What drives three blokes to take themselves off on an adventurous wild-camping pilgrimage? The promise of sleeping outside in the pouring rain, or being under attack by possibly the smallest creatures in Norway?
In the winter of 2009, Joly Braime from the UK was visiting Trondheim Cathedral, when he spotted an information board about the St Olav Ways. The idea of setting out on a pilgrimage in Norway percolated in his mind for another five years, until in summer 2014, a break in-between jobs provided the perfect opportunity. He had a full month to hike from Oslo to Trondheim, with his British friend Dave flying out to walk with him for the middle two weeks. The rest of the time he’d planned to walk alone, but within the first few days he started bumping into a friendly American pilgrim from Michigan, also named Dave. After crossing paths enough times, they fell into step and ended up walking the rest of the way to Trondheim together. Joly talks about his journey with the two Daves and the wild stuff they experienced on their pilgrimage to Trondheim.
What was it that fascinated you about going on a pilgrimage in Norway?
The idea of walking all that way and just camping up when you’d had enough for the day seemed like such an adventure. And I was really keen to make the most of the wild camping because it’s illegal in most of England.
Is there a difference between ordinary hiking and a pilgrimage?
There are a lot of nice things about hiking, but I think it does feel different when you’re hiking a route where people know what you’re doing. All the people who live along the way are familiar with the trail, so everyone knew we were pilgrims and were often welcoming or interested. Perhaps it’s partly because as a hiker – particularly one with a massive backpack – you’re a very unthreatening creature. No one’s scared of you, when in other circumstances they might be. We were a bunch of blokes in our late 20s and early 30s, and we had frail little old ladies inviting us into their houses. That would never happen in another situation. The hospitality was really interesting. As a hiker in Britain you don’t tend to see that level of friendliness quite so frequently.
Do you think this is typical for Norway?
Norway is such an outdoorsy country and a lot of people are hikers themselves. We often had people helping us out. There was one occasion when we were walking through a thunderstorm near Oppdal. The rain was pouring, we had our heads down and there was thunder and lightning overhead, but fortunately one of my friends looked up and saw a farmer waving to us from his porch. He invited us in and made a big pot of coffee, and we sat there chatting with him on his porch for ages. Eventually the rain eased up and we went on our way again.
Norwegians can have a reputation for being cold and distant. But obviously they weren’t in that setting?
I haven’t found that at all. It was quite the reverse, actually. It was a really hot summer, and I remember one day I was slogging down the road in the baking hot sunshine and suddenly a lady came running out of her garden gate, waving a bottle of cold water for me. She ended up inviting me in to have a cup of coffee and a bit of lunch with her family. Those sorts of things happened from time to time.
Were there any interesting experiences that you felt you might not have had as an ordinary hiker?
Actually the churches were an interesting experience along the way. None of us were particularly religious, but they were nice places to stop for a little bit of contemplation and a rest. When we got to a church that was open, we would go inside and sit there in silence for about ten or fifteen minutes, just to have a bit of a think. It was a sort of punctuation to the trip that wouldn’t exist on other adventures. They’re very spiritual and relaxing places and each one was so different from the last. You get wooden ones, stone ones, slate ones, some are very old, and some are very modern. In some churches people would give us tours or just chat to us about them. There are all kinds of interesting things about Norway that I’d never really appreciated before – really basic facts to do with history and culture – and that I discovered through people talking to me about their churches and explaining their history.
Do you think your mind is more open to such experiences on a pilgrimage than it would be in normal day-to-day life?
Your life is reduced to the very simple questions of getting from A to B, finding somewhere to sleep at the end of the day and getting some food down from time to time. Apart from that there’s nothing else to worry about except enjoying yourself. It clears your mind and gives you a kind of perspective. You’re so instantly recognizable as a pilgrim.
Why is it that people start asking big and important questions on a trip like this?
Well, there’s a lot of time to think, of course, but perhaps it’s also because it’s a route that was devised in the first place for people to stop and contemplate along the way. You almost can’t avoid it. You’re walking a route that people have waked for hundreds of years before you, at important junctures in their lives, and that adds a sort of spiritual aspect to the trip. And the way the people treat you is important too. You’re so instantly recognizable as a pilgrim. In quite an old-fashioned way you felt looked-after.
In what ways did people look after you?
You feel like people along the route have been keeping an eye out for pilgrims and making sure they’re going the right way for a long time. I missed a turn once and I had a guy stopping his car saying: ‘your turn’s just back there’. Another time it was a lady calling to me from her porch to set me back on track, or a farmer hopping off his tractor to show us our way. We had people setting us back on the route when we got lost, people inviting us in, or campsites where the lady at the counter would give us free shower tokens or a little bit of milk… It was quite a special role to put yourself into.
Do you plan to go on a pilgrimage again?
When you do a big trip like that, you always want to do it again. You think you’ll get it out of your system, but you don’t – you just end up wanting to have another adventure. And a great thing about the St Olav Ways is that the routes are adventurous but also accessible and safe. There are plenty of places to re-supply, the route is well-marked and you’re never too far from help if anything untoward happens. You don’t need to be massively equipped, highly experienced or heavily armed. In fact, my American friend Dave didn’t even take a tent.
That’s kind of risky.
It’s mental. He decided he wanted to have a real back-to-nature sort of experience, so he just had a sleeping bag, a roll mat and a poncho.
It can start to snow in the mountains.
That’s what I thought. But amazingly enough it didn’t. He was unbelievably lucky, especially when we went over Dovrefjell. We had three days of bright sunshine. We watched storms moving down the valley towards us and disappearing into another valley before they hit us, and we only had rain on the last day coming into Oppdal. He had just a couple of pretty horrible nights along the way where I would wake up in the morning to find him sheltering under a tree wearing his poncho and shivering. But he stuck to his guns and slept out under the stars for the better part of 29 days. He loved it, but then he was a lot tougher than me! On the other hand, he didn’t have to carry as much as I did. His bag was just a little 50-litre rucksack with a sleeping bag tied on top. He would be bouncing along up ahead and I’d be toiling behind him with all my food and my tent and stuff. Actually I brought far too much food – I didn’t realize how easy it would be to re-supply along the way.
Photo: There are always some snow spots to find in the mountains, even in summer Photo: David Tett
Talking about wild-camping, have you heard about the wild animals in Norway? Wolves and bears, for instance?
I did some research beforehand to make sure the wolves and bears were in different parts of the country. The only wild animals that I had any trouble with were lemmings.
You had trouble with lemmings, of all animals?
At least I think they were lemmings – they were like little black and gold hamsters. They were incredibly aggressive. My tent must have been near one of their nests one night, and they started attacking me in the middle of the night. It was absolutely bizarre. They were up on their hind legs in the porch of my tent, squeaking and snarling, and they were running around under the groundsheet. It was mad. First I tried to sleep through it but it was so noisy that eventually I just gave up after the better part of an hour and moved my tent. It was the strangest experience ever. My mate could hear all the squeaking from his tent a few meters away.
They aren’t that big, are they?
They’re tiny. I lost a battle with the smallest creatures in all of Norway. We saw them on the path sometimes during the days, and if they weren’t dead, they were standing up on their hind legs squeaking and waving their little paws at us. We thought, ‘This is why we’ve seen so many dead ones – they’ve clearly got no idea of what’s bigger than them.’
You hear a lot of stories about people who have had life-changing experiences on their pilgrimage. Were you at points in your lives where you were asking yourselves big questions and making life-changing decisions?
On one level all three of us spent a lot of the time building castles in the sky and mapping out our futures. We were all at interesting points in our lives. I’d just left London, where I’d lived for eleven years, and moved up north to go freelance. Dave, my friend from back home, was thinking about proposing to his girlfriend (not that he admitted it at the time, of course, but they got engaged soon afterwards, so it must have been on his mind). And the other Dave, my American friend, had been teaching English in Russia, and before that in Spain, so after a while as an English teacher travelling the world he was finally going back to Michigan to see what kind of life he could build there. We all had some big questions and were at some big junctures, and we spent a lot of the time talking about everything we were going to do when we got back.
How was it to reach your goal?
It was lovely and the timing was perfect. When we got into Trondheim, there was this big festival with a medieval market going on. It felt like walking into the Middle Ages. Everything had been quiet and peaceful for such a long time and suddenly there was all the commotion of the city. Trondheim is such a pretty place to walk into. And the cathedral is beautiful. A pilgrim priest spotted us almost as soon as we got there. He was straight up to us and said: ‘Are you pilgrims? You’ve arrived, congratulations!’ It felt like a bit of a hero’s welcome. There’s that huge sense of achievement. They welcomed us really warmly in the pilgrims’ center as well. In fact, that was the case in the pilgrims’ centers all along the way. Everyone is so pleased to see you. You sit down, get coffee and swap some stories. We really loved that. In Voll in Rennebu they even gave us waffles, jam and cream. You feel a little bit like a celebrity when you get a welcome like that.
Was it hard to get back to normal life again?
It was. We got into Trondheim, had our evening of celebration and the next day I flew back home. By mid-morning the day after that, everything was washed, my clothes were hung on the clothes line in the garden, my boots were clean and waxed and back on the rack, and I was thinking: ‘I’ve got nowhere to walk today’. When you get into that habit of covering ground every day and suddenly you stop it’s strange.
What did you like best about the trip?
The freedom of having a tent is so glorious. You don’t have to plan where you’re going to sleep each night – you just start looking for a spot when you get tired. We didn’t know what day we’d arrive in Trondheim until about three days before we finished. And those northern summer days are so long, it really took the pressure off us. Sometimes at lunchtime we had a nap in a nice little churchyard, or read a book while the sun was really hot. There were lovely swimming spots and we stopped to swim several times along the route.
The pictures were taken by David Tett, who works as a professional photographer in London. For more pictures about the trip check out his homepage
Joly and Dave have designed a small pilgrimage guide in English. Check out Joly’s homepage to read about his pilgrim experiences or download the guide.
Wild Stuff on a Pilgrimage in Norway, written by Tirza Meyer
This article was first published 14.04.2015 on Pilgrimsleden (St. Olavs Ways). We thank St. Olavs Ways for their kind permission to reprint the article.