A Faroese Adventure

Exploring the Mythical Landscape
by Karl Holtby July 29 2018

Being a photographer with an interest in all places wild and remote, I wrongly assume that everyone knows of the Faroe Islands? Apparently not, when mentioning my trip many people asked where it is, often asking if it is anywhere near Egypt? Well, I guess that could be an easy assumption to make! The Faroe Islands position actually lies in the North Atlantic Ocean, approximately halfway between the Shetlands Isles and Iceland (I visited the Shetlands earlier this year too, as part of my ‘Northern Isles’ project). The Faroe Islands comprises of 18 volcanic islands, a self-governing archipelago and part of the Kingdom of Denmark. With a population of around 49,000, infrastructure is good, connected by a series of very impressive tunnels, as well as ferries, causeways and bridges. According to one of my trusted marketing friends, the Faroes is the number one destination on Instagram! Something difficult to comprehend and maybe all those hipsters adding to the growing popularity of these isles.

Departing from Edinburgh airport we endured an easy flight of about an hour, arriving at Vágar airport, the most stress-free airport I've ever encountered. Stepping off the plane on a sunny day, the air fresh and clean. Our accommodation was situated in the small village of Kollafjörður, on the largest of the Faroe Isles, Stremoy. which proved to be a great base

Day 1 - On the first morning we climbed up a waterfall at the back of our house with a slight hangover, well you have to cut loose a little on the first night and what better way to rejuvenate than underneath one of the Faroes many waterfalls! Mid-afternoon we popped to the very pretty capital, Torshavn. Spending the day settling into the Faroese capital, visiting the tourist information etc, before returning to our house and finalising which locations to visit. The weather was atrocious outside, lashing with rain and windy.

Day 2 – Waking up to bright skies, we’d decided to visit the little village of Saksun on the northwest coast of Stremoy for our first outing, around half an hour’s drive from where we were based, roads quickly turn very narrow, occasionally quite precipitous but with plenty of passing places. Driving down into the valley where Saksun is situated is incredibly beautiful, the focal point being the church set in spectacular surroundings. Around ten minutes after setting up for the shot, a farmer drove past in his tractor, he was ‘muck spreading’ as we call it here in Yorkshire, in a manner that seemed to be aiming at us! With the fertilizer falling a few feet from our tripods. Said farmer then jumped down from his tractor and strode over to us looking a tad angry, he then demanded 200DKK (around £24) for trespassing. We had stepped over a small fence and walked about fifty metres behind the church, apparently, there were signs warning of trespassing, but we saw them after this confrontation. It's a fair cop I thought and handed over the 200DKK, the farmer then seemed to lighten up a bit! His words something along the lines of "There are no wild places on the Faroe Islands, everywhere you go, you are trespassing!". This is, of course, untrue, there are plenty of amazing locations that are accessible to all, with no such problems, although the farmer did mention that there is much friction between the farmers and the Faroese tourist board. I must admit that in all the research I'd done, I'd not heard any such stories regarding access, but then most of my info came from the 'Visit Faroe Islands' tourist board who obviously are not going to share such information. Our confrontation with the farmer was fairly tame looking back, however, we had heard stories from fellow travellers that were much more concerning. One example is a couple of chaps hiding in a cave for 45 minutes as a farmer had chased them with a gun, they were headed for the classic Faroese destination of Drangarnir, which looks out through a spectacular sea arch towards the island of Tindhólmur. This particular location was high on the list of places that we wanted to photograph, but access to this location seems to have become somewhat prohibited quite recently, requiring a guide, the guide then handing over a few DKK to the landowner.

Church at Saksun

A typical Faroese scene at Saksun, sheep and waterfalls

After the morning shoot, we had a great drive over mountain roads and stopped off for lunch at Gjogv, located on the northeast tip of the island of Eysturoy, with the imposing landmass of Kalsoy across the water. A typically pretty and idyllic Faroese village with colourful houses and rooftops making for a great middle-of-the-day subject matter.

The colourful rooftops of Gjogv

A secluded inlet at Gjogv, looking across to the island of Kalsoy

In the evening we'd decided to visit one of the more iconic locations, or certainly one of those scenes that become well known among landscape photographers. This is Mulafossur waterfall with the village of Gasadalur tucked away between lush green fields and soaring mountains. Around another eight photographers turned up, reminding me a little of the last time I was at Neist Point on the Isle of Skye. I wasn't too sure we were going to get a great shot at first as we had completely clear skies, but as sunset neared a few clouds appeared, adding interest to the sky, in fact perfectly positioning themselves and the light as you can see was rather beautiful.

Mulafossur waterfall

Day 3 - We'd spent the morning driving around the islands, a bit of recce time and looking for another classic spot, which is the view over Funningur. Having found what we thought was the carpark with the correct trail heading to Funningur viewpoint, we marked it on the map and decided to head back in the evening. For the afternoon we headed home for a mid-afternoon power nap to recharge our own as well as the camera batteries. Driving back, we noticed a lot of cars parked up by the roadside, slowing down we also noticed lots of boats in the harbour. It was then that my friend Paul shouted with horror 'They're killing whales!', I looked around and the sea was red with blood. We had all been aware prior to the trip that the Faroese hunted whales, but to actually witness this really brings home the reality. I don't want to dwell on this subject, I just want people to be aware of this practice if they intend to visit the Faroes. I have a degree in conservation and my own views, however, I also appreciate the traditions of other cultures; some people obviously feel much more strongly than this.

Moving on from the shock of the afternoon's events we headed out to get the classic shot over Funningur. The climb was steep and after around half an hour we realised that this probably wasn't the right path, Faroese maps are not quite the standard of our OS maps! We decided to continue up this mountain path however and eventually reached the summit of Sl?ttaratindur, when I checked the stats the next day it turned out that we had inadvertently climbed the highest mountain on the Faroe Isles, which I have to say was a most pleasant mistake. Everything happens for a reason and we were rewarded with an immense mountain vista and beautiful light, and importantly for me, something a little more anonymous from the usual haunts of these beautiful isles and a climb I’ll never forget.

The view from the summit of Slaettaratindur

Beautiful light down in the valley, from the summit of Slaettaratindur

A behind the lens shot from the summit of Slaettaratindur

We hadn't expected to be climbing quite so high that particular evening, when the mist came in and the sun was heading down it began to get rather cold, there was still some snow around up there. Feeling like amateurs that we'd left our down jackets in the car, we had to head back despite wanting to stay out longer. We also met an American traveller whilst up there who looked a bit lost, he asked if he could come down with us, so I guess we must have at least looked like we knew what we were doing! It seems the confusion over the exact spot wasn't ours alone. I like how a simple mistake led to possibly my favourite night in the mountains here!

Day 4 - After the previous day's albeit pleasant mistake of climbing the highest mountain, we had to find the right spot for Funningur. We should have been at the next car park along the road, with the trail being an easy climb of around fifteen minutes, much more what we'd expected for this popular viewpoint. We took a few tourist-style selfies in the midday sun and headed back in the evening to set up properly. As you can see below, it's quite a popular vantage point for good reason, the word epic very much applicable here. We had a long cold night, waiting for some dramatic light which never really happened, however, I'm always happy with a moody grey sky if it has some structure. Being a well-known spot with easy access, there was a group of cheery Swiss lads who had set up camp, they turned out to be drinking Black Sheep beer to fend off the cold. I'd introduced myself as a Yorkshireman and approved their choice of ale (Black Sheep is a famous Yorkshire ale!), to which I was offered a can, alas I had to decline as I had a job to do.

The view over Funningur lake

Taking it easy/keeping warm atop lake Funningur

Day 5 - A 4 am alarm call beckoned for a planned walk around lake Sorvagsvatn, the famous lake above the sea. Having managed only a couple of hours sleep I felt like a zombie for the 45 minute hike to this famous vantage point. I was incredibly excited however to reach this truly stunning location, like nothing I've seen before and an absolute must if you plan to visit. My work, in general, tends to be fairly minimal, uncluttered scenes, often at 1:1 or 4:3 ratio; for this view, there was only one option, panoramic. I was glad to have the Benro geared head with me, I don't do much pano at all, but the geared head assured that all went well, with accuracy. In fact, my pal Paul also borrowed my Benro Mach 3 tripod and geared head so that he could nail the shot. Having bagged the pano we headed on to the coastline itself, which again features such just jaw-dropping scenery.

The stunning coastline near lake Sorvagsvatn

Day 6 - I wasn't altogether happy with my panoramic composition of lake Sorvagsvatn from the previous day, it was looking a bit flat due to the featureless sky. I felt that this location was just so spectacular that we should give it another go, so yet again we had an early start to get to the lake. I felt much better on this particular morning and enjoyed the walk, even more, a second time. There is a lot of birdlife for those interested in the wildlife of these islands, the sounds of many wading and seabirds accompanying us for the walk. Upon returning home and processing the below image, I'm glad we went back to the location a second time. I always find that new locations can be quite overwhelming, especially when they are so spectacular. Locations such as these deserve frequent visitation to get the best from them photographically, it's important to get to know any location well, although this is of course not always possible on a seven-day tour. This is also one of those images that probably doesn't work quite so well online and social media, it's just too vast to be appreciated and deserves large scale printing. There is just so much going on in this scene that you can't see unless you have access to the full res file, such as the little sheep dotted about and tent beside the lake. Hopefully, you can get some idea of the scale!

Lake Sorvagsvatn

This being our last full day we had to get out and explore as much as possible before heading back. We decided on a return trip to Saksun, to further explore the bay a short walk from the church. Again, we were rewarded with ruggedly beautiful scenery and waterfalls, and uncharacteristically sunny skies, perfect for holidaying tourists but not for us picky landscape photographers! Not one to complain about conditions however I thoroughly enjoyed our last day hiking in beautiful conditions.

One of hundreds of waterfalls on the Faroes

The Faroes did not disappoint, at times you feel as if you're driving through the north-west highlands until those characteristically conical Faroese peaks appear. It is a landscape and seascape photographer’s dream and deserves much further exploration, away from the well-known locations there must be so much more to see, with every stretch of coastline and mountain scenery being so beautiful and rugged. As I have mentioned, there are a couple of things that could put people off visiting and I fully understand those concerns. I do intend a revisit as it's such a majestic group of islands and there are a few places that we couldn't get to in seven days, ten days would be ideal to see most of the islands if you plan on visiting. Personally, I could spend a lifetime exploring the coastline here, away from the popular spots it’s possible to lose yourself in a uniquely wondrous environment. I’ll be running a workshop here next year, do get in touch if you’d like to join me.

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