On the surface of it, the idea of a weekend away in which you spend almost half of your waking hours in the car may not sound overly appealing, but after being grounded from travel for a couple of years, any time away at all seems a privilege now, and that’s probably the way it should always have been.
We had booked flights to Oslo because neither of us had ever been to Norway and the tickets were really cheap. Granted, this meant going away with nothing beyond an acorn in an envelope for luggage, but that alone was quite liberating, and substantially reduced the amount of time spent packing for the trip. And the number of items that we could lose.
Our decision to rent a car from Oslo airport derived from the main perception that we’d had of Norway, that of green fjords and snowy mountains, and we were keen to see them during our weekend away. From research it became clear that in order to fulfil this we would need to venture several hundred miles north of the city; and from the safe distance of four months earlier, a ten hour journey in the car each way seemed a breeze. Yeah, we can manage that, just need a few snacks and a couple of breaks and we’ll be fine. And we really were, but we hadn’t anticipated some of the characteristics of Norwegian road-travel which we would encounter on the way.
The grand plan very nearly fell apart within the first thirty minutes of our arrival into the country. Just as we were about to be handed the keys for our rental car, we discovered that the allocated vehicle was an Automatic, despite our booking confirmation stating otherwise. The slightly nervy lady behind the desk, backed up by her more aggressive sounding boss on the phone, advised us that they didn’t have any Manual cars available, and that it was this or nothing. Neither my friend or I felt comfortable driving a car with an unfamiliar transmission type on unfamiliar terrain, so we had to almost consign ourselves to a whole weekend in the city but for the fortune of a rival car hire firm who happened to have just the one remaining Manual car available. We snapped it up immediately. The shiny red Suzuki Swift became not only our saving grace but our passport to the fjords and mountains which we had so nearly missed out on due to the rising prevalence of Automatic transmissions in Norway.
After an evening in the city, during which we ate baked potatoes and took out a small mortgage to pay for the overnight parking, we set-off first thing the following morning towards Bergen, around five hundred kilometers north, on predominantly mountain roads. It was a long time to be sat in a car, but it was so worth it. Cruising round the perimeter of Tyrifjorden – the country’s fifth largest lake – within the first thirty minutes of our journey seemed breathtaking enough and I was incredibly excited to see snow-capped mountains in the distance, but this only proved to be the beginnings of some of the best landscapes we’d ever seen.
Before we knew it we were up high within those very same mountains I’d marveled at from hundreds of meters below. There was nothing to see beyond white: lodges caked in thick layers of icing sugar, some visible only by the tops of chimneys poking above the ground, and the occasional flashes of colour from kites being flown by people from Oslo Kiteklubb, decked out fully in ski gear. The sunshine, which gave the white rug around us a warming buttery glow, belied the temperature. When we stopped to take pictures and stretch our legs, we were reminded that whilst it may have been May and the sun may have been shining, we were still on land level with the Shetland Isles, and we felt it! After a quick photoshoot, it was a swift return to the Swift, and on we went.
The landscape on the journey continued to astound, regardless of the number of hours that passed and the number of joint-swiveling seat exercises required to prevent ourselves melting into the seats. Much of it evoked memory of studying Ibsen’s ‘Peer Gynt’ during school. Looking out upon miles upon miles of sparsely inhabited deep green valleys, forests and fjords, you can understand how imagination may run wild in these parts, and how well-known Nordic folklore such as trolls and elves came into being. I wouldn’t know where to start with trying to guess how many Norwegian square meters have remained untouched for decades, but I would imagine that it is a considerably greater percentage than those in the areas we are more used to here in the UK. I also wouldn’t be surprised if spruce trees outnumber people by about a thousand to one.
One of the defining moments of our Norwegian road trip came as we were on the cusp of excitement at being just forty five minutes away from our destination. After hours on the road we were absolutely exhausted and itching to take a break from the Swift for a day, and to actually feel the fjordland, not just look at it. It wasn’t the ideal moment for the Sat Nav’s loyal pink line to mysteriously break by a circle of blue on the screen.
Oh yes: archipelago = an abundance of car ferries. We needed to take a boat to the peninsular on which we were staying. Of course.
It would no doubt have been a wonderfully exciting addition to the trip, were it not for the fact that there was absolutely no sign of the life at the port and no boats about to leave any day soon. We had no choice but to go back on ourselves for at least thirty minutes, before taking an alternative, much longer, route which added a further hour onto our journey. We were tired and a little fed up by this point but still able to absorb an important lesson which would stand us in good stead for our return journey:
- ‘Route Options’
- ‘Avoid Ferries’
Of course, what we also hadn’t anticipated about our Norwegian roadtrip, and what would create a nail-biting delay on our tightly time-bound journey back to the airport on our final day, was the sudden appearance of a fella in a high-viz jacket waving a red light on a stick instructing motorists to wait for an undefined period of circa twenty minutes whilst the world’s slowest traffic emerged from the tunnel ahead during roadworks. With little in the way of visible signage to explain what the wait was about, we had wondered whether the stick denoted a temporary or more permanent stop to traffic, and even reached the point of getting out of the car to ask Mr High Viz, only to be met with a very stony-faced response which was thankfully followed shortly afterwards with a green light on a stick. Phew.
When we had turned down the Automatic car at the car hire at Oslo airport, and refuted Mr. MoodymanonthephoneatSixt’s assertion that “everybody else just takes Automatics, why can’t you?” we had done ourselves an even greater favour than we first thought. On the day of our return journey to the airport, further snow had fallen in the mountains and we were driving through it before the gritters had made their way up there. To say it was a precarious thirty minutes of driving would be an understatement. Not only was my friend driving an unfamiliar vehicle, across sheets of black ice, but a heavy goods lorry had decided that this was the perfect time to tailgate us, and became quite unjustifiably irritated by our caution, flashing its headlights and casting us a long, bullying beep as it eventually overtook us on an icy decline. My friend did remarkably well to manage this and keep us safe, and neither of us feel we would have quite known how to do this on a totally different gear transmission.
From the ice and snow, the unanticipated delays, the lengthy tunnels and breathtaking scenery, it’s fair to say that this roadtrip had been one like no other, and back when booking the trip earlier in the year we could have had no idea about what would be awaiting us.
We returned the Suzuki Swift to Oslo Sandefjord airport just an hour before our flight was due to depart, and having set off from our chalet south of Bergen at 5:30am. We had spent a long time in the car but seen so much of the country that way, way more than we would have seen otherwise, and it only compounded my growing belief that there really is no travel quite like slow travel, no matter how much time it takes and how narrow the window with which you have to do it.