Trip report: Dovrefjell National Park, Norway
Graeme Green goes in search of musk ox, reindeer and eagles in Norway's spectacular Dovrefjell National Park
There’s a big black shape resting on the far ridge. It has everything we’re looking for: a massive body, with a distinctive hump of bone and muscle on its upper back to support its heavy, low-hanging head. Terje Rian, a local expert on Norway’s musk ox, looks through his binoculars. “Yes,” he laughs. “It’s just a big stone. But it really looks like one. We have to look carefully for musk ox, not musk rocks.”
Dovrefjell National Park in Trøndelag, central Norway, is Europe’s hotspot for musk ox (or moskus, as they’re called here). It’s an area rich with life, from arctic foxes and moose to Golden eagles. But the iconic musk ox is the big draw. Wiped out in Norway by the last ice age, they were re-introduced from Greenland in the mid-1900s. Today, there are around 300. But, in a landscape with lots of dips, nooks and ridges, they can be hard to find, especially when they look, from a distance, like dark rocks.
“I’m always on the alert. You never know where you’ll find them,” says Terje as we walk. “Somewhere on that hill up ahead is a musk ox. I saw it yesterday. They don’t move much. They’re programmed to do as little as possible, just walk around and eat.”
We find the ox with surprising ease, a big, shaggy, old male resting on the hillside. “The ox world’s Arnold Schwarzenegger,” jokes Terje. “He’s really huge.” Terje estimates his weight at more than 500kilos.
We approach from the front and watch from a safe distance. “The animals aren’t dangerous,” Terje tells me. “But they’re control freaks. They don’t like things happening behind them where they can’t see and they will also protect their calves. If you make a musk ox attack you, you’re either very unlucky or very stupid - probably the second one.”
After a long laze, the ox climbs a ridge. We get an impressive side profile. They’re surprising animals. For a start, they’re not ox, but sheep. “It’s pretty big for a sheep, isn’t it?” Terje laughs. It looks like a walking wall of long straggly hair blowing with the wind. On the forehead is a thick ‘front plate’, used in ritual fights for breeding rights. “They run and use their heads, which can be 15-20 cm thick. They crash like a car crash - 500 kilos running in each direction. They’re fighting to find out who’s biggest, for their right to breed. It’s Darwinian - survival of the fattest.”
Keen to see more, we head out again next day into the blustery mountains of Dovrefjell, hiking along the top of a long green valley. From up here, we can see some of Norway’s biggest mountains, including Scandinavia’s highest peak, Galdhøpiggen (2469metres), to the south. A steep climb takes us up to a higher ridge, around 1300 metres, with a view of Snøhetta, the highest mountain in the Dovrefjell range. “Cross your fingers,” Terje tells me. From the summit, we can see for miles but we can’t see any musk ox.
Terje searches with binoculars as we move from ridge to ridge. Then: “I see them.” Where? “That’s the problem: very far away.” He points to four or five animals down in the valley. Even with binoculars, it’s hard for me to tell if the black dots are musk ox or musk rocks.
There’s only one way to find out. It takes an hour to hike down into the valley through streams and ankle-deep bogs. Then, coming over a ridge, it’s suddenly obvious what they are: three big hairy brown shapes, not far away, eyes looking back at me. I stay still as others emerge from dips in the land. It’s a group of nine animals, including two (relatively) small calves. They lumber around the hillside, grazing and chewing. Two adult males gently knock heads, a small taste of the fights for dominance I’d hoped to witness. The calves follow their mothers around. One by one, the ox settle around a mound and lie down to digest their food. It’s an incredibly peaceful, natural scene – well worth the effort.
My trip hadn’t start so well. I’d landed in Bergen and driven up through the fjord region to art nouveau town Alesund and on to the island of Runde, home to more than 500,000 seabirds (Atlantic puffins, guillemots, cormorants, gannets…). But a powerful storm hit the island. All boat trips to the sea cliffs were cancelled for safety. Paths across the islands turned to bog. “More or less, everything is negative,” says Runde bird expert Knut Asle bluntly when I arrived on the island. I tried to go up on the hilltops anyway, but fierce rain and wind, swampy paths and a lack of any visible wildlife soon turned me back. I saw only a single skua and a few sheep.
From Runde, I travelled inland to Dovre, then up to Oppigard in the Eikesdalen valley. “People have been hunting reindeer in these mountains for 10,000 years,” reindeer hunter and tracker Bård Eiliv Oppigardas tells me as we hike through Gravdalen (grave valley).
We stay overnight in a mountain hut next to a lake where Bård and his son Torbjörn fish for trout, then set off next morning before sunrise to look for wild reindeer. “It’s useful to start early when the animals can be moving around,” says Bård as we climb a mossy, blueberry-covered hill. “Between 10am and 4pm, they lay down and don’t move.”
We reach a plateau, framed by snow-covered, granite peaks. “Now we would say we’re entering their terrain. This is where I’d switch on hunting mode,” says Bård, who’s thankfully left his gun behind on this trip.
We sit against rocks and scan with binoculars. “I look for movement,” Bård says. “It’s best to sit still and let the reindeer do the walking, rather than walking and scaring the reindeer. These are some of the wildest reindeer in Europe. Finding them can be like bingo.”
Reindeer move across this area all summer. We watch and wait but nothing comes. “This is where reindeer hunting becomes really lazy,” Bård laughs, munching on chocolate and biscuits. “You just walk a bit until the landscape opens up, then sit down, eat and watch.”
Time ticks away. We decide to go searching, startling a few grouse on our way uphill to an old pass that was a popular spot with reindeer hunters. Bård gives a signal to duck. From behind rocks, we watch three reindeers around 250 metres away. Others move out from behind rocks or bushes or from hidden streams, until more than 20 have collected together at the foot of the glacier. They run as a group, thin black figures across the white of the glacier. “That’s a big herd,” whispers Bård. “26 animals. It has everything: males, females, calves, all together.”
Sure enough, around 10am, the reindeer settle on the glacier where, Bård says, they might spend the rest of the day. He cooks the trout from last night on a little stove and cracks open a bottle of red wine. Miket, Bård’s poodle, lazes beside us, as we eat, drink and watch the reindeer on the glacier. More or less, everything feels positive.
My last stop is further north in Lauvsnes, Flatanger, on the coast above Trondheim, for an appointment with Ole Martin ‘the eagle man’ Dahle. A small group of us, including photographers with cannon-sized lenses, gear up in thick, red survival suits (“If you fall in the sea, you’d survive for maybe 10 minutes,” Ole warns us.) and head out to sea, gulls swarming around the boat for bits of bread Ole feeds them from his hands or head.
The skies are patchy grey and blue, rain storms striking and passing as we search for the white-tailed sea eagles who live around these islands. “When I was young, it was hard to see an eagle in Norway,” Ole says. “There were only 800 pairs left in Norway around 1968. Now there are 3000, including 1000 around Flatanger. It’s like a symbol that it’s possible to bring back nature.” He’s seen eagles with wingspans up to 2.7metres. “They’re big, beautiful, powerful…” he chuckles. “Like me.”
Ole lures the eagles in with frozen fish thrown into the water. “Rock and roll,” Ole announces a bird is on the way. “So beautiful,” he says, as the eagle glides across the sun. We track it and shoot as it swoops down and plucks the fish from the water.
It’s hard work, with the boat rocking on waves, rain showers and a fast-moving subject in constantly changing light. But it’s a lot of fun, like machine-gunning a moving target but without the slaughter. “I’ve seen 3000 eagle dives this year and I’m not bored,” says Ole. “It’s always exciting.”
My photos get gradually better through the morning and again in the evening, when we go out again. “Eagle is coming,” Ole calls out as one zooms in low over the ocean. The gulls scatter. I locate the eagle, track and shoot, then get ready for the next one. Each eagle banks, glides, drops and dives, moving with precision and skill.
Ole sings ‘What a wonderful world’ in the calm moments between shoots. Gulls bob on waves around the boat, as the sun goes down behind a lighthouse. I take a quick look at my photos so far and am pretty happy with the results. A few shots are sharp, well-lit, catching the eagle in-flight, fish in talons - not perfect, but everything positive, more or less.
INFO: Graeme flew from London Heathrow to Bergen with British Airways (www.ba.com, 0844 4930787) and returned with flights from Trondheim to Oslo with SAS (www.flysas.co.uk) and from Oslo to Heathrow with British Airways. He stayed at Det Hanseatiske Hotel (www.dethanseatiskehotel.no) in Bergen, Brosundet Hotel (www.brosundet.no) in Ålesund, the Kongsvold Fjeldstue (www.kongsvold.no) near Dovrefjell, Gravdalen Mountain Hut (www.contrastadventure.no) in Eikesdalen and Ole Martin Dahle’s Photography Lodge (www.norway-nature.com) in Lauvsnes. For more info, see www.wild-norway.com, www.visitnorway.co.uk, www.fjordnorway.com and www.trondelag.com
SAMPLE PACKAGE TOUR: The author travelled with Wild Norway (www.wild-norway.com, email@example.com, +47 95 44 11 53) who can book all activities and tours in this article. A one-week wildlife and photography safari costs around 18,000 NOK (£1880) per person, including accommodation, food, guiding and airport transfers, but excluding international flights. Alternatively, each ‘safari’ can be booked separately. Musk Ox safaris in Dovrefjell (www.dombasmotel.com, +47 456 71 995) cost 300 NOK (£30) per person per tour. Sea Eagle Safaris with Ole Martin Dahle (www.norway-nature.com) cost 2,900 NOK (£300) per day, including accommodation, food, transport and two daily guided photo sessions. Wild Reindeer tours in Eikesdalen can be booked with Contrast Adventures (www.contrastadventure.no). Prices vary depending on length of tour and whether an overnight stay is included.
GETTING THERE: British Airways (www.ba.com, 0844 4930787) fly from London Heathrow to Bergen, Oslo and Stavanger in Norway, with return flights from £95.90. Norwegian (www.norwegian.com) have return flights from London Gatwick to Bergen, Trondheim (Tuesday and Saturday only), Oslo and Alesund from £69.80.
VISA REQUIREMENTS FROM THE UK: UK passport holders don’t require a visa to visit Norway.
TIPS & WARNINGS: Norway is fantastic in the sunshine, but some areas, including the high mountains and the fjords get their share of rain and cold weather. Temperatures can be low too at night. Take warm layers and wet weather gear. A good set of binoculars is also recommended. Musk ox are generally safe, though accidents have happened, usually when a tourist has acted foolishly. Visitors are advised to stay 200 metres away, especially when calves are present, and to keep in front of the animals. Norway is an expensive country to travel in. Meals and accommodation can be pricey, while a bottle of beer can cost from £7 to £18. Costs are difficult to avoid completely, but if planning to drink, some travellers take wine or spirits with them to reduce the sting.
WHEN TO GO: The summer months, June to August, are a good time to view musk ox. Calves are born in May/June, so June/ July is the best time to see calves. For a chance to see males in ritual fighting mode, late Aug and early Sept are best, though it’s hard to guarantee. February is also worth considering for viewing the musk ox in winter. May and June are the best months to see puffins on Runde. Other birds can be seen year round, depending on weather. Eagle safaris are possible all year but best between May and October. The best months for reindeers are June to October.