Death and beauty in Tiveden.
For the last two years I have gone on an annual hiking holiday with my brother, but this year we hadn’t really made any plans, so when an old friend suggested Bergslagsleden I was all ears.
Bergslagsleden is a trail that goes straight through the heart of Sweden. It also happens to pass through one of the last areas of true wilderness in the southern half of the country, Tiveden forest, making it a worthy candidate to follow in the footsteps of the wonders of Slovenia and Mallorca.
On those occasions we rented places to stay and made day tours, but this would be something else: we would start at the southern-most end of the trail and hike northward, bringing all the kit and food we needed along on our backs. Quite another challenge, and one – it would soon become apparent – we had very different ideas about what it would take to tackle.
I arrived in Sweden on Monday, and met up with my brother at my parents’ place. I felt well prepared, having collected gear for this kind of expedition for almost a year, finding the right equipment one item at a time. My brother on the other hand had seen a cobbler that morning, seeking advice on how best to glue the soles back on his walking boots(!).
In the car to the trailhead he was in the back, performing the equivalent of an appendicitis operation on his shoes. To say that I was stressed out about this would be an understatement; if he couldn’t get them in working order, the trip would be over before it had begun.
He also hadn’t brought a tent, so the first night we shared Big Agnes between us. It was cold, considerably more so than the forecast had said, and I was lying there fully clothed in my sleeping bag, unable to sleep – you see, my brother snores. A lot. If snoring had been an appreciated art form, like, say, opera, my brother would have drawn crowds like Pavarotti. As it was, I was the only one to hear what sounded like a buffalo mating with a seal.
At one in the morning it started to rain. The weather forecast had specifically said there would be no rain! My brother roused himself long enough to ask me to bring his freshly glued shoes inside the tent. And so, with the rain competing with the snoring over who can assault my ears the most, the fumes from the glue finally had me drifting off to sleep.
The next morning brought glorious sun and clear blue skies, however, and Anders’s shoes looked well enough, so we broke camp and set off, eager to start our journey into Tiveden.
Tiveden, literally the Wood of Tyr*, god of war, or the wood of “Tiva”, the gods, in Old Norse, is a forbidding place. The inland ice that covered Scandinavia 10,000 years ago deposited so many erratic boulders here as to create a landscape that was difficult to traverse and impossible to tame, and thus it has remained a wilderness, a forest untouched by modern forestry, and a refuge for wildlife.
Now it’s a national park and a national treasure, but it used to be place people feared to go; wild animals were a real threat, and stigmän (literally “path men”) robbers would ambush any merchants and pilgrims foolhardy enough to travel without sufficient guard, only to melt back into the dark woods again on hidden trails. On top of that, local lore has always populated the area with a plethora of trolls, giants and other scary critters, so it’s small wonder the area was shunned as far as possible.
We made it through the park unscathed, however, touched only by its natural beauty. We stopped to have lunch on top of Trollkyrka, a fortress-like accumulation of boulders deep in the heart of Tiveden, where Norse gods were allegedly worshipped for centuries after Sweden was officially christened. It’s easy to imagine blood sacrifices taking place here at night, the ancient trees standing sentinel in the dark around the bare rocks under a starry sky, flickering torches lighting the scene as the old gods are given their due. There were a few American tourists around, and it’s tempting, but we restrained ourselves…
At the end of the day we make our camp at a tärn, a forest lake, that is as picture perfect as is imaginable. The camp sites along the trail are all equally well placed, and kept in beautiful repair: timber bivouacs with ample firewood for the campfire, a clean outdoor loo and almost always overlooking a lake.
Feeling hot and sweaty we brave the cold, black water, and here things could have taken a turn for the worse. The plankway leading across the moss that encroaches the waters is slippery, and Anders loses his balance and sinks waist deep into the bog quagmire. Luckily he can pull himself up, but he’s hurt his knee, which means our expedition is threatened yet again.
The author doing his best John Bauer-troll impression.
He spends the night groaning and swearing (and snoring), but once we get going the next day the stiffness subsides and he can continue walking.
North of Tiveden national park Tiveden forest still continues unabated, if slightly less wild. We pass Tivedstorp and Ykullen, picturesque old villages deep in the forests, still intact, still remote. Legend has it that the area was first populated when famine threatened the local kingdom and the king ordered every tenth family to be executed to save the others. His queen – who was apparently a little less brutal, or just more cunning – convinced him to send the unfortunate families to settle on the outskirts of Tiveden instead. Apparently doing so was seen as tantamount to a commuted death sentence; gives you an idea how hard life must have been here back in the day…
The third day we enter the borderlands between the ancient kingdoms of the Svea and Göta tribes. Here, the inland ice sheet has left a shingle ridge that rises sharply above marshlands, forming at once a natural bulwark and a road across the boggy surroundings. This natural feature meant that any attempt to invade your neighbours this way was almost certainly doomed, but that didn’t stop either tribe from trying, again and again. In more peaceful times the ridge was part of a well established path for monks and pilgrims and other travellers, particularly appreciated since it offered a natural vantage point from which to spy dangers from afar. I read this on an information signpost before climbing the ridge, and I hadn’t gone ten metres on it before I almost stepped on a snake. So much for that theory!
After the bog lands we enter an area of commercial forestry, which is considerably less pretty, but we have a lot of fun anyway, sharing woodsman tips. I’ve been reading the excellent Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, so we test various tricks to tell directions using trees (it seems the trees haven’t read the book though, because they are rubbish at it!), and my brother – who knows a lot about plants – points out various edible things along the way; so many that I begin to feel there is nothing in the forest that can’t be brewed as a tea.
Thankfully we don’t have to put that theory to the test, because when we reach the end of the day, my old classmate Jessica – whom I haven’t seen in 25 years but who tipped me off about the trail (hooray for social media!) is there with her husband Per, waiting to take us in their car past this uninteresting stretch and into more pristine forests 20 kilometres to the north.
We stop at another campsite that looks as if it belongs in a fairytale, and – glory be! – they bring out a cooler full of marvellous brioche, Brie and beer! It was a feast and an evening not soon to be forgotten; the years fall away, and it’s as if a month has past since last we saw each other, not a quarter of a century.
If it’s all the food we ate or the fact that the bivouac faces due east I don’t know, but the next morning I wake at four and watch the sun rise. It’s a lovely experience, but my timing is crap, because this is the day when we need to hike the longest by far – 32 kilometres.
We set out by eight and it takes us ten hours, but then we do stop to explore the caves in Fasaskogen (literally the forest of horror) where local lore has it the giant Diger lives, and have lunch in an abandoned mine, where centuries old graffiti tell of miners – real-life troglodytes – long gone.
By the end of the day I’m very, very tired and the soles of my feet are hurting to the point where all I want is to cool them down in a lake. Two kilometres before we reach our campsite we pass a moss, and the plank-ways we balance on sink into the ice cold waters, utterly submerging my feet. I try to tell myself that if I want to see the glass (and my shoes!) as half full rather than half empty I had been wishing for a way to cool my feet – I just didn’t imagine them to be in my shoes as I did so! Another woodsman’s trick – this one from Ronja the Robber’s daughter – sees me picking dry white moss that I stuff into my shoes. They dry up very quickly.
And so we near the end of our hike. One last glorious sunset, one last meal cooked on the Primus – Anders goes all out with linseed patties, minced meat and grilled vegetables, and a family of four earns its place in the hikers’ pantheon of unsung heroes by offering us a beer each – and one last night spent playing hide and seek with the midges, before we make our way to the end of the trail. For now. You see, we did 105km but Bergslagsleden in its entirety is 280km, and finishes near the part of Sweden where we grew up. We’ll be back, braving Bergslagsleden again.
*Of Tyr’s Day fame – or Tuesday, as it is more commonly known.