As you travel between Oslo and Trondheim, you’ll want to stop a few times. A short hike is just the ticket – good to move a bit, and at Hjerkinn you can also have a look at a very cool portal. Not a portal to another dimension, but to wildlife. Make sure you have time. And patience.

Reindeer selfies

We’re in the Dovrefjell mountain range. This is wild reindeer country, and Comet, Vixen & Co are all very cute.

As part of a research project, cameras were fitted on collars around reindeers’ necks, to get an idea of the animals’ behaviour in their natural habitat.

Reindeer selfies from auto cameras posted by NINA (Norwegian Institute for Nature Research) at the foot of Tverrfjellet Mountain.

In this country, spotting reindeer is not that unusual. The wild reindeer here at Dovrefjell are quite shy, but I’ve seen plenty of them through the years. Just a few weeks before Coronavirus hit, I even dashed through the snow with one.

The elusive musk ox

This is also moose and Arctic fox country, and musk ox country. Now, there’s a rare spot. In fact, this is the only place in Norway you can see these beautiful beasts. When Ali went to uni in Trondheim, she’d occasionally spot them through the train window.

The musk ox is an Arctic animal, with thick, heavy fur. Odd name, you think? Well, once you’ve smelled a male musk ox in heat, you will understand, I’m told. And while that may appeal to a frisky female musk ox, we humans aren’t necessarily charmed by just that. But we’ll keep our distance anyway, so no worries.

You’ll find the musk ox in Alaska, in the Yukon, in Nunavut, in Greenland, and in Siberia, as well as here.

About 240 of them live in this mountain range. The population is managed, and stay within their allotted 340 km² area. They seem to like it here; about 50 calves are born each year. But – as with many other species – the musk ox is under threat from global warming and other human activity.

In this post, I talk about how we – humans – pose a pretty big threat to the environment, including local wildlife. The musk ox is adapted to the cold and doesn’t do well in too much heat. Also, global warming causes warmer winters, leading to more ice and hard-packed snow, so feed is harder to come by. This is an even bigger problem for musk ox; they eat only grass, while reindeer have a more varied diet, including lichen.

I mentioned you can see them through the window of the Dovre Line (the Oslo – Trondheim train). Sadly, every once in a while, a musk ox dies in a collision with the train. Others die as a result of thoughtless human interaction.

There’s no shame in turning back here either

It’s best to have a guide along if you want to see musk ox in its environment, but if you insist on wandering off on your own, follow the musk ox code of conduct. You’ll find more comprehensive information here, but here are the main points:

  1. Keep your distance (200 metres)
  2. Scan the herd, to get a general overview of the situation. Know where they are.
  3. Indicate where you’re going – you don’t want to sneak up on a musk ox.
  4. Stay alert
  5. As with Norway’s mountain code, there is no shame in turning back
  6. Bring all necessary gear
  7. Be prepared for any kind of weather
  8. Have fun

OK, now we got that out of the way, here we are, near the village of Hjerkinn. At the entrance to Tverrfjellet Mountain, we see info boards about local nature and wildlife.

We didn’t spot any musk ox, so this is the photo you get. Lovely animals, aren’t they? They look harmless. And they are, generally. Peaceful herbivores. But if they perceive you as a threat, well, look out. Despite its size and relatively short legs, this baby is agile – and fast: you really don’t want 400 kg of ox coming at you at 60 km/h.

Whereas we humans have a variation of responses to threatening situations – fight, flight or freeze – the musk ox tend to go for fight. Head-butting is the preferred method of attack, often causing bruises and broken bones. In 1964, a man was charged and head-butted to death by a musk ox. I’ll say it again: keep at least 200 metres away.

This is how big a musk ox will appear at 200 metres’ distance

As we wander along the path, fog adds a rather thrilling dimension. If a musk ox appears, we might not see it in time.

We decide we’ll count on them not feeling too social in this weather, and keep walking. And as we move up the path, we’re soon above the fog.

Viewpoint Snøhetta: a portal to the mountain kingdom

About 1.5 km further along, we arrive at Viewpoint Snøhetta. This wildlife watching pavilion was designed by Snøhetta Architects, famous for Oslo’s Opera House, the new Library of Alexandria, the September 11 memorial pavilion at Ground Zero in NYC, and heaps more stunning, leading-edge creations. I’m a big fan.

A safe spot to watch wildlife – and a cool building to boot

In the distance, you can see the Snøhetta massif. Snøhetta is the tallest mountain in Dovrefjell National Park.

As the observant reader you are, you will have noticed the company of architects have taken their name from the mountain. Used to be, the staff would take yearly team-building excursions up the mountain. Not sure if they still do.

Climbing Snøhetta takes 6 – 8 hours. With a 12-km return trip and 800 metres ascent, the climb is technically uncomplicated, but you’re far from people, and the weather can abruptly turn. I’d prefer to have a guide along, so we’ll come back for that. And hopefully see musk oxen, too – also with a guide.

For now, we walk the last 250 metres up to the top of Mt. Tverrfjellet, for more views.

Dovrefjell practicals

  • Hjerkinn is ca. 170 km south of Trondheim (a 2.5-hour drive), along the E6, the main north-south route in Norway. You can also take a bus or a train to Hjerkinn Station – or even bike, if you’re up for it.
  • Viewpoint Snøhetta is 2 km off the E6 – followed by a 1.5-km walk (about 20 minutes) from the car park, on an easy gravel path.
  • In 2021, Viewpoint Snøhetta is open from 10 June to 17 October. On the plus side, it is open 24/7 during that period.
  • It is possible to get up close to musk oxen safely. Obviously, the animal will not conform to our expectations, so count on 7 hours (but could be as little as 3). Average walk is 10 km. Price as at June 2021: 350 – 550 NKr. Up-to-date info here.
  • It is also possible to climb Snøhetta with a guide, usually on Saturdays from mid-July to mid-August (so only 4-5 times a year). Price as at June 2021: 950 NKr for adults; 750 NKr for children (minimum age: 10) Up-to-date info here.
  • The closest accoms are in the nearest town, Dombås, or, stay in a cosy cabin at Dovregubbens Hall (the name means Hall of the Mountain King), also just along the main route, the E6.
  • (Nope, nothing sponsored in this post. Just feeling generous with links today.)

Our home for the night