The minute flicked round: 23.59… 00.00. Midnight illuminated in digits. But I didn’t need the glow of my watch in order to read the time. Sitting out on the decking in the middle of June at around 69°N – above the Arctic Circle – light was not a problem. The sun still loitered high above the horizon, soaking the fjord, the islets and the snow-dusted mountains beyond in a warm and long-lasting ‘golden hour’. A pair of oystercatchers flew by. A gull cawed. Clear, icy waters barely tickled the rocks below. All was still, quiet, calm.
I’m not that much of a night owl but it was tough to pull myself away and into bed when there seemed to be so much more day to use. This was proper Slow Travel: go on a summer walking trip in far-north Norway and there’s certainly no need to hurry – with the sun refusing to set between mid-May and mid-July, you have all the time in the world.
While many travellers heading to this region make a beeline for the Lofotens, I’d come instead to Senja, another wild, mountainous isle off the country’s Arctic coast, wedged between the better-known archipelago and the city of Tromsø. Senja is, perhaps, what the Lofotens were like before everyone fell in love with them. Jagged rock spires, deep fjords, photogenic wooden houses painted rich yellow and deep red, beaches of dazzling white sand, seas of Caribbean-like blue – but empty roads and few other people.
I don’t know why the other people weren’t here. At every bend in the road, at every twist in the trails, my flabber was gasted, my jaw dropped, at what proved to be a relentlessness of the spectacular. There were walks that took me to end-of-the-world-drama promontories, where sea eagles harried the nesting birds; there were fairytale-tinged forest strolls where I’d have been unsurprised to meet the legendary huldrefolk (hidden people); and there were high-point hikes on which I quickly, and pathetically, ran out of suitable words, reduced simply to repeating: “wow”.
A case in point: the walk up the broad shoulder of 600-metre-high Husfjellet, on Senja’s northwestern coast. I didn’t make a start up this mountain until late afternoon – no rush, after all, plenty of daylight. As I set off through the birch trees, next to a small white church, the weather was a little unsure, clouds squashing the sky in close, muting the colours, cooling the air. But still, the views were immense. With each springy step up the steadily climbing trail, more mountains appeared – ahead, behind, left and right – so that by the time I reached the top, walking the final few hundred yards over yet-to-melt snow, I was surrounded. To one side a ridge fell away to a Middle Earth of geological surge and tumble; some rock faces swooped away like ski-jumps, others soared like monstrous broken teeth, with navy fjords incising wherever they could. And down below lay the ‘Hundred Islands’ of Bergsøyan – a protected archipelago of tiny, low-lying skerries reserved only for seals and birds.
It was magnificent. And then the clouds began to rise and tear, and the tendrils of low mist shifted, so that – suddenly – this breathtaking scene was bathed in brightness. With added light, the alpine flowers popped pinker and the turquoise water edging the islands shone like neon. Even more peaks were revealed to be hiding behind those already seen, a formidable army, ice helmets on, gathered beneath the blazing sun. Wow indeed.