Vaughan came up with this quip just now, as we cleared the last of the beacons marking the dredged channel separating Andøy and Hinnøy to the south of it (Norway's largest island, as it boasts). Gritøy is about 12 miles away in front of us, a 2500 ft mountain with snow on the top identifying it from smaller, lower Bjarkøy, just beyond it, which is where we really want to go. The sun has finally broken through the patchy cloud that we have been having today, and it's 7:30pm. The wind was forecast to be northerly force 4-5, but, infuriatingly, has changed its mind to be north-easterly once again, thereby spoiling our chance of a nice beam reach, and reducing us to motorsailing into a short chop for another 3 hours. So "Oi'll grit oi teeth" was quite appropriate!
We have now left the Vesterålen behind and are heading back to a less sparsely populated part of Norway. Tromsø, a university city, is only 100 miles away, and Harstad, another large town is about 30 miles to the southeast. So, how were the Vesterålen?
The last postcard contained a bit of purple prose about the wilderness of Hamarøya, and how it seemed the same as it must have been 5000 years ago (if you didn't count the carefully laid buoy that we had picked up, with ropes to rock and shore to keep us central, and the honesty box for the harbour dues near the little stream, (but then you shouldn't count that, because the notice telling you to pay the harbour dues had vanished from its holder)). Sorry, this is beginning to sound like Cork talk, too many commas and qualifying clauses.
Anyway, the Vesterålen made Hamarøya feel a bit like a theme park, which you could enter and leave through the main gate on a day ticket. The Vesterålen Islands are a rather more serious affair. In amongst the wild and rugged mountains and islands it was sometimes really difficult to find any evidence of man's presence at all. No roads around the feet of the mountains, no fields at the edge of the fjords, no houses clinging to unlikely rocks, no power lines, no buoys or poles in the water, no vapour trails above us, no Hurtig ferries or fishing boats to dodge.... We did one of the legs of the trip between 10pm and 2am, in order to avoid the windier headwind of the daytime, and, with the yellow-orange light of the midnight sun throwing the mountains and their snowy patches into stark shadow and bright sunlight it really seemed like we were time travellers.
Not that there are NO inhabitants - just that you have to look a bit harder to find them. Our first night in the area was in a little marina called Grimstad Smabathavn. Nobody was around, as usual, even though there were lots of houses and boats. So we decided on a bit of a walk to see the anchorage that we had decided not to take, and bumped into Ian Robins, from St Erth in Cornwall, who had moved there with his Norwegian girlfriend to run the Sjøhus outdoor centre and restaurant from a renovated trading-post building on the harbourside. The customers were mainly German or Czech, he said, and most of them wanted to catch record-breaking halibut or cod in Eidfjord, which runs just outside the door. Not that he was allowed to serve in his restaurant any fish he had caught, since all restaurant fish had to go through a government control (and another pair of hands) before getting to the cook. In the winter, he had a job as a truck driver, but wanted to bring kayaking and hill walking clients to the Sjøhus during the summer. Check out www.sjohus.no for his website.
From there, we sailed around the west coast to the tiny harbour of Nykvåg, arriving at 10pm and taking a spare place on the pontoon, only to be hailed before the final rope was made off by a gruff and wide Viking in a Vesterålen baseball cap on a fishing boat with its high bow six feet from our cockpit. "No boot udder side", we understood, and indeed there was only a small skiff where he was indicating, on the side of the pontoon where the water was too narrow to turn Voltair. So, with his assistance, we picked Voltair up and popped her down again on the other side of the pontoon, and then watched him moor up where we had been, and start gutting huge halibut, wolf-fish and cod which were his day's takings. The wide viking was now gutting a somewhat smaller version of the 3-foot long halibut, and then proceeded to cut it across the "white" side into ten or so inch-and-a-half wide steaks.
Rinsing it off with his sea-water hose, he proffered it to us. We thanked him profusely, and returned the exchange with several cans of (full strength) viking beer, which were graciously accepted. The huge gaff, with the sharp hooked bit of steel in the end, was returned to it's hanging up position by the gutting table. Another, bigger boat came in ahead of us both, and seagulls fought on the pontoon over the 30-foot long intestine from some enormous sea-beast that they had caught. Just as well we hadn't got in any earlier, really! We might have been disturbed over the cheese and port. As it was, we now separated 3 of the steaks from the rest of the fish, popped them in the chicken-dish, with the last of the bay leaves, a slice of lemon, a drizzle of olive oil, a glug of chardonnay, a sprinkle of dill and a foil lid, and half an hour later we were eating what Rick Stein calls the best fish in the world with a slice or two of buttered brown bread. We found it good, but not that tasty. Can fresh fish be too fresh?
After dinner we went to see the kittiwakes. There are a lot more kittiwakes in Nykvåg than there are people. The viking had told us that the human population was now down to 80 from 200 ten years ago. So the inhabitants probably have 200 kittiwakes each, and quite charming they are too. Their nests are balanced on tiny ledges on the cliff faces - not too high up the face in case they get blown off, but not so low that predators can reach them. Each nest contains a kittiwake, with white head, neatly crossed black-tipped wings and an innocent and slightly quizzical expression about their face. The mate of the one on the nest is coming and going, flying skilfully in to land on a landing strip half his own size, with a vertical wall above and below. Then they greet eachother, call out "kittee waaake", and do a bit of gazing into eachother's eyes, before one says to the other "where's the fish then?" and the other brings up a bit to share. "Right - off you go then!" and off he goes again.
After Nykvåg, we went to Nyksund, an even smaller fishing harbour two hours to the northeast. The cruising guide said this was a deserted ghost town, and it certainly had the air of the wild west about it. Wooden buildings on wooden piles clung to the rocky sides of the harbour, with both an upper and lower level boardwalk joining them together. Some were derelict, it was true, but one, painted in cobalt blue, announced "Arctic Adventure" in one of its renovated windows, and several new buildings were either already up, or were in process of construction. An elderly gentleman with a camera and a red norwegian cap turned out to be a swiss tourist from Zurich, staying a couple of nights at the hotel, and after a quick walk around, we popped in to the Holmvik Brygge hotel for a Kop kaffee. The main dining room, with a cafe-style counter across one corner, fronted the harbour and modern art by Sigrid Szetu email@example.com, whose studio is a few yards up the cliff path in a futuristic "summerhouse" A cheery tee-shirted teenager greeted us in an american accent - she was norwegian, and just back from an exchange in West Virginia. We settled for an expresso, a cappucino and a mocchachino off the list of coffees, and a table that didn't overlook the harbour, as the ones that did were already occupied by the swiss gent and wife ("And you three are really staying on that boat, and sailing around the coast?", we had been asked incredulously?) and another couple. Another attractive and purposefulo norwegian girl appeared from inside the building with a baby and a tall partner with a wispy beard. Yes, she was Monja, who had designed the hotel's brochure and who was mine host, along with Ringo. You can find out more at www.nyksund.com or maybe nyksund.info.com - Monja's design is a bit ambiguous about it! Soon it was time to leave, and we walked back to the boat, past a dozen or so other tourists dressed in windy-weather gear, and headed towards "Arctic Action", and motored out with much waving from all present in the hotel dining room.
So, as the fishing industry is turning down it was very good to see young people taking on the challenge of re-inventing western norway, maybe as an adventure destination, or as a nature lover's tourist base, and with a bit of post cubism thrown in.
Today we are a bit further on, at Bjarkøy. Bjarkøy is the island which, a thousand years ago, claimed to be the "finishing school" for Vikings of the toughest kind. Tore Hund, born around 990AD, was one of the hardest of the hard guys who graduated from the school, and is celebrated (presumably as the baddy) in Snorre's saga about St Olav. He is the "shield-clad giant", who dared take on King Olav Haraldsson at the battle of Stiklestad, the result of which was a score-draw and qualified Bjarkøy for a place in the Scandiwegian dragon slaying finals.
It being a nice sunny morning, we thought a little tourism might be in order, and walked the half mile up to the church, which was on the low skyline of Bjarkøy, with the snow-capped mountains of Gritøy towering above. The door was locked, and so we had a look around the churchyard, which contained graves dating back only to 1865 and not later than 1932, many of the hundred-year old stones having freshly planted gardens at their feet - evidently families that had not moved out. We were just leaving, when a man drove up in a US-style camper-truck. He told us he was the church-warden, produced a huge iron key and asked if would we like to have a look inside. So we then spent a pleasant half hour in his company discussing the time he played bass with the Bee Gees, and was a pro-musician in Salisbury in the 1990's. Andre was his name, and he also told us about an interesting "Norwegian Take-Away"..... Bjarkøy has a smaller neighbouring island called Sandsøy to the south-east. The story goes that, one day in the winter of 1865, when the men of Sandsøy had all gone out cod-fishing, the men of Bjarkøy popped over and stole the church! That is, the whole thing - timber, pews, roof, tower, even the weathercock off the top that says 1766! We weren't sure if this was some kind of a latter day Viking laddish joke, or whether it was more about teaching their bumptious smaller neighbour a lesson and getting their tithe brought to Bjarkøy.
Anyway, it gave us a new angle on a subject covered in Robin's postcard sent a week or two ago, where we saw a house on a barge under tow from a tug..... Maybe that was burglars with attitude rather than removal men!
We promised to come and listen to him and the rest of the band playing Beatles music at the pub in the evening, and popped into the local shop, where his Thai wife served us.... he doesn't like the Norwegian winter, and goes to Thailand then to play bass over there.
In the evening, after a couple of gins, we finished up the huge halibut (steamed in the oven with a little ginger, red pepper and vegetable stock - very tasty) and moseyed over towards the pub around 11pm. A couple of other party-goers were also heading in that direction, and, when asked if we were heading the right way, said that the whole of the island already knew we were coming and were looking forward to greeting us. The music was already in full swing when we arrived, though the crowd was somewhat under capacity - I mean, we could find somewhere to sit down! Sure enough, the vocalist interrupted his verse to make us welcome, and we joined Stina, her brother Alex and her friend who had a name that sounded arabic, though she was norwegian, (I'll call her Anouka) and was there with her mum.
Alex, 20, was a carpenter, home from work in Harstad for the weekend. Stina, 22, was a nurse in the local the old folks home, as was Ingrid, an extrovert slim blonde (the sort you dream of waking up next to), wearing a pink top and a pair of jeans that she had painted on. We filled in the application forms for the home there and then!
The band comprised the vicar's husband on keyboard (he was also the organist in the church), the headmaster of the school on drums, another teacher on vocals and trumpet, a rather tentative rhythm guitar and a confident Andre on electric and acoustic bass. I thought we were all going to have to do karaoke at one point - first a lady sang "Summer time"; "I'm 60 you know", she confided in me, as she slipped out between the tight-packed seats, and then red-headed Anouka sang a nice duet with her teacher from a few years earlier. However, there were then a few sing-along Beatles numbers and Hey Jude brought us to the end of the first half. The second half featured a similar repertoire, and by the time we got to the third half, at 2am, we were beginning to know all the words ourselves! The dancing started too, and the girls seemed to like to dance wearing a yellow sou-wester, which added a new interest! Ingrid, vitalised by a beer or two, did a bit of rape and pillage, first on yours truly, to a slow number where, in her tight clinch, certain bits of me were beginning to feel quite 20-ish again, and then with Bob to a faster beat where she ended up on the floor, hanging off Bob's neck! VJ was next for a cuddle and a nuzzle, and we realised she was actually on the way to giving the visitors the full viking welcome! Unfortunately, someone called "time" just as it was all beginning to get a bit messy, and the party broke up with everyone trying to remember who they had come with, and succeed in going home with someone else. Now I know what a jean pool looks like!
Up at the crack of noon on Saturday, we pootled down to Sandsøy for lunch, to see how the new church compared to the old one. However, we didn't get as far as the church before we were in conversation with Arna and Per, who lived in a house that Per's grandmother had brought over from Senja, a century or so ago. (Tough women, these vikings!) Per was also a musician, and was amused to hear we had fallen in with Andre and the crowd on Bjarkøy. He said we should go and have a look from the top of the island, from where we could see all the counties of Troms, and when we said our legs were a bit danced out, he kindly took us on a round-the-island tour in his 4x4.
A surprise discovery was that the rocky heart of the island was riddled with tunnels carved out by NATO forces over the years, as part of the cold war surveillance programme of northern latitudes. There was a hidden tunnel that came in at sea level, and along which Per had clambered for 4 hours before reaching the main part of the system. All quite Spectre and Blofeld, but no white cats to be seen. With the breakup of the USSR, the Americans had started using the installation for "experiments", and Per reported there had been some spectacular accidents, one with several dozen killed, and, finally, the demolition of the tunnel system and underground hospital from within by blowing it all up.
Another surprise was just how many of the locals had left for a better life abroad. "That house belongs to my friend Henrik - he has married a Filipino girl and gone to live over there", another to Thailand. Another came home and found his partner entertaining a stranger - a week later he was in Bangkok with a new partner. But others had stayed - a man who enjoyed building model houses and displaying them in his front garden, another house with a Hindu temple-like structure hiding his wheely-bins. A military hobbyist, whose smallholding displayed 4 tracked personel carriers, an army digger and several 10-ton army trucks. His swimming pool was a fuel lorry, whose tank had been cut open so you could swim in it.
Back at Per's home, Arna showed us around her workshops where she was making traditional norwegian dresses and knitwear. Her distribution line was via a retailer in Harstad, but I guess she could easily have sold direct over the internet, such an excellent line of articles was she producing. Sometimes she accompanied Per when he went to work... he was the entertainment director (and sole performer) on Nordlys, the luxury Hurtigruten cruiser that we sometimes see ploughing the fjords, and sometimes meet coming around a mountain in a narrow channel at full speed.
After lunch in the harbour, we took our leave of Sandsøy and managed a couple of hours under gentle spinnaker sail on the way east towards Senja and the end of our cruise in Finnesnes. We won't bore you with tales of alternator belts and broken welds - we'll leave a little note for Robin and crew instead, who are due out on Tuesday to continue the passage towards the midnight sun.
Best wishes, and goodbye for now, from Bob, Vaughan and John, with an almost empty fridge.
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