FOLLOWING ON FROM a blog post I made back in November, 2021 ( The Earth Beneath My Feet – in Colour ) I thought it was about time I added a similar post for On Sacred Ground. Consider it an extra to the book… for those that have read it. If you haven’t read it and plan to I’d suggest skipping this blog post. The photos and captions will almost certainly give too much away.
I’m sharing these images because I’m photographer; because what’s the point of taking photos if no one ever sees them? But I’m also sharing for research – to ask you, dear visitor to my blog, two questions:
– Firstly, how interested would you be in purchasing a full-colour coffee-table style book containing 200 or so of the best landscape images from my walk? (Not necessarily these images.)
– And secondly, if you were interested, how much would you be willing to pay for such a book?
I ask, because a handful of readers have now expressed a keen interest in a photo book about my walk into Europe’s hidden wild side, and also because I would love to create one! The challenge is, I remain unconvinced that there’s a market for it. A full-colour book would be expensive to print – especially as a print-on-demand book, the only realistic option – and who has thirty to forty dollars (or pounds) spare these days to purchase such a luxury item?
If you have an opinion either way, please let me know (via my blog’s contact page). I’d very much appreciate it!
Anyway, on with the photographs: a selection from a long winter spent traversing central Europe’s forested mountains, spring along Denmark’s North Sea coast, and finally a memorable summer meandering up Norway. These photos cover 4,350 miles of walking (more or less) and only hint at what the journey was. To help tell more of the story – I’ve added a few longer captions taken from On Sacred Ground. (SPOILER ALERT again: if you are considering reading the book, save this blog for another time! Potentially, it gives too much away.)
If you continue, I hope that these photographs share a little of how extraordinary it was to walk for almost 18 months – how fulfilling it was to be immersed in many of Europe’s hidden wild places, living outside no matter the weather, moving on day after day, following a path of freedom and spontaneity, unrestricted by society’s normal rules and routines, intoxicated by a simple, slow and uncluttered existence…
At the very least, I hope these photos bring a smidgen of scenic pleasure to your day!
This shot seems like a good place to start, because the photo sums up what I went for: to find Europe’s special places of nature wonder and to immerse myself within them. Plus, I think the photo hints at how being there felt!
It was taken in mid September in Arctic Norway, roughly a month from the walk’s end. By this point I’d reached a level of connection with the wild that went far beyond anything I’d ever expected. I’d also found a well of happiness that seemed bottomless, an emotion so intense it defies easy sound-bite description. In Arctic Norway, on ground that I’d come to regard as sacred, I was happier and more ‘at home’ than I’d ever been anywhere else.
But I’m also sharing this photo to get something out the way. Yes, the backpack I carried was absolutely hands-down ridiculous! I admit it… and cringe with embarrassment at it! I suspect that many ultra-light purists would judge me harshly because of it… and arguably for good reason!
Part of ‘Ten Ton’s’ excessive size was because gear in 1997 and 1998 (when I did this walk) was bulkier and heavier. But a larger part was because of choices I made: to eat fresh food, to carry books and a large camera, to pack spare comforts for camp. The truth is, Ten Ton didn’t distract from the walk. If anything, it added. It slowed me down. It shortened days so I spent more time in camp. It created a challenge and increased the sense of ‘earning’ the rewards that lay down the trail.
For sure, I wouldn’t carry such a load again. But this insane backpack was part of what ultimately led to the soaring emotions shown.
I shared this map in the previous Earth Beneath My Feet post, but I’m adding it again here as it helps give an idea of the journey’s scope.
When I began in southern Italy I had a route in mind, but it wasn’t set in stone. The plan was to walk the length of Europe from south to north through the highest and wildest places I could find, but the details were entirely flexible. My aim was to make it up day by day – to let fate , or a tossed coin, or a spur-of-the-moment decision dictate where I went. For me, that was where the adventure lay, in a flexible route and in being open to chance.
All the photos that follow were taken from Salzburg northwards.
After a four-night break in Salzburg I walked north, leaving the Alps behind. Conditions were mild to begin with, although soon exceedingly wet. This photo shows Wolfgansgee, and beyond it Alpine foothills wreathed in mist. But fresh from weeks spent negotiating deep Alpine snow the warmer weather was a pleasure!
“I crossed the first hills beneath an unseasonably warm sun. Soon, my coat and fleece were removed and stowed inside Ten Ton, and within another mile my sleeves were rolled high—a happy state of affairs for December 10. I weaved into the Austrian Lake District and skirted the fjord-like Fuschlsee, Wolfgangsee, and Attersee lakes, watching snow thaw before my eyes. After so many weeks of Alpine snow the sight of bare earth emerging from the snowpack was a welcome sight. My feet crossed damp woodland floors softened by fallen leaves, trekked over carpets of pine needles, mats of green grass, and acres of chocolate-brown soil, all surfaces to treasure. I couldn’t get enough of the snow-free ground. After jettisoning Ten Ton, I dropped to my knees and ran my hands over the earth, caressing and exploring it. I pushed my fingers through mulchy forest litter and onwards into soil, relishing the fibrous textures and sticky softness, inhaling the heady organic smells my probing unleashed. Back in the Apennines, The Walk had changed my perception and appreciation of water. In the Alps, it had changed how I valued shelter and warmth. And now it altered how I regarded the very earth I walked upon. Each square inch had become a surface to never again take for granted—especially when it ought to have been buried beneath snow.”
“But the warmth couldn’t last. Winter’s return was inevitable. On the fourth day from Salzburg it reasserted itself—with a vengeance. Hounded by a cruel wind, pelted by horizontal snow, I cinched my hood tight and kept my head down. I marched north across a pastoral landscape that soon resembled the Arctic. Escape from the biting cold didn’t come until my camp in a sheltering forest that night. I burrowed into my sleeping bag like a hibernating bear and listened to the wild ruckus outside: trees thrashing, broken twigs falling, ice pellets flying. The wintry conditions were harder to deal with than warmth and rain, but they were what I’d come for. In truth, I didn’t want warmth for this stage of my journey. I wanted piles of snow and intense cold. I didn’t want a smooth ride—I wanted to be tested by a long, hard season, to feel that I’d earned the spring. How else could I grow? How else could I move forward? Winter was supposed to be winter, after all.”
The photo, taken near the village of Hofkirchen during a break from the snowstorms, shows a typical rolling landscape from Upper Austria. For most of the time I stuck to the forests – trying to escape the biting December winds.
Camp, secreted away in the ‘other’ Europe – the hidden parallel continent that many people miss. Although Upper Austria is far from a wilderness, there were places when it felt wild.
“I continued north. One foot in front of the other, the most natural thing in the world, but made harder by conditions. Salzburg quickly faded from memory, becoming as dreamlike and distant as London. I’d returned to the ‘other’ Europe far more swiftly than I’d expected. Here it was, even among the farms and villages of Upper Austria. I’d rediscovered it by travelling slowly and on foot, and also by hiding away in the forests at night. Even by day, I rarely saw people in the forests, but at night I had them entirely to myself, unsurprisingly—Austrians had far more sense than Mad Mountain Jack. In fresh snow, with paths hidden, I saw no evidence that people had ever visited, and the landscape’s true nature—its wildness—was revealed. My unusual approach turned the forests into environments from another, older time.
Back in the Alps in the autumn, I’d felt as though I’d discovered a secret, as though I were getting away with something: having the landscape entirely to myself. And now the feeling had returned. Once again I was getting away with something, carving out an existence on Europe’s wild margins, living in freedom on the edge of things. Admittedly, the forests weren’t comfortable, but they were forests—the environment I’d grown to love. Over seven months they’d become my home, and a change in seasons couldn’t alter that. Home was home, even when the heating failed.”
As Christmas approached I climbed into the forested mountains of the Böhmerwald, the Bohemian Forest. This photo shows the view south across lowlands (hidden beneath fog) to the Alps. This was a hard period in the journey, not only because of the cold and the long nights, but also because the solitude finally got to me. Walking for six months during a summer is one thing; walking through summer and then on into the depths of winter, knowing that I wouldn’t see family or friends until late the following year, was quite another. Loneliness hit with a fearsomeness that a few quick words here can never do justice to! It almost broke me.
How the pain and panic of loneliness were overcome is too much a part of the book to give away here! Ultimately, though, it made me stronger… and more appreciative of everything I had in life.
December ended with a week of frost and fog. In these conditions, the remotest corners of the Bohemian Forest felt impressively wild.
Finally, on 1997’s last day, the fog broke.
“When the final dawn of 1997 arrived it was clear from the second I opened my eyes that the decision to wait had been a good one. In place of twilight gloom, brightness filled my tent. Peering out the frosted entrance I discovered a brilliant sky overhead, and sunlight so intense after seven days of greyness that I had to squint. I rushed breakfast, barely tasting it, grabbed my camera, and set out for Hochstein’s summit. After a week of fog I didn’t want to waste a second of this miracle-clear morning.
As I sped uphill, the hoar frost that coated the forest grew thicker. Soon, trunks, twigs and pine needles were festooned with ice. I stared around in awe as I raced by, and on any other occasion would have slowed or even stopped to enjoy where I was, but instead began moving faster. In a fever of excitement I reached the base of the summit rocks, scrambled upward—and finally, finally stopped dead. I stared out across a winter landscape unlike any I’d ever seen. The summit was a sparkling wonderland. The trees weren’t just glazed with ice. They were completely encased in it. They barely even looked like trees—they looked like sculptures made of glass.
Beyond the trees the frosted Böhmerwald swept downwards to great banks of valley fog. I could even see the Alps again: a notched line on the southern horizon, some of the peaks an incredible 150 miles distant. After an entire week seeing nothing further away than thirty feet the view was so immense that I almost doubted it. How could this be real?
A year earlier, while planning the route, I’d thought of the Böhmerwald as an in-between place, a range that had to be crossed because it lay between the Alps and Norway. Perhaps it would give a few days of remoteness, maybe a fleeting snatch of wildness. But it wouldn’t likely deliver The Walk’s most memorable moments or affect my emotions as powerfully as bigger mountains. How could it? But Hochstein’s ice-enveloped summit confounded my expectations. It was as extraordinary as anything experienced further south, and it transformed the in-between Böhmerwald to a place valuable for its own sake. The Hochstein Miracle reinforced a lesson I was finally coming to understand: that no single part of The Walk was ever going to be ordinary.”
In January’s second week a temporary thaw hit. From Germany, I detoured into the less-developed forests of the Czech Republic, meandering through a wild region that had been an inaccessible no-man’s land just a few years earlier. At the time, I was unaware that some of its remotest corners were still seeded with mines!
“I was now in the ‘Forbidden Zone’, the strip of forest beside the old Iron Curtain that prior to 1989 had been a fortified and mined no-man’s land. The communist regime had emptied it of people, and to walk where I now walked wouldn’t just have been forbidden—it might have got me shot. And yet here I now was, enjoying the benefits of a failed ideology. And what benefits! The land was wilder than back in Germany. There was no sign of forest management, no stumps from felled trees, no cleared undergrowth. The meadows were rough and unploughed, the trees shaggy, the grass coarse and tussocky. It was wild nature, left to do its own thing.
The difference was thought-provoking. The soil, climate and underlying rocks were identical to those back in Germany, but the environment was entirely different. Two contrasting worlds sat side by side, and it was all down to us—down to intensive management one side of the border and decades of ‘neglect’ on the other. Seeing such stark evidence of our influence should, perhaps, have been troubling. Was it a fool’s errand to seek the wild in a Europe so thoroughly shaped by humankind? But instead it prompted optimism. It didn’t only reveal how domineering we are but also how quickly nature could bounce back. The Český les had once been developed, but it was now reverting to wilderness. The sight of it kindled a powerful response: hope. If the wild could return here, why not elsewhere? Why not in patches small and great right across the globe? Tiny squares of wasteland in cities, road and field margins, any area of land no longer in use, no matter the size, could all become wild oases. It was possible. These Czech forests proved it.”
Back in Germany, winter returned. Although small, the mountains felt wild enough.
“The restless winter wind was back. It rushed through the night and set the forest into motion; it probed, teased and roared. Falling snow came with it, growing the snowpack once more, settling on pines. Massive clumps built up on the trees, and every so often the wind dislodged them, setting avalanches into motion. From around the forest ‘thwumps’ could be heard from near and far, sounding from within my tent like the footfalls of passing giants. Frost tightened its grip, creeping across the Blob, glazing it with ice. Winter had returned.
Snow was still falling at dawn, settling heavily upon my shelter. To clear it I thumped the sides, and as the ‘Schnee’ slid away the gentle murmur of falling flakes resumed. As usual, I burrowed deeper into my sleeping bag instead of jumping up. Rushing headlong into the world was what other people did. It was for people with commitments and jobs, people living indoors. For me, this wasn’t the season for rushing.”
I enjoyed some sensational camps – moments like this when the challenges of winter backpacking easily became worthwhile.
There were also some incredible moments of hospitality – several occasions when Austrian and German families opened their homes and invited me in. I was a foreigner, a trail-dirty traveller, but I was treated like family… trusted, welcomed. It was truly extraordinary.
“Part of me looked on with astonishment at how I was sitting in a stranger’s kitchen in a country not my own, chatting as though my host was an old friend. The remarkable thing was how normal it seemed; in truth it was a rare experience that my life could easily have lacked. These encounters were a side of solo travel I hadn’t given much thought to prior to starting The Walk, but they’d become a treasured side, increasing in value the longer the journey went on.”
The mountains of central Europe aren’t especially high – they reach their apex on Great Arber at a modest 4,775 ft, 1,455 m. But they can still feel high and wild in the right conditions (as Great Arber did in a raging blizzard), and they can also give some incredible views. This summit view came on Great Rachel. The photos shows the Alps far in the distance, rising above a broad sea of clouds – although other, further ranges were also in view.
“When I entered the Bavarian Forest National Park I was pleasantly surprised by the number of walkers I found following its trails. Despite my preference for solitude, it was heartening to see so many other people choosing to travel on foot. The summits of the park’s two highest mountains—Lusen and Grosser Rachel—weren’t places of silence, but I didn’t begrudge having to share them. Mutual enthusiasm improved the views, and I still got to experience them in solitude at day’s end. When sunset neared, I didn’t have to descend like everyone else. I was free to camp nearby and sit upon the summits for as long as I could stand the cold; free to stare across the world in quiet contemplation. And the views were worth contemplating. Grosser Rachel’s 4,767-foot perch gave a panorama across the vastest cloud sea I’d ever seen. The inversion lapped against the Böhmerwald’s foothills, stretched south across Germany to the distant Alps, and reached south-east to a barely discernible range of hills that—according to my compass and map of Europe—was the Black Forest. But seeing so far was hard to believe. The Schwarzwald lay 250 miles distant. Still, as the sun sank and the cloud sea turned pink I didn’t worry which hills they were. I couldn’t worry about anything.”
A snowstorm on the edge of a settlement in the Frankenwald. Before Christmas, with loneliness hitting hard, I’d found myself drawn to shelter, to villages, to civilisation. But from what I’d learnt and experienced in the miles since then, my needs had changed.
“I reached a village every day or so and usually picked up a few extra supplies. But I rarely lingered now, and never looked back. I’d changed since Christmas. My perception of villages had changed too. To the residents of Haidmühle, Philippsreut and Mauth the world most likely centred around human-made things and was lived mostly indoors. But to me, villages were no longer central to existence. They’d become mere outposts resting on the edge of the Real World. The real world was trees and snow, earth and water, wind and air, the sun and moon. I felt as though a shift had occurred, as though I was now viewing villages the way a creature of the land might—as something inconsequential, an environment that didn’t really impinge upon normal day-to-day living. I felt as though I was standing outside of what had once been normal and was now looking in at it instead of out from it, and finally understood that my view had been back to front all along.”
There were setbacks, of course. Challenges. Discomforts. Such as being turned away late in the day from a youth hostel in a raging blizzard because it was full. But there were also sparkling days like this to balance them. And the difficulties, I came to see, served a purpose.
“There were numerous ups and downs—physical and emotional—and I’d soared and suffered from them. But I’d learnt from both. Both, I’d come to see, were essential. Without lows there are no highs. Without valleys, no summits. Without struggles, rewards mean little.”
Another wild camp, high in the forests – an evening to treasure after a long spell of rough weather.
“For eight days snow fell, and by the end I’d almost forgotten the sun existed. But finally the storm clouds rolled aside, and on January 26 I awoke to brittle silence and blinding light. I emerged from my snow-smothered home into the winter wonderland I’d always dreamt of as a child, and I celebrated my good fortune. Winter, I discovered over the following five days, can be the most spectacular and colourful season of all.
Following the tracks of deer, foxes, and skiers, I weaved along the fabulous Rennsteig, thinking about Norway, ‘The Prize’. I’d been dreaming of Norway for months and the Arctic for years, but from the look and feel of it, from the sparkling wintry wildness of it, I might already have arrived.”
THIS is the ‘other’ Europe that many people miss!
Eventually, I ran out of mountains and pushed across the North German Plain, a region that I had low expectations for. I called it ‘The Great In-Between’, and expected it to be similar to Britain’s flat agricultural regions. I wasn’t even sure if ‘wild’ camping would be possible.
But it turned out to be far more interesting than I expected, something I should have learnt already from everything my journey had shown me. There was more woodland for discrete camps than I imagined, and far more ‘nature’, even if it wasn’t on an epic scale. To my surprise, it became an engrossing and deeply meaningful part of the journey.
“The reality was, foul weather or not, I was free—more so with each passing day. I had time on my hands and clean air to breathe and wonders all around. When I pitched my tent later that afternoon in a sheltering wood my attention was caught by a small patch of earth. I stared at it for long minutes, and the more I stared the more remarkable the spot became. Fallen beech leaves covered it. The leaves were dead, but they weren’t dull or grey as one might expect: they were full of colour and texture, each one an exquisite work of art. Rising through the leaves was a tree stump, a decaying cathedral of sponge-soft wood and emerald moss, a biome crawling and sprouting with life. I stared at the fallen leaves, at the old stump, at the small patch of earth, and although I knew it was all ordinary, replicated innumerable times across the continent, I also saw that every single part was unique and had value, that it was a complete wilderness, albeit in miniature. It revealed the truth: that wildness existed everywhere in nature. It was present in a blackbird’s dawn song, in soft haze that blurred the horizon, in rattling reeds that edged a pond. It was present in every corner of the landscape, from one tiny leaf to an entire forest, from a trackless mountain to a human-altered heath. The Great In-Between had taken me far from the kind of environments I’d previously considered wild, but I’d found wildness anyway.”
By mid March I reached the North Sea coast, and for the next four weeks followed it to the top of Denmark. Sometimes walking on the coastal dyke, sometimes on the beach, sometimes among dunes, it became a wonderful month of walking – albeit it a chill, salty, windswept month.
There were a few ‘crises’ along the way – my mood seemed to be at the mercy of the people I met. Kindness helped me soar, but meanness set me falling. The mood swings were a symptom of how long I’d been on my own, but – as with other challenges – it ultimately taught a great deal about who I was and how to live.
Moods aside, the coastal landscapes were constantly delightful, no matter how hard the wind blew. With the world’s greatest wilderness (the sea) to my left, the natural beauty and drama of the landscape sometimes had me feeling that Denmark’s wildlife-rich coast was even better than mountains… practically a sacrilegious thing for a mountain wanderer to think!
The North German Plain had offered far more nature and wildness than I’d expected, and the Danish coast did the same. Perhaps it was merely because I’d now been walking for almost a year, or maybe it really WAS wild, but camps like this felt like wilderness camps. There was nothing human-made in sight – aside from what I’d carried there myself. Sounds came from sea birds, the wind, hissing spindrift sand and the omnipresent roar of waves from behind the dunes.
A photo that sums up many Danish miles and days! Footsteps along an endless beach!
Before beginning the journey, I’d had high hopes that Denmark would give me a ‘holiday’ before reaching the wild fjells of Norway. I thought it might be restful, even rejuvenating. But… boy was I wrong!
The wind was constantly draining, and at the start of April winter returned, turning the world white once again. After so long underway several items of gear were no longer functioning as they should, such as my waterproofs. Miserably wet and cold I pushed on, beginning to feel fearful of everything that lay ahead in Norway. I was struggling to cope on a beach at sea level. It made the idea of walking across Norway’s wild places and high fjells suddenly felt like borderline suicide! For months I’d thought of Norway as ‘The Prize’. But now I wasn’t so sure.
After reaching Grenen at Denmark’s tip, I took a ferry to Kristiansand (courtesy of Color Line, who gave me free passage). I spent a week off in Kristiansand, collected new waterproofs (sent for free by Lowe Alpine), hid in my no-longer watertight tent (which I renamed Auld Leakie) while snow piled up, and finally on April 18 bussed and hitched to Lindesnes Fyr, mainland Norway’s southern-most point.
Lindesnes is where many other ‘Norge på langs’ (Norway lengthwise) treks have begun. Pushing aside my fears for everything that lay ahead, I tried to focus on the moment.
“I picked my way south across exposed rock to land’s end, then sat beside the sea for half an hour, just as I’d done at Melito di Porto Salvo almost a year earlier. With warm sunlight on my face, and lulling waves washing Norway’s granite edge, it was a peaceful spot. But I wasn’t at peace. My stomach churned with excitement. My mind spun with emotion. This was another moment to savour, to pull in deep, to store away for the rest of my life. I still couldn’t take for granted that I was here, living my dream—even after so long underway. I felt nerves too, and exhilaration—and ultimately the exhilaration won out. If the laws of nature could have been changed to match my mood I’d have been soaring and swooping through the air like one of the exuberant seagulls.
I felt an urge to jump up and race north, but instead held myself in check. After all, I thought: what’s the hurry?
As I stared at the sparkling sea I decided that ‘what’s the hurry?’ would be the motto for the rest of the journey. Whether my funds ran out in two months, or whether I made it all the way to the North Cape in six, not hurrying would define my approach.
Eventually, I stood up and turned away from the sea. I resolved to treasure every single step.”
My aim throughout the journey was to stay off roads and follow a high, wild route – to walk in ‘good style’ – but I didn’t always succeed. Inland from Lindesnes I discovered an exceptionally rough landscape. It was glorious and beautiful, exactly what I’d come for – but taxing to cross. After a few days I reached low mountains still buried in snow, and strapped on my old snowshoes. But it didn’t go well…
“On the fourth day the snowpack rapidly softened. The first hour of snowshoeing through it was a reality check that taxed muscle and spirit far more than I’d expected. The deteriorating surface sucked at my snowshoes and added pounds of weight to each step. Better-designed snowshoes might have helped, but I didn’t know that better snowshoes existed. Even if I had known, I wouldn’t have been able to afford them. My old Mayrhofen snowshoes were heavy and simple. They lacked crampons and a snow-shedding design, and their bindings held my entire foot fixed in place. They made progress feel unnatural, like an exaggerated, flat-footed pantomime of walking.
Step by step my legs tired and my doubts returned. After two hours I slumped against a tree for the umpteenth rest and gazed upward, wondering: have I made a mistake? Is Norway going to be impossible?
Desperate to continue in good style I pushed on, but after another hour sank into submission. I didn’t mind challenging terrain that I could get my teeth into, but this ‘sloppy-porridge snow’ was too much. I thought about why I was here: to embrace the land, not battle it. Grinding myself into exhaustion when the best of Norway lay weeks ahead seemed foolish. It was a sign of someone out of tune with nature, not in tune. Or so I told myself. Trying to convince myself that I wasn’t merely taking the easy option, I turned for the valley.”
For a few days I stuck to the valleys, following quiet roads free of snow. I always retreated into the wild for camp, and each felt like a reward for my progress. But I still felt nervous about everything lying ahead. There were higher fjells in my path, and no easy way around.
A week from Lindesnes I climbed into the Setesdal Highlands… and ‘gruelling’ doesn’t begin to describe what followed.
“I toiled across a landscape that had very little land to it. It was more a waterscape, an environment offering water in every possible form. It was all ‘porridge snow’ and rain-soaked slush, rushing river and ice-covered lake, dense fog and pelting rain. Every surface was wet to the touch. Everything dripped. The sound of rushing water filled my ears; swirling fog filled my vision. Boots were soon soaked. Socks squelched with each step. And, despite the new waterproofs, my clothes were soon cold and clammy beneath them, clinging as uncomfortably as they had back on the Danish beach. After two hours I was so drenched from sweat I reckoned jumping into a river would make little difference. The immense, snow-covered, watery wilderness had me out of my comfort zone in more ways than one. Nothing about it was comfortable.”
Eventually, after a real struggle, I had to accept that travel across the foggy snowbound fjells was impractical and unrealistic – at least for me in these conditions on the snowshoes I had. I realised a simple truth: that in wild mountains like Norway’s you can’t pretend to be what you are not.
“Because of it, I knew who I really was. The high fjells had revealed the truth. You can’t hide from yourself in certain wild places, or be what you’re not, or achieve the unachievable. Dreams and fantasies count for little. Self-delusions are soon shattered. Walk alone into mountains like Norway’s in early spring and you’ll eventually come face to face with yourself, and you’ll likely become a humbler person for it.”
Forced back into the valleys, I followed the (often rainy) Setesdal north for six days, but found unexpected treasures – a level of balance I might have otherwise have missed.
“Norway, I was coming to see, was The Place—the land I’d been searching for all along. It wasn’t only the quality and extent of the wild, or the friluftsliv lifestyle, or the kindness of its people, or the evident prosperity of a functioning society. There was something else too, something deeper and even more appealing.
I mulled over it for the rest of the day and then, while resting in camp in late evening twilight, the answer finally came.
It was balance—that was the thing. Norway had balance. There was balance in the way people approached one another, with quiet respect at first, hospitality later. There was balance in the way rural Norwegians appeared perfectly capable of looking after themselves, but didn’t hesitate to step forward and offer help to others. Most of all there was balance in the way the modern human world seemed to nestle into the natural world without subjugating or destroying it. Homes and farms didn’t sit on the land—they sat in it. Their turf roofs and wooden walls had been constructed in humble sympathy, not in dominating arrogance. Developed land existed in perfect proportion to land undeveloped. One could find civilisation while crossing Norway, but not too much of it. Whether by accident or design, civilisation and the wild seemed to coexist in Norway without either being diminished.
This balance was a joy to behold. It suggested that humanity WAS capable of sharing the planet, not just exploiting it.”
May arrived, my journey became one year old, and after a week in the Setesdal I climbed back into mountains.
Crossing them was everything I wanted my walk to be! This image shows my weaving snowshoe tracks across the fjells…
“The snow was soft, but far more supportive than it had previously been. My snowshoes only sank six inches. Progress was steady, although by no means easy. But I relished the effort—the sensation of muscles working and sweat flowing, of lungs expanding and heart pounding. And I began to relish the situation even more. Here I finally was, doing exactly what I’d come to Norway to do, walking alone across the country’s high fjells. Before long, elation replaced anxiety. I stared around as I walked, still awestruck by Norway’s immense space. I thought about how far I’d come. You’ve earned this, I told myself. A year of effort, and this is the pay-off. There was nowhere else in the world I would rather have been.
The miles passed, too swiftly by the end. When I reached the plateau’s far side I was tempted to turn about, retrace my steps, and enjoy the miles all over again. I felt as if Norway’s high places had been unlocked. If I can cross this mountain, why not every mountain? All things suddenly seemed possible.”
Norway, of course, isn’t only about high fjells but fjords, too. I made sure to drop down to this one, the Sørfjord, an arm of the famous Hardangerfjord. I was there at a great time of year, with spring blossom softening the fjord-side orchards. After a looooong winter, suddenly being amid so much green was almost an affront to the senses. The location didn’t feel ‘northern’. It could have been Mediterranean.
From the fjord I climbed into the fjells again, and began perhaps the toughest miles of the entire journey: snowshoeing across a corner of the immense Hardangervidda plateau in a blazing heatwave.
“Time slowed until it had practically stopped. By mid-morning the vidda had become an arena of light, heat, sweat and toil. It seemed extraordinary, that a landscape so deeply buried in snow could feel so furnace hot. The air shimmered from heat—I saw desert mirages above plains of white. Sunlight rebounded from the snow. Sweat poured from my body. My T-shirt was soon clinging-wet, my sunglasses steamed over. I drank what seemed like gallons each time I stopped, which was often. I aimed, whenever possible, for small ridges of snow-free tundra, but they only ever helped for short distances. Within a few steps I was always back on snow, struggling through it, my muscles screaming.”
With the vidda crossed, I descended to Flåm and the Aurlandsfjord. This view is from camp, high above the fjord – truly a camp in a million. It felt ‘earned’!
I was joined by friends in Flåm, and spent a week with them crossing the fjells. It was a week of laughter, an incredible treat after so much time alone, but when they left the return to solitude was hard to take. For a stretch afterwards, the journey floundered. I saw that what I was doing, spending so much time alone, was UN-natural – the very opposite of what I wanted life to be. What I was seeking was ‘balance’ in nature and in life, but after companionship, I saw that I was very much ‘out of balance’.
The mountains, of course, eventually helped – as they always do! Nature can heal all manner of ills, more than we have names for. Over the next few weeks the land touched all the senses, stirred instincts and emotions, and fixed everything that seemed wrong.
“I came to see that Balance was like everything else. It was like water, shelter, friends, snow-free ground, smiles. To truly, TRULY value it, you have to go without it first.”
This photo is from the Breheimen range. It was June now… but still winter, by appearances. Unsurprisingly, I still had the mountains entirely to myself. This wasn’t the over-crowded Europe most people think of!
June rolled into July, and I walked on from the Breheimen range to the mighty Jotenheimen, then through the Rondane, then over into the Romsdal Alps. But I didn’t actually ‘see’ as much of the landscape as I’d hope to. There was a significant volume of rain!
“The days were filled with moisture; with seeping, squelching peat; with mist, drizzle and rain; with ever-shifting clouds and pressing fog; with bogs and puddles; with endless streams gurgling and splashing; with rivers roaring and frothing; with waterfalls crashing; with water beading every stem of grass, pine needle and leaf. It was impossible to remain dry. My socks were perpetually sodden, my boots heavy with water, my trousers clinging-wet, my so-called waterproofs clammy, my hair plastered to my head.
When I reached the Eikesdal valley I picked up a local tourist brochure. ‘Welcome,’ the cheery title said. ‘The Eikesdal Valley is one of the area’s natural pearls. The village is well protected between high mountains, and has a special climate with noticeably less downfall than in surrounding areas, in fact about half as much downfall as these.’ I laughed aloud at that. If the unceasing rain here was less ‘downfall’ than elsewhere then I was surprised that Norwegians elsewhere hadn’t evolved fins and gills.
A shopkeeper smiled when I asked him if the weather was always as wet as this.
‘On no,’ he replied, peering outside. ‘This is nothing. Sometimes it really rains!’ ”
After eight months of winter, and almost three months of wandering across wet and soggy Norwegian fjells, I finally reached a range free enough of snow to offer ‘normal’ hiking – the Trollheimen range. For the first time since October there were other hikers about, but only on the easily-reached edges of the range. The interior was still empty.
“On July 11 I walked up a deepening valley, the Naustådalen, following a narrow path into the heart of the Trollheimen. There was no one else about now. The surrounding fjells were wild and rugged, ribbed with rock, streaked with snow. Brooks tumbled and rock pools gleamed. Delicate pink flowers speckled the tundra, clouds rolled off summits, and patches of sunlight surfed across open slopes. Early in the afternoon I reached the head of the valley, and it was too close to my idea of wilderness perfection to keep on going. I stopped early and made camp, aiming to enjoy the location to the full.
At first I sat and relaxed, attempting to read, but reading was impossible—I couldn’t take my eyes off the landscape. A fair amount of snow still lay in drifts, but open ground balanced it. It was a landscape of contrasts: grass and snow, earth and rock, rushing stream and motionless pool. The temperature felt comfortable and the air smelled heavenly with its scents of plant growth and sun-warmed soil. The sound of running water accompanied the songs from numerous birds. Soon, even sitting was impossible. I stood up and began wandering—but without real purpose. I took step by slow step, stopping repeatedly to take it all in.
With each breath exhilaration grew, along with a profound sense of peace and well-being. Slowly, the feelings strengthened. Soon, they filled me to my core, then expanded beyond my own borders. A sensation of extraordinary completion overcame me, as though every aspect of life was exactly the way it was meant to be. It was like being connected to something incomprehensibly immense that was utterly without limits, but not only connected—also welcomed, accepted, merged. There were no doubts left now, no anxieties, no fears. I was still fully aware that I was alone in a remote Norwegian wilderness, but being here suddenly felt like the most comfortable and natural thing in the world.”
“Showers swept through early in the evening, chased by rainbows. At 8 p.m. crisp sunlight returned, and on the spur of the moment I scrambled to a rocky peak 1,500 feet above camp. The elation I experienced on the summit is something I’ll never forget. The golden evening light; the 360-degree panorama; a lingering rainbow to the north; the taste and touch of cold, clean air; the liberating space and soothing quietness; the sheer perfection of an untrammelled snow-streaked mountain wilderness spread in every direction: it transported me to another plane of existence. If I could have merged into the rocks and soil at my feet and become one with the mountains for all time I would have without a second’s hesitation. In a way, I felt that I already had.”
The Trollheimen was the final range of big mountains in southern Norway. North of it lay several weeks of lower fjells and forests, and something far less pleasant: trolls, in their millions!
(For trolls, read mosquitoes and midges… in their murderous maddening multitudes!)
For once keen to move quickly, and ‘escape’ back to higher fjells, I followed a few more roads than I cared for in a hard push to reach the first big mountains of the north, the Børgefjell.
The Børgefjell was worth rushing to reach. Everything about the range was special: the Arctic ambience, the scale, and most of all the epic sense of space. Camp in the middle of the mountains was just about perfect.
“I sat in stillness, considering my place in this land. More than ever, I sensed that here—outdoors in nature, not just here in the Børgefjell—was where we as a species fit best. We weren’t meant to live behind walls with soft carpet underfoot and electricity keeping us comfortable. Yes, we still needed shelter, but not all the time. We needed this so-called ‘wild’ as much, if not more. It was our original home, after all.”
From the Børgefjell it was on to the Okstinden, a single massive mountain buried beneath a broad ice cap: the Okstindbreen, mainland Norway’s eighth largest.
“By the time I was underway, dawn’s finger-nipping air had become rolled-up-sleeves warm. From the cabin I climbed to an open fjell—a glorious, spacious, unmarred place—then descended to a wide tarn, the Okstindjønna. The scenery was beyond spectacular; it set me gaping and grinning with joy. To my right the mountain was smothered by the ice cap, a mass of snow and ice that gleamed beneath an azure sky. Sharp summits rose above it, dark triangles of rock wreathed in shifting fog, and much-crevassed arms plunged from it, reaching right down to the Okstindjønna’s turquoise waters. The tarn was mirror-still and highly reflective, afloat with icebergs cast off from the glacier. I sat beside the tarn on a sun-warmed rock feeling wonderstruck by the scenic drama, awestruck by the wildness I’d wandered into, and grateful for the day I’d been given. If this were the Alps there’d have been thousands of people alongside me—and the crowds would have been justified. But this was northern Norway and I had it entirely to myself. It was wild Europe at its absolute best, and there wasn’t even a trail leading to it.”
On August 17 I reached the Svartisen range and crossed into the Arctic for the first time, entering a place I’d been dreaming about for most of my life.
“So much of what we feel in the wild is based upon what we expect to feel. So much of what we take away is based upon what we bring. The moment I crossed the Polarsirkel the landscape felt bigger and emptier, the wilderness more real. I knew that the landscape hadn’t really changed, and yet, because of everything I brought with me, it truly had.
What is and isn’t wilderness, and what is and isn’t an adventure, is entirely subjective. A place like Svartisen might feel remote and wild to some, or accessible and tame to others. And entering the Arctic alone and on foot might seem adventurous to some, or a walk in the park to others. But that’s the great thing about mountains and wild places, how they give each visitor a chance to forge their own experiences, especially when visiting alone. Out here I was completely free to be myself, free to react without being influenced by other people’s reactions, free to create my own reality—and the reality of entering the Arctic lifted The Walk to another level.”
Late in the afternoon on that first Arctic day, I followed a spur-of-the-moment urge to head onto the Svartisen ice cap. It might not have been a ‘wise’ decision to climb a glacier so late in the day, but it turned into a good one!
“The climb topped out at a broad 3,000-foot pass. Wind blasted across it, but the view removed its sting. A glacial wilderness stretched ahead: a sweeping ice-age kingdom entirely removed from the Europe most people knew. Dark rock peaks rose like islands above the ice cap, and I climbed them in my imagination, knowing this was as far as I dared go alone. The limitations from being solo could have brought frustration, but the benefits were greater. Company might have unlocked the upper ice cap, but it would also have removed the powerful thrill of isolation. Once again, a great wave of awe swamped me, raising goosebumps. I felt my senses sharpen, and the entire environment suddenly seemed extraordinarily vivid.
How muted life would be, I thought, without moments like this. A life without awe is a life only half lived.”
After almost 6,000 miles and fifteen and a half months of walking, I’d reached an interesting ‘place’ – a level of happiness that a few words here on Facebook couldn’t ever describe! I now felt utterly at home in the wild, and fully at peace with whatever the universe served up, which in the northern Svartisen was savage weather befitting the Arctic. And yet, despite being soaked, cold and tired from lashing rain and numerous river crossings, I felt barely containable joy. Emptying boots after yet another river crossing was merely something to laugh at… and photograph so that I’d one day have a memento of how insanely happy I was in this wild place!
The Børgefjell, Okstindan and Svartisen areas had raised my backpacking life to a state of perfection that I thought was the absolute pinnacle of what was possible, but then the next stretch – the Padjelanta National Park over the border in Sweden – surpassed it…
It was a two-week stretch through the remotest landscape of the entire journey, and I thought of it as ‘The Crux’. I expected difficulties, rough conditions, a gruelling and even intimidating challenge…but that wasn’t what I got.
Trying to sum up the experience here, or choose a single quote borrowed from the book, wouldn’t do it! But it led to a discovery and a state of being that I’m still soaring from 24 years later. Something that has never left me.
If anyone wants to know more they’ll have to read the full story! Sorry! 😉
But to put it simply – life could not have been better!
Sunset in Arctic Norway, early September.
From that point on the journey seemed ‘complete’ – even though I still had 500 miles to walk and an Arctic winter barreling in!
But no matter where I was, the landscape was beyond magical, and in so many varied and unexpected ways. Even the most mundane and ordinary moments had become extraordinary.
For example, who would have thought Arctic Norway could be one of Europe’s most colourful environments!
And that was by day. By night, when the northern lights blazed, the extraordinariness was off the charts.
In mid September the first winter storm hit. A seven-day spell of ferocious weather lashed the Lyngen Alps, a range I’d detoured to on spur-of-the-moment, hoping to summit at least one of the peaks. Instead, I loitered happily in a remote cabin, savouring a simple life of slow living, wondering if the rain and snow would ever cease.
They did, eventually, but only once I’d left the Lyngen Alps behind. Once I’d taken a ferry across the Lyngenfjord the fjells finally appeared.
A mass of snow now buried the fjells, and the higher route I would have originally preferred wasn’t feasible. I tried, but it was too hard – after 17 months of walking I was too tired and somewhat ‘done’ with snow.
But, it didn’t matter. By this stage of the journey it didn’t matter where I was walking. I was always somewhere, and that somewhere was special for being whatever it was.
“In recent weeks, everything had changed. Not just the season or the landscape or my perception of it but who I fundamentally was. A walk is such an ordinary thing, something that the majority of humans do every day. Even backpacking is relatively ordinary—thousands do it every weekend. But for me, repetition had transformed it. Waking in the wild, wandering all day in freedom, immersed in nature, settling somewhere new at day’s end, making the earth itself home, then doing it all again the next day, and then again—ten times more, a hundred times more, then another hundred, and then another…
The length of the journey, the sheer amount of repetition, had taken it beyond ordinary. Repetition had transformed a simple activity into a way of living that was shot through with meaning and reward. A journey that may have seemed like endless discomfort and dulling routine to some had been alchemised into something potent and intense, an existence of pure bliss.
No longer was I in competition with myself while I walked, debating ideas about good style, agonising when I had to choose a lower route or when it differed from my expectations. The Walk, now, was exactly what it was meant to be, whatever shape it took, wherever it led.”
The journey became a coastal walk again, and gradual winding down toward the end, and perhaps because of it every moment seemed extraordinarily vivid and intense. The passing snowstorms, the biting nights, the growing tiredness – I wouldn’t have wanted to change a thing.
By the end of October’s second week I was nearing the top of Norway.
“Another day arrived: October 12—‘Arctober 12’, as I labelled it in my journal. The sun rose, but not high. It now sat so close to the horizon that noon was lit like sunset, and the beauty of it brought the Padjelanta Happiness back to the surface. It was always there now, waiting for a little nudge, and here there was much to nudge it: expansive tundra, sparkling bays and inlets, low headlands and plunging cliffs. When the road disappeared into a long tunnel I stumbled appreciatively across untracked tundra above it. Beside me waves surged against rocks. Gulls and ravens wheeled in the sky. Twice I walked past reindeer herds. Several reindeer wore collars with bells, and the clanging notes took me straight back to the Apennines and Alps. How easy it was to return to other places as though I were still there! Sun-dappled Calabrian beech woods, the wild Pollino, airy Abruzzi ridges, the ‘Grand Finale on the High Crinale’, Alpine cloud seas, ice-encased Bohemian forests, Denmark’s restless sea, snowy Hardangervidda, magical Trollheimen, savage Svartisen, spacious Padjelanta—I carried all these places inside. I might one day forget the details, but I’d never forget how the places felt.
I made camp in a glacier-scooped cirque right at the sea’s edge, and spent the evening staring into space, listening to an evocative soundtrack of seabirds, cackling ptarmigan, a tumbling brook and rolling waves. Tears brimmed at the surrounding beauty. For a moment, pure emotion overcame me. How could I ever leave this land? How could I say farewell to The Walk? The love I felt for everything it was, for the good and the bad, was so impossibly sweet and all-encompassing it was almost hard to take.
I’d fallen in love with something soon to end.”
“Well, he almost made it!”
I reached the North Cape on October 18th. It could have been an anticlimax, but it wasn’t, not even close.
“The North Cape is no impossible-to-reach destination, no Everest or K2, no South Pole, but at that moment—to me—it was all the summits of the world rolled into one.”
Again, there isn’t space here to adequately sum up what being at the end meant, or how it felt… or how the entire journey and its many lessons changed the rest of my life. But for anyone who wants to read more… well, there’s always the book!