Destination: Lofoten, Norway
AT 68° NORTH, west of the Norwegian mainland, lies a chain of islands where the midnight sun lasts for almost two months each summer. The Lofoten contains some of Norway’s most dramatic mountain and coastal scenery – with sawtooth mountains stretching like a spine over the 100km archipelago.
In addition to their beauty, the islands have a rich human history, with evidence of settlement extending back at least 11,000 years. Starting with the Vikings these communities capitalised on the abundant fish stocks, establishing trading relationships to Europe and Africa that are still active. The most visible sign of the still vibrant industry are the traditional fish drying racks dotting the foreshores of every coastal village.
With similar proportions to Fraser Island, the Lofoten packs a lot into a relatively compact area. Settlement mostly clings to the coast, leaving the vast majority of ranges as public land. The region also caters to almost any outdoor pursuit, with spectacular possibilities for rock climbers, ice climbers, sea kayakers, cycle tourers, ski tourers, surfers and hikers. The only real limitations are your time and the weather, which is famously fickle.
Pen crossing one of the major streams that flows into Agvatnet.
Our first two nights were spent at a waterfront hostel in the Stamsund, on the island of Vestvågøya, where rowboats and fishing lines were provided for guest use; it seemed obligatory to try our luck. Pen summoned her high school rowing expertise, navigating to deeper water where we dabbled the lines. After an hour with only one bite, we decided it wasn’t our day and headed ashore. Fortunately, a fellow traveller landed a large cod, and duly set to preparing it for a shared dinner.
The hostel was overlooked by Steinstinden, a 509m peak rising steeply from the shore. We convinced some new friends to join in walking the precipitous slopes. The going was steep and exposed but provided stunning views over the islands and the joys of fresh blueberries at track’s edge. On reaching the summit it was swept by clouds, hastening our return to the hostel.
The next day, eager for more hiking, we headed south to the island of Moskensøya, arguably the most spectacular of the chain. We spent two days in the postcard-perfect towns of Reine and Å, opting for shorter hikes while waiting for the weather to clear.
Being well within the Arctic Circle, the weather can, and does, change rapidly. Often it seemed to change according to our accommodation choice for the evening. If we were camping, it seemed to bring wind, rain, and even summer snow, and when we had a roof over our heads it would be sunny and calm. Despite these precedents we soon headed out on our first overnight hike, to the summit of Munken (805m).
The track is popular, as it is also the easiest approach to Hermannsdaltinden (1029m), the highest peak in the western Lofoten. It has the added temptation of a well-sited hut, Munkebu, nestled near the base of Munken summit, which is owned by the Norwegian Trekking Association (DNT) – accessible if you can afford the member’s fee and nightly rates.
It did not take long to leave the trees behind, and the landscape opened up, with views across the valleys, and the town of Sørvågen. While not as steep as the earlier hikes we’d undertaken, the added pack weight gave us an excuse for pausing regularly to admire the vista.
Enjoying the view over Agvatnet, and Å, after a steep climb to the pass.
We reached the hut by mid-afternoon and the summit of Munken looked easily attainable, by Lofoten standards. With relatively calm weather and 24-hour daylight we figured time was on our side. The summit route was straightforward, with the reward of a view along much of the eastern coast we had travelled along on previous days. On returning to the hut, some locals bravely dived into a nearby snowmelt-fed lake. As we set up camp the wind started, almost on cue, and then buffeted us throughout the ‘night’.
Invigorated by our first overnight walk, we followed it immediately with another. After a quick resupply in Reine we boarded a passenger ferry for the 20-minute ride along Kjerkford. The grassy slopes topped by sheer granite walls on both sides of the fjord were a captivating sight. Along with four rock climbers, we disembarked at the head of the fjord, in the hamlet of Kjerkfjorden. It seemed a bit of a ghost town, and we noticed several buildings were anchored with support beams and wires; a sensible move given the gusty locale.
Our initial goal was a 200m pass, which we reached with ease, albeit wind-assisted. It was here that the climbers set up camp, as it allowed them ready access to the big walls. The view back to Kjerkford, with the village dwarfed by the landscape, reminded us of the relatively small footprint human settlement has had in these islands. To the west was our night’s destination – the valley leading to the remote Horseid Beach. As we descended into the treeless valley, the wind started to whip the long grasses and rushes. Our only hope for protection was in the lee of several house-sized glacial erratics scattered across the valley floor. Unfortunately on closer inspection we found they offered marginal shelter and were already occupied by insects we suspected may take a liking to us. With no better option, we secured the tent on verdant grass in the middle of the valley.
The timing of this walk was only two days after the sun had started to ‘set’, which involved it almost dipping below the horizon, then ‘rising’. Our ambition to see this spectacle had us walking to the beach at midnight, but hopes were scuttled by low-level cloud. It was only on the return leg we fully realised the wind’s strength, having walked with it at our back up to that point. We were forced to adopt an exaggerated forward lean to counter it, and any exposed skin was treated to an impromptu exfoliation by sand.
The second day took us over a 400m high pass and into the headwaters of the valley leading to Selfjord. Thankfully, this brought immediate relief from the wind, and the presence of trees not far into the descent hinted that it was altogether more sheltered. This also meant the return of blueberries, which gave us an excuse to linger by the shores of several lakes while foraging.
Having had what we felt was a fair dose of wind and rain, we treated ourselves to a night in a rorbuer. Rorbuer are single-roomed fisherman’s huts, usually clustered beside the water and painted in primary colours. Their simple form and colours, juxtaposed against the Lofoten landscape, prove irresistible to photographers. These were first built in the 11th Century, at the King’s decree, for the comfort of fishermen who until then had often slept under their upturned boats. It wasn’t all altruism though, as the fishing industry paid significant taxes to the King. Having withstood the ravaging climate, the majority of rorbuer have been turned into comfortable self-contained accommodation. As we settled into our night away from the flap of tent fabric, we noticed the clear skies and lack of wind – the islands’ weather once again playing games with us.
Getting there: Best access is via mainland cities of Bodo and Narvik. Options include bus, ferry or plane and travel times vary from 0.5-3.5 hours. Both these cities have daily connecting flights from Oslo.
Best time to go: The arctic circle dictates a short summer, with most visitors timing their visit within the two months of ‘midnight sun’ from 25 May to 17 July.
Accommodation: Options are plentiful in towns. Hostel costs start from 260 NOK ($45) for a bed only, and rorbuer range from 850-2600 NOK ($140-450) per night. In backcountry areas, Norway has free camping (with some provisos), and the DNT huts must be booked in advance.
Guided tours: There are several companies offering guided adventures, from kayaking to climbing, with English-speaking guides: www.reineadventure.com and www.wildernessjourneys.com.