One Norwegian explorer discovered the New World 500 years before Columbus. Another was first to cross Greenland by land. In 1911, a Norwegian was first to the South Pole, and in 2006, a fellow countryman nailed history’s longest solo and unresupplied ski journey, 3,000 miles across the South Pole region.
Who are these people? When the opportunity arose to visit Oslo and Bergen, and as a passionate, long-time enthusiast of historic exploration, I jumped at the chance to determine why Norway is home to the world’s greatest explorers.
My search begins in Oslo where I learn that nothing in this country straddling the Arctic Circle is predictable or run-of-the-mill. We’re sitting in the courtyard of a restaurant in Oslo incongruously called “New Orleans.” Our group is enjoying some after-dinner Frydenlund beers with members of the Norwegian chapter of The Explorers Club, when out of the blue just minutes before midnight comes marching in a 30-piece brass and woodwind band. Trombones, trumpets, clarinets, saxophones, and flutes. The works. In fact, more band members than restaurant patrons. Seems they’re members of the Malvik Musikkorps who like to show up at local establishments unannounced.
Even my Norwegian hosts were astounded by the late-night energy of these musicians, most in their 50’s and 60’s. But I soon learned that nothing about this quirky nation, an incubator for history’s greatest explorations, should surprise me.
Erling Kagge, arguably Norway’s best-known living polar explorer, tells me over a lunch of fish soup and bread at his home in an Oslo suburb, “In a country of five million, polar explorers here are as famous as football players in the states. Exploration has been a part of our culture for 1,000 years. Being an explorer here is a natural state of being.”
He should know. Kagge and fellow countryman Borge Ousland were first to ski to the North Pole unassisted (1990); Kagge was first to ski to the South Pole solo and unsupported (1992-93); and by 1994 had become the first to reach the North Pole, South Pole and the summit of Everest.
“In Sweden or Denmark, you’ll hardly find an explorer,” Kagge stereotypes. “This is a Norwegian thing.”
I had to see for myself, so my next stops were three museums dedicated to seagoing exploration. It seems Norwegians haven’t met an old ship they didn’t want to enclose in a building of one sort or another. With a $40 Oslo Pass that included admission to some 40 museums, I began my quest with a visit to the aptly-named Viking Ship Museum housing three ships discovered in large burial mounds: the Oseberg Ship (820 A.D.), the Gokstad (890 A.D.) and the Tune (built around 900 A.D.). Keeping those craft company were human skeletons, magnificent sleds, wagons and carved animal-heads, all attesting to wanderlust Vikings who from about 800 to 1050 A.D. were the lords of the sea, sailing west to the British Isles, then over the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.
Leaping forward 1,000 years, I next toured the Fram Museum which houses the Fram, the world’s most famous polar ship, built in 1892. The 128-ft. vessel was used on three important expeditions: with Fridtjof Nansen who drifted over the Arctic Ocean in 1893-96; with Otto Sverdrup to the arctic archipelago west of Greenland—now the Nunavut region of Canada—1898-1902; and with Norway’s Roald Amundsen to Antarctica for his South Pole expedition of 1910-12.
Norwegians consider Nansen (1861-1930) to be the most important man in the country’s history. He was a doctor of science, humanitarian, diplomat, winner of the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize, and most impressive to an armchair explorer such as myself, the first to cross Greenland (1888). He returned to Oslo (then called Christiana) a hero on May 30, 1889 when 200,000 Norwegians turned out to greet the team.
In his book, The First Crossing of Greenland (1919), Nansen writes, “It was hard to cross Greenland, but in full seriousness I must say that it is even worse to return.”
I visit the Kon-Tiki Museum next, located adjacent to the Fram. Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) gained worldwide fame when he crossed the Pacific Ocean on a balsa raft in 1947. The 46-ft. raft traveled from Lima’s port of call, Callao, to Raroia in French Polynesia, 4,340 miles in 101 days, proving that it would have been possible for South American Indians to have reached Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.
In addition to the original raft, the museum is a treasure trove of memorabilia from the historic voyage. The collection includes Heyerdahl's 1951 Oscar for Best Documentary Feature Film; the U.S. military rations they ate in addition to fresh flying fish that landed on deck; and a chew stick from the team's pet parrot, Lorita, which, it’s worth noting, they did not eat—it flew away in a storm.
A 2012 Kon-Tiki movie has resulted in renewed interest in the museum. One out of every five Norwegians has seen it, says museum manager Halfdan Tangen, Jr.
At the Holmenkollen Ski Museum, just outside of Oslo, Norwegians are justly proud of King Olav V, if for no other reason than due to his enthusiasm for skiing. In fact, during a gas shortage in the early 1970s, a popular photograph shows him traveling on the Holmenkollbanen suburban railway to the local ski hill carrying his skis on his shoulder. There’s his seat, his outfit, even his train ticket for fans of the Folkekongen ("The People's King") to view.
But most impressive to me were displays of skis dating to 600 A.D., and those belonging to British Captain Robert F. Scott (1868-1912) in an exhibit honoring Amundsen's historic discovery of the South Pole in December 1911. Scott, who arrived at the pole a month later than Amundsen and who perished with his team on the return, would most certainly roll over in his grave at the thought of his skis mounted next to those of his nemesis. Dozens of tourists from Japan, Italy, and Poland strolled by in search of the ski jump elevator, as I stayed to linger on the diorama featuring a stuffed and mounted, very dead sled dog—Obersten (“The Colonel”)—who went to the pole with the famed Norwegian explorer.
A Close Relationship with Nature
My next destination was Bergen, on the west coast, a seven-hour train journey from Oslo. This is Norway’s second-largest city and gateway to the fjords. There are more direct trains, but I chose to travel on a tourist excursion called “Norway in a Nutshell,” that included a 12-mile ride on the vintage Flam Railway over northern Europe’s largest mountain plateau.
The train chugs past thick forests, churning rapids turned white as foam, past slender, impossibly high waterfalls, and rolling fields with shrink wrapped hay that looked like giant marshmallows. The Nutshell tour goes on to include a fjord boat tour, and a bus ride down the Stalheimskleiva, a mile-long, dizzying, barely two-lane road. With 13 spectacular hairpin twists and turns, it’s considered the steepest in northern Europe.
It was in Bergen, in damp, rainy skies that I began to understand the Norwegian love of the outdoors. Despite the weather, locals everywhere are jogging, hiking, Nordic Walking, screaming downhill on mountain bikes, cross-country roller skiing, and racing down switchback mountain roads on skateboards (wearing spiked metal gloves). Their love of the outdoors is such, you can see numerous “Bergensers” cooking hot dogs on small disposable aluminum charcoal grills the size of laptops.
Synnove Marie Kvam, president of the Norway chapter of The Explorers Club, tells me, “Norwegians have a close relationship with nature. We need to be respectful because there’s so much harsh weather.”
Indeed. Norwegians seem specially adapted to the cold and wet. Gore-Tex waterproof/breathable is the outerwear of choice. Hardy children play in schoolyards in brightly colored slickers, oblivious to the rain. Standing there, soaked down to my Calvins, the ticket-taker for the M/S White Lady fjord tour boat says, “This is actually quite good weather in Bergen.” (Assuming, of course, you’ve descended from the Vikings.)
Fellow travelers and I would later fight for the few plastic chairs that were sheltered from the incessant drizzle. It was just a minor inconvenience compared to the astounding scenery, with waterfalls dotting the impossibly steep sheer granite cliffs of the Osterfjorden fjord, north of Bergen.
This city of seven mountains has not one, but two lifts to nearby mountaintops – the Ulriken643 cable car and the Floibanen funicular, both popular with tourists and locals alike. Although mountainous, there’s plenty of oxygen to share. The highest peak barely tops out at 2,200 feet.
Historian Sturla Ellingvag, a friend of explorer Erling Kagge’s, provided some insight on the Norwegian outdoor ethic. “If you’re a parent and your five-year-old hasn’t been camping in the mountains with you, it’s called bad parenting.”
But there's more to the Norwegians' spirit of exploration. Listen to Eva Britt Kornfeldt of VisitOslo: “Swedes, they do as they are told. Norwegians? We are a stubborn, impulsive, inventive and independent people. But above all, we’re curious.”
Bergen city guide Jim Paton explains that according to the Viking Law of Inheritance, the farms were inherited by the eldest sons. The younger children had to make their fortune elsewhere as they were left to their own devices. “Exploration is in the Norwegian genes. It’s part of their Viking heritage, living as we are in a severe climate and being confronted by the elements.”
There’s a park near Hakon's Hall, in the shadow of the Rosenkrantz Tower. Below a statue of King Haakon VII, father of the skiing King Olav V, is a row of cannons protecting the harbor. A sign warns of a “high rampart.”
It’s not the sort of word you’d see in the U.S. warning of a steep 40-ft. drop just beyond. Were this in the litigious states, there would be a chain link fence protecting visitors from themselves. A sign reading "Danger!" Maybe a skull and crossbones for good measure.
But this is Norway, a still sparsely settled, self-reliant country lying 40 percent above the Arctic Circle—home to a people with centuries of exploration experience in their DNA. I have no doubt – rampart or not, they’ll be just fine.
About the Author: Jeff Blumenfeld, a resident of Boulder, Colo., is editor of ExpeditionNews.com, and author of the adventure sponsorship book titled, Get Sponsored: A Funding Guide for Explorers, Adventurers, and Would-Be World Travelers (Skyhorse Publishing, 2014). A Fellow of The Explorers Club in New York, he also belongs to the American Alpine Club, and is a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. An avid sea kayaker, fly-fishing angler, downhill skier and sailor, he’s also fluent in Morse code, although he’ll be first to admit it doesn’t come up too often in conversation.