It’s long been an ambition of mine to see Kon Tiki, the balsa raft that carried Thor Heyerdahl across the Pacific from Peru to Polynesia, and captured my imagination as a child reading his account of the adventure. The original raft was wrecked on a reef in the remote Tuamotu archipelago, ending the 101-day voyage, but a replica is the centrepiece of a museum in Oslo dedicated to Heyerdahl and his expeditions. Nearby are other boats that I want to see, the Oseberg and Gokstad ships, in the Norwegian Viking Ship Museum, and Fram, the expedition ship that took Fritjof Nansen north, and Roald Amundsen south, on their quests for the poles. (I like boats, ok?)
My plan was pretty straightforward. Sign off from Draken Harald Hårfagre at the end of the summer’s expedition, and catch the coastal ferry from Draken’s home port of Haugesund to Bergen. Train to Oslo, a seven and a half-hour journey considered to be the most scenic route in the world. Arrive in the evening, check into the hostel, stretch my legs walking in Viglandsparken Sculpture Park. Spend the following day at the museums, explore more of the city, then fly home the next morning. Sounds great, doesn’t it? I love it when a plan comes together.
And yet I was here. Midnight was long gone, and my sandals were attempting to follow. Cold mud oozed up between my toes as I stood in a dark field. Below on the hillside I could pick out the outline of a barn, lit by candle lanterns and flaming torches.
“OK, we’re here.” said Marie, marching off into the darkness. I follow behind, attempting to light our way through the field with my phone. We scrambled over a wire fence, almost falling into a stream on the other side, and slip-slide through tractor-rutted mud to what turns out to be a home-made marquee lashed to the side of an old stone byre. After 14 hours on the road, we’ve reached the journey’s end; a goat farm half-way up a mountain, hundreds of miles from Oslo. Oh, and did I mention that a wedding party was in full-swing?
My tightly-structured plan crumbled almost straight away. The coastal ferry stopped calling in Haugesund at the start of 2014. But Marie, Draken’s French cook, offered to drive me to Bergen on her way to a friend’s place in the east of Norway, on the far side of the Jotunheimen National Park. The only condition was an early start the morning after the crew party.
On the road in good time, we lost our head-start by stopping for coffee and a catch-up with a friend who didn’t sail with us this summer. And a bit more time by attempting to navigate Bergen city centre with the wrong map. As we approached the city, the heavens opened; it always rains in Bergen, although the showers are usually short and sharp, and it’s not unusual for one part of the city to experience a torrential downpour whilst the rest basks in sunshine.
We swapped positions, and I took the wheel as we carried on towards Voss. I’m not sure how it happened, an unspoken agreement as we drove, but I’d drive on with Marie to help her catch up time and make it to Maia and Engebret’s mountaintop farm rather than catch the train in Bergen.
Winding along the fjord, in and out of tunnels, we passed from bright sunshine to heavy rain, and back again. The rain-soaked road was strewn with rainbows so tangible, passing one seemed like driving through a curtain.
“Triple rainbow,” I cheered, waking Marie. She responded by pulling a duvet from the back of the van, wrapping it around her head and falling back asleep. She woke again just before we reached Voss.
“You should just come to the farm,” Marie said. “The road in the mountains is cool, you’d like it. And it will be fine for you to come to the wedding. There will be a train in the morning to Oslo”. I considered for a moment; I’d only spend the evening on my own in a hostel instead, so I accepted. We swap back the driving, and head for the Lærdal tunnel, the longest road tunnel in the world.
“This tunnel is so long, they have places that are blue, so you don’t go mad and crash,” states Marie. “It is true.” She starts a Charles Aznavour CD as the radio loses signal. Sure enough, in the 25km of tunnel we passed through three areas, almost like caves, filled with blue light, edged in yellow. I don’t know about stopping madness, the wash of light makes the tunnel seem even more dream-like and surreal.
It was early evening when we stopped to eat, by a lake with a view of a fairytale wooden stave church. I scooped up lake water to boil for the dehydrated food we took from Draken’s stores, and then more to top up the van’s radiator for the drive through the mountains.
We left the main road, and wound our way up into the hills, climbing higher and higher into the Jotunheimen mountain area as dusk fell. Trees grew sparse, then give way to a stark landscape of heather and bare rock. In the gloaming we turn off the paved road onto a potholed track alongside a lake, and are stopped by an automated payment barrier, like the exit of a supermarket carpark. There’s nothing else in the immediate area, perhaps a couple of holiday cabins within a few kilometres.
“Are we nearly there yet?” I ask. An hour now, Marie shrugged, perhaps two. Not far.
We were greeted warmly at the entrance of the marquee by a tipsy Viking and his shield-maid. I offer my congratulations in stilted Norwegian. They aren’t the happy couple, but they are celebrating their first night out after a new baby, so I congratulate them again, using up all the Norwegian I know. I follow Marie into the tent, which is lit by hundreds of candles and warmed by a fire pit. Vikings, dressed in varying levels of authenticity, sit along benches by the fire, and among them are a few Romans, with long togas, wine-red cloaks, and laurel crowns, celebrating the Norwegian and Italian heritage of the wedding couple.
Maia, the bride, beautiful in a white gown pinned at the shoulders with Viking brooches, spots us and beckons us through to the byre. Despite the late hour, we’re just in time for coffee and cake (In Norway, visitors are always just in time for coffee and cake). As we eat, she fills us in on the ceremony, and the preparations for the celebration. The byre was fitted out with benches draped in goatskins and trestle tables for the feast, decorated with candles, leaves, and arrangements of dried flowers, vegetables and gourds. All grown on the farm according to Maia, as was the goat that was the centrepiece of the feast, roasted over the fire at the end of the marquee. Elderflower champagne, berry cordial and Engebret’s home-brewed beers added cheer.
We join the Vikings on their benches by the fire, and find ourselves wearing plastic horned helmets. Engebret offers a beer from his bar, cooled in the stream we waded in earlier, served in chintzy tea cups, the only clean vessels left. We toast his marriage with a skål, a salut and a slàinte.
A ringing reverberates round my head, rousing me. I’m groggy, but this can’t be a hangover. I check my watch, and find it’s nearly 6am. I’ve only been asleep for a few hours, but the ringing grows louder, accompanied by a deep bass rumbling sound. Lifting the van’s blackout blind, I see goats. Trampling their way along the track, each one with a bell around its neck. More and more follow on, 20, 50, 100; skipping, trundling, scrapping and butting. And ringing. I am so wide awake.
Fine drizzle hangs in the air, obscuring the view down the valley. Marie and I trample back across the field to the byre for breakfast, meeting other guests who had gone to bed long before we’d turned up. Huddled round the firepit, warmed with coffee and cake we chat; about farming goats, make-do-and-mend, raising children, studying, travelling, and setting the world to rights. It’s warm and familiar, but still out of the ordinary, and just the right mix of people; travellers without ties, many former volunteers here on the farm, and farmers and families rooted to the land where they live.
More than a full 24 hours after I’d planned arriving, I finally board a train heading to Oslo; my window for exploring the city before flying home greatly diminished. Re-connected to the internet on the train, I discover that it’s the weekend before school starts and there’s no hostel beds to be had in the city. Reasoning that I’ve saved on rail and ferry fares, and a night of accommodation, I splash out (relatively) on a room at the Smarthotel-Oslo.
My train reaches Oslo Sentral around 15.45. There are 15 minutes until the Kon Tiki Museum closes, and it’s in Bygdøy, a ferry ride away on the other side of the city. It’s not going to happen. I think about meeting a couple of friends as I head to the hotel to drop off my bags, but I’m in desperate need of a shower. And I could really do with a nap to make up for my late night and early start. In fact, an early night would be great, so I could get to the airport with plenty of time for breakfast in the morning.
By the time I reach my room, with its en-suite, hot shower, and soft duvet, I know I’m not leaving again until morning. I turn on the TV (Oh tellybox, it’s been a month since we were last acquainted), and find a favourite film about to start. Sorry, Oslo. There’s always next time.