Kjesen is well-known for being one of Norway’s most remote inhabited areas. While getting here is an exciting adventure, it’s the views from the top that truly inspire.
The road to Kjesen, a mountain farm deep in western Norway’s fjord country, appears to be a dead end.
The road winds from Eidfjord past wooden waterside cabins and oxblood-red farm buildings, hugging the shoreline of Simadalfjord, a tiny arm of Hardangerfjord. It rarely sees traffic, which is fortunate because the margin for error is measured in inches: one lapse in concentration and you’re in trouble.
The forecast for a road trip is not promising. On three sides, sheer rock walls so steep that they cast shadows on the valley floor for months each year isolate the Simadalen valley from the rest of the world. Where the fjord comes to an end, The road winds through pine and spruce forests, crosses a rushing stream fed by waterfalls, and eventually comes to a fork. Turning right, the road soon ends in the forest, its path blocked by rock walls hundreds of metres high. Turn left in the direction of Kjesen, and the journey appears equally unimpressive due to the lack of any obvious way forward.
I’m taking this route because my destination isn’t like any other. Kjesen is 600 metres above Simadalfjord, and its small collection of farm buildings is famous throughout Norway as one of the country’s most isolated inhabited corners. For the majority of its long history, there was no road up to where it now stands, perched on a narrow grassy ledge, hidden from the outside world but enthralled by one of the country’s most spectacular views.
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It was one of the most difficult and beautiful places to reach in Norway at the time. To get to Kjesen, a perilous two-hour climb using rope ladders and rope bridges across an icy landscape was required. There were once up to 13 children at Kjesen, and their daily commute to Simadal school was a perilous four-hour round trip. Because supplies had to be carried up the dangerous mountain trail on the backs of the builders, one of the buildings still standing at Kjesen took 30 years to build at the end of the 19th century.
To have chosen to live there, cut off from the rest of the world, must have been a conscious act of escape or solitude. It’s impossible to imagine from where I am, down below, where Kjesen is just a name on a road sign. In fact, it’s easy to doubt that Kjesen even exists.
There are numerous theories about who were the first people to settle here. “One is that a soldier deserted from the Swedish army,” Heidi Kvamsdal, a photographer, local historian, and Eidfjord native, explained. “Another theory is that the first people tried to flee the Black Death [in the 14th century]”. People abandoned Kjesen for more than 150 years in the aftermath, according to Kvamsdal. However, “we know that permanent settlement has existed there since the early 16th century.”
In the 1950s, when Swedish writer Bror Ekström visited and wrote Folket p Kjesen (People of Kjesen), news of Kjesen reached a fascinated outside world. The book told the story of a one-of-a-kind farm community, a world unto itself. of mountain families cut off from the outside world, yet somehow surviving against the elements. It was a story about inaccessibility and miraculous beauty. And the public was captivated by their stories of isolation and resilience.
Bjrg Wiik moved to Kjesen in 1967 to help her aunt look after the farm, and she was joined by her sister Guri in 1975 when their aunt died. The two sisters, who were originally from Oslo, lived here alone until Guri died in 1999. Bjrg lived here year-round until she was in her 90s in 2019, and she still visits with family members during the summer.
All kinds of people came; some in wheelchairs, some very old, even people who were blind. They all had a common goal: they needed to visit this place
The 8-kilometer access road was not completed until 1975. But the journey did nothing to lessen Kjesen’s allure. Rather, it was an open invitation to the curious. Elin Kvale, a local guide who moved to Eidfjord with her husband during the road’s construction in 1975, would later take the first tourists to Kjesen. She recalls how “People of all ages and abilities attended, including those in wheelchairs, the elderly, and the blind. They were all united in their desire to visit this location. The majority of the people had read the book at least once. They felt as if they were on holy ground.”
Despite the road, Guri and Bjrg never learned to drive; they preferred to walk or ride their bikes. If they needed supplies, they summoned friends from the valley. In any case, even a road couldn’t keep up with the depths of a Norwegian winter. In 1994, 3m-deep snow cut the sisters off from the outside world for more than a month. The snows were less of a problem than the strong, icy winds that can rage at these altitudes, provided they had planned carefully and stockpiled enough supplies: to this day, the roofs of all the farm buildings here are held in place by anchored steel cables. When the sisters became ill with influenza while cut off by snow, a helicopter had to airdrop medicine and food to the afflicted residents.
According to Kvale, autumn was always Bjrg’s favourite season at Kjesen, and when I start my own drive up here on a cold and cloudy November morning, the road appears deserted. But first, I’ll have to wait. Because the road is so narrow, a one-way system is in place: cars driving up to Kjesen must do so on the hour, while those driving down must do so half an hour later.
With no other vehicle in sight as the clock strikes twelve, I turn onto the Kjesen road and begin to climb. The road cuts a sinuous path beneath towering cliffs, hairpin bend after hairpin bend, switchback after switchback, gaining altitude all the while. This stretch of road is only 2.5 kilometres long. But the valley is already far below.
The road suddenly has nowhere to go above, so it plunges into a tunnel hewn roughly from the rock, climbing through the mountain’s inner chambers. The tunnel is only 2.5km long, but it feels much longer because this dark corridor through a mountain is all that connects Kjesen to the outside world.
It takes a few moments for my eyes to adjust as I emerge into the light. Clouds float through the trees. A mountain river roars down from massive boulders. There are no visible signs of life.
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