To Hell and back

A wail of terror rises above the sound of seabirds and lapping waves. Jonathan is running down the road towards me, shouting and waving his camera bag around his head, as a pair of angry seagulls dive-bomb him like a scene from The Birds.  I grab his hand and we jump aboard the fishing boat that will take us to Hell, and take shelter in the wooden cabin.

Terror fades as the boat chugs away from the wooden jetty, passing the Norwegian village of Å (pronounced “awe”) where we’ll be spending the night. The island village’s red wooden buildings cluster on a narrow grassy margin at the feet of snow-capped mountains. Seagulls circle and shriek menacingly – they share the village with the local people, roosting on old buildings as well as on nearby rocks and cliffs. And it’s no wonder the seagulls are testy – seagull’s egg is a local delicacy.

Å is the southernmost village of Norway’s Løfoten Islands. Almost 200km north of the Arctic Circle – the latitude above which the sun never sets on Midsummer’s Night – the Islands are a craggy line of glacier-carved mountains jutting out of the Norwegian Sea. These spectacular islands are home to 35,000 hardy Norwegians, who share the grassy verges of this 200km-long island chain with millions of seabirds, including cormorants, seagulls, puffins and auks.

The seas around the Løfoten Islands are renowned for their wildness – documented in old Norse tales, Edgar Alan Poe’s The Maëlstrom and Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. We’re booked on a Maëlstrom Safari that will take us “to Hell and back”. Literally – we’ll be visiting the abandoned village of Hell, and crossing the original Maëlstrom from which the word comes.

The locals don’t mind the rough seas – the Løfoten archipelago is all about fishing. Winter is cod fishing season, when the fishermen lay their trawl nets in the icy fog with only moonlight to see by – the sun sets in mid-November and rises again in late January. Back on land, the cod heads and guts are removed and the cod are tied in pairs by the tail and hung out to dry. Every year 14 million kilos of cod are hung on Løfoten’s wooden drying racks, covering most of the islands’ sparse flat land. Three months in the Arctic sun and wind dry the fish and concentrate the nutrients and proteins into a treat revered all over Europe. In June, the fish is sorted into three main categories: Prima, Secunda and “Africa”. Most of the top grade dried cod, or stockfish, goes to Italy (for the traditional Friday fish meal) and Portugal. Africa gets the third rate fish – and the heads.

It’s almost July, and while most of the racks that cover the islands are empty, we pass a line of racks heavy with the last of the season’s cod, drying in the cool summer sun. In our warm winter woollies and windproof jackets we are underdressed compared to the Norwegians on board (who say “there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing”) who are all wearing waterproof trousers. Stopping en route, I’m handed a traditional handline, with four barbed hooks and a sinker, and instructed to let it down to the bottom 60 metres below. I do as I’m told, then slowly wind up the line. I repeat the process, but this time, on the up-wind, the line goes taught and becomes very, very heavy. Scared of what I might find at the other end I call for help and pass on the line. We have caught the biggest fish I have ever seen – an eight kilo haddock. The captain snags the fish on his barbed gaff and hauls it over the side of the boat. My courageous companion holds the great fish aloft while I grab the camera. Blood spurts from a severed artery (I didn’t know fish bled!) landing all over the deck and my companion’s jeans. Ah, so that’s why they wear waterproof pants.

I ask Arild, our fishing instructor, how he copes out here, fishing for cod in the freezing winter. He laughs long and hard. “Me a fisherman? No!” he says. “In winter I get on an aeroplane and go somewhere warm. For three months.” The rest of the time he’s here for the tourists – today to fillet our humungous haddock. “For the New Zealanders,” he says handing us an enormous fillet that will be enough to feed our hostel.

The fun is over. We batten down the hatches, snuggle up next to the cabin’s stove, and mark a course for the Maëlstrom. Jules Verne called the Maëlstrom the “Navel of the Ocean”, describing it as “a whirlpool from which no vessel ever escapes” and where whales and polar bears are sacrificed. Not the giant plughole I’d been led to expect, the Maëlstrom is instead a tidal current running through a shallow strait between the island of Moskenesøya and several islets. Midway between high and low tide the sea turns, turning the strait into a churning mass of water with dangerous whirlpools, eddies and currents. Maybe it takes a lot to shake a Wellingtonian used to crossing Cook Strait – I find the bumpy crossing exhilarating.

We emerge, ship intact, at the abandoned village of Hell. A few crumbling stone buildings look over the sheltered cove, now inhabited only by seabirds. Gulls flock and dive around us and cormorants bob in the water and nest on the rocks. High above us, cloud sits like a blanket on the tops of the steep mountains. Abandoned only recently, this area had been inhabited for thousands of years by hunters and fishers. In the village of Hell, the closest to the Maëlstrom, the furious waters, full of shoals of shiny fish, provided a livelihood – and entertainment. We’re told that locals would climb the mountain for a better view of the churning waters. In the years since Hell was abandoned for more agreeable sites, wild weather has battered the village into piles of stone amongst the long grass.

Appetites braced by our sea voyage, we chug back to Å for a meal. Nervous about tackling the fillet of haddock on our first night, we brave the circling gulls and head for Å’s only restaurant, built on stilts overlooking the water in one of the village’s many rorbu,  or fishermen’s huts. As well as seagull’s egg, the restaurant offers cod tongues, gravel laks and whale carpaccio. (Some of the Løfoten’s tourist boats take whale watching trips, which in Norway smacks of having your cake and eating it too.) We finish our day with a meal of gravel laks and fried cod (don’t want to tempt fate with those seagulls) and a stroll back to our hostel beneath the lazily circling midnight sun.

This story originally appeared as “One Hell of a good time” in The Dominion Post on 20 July 2004.

I travelled to the Lofoten Islands with assistance from Cathay Pacific and courtesy of Finnair and Norwegian State Railways.


One Response to To Hell and back

  1. Pingback: Kermadecs voyage #1: On the HNZMS Canterbury | Incredible events

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