November 13, 2016
It’s surprising how well we can sleep when the wind is trying it’s best to keep us up. Even with the howl and whistle of air rushing past the trees to our back, we wake the next morning well-rested and excited for the ferry to Kristiansand and Norwegian shores. By the time we exit the tent our Russian neighbours are already on their way to Iceland and we decide to take a slightly more leisurely pace getting our camp together.
The Colorline terminal is just ten minutes away in Hirtshals and has to be the easiest ferry since Newfoundland for us. The gates are easily marked, everyone speaks English and soon we’re in line between a couple of semi’s with an entire lane dedicated just to motorcycles. We meet two Harley riders who’ve just disembarked the Smyrll ferry from the Faroe Islands – their home – and are uncharacteristically excited to begin making their way through Norway.
As we wait, the group of riders eventually grows to about twenty people and there’s a palpable buzz in the air that’s contagious. A few are heading home while others are beginning a trip that’s been in the making for years. Feeling everyones excitement to ride Norway is getting us stoked – even if every mention of it’s beauty also comes with an apparently mandatory mention of cost. Still, with the outpouring of adjectives it’s hard not to imagine this country as the most beautiful place on earth.
With another thirty minutes before the ferry arrives, the need for coffee grows and we attempt a run to the “Coffee shop” which sits just outside the secured zone beyond a narrow (and guarded) turnstile. With a swipe of our boarding passes, we’re able to exit – though carrying a helmet and a tank-bag through the narrow opening is almost impossible. Our efforts go mostly unrewarded; there’s no coffee shop in the terminal, simply hard plastic seats and a wall of automated machines for which we don’t have any change. Oh well, back to the bikes.
At the line, the group of riders has grown again and we get into a great conversation with a husky woman who lives in southern Norway and has been visiting family in Denmark for the past week. By the time we’re finished talking she’s invited us for a coffee in her home town and a place to stay should we need it. Norway is already feeling very friendly.
Once the ferry arrives, loading is a straight forward affair though we’re surprised that we have to tie down our own bikes – not that we mind. Usually, on longer crossings, we find the company would rather look after securing vehicles for liability reasons. Still, after applying three too-many lashings, we’re confident the bikes aren’t going anywhere and we make our way upstairs and away from the oppressive heat of the lower deck.
The ferry itself is amazing! We can honestly say we’ve never been on such a lavish ship. It’s more cruise ship than ferry with numerous restaurants serving beautiful food, souvenir shops where we manage to pick up some stickers for the bikes, a liquor store and even a full-on grocery store. A really nice grocery store! Of course what we fail to realize is that these tax-free shops on the ship are popular because shoppers save twenty-five percent when compared to buying in-country. We’re not even in Norway yet and the prices are already slightly shocking: 25 kr ($5) for a small brewed coffee. What we don’t know is that these prices are good.
Once we’re settled, we talk with a woman about the toll system in Norway. An unplanned education on our journey has been discovering each countries process for road-tolls. We find out that Norway no longer uses Vignettes (a sticker affixed to the windscreen) but rather an online registration that’s associated with license plates. We can ride up to three days before registering online and all tolls are deducted from an initial charge that’s taken from our credit cards. After we’ve been out of the country for six weeks any remaining balance is returned. Alternatively, we can choose not to register and the company that manages the tolls will simply send an invoice to the address associated with the account. It all seems fairly simple and the menace of automated toll-booths a la France all but disappears.
After a plush three-hour journey, the ferry begins to weave it’s way toward Kristiansand through a series of small islands and inlets. As we approach the dock, the standard rush to the vehicle deck never materializes; the bikes are so far down in the belly of the ship that getting there is relatively crowd- and hassle-free. Through a heavy steel door, we round the corner and see our bikes just as we left them and there’s a familiar feeling of relief at the sight. This ferry has been an absolute pleasure.
In what feels like minutes the giant nose of the ship lifts, flooding the deck with sunlight and the rush to get off the boat is on. It’s not long before we’re rolling off the deck, down the ramp and into… a 10 km traffic jam! I’ll be honest, our first impression is not so great. It takes close to forty-five minutes to reach the first roundabout which seems to be the cause of the back-up and the smell of burning clutches fills the air. We make a mental note to wait out the rush next time if we find ourselves mid-pack.
Eventually we find a decent gap, free of bumper to bumper madness, and make our way towards Mandal, our home for the night. Our plan is to camp at the nearby Sjøsanden Feriesenter, a beautiful area along the North Sea which offers a fantastic beach about two-hundred feet from our tent and, at this time of the year, a fairly quiet retreat.
After pulling in we’re welcomed with a bit of a shock; at $65 for a tent spot, camping here is the most expensive we’ve ever seen. The price is almost unfathomable. In fact, when the girl at the counter tallies up the 400 kr price tag, I feel compelled to remind her that we’re supplying the tent! Before agreeing to anything I actually have to leave the room to conference with Nita. Amazingly, it turns out to be worthwhile; the grounds are lush, the beach is incredible, the sun is out and we end up with some fantastic German and Spanish neighbours.
We find a great place to set up camp and take a walk to the beach before settling into the sand. The heat from the sun is intense but in the shadows it’s very cool; in mid-August the temperatures in Norway are much lower than what we’ve been riding through for the past couple of months. But here, in this spot drenched by sunlight, we simply take in Sjøsanden’s remarkable beauty and enjoy the warmth.
For a while we chase the sun towards the water as the shadows from the forest grow longer, but eventually it’s time to give up the view and make our way back to the tent. Throughout the grounds there are plenty of group-camps filled with friends huddling together to share stories and food. Next to us, the Germans are enjoying a meal between their RV’s and they’ve plenty of smiles to share with each-other and with us.
Once the sun goes down the smell of campfire fills our tent along with the sounds of a guitar and clarinet. Our neighbours aren’t simply friendly, they’re musicians with a wonderfully eclectic sound. Beautiful songs sung by wispy voices bring applause from passers-by and eventually the drifting sounds put us fast to sleep.
We don’t have to leave the site until late the following day and, after a camp breakfast, we take full advantage of the beach and it’s wonderful view. Feeling quite filled with the beauty of Sjøsanden, we pack up sheltered from the heat by the sites treed canopy before heading north towards our next destination, Sandnes, which lies just south of Stavanger.
Our first day of real riding through Norway is telling; even on our liberally inland route the landscape is stunning. Much of it reminds us of the best of Canada; it’s a place where the forests of BC meet the rocks of the Laurentian Plateau and the generous lakes are speckled with the fishing villages of Nova Scotia in some mythical mash-up. It’s glorious.
An overwhelmed silence is broken by Nita’s voice. “This is amazing. There’s a beautiful lake around every corner.” And she’s spot on. This place is beautiful. The busy roads of yesterday have dwindled to the odd car or semi and, to be honest, it’s doubtful we’d care if it was bumper to bumper. Such a slowdown would only give us more time to stare at the deep blue water and the vibrant landscape that surrounds it.
In the few hundred kilometres to Sandnes we’re introduced to another common sight in Norway: it’s tunnels. It would seem, at first, that mentioning a countries tunnels is silly but these caverns are exceptional – in length, depth and finish. Entering them is a dark and startling experience with momentary blindness followed quickly by an immediate damp cold. The road then begins to drop away for what is actually kilometres along a descent hundreds of feet beneath the water. Giant turbines blow air like the exhaust from a jet-engine at regular intervals until we finally reach the bottom of this pit before starting what seems like an impossibly steep ascent back to the surface. They’re dimly lit (if they’re lit at all – some aren’t) and the unfinished rock walls weep water onto the tarmac making it all a bit slippery. These chasms are quite an experience.
Emerging from the tunnels is, after another momentary blindness, an incredible feeling. The heat seems to quickly saturate our gear and the sun tempts us to close our eyes and soak it in. Another corner, a beautiful lake, a picturesque sheep farm and once more into the darkness. It’s amazing.
It’s been about four weeks now since our suspension upgrade at Touratech HQ and, since then, we’ve been stuck to the straight, high-speed roads of Germany, Belgium and Denmark. By the time we make landfall in Norway, setting up the bikes for fast roads is second nature. It’s amazing working with suspension that actually responds to adjustments! Here though, we’ve returned to tighter, windier roads and the sweet spot we’d previously found requires a little more finessing – especially on the F650GS. Nita’s voice comes over the headset and lets me know she needs to stop and adjust; the bike is feeling a little sketchy in the corners. We take the next pullout and spend some time fine-tuning. With a return to the original Touratech settings comes the overwhelming notes of joy to my headset.
Soon, we find our way down some country lanes and in front of the Kronen Gaard Hotell, our home for the night. There’s no denying it, the hotel is a beautifully restored chalet and on the fancy side but we’ve been camping for a week and the thought of a soft bed is appealing. A well-equipped shower is also calling our names.
In contrast to the sun, we find the staff here to be cool; we’re not the normal visitor that a place like this would see but, to be honest, we don’t care. It’s comfy and that’s all that matters. After cleaning ourselves up we decide to check into dinner and that’s when the cost of Norway really begins to reveal itself. There’s only a buffet on for dinner and it’s a staggering 350 kr ($60) per person. The food looks amazing and we wander back and forth for what feels like ages trying to talk ourselves either into – or out of – it.Our brains know it’s ridiculous, but our stomachs…
We retreat to the room, full and filled with guilt. What a ridiculous thing to do. It’s a thought that goes through both our minds. We justify the gluttony with cheaper campsites and plenty of single-pot meals cooked over a Whisperlite stove while remaining naively unaware that the cost of dinner is entirely unexceptional in this part of the world.
In the morning, all thoughts of the previous nights financial infractions are long gone and the sun’s heat is working it’s way into everything. The morning staff are friendlier the previous night and breakfast is included which makes our wallets smile for the first time in eight hours. To be fair, they still remind us that all’s not forgiven declining one of my cards at checkout. Damn!
By the time we’re on the road a few small clouds have joined the sun but nothing could diminish this day. In contrast to our inland route yesterday, we spend most of today brushing the blue waters of the North Sea while hopping the fractured landscape that leads north towards Aksdal and, eventually, Bergen. We’re pushing the pace as our dear friends Terence, Claire and their daughter Grace happen to be in Bergen and, after fourteen months on the road, an opportunity to meet friends and family – even for a day – fills a hunger that can’t be explained.
The glorious daylight is drowned in darkness by two of the longer tunnels in Norway just north of Stavanger. The Byfjord and Mastrafjord tunnels both take us nearly a thousand feet steeply underground. They combine to deny us of nearly 11 km of epic landscape but are truly a feat of engineering that needs to be experienced. Once. Maybe. They would be almost fun if the slick roads and oncoming semi’s didn’t make the narrow tunnels seem like a semi-suicidal game of chicken set in almost complete darkness.
By the time we emerge again the blindness lasts a little longer than a moment but the black of the tunnels makes the brightness of the country seem even more beautiful. We’ve popped up onto one of the many larger islands that help comprise Norway and our brief ride along the coast of Rennesøy is spectacular. Even though we don’t seem far enough north it feels very tundra-esque with it’s mildly undulating and rocky landscape laying flat against the North Sea, leaving us wondering how it’s not regularly reclaimed by the water. At the islands apex the road runs out and we wait for the next ferry at Mortavika to carry us to the other side.
As the ferry approaches, the nose lifts and folks draped in hi-viz vests emerge taking fares from every vehicle before waving them aboard. It seems like the process should slow everything down but these people are so efficient we find ourselves aboard and pulling away from the dock before the nose of the ship even makes it’s way down. Inside, even these smaller highway-ferry’s are nice; the café actually looks like a café and there’s plenty of seating to enjoy a coffee and sandwich for our forty minute journey.
There’s something about a view of the world from the water that’s truly magic. The cooler air, the thumping of the engine, the sound of water against the hull. I love it. And when the nose lifts once again, we’re back onto the first of another series of islands divided by waterways and fjords, this time connected by bridges and a few more tunnels. Not to worry, there are plenty of ferries in our future.
The remaining ride into Aksdal is no less beautiful than the past two days. If anything, Norway is getting more beautiful as we head north, a thought which only an hour earlier would have seemed impossible. Flat, rocky islands that could barely sustain a sprint fill the waters and plainly illustrate just how fractured the land is here. Some hold a single, colourful house with a boat on it’s shore – it’s only connection to the world – and if we remove any daily practicality from the idea of living there, it must be heaven.
Norway’s already become a feast for our eyes that, by the time we reach our campground in Aksdal, leaves us feeling quite full.
The folks at Grindafjord Feriesenter are wonderfully warm and it’s less than a minute before we’re sharing a laugh with the young man at the counter. Smiles here are cheap and abundant. Camp sites are also much more reasonably priced which actually makes us both breathe a sigh of relief. We’re given a tent pitch in a central, open field and, even though we’re the only people camping here tonight, our spot is about as far away from the amenities as possible! Perhaps they’re expecting a rowdy bunch at the restaurant tonight.
We set up camp and notice that our pitch is near the walkway up to permanent trailers giving the semi-permanent residents a good look at us as they make their way home. All of them smile on their way past with a few stopping by to say “hi” or to point at the stickers on the panniers – a favourite pastime of parents with children.
A huge perk of this campsite is a laundry facility. We often joke that laundry day is now my favourite day on the road! It seems crazy, but freshly laundered clothes are absolute heaven. Sure, we wash them in sinks or dry-bags with some regularity, but a washing machine is truly something to get excited about. I try my best to navigate the instructions in Norwegian but eventually I have to concede defeat and ask the young man for help. He takes my krone and puts in a different slot bringing the machine to life instantly. His huge grin suggests I’m a bit stupid and we all get a kick out of it. Follow the wires Breibish, and put the money in the right spot.
While our clothes take a tumble we take a walk to the lake and find a beautiful spot with slabs of rock set neatly for water-side sitting. This lake is easily as beautiful as the hundred or so we’ve seen over the past few days and it’s no mystery why people spend their entire summers here. We would, without hesitation.
For dinner we decide to grab a pizza in the restaurant and are helped by two lovely young women with fantastic smiles. We’re starting to get used to that uncomfortable moment when someone asks if we’d like a drink, something that’s become a luxury we really can’t afford. Here, a rum and coke is about 130 kr ($22) while a single bottle of Corona is 105 kr ($18). I don’t even like Corona! We laugh with the waitresses at our new-found sobriety and ask how much a bottle of rum would cost: “Oh about 470 kr ($90)!” Seeing our looks of utter disbelief they ask how much a bottle would be in Canada and, when we tell them $25, they look at each other with wide grins and commit to moving immediately. It’s all about priorities.
It isn’t just the cost that seem larger than life here; our order of a single pizza is met with a look of overwhelming concern. The girls point at a nearby paper plate suggesting it’s an accurate representation of pizza size so, now better informed, we order two and a salad – a mistake to be sure. The food arrives at least three-times larger than the plate and we’ve no hope of finishing it. Unintentional gluttony strikes again! Nita and I quickly agree to ignore all serving suggestions in Norway and stick with our, ahem, gut.
After saying goodnight to our new friends, we make our way back to the tent and notice that the evenings here are getting quite chilly; we’ve made it far enough north to start leaving summer behind. While Nita settles into the tent for the night, I make a mint-tea brew on the camp stove and, just as I finish up, a man from a nearby trailer strikes up a conversation. We talk for a little while about where we’re from and what we’re doing and he invites us to his home for some warmth – and to try out some Norwegian moonshine! Thanking him for his offer, I let him know I’ll talk with Nita then come by.
Looking under the fly, Nita’s tucked up in the tent, mint tea in hand and looking quite cozy so, not wanting to be ungrateful, I head up to his home and let him know that we’re going to try and get some sleep – which of course is an answer he’s unwilling to accept. I’m actually glad for his insistence since the idea of trying some Norwegian moonshine strikes my fancy. Taken inside, we all sit in a warm, covered patio with his wife, son and his sons girlfriend.
After a few minutes of introductions he asks his son to grab the moonshine from the house and he quickly returns with a couple of jerry-cans. Maybe moonshine is just code for petrol…
“Norway used to have a problem with alcohol so the government began pricing it out of reach and now we make our own for a fraction of the price. For the cost of a single drink I can make six-litres of moonshine.” There’s a real pride in the fathers voice as he tells me about the process.
Meanwhile, a mug is put in front of me and the son pours a clear liquid about halfway up. There’s a pause for conversation and after a few minutes, believing this was the end of the pour, I grab my cup for a sip.
It’s a yell that seems to come from everyone at the same time followed by a lunge in my general direction. The father asks his son to finish the job properly, reaching for my mug and putting it down like it’s a booby trap. From somewhere behind a couch, the son pulls out a few bottles of different mixes – coke, fruit juice, energy drink – and pours a healthy amount of each into my cup along with the moonshine.
“Now you can drink.”
I have to admit, somehow it’s not bad at all – it’s a bit like fizzy Kool-Aid with vodka and pure adrenaline. Plus there’s the added benefit that after a few sips I’ve still not gone blind – a common side-effect of home-brewed moonshine.
The father has a gentle smile and is obviously hoping that stories from our experiences travelling will help his son see a broader human experience. There’s a subtle, respectful tension between them; the father wants his son to know that there’s a lot of good in the world while the son wants his father to know there’s also a lot of bad. The conversation covers a lot of ground and it seems that our experience in North Africa resonates the most with both men. The kindness we were greeted with there is reaffirming for the father and a welcome surprise to his son.
After an insistent second pour and a change to lighter subjects, I begin to feel like it’s time to leave. The pauses between sentences are getting longer and the father is swaying in his chair with the promise of falling asleep or passing out. I say my goodnights and the family insist we return in the morning for breakfast – an invite I happily accept. We’ve become pretty good at seeing the good people and these are good, good people.
I head back to the tent and find Nita bundled in her sleeping bag and the tea still warm. It’s not long before we’re both fast asleep.
The next morning we’re up early and pack the bikes before heading over to our new friends trailer for breakfast. It’s quiet and a quick knock on the door goes unanswered. Nita and I smile at one another; the grog has made for a deep sleep. We leave a note on their gate thanking them for their hospitality and slip quietly back onto the road.
We have a date with family friends in Bergen tomorrow!