Free camping Norway and the SMO3 DJJ family

After completing the gruelling 22km hike to Trolltunga, surviving the  freezing overnight conditions, sleeping within the snow line and traversing its insanely steep, muddy track, we six Australians drove towards Odda, in hopes of securing a campsite. The van we rode in, number plates SMO3 DJJ, belonged to an Australian couple, road tripping through Europe. These guys are legends, along with the rest of the van family and you can read more about them in our previous posts! We had all decided we would stay at the same campsite the night before reaching Trolltunga. Even camping in designated campgrounds can be expensive ($30 AUD +) in Norway and it seems a little funny when you consider that Norway has a law where camping anywhere is legal, so long as it is 150 metres away from any residential housing, does not impact on agricultural production or other private practices and that you leave the area in the exact same way you found it (WE LOVE NORWAY!). You do however, at campgrounds get wifi, cooking facilities and bathrooms but they usually come with an additional charge. The campground we were heading to was an extreme example of this, having to pay ($2) for warm water from a tap and showers and there were not enough facilities to accomodate the amount of campers. For this reason we simply decided to drive in, straight past reception, and “free camp”.

We chose the same location as before. It was at the back of the grounds nestled behind a rock where the van, two tents and all the table, chairs and other gear from our Aussie friends would fit. It ended up raining the rest of the day and into the night so non of the gear came out and our tent was rather wet (along with the majority of our clothes from hiking). It was a typical Norwegian feeling; that of never quite feeling dry. Although we got to have hot showers, most of our personal possessions were drenched and we were not very comfortable. Perhaps it was karma for sneaking into the campground..

The next morning it was raining. We had hung our clothes on a makeshift clothes line under an enormous overhanging rock. There was a cave beneath it, where it appeared someone had made a home. Our clothes hung on some rope tied beneath the rock and two trees. Unfortunately the night’s rain had been torrential and our clothes were wetter than the night before (WE LOVE NORWAY! ;). Packing up quickly between showers and putting everything wet into plastic bags, we were thankful to be continuing our travels with the SMO33 DJJ family.

Our friends planned to head towards Bergen (the second largest city in Norway) and it was from there that Erin had to depart the next day. We were happy to tag along as we had no plans for the next couple of weeks and were enjoying the familiar company. We left our night of free accomodation and headed west. It rained the entire time we were on the road and after having a sleep in it, wasn’t until 6pm that we reached Bergen. Another hour passed before we found a carpark in the city. Our friends kindly paid and we were soon off and exploring the city. It was really beautiful, and  apart from the continuous rain, it was fun to walk around. The old section in the town (world heritage listed by UNESCO) was dated back centuries and resembled the old wooden town that once existed there. It was a maze of uneven wooden construction with tiny stairwells and shops around every corner. Upon returning to the van we bought 2 large tubs of Norwegian ice-cream and piggishly smashed them in the van. It was 10pm by that stage and time to find a spot to free camp.

Cities are difficult with a van (and a tent), as it is hard to find somewhere to free camp. We had also left it very late. A nearby supermarket provided us with wifi and Hayley found a potential free camping spot only 5 minutes away. Driving through a neighbourhood which resembled a ghetto we pulled into a small park-like area which housed a few cars nearby. It felt like an area where 18 year olds would drive their dates to make out before dropping them home or where dodgy deals are made. It did not feel safe and even though it was getting late and everybody tired, we decided to check out a campground 15 minutes away. Parking up the street from the reception, a few of us went ahead in order to investigate the grounds potential for sneaking in. It ended up being impossible as the camping area was smaller than an inner city apartment backyard (non existent) so we scrapped the plan and headed for a camper van pit stop.

Again we ran into trouble. It was 11pm by now and as we searched the camper van area there appeared to be no free spaces. We passed more than 50 vans before seeing the last free space, second from the end. The pit stop was positioned on a slopping hill and had no grass whatsoever, resulting in our tent having to be pitched on asphalt in a tiny space between a couple of vans while our four friends squished into the double bed inside the SMO3 DJJ. Matters were made worse when it began to rain. We threw clothes over our heads in order to avoid the street light shining above our tent and fell asleep.

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We woke surprising dry. The contents of our tent, and anything that was touching the ground, was not. Feeling the wettest we had on our trip so far, we packed everything quickly and were once again glad we had met our friends with the van. We headed back to Bergen to explore the picturesque back streets filled with historical white houses. After losing Hayley for the better half of an hour when she left her phone on a park bench and could not remember the route back to it, we decided we had had enough of Bergen and its rain so we drove towards the airport where Erin was flying to London. We were sad to say goodbye. She was not going to see her brother for another year. We then drove north. The van felt somewhat emptier without Erin’s energy, sarcasm and positivity and we felt so grateful to have met her!
It was only an 80km drive and at 6pm we veered off the main road to find a free camp spot. We parked in a newly built pit stop, positioned on a small island which housed seating and bins and sat directly beside a fjord. It was an amazing location and we had it all to ourselves. The only problem was, it was still raining. Our friends thankfully had two tarps and we hung one between some rocks, a tree and the van to create a roof. The second was used to protect us against wet ground and so we found ourselves in a comfortable set up for the night. We ate salami sandwiches for dinner before we crawled into our tent. Rain was still falling.

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Mornings were beginning to become a routine which consisted of packing our bags, eating segments of apple in musli with water and finally packing up our wet tent. One side was dry from the makeshift tarp cover, however the continuous rain from the night had created a pool under our tent and the bottom was once again, a soggy blanket. We began heading north towards Alesund, a small town which had tall, old colourful buildings along its sea canals. Unfortunately, Norway’s mountainous roads continued and we were making slow progress. We stopped in a tiny village which was nestled inside a deep valley on a lake called Mo. Like all of Norway, it was picturesque and the lakes water was clear enough to see the whole way to the bottom; nearly 4m deep. Our next destination was a “lonely planet” suggestion, the historical town of Flam. After driving past countless waterfalls and though a 24km tunnel, we were finally met by day light again and found ourselves perched above the town of Flam. Instantly we saw 3 enormous cruise ships at the town’s port while the streets were filled with tourists. We were hesitant but we finally found a park and had a 10 minute walk around before deciding to leave. We could find little which was actually “historic”. Instead there was an abundance of commercialised Norway products which we all greed was selling a false perception of Norway and was quite off-putting. We soon discovered it was the railway system which took people high into the mountains which drew the thousands of tourists to flock to the town and while the pictures looked amazing, it was far too busy and well outside of our budget to be able to afford the experience. We quickly left, discussing our next destination.

The SMO3 DJJ took us through the town of Sogndal and as it began to reach 6pm we decided to find a location to free camp. On the outskirts of the town, just as we were pulling off of the main highway and onto the country roads, Kyle suddenly slammed on the Van’s breaks.
“Shit! It’s overheating” he yelled and upon opening the bonnet, a large cloud of steam escaped into the air. We all jumped out to look and it appeared the coolant had somehow exploded everywhere, leaving trails along the road behind us. We all stood dumbfounded, not wanting to admit this could be the end of our friends travels. Kyle and Haley had road side assist and using the telephone of a house across the road (and scoring some homegrown raspberries along the way!) they were able to call for  help and have a tow truck sent to our location. We all sat hoping it was only a minor problem. While we waited we cooked chilli and ate dinner and two hours later the tow truck arrived.

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It turns out a valve for the coolant had a puncture and due to wear and tear, it had exploded. The worst case scenario was a blockage in the engine which would result in too much pressure. The van was towed to a petrol station, restocked with coolant then assessed for pressure accumulation. It was given the all clear after a 20km test drive. We were all overcome with joy, thankful for the positive result even if it was 10pm and we had to drive back to Sogndal and then to where the van had died. From there, another 45 minutes of driving placed us right beside a highway before it merged into a long tunnel. The location was perpendicular to a powerful flowing creek and rolling green mountains with snow capped peaks. The sun was beginning to set into a soft blend of pink and oranges and it reflected beautifully against the white of the snow. The view was stunning but we were beginning to realise that was just Norway; no matter where you were, the country was picturesque.IMG_1049
Everyone was woken early by the continuous clanging of bells. We opened our tent and dazed in the bright sunlight, we saw a dozen or so sheep with their lambs behind a fence, metres from where we had set up our tents. We took our time getting ready, eating musli together and having showers in a nearby waterfall. Once we were feeling refreshed, we drove onwards through the tunnel to a tiny town called Fjærland which sat at the end of a fjord. Enormous glaciers on the surrounding mountains provided the crystal blue water. The town was famous for its single street of second hand book stores which housed extremely antiquated and unique novels. We ate lunch on the banks of the fjord and explored the stores. Unfortunately we could not find any english books. Finishing up, we all agreed not to travel too far today because we knew we would need to travel back towards Sogndal in order to go west towards the furthest inland fjord of Norway. It was driving along this road that we “stumbled upon” the second largest waterfall in Norway and decided to camp at its base. Our plan was to setup camp and enjoy the sunny afternoon and then take the 45 minute hike to the waterfall the next morning.

It was only 3pm, the earliest we had stopped driving on our trip so far. We all sat around in the sun just enjoying the warmth and company. The day before Kayla and I had decided to buy the SMO3 DJJ family a fishing rod for 25€ as thanks to them, we had managed to save a lot of money because we hadn’t needed to pay for any accommodation or travel. They had also helped with food, usually buying the more expensive ingredients for our dinners and continuously sharing their condiments with us so we could improve the taste of our boring tuna or salami sandwiches. Some mayonnaise, pickles, mustard and peanut butter were all luxuries we usually could not afford (or carry). While the girls shaved their legs in the fjord and prepared dinner, Kyle and I collected fire wood, started the fire and settled in for some fishing. Our plan was to catch a fish and roast some vegetables on the fire but we didn’t even get a single nibble. Luckily we had bought extra potatoes. Dinner for the night consisted of roasted mushrooms, onions, zucchinis, capsicums and potatoes with pesto, mustard and cheese. Total price: 3€ each. Life was bliss, as we were surrounded by Norwegian beauty and even better company.

IMG_1067We were fully packed and walking to the waterfall by 9am. It was an easy walk considering our past hikes to Feigumfossen and it was in a very quiet, almost deserted. We stood 100m from where an extremely powerful cascade of water free fell 150m into a small pool below. Even though we were so far away from the waterfalls impact zone, we were still getting wet. Haley and I were the only two who ventured out closer to the edge in order to get the photos. We walked back to the group, drenched. On returning to the van we quickly jumped off a jetty into the fjord (our shower for the day) before we all continued on.

Our direction took us up an incredibly steep and winding road into the snow line. We found ourselves driving alongside metres of snow cut back from the road. Alpine lakes littered with icebergs still existed in the peak of summer. It was an unbelievable experience to think only an hour ago we had been swimming in the ocean. We stopped for a lunch break and backed the van up so we were facing a large snowy lake and its looming mountains with multiple glaciers resting on top. The view was hard to believe and we sat eating lunch, freezing in its presence.IMG_1079

The next town to tick off the list was Geiranger, arguably Norway’s most beautiful fjord. The drive down to the fjord was equally as steep and winding as the accent and it tested the SMO3 DJJ’s brakes. Half way down, we stopped to take a photo from a famous overhanging cliff. It sat high above the town and gave the impression the person sitting on the ledge was hanging over the fjord. It was beautiful and feeling satisfied with our sightseeing for the day, we continued to the bottom. The previous four days of free camping had left everybody feeling quite detached from our creature comforts (such as a shower) so we decided to try sneaking into a campsite. Geiranger had 4, and choosing the largest and busiest, we drove the van in, only paying for 3 people. We split the difference. It began raining straight after we cooked our 2€ pesto and feta pasta and we found ourselves in our tent by 9pm, falling asleep to the rain.
It continued to rain through the night and into the morning. Between showers, we packed our wet belongings into plastic bags and the five of us huddled inside the van. Although we had experienced some clear days, the continuous rain was beginning to get to everyone (cabin fever!). We read the forecast which forecast rain for the next four days and given that most of the sights we wanted to photograph would require nice weather, we sat lost. Two hours past before we finally decided our route. We headed north to Trollstigen, a mountain road famous for its crazy decent and hairpin turns. We found it distractingly busy and while we walked along the beautiful boardwalk to an overhanging viewing platform which looked down to the valley, it rained heavily with forceful winds. We ended up running back to the van with hardly any photos taken and ate lunch inside, protected from the weather. We then had the slow drive down the road, crossing bridges over a huge waterfall one could not imagine without driving across it. The day had flown by and after hiding beneath blankets to avoid a ferry charge, we found ourselves beside the road and a fjord setting up our camp. In the later hours of the evening, after eating tacos, I caught my first fish in Norway! It was a mackerel, slightly larger than the length of my hand and so we tossed him back into the sea. Catching a fish in Norway; tick! Catching and eating a fish in Norway? That was still to be achieved.

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We continued our normal routine the next morning only this time our discussion surrounded our final day with the van family. The plan was to travel as far north as the SMO3 DJJ family had planned; to the atlantic road. From there, Kayla and myself planned to travel further north to the Lofoten Islands. There was however, a place Hayley had held in her memory for years . It was a swing which overlooked an amazing mountain range and fjord. It was on the atlantic road and after showing us pictures, we decided we would head backwards for a few days, to see this swing and take our photographs of it together..

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