Words by Hugh Collins. All images by Athena Mellor
It is said that from the top of Gaustatoppen - Norway's "most beautiful mountain", you can see one sixth of the country spread out beneath you. Not the patchwork quilt of England from the air, its pastel green fields and hedgerows laid out in a neat grid, but rather a land of wild energy, one of dark forests, huge boulder-strewn plateaus and, away to the west, a fjord-fissured coastline. It looks like a land not yet tamed by man, one where trolls and other creatures of the imagination still roam free.
Appearances, though, can be deceptive and among this charged landscape man's hand is there, not taming but guiding. It is the hand of the DNT, the Den Norske Turistforening, or Norwegian Hiking Association, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary.
A little like a mix of the National Trust and Youth Hostel Association, with a sprinkling of the Mountain Bothies Association thrown in too, the DNT's aim is to encourage enjoyment of the Norwegian countryside, be that through guided ski tours in winter, maintenance of over 4,000km of summer hiking trails or its network of some 500 mountain huts in wild, spectacular locations.
"It looks like a land not yet tamed by man, one where trolls and other creatures of the imagination still roam'
Now, other countries have similar huts of course, France its cabannes, Italy its refugios and we have our own bothies, but the DNT and its huts are not just buildings of practicality, they are icons of identity. They are part of what makes Norwegians Norwegian.
To find out more, photographer Athena Mellor and I had headed to Rjukan a small village strung out along the valley floor in the shadow of fierce grey cliffs and Gaustatoppen itself. Rjukan, around three hours west of Oslo, was the location for the DNT's first hut, Krokan, which opened in 1868, and sitting on the edge of the Hardangervidda plateau, Europe's largest Arctic plateau, seemed like the perfect place to dip our toe into the world of hut-to-hut hiking. The plan was simple, ascend to the plateau and spend a few days wandering between huts learning more about why the DNT was held so tenderly in Norwegian hearts.
If the plan was simple, our execution of it wasn't. To get onto the plateau, we had two choices: a cable car (incidentally the first built in Northern Europe), or a steep path of such tightly coiled hairpins and switchbacks that you weren't sure it was a trail or just a map-maker's squiggle checking his pen worked. We, with that curiously British sense of masochism, of course chose the path, which promptly disappeared after little more than half an hour. Muttering swear words beneath our breath, we had no choice but to blunder steeply uphill, crashing through fallen trees and dead branches, hoping to stumble upon the next hairpin of the path.
After nearly an hour's sweaty slog, we caught the sight of two other hikers away to the right and let out a sigh of relief. We headed in their direction and soon rejoined the path still a little unsure how we lost it, and within another hour we found ourselves at the terminal of the cable car.
We stopped into the cafe for a much-needed drink and soon our rucksacks and Athena's Scandinavian looks attracted conversation from an elderly Norwegian man on the table next door. "You're hut to hut hiking!" he exclaimed in perfect English, once he realised we weren't locals, "I used to do that when I was young, staying in some of the huts south of Oslo, it is brilliant way of seeing our beautiful country. Not that England isn't beautiful too!" He added quickly, "I loved Harrods!"
Athena and I looked at each other and then out to the view from the window and wordlessly agreed we'd swap all the tea in Knightsbridge for a little slice of this. Having gained height the next section of the day's hike onto and across the plateau was much easier, made all the more so thanks to the excellent signposting of the path. Every 100 yards or so, a red 't' was splashed upon a boulder, blood-red breadcrumbs for us to follow.
It struck me how much, and how well, the DNT had democratised the landscape. It was wild and rugged yes, spectacularly so, but with comfortable accommodation strung out with day-length walks in between and navigation no problem, Norway's landscapes had been made accessible to all. How different to our own attempts at accessibility, wide, road-like paths and slope-snaking railways, such as on Snowdon.
"It's brilliant way of seeing this beautiful country. Not that England isn't beautiful too!I loved Harrods!"
With navigation easy and the terrain none-too challenging, Athena and I fell into that amiable, companionable silence of hiking, lost in our own worlds and busily engrossed in the new one in which we found ourselves.
The Hardangervidda is one of Europe's last true wildernesses. Hovering at around 1,100m in altitude, it is an area the size of Cornwall but one without any crowds, and in fact for the rest of the day we didn't see another soul. Reminiscent of Scotland's moors, with sparse, low-lying vegetation, the plateau was scattered with large boulders and rocky outcrops and numerous small lakes and streams with the clarity of glacier mints.
Two hours of walking later and we knew we were close to our home for the night, Helberghytta. Before leaving for Norway we'd arranged to be sent a copy of the DNT key, a short, squat key that allows owners and DNT members access to the country's unmanned huts and after a couple of false starts at other nearby cabins, we finally founds ours, swung open the heavy pine door and stepped inside.
There's always a feeling of apprehension stepping into a shared cabin for the first time, not knowing what, or more importantly who, you'll find inside. To our surprise we found no one; we had the 16-bed cabin to ourselves. It was the definition of cosiness, with a wood burning stove, a plentiful log pile and a library of books.
Helberghytta is named after Claus Helberg, one of the daring commandoes who launched a raid against the German-held heavy water plant in Rjukan during WWII (immortalised in the Heroes of Telemark film) and on one of the cabin's walls was a map explaining the raid in more detail. Claus and his friends would have had a far more comfortable time had they been staying in his eponymous hut - the place would outlast an apocalypse.
As one of the DNT's 'provisioned' huts, it came with food supplies that hikers buy on an honesty basis, everything from biscuits, porridge to tinned concoctions called "Sodd" and "Bog". We steered clear of those. Instead we settled down to dinner of pasta and cups of hot chocolate and watched as the sun steadfastly refused to set. It was just a few days after midsummer and we sat outside our cabin in the sunshine until 11pm, in absolute solitude.
Rising early the next morning thanks to the spectacular light, we shouldered our packs and set off further into the plateau towards our next hut, Kalhovd. The distance was around 24km, so a good day’s walk and the scenery was, if anything, even more beautiful than the day before.
After a short climb we crossed a ridge and before us was a landscape of large lakes dotted with countless rocky islets, and surrounded by small hills. It was utterly breathtaking, and again there was no one else in sight. It felt as if we had the whole plateau as our private playground.
So for the next six hours, as we walked towards Kalhovd, we stopped frequently: we scurried up hills for photographs, wild swam in cool, crystal-clear lakes and filled our bottles from fast-flowing streams.
It came as a slight shock therefore, as we descended to the fjord-side Kalhovd to see cars in the car park and groups of hikers sat out on the hut’s balcony. Reached by a rough track road, Kalhovd is one of the DNT’s more popular huts and a pleasant contrast to Helberghytta, with a friendly bustle in the reception area.
Staffed throughout the summer season, Kalhovd sleeps 75 (although as the girls working there said, they will never turn anyone away), and the hut is also famed for its use of local produce in the included dinner and breakfast.
After a bracing dip in the fjord, we headed for dinner and sat at long canteen-style tables as the chef introduced the three course meal. As each successive course arrived (one day it was pan-fried trout caught in the fjord a stone’s throw away, on another a huge lamb shank), we chatted to those sat beside us.
One, a teacher from Oslo holidaying with his two sons, told us that he and his wife had just joined the DNT as they were keen to get their children outdoors hiking and cycling, “Everyone joins eventually.” he laughed, and we struggled to find reasons why you wouldn’t.
Such was the welcome, we spent an extra night at Kalhovd, going on a day’s circular walk up onto the fell and across to the nearby lake Mår, returning by the rough track popular with cycle tourists. That evening we struck up a friendship with some elderly cattle farmers who’d escaped for a couple of days in the mountains, and they offered us a lift back down to the Rjukan the following morning.
On the journey, as the wife knitted a pattern cardigan, we discussed everything from the DNT, house prices in Norway and the country’s changing politics. “We don’t like how things are going,” Sigrid said looking up from her knitting. “The gap between the rich and the poor is too wide - everyone should be the same.”
It is that sense of equality, that was most evident in the DNT. It was an organisation for all, cyclists or hikers, old friends, families or younger wilderness-fanatics, and for a couple of the best days hiking I’ve ever had, us too.
Do It Yourself
We flew from London Heathrow to Olso with Norwegian. From Oslo airport it's a 3 hour bus journey to Rjukan, with a change in Notodden.
We stayed in Norwegian huts provided by the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT)
To find out more on the Hardangervidda and visiting the country, visitnorway.com