I am no athlete. My Norwegian friend is a compulsive rower. These two simple facts should have warned me against making the worst journey of my life while I stayed with her this summer in rural Norway. When Lise suggested sea-kayaking around Tjøme I had misgivings; the expedition sounded suspiciously like bobbing around in the open ocean, probably to be swept away and/or devoured by killer whales. And so, my worst ever journey occurred not on a rickety bus or over-exuberant camel, but inside (and outside) a vehicle of the gaudy orange, fibre-glass variety.
The setting could hardly have been more idyllic. Nicknamed 'Sommerøya' (The Summer Island) Tjøme is a small conclave of sequestered islets in southern Norway. Cerulean seas and ragged rock faces are peppered with painted wooden houses; beautifully bleak blues and greys adorned, jauntily, with these jewels of bright red and yellow. Both are caressed by Arctic winds that smell of ice and agelessness. Landscape and saline announce, somehow, that you are in Norway, land of Vikings and fjords and bears and a really rather excellent cheese-grater.
Imagining that I was traversing this island diaspora in just the way the Vikings had, pitting my strength against the waves, I steered this distant cousin of the longboat around half-hidden outcrops of rock and a speedboat, or two.
It took just two hours for my seafaring bravado to shatter, as I proved more deck-hand than weathered pillager. Waves started to make the kayak roll and lurch, taking my stomach along with it. Heaving and rocking with the boat, I felt the first murmurs of vertigo and gritted my teeth against the nausea swelling like the sea's undulations which caused it. First aid training taught me that the best antidote for nausea is to relax the stomach, yet here I was hunched inside a glorified surfboard, (meagre) abdominals tensed, pushing and pushing over what seemed like unending crests of icy salt-water.
Dizzy and drained, I began to despair. I could not conceive how I would ever regain the mainland, and I felt humiliated and weak. Ahead was Lise, surging forward, all smiles and waves. Had I been keeping up, Lise might have seen that I was crying. Or perhaps not; my face had long since been thickly encrusted with salt water. All the time I had visions of my very inexpert paddling catapulting one of the scores of jellyfish dotted around the waves directly into that face. The disconcertingly named brennmaneter is a staple of Norwegian summers by the sea, and something I'd become accustomed to, washing each morning in the shallows by Lise's summer-house. Still, I didn't much fancy one flying into my face.
Concentrating too much on the jellyfish-threat (while still keeping one paranoid eye out for dorsal fins on the horizon) was my biggest mistake. With no eyes checking the direction of the waves, one soon hit me side-on and I found myself capsized and immersed in sea water. The plastic 'skirt' that had kept my lower half dry while I paddled now held me fast to the kayak. For seconds that seemed like minutes I thought I would drown.
When I did surface, the soft-focus landscape around me told me that my contact lenses were now on their way to the ocean floor, no longer useful to me, but I hope to the aid of some short-sighted octopus. With my un-remedied -4.25 vision, I could no longer distinguish jellyfish from patches of light on the waves. Thrashing around in an attempt to reboard my kayak (in my vision-impaired state I was now grateful for its fluorescent orange hull), I felt a cobweb-like sensation on my leg, soon eclipsed by an acute burning.
I returned to Tjøme in disgrace, dragged on a bright yellow safety rope attached to Lise's kayak, oblivious to the Nordic beauty around me, awash with pain, thighs glowing crimson with tentacle-marks like the freshly-whipped back of a mutinous buccaneer. Thus my seafaring ended on a low; a potent mix of humiliation and agony.