“Where you off to then?" asks my early morning Uber driver.
“The Faroe Islands," I reply, still very much half asleep.
“Faroe Islands? Never heard of them, mate."
“They’re… er... sort of between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland."
Before being invited to visit the Faroe Islands, my knowledge of the place was minimal to say the least. I knew roughly where it was, I knew that the people there were mad keen on whaling, I knew that their national football team had been a thorn in the side of Scotland on more than one occasion and I knew that the landscape there was becoming an increasingly regular feature on my Instagram newsfeed. I did not know much about the Faroe Islands.
"The sea turned red with blood"
I wasn’t the only one. A friend, for example, had them pegged as a part of the UK when they’re actually a self-governing part of Denmark. This overriding sense of mystery about the place is evident in the title of The North Face’s Faroe-set climbing film ‘Land of Maybe’; a 15 minute short that focuses on James Pearson, Cedar Wright, and Yuji Hirayama tackling one of the world’s highest promontories - Cape Enniberg. The climb up the 754 metre-high sea cliff saw the trio battle bad weather, unpredictable terrain, and even an army of puking birds.
After a two hour flight to Copenhagen followed by another two hour flight to the Faroe Islands’ only airport, I find myself standing on Vágar; the third largest of the 18 islands that make up the Faroe archipelago. Vágar has an area of 69 square miles, which is roughly a ninth the size of the Isle of Skye. Despite being only 336 miles (as the crow flies) from Inverness, it feels other-worldly from the second you get off the plane. Factor in the scenery, on top of the pervading sense of isolation, and it’s easy to imagine Luke Skywalker living in exile here.
Jack Clayton / Mpora
We drive straight from the airport, 10 minutes down the road, to a Faroese village called Bøur. Along the way, we go past the town of Sørvágur and down the bay it’s nestled neatly at one end of. This, we’re grimly told, is a location commonly used for whaling.
Last summer, when they were on the islands for the ‘Land of Maybe’ shoot, climbing power couple Caro Ciavaldini and James Pearson witnessed the controversial practice firsthand. The hunt resulted in the death of over 100 whales.
“The sea turned red with blood," says Caro.
During my stay on the Faroe Islands, the topic of whaling comes up a lot. It’s clear the locals, who share out the spoils of the hunts amongst their community, are passionate about the tradition and feel that many of the outsiders who criticise them for it are guilty of hypocrisy. One of our Faroese hosts, for example, tells us of a popular old t-shirt slogan which said “In the Faroe Islands, we kill whales. In America, you kill people."
A quick search of the internet, and you’ll soon find yourself reading a piece published on The Spectator website with the eye-catching headline: “Yes, I butcher whales. What’s all the fuss about?"
Written by the lead singer of the Faroese folk metal band Týr, Heri Joensen, in the wake of a campaign to stop venues from booking his band after he posted a picture of himself cutting up a long-finned pilot whale on Facebook, the article defends whaling by highlighting how many of the people who are against whaling happily turn a blind-eye to the fact that a lot of the meat they consume stems from factory farm cruelty. In a YouTube video, Joensen mockingly states that “People get this Disney-fairytale-like relationship to meat where livestock is willingly and painlessly slaughtered behind closed doors and wildlife is sacred."
Bøur itself is as typically Faroese as you can get; a tiny little church that looks halfway between a real church and one you’d get at a model village, epic scenery as far as the eye can see, and grassy sod roofs scattered about the place like they’re the most normal thing in the world. Minus a load of dead whales on the beach, and an embarrassed Scottish football team, it’s basically the Faroe Islands I’d imagined in my head before coming.
"The territory is aiming for 100% green electricity production by the year 2030"
I soon discover that it’s not only the grassy roofs in the Faroe Islands that are green. In a move that should be celebrated by environmentalists everywhere, the territory is aiming for 100% green electricity production by the year 2030. This renewable energy will come from a combination of hydro, wind, wave, tidal and, to a certain extent, solar power sources.
Based on the fact that, during my stay, I’m battered by some of the most extreme winds I’ve ever encountered, it seems that wind farms are a logical step for the region. And while the Faroe Islands’ carbon footprint might be virtually microscopic when sized up next to those of giants like China and the USA, it’s nevertheless heartwarming to see them taking such a step in response to overwhelming evidence about climate change.
The North Face
After sampling some local soup, and moreish homemade bread at a traditional Faroese house called Pakkhúsid, we’re all taken upstairs for a screening of ‘Land of Maybe’ and a talk from James Pearson. "This project began because I decided to google 'biggest sea cliffs in the world," says James. “Cedar [Wright] was convinced it was going to take just four hours but the whole climb took somewhere between 14 and 16 hours."
Following a quick tour of Bøur, we’re then back in the vans for a 10 minute journey to Gásadalur; a mythical sounding place that feels like it should be the name of a character in The Lord of the Rings. The small and isolated village of Gásadalur, which sits on the edge of a waterfall and is surrounded by mountains, is accessed via a long and narrow road tunnel that seemingly stretches on forever.
"I’m confronted by quite possibly the most stunning view I’ve ever set eyes upon"
Before the tunnel opened in 2004, the village was completely cut off by the landscape. The postman, we’re informed, used to hike over the mountains once a week to deliver the residents here their mail; something, I imagine, that must have been a particularly frustrating process if the only thing they were delivering was updates on whatever the Faroese equivalent of Tesco Clubcard points is.
One brief little stroll after getting out the van and I’m confronted by quite possibly the most stunning view I’ve ever set eyes upon. Mulafossur Waterfall is the kind of beautiful natural landmark that even an elderly relative, with failing eyesight and zero camera training, couldn’t fail to take a decent picture of. If it wasn’t for the fact I’d left my jumper in the car and was starting to feel the chill, I might have watched its water cascading down into the North Atlantic for days, weeks, months, maybe even years. It really is spectacular.
Jack Clayton / Mpora
The next morning, it’s time to experience a full day in the Faroese outdoors. Somehow, today’s wind is making yesterday’s notably strong breeze seem like a gerbil’s gentle fart by comparison. We’ve been out of the vans for less than a minute, and already it feels like this wind is in danger of picking people up and chucking them into the sea as if they weighed the same as an empty crisp packet. It’s brutal stuff; the type of weather that can make you involuntarily swear out loud whenever it hits. It hits often.
Rather than ushering us back into the vans and waiting for all of this to blow over though, our keen guide Johannus Hansen from Reika Adventures is soon rounding us up and getting ready to lead us on our big day out. Despite the near constant threat of being blown away never to be seen again, we all end up being very grateful for his proactive approach. The route he takes us includes a stunning view of Trøllkonufingur (aka “Witch’s Finger") and a breathtaking ridgewalk from Krosstindur (574m) to Húsafelli (591m).
Jack Clayton / Mpora
In the afternoon, after I’ve been treated to the Faroe Islands’ veggie option of a cheese sandwich and a peeled carrot, and a few of our group’s bravest members have sampled some very pungent whale meat (“extremely fishy" - the general verdict), things escalate a notch when we’re given the chance to do a 31m rappel into Ravnagjógv (aka “Raven’s Gorge"). The rain is absolutely chucking it down and while I’m tempted to stay in the tent getting drunk on lung-warming aquavit, it’s an opportunity I’m not going to pass up on.
“Don’t let me fall and die," I say to Caro, half-serious, half-joking, while she double checks my harness.
"It’s easily the best impression of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft that I’ve ever done"
Before I have time to change my mind, I’m stepping off the edge and working my way down to the bottom of the gorge. It’s easily the best impression of Indiana Jones/Lara Croft that I’ve ever done.
“You looked like a pro," says a grinning Johannes, as he helps me take the harness off, “I thought it was James Pearson coming down."
He’s joking. He’s definitely joking, but I’ll take it.
That night, we’re introduced to “heimablídni" - a Faroese way of doing things that literally translates as “home hospitality." Put simply, it involves being given the full-on, five-course, restaurant style dining experience in someone else’s house. The house, in our case, being one on the Faroe Islands’ largest island of Streymoy; a house that belongs to Anna and Óli.
Reika Adventures & Jack Clayton / Mpora
The food, 100% organic and sourced from Anna and Óli’s farm is mouth-wateringly good. Throw in one picturesque panoramic window view, and a supply of local beers that seemingly never run outs, and it all adds up to make one great, uniquely Faroe, night of culinary delight.
One hangover later, a hangover that’s cleared up efficiently by exposure to the clean Faroese air, and I’m at the end of my short but sweet stay. With an annual weather pattern that includes roughly 300 rainy days a year, it seems rather fitting that my scenic van journey back to the airport comes with a downpour so torrential that water starts leaking in through the closed windows and forming tiny puddles on the floor.
Wet, windy, and wild; the Faroes certainly isn’t your average holiday destination but then isn’t that the whole point of adventure? To go outside the comfort zone, to go and lose yourself somewhere far away from your own normality, to wind up in a place where you’ve got all the questions and hardly any answers.
Jack Clayton / Mpora
Leaving the Faroe Islands is like waking from a dreamscape, a faded transition back to reality where you end up unsure of whether what you saw was real and whether you were even there at all.
“Been anywhere nice?" says my taxi driver, back in London.
“The Faroe Islands," I reply.
“Where’s that then?"
“It’s… er... sort of between Scotland, Norway, and Iceland."
Do It Yourself:
We flew to the Faroe Islands from London Heathrow, via Copenhagen, with SAS. On our first night, we stayed at the Magenta Guest House in Sandavágur. On our second night here, we stayed at the Gjogv Guesthouse. Food on the second evening was provided at the home of Anna and Óli. The hiking and rappelling was organised by Reika Adventures.
For more information on the Faroe Islands, visit the official tourism website.