Footloose in the far-flung Faroes
Faroes clocked the highest wind speed ever recorded in Europe: 166mph, which is definitely a hurricane.
With these extremes of weather come extreme beauty and the chance to enjoy dramatic scenery alone, or better still 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 500ft.
“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, 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 not-inconsiderable wind coming from the south, strong enough to chill my ears and not warm enough to manage without a sweater under my coat. “We get a lot of visitors who arrive without the right clothing,” said Johannus, “especially shoes. You need proper hiking boots here and always a hat and a waterproof coat, even in summer.”
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 bird life. 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 1,300ft 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.
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 300ft 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.
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 100ft 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 Vagar. “That’s Geituskorardrangur,” 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 400ft above the sea. For me, the views obtainable without all the gear are quite exhilarating enough.
Guided walks and climbing with Johannus Hansen are available through Reika Adventures (00298 267900; reika.fo).
Atlantic Airways (atlantic.fo) flies direct to the Faroe Islands from Edinburgh on Mondays and Fridays, with return fares from £189.
On Vagar island, the Magenta hotel (00298 286408; magenta.fo) features unusual Fifties décor. Double rooms cost from £117 B&B.