Our Norwegian kayaking guide has just one word for the miniature whales feeding on the far side of the fjord: “delicious”. Roar’s face is so deadpan that I can’t tell whether he is winding me up. Confident his fishing rod will be no match for these 1.5m nise whales, I ignore him and paddle closer to the chaotic splashing. They are elusive creatures, offering a tantalising glimpse of fin and tail as they tumble through the waves before slipping softly away as the first cruise ship of the day powers into sight.
Geiranger is one of Norway’s most famous fjords and, in midsummer, a constant stream of ships sail to the village at the head of the fjord, disgorging passengers into the souvenir shops for an hour or so before beginning the long journey back to sea.
It’s best not to think about the fragility of your kayak while paddling in the shadow of an ocean-going liner. Nor is it a good idea to start wondering whether the captain can actually see you from up there. Instead, I focus on exploring aspects of this narrow glacial valley unknown to cruise passengers: paddling behind thunderous waterfalls into hidden sanctuaries and filling my drinking flask with mountain fresh water; enjoying the intensity of the silence and the sense of insignificance you feel beside mountains plunging steeply from the clouds to the depths of the fjord; delighting in discovering for ourselves the impossibly enticing vistas around each hypnotic bend.
By mid-afternoon my shoulders are aching but there seems little prospect of a campsite along these sheer cliffs funnelling endlessly seawards. At tea break, all eight of us squash onto the narrowest of ledges, with barely enough room to keep our feet dry. But instead of the kettle, Roar instructs us to unpack the camping gear and soon we are scaling a vertiginous path around the cliff face, only chicken wire and a flimsy rail between us and a sharp drop to the water below.
Our destination is Skageflå, an abandoned farmstead perched on a hidden plateau 250m above the fjord. In days gone by, the only means of access was a perilous rope ladder dangled over the rocky precipice. Such remote farms were not unusual in a country where only three per cent of land is arable. Most were barely big enough to support one household and were virtually inaccessible in winter, although they did have one distinct advantage – farmers could simply pull up the ladder when the tax inspector came to call.
Today, steps have been blasted into the cliff face and, after 30 minutes of steady climbing, we emerge onto a surprisingly fertile field, a mass of overgrown grasses, berry bushes and gnarled fruit trees. There’s a rushing stream, a covered well and a tired wooden farmhouse with faded gingham curtains and forgotten enamel mugs on the window sill. And the view from here is simply stupendous.
On both sides of the fjord, snow-dusted mountain peaks stretch towards the sky, finally merging where the jade-coloured water bends out of sight. On the opposite cliff, tucked up by the source of the Seven Sisters waterfall, lies another ladder farm, invisible from the fjord below where the flotilla of cruise ships now resemble wind-up bath toys drifting softly seaward.
We pitch our tents in a meadow of wild flowers thanks to the historic Everyman’s Right, a principle dating back to Viking times which allows free camping anywhere in Norway for one night.
Actually, we’d like to stay at Skageflå much longer than one night. Long after the cruise ships have departed, we sit silently on the cliff edge, mug of wine in hand, losing track of time in the midsummer twilight that will linger until dawn. The facilities may be rudimentary, but it’s hard to imagine a more spectacular place to rest.
Sadly, we have devoured all our food and must return to the village tomorrow to restock. But the ever-resourceful Roar has a solution. There is something else we could eat,” he says, pointing over the edge of the cliff. Far below we can just make out the turbulent splashing of nise whales. There is an awkward moment’s silence before Roar bursts into laughter and we raise a toast to whale-free camp dinners.
• Geirangerfjord is located in Norway’s mid-west, 430km north of Oslo. In the summer months the fjord is accessible via the spectacular Romsdalen Valley and over the famous Trollstigen (Troll’s Ladder), where the road ascends a treacherous mountain by 11 double-back bends blasted into the rockface. You can also travel by bus from the airports in Bergen, or Ålesund (80km north-east of Geiranger). For more information on the area see www.geiranger.no. For information on independent kayak hire, see www.visitnorway.com.”