“Of course you have stayed in a yurt before?” says Vebjørn Haugerud, as I step warily into a long green canoe. Of course I haven’t, and nor can I call upon previous experience of the task now cheerfully ordered upon me: assuming sole charge of a boat and navigating it to an appointed destination. Zig-zagging across a small lake towards an island clustered with beige canvas cones, I marvel at Norway’s split personality. Sober, responsible and lavishly cosseted from 9am to 5pm, in their downtime the natives devolve into rough and ready outdoorsmen with a passion for gung-ho recklessness.
Mountain bicycles, in any other country, rarely tackle anything more demanding than a muddy towpath. But when I eventually bump into the tiny island’s jetty, I take one look at the knobbly-tyred bikes stacked around a campfire, another at the flanks of bare rock rising up beyond the lakeside trees, and accept I will soon be getting the two together.
Southern Telemark has plenty of lonely corners, and the Canvas Hotel, a couple of miles outside the village of Treungen, is one of the loneliest. Getting here from Oslo airport has required a five-hour journey by train and car, rounded off with a 2km lurch up a formidable track in Haugerud’s four-by-four. The hotel is the dreamchild of an especially hardcore Norwegian. Haugerud’s boss, Jan Fasting, spent 14 years working on 71 Degrees North, a survivalist reality TV show, and recently kite-sailed across the Northwestern Passage. “This landscape is like a mountain-biker’s fantasy,” says Fasting, leading me along slatted walkways laid over the squishy tussocks. “But I wanted a place that was also special when you aren’t riding.”
Smoke coils from the sauna yurt’s chimney, and retro hurricane lamps dangle from poles. Fasting points out the old tin baths lined up on an appealing lakeside terrace, and the petrol-pump hose that fills them from a wood-fired water heater. It’s like an upscale commune, or some training camp for millionaire preppers.
The impression of spartan luxury hardens when I follow Fasting through the hobbit-sized entrance into my felt-lined yurt, a pocket circus tent on the water’s edge. The huge bed is swaddled in crisp linen, and candles glow inside birdcage chandeliers. A well-stocked vintage wood-burner awaits the touch of a lighted match. I stoop through the back door and find myself on a slatted verandah built over the lake, with a private view of spindly trees and black water. Even under an unpromising sky it is all rather magical.
With a downpour and dinner imminent there’s just time for a swift acclimatisation ride with Haugerud — guests are no longer allowed out alone, after one too many got lost. Many visitors are fanatics who bring their own MTBs — the mountain bikers’ preferred abbreviation — but the hotel keeps an impressive fleet of upscale machines. With a startling absence of preamble, we’re helmeted and straight off, away from the island over a gangplank bridge to the mainland and directly up a sharply tilted slab of bare granite. “This is what people come for,” Haugerud calls over his shoulder. “We’re riding into Europe’s largest rock field.” My appreciation is expressed with a raspy grunt: the gradient is no problem for the bike, but as an under-conditioned novice I’m in bottom gear and spinning the pedals madly.
The relief when Haugerud wheels around and points us back downhill towards camp is short-lived. Those chunky tyres retain miraculous traction, and disc brakes summon a dead halt with the gentlest squeeze of the levers. But while learning to trust the bike’s capabilities, and before finding any of my own, I go straight over the handlebars. Twice. After helping me up a third time, Haugerud seems to grasp that false modesty played no part in my pre-ride pleas: though I’ve done a lot of cycling on roads, off them I genuinely don’t know what I’m doing. “Your dropper is up,” he says, with an air of disappointment. As I stiffly remount, Haugerud points out a little lever on the handlebars: I press it, and the seat post sinks under my weight like an office chair. “This form of cycling is all about moving your centre of gravity. Going up, you lean forward, and going down, you drop the post so you can sit right back over the rear wheel.” Then the heavens open and I wobble damply back to camp, fiddling with my dropper.
The Canvas Hotel’s social focus is its dining marquee, and we dash in from the rain to find Desmond Ngoni, the gregarious Zimbabwean chef, introducing his evening menu. He has me at butter-poached asparagus. In the days ahead I will eat splendidly, a tribute both to Desmond’s talent and the masterful logistics required to deliver high-quality ingredients to the middle of nowhere and keep them fresh. No less miraculous, in its way, is the successful operation of an honesty-based alcohol register in this cashless environment: you help yourself, record your consumption and make a tally on departure.
“A campfire was my inspiration for this place,” says Fasting, after I squeeze in beside him on a sheepskin-covered bench. “When people sit around a fire they really feel together, but the weather here is not always helpful so I brought the fire inside.” With a sizzling hiss he drops a marinated steak on the grill plate before us, one of six set into the communal dinner table. “The capacity here is 20 people — in my experience that’s the maximum for a good campfire.”
The sense of cosy conviviality is enhanced by the rain bulleting off our canvas roof. I discuss Brexit with the German couple opposite, and chat to the young Swede beside me about his passion for mountain biking (“I’m from Gothenburg — even a small hill is about five hours’ drive away”). Fasting holds forth on friluftsliv, the national ethos of outdoor living. “We have a special bond with nature, a need to engage with it actively.” He flips his steak on the grill plate. “Did you know that 20 per cent of all the meat eaten in Norway is hunted?” The lingua franca lubricates the conversation: even the Swedes and Norwegians talk to each other in English. So does the loose licensing. “The bar is open until you tell me to close it,” announces Desmond as he clears the table.
Morning brings blue sky and a cobweb-clearing rinse in the esoteric al fresco showers: you fill a watering can from that petrol-pump hot-water hose, then effortfully sling its handle through an overhead hook. After a bacon-centric breakfast, all 20 of us, bar the odd bike-shy spouse, saddle up, wobble over the gangplank and head for the hills.
There are over 100km of trails laid out around the hotel, and we’re soon deep into the most spectacular. Our little peloton files across chuckling streams and up heathery dales. The trail slaloms through thickets of pine and birch, and thrums over boggy pastures on narrow slatted tracks like giant Ikea mattress bases. There are epic stretches of lichen-speckled smooth granite, “slick-rock” in the MTB argot. With a reedy whoop and whitened knuckles, I swoop down and up a pendulous Indiana Jones rope-bridge laid over a bouldered chasm. I also fall off quite a lot.
Haugerud and his fellow guides take turns to dust me down. I’m told I need to bend my legs slightly on the descents, “like human suspension”, and to keep the pedals level at quarter-to-three, to avoid clipping the trail-side rocks and tree roots that bring about most of my tumbles. Mainly, I’m told to go faster. “Speed carries you through so many dangers,” says Haugerud. I’m sure he’s right, but to me this sounds all kinds of wrong. In consequence I arrive at the trail’s lofty endpoint muddy, bruised and a distant last. At least I do so unnoticed: everyone stands wordlessly astride their mounts, awed by the vista spread out beneath us. Long grey whalebacks of granite rise from a thousand heathered hillsides. A vast wilderness without a trace of rival humanity.
In truth I never quite get the hang of mountain biking. It dawns on me that the technique required is more akin to something else I’ve never quite got the hang of: horse riding. The crucial shifts in weight, the importance of letting your body relax when your brain is urging it to brace for impact, the painful employment of obscure and underused muscles. I sprain an ankle, bruise a rib, and repeatedly graze my knees and knuckles against sharp bits of bicycle and Norway. Progress is fitful: too much pain for not enough gain. And so I gradually phase out the two-wheeled element of the Canvas Hotel experience, in favour of its sedentary indulgences. One afternoon disappears in the sauna tent, and another is swallowed up in one of those steaming lakeside baths. The evenings pass in a companionable fug of woodsmoke and sizzling meat. Just before my final sunset, I look out from my yurt’s verandah and see a large gentleman with splendid grey sideburns paddle a canoe up to the jetty and unload a guitar case. For the following two hours we are memorably serenaded outside the dinner tent by Keith Austin, a former member of Dr Hook. “Now here’s one from our best-selling album,” says Keith, halfway through his set. “Record called Pleasure and Pain.” My laugh ends with a yelp of rib-based agony.
Tim Moore was a guest of Canopy and Stars, which has a collection of unusual accommodation in Sweden, Finland and Norway. A yurt for two at the Canvas Hotel costs from £367 including full board
Main photograph: Thomas Svendsen
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