Monday, May 12, 2014

Norway – A Pilgrimage to Nature

Sticking out as a rather imposing and easily identifiable landmass in the northern hemisphere on a world map is the amazing country of Norway – a land so pristine and one with nature that it almost makes it impossible to believe that vikings once made this place their home. The hinterlands of the country are a jigsaw of various elements combined into one – earth, air, and water – coexisting with humans who have lived here since time immemorial. Its fjords – those magnificent land formations caused by the sea making inroads into the mainlands all over, offer delectable sights of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, and forests, interspersed with long tunnels, wooden cottages, green pastures, and slow, peaceful lives of humans who built them. The fjords were carved by glaciers during the ice ages. They started as small cracks in the mountains which ice and water gradually gouged out, and they became deep enough to come in contact with the outside sea.

My journey from the port city of Bergen in Western Norway to the city of Voss on the scenic local train run by NSB takes me through Osterfjord – a fjord surrounding the island of Osterøy, Northern Europe's biggest inland island. The train crosses several villages, such as Dale, the house of famous Dale Fabrikkar knitwear factory, and Bolstadøyri, the village where Osterfjord ends and moving further east, gives way to only fresh-water rivers and lakes. Bolstad has a history of being a trading post – before the railways came, Bergen to Voss journey on boats and horses started at this place. The train climbs up the valleys from Bolstad into several tunnels carved into the mountains towards Upsete and Myrdal. It also crosses the Vossavassdraget river system – a regulated and conserved ecological system consisting of three rivers, some of which are known for their great salmon population. Further up is the town of Evanger, a place known for its production of cured meat from various animals. The train comes to a halt at Voss, one of the biggest municipalities in the Hordaland County, and one of the most important tourist and skiing destinations.

From Voss, I take a bus to Gudvangen, a steep descent down from the mountains to the head of the Nærøyfjord – a World Heritage Site which is the narrowest and the best known arm of Sognefjord. The bus to Gudvangen climbs down a 20% steep gradient from Stalheim, a farm area that sits atop the end of the Nærøydalen valley which is famous for its location atop an almost vertical cliff. The steep gradient stretch of Stalheimskleiva ensures that this road is open to traffic only one way – downwards. This road has numerous hairpin bends with scenic views of the valley and numerous waterfalls, and used to be the mainstay for traffic between Oslo and Bergen after it was built in the mid-nineteenth century. With the opening up of the railway and several road tunnels, this stretch now opens one-way only in summers and is usually frequented by tourist traffic. From Stalheim to the fjord along the entire length of the Nærøydalen valley flows the river Nærøyelva, also known for its great stock of salmon. The beautiful waterfall of Kjelsfossen high above Gudvangen on the south-eastern side of the valley comes into view a little later. It is said that drinking the fresh waters of this waterfall increases the human lifespan – the driver of our bus chuckles that he is already 150 years old, and probably a ghost. We finally arrive at Gudvangen, a small village in the Aurland Municipality consisting of just 120 people.

I take a ferry from Gudvangen to Flåm, a journey through the narrow Nærøyfjord and Aurlandsfjord offering some dramatic and spectacular scenery. On the way are small villages and hamlets on both sides along the coast, such as that of Bakka, Styvi, Dyrdal, and Stigen. The village of Undredal on the western shore of the fjord that inhabits about 100 people, comes into view. This village also houses the Undredal church, the smallest "stave church" in Scandinavia built in 1147, visible to us as a small white hut in the center of the village. The ferry edges its way through more such hamlets, accompanied throughout its journey by noisy seagulls trying to grab pieces of bread and other food thrown by people on the deck. The winds can get strong, and add a handsome chill to the summer sun – sometimes it does get very cold to even stay on the front deck. I jealously peek into the captain's den – a wonderful glasshouse on the top where two gentlemen are comfortably sitting sipping on a cup of coffee, observing the scenic cruising path through their sunglasses. One of the best jobs on this earth, I must add!

The ferry docks at Flåm, a beautiful village of roughly 400 people, known specifically as a popular cruise harbour during summers. It became a tourist destination sometime during the end of the 19th century, when British "salmon lords"  came to fish in the rivers here. I have around two hours in Flåm, before taking the Flåmsbana to Myrdal, and I decide to go by the recommendations of a local storekeeper on utilizing my time. The guy has convinced me for a two hour roundtrip hike to the Brekkefossen waterfalls – a risky proposition for a very limited stay. The hike up Brekkefossen is an extremely steep climb up the fjord face through a rough and rocky terrain and isn't an easy thing to attempt wearing loafers and trousers. However, the majestic view of the waterfall itself, together with the magnificent vistas of farmland and huts of the village including the Flåm church of 1668 below make this climb totally worthwhile.

From Flåm, I take the famous Flåmsbana, the Flåm-Myrdal railway which is considered a masterpiece of engineering. The train climbs from 2 meters above MSL (Flåm) to 866 meters above MSL (Myrdal) with a gradient of 1 in 18, the steepest normal gauge line in Northern Europe. Completed over 20 years in the year 1944, the train passes through 20 tunnels in its one hour of journey from the wild and beautiful Flåm valley to the high-mountain plateau of Myrdal. Eighteen of these tunnels were built by hand, including the hairpin tunnel – a tunnel which makes a 180 degrees turn inside the mountains itself. The longest tunnel in the line is the Nåli tunnel running to almost 1.4 kilometers. The train also stops at several hamlets along the way, including a station by the Kjosfossen waterfall, the one I visited earlier during the bus journey from Voss to Gudvangen, albeit at a much lower altitude. The train platform is at about 670 meters above MSL right next to the 94 meters high waterfall, and is a magnificent site for tourists' selfies. Further up after Kjosfossen, there is a fantastic view of the oppoite side of the valley showing three different levels of Flåmsbana up the mountainside, the train itself being on the fourth level. The scenery also shows the Rallarvegen, or the Navvies' Road, pasted like a ribbon on the mountain face. It's a twisting and turning road with twenty one bends all the way up to Myrdal that was used during the construction of the Bergen Railway.

The Flåmsbana journey ends at Myrdal, from where I take the main Bergen Railway back to Bergen with its own scenic views of the countryside along the way.

Visiting Norway is a pilgrimage to the nature at its best. It's a country where the conquest between man and nature seems to have neutralized into a trance-like beauty. The humans here haven't encroached upon the majestic, beyond humbly registering their mere presence, and the nature has offered its  unadulterated treats in full glory along the colourful land and waterways and snow-capped peaks throughout the countryside. One word which could sum up the feeling of being here? It's Takk!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Beautifully written! Would love to visit