Norway up to the Arctic Circle
Almost immediately upon entering Norway I noticed a change in the scenery. It was hard to pinpoint but everything just seemed somehow more pretty, in a rugged sort of way. I had been feeling something was lacking from the trip; that it was all a little tame. It wasn't long into my stay in Norway that things got a little wilder.
My first night in Norway was spent wild camping by a waterfall that flowed from under a bridge. It was fairly secluded so I decided to have a wash under the bridge. This led into a large cave the depths of which I could only guess but it made a nice secluded spot to have a wash. I returned to find the tent porch overrun with ants but a few shots of DEET soon saw them off. I cooked some dinner on my wood burning stove and sat outside until it got dark at almost midnight.
The next morning I was feeling quite relaxed and so decided to try some painting with the small box of watercolours my mum had given me. I was reaching that stage of the painting where I could tell it wasn't going to be any good, when I became aware of a hissing sound nearby. I looked up, and there, just a few feet from my face, were the vibrating tongue and staring eyes of a snake. I jumped in fright, as you might imagine, and the snake slithered off, leaving me unharmed but shaken. It was green and about a metre long. I don't know what type. I was under the impression that small snakes only strike in self defence but this one clearly looked like it was about to launch a pre-emptive strike. I think I may have been sitting outside its lair, or whatever a snake's home is called.
The cycling soon became wilder quickly too. Shortly after leaving Oslo the road I was following soon turned into little more than a forest track. This was a private road for which, like many of Norway's roads, car users must pay a toll. Cyclists, however, because of Norway's excellent access rights, can go almost anywhere for free. The man I asked for directions reckoned it would take 10-12 hours to get through the forest, requiring an overnight camp. As there was no other way out of Oslo to the north there wasn't much choice but to continue. The cycling was fairly hard going over rough forest track rising steeply to an altitude of 500-600 m in a few miles, and I got lost a few times before realising the signs I was following were for walkers and cross-country skiers, but luckily the estimate I had been given proved pessimistic and I got through in about four hours. The descent was probably the scariest I'd had up till that point; descending 500m in about a mile round hairpin bends on one of the most poorly surfaced roads I've ever encountered.
It came as an unpleasant surprise to find Norway the least cycle-friendly country of the trip. The towns have a path for pedestrians and cyclists running beside the main road and larger cities like Oslo have a few more. That is roughly the extent of Norway's cycling infrastructure. Outside the towns there is virtually nothing at all. Many roads are of surprisingly poor quality; some are unsurfaced, many are too narrow for the huge juggernauts on them and are often heavily cracked and potholed. They are also busier than I'd been led to believe - not very busy but not quiet either. Then there are the tunnels. The first major one left me severely traumatised. It was six kilometres long, fairly dark and winding so I couldn't see more than about fifty metres ahead. The worst thing was the noise. The whole tunnel was like a giant echo chamber so when a car passed it was unbelievably loud and seemed to come from all directions. The first lorry that passed me was so loud I could barely steer, and as it passed it honked its horn! I barely managed to keep control of the bike and was shaking for the remaining few kilometres. I've never been so relieved to see daylight as at the end of that tunnel, even though it was pouring with rain.
Then of course there are the hills. The highest altitude I cycled to was 1460 m - higher then Ben Nevis - at Leirvasbu but most of that ascent was fairly gentle. The worst climbs are around the fjords, the most notable being at Geiranger and Trollstigen, but a climb from sea level to over 500 m in just a few miles is routine. The descents are seldom much fun due to the winding nature and poor surfaces of the roads - you can generally expect to come zooming round at least one curve and find the road surface has collapsed. The poor road quality is perhaps understandable given the climate but it's often hard to believe you're not in a developing country rather than one of the world's richest. You can seldom really relax and enjoy cycling, unlike in, say, France. While the scenery is stunning you can never take your eyes off the road for long to enjoy it.
However, what Norway does have going for it, in a very big way, is fantastic scenery. The whole country is beautiful. Even the dullest parts are lovely and the best parts are just stunning. Despite the insane roads the cycle through Geiranger and Trollstigen was incredible; nothing else on the trip even remotely compares.
The cycling got better further north on the coastal cycle route to Nordkapp, though there were far too many ferry trips for my liking. Crossing the arctic circle I was disappointed to find no snow or polar bears. It wasn't even cold. For the first few days the temperature was about twenty degrees with pouring rain and no wind. There were lots of midges. In other words it was much like Scotland. I travelled over 3000 miles and felt like I'd arrived back home. The mountains are a bit higher and more jagged than in Scotland and there are a few more trees but other than that the scenery is quite similar to that around the north west coast. However, I found a free campsite with picnic tables, toilet and barbecues for camper vans and - I hope - tents. You don't find that in Scotland. In fact it was so nice and the rain was so awful I stopped for a couple of days.
Much of the route consisted of ferry crossings. The only alternative route north is the main highway which I suspected would carry a lot of heavy traffic. The ferries are subsidised so were quite cheap - but there were often two or three crossings a day which adds up. Money isn't the main issue though. The joy of cycle touring is the sense of freedom - illusory though it may be - the sense that you can go wherever you want at any time. When you're reliant on ferries that sense of freedom is broken. It means you have to cycle at certain times to catch the next ferry and, when no information about times is available, a lot of hanging around waiting for it to arrive.