A Generational Bikepacking Journey
Words by Clare Nattress // Photography by Matty Waudby
We woke up one evening to a shuffling outside the tent. My mind raced back to all the articles I had read about wild animals in the areas we were expecting to camp. Could it be a lynx? Or something worse? Cautiously, yet undeniably bravely, Matty unzipped the tent and poked his head out. At the time, I couldn’t see – I could barely bring myself to look, if truth be told – but Matty’s laugh relaxed me. He’d come face to face with a cow slavering over our tent pegs. That welcome relief was sadly interrupted by a cacophony of cowbells that rang like a travelling band as a herd of ten or more trotted past us nearby. It made some kind of sense. The route is called the Old Milk Road (Mjølkevegen) after all.
We were completely isolated, only coming across sporadic summer farms every few kilometres. There were no people in sight – just herds of cows with their calves. Hills upon rolling hills faded into memory behind us as we merged seamlessly into full days of climbing across a beautiful mountain landscape. Norway is magical, its panoramas arresting and empowering. We pedalled between clusters of cabins, Lilliputian against the vast mountain terrain, many replete with grass roofs to insulate against the unforgiving winters. Reindeer antlers stood proud above front doors. These cosy romantic retreats are perfect for escaping the elements; places to relax by log fires, to drink in warm coffee and spectacular views. We passed many such cabins whilst battling ferocious headwinds, praying for sunshine and calmer weather. It would be fair to say that we both yearned to happen upon the keys to one.
Norway is a country close to Matty’s heart. His is a connection that came to light on unearthing his grandfather’s previously unseen photo albums shortly after his death. They depict a young and contented man, whose dry wit was recognised in his ready smile by those who knew him, exploring Europe by bicycle, car, and aeroplane. Bob was a man who had rarely spoken of his early life during the Second World War or of his many adventures thereafter. The images from his trips to Scandinavia in the early 1950s are filled with nature’s beauty; with endless gravel roads, stave churches, and cascading waterfalls. We both wanted, in some small way, to trace and thereby commemorate his journeys, and to visit some of the same locations and eye-popping vistas. Maybe, we dared to think, we might even recreate one of his images and come to find his ‘Lost Captures’.
Our principal challenge came from the fact that the photo albums were roughly laid out with little physical information on locations. The only labels were the names of occasional waterfalls or towns. This formed the foundation of our route-building and, with the kind help of a local Norwegian rider named Marius, we managed to find the possible locations from a handful of these images. We also planned our own chapter in this multi-generational journey, poring over online maps to find interesting and varied mountain-bike routes to string together the cities of Oslo and Bergen.
Hills upon rolling hills faded into memory behind us as we merged seamlessly into full days of climbing across a beautiful mountain landscape. Norway is magical, its panoramas arresting and empowering.
We battled savage headwinds daily, along with wet socks and the will-sapping sensation of being cold to the bone. Not to mention wind-chapped lips and raw, rouge-red cheeks. ‘Would you rather have a headwind or rain?’ I shouted at Matty through my tightly zipped jacket.
Matty had bikepacked a handful of times in Europe and Tasmania, and passionately shared his infatuation for riding with me. To see him bikepack is to observe someone truly in their element, completely at home in their surroundings and at one with the beauty and rurality of nature. I, on the other hand, was fairly new to this way of life, and to adventure, but I looked forward to sharing in this generational experience and living my first bikepacking trip overseas. A one-way flight to Oslo, Norway was a step into the unknown for me. Imagine the mixture of emotions, if you will: checking in for your flight knowing that you only have your bike, a few carefully selected kit items, and your companion. Excitement and an overwhelming sense of freedom brewed inside a bag of nerves with just a pinch of trepidation.
Camping is a dream thanks to Norway’s right-to-roam laws. When dusk fell, we pitched our tent low out of the blustery wind and close to running water. Our evening menus consisted of sweet potatoes, chickpeas, noodles, rice, and vegetables. It became repetitive, but it never lacked in taste nor in portion size. Such a hearty, wholesome meal is just what hungry bikepackers crave before retreating into a cosy tent to nestle beneath a down quilt to read before lights out.
We rarely experienced beautiful sunshine and blue skies in Norway, but on the rare occasions we did they came at a price. We battled savage headwinds daily, along with wet socks and the will-sapping sensation of being cold to the bone. Not to mention wind-chapped lips and raw, rouge-red cheeks. ‘Would you rather have a headwind or rain?’ I shouted at Matty through my tightly zipped jacket. ‘Neither!’ he yelled over the wind’s roar in reply, sternly coiling backwards into his waterproof. We might look back on these moments now and laugh, but at the time we were on edge and pretty low in mood. The seemingly endless routine of pulling on wet socks and shoes, and then dragging ourselves back onto our bikes became laborious. Every pedal stroke was accompanied by a squelching sound of a foot swimming within a sock drowned in freezing water and slimy mud. Despite this constant provocation, we still felt lucky to be cycling amongst such magnificent panoramas and retracing Matty’s grandfather’s route.
How he did this, in 1953 with no technical clothing or modern waterproof layers, was beyond us. Our evening chats about him often inspired us to battle on, the next day, through the elements and hard elevation, with pride and with constant deference to what he might have experienced himself. Norwegian ski lodges became our saviours, often appearing on the horizon when we yearned for shelter and a hot drink. They were perfectly timed for our weary legs, after hours or days of isolation, offering 15 minutes of shelter to refuel, warm up, and even see a friendly face. It was strange to sit alongside large groups of tourists and hikers after having cycled for days not seeing a soul.
An impressive section of the route, blessed with beautiful waterfalls and lush, green terrain, led to rain that became torrential, bouncing off the road with such force that it would bounce straight back up and sting our tightly drawn faces. I don’t think either of us had ever felt so wet. The rain grew so heavy that campsites had to close due to flooding. Yet the dead-end path that Matty’s grandfather’s route led us down ended up at the gates of a very exclusive hotel. Every dark cloud has a silver (albeit admittedly expensive) lining. Hands down it was worth the £80 to be able to dry my socks. An evening of television and dry clothes, followed by a night in a soft bed, was a much-needed and welcome respite from the elements. We made good use of the complimentary teas and coffees, the hot shower, and the thermostat on the radiator.
Towards the end of our journey, we reached the valleys we were almost certain Matty’s grandfather had visited. Around every corner, we hoped to find some waterfall or road that had featured in the photographs in his album. Images captured on phones were held up to vistas to see what would line up, and old, overgrown roads were explored to see if they might provide answers. These abandoned stretches of broken tarmac were filled with promise as the new, replacement roads had been blasted through the mountains in cavernous tunnels, leaving the old long-forgotten routes clinging to the steep sides of valleys to be reclaimed by the wild. It was in these roads, in the Toka Gorge, that we finally found what we sought.
We left our bikes at the head of each one and made our way in on foot to explore what was left. As we stepped over fallen trees and crouched low under foliage it felt like we had entered some long-forgotten, tropical paradise. Well, but for the rain and wind. The path was overgrown and difficult to see. Only when we returned to our bikes did a hidden corner, barely visible before, strike Matty as intriguing. The lean of the cliff and the bend in the road looked too familiar to be ignored. One of the images we had given up on finding was of a bus turning a dusty gravel bend, and there, right in front of us, was clearly that very bend! Time seemed to slow as we ensured that every small detail lined up. Surely this couldn’t be it, could it? But the similarities were too close to be a coincidence. Yes! It was a match! Sixty years later and the road had changed dramatically: the surface had been laid with tarmac, the foliage was wilder, and debris littered the carriageway. But as sure as we could be, here was the same road as in the photograph. As I stood back to take in some of the intricacies of the before and after, Matty dashed around, disbelieving, trying to compose the same image as his grandfather had done two generations earlier.
During our month in Norway we were able to match up the majority of Matty’s grandfather’s images – the beautifully Gothic stave churches, many waterfalls, and some glorious vistas – but we were most thrilled to be able to find and recreate the quirkiest of the images that Bob had taken, of buses navigating the steep inclines of the gorges. Retracing the steps of a loved one was an unforgettable experience. Piecing together routes and matching up photography was like delving into a part of Matty’s family history. It was enriching to see how these locations and destinations had changed, if at all, from the 1950s to the present day. We’ll never forget cycling together in Norway and the joy of our triumphant search to locate Bob’s ‘Lost Captures’.
Lost Captures was first published in Sidetracked Volume 17
In loving memory of Bob Binns (1927-2012)
About the Film
Filmed by Matthew Waudby & Clare Nattress
Edited by Joel Christof
Audiowork by Iñaki Aparicio
Colourwork by Dany Schelby
Illustrations by Matthew Waudby
We left our bikes at the head of each one and made our way in on foot to explore what was left. As we stepped over fallen trees and crouched low under foliage it felt like we had entered some long-forgotten, tropical paradise. Well, but for the rain and wind.