Lost and Found

Winning entry in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece by Sinean Callery is the winner of our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find a list of the thirteen longlisted entries here.

Lost and Found

I do not know this man.

The one sharing my tent, pretending to sleep. His hands are crossed on his chest, rising and falling with each breath. They are the first thing I noticed, when we met. Their size and strength. He briefly shook the hand I offered and turned away immediately, not pausing to meet my eyes. Gruff then too, but he had an excuse. Neither of us had slept, and there was a lot to do.

For the next month, we would guide tourists through the Tysfjord in Northern Norway. Moving from camp to camp by sea kayak, our days were beautiful and terrifying. Rough water, calm minds. Berries and bare rock. We learned the moods of the sea, watching the wind and the waves with wary, weary eyes. The mountains were paperweights on our map, holding our course steady. Communication was wordless and easy, and our love of nature brought us closer. Days into our friendship, we had already planned an adventure together.

One year later, we share a tent in Southern Norway, sheltering from rain that has even the hardy locals cowering. The plan is to move through this land of mountains and water using a packraft – an inflatable expedition boat that can be rolled up and carried in a rucksack. Our route first takes us through the Lysefjord, a 42-kilometre-long fjord near Stavanger. It gets its name – Lys for light – from the bleached rock of its steep walls. We will then continue up onto the plateau behind to explore a wilderness pearled by lakes strung on winding rivers. Our map is a maze of loosely joined water written onto the age-old stone, and we are clearly out of our depth.

The walls of the fjord, 1000 metres high in places, loom over our bright blue packraft. Seal heads pop up frequently, round eyes scrutinising us. My heart jumps twice each time I see them – once for joy, once for the fear of what their teeth could do to our inflatable vessel. Each passing ferry sends waves which ripple along the thin sheet of plastic separating us from the depths, before bouncing off the fjord walls and calling back in choppy chaos.

My shoulders are tense, not only from the endless paddling. Nowhere to stop, nothing to cling onto; the only way is through. We reach Lysebotn, and are driven up to the plateau. Cross a lake to Nilsebu hut, pack the raft, hike over a mountain pass, inflate the raft and cross another lake. Then comes a weir, and a long, shallow river. We pull the raft through water which sometimes climbs to our waist and then back to our ankles. The next weir marks the spot where we can follow a marked trail up into the mountains, and into the alien landscape we seek.

On the plateau, the first thing that strikes me is the silence. It is barren up here, all rolled rocks and windswept distance. The shallow valleys carved by slow-flowing ice millennia ago are now filled with water in all its forms – some still frozen in snow or falling through the air in frequent downpours. It’s a violent landscape, with tear-stained cliffs and bruised skies. From those who wish to roam, it demands skinned knees, twisted ankles and bloody fingers. Once you pay the toll though, you will find freedom in this space which is endless to your tiny self.

The fights that started on the long drive from Germany to Norway only worsen with the weather. The rain is relentless now as Storm Hans rages over Norway, but another type of storm brews in this little tent. With each obstacle we meet, each alternative offered and each piece of resistance dared, its dark clouds build. Now they form a wall impenetrable to reason. The winds of that storm drag me into their whirl, and I fear I am going mad.

We are being watched.

Camped beside a river, we are surrounded by cliffs whose brows are beaded with glacial erratics. Those giant heads teeter over us, silhouetted black against the last of the light. Their scatter looks purposeful, made regular by the distance. They are poised to attack, just waiting for night to fall on us. Everything up here feels topple-ready. I seek stability, roaming endlessly and returning to the tent only when the light retreats. Our peace has shattered in the storm, but among its shards, my feet grow steady in the pathlessness of the plateau. I bask in its solitude. There is freedom here, and joy.

I hardly knew this man when we set off into the storm. I do not know him now, not anymore.

More information

For more information about our New Travel Writer of the Year competition and what it involves, head to our competitions page.