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Gaustabanen

  
  - darkometer rating:  1 -

An incredible underground tunnel system inside which funicular trains go all the way to the top of Mt Gausta, the "jewel of the Telemark", in southern  Norway. It was built by NATO to provide access to a Cold War era radio tower near the mountain's summit. A very unusual relic – and a truly unique thrill to do the ride.

>More background info

>What there is to see

>Location

>Access and costs

>Time required

>Combinations with other dark destinations

>Combinations with non-dark destinations

>Photos

     

More background info: Mt Gausta is not only considered one of Norway's most beautiful mountains (the "jewel of Telemark"), at 1883 m (6178 feet) above sea level its summit was also of strategic importance for the military during the Cold War. A radio tower and listening station was built by NATO near the summit of Mt Gausta – and to permit access to it at all times and in any weather a tunnel system was blasted into the core of the mountain for a service funicular in the late 1950s at immense cost. It had been planned to recoup some of the investment through opening the funicular to tourists, but as the Cold War intensified it remained a military secret instead until the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc in the 1990s. After a short period of subsequent commercial use the line was closed again for renovation for a while and reopened for business only a couple of years ago. Safety is now improved, but the ride still has a very adventurous feel to it.
 
The basic layout of the tunnel system was apparently borrowed from that of the hydroelectric power generation water-duct tunnels. From the bottom station at the base of the mountain a first tunnel goes deep into the mountain horizontally for about 850 m (nearly 3000 feet). From the central station in the mountain a funicular then goes up at a steep angle of nearly 40 degrees for another 1030 m (3500 feet) or so. The top station is at 1800 m (5900 feet) right under the Gaustahytte mountain cabin that had already been built in the late 19th century.
 
Today it is one of the most spectacular rides offered in Norway – and with the extra bonus for the dark tourist that it is such a unique Cold War era relic on top. Well worth it when in the region.
 
 
What there is to see: You can spot the radio tower and mountain hut near Mt Gausta's summit from far away, looking like a little needle poking out on the southern end of the top plateau (or ridge rather – it's just that from Gaustablikk the shape of the eastern flank of Gausta gives the impression of a table mountain). The stations of the Gaustabanen are more or less invisible from afar.
 
When you get to the now signposted base station a rather inconspicuous concrete edifice doesn't look too inviting at first, but here you'll find the ticket booth from where to obtain your ticket for the ride. Once you've overcome the shock of the price and purchased your ticket, you have to wait until a warden lets you inside. People can only be taken in batches of 10 maximum, so you may have to be patient.
 
Once inside the mountain you board a little blue vehicle – the first train that goes horizontally deep into the base of the mountain. Then you have to change trains and the even more spectacular part of the ride begins: the funicular that goes diagonally  up to the top of the mountain at a vertigo-inducingly steep angle of 39 degrees. Note the wooden steps running parallel to the track – allegedly its 2500 steps … so be glad you're riding in comfort rather than having to tackle those steps!
 
Halfway up you'll meet the other train – funiculars usually work in tandem, with the carriage going down helping to pull up the one ascending, so that less energy is required for this.
 
Eventually you arrive at the top station and disembark. From here another tunnel system inside the mountain used to allow direct underground access to the radio tower further up to the north. But these parts of the tunnels are still out of bounds to tourists. Instead you have to the take the 100 m tunnel that goes in the other direction and exits into the side of the mountain a short distance away from the radio tower and mountain hut.
 
Inside the tunnel, a row of information panels with black-and-white photos provide some impressions of the installation during its construction and when it was in operation. The winter images are particularly impressive. Also noteworthy are the photos of visiting dignitaries: a rather unexpected collection of visitors comprising not only NATO generals or Norway's king (no surprise so far) but also e.g. the then prime minister of Israel David Ben Gurion on a visit in 1962 to the "most exotic guest" ever at this site (in 1960): the defence minister of Nigeria (who even turned up in typical West African attire). Why they were there is not explained.
 
From the door at the end of the tunnel, you look out south, but to get to the top of Gausta you have to turn around and clamber up the last few dozen yards to get to the mountain hut and onwards to the radio tower. The terrain (in summer when there's little or no snow) is of loose rocks so you have to be careful not to slip.
 
At the old mountain cabin you can have a rest, even a snack and drink, sign the guest book and purchase souvenirs. Or you carry on further up to the base of the radio tower. The tower as such isn't all that spectacular and you are not allowed to see the inside. But the views from here are absolutely great.
 
The really committed climbers head out to the actual summit of Mt Gausta located at the end of a rocky ridge that leads another couple of hundred yards to the north.
 
Across the valley in which the little industrial town of Rjukan sits (see Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum) the massive expanse of the Hardangervidda plateau stretches out to the north-west. Looking south you may be able to see the sea on a clear day. Once you've savoured the glorious views, you have to clamber back to the access tunnel for the return journey with the Gaustabanen if you bought a return ticket – otherwise you pay over the odds for two single rides; so decide before you go up! Alternatively clamber all the way back down on foot. The ride inside the mountain is so cool, though, that my recommendation is to do it both ways, up and back down.
 
It's expensive, yes, very expensive even – but it's a unique experience. So it is still worth it.  
 
 
Location: some 5-6 miles (10 km) south of Rjukan in the Telemark region of southern Norway.
 
Google maps locators: 

Bottom station in the valley: [59.854,8.684]
 
Top station and NATO radio tower at Gaustatoppen: [59.851,8.655]
 
 
Access and costs: somewhat remote in the mountains, and you need a car to get there; but not too tricky to find; very expensive (even by Norwegian standards!).
 
Details: To get to the bottom station of Gaustabanen from Rjukan you really have to have a car. There's no public transport. In theory it is possible to hike all the way from Rjukan (there are even guided hikes, I've been led to believe), but for that you not only need fitness and stamina but also a lot of time.
 
When driving, first take the winding hairpin pass up the southern side of the steep valley that leads to the skiing centre around Gaustablikk. This road branches off the main Rv 37 road at the eastern edge of Rjukan and Sam Eydes gate, where there are a couple of transformer stations (associated with the many local hydroelectric power stations of the region, no doubt). When you get to the intersection with the access roads to the skiing centre and hotels of Gaustablikk go right past it and stay on the main road and carry on south. You'll pass through a barrier (which in summer is, however, opened during the day) and after a couple of minutes the access road to Gaustabanen branches off to the right. There's plenty of parking, but at peak times it can get so crowded that finding a space can get tricky. Better get there early before the throngs arrive or later in the day when most have already left again.
 
Opening times: daily between 10 a.m. and at least 4 p.m. (some sources say 5 p.m.), with trains departing ca. every 10 minutes. The small trains can only take a maximum of 10 people at any one time, so if it gets busy be prepared to have to wait in line.
 
Normally this service runs only seasonally on a regular basis, namely from ca. mid June to mid October. In winter, the service may also be offered sporadically, if weather and snow conditions allow (check on gaustabanen.no – in Norwegian only, or on visitrjukan.com). But if you want to be sure that you can do it, better go in summer.
 
Price: a hefty 350 NOK for a return ticket (half price for children up to 12); you can save a bit by only taking the one-way option for (a still painful) 250 NOK, but then you have to commit to the long hike on foot back down (or, theoretically but unrealistically, up).
 
Naturally, it is cold inside the mountain all year round, and also at the summit, so make sure you bring suitable layers of clothing, sturdy shoes and a woolly hat!
 
 
Time required: depends on how long you want to spend at the top, exploring the radio tower, maybe hiking to the summit point and/or having a drink or snack in the mountain hut. The train ride as such lasts ca. 15 minutes each way, so in total a minimum of 45 minutes would have to be allocated for a quick flying visit, but a couple of hours or so seems much more realistic. Note also that you may have to be prepared for waiting in line for the train if it's a busy day.
 
 
Combinations with other dark destinations: Just a few miles north of Rjukan is one of Norway's prime industrial heritage sites, the Norwegian Industrial Workers Museum in the old hydroelectric power station of Vemork. From a dark perspective it's a singularly important site too, namely as the place where during WWII Nazi Germany tried to acquire the necessary heavy water from the adjacent hydrogen plant for a potential nuclear weapons development programme. Famously, this was thwarted by a series of daring sabotage operations by the Norwegian Resistance (with some help from the Allies) in 1942-1944. Special sections in the museum cover these unique aspects well. It's one of the most significant dark sites in the country – Gaustabanen is the optional add-on here. Vemork is a must-see.
 
 
Combinations with non-dark destinations: Mt Gausta as such is a prime tourist attraction – and most visitors take the easy but strenuous hiking route to climb to the top – which is aptly known as Gaustatoppen. Most climbers will take their time and make it to the top in a couple of hours, but when I was there in July 2012 I also saw a spectacularly sporty group of adolescents who came literally running up to the top. Given the popularity of Gaustatoppen it can get quite crowded up here. And a mountain hut with a basic restaurant caters for the crowds (coffee, waffles, the usual lot). The views to be had from the top are truly phenomenal: it's said that on a clear day you can see up to a sixth of the whole of Norway's territory from here. I'm not sure if that's an exaggeration, but there's no doubt that the views down the valley and Rjukan, over the mountain plateau to the north and to various other peaks are absolutely amazing (weather permitting, that is, of course).
 
In winter, the area around Gausta is one of Norway's prime skiing centres. The vast Gaustablikk complex of hotels, hostels and self-catering cottages is clearly capable of accommodating masses of winter visitors. It's also then that prices are much higher. But it's also a good place to find accommodation in the summer.
 
   
 
  • Gaustabanen 01 - Mt Gausta, the jewel of the TelemarkGaustabanen 01 - Mt Gausta, the jewel of the Telemark
  • Gaustabanen 02 - NATO radio tower near the summitGaustabanen 02 - NATO radio tower near the summit
  • Gaustabanen 03 - first tunnel straight into the mountainGaustabanen 03 - first tunnel straight into the mountain
  • Gaustabanen 04 changing into the second trainGaustabanen 04 changing into the second train
  • Gaustabanen 05 - going up steeply at 39 degreesGaustabanen 05 - going up steeply at 39 degrees
  • Gaustabanen 06 - a long, dark ride through the mountainGaustabanen 06 - a long, dark ride through the mountain
  • Gaustabanen 07 - one last tunnel to pass through on footGaustabanen 07 - one last tunnel to pass through on foot
  • Gaustabanen 08 - exit into the openGaustabanen 08 - exit into the open
  • Gaustabanen 09 - the NATO radio towerGaustabanen 09 - the NATO radio tower
  • Gaustabanen 10 - Cold-War-era listening devicesGaustabanen 10 - Cold-War-era listening devices
  • Gaustabanen 11 - cablesGaustabanen 11 - cables
  • Gaustabanen 12 - view down to GaustablikkGaustabanen 12 - view down to Gaustablikk
  • Gaustabanen 13 - Gaustatoppen viewGaustabanen 13 - Gaustatoppen view
  • Gaustabanen 14 - Rjukan valley seen from GaustatoppenGaustabanen 14 - Rjukan valley seen from Gaustatoppen
  • Gaustabanen 15 - modern commodificationGaustabanen 15 - modern commodification
  • Gaustabanen 16 - old-fashioned diagram of the whole installationGaustabanen 16 - old-fashioned diagram of the whole installation
  • Gaustabanen 17 - prominent guests visited the place in the pastGaustabanen 17 - prominent guests visited the place in the past
  • Gaustabanen 18 - changing trains again on the way downGaustabanen 18 - changing trains again on the way down
  • Gaustabanen 19 - back at the horizontal mini trainGaustabanen 19 - back at the horizontal mini train
 
  

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