Balestrand to Oslo

Day 20 Balestrand to Oslo

Now we were on the home stretch, so to speak. The idea was to catch a local ferry from Balestrand to Flåm, go on the famously scenic Flåm railway to Myrdal, change trains there and get to Oslo in the early evening to have a last look at that city. Overnight in Oslo, then a bus to the airport to begin the long flight home.

Myrdal to Oslo is only 220 km, normally about four and a half hours. The whole rail trip should have taken roughly five and a half hours, and thereby hangs this tale.

Local ferries are essential services all along the Norway coast, delivering passengers, post and supplies. There is an extensive road network in Norway, but with all those fjords, mountains and valleys, boat was the only reasonable way to go until the technology became available to engineer so many roads and tunnels.

The weather was glorious and my subconscious produced earworms of the ‘Peer Gynt Suite’ (‘Morning Mood’) as we were chugging along. It seemed somehow appropriate.

Fjord after leaving Balestrand

Norwegians are famed for their love of outdoor sports

Photo by Bruce Moore

We saw very many small, picturesque villages like these along the edge of the fjord …

Typical small coastal village

Summer house; photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

With barely 4% of the country having arable land, it’s not surprising that the houses are located very close to the water. Norway is now a rich country (thanks to oil and investing the profits in a socially responsible manner), after being poor for so very long, and one of our Norwegian guides said that every Norwegian family had at least one car, a boat, a city house or apartment, and a summer house. She was only partly joking.

Flåm (population 350) is a strange little touristy village at the head of a fjord. It is yet another place that has a love/hate relationship with tourism, over-run in summer with cruise ships whose passengers don’t take care of the place as much as they should. There was a little bit of time to look around, but I hadn’t done any research into what would be good to see, so just visited the tourist shops in search of strange and interesting things. Seal oil (full of omega-3s), glacier water, whale sausages (hvalpølse; ‘Fjord & Fjellmat’ translates to ‘fjord and mountain food’) and reindeer sausages (?) seemed popular, as well as the usual tat – T-shirts, mugs, ugly troll toys and such.

The train was finally ready to go so we hopped on, dragging our suitcases, to find our allocated seats. Suitcases go in racks at the end of each carriage and the carriages were neat and clean. The Flåm railway trip, said by some to be the most beautiful in the world and certainly the most impressive I’ve been on (I’ve not been on that many), winds its spectacular way along a steep-sided mountain valley for an hour or so. Since it was high tourist season, the train was very crowded.

We passed through lots of tunnels (Norway’s rail system has 696 tunnels and 2,760 bridges, a massive engineering feat making the many small villages more accessable than they were via the early sea routes), obscuring the views of waterfalls bouncing down steep mountainsides to the river in the bottom of the valley. Unfortunately I couldn’t get good shots in the higher reaches as the shadows on the sides of the mountains obscured the sight too much, but the views were splendid.

View from the Flåm railway

One website describes the scene:

Over the course of one hour, the train takes you from sea level at the Aurlandsfjord in Flåm to Myrdal mountain station, situated 867 metres above sea level. Myrdal is also on the Bergen Line, meaning the Flåm Railway connects with trains running between Bergen and Oslo.

From the comfort of a vintage train compartment, you can enjoy the changing scenery of the Flåm Valley. Before ascending into the more impassable sections of the valley, the train runs through agricultural landscapes, the old Flåm village centre and the old church. The sparkling blue river follows the railway for large parts of the trip, and you will pass small farms in locations you’d think no one could live.

The train takes a five-minute photo stop at the Kjosfossen waterfall where you can disembark and go out onto the platform. Watch out for Huldra – a beautiful mythological creature with long hair wearing a red dress!

Hulder acting seductively in a red dress (right); photo by Bruce Moore

Construction of the railway started in 1923 and was completed in 1940. It is said to be one of the greatest engineering feats in Norway. The 20-km long railway line is one of the steepest standard gauge lines in the world, with 80% of the journey running on a gradient of 5.5%. There are no less than 20 tunnels, 18 of which were built by hand. One of the tunnels even takes a 180 degree turn inside the mountain.

As mentioned above, there was a stop – more like 15 minutes – at a thundering waterfall where a strange woman in a flowing red dress danced in the distance on the hillside. I found out later she represented a hulder or huldra, a sort of seductive but dangerous mountain spirit. Some sort of explanation would have helped me appreciate her more as I quite like mythology, but perhaps it was in the Norwegian announcement over the tannoy. The seduction certainly didn’t work on me.

We changed trains at Myrdal for Oslo. Most of the other tourists went back to Flåm and, presumably, to their cruise boats. A few cyclists headed off to parts unknown. The Myrdal-Oslo part of the trip goes over the Hardangervidda mountain plateau, such a contrast to the coastal fjords and forests. I kept seeing many (I suppose) summer houses. In Australia there would be nothing between stations, and the stations would be far apart. I was surprised at all the stops at little stations along the way, mostly to disgorge hikers and cyclists. I wondered where they were all going to, but perhaps they were camping or heading to their summer houses in the seemingly uninhabited landscape. Norwegians famously love to get out into ‘the nature’.

Part-way to Oslo, our train stopped at a station. After an hour and a half, we learned that the track somewhere ahead had ‘buckled’ – the unusual (for Norway) daytime heat had affected the line in such a way that we had to wait for it to cool down to go any further. In compensation, we were given free crispbread and drinks, which turned out to be dinner. We got going but soon stopped for another while at another station – then were loaded onto buses to complete the journey to the Oslo central train station. Lugging our suitcases the 10-minute walk to the hotel at 1 a.m. was not much fun!

Day 21 Oslo to Brisbane

Staggering out of bed early to load up on our last hotel breakfast and lots of coffee, we were soon off to the airport and another ghastly 24-hour plane journey, broken by a couple of hours in Dubai airport. By this time I was glad to get home, longing for a rest and not to live out of a suitcase. It was such a brilliant and varied trip, but Svalbard was the most interesting and different in my opinion. On my first day at home, I wondered why it was getting dark in the evening – then I realised the sun was going down! It was odd that I’d become used to so much light all night in only three weeks. It was a very satisfying journey, and I’d like to go back one day to explore more.