A sleety drizzle falls, and dark, brooding clouds wrap around us. A wind blows steadily from the north-west. It isn’t especially strong, but it carries with it a chill that I feel certain could turn fire to ice. Occasional rays of dim sunlight pierce the overall gloom, lighting streaks of late-spring snows that still lay skulking around mountain peaks. As I walk, and shiver, my feet crunching on the half-frozen heathers and lichens of the tundra, a vision emerges in the distance. It looks like a creature from the last ice age.
I’m hiking through the Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella National Park in central Norway. It might not be a place that’s as internationally famous as the fjords of the west coast, but Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella, which sits at the heart of a cluster of nearly a dozen mountainous and dramatic national parks in the middle of Norway, is every bit as impressive as the fjords. But where the fjords are prim and oh so pretty, the central mountains are wild and often rather intimidating. The fjords receive coaches and boatloads of visitors from all four corners of the planet, while the barren mountains of central Norway are relatively unexplored by foreign tourists (though they’re popular with Norwegians, who generally like nothing more than a wild hike).
Perfectly adapted to the bitter Arctic winters, musk oxen are huge, powerful creatures with buffalo-like horns and thick, woollen coats, which makes their legs look oddly like unnaturally stumpy pegs. Peg legs or not, their sheer bulk and sense of determination makes me nervous as they march towards us, and my guide and I crouch down behind some granite boulders to keep out of sight. Two-thousand years ago, musk oxen were widespread in Norway, but man got the better of them, and they were hunted to extinction. In the 1940s, though, a group of musk oxen from Greenland were reintroduced to Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella. Today, their numbers are on the rise again, and they have spread to other remote highland regions of central Norway. Initially on a crash course with our hiding place, the herd of oxen (which are actually closer related to sheep than ox) suddenly swing as one away from us, tempted by the browsing possibilities of what must have been a particularly succulent patch of lichen. We breathe easy again, and rise from our hiding place to continue with our hike up the cold slopes of the 2,286-metre Mount Snøhtta, the park’s highest mountain.
During the past couple of weeks, I have visited eight different national parks and protected areas in central Norway. Some comprise dense forests filled with elk and rivers busy with beavers. Others, such as the Hardangervidda National Park, have vast, flat vistas of open tundra trodden by herds of reindeer and haunted by white-in-winter, brown-in-summer Arctic foxes. There have been parks that I had almost to myself, such as the Femundsmarka National Park, which abuts the Swedish border, and as I discover, offers fabulous wilderness hikes up boulder-strewn mountain peaks with nothing but eagles and falcons for company. Then there have been the busy, famous parks such as the Rondane National Park, the original protected zone in Norway, and a park with barren, hulking mountains rising to more than 2,000 permanently frozen metres that are among the most awe-inspiring in the country.
Despite their proximity to each other, it fast becomes clear that each and every national park in central Norway offers something different to its neighbours. Together, the parks are one giant adventure playground of the natural world. The range of activities a visitor can partake in here are apparently endless. Cross-country skiing in winter; snowboarding on high glaciers in summer; tunnelling deep under the ice in old mine shafts and ice caves; tiptoeing quietly through silent forests in search of elk; rafting down ferocious river rapids; crunching across glaciers in crampons; sleigh riding with huskies across a snowy winter tundra; and walking for miles through Europe’s greatest mountain wilderness.
South of Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella are the high, frozen peaks of the Jotunheimen National Park. The name translates as the “Home of Giants”. It’s appropriate, because this 1,000-square-kilometre contorted, ruptured landscape is home to the highest mountains in northern Europe (there are 275 mountains within the park reaching more than 2km into the sky), more than 60 glaciers and a seemingly unknowable number of dark, cold lakes, ponds and waterfalls. Despite the forbidding terrain, it’s the most popular national park in Norway, and after my musk-oxen encounter in Dovrefjell-Sunndalsfjella, I venture here to drive the renowned Sognefjellet Road and tackle the Besseggen Ridge.
Known as the Road Over the Roof of Norway, the Sognefjellet Road, for the most part, skirts the northern edge of Jotunheimen National Park, where it climbs to an ice-filled lake at an altitude of 1,434 metres, which makes it the highest surfaced mountain road in northern Europe. It then tumbles down in head-spinning spirals to the fjords more than 1,000 metres below. The road spends much of the year buried under metres of snow, and is only open between about May to September. Even then, snow can be piled up on either side of the road many metres higher than a car (this is especially the case in May and early June).
Starting from Lom, the Sognefjellet Road begins tamely enough, running alongside the Bøver River through farmland, gentle valleys and lowland meadows filled with summer flowers. But up ahead, darting in and out of view, are the high snowy peaks. Round a corner, and suddenly the road lurches upwards, with every bend revealing a view more impressive than the last. Glaciers almost lick the edge of the tarmac, lakes filled with blocks of minty-blue ice sit in the dips, and formidable mountains pierce the snow clouds. With frequent mountain lodges and rest stops, a drive along the Sognefjellet Road is the easy way to feel the spirit of the mountains.
When a country is as scenically blessed as Norway, it hardly comes as a surprise to learn that the citizens are hiking-obsessed. Estimates say that 79 per cent of the Norwegian population go on frequent hikes of longer than half a day. There are thousands of hiking trails throughout the country, and facilities such as mountain lodges are superb. But if there’s one walk that stands out as the most-popular in Norway, it’s the day-long Besseggen Ridge hike. Through the June-to-September hiking season, an estimated 30,000 hikers tramp along the Besseggen Ridge.
When I arrive at the parking area where the trail begins, I find a queue of other vehicles waiting for a parking space and shuttle buses taking hikers to the start of the trail. After all the deserted landscapes I had previously walked in Norway, this was looking like it was going to be something of an anticlimax. But within 30 minutes, every hiker found their rhythm and pace, and the huge scale of the landscape ensures that we’re all spread out evenly along the trail. Suddenly, it doesn’t feel crowded at all.
The high point, in every sense of the meaning, of the Besseggen Ridge walk is the steep clamber up onto the ridge proper. From a distance, it looks narrow and precarious. Having a fear of heights, I purposefully avoid looking down at the blue-green Lake Gjende far, far below. One of Norway’s best-loved authors, Henrik Ibsen, once described the mountains of central Norway as being like “palace piled upon palace”, and as I finally clamber up onto the top of the ridge, I see what he meant. Stretching as far as I can see in all directions are the rising and falling peaks, troughs, ridges and lumps of hundreds of mountains. It looks like an angry sea in a storm, and it’s a view that I wouldn’t have swapped for Buckingham Palace.