It’s official: I am now an Outdoor Ambassador of Sweden. I spent five days in Bohuslän learning all there is to know about the outdoor pursuits and cuisine of the region, with the Outdoor Academy of Sweden. Here’s how it went:
As the aeroplane descended into a blanket of dense pine forest, my fingers began to tap on my knees – of their own accord – with impatience. The time between landing in a new destination and actually emerging from the airport is always an agonisingly lengthy exercise, but in this instance, it only served to increase my excitement at the thought of gulping down my first gasps of fresh Scandinavian air.
A scenic drive took us from Gothenburg to TanumStrand, near Grebbestad, where our coastal adventures would begin. Unfortunately, ominous grey skies and cold winds left me a little less than enthusiastic about donning the neoprene and hopping into a kayak the next day. I’d never been in anything more adventurous than a bright yellow, duck-shaped pedalo, and I’m not the strongest swimmer. Sea-kayaking sounded like it was going to be a challenge.
“Welcome to Sweden, and welcome to Bohulsän,” grinned Martin Kössler, representative of the Scandinavian Outdoor Group, gesturing towards the impressive granite mounds rising from the moody ocean behind him. He stood calmly at the water’s edge as the rest of us hopped from one foot to another, huddling together like penguins in an attempt to conserve our body heat.
“There are thousands of islands along this coastline,” he informed us, “and the calm waters and relatively warm temperatures make perfect conditions for kayaking.” I tucked my chin further into my jacket and hugged my arms around myself a little tighter. “The sun, I assure you, will be here tomorrow.” Martin smiled as he saw my raised eyebrow, leaving me unsure as to whether he was telling the truth, or some sort of Swedish joke.
Thankfully, Swedish clothing company Didriksons came to the rescue the next day, supplying us with layers of weather-proof clothing, as well as some rather fetching thermal underwear. Now I understood how Martin had braved the cold winds: he wasn’t Iron Man, he just had himself a decent pair of long johns.
After collecting our kit, we headed to Grebbestad to pick up the kayaks and receive basic training from our guides, Katherine and Torbjörn of the Nautopp kayaking centre. As an inexperienced (and slightly nervous) kayaker, I joined forces with Ninnan (Visit Sweden, Germany) in a double kayak, which was so sturdy it wouldn’t capsize if it hit an iceberg.
Although the sky was a pale grey, the rain was definitely at bay and with my neoprene outfit and a robust spray skirt protecting my lower body, I was surprisingly warm. This comfort, plus the absolute serenity of gliding through clear glass water between striking, barren rock formations, was an unexpected treat. I was stunned by the silence.
After paddling for what seemed like hours (looking back I’m guessing it was about one and a half), a silhouette appeared upon the horizon. As far as I was aware, we were in the absolute middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing but slate sky, granite islands and cool water, so what was a huge statue of a dove doing out here?
Torbjörn turned his kayak to face us as we hurried to catch up with him, like ducklings. As we bobbed on the water, resting our weary arms, he explained that this isolated house with its majestic bronze dove surveying the waters was the home of the late Hollywood actress Ingrid Bergman, the Swedish superstar who sought her privacy off the shores of west Sweden. It was a poignant, haunting sight.
Three hours of kayaking soon flew by, and we reached Valö Island, just opposite Fjällbacka, our resting place for the night. A hot shower and home-cooked meal had never seemed so appealing. Relieved of my kayaking fears, I was itching to get back out onto the water. The good wine and sea air did its job and I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
Settling into my new position at the back of the kayak the next day, I let down the rudder and steered us smoothly out of the dock. Okay, that’s a lie. I attempted to steer us out of the dock several times before succeeding. For some reason I kept confusing which pedal related to which direction, which often saw Ninnan and I nearly collide into granite precipices, or our equally petrified fellow kayakers.
Something had changed. Overnight it seemed my biceps and shoulders had frozen; I could almost hear them creak as I paddled. Each stroke felt like wading through hot tar. My movements were clumsy and my arms felt weak. Suddenly the three hour kayak back to Grebbestad didn’t seem so appealing.
When we pulled up on an island to rest and refuel, Torbjörn gave me some more tips on my kayaking techniques (it’s easier to push with your outside arm rather than pull with the leading one), while Katherine, clearly concerned I was going to keel over any second, pressed a bottle of cola and some crisps into my hands with a motherly look.
Back in the trusty front seat with Chris, my new kayak buddy steering us, my improved paddling technique worked a charm and soon we were at the front of the pack, speeding alongside our guides. The water was so clear we could see pebbles on the seabed, and overhead an eagle soared. With nothing but the sound of your own thoughts and the rhythmic splash of the paddles to propel you forward, sea-kayaking is a remarkably calming experience.
Before I knew it, we were back on dry land. I instantly missed the lulling waves and the pure wilderness of the archipelago. Somehow I knew there was so much more to see.
By Emma Sparks, My Destination