Hitchhiking, Are – Lofoten

I woke up one morning in a filthy tent in Munich just outside of Oktoberfest with the sudden realisation that I didn’t want to drink alcohol anymore. Ever. When the seven-week bender was finally over I went back to sledding dogs in Sweden for the winter and barely touched another drop since then. So now that my party boy days were well and truly over, what comes next? I’d travelled for years around Europe, had a lot of fun and met some amazing people, just finished a second dog sledding season in the snow, and now sat contemplating ‘is this all there is?’.

I’d all but given up my party lifestyle of drugs and alcohol, finally realising these things ultimately failed to satisfy me in the long term. Adventure was calling. I was being drawn to live a life surrounded by nature. My lifestyle in Sweden was full of outdoor adventure. Inspired by the feel good feelings of active sobriety in the snow, I decided to head further north for the summer to the Nordic summer playround, the Lofoten Islands.  

Norway is the ultimate playground for thrill seekers. The mountainous terrain is a hiker’s paradise. Home to some of the world’s best scenery, and some of the world’s biggest price tags. I searched workaway.info for potential volunteer opportunities to help ease the financial difficulties. I was contacted by Arne and Guri about helping renovate a hostel on Lofoten islands, in the far north west. 

I found a book about a man who had hitch hiked all the way from Tasmania to London. The stunning effort, and random unpreparedness for the journey strikingly resonated with me. Jamie Maslin somehow made it through across the bass strait on a yacht, through the middle of Australia, jumped on a boat from Darwin to Asia, and hitch hiked through the middle east all the way to Europe. He took a few months to do it and spent just over one thousand pounds, relying entirely on the generosity of friendly motorists.

I planned my own long distance hitch for the summer, from Sweden to Norway, roughly one thousand kilometres, and from there to the south of Portugal, basically north to south down the entire continent. I planned to do workaway volunteer jobs along the way. In order to be entirely self sufficient, I purchased a Hennesy Hammock, sleeping bag rated at -7 degrees, a sleeping mat, pots and pans and a portable stove. The professionally designed hammock can be slung between trees of varying distances and comes with a mosquito proof net and waterproof canopy that’s easily set up in minutes. I’d never use a tent again after sleeping in the hammock.

The best time of the year in Sweden is femte sasong (the fifth season). Spring-winter, a brief period when snow is yet to melt on the ski mountains and the sun is strong enough to ski shirtless due to the extra warmth produced from reflecting off the snow. A particularly warm one this year saw temperatures rise as high as 17 degrees a few days in a row. 

The summer vibes meant I had a pack containing minimal winter clothing. It was fortunate, therefore, that a huge snowstorm hit on the day I planned to leave. I stayed indoors one more night, restructured my pack with winter gear, and watched nervously as the snow fell outside, knowing I’d be amongst soon.

I was on the road early in Are and waited 25 minutes for my first ride. From there I was driven to Storlein, a small Swedish ski village on the border of Sweden and Norway. A popular place for Norwegians to come and stock up on cheap Swedish booze and food. This pilgrimage is repeated by the Swedes who go to Denmark, the Danes to Germany, and the Germans stock up in Poland. 

Knowing the place is full of Norweigans eager for a cheap drink, I stood at the exit, interrupting shoppers as they leave to ask for a ride. A few polite refusals and multiple bizarre shakes of the head occurred until a friendly couple agreed to drop me at the junction that heads north to Steinkjer. The man works at Parkvillan restaurant, in the village I lived at in Sweden, and happened to be a colleague of my good friend Petra, who had been a volunteer at wild spirit over Christmas time. On the drop off it’s difficult finding a suitable place to hitch a ride further north to Steinkjer. I patrol the motorway near the airport, hopefully to catch outgoing cars heading northbound. A young couple pull over, just shy of the airport exit. The guy who’s driving is extremely quizzical of his new companion. Seemingly very interested in how I’m able to live a self-sustainable lifestyle from a backpack. They drop me at a gas station in the centre of Steinkjer where it’s possible to hike up and see the world’s largest garden chair. The gas shop attendant points me in the right direction, and despite the gas attendant, and my chauffeur warning of rain and snow forecast, I make the ascent up the steep hill anyway.

Overlooking a spectacular view of mountains and ocean sitting atop the garden chair, with dark clouds hovering overhead, I breathed a sigh of relief, took some quick snaps and scaled down the mountain in search of a place to set up my hammock. I crawled inside my cosy cocoon moments before the rain hits. There’s a contentment unlike no other, listening to the heavy rain pouring down on the protective canopy just centimetres from my comfortable dry bed. In the morning I bounce my aching legs triumphantly down the mountain, greeted by an enthusiastic elderly Norwegian man, clearly surprised to have his morning exercise partially interrupted by a Tasmanian man climbing down from the trees after his first successful night on the road. Having no clue of my next destination, and no phone to assist with GPS coordinates, the old man assists me, studying my map, a brochure which I picked up from the helpful gas station attendant the night before. I am advised by the man to head for Brønnøysund, along the coast of Helgeland. It sounds good to me, a fond farewell with the cheerful grandpa, a quick freshen up at the local shopping mall and wait patiently on the E6, next stop Brønnøysund. 

I’m unable to find a suitable hitching point and exhausting time and energy by walking around the city, constantly confused by overcomplicated signage and the fact all I have for map reference is a tourist brochure from a gas station. Finally, a middle aged man pulls over and offers to drive me a few minutes up the road to a better spot to hitch, on the E6 headed to Brønnøysund. A better spot indeed but few cars are passing and once again dark clouds begin to form overhead. As it starts raining my fondest hitch hiking memories begins. A car pulls over and when I hop in I’m introduced to Nils, a family man headed towards Brønnøysund. Nils says in order to get to Brønnøysund I’ll have to catch a ferry; he offers to take me to the dock but warns there may not be another crossing until dawn. An alternative offer is to follow Nils back to his place, where his wife and three children are waiting, with a freshly prepared dinner and warm bed to sleep in for the night. I’m eager to press on but with tired legs and an empty stomach, I gladly accept Nils hospitality and decide to follow him home for the night. On the way, we make a peculiar stop. Nils stops the car 15 minutes after we’d met at a desolate bus stop. Nils instructions are to get my bag, get out of the car and wait at the bus stop for half an hour while he picks up a brand new car.

I follow Nils instructions and begin to wonder if he’ll ever return. I lay down on the solid wooden bus stop bench under a small canopy that somehow keeps me dry from the icy cold rain. A couple of hours passes by and just when I contemplate hitching another ride, true to his word Nils returns sporting a brand new Skoda station wagon. He apologizes for the delay but despite the fact he’s an hour and a half longer than he promised, a horizontal bus station bench is as good as anything to get a moment’s rest. 

Inside the luxurious mobile Nils is keen to test drive his new toy, accelerating around tight bends twisting and turning through the scenic mountains and the pouring rain as we near closer and closer to my final destination for the day. Im relieved to be inside the rally car, watching the horrible weather outside the car window, knowing I won’t need to set up my hammock tonight. 

Nils works 2 weeks on, 1 week off, when we pull into the driveway it’s clear to see which period of the month the children enjoy the most, greeting their father’s arrival with pure joy. while hesitantly acknowledging the random Australian guest with caution. After two solid days of hiking with a heavy pack, my body sinks into the sofa for an overdue rest. I inhale The meatballs with mash potato and mashed peas on offer, with no hesitation to go back for a second and third helping. Washed down with some Norwegian beer, and Australian wine, I crawl into bed a satisfied man, waking 11 hours later, feeling refreshed and ready to continue the journey. 

With rain continuing to pour Nils offers a second night of accommodation, I accept his kind offer and history repeats, filling my stomach with beer, wine and a thick burger with all the fillings. I’ve had a strictly vegetarian diet for almost a year but I feel rude to decline the meaty offering. Helping ease the pain of my meaty indulgence is a soothing bottle of aqua vit, a Swedish snaps often drank after a meal to cleanse the pallet. I roll off to bed early, tomorrow, the whole family would accompany me to Trollgatan, the hat shaped mountain with a perfectly round hole through the middle. Considering the kids don’t speak much English, and I know very minimal Swedish, we interact through body language. I always travel with a packet of cards and know a few card tricks that never cease to amuse. Juggling is another party trick which excites the children and by the end of the night we are the best of friends. 

It’s a magnificent sight from a distance, up close it’s hard to believe the hole wasn’t carved using some sort of machine. Clean cut edges, consistently hollow from one side out to the other. With a cave like appearance it’s interesting to contemplate how this impressive structure formed and for how long it took to mould that way. 

With the relatively easy hike completed the Halsted family treated me to a delicious restaurant lunch, fare welling me in style en route to my next destination, the seven sisters, a spectacular mountain range with seven peaks evenly split over a stretch of approximately 20 KMs. It wasn’t far from Brønnøysund, but was made more difficult and time consuming to reach with several ferry crossings in between. 

It was sad to say goodbye to the Halstad family. I was gifted with a pair of hand knitted woollen gloves from Nils grandmother as Nils wrapped his arms around me, with a teary cheek thanked me with all his heart. I couldn’t return the thanks enough, and promised to return one day with an offer to stay with my family in Australia. 

The 20-minute ferry had only four vehicles on it. I asked the ticket inspector for information on bus times, to which he responded there was none. I would indeed need my own transport. I had a quick look inside each vehicle and found the first one to be full, second was a camper with only two seats, with humans sitting on top of them, the third appeared to have one seat free but perhaps that was for the over excited dog barking mad at me from out the window. So I was left with only one feasible option. which turned out to be another extremely generous motorist. I approached the male driver as we were about to disembark the vessel explaining my intentions, he was more than happy to squeeze me and my pack into the back seat and drive me all the way to the foot of the seven sisters, where he and his sister were headed for dinner at their friends cosy cottage.

I chucked my bag in the back and we began the hour long drive to the next ferry crossing, with an additional hour wait for the next ferry to arrive we could chat about what brings us together in a small motor vehicle weaving through the northern Norwegian mountains. The siblings explain they are also headed for Lofoten, to Svolvær, to meet Knut’s son, who has been studying as a student on the island for the past 6 months. During our chat Knut offers for me to join them for fish soup at their friend’s place. Despite being full and feeling pampered by the previous host I found it to be an offer too hard to refuse. 

We were greeted at the cottage by Knuts friends and welcomed inside. The cosy wooden house was a classic amongst the Norweigan fishing towns. Red exterior with a norweigan flag protruding from a pole on the lawn, Wooden interior, antique furniture, some old paintings hung the walls and there was even a boomerang that reminded me of a home I’d long since been. The frosted wooden framed windows gave rise to a fantastic view of the misty mountain range. 

Over a glass of delicious home brewed red wine and fish soup I mentioned my desire to hike the seven sisters. Unfortunately, dangerous weather would prevent my ambitious goal. Due to the horrendous weather, snow had recovered the peaks and made it impossible to hike safely. Instead, I was ushered up the base of the seven sisters to a viewing platform where I could at least see the impressive mountain range. I walked as far as possible and headed back down just before yet another rain shower to the warm confines of the cottage. I lay my sleeping mat on the floor of the living room and curled up in my sleeping bag until I heard the boiling kettle early the following morning.

Forecasted showers and snow put a dampener on my hiking plans for the following days but thankfully I was in the presence of two helpful Norwegians that were more than happy to have me accompany them all the way to Bodo to catch the ferry across to Lofoten. 

I was moving fast through Norway and was way ahead of schedule. when The ferry pulled into Lofoten around 9pm in the evening I wanted to celebrate the achievement alone and spend a couple of days taking in the spectacular scenery. We found a suitable place to hang my hammock and said farewell to the helpful travellers in the pouring rain.

My first night in the hammock in a little patch of trees off the motorway was freezing cold. Nestled in a valley of mountains, perched on the edge of a lake with lots of snow around. The insulation in my sleeping bag, rated to -7 was being pushed to its limit. Any exposed skin felt the piercing cold air through the bones and make it difficult to have any meaningful sleep. 

I spent the day exploring the local town of Reine. A jaw dropping area of Lofoten which greets travellers as they depart the ferry terminal. The fisherman uses an ancient Viking technique of hanging the fish out to dry for months on massive racks before selling it to eat. The racks are mammoth multi story structures that further add to the mystical natural landscape.

Back at my campsite in the evening, the temperature has plummeted. I boil some water on my trangia and tip it into a hot water bottle to carry into my sleeping bag, hands too cold to make a fire. Initially I thought I’d defeated the cold before it quickly turned to a cold melted liquid pillow. Clothed in full thermals, wool socks, neck warmer and beanie I lay rigid, shivering till morning. Everything is damp outside the hammock so in an attempt to get warm, crawling as far up the mountain as possible, the clouds fade, sun shines through and from down below, a pod of dolphins greet me as I discard all my wet clothing to appreciate more than ever a gift of vitamin D from mother nature.

The hostel is only 50 KMs away but it takes me all day to get there. Short rides here and there, coffee breaks, until finally, my last ride, Stephanie, an energetic German from Berlin, living on Lofoten not far from the hostel, offers me a ride on a tour bus, one that she works on as a guide, and drops me right outside the hostel on the main highway. The brief 20-minute journey is the beginning of my closest relationship on the islands. Stephanie is a friend for life and I’m truly grateful to meet such a beautiful soul. 

I couldn’t have dreamed of a smoother journey from Åre to Lofoten. On paper it was madness; self-sustainable, cold weather, no phone, and few traffic during the shoulder season. But with the help and kindness of a few beautiful people that I believe the world is in large supply of, I was able to travel in almost luxury and seamless ease through some dangerously harsh climate. I travelled roughly 900kms, crossed three ferries and walked about 20kms on foot, spending a mere 50 Norwegian kroner, ($15AUD), on a toothbrush. I’ve made new friends and memories to last a lifetime. 

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