I came to to the sound of the train, an urgent roar of wheels on rails punctuated by a rhythmic "clackety-clack". Opening my eyes I first looked at my watch, which was showing 6:40. With less than an hour to go before our arrival in Trondheim it would not be worth going back to sleep. I looked out of the window into a misty world. We were travelling through a flat bottomed but steep sided valley - in fact a classical glaciated "U" shape. The cloud was down over the valley sides, and tendrils of cloud hung between the trees like whisps of cotton wool. But the train was heading downhill, and slowly the valley sides stretched further away before the cloud swallowed them - it could not be long before Trondheim and the coast.
The "World's most beautiful voyage" initially seemed something of a misnomer. Awe inspiring, perhaps, but under a grey sky the grey rounded, rocky islands that we wound our way between could not really be described as beautiful. It was quite reminiscent of Scotland, although with rather more rock and rather less grass.
The ship, the "MS Narvik" was impressive. It fulfilled several functions simultaneously, all seemingly with remarkable ease. To perhaps the majority of its passengers, largely of pensionable age and apparently quite wealthy, it was a cruise ship. Hence the elegant looking restaurant, the bars and the luxurious lounge more reminiscent of a gentleman's club, its leather sofas and armchairs clustered around coffee tables and offering splendid views out of the curtained windows. However, it also fulfilled a more functional role in offering transport to both locals (few) and youthful backpackers, in which category I include myself. Although I initially felt slightly uncomfortable, intruding into the lounge with my slightly tousled appearance, creased clothes and cycle panniers it was clear that we too were catered for, with blankets folded on the ends of the comfortable sofas - for those of us without cabins to curl up under at night. And there was a third role for the ship, that of cargo vessel, with goods being on and off-loaded at each port of call.
As we wended our way northwards, the "beautiful" tag began to seem more appropriate. I spent much of the first day snoozing and reading, but as the evening drew on so the clouds began to thin, and at 11pm I found myself well wrapped up and standing on deck, watching the sun making its very very slow way down to the horizon, painting an orange path across the grey sea, flecked with the black shapes of islands. By 12, with little over an hour to go before local "mid-night", the sun had disappeared, leaving orange clouds glowing on the northern horizon. The boat slowed and executed a graceful pirouette to allow us to see the "mountain with a hole in it". Torghatten on the island of Torget does indeed posses the distinction, unusual among mountains, of having a natural hole which runs right through from one side to another. Looking through the mountain, set in a wild and rocky landscape in the half light of the seemingly everlasting dusk, it was easy to believe in Trolls and giants and other mythical peoples who once made this land their own.
The next morning was amazing. I was woken by the loudspeakers announcing, in Norwegian, English, German and French, that we were crossing the Arctic circle. I unwound myself from my blankets and looked out at a truly beautiful world. The sky had cleared, with just a few white whisps of cirrus contrasting with the deep blue. All around were high and jagged mountain peaks, streaked with dazzlingly white snow on their summits. The grey rock ran down until, splashed with the green of grass and trees, it met the pale blue sea, which, almost still, was sparkling as here and there it reflected the sun from high above. What's more it was warm, or even hot, under the bright sun.
The day which followed was one of one marvellous view after another, and I spent little time inside. We soon passed the Svartisen glacier and rendezvoused with a smaller boat which took a party off for a closer look. I don't think one of them was under sixty, and I was amused to see someone employed on the boat to film a commemorative video! Meanwhile, we progressed to Bodø, where we stayed for a couple of hours. I had a quick look round the town, which seemed nothing special, although perhaps was not helped by it being a Sunday afternoon, but I was fortunate enough to find a garage shop which stocked Gaz canisters!
Onwards again, the rest of the afternoon took us across open sea, with
the "Lofotenveggen" or Lofoten Wall becoming steadily more visible
in front of us. The islands seen from a distance appear as a high unbroken
wall stretching for 100 km along the horizon. Eventually one part of the
wall grew visibly closer than the rest and we docked in Stamsund. This
was almost journey's end for me, with only a couple of hours to go following
the chain of the islands eastward to Svolvær. It made, however, for
an impressive finale. The islands rise so steeply from the sea that we
followed the coast closely, at times no more than a few hundred yards from
massive rocky cliffs rising for literally thousands of feet up. At other
times a small coastal plain intervened before the mountains rose, blue
in the evening sunshine until their tops were dappled white with snow.
The last hour of the voyage passed quickly and at 9pm we docked in Svolvær.
I made my way down to the hold, loaded my panniers onto my bicycle and
waited as the hydraulic lift lifted myself and several other cyclists up
to the level of the quayside. The gangway was folded down and I cycled
off. One journey had finished, but another was just about to begin.