Sunday, 14 October 2012

Guns, Bikes and Bridges

I had grander plans for this half-term week but a lingering cold had other ideas. Refusing to relinquish it's vice-like grip on my sinuses my plans needed scaling down and I was able to complete another journey I had sitting in my ideas cupboard for quite some time.

Lindås and Radøy are two islands that sit to the north of Bergen. They are splintered and cut-through with inlets, bays and channels making the ideal for sheltered canoeing and sea kayaking adventures. I had initially picked up a map of the area whilst shopping in the kayak store earlier this year. With a bike offering unique access to these 'middle' opportunities between my local hills and the more distant, public transport-accessed mountains, it was time to load up the Fargo with camping gear and Snickers and see if the islands offered ideal terrain for the bikepacker too.

Sinuses free and feeling much better I set off from Bergen on Thursday morning in good weather. Taking National Cycle Route 1 means avoiding the Frogger-like journey across the dual carriage ways to Åsane and instead a more serpentine but prettier route along the edge of Salhusfjorden. The route here reminds me of the coast of Cornwall, small collections houses clinging to rock, precipitously above the sea. Local shops. A cafe selling cooked crab. Steep hills and narrow streets. Eventually you come round to the northern point of the Åsane area and the 1.6km long Nordhordland bridge curls away like a seagulls wing. In the first picture you can see the huge, confidence-inducing concrete 'H' pylon of the bridge rising 99 meters into a clear blue sky and offering clear headroom for ships to pass below. In the picture above you can see the second half of the bridge, the half that simply floats on ten pontoons because the fjord here is too deep. No one told me that before I set off across it...

Just before I rolled onto the bridge I stopped for lunch at the WWII Tellevik hill fort that sits right on the edge of the cliffs with strategically commanding views up and down the fjord. The fort appears to have been occupied by the Germans from what little information is there and the exhibits are in varying states of renovation and disrepair. Wheels pointed across the fjord I pedaled onto the bridge, up over the main span and then swooped down to the stepping-stone island of Flatøy. Hagelsundbrua bridge took me across onto Lindås. After some urban misdirection I eventually found the road that heads out to the north east side of the island. Unfortunately this road did not lead me away from big trucks and tunnels so I had to leave the direct main road and head onto the far more interesting bike lanes, side roads and gravel roads. One of these included this sphincter-tightening single lane tunnel through a cliff with dripping roof and antiquated lighting. Thankfully I avoided the mid-tunnel head-on tractor meetings that haunted me and emerged unscathed.

I loaded up with water at a local petrol station and chugged a much needed can of coke. With the sun starting to edge unrelentlessley towards the other side of the main ridge it was time to find a spot to call home for the night. Fjord-side spots were not easily forthcoming so I headed inland. Along a quiet road I spied a small wooden sign showing a hiking trail. With no-one looking I ducked off the road, down the trail and bush-whacked myself and my bike through dwarf birch and juniper shrubs onto a small wooded hill, ripping my cheap plastic clip-on fender off in the process.

It wasn't an ideal camp site. The floor was deep in sodden berry and willow bushes and the ground was hidden under a thick carpet of moss and forest duff making pitching the shelter and carrying out just about every camp chore a total, well, chore. The sun filtered and diffused through the thick brush as the night and cold crept over the land. Turning in at 8pm seemed a little early but I was tired and there wasn't much else to do. Somewhere in a far off wood the muffled cracks of gunfire signalled people out trying their luck for the pot. I settled down hoping the hunters wouldn't be coming my way. The deep foliage that had made setting up the shelter difficult had one saving grace. It was so, so comfortable...

Despite the early night I slept a solid 11 hours and I would have probably slept longer had it not been for the hideous animal roar reverberating through the trees. Eyes wide open, ears straining and heartbeat galloping in my chest I listend intently. There it was again. What was that?! It didn't sound like a dog, at least not a dog born of this earth... With my fingers wrapped tightly around the knife in my pocket I wiggled out of my sleeping bag and into my shoes. I stumbled out into the pre-dawn. There it was again! A nerve-jangling, throaty animal call. Closer this time. I could hear it moving periodically through the bushes. Finally the beast partially revealed itself through the shrubs. A thick shaggy brown coat, huge, powerful shoulders and steaming breath in the cold half-light. Antlers. A huge stag Red Deer. He froze when he saw me. I felt tiny, the knife in my pocket pathetic. With a final snort of derision he crashed on through trees. The wily old buck had evaded last nights guns and could continue his rut. Laughing nervously I reached for the stove and a double serving of coffee. It was alright, everything had been cool, I wasn't alarmed. Yeah, right...

The sun finally crept over the mountains to the east and the menacing shadows of the woods receded leaving a far prettier and safer environment. The sodden vegetation and lack of wind meant everything in my camp was damp and I started the pointless task of hanging everything up in the vain attempt to dry it out in the still, damp, morning air and weak, autumnal sun.

Back on the road and the morning mist and low-angled sun conjured to make everything drip in burnished tones. I should have stopped to take more pictures but my route, first north, and then after I realised my mistake, south along a main road was tinged with danger as the drivers had to contend with intermittent blinding sun and deep shadows. I hugged the white line and kept an eye out over my shoulder. The road north has been upgraded to speed traffic along to the oil refinery at Mongstad and it dives through several tunnels. No place for a bike. So after my detour south for a few kilometres it's along the backroads again for me. My toes are slightly numb from the freezing temperatures and I wish for thicker socks. I stop for a break at a small quay, the residents still getting up and the local ducks mooching around on the mercury-like water. Not a breath of wind. Along the empty road the only sound is the soft hum of my tyres and the periodic 'crunch' as I gently swerve now and then to crush golden, papery leaves that have strayed from the gutter.

Low on water I am feeling tired and my thighs twinge with cramp up the long, low hills towards Mongstad. Slowly pedaling I peer up from my white line daze and notice a blue sign. I was entering the hamlet of Hope. I was hoping for some kind of oasis. Looking further up the road, towards the horizon, I spy the numerical neon of a petrol station. That's the kind of oasis I'm talking about! I roll onto the forecourt, my fuel gauge on empty, lock the bike to the picnic bench and raid the shop of water, juice and coke. I add a kanelboller to the pile on the counter, pay and retreat to the picnic bench to perform my own, weird, bike touring rituals away from the public. Filling water bottles from water bottles, stuffing sugary boller into my mouth, reading maps, chugging coke, adjusting layers.

Refueled, I roll on past the oil refinery at Mongstad, thankfully mostly hidden from sight to the passer-by. It was noticeable how quickly the traffic volume reduced and I no longer have to peer nervously over my shoulder for eighteen-wheelers thundering up behind me. The area further north is far more peaceful. Cute, painted houses and hyttes nestled between the sea and the rocky tundra. Every nook and cranny along the crumpled coast sports a little painted boat house or workshop. I'm in bridge country again as the shattered northern tips of the main islands along with Fosnøyna are stitched together with rolling bridges over roiling tidal runs. Huge seagulls stand sentry on every lamp post and defecate in contempt at my passing. Small private fishing boats bob in the tidal rips like white plastic bottle tops. Further down the road a rapidly increasing snowstorm of cotton fluff blows towards me. Soon I come across a field of the culprits, each stem heavy with their gossamer seeds, gently shaking them loose in the wind.

I'm on Radøy now, the second main island of my tour. I've had the strange feeling of the changing position of the sun along this circular trip and I'm now staring into it for much of the afternoon. To my right I glimpse the North Sea. Less welcome is the shift in the wind direction and I now find myself toiling into a headwind. Along one, low but never-ending hill I find myself becoming introspective and white-line gazing again when a screech from above shakes me from my stupor. A pair of White Tailed Sea Eagles wheel over head. They circle several times, giving me time to get my camera out. But not long enough for me to run to the shops and order a telephoto lens... Concentration and interest in my surroundings resharpened. 

I try and keep to my 'quick break every hour' routine. I'm finding it keeps me energy levels more balanced and ensures I keep a better eye on the map to prevent any unnecessary detours. I'm finding this part of the island lacking in picturesque road-side stops and have to peer down side road and trails to try and find somewhere to rest. Along one barren stretch even the start of a jeep track and a broken gate offers enough to make me stop. My belongings explode from my bags to fill the space around me. I dry my damp shelter and sleeping bag and reorganise. Middle of the afternoon. Time to think about camp spots. I study the map and earmark several likely looking places. It's also the time of the day when my body best responds to chocolate and I tear into another Snickers. Riding again I find the first three potential camp spots are a bust. At this point I'll take a commercial campsite but even those are proving elusive. Then I roll down a long hill into the early evening and spy more public hiking trail markers on the side of the road. Time to pull my daily skid-to-a-stop routine.

That's better. After a bit of exploring I find a dry, grassy ledge on a hillside over looking a valley containing a lake and a bazillion sheep. Mostly they stare at me for a few moments then go back about their business of chewing and tinkling their little bell. One doesn't though. She marches right up to me and stares at me, partly chewed grass hanging out of her mouth like a green moustache. It's a little unnerving at first but I've never heard of anyone being attacked by a sheep, well, almost never... I'm pretty sure I'm on private land here, despite the marked hiking trails and try and keep myself inconspicuous from the road not too far away.

It'll be another early night but this time it won't feel as alien. My body is really tired. With a high pitch, dry grass and gentle breeze this camp will be drier. Near-by rocks and a broken down stone shelter offer plenty of seating and eating spots. I watch the sun burn orange on the mountains and cliffs I can see from my vantage point, the sun long gone from my own valley. Owls hoot in the forested slopes on the far shore and bats dog-fight against the pale night sky. A final hot chocolate drink and Oreo cookies for desert and I'm ready for bed. I snuggle into my sleeping bag, pull up my hood and watch the stars through the unzipped upper portion of my shelter's door. The sound of the sheep bells slowly fade into the distance as they descend to shelter of the wood and pasture below.

Another pre-dawn start. I awake fully restored despite a less than perfect sleeping spot. Why does it take until you are warm in your sleeping bag, in the middle of the night, for you to realise that your chosen sleeping spot is on too much of a slope?! Thankfully I had my bike inside my shelter and I'm prevented from sliding off the hillside by my seat and handlebars. Hmmmm, comfy...

I'm up in time for the sheep to make their tinkling return to the hillside and the stars and moon to fade away into the milky dawn. My tent is bone dry and still pitched taught. My feet crunch on the frosted grass. A double helping of porridge and a double dose of coffee are in order. Time to strike for home. I take a brief look at the map. It's pretty straightforward today. Early morning commuters start lighting up the dark twisty road below. Locked and loaded I hang on to the fully-laden bike, both brakes locked as we career off the hillside, across a bog, over a crumbling stone wall and through the gate.

It was the coldest time of the ride so far. My beloved Rab gloves, faithful friends for four years, had finally developed a hole in the end of one of the thumbs and the insidious headwind exploited the tiny weakness. Cold seared at my thumb tip as I tried to tuck it behind the handlebars, other fingers, or even one of my bar bags in an attempt to get it out of the wind. My eyes stream and the headwind roars past my Buff-covered ears. The journey was still beautiful though. The deeper cold seemed to add even more luxurious colour to the leaves and the frosted grass set them off perfectly. A Nuthatch swoops up from a shrub and settles on a barbwire fence, inches from my handlebars, it's bill wedged open carrying some kind of seed that is bigger than it's own head.

My daily petrol station pit-stop was early today but none-the-less routine. Water, coke and bakery goods. Several cars, with trailers laden with expensive-looking boats, bristling with fishing rods, sat side-by-side on the forecourt, the passengers well dressed and cheery in the cold, bright morning. No doubt headed for marine adventures, possibly some of the last of the year. Time to get going again. The straight run-in to the bottom corner of the islands and the bridges home. I swung off the ridge and onto familiar roads again. Traffic increased and I stuck to the bike lanes that weave their way under and over big roundabouts and on different sides of the bridges. On top of Hagelsundbrua I stop and look south towards the last bridge that connects with the main land. Alarmingly I notice that despite all the steel and concrete around me I can feel the bridge swaying under my feet in the sea breeze.

I stop at Tellevik again, resting a while among the silent, rusting guns. Nature slowly reclaiming her elements through oxidization. Gun sights and bunkers covered in spider webs and fluffy seeds. It was easy to feel like I'd made it safely home now that I was back on the mainland but the truth was there was still 30km to go. My map of the islands was useless here but thankfully I was back on National Cycle Route 1 and just needed to follow the signs all the way to the city. The twisty, undulating road pushed me in and out of tailwinds and headwinds. The streets were busier, especially at the bus stops, full of people heading into the metropolis for some weekend retail therapy. Unburdened runners and recreational cyclists whizzed past me on both sides.

By the time I hit the cobbled streets of Bergen I was down to a crawl. I squeezed myself through the queue of visitors waiting for the Fløybanen funicular railway and past knots of friends and families out enjoying a sunny Saturday in a city that rarely basks in such weather, especially in a late Scandinavian autumn. Down jackets and sunglasses. I was passed by two cyclists on the final hill up to my part of the city and I was forced to walk the final rise to my front door. My legs hollow but quickly flushed with feel-good endorphins as they realise their work is done.

Three days of guns, bikes and bridges. I could now draw a contented line beneath that with pizza, central heating and sleep.

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