Saturday, 25 August 2012

Fjord swimming

It had started by mistake, almost. I’d rowed the three of us across from Aga and when S mentioned he’d packed our swimming togs, I was tempted to cool off in the clear inviting Sørfjorden. Getting in wasn’t easy. A muddle of landslide boulders were covered in bladder wrack and coralline seaweed so it was hard to see where to put my feet: I’m a bit of a dweeb about walking on stony beaches too. And it was cold. Really cold. I splashed water on my arms so the plunge in wouldn’t feel so bad – but it was: cold enough to take my breath away. I kicked frantically to fight the spasms. S & Ʃ were sitting under the trees on the bank laughing.

S said, ‘Keep swimming – I’ve got to get a photo with the snow in the distance!’

I was soon breathing normally again, and even almost started to enjoy it. The fjord was so still I could see the Folgefonna glacier reflected in the glinting green water: this was real wild swimming. Then from Ʃ, ‘Why don’t you swim out into the really deep water. We’ll follow in the boat and you can get in when you tire.’

‘You... must... be.. joking!’ I spluttered. But then I thought about it. Our intended lunch-spot wasn’t anything special. Kicking out in my relaxed breaststroke felt good. Easy. The ripples I made with each stroke scrumpled reflections of snowy patches on the mountaintops.

‘OK – I will then!’ I struck out back across the fjord. The houses on the other side were tiny. Trucks driving along the main road between Utne and Odda were minuscule, but it would be fun swimming out and completely clear of the shore.

I was a couple of hundred metres out by the time S & Ʃ had launched the boat and rowed out to me. I enjoyed my breaststroke – kick glide pull... kick gli––ide pull, and the water didn’t feel that cold any more. I’d swim into pockets that felt almost like a warm bath, but then it would be out again into iciness. Kick gli–––ide pull... kick...

I was going strongly, though I didn’t want to put my face in the water. I was still wearing my glasses and it felt too cold to put my head in at all, so I didn’t rise to Ʃ’s challenge to swim right under the boat. I headed towards a red two-storey weatherboard house. I swam. It came no closer. Even so I began to think I might swim right across. That started a debate amongst the three of us. S thought it was a kilometre across. Ʃ said, ‘No – look how small the cars are. It’s much more.’

I was swimming steadily. I felt strong. I could keep this pace up for hours. I turned and looked back. It was good to change position, but I still didn’t want to put my head back in the water.

‘How far... d’you reckon... I’ve done?’ I asked. ‘A third?’

S was humouring me when he said, ‘Mmm. Maybe. Yes, a third.’

The rowan trees at my starting point on the east side of the fjord still looked large. I hadn’t made much progress. But I wasn’t at all tired and I still felt I could swim across. Then I hit a muscle-seizing cold patch. Maybe this was what the rest of the swim was going to be like. I was gasping again. It must be icy water welling up from the deep. I wouldn’t go on if it stayed like this. I spluttered as much to S & Ʃ. They didn’t hear.

It wasn’t long though before I entered another bath-warm patch, and even the next cold bit wasn’t that cold.
I turned on my back. The eastern side was still close. The red house seemed no closer, no bigger. The water had turned the colour of gun metal. I’d swim a bit further. To the middle at least. I looked up to the glacier and the snow and the mountaintops. I scanned down to the tree line and the pretty houses along the shore. Earlier that same day S & I had climbed high above the fjord, 500m or so up the steep valley wall amongst pine and then birch forest. We looked down not on a single expanse of water but on a varied and varying surface – a map as intricate as any landscape. In places there were tiny waves whipped up by undercurrents, rips and eddies. There were places where the water looked deep dark and menacing, others where the water surface was rippled from a slight breeze. Sometimes the water looked leaf green, sometimes it was almost black.

From the boat Ʃ shouted, ‘What if a whale came alongside!’ His imagination had been captured by discovering that many fjords are 1000m deep; he was sure there were big creatures living down there. He talked of humpbacked whales and monsters.

‘A big whale... wouldn’t come... into a fjord.’

‘What if a giant squid came up from the deep?’

‘You’d... photograph it!’

‘But it might eat you!’

‘Still got both my legs – so far...’ He wasn’t going to spook me, although thinking of that huge body of water below me was awe-inspiring. Being run down by a boat was a more realistic worry.

Something disturbed the surface. I took a mouthful. It was – surprisingly – hardly salty at all. Maybe that explained the lack of seabirds. There weren’t many wildfowl either though: just an occasional mallard or gull. Norwegians seem to like shooting their wildlife.

Time moved on, and so did I, slowly; Ʃ – who’d come up with the idea of this expedition – was starting to get a little bored. He taunted me. ‘Hurry up or we’ll leave you behind.’ S was no lying in the boat pretending – I think – to take a nap.

‘Don’t... make me... laugh... That’ll... slow me down... even more.’ I rolled over to swim backstroke for a while but got a rain-freeze when I immersed my scalp, and I couldn’t see where I was going. Back on my front, I realised my hands were numb. I wanted to make fists but how can you swim breaststroke with fists? I recalled one of my Dad’s stories. He must have been pretty hard. He enjoyed all sports but swimming was his greatest love – a family passion in fact. Above all he loved water polo. He played in Belfast Lough – that wide estuary which opens into the Irish Sea. He described how sometimes he would catch the ball then have to look to see if it was still in his hand. It was so cold he couldn’t feel whether he was still holding it or not. My blue wrinkled hands were that cold now.

I’d set out thinking I’d swim diagonally across the fjord – retracing the path I’d rowed. I realised now though that, although the water felt still and although we were a long way from the sea, there was a significant current. The boat owner later mentioned a tide of 1.5 metres. I changed my plan and told S & Ʃ I was aiming for a rocky spur that jutted out from the western shore of the fjord. I swam towards a warning sign for boats. I wasn’t sure whether this was okay for our little boat but I just wanted to finish this now. I just needed to keep the rhythm going.

There was more flotsam: bladder wrack, leaves and a few larger pieces of tree. The channel was getting shallow. S & Ʃ were suddenly animated, looking out for rocks now. The current increased a lot. I needed to swim much more strongly to make headway against the tide but I didn’t want to kick out against jagged granite. It’s hard to see anything from the water surface. S & Ʃ in the boat said they could see the bottom now. They were worried about running aground. They suggested I climb into the boat but I wanted to touch the western shore – so I could say I’d swum right across, the entire two-plus kilometres.

Just a few more strokes. I checked before I put my feet down. I saw clean rippled sand but that’s not what it felt like. It was sticky, like mud. But my feet were down and I could stop swimming. How good it felt to have my feet on the bottom at last. S & Ʃ again suggested I scramble into the boat then they’d row me back to the jetty we’d launched from. I was standing in chest deep water. I didn’t have the strength to get myself into the boat. I waded in to where it was shallower but had the oddest sensation. Standing now waist-deep I felt as if I was being pushed forward – back into my horizontal swimming position. After an hour and a half of swimming (S reckoned it was an hour and a quarter) my body had decided I shouldn’t be upright ever again.
The sensation soon passed, though my rubber-legs took a while to return to normal function. The pay-off was the long luxurious shower when we got back to the cottage. It was delicious.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Travel or travail?

I wish I was a more relaxed traveller. I usually arrive too early, and this time is no different. I should be able to enjoy a lull in a frenetic schedule but airports are such attention-deficit-inducing environments that I don’t settle. I just want to get on the plane. I’m tired after a lot of driving, in an unfamiliar hire car, on the wrong side of the road with unintelligible road signs, feeling sweat-sticky, tired throbbing hot feet. This is the part of travel that starts me wondering – for a while, at least – why I travel. This is the travail of travel. I should be able to people-watch. I should continue to take delight in the slightly odd things foreigners do, but I’m fatigued by it all now and I want to do home.

They’re late boarding us. We’re in a holding-pen with insufficient seating, and tired fractious toddlers. I sympathise but doubt that throwing a tantrum would get us on board any quicker. I smile as I imagine throwing myself on the floor and thrashing and screaming and shouting.

But the announcement finally comes. There are friendly welcomes from the groundstaff and the air stewards. Soon we are taxiing, there’s that pull on the stomach and we’re airborne. The ground falls away. Real people diminish to the size of ants. Cars shrink to tiny matchbox-toys. Other peoples’ lives become insignificant, just like that. I marvel at Bergen from the air; it’s a splattering of islands connected by little bridges, all populated by people, but what do they do all with their lives?

Then it’s up through the clouds into the sunshine above a white wonderland as pristine as any glacier. We’re homeward bound, home to the right coffee, my favourite muesli, marmalade and a comfortable bed. I let my mind drift as we float above the clouds, then after a while I get glimpses of ships on a still, still sea. Which part of Britain would we fly over first? I guessed it would be The Wash. The landfall isn’t right for Norfolk though. Where are we? Everything is so difficult to place from up here, but who cares. We’ll soon be home – to the right coffee, muesli, marmalade, comfortable bed and 137 emails (not counting a similar number in wait for me at work).

Loo signs at Bergen airport