Cold calling: swimming in the Oslo fjord

Every swimmer knows they should never ever leave home without their swimming gear. Weddings, business trips, holidays – every trip away presents an opportunity for a swim, and a unique way to experience a new place. And so recently, on a visit to Oslo, Norway, I packed my swimming things. I mused over whether the fjord would be frozen yet. I knew very little about Oslo except that it was located on a fjord, and that it was cold. I trawled the internet for information on swimming in the city – and was disappointed to find that all of the outdoor pools would be closed for winter. Indoor pools didn’t take my fancy. Nonetheless I popped costume, hat, goggles and earplugs into my luggage and headed to the airport.

Day one: We find ourselves staying minutes from the new Opera House building right in the heart of Oslo on the waterfront. Our first day presents us with blue skies and water that looks like glass: flat and oh so enticing. The waterfront here is industrial though, with cranes and craggy rocks and large cruise liners. My boyfriend looks slightly alarmed as I wonder whether people swim there in summer …

Day two: We go out on a two-hour boat tour around Oslofjord – a large protected area of sea dotted with many islands of varying sizes. As we chug slowly around in our boat the other sightseers are wrapped in blankets hunkered against the October chill. I sit in my shirt sleeves staring at the water, thinking how enticing it looks. Calm and blue and clear, it calls to me. I wonder how many islands there are, and what it might be like to swim around them all.

Day three: I am now itching to swim in the fjord. As we go about our sightseeing business I collect information from random strangers on where the locals swim in the summer, what the temperature of the water might be, and how we might get to the “beach”. Everyone I ask about swimming in the fjord is astounded that I might be contemplating such an activity.

Day four: The water, I am informed, is around 13C. We set off to find the Oslo’s “beach”, which we are told is on “Museum Island” – aka Bygdøy, a peninsula on the western side of the city. Apparently, in the summer, 3,000 people descend on there each day to swim. We set off on the No 30 bus, which takes us through the suburbs and out to Museum Island, where the Kon-Tiki Museum and the Viking Ship Museum are. We go right past them, staying on the bus as the other tourists get off. Ours is not the conventional tourist trail. We scour the wooded suburbs for signs of water and beach. Finally we succumb and ask the bus driver. “We are looking for the beach. We want to swim.” “You want to swim??” The driver is incredulous but helpful. He points us in the direction of the shore and shows us the nudist beach for good measure – and tells us of a story about when he accidentally ended up on the nudist beach with his three-year-old son. “Daddy, why are we the only ones with clothes on?”

We studiously avoid the nudist beach and head down to the main strand. There are several small stony affairs with inlets and rocks and birds and the odd kayaker paddling in the water. There are the odd couple sitting bundled against the cold on benches. A mother watches her two young boys play on the rocks. The sky is a broody grey blue. It’s spectacularly peaceful.

We undress by the rocks. I carefully take off my clothes and repack them in the reverse order that I’ll want to put them on again. When you’re cold there’s no time for faffing about. I lay my borrowed hotel towel on the top of the pile. It’s not exactly a beach towel but it’ll just about do. I have my costume on under my clothes so it’s easy to strip off and head into the water. Hat, goggles, earplugs. I wave my cheery goodbye to my lovely and tolerant boyfriend and head into the water trying to not look too cold. We’ve agreed that I will go in first and have a little swim and then he will join. I’m used to the cold water but he isn’t, so I can stay for longer than him.

I wade in: it’s quite chilly. It probably is around 13C. My feet are cold and I’m picking my way carefully through mussel shells in the water by the tide line. I try to look cheerful and confident. Put my hands into the water. Splash my face. Taste the water – slightly salty. My goggles are steaming up with the warmth of my face and the cold of the water. Finally I can’t put it off any longer. I dive in and start swimming. The seabed drops away quickly and the water is dark. Eek. I know I’m a Channel swimmer and all that, but new bits of water deserve to be treated with respect. I swim out in a gentle curve looking, and look down. There are shoals of small black fish darting around me. Fabulous. Then I see a large lone orange jellyfish. If there was ever anything to spoil the peace of a swim it’s a jellyfish sighting. I swing wide and then swim more cautiously with more glances up and more scanning of the water. Fortunately it’s clear and black and so easy to see through.

I swim a wide arc back to the beach where my waiting boyfriend has now stripped off and is waiting at the water’s edge. “Be careful of the mussel shells,” I call. He wades in stoically. A gasp of air and he plunges forward. Suddenly he is breastroking beside me. He doesn’t like to put his head under. I offer my goggles so that he can see the shoal of fish below. He declines. Sometimes it’s better not to look. We swim a little together. I corral him so that he avoids the jellyfish. I feel like a protective mother hen. The water is beautiful. There are birds perched on the rocks. People watch us from the shore, but the fjord is ours.

We stay in for a few more minutes and then rush out and spend a good 20 minutes fumbling with cold hands trying to dress on the sand and rocks. What seemed like an improbable amount of extra warm clothes as we left the hotel seems just right now. We laugh and chatter excitedly and dress on the beach under too-small towels. My partner turns round and says proudly, with a big grin, “I feel young.” Yes. Isn’t that great? Younger, more alive, more free. We feel connected to that place, to Oslo, in a way that no museum trip will ever give you.

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