IN THE FAR-FLUNG FAROES
Part of Denmark, these 18 rocky, volcanic islands in the North Atlantic are a dream for hikers and nature lovers, writes Tim Ecott
It was the British Army’s Royal Engineers who put an airport beside the large freshwater lake on Vagar in 1942.
Until then, the only air access to this and the other 17 Faroe Islands was via flying boat — and the notorious North Atlantic seas made landing anywhere else virtually impossible. Today, the modern air approach from the west still takes you over the lake, called Leitisvatn, offering views of offshore islands and the lush, green hills and sparkling fjords that resemble a giant jigsaw puzzle — as long as it’s not raining too hard.
Walking here is a joy, like the best of the Lake District without the crowds, and I am slowly ticking off the 340 named peaks on this archipelago halfway between Shetland and Iceland. It doesn’t get as cold here as in Reykjavik, say, and serious snow is confined to winter. But the Faroes have what is optimistically called “changeable” weather, meaning regular doses of rain and some ferocious winds — especially in winter. In 2016 the Faroes clocked the highest wind speed ever recorded in Europe: 267km/h, which is definitely a hurricane.
EXTREMES OF BEAUTY
With these extremes of weather come extreme beauty and the chance to enjoy dramatic scenery alone, or better yet, with a local guide. Mine was a young mountaineer called Johannus Hansen, who was the first to ascend several of the archipelago’s sea stacks and regularly guides some of the world’s top rock climbers. Today, however, no ropes or climbing helmets were necessary as our route was fairly flat. Johannus was taking me to see Traelanipa, the “slave rock” on Vagar, where Vikings used to throw old or disobedient slaves into the sea — a drop of about 150m.
“Just stay back from the edge,” Johannus warned, with a grin. “You only fall once.” I’d met him in his home village, Sandavagur, not far from the airport built by the British troops. Before we set off on our walk, he told me we had to stop off and feed his rams: five shaggy beasts, one of which is segregated because he is bigger and stronger and can do the others serious damage with his horns. Like many Faroese men, Johannus keeps sheep and at certain times of year hunts hares and seabirds, pictured below, in order to live off the land as much as possible.
We began the walk close to the village of Midvagur, on a track not far from the church. It was a dry day, but with a wind coming from the south, strong enough to chill my ears.
DON’T ANNOY THE FARMERS
One of the idiosyncrasies of the Faroes is that, unlike much of Scandinavia, there is no “right to roam” across private land. The upsurge in tourism in recent years has meant that some walkers have irritated farmers by straying off marked paths and disturbing the sheep or the resident birdlife. That’s why walking with a guide is often a good option, although there are some paths which are rights of way, marked with stone cairns. Johannus told me that he took his first group of walkers across the mountains when he was just six years old. In those days his grandparents’ village, Gasadalur, had no road access and getting to it meant crossing a 400m peak from the adjacent settlement of Bour. Johannus had been taken across the mountain many times, but his grandfather decided it was time he found his way up to the highest point alone — although he did have the family dog for company, and his father was waiting at the summit. En route he met a group of Danish tourists who wanted to know the way, so he told them to follow him.
THE PHOTOGENIC PLUNGE
A road tunnel was blasted through the mountain to Gasadalur in 2002, but the village remains small and is home to one of the Faroes’ most spectacular waterfalls. It shoots from the vertical cliff face and plummets into the crashing surf below, making it arguably the most photographed sight in the archipelago.
Our destination required a little more effort. At Leitisvatn our route hugged the shoreline for the first 45 minutes of the walk, the seaward views obscured by the slope of the land. Heading up the incline we were greeted by a withering blast of wind tempered by a stunning view along the cliff face towards other islands on the horizon. Turning back to face inland from a dizzying promontory, we saw the lake seemingly suspended above the Atlantic.
With care, I approached the cliff edge where Johannus said it was safe. More than 90m below, a churning mass of blue water rolled into a narrowing fold in the rock face.
It was hypnotic in its power, and above it, seemingly floating, was the great freshwater mass of Leitisvatn. Seaward, the Faroes’ largest island of Streymoy was a misty shadow and I could see the two little islands of Koltur and Hestur (the colt and the mare) jutting out of the sea like geological rock buns. Inland, looking back in the direction where I knew the airport to be, the hilltops were lightly frosted with snow but the sun was bright on the cliff face. Although this is one of the most popular views in the Faroes, there was no one else in sight.
STORIES OF SPIRITS
Johannus led me down away towards the narrowing end of the lake. Meltwater pools covered in a thin crust of ice dotted the ground. We scrambled over some dark, basalt outcrops and I could see that the lake was itself feeding a waterfall that spilt into the Atlantic.
We had descended from the viewing point and here the drop was no more than 30m into the sea. The waterfall is Bosdalafossur, Johannus said. “This is one of the areas where we have numerous legends about spirits, and once upon a time there was supposed to be a nixie, a shape-shifting water-horse, living in the lake.”
Looking along the cliffs I could see a jagged sliver of dark basalt jutting from the ocean, as if it had splintered from the side of V agar .“That’ sGei tusk or a rd rang ur ,” said Johannus. He and a friend had been the first climbers to ascend the pinnacle, a five-hour slog using ropes to get all the way to the tiny patch of grass at the top, nearly 120m above the sea. For me, the views obtainable without all the gear are quite exhilarating enough.
’YOU ONLY FALL ONCE’ Traelanipa, the “slave rock” on Vagar, where Vikings used to throw old or disobedient slaves into the sea — a drop of about 150m.
HIGH DRAMA One of the Faroes’ most spectacular waterfalls is outside the village of Gasadalur on the west side of Vagar.