Two chubby seals sit sunbathing at the side of the Nærøyfjord, looking out on the perfectly-still passage of water which winds for 18km between the immense Nordic cliffs of the glacial valley. The walls of the Nærøyfjord rise up to over 1,100m on either side of the inlet, and the fact that the fjord is only 250m wide in parts means that the immensity of that elevation gain is fully impressed upon you - particularly sitting at sea level, in the cockpit of a kayak.
Just beyond the seals, an enormous waterfall plummets down the fjord, sending a cold mist into the sunny day. It’s summer, and the snow is melting on the mountain tops. With nowhere else to go, it drains and runs off the cliff walls, meaning that no matter where you sit on the Nærøyfjord, you can see anywhere from two to 25 waterfalls at any given time. These seals have picked a particularly powerful waterfall to watch. It crashes down the fjord, battering and bouncing off the pointed rocks as though it’s trying to break through them.
As we gently paddle past, the seals decide it’s time to move on, clumsily galumphing into the water and disappearing off beneath our kayaks.
“This really is a pearl amongst the fjords,” says Jan Neilsen, our guide, who has been kayaking, hiking and base jumping on the Nærøyfjord since 1998.
“I think that a lot of people who come here have had Norway on their radar for years, but most people are still surprised by the beauty. The whole spirit of the area is serene, and very pretty. Even our airport pick ups are very, very scenic.”
Sure enough, we had driven past rivers, forests and cliff-tops on our way to the fjord after being picked up from Bergen two days previous. Bergen is the gateway to the fjords, being situated itself in the shallow Byfjorden, known as the ‘city fjord’. From the historic Bryggen, the city’s old wharf, boats come and go on fjord excursions and whale watching cruises, “but the best way to experience the fjords is in a kayak,” says Jan. “Have no doubt about that.”
The fjord system offers shelter from much of the prevailing winds, says Jan, "so the majority of the time, the conditions are ideal for kayaking.”
There are two predominant types of tourism to the fjords. “Cruise tours, which travel through the fjords a lot quicker than we do,” Jan says, “and adventure tourism, which gives you the time to really appreciate the area. We go where basically no other people go. The area is very quiet.”
We’re here to kayak the Nærøyfjord, with two nights of camping and one day climbing the 1,189m Breiskrednosi, one of the fjord walls, along the way.
When we arrive at Gudvangen (literally “God’s Meadow”) to start our journey, we watch a morning mist roll over the winding water, between two almighty crystalline rock slopes. Lime forests rise up the walls and snow we'll later trudge through is visible on plateaus in the distance. As we get our safety briefing, the sun rolls over the fjord, casting away the mist and bouncing off the water.
We didn't choose the summit because it's easy. We chose it because it’s beautiful...
The area is UNESCO protected, as part of the West Norwegian Fjords system. “That happened in 2005,” says Jan. “It brought tourism, and funding to the area that’s having a positive impact. There was a lot more recognition and interest in the area after that - but traffic on this fjord is still quite stable, luckily for us.”
Sure enough, other than one or two passing boats, it’s just us, the fjord, our kayaks and the wildlife. It’s easy to see why the vessel is Jan’s preferred method of travel, too. Nothing reminds you of how big and beautiful the world is - and puts any lingering, inbox-based stress issues into perspective - like sitting with your legs stretched out on the water, between mighty mountain walls.
The paddling is pure, peaceful bliss. We stop for a lunch spread, where Jan describes how a postal route from Oslo to Bergen was formed through the fjords in 1647. He also takes this time to point out Breiskrednosi, the mountain we’re going to be climbing the next day. From where we are, it seems to be a vertical wall, with a curved top reminiscent of the famous Half Dome in Yosemite.
We paddle a few more kilometres, with a break to relax and hike to a particularly powerful waterfall, before finding our camping spot for the night. There, Jan grills up dinner over the campfire, and we watch the sun set over the fjord before falling asleep to the real-life ASMR of the oystercatchers and river nearby.
Fast forward half a day and we’ve traded the water for deep snow. The scene could hardly be more different. Norwegian summer has disappeared with the mist and altitude, and our hike to Breiskrednosi had led us to knee-height snow.
“We didn't choose the summit because it's easy,” says Jan. “We chose it because it’s beautiful, but also, because you can’t get to the starting point by car or public transport. This is a pristine and fragile area. We want to preserve that, and make sure that we’re having a positive impact. Right now it’s a healthy balance.”
We had first encountered the snow around the 500m mark, after following a river up the valley, past alpine cabins and mountain lakes. After completing the steep ascent to the summit plateau of Breiskrednosi, we stick in single file, concentrating on putting one foot in front of the other. The poor visibility gives the feel of a disorientating white box, no matter what direction you look.
Mercifully, the clouds clear when we reach the 1,189m summit, and we look out from the vertigo-inducing drop down to the water we kayaked through the day before - and out over all of the Nærøyfjord. The hike is 10 hours in total by the time we’re back at camp, and there's no doubt we’ve earned our campfire wine.
On the final day, we paddle out of camp, while white-tailed sea eagles circle the trees on the mountain peaks above us. We soon reach the end of the Nærøyfjord, where it joins with the much wider Aurlandsfjord, and leads us round to Undredal, a picturesque fjord town which shares a startling resemblance (and a similar name) to the town of Arendelle in the Disney film ‘Frozen’.
The Aurlandsfjord and Nærøyfjord are the southernmost arms of the Sognefjord, Norway’s longest, deepest fjord, which stretches 204km back to Bergen.
As we paddle onto the Aurlandsfjord, more kayakers and cruise ships appear, dotted about in the distance. We find ourselves in more exposed water, with the fjord walls further away. It’s beautiful, but it’s clear we’re leaving one of Earth’s special spots behind us - on the narrow passageway of water slinking through the immense Nordic mountains; on Norway’s peaceful pearl, the Nærøyfjord.
Inspired? Kayak, hike and wild camping the Norwegian fjords now!