Foot­loose in the far-flung Faroes

The Sunday Telegraph - Travel - - Front Page -

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.

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