Spending the first half of May in Japan was interesting, but I was extremely tired when I returned home. Japan is a completely safe country to visit, yet I was unable to relax there. So many things needed to be explored and examined. I barely found time to sleep. Especially because the Japan that I like the most, was the version that only shows up late at night, when almost everyone are in their beds. Walking the dark streets. Watching tired people on their way home from a long day at work. For their size, the cities of Japan turn extremely quiet as midnight approaches. I love that. And I lost a lot of sleep because of that.
Now, what to do when you’re awfully tired? Well, in my case I prefer to just leave my daily routine and replace it with something much simpler. Like walking.
Southern Norway was exceptionally warm and sunny this May. I had another week before I had to show up at work again, and the forecast for that whole week was of the kind that would only bother someone whose life depended on selling enough umbrellas. I decided it was time to go hiking.
Ten years ago I hiked a long distance trail in Norway called Jotunheimstien. It starts in downtown Oslo and can take you all the way to Jotunheimen, a national park in one of the most scenic parts of Norway. It’s 320 kilometers long, a distance that took me 11 days to complete. I enjoyed it so much that I started looking for similar experiences. During the last decade I have completed several multi-day walks, including 800 kilometers of Camino de Santiago all across Spain, a 600 kilometers long stretch of Via Francigena from Milan to Rome, the Overland Track across Tasmania, Australia, and others. They’ve all been good to me.
Jotunheimstien has a sibling; Rondanestien. It starts along the same route, but after 50 kilometers it heads east where Jotunheimstien heads west. Soon after that split, it actually goes right past my house, just north of Oslo Airport. Following it from there will quickly lead you into deep forest, and then you’re pretty much on your own, in the wild, until you finish the trail as you find yourself surrounded by musk oxen and magnificent mountains at Hjerkinn, in Rondane National Park. There you will be much closer to Trondheim than to Oslo. I’d love to have done that.
A couple of years ago I spent a very long day covering the 60 kilometers from Oslo to where I live. It’s normal to hike Rondanestien one section at a time. Many will spend several years doing sections before they’ve completed the whole trail. So I decided that now I would start from my house and call this my second section of the trail.
I had a week at my disposal, and I had no idea how far I would be able to hike. Theoretically, I could complete the entire trail by walking about 12 hours per day. Late May is a great time for long hikes, as there are just 3-4 hours around midnight that are too dark for safe walking. So I threw lots of food, snacks and a few water bottles into my backpack, so that I would have enough calories for a full week of really hard hiking. Then I added a couple of changes of clothes, an extra pair of shoes, my sleeping bag and a tent. And an iPad, a mobile phone, my camera and plenty of extra batteries. We don’t live in the stone age, after all.
Eventually I was ready to start walking. My feet had to carry about 27 kilograms more weight than they’re used to. It’s a bit much, but I felt reasonably comfortable with all that on my back.
The first day went surprisingly well. I spent most of it walking along and across pastures as green as they get. My potentially last hot meal in a week was not wasted. Although only 5 hours had passed since I enjoyed a healthy breakfast at home, I feasted on junk food at a petrol station. Then I entered the forest, and that’s when the real hike began. Junk food or not, I immediately knew that there was no way this day would come with a surplus of calories.
Silly me had imagined that walking through the forest now would be relatively easy. This area had not seen rain for weeks, so the ground should be nice and dry, basically a pleasure to hike. It certainly was dry, but I had not anticipated the enormous number of fallen trees blocking the trail. Last winter was unusually rich on snow. Trees, flexible beings that they are, usually handle the extra load of winter well. When there’s too much of it, however, heavy snow can make trees snap so that the top half of it comes down. Sometimes the snow may even topple entire trees. And this year, there had been a lot of that.
Instead of merrily whistling on an easy hike through a magical forest, I spent much of the afternoon loudly swearing at no one and laughing at how ridiculously hard it was to make my way around, over and beneath the many fallen trees that blocked the trail. Some sections of the forest at least doubled in walking distance because I had to crisscross my way between corpses of trees, instead of just going straight on the trail. And don’t get me started on how much harder it is to bend down and go under a fallen tree, when you carry a huge and heavy load on your back. Let’s just say it slowed me down a bit.
Yet, at last I managed to get to where I had hoped to camp for the night. A pretty lake with a burning red sunset was all it took to reignite some hiking enthusiasm in me. I devoured some chocolate while in the company of hordes of mosquitoes, before escaping into my tent for some heavy sleeping.
Next day brought more forest, standing and fallen. I was out of good water, so I had to start drinking whatever water I could find. As long as it’s moving and not too smelly, it’s usually okay. That doesn’t mean it feels good drinking it. You just don’t really have a choice. So I drank it, spitting out any tadpoles and larvae that came along. I’m honestly not sure if it made me feel more silly or more manly.
Anyway, it was a good day, and at the end of it I found an old loggers’ cabin. It’s the least well maintained construction I’ve ever slept in. From the outside it looked like a rugged hiker’s dream, but on the inside it was crap. The floor was dirt and full of highways for ants. The walls didn’t go all the way to the ground, so spiders feasted like kings on mosquitoes attempting to come inside in search of fresh blood. A bird kept flying into the cabin through the chimney, to lie on her eggs in a nest in a corner of the cabin. In another corner there was a busy hornets’ nest. I just pitched my tent inside the cabin, and then I was fine. It was the only remotely flat surface I could find in the area.
The craziest thing about it, though, was that after almost no mobile phone coverage on the trail that day, this place actually had a solid 4G signal. The 19th century people of the forest sure had their priorities straight! So there I was, in an ancient structure for lumberjacks, streaming Netflix until I fell asleep. (Granted, it just took about two minutes.)
Next day? You guessed it. More forest. I was getting used to the pain from carrying the heavy backpack, and I had stopped being bothered by the flies and mosquitoes swarming around my head. I just walked on autopilot, effortlessly scanning the trail for obstacles, while thinking about all kinds of things, coming up with solutions or at least new approaches to all kinds of problems. Tokyo has a lot to offer, but not this.
I had a good look at my progression on the trail this far. I had made it nowhere near as far as I had hoped. If I pushed myself to get as far as possible, I would likely be in the middle of nowhere when the time came that I needed to get back to work. And from that place, I might be two days away from the nearest road. So I decided to slow down and stop my hike at a comfortable cabin, Tingstadkoia.
Norway has a lot of cabins that are owned by DNT, a trekkers association. They can all be unlocked with the same key, and members of the association can buy a copy of that key for a small, symbolic sum. Then you pay another minor fee per night you spend in these cabins. And most of them are really fine and mosquito-proof cabins, with proper beds, a kitchen, all the firewood you can wish for, and an outhouse. Some can host two people, others have place for dozens of guests. Whatever the size of the cabin, as long as there’s any space for another person anywhere in the cabin, no one will be denied sheltering there for the night.
Also, you don’t have to carry any money. Payment is done on an honor system. You just sign the log in the cabin, and then you pay on-line for your accommodation if you ever make it back to civilization. Some cabins even stock a wide variety of food items that you can feel free to just consume and then later pay for on-line. It’s a lovely system.
Because I called it a day relatively early, I picked up an axe and a saw and spent a few hours fixing the trail near the cabin. The fallen trees didn’t stand a chance. It was a massacre.
On the fourth day I sort of returned to humanity. After not talking to anyone for almost three full days and then suddenly seeing people, it’s difficult to not just walk over and start blabbering about all the things you’ve thought about lately. But you have to, because you don’t want to seem like the crazy person that you possibly are, walking around all alone in the forest like that.
My people encounter happened at a small lake near Elverum, Rokosjøen. There were a lot of them. And they enjoyed themselves tremendously, escaping the heat at home to come here and swim in the pleasantly cool lake. I did the same, although to me it was mainly an opportunity to clean up somewhat. Drying in the sun afterwards, I sinned. I had just bog water to drink and melted chocolate and some dried meat to eat. Looking over at the others with all their cool drinks and barbecue food, I did absolutely covet my neighbour’s goods. But I’m way too shy, or possibly proud, to walk over and ask if they would be willing to sell some of their luxury items.
So I packed up my things and walked on. To another cabin, Svartskogkoia. I spent the night, and next morning I got up and walked another half day to find a bus to Hamar, from where I took a train home. I had almost reached the halfway point of Rondanestien, and I was really happy about it. This was a good place to break off the trail. Now I just have to wait until I have 8-10 days with a decent weather forecast on my hands. As soon as that happens, I can easily return and pick up my trail.
I’ll let you know when that happens. In the meantime, feel free to ask me any questions you may have about this trail or long distance hiking in general.
Oh, and I also made a gallery with lots of images from this hike. If you’re interested, find it here.