It’s not often that I’ve left a European Capital of Culture within hours of arriving. Given that the city in question was Stavanger, one of Norway’s most engaging towns, I began to wonder if I needed my head read. But I had one very good reason for my haste: I wanted to reach Lysefjord, the ‘Fjord of Light’, before nightfall.
Thankfully, nightfall in the Norwegian summer is a relative concept. Long after other lands have been plunged into darkness, a disconcerting half-light masquerades as night, and a permanent glow on the horizon lights the way. The truth was that I was also tired of city life. I wanted wilderness and, in one of the most expensive countries on earth, I didn’t want to pay too much for the privilege.
After buying basic supplies from supermarkets and bakeries, I left Stavanger’s Fiskespiren Quay aboard the ferry to Tau. From Tau, a bus carried me into the Norwegian interior. Little more than an hour after leaving Stavanger, I arrived at the Preikestolhytta Vandrerhjem hostel, where the trailhead for one of Europe’s most spectacular hikes begins.
The path that leads up to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), the ledge overlooking Lysefjord, is one of Norway’s most popular routes, crowded with more than 100,000 visitors a year. Most, like me, come in the summer months when the weather’s mild and the days are long. But I knew the secret to having Pulpit Rock to myself: the two-hour, 6km hike is possible for those of even average fitness, meaning that the vast majority of visitors are day-trippers with no intention of staying overnight.
As I began the climb from the car park, I knew that I had timed my journey to perfection: plenty of hikers in all shapes and sizes were coming down the mountain; hardly any were going up. Climbing against the flow of peak-hour traffic felt like a metaphor for my weekend escape from the modern world.
The trek began with a good, stiff climb, the sort that always makes me wonder whether I’m up to the task. Atop the rise, the views dispelled my doubts: green forests in every direction, lakes of the deepest blue and hills transformed into mountains amid the accumulating drama of the Norwegian high country.
For two hours, the pattern repeated itself – a steep climb, a pause for breath and photos, an easier traverse of flatlands in the hollow of mountains, then another undignified clamber up rough-hewn rocky trails. Such were the rigours and rhythms of the hike that I was unprepared, as I rounded a rocky headland, out of breath, for my first sight of Pulpit Rock and the glistening waters of the fjord far, far below.
Formed by the erosion of glaciers and frost that sculpted the Norwegian fjords tens of thousands of years ago, Pulpit Rock may just be the world’s most beautiful natural lookout, a small tableland of rock perched on sheer cliffs 604m above the fjord.
After inching my way as close to the edge as I dared – which was, I confess, not very close – and after staring, spellbound, at the layer upon layer of mountains that line this most beautiful of fjords to the horizon, I continued onwards and upwards, fleeing the day’s last day-trippers, into the Preikestolen hinterland.
Here, in a spot sheltered from the light breeze, I sat down to watch as the waters of Lysefjord turned black and the sun ignited the highest peaks. Then came the night – and the silence. On a patch of open ground, I laid out a plastic sheet and waited, although for what I don’t know. After a time, having packed light (no tent, no cooking stove) to make the long days of hiking easier, I unfurled my sleeping bag. Enveloped in quiet, I ate from my bounty of supplies bought in Stavanger – canned tuna, cheese and bread.
Although there were stars (and I watched as they made their slow passage across the sky), it was never completely dark, a dim glow lighting the horizon like a night light left on for children, until dawn broke around 3am.
By 7am I was up, and Pulpit Rock was deserted; I watched as sunlight descended the fjord’s precipitous walls. I could have stayed forever, but as the first hiker of the day rounded the headland, I turned back down the mountain.
By the time I reached the Kogabekkmyra swamp a steady line of hikers was already climbing towards Pulpit Rock. Not yet ready to return to the clamour and bustle of civilisation, I turned north, following the signs to Moslivarden, which leads to the mountain known as Moslifjellet.
If the climb to Pulpit Rock is considered demanding, the three-hour-return Moslifjellet hike is downright strenuous, though I was again rewarded for my efforts with extraordinary views east over the mountains and across the distant islands of the Norwegian coastline to the west. It was beautiful – exceptionally so, a brooding and windswept rocky landscape.
I retraced my steps, rejoined the now overburdened main trail, but only long enough to find the track to Ulvaskog, a forest of pine where the Norwegian resistance secreted themselves away from the Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. The path led alongside sheltered lakes, across slabs of wind-scoured granite and deep into the woods. All the while, I kept my eyes open for the berries that are the essential supplement to supermarket supplies when trekking the Norwegian wilds.
Pulpit Rock is about epic land forms and the vast sweep of nature’s pristine beauty. Ulvaskog forest is an altogether more intimate experience, a place where nature draws near and wraps itself around you amid the great silence all around.
My search for a spot to unroll my sleeping bag was tinged with sadness, for tomorrow I would be returning to the busy main trail and on to civilisation, Stavanger and beyond. But there, in the solitude and among the night sounds of the earth free from human noise, I felt at peace. I fell asleep to the rustling of the wind in the birch and pine.
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