Shock and oar on a Norwegian camping trip

Tam Leach dodges yachts, skerries and festival goers while kayaking in Norway

"Do people have to have lessons before you let them take out your kayaks?" I ask Jan. Bobbing about ungraciously in the Skagerrak Sea of southern Norway, I'm trying hard to remember what little I've learnt on previous paddling excursions. Jan gently pushes my boat away from his. "No," he says, nonchalantly. "Only if they want to."

It's not always so easy for the part-time adventurer. Those who commit long-term to the outdoors have the necessary gear in their garages and location on their doorsteps to quickly become adept. In contrast, dilettantes like me rarely become the self-sufficient experts of our dreams. Courses offer the easy solution: confidence builders that take us to places – both mentally and literally – where we would never be able to venture without help. But under instruction, the ultimate responsibility for the adventure still lies with someone else. Here, paddling amongst the skerries of the Skagerrak, even a dabbler can strike out on their own.

I struggle with my stroke, disguising a much-needed rest for my arms with an investigative gaze across to the red-and-white-painted houses of Merdo. The sleepy little island was once a busy piloting station for Arendal, a historic harbour town on the mainland. These days the Galtesund Channel between the two sees mostly tourist traffic, popular with summering Norwegians from Oslo and the European yachting community.

"But isn't that a little, um, dangerous?" I ask, trying surreptitiously to shake out a shoulder cramp. "Don't you worry that you won't get your boats back in one piece?" Or, for that matter, his customers? For, despite a natural craving for self-sufficiency, caution from amateurs is generally encouraged. Even experts get caught out by the inconstancies of nature, but it tends to be the unprepared who blunder off-piste and into crevasses, get caught out in summer blizzards, fall off mountains – and drift out to sea. The over-confident weekend warrior is a source of both amusement and concern for outdoor guides and rescue teams the world over.

Jan should know a few things about safety. Guiding since 1989, this unassuming Norwegian was a member of the national kayaking team. He is currently the route and safety planner for 71° Nord, a long-running outdoor-activities-meets-Survivor reality TV show. Every winter he heads up to the north-western fjords of Norway to lead kayaking and backcountry skiing trips from his cosy seven-berth boat The Gazelle, which even has a wood-fired sauna tucked up in the bow. And in the summer? He returns to Arendal, his home town, relaxes with his family, and rents out his 30-strong fleet of sea kayaks.

"These boats are very stable," he says, smiling, not a flicker of anxiety on his face as I mis-stroke yet again. The bulkheads are waterproof, he explains, both to aid buoyancy and for the storage of camping equipment and supplies. But it's not so much the boats themselves that mean Jan can rest easy while his kayaks are in strangers' hands. His lack of concern has more to do with a safety feature built into his local geography.

"There are no tides," he shrugs.

Here in Norway's southern Sorlandet region, the kayaker is blessed by a fortuitous tidal phenomenon. Tidal flow heading north from the Atlantic splits around the British Isles, travelling up the west coast and around Scotland, and east through the English Channel and the North Sea. At Sorlandet the two flows meet, effectively cancelling each other out.

As we paddle past storybook summer houses, Jan points out stone jetties, built barely a foot above sea level. There's no need for piers when the water doesn't rise or fall. Thanks to the lack of a tide there is very little current, hardly any mud on the beaches, and the Gulf Stream-warmed water remains at a comfortable 17-18C throughout the year. Combined with Sorlandet's coastal topography, it makes for a sea kayakers' playground, a fragmented maze of sheltered waterways.

The English word "skerry" comes from the old Norse sker: a rock in the sea. Sorlandet boast hundreds, from small outcrops to islands big enough to support a village. Most are public land, bought up by forward-thinking communities from as far back as the beginning of the last century, and now part of the Skjaergardsparken, a protected park of skerries that stretches up the south east coast.

Overnight touring by kayak requires no special permit nor costly camping fees; public land rights in Norway permit camping for up to two nights in any location, provided the chosen spot is not in a field and is at least 150m away from a house. Pick your deserted skerry, pull the kayak up over the rocks, and settle down for the night.

Far from barren, these rocks benefited from southern Norway's once-mighty timber trade. Boats returning from their deliveries – to London, for example, after the Great Fire caused a rush on Norwegian wood – used soil as ballast, which was then dumped on the uninhabited skerries. The result is an unexpected diversity and abundance of flora. Possibly too much: on some islands residents have installed sheep and goats as permanent lawn mowers. Moorings, toilets and bins are maintained along the archipelago by coastal rangers and local community groups, with hot showers and washing machines available free at the guest harbours in the villages. Well-kept commercial campgrounds dot the coast, many with cabins to rent.

We paddle around little Gjesoya (Goose Island) and past the campground on neighbouring Hove, a large, wooded island which hosts the Hove Festivalen each June. This music festival, which began in 2006, is notable not just for an idyllic location and the organisers' impeccable musical taste (heavy on bright young alt. rockers), but for the provision of both bikes and kayaks to transport festival goers from the bus station in Arendal to the festival site. Oh – and in a region where one in 10 of the population owns a boat, the option of bringing your own vessel to camp.

Jan provides the kayaks; though Arendal's bars and cafés throng with out-of-towners throughout the summer, the community is small and local connections strong. Paddling back towards town, we meet another of his friends. Atle runs fishing trips aboard his shrimp trawler. Pulling up alongside, he passes us a steaming plastic bag full of freshly boiled prawns. No muesli bars for our paddling snack; we bob in the channel, peeling the prawns and eyeing up an approaching raincloud.

"What if people want to stay in Arendal?" I ask, arms now aching. Self-sufficiency is all very well, but sometimes you need a hot shower, a cold beer, and a warm bed. "Bring a bike lock," replies Jan. "Paddle into the harbour and lock the kayak up in your hotel car park." He looks at me as if his answer was obvious, but I'm a dabbler: I'm not used to adventuring being this easy.

Traveller's Guide:

GETTING THERE
The gateway to Sorlandet is Kjevik airport in Kristiansand, served by Norwegian (020-8099 7254; 00 47 21 49 00 15; www.norwegian.no) from Stansted. Buses depart to Arendal and other coastal towns hourly, with more frequent service during peak periods (00 47 35 91 28 00; www.nettbuss.no and www.flybussen.no).

KAYAKING THERE
Rent sea kayaks in Arendal from Fasting Outdoor (00 47 95 93 83 37; www. fastingoutdoor.no). The price is NOK450 (£43) per day, NOK1200 (£116) per week. Lifejackets and rescue equipment included; camping gear can also be supplied. Fasting Outdoor will suggest routes and can provide an guide to get you started, but all trips must be arranged well in advance.

HOVE FESTIVALEN
24-28 June 2008, general admission NOK1,890 (£182) www.hovefestival.com.

MORE INFORMATION
Innovation Norway (the Norwegian Tourist Board): www.visitnorway.com/uk Sorlandet Tourist Board: www.visitsorlandet.com

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