The village at the end of the world
Day 2 (part 2): Tindhólmur & Gásadalur
Bøur & Tindhólmur
One of the consequences of the intense glaciation of the Faroe Islands during the last ice age are the stunning fjords that dominate the island. Mountain peaks sweep suddenly and dramaticall down into deep, steep valleys, carved out by the lumbering ice giant glaciers that scoured out the fjords. It makes for dramatic scenery, of course. But it can also make for some very remote locations; villages of a dozen or so people may find themselves on the wrong side of an imposing summit ridge, requiring hours worth of hiking, in what must have been pretty inclement conditions at times, simply to reach the next village.
And, after our feed in Sirkis, we were headed for one such village - Gasadalur, on the extreme western end of the island of Vágar. Thankfully for us, especially after a big feed, we wouldn't need to hike, thanks to an incredible piece of engineering just over 10 years old.
But, on our journey there, we were to enjoy another piece of Faroese engineering: the road northfrom Torshavn, over the summit of Húsareyn (the 345m high mountain to the north of the capital). Most of the roads across the islands follow the coast, weaving in and out around the inlets and contours of the fjords. But this one bucks that trend and takes you up. And what views it affords. It's one of half a dozen 'buttercup routes' in the islands, route that are 'particularly scenic for visitors'. When the rest of the island is jaw-droppingly good, it would take something to make these routes stand out. But stand out this one certainly did. On the two occasions when we drove this road, we got views of the islands unlike any others we had been enjoying. To see the grand sweep of the fjords from such an elevated vantage point is to appreciate in a unique way something of the majesty of the islands. First, Kaldbakfjordur came into view, a slow reveal of this immense valley as the car headed north. And, given that the skies above were dotted with cumulus clouds, the valley below was decorated in dappled light, picking out all the features of the steep rock-stewn slopes, the waterfalls cascading down the hundreds of metres to the valley below. The views were beautiful - and the conditions, yet again, were so perfect for us to enjoy them.
We didn't have time to stop and take photos as we had to get to our destination in time for sunset, but the panoramic views it offered were something else, and well worth enjoying if you visit these islands.
Down we dropped again to sea level and through the undersea tunnel under Vestmannasund to Vágar, our destination island. But, on the way to our second waterfall of the day for sunset, we stopped off at the village of Bøur (population 75) for views of the amazing island of Tindholmur. This was another one of those locations that had caught my imagination from the photos I'd seen before we left. We certainly have plenty of imposing cliffs that stand proud against the ocean in Ireland. But nothing quite like this. One side takes you up a heart-churningly steep slope that rises to the five peaks that give the island its name, before it then mercilessly plunges you over a precipitous vertical drop into the ocean, over 260m below, like some wild geological roller coaster ride.
In contrast with this amazing geometric geological shape is the town of Bøur from which we photographed this island. With its turf-roofed cottages, it was a picture postcard Faroese scene, and worth a quick stop for a shot or two.
Gásadalur and Mullafossur
Time - and the light - were quickly passing, though, and we soon packed up once more and made our way to that most iconic of Faroese waterfalls, Gásadalur. And its name? Does it go the way of Torshavn - dramatic and imposing? Or of Fossa - everyday and pretty much 'does what it says on the tin'?
There is a myth about a woman, Gæsa, who fled to this valley after having eaten meat during a lent feast. And apparently some spirits and elves were involved in the tale somehow too. But, in reality, it's much more likely that this was name after the slightly more mundane topic of geese. Because apparently some geese were found here. And so Geese Valley it is, then. Yet again, this Irish boy felt at home.
But, although the everyday naming may be familiar to those of us from Ireland, this location is classic Faroe Islands. The tiny village of Gásadalur, with a population of only 18 people, lies in a remote and very inaccessible valley to the extreme north west of Vágar. It is surrounded by tall and imposing mountains, the tallest on the island, including the towering 722m high Árnafjall to the north and Eysturtindur, rising 715m to the east. More than that, yet another precipitous black granite cliff edges the valley, lifting it well above sea level. In fact, the fishermen who lived here had to keep their boats on the other side of a 400m mountain in the little village of Bøur. What an impossibly hard life - days spent out in the raging Atlantic in the arduous task of open sea fishing for your livelihood - then facing that mountain hike back home after your time at sea.
It was only in 2004 that the government blasted out a tunnel through the solid rock to bring a road to the village - and the 18 people who live there. What a life line for them. And also what a boon for the visiting landscape photographers. For, instead of this being a difficult and time consuming hike, this valley, its mountains and waterfall are now a short drive away from the airport.
The night before
In fact, this was the second time we came here. So excited were we at the prospects of arriving in the Faroes, we had taken the short journey here the night before, straight from the airport. We arrived just after sunset that night. Which, in the Faroes in July means around 11.30 pm, of course. This was to be our first proper taste of that landscape and scenery that we had been anticipating with such relish over the past few months. In fact, we had thought of going straight to our accomodation from the airport to get ready for the hike to Sorvagsvatn. But the forecast of possible cloud breaks and the prospect of actually seeing one of the iconic Faroese locations for ourselves was too much. So, as we left the airport, we turned left and headed west for the short 20 minute drive to this location.
Although it wasn't exactly dark despite the late hour, still a moody gloom hung over the Faroese landscape as we drove along past the waters of Sorvagsfjodur fjord, as we got our first sense of what this landscape was truly like. Given the mystic in which I had held this place in my imagination, it seemed fitting that my first glimpse of it in conditions like this. A low cloud hung over the tops of the fjords, further adding to the gloom. And the place was deserted - not another car on the road, not another person in sight. Just us - and this incredible view. And, as we drove along the coast road, at the end of the fjord, there appeared the majestic sight of Tindholmur, that impossible island rising proudly out of the ocean. We five guys were giddy with excitement, like five little boys who had just been given the present they had been waiting for for months. We were here!
And then we were plunged into the first of our many experiences of Faroese tunnels, as we drove through Knukarnir mountain that had for so long been the imposing 400 m barrier between Gasadalur and the rest of the known world. It felt like the perfect way to reveal this valley, keeping us in suspense as we drove along this single track road for its 1.4km length, hoping the deserted roads would stay deserted until at least we reached the end.
Eventually, a light began to appear at the tunnel's end, as we emerged from our entombment into the most glorious of freedoms. As the car veered left to follow the road, there was Goose Valley, the natural ampitheatre, ringed by the most imposing of moutains on all sides, their summits carving out the most sculptural of shapes, set in dark, stark relief against the grey skies above in the twilight gloom.
And there was the little village, perched resiliently below Árnafjall, the little houses huddled together as if to find comfort and warmth in this most isolated of locations. As the road swung along and around the contours of the hillside, we got our first glimpse of Mullafossur waterfall, as it fell off the edge of the valley side towards the sea. Only a glimpse, mind you. Like all great reveals, this road will only give you a hint of the real glory that is to come.
The road swung back around a contour and headed for the village. About 50m before the village itself, we pulled in by a gate that takes you to the path to the cliff edge and the real view we had come to see. Out we jumped from the car, wrestled our camera gear out from the bags (which were still very tightly packed as we hadn't even got to our house at this stage to off load anything). We were here - or at least just 200m or so from here. So, in the gloom, we set off as fast as our tired legs would carry us over the rough terrain of the stony path towards the sea. We approached the cliff edge - and there it was.
The cloud had closed in, but there was still a twilight glow visible along the horizon. And what a scene. There were all the elements: the mountains, the cliffs, the little village, the sea - and that magical little waterfall, a pillar of pure white against the ragged grey of the basalt cliffs, an angelic sentinel standing guard over this remote, quiet hamlet.
I still have this weirdest of feelings when I'm standing in front of scenes like this. When you're a landscape photography planning trips like this, you spend a lot of time looking at image after image of the locations you are going to visit. You see all the elements, represented for you, visioned by the various photographers who have visited there before. I a sense, therefore, you already know the scene quite well.
Or you think you do. For, to stand there for yourself is to experience it in a whole different way. To feel the cold wind on your face, to taste the salt in the air from the Atlantic below, to hear the wind and the roar of the vast ocean in its unrelenting battle against the cliff face below. That is, quite literally, to get a visceral sense of the place. Then throw in the sight, the ulimtate immersive 'reality' reality, as your eyes wander all around, trying to take in the sheer scale and glory of the view around.
It was the weirdest sense of the familiar and the exotic to me. I have felt cold like that many times in Northern Ireland. I am well used to cloudy and gloomy conditions when I'm out shooting. And, when I looked down, the rocks and grass beneath my feet looked for all the world like so many locations I have visited on the Causeway Coast (hardly surprising, as the rock of the Faroes is exactly the same as that of the Causeway). And yet, when I looked up, I was confronted with a geometrically alien landscape. Nowhere in Northern Ireland are the mountains quite this shape, is the coastline quite in this form, are the islands quite so ... strange. 'Toto,' I thought to myself, 'I have a feeling we're not at the Causeway anymore...'
And so, for the first few moments, I drank it all in. Yes, there were photographs to take. But first, there was an experience to savour, a moment in which to live deeply and richly, and a landscape to savour.
We didn't have much time here the first night. So we lined up along the edge of the cliff and got about the business of trying to capture something of the essence of the view in front of us. I went for a long exposure, using my polarizer and 6 stop ND filter. There was quite some movement in the cloud, and a mist was licking around the summit of Árnafjall, and the long exposure allowed me to freeze those seconds of time and for the clouds to streak across the sky. Against the backdrop of the static and imposing peaks in front of me, I quite liked how this created a sense of dynamism in the shot.
All too soon, it was time to go. We had a sunrise to be somewhere for, and when sunrise is around 4.00 am, you don't have any time to waste.
The night after
The next night, and we were back, this time with more time to use to explore this location. One of the things we were quickly coming to realise about the Faroes is that the weather in one fjord is no guarantee of what it will be like in the next fjord, never mind the next island over. When we left Torshavn, the road over the top of the mountains took us through some of the most picturesque scenery I've ever witnessed, and the intermittent cloud above dappled the fjords with shadows and light, the perfect way to enjoy the views from our vantage point high above. Would that light hold out for us by the time we had travelled the 60 km to the west to Gasadalur? Even the light Bour had looked promising, with gaps in the cloud that hinted that colour could break through as the sun set. In fact, as we emerged from the end of the tunnel at the village, there was a shaft of light, a single crepuscular ray, an atmospheric tease of what might be revealed.
Quickly, we stopped the car and headed down the now familiar path to the vantage piont. But the cloud had closed in. And from where I was standing, the setting sun was just around the headland. There was to be no dramatic sunset glory tonight, but with the Faroes, the landscape is so dramatic and structural that that doesn't really matter. And, in fact, as the sun set, the stratocumulus clouds above took on that subtle but beautiul colour that they sometimes do when the colour above tries its hardest to squeeze its way through any gaps in the cloud that it can find. The gentle undulations of the cloud got picked out in beautiful watercolour serenity of pinks and purples. Given that the sea below was calm and gentle, perhaps this was the best setting to enjoy this scene. Drama doesn't always have to be dramatic.
I tried for a panoramic shot this time, taking in the setting of Gasadalur valley itself along with the most easterly of the Faroese islands, Mykines.
But, amazing as this vantage point is, it's not the only place to enjoy views of the waterfall from. At the end of the path lies an arch way and a set of steps. From the path, it looks like they disappear into nothingness - from the top of the steps, even more so! They are steep and in bad repair. Which is no great surprise, as they were constructed at first during the Second World Way by British soldiers that were based there to allow access from the shore to the remote village above.
If you visit here, you must go down the steps. Be careful when you do - they are very degraded and there is a precipitous drop beside you! But the views from down below are amazing too and well worht exploring. By the time I had got down, the light was fast fading as we approached midnight, but the architectural shapes of the mountains still stood out so strong and dominate, and the white sentinel of the waterfall stood is stark relief against the imposing dark basalt cliffs. It was not hard to imagine how awe struck those British soldiers must have felt when they first saw this view and how remote the village was. And it's not hard to be impressed at their feat of engineering in building a set of steps up a cliff as imposing as this!
Just before I left, I turned once again to the island of Mykines. This dark, brooding shape rose out of the sea along the horizon and there was just time for one more photo. And this time, my mind drifted to the first visitors to these remote island, understood to be some Irish monks. As they sailed through the uncharted waters of the North Altantic, with no notion that they would find any land, how must they have felt as shapes like this started to appear above the horizon line. Overjoyed, no doubt, that they had found land. But there must have been some feeling of apprehension too. If you were sailing towards this shape for the very first time, would you even fancy your chances at all of being able to land anywhere and even get on to the island?
A glorious, majestic and humbling remoteness. That seems to summaries Gasadalur - and much of the Faroes. And what an amazing privilege to be able to visit and stand in these places. And this was only the end of our first full day in these islands. Next time, we are going to hike up a mountain ridge in deepest dusk of morning twilight, to the most incredible views of sunrise over the most glorious of Faroese fjords...