One Norwegian explorer discovered the New World 500 years before Columbus. Another was first to cross Greenland by land. In 1911, a Norwegian was first to the South Pole, and in 2006, a fellow countryman nailed history’s longest solo and unresupplied ski journey, 3,000 miles across the South Pole region.
Who exactly are these people? When an opportunity came to visit Oslo and Bergen we jumped at the chance to determine why Norway is home to the world’s greatest explorers.
Erling Kagge, arguably Norway’s best-known living polar explorer, told us over a lunch of fish soup and bread at his home in a suburb of Oslo, “In a country of five million, polar explorers here are as famous as football players in the states. Exploration has been a part of our culture for 1,000 years. Being an explorer in Norway is a natural state of being.”
He should know. Kagge and fellow countryman Borge Ousland were first to ski to the North Pole unassisted (1990). Kagge was first to ski to the South Pole solo and unsupported (1992-93). And by 1994 he had become the first to reach to reach the North Pole, South Pole and the summit of Everest.
“In Sweden or Denmark, you’ll hardly find an explorer,” he generalizes. “This is a Norwegian thing.”
We had to see for ourselves, starting with three museums dedicated to seagoing exploration. It seems Norwegians haven’t met an old ship they didn’t want to enclose in a museum of one sort or another. With a $45 daily Oslo Pass that granted us free admission to some 40 museums, we began our quest with a visit to the aptly-named Viking Ship Museum housing three ships discovered in large burial mounds: the Oseberg Ship (820 A.D.), the Gokstad (890 A.D.) and the Tune (built around 900 A.D.). Keeping those craft company were human skeletons, magnificent sleds, wagons and animal head posts. All attested to the wanderlust the Vikings, who from about 800 to 1050 A.D. were the lords of the sea, sailing west to the British Isles, then over the North Atlantic to Iceland, Greenland and Newfoundland.
Leaping forward 1,000 years, we next toured the Fram Museum which houses the Fram, the world’s most famous polar ship. The 128-ft. wooden vessel was used on three important Norwegian expeditions: it carried Fridtjof Nansen on a drift over the Arctic Ocean in 1893-96; transported Otto Sverdrup to the arctic archipelago west of Greenland—now the Nunavut region of Canada—between 1898-1902; and sailed Roald Amundsen to Antarctica for his South Pole expedition of 1910-12.
Norwegians consider Nansen (1861-1930) to be the most important man in the country’s history. He was a doctor of science, humanitarian, diplomat, winner of the 1922 Nobel Peace Prize, and most impressive to us, the first to cross Greenland (1888). He returned to Oslo (then called Christiana) a hero on May 30, 1889, when one-third the population of the city turned out to greet the team.
In his book, The First Crossing of Greenland (1919), he writes, “It was hard to cross Greenland, but in full seriousness I must say that it is even worse to return.”
Nansen is also know for something else. In a display of an endearingly quirky Norwegian sense of humor, our hosts couldn’t wait to tell us about Nansen’s habit of mailing naked photos of himself, at the age of 67, to his Norwegian-American girlfriend. (What?)
“Sure, just Google it,” we were told.
We did, and it’s not pretty – there’s Nansen pulling an Anthony Weiner. It’s definitely cringeworthy. Google it yourself if you don’t believe us.
Amundsen doesn’t get much slack either. There on a wall in the Fram Museum opposite full panel displays honoring the explorer, was a newspaper cartoon from the grossly politically incorrect Danish cartoonists Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler. Below the pen name WuMo, the two joke that Amundsen completely forgot to tell the world about his sexual encounters with penguins. Ouch.
Next up was the Kon-Tiki Museum, located adjacent to the Fram. Thor Heyerdahl (1914-2002) gained worldwide fame when he crossed the Pacific Ocean on a balsa raft, proving that it would have been possible for South American Indians to have reached Polynesia in pre-Columbian times.
In 1947, the 46-ft. raft traveled from Lima’s port of call, Callao, to Raroia in French Polynesia, 4,340 miles in 101 days.
In addition to the original raft, the museum is a treasure trove of memorabilia from the voyage – Heyerdahl's 1951 Oscar; the U.S. military rations they ate in addition to the flying fish that landed on deck; and a chew stick from the team's pet parrot, Lorita, whom they did not eat – she flew away in a storm.
The new Kon-Tiki movie, released in 2012, has been seen by one out of every five Norwegians, and has brought new interest to the museum, founded in 1950. Visitation increased 50 percent last year, 20 percent so far in 2013.
At the Holmenkollen Ski Museum, just outside of Oslo, we saw skis dating to 600 A.D., and those belonging to British Captain Robert F. Scott (1868-1912) within a display honoring Amundsen's historic discovery of the South Pole in December 1911.
Scott’s skis within a display honoring Amundsen? Scott, who arrived at the pole a month later and perished with his team on the return, would most certainly roll over in his grave if he knew. Dozens of tourists from Japan, Italy, Poland just walked by as we stayed to linger on the exhibit, which includes a stuffed sled dog – Obersten (“The Colonel”) – who went to the pole with the famed Norwegian.
Next stop was Bergen, on the west coast, a seven-hour train journey from Oslo. It was here, in damp, rainy skies that we began to understand the Norwegian love of the outdoors. Despite the weather, locals everywhere are jogging, hiking, Nordic Walking, screaming downhill on mountain bikes, cross-country roller skiing, and racing down switchback mountain roads on skateboards (wearing spiked metal gloves).
Synnove Marie Kvam, president of the Norway chapter of The Explorers Club, tells me, “Norwegians have a close relationship with nature. We need to be respectful because there’s so much harsh weather.”
Indeed. Norwegians seem specially adapted to the cold and wet. Gore-Tex waterproof/breathable is the outerwear of choice. Children play in schoolyards in brightly colored slickers, oblivious to the rain. Standing there, soaked down to our Jockeys, the ticket-taker for the M/S White Lady fjord boat says, “This is actually quite good weather in Bergen.” (Assuming, of course, you're descended from the Vikings).
Bergen, the city of seven mountains has not one, but two lifts to nearby mountaintops – the Ulriken 643 cable car and the Floibanen Funicular, both popular with tourists and locals alike.
Historian Sturla Ellingvag, a friend of Erling Kagge’s, provided some insight on the Norwegian outdoor ethic. “If you’re a parent and your five-year-old hasn’t been camping in the mountains with you, it’s called bad parenting.”
But there's more to the Norwegians' spirit of exploration. Listen to Eva Britt Kornfeldt of the Oslo Visitors and Convention Bureau: “Swedes, they do as they are told. Norwegians? We are a stubborn, impulsive, inventive and independent people. But above all, we’re curious.”
Bergen city guide Jim Paton explains that according to the Viking Law of Inheritance, the farms were inherited by the eldest sons. The younger children had to make their fortune elsewhere as they were left to their own devices.
“Exploration is in the Norwegian genes. It’s part of their Viking heritage, living in a severe climate and being confronted by the elements.”
There’s a park near Bergen’s Hakon's Hall, in the shadow of the Rosenkrantz Tower. Below a statue of King Haakon VII is a row of cannons protecting the harbor. A sign warns of a “high rampart.”
It’s not the sort of word you’d see in the U.S. warning of a steep 40-foot drop just beyond. Were this in the litigious states, there would be a high fence protecting visitors from themselves. A sign reading "Danger." Maybe a skull and crossbones.
But this is Norway, a still sparsely settled, self-reliant country lying 40 percent above the Arctic Circle – home to a people with literally centuries of exploration experience in their genes.