The silence is deafening. Now and then, I hear the motors whirring in Earey's camera, and I'm maybe 50 yards from him. Yet nothing else is audible. A sound makes itself known from a couple of miles away, gradually increasing from a gentle whisper to a full-on roar. A ball of sound-almost a white noise-barrels toward us and I can almost feel the air being sucked away, like the beginning of a tsunami, towards the oncoming behemoth. As the huge truck thunders past, its driver lets rip with his horn and my ears are now probably bleeding. The sound becomes a wall of noise before fading away as gradually as it began and soon silence-total, absolute silence-resumes.
We're inside the middle of a mountain. Inside the longest road tunnel in the world. We're in Norway, with an Aston Martin V8 Vantage Roadster. It's snowing outside and it's late at night. We must be mad.
With the new V8 Vantage, Aston Martin suddenly attracted a new type of customer. Younger than ever, with financial-institution bonuses burning large holes in Armani suit pockets, the Vantage buyer wanted something sexy, exciting and loud. If ever a car ticked the right boxes, this was it. Fuelled by internet forum chit-chat, many owners in and around London started organizing impromptu 'tunnel runs'. Late at night, while the streets lay dormant, V8 Vantages would tear through the many underground tunnels that ease traffic from one end of the city to the other. With windows down and engines revving their nuts off, these were orgies of pure sonic pleasure. You can't blame them, really.
When I started to wonder what the ultimate tunnel run would constitute, the V8 Vantage Roadster was an obvious choice. Imagine the noise with no roof at all to spoil the heavenly racket once the revs climbed past 4000 rpm and the killjoy exhaust valves opened up, liberating the true soundtrack of one of the world's greatest cacophonies. With the car decided on, we needed a tunnel to do it justice.
The longest road tunnel in the world is in Norway: land of the Vikings, herring, the mighty fjords, weird pop music and world-class tunnellers. At 15.2 miles long, Laerdal is the longest road tunnel in the world. And when you learn a bit about Norway, you begin to understand why so much effort, money and ingenuity goes into tunnelling.
Look at a map of the country and you'll notice the west coast is peppered with hundreds of what look like small islands. This isn't strictly the case, as the bodies of water that separate the various land masses are known as fjords. I've never seen them for myself before now, but trust me, they're worth the effort. If you live there, however, fjords make getting to anywhere from anywhere else absolute hell. Until recent times, it was usually a case of take a boat to the mainland or swim for it. Hardly ideal for a nation's economy when you consider that Norway's biggest earners are fish and oil-both of which need to be shipped from the fjord-ridden coast. Tunnels, then, are the way to go, and we drove through dozens of them to reach our destination.
Tunnels have, over the years, received a bit of a bad rap. With recent, catastrophic fires in not only the Mont Blanc road tunnel, but also an Austrian rail tunnel in which 155 skiers died, safety was a primary concern with Laerdal, which is why we're in a psychedelic, blue and orange-lit cavern. There are three of these, each large enough to turn a semi around in, should there be a need to evacuate. But that's not the only reason for these huge cathedral-like spaces. They're also there to stop you falling asleep at the wheel.
According to those in the know, passing the lights of a tunnel at a rhythm that matches a driver's heart rate can result in unconsciousness. In a 15-mile long tunnel, the consequences could be horrific, so the engineers cleverly designed a way around the problem. For a start, it's not a straight road. There are bends and gradients. And then there are the caverns (or grottos). Approaching them is like seeing a nightclub in the distance. As you get closer, the sight is extraordinary. To tear through them at high speed is an experience that will live with you for years.
The thinking behind the lighting was to try to imitate the onset of daylight after the inky blackness endured in the rest of the tunnel. So we have orangey lamps at the base that fade into a gentle white light. The lighting rigs suspended from the cavern ceiling are neon blue, supposedly to give the impression of a clear, sunny morning. As a theory, it sucks. But the effect is still mesmerizing.
However, we're hear to experience the full-on noise assault of this incredibly beautiful Aston Martin, not to admire the engineering skills of Norwegians. With the roof down, the lines of the car are staggeringly good-looking. Try and count the number of cars that look better as a convertible than a coupe. Maybe two or three, but the V8 Vantage Roadster is definitely one of them. So beautiful is this car that I want to be in two places at once: sat in the leather-lined cockpit enjoying its superb driving dynamics, while at the same time standing outside, looking at its utter gorgeousness. There are no store windows here to check one's cool reflection, so posing is out. Let's just enjoy the ride.
Fifteen miles is a long way to travel just to check the whereabouts of speed cameras, but it's essential here. There are three of them, pretty equally spaced and I make a mental note of the mile reading on the odometer as I pass them at legal speed. Now I feel more confident that this evening will be one of pleasant memories rather than financial ruin. Starting from the east entrance, I take the Aston back in, gradually letting my speed increase. After three miles or so, I pass the first camera and I know it's at least six miles until the next one. I do the decent thing and drop to second gear before flooring it.
I'm pinned into my seat as the engine's note turns from a deep-bass warble to a high-pitched roar, the car thrusting me towards a horizon that doesn't exist. A quick snatch into third, keeping the revs high enough for the exhausts to stay open, then fourth. The overhead lamps become a white blur and I become aware of the cold air rushing through the open cockpit. There's a lot of wind noise, especially while passing the huge air extraction plants that help ventilate the tunnel. But with the revs on the boil, there's nothing to drown out the heavenly hard-edged sound of the Aston at full throttle.
There's nowhere for the sound to go, except to bounce off the cold, hard, enveloping rock surfaces and back into my eardrums. But at about 120 mph, it seems as though I've left the sound behind. A weird calmness pervades, along with plenty of wind roar. Slow down a bit and the exhaust note catches up-odd and slightly annoying, although it does serve to keep my speed down. Well, a little.
Approaching the first of the blue caverns, I'm still doing over 100 mph. The violence of the noise is stunning and the blue room is quickly getting closer. Closer, closer, closer and bam. I'm roaring through without lifting off the gas, enjoying a sound that, if I could bottle it, would mean I could afford my own Aston Martin. I want to do it again. And again. And again.
Unlike the roads either side of Laerdal tunnel, which are iced up, it's as dry as the Sahara in here. The Aston shimmies over the rumble strips that help keep drivers awake and on course, but otherwise remains utterly composed. The instruments glimmer like jewels, reminding me that this is an incredibly special car, as if the noises it makes aren't enough. Pulling into the central cavern where photographer Earey is waiting, he says he could hear me from maybe a couple of miles away, given how long the noise was building up. Astonishing.
Climbing out of the Aston, the feel is that of entering a movie set, such is the unreal atmosphere created by the bare rock face, bizarre lighting and weird acoustics. A few days before the tunnel was officially opened on November 20, 2000, a wedding took place in this very cavern. "Everyone felt positive about the tunnel. It was a special atmosphere. Romantic and not scary at all," said local Ronny Rinde, 27, who married 24-year-old Vibeke Skjerping.
It's a good job this car wasn't there, it would have upstaged the bride. Even Earey, who claims soft-tops are for girls, is seduced by its lines. Lines that are, to my mind, best appreciated when looking at its profile: pure, lean and athletic. I'm in love.
It's also exquisitely made. The paintwork is delectable and the panel gaps perfect. Those decorative humps behind the two seats are covered in the finest hand-stitched leather. Apart from looking fabulous, they house the roll-over hoops that activate if the car senses it's about to turn over, protecting the occupants' heads. To be honest, if I rolled a car like this, I'd want to commit suicide, but regulations are regulations.
There really is only one niggle with the design: its frankly pathetic trunk space. The coupe makes a strong case for itself as a practical sports car, given the amount of baggage you can squeeze into its rear. The Roadster, on the other hand, has about as much luggage space as my wife's purse. Which is not the best state of affairs when accompanied by a photographer carrying the tools of his trade. Travel light: that's the Roadster's mantra.
I'll forgive this car anything, though, because it looks and sounds so divine. Which, of course, is why we're inside the world's longest tunnel, late at night, with no other traffic. We came to make music and that's what we set about doing once again, while there's still time and fuel left in the tank. It would be rude not to.
I edge back out onto the road, pointing the Aston towards the black hole and floor it, grinning like a buffoon. If I end up deaf after this road trip, it'll be worth it. From one end of this glorious echo chamber to the other, one word keeps seeping into my brain, nagging me to pay attention: encore.
There's nowhere quite like this on our planet and there's no other car quite like this either; the two belong together. Without question, we are the first people to bring a V8 Vantage Roadster to Laerdal tunnel. There's no way we'll be the last. For multiple eargasm addicts, there's no finer car and no finer place to enjoy it.
Tunnels are a vital part of everyday life in Norway. Laerdal tunnel has enabled a direct road link between the country's two largest cities: Bergen, on the west coast, and the capital, Oslo. Before the tunnel was opened, it was necessary to drive over mountain passes (extremely dangerous in winter) and to take ferries. All of which took an age. Now, without even paying a road toll, the journey between the two cities is barely a day's drive.
It's not as though Norway can't afford to create tunnels like Laerdal, which cost $114 million. The country is the world's top non-OPEC oil exporter, producing more than three million barrels a day-so money isn't exactly scarce. Norwegians enjoy a higher standard of living than most and being able to get from place to place in relative ease is the icing on the cake.
Norway is also home to the deepest road tunnel in the world, Eiksund. This links an island on the mid-west coast to the mainland and is 942 feet below sea level. These sub-sea tunnels are commonplace here and are usually formed by digging beneath the sea bed, as opposed to floating out sections of concrete tube, sinking them and joining them up. It's only a matter of time before Norway goes even deeper underground and Eiksund's record is broken.
In God's Country
It's the understatement of the century to describe Norway as majestic. The road we travelled from Bergen to Oslo is recognized as one of the world's greatest drives. The fjords bring tourists from all over the world and they really do need to be seen to be appreciated. Sheer mountain sides plummeting into bodies of cold, black water; they take the breath away.
We travelled to Norway from Newcastle in the UK with DFDS Seaways. Their cruise ship, Princess of Norway, is a fine way to travel, although it does take almost a day and a half each way. On the upside, the journey takes in hundreds of miles of Norwegian coastline, which is as dramatic as any in the world.
Our accommodation was in the beautiful ski resort of Hemsedal, which is about halfway between Bergen and Oslo and an hour's drive from Laerdal tunnel. Here, as in any part of Norway, the people are friendly and the cuisine weird and wonderful. We were treated to elk (moose) and reindeer meat as well as speciality cheeses and plenty of local booze. The women are stunningly beautiful too.
Getting from Laerdal back to Hemsedal was not easy, however, as we needed to cross a mountain pass. It was late April, yet the temperatures were definitely arctic and gritting of the icy roads a hit-and-miss affair. The night of our tunnel photo shoot, we needed to be escorted over the mountain by snowplows and it was terrifying. So a word of advice: if you decide to visit this staggeringly beautiful country, by all means do it in an Aston Martin. Just remember to fit those winter tires.