August 15, 2005

Norway

To the rest of the world looking at a map, the European Continent is barely much to consider, … seemingly so small and dwarfed by the huge mass of Africa that covers most of this side of the globe. But when you are an ant in the geographical center of Europe (Germany), it’s actually not at all that tiny, and it can be a very surprisingly long journey to get to an edge. This time, for our latest explorative jaunt, we pointed our van straight north and headed through Germany, and did indeed eventually reach what seemed like an end at the Baltic Sea where we found a huge collection of sand castles and sculptures in the quaint coastal town of Timmendorfer Strand. Then we kept on with our 700 mile northward trek all the way up to the pointy top of a Kansas-type flat Denmark, where we drove into the belly of a beast, which was a cruise-ship-sized ColorLine ferry, minus only the free buffet food and swimming pool. It was a little bit too chilly to swim anyway, but I went for a jog around and around on the ship’s upper deck for some exercise on that sunny day, and fought my way against 40 mph winds going one way, and barely felt my feet touching the ground with the wind at my back going the other way. It was an 11-hour journey to the old sardine-canning port of Stavanger, Norway, where we pulled in that evening at 9pm, to find a tranquil natural wonder of a place awaiting our discoveries and curiosities.

We got our first surprise when we thought about getting a bite to eat at a Subway shop in Stavanger, where we calculated that in Norwegian Kroners, a 6-inch sub cost $8, a foot-long was $12, and a “meal deal” was $16! We decided instead to dig into our granola bar collection and braced ourselves for an experience in Norway that is said to be very expensive to visit, but somewhere you can’t afford to miss. Rob had known that everything in Norway would cost about three times what it normally would, so we had stocked up on snacks and easy-to-make camp stove meals we’d cook ourselves. But it was real hard to swallow paying nearly $7.50 for a gallon of gas, and we eventually ended up living on we’d brought, along with store bought fresh bread, carrots, apples, cheese, and crackers smothered in inexpensive chocolate paste called “nøttepålegg”.

Our first night was spent only a few kilometers inland, next to a fjord with water so still in the dim star light, I was afraid that the Loch Ness Monster might be lurking, ….. oops, wrong country! Morning fog the following day didn’t dampen our spirits though, and we hiked two hours high into the mist to get to Preikestolen, the famed Pulpit Rock. Here, the brave-hearted among us (Rob included) dangled limbs over thin air while standing precariously on a shear cliff 2000 ft above the fjord!

After that auspicious start to our vacation, Norway’s scenery then became even more amazing. We were mostly on sparsely trafficked narrow roads with no centerlines, driving along mirror-topped fjords in the shadows of towering granite cliffs. Between all the near misses with oncoming cars on blind curves, our attention kept wandering back to the stunning sights passing by outside of our windows. We concluded very quickly on, that Norway was one of the most beautiful countries either of us had ever seen. It is a rugged land untamed and wild, with countless waterfalls cascading high from ice fields atop the mountain ridges. Separating all the ridges are fjords, which are deep channels of ocean water extending throughout the country like fingers on a hand. The water is much too deep and too far across to build bridges, so most of the time the road (and the drivers) patiently have to follow the edges of the fjords all the way around. Sometimes, it is possible to see where you want to get to across the water, yet not end up getting there for a long time. Other times too, the road simply ends at the fjord and a ferry takes the shortcut across the water to where the road begins again, … we ended up taking nine ferries in all during our eight days in Norway.

We were far enough north, even in late August, that the sun was only down a few hours each night, and the twilight lasted for literally hours. Evening became our favorite time to travel, as the sun hung on the horizon and offered wonderful color and lighting shows. But the weather was as unpredictable as guessing what was around the next bend, and we experienced everything from cloudy, rainy, and damp foggy conditions, to episodes of unmatched stellar sunshine and warmth.

One particularly interesting ever-changing sky day came during an hour and a half sight-seeing cruise on the beautiful blue-green waters of the Geiranger Fjord, famed for being an astonishingly scenic narrow finger of water amongst steep walls of stone and plummeting waterfalls. We counted 85 waterfalls on our boat ride down the fjord, all plunging from their snow patch sources 1000 meters above us on the cliffs.

The two roads out of the town of Geiranger both climbed into the heavens via numerous hairpin turns. We drove up one of those fjord exits, only to climb even higher through a moonscape of snow patches, smooth granite slopes, and jagged mountain peaks. Scattered afternoon clouds cleared momentarily for us, until we reached the Trollstigen valley, where tendrils of fog rolled over us as a blanket as we stopped on a high pass to do some boulder hopping. The fog came and went, like from a breathing giant or troll, until it smothered us at day’s end, when we were out for a walk in the dense mist on a cliff above invisible roaring waterfalls.

The next morning, we woke as we did every morning, under sleeping bags in the back of our van, this time still high up on that socked-in mountain pass. We soon drove down with popping ears out of the silent and eerie fog on a skinny hairpin road, into a good ‘ol fashioned rain event and to the shore of the next fjord in line. There, we cruised a long way along a spectacular granite canyon where low swirling clouds offered surprising views of only the lower halves of crashing waterfalls. Eventually it led us into a national park, home to reindeer, moose, and musk ox, with a famous bird-watching walk. We took that 7-kilometer hike in drippy and gray conditions, but found out that those birds didn’t seem to like rain, … but eagle-sized mosquitoes did! Let’s just say that we walked really fast to get back to the car! … and then the sun came out! … for our afternoon drive to another national park, where we were planning to stroll another famed walk the next day (this time to spy views, instead of evasive feathered fowl).

We hoped through the night, that the weather would be good for the longest planned hike of our trip, but woke up in dense fog. Undaunted, we sweated our way up the trail anyway onto a ridge that was easily 1000 meters above where we started, and on our way up, the fog and the sky cleared to cloudless, and was then the bluest that we had seen yet, … and possibly ever. From there we ambled along an amazing path atop Beseggen Ridge, which was sometimes precariously very steep and less than 20 ft wide, and between a glacier fed green-blue lake 1000 meters below us on one side, and a dark blue lake that we could dip our fingers into on the other side. The end of the seven hour hike meant descending a nearly vertical goat path all the way back down to the green-blue lake. There, a small ferry carried us back to our parked car, and granted us views of the ridge that we had just climbed along, with ant-sized people still walking high above on it (as viewed through binoculars!).

Another late-day twilight drive through many more tunnels and over fjord-to-fjord mountain passes landed us in yet another national park. We set up camp in our van on a summit road next to a lake and (another) waterfall, with 4 giant glaciers in view across the water. After I played in a snow patch, we ate spiced rice and apples for dinner, and fell asleep to the sight of a full moon rising above the largest glacier. Strong winds through the night shook our bed and cold air rushed in through the windows. We warmed ourselves up the next day with a hike up to the Smorstabbreen Glacier, the one that had shimmered in the moonlight the night before. It was an easy hike along a boggy stream before climbing over tundra sod, and then we were soon staring in awe at blue cracks in a bed of compacted snow that had somehow turned itself into ice. We tested our courage and our stupidity up on that frozen river as we scrambled a few meters onto the slick surface, to get close-up glimpses of the clear blue chasms of ice, with rocks and boulders trapped frozen inside them. We then happened into an ice cave near the bottom of the glacier, and noticed that all of the creases, folds, and patterns in its ice ceiling were all uniform for the entire length, molded by the edges of a huge rock (shaped just the same way) at the back of the cave! We wondered how much time and gravitational pressure it had taken for the rock to carve its likeness in the ice pushing over it, and then what forces of nature were allowing the ice cave ceiling to stay suspended in thin air for 50 feet so we could walk under it and marvel at it!

Hours into our frigid odyssey, raindrops began to fall just as we were arriving back at the van. And then luckily only a few minutes AFTER we were safe inside our traveling home, it really began to pour. And it literally continued through until the next morning, as we arrived in the town of Voss, where we stuffed ourselves into wetsuits, booties, helmet, and lifejacket, to take a rafting trip down one of the many thundering rivers that we’d seen over and over on our trip. Luckily, rafting tours run deluge or shine, and we were thrillingly pelted with rain from above and splashed by powerful raft-folding rapids from below, as we paddled the contours of the mighty river Raundalen. The highlight of the trip, though, was a 20-foot jump everyone was offered a chance at, off a cliff into swirling water just below a waterfall. After the freezing plunge, we floated down several more rapids like driftwood in the current until the take-out point.

But the second part of the day in Voss was even more of an adrenaline pumping adventure, ... paragliding! For this, though, we needed perfect weather, or it wouldn’t be able to happen. Of course it had been raining all morning, and conditions certainly didn’t look favorable. But just as our rafting trip was ending, the sky showed signs of partially clearing, but would it be enough to allow a flight? We went and met with the paragliding “man” to see if it may still be possible to fly that day, … the only day left that I could. Jan shook his head and told us that it wasn’t very likely, until we convinced him that outside of his office where he’d been doing taxes all day, the sky was clearing. When Jan went out to see for himself, he told me to be ready in an hour. And I got to fly!

Jan was simply amazed how the skies had cleared, … a “miracle” for me he called it, and he was happy to get away from his paperwork, too. He was very friendly and extremely knowledgeable, and showed me how to check the lines of the parachute and how to hook into the tandem harness. Suddenly, we were yanked airborne by a cable hooked to an amazingly fast speedboat out on the Voss lake, which pulled us up over ½ mile high into the air, which was higher than the highest hills around us. We released the cable, which floated on its own ting chute, as it was slowly reeled in by the boat driver. Then we were free to fly high above everything, working a tiny updraft to take us even higher into the sunny late afternoon sky. Jan gave me the reins (literally!) of the glider for a while, and I learned how to make turns and control our gentle fall back to earth. Then it was his turn to amaze me with a crazy roller coaster spiral that left me wondering which way was up. We landed after the 20-minute ride on a large lake side patch of warm green grass, to a crowd of gaping and applauding tourists. I couldn’t stop smiling for hours after my feet touched ground again, ….. I can’t even explain how amazing it feels to soar like that in thin air.

The rain returned for most of our return trip to the ferry in Stavanger, but we didn’t care in the least, because we’d had sun again and again when we most needed it. We were so familiar now with narrow, curving Norwegian roads, that near misses with oncoming cars didn’t even make us slow down. The rain stopped for a drive through a 15-mile-long tunnel (the world’s longest), and then we once more savored our last looks at even more waterfalls, fjords, and granite massifs. Contemplating the dynamic scenery and calming serenity of Norway, we wondered what it might be like to live in one of the very small and peaceful “end of the earth” fjord-side villages, with seemingly nothing much happening for them, except views as big as Africa.

This time, the ferry back to Denmark was an overnight trip. Our cheap cabin was located in the bowels of the ship, below even the car deck, the very last cabin before the engine room. This meant that our beds shook violently the entire night, along with the rocking of the ship due to the bad weather. Yet, we slept like Norwegian baby trolls!

The rain continued pelting us all the way through Denmark and Germany during our long 12-hour drive south, but we still didn’t care, ….full of impressions to marvel at, ponder, and be inspired with. And wouldn’t ya know, when our trip odometer read 2,850 miles (1340 of them in Norway), and we were only 10 minutes from home, the skies cleared (again) for the sunset.










 






August 7, 2005

Heidelbergmann Olympic Triathlon 2005

Swim 1 mile, Bike 28 miles, Run 6.2 miles




August 1, 2005