by Scott Rawstorne
Norway’s fjords are without question one of the earth’s most majestic geographical features. The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have named the West Norwegian Fjords of Geirangerfjord and Nærøyfjord in a combined World Heritage Site because they “are considered as archetypical fjord landscapes and among the most scenically outstanding anywhere.” UNESCO goes on to say that “Their exceptional natural beauty is derived from their narrow and steep-sided crystalline rock walls that rise up to 1,400 m from the Norwegian Sea and extend 500 m below sea level. The sheer walls of the fjords have numerous waterfalls while free-flowing rivers cross their deciduous and coniferous forests to glacial lakes, glaciers and rugged mountains” and “Remnants of old and now mostly abandoned transhumant farms add a cultural aspect to the dramatic natural landscape that complements and adds human interest to the area.”
The sandstone gorges on the Shoalhaven and Nepean Rivers in New South Wales and the limestone cliffs of the Glenelg River in Victoria are undeniably outstanding and ensure that those waterways remain deserved perennial favourites with Australian paddling enthusiasts, but the topography of those places is pint-sized in comparison with that of Norway’s spectacular fjords.
I needed no further encouragement to start working out how my partner Janelle and I could experience this enticing part of the world first hand, and it didn’t take me long to find an excellent Flåm based kayak tour/hire company called Njord who were able to rent us the gear we needed and supply us with a map and trip plan for a three day exploration of Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord. Kayak camping as well!? I must be in heaven.
Between November and April, the temperature in Flåm is usually below zero degrees Celsius, the number of daylight hours can be as low as 6, and nearby avalanches are a regular occurrence. In the middle of summer then can be more than 17 hours of daylight and the temperature averages 14 degrees Celsius but can climb up to 24. We chose the latter and booked our trip for July.
Day 1 – Getting there
We flew into Bergen on the very impressive and nicely roomy Norwegian Air Shuttle service from Gatwick and had the choice of taking a bus, train, or boat from there to Flåm. The Flåm Railway and the Fjord1 Sognefjord in a nutshell ferry cruise between Bergen and Flåm are both popular tourist attractions in their own right, so we decided to get the train there and the boat back.
A short bus ride through delightful Nordic scenery and a stroll up a cobblestone city street later, we were sitting in our lounge chair like berths on the Bergen to Oslo train speeding our way towards the mountain station of Myrdal. This is close to Voss, which is famous for being the venue for the world’s premier annual extreme sports festival – Ekstremsportveko. Maybe we’ll have to come back for the kayaking section of that?
The Flåm Railway runs from Myrdal to Aurlandsfjord at Flåm. It descends 865 metres in 20 kilometres with around four fifths of that distance on a 55% gradient, making it “one of the world’s steepest railway lines on normal gauge tracks”. Construction of the track began in 1923 but it wasn’t completed until 1940, mainly because 18 of the 20 tunnels were dug manually and every metre gained required one whole month of hard labour. The line was originally estimated to carry 22,000 passengers a year but that number has now increased to more than half a million. These are mainly tourists like us, who come to marvel at the unrivalled views of snow-capped peaks, mountain lakes, towering cascades, birch woods, lush farmland, and quaint historic buildings. It’s often hard to know which way to look with superb scenery on both sides.
We arrived at the Flåm Camping and Youth Hostel at around 5pm to check into the room we had booked for the night, but instead of receiving the warm welcome that we expected we were greeted with an accusatory “You’re late.” Wow! I had tried to give them a courtesy call earlier in the day but unfortunately Norway’s mountainous terrain and railway tunnels had rendered our mobile phones useless. Mild panic set in as I tried to explain our predicament and beg for mercy in something other than the native tongue. I had visions of us setting up the tent in a public park somewhere after the sun eventually went down at approximately 11pm. It turned out that if you don’t get there by 3pm then they reserve the right to give your room away. Pity I didn’t read the small print. Thankfully in the end they did have one last broom cupboard available for us to call home for the night. Maybe it was just crazy Norwegian humour and they were winding me up all along?
After settling in, we went for a short walk to look at the town, grab a predictably expensive bite to eat, sample Norway’s Ringnes pilsener beer, and check out the place where we were to start paddling the next day. There was no doubt that Aurlandsfjord looked incredible from here, and this was only the beginning.
Day 2 – Flåm to Stokko
After confirming and double-confirming with the Flåm Camping and Youth Hostel that we would be staying another night with them in three days’ time “no matter what”, we picked up some food supplies from the local Coop (as in Co-op not chicken) and made a beeline for our scheduled meeting with Irwin at Njord. He sorted us out with a Current Designs Crosswind double sea kayak, two paddles, two PFDs, some dry bags, some safety gear, and a map and sent us on our way. We had our own tent, sleeping gear, and cooking utensils, but Njord are happy to supply them as well if required.
Flåm has a monthly average rainfall of 139mm making it one of the driest places in Norway, but it is known to have its fair share of drizzle and that’s what greeted us at the start of the day. The skies were overcast but true to form there was no rain. The minuscule drops that did fall barely rippled the mirror image reflections of the monumental landscape on the silky smooth surface of the water.
Our aim for the day was to paddle past the village of Aurland on the right, and then the village of Undredal on the left to a grassy campsite at a place called Stokko, which is also on the left of Aurlandsfjord. These villages seem small and remote but both have surprisingly big claims to fame.
Aurland is the home of the prize winning Aurland shoe which was first produced in 1880 and is still made here today for local and export markets. In its heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, the Aurland Shoe Factory produced up to 40,000 pairs every year, but that has since been scaled back to less than 4,000.
Undredal is the proud owner of the smallest stave church in northern Europe. This is a medieval wooden building which is believed to have been constructed in 1147. The village is also renowned for its excellent goat’s cheese, which is produced at the famous Undredal Stølysteri and comes in both white and traditional sweet brown (geitost) varieties that are very popular with Norwegians and have also been recognised by the Slow Food movement in Italy for the organic way in which they are produced. It is said that Undredal has a population of around 100 people and 500 goats, and ten to twelve tons of cheese are produced here every year.
It is possible to sample the cheese at the Osteklokka Café in Undredal. Their 2013 menu includes mouth-watering suggestions like “local goat cheese course with pear” or “creamed soup with ecologic vegetables and white goat cheese” as appetisers, and “betasoup with marianne-bread and white goat cheese” or “mush with flatbread and white goat cheese” as mains. We didn’t realise this at the time and instead divvied up a much less impressive Coop inspired snack on the grassy shore. The food may not have been spectacular but the outlook from our makeshift table definitely was. It’s easy to be content with Salt & Sott’s mix of cashew, peanøtter, tranebær, rosiner, and sjokolade, when you are immersed in a wild mountainous landscape that is crested with snow and decorated with ribbons of cascading highland water.
Our campsite was a large grassy clearing beside a rustic wooden boatshed with a small outhouse a short distance up the slope behind. We arrived early and watched the surprisingly busy world go by. A family walked from Undredal to see us, several other kayakers paddled by, and we watched a massive cruise ship sail past out of Flåm before we finally zipped up the tent for the day.
Day 3 – Stokko to Odnes
This morning I woke to the sight of another cruise ship making its way through the fjord. These vessels are huge, but they are dwarfed by comparison with the fjords. The combination of waving hands and camera flashes indicated that we looked as unusual to the people on board as they did to us. I decided to race down to the water’s edge to take a photo myself, but I did not count on the lack of traction on the smooth rocks exposed by the falling tide and wound up performing like a cartoon character slipping on the ice. I tried to cover it up with a bit of “Overture, cut the lights, this is it, the night of nights…” from the Bugs Bunny Show, but I am not sure if the photographers on the boat understood the reference, because they certainly didn’t seem impressed.
There was excitement in the air as we set off to see Nærøyfjord for the first time. The scenery in Aurlandsfjord was undeniably breathtaking, but we figured that as Nærøyfjord was the place that had been given World Heritage status by UNESCO it must somehow be even more wonderful.
Early in the day we had the opportunity to leave the boat and walk up to the precariously placed Stigen Farm that we would see high on a hill on our left, and then onward and upward to a hilltop called Bietelen 700 metres above sea level. The farm takes its name from the Norwegian word stige meaning rise because a clamber up sheer terrain is required to reach it and the climb from there to Bietelen is even steeper. The view is said to be way more than worth the effort, but unfortunately we had a dicky knee in our midst and had to give it a miss.
“High on a hill was a lonely goatherd, lay odl lay odl lay hee hoo…” No, I am not usually taken to singing numbers from The Sound of Music and I hadn’t completely lost my mind. We rounded a small headland and there right in front of us was a small group of goats clinging to a rock face alongside the water. They were very curious and at one stage it actually looked like one or two of them were considering jumping on board. I am not sure where they were thinking of sitting, but whatever floats your goat I suppose. I am glad they didn’t in the end because I have no doubt Janelle would have made a good case for taking one of the cuties home with us.
The magnificence of Nærøyfjord slowly revealed itself as we made our way north. There wasn’t much talk in the kayak as we were both in an awe inspired daze, but thankfully the GoPro captured some video footage so you can see it for yourself.
Irwin from Njord had warned us to watch out for the williwaws in this area. I had heard there were trolls living in caves in the hills but I was pretty sure they kept to themselves, and I knew of the gorgeous women with animals tails called huldras that live in the forest and occasionally appear to lure a lone man into the forest for a bit of hanky panky sometimes for him never to return, but as there were two of us, one was a female, and we were on the water, I was comfortable we were safe in that department. However, I had never heard of williwaws. Could they be something like the yowies or bunyips that we have in Australia?
As it turned out, williwaw is a Native American term for a strong erratic gust of wind. At the junction of Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord, these can be gales whistling through the valleys from any one of three directions, or they can be cold katabatic winds blasting down the slopes. None of these bothered us on this occasion so we were happily able to pick and choose which of Nærøyfjord’s 25 waterfalls to visit, and where to pull over for some more cashew, peanøtter, tranebær, rosiner, and sjokolade.
Looking up at the colossal cliffs, it is amazing to think that this valley was carved by a huge glacier scouring down into the bedrock, and shaped further by an ongoing succession of powerful avalanches. The magnitude of a place like this, and its clear demonstration of the power of Mother Nature, is humbling and inspirational at the same time. It’s almost impossible not to get philosophical and reflect on your place in the grand scheme of things.
Norway has a law called the “allemannsrett” which provides that every person has the right to access; pass through; and forage for wild berries in uncultivated land in the countryside, even if it is privately owned. This is on the proviso that respect is shown for the owners, the land, and the environment. Further, all waterways are public, buildings and fences are usually not allowed within 100 metres of the sea, and landowners cannot prevent people from walking along their shoreline. This meant that we had a choice of three excellent places to stay the night. The first two were near the village of Dyrdal on the northern side of Nærøyfjord, and the third was on the southern side at a place called Odnes a little further on. Odnes had been described to us as the prettiest of the three and it was on the far side of the Styvi Farmhouse which is famous for serving delicious homemade waffles so the decision to camp there was a no brainer.
By the time we landed on the slipway at Styvi, our mouths were watering at the idea of devouring platefuls of freshly cooked sweet treats. However, the place looked decidedly quiet. Styvi has a farm museum and Norway’s smallest post office which are tourist attractions in their own right, but there didn’t seem to be anyone else around when we arrived. I decided to go in for a closer look and had started to climb onto the ferry pier when I heard a short sharp yelp. I turned quickly to see that Janelle had a pained expression on her face and much frizzier hair than usual. Instead of climbing the pier with me, she had straddled the adjoining fence and discovered the hard way that it was electrified.
I am not sure if they saw what had happened, but the elderly couple that live at Styvi suddenly popped their heads out of the front door and the man buzzed over to us on a dinky four wheeled farm vehicle. After a five minute discussion, it was clear his English didn’t stretch to either “electrocution” or “homemade waffle”, and our Norwegian didn’t go much further than “Hallo”, so we went our separate ways amid a general air of bemusement. I discovered later that the museum and café are only open on request anyway.
We arrived at Odnes to find a beautiful grassy campsite replete with its own fireplace, an entire set of lovely wooden furniture, and a running stream from which to fetch fresh water. Our only company was a flock of sheep that didn’t seem to notice we were even there. A lack of dry kindling and my determination to light the fire using my flint (just like Bear Grylls) meant that it took a while to get the fire going, but there were still plenty of daylight hours left to sit back and enjoy the priceless view.
Day 4 – Odnes to Gudvangen
The rugged nature of Norway’s mountainous terrain means that it is often easier to travel by sea than by land. For that reason, when the country’s postal service was established in the middle of the 17th Century the mail route came straight through the Nærøyfjord. Ships coming from Oslo would bring the cargo as far as Styvi (of waffles fame), from where it would be transported via the Royal Postal Road (Den Kongelige Postveg/Kongevegen) to Bleiklindi and, then on to Gudvangen at the inland end of the fjord before following an overland route to Bergen, and vice versa.
The Royal Postal Road still exists, but it is now a 6 kilometre hiking trail instead of a mail route. We could see it at the top of the sloping pasture behind our tent, disappearing mysteriously into the woods in a way that was hard to resist. Completely ignoring the fact that I could possibly be under the hypnotic spell of a huldra, I rose from my bed and surrendered to the will of the path. It led me to striking sunlit views of Styvi and the rest of the stunning scenery we had seen the previous day. Luckily Janelle hadn’t heard about the huldras, or she may have woken to discover me missing and thought I had been whisked away in the night.
At the opposite end of the Royal Postal Road, Bleiklindi is an unusual tree and a place that has since been named after it. Bleiklindi is a pale linden tree that has leaves which are yellow in spring and green in autumn, which is completely the opposite of what you would naturally expect. It is thought by some to be the only tree of this type in the world and was protected by royal decree in 1933. We headed there next, but not on the road. It was back into the boats for the final day of our trip.
On the way to our final destination in Gudvangen, we passed another charming village called Bakka, several more waterfalls, and seemingly endless jaw dropping scenery. We had all but run out of superlatives, so there was nothing for it but to paddle quietly and soak it all in. The icing on the cake was the Kjelfossen waterfall which towers over Gudvangen. It is 755 metres high and the 18th tallest waterfall in the world.
Gudvangen has a long history as a market town that predates the age of the Vikings, but it is the Viking traditions that hold on the strongest. A Viking market is held here every July and there are even plans to set up a permanent Viking village. It was thought that Njord the god of the sea was the protector of markets and the name Gudvangen actually means “the field of gods by the water”. Tourism is the mainstay of the town but it also has an industry that surrounds the use of the light grey coloured anorthosite that can be seen in the cliffs throughout the fjords. Anorthosite is a type of granite which is used to make rock wool, aluminium, asphalt, and even toothpaste.
Irwin from Njord picked us up and drove us back to Flåm Camping and Youth Hostel. We managed to check in without any problem this time and before you could say Ringnes, we were relaxing on the veranda with a couple of nice cold Norwegian pilseners, looking forward to seeing Aurlandsfjord again the next day from the deck of a Fjord1 ferry.