North of the Arctic Circle, the coastline of Norway breaks up into a mass of tiny islands. It's possible to navigate them by road, but you have to use one of the many small ferries that operate in the region, providing access across the fjords.
The catamaran skips across the cold ocean, balanced on twin jets of pulsating water. The entire horizon far ahead is eclipsed by a huge rock wall rising in uncompromising crags from the sea, backlit by the deep orange of the midnight sun. This is the Lofot Wall.
At its southerly tip, the Lofot Wall breaks up into a constellation of tiny rocks, and the last of the main islands is Moskensoy. The best time to arrive there, by ferry or by road from the north, is around midnight on a long summer night, when the sky still holds the last colours of the sunset. It's possible to see the small town of Reine glittering in the half-light, with it's delicate fairy bridges criss-crossing behind little wooden houses built on stilts, in the bay.
A few kilometres down the road is the southernmost town of Å, which, in the summer months, is converted into a museum. The main industry here is fishing and you can see huge wooden drying racks on every flat piece of rock. You will also find a series of boatsheds and an immense collection of flotsam and jetsam, all items painstakingly hand-labelled, that has accrued throughout the years. Defunct asdic units1and depth finders sit next to stuffed cormorants and indecipherable rusty items, dredged up from the bottom of the sea. Sometimes you even come across a complete boat.
At the furthest end of the town, where the houses stretch out into the sea on their stilts, you can buy fresh and smoked salmon extremely cheaply. There is nothing quite like the sheer decadence of sitting with your feet dangling over the edge of Europe, stuffing yourself with huge creamy fistfuls of rich fish.
Out to sea lies the tiny island of Mosken, but in between there's Moskenstraum, the treacherous tidal waters that were imortalised in Edgar Allen Poe's Maelstrom. Although Poe used considerable artistic licence in his portrayal of a huge whirlpool, Moskenstraum is to be treated with utmost respect, and local seamen will take the brave traveller out to sea, in order to watch and hear the roar of the tides.
The island of Moskensoy is home to a small artist community, including two blacksmiths, Hans Gjertsen and Tor Vegard Morkved, who operate from a museum in the town of Sund. Here you can sit and watch as they hammer into shape all manner of things, both ornamental and practical, from long bars of iron. This is the source of the ubiquitous iron cormorants, or Skiva, which can be seen in every local garden, and in places as far afield as the Kremlin and the Pentagon.
Travelling Around the Lofot Wall
Travelling in these parts can be a breathtaking experience. Although freelance camping is, as elsewhere in Norway, not only legal but a traveller's right, it becomes a bit difficult in the Lofoten Islands where most of the spare land is vertical rock. There is one 'official campsite' just outside Svolvaer (actually an unmanned flat piece of beach). This is more than made up for by the ubiquitous hytte2 which can be hired to sleep several people, and by the fact that you can almost always find a cheap room for the night in a farmhouse.
As you travel northward into the Vesteralen Islands - the northern part of the Lofot chain - the distinction between the high central peaks and the narrow flat beachlands becomes more pronounced. Clouds hug the mountaintops and filter the light from the sun, which in summer shines continually through the night3. This gives an other-worldly glow to the brightly coloured lichens and lush vegetation that make the most of the short growing season.
It is well worth taking a detour around the southern tip of the island of Lang-Oya, as from here you can see the spine of the Lofot Wall from the Arctic Ocean side, squatting impressively in the sea with the mountains of Scandinavia in the far distance.
North of Lang-Oya the rocky spine curves inland toward the Norwegian port of Narvik. The northernmost island, Andoya, is surprisingly flat and damp. Even the sheep choose to huddle in the roadway as this is the driest place they can find to sit. In fact, so determined are these animals not to give up their small area of dry ground that they absolutely refuse to move, and view the occasional vehicle passing before their noses with complete disregard. Of course, with damp ground comes the dreaded mygg4, a tiny but painful biting scourge of northern Europe, against which all but the most powerful insect repellents are useless. Nevertheless, it is worth persevering on toward the topmost town of Andenes, as this is where the whale centre is.
A local company have collaborated with a Swedish research organisation to sell tickets for a whale safari that departs several times a day. The money from tourists enables the boat to go out, taking with it whale researchers, who, as well as keeping up with their studies, also act as guides.
The vessel is a bona fide ex-minke whaler and is skippered by a bona fide ex-minke whaler, who has put his skills to work for the purposes of research and tourism. He seeks out sperm whales, killer whales and the diminutive minke, and his knack for finding them is undiminished by the transition he has undergone, from hunter to tourist guide. Passengers soon forget any discomfort they may feel in the cold Norwegian climate, as these huge beasts dance and play around the hull, vast and mysterious. It's a fitting end to a journey along the impressive Lofot Wall.