Wednesday 24 October 2018

Luxury Liner - Once is Enough

Cruises were not for us. The thought of all that pampered nonsense seemed perfect for people with too much money and time on their hands. But as the means to a beginning - a way of getting ourselves and our tandem to the Arctic Circle and the start of our proposed ride south - a Hurtigruten ferry through the islands and fjords of western Norway made a lot of sense. Until we had a reality check and realised the ride we were planning was just too ambitious for us. It was a mistake.

Our ship, the Nordkapp -named after the most
northerly point on mainland Europe.
Room for nearly 600 passengers and 24 cars.
Norway Cruise Gets A Pass

Shipboard wall art
That left us with the ferry ride and suddenly it wasn’t the means to a beginning, it was a journey in itself. Now after five nights, as we sit in the terminal at the tiny airport at Honningsvag, waiting for our flight to take us back south, we have a chance to reflect.   And to accept that the past few days have been quite fun. We have not become cruise converts overnight but it was nice to stop and not have to think.

Among the pluses was a feeling of putting our lives on hold - that the outside world would just have to wait. We made a conscious decision not to access the internet. There was a reason for that - an extra charge applied to us lowly passengers in the less expensive inside cabins with no portholes and no reassuring glimpse of the watery world outside.  The result was that we read books - most of the time upstairs, on Deck 7 in a corner sheltered from the polar breeze that grew colder each day as we voyaged north. It was thoroughly enjoyable. We ate. Norway is not famous for its food, but the meals on board were way out of the usual fare for cyclists. Breakfast was my favourite - from porridge to pancakes via cereals, fresh fruit, bacon and eggs, pickled herring, pate and a mountain of other stuff. All served buffet style in a mad free for all in which passengers jostled each other in the rush to see who could assemble the maximum amount of food on their plates in the shortest time. And then go back for more. Dinner was a more orderly affair with passengers allocated to specific tables and staff serving the meals - no opportunity to grub around for seconds. That was just as well, we were already groaning under the excess of food that had built up during the day.

Shrimp seller, Bodø
Original steps were made from Lego, until the
 pieces were all stolen.

View from Aksla hill, after climbing 418 steps.
Remote lighthouse north of Trondheim.
 Story goes that the lighthouse keeper,
 his family and a nanny lived happily
here for many years until automation
 came along.

Riverfront warehouses, Trondheim
Fishing boat unloading its catch at Torvik.

Fishermen's wharf, Bodø

The further north, the more the cold until it became impossible to sit out on deck for more than a few minutes at a time.

The passengers were allowed off the ship at most of the ports of call - sometimes for just a few minutes, sometimes for a morning or an afternoon.  We were warned to be back in time,  and that our captain and crew would not wait for people running late. To emphasis the point, at a passenger briefing we were told the story of a loud Texan with a big hat who missed his boat and was forced to hire a speedboat to chase down the vessel. True story or not, we got the point.

A shed roped down to withstand the winds at Honningsvaag airport, inside the Arctic Circle. 
Posing with the Norwegian flag (and a troll) in the town of Ålesund.

The port calls were necessary because the Hurtigruten ships are described as "working ships" as well as tourist boats and we watched as building materials were unloaded here, a few crates there and farm produce taken onboard somewhere else. But the time spent walking ashore was never enough to counteract the calories we were inputting and it was good to know that it was only a few days until we would be on the tandem and getting into the rhythm of long days of riding. I visited the ship's gym twice - a small room crammed with treadmills and a few weights and no sign they were ever used. I looked and looked at all that equipment, and felt so lethargic I left without touching a thing. It was sort of overwhelming - so new and so tidy. I dawdled back to the privacy of our cell - whoops, windowless cabin - and did a few half hearted stretches before falling back in my bunk with a book.

Saturday 16 June 2018

The Siege of Gothenburg

Current Location: Gothenburg, Sweden
Distance Cycled This Trip: 447km
Itchy Bites: Judy savaged by midges and on antihistamines. 
Saddle Soreness (10 equals horror story): Judy 2 but was 9. Mike stable on 2.

Cycling into Gothenburg was like arriving at the end of the world. Destruction surrounded us. Clouds of concrete dusk from bulldozed rubble drifted across our path and the rumble of heavy machinery was everywhere. Out of the destruction, several major public works are emerging, including a tunnel and a railway bridge. In the meantime, diversions and delays are so bad for motorists that one resident told us,”I try to avoid driving in Gothenburg.”

Approaching the city on the tandem we had the good fortune to meet a German couple heading in the opposite direction. They said they had added an extra 30km to their journey by getting lost as they skirted the chaos and warned us to be on our guard. A local cyclist was more positive. Follow the temporary road signs to Centum and you should be ok, he said. It was good advice but still we managed to lose the signs a couple of times in the maze of closures, alternatives routes, traffic mayhem and temporary railings, barricades and traffic cones. Judy was off the back of the bike at every opportunity asking the way and eventually we found ourselves sweeping over a long cycle bridge and heading towards the Central Railway Station. From there we picked our way through the busy streets - Judy walking ahead with George the GPS and me trying not to push the tandem into people's shins.

The Clicking Noise.

A day’s rain on our ride south temporarily fixed our squeak. We set off in the rain and there wasn’t a sound - the tandem gliding with only a hum from the tyres. The next day the bad weather vanished and the noise gradually came back. We remain puzzled but the bike shows no signs of falling apart.

Evening at Fjällbacka, Sweden. We loved this little town which is popular with tourists in summer but has only a thousand or so permanent residents in the winter months. It is well known in Sweden as the setting for a series of crime novels by Camilla Lackberg.

When she wasn't starring in films like
 Casablanca, Ingrid Bergman spent her
summers on a little island off Fjällbacka,
 and was a familiar face in the town where
she shopped. Today, the town square is
 named after her. 
Bronze Age rock carving - The Woman
from Fossum. 
Sauvignon Blanc Never Tasted So Good

We all have moments we know we will remember. We had one the other day. Approaching Norway’s southern border with Sweden we detoured down a stony path to a lakeside picnic table and said”hi” to a family nearby. We chatted with them about the weather (it’s been an unseasonably hot start to summer), swimming, the lake’s temperature (22°C) and even admitted we were impressed with Norway's political system and its politicians to explain some of the many reasons we are travelling in this part of the world. Politics led to taxes and alcohol and we explained that alcohol was prohibitively expensive for us in Norway. (We read somewhere that NOK 67 is swallowed in taxes on a NOK 100 bottle of French wine.)
They were a lovely family, and we pushed on with our ride thinking this is why we travel by bike - a tandem is a great way to break down barriers and start a conversation.
A few hours later we had our tent pitched by another lake - this one just inside the Swedish border. So much for the great start to summer. A cool breeze was whipping over the water and the sky was darkening, torn clouds and spits of rain.
Suddenly a man appeared clutching a bottle of wine and wearing a broad smile. It was our new friend Torbjørn. In his other hand he held two chilled wine glasses. It was one of those,”I can’t believe it” moments.

Torbjørn turns up with a bottle of NZ Sauvignon Blanc.

Rugged up against a chill wind, we
toasted our new friends.

Torbjørn explained that he and his wife, Vigdis, had been talking about us on their drive home and decided to surprise us. Vigdis had to work, but Torbjørn found a bottle of New Zealand Stoneleigh Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge. Knowing where we planned to camp, he drove back and found us. We tried to coax him into sharing the wine with us but he declined, reminding us that Norway's drink drive rules are very strict and he had to drive home. They simply wanted us to enjoy their gift on our own.
We shook hands, exchanged email addresses and he left. 
We put on our warmest jackets, found a comfortable table and chairs and put our feet up. The wine was bliss. We toasted Norway, Torbjørn and Vigdis and their family. And it didn’t rain.

It had to happen. George the Bastard Child led us off route
and on to a ferry we didn't even know existed. The detour
added another 25k to our day.

Once off the ferry, George found a busy road with a bikes prohibited sign. 
Too late. We were on it before we realised and had to stay on it for several
 kilometres until the first off ramp.

Saturday 9 June 2018

On the Road Again

Current Location: Halden, Norway 

Distance Cycled This Trip: 158k

“My nose just skidded in my yoghurt,” I told Judy and waited for her reaction. She laughed, and continued licking her plate. I wiped the blob of yoghurt off the end of my nose with a grubby finger and licked that. Every mouthful counts when you are cycling touring, and day one would be no different from the others that follow.

After three days we are slipping back into our old ways - getting up, breakfast, ablutions, packing the tent and sleeping bags and loading the bike. It’s a familiar routine although we haven’t toured with a tent since 2015.

Some things are different though. We are surprised at how hard the cycling is - especially when we are no more than 200 metres above sea level and it would be exaggerating to say the countryside is  anything more difficult than rolling.

On day three, from Utne to the fortress town of Halden in southern Norway we had a fresh headwind and the temperature was around the mid 20s, which seemed hot after our few days inside the Arctic Circle. After 54k we were exhausted as we struggled into town and pushed the bike uphill to a campground which lies nestled in a 17th century fortress built to repulse the Swedes. The fortress worked and today it is a treasured monument to when the Swedes were the “enemy”. 

Some excellent cycle paths in Norway, but for the first few days we struggled
to get back into the old routine. 

Bridge under a bridge. A clip on for
 the exclusive use of cyclists and

We called for a rest day and discussed why the cycling was so tough. Was it because we are that much older? Should we have trained more? Is it the winding nature of the cycle ways and their intersections which prevent us from building up speed. Could it just have been that headwind which made itself felt on two of the three days? Are we carrying too much luggage? It’s probably a combination of several factors and we can only hope things get better or this is going to be a tough trip.

There have been a couple of other issues as well. The bike's old clicking noise returned at the very onset of the trip and we can’t trace its source. It's irritating, and I worry that that something is about to fail on the bike. It only happens when we pedal - downhill coasting is fine - so I suspect the transmission. I tried oiling the brand new chains in the unlikely event there was a stiff link. I tightened the bolts that adjust the chain tensions. There was no excess play or rumblings in the pedals and no noise from the bottom brackets that might suggest a problem there. All good, so the search widened. At Judy’s suggestion I let some air out of the tyres. Still no difference. Finally I fiddled with the couplings that enable the bike's frame to be separated in two for transport.  All to no avail. The exasperating clicking sound continues and we have no idea how to stop it. If it is still with us in Germany we might throw ourselves at the mercy of a bike mechanic. Maybe they have an expert on strange clicking noises.

We are also having some navigation issues. The cycling here in Norway is wonderful in a sense. Cycle paths are everywhere, and on the odd occasion they are not, cyclists are allowed to ride on the footpaths. There are so many options with paths crisscrossing each other, going through tunnels under the roads and on bridges over motorways and railway lines. And signposts to places we have never heard of. 

George the GPS - in his more wilful moments referred to as the Bastard Child - has worked pretty well guiding us through this labyrinth but the routes I designed on Map My Ride back in NZ are about to run out. The planning was just to get us started. Now with Garmin’s idiosyncrasies, erratic wifi and only an iPad it is going to be difficult to keep on top of the navigation. We don’t really want to use paper maps at this stage, we know they won’t have the detail we need and are likely to be out of date as more cycle routes are developed. All we can do is take it one day at a time and avoid riding on the M6 motorway which is often not far away from us as we head south from Oslo.
The border town of Halden, Norway. Best known for its fortress, infamous for its scraps between local politicians and home to one of Norway's two nuclear reactors.

Fredriksten Fortress offers views over Halden and some
nice walking - once you are up the hill.

Handel in Halden                                      

As we rode into Halden yesterday we spotted a couple of notices posted in the outskirts. “Handel in Halden” they said with today’s date underneath.

“Fancy a bit of culture", asked Judy. We agreed a concert - perhaps even an outdoor one held at the fortress - could be fun if the tickets weren’t outrageously expensive.

This morning we promenaded along the waterfront with lots of happy Norwegians enjoying another fine, sunny day, all the time keeping an eye open for any more of the posters and a clue to where and when today’s performance was to be held. No sign. And the Tourist Information Office wasn’t open. 

We came across a busy Saturday market, selling the usual knick knacks, food and drink and hardly cheap clothing. Still nothing. 

In desperation Judy contemplated going into a pharmacy to ask, then asked herself,”why would they know”.

I spotted what looked like a ticket office - it said something like biticklrts on a sign. As we came closer we saw it wasn't a booking agent. It was a fast food joint selling pizzas and kebabs. 

Judy tried a bookshop - “they’re the sort of people who might know.” But she emerged saying there was a sale underway and the staff were far to busy to interrupt them.

Back in the street market we thought our luck had changed when we stumbled across a  stall selling festival tickets for next month. If anyone would know, they would.

Judy explained. “We are cyclists. As we rode into town we saw signs for Handel in Halden, but we can’t find out anything more. Can you help us?”

“You’re here,” someone responded at once. “Handel means um... shopping. This is the shopping market on a Saturday.”

“So has Handel in Halden got anything to do with Handel, you know, the classical composer guy?" 


Public performance on the Halden waterfront.

Wednesday 6 June 2018

A Kökup... Or How To Avoid Cycling an Awfully Long Way

Current Location: Bergen, Norway
Distance Cycled This Trip:53km
Current Weather: 29/17 sunny
“Isn’t it great there’s nothing much to see here” - Judy the Stoker.
She’s right. We are enjoying Bergen, Norway’s second city, and the fact that we feel there is NOTHING WE MUST DO. Instead we have been catching up on sleep, walking, people watching and adjusting to Norway the way Norwegians like it.

                                                    Not a tandem in sight, but Judy 
                                                      takes an opportunity to pose.

That last bit means Sunday is a day of rest (shops are closed), heavy metal rules, kindergartens place their emphasis on social skills rather than “proper” learning (no school until age six), people tend not to wear hats in the sun (haven’t they heard of skin cancer?), electric and hybrid cars outsell diesel and petrol ones and Norwegian men are far too sensible to give in to the dictates of fashion and wear a stubble.

                                         Sunbathing in a Bergen park. Hats are seldom seen.

On top of all that, Norwegian politicians of all persuasions are used to a tradition of consensus and  coalition building. 
It all sounds too good to be true but it is. And the sun hasn’t stopped shining since we arrived.

                             Who hasn’t seen The Scream by Edvard Munch. But the real thing 
                             in Oslo’s National Gallery reinforced the anguish of the desperate 
                                     soul. Was it the couple, oblivious, or as Dylan sang, “the sky is on fire.”

Inside Oslo’s Opera House - impressive enough to
give the Sydney Opera House a run for its money.

The Beast is Shackled
The tandem languishes in a hostel basement in Oslo - the result of stunningly bad planning on my part.
Back in New Zealand with my feet up, a beer in one hand and a map of Europe’s long-distance cycleways spread on my lap, it was easy to be ambitious. I focused on the Eurovelo 7, a 7,000km jaunt that meanders its way south from Nordkapp in the Arctic Circle to Malta. 
Somehow I got the idea past Judy. “We could do it over two summers,” she said.
Before Judy changed her mind, I booked an eye wateringly expensive cabin on a ferry to Honningsvag, inside the Arctic Circle. The ship would have plenty of room to take our tandem and I was happy to be setting us up for an epic bike ride.

                                                    Judy tests her travel pillow before 
                                                   takeoff from Auckland airport.

The plan started to come undone when Judy read an eBook with the title: Kök and Tvätt - Through Scandanavia on a Tandem. It was by an English couple who had done exactly the ride we were contemplating - down the EV7.
“You know, it sounds terrible," Judy reported back. "It’s 3,000km just to get out of Scandinavia. The EV7 led them all over the place. And all there is to see are trees, with really long distances between places to buy food. It’s really expensive. It rained the whole time. They nearly froze to death. And the mozzies are so bad she had to go to hospital.”
I detected a small problem. While Judy had not declared open revolt, I knew the signs. Besides, the sound of those mozzies was putting me off as well.
Time for a rethink, made trickier knowing I had paid half the fare on the Hurtigruten ferry and in time the company would come chasing me for the other half. 
We went for a walk and I hatched a new plan.

Sunset in Bergen. An old lighthouse down the road from our Airbnb.

Norway celebrates Constitution
Day with a mix of marching bands,
flags and hotdogs.

Fly to Oslo and leave the tandem there for a couple of weeks. Train to Bergen on Norway's western coast, ferry to the Arctic, fly back to Oslo and start cycling. We would cut out a vast chunk of Scandinavia and escape most of the mozzies. 
“Done deal,” said Judy. So here we are in Bergen minus the bike.

By train from Oslo to Bergen. It was late May and still plenty of snow as we
gained altitude through the mountainous interior. 
“By the way what’s the deal with the weird name of that book - Kök and Tvätt?” I asked Judy.
“Oh that. There were signs on two doors in a Swedish campground. They assumed one was the men’s toilets and the other the women’s. Turned out one was the kitchen and the other the laundry. They thought it was funny. Bit of a Kökupreally.”
GPS George to the Rescue
The Beast has clocked up 53km so far this trip. That’s the distance from Oslo airport to our hostel on the outskirts of the city centre. We made the ride with scratchy eyes and almost hallucinating after the long flight from New Zealand - 17 hours on the Auckland-Dubai leg, a two hour stopover and then hours to Oslo.
It took us four hours to get through the airport formalities, find the bike and reassemble it in a quiet corner of the terminal. We were too knackered to take our usual photo of the assembly process. We changed into our cycling gear, dumped the cardboard boxes behind a rubbish bin and pushed out into the street. 
We spent a pleasant few days at the Youth Hostel in Oslo.
It was 4pm. We hoped desperately that George the GPS (also known as the Bastard Child) would behave himself, and for once he did. My downloaded map of Norway came up after a couple of minutes, the familiar black triangle showed us we were exactly where we knew we were, and a blue line led off into the distance. Oh happy days. 
The route was almost entirely on cycle paths - this is Europe after all - but one modest hill threatened to be our undoing as we huffed and puffed our way up. Time was dragging on, but we need not have worried. It was still very much daylight when we rode into our hostel at 9pm.

Wednesday 30 May 2018

Little Things That Matter

Bergen, Norway

The Allen key fitted snugly into the bolt on the seat post. I turned it. Tighter. Tighter. Crack - the bolt sheared.

We’re talking a tandem here, and the bolt not only held my saddle in position, but also Judy’s handlebars. I gave them a nudge and they shifted out of alignment. Quite easily. Too easily. There was no way Judy could ride the bike like this. 

It was almost the last straw. Twenty four hours in the air and a two hour stopover in Dubai. We were in serious red eye territory - so exhausted I was having to talk my way through the process of reassembling the tandem in Oslo’s airport terminal. 

“Inflate the tyres. No, no. Not like that. Fully inflate them. Tight as… remember we have a full load with all our camping gear, stove, sleeping bags and stuff. And that Rohloff hub. It needs fresh oil to guarantee the gears run smoothly. Double check those bolts on the back rack are tight. Same goes for that bolt in the seat post. Whoops. Too tight. You idiot. What did you do that for?”

Take a deep breath. Think. 

“Do I have a spare bolt? No. Can we ride the bike like this? No. Can I ‘borrow’ a similar bolt from elsewhere on the bike? No. Hang on. Aren’t there a couple of spare bolts handily stored on that spanner? Right diameter. Too short. Really? Come on. Must be able to get a couple of turns on that - just enough to bridge the gap. Yes. Just long enough but don’t over tighten it this time or I’ll strip the thread. Let’s wiggle Judy’s handlebars. They seem tight. We’ll give it a pass but I must remember to get a longer bolt.  

Bergen waterfront

Several days later we are in Bergen, on Norway’s west coast. The tandem has been left behind in Oslo while we holiday before starting our cycle tour. Now while we have time we must get that spare bolt. Also, some fuel for our cooker. It’s a Swedish Trangia which burns methylated spirits. I have carefully written down the Norwegian word for meths - Rödsprit - but we have no idea where to start looking. Maybe a gas station? 

We find an Avis car rental place and a helpful man tells us the nearest petrol station is two kilometres away. Too far on foot. I pull out my notebook and turn to the page with the word Rödsprit. He immediately knows what we are talking about and consults a colleague.

We retrace our steps to a mall and find a paint and decorating shop called  Clas Ohlson. There in Row 104 are bottles containing a red-tinted liquid. Now for the bolt.

Judy has on her phone and takes us on a walking route to the nearest bike shop -  1.5km way. Out of the small city centre the streets are emptier and more peaceful. Graceful old buildings line the way, and we walk through a lovely park with our ears tuned to the sound of running water. People are sunbathing. A smart cycle/pedestrian bridge crosses an arm of the harbour and can be raised and lowered to let boats through.

The doors to the bike shop are securely closed. Maybe it’s lunchtime. As we try to decipher a sign, a man sweeps up on a fixed gear bike.

“Great. Are you about to open up?” we ask.

“No, I need a new front tire.”

AirBnB, Bergen. Cosy, nice surroundings but the owner had a nasty bug and we both 
expected to catch colds.

 We look at it. The tube is starting to poke out  through the tyre wall. He looks at the sign.

“They’re closed for a week,” he says. “No reason.”

We ask him if there is another bike shop nearby and he Googles. “About a kilometre, up that way and turn right. I might see you there,” and off he rolls at speed.

We follow on foot, and sure enough he’s there puffing up his new tyre when we arrive.

A salesmen leads us out to the workshop. A mechanic rummages in a tray and shows us two bolts - one is longer than we need. The other is exactly right. For 10 kroner we take them both. Always pays to have a spare. Sometimes it’s the little things that count.

The Statsraad Lehmkuhl is a three-masted sail training vessel based in Bergen. It serves as a school ship for the Royal Norwegian Navy.

Near the top of Floyen, one of the peaks within easy hiking distance of Bergen's centre. The walk, or the funicular ride, has become popular with tourists keen to visit the location of a grisly murder in Jo Nesbo's fictional bestseller, The Snowman.