Finding 'friluftsliv' in Norway
Geirangerfjord, one of Norway’s most dramatic fjords, and the dramatic Seven Sisters waterfall. (Justin Foulkes)
Slartibartfast, a planet designer in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, won an award for his work on Norway and it is not hard to see why. Skewered with a thousand still, blue fjords and stacked with the sort of pointy, snow-topped mountains you do not often see, outside children’s drawings, it is a huge and empty land inlaid with a host of scenic riches.
I first went there as a freshly certified ex-student, on a camping trip in an ancient Saab, and every morning I unzipped the tent to blink at a new wonderland. I did not know it then, but that trip was my initiation into friluftsliv – the peculiarly Norwegian fixation with “open-air living”. Friluftsliv lies somewhere between a hearty pastime and a state religion, the word celebrating Norway’s boundless natural splendour and its inhabitants’ active appreciation of it, across snow, through forest and over fjord. A backpack is generally involved.
Not much has changed since that trip. The countryside in the central-western province of Møre and Romsdal does not roll but rears, in magnificent staccato blurts. Mountains shoot up out of a fjord, then slam straight down into the one behind. Waterfalls vault from towering precipices and glaciers cling to steeply pitched highland valleys. The towns in this part of Norway, such as Ålesund where my journey begins, play a cameo role as a comely scatter of roofs at the foot of a sweeping mountain-top panorama. The town of Volda is trim but bland and, at the moment of visiting, almost eerily quiet.
“The magic is in new experiences, so do something you’ve never done – go out in a kayak, camp in the wild.”
In her two years at Volda’s university, Randi Ødegården has not seen a great deal of the town. Her bachelor course has largely involved hiking, skiing and paddling through its surrounding mountains, forests and deep blue waters. At 23, she is just one exam away from qualifying with a degree in friluftsliv.
“It means different things to different people,” says Randi, a cheerful farmer’s daughter who hails from the southern municipality of Vang. She pours black coffee into our Moomin mugs. “For me, friluftsliv is about simplicity in nature, about getting away from it all,” she says. “Going out for a week with everything I need on my back. It’s emotional and spiritual as much as physical.”
Friluftsliv begins on Randi’s doorstep. Her wooden cabin stands at the steep edge of town, backed by birch and fir woods brightly speckled with flora, and fronted by an expansive view of the fjord and its facing mountains. As we talk, I watch them being slowly claimed by the leaky low cloud that will hang above for days, decapitating many of the loftier vistas and obliging me to borrow clothing and footwear from more sensibly prepared people. “But bad weather makes the best friluftsliv,” says Randi, brightly. “You learn more and get better satisfaction when you take a bigger challenge.”
As Randi explains, spending time in the outdoors was not a choice for generations gone by. At the turn of the 20th century, Norway ranked as the poorest country in Europe – a far-flung rural nation that did not stride out into the wilderness for fun, but from agricultural necessity. 2Everyone lived outside then, so by instinct we knew how to make a difficult hike or a skiing journey. Then Norway became industrialised and those skills were lost.”
It was not until the 1960s that time-rich, cash-rich Norwegians began to pine for the fjords and the old outdoor ways, but when they set off into the valleys with a tent on their backs, they found they didn’t know what they were doing. “A lot of people were getting lost and having accidents,” says Randi. “The government saw the need to re-educate, and now, even from kindergarten, children here learn how to cook outdoors, how to dress right, how to navigate.” Randi and many of her fellow students are aiming for a career in this sphere of education.
“Don’t take a camera, and don’t post about it on Facebook – just climb a hill or do a walk, and keep the experience for yourself.”