Stumbling Off the Tourist Track

In which I discover how easy it is to escape the tourist hordes

Photo by Åsmund Heimark

My thoughts about the tourist track (and how to get off it) started to crystallize when I visited Norway in the summer of 2006. I had gone to Norway to interview philosopher-mountaineers, so I wasn’t exactly on the tourist track to start with. But – with seven interviews spread out over seven weeks – I had some time on my hands. While I could proudly call myself a researcher, I spent many of my days in Norway as (let’s face it) a tourist, Lonely Planet in hand. My guidebook told me what cities to visit, which fjords to explore, which fjells (mountains) to scale. And I dutifully followed the sage LP advice.

Actually, LP had fobbed me off onto DNT (Den Norske Turistforening – the Norwegian Trekking Association). Norway is a country of outdoors enthusiasts; DNT has over 200,000 members, quite an impressive number for a country whose population is less then half that of Delhi city (from where I now write). With its low population density and its rugged mountainous landscape, Norway is a trekker’s paradise; DNT is the friendly St. Peter at the gates.

At the DNT office in the city of Stavanger, affable staffers set out an itinerary for me that involved circumnavigating Lysefjorden (a, um, fjord) by foot, bus and ferry. The itinerary connected two sites hugely popular with vacationing Norwegians, Preikestolen and Kjerag, and as I took my first steps up to the Preikestolen look-out point, I thought with a sigh, “Ecotourism is still tourism.” The place was mobbed, but I took some deep breaths and began to appreciate the diversity of the crowed around me: prim old ladies in white woolen gloves and trekking poles; proud parents encouraging their little kids up the steep sections; couples, flirting shamelessly; rowdy Eastern Europeans in capri jeans.

Then, something surprising happened. I stepped off the main trail, and, in an instant, the world became gloriously empty – just me, the wild blueberries, and wide vistas of tree-lined hills and rocky outcrops. I had gone onto the side trail to find a place to camp for the night, eager to take advantage of Norway’s allemannsretten (“right to access”) rules. A time-honored Norwegian custom, now enshrined in law, allemannsretten allows anyone to walk through (and camp on) any uncultivated land. It could be private property, or a national park – if it’s uncultivated, you can camp there for free.

After getting lost (this happens often off the tourist track, and should be embraced) and following a steeply-descending river back to my side trail, I found the perfect camping spot: a tent-sized plateau atop a small hill. Throwing down my heavy pack, I hurriedly set up camp, then jogged towards Preikestolen as the sun began to set. As all the other trekkers were day-trippers, I had the place all to myself, only seeing the others’ detritus – Coke cans, cigarette butts and the like. Preikestolen (literally, Preacher’s Pulpit) is the top of a dramatic cliff that juts out from the mainland, rising nearly 2,000 feet above Lysefjorden; the “pulpit,” a flat square plateau perfect for picnics, offers vertiginous views of the water below. Laying down at the lip of the plateau, I gazed downwards as fog descended.

I returned to my own little plateau, less dramatic but certainly more hospitable. I imagined the river near my campsite looking disdainfully at the show-off Preikestolen, who doesn’t realize he is being slowly trampled to death and buried underneath candy wrappers.

The next day, I hiked through pristine fjord-land, often emerging from the forest to traverse high ridgelines with stunning views of the fjord. I made my way to an abandoned dock, where I flagged down the local ferry; the ferry worker who waved back at me was the first person I’d seen all day.

Photo by Ivarne Bruker

The ferry deposited me back on the tourist track, briefly. After a night at a commercial campsite (highlight: seeing two base-jumpers parachute into the site), I began the trudge up to Kjerag. This hike is famous for Kjeragbolten, a boulder wedged between the top of two cliffs, easily accessible from the top of the climb. (The pictures make the straightforward step onto the boulder look more dangerous than it is. And how awesome is it that Norway names its boulders?)

My trek to Kjerag exactly mirrored my walk up to Preikestolen. The same hordes of walkers (even the same demographics) on the main route; once I’d stepped onto the boulder, stepped off, and made my way onto a side trail, emptiness, and – for a few alarming minutes – total disorientation. I did encounter a couple Germans, but they were just as lost as I was, so this hardly made me feel back on terra cognita. After some careful mapwork revealed to me that I was going in the exact opposition direction I had intended, I bid farewell to the Germans and set off into the lonely wilderness.

Photo by Gerd A.T. Mueller

A couple days later, I found myself wandering around Bryggen, a super-touristy part of the city of Bergen. Despite the crowdedness of the area (and despite the crowds I found in the more popular fjord sites), the postcards in Bryggen advertised Norway as a place to escape the masses. Some taglines from the postcards included: Untouched Wilderness; Nature’s Bounty; Untamed Nature; Island of Calm; Listen to the Silence; Majestic Peaks; Life at the Edge. Sure, I thought – if you know enough to stay away from tourist traps like this.

And sure enough, when I’d walk just a couple blocks from Bryggen, into Bergen’s university district, the atmosphere changed completely. No other tourists. No glitzy shops or kitschy food stalls vying for my attention. Just quiet, pleasant roads in an unpresuming coastal town. The lesson I’d learned in the fjord applies to cities too: step away from the most touristed areas, and find something altogether unexpected. The tourist track is like a superhighway; it’s a narrow strip, leading to heavy traffic, but it also has easy exits.

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