The air temperature is close to -10oC, so sitting on the deck of a boat for 4 hours ensures you feel the chill leaching into your bones. As the sun tries to break through the cloud it creates wonderful slashes of colour in the sky, breaking up the grey tonality – a glazed pink and orange light, sunset repeating itself in the daytime. Oslo surrounds us like an overflow careening down the hillsides to the water’s edge, accentuating the import of the fjord to the city. The Opera House is a bridge between city and water, you could slide down the roof and straight into the Oslofjord.
This old boat is crammed with tourists, but the close proximity does not offer us much in the way of compensatory warmth. Rather, we all seem to get in each other’s way – when looking at my photos later, many of them are interrupted by the pink woolly hat belonging to the woman sitting opposite.
We motor around the fjord, there being no wind to speak of that could bear the schooner on its journey even if they decided to raise the sails. The water is a liquid mirror, about ready to freeze it seems. This is Oslo’s playhouse, or perhaps it’s summerhouse – the shoreline of many islands are littered with holiday homes and quaint little swimming sheds. There is so much ‘outdoors’ here, the city – the country – defined by it.
A seagull stands on a buoy. A dog on the shoreline barking at us. Men at the bow talking, trying to give a naval impression. The houses a Pantone colour sheet – an abundance of PMS 172 and PMS 151. The colour on the black and white landscape draws our attention to the monochrome, to give it more attention than it’s due.
The mirror parts for us, we carve our way through.
The boat carries us to the Bygdoy peninsula, Oslo’s museum hub. As we disembark we see another small schooner tied to the wharf, picturesque, silent. We barely notice it as we sprint our way into the Frammuseet to get out of the cold, to thaw. This is the museum of the polar ship Fram, the boat taken into the far south by Roald Amundsen as he traversed much of Antarctica in his successful quest to be the first to reach the South Pole. The boat we’d passed on the way into the museum was the Gjoa, Amundsen’s ship during his successful navigation through the Northwest passage. I am very disappointed not to realise this until Oslo is well behind us.
Amundsen is – was – an incredible man, a hero of mine. He was effectively in training for all his life for these expeditions – great journeys that would help to define the age. As a young man, he would walk across the freezing, snow-swept wilds of Norway in the depths of winter as a means of building the navigation skills and the mental strength that would serve him later. Every venture more than just an adventure – rather a learning exercise, a preparation for what was to come. In his Northwest passage trip he befriended an Inuit population as the Gjoa lay locked in the crushing, moving pack ice for months. Not only befriending them, but learning from them the survival skills required in this extreme environment. This acquired expertise materialised in the race to the South Pole, and would see him succeed over the inept and poorly planned expedition led by Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Amundsen was a genius, Scott doomed. Amundsen too would die on the ice though some years later, in a search for a man whom he despised who had gone missing in the far reaches of the North.
It is remarkable to be able to pay quiet homage to this man, this giant. To walk through this boat that would have been stacked high full of stores and supplies when it was on polar duty, a boat that had served both Amundsen and his own hero and mentor Fridtjof Nanssen. There is a portrait prominently displayed on the Fram of The Last Viking himself, his strong features testament to the inner strength that seemed to drive him – I think of him striding this deck, meticulously carrying out the plan he had been working on for years – an instance of that compulsive human desire to discover, enhance, push the boundaries, improve knowledge.
The ship itself is displayed onshore, the A-framed museum built around it. The lighting scheme that’s been used means that when you stand on deck, you can easily believe yourself ice-bound on the edge of the Antarctic continent ensconced in the perpetual night, the only noise the ships’ mournful bell ringing out across the ice, the ice-shelf cracking and moving beneath you.
Incredibly, right next door to the Frammuseet is the Kon-Tiki Museum, housing many relics from the life of Thor Heyerdahl including the Kon-tiki itself. When Heyerdahl set out on his journey in 1947, he possessed no sailing experience and a fear of the water having almost drowned – twice – as a child. He was imbued with a similar mentality to Amundsen – a sense of desperation to discover, and an immense respect for those ‘primitive’ people that could help him through their knowledge of the environment and the technologies used to work in it. Heyerdahl’s voyages were an anthropological study of how these early populations swept their way around the world, or rather were swept along by the currents that carried them.
In some ways, Heyerdahl was anathema to Amundsen, in that he left much to fate whereas Amundsen – at least in his earlier expeditions – was a meticulous planner. But they surely shared this hunger to map the world, to piece it together, to make sense of it. And they were both made of something hard – a hardiness, a strength, physical, mental and existential – that lead them to undertake these preposterous goals with little self-doubt.
This hardiness is displayed by the two men outside, on the grassy area leading down to the water in front of the museums, busy repainting and repairing about half a dozen small boats. Standing in the freezing cold air, maintaining and saving a little piece of Norwegian nautical history. These boats are simple, low slung, open to the elements – old Nordland boats perhaps, their lines like an open pea pod, their colours another bright adversary to the winter-fuelled greyscale palette. The two men labour in the cold as the world sails by, oblivious to its attractions, intent on their boats and on each other, working something out, mastering it. They’re open, friendly, talkative.
Our last stop during the day contains perhaps the answer to everything. The Viking Ship Museum is housed in a beautiful building toward the interior of Bygdoy peninsula. The walk from the Fram and Kon-Tiki museums is through a well-to-do neighbourhood, and is particularly attractive with the light dusting of snow, although the thick ice toward the entrance of the museum is treacherous. The museum is shaped like a cross, and houses 3 Viking ships in it’s church-like interior.
There are plenty of theories as to why the Vikings expanded out of Scandinavia, but whatever the driver these aspirational traits appear to have been passed down into the DNA of men like Amundsen and Heyerdahl, and through them to the present day. In these langskip are the origins of a nautical style that the old fishing boats we saw in front of the Frammuseet echo hundreds of years later.
You can see in the roots of the Viking culture the foundation stones of what drove men like Amundsen and Heyerdahl. Something innate passed down to them via their illustrious forefathers, a force that motivates the two men outside the museums, industriously adding their small notation to the long Norwegian story of sea-faring, exploration, discovery.