Exploring the Western fjords of Norway

In a game of word association meant to conjure up descriptions of my personality, I would take a punt that ‘outdoors’ would be pretty far down the list. Such is my strong inclination to cosy up in bed with a warm drink and a movie. I’ve always been the sort of kid that would rather spend 10 hours doing a GCSE art project or a history timeline than taking a stroll through the rural fields of my Surrey home. Strangely, I do love a good outdoors movie – Deadly Pursuit, River Wild, Jurassic Park, Everest – but perhaps more so because I’m inside watching them, safely ensconced in layers of protective blanket and the soft crackle of a fire or candle never far away. I’ve being doing ‘hygge’ long before it became the buzzword of 2016.

So no-one was more surprised than I to discover how at home I felt in the Norwegian fjords when I visited there this week. After flying into Bergen, branded as ‘the gateway to the fjords’, we caught a train to Voss –  the more adventurous sibling to the small-town charm of Norway’s second largest harbour-bound city. From here we were collected and taken to the base camp, kitted out with full wetsuit gear and seduced with Norwegian chocolate buns before setting out on our guided excursion.

Our trip was booked through Much Better Adventures, who offer a range of wild-camping, lake-navigating trips for the intrepid vacationer. We opted to hike and kayak the fjords for 3 days and 2 nights, which turned out to be an ideal length of time to immerse yourself in the sublime landscapes whilst mitigating the risk of trench foot or other such hazardous conditions that your parents undoubtedly worry you’ll acquire if you spend more than 4 days outside.

And sublime it was. It’s hard to describe in any other means than the pictures below, but particularly on the kayak part of the trip, spectacular doesn’t begin to construe our surroundings. On our first day the mirror-like water was pleasingly placid, and if you could bear to look up from the concentrated paddling, you’d see only verdant or snow-capped mountains with waterfalls careening through them. Aside from the occasional boat-cruise, there was little to disturb the peace and it was easy to imagine yourself completely alone. And yet far from lonely. The alienation of the city, with its anonymity and aggression is quickly muted when confronted with the comfort of clouds and the reassurance of rain. You simply feel there and present and in it and not thinking about anything other than the what you’re doing (trying not to capsize) and what you’re seeing (NATURE, NATURE EVERYWHERE). It feels cliche to acknowledge, but it was as refreshing as an early evening swim in the fjords themselves to digitally detach yourself from the world and focus your energies on physical exertion. Every meal and sip of water feels earned. Calories become more about sustenance and fuel than guilt and mathematics. Your muscles feel worked. Your mind feels revitalised. You’re not distracted or numbed. You’re focused only on the smooth strokes of your oar sluicing through the cold water, and maneuvering yourself through the alpines or the burn in your thighs as you power yourself up craggy rocks and muddied tracks. And at the end of the day, you fall asleep, not foggy-headed and slumberous but tired. Good tired. With the sound of waves licking the sand and waterfalls trickling in the background.

We explored the Nærøyfjord, which is a UNESCO listed world heritage site, and for good reason. So here are just some of the photos, which will far better communicate the awe the Norwegian fjords inspire, than any frothy encapsulation of their staggering beauty.

Day 1: The journey there & kayak to camp

Roadside views on our way to base camp

On the water!

Our camp.

Day 2: The hike

Despite a persistent 5 hours of rain and some slipperiness underfoot, 10 hours of hiking was more gratifying (albeit punctured with bouts of frustration, discomfort and elation) than I would’ve suspected. There’s something simplistically thrilling about trusting your own feet and body to get yourself from A to B and back again (albeit relying on a guide who knows exactly where they’re going and can be used as a bridge to occasionally cross a chasmal stream). And my goodness were the views worth the cold feet and achy limbs.

Total distance walked: 25km. Total height climbed: 1300m.

The peak:

Day 3: Kayaking and the journey back

My Experience Of Solo Travel

In last week’s Lenny letter, Lisa Goldberg addressed her experience of solo travel, the circumstances that lead to it and the lessons she learned from it. It was a piece of writing that particularly struck a chord, especially since returning from my 17-day sojourn throughout Europe.

“I just couldn’t stomach the idea of censoring my own life’s experiences based on the absence of a companion. It felt so hopelessly Victorian.”

Preach. If I lived by the tenet that I needed companionship to complete all activities, life would be an organisational nightmare. No more popping or pootling anywhere. Invitations would be sent and declined and altered and accepted for even the most banal of enterprises. Do join me on a turn about the room. I can’t bear to appraise these four walls without a second opinion. Independence would be a distant memory. And if you couldn’t source a companion? Well then experience be damned.

No thank you.

When I started thinking about what I was going to do for a holiday this year, it became wonderfully freeing to sidestep consultation and deliberation and flirt with the utmost decisiveness. Look at me go booking trains, planes and, well no other transport actually, without so much as a second thought. If I wanted to experience parts of Europe, then I absolutely could and what’s more, I could do it uninhibited.

“The experience was abstractly luxurious and soul-nourishing.”

Goldberg hits the nail on the head. It’s the most luxurious trip I’ve ever had. I wallowed and delighted and rollicked in every whim and desire I had. I ate a whole loaf of Czech bread sitting by a stream post-hike because I wanted to, and didn’t have to get up to move until my digestive system signalled that that would be ok. I meandered around an exhibition in Berlin twice, because I’d paid for it, and if I wanted to gaze at pictures taken by Helmut Newton for longer than is the norm, then I absolutely could.

The operative word here being ‘want’. And it’s not lost on me that that is a complete luxury. It’s a product of a selfish culture increasingly fuelled by instant gratification, a culture where the self and individualism is more than ever placed on a pedestal (which, incidentally is not always a good thing. Oh hey there Brexit). Not many people get to do what they want – all of time, or any of it for that matter. Which is why this trip felt so damned extravagant. Not because I sipped on champagne at the opera (I did do that though), but because I allowed myself and was fortunate enough to indulge in a rarity; that of acting upon my inclinations 24/7.

As Goldberg also acknowledges, the idea was met by my mother – not with resistance exactly – but a keen desire to dissuade otherwise, or at least to join me on parts of the trip.

“Honestly this is what I want”, I emphatically replied.

Which is both true and not. It came about as a product of circumstance. I was single and my schedule didn’t align with that of friends. If there’d been a group trip to Morocco going, I would’ve been the first to sign up. But there wasn’t, and circling back to the aforementioned point, I didn’t agree that that meant I should miss out on the experience of travel altogether. So it became what I wanted.

So was it? Did the trip turn out to be that which I’d hoped it would?

Yes and no.

It was never going to be the stuff of a best-selling memoir, but that didn’t stop me from harbouring a tiny hope that as soon as I stepped onto foreign soil I’d be living on a diet of enlightenment and ground-shaking, perception-changing discoveries. But as soon as I came round to the idea that I wasn’t Christopher McCandless, or Ron Swanson for that matter, and going ‘off the grid’ wasn’t really realistic, I had the best time.

I’ll be the first to admit, that if by some stroke of absurdity this trip became the plot to a film, it would 100% be rated U. Maybe PG-13. I did go to Amsterdam after all. But ‘best time’ is not some wink-wink lingo for a pleasure-seeking, bar-hopping rampage. Y’all should know me better than that.

It was the stuff of early nights and evenings spent sat on balconies reading Kurt Vonnegut. I traipsed and trailed and traversed through street after cobblestone street, stopping only when the desire for coffee became too resounding to ignore. I brunched and cycled and filled my brain to the hilt with cultural ventures; the highlights of which were the C/O gallery in Berlin, FOAM in Amsterdam and a David Cronenberg exhibition in Prague. Wild it was not. Ridiculously middle-class perhaps. Antiquing and café-crawling were the two most prominent past-times of the trip. But it was bloody lovely nevertheless. I relaxed completely. And though on a couple of occasions I was plagued by the anxiety that I really wasn’t doing everything in my power to be adventurous and meet new people and acquire eye-popping stories that proved to my peers how fun I was, I realised that wasn’t the agenda at all. Maybe another time I’ll go back to Berlin, squad in tow, and show Berghain how to dance, but not today. Not this trip.

It didn’t have to be every colour under the sun and everything I dreamed it would be. It just had to be enough to make me happy, and it was.

The other thing I learnt on this trip, aside from the fact I’m really due a pension and concessionary travel, was to suck it up.

Companionship gives you an immediate outlet for complaint. Of course that’s cathartic and you can bond over mutual woes, but it felt very healthy to avoid that as my go-to reaction. My train’s delayed for an hour? Excellent! I can sit and read my book. I’ve been walking in completely the wrong direction from my hostel? No worries. I can walk myself back. I’ve given myself blisters on day one of the trip? Fucking nightmare, and I complained to the thin air that would listen, but had to get on with it anyway. I never felt like I was hindering or impeding someone else’s fun and if I didn’t fancy seeing a particular attraction, or wasn’t in the mood for cocktails, I was not obligated to pretend otherwise.

“The idea of these solo trips isn’t to be the most swashbuckling lady out there, it’s to show up to your own life, reconnect with yourself as a single entity, and know that you never have to sacrifice an experience because there isn’t someone else there to share it with.”

Goldberg once again proves herself a wise lady. I figured there’ll always be time for more swashbuckling. One such perk of the millennial generation and our ever-receding acceptance of maturity is that I can easily fit in some more debauchery before 30. It’s not ‘now or never’. Just because my 23rd year (and in fact, all those before it) was spent outside of a relationship and beyond the tradition of a family holiday in August, didn’t absolve me of the desire to vacate routine. I wasn’t immune to wanderlust merely because there was no-one to lust with. After 20 or so years of making a lot of decisions to please other people, or at least letting those opinions influence and mould such decisions and quite frankly, wanting to be perceived in a certain light, this trip to Europe became one of the few times I’ve been completely and unashamedly myself.

And I showed myself rather a good time.

 

 

N.B. More specific summaries of each place to follow!

Why I Want To Travel Alone

No longer looked down upon as the past-time of the friend-less, but praised as an indicator of courage, chutzpah and curiosity, travelling alone is bang on-trend. You can hardly scroll through Twitter these days without being peddled 10 reasons ‘Why solo-travel is the best thing you’ll ever do’ and it’s increasingly framed as a necessary rite of passage. Yet I’m still approaching my 18 day inter-railing trip through Europe with a certain degree of anxiety. What if I am horribly lonely? What if I end up sitting in an apartment reading a book rather than going out to dinner because of the crippling fear I’ll be judged and won’t know how to sit through a meal without fidgeting? So why go? What is the allure of spending just over a fortnight with only my irrational thoughts and insecurities for company?

The freedom of travelling alone is that you only have your time to fill and yourself to please.

 Control

The anxious woman’s cocaine. Control is that which I cling onto to cement my sense of self. Call me anal. (Or not, because that’s rude), but I like it and I’ll exert it if I want to. Also, you should know that spontaneity is a myth. Up there with Father Christmas, the Tooth Fairy and the notion that losing your virginity is going to be special, (I am going to be a terrible mother), spontaneity is a frilly, frivolous myth espoused by Jack Kerouac and clan, but with very little relevance in real life.

If you tried to jump on a train, plane or automobile in this day and age without any forethought you’d be rejected because everything’s already been booked, or expected to pay astronomical prices. I like organisation. Organisation is a budget’s best friend. You can find out what afternoons the museums are ‘pay what you want’ or there are free concerts in the city’s plazas. It’ll save you schlepping from one side of a city to the next because it’s your last day and this is the only time you have to do both of those things you hadn’t thought to do yet.

Planning itineraries almost gives me as much joy as travel itself and the freedom of travelling alone is that you only have your time to fill and yourself to please. A.K.A DO WHATEVER THE FUCK YOU WANT. Whether that means getting up at 4am to catch a sunrise on Charles Bridge or rolling in at 4am after a revelling at a sweaty techno club. Negotiation and compromise can well and truly go out the window and you can frolic boundlessly in a field of selfishness and self-gratification. No more resting at a coffee shop because someone else’s feet are aching, or mooching around shops you have no care to be in. I like to cram in the sights and plan every hour of the day to facilitate said cramming. Flow is not something I like to go with. It’s much more my style to shack up with scheduling and know exactly when I’m going to do something.

 

Creativity

I’ve been selling this trip to myself, and to others, as a way to spend some time reconnecting with my writerly self. WAIT. DON’T GO. I’m not a pretentious wanker. I’m only a little bit of a pretentious wanker. Writing is hard. It requires discipline and time and motivation and sometimes when you’re working a full-time job and trying to fit in exercise and a social life, it goes out the window. I have a rather ridiculous amount of ongoing creative projects. I’ve gathered them all together in a folder on my Mac, labelled ‘Ongoing Creative Projects’ to make it seem like, however untouched they sit, it’s part of the process and I’ll get there eventually. They’re not stagnant. I swear. They’re diamonds in the rough. And this is my chance to polish them. I have no illusion that I’ll come back with them all done. But hopefully with a couple of 6 hour train journeys and some lazy evenings with a bottle of wine, I’ll be able to carve out some time to devote solely to writing.

Also, what better than a bit of travel to serve up some inspiration. I often find it’s harder to put thought to prose when you desperately want to. It’s when you find yourself crouched over a Mac, hands poised above the keyboard that your creative juices evaporate. When you allow your mind to wander and to divert from it’s routine, the best ideas come to the fore.

You can decide wholly for yourself what statues or sights were worth seeing and as a result, come away with a greater sense of who you are.

Culture

London is a great place to live. A cultural capital, choc-a-bloc with exhibitions, cinemas, craft-themed nights, performance art, gigs, galleries and all sorts of activities to satiate your artistic cravings. Yet since living here; whether due to expense, laziness or lack of time, I haven’t quite soaked up as much as I’d intended. So I’m sacking it in altogether and off to find culture elsewhere. One of the best things about going on holiday is having an abundance of free time to explore. My adventurous spirit can once again emerge from the deeply repressed recesses of my psyche and I can finally return my walking pace to a wander or stroll, rather than the perpetual march I’ve adopted since taking on the role of city slicker.

I like a pool holiday with a library’s worth of reading material as much as the next gal, but considering my alabaster skin tone, high freckle count and general aversion to the heat, air-conditioned art galleries are much more within my comfort zone. I also think that if you really want to see and experience a place, at least for the first time, it’s best to do it alone. It’s nice revisiting cafes and courtyards with company in tow because you can relive it through them and act as a bit of a tour guide, but when you’re arriving without any expectation it’s best to shed that company to allow yourself to form an opinion unburdened by input. Your view of a place won’t be tainted by your friend’s grumpiness about the service in a restaurant or your boyfriend’s reluctance to climb the steps of a cathedral. You can decide wholly for yourself what statues or sights were worth seeing and as a result, come away with a greater sense of who you are.

I already know myself pretty well. I’m stubborn, controlling and very inflexible. (The penny’s dropped, hasn’t it? The solo nature of this trip is not a choice, but rather enforced because I’ve exhausted my roster of companionship). And that’s why I think I’ll get along fine. I can work to my own schedule, fulfil my own desires and not feel like I’m the bane of anyone’s existence because our booking for a train is in 20 minutes, and if we don’t leave soon, shit will hit the fan.