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 was 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 was 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? Housekeeping 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 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 almost called 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 off my foot, 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.)