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Sunday, August 30, 2009


"Due to its geography and climate, Norway is not suited to long distance cycling" - Lonely Planet guidebook.

With quiet roads, stunning scenery, a sparse population, low crime rates and the right to free camp anywhere, for us, Norway has been the most perfect place to cycle tour! Although the extreme weather conditions have made things tough at times we have had an incredible couple of weeks cycling.
We left you last in Switzerland. We spent our last night in Zurich with Warmshowers hosts Paula and Adrian. We had a great evening with them. It was good to hear about Adrian's North American Great Divide mountain biking trip, and Paula taught us all about underwater rugby (yes, it exists), a sport in which she represents Switzerland! Our departure from Zurich airport was filled with dramas stemming from misinformation from the airline, rigid airport rules and overpriced bike boxes. After a lot of shouting, swearing, a few tears and threats that we wouldn't be able to fly, we finally conceded to their demands, paid up and dashed to the departure gate to board our flight to Alta.
Alta is a small town in the north of Norway. At a latitude of nearly 71 degrees north, Alta is deep inside the Arctic circle and the sun was still in the sky when we landed near midnight. The temperature was not as cold as we expected. The Gulf stream ocean current means that Norway has a relatively mild climate given its latitude (ie. it is not a big ice cap). After unpacking our bikes we biked out of town and found a camp spot on a beach. It was a weird sensation to awake at 2.30am to bright sun shining through the tent but we got used to it very quickly and it didn't affect our sleep. From Alta we headed south along the E6. We were immediately struck by how beautiful and empty Norway is. Stretching over 2500km and with over 83,000 km of coastline, huge glaciers, endless fjords and stunning mountain ranges, Norway is hard to beat for those who love the outdoors. Norway is renowned for being very expensive. After World War II the country experienced rapid economic growth, particularly as a result of large oil deposits discovered in the early 1970s. Today it ranks amongst the wealthiest countries in the world. We were shocked to find that a burger costs equivalent to NZ$40, and eating our supermarket food in a supermarket foyer is as close to eating out as we have got so far.
Despite food and alcohol being extremely expensive, we haven't spent much money here. The 'right of way' law in Norway means that you can camp virtually anywhere you want for a maximum of two nights. This has given us an incredible sense of freedom and we have camped in magical spots every night without spending a dime on accomodation. The Norwegian people are friendly but reserved and seem oblivious to our presence most of the time (in fact on lots of days we have seen many more reindeer than people!!) As we biked south we were met with breathtaking views at every turn - a new fjord, a cascading waterfall, a hanging glacier, incredible rock formations and looming peaks. Norway is known for its wet climate but it was dry for the first few days and we were lulled into a false sense of security. The reality set in on day four when we were hit with by an Arctic blast that brought icy rain, hail, bitterly cold winds from the north and freezing temperatures that even had the locals complaining. They particularly thought Kate was strange in her short bike shorts.....the only bare legs in the Arctic I think! We spent a fantastic day walking in the Lyngen mountains. The Norwegian peaks rear up out of the sea and it does not take long to be well into the hills and above the bush line. We walked up to a beautiful glacier and lake and spend hours exploring the area with great views of the surrounding fjords. On a particularly stormy evening we caught a ferry out to the Lofoten islands off the Norwegian coast. The captain warned us that the sea was very rough when we boarded and we secured our bikes well. Because of the sea conditions the crossing time was doubled and I, along with most of the other passengers, was soon green and vomiting. We were pleased to get off the boat at midnight in the small fishing village of Andenes, and in sub-zero temperatures pitched our tent on the first bit of flat grass that we came to. This happened to be outside the local medical centre, but in typical Norwegian fashion no one blinked an eyelid when we stumbled out of the tent at 10am the next morning. We were elated to find out that afternoon that our friends from the Orion Health Adventure racing team had won Primal Quest....awesome effort and a big congratulations to Anna and the boys!!!!!!

We had read a quote that "if you're in Norway and its not raining, you must be in a tunnel". We found this to be quite true with eight solid days of rain in a row, which can be tough when camping every night and being outside all day. The 25 tunnels that we have been through so far (3220m being the longest) have provided some shelter as well as bus stops and short ferry passages. We never let the weather get us down and kept reasonably chirpy. Sometimes at night we made good fires to warm up by.
The Lofoten Islands were spectacular and rugged with beautiful beaches, cliffs and inlets. Cute wee fishing villages were dotted around the islands as well. The riding was fantastic.The strong head winds, frequent showers and cold temperatures made the riding hard but it was great to see the islands in their wild state! It was so cold that we slept fully clothed at night and I developed some nasty chilblains on my feet (or early frostbite as I like to think of it!)
Back to the mainland at Bodo, we pushed on through persistent rain and eventually awoke one morning to blue skies and sunshine. We definitely had a new appreciation for the sun and spent hours washing and drying all our muddy and wet gear. We even managed to wash ourselves on one of our ferry journeys. This has been the longest period without a shower for both of us - 17 days. Not a fact that everyone would be proud of!
After eight months on the road our bikes and gear seem to be slowly falling apart. Kate's spokes are forever breaking, one of my pedals has gone, my gear shifter stopped working and I spend many evenings stitching clothes back together. We have definitely become more resourceful on the trip - Kate is speedy at fixing spokes and brakes, and managed to replace my pedal with one salvaged from a roadside bike wreck. From Bodo we rode hard and covered 800km in 6 days. We followed a tourist route called the RV17 although it was pretty quiet because Norway's busy "summer" period only lasts one month (July). We enjoyed much brighter weather, beautiful still waters mirroring the surrounding peaks, more great camp spots and brilliant riding. The road is broken by frequent short ferry crossings which are a great chance to chill out and admire the surroundings. Another highlight was two minke whales playing in the fjord right outside our tent one night....great dinner time entertainment.
We are currently staying in Trondheim with New Zealand friends Chris and Emily. They are based in Norway for at least 18 months so Chris can concentrate on orienteering which is really big in Europe. It is awesome to hang out with some kiwis, have a shower, do some much needed washing, explore the local trails and sleep in a bed at night. We are staying here for 3 days and then will be continuing south to Bergen where we finish our cycle journey!!
Some more photos....

Kate stewing apples.... we are quite domesticated despite being homeless!
Lots of the buildings have grass growing on the roof...maybe for added warmth
Tilda doing the dishes..
Another great camp spot....
Kate fixing yet another spoke...

Monday, August 10, 2009

France and Switzerland

The last few weeks have been filled with high passes, epic downhills and stunning Alps riding. We have met and stayed with many wonderful people, and enjoyed lots of French wine and Swiss cheese and chocolate!
After Costa Brava we cycled into France and continued along the Mediterranean coast for a while. Near Sete we left the coast and headed north toward Switzerland up the Rhone valley. To begin with the riding was quite dull with flat barren land and scorching hot temperatures. It was sooooo hot one afternoon that we had a tub of ice-cream and a litre of coke for lunch! Mmm very healthy!
We had been quite shocked by the overpriced camping in Europe and expected to find cheaper rates in inland France. One evening, in search of a reasonable rate we ended up cycling an extra 60km and riding until well after dark eventually finding an abandoned campground and paying nothing! We were awoken by a friendly Frenchman cleaning up ther area with a tractor. He waved cheerfully, gave us bottles of water and spent ages searching through a pile of leaves after accidentally scooping up one of my cycle gloves with some rubbish. We have not found all of the French people to be quite as welcoming and have a few run-ins with locals... often overcharging us for things and one fiery elderly woman even tried to cut down our washing line we had innocently tied to her fence!
The French countryside got more beautiful as we headed inland, with lots of flowers, vineyards and gorgeous wee villages. We rode north through the gorgeous wee theatre town of Avignon, through the aptly named Orange and spent a night in a lovely campground in Mondragon.
When we told the campground owner that we planned to reach Grenoble from Mondragon in two days he laughed, said it was 'impossible', and suggested 4-5 days! - that sounded like a challenge to us! We rode hard for two days over several passes, among breathtaking cliffs, through the stunning Gorges de la Bourge, cycled through quaint French villages and enjoyed a lot of tasty bakery food.

Pont en Royans - houses perched on a cliffAfter 220km and 13 hours of riding we were rewarded with a 20km downhill into Grenoble. Grenoble is a small French city nestled in a valley surrounded by high peaks on either side. We stayed with a lovely couple called Sebastian and Anne. We had a very relaxing time and enjoyed their delicious organic french food and hearing about there cycle journey through Mongolia and Central Asia....we are already planning our next trip!
Seb's homemade bread was delicious although he hasn't quite mastered the yeast recipe...a little hard!!
In Grenoble we were stoked to catch up with Amy and Dave from Ohope. They are currently driving around Europe with their mountain bikes and had been following the Tour de France. We spent a chilled out day beside a lake eating more great French food and catching up on the last 18 months since we last saw them.
From Grenoble we biked north-east toward Chamonix and the Swiss border. The terrain was very mountainous with 2000m passes in all directions. It is a road cyclist's paradise and there were roadies everywhere! We try (with some success) to keep up with them on the hills- much to their annoyance, given our bikes and panniers weigh ten times as much as their carbon bikes!
Kate had done some research on a website called via-michelin and thought it was realistic for us to ride from Albertville across the Swiss border and make it to a small village called Chippis.....a slight error in the figures resulted in us doing one our hardest days ever. We had a stunning days riding with incredible views of Mont Blanc, glaciers, waterfalls and rivers.....unfortunately after three 1500m passes and 178km our appreciation was waning!
Mont BlancFinally at 9:30pm and with very tired legs we rolled into Chippis and were greeted by the charismatic and motherly Tilly. Tilly is a Dutch-woman who has been living in Switzerland for many years. She and her husband Marc treated us to delicious food straight from her vege garden and fussed over us doing our washing and taking great care of our exhausted selves! After a day of recovery Tilly sent us on our way complete with freshly baked bread, a box of tomatoes and cherry pie!!
Our riding from Chippis took us up a valley following the river Rhone, climbing steadily toward the Grimsel Pass. Switzerland is a beautiful, mountainous country, but we are pretty shocked by how much infrastructure and man-made things there are EVERYWHERE- bridges, tunnels, viaducts, roads and rail-way. We compare Europe to woman who has had too much plastic surgery- her natural beauty forever scarred by the power of technology.

The steep road and many switchbacks loom ahead...
We had a perfect clear day riding over the Grimsel Pass (2165m)with fantastic views and a wicked descent to the town of Meiringen (500m). From there we climbed over the Grosse Seneidegg Pass in hope of getting views of the famous Eiger. Unforunately all we got was very wet and cold- but we enjoyed the challenge of another 2000m pass and had a cool ride on offroad trails down to Interlaken.

With very poor visibility, this warning sign was our only view from the top....
We are currently in Seelisburg, a typical small Swiss village nestled on a cliff overlooking a lake and mountains staying with Kathrin and Phillipe. They are a great couple who we actually met in Argentina. We didn't realise that when we wrote to them on warmshowers, but they recognised us after looking at our blog. It is a small cycle touring world! They made the epic two year journey from Alaska to Ushuaia on their tandem. It is great to relax at their house and enjoy the peaceful mountain setting.
Kathrin and Philippe - we had such a great time at their place!

A few more photos....

Sarnersee, Switzerland
Castle ruins on top of a cliff in France

A typical Swiss wooden house...After several hours climbing...not the best view!!!
Gorges de La Bourge

Relaxing in Seelisberg

From here we ride to Zurich tomorrow and catch our flight to Alta in Norway for some 24 hour sunlight, chilly weather and lots of fjords. Ciau for now....