Norway's Telemark Canal is hewn from rock that soars from sea to mountains and negotiates a challenging barrier of waterfalls. When it was completed in 1892, Norwegians referred to it as the eighth wonder of the world.
The claim would be news to other contenders for the unofficial title, including . the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, Rio's Christ the Redeemer, the Taj Mahal and Angkor Wat.
Whatever your opinion, there is no doubt the gargantuan task of building the stepped canal has yielded a lovely waterway. We've come to the Telemark region to sail and walk, and it's like negotiating a fairytale in which mythical creatures inhabit forests and river glens, and life is delightful, though always with a hint of the dark.
There is almost always a hint of the dark when travelling, of course, even in Norway. The German-occupied Telemark region was where the Nazis raced to build their atomic bomb during World War II – a race that could have changed the course of the war.
It didn't, however, thanks to a daring 1943 Norwegian and British intelligence plan to blow up the heavy water factory crucial to the nuclear weapon's development. The 1965 British film The Heroes of Telemark tells the story as does SBS's recent three-part drama, The Heavy Water War.
My Norwegian sojourn – part of an APT Majestic Norwegian Fjords cruise itinerary – includes a 2½-hour trip aboard the canal boat MS Telemarken from Ulefoss lock to Vrangfoss lock, with a walking option from Eidsfoss lock to Vrangfoss.
The 105-kilometre waterway, which runs from Skien, near the coast, northwest to Dalen, is a living cultural heritage site. Twenty-one lock chambers and eight lock systems lift boats 72 metres above sea level to the Flavatn Lake. From there, a string of lakes and rivers conveys travellers to Dalen, in the heart of the southern Norwegian mountains.
About 500 workers chiselled the rock and blasted it with dynamite for five years to pierce the stony heart of Telemark, enabling the transport of export goods such as whetstone and timber to the sea. Whetstone, or Norwegian ragstone, is used for knife sharpening. Quarried at Eidsborg near Dalen, it is Norway's oldest export commodity, with continuous production from Viking times to about 1950.
Timber was the other commodity floated down from the Upper Telemark forests to sawmills in Ulefoss and Skien. The most difficult stretch was at Vrangfoss, which translates as "the difficult waterfall". Timber logjams formed along the two-kilometre stretch of rapids, deep canyons and ravines. For 200 years, farmers and the sawmills had been petitioning the government to take action and in 1886, building finally began.
Our small ship, APT's MS Island Sky, has docked at Kragero on the Telemark coast and we've travelled 1½ hours to the Ulefoss lock to board the youngest of the three canal boats, built in 1951. The MS Telemarken, also called Norsjo's white swan, is named after one of the canal's first boats.
There's something of a stampede for deck seating, but below deck there are picture windows and easy access to coffee and iceblocks (though another stampede soon cleans out the comestibles in the same way teenage partygoers might clean out a fridge).
Never mind, for we are in a green and pleasant world. Forests of oak and lime, spruce, birch and pine clothe the surrounding mountains. The water is clean, fish are jumping, old lock keeper and watchmen's cottages, jetties, sawmills and smithies dot the shores. Most of the lock gates are operated manually.
At nearly every waterfall, power stations harness the water to provide energy for eastern Norway's communities and industry. The Telemark Canal has been the only watercourse in Europe to receive Europa Nostra's highest award for restoration and preservation.
The canal no longer supports the old trades but low-key tourism has arrived instead. Three canal boats (including the MS Henrik Ibsen, named for Norway's famed playwright, born in Skien), take visitors through the locks. Vrangfoss is the largest of the boats.
About half our group alights at Eidsfoss to walk the canal path to Vrangfoss through crisp air and sunlight, heather and lichen, and autumn forest aromas.
At Vrangfoss, careful examination will reveal the names of King Oscar II and his son Prince Eugen inscribed on a rock at the lock's upper end, a memento of their Vrangfoss visit on October 29, 1893. Even Scandinavian royalty can't resist indulging in a spot of graffiti.
APT's 15-day Majestic Norwegian Fjords small ships expedition cruise from Tromso to Copenhagen starts from $16,895 a person, twin share including $900 a couple air credit. Based on an August 22, 2019 departure. See aptouring.com.au or call 1300 196 420.
Qatar Airways flies daily from Sydney and Melbourne to Stockholm or Oslo via Doha, with connections to Tromso provided by Scandinavian Airlines. See qatarairways.com
Alison Stewart was a guest of APT.