One Week with Fin & Zoa Gypsy
You only have to glance at their picture to know this is no ordinary cycling couple.
Fin & Zoa Gypsy don’t just have their house on their bikes, they also have their two dogs, Jack and Paco, along for the ride. That’s 60kg of furry luggage and another 50-60km of non-furry luggage! Needless to say they don’t go quickly but they do go everywhere, refusing to let their extra load stop them from tackling hills with grades of up to 18%. Their Cycling Gypsies website has inspiring journals and photos and some great resources, including what to think about if you want to tour with a dog.
This page tells the story of a week in the life of Fin & Zoa Gypsy as they cycle through Norway in the Arctic Autumn.
Day 1 – Out of the Box (Tromso to Fagernes)
If you imagine Norway as one big electric guitar, we awoke in Tromso, somewhere at the top of the fret board, feeling like a nicely strummed E Minor. After a year spent mostly wild camping around Europe, it felt luxurious but decidedly odd to be sleeping in the comfortable symmetry of boxed walls. Where was the night-time dip in temperature that made you curl a little deeper into your sleeping bag? Where were the angry squeals of wild boars rampaging through the forest at 3am? Instead we were fighting for space on a cramped single bed and fell asleep to the sounds of the mattress gymnastics from the floor above.
We had been invited into a vacant room on the 5th floor of a student building by our Polish Couch-Surfing host Jacek, who was unphased by our two hairy companions. Usually we awake on auto-pilot, spoon some muesli and yoghurt into our mouths, pack our tent onto our bikes with mechanical efficiency, and cycle away before our fingertips lose feeling. But today we had electricity, a bed, access to a kitchen, and most importantly a hot shower. Aaaaaaaahhhhhh… the small things. No showering under a tree, dribbling cold water over skin covered in goose bumps. And not one of those stingy Scandinavian campground showers either where you have to put another coin in after 3 minutes to keep the hot water flowing. There was even a break from our self-imposed we-must-at-least-cycle-10-kilometres-before-coffee moratorium.
Eventually we said our goodbyes and snuck our dogs down the stairwell James Bond style, scanning hallways and rooms with angled mirrors. ”I can’t see the cleaner, the coast is clear.” And we were out, back into our normal life once more. A life on the open road where you don’t need to check the weather on TV or in a newspaper, because you are always in the weather, watching it change first hand; hearing the first gust of wind fluster the tree canopy, seeing that band of heavy clouds coming over the mountain top. We loaded our bikes and raced down the steep hill into the city centre, glad to be rolling on a new set of tires donated by Schwalbe. After 14,000kms of bump and grind, our previous tires had started to split apart at the seams, and flats were becoming a regular occurrence. We started our trip without ever having changed a flat tire. The first flat took us three frustrating hours to change; 24 flats later we have it down to a fine art.
Tromso is a city of around 50,000 people, the biggest in northern Norway. By the time we left it felt like we had spoken to around half of them. While one of us talked to a bike mechanic about a wobbly wheel, or picked up some supplies for the ride ahead, or dared to pay the price for a pair of waterproof pants (very important in Norway), the other would wait by the bikes with the dogs. Cycling with dogs is a good ice-breaker, a foolproof way of engaging the curiosity of strangers. Inevitably it led to a series of conversations and photos being taken (and even some free coffees from a friendly student who was hung-over and late for a lecture). But when we told people we were heading for the North Cape we were given mixed responses. “It’s a tourist trap… It’s not worth it… It’s not even the highest point in Norway… It’s just a money making scheme… Most of the time it’s covered in fog anyway.”
We weighed up the options and finally decided to go and see for ourselves. By the time we pedaled over the bridge and left Tromso it was already afternoon. We don’t quite understand the science involved, but we have found if we don’t start cycling early we don’t really get anywhere. Our motivation disappears, we stop for breaks far more frequently, and we tend to become crankier. The route we took was a mixture of bike lanes, side roads, and wide shoulders that ran parallel to the only major road leaving Tromso. Eventually they ran out and we were dumped onto the extremely busy main road, where we became a slow moving obstacle for the stream of trucks to avoid. Hearing the constant roar of truck engines coming up from behind is mentally draining and can end up being more tiring than a mountain pass. We counted down the kilometers to the next turn off, feeling road-weary after only 30 kilometres of cycling.
At the small town of Fagernes overlooking Ramfjord we found a picnic table in a concealed corner of a primary school. It was getting late so there was little chance of disturbance. I was a bit dubious about camping in a primary school, especially in Norway where wild camping in nature is so easy and often spectacular, but there was shelter, access to water, and Zoa assured me that it was still school holidays.
As we chopped vegetables groups of fair-haired young kids cycled through the school yard. While the older group climbed up onto the roof of the school, the younger group took it in turns to out-jump each other on their mountain bikes. The only girl was feisty and determined not to be outdone by the boys, and we winced with fear as she raced down the dirt hill, boldly hitting the jump and launching into the air. After landing each jump, they quickly glanced our way as if we were the judges in a competition.
In between jumps the kids came over to pat the dogs and ask us questions about our trip. When we showed them a map of where we had been, a charming little boy asked in perfect formal English, “Is it a conquest?” I told Zoa to offer them some of our cookies but she said, “No kid is going to take cookies from strangers. That is the first lesson you learn.” Not here it seems, they eagerly accepted handfuls of cookies and didn’t refuse seconds.
But with Autumn settling in, the dark was coming sooner and the kids rode off one by one, while we sang over the roar of our camp stove. By the time our curry was ready we realised we were being watched. A trio of kids were still on the roof with legs dangling over the edge. We were expecting to be heckled for our uninhibited singing, but instead they clapped and shouted “Bravo!”
Day 2 – Back to School (Fagernes to Djupvik)
We rose early and started to pack away our tent, deciding to eat breakfast somewhere else. But before we could slip away unnoticed a suspicious janitor arrived, quickly followed by a kindergarten teacher looking after the early birds. Instead of being scolded for being on the school property, she was excited about our circus show on wheels, and invited us in to join the kids for tea and coffee. Yes, the kids drink tea before school. While Zoa broke our we-must-at-least-cycle-10-kilometres-before-coffee moratorium for the second day running I waited outside to watch the dogs.
More teachers, more kids, and I was now feeling ridiculous standing beside the overloaded bikes. I smiled and tried to pretend that it was normal for me to be there as the parents kissed and waved their children goodbye. I was mistaken as a parent by one teacher, but my cover was blown when I couldn’t respond to her in Norwegian. Curious teachers and children started to mill around until the bell rang and the crowd dispersed. It was a glorious sunny day and we were excited to hit the road. But as we straddled our bikes and were about to pedal away, a teacher strode towards us with intent. Shit, we are in trouble now.
“Excuse me… are you leaving now?” Ummmm… “I thought you might like to talk about your journey to my class” he told us. “They normally study English in the morning, and it’s a chance for them to listen to real English speakers.” Before we knew it one class turned into six and we were in front of a packed auditorium, sweating buckets. We hooked up our laptop to their projector (a very well financed school) and ran through some photos on our website, skipping over anything inappropriate as quickly as possible. Meanwhile Zoa whipped through some of the more amusing stories from our trip (waking up to a frog on the face, meeting the Japanese scooter man, and our time living in a Spanish cave). After the talk, the kids came out to see the dogs and the bikes again and told us about their area (who knew that reindeer are transported between islands on ferries?), and even sung us their national anthem. We were treated to free showers (did we smell that bad? Probably…), enough food and snacks to set us well on the way to the North Cape, and a hand written list of Norwegian phrases from one of the students. Tusen takk Ramfjord Skole. Fint å møte deg.
Cycle touring can be a case of repeating a daily routine in a new location, but there is also plenty of chance for unexpected detours and encounters that put you in situations you never expected. Buzzing from the unusual start to the day, we started up the ‘91 which dissects the interior of the island through a valley of waterfalls. A few rolling hills, hardly any cars, sunshine and beautiful scenery. Cycling heaven. Norway is all mountains and fjords, one giant waterfall really. If you are comfortable cycling in a tunnel now and then, and are ok to pay a small price for ferry crossings, then the coastal roads of Arctic Norway are spectacular and relatively easy on the legs. Despite being on the same latitude as Alaska and Siberia, and only 2,000km from the North Pole, the warm flow of the Gulf Stream buffers coastal temperatures year-round, making it milder than you might expect.
We boarded a short ferry across the fjord with a dozen or so cars and a Dutch cycling couple who seemed to be having a bad day. After a quick nod of the head in recognition they averted their eyes. As they raced off to the horizon on the other side, we ambled along like the tortoise and the hare. Weighed down by 70 kilograms each of furry and non-furry luggage we usually travel at a daily average of around 12 km/hr. So cycling 60-70 kilometres would normally take us 5-6 hours. No world records will be set, but that is ok. With rustic coastal charm beside us and the snow covered peaks of the Lyngen Alps above us it was the last thing on our minds.
Another ferry crossing took us to Olderdalen, where we joined the only major artery headed for the North Cape. We pedaled until we were tired and pulled off onto a dirt track. We found a flat patch of grass among the blueberries and pitched our tent overlooking another fjord to the sound of another waterfall. The only complaint to an otherwise perfect camp spot was all the used toilet paper strewn in the bushes. All over Europe we have been annoyed by this phenomenon. Is it so hard to bury your waste or take it with you?
Day 3 – The Offside Rule (Djupvik to Bognelv)
Our absurd world of dogs on bikes has its own particular laws and customs. One of the most frustrating regulations is that even after 15 months on the road, our big dog Jack enforces the offside rule. The offside rule means that anytime my bike goes even a millimeter in front of Zoa’s bike, Jack will start barking. Being too far behind agitates him as well, but doesn’t cause him to bark, just look back anxiously. The Collie in him is always trying to round the team up like sheep, so he can watch over his flock in peace.
Pedaling in correct formation we climbed into the mountains through rain and headwinds. We were rewarded at the top of the pass with spectacular views of snow covered mountain ranges plummeting into the fjords, endless folds in the mountains inaccessible to all but the most adventurous of explorers. By the top of the second pass our bellies were rumbling and we were starting to run low on food. The food from the school was coming in handy, and after looking both ways I squeezed a tube of chocolate spread into my mouth.
While I wiped chocolate from the edges of my mouth I noticed some cyclists were approaching. It was the young Dutch couple we had met earlier in Tromso. They had cycled the length of Norway and were now struggling to their final destination, the North Cape, with a broken tent and singular purpose. They had also met The Other Dutch Couple who we had seen earlier on the ferry. They told us they were grumpy because they had to make 500 kilometres in 4 days so they could fly back to work. Their journey had become a stressful A to B operation. We chatted until we became too cold for niceties. With few roads, the Arctic can be a small world and we continued bumping into each other over the next few days.
We whizzed down through abundant forest and snaking rivers, the wind bringing tears to our eyes. After our weekly tire pressure check-up at a gas station we pushed ourselves on to Bognelv with the hope of a grocery store and a feast in our tent. It turned out that the only stores were boarded up and abandoned. Damn it! With gurgling bellies we setup camp on an overgrown block covered in weeds and ate the last of our food – some muesli and water, our ever dependable back up.
Day 4 –Roadside Rubbish & the Broken Spoke (Bognelv to Rafsbotn)
Flat (ish) roads that hugged the edge of the fjord allowed us to ease into the day. As I was daydreaming, an idea bubbled away in my head. A) Food in Scandinavia is very expensive B) Recycling is encouraged with a refundable deposit C) Many Scandinavians can’t be bothered recycling D) In big cities some people make their living from collecting cans and bottles E) We had spent the last few months cycling besides ditches strewn with bottles and cans, thrown from passing cars.
The idea was born. Our eyes started scanning for the gleam of aluminium and plastic as we pedaled down the road. Once you start looking, it is amazing how much rubbish there is. There are wayward cans and bottles everywhere, 5 cents here, 10 cents there. It became a game. I didn’t know whether to feel smug from doing something environmentally responsible, or feeling cheap for endangering my life for the sake of a 5 cent can.
By the time we rolled into Alta, we had bags of bottles and cans hanging and clanging from every strap. Unfortunately the recycling machine at the supermarket didn’t accept half of them, ungratefully spitting them back in our face. Damn those Germans and their oversized campervans, bringing their German sausage, German beer and German bottled water.
Alta is a charmless town with some very friendly people, one of the few outposts on the long lonesome road to the North Cape. We headed to a bike shop to fix a broken spoke and were greeted by an energetic man, an ex-racing cyclist turned musher (husky sled dog racer). He had some pressing jobs to finish, but squeezed us in. When I asked how much it would cost to fix the spoke (we are mechanical amateurs and had never done it before) he asked how long we had been cycling for. When I told him it was over a year he said not to worry about it, he would charge the next customer double.
Leaving Alta we toiled uphill for an hour, but with darkness falling, an immediate chill set in. Ever since a few close calls with cars earlier in our trip we have a policy of getting off the road before dark. A few extra kilometres is not worth the risk of ____ we figure. We turned onto a dirt road and wound our way up the hill, but the houses remained thick to the top. Damn, no easy patch of forest to pull into. Feeling weary, we scoped out what looked to be an empty holiday apartment. We peeked into the windows, no sign of life. We setup camp under the carport and began cooking. Feeling more brazen we plugged our laptop into the wall and began uploading the latest batch of photos. We would have a hard time explaining ourselves if anyone was to return home late, and we jumped at sounds throughout the night.
Day 5 – Into the Tundra (Rafsbotn to Skaidi)
We packed up early and scampered off, shaking some life back into our cold hands. Luckily we had some nice hills to warm up on, and some changing scenery. Lush forest turned to withered birches, which turned to grassy plains of barren tundra. The reindeer had nowhere to hide now, and we could see them running in packs across the open fields. The dogs of course were whipping themselves into a frenzy. Their constant barking could try the patience of a Buddhist monk.
We stopped by the road and wolfed down a second breakfast (one of the six most important meals of the day for a cyclist), while some workers put reflective poles into the roadside, a sure sign of winter approaching. Our feet and fingertips were numb, and a strong wind meant talking became an irritation. Mumble, mumble, mumble. “What? I can’t hear you. Speak louder.” Mumble, mumble, mumble. “I’m sorry you will have to speak louder.” So we said nothing and pushed on through the simple beauty of the rolling tundra. Zoa listened to some music while I rejoined Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights audio book, the perfect story for the Arctic traveler.
We arrived to Skaidi late in the day and took shelter under the balcony of a rare pub/cafe just in time for a torrential downpour. Due to the exorbitant price of alcohol there are few meeting points in small Norwegian towns. Sometimes, they have the feel of a ghost town, and you wonder if anyone is there at all. The warmth of the indoors was beckoning us, but no dogs were allowed inside. Instead we huddled together and clung to our coffee cups, warming our hands.
During a break in the rain we made fast tracks out of town and chose the first camping opportunity. When you are exhausted almost any patch of grass will do. Just as we finished setting up, the rain started pounding the top of our tent. Lady luck was with us, and we dove in, happy as always to be cosy in our embryo, even if there were four of us crammed into a two person tent.
Day 6 – A New Low Point (Skaidi to Nordkapp tunnel)
An early start, blue skies and a brilliant tail wind had us flying along to Olderfjord. We dropped off a collection of cans at the small grocery store and took away a carton of orange juice in exchange. While we sipped away a bus load of German tourists were dropped off and let loose for 20 minutes. Some went to buy handfuls of souvenirs and others came over to talk to us. They ooohhed and aaaaahed and snapped photos and smiled. Zoa was shocked when she realised two German women were fondling her calves, and discussing the legs of steel.
After leaving the major road behind, the traffic was reduced to locals and tourists. Less than 100 kilometres to the North Cape, a sign warned us we were entering an ‘Area of Reindeer Husbandry’. The dogs started salivating and began licking their lips. What followed was one of our favourite rides of the trip. A rolling coastal road with sea eagles, countless reindeer, and even a curious arctic fox (who seemed to be in love with our big dog Jack). Curved beaches covered in smooth pebbles, perfect for skimming competitions. Roads slicing through primal slate rock faces, with strata lines stacked diagonally, like the pages of a gigantic book. Little traffic, sunshine, puffs of cotton clouds, and a strong tailwind. Do I need to rub it in? We were overtaken by one German cyclist who was on his way to setting a daily distance record of over 200 kilometres. Even the fact that our smaller dog Paco was going completely crazy over the reindeers could not dampen our spirits. Paco seemed happier to run beside the bike, as if being on the ground meant he was now part of a hunting expedition.
We continued on until Kafjord and realised that the small town on the map translated to a couple of houses on the hillside. We don’t have a filter and didn’t want to waste fuel on boiling water so we decided to play it safe and ask for drinking water (a Polish cyclist told us that all the water in Norway is safe to drink but then continued to tell us about his bouts of severe diarrhea after drinking from a lake). Normally we are shy about asking things but after so many months on the road that was starting to change. I stomped through the slushy grass to an elderly couple renovating their house. They looked stern but were happy to help me out. It may well have come straight from the nearby waterfall, regardless, asking for water can be an easy way to find out more about the surrounding area. They shared stories of elks and wild storms and we wished each other well.
Before we had time to set off again we were stopped by a truck pulling over in front of us. We were surprised to see an Aussie ute complete with a set of Outback Australia license plates. It was an Australian couple who had been driving around the world for over a year, clocking up over 100,000 kilometres along the way. It turns out we had a bit of a reputation on the road and they were watching out for us. We were given a tour of their custom built home on wheels, including an ingenious portable thunder-box (toilet). We enjoyed trading stories from the road and listening to the familiar drawl of the Australian accent. Aussies…. always popping up where you least expect them.
Before long, we turned a corner and there it was…. THE DREADED BIG TUNNEL. One of the challenges about making it to the North Cape is negotiating some long tunnels, the grand daddy being a 6870 metre tunnel that dips 212 metres below the sea. We had first heard about the Nordkapp Tunnel from the Japanese Scooter Man who warned us how cold and steep the tunnel is. We arrived with the descent of darkness, hoping to tackle it when there was the least traffic.
As we rolled up there was a group of cars and flashing lights. Did that German cyclist get run over? We walked over and were told by a young guy in a bright yellow safety suit, “We are doing electrical works on the tunnel. Only one lane is open. If you wait an hour we can take you through on the back of the dump truck.” Yee ha!! He was bored from standing around directing traffic all day and was looking forward to getting onto a sofa, having a beer and watching a game of football. “I don’t even care who is playing” he told us while typing another Facebook message on his mobile phone. We asked him about the signs warning of fog. “Sometimes the tunnel can be covered in fog and you can’t see shit, especially in winter. There are fog gates that shut the tunnel off when there is no traffic.” We loaded our heavy bikes and apprehensive dogs onto the tray of the big red dump truck, feeling like the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. We were swallowed up into the belly of the earth.
On the other side of the tunnel our friend had become our foe. A strong headwind now made cycling futile. We setup camp beside a block of toilets that sheltered us from the wind. It was a rare day over 100 kilometres. We were too tired to cook, too tired to care. We settled for some more museli and water and nestled into the embryo.
Day 7 – The End of the Road (Nordkapp tunnel to Nordkapp)
We can’t remember why, but we started off the day bickering about something or other. More museli and water, some more reindeer photography, another tunnel, and we rolled into Honningsvag, the last sizable town before the end of the earth. Beyond Honningsvag the road suddenly climbed into barren and peaceful mountains, a chance for the dogs to walk beside the bikes. We bumped into the Dutch couple again who were returning from the Cape. They admitted “it’s been a great experience, and we will always remember it, but we can’t wait to get back home. The rain and the weather in Norway have been really tough, but we kept pushing on knowing the end was near. I don’t know how you keep going. I’m not going to touch my bike for a year.”
Up, down, and then up, up, up, and around. We corkscrewed through the mountains wondering when it would end. Finally we dropped over a rise and we could see the finish line. There was however one last challenge, a 15%+ grade stretching straight and unrelenting to the top of the cliff. Fifty metres ahead of us a cyclist was struggling up the hill. For a moment it felt like I was in the late stages of the Tour de France, pushing towards the finish line, the yellow jersey and eternal glory. I took Paco out of the basket, attached him to my bike and set off in pursuit. Determined, I pushed hard, leaning forward and grinding the pedals. We were gaining ground. The competition was faltering, wobbling side-to-side across the middle of the road. Paco was responding to my encouragement, and running frantically with the determined purpose of a hunting dog. I was ready to overtake, the smell of victory was near. And then Paco stopped in his tracks and started to pee. NO, NO, NO!!! The cyclist pulled away to the top of the climb while Paco let out one of the longest pees in canine history. Not that I’m competitive or anything.
The North Cape of Norway is the start/end point of many journeys and geographical pilgrimages. It was named by the English when they rounded it in 1553 while attempting to find a sea route through the Northeast Passage. At 71 degrees latitude it is at the top of continental Europe (for the pedantic: there is a neighbouring point that is 1500 metres further north that you can walk to) and the cliffs can offer a spectacular platform to view sunrises, sunsets, and the deep blue sea. Interestingly, nine times out of ten it is covered in mist and you can’t see a thing (ironic considering the number of tour guides who work there). Unfortunately the North Cape is on private land and has become a money making operation. Normally, just getting to the cliff itself costs a small fortune. However, being so late in the season the gates were unstaffed and we dodged around the side. The tourist centre on top was still open, but the privilege of visiting the restaurant, gift shop, or even using the toilet was still going to cost us the equivalent of 25 Euro each. Ouch!
We were satisfied to stay outside and soak up the views instead. Motorcyclists were popping champagne and busloads of tourists descended on the giant iron globe. Photographs were being snapped left, right and centre. An Englishman who had cycled the popular route from the tip of Spain to the top of Norway arrived jubilant. He had made it just in time for sunset and it didn’t disappoint. He told us “as far as I’m considered my trip is over… Wow! This is the most amazing sunset I’ve ever seen.” He had managed to organise a ride back to town with a Russian family, who he was now arguing with. “No, I want you to take a photo of my silhouette.” “Why not flash? No, no, no, flash is better.” “No, I really want just my outline against the sunset. That’s it.” “I take it with flash, you see.”
We left them to it, and found a private spot to lap up the views, grateful that we had continued despite other people’s advice that it wasn’t worth the effort. Greedily we camped by the cliff in hopes of a similar sunrise. Unfortunately in the middle of the night strong winds blew rain into our tent (which was un-pegged due to the rocky ground). If you imagine Norway as one big electric guitar, we awoke at the top of the tuning peg in wet sleeping bags, and an impenetrable mist, feeling like an out of tune B Flat.
Footnote: The most unusual traveler was saved for our cycle back to Honningsvag the following day. Out of the mist came a young hiker, loaded up with his 20kg backpack. He had been walking for 85 days through the wilderness from Lindesnes, the most southern point of Norway, and was now within 20 kilometres of his final destination. He was already two weeks late for university and had a ragged beard and a wild gleam in his eye, reminiscent of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. We asked him about the greatest part of his journey and he said “It’s not the beautiful nature that I enjoyed most. A lot of the time it was like this”, he said pointing into the dense mist, adding a mad burst of laughter. “What I will remember most are the people. So many people helped me out along the way. It is re-affirming about human nature.”