Stay Cool

“Sometimes the most scenic roads in life are the detours you didn’t mean to take.”

– Angela N. Blount

Norway’s roads are incredible, even in a wobbly, rattling, slightly underpowered 30-year-old camper. We try to avoid motorways wherever possible. The Norwegian tourist board has created 18 official scenic routes which, if driven in order, will pretty much take you all the way from North to South (or South to North in our case). We had no real plan when we arrived in Norway a little over a month ago so when we read about the scenic routes, we figured, why not?

If you’ve got someplace to be in a hurry, the scenic routes may not be for you. These roads are all about the drive; ribbons of smooth asphalt winding their way through rugged mountain passes, past countless giant waterfalls, and along stunning turquoise fjords. The best view you’ve ever had could always be around the next bend. If you are not comfortable driving, the scenic routes may not be for you. Norway is full of mountains. Where the motorways often tunnel underneath them, the scenic routes, for the most part, go up and over. I learned to drive in the Netherlands, where the steepest thing most people will ever need to drive up is a dyke. I considered myself a reasonably capable driver. Norway disagrees. The past month has been a crash course (no pun intended) in vehicle control. Hairpins and steep climbs turn to single-lane, unlit tunnels and steeper descents. Steep grade, low gear, the signs warn. Our van’s gears don’t go low enough for some roads. Long, twisty sections of steep downhill grades are best tackled in 1st gear, but still, require frequent braking to curb the speed. I feel sorry for anyone stuck behind us at 25 km/h, but it beats flying out of a hairpin bend with smoking, unresponsive brakes any day.

Some of the greatest roads are those that don’t actually take you where you were going, at least not directly. I seem to have a knack for finding them accidentally. One of those long and winding descents recently left us parked along the side of the road in front of a tunnel, waiting for the brakes to cool down. Anne has a fear of heights, which also applies to mountain roads, and the brakes fading certainly didn’t improve matters. To give her time to regain her trust in the Tardis, we decided to skip the next scenic route, which seemed particularly mountainous.

We planned the route the day before. It takes us past one of the only chemical toilet dumping stations in the area, and not a day too soon. It’s mostly main roads, with a small mountain pass to cross halfway. Given Anne’s dread of hairpins, I check the map for other options just before we leave. There’s one other emptying station further north, along a completely different route to the same town. I enter the address into Google Maps. The drive is only a little longer, and it avoids that small mountain pass. I suggest it to Anne, who is readying the camper for driving. She doesn’t care either way. I suspect she’d rather not be driving anywhere in this thing at the moment.

The start of our route takes us beneath the scenic route we’re skipping, through the world’s longest road tunnel. The Lærdal Tunnel is impressive, from an engineering point of view. From a driving point of view, it’s 24.5 km of straight, flat road with speed cameras to keep you in check; it’s one of the dullest drives I’ve ever done. This is not one of the great roads I’m talking about. We exit the tunnel feeling slightly lobotomised and head further north. As we arrive in a little town called Øvre Årdal, I notice a series of hairpin bends looming up on Google Maps. I hadn’t seen those when I rerouted us. I pull over at the foot of the mountain to take a picture of a rather impressive waterfall soaking the road with a fine mist. Anne peers at the map and voices some concern about the hairpins. Nothing to worry about, I tell her. This is a main road; how bad could it be? Two female runners pass us and head up the road. If they can make it, so can we. The wind from the waterfall is cold and wet. Hard to take a picture here without getting the camera soaked. Two hasty clicks and we’re back in the camper.

The way up is narrower, a single-track road with an occasional passing place along the side. Up the road in 2nd, down to 1st before each bend. This thing will take you almost anywhere in 1st gear, as long as the wheels are on solid ground. We pass the two runners in the third bend. It’s slow going, and it’s a total of fifteen hairpins to the top.

It should be noted at this point that our temperature gauge hasn’t worked properly since we bought this house. I meant to have it repaired before we left. I didn’t though, and the Tardis’ normal operating temperature always reads somewhere between 50℃ and 60℃ as a result. It’s says 90℃ now. A good reading for a working meter, but I suspect we’re well past that. Nowhere to stop here. Anne’s squishy melon (stress toy, not a euphemism) is under a lot of stress already; I probably shouldn’t mention it. I turn on the heater and set the blower to full power. The straight sections are longer between bends as we near the top. Enough to speed up a bit and get into 3rd gear. The extra wind should help cool the engine further; I hope.

There’s a spot to pull over shortly after the last bend. It’s beautiful up here. A powerful river runs alongside the road, feeding the waterfall at the bottom. The snowmelt seems anxious to get off the mountain after a long winter. The engine ticks quietly as it cools. It’s a strangely calming noise. Anne wonders why this road is so steep. It wasn’t supposed to be. I open the map on my phone. This isn’t the main road; the main road turns right before Øvre Årdal. This road isn’t even visible on the map until you zoom in a lot further. I can see that now, without the thick blue line of our route obscuring the road itself. I apologise to Anne. We can still turn around, though I’d rather not. I swipe the map, following the road to its end. Tindevegen; thirty-two kilometres of mountain road running along Jotunheimen National Park, connecting Route 53 to Route 55. There are a few more sharp turns near the end, but fifteen if we go back down here. A large camper with Belgian plates drives past in the opposite direction. They seem to have fared just fine. We agree to drive on. The sound of footsteps outside. The runners have caught up with us. The engine has stopped ticking now. I climb into the back to heat some water for tea before we set off.

This road is very well kept, and it’s enjoyable driving. Smooth tarmac, twisting lazily through a woody landscape. I had expected Norway to be mostly pine, but the woods seem to be almost exclusively mountain birch here. A cluster of houses. Living up here must be incredible. The river follows the road on the left, thin waterfalls of snowmelt cascading down the mountainside to join it. I wonder if it’s even still a river in summer after the snow has gone. We’ve been on a steady incline since we passed the hairpins. It’s not much, hardly noticeable looking outside, but just enough to keep the camper working for its keep. We’re in 3rd gear, rumbling on at around 60 km/h. My phone says we’ve got around 40 minutes of driving ahead, but I suspect we’ll manage at least twice that. We pass the joggers again, taking back the lead in this strange, one-sided game of leapfrog. They’ve slowed down a bit, sports jackets now tied around their waists. They appear to be in their late forties, and probably in better shape than I’ve ever been. I should start running again.

The trees are thinning out now, as the road becomes steeper. Three consecutive hairpins and they’re gone entirely. We’re above the treeline now. With nothing to block the lines of sight, our view is incredible. The reddish-brown hue of the alpine tundra adds to the sense of wilderness. Small shrubs, wild grass and moss, interspersed with bright green lichen. An alien landscape. The only signs of humanity are the electricity pylons following the road up the mountain and the endless asphalt ribbon itself. The engine slows as the road steepens further. 2nd gear. Patches of crisp white snow are starting to appear. It must be cold. I wouldn’t know, the heater is still blasting on its highest setting to help keep the engine cool. It’s straining now, at 30 km/h. The needle on the temperature meter is twitching back into life. Nowhere to pull over. The snowy patches turn to banks, forming hypnotic patterns of snow and tundra and rock. The clouds overhead are dark and menacing. It might snow tonight.

90℃. I don’t want to stop on an incline this steep, and the road only seems to twist further up at the top of every hill. It finally levels out on a sweeping plateau, surrounded by mountain peaks. There’s a spot to pull off the road. I take it, gratefully. I glance at my phone. No signal. With all the power lines up here, you’d think someone could have installed a cell tower as well. The ticking from the engine seems angrier. I pop open the hood to help it cool and then grab my camera bag. Anne hasn’t enjoyed the hill climb as much as I have, and she’s staying inside for now. I head up a hill on the side, treading carefully on the snowbanks. They seem solid enough, but a steady trickle of meltwater in the ditch beside the road means they can’t be trusted. I’d rather not fall through and twist an ankle out here. I’m getting chilly as I crest the next hill, well out of sight of the camper now. I was warm when I got out and didn’t think to grab a coat. I’ve left my phone too, along with both the walkie-talkies we bought for this exact situation. My camera gear is all here, though. This is how people die. It would be wonderfully ironic, I think, a photographer dying of exposure. The views are incredible, but the power lines seem to get in every shot. Better enjoyed than photographed. I guess that’s why this is not one of the eighteen scenic routes. I head back to the camper, looking forward to its warmth.

Anne’s outside now, a little upset that I left without comms. There’s a puddle on the road in front of the camper, she tells me. These roads have been well cleared; there’s no snow on them. I feel it. It’s coolant. This new knowledge makes the puddle seem larger. That’s it then. We’ve blown the radiator, lost our coolant and are stuck on this mountain plateau with no phone signal. We haven’t seen a single vehicle on this road since the Belgian camper an hour ago. I can see a house a few kilometres up the road, but it’s probably a holiday home. I peer into the engine bay. I’ve never done much with engines. I would have liked to, just never really had the space. Something about lying under my car in the middle of a busy street just never appealed to me. I can identify most of the parts, but that is just about the extent of my knowledge. The radiator looks dry. A thin rubber hose running up to the coolant reservoir seems to be the culprit. It looks like an overflow. The reservoir is still hot. I wait for it to cool and check the level. The level seems fine; it must’ve been overfilled. I check the engine oil for good measure, and we’re good to go again.

The plateau soon ends, and the road angles up again. Not quite as steep anymore though. The house I saw earlier is a toll station. There was a sign at the beginning of the road about this; the machine only takes credit cards. 90 kr, or about 9 euro. I’m happy to pay; this is easily one of the best roads I’ve ever driven. It twists and dips into a descent, with another long climb at the other end. A truck appears in my rear-view mirror. I pull over to let it pass and switch off the engine to let it cool a bit before the climb.

The truck is slow going up, must be struggling too. Anne is worried we won’t make it. I wait for the truck to top the hill before pulling back onto the road. 2nd gear up again, just keep moving. The engine strains and shudders, but our trusty little camper trundles on. The engine is hot again by the time we reach the top. I open the hood, hoping this doesn’t become a regular routine. I’ve stopped on the road this time, but it’s wide enough for other traffic to pass. I stare into the engine bay to make sure everything else is okay. I don’t really know what I’m looking at, but it seems like something one should do in this situation. A couple in a car pulls up next to us to ask if we need help. No worries, I tell them, just letting the engine cool down. They smile and drive on.

I can see Route 55 at the bottom of this road, a narrow strip of asphalt running between the mountains. Not far to go now. A series of hairpins leads up into the mountains ahead after it connects with our road. All these stops are eating into our travel time. We’ve now been on this road for nearly three hours, and I’m getting hungry. We won’t be driving up tonight. Time to head down and find a place to spend the night. There’s a hotel at the bottom, hotel Turtagrø. We’re still out of season, and the large, unpaved car park across the road is empty. It’ll do for tonight. We eat dinner with a view of Storen peak, its summit shrouded in clouds. At 2405 metres above sea level, it’s the third tallest peak in Norway.  I’m glad we didn’t take the scenic route. I think back to the couple in the car earlier, most likely wondering what the hell we’re doing up in these mountains in a camper this old. They’re probably right, but I doubt it would have been quite as memorable in anything else.

Norway’s roads are incredible, even in a wobbly, rattling, slightly underpowered 30-year-old camper. We try to avoid motorways wherever possible. The Norwegian tourist board has created 18 official scenic routes which, if driven in order, will pretty much take you all the way from North to South (or South to North in our case). We had no real plan when we arrived in Norway a little over a month ago so when we read about the scenic routes, we figured, why not?

If you’ve got someplace to be in a hurry, the scenic routes may not be for you. These roads are all about the drive; ribbons of smooth asphalt winding their way through rugged mountain passes, past countless giant waterfalls, and along stunning turquoise fjords. The best view you’ve ever had could always be around the next bend. If you are not comfortable driving, the scenic routes may not be for you. Norway is full of mountains. Where the motorways often tunnel underneath them, the scenic routes, for the most part, go up and over. I learned to drive in the Netherlands, where the steepest thing most people will ever need to drive up is a dyke. I considered myself a reasonably capable driver. Norway disagrees. The past month has been a crash course (no pun intended) in vehicle control. Hairpins and steep climbs turn to single-lane, unlit tunnels and steeper descents. Steep grade, low gear, the signs warn. Our van’s gears don’t go low enough for some roads. Long, twisty sections of steep downhill grades are best tackled in 1st gear, but still, require frequent braking to curb the speed. I feel sorry for anyone stuck behind us at 25 km/h, but it beats flying out of a hairpin bend with smoking, unresponsive brakes any day.

Some of the greatest roads are those that don’t actually take you where you were going, at least not directly. I seem to have a knack for finding them accidentally. One of those long and winding descents recently left us parked along the side of the road in front of a tunnel, waiting for the brakes to cool down. Anne has a fear of heights, which also applies to mountain roads, and the brakes fading certainly didn’t improve matters. To give her time to regain her trust in the Tardis, we decided to skip the next scenic route, which seemed particularly mountainous.

We planned the route the day before. It takes us past one of the only chemical toilet dumping stations in the area, and not a day too soon. It’s mostly main roads, with a small mountain pass to cross halfway. Given Anne’s dread of hairpins, I check the map for other options just before we leave. There’s one other emptying station further north, along a completely different route to the same town. I enter the address into Google Maps. The drive is only a little longer, and it avoids that small mountain pass. I suggest it to Anne, who is readying the camper for driving. She doesn’t care either way. I suspect she’d rather not be driving anywhere in this thing at the moment.

The start of our route takes us beneath the scenic route we’re skipping, through the world’s longest road tunnel. The Lærdal Tunnel is impressive, from an engineering point of view. From a driving point of view, it’s 24.5 km of straight, flat road with speed cameras to keep you in check; it’s one of the dullest drives I’ve ever done. This is not one of the great roads I’m talking about. We exit the tunnel feeling slightly lobotomised and head further north. As we arrive in a little town called Øvre Årdal, I notice a series of hairpin bends looming up on Google Maps. I hadn’t seen those when I rerouted us. I pull over at the foot of the mountain to take a picture of a rather impressive waterfall soaking the road with a fine mist. Anne peers at the map and voices some concern about the hairpins. Nothing to worry about, I tell her. This is a main road; how bad could it be? Two female runners pass us and head up the road. If they can make it, so can we. The wind from the waterfall is cold and wet. Hard to take a picture here without getting the camera soaked. Two hasty clicks and we’re back in the camper.

The way up is narrower, a single-track road with an occasional passing place along the side. Up the road in 2nd, down to 1st before each bend. This thing will take you almost anywhere in 1st gear, as long as the wheels are on solid ground. We pass the two runners in the third bend. It’s slow going, and it’s a total of fifteen hairpins to the top.

It should be noted at this point that our temperature gauge hasn’t worked properly since we bought this house. I meant to have it repaired before we left. I didn’t though, and the Tardis’ normal operating temperature always reads somewhere between 50℃ and 60℃ as a result. It’s says 90℃ now. A good reading for a working meter, but I suspect we’re well past that. Nowhere to stop here. Anne’s squishy melon (stress toy, not a euphemism) is under a lot of stress already; I probably shouldn’t mention it. I turn on the heater and set the blower to full power. The straight sections are longer between bends as we near the top. Enough to speed up a bit and get into 3rd gear. The extra wind should help cool the engine further; I hope.

There’s a spot to pull over shortly after the last bend. It’s beautiful up here. A powerful river runs alongside the road, feeding the waterfall at the bottom. The snowmelt seems anxious to get off the mountain after a long winter. The engine ticks quietly as it cools. It’s a strangely calming noise. Anne wonders why this road is so steep. It wasn’t supposed to be. I open the map on my phone. This isn’t the main road; the main road turns right before Øvre Årdal. This road isn’t even visible on the map until you zoom in a lot further. I can see that now, without the thick blue line of our route obscuring the road itself. I apologise to Anne. We can still turn around, though I’d rather not. I swipe the map, following the road to its end. Tindevegen; thirty-two kilometres of mountain road running along Jotunheimen National Park, connecting Route 53 to Route 55. There are a few more sharp turns near the end, but fifteen if we go back down here. A large camper with Belgian plates drives past in the opposite direction. They seem to have fared just fine. We agree to drive on. The sound of footsteps outside. The runners have caught up with us. The engine has stopped ticking now. I climb into the back to heat some water for tea before we set off.

This road is very well kept, and it’s enjoyable driving. Smooth tarmac, twisting lazily through a woody landscape. I had expected Norway to be mostly pine, but the woods seem to be almost exclusively mountain birch here. A cluster of houses. Living up here must be incredible. The river follows the road on the left, thin waterfalls of snowmelt cascading down the mountainside to join it. I wonder if it’s even still a river in summer after the snow has gone. We’ve been on a steady incline since we passed the hairpins. It’s not much, hardly noticeable looking outside, but just enough to keep the camper working for its keep. We’re in 3rd gear, rumbling on at around 60 km/h. My phone says we’ve got around 40 minutes of driving ahead, but I suspect we’ll manage at least twice that. We pass the joggers again, taking back the lead in this strange, one-sided game of leapfrog. They’ve slowed down a bit, sports jackets now tied around their waists. They appear to be in their late forties, and probably in better shape than I’ve ever been. I should start running again.

The trees are thinning out now, as the road becomes steeper. Three consecutive hairpins and they’re gone entirely. We’re above the treeline now. With nothing to block the lines of sight, our view is incredible. The reddish-brown hue of the alpine tundra adds to the sense of wilderness. Small shrubs, wild grass and moss, interspersed with bright green lichen. An alien landscape. The only signs of humanity are the electricity pylons following the road up the mountain and the endless asphalt ribbon itself. The engine slows as the road steepens further. 2nd gear. Patches of crisp white snow are starting to appear. It must be cold. I wouldn’t know, the heater is still blasting on its highest setting to help keep the engine cool. It’s straining now, at 30 km/h. The needle on the temperature meter is twitching back into life. Nowhere to pull over. The snowy patches turn to banks, forming hypnotic patterns of snow and tundra and rock. The clouds overhead are dark and menacing. It might snow tonight.

90℃. I don’t want to stop on an incline this steep, and the road only seems to twist further up at the top of every hill. It finally levels out on a sweeping plateau, surrounded by mountain peaks. There’s a spot to pull off the road. I take it, gratefully. I glance at my phone. No signal. With all the power lines up here, you’d think someone could have installed a cell tower as well. The ticking from the engine seems angrier. I pop open the hood to help it cool and then grab my camera bag. Anne hasn’t enjoyed the hill climb as much as I have, and she’s staying inside for now. I head up a hill on the side, treading carefully on the snowbanks. They seem solid enough, but a steady trickle of meltwater in the ditch beside the road means they can’t be trusted. I’d rather not fall through and twist an ankle out here. I’m getting chilly as I crest the next hill, well out of sight of the camper now. I was warm when I got out and didn’t think to grab a coat. I’ve left my phone too, along with both the walkie-talkies we bought for this exact situation. My camera gear is all here, though. This is how people die. It would be wonderfully ironic, I think, a photographer dying of exposure. The views are incredible, but the power lines seem to get in every shot. Better enjoyed than photographed. I guess that’s why this is not one of the eighteen scenic routes. I head back to the camper, looking forward to its warmth.

Anne’s outside now, a little upset that I left without comms. There’s a puddle on the road in front of the camper, she tells me. These roads have been well cleared; there’s no snow on them. I feel it. It’s coolant. This new knowledge makes the puddle seem larger. That’s it then. We’ve blown the radiator, lost our coolant and are stuck on this mountain plateau with no phone signal. We haven’t seen a single vehicle on this road since the Belgian camper an hour ago. I can see a house a few kilometres up the road, but it’s probably a holiday home. I peer into the engine bay. I’ve never done much with engines. I would have liked to, just never really had the space. Something about lying under my car in the middle of a busy street just never appealed to me. I can identify most of the parts, but that is just about the extent of my knowledge. The radiator looks dry. A thin rubber hose running up to the coolant reservoir seems to be the culprit. It looks like an overflow. The reservoir is still hot. I wait for it to cool and check the level. The level seems fine; it must’ve been overfilled. I check the engine oil for good measure, and we’re good to go again.

The plateau soon ends, and the road angles up again. Not quite as steep anymore though. The house I saw earlier is a toll station. There was a sign at the beginning of the road about this; the machine only takes credit cards. 90 kr, or about 9 euro. I’m happy to pay; this is easily one of the best roads I’ve ever driven. It twists and dips into a descent, with another long climb at the other end. A truck appears in my rear-view mirror. I pull over to let it pass and switch off the engine to let it cool a bit before the climb.

The truck is slow going up, must be struggling too. Anne is worried we won’t make it. I wait for the truck to top the hill before pulling back onto the road. 2nd gear up again, just keep moving. The engine strains and shudders, but our trusty little camper trundles on. The engine is hot again by the time we reach the top. I open the hood, hoping this doesn’t become a regular routine. I’ve stopped on the road this time, but it’s wide enough for other traffic to pass. I stare into the engine bay to make sure everything else is okay. I don’t really know what I’m looking at, but it seems like something one should do in this situation. A couple in a car pulls up next to us to ask if we need help. No worries, I tell them, just letting the engine cool down. They smile and drive on.

I can see Route 55 at the bottom of this road, a narrow strip of asphalt running between the mountains. Not far to go now. A series of hairpins leads up into the mountains ahead after it connects with our road. All these stops are eating into our travel time. We’ve now been on this road for nearly three hours, and I’m getting hungry. We won’t be driving up tonight. Time to head down and find a place to spend the night. There’s a hotel at the bottom, hotel Turtagrø. We’re still out of season, and the large, unpaved car park across the road is empty. It’ll do for tonight. We eat dinner with a view of Storen peak, its summit shrouded in clouds. At 2405 metres above sea level, it’s the third tallest peak in Norway.  I’m glad we didn’t take the scenic route. I think back to the couple in the car earlier, most likely wondering what the hell we’re doing up in these mountains in a camper this old. They’re probably right, but I doubt it would have been quite as memorable in anything else.

4 Comments

  1. Anita

    Glad you all survived! Norway is beautiful, but not when you are stuck on a mountain 😉

    Reply
    • Jasper

      Haha, there’s no place I’d rather be stuck, to be honest.

      Reply
  2. Dorothe

    Geweldig om over jullie avonturen te lezen. Ik geniet er erg van . Al moet ik het wel steeds vertalen. Maar het is genieten.

    Nog veel succes ik hoop dat de auto het blijft doen.

    Reply
    • Jasper

      Bedankt Dorothe, en ik kan je alvast verklappen dat er vandaag weer een Nederlandse update aankomt. 😉

      Reply

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