Playing Viking in Norway

July 12, 2010

By Damien Rothstein

(Damien works for U.S. Africa Command’s Outreach Directorate)

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My Fourth of July festivities were celebrated with a little less bang this year as I was not celebrating the freedom that comes from being an American in stereotypical fashion.  Instead, just as the founding fathers did two hundred and thirty four years ago, I was pushing boundaries – only I was pushing my own personal boundaries with a two-day kayak exploration of the Norwegian Fjords near Voss, about a 100 km East of Bergen.

Together with three friends (one of whom I had not seen for nine years!), I undertook a fully catered two day guided sea kayaking adventure along the entire length of the Nærøyfjord and the beginning of the Aurlandsfjord – a total of approximately 15 kilometers.  The kayaking adventure started at Gudvangen and concluded at the village Undredal (population some 1000 goats and markedly fewer people), which is known throughout Norway for its fantastic brown goat cheese (geitost) that is still produced in the traditional way.

The kayaking adventure was a most wonderful experience that involved bathing in waterfalls (or at least attempting to do so), sharing meals with the local inhabitants (sheep) and partaking of the most breathtaking views of the fjords that have to be experienced and seen to be fully appreciated.  Two of the fjords – the Nærøyfjord and Geirangerfjord (the latter not visited) – are considered to be among the most scenically outstanding fjord areas on the planet and, as such, have been declared a United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) world heritage site.

After an overnight stay in Bergen, we dragged our luggage to the train station to catch the earliest train to Voss, the departure point for our kayaking adventure.  The train was very comfortable and offered some wonderful landscape views along the one hour journey.  I got the distinct feeling that most of my fellow travelers had seen all this beauty before as many were clearly not as enthralled by that which was passing.  In fact, I was so enthralled that I was lulled into sleep by the gentle rocking of the train.  Interestingly, there was a timer in the carriage that started when the train entered the first of many tunnels along the journey.  Upon arrival at Voss, the timer read 27 minutes.

Stumbling bleary eyed (I am not a morning person by any stretch of the imagination) from the train, I joined my traveling companions for the five minute walk to the Nordic Adventures office – the tour company whose representative would guide the group for the next two days.  We transferred what clothes and other personal items that we needed for the next two days into a dry bag and packed our cameras into waterproof Pelican Cases.  Both were to ensure that, should we want to experience the fjord on an intimate level, our cameras and clothing would not become one with the salt water.  We were then issued “kit bags” that contained a wettie, booties, a rain jacket and life vest.  Once we were all organised (and paid up), we set off on our adventure in the company’s van and, after approximately 40 mins along some very windy roads, reached our start point in the fjords at a tiny town called Gudvangen.

Upon arrival in Gudvangen, we donned the wettie, booties and life vest and received a safety brief from our guide James Pinchin (he was a great bloke and is from New Zealand so that made it all that much better :-)), we set out on the cold waters of the fjord.  The pace was comfortable and a gold medal win in the Olympics was not needed to master the kayaks.  The rudder control pedals made control and the overall paddling experience that much more rewarding.

At about the half-way point on each day, we would pull the kayaks onto shore and break out lunch.  It was a wonderful spread consisting of Norwegian hams, salad items, fresh tomatoes, cheese and a delicious drink made from four fruit juices called Eventyrbrus.  Dinner was usually something that was cooked and, luckily for the sheep with whom we often shared camping sites, the food was brought with us.  It was simple yet good tucker and consisted of pork chops and sausages and, there always seemed to be multiple desert items to choose from!

The fjords have exceptional natural beauty which was formed as the formative glaciers froze and thawed over the millennia.  The glaciers have long since melted but, the narrow and steep-sided crystalline rock walls remain, rising up 1,400 metres from the Norwegian Sea and extend 500 m below sea level.  Consequently, perspective is difficult in this environment except when even the largest cruise ships are dwarfed by the massive walls.

Whilst not at one with nature, the remainder of our time was spent exploring the city of Bergen, the gateway to the west of Norway.  Bergen was founded in 1070AD, four years after the end of the Viking Age.  For about 300 years, Bergen was the centre of Stock Fish (Cod) trade for all of Northern Norway and enjoyed a relatively stable presence until multiple fires and the arrival of the Black Death from England changed the face of Bergen.  The plague killed more than 70% of the inhabitants of Bergen and the King of Norway, desperate to increase the tax revenue and increased the number of skilled workers in town, allowed the Hanseatic League to establish a bureau city in Bergen.  The Hanseatic merchants lived in the quayside quarter within Bergen called Bryggen.  The Hanseatic merchants enjoying exclusive rights to trade with the northern fishermen that each summer sailed to Bergen to exchange their stock fish for grain

Interestingly enough, the Hanseatic League was one of the first trading organisations to offer what is known today as credit.  Each trading house on the wharf ensured a regular customer base, and thus income, by establishing a ledger with each trading family from the North.  If their catch was not as robust as expected, it did not penalise them when it came to receiving enough grain for their family for the ensuing winter.  The Hanseatic merchant would simply request the balance be paid upon the next visit – a year later, and without interest!  There was no mention of what would happen should the “default” on the “loan”, however.

In 1980, the Hanseatic Wharf of Bryggen was added to the UNESCO’s World Heritage List

The conditions for the kayaking journey were more than perfect.  Apart from a few occasions, Norway offered a wonderful splendor of Sunshine, calm waters, impressive mountains and plenty of waterfalls – all the ingredients needed for a perfect holiday.

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