Ona & Husøya: A tiny paradise off the Norwegian fjord coast

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Today, the navigational light up on the hill changes automatically from white to red and green. The last of the keepers who kept vigil up here at the lighthouse every Christmas with his grandson is long buried in the small graveyard facing the fjords on the adjacent island. With him rest a few dozen other souls, former inhabitants of these small Norwegian Sea twin islands called Ona and Husøya. Situated exactly in the middle between the former medieval capital of Norway, Trondheim, and the Hanseatic city of Bergen, Ona is the island located furthest away from the mainland in this region. It shields its twin Husøya from the open sea. The two islands almost form one landmass and are connected by a narrow inconspicuous bridge. A ferry transports supplies, tourists and locals to and fro between the mainland and the islands five times a day. After an one-and-a-half-hour journey from Småge, the ferry docks in a small harbour in Ona. A stone statue of a woman welcomes the people descending on land. With one hand she holds a child to her breast and with the other she shields her eyes from a setting sun or a merciless wind, her whole posture an expression of anticipation.
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We arrive on the evening ferry. Even though it is almost eight, the sun is still bright and it will take two more hours to set; quite a change after the short winter days of Cape Town in August. We move into a spacious grey house next to the harbour, rented out before it is to be sold to a new owner. Downstairs is a café selling svele – traditional big fluffy pancakes one can have with butter and sugar or brown goat’s cheese, a Norwegian speciality. We already had them on the ferry where, we have been assured, they always taste best.
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With an estimated fifty permanent inhabitants Ona and Husøya do not require much of an infrastructure, yet they provide a small cosy hotel with a restaurant, a well-stocked grocery shop with some banking and postal facilities, and two ceramic workshops – all situated in the vicinity of the harbour. Ona is famous for its ceramics. The two shops are a paradise for a coffee-mug collector like myself. Both showcase original designs. As if on purpose, the one located east of the harbour specialises in light, pastel colours and frivolous patterns. ‘These all look as if they were wearing pyjamas,’ my husband comments with a smile. The other workshop, located on the other side of the harbour, offers dark, elegant products which immediately catch my fancy. I add a tall, distinguished-looking, dark blue mug to my collection. I have been enjoying my afternoon coffee in it ever since.
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There is hardly any traffic on the few paved roads of the two islands, and everything is within easy walking distance. The ancient maroon-red lighthouse built on Ona in 1867 remains the main sightseeing attraction. Located on a hilltop near the harbour, fifteen meters tall, it is the perfect vantage point for the entire island. Grey boulders covered with moss and grass dominate the landscape into which the inhabitants have fitted large family homes and small holiday cottages. People have lived here for centuries, but most of the buildings are modern and very well kept. Some of the roofs are covered with thick turf, which creates perfect insulation in winter. In summer, the green roofs look like flower hats. Some people grow herbs near the edge of the roof, ready anytime to be picked for a salad. Others cultivate wild strawberries on top of their houses. Another striking feature of the local architecture is colour. Houses are painted in intensely bold colours, creating the impression of a fairytale setting. And now, in late summer, nature displays all her picturesque glory, adding to the impression. The intoxicatingly fresh smell of the sea penetrates the air and makes one want to go fishing.
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Svein Bjørnerem, a local journalist visiting his mother on Ona for the weekend, arranges a trip for us with Tore Viken, one of the island’s young fishermen, when he goes out to sea to bring in the day’s catch. Forgetting my proneness to seasickness, I eagerly join the excursion. I do suffer a bit, but the excitement is too big to spoil the occasion. As Tore pulls in the line with some 300 hooks on it, out of nowhere dozens of seagulls begin to swoop down to our small boat. A truly Hitchcockian scene, but these birds are not interested in us. They are eagerly awaiting their share of the feast. We return home with fresh cod and haddock which Tore fillets for us. An hour later the fish is on the dinner table, the freshest and finest we have had in a long time.
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The next day is a Saturday. My husband wakes me up very early to witness a spectacular sunrise. The sky seems on fire; its reflection makes the perfectly still sea in the harbour look like billowing hot lava. I run out in my nightgown to take photographs. Later in the morning the entire island is abuzz with activities. We are told that a couple from a neighbouring island got married and are to celebrate their wedding on Ona. Guests arrive on the ferry and chartered boats, some dressed in beautiful traditional costumes to feast our eyes on. The celebrations continue late into the night, but we are hardly aware of them, deeply asleep after spending the day on an idyllic white-sand beach on Husøya. The beach is situated near the cemetery where some gravestones date back to the early nineteenth century, others have only recently been set up. All people we speak to tell us about the famous Swedish crime author Henning Mankell visiting the island a few years ago. Allegedly, upon seeing this graveyard, Mankell expressed his wish to be buried on Husøya when the time came for his final rest.
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The beauty of the twin islands and the sense of inner calm one experiences here make Mankell’s wish perfectly understandable. None the less, my mind is flooded by other visions. A creative project not requiring contact with the outside world to work on and a few months away from everyday life seem like the ideal plan for this magical place. One feels creatively inspired the moment one sets foot on the islands. They could, for example, be the perfect setting for a novel. I wouldn’t be surprised if, before he comes to rest here, Mankell immortalises Ona in one of his books.
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On Sunday, before we have to leave, we make a final trip to the beach for a picnic lunch. The sun is generous again, the water crystal-clear. In stormy seasons the waves along this coast sometimes swell to thirty meters, but during our visit the sea is a calm and deep aquamarine expanse. Some people brave the cold water and go for a refreshing swim. By midday the tide begins to come in. Three ornithologists have set up a tent nearby to observe some birds which we cannot detect. In our ignorance we only recognise the seagulls which are everywhere. The only other bigger animal we encounter on the island is a cat which follows us on one of our excursions, dropping to the ground every now and then to wallow in the earth warmed by the late afternoon sun.
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After only a few days, Ona feels like home and it is difficult to say goodbye. From the departing ferry I see another, even smaller, white beach near the one we have visited but which remained hidden from our view on land. One of the twin islands’ treasures which still waits to be discovered. I know I will return one day to find it.

(2008)

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