We weren’t following the flock to Uttakleiv Beach and Haukland Beach in Norway—we hiked the eleven-mile loop before Lonely Planet named Haukland the best beach in Europe. We didn’t know The Times had proclaimed the same years before. Or that the Norwegians voted Haukland Beach the most beautiful place in their country, more than once. We had no idea that National Geographic had declared Uttakleiv the world’s most romantic beach in 2005. Since I can never remember the names Uttakleiv and Haukland and there was a flock of sheep on the trail, when reminiscing with Magellan about our best times in Norway, I call this “The Sheep Hike.”
We started at the car park at Uttakleiv near a flat, grassy area where farmers still keep sheep behind the famous sandy beach. The sheep are outnumbered by photographers clamouring for a good shot of “Dragon’s Eye,” a stone pool of water reflecting the Mannen and Veggen Mountains.
Walking the loop counterclockwise, we began on what I’ll call the “new road” on the seaside around Veggen Mountain. Completed in 1947, it was built by communal effort, mostly sheep farmers, their required contribution calculated by the amount of land they owned. On the steepest sections around “the Wall,” the men who were drilling and blasting had to be suspended by ropes! No wonder this five-kilometre road took thirteen years to build. (The “old road,” the trail we returned on, was also a communal build. It dates back to 1900 when locals upgraded the one-horse road to a carriageway. Six kilometres with seventeen hairpin turns, like a tangled skein of wool following the line of least resistance to the village below.
Walking on the new road beside the Norwegian Sea is easy. And because there’s no vehicle traffic, it’s pleasant and safe. The only precarious spot is the initial access where the trail is steep and eroded. Once you’re over that, the trail continues its curving climb upward. The summit is panoramic. Dramatic views of the beaches. Lush pastures of green. And sheep, initially curious, then indifferent to our presence.
Our knowledge about sheep was no better than what we knew about these famous beaches. But a new book by Sally Coulthard, Follow the Flock: How Sheep Shaped Human Civilization, conveys some startling findings about the animal that for 11,000 years has fed us, clothed us and financed some of the greatest civilizations, including the Vikings.
Like the residents of Uttakleiv, sheep have a trademark cooperative behaviour that has favoured their evolutionary success. Scientists at Cambridge University discovered that sheep can learn certain tasks at levels similar to monkeys and humans. For example, sheep can recognize and remember at least fifty different faces; they can even distinguish different facial expressions. Maybe that’s why they quickly ignored us—our happy faces indicated our pleasure seeing them on the trail.
While the Uttakleiv sheep are monitored by their owners, a national law known as the “right to roam” promulgated by the king in 1274, allows anyone, from anywhere, to go anywhere through any uninhabited area in Norway. Although we did notice a few tents pitched on the grassy area near Uttakleiv Beach, also called “Heart Beach”, we didn’t know the place has been overloved.
Uttakleiv is invaded by 250,000 tourists a year, mostly in the summer. Locals are stuck with picking up the litter: 8,000 litres of it some weekends. They have to pay for Porta Potties that people often ignore. The community gets no funding (except for parking fees) while in-country and foreign tour companies profit from charging their clients to camp on the beach. People who follow the rules are often dismissed as sheep, but clearly visitors to this area need to be more considerate, more “sheeple.”
We’re not sheepish about agreeing with the accolades bestowed upon these two beaches—the ”Sheep Hike” was three-and-a-half delightful hours, one of the top ten of our lifetime, so far.
Becker, Elizabeth. “Arctic Crush.” Travel Weekly.
Coulthard, Sally. “Power to the sheeple! Why being called a ‘sheep’ should really be seen as a baaaa-dge of honour.”The Globe and Mail. February 19, 2022.
“20 best beaches in Europe.” Lonely Planet. February 25, 2021.
“Haukland Beach Ranked #1 in Europe.” Sons of Norway. May 16, 2021.