There are a fair number of islands in Oslo’s Inner Fjord and Bygdøy used to be one of them, but by 1800 the narrow strait between the island and the mainland had been filled in – so now it’s a peninsula.
This wasn’t such a bad idea on reflection because the ferries that run from Aker Brygge don’t come here in the winter – but buses do, and so I trudged through the snow for a second successive morning to the National Theatre where I caught the No.30 to Bygdøy.
Bygdøy is popular with both locals and visitors alike, especially in the summer as it has beaches, walking and cycling trails and several museums. Needless to say, I wouldn’t be lying on a beach today and I’d had enough of walking through the snow yesterday at Holmenkollen, so there are no prizes for guessing what I was coming here for.
It wouldn’t be sensible to try and visit every one of these museums in one day, even in the summer, but there were three that I particularly wanted to see, and they were all to do with Norway’s passion for maritime adventures and expeditions.
These expeditions started in earnest during the Viking period which lasted from around 793 to 1066 AD. The name ‘Viking’ is normally associated with the English word ‘Pirate’, and a look at any map of Norway will give a big clue as to why the Norwegian Vikings were encouraged to look beyond their shores for places to plunder, trade and even to live. The mountainous nature of this narrow country with only a handful of locations suitable for farming (the area around Oslofjord being one of them) meant that the inhabitants looked towards the sea rather than inland.
The first documented raid was an attack on Lindisfarne in North-East England on 8th June 793, (although a skirmish at Portland in Dorset 5 years earlier was probably the first encounter). This was later followed by raids on the Northern Isles, Hebrides, the Scottish Mainland, Ireland and the Isle of Man – although not necessarily in that order. They also settled on the Faroe Islands and Iceland: In turn, the Icelanders settled on Greenland and the Greenlanders settled in Newfoundland.
Their sphere of influence spread elsewhere as time went on, but these early expeditions were all made possible by the magnificent Longships that were not only graceful, but also built for speed.
Clinker built, mainly from oak or pine, they were never going to last forever and very few original boats have survived, but fortunately the best examples that have can be found in Bygdøy’s Viking Ship Museum.
There are three ships on display here, all of which were discovered in separate burial mounds in the Oslofjord region – the Tune, which was discovered in a field in Fredrikstad in 1867 and the first to be excavated; the Gokstad which was found at Sandefjord in 1879 and in the best condition; and the Oseberg which was found at Slagen in 1903 and the most interesting find of all.
Excavation of the Oseberg burial mound revealed that a Viking Queen and her servant were buried along with the ship around 800AD, but what makes this discovery even more fascinating is that the type of clay used in constructing the mound enabled the tomb’s contents to be hermetically sealed. Normally, only the iron rivets in a ship’s construction would survive in these conditions, but the Oseberg tomb has given up the richest collection of Viking artefacts ever discovered.
Unfortunately, at some point the grave had been robbed and no jewellery or precious metals were found, but on the plus side, items were left behind that were of great significance to historians and anyone else who might be interested in Viking life. Everyday things like shoes, combs and kitchen utensils were there, but even more interesting were items like a bed, oak chest and a wagon – all of which were intricately carved. Perhaps the most interesting were the ‘animal head posts’: I don’t think anybody knows quite what they were used for, but remarkable all the same.
The ship itself had crumbled under the weight of the mound, but was painstakingly put together again using 90% of the original timber and now stands pride of place here in the museum.
Quests for overseas lands didn’t end with the Vikings. Some of the world’s most revered Polar explorers hailed from Norway – people like Fridtjof Nansen, Otto Sverdrup and Roald Amundsen.
To my shame I never realised until I decided to come to Oslo that all these explorers used the same boat on some of their expeditions – the ‘Fram’ – a boat I’d never heard of, but one that I won’t forget now that I’ve seen it in its purpose-built museum at Bygdøynes.
The Fram was built for Fridtjof Nansen who needed a vessel that could survive the Arctic ice in his desire to travel the furthest north than anyone else had ever done, and hopefully, the North Pole. The ship was built by Colin Archer, a Norwegian-Scottish shipwright, who designed it with a hull that would be lifted up by the ice and not forced under it: It needed to be small and light, but at the same time strong enough to withstand the pressure of the pack-ice, not to mention the fact that it was also going to be home for the crew who were expected to be onboard for some considerable time.
Starting out from Vardø in Northern Norway on June 24th 1893, Nansen’s expedition lasted three years, and although he never quite made it to the North Pole, his attempt makes for compelling reading – and of course he brought the Fram back safe and sound.
The success of this first expedition led the captain of the Fram, Otto Sverdrup, to use the ship five years later for his own exploration of the Canadian Arctic Islands and Northern and Eastern Greenland. This time it was to be a scientific journey with a cartographer, zoologist, botanist and geologist on board.
The journey, which was supposed to last three years, ended up taking four after spending a year stuck in ice in Greenland’s Gasefjord.
Even so, the expedition was another success, which would have been even more so if the Norwegian government had followed up Sverdrup’s claim of 200,000 square kilometres of the Arctic Archipelago for the King of Norway. Instead it was transferred to Canada in 1930.
A third voyage to the Arctic was contemplated by Roald Amundsen who intended to reach the North Pole via the Bering Strait, but before he was able to set out, American explorer Robert Peary claimed that he had reached the coveted spot on 6th April 1909. Even though the claim wasn’t universally accepted, it prompted Amundsen to sail the Fram down towards the Antarctic instead with the aim of reaching the South Pole.
British explorer, Robert Falcon Scott and his crew, had already started on the same mission and the well documented race to the pole was won by Amundsen who arrived on December 14th 1911. When Scott arrived the following month, they found the Norwegian flag already there – and to make matters worse, he and his four companions perished on the return journey only a few miles from safety.
The Fram returned to Norway and was moored up at Horten in Oslofjord. She had lived an exceptional life, but her usefulness was over, and like so many old ships she was just left to the elements.
Thanks to Otto Sverdrup and others she was restored to her former glory and in 1935 found a new home in the Fram Museum where she is remembered today as ‘the ship that sailed the furthest north and the furthest south’.
I said that there were three museums, and directly across the road from the Fram is the Kon-Tiki Museum.
Kon-Tiki was the ancient name for the Inca god Viracocha, and became the name of a balsa wood raft built in Peru in 1947.
The raft was built under the guidance of one of Norway’s most famous modern-day explorers – Thor Heyerdahl. The word ‘explorer’ in this case was not so much to do with seeking out new places in uncharted waters, but finding out how some of these places became inhabited in the first place.
Thor Heyerdahl’s interest in zoology and botany found him and his wife in the Marquesas Islands in Polynesia studying the wildlife, but during his research he became even more interested in how these remote islands became inhabited by humans. General thinking at the time was that settlers from the west were the first to arrive, but Heyerdahl was unconvinced since the prevailing winds and currents travelled from east to west.
With this in mind he set about showing that it was possible for South American Indians to have crossed the Pacific in simple rafts that they used long before explorers from the west arrived – and the Kon-Tiki expedition was to be the proof.
With a crew of six, the Kon-Tiki left Callao in Peru and took 101 days to make the successful 5,000-mile crossing to the island of Raroia in French Polynesia.
The Kon-Tiki is the most distinguished boat in the museum but it’s not the only one. Thor Heyerdahl followed up his Polynesian mission with similar expeditions: In 1970, he sailed from Morocco on a reed boat called Ra II (after the ancient sun-god) to the Caribbean (Ra I didn’t make it), and in 1978 he built another reed boat called the Tigris which sailed down the Tigris River into the Persian Gulf and the Indian Ocean.
The Ra II is on display in the museum, but the Tigris isn’t because when it reached Djibouti at the mouth of the Red Sea Thor Heyerdahl set fire to it in protest at the wars that were raging in the area at the time.
Thor Heyerdahl’s remarkable career doesn’t end there. He led archaeological expeditions to the Galapagos Islands and Easter Island, both of which make for fascinating reading if you’re into this sort of stuff. He died in 2002.
Bygdøy’s connection with the sea doesn’t end there either. Nearby is the Norwegian Maritime Museum, but that wasn’t going to be on the agenda today as I had to make my way back through the snow to the comfort of my hotel in Oslo City Centre where I had a little expedition of my own. As I was about to jump into the shower the fire alarm went off – and I was on the 18th floor. I suppose running down 18 flights of steps with next to nothing can’t be compared to the exploits of the Vikings, the Polar explorers, and Thor Heyerdahl, but it nearly damned well finished me off by the time I walked back up again!