Country Walking, December 2011
The Stand-in South Pole
It's 100 years this month since explorers conquered the South Pole, and Norway was their training ground. It's harsh and windswept in winter, but perfect for walking next summer.
We've only been married a few months and this is our union's first hiking test. My New Husband (NH) and I are to spend three days exploring Norway's Hardangervidda plateau. Sitting at above 1,000 metres, the plateau covers 10,000km² (that's about half the size of Wales) between Oslo and Bergen. It was a training ground for many of the big-name explorers of the early 20th century - Robert Scott, Ernest Shackleton, Fridtjof Nansen and Roald Amundsen all came here to ski and acclimatise themselves to winter conditions. As this month marks the centenary of Amundsen's conquest of the South Pole, 2011 seems a timely year to explore the Norwegian's polar nursery.
NH is not the exact prototype of a polar explorer. When Amundsen went for a medical check-up prior his military service, the doctor was so impressed by his physique that he called officers from the next room to come and take a look. This has never happened to NH - nor, indeed, to me.
So we've made a few concessions: whereas the polar explorers came here in winter, NH and I are travelling in mid-July, when the wildflowers are blooming and the winter's snows have slumped to sporadic splodges against the green. Where the explorers slept in reindeer skins in their snow holes, we'll enjoy freshly laundered linens in comfortable hikers' cabins. And while they ate pemmican, we'll be served a hearty three-course meal each evening, with the anaesthetic accompaniment of a fully stocked bar.
Day 1: Halne-Rauhelleren
Map says: 3 hours
We take: 5 hours
We wear: rain jackets, waterproof trousers, woolly hats
As usual it's raining in Bergen, where we have spent the night but, as our train skirts the edge of a fjord, the mist lifts to reveal skinny waterfalls that sparkle like Christmas lametta against the granite cliffs. Between the chinks in the rock bursts green galore - spindly-trunked trees, soft, springy moss and fat, rain-gorged grass. From Ustaoset we catch a bus to Halne.
‘The normal boat has broken,' the proprietress of the Mountain Lodge tells us as her chef prepares our packed lunches of ham and cheese on slices of dark Norwegian bread. ‘They'll take you in the small boat instead.'
We cram into a tiny, open-to-the-elements dinghy. As we bounce across Halne Fjord, the sky darkens and the rain pounds down until the lights on our lifejackets, designed to activate on contact with water, frantically flash.
At Skaupa, we begin to hike. For an hour we splosh along a flat marshy track following rocks daubed with bright-red Ts, short for Turistforening as the Norwegian Trekking Association is locally known. Then the weather clears. We're above the tree line and the tundra stretches to wide horizons.
Every now and then, we pass a lake, icy grey beneath the overcast sky, while, at our feet, delicate wildflowers grow - tiny chickweed wintergreen whose fragile yellow stamens reach from pointed white petals; bursts of red campion; and occasional blue flashes of forget-me-nots. But we see few other people, just two ruddy-faced girls in their 20s, and an 60-something-year-old man with his white-whiskered, pannier-laden dog.
We've been walking for almost five hours by the time we see the Rauhelleren cabin. The map reckoned this 13km stretch would take us three.
‘The maps were made a long time ago,' our Norwegian dinner companions tell us in their faultless English later that evening. ‘People used to walk faster in those days.'
We've had a shower, NH is on his second pint of beer, and our wet clothes are being blasted by hot air in the drying room as we tuck in to thick broccoli-and-bacon soup with home-baked bread followed by meatloaf with wild-berry jelly. After supper we relax in the pine-walled sitting room where blond children with air-freshened faces play board games with their parents and an old man sits in an armchair coaxing tunes from his mouth organ. The room's wide windows look onto a long lake. It was beyond this lake's western tip that Amundsen nearly died as a young man. We spare a brief thought for his suffering, then drag our full bellies off to bed.
Day 2: Rauhelleren-Stigstuv
Map says: 3-4 hours
We take: 6½ hours
We wear: T-shirts, rain jackets, gaiters
In January 1896, 24-year-old Roald Amundsen made his second attempt at a winter crossing of Hardangervidda. A storm struck; lost in the white-out, Roald and his brother Leon ran out of food. Roald was nearly suffocated by snow as he slept, and suffered severe frostbite to his fingers. ‘The trip over the Hardangervidda was as strenuous and dangerous as any of my following polar trips,' he later wrote.
We have it rather better. Breakfast is a smorgasbord of muscle-loading loveliness: smoked salmon and cold meats, red peppers, cucumbers and tomatoes, eggs, and a caramel-coloured cheese that has been boiled for hours until the milk sugars have turned sweet. We fuel up, and follow our fellow guests' example in creating our ‘nistepakke' or packed lunch with our favourite bits from the breakfast table.
The sky's clear and we stroll over a landscape that constantly shifts. First the terrain is covered by rocks coated in intricate lichens of green, yellow and grey. We hop over creeks, then find ourselves in grassy meadows where willows, purple meadow cranesbill and gaudy yellow buttercups grow alongside clumps of pink, underripe blueberries. Every now and then, in the distance, we glimpse the rolling white of the Hardangerjøkulen glacier.
Day 3: Stigstuv-Dyranut
Map says: 3½ hours
We take: 6½ hours
We wear: T-shirts, factor 50 suncream, DEET
In the porch of the Stigstuv cabin, as we tie our boots, we compare routes with our fellow hikers. Some are walking in the opposite direction to us, and heading to Rauhelleren today. ‘How were the mosquitoes?' they ask. And then, with expressions of more intense loathing, ‘Did you see lemmings?' There's a population boom in lemmings this year, they tell us, and they can be very aggressive. ‘Some people believe they get so angry that their insides explode and they kill themselves,' one woman says.
We see four or five as we walk towards Dyranut. Like fat hamsters with beady black eyes they scuttle through the grass and hiss at us from their holes. Lone golden plover more serenely serenade their mates across the tundra with their squeaky song, while smaller birds dip and dive between the willow bushes, warning us away from their nests. The path here is deeply worn by centuries of travel: the trails of Hardangervidda were created as trading routes that linked eastern Norway to the coast. There are tumbledown buildings, too. We eat lunch on a comfortable bench outside a stone hut with a caved-in roof. The sun's blasting down on us now and we're lathering our bare arms in insect repellent to deter the mosquitoes, who can smell their own mealtime.
‘Should we try to do this in winter next time?' I ask NH as he's polishing off a Mars Bar for pudding. Beneath us, the creek glints navy-blue beneath the cloudless sky.
‘No,' says NH. ‘Let's not.'
The Race for the Pole
‘Beg leave to inform you Fram proceeding Antarctic Amundsen.' So read the telegram that British naval officer Captain Robert Scott received in Melbourne, on 12 October 1910, as he stopped en route to Antarctica.
This was Scott's second Antarctic expedition. His hopes of reaching the South Pole had been well-publicised. Amundsen, on the other hand, had originally intended to travel north. When he learned, however, that American explorers Cook and Peary both claimed to have reached the North Pole in 1908-9, he turned his eyes south. Fearing that his sponsors would withdraw support, he kept his plans secret.
Amundsen had been the first to sail through the Northwest Passage in 1905. During his Arctic travels he'd learnt from the Inuit people how to dress in furs and drive dogs. Scott possessed none of his rival's expertise with dogs or skis. Instead he took to Antarctica two motor sledges (which soon broke down) and ponies who floundered.
The Norwegians reached the South Pole on 15 December 1911; they were safely back at their base camp on 26 January. Scott's party arrived at their goal on 17 January. Having shot the last of their ponies, and sent their dogs home, they'd been manhauling for five weeks already. Bitterly disappointed, and suffering from frostbite and starvation, they never completed their return journey.
CHECK UP You don't need any special vaccinations for Norway, but be sure to pack plenty of mosquito repellent for summer hiking.
CHEQUE POINT Currency is the Norwegian krone (£1=8.9 NOK). You can take out cash at ATM machines in the towns, or pay at the cabins by credit card.
TRAVEL CHECKS We flew with Norwegian (020 8099 7254) from London Gatwick to Bergen (from around £75), took the train from Bergen to Ustaoset (from 199 NOK if you book ahead; www.nsb.no, +47 815 00 888), and the bus to Halne (58 NOK). From Dyranut we took the bus to Geilo (87 NOK), and the train from Geilo to Oslo (from 199 NOK). Air tickets with Norwegian from Oslo to London Gatwick cost from around £50.
CHECKING IN Note that you can pay extra for bedclothes in all these cabins so there's no need to carry a sleeping bag. Packed lunch is also available. Discounts are offered for Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) members. The cabins get busy in summer; be sure to book ahead. Rauhelleren Tourist Cabin: 185-290 NOK bed only, plus 330 NOK for dinner and breakfast. Stigstuv Cabin: 170-285 NOK bed only, 255 NOK for dinner, 120 NOK for breakfast. Dyranut Mountain Lodge: 350-645 NOK; breakfast included.
CHECK THE MAPS The trails we used were clear and well-marked. You should however carry a good map and a compass or GPS in case of bad weather. We used the Turkart 1:100,000 Hardangervidda two-map set available from Stanfords.
CHEQUE PLEASE Alcoholic drinks are heart-breakingly expensive in Norway. For example, at Rauhelleren we paid 290 NOK for two glasses of wine and two beers.