Take the train on a su­per ride

The Sunday Mail (Queensland) - Escape - - FJORD COUNTRY -

Rob Mills mar­vels at the stun­ning scenery and engineering in­ge­nu­ity that went into carv­ing out one of Nor­way’s great­est at­trac­tions

IT’S rapidly be­com­ing a per­fect late sum­mer day as we set off to ex­plore Nor­way’s most mem­o­rable scenery.

To the west is Oslo, to our east the an­cient North Sea port of Ber­gen.

We’re on the ridicu­lously lush banks of Aur­lands­fjord, in the vil­lage of Flam. The driz­zle has stopped, the clouds have all but lifted and the sun is be­gin­ning to shine.

Gi­ant gran­ite moun­tains sur­round us as we savour this patch of Nordic per­fec­tion.

Over mil­lions of years, glaciers have carved out val­leys and wa­ter­falls, leav­ing be­hind lit­tle parcels of fer­tile land to be worked by the strap­ping de­scen­dants of Vik­ings.

We’ve been trav­el­ling for more than a week. Our hosts, Tauck Tours, have shown us the best of two won­der­ful coun­tries – Swe­den and Den­mark – but this place takes the beauty of Scan­di­navia to a new level.

We’re deep in fjord coun­try in a na­tion com­monly rated the world’s rich­est and hap­pi­est. Nat­u­ral re­sources abound and the gazil­lions of krona gen­er­ated since the late 1960s by North Sea oil are be­ing spent wisely.

It’s dif­fi­cult to find flaws in a coun­try so beau­ti­ful and kind hearted. Per­haps the high cost of liv­ing in par­adise is a down­side, par­tic­u­larly for tourists. A bot­tle of wine costs a small for­tune, if you’re lucky enough to find a bot­tle shop that’s open, and a Big Mac will set you back more than $7, mak­ing Nor­way about the most ex­pen­sive place there is for fast­food lovers.

But hang on. Who needs a Big Mac in a land of plen­ti­ful salmon, shell­fish and caviar? And the pota­toes in th­ese parts are far too good to be turned into fries.

Here in the vil­lage of Flam, we’re about to be­gin a train jour­ney that de­fies be­lief. For the next hour our gleam­ing green train will carve its way through gran­ite moun­tains as we climb to the town of Myrdal, 836m above us.

When it comes to hol­i­day photography, this 20km trip will test our stamina as the train passes one spec­tac­u­lar sight af­ter another. As we click on one seem­ingly per­fect im­age on our left, another even more per­fect im­age flies past, un­cap­tured, on our right.

Af­ter 10 or 15 min­utes the whiplash is hard to bear. It’s now time to re­lax and en­joy the spec­ta­cle. Our 836m climb might not seem like much, but the re­al­ity is we’re wit­ness­ing an engineering mar­vel.

As we zigzag our way through solid rock, we pause to con­sider some im­pres­sive num­bers. In terms of stan­dard gauge trains, we’re en­ter­ing grav­ity-de­fy­ing ter­ri­tory – the Flams­bana’s steep­est gra­di­ent is 5.5 per cent or a rise of 1m for ev­ery 18m trav­elled. No train should have to work this hard.

Our El 17 elec­tric lo­co­mo­tives – one at each end of this push-pull train – per­form her­culean feats wor­thy of Thomas the Tank En­gine. The train can reach 40km/h as it winds through the tun­nels.

Th­ese days the Flams­bana is one of Nor­way’s great tourist at­trac­tions, with more than 500,000 pas­sen­gers a year, but it’s worth cast­ing back a cen­tury to when there was no train in th­ese pris­tine parts.

Nor­way was pretty pleased with it­self back in 1909 when the rail­way line opened be­tween Oslo and the an­cient North Sea port of Ber­gen.

Its two main cities were now con­nected, open­ing up all sorts of eco­nomic pos­si­bil­i­ties. This con­quest of rugged ter­rain was quite an achieve­ment but Nor­we­gian train buffs pined for the fjords – what they craved was a branch line to the Sogne­fjord.

Work be­gan in 1923 on a project that would take 20 years to com­plete. The navvies who built this were the tough­est of work­ers. In ap­palling con­di­tions, 220 Nor­we­gians toiled for years as they tun­nelled through 6km of gran­ite – with just picks and shov­els, chis­els and ham­mers.

Ma­chines were used on just two of the 20 tun­nels, each hand-dug me­tre rep­re­sent­ing a month of hard slog.

Be­fore board­ing the train for Myrdal, check out their faces at an im­pres­sive rail­way mu­seum near the sta­tion.

Noth­ing tells the Flams­bana story bet­ter than this dis­play of haunt­ing black and white photographs.

When the line fi­nally opened in 1944 and the first trains ar­rived, the hardy peo­ple of the Flams­dalen were pro­pelled into the 20th cen­tury.

Some mod cons soon ar­rived, along with tourists, but this part of Nor­way has man­aged to re­main un­spoilt.

The vil­lage would never dream of com­pet­ing with its ma­jes­tic sur­rounds.

Be­fore set­ting off for Myrdal, we visit the Ae­gir brew­ery and pub where Evan Jones, a young Amer­i­can with big ideas, is rapidly cre­at­ing an in­dus­try in Flam to com­pete with, if not ri­val, the fa­mous rail­way.

In a coun­try bet­ter known for mod­est habits than its beer drink­ing, the Ae­gir of­fers tourists and lo­cals a dozen or so dif­fer­ent brews to sam­ple. The mis­sion here is to find the right brew to ac­com­pany your meal.

We dine on veni­son burger, aman­dine pota­toes and lin­gonberry cream sauce. There’s ex­cel­lent smoked salmon salad if you’re not into rein­deer. The food hits the spot and so does the beer, a malty drop called Ral­lar am­ber ale.

What bet­ter way to for­tify your­self for the climb to Myrdal? The writer was a guest of Travel the World.

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