Transporting precious loads in Norway's dramatic fjords

The roads in south-western Norway are amongst the most challenging in the world. When you’re driving a 50 tonne combination with a load of live fish in sloshing water tanks, the complexity becomes extreme.
The scenery in south-west Norway might be stunning, but for truck drivers it is potentially hazardous if they do not remain focused.

“Norwegian roads cannot be compared to anything else. It’s definitely not a place for daydreaming – you have to be completely focused”, special transporter Jarle Tveiten says, his eyes fixed on the road as he takes a narrow turn.

When I was about to start truck driving, transporting fish was simply what interested me. Working with living creatures definitely makes my work much more interesting.

The landscape he drives through is breathtakingly beautiful, and a popular tourist destination due to its many mountains, waterfalls and deep fjords. Yet for drivers, its beauty can be deceptive. The narrow and winding roads are in poor condition, and there is a major risk of rock slides. In the autumn and long, cold winter, the weather becomes harsh with a lot of rain, snow and ice, and in the summer, tourists taking photos can suddenly appear around a bend, carelessly standing in the middle of the road. In some places, the roads are too narrow for two vehicles to pass, and the only solution is for one of them to reverse all the way to the nearest lay-by.

“Some people are scared stiff when driving here. Occasionally I need to stop my truck to direct traffic and also help people reverse their cars in order to move on. Driving on these roads, you have to cooperate in traffic”, Jarle says.

But to stop his Volvo FH16 750 truck is not something he likes to do unnecessarily. His trailer contains custom-made water tanks filled with living fish that can die in just five minutes time if he’s not careful. There is big value in fish, and the load of juvenile halibut he’s currently carrying is worth around 400,000 euro. Due to tough insurance rules and animal protection regulations, a moment of carelessness could hit his business hard. So, aside from the road, he also needs to keep close track of the surveillance system next to the dashboard that indicates the conditions in the tanks, such as oxygen level, ph value and temperature. It’s a difficult task that takes time to master, but having spent 30 years as a fish transporter, Jarle is a real expert. During his first years in the industry he transported fish all over Europe to countries like Spain, Portugal, Greece, The Shetland Islands and Scotland. This gave him the experience he needed to expand his haulage company from a one-man-one-truck business into a major transporter of live fish. For many years now, his business has focused on Norway and Sweden, establishing itself as one of the best in its field. But even though he now owns a total of 10 Volvo trucks and employs several other drivers, he’s still out on the road doing deliveries. Today’s fish will be transported all the way to Rørvik in Trøndelag. To get there, he has to take the ferry between Jondal and his small home village of Tørvikbygd, located next to the Hardanger fjord where he has lived all his life. As he approaches the harbour, he points across the fjord towards the house where he grew up only five metres from the quay.

“I used to lay down on the pier there and fish for hours when I was a kid. My father also loves fishing, and we had fish for dinner almost every day. When I was about to start truck driving, transporting fish was simply what interested me. Working with living creatures definitely makes my work much more interesting”, Jarle says with a smile.

Even though Tørvikbygd is a small village, it has become an important gateway due to the ferry line to Jondal, from where there are connections to eastern and southern Norway. The traffic over the fjord has dramatically increased during the last couple of years, and nowadays, an impressive  25,000-30,000 vehicles cross every month. Jarle has taken this ferry thousands of times. 

”Being a driver here means you have to adjust to the road and to nature. We have to cross the fjord almost everywhere we go, and we learn to live with it. Sometimes I need to take up to seven ferries when I do a single delivery,” he says as he drives on board.

The ride takes about twenty minutes. As he disembarks, his concentration deepens as he continues on trunk road seven – an old road that connects the city of Bergen to Oslo. It hasn’t been repaired in years and is full of bad tarmac and potholes. Some twenty kilometres further it becomes increasingly hazardous, as the mountain steepens on one side and the fjord is suddenly hundreds of metres below on the other. The levee that separates the road from the drop is only half a metre high, making it easy for a car to roll over and free-fall into the water. 

“This is a mean stretch of road. When you’ve been driving as long as I have, you’ve witnessed how bad it can really get. I have passed by some lethal accidents and I have seen dead people. It makes you think: do I drive in a way to avoid this?”, Jarle says and adds:

“Luckily, my cargo makes me drive in a defensive manner. Also, after all these years, you get used to driving on poor roads. But still, when I sit down in my truck and start to use these roads as my work place, I wish that they were safer”.

Service and maintenance are very important on these roads. If the trucks break down I need help fast, otherwise I’m in deep trouble.

Even though the roads are challenging and dangerous, Jarle states that technological improvements in the trucks have made his job much easier now than back when he started his business with a used Volvo all those years ago. Today, he doesn’t worry anymore before a journey, as his Volvo FH16 makes driving a whole new experience in terms of safety and comfort. He also makes sure he has a Gold Contract with Volvo Action Service, as the difficult roads mean his trucks wear more quickly when compared to the rest of Europe. 

“Service and maintenance are very important on these roads. If the trucks break down I need help fast, otherwise I’m in deep trouble. I have always had a good relationship with the Volvo people, and that’s why I’ve been faithful to Volvo all the way”, he says, as he simultaneously stops his truck to wait for a passenger car to reverse for him.

He is soon to have passed the worst part of his route and will continue first on road 50 and then on road 52 until he reaches Otta, from where he will move on to his end destination, Rørvik in Trøndelag. He explains that today’s drive is a less common assignment, as most of his loads consist of juvenile brown trout and salmon that he drives to Norway’s large fish farms. He also transports a lot of wrasse, a type of fish that eats parasites and is used by the farms to prevent other fish from becoming sick.

Jarle's interest in the fish he transports has grown over time, and he is constantly improving his trucks and tanks in close dialogue with his customers. Apart from the transports and running a company, he also engages in different projects and has been involved in the process of developing the Norwegian regulation system for fish transports. A normal work day is seldom shorter than twelve hours and tends to be much longer. He confesses that his wife and three kids have suffered a bit because of this, but that they’ve gotten used to him constantly working long hours.

“I’m 60 years old now. I have to say, there have been many long days and many challenges. I would never have the energy to do it all over again. It’s not simply a job, it becomes a lifestyle. But I’ve enjoyed it all the way.”