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#14 Dovrefjell National Park, Norway

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

After the best part of a month with no travel apart from a few days in Scotland, I started to get itchy feet, cue an impromptu trip to Dovrefjell–Sunndalsfjella National Park, Norway. The aim was to photograph musk ox. Going in early January would not have been my first choice, as the days are short, however with only 1 week left until I go back to work, it’s compromise or don’t go at all.

Thankfully it was worth it and I was blessed with some gorgeous winter light over my few days in the mountains. The plan was 3 days and 2 nights up in the mountains. One last weather check before I left home suggested a range of temperatures from 0 to -10 degrees centigrade, which for me is just about perfect, as going a little later in the year would have been quite a bit colder. Whilst that’s bearable during the day, having to camp in it as well would soon take its toll. With return business class flights for £1 (thank you British Airways!) I was all set to head to Norway for the first time. Landing in Oslo it’s an easy 4 hour drive north to reach Dovre over snow covered roads, I made it late that evening. The following morning I would be meeting my guides - I actually had two accompanying me, as one was doing her first winter trip and it was her test run.

Being my first time in these mountains, and in the winter I decided not to do this one alone, in order to maximise my time with the musk ox. A good decision as without any prior knowledge it would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack in the vast park. As well as the knowledge of the animals they would be supplying the vast majority of equipment which saved me having to fly it all over from the UK. Along with the aid of the guides I enlisted the help of a team of huskies. Not only am I a huge fan of dogs; huskies in particular, but they're extremely useful. With snowmobiles banned in the park, they’re literally the best way to get around, especially when moving a fair amount of gear as well. With my camera bag weighing around 20kg when full, coupled with clothes, equipment & food for the next 3 days it becomes quite a lot to lug up the side of a mountain to our camp. I’m extremely thankful that I opted go down this route not only to save my body from having to haul that lot up, but also because of the experience.

From building up the sledges, harnessing up the huskies to mushing them up the mountain in the most beautiful setting was extremely fun. You soon get to appreciate the sheer strength of these amazing dogs working togethe, and what’s more amazing is that you can really see their joy whilst doing it. They just want to run and run all day. After about an hour of weaving our way up the mountains and a couple of falls later (it’s a lot harder than I thought to steer your own sledge, especially for the first time!) we had made it to our camp! Our first job on the agenda was to build camp and erect the tents, or well at least we thought. Due to some miscommunication it quickly became apparent that the tent poles were not with us, and were still back at the guides base. Far from ideal! One of the guides started the long walk back down the mountain to go and pick them up, which left me and the other to go off and search for the musk ox.

On the way up we had spotted a couple of lone musk ox about 1.5kms from our camp, so we headed in that direction. At the first high point we reached we took out the binoculars for a quick scout around, which to our amazement showed a herd of around 17 musk ox only a few hundred meters from our camp. Due to the way we approached the camp and them being hidden behind a crest we were none the wiser they were there and so close. We turn around and head in their direction and spend the remaining few hours of day light in their presence. The handy thing about musk ox in the winter months is that they won’t move very far. In fact they will generally only move a few hundred meters over a couple of months, just grazing on a few isolated spots of exposed shrub. Due to the deep snow, there is only a few patches that give them good feeding ground, so once you start to understand the land, trying to find them becomes a little easier with this knowledge. With the light fading we head back to camp, with a hope that the missing poles have arrived. Disappointingly it’s a couple of hours later that the guide makes her return with them, by now it’s pitch black and the wind has picked up dramatically.

Trying to erect the tent in the dark and with the snow whipping past is no easy feat. A few problems and running repairs later and we finally had camp built, or at least the best we could for the conditions we were operating in. After a quick bite to eat it was time to get our heads down and get some kip. The following morning was quite literally the calm before the storm. That evening there was due to be extremely strong winds coming in, and we had the option to break down camp and head off the mountains before it hit or sit it out. Needless to say we opted to sit it out. After a relatively still morning with little wind photographing the musk ox in the low January light the wind start to slowly pick up offering a few different sort of photographic opportunities. Before the sun set the wind really started to get going and the storm was well and truly incoming.

If you are planning on camping in the park you need to let the authorities know, and they tell you where you have to make camp, unfortunately this is not in a sensible place. The location is in a small valley, which basically creates a huge wind tunnel onto your tent. That evening we experienced 70mph winds, it’s fair to say I didn’t get much sleep. The wind shattered various tent poles, and there was genuine concern at some points that we would have to leave and head down for our own safety. With running repairs throughout the night we made it through. Lying there and having the wind get underneath you and pick you and the tent up for a split second is something that I won’t forget for a while! Surrounding yourself with your packs just to try and anchor yourself down a little! As dawn arrived the wind calmed down, and greeted us with another pleasant day! We head back out early again to make the most of the morning before having to return to camp to start packing up in advance of the huskies coming back to pick us up.

The herd of musk ox we spent the 3 days with offered a nice array of photos, however the one I was really after didn’t materialise. I’d wanted a photo of two males locking heads, so I’ll have to return a winter in the future to try and get this! With camp packed and the huskies loaded up it was time to head back down. With the sun starting to dip back down; although at this time of year it never really gets up in the first place, we started our descent. It was the most picture perfect scene you could imagine, pink soft sky over a huge mountain range of pure white, Although due to my several trips into the snow on the way up I didn’t have my camera out, in order to protect it, just one for my memory! I’m not ashamed to say I had a small tear in my eye as we headed down, maybe it was emotion of this beautiful land or perhaps it was the cold getting in, i’m not entirely sure. That night from the comfort of my hotel room the temperature dropped to -17 degrees outside. Covered in two duvets I had my smug face on; or at least until 2am when my alarm went off and I had to start the drive back to Oslo for my early morning flight home. The downside to reward flights is the option for the flight times are not always that kind to you!



zacharytknowles

January 2020

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