Mountains and Fjords

Touring in the land of the midnight sun with Nordic Bike Adventure.

Rider Magazine, Dec. 1995
Story and photos by Mark Tuttle Jr.

[Note from the Beachs]: The following article was written by Mr. Tuttle about O.T. and Nordic Bike Adventures. One guess as to who our Norwegian partner is. Righto, O.T! So, this article is most appropriate for inclusion here. On to Mr. Tuttle.....

Water, water everywhere. Salt water in the fjords, fresh water in the abundant lakes, rivers and waterfalls, heavy water in the kraftwerk (powerplant) at Vermork. Heavy water? Other than trolls, it's from the one Norway-related thing I can think of on the inbound flight — The Heroes of Telemark, with Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris. Norwegians give it two thumbs down, though, as it doesn't tell the true story behind the sabotage of the Nazi heavy-water plant before the bad guys could make enough to build the A bomb.

Save it for the tourist brochure. This Norway story is better told with pictures, and you can always buy a smallish souvenir bottle of heavy water at Vermork for less than a pint of beer in Norway. That's not such a great deal for a tiny bottle of water you can't even drink. A good pint of Ringnes costs around 45 Norwegian Kroner, or $7.25 at this writing.

The constitutional monarchy's onerous taxation on alcohol, cigarettes and gasoline may be universally despised, but it's actually used for something in Norway — the roads. They are the reason that Odd Terje "O.T" Dovik started Nordic Bike Adventure in southerly Kristiansand two years ago. You won't find any freeways here. The southern part of Norway I experienced isn't so much a land with mountains and fjords as a land of them; though the country is only about 1,100 miles long, the coastline is 33 times that when you include all of the fjords and islands. In between the stark, rocky mountains raise snow-covered plateaus thousands of feet above sea level. When taking in the view of both blue fjord and white snowfield together, the mind struggles to comprehend so much beauty at once.

norwegian water

Fossen, fossen....

Small shelves along the fjords — sometimes only accessible by boat — and in the mountains support the small towns and villages, though half the population lives in Oslo to the east. Paving even the relatively few roads that traverse this wild and rocky landscape is a constant and enormous undertaking. And when the Norwegians don't want to pave a road on top or float a ferry across, they simply tunnel through or tinder, often for miles.

No surprise dynamite was invented in Scandinavia.

To better show-off their efforts at road building, the Scandarravian countries have some of the world's toughest speed laws. This land is great for motorcycling, but it truly belongs to the Volvo — the Norwegian national speed limit is 80 kph or a bloodcurdling 50 mph, though I noticed a daring 90 kph or 56 mph posted on one multi-lane road outside Kristiansand. Exceed the limit by more than 40 percent and get caught, and you lose your license for three weeks.

The key phrase in that last statement is "get caught," however. Norway, despite a total land mass roughly equal to California's, is sparsely populated by just over four million people. I only saw two police cars on the entire trip, each in a different area, and I could swear they were driven by the same guy. So like here, nobody travels the speed limit in the outlying areas. Except maybe the odd tractor.

Nevertheless, you'll rarely feel the urge to speed on the amazing roads Nordic Bike Adventure has carefully chosen. Of N.B.A.'s three offerings (see sidebar), I chose the Mountains and Fjords Tour, which consisted of seven riding days and no rest days in 1995 (the 1996 tours could differ). Of course, as with all reputable organized foreign tour companies these days, there's no pressure to do anything by the book other than show up for dinner, or call if you'd rather dine elsewhere. In fact, N.B.A. encourages you to ride in small groups with or without the guide, or by yourself, which is exactly how I started off on day one. Once they see how often I stop for pictures, most riding partners leave me anyway.

After a night spent meeting the other tour members and marveling at the 11:30 p.m. daylight — I had arrived in June the day after the longest of the year — we awoke to a light Smorgasbord-style breakfast at the hotel. Fresh breads, sliced meats, fruit, cheeses, boiled eggs, cereal, etc.; a sampler's delight. N.B.A. had set me up with a BMW R1100GS complete with a full tank, hard saddlebags and a tank bag, the latter of which I filled with stuff from breakfast for my midday meal. The Norwegians do well with breakfast and dinner, but finding a simple roadside lunch of other than hamburgers, hot dogs and fries is difficult. With the sweet taste of Norwegian brown cheese melting over my tongue I suited up and slowly rode away from the lovely seaport architecture and occasional cobblestoned streets of Kristiansand.

Norway is at roughly the same latitude as Anchorage, Alaska, and I had been warned by a relative once caught out in 30-degree Norway temperatures and rain in June that the weather is always unpredictable. You wouldn't know it by the warm sun and blue skies we were enjoying, though, and I began to think my Aerostich suit was a bit much. The thought was premature — I would come to appreciate it and my electric apparel very much. But for now, as we motored straight north along a large inland fjord and wound our way through the lovely Setesdal valley surrounded by pine and aspen, I was getting a tan.

The R1100GS was perfect for this kind of riding, not urging me to speed with its relaxed twin-cylinder lope yet providing comfort and oodles of torque for quick corner-to-corner swoops. Later I found the F650 single just as appropriate. I was actually getting passed by tour buses, just as annoyingly numerous here as in the rest of Europe. Many mirrored lakes, milklike waterfalls and high alpinelike passes later we arrived at Bolkesjo the first night's stop.

Every hotel on the trip was a winner. Comfortable, clean, sometimes charmingly historic but never fancy, awkwardly or otherwise. All served sumptuous evening meals and a generous breakfast buffet to the group with varying levels of service — typical in Europe. The rooms in Bolkesjo faced the warm sun throughout the day, and air conditioning is unheard of here ... so is big city-style nightlife out in the country, so while we waited for our rooms to cool down, the group began a nightly habit. The other American, one German and one Norwegian on the tour with O.T., Erwin and Terje from N.B.A. and I stayed up late, sharing what conversation we could, laughing, nursing our drinks and waiting for the dark. It almost never came before bed.

norwegian Stave church

A Stave church

This was only N.B.A.'s fourth tour and its first international one, but the company handled details like it had been in business much longer. Everything promised was delivered and then some, and though they were acutely aware that I was looking for things to warn Rider readers about, I found none other than the high cost (to Americans) of just about everything in Norway. Bikes were well-maintained by a mechanic/guide on the tour, O.T. and Terje spoke excellent English and the pace and mileage covered each day was just right for a ride that's supposed to be a vacation.

Expensive drinks mean no hangover, a consequence for which I thanked the Prime Minister each day. The next morning some of us took in the nearby Vermork Kraftwerk Museum, marveling at the display devoted to the now-defunct heavy-water plant and Norway's comprehensive use of hydroelectricity. It powers everything, and there's so much that the country sells the surplus to other countries. Gorgeous waterfalls are everywhere, but the hydroelectric plants have killed off a few, sometimes more than Norway's residents would like.

Still, the streets of Hammerfest in the north were the first in Europe to have electric lights.

Good weather remained for all but one day of the tour, when it was my turn to snicker at those who had been doing so at my Gore-Tex suit. But it's the warm sun during a midday dip in a cold, clear river I'll remember long after the chilly weather and rain is forgotten. And the crisp snow roads atop the mountains in the sunshine; they were the highlight of the trip. Snowdrifts 25 feet high in places line either side of the narrow, twisting strips of pavement that are plowed clean in summer. Most have to be closed in winter, another good reason for expensive tunnels. We were well above the tree line here, though the roads still squirmed around like a Norwegian sardine and made for some of the best riding on the tour.

Other highlights along the way included a two-hour ferry ride in one of Norway's most breathtaking fjords, the Sognefjorden; hiking to the base of the country's most famous waterfall, the Voringfoss; and riding through tunnels that twisted back on themselves and were so long you couldn't tell if you were traveling up or down. On the west coast near Stavanger, we rode beneath the fjords as much as 240 yards below sea level.

By the time my week in Norway with N.B.A. was over, I was summing it up like this: If you can only take one foreign motorcycle tour in your lifetime, by all means brave the Alps. If you plan to take two or more, though, consider starting with Norway. Though the weather is a bit more iffy, English is widely spoken and there are fewer but better roads and navigational aids, making it an easier trip for the novice. In my opinion the scenery is just as spectacular if not more so, and if you go with N.B.A and their service equals my experience, you're in for quite a treat.

Just remember to B.Y.O.B.

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