the very nice site owner. He parked us on a track rather than on the grass, which is very waterlogged. The site is beautiful – overlooking the river which is swollen, fast moving but crystal clear; overlooked by the spectacular mountains on either side as they climb rapidly up into their shrouds of mist and cloud; and just a short walk from the really rather lovely village and its rail terminus, cruise ship berths and shops. The site has been in the owner’s family for three generations and has been beautifully developed with camping, log cabins and a youth hostel. Its tracks undulate and wind around, with trees and shrubs including many apple trees bearing lovely ripe fruit.
It’s too wet to put up the awning, but we’ve managed to develop a good system for coping with all of us in the caravan. The car stays full with all the gear we normally stow in it (we carry almost all of our equipment including the awning, poles and pegs and everything else stowed in plastic boxes stacked in the boot, keeping weight out of the caravan) plus the few odds and ends which travel in the caravan, leaving the caravan uncluttered and comfortable for four. The evening was wet so we huddled down to a David Attenborough DVD, although Frances and I did manage a stroll through the village after dinner.
It rained hard all night, and continued to do so this morning, so after a relatively leisurely start we donned our wet weather gear and made our way to the railway station to join the beginning of the Flamsbana. This is another of Flam’s ‘world’s biggest’…this time, the world’s steepest friction (as opposed to funicular or cable) railway, winding its way through the beautiful Flam valley to Myrdel at 866m over its 20km route. This is amazingly steep – 1:18 or 55% at its steepest. The rain had played a big advantage – the railway followed the route of the river, gushing its way down the mountain, and was lined with the most spectacular waterfalls in full flood, dropping hundreds of feet in raging torrents or as curtains of water cascading from the mountain tops. The mountains were shrouded in mist and cloud, but this broke to reveal glaciers and ice-filled corries dotted amongst their crests. At Myrdel, the summit, we disembarked, zipped up, pulled our hoods over our hats, and set off on the hike back down the mountain. The only others brave enough to do so were a group of teenagers on bicycles (very unsuited to the terrain with no suspension and inadequate gears) with panniers and back-packs carrying their camping gear who were unsteadily making their way down the mountain, looking pretty forlorn and at times terrified as they slipped and sloshed past us. We hiked across bridges over the torrential river, under curtains of water cascading down the mountain, down the precipitous track with its 21 hairpins, and down into the valley, where we found a goat farm selling its produce. We stopped to buy cheese and salami from the very nice Dutch girl running the farm for the summer – she’s lived and farmed here for several years having studied agriculture locally. We pressed on, and despite the rain arrived at the midway station after hiking for 8kms in good spirits, just before the train emerged from the tunnel and hooted its response to our waving it to stop. It was a really intrepid adventure for us all – a great way to get the real flavour of Norway’s spectacular scenery.
Tomorrow we’re off on a kayaking tour on the fjord. Like most things here, it’s eye-wateringly expensive, but will be a much nicer way to discover the fjord than sitting on a large cruise vessel with a piped commentary in four languages! Let’s just hope that the rain finally abates as its forecast to do. We’re here for Thursday too, and will depart on Friday for the long trip back to Oslo and on to Karlstad in Sweden – will have to be an early start for that trip!
PS. Once again, we only have internet access here sitting on a bench outside the laundry room, so I’m afraid that posting photos will have to wait for a few more days.