Thursday, 30 October 2014

Cabin fever: Two weeks alone in a Norwegian wood

"Cabin". Just the word seems to open a window in my mind (yours too?) and let in light and a little peace.

Like most nature-lovers, I've long dreamed of staying in a cabin in the woods, trying out a simpler way of living (while secretly wondering if I'd be able to handle it). This northern summer, I got my chance - in the mother country of cabins everywhere, Norway.

My very own cabin in the woods
Turns out that spending two weeks alone in a Norwegian wood was one of THE best experiences of my travelling life - which is why I've deliberated over writing about it. I'm still not sure I can do it justice. But here goes.

(Thanks to all those who read my essay on quiet travel in The Sydney Morning Herald last week and asked for details about the cabin. This post is for you.)

The view: a sea of trees
A cabin called Klunken
One of the delightful things about Klunken cabin (apart from its name, which just means "clunk" in Norwegian, go figure) is its location: on a hill surrounded by pine, fir and birch trees and overlooking the forested area it inhabits, Kjekstadmarka.

It feels remote, yet it's only 30 minutes by train from Oslo. Oh, and a two-hour walk from the station.

Be prepared: Gotta love the Scouts
Originally a loggers' cabin, built in the 1940s, Klunken has been a Scout hut since the 1970s. A couple of years ago, Scout leader Håvard Sørli put it on Airbnb (where I found it; it's listed as Cabin w/view in Norway) to raise money for the Scouts.

(An interesting aside: Norwegian legend Thor Heyerdahl and four of his five companions on the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition were Scouts. I read Heyerdahl's book at the cabin, by the way, a great read and a fantastic adventure story.)

Loved the red windows
I wasn't completely alone. A walking and cross-country ski trail goes right past the cabin and occasionally someone trail-running after work would stop and say hello to the "Australian girl living like Robinson Crusoe," as one woman described me. (I spoke to about eight people in two weeks.)

Then there were my wild neighbours: a few squirrels, an eagle, three snakes, a tick (which I had to carefully remove from my inner elbow, ouch) and a moose I heard (but sadly didn't see) walking noisily through the forest on dusk one evening.

Cabin interior, with candles
Chop wood, carry water
Inside, the cabin is the epitome of simplicity: a single room with a wood stove, bunk beds, a table and chairs, three windows and candles for reading at "night" (being mid-summer, it didn't get truly dark until 11.30pm).

There's no electricity, no running water. A previous guest joked in the "hyttebok" (hutbook) that he couldn't find the password for Klunken's wifi; of course there is none, and no mobile reception either.

In lumberjack, er, jane, mode
I chopped wood to make a fire to cook and boil water. I carried water from the nearest lake, a one-kilometre walk away. And I loved all this, more than I could have imagined.

Simple days
What did I do all day? Practical matters took more time than they would at home: making a cup of tea meant lighting a fire, I bathed and washed my clothes with water from the lake, whittled kindling with my Swiss army knife.

The kitchen
But each "chore" was its own reward: doing simple things with my hands was immensely calming.

As I said in my quiet travel essay, there was unlimited, uninterrupted time to read, write (with pen and paper, remember those?) and do nothing but listen to the birds and the trees. I collected leaves and drew them. I took (lots of) photos.

I picked wild strawberries, raspberries and blueberries (which really should be called deep-purple berries).

Sweetest. Berries. Ever.
I didn't once feel lonely. I can't remember ever feeling so content.

One morning I did the three-hour round trip on foot to the nearest supermarket, and felt like a child raised by wolves when I got there. Cars! Shopping trolleys! Air-conditioning! Carrying two weeks' groceries home on my back gave me a new appreciation for the food I eat.

Follow me, every path says
Natural challenges
I also had an entire forest and an enormous freshwater lake to explore - my very own swimming pool! I loved being able to swim every day, particularly as it was so hot, more than 30 degrees sometimes (though I had no way of knowing for sure).

And I set myself little challenges. To swim to the other side of the lake and back (about 300m) and not get spooked by the bottomless black water and the fact that there was no one around if I got a cramp halfway across and drowned.

Skapertjern lake, my happy place
To not to read or write for an entire day (to be more present and make the most of being where I was). Not reading was ok, but not writing was so difficult I cracked by 6pm. Writing was my conversation and confession, my thinking and talking, my sharing and musing.

Towards the end of my stay, I started walking around barefoot (I was going to call this post "Barefoot and bra-less in Norway") and was amazed at how much it slowed me down - in a good way.

This way, remember?
Actually, negotiating the unmarked forest paths was a constant challenge. I got lost quite a few times, made little signs for myself to remind me where to go.

At least the days were long and there were no bears. Or wolves, poisonous snakes or spiders, stinging trees, leeches. Norway is so benign. In human terms, I felt safe too; there wasn't even a lock on the cabin door.

Thank you, cabin 
I learned a lot in two weeks. Practical things like how to use an axe without chopping my foot off, and how to make tasty, simple meals on a wood stove, a first for me. And other things that are harder to put into words.

Simple me
Although I just wanted to enjoy the cabin experience for its own sake, and not try to get anything out of it, I feel as if it's a bookmark in my life I'll keep returning to.

I was surprised at how "at home" I felt there and how well I felt, inside and out, at the end of two weeks. Calmer, clear-eyed and somehow more "solid" from being physical, in nature, every day.

It probably helped that it was also a detox, of sorts: no coffee, no chocolate, no alcohol, no meat, no dairy products (no fridge!).

Goodbye Klunken, 'til next time
Although I travel a lot, and am always moving in and out of hotel rooms, bungalows and apartments, it was really hard to leave Klunken. The little cabin on the hill had become my home, in the truest sense of the word.

Two weeks might not sound long, but somehow time stretches out when you're living this way, in such a place, unplugged from the man-made world and tuned-in to your immediate surrounds.

Maybe I'll get back there sometime, and stay longer. Until then, I'm happy that places like Klunken still exist, leading us like a trail of breadcrumbs back to what's real.

(Although I travelled at my own expense, I am deeply grateful to the local Scouts for opening up Klunken to travellers. Thanks, Håvard!)

Saturday, 18 October 2014

In praise of quiet travel

My latest travel story, in today's Sydney Morning Herald, is about a subject close to my heart. Here's an excerpt (see the link below for the full article):

Pic: Fairfax Media
The quiet Australian*
I’m halfway to Kathmandu when it hits me. Listening to metal chair legs scrape on the tiled floor of the food court in Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi airport, babies screaming and several Russians deep in vigorous conversation, I get a sudden urge to abandon my journey, crash through the floor-to-ceiling windows and trade places with the gardener calmly watering the grass and the plants outside.

Of course, being Bangkok, it’s probably no quieter out there than in here. And airports aren’t the reason we travel. They’re on-the-way places that force us to hold our breaths and amuse ourselves until we’re somewhere real again. But the experience starts me thinking about something I’ve often overlooked or, more precisely, underheard: the joy of quiet travel.

You won’t find me running with the bulls in Pamplona, clinking steins full of beer at Oktoberfest or watching the ball drop in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. If I had a bucket list, Rio’s Carnival wouldn’t be on it. Nor would any of Thailand’s full-moon parties, or that festival in Spain where people throw tomatoes at each other.

Cities have their charms, but I’ve always felt drawn to wide, open landscapes far from Thomas Hardy’s “madding crowds”. I don’t mean to be misanthropic; in fact, travelling to these empty quarters, getting away from our fellow humans now and then, can make us kinder when we return. It can also develop other, undervalued qualities such as patience, fortitude and modesty. Standing on a ridge high in the Himalayas, surrounded by 8000-metre peaks that seem close enough to touch, for instance, you can relax into insignificance. Give me Mongolia over Manhattan any day. 
Read the full article.

(*This was the title in today's newspaper; it has a different title online but it's the same story.)

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

10 green reasons to love Norway

I love Norway. One of the highlights of my three months in Europe recently was the month I spent travelling around this long, thin, fjord-riddled country: two weeks in a cabin (more on this later), friend-visiting in Voss and Oslo, a few days and nights on trains (who knew Norway was so big? It's about 2500km south to north) and almost a week in the lovely Lofoten islands, north of the Arctic Circle. 

The beautiful Lofotens
I almost started to feel Scandinavian, mainly because people would speak to me in Norwegian, I got used to thinking in kroner (instead of euros) and I learned a bit of train-Norwegian (I could tell you your next stop and which side the platform would be on. Handy, I know.)

Here's what I love about Norway:

1. It's beautiful. This goes without saying but Norway's scenery really is worth travelling to the other side of the world for. Glacier-carved fjords, rushing turquoise rivers, coastal villages that haven't changed in centuries, thundering waterfalls, wild forests, alpine meadows, the midnight sun, more than 50,000 islands... The show never stops.

Weathered cabins near Voss
2. Cabins. Norwegians virtually invented cabins (how can we ever thank them?) and these impossibly charming wooden cottages dot Norway like hundreds and thousands on fairy bread, ramping up the grandeur of its natural places by putting humankind in our rightful place. There are cabins on mountaintops, in forests, by fjords, on remote Arctic beaches (remember North of the Sun?), and almost every Norwegian has access to a cabin. I could live in one, and perhaps one day I will.

Tent with a (free) view, Lofotens
3. You can camp almost anywhere, for free. Norway's right-of-access law allows anyone to pitch a tent on any unfenced land, including national parks, as long as you're at least 150m from the nearest house or cabin. You're even allowed to pick berries, flowers and mushrooms while you're there. 

4. Electric cars. Despite being the largest producer of oil in Europe, Norway has more electric cars per capita than any other country (I saw Teslas and charging stations everywhere), thanks to government subsidies. Fifteen EU countries provide incentives to owner of electric cars, but in Norway, electric cars are exempt from sales tax, road tax and public parking fees, and can use bus lanes. The icing on the cake is that almost all Norway's electricity is renewable, from hydro (and the surplus exported to mainland Europe). 

Trees in the middle of Oslo
5. Trees! Fly over Norway (better still, travel around it by train) and you'll notice it's almost all green. More than a third of Norway is boreal forest (though Finland is the most forested country in Europe with a massive 74 per cent forest) and Scandinavia has been practising sustainably forestry for more than a century. 

6. No dangerous animals. Coming from Australia - which has more things that can bite, sting and kill you than possibly anywhere else on Earth - Norway is a benign natural paradise. There might be a few bears in the north, if you can find them, but there are no poisonous snakes or spiders or other nasties. I hardly even saw a mosquito this summer. The closest I came to non-bird wildlife encounter was hearing a moose in the forest.

Fjord-kayaking near Voss
7. Nature-loving people. Norway is like New Zealand, times a hundred. I saw people of all ages hiking, camping, trail-running, mountain biking, climbing, swimming pristine lakes. I even saw a dog wearing a backpack. And that was just in summer. In winter, I'm sure they're all outside, blizzard or shine, enjoying the great, white outdoors.

8. It's kind-hearted. Norway isn't just a wealthy country (with the fourth highest per capita income in the world, according to the World Bank), it shares the love, via the Nordic welfare model (like other Scandinavian countries) which aims for equal opportunity, universal health care and security for all. Then there's the Nobel Peace Prize; Alfred Nobel was a Swede but the prize is decided by a Norwegian committee and awarded in Oslo every year on December 10, the year of Nobel's death.

My hero (or one of them)
9. Thor Heyerdahl. If this legendary Norwegian explorer and anthropologist were alive today, he'd be turning 100 next week (his birthday was 6 Oct 1914). On his famous Kon-Tiki expedition in 1947, he and five others crossed the Pacific on a 14m balsa-wood raft to prove that Polynesia might have been settled from South America - a feat made all the more impressive by the fact that Heyerdahl couldn't swim (!). You can see the raft and buy his book (which has been translated into more than 70 languages and sold 100 million copies) at the fascinating Kon-Tiki Museum in Oslo; the 2012 Kon-Tiki movie is a great ride too. 

10. More Norwegian heroes. For a small country of only five million people, Norway has produced more than its fair share of outdoor legends. There's Nansen, who designed a polar-proof ship, the Fram (which you can see and go aboard in the Fram Museum in Oslo). Amundsen, first to reach the South Pole and find the Northwest Passage. Environmental philosopher Arne Naess, who coined the term Deep Ecology. And, more recently, Aleksander Gamme, who walked alone and unsupported to the South Pole in 2012, beating Aussies Cas and Jonesy by a frozen whisker.

Big thanks to Rail Plus for the Eurail pass, to Etihad for getting me to Europe, and to my Norwegian friends Frank and Oddrun in Voss, and Ingrid and Chris in Oslo.  

Saturday, 6 September 2014

City of bikes (yes you, Copenhagen)

Earlier this northern summer I had an overnight stopover in Denmark’s capital, to break up the train journey from Switzerland to Norway, and was overwhelmed by its bike-friendliness. I mean, everyone knows this is THE bike city, but I hadn't realised just how bike-centric it is until I spent 24 hours there.

Bikes catch trains here
In Copenhagen, it’s easy to believe we became bipedal to, er, pedal, not walk upright. 

Everyone rides bikes in the Danish capital, which has a whopping 400km of bike lanes. I saw people of all ages on bicycles of all shapes and sizes (parents on "pram" bikes, removalists on "cargo" bikes), girls in skirts with their cardigan wings flapping, shirtless young men (long live summer), businessfolk in suits (more than half of all Copenhageners commute to work by bike). Princess Mary probably has a royal bike.

No boom gates, no tickets
at this (bike) parking station
It's hard to imagine why we ever drove cars, in such a bike utopia. 

There are bike-only bridges. Bike parking stations. Double-decker bike racks. Garbage bins angled towards cyclists so they can toss things in as they ride by (how cool is that?). Green LEDs on bike paths that light up when you ride at 20kph, fast enough to make all the green (bike) traffic lights. 

Electric share-bikes with GPS
units - only in Copenhagen
As in other European cities, there's a bike-share scheme, of course, but Copenhagen's (called Bycyklen) has 2000 (!) electric "smart bikes" with GPS units, built-in lights and puncture-free tyres (and the cost is a very tourist-friendly 25 kroner, of $4, an hour).

I also saw the newly opened (in June) Cykelslangen ("Cycle Snake"), a bright orange, 220-metre elevated bike path that allows cyclists to ride over a harbourside area where pedestrians like to saunter. (It's also becoming a popular spot for youths to dive off into the water, see below.)

This is one cool, two-wheeled city. Here's a neat video clip from about Copenhagen's bike-friendly present and future.

Five more delightful things about Copenhagen:

I can fly! The new elevated
1. You can swim in the harbour – I saw this in Oslo, too, people getting their annual dose of vitamin D right in the heart of the city, on open patches of grass, on jetties, and just diving into the harbour (or the free harbour pool) to cool off. I would have joined them if I hadn’t left my swimmers in my luggage in a locker at the station (epic fail), but I did swim in Oslo (twice!) and the water was surprisingly warm. 

2. It has Europe’s largest hostel, Copenhagen City Hostel, a 5-star, 14-storey design hostel in a harbourside building (the tallest in Denmark until 1958) on Hans Christian Anderson Boulevard (where else?). I slept in one of its 1020 beds, on the 11th floor and had a great view over the city for about $49 (265 kroner; Copenhagen may be bike-friendly but it ain't cheap). 

3. You can juice birch trees here – well, not personally, but in Copenhagen you can buy SealandBirk organic birch tree juice. Tastes sweet, and is full of antioxidants and vitamins, apparently.

Virtual tourism info
4. It has virtual tourist information booths. The tourism information centre was trialling these at Copenhagen’s central station when I was there in July. Needing a city map, I walked in, pressed the touchscreen and skyped with a friendly, real person in the tourist info centre a few blocks away.

Summer cycling: one of
Copenhagen's bike overpasses
5. Is it just me or do Danish people, on the whole, look incredibly healthy? Everyone I saw was rosy-cheeked, sparkly-eyed, shiny-haired. Maybe it's because they ride bikes everywhere.

Copenhagen has plans to become the "world's best bicycle city" by the end of 2015, but to my mind it's already there...