Now that is not because the hike I am going to talk about promises staggering heights like the Himalayas. But because of the staggering beauty that lies at the end of the hike. A beauty that is not fenced in. The Norwegians are not paranoid about safety, you see. They like to leave their natural environment as pristine as possible.
My husband had first seen a shot of Preikestolen in a coffee table book in his teens. One evening, sitting in a hotel room in Berlin, he could find tickets to nowhere for a bank holiday weekend except to Stavanger. That is how some trips are meant to be, and the universe just conspires to make them happen.
For our hike to Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock), we had made our base in the oil-boom town called Stavanger. It is a small town on the North Sea coast of Norway and an erstwhile fishing port dedicated to sardines and herrings. Eighteenth century wooden houses, cobbled lanes and an atmospheric harbour flanked by lively pubs housed in old warehouses, make up Stavanger.
It is a pretty lively town too. On Friday nights partygoers make a go for the pubs in town with some gusto. Our hotel window had to be kept open at night because the hotel, Scandic Park, did not offer air conditioning – all night long, I was half awake listening to cars with loud music racing outside on the roads and the hum of people talking as made their way to the harbour.
Stavanger has two pretty quarters. The eastern part of the harbour houses a colourful street, Øvre Holmegate. Conceptualised by a hairdresser in consultation with an artist, the buildings on Øvre Holmegate have been painted in fresh colours and they pop out at you all in a row with a cutting-edge, bohemian vibe.
The other part is Gamle Stavanger, on the west side of Vågen, the harbour at the heart of Stavanger with its busy little sailing boats and ferries, where often a hunkering cruise ship rolls in. The day we were to leave Stavanger, the Caribbean Princess came into Vågen, standing athwart the city’s skyline like a giant surveying its kingdom. You could see the cruise ship from everywhere in town.
The oldest part in town is Gamle Stavanger, a residential area. At any time only a handful of tourists can be found to saunter through its cobbled alleys. The idyllic beauty of white wooden cottages stringed together in a row is a result of the conservation of its traditional 18th century cottages post WWII. Rose-trellised doors, baskets of black petunias, vibrant hydrangeas and weeping willows add a charming touch to the neighbourhood. Meanwhile the fishing heritage of the town is preserved in a canning museum that sits quietly among the winding lanes of the quarter.
With its lake Breiavatnet fringed by wooden houses and parks, the adjoining old cathedral, the artistic iron sculptures (a project called Broken Column by a London-based sculptor in which men in iron project upwards from the ground), its waterfront bars and a stylishly dressed populace, Stavanger is quite the kind of town I could see myself living in.
On a sunny day, we cruised into Lysefjord on a boat. The sun played peekaboo and a wickedly icy wind whipped my hair and the red, white and indigo blue Scandinavian cross of the Norwegian flag that fluttered on a pole at the tail of the boat. Large wads of clouds rolled into the sky and we puttered by the occasional tiny lighthouse on a boulder, white and red wooden cottages scattered on green patches populated by tall evergreens.
The real drama picked up when we came upon the granite cliffs of Ryfylke. They tower 3000 feet above the fjord and it is the light colour of these cliffs that gives the fjord its name which means ‘light fjord’. Make no mistake. This was a wild fjord, 40-odd km in length, carved out by the glaciers during the Ice Age as it wound its way through pristine Norwegian countryside. Only two villages lay along its length, Forsand and Lysebotn, both of which are lightly populated.
At one point, we looked up and spied the flat mouth of Preikestolen hanging out. It looked nothing more than a tiny slab of rock and beneath it was a sheer fall into jagged cliffs. So, if you did fall, it would not be death by water. A few turns about the sharp, uneven edges of the cliff, and then counting in a big Might, you might enter the fjord.
We were dropped off at the village of Tau for the hike. Stavanger’s local iconic beer, Tou, used to be brewed at Tau in the mid-19th century before the brewery was moved to Stavanger. A bus took us to the point from where the hike started and we got a peep at the Riksvei 13 (National Road 13), a 280-mile long Norwegian tourist route that runs north-south through a few counties skirting fjords, islands and islets, farmlands and vertiginous cliffs.
The hike itself is arduous. It took us about two hours of walking, climbing up boulders and gingerly making our way down them, tripping across brooks and slipping on the occasional slimy rock before we were anywhere near Pulpit Rock. When the legs start tiring out, it is worthwhile to make brief stops, turn around and take in the landscape of the misty fjord and islets looming yonder. The way to Pulpit Rock is punctuated by scenic lakes, light woods and trails that open into ravines and cliffs populated by evergreen forests. It is quite in sync with the Norwegian motto ‘Ut på tur, aldri sur’ (‘Out on a hike, never gripe’).
Ahead of us a scene played out that would have made it to Fifty Ways to Kill Your Mammy (an adventure series on British telky about the experiences of a 70-year-old Irish mother and her intrepid son). A portly British mum was toiling away while her teenage son kept up with her questions, which ran along the lines of “Where is the lift?” with a straight face and chiding tone, “Well, you asked for Norway. This is It, mum!”
The cheeky son and troubled mother team in tow, we suddenly came upon the Pulpit Rock. The one prize that had us all huffing and puffing our way up.
So, the local lore of Preikestolen prophesies that the rock shall fall off the mountain into the fjord the day seven brothers marry seven sisters from the area around it. What are the chances of that happening, eh?
Surrounded by young mothers with babies strapped onto them, wee boys with fathers, dogs panting alongside their masters, teenage hikers and gutsy old women and men armed with walking poles, I was finding it all surreal. My partner and I had almost decided against the trip. The weather forecast for the weekend was pouring rain. And, I am a fair weather hiker, thank you. Yet we decided to do as the Nordic do. Wing it. They say there that there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
When we came upon the Pulpit Rock, we found a steep cliff that true to its name juts out squarely like a pulpit, about 82 by 82 feet to be precise, above the fjord.
Around me, Brave men and women – trust me on this – walked right up to the edge of the rock, sat down and flashed toothy grins for their shutterbug friends. Then there was the category of the Very Brave – they stood at the edge and clicked a few dozen selfies.
The occasion demanded an attempt at bravery. Hmmm, so adrenalin pumping, I walked right up to the edge. Stopped. Sat down. My left foot dangling off the edge of the ledge, I took a peek down and my right foot never got the chance to be as brave as its counterpart.
Perched upon the very fringe of that rocky outcrop in the heart of Norway’s Rogaland county, my nerves were taut. As taut as they can get when they contemplate upon a tumble into the dark (and possibly hypothermia inducing) fjord.
This is what had transpired a few minutes before. “But I want to sit at the very edge, my legs dangling, like I would at the dining table,” I negotiated terms with a grim partner. He looked down at the glassy waters of the fjord below, looked up and said simply, “And I want my wife.”
I was halfway on the road to bravery.
Blame it all on the right foot.
Nothing prepares you for the thrill of Preikestolen. No amount of photographs or videos can approximate those moments of sheer exhilaration, of having made it to the flat outcrop, of drinking in the dreamy beauty of the fjord with hungry eyes, and reflecting that it is the kind of place that makes people lose their common sense.