Walking in Norway – Part 1

We left for Norway or rather Copenhagen after Prague. But not before we almost ‘lost’ the house cats in Prague…

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One of the housecats in Prague. This cat is rather adorable in his own way. He loves eating and purrs a lot. These cats hardly wander into the rooms when we leave the doors open. They love the garden and often wander outside. Which was how we managed to lock them out for a whole night. It was the day of the wedding and we were out for the whole day and it was late when we got back that night. We didn’t check if the cats were in the house and just went to bed. We woke the next day and it occured to me then that I haven’t seen the cats in  a while. I asked M’s mom if she has. So we started looking for the cat and kept the door of the kitchen opened for them to come in if they were in the garden. This big grey cat came out from the garden hedges all soaked and he was mewing piteously when he was walking gingerly over to the kitchen door. The other cat slipped in a little more dignified manner when we all weren’t looking.

Before we left the house in Prague that morning, I heard a piece of distressing news. It was 3:30am as our flight from Prague to Copenhagen was 7am. M informed me right after I got up that he forgot his driver’s licence at home in Singapore; about 9,842 km away.

I must be dreaming, I thought to myself and was about to walk back to bed. M repeated again and asked if I had my driver’s licence with me and I knew it wasn’t a dream when it was also confirmed by his father who was researching online for some alternatives.

Why is that important? Because our plan was to fly into to Copenhagen, rent a car from the airport and drive to Oslo and then to the Jotunheimen area, where we would hike through Jotunheimen South from Gjendesheim through Besseggen ridge to somewhere before making our loop back to the car. The drive from Copenhagen to Oslo is about 606.3km according to Google Maps. That would mean me, a driver from Singapore who hardly drives and even when I did drive my Dad’s car in Singapore, it was hardly 40km in a day given that Singapore is only that small. The drive from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia is half that distance.

After I’d accepted the fact that I would be driving until he gets his licence shipped via express air to him, my next thought was safety. Would I keep the both of us safe as I have not driven on the  right side of the road before (in the left side of the car). The driver’s seat is on the right side of the car in Singapore and we drive on the left side of the road. That would mean getting used to this way of driving really quickly. I started researching about driving in Norway and the Nordics when we got to the airport.

So we left Prague for Copenhagen and took things one step at a time. We went to the Sixt counter at the airport to complete the car rental process. As M booked the car under his name, the licence we use for the rental had to be his licence. Yes, we tried…So we got that switched to my name and my Credit Card. After all that, he mentioned about the car we were renting. It was a manual SUV. Although I have a licence to drive manual cars, I’ve not driven one since 2009 and I’m definitely not confident of having to deal with everything else which will be new and to remember to clutch in whenever I’m changing gears…so no. I requested for an auto and he said he can’t guarantee if there’s one available right then. We were lucky. He found an Opel Astra SUV which was an auto car. That costed more to rent.

So now that we had the car and also decided that we would drive to Oslo that day, we made our way to Starbucks where we bought our very expensive drinks and muffins. Copenhagen is a very expensive city as we later learnt when we picked up our lunches.

As my dad was cat sitting for us while we were away, I asked my dad to send M’s driver’s licence to us via express air parcel. He went over to our place as soon as he could that night (it was night for him when we contacted him that morning when we arrived in Copenhagen). As the parcel can only be picked up and sent during office hours, the licence can only be on its way from the next day. We provided the address of a DHL office at Lillehammer where we’d intended to pick the licence up from. Little did we know at that point in time that it was impossible for us to send it to a DHL office as it was a ‘receiver point’ similar to ComGateway where they would receive parcels on a registered customer’s behalf and then ship that out accordingly. 

We stopped by Copenhagen city and picked up some lunch and food for our long drive to Oslo. Our very expensive lunch from a burger pop-up store, I must add. In addition to getting used to driving on a different side, I was also trying not to run any cyclists over. There were cyclists everywhere in the city. Now, that is something we should have in Singapore as well. Cyclists in Copenhagen enjoy a proper fairway. In Singapore, cyclists fear for their lives on the road with impatient and errant drivers who do not wish to share the road with anyone, sometimes, not even with fellow motorists. Ergo, more accidents from rogue driving, impatience and road rage.

The highlight of my drive was driving over the Øresund Bridge. As you can see, it links Denmark to Sweden with parts of the link in a tunnel and we emerged into the light again from the tunnel onto the bridge, which was rather cool in my opinion. Of course, since I was driving, I couldn’t take any photos. So here is an aerial view from Wikipedia.

Just in January 2016, on the back of the European migrant crisis, Sweden was granted a temporary exemption from the Schengen Agreement. That meant that travellers between the Nordic countries will now need to provide photographic proof of identity or passport, after 60 years of passport-free travel, when they cross the border to Sweden.

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Image taken from Wikipedia.

So after about 4km in the tunnel and about 8km on the bridge, we were in Sweden. Most parts of the drive was in Sweden through the E20 and E6 motorways. Once I got onto the highway, it was a breeze…of about 130km/h. Traffic in Sweden was heavier than in Norway, with the higher population in Sweden compared with Norway; almost double. There are also more mass market brands present in Sweden. Like we knew we were out of Sweden when the views of ‘the famous golden arches of McDonald’s’ along the highway disappeared. Not that we would have wanted McDonald’s in the Nordics given the ‘smorgasbord’ of gourmet choices available. There were a notable number of Teslas on the road in Norway. Norway is one of the most EV-friendly countries. The Government laid out EV policies which provide EVs exemption from VAT and purchase tax which usually form about 50% of the total cost of the vehicle. The EVs are also exempt from road tolls, tunnel and ferry charges.

It’s mentioned on Google Maps that it would take an estimated 6h and 36 min drive from Copenhagen to Oslo. We got to our Oslo destination about 9pm. It is a fabulous place called Lysebu hotel in Oslo. About 20 minutes away from the city centre. It has modern rooms, very nordic style and rather spacious. Just check it out yourself here: http://www.lysebu.no/en/.

I was fascinated by their really furry chickens by the way…and no they didn’t serve chicken at the restaurant. The place just oozes simple elegance. We stayed at the hotel for two nights and explored some walks around the area.

Some places we made up the pronunciation. Like Frognerseteren, which sounded a lot like ‘frog in your system’ when we spoke that aloud. We went to Frognerseteren Restaurant and Cafe, which was a short walk from Lysebu and highly recommended.

Everything’s expensive in Norway. After discovery of Norway’s oil fields after 1969, the country now has a much higher standard of living compared with its neighbours, Sweden and Denmark. It was previously about 30 or 40 percent lower in 1960.

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The food was so-so. It wasn’t exceptional. I think it was the ambience of eating outdoors in the fresh air with a great view that led to the perceived better tasting food. It wasn’t bad. Definitely fresh and good.
Apple pie
The highly recommended apple pie…but please go with one piece before getting the other. They are really sweet. Look at all that cream on the top…
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View from the restaurant. It’s a little dark here due to the facing of the camera against the sun.

We walked for about 2 hours around the area before heading back to the hotel. We told ourselves that we needed all those carbs and calories for our long hike in Jotunheimen.

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Walking to the lunch.

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It’s summer! All the pretty flowers are in full bloom and there were so many different plants and flowers in Norway.

 

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Hotel grounds

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Keep your dog(s) on a leash? Chickens wandering? We were just guessing…

More in Part 2 of Walking in Norway.

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Tramping in New Zealand: Things we wished we knew before and what worked for us

This is definitely a very late post about our hike in New Zealand (NZ) last September 2015. After hiking around Mt Robson in Canada, BC, this hike in NZ paled a little in comparison. Perhaps due to the selection of the hike. We set out to hike Routeburn and Rees Dart initially but heard about some flooding in parts of the track so decided against that. We decided on Greenstone and Caples instead, which is around the area of Routeburn.

The closest town which from the track is Glenorchy. However, we went with Wanaka and glad we did. It is a beautiful small town close to Queenstown. Queenstown can be quite ‘touristy’ and that wasn’t what we were looking for. It is about a 2 hours and 30 minutes drive from Wanaka to Kinloch.

We stayed at an Airbnb place in Wanaka before we started the hike and again after our hike. The house we found before our hike:

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View from the house.
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An area of the balcony
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Love the roof of the living room.
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Dining and kitchenette

We slept in, of course, after an early arrival in Christchurch earlier that morning (from Melbourne). We left the apartment only about midday and had brunch at a cafe, called Kai Whakapai on the corner of the street along Ardmore and Helwick St, which later became our favourite cafe to dine at on our return to Wanaka.

Our late departure meant that we would arrive at our next destination close to sunset or past sunset. The drive from Wanaka to Kinloch was beautiful!

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En route from Glenorchy to Kinloch.

We drove towards Kinloch which we’d intended to camp at. Our intent wasn’t strong enough to withstand the strong and chilly winds when we arrived at the campsite and noted that a lodge was just on the opposite side.

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The drive to Kinloch
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I see blue…

So we deliberated on whether we should set up camp at the Kinloch campsite, or at the lodge where it’s warmer and we get to have a last proper shower and bathroom before our hike. We went with the lodge. It was expensive for a ‘master bedroom’. The room was cozy with a double bed taking up almost the entire area and a heritage bathroom. We had dinner after we checked in. I had the mussels soup and it was delicious. http://www.kinlochlodge.co.nz/ 

We set out right away in the morning and drove towards the carpark of Greenstone and Caples from the lodge. Parts of the road was flooded due to both rain and melting snow since it was spring when were there.

We started the hike from the carpark and that was when the hike first went wrong… we took a wrong turn when we followed a runner up the road into some farm instead of heading straight. That route took us back about 1.5 days on the hike as it was a detour around Lake Rere instead of heading directly down Greenstone. As such, the longer walk took its tolls psychologically.

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Beginning our hike…and little did we know at that time that we were heading down the wrong path!
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From roadend to Greenstone and a detour around Lake Rere.

What we should have done was to head straight down the path instead of turning towards the bridge and going across it towards Lake Rere. Some guides we’ve read mostly start off from Caples and ending at Greenstone.

We went along path towards Elfin Bay, down Lake Rere and that set us back about 1 day. The duration for Greenstone track as estimated in the Lonely Planet ‘Tramping in New Zealand’ book is stated as 3 days and 2 days for Caples track. I believe we did take about 4.5 days or 5 days on the track. The total distance was about 60km. There were a few hikers who went through Caples first and then Greenstone. We found that Greenstone route towards Caples may be easier as you start gradually and gently and end off climbing and descending down Caples towards the end.

We camped along the Greenstone River on our first night and it was the best campsite for the entire hike.

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This is the beginning of our hike along the Greenstone track.
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The first campsite along Greenstone River, near Slip Flat Hut, if I recall correctly.
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Greenstone River – Day 1 campsite near Slip Flat Hut (if I recalled correctly)

It all started going ‘downhill’ from Day 1. Day 2. Parts of the hike involved crossing large sections of marshlands at the river flats. We conditioned our eyes and minds to look out for the ‘orange sticks’ which signify that we’re still on the trail. There are certainly areas for improvement in having better marked trails on this hike. Or maybe we experienced the trails in Canada and are of the opinion that the campsites, toilets and trails in Canada are better.

For the not-so-experienced hikers, like us, distances are not what they seem. The distances on the signboards and the map don’t seem to be quite the same as when you are on this trail. We can be walking literally for the whole day and still not be able to reach our destinations by nightfall. We had to double back on a section as we had to set up camp before it gets too dark and we didn’t know how much farther before the next place when we are able to set up camp. The area which we were walking in was too windy and there weren’t any good places to camp.

We hiked back to the last place we knew that had a hut. To do that, we had to cross a very rickety suspension bridge. It was harrowing. I didn’t think it would have taken my weight with the backpack, much less going through that three times – Once over, back again and then when we set out again the next day. We set up our tent close to a hut that evening. The taps there didn’t work as it was pre-hiking season and also I think it was a private lodge, not run by DOC. It was probably near Rats Nest Hut. We gathered our water from the river down the hill from the hut.

We are sticky with having mini showers after our hikes each day and we like to be able to set up tent, shower and cook before it gets too dark. So we went through the ordeal of showering with sand flies lusting after unclothed skin. Of course the water would be freezing cold too. I have not taken such quick showers as I do on the hikes. I moisten, soap up with the green camping soap which we use for cleaning everything on hikes, wash off and towel dry, possibly all within 2.5 minutes. Having our thermal clothes at hand and struggling to put them on while our skin is still damp and freezing from the wind and cold water, while also on the look out for other hikers in the vicinity sum up our shower experiences while hiking.

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The walk of the river flats.
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The river flats with the very familiar orange pole.
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Crossing the valley along Greenstone track.
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Scouting the area for the next available camp site and realised that we had to backtrack.
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Resting among giants.

We started out on Day 3 and stopped at McKellar Hut for the night. This is quite a big hut. As it wasn’t peak season so we only had another one more room mate in the same hut. The hut and the common areas are quite new and well-maintained.

Our room mate was a snorer … and boy did he snore… Another thing to note: Eyecovers and ear plugs are so important on a hike.

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The McKellar Hut.
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Setting off again.

We set off past lunch time on Day 4 of our hike. The day’s hike took us down along Lake McKellar and we decided to call it a short day and set up camp before starting the saddle.

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This was M trying to get me to get out of the tent to watch the sun going down the valley. We were of course accompanied by sand flies.
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Another part to look forward to on hikes – Dinner..and then getting into the tent and warm sleeping bag.

Day 5. The saddle is amazing as they all say. It’s not very high, at about 946m and the board walk makes it more comfortable.

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Walking through McKellar Saddle.
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The best part of the track.

We picked up pace after the saddle and went through the Caples Track within Day 5 to MidCaples Hut. Upper Caples was closed. During our Day 5 tramp, we decided that this was it. We are not going to stay any longer and pushed ourselves to Mid Caples Hut which seemed so close , yet so far when you approaching it. You could see it from a distance away and it seems so close…I was determined to get there. We met some hunters on the way and …some traps for animals. It was towards the end of the hunting season. In fact, we ended our hike the same day as the end of the hunting season.

Seriously, the sight of the bloody deer antlers when we arrived at Mid Caples Hut was quite the welcome. Seeing some sheep around the hut, was a refreshing sight of animals on our hike. Besides seeing some sheep in the beginning, we didn’t see other animals along the way. At least we don’t recall.

The hut was quite full that night with hikers and hunters. We chatted with a guy who doesn’t have a home, no assets and liabilities and just lives in huts, while growing his ‘sprouts’ in his bag… That was an interesting story. We shared a room with some hunters that night and I was too tired to care that we were sharing a room with many ‘strange men’.

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Sheep wandering outside the window of the bunk.

It started raining the next morning when we were setting out on Day 6 and last day of our hike. We planned to hike back to the car park within the same day. After waiting for the rain to subside, we set out in rain, not wishing to delay our return any longer.

We got really drenched outside and inside our raincoats. It wasn’t pleasant. We were perspiring within and wet on the outside. The hike back to the car park in the rain was a blur. We didn’t stop for meals and just stopped briefly to rest while we munched on our trail mix. We reached the car park by 1pm or so, changed into dry clothes from the car and drove back down Kinloch to Wanaka, all the while smelling our own stink.

Our Airbnb at Wanaka this time beat the first Airbnb we stayed at in Wanaka. It is a piece of big property with two houses, separated by a door. It isn’t big but comfortable.

We really pigged out on Turkish wraps we bought from the town.

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Relaxing in the living room.
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Kichenette.
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The tree of Wanaka in town.

We stayed a day in Wanaka before leaving and driving back to Christchuch for our flight home.

Things we wished we knew before the hike: 

  1. Bug spray: Bug spray and lots of it is essential. We went during the end of Spring in early September. We stopped by the DOC branch in Queenstown and were told that there should’t be any flies or bugs around this time as it’s too cold for bugs…boy…we regretted not getting bug spray when we were on the hike. There were sand flies EVERYWHERE. Especially when you set up camp or stop. They buzz around you like the plague of flies. So please bring bug spray.
  2. More research on the route. That is so important especially when you have limited supplies on your hike.

Things which definitely worked well: 

  1. Shower bag: Folds up in a palm size bag and rolls out into a huge bag which stores enough water for two showers, cleaning of utensils and more to wash up.
  2. Foldable kitchen sink: So useful for washing up.
  3. Eyecover and ear plugs.
  4. Extra pairs of socks and underwear, for emergencies and longer than expected trips.
  5. A mini shovel: So much better than using the dark and smelly toilets. Just watch out for other hikers.
  6. Rab thermal pants: Love them.
  7. QV cleanser in a small tube: Convenient when you need to clean up without using water. You can clean them off with toilet paper. Small packs of wet towels are useful too.
  8. Trekking poles. They can be retracted into short sticks and pulled out to help you cross those marshes. Really useful for balancing on stones and tapping the boggy ground for ‘marshy traps’.

There are lots more to see in New Zealand and we will return for Round 2.

Feel like you need a break? Take a hike.

No, not in the context of ‘f*** off and leave’. You might feel like telling someone that but perhaps it is time for you to take it literally – plan a hike and make it longer than 3 days.

It sounds ironic that you should take a hike when you need a break doesn’t it? A hike with a road trip can help us work better.

You’ll be surprised how going back to nature and basics can give you perspective and also make you more resourceful. Take the opportunity to plan this with your partner. However, just a cautionary note that it may make or break the relationship if you do not understand each other enough or have not done a trip like that before. Always a first.

Hiking takes your mind off other things at first when you are planning. If you get a sense of purpose doing meaningful things, this can be such a good ritual. The things we learn from taking a hike  (which also includes a road trip), can teach us a lot about how we can approach work and life.

Planning for that hike requires research. It gives your mind a different kind of focus and also gives you something to look forward to. Until you sink ankle deep in mud during your hike and have to walk around the next few days with wet and caked hiking boots. Think about the time when you were planning for your vacation. Weren’t you excited?

Throw in the element of challenge. This is how a hike can affect you mentally. You feel mentally and physically stronger after, perhaps not immediately after the hike for the latter. A hike can make you feel like you have achieved something. Carrying your own pack, cooking your own food over a small gas stove, pacing your day and planning when you stop and how long you’ll need to get to the next campsite or where to pitch the tent, where to get water and how to filter your water, where to set up your shower and how to shower without anyone catching you naked or almost naked, sometimes even battling the cold and sandflies…

Hiking requires a ton of discipline. Walking a certain distance each day, meal planning and keeping to it, waking up at a certain time to get in the right amount of distance before the next campsite or ground and continuing even when you are tired requires that discipline and grit. These attributes can be applied to life and work.

Team work. You definitely play as team with your partner. In life and also while hiking. Sharing and splitting up what we carry in our bags, dividing tasks during the trip and lending a helping hand when that bloody branch suddenly appeared in your view when it is too late and you see yourself doing splat to the ground in slowmo.

Setting up camp is usually a task we rush through since we try to hike as much as possible in a short time frame since we have to get back on schedule and catch a flight home. Once we get to the campsite or grounds, the aim is to setup and cook before it gets dark. At the same time, we also shower and that takes time in setting up our little shower bag, getting food cooked and then finishing that before it is too dark. In the Canadian Rockies, we had to ensure that ALL food items are locked in the anti-bear lockers after we were done. You don’t want unexpected visitors in the night to your tent.

Showering in the wilderness in New Zealand during early September was a real pain. One, it was still cold but not cold enough for sandflies. We get attacked whenever we are stop moving or when there’s exposed skin. You and your partner will stand guard during this really vulnerable moment when you take turns to shower and watch for other hikers and also swap sandflies away. After the shower, we hop around shivering while trying to get on all our clothes, all at the same time, bottoms and tops together. Frankly, I doubt this is a sight which would turn any hikers on at all. I doubt I’ve ever showered so quickly with soap before. It was camp soap on and off in 60 seconds and literally shivering through the whole process and then hopping into the thermal pants or trying to push both legs, which are still a bit damp, in the same time, while cursing why they won’t just slip on quick enough. In NZ, there was the extra check for sandflies under the pants and top.

Team work is so important on these trips. This is also where partners learn more about each other. Eg. Driving and navigating. I am usually designated navigator as I’m better at reading maps and directions then with non-stop driving.

At the end of the trip, you will stink and will just wish to teleport to a nice Airbnb house for a shower.

Once you are cleaned and had some comfort food, you will appreciate what you have experienced as something that you have accomplished together a team. You will feel tired but mentally stronger and that is something helps with everything in life. Resilience, discipline and team work. Sometimes, getting out of our comfort zones can bring out something good.