Sunday, 28 February 2016

Walk down memory lane - Norway 1977

On my recent visit to Melbourne, I caught up with friends I had made [Wendy and Knut], when living on the island of Stord, south of Bergen in Norway, in 1977. I was a volunteer worker on a farm there for 3 months. Wendy, an Australian, had arrived on the island several years before me and had worked for Knut, before becoming his lifelong partner. They moved to Melbourne 30 years ago, but we have only managed to meet up on one or two occasions.

During the course of our afternoon together, there was much reminiscing, which led me to digging out my old photos, diaries and scrapebooks on my return home. Thank goodness I had kept good records, as there is soooo much I have forgotten about those wonderful three months on Stord.

 The previous year I had taken a camping trip through Norway, Finland and Sweden. I had picked up a brochure advertising volunteer summer farm work in Norway. I applied, went off to a Kibbutz in Israel, but my mail didn't follow me. On arrival back in London, I received the letter of placement, the day I was supposed to be arriving on the strawberry and dairy farm in the mountains near Torfors, well to the north of Norway.

I was so disappointed to have missed out on this opportunity, but through a friend of a friend, I contacted a communal farm near Oslo. They didn't have a placement for me, but gave me the phone number for Thor [29] who had left them 6 months before, to start his own biodynamic farm on Stord, with his girlfriend Kari [24].
Thor basically said to get on the next ferry, if I was prepared to work for just food.

My journey to Stord, starting August 4th, wasn't without drama. As events kept unfurling, I was wondering if I should have gone to the waitressing job I had been offered in Wales instead. My suitcase [no wheels then] was too heavy, an IRA bomb scare had the tube stopped between stations for half an hour, the train to Harewich was missed and the 2nd train sat outside the station at Harewich for 3/4 hour and the taxi from the train station to the ferry terminal was delayed by every slow vehicle possible. I literally jumped the gap onto the overnight ferry to Kristiansand!

All's well you think. NO! It was raining on arrival in port. A hinge on my suitcase broke. I missed my train. Thankfully some kind folks got me onto another train. I got into Oslo at 10pm and caught the 11pm train to Bergen. I was so tired that I slept through the glorious mountain scenery of the early morning. Arriving in Bergen at 8 am, I just had time for a snack, before I caught a small island ferry, for the 2 1/2 hour journey to Lerivik, Stord.

Kari had been away when the arrangements were made with Thor. Thor was not about when I finally arrived and Kari's welcome was frosty!

Thankfully, within a few days she realised I wasn't going to be a rival and I was prepared to work hard. We soon became friends and so began a wonderful 3 months helping them and luxuriating in the beauty of this small farm on the edge of the fiord.

Sadly my photos of 39 years ago are quite faded, but they bring back memories of so many wonderful experiences. The digital age was still many years ahead and, as developing was very expensive, my photos are quite limited. The house was in a lovely setting, looking over fields of vegetables to fruit trees and thus across the sea to more islands. In the distance were snowcapped peaks. My free time was often spent relaxing on the rocky shoreline, making the most of the infrequent, warm sunshine and my unbelievable surroundings.

Favourite rock for sitting on and writing letters home.

The farm - Saebo Gard

One of the regular jobs [daily in the early weeks] was picking the vegetables and packing them carefully for for the Bergen Organic Market - tomatoes, peas, peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, and lettuce. To get them into Lerivik for the ferry, we cycled 5 km pulling a small trailer. Of course, we were always rushing to meet the deadline. The photo, '4 above', shows one of the many inclines we had to cycle up. Sometimes with up to 30 kilos of tomatoes.

Some of my chores:-
- a poor autumn weatherwise, so quite often done in damp, cold conditions.
-I was often down on all fours weeding the vegetables and the lower leaves of the tomatoes in the hot      house, had to be removed, to prevent spread of disease. 
- I was soon given the job of feeding the hens and  2 calves and putting them to bed at the end of the day.
- white washing of the winter, vegetable storage cellar - potatoes, onions, carrots etc.

- hammering and varnishing beehive lids and frames, stretching wire across the frames, before         waxing
- picking 2 kilos of raspberries for jam. Whistle while you work!
- Guiding the horse drawn plough through the turnips, onions, beetroot and carrots to weed them.       Thor was in charge of the horse.
- picking and bundling flowers for drying.
- digging a bed and planting winter cabbage.
- driving the cantankerous 'tractor' [below] and trailer, to remove weeds and prunings to the compost heap.

- filling  the drainage channel with soil and gravel.
- pulling seaweed from the shoreline and transporting it to the compost heap.
- cutting down old cherry and plum trees - firewood.
- scrapping the paint off the front of the house for repainting.
- learning how to make bread and rolls and assisting with their daily baking.
- making sauerkraut.
- spreading ploughed fields with calcium.
- shovelling manure.
- preparing vegetables [ beans, peas, cabbage] for freezing for winter.
- apple picking
- helping create a huge compost bed. Repeated layers of old potato leaves / cut grass, calcium, soil, dry leaves / hay, manure, herring bone meal. 4 foot high, 15 foot long x 6 foot wide.

- collecting and sorting potatoes from the field, dug up by a hired machine - 1 field a day. 6000 kilos not saleable. 2000 saleable, but the organic shop wouldn't take them.
- visited by a 'stone-age man' - a weirdo addict, living in the forest, running around in the nude eating leaves,
- pitching hay into the loft.
- stacking 300 fence posts.
- helping to manually rack the potato field and removing any rocks preparing it for a 2nd planting. [ I quote from my diary, " tedious, maddening job"
- helping with the levelling of the field before planting. [below]

At the end of September, Thor and Kari had to travel to Oslo. They asked me to join them, all expenses paid. We were away 2 weeks. To me it was the equivalent of 3 months pay with tips, in the UK. The journey began with a ferry ride to the mainland. At first we drove along a high cliff like rim, then dropped down to almost water level. Waterfalls - large, small and tumultuous all the way. Autumn colours a riot of golds, reds, browns and limey rich greens. Snow capped peaks caught in the sun's rays. A lake or stream always beside the road. Numerous tunnels - short or amazingly long [2-3 miles long]. Our destination was Kari's parent's farm in Rauland in the HIGH mountain area called Telemark. Nearing here, everything was covered in snow and it was still falling but didn't linger. I think I was a tad excited. This excitement stayed with me throughout our travels. I was so fortunate to experience so much of Norway's unique mountains and fiords during this trip.

Gelding a horse beside Kari's parents home and farm buildings.

This is the route we took to Oslo and back to Stord, via Gol, Aurland, [found on an arm of the Sognefiord] Gudvagen, and Bergen.

In Oslo, the VW Thor had on loan from a friend back on the island, began to complain about the distances it was now expected to travel. It stopped in central Oslo, in an area equivalent to Speaker's Corner in London. No matter how hard we pushed, it refused to jump start. Thor parked it as best he could and we took a ferry across to an island, where his friend's Inger and Jan had a farm. On our return, a new battery fixed the problem and I was able to explore Oslo.

Five days later, Kari took the train back to Bergen and then a ferry to Stord, to continue her studies. Thor and I travelled north to visit his friends in Aurland. We were on the road by 10am. The hills behind Oslo were a picture of freshly fallen snow. The road dropped down to a valley, filled with a lake. We followed its shoreline for many miles. The road climbed high again, travelling across a high plain. The scenery had the capacity to be absolutely stunning, but alas, the sky was very overcast and heavy. It was still wonderful. Freshly fallen snow hugged the rocks, trees and stream edges. Icicles hung from the sides of the road cuttings. I had the 'honour' of driving on this 'long, icy isolated road,' between Gol and Aurland. Alas, the VW was again feeling the pressure of these roads or my driving. It stopped and wouldn't budge. 

We were stuck for quite sometime, before we were offered a lift all the way to Aurland. Thank goodness our drinking rescuer asked Thor to drive. The descent down to the narrow Aurland valley and fiord, was a mind boggling, terrifying, engineering feat. I'd already driven through a 3 km unlit tunnel, with the poor lights of the VW. Another 4 or 5 followed. That wasn't the worst of it. Once the road found daylight, it would turn sharply to the right or left making a zig zag progress down the mountain, until it just had to enter another tunnel. Sometimes to make a zig zag turn, the road entered a short curving tunnel. Total concentration was required. The edge of the road dropped 1000's of feet down to the valley that was surrounded by mountains, dark and ominous in the evening light. The view, when I could dare to look, was staggeringly beautiful. 

We survived. The evening was spent with Thor's friends, dining on roast reindeer, vegetables and Norwegian applecake. Much laughter and singing. The car was rescued and took several days to repair. I wasn't complaining, especially when I was asked to join a small motor boat adventure along the fiord, to the tiny, isolated village of Undredal. Wow, what a feeling to be a speck on Aurland Fiord, totally dwarfed by the mountains clothed in autumn golds, and at times, naked in their sheerness. Sometimes they were capped with snow or washed with cascading waterfalls. Rain fell, but it did not subdue my feelings.

Land views - Flam
Reverse view

Today you can drive [using tunnels] from Flam to Gudvagen, but we had to take a ferry along the fiord, for several hours. It was dark on our arrival and I convinced Thor that we shouldn't take the chance that the VW might break down again in the dark. We found a tiny cabin on a farm for the night. As we set off the next morning, we discovered that the valley we slept in was narrow and overhung by sheer waterlogged cliffs and cascading waterfalls. The road followed a meandering, tumbling stream to the head of the valley, where the road climbed out of the valley at a 20% grade. Quite something! Each time we snaked round an elbow bend, we were able to see either one or other of the tremendous waterfalls on either side of the road, dropping down into the valley.

In 2008 my darling husband [tired of being nagged] took me back to Norway on a cruise. Our boat visited Flam and we took a bus trip to Gudvagen, returning on the world's steepest railway to Flam. I discovered that the road we drove up in 1977, is now one way, down only. To ascend one travels through a tunnel!

Climbing the 20% grade road - October, 1977

                       May - 2008, descending.

A few days after our return to Stord, I received a phone call from the 'Australian Colony'. Knut and Wendy had just heard that I was on the island, through a friend of a friend of an acquaintance of mine. The duration of our friendship was to be just 11 days, but in that time I was made to feel very much a part of the family. Knut had the mail boat run on the local fiord. I was able to join him one afternoon and got to board a 'super tanker' of that era. I was taken to their mountain hut at Hovedon for a weekend and they demanded I return in the winter to go skiing with them there.

A few pics from my first weekend at the hut.

Out walking - Do we really have to cross here?!!

                  Mountain COLD!

March 1978 - out walking in -13C.

Ski slope in background.

It was wonderful ro revisit Saebo Gard and catch up with Thor and Kari and their new arrivals - 5 sheep.

             And 6 week old Gunnar.

Littigod and Raine were doing very well without me to feed them. I was relieved not to have to move the manure pile.

The final highlight of my stay on the island, with Thor and Kari, took place a few weeks after my arrival. It was a blueberry expedition. No blueberry since, has lived up to the flavour of my introduction to them. Thor's friend, Ivan, collected us to catch the 8am ferry to Utbjoa. We drove along the shoreline of two fiords to Vikdal, where we followed a track beside a salmon stream, turning up into the mountains as far as the track would take us. It was then a long trek up the slope to the mountain top. Well worth the effort - views of lakes, forest, farms, another fiord and more mountains. The plant life and flowering heather were magnificent. We used a small implement similar to a dustpan to remove the berries from the bushes. It had fork tines instead of the flat surface. We pushed this through the low blueberry bushes, filling our buckets. The trek back to the car with our full buckets was awkward and heavy work. We all fell at least once, but managed to keep the berries in the buckets.

         The picker was something like this.

The view.

D E L I C I O U S !

Cleaning the berries of leaves and twigs, before preparing for freezing and............

EATING with pancakes!

It has been fabulous reliving my three months on Saebo Gard through my diaries, photos and scrapbook. I was so very fortunate that the strawberry farm letter didn't find me in Israel. I hope you have enjoyed my experiences too. 
I would love to read your comment.


  1. What an amazing adventure you experienced! Your photos held up well and so nice that you documented this part of your life on your blog.

    1. Thanks Alexandra. My 3 years travelling was one amazing experience after another. I've discovered that if I take a photo of the photo and edit with i-photo, the result is better than scanning.

  2. Helen, How amazing that you still have all those letters! What a fantastic experience, although not sure I would want to be a farm labourer in those freezing conditions.

    1. Thanks Leanne. I have 3 scrapbooks with theatre programs, and all sorts of bits and bobs from my travels. It was a time of no TV [for me] and certainly no internet, so many evenings were free to put it together as I went. I also think that because one could only take a few pics, it was another way of remembering all the excitement of the time.

  3. How wonderful to relive those memories from an extraordinary experience. I enjoyed reading your stories.

  4. Great memories for you--- Thanks for sharing

  5. What amazing adventures you had, Helen! There would be enough material for a book here... or for more than one.
    The photos are lovely. Thank you for sharing!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it Sara. I've enjoyed this retell, but a book is not at all likely.

  6. I probably wouldn't have been able to put my hands on the old photos! I took lots of photos; I just don't have them organized well enough.

    My husband jokes that the digital age has saved him a whole lot of money. So true!

    1. Kim it has saved mine a lot of money too, but it almost causes a divorce, every time we walk together. Even if I only stop for one pic, the gap between us becomes 50m and of cause who stops for just one when you have digital!