Wild and windy week in the north Atlantic
7 July 2005 turned out to be a bad day to go to the Faroe Islands. My plan had been to go into work for the morning before heading to Stansted for my 3.30pm flight, but at ten to nine, as I was approaching Kings Cross on the Victoria Line, three bombs exploded on various parts of the tube, and London was thrown into chaos.
I was no more than a few hundred metres from the bomb which exploded on a Piccadilly Line train near Kings Cross, though I didn't know it. The first hint that something was wrong was the announcement that we wouldn't be stopping at Kings Cross, because of a power failure there, and we headed straight through the now-empty station. We stopped as normal at Euston, but at the next stop, Warren Street, we didn't move for a long time, and then it was announced that there were serious power failures in north London, and that the Victoria Line was being suspended. Carrying a substantial rucksack, I joined the exodus of stoic commuters and headed up to street level. I thought I would walk to Goodge Street and pick up the tube again there on a different line, but found that was closed as well. Tottenham Court Road, a few hundred metres further, was also closed, and it definitely seemed that the tube was having massive problems. But at this stage, the only information I had was that it was power failures.
I walked on south, and the streets and buses were filled with erstwhile tube travellers. Piccadilly Circus was closed, and I walked on to Trafalgar Square, by now suspecting that I'd be walking all the way to work. Still I had no idea that terrorist attacks had taken place, but the city had a slightly surreal atmosphere as millions of people had their morning routines disrupted and struggled to find another way to work. Under humid grey skies I hurried on, mainly concerned that I would be fearsomely late for work.
As I walked down Whitehall, a weird day got weirder when I bumped into someone I'd known at University. He was talking to another university friend, who was just telling him that there were reports of a bomb on a bus at Tavistock Square. We exchanged news of other friends and then I walked on. Eventually I reached Marsham Street where I worked, and it was only now that I found out the full story, that four separate bombs had gone off almost simultaneously across London. I was one of the latest people in to work, and my appearance caused some relief from my colleagues, who were keeping a track of whether anyone who should be there wasn't.
I only stayed in the office for an hour or so, as I was anticipating difficulty getting to Stansted Airport. I bought some travel insurance on line and then left, against the advice of the security guard who was of the opinion that staying indoors would be prudent. He was certain I wouldn't make my flight, but at the time I was reasonably confident. He wished me luck and I walked along to Victoria Station. Before I'd left Marsham Street the word had been that buses from Victoria were running as normal, but the station was rammed with people and nothing appeared to be moving. I got talking to a Spanish girl who was also trying to get to Stansted, and later another Spaniard and two Italians. The Italians didn't speak any English but needed to get to Stansted for their flight home. After a long wait for information it was announced that no buses would be coming into or out of London.
The five of us decided we would try to get a taxi. By now I was resigning myself to missing my flight, and thinking about how I could rearrange my plans. I imagined taxis would be extremely thin on the ground at a time like this, but to my amazement an empty cab appeared just as we stepped outside Victoria Bus Station. The driver had apparently just turned down a fare to Dover, but was happy to try and get us to Stansted. We headed south of the river at first, to avoid road closures, and at first the going was slow. Heavy clouds had been brewing all morning, and now the heavens opened. The rain battered down on our windows, and it seemed totally appropriate. As we headed across London Bridge and into the City I caught sight of some bewildered-looking tourists, and felt sorry for them. I imagined that anyone who didn't speak English would be thrown into much more confusion than the rest of us.
Little by little we progressed through London, and apart from in the very centre the traffic was not as bad as I'd feared. Eventually we got onto the motorway, and as we did so the rain stopped and sunshine broke tentatively through. It suddenly looked like I would get to the airport after all, albeit facing an almighty cab fare at the end of it. The meter broke its century long before Stansted, and the final tally was £126.40. I wondered how often the average cabby got a fare like that.
We split the bill five ways, and wished each other luck. I found the check-in for Atlantic Airways and said "Is it still possible to check in for the Faroes?". I had about thirty seconds left before check-in closed, but the attendant was unflustered. "Sure", he said. "Anything's possible". I was on my way to Torshavn.
As it turned out, I didn't even get to the Faroes that evening. We flew to Aberdeen, where we had a scheduled stop to pick up passengers, but the stop turned out to be longer than planned. Apparently the weather in the Faroes was too bad to land, and we were waiting to see if it would improve. After about three hours, the crew decided it was worth a shot, and we flew north. The Faroes are only an hour's flight from Aberdeen, and we were soon circling over them, but all I could see below was an ocean of cloud. We circled for an hour, waiting for a window in the weather so we could land, but eventually it became clear it was not to be, and we headed back south. So in the end, after a day of drama and chaos, unbelievably, I found myself spending the night in Aberdeen. I got to the Faroes in the end the following morning.
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As it turned out, I didn't even get to the Faroes that evening. We flew to Aberdeen, where we had a scheduled stop to pick up passengers, but the stop turned out to be longer than planned. Apparently the weather in the Faroes was too bad to land, and we were waiting to see if it would improve. After about three hours, the crew decided it was worth a shot, and we flew north. The Faroes are only an hour's flight from Aberdeen, and we were soon circling over them, but all I could see below was an ocean of cloud. We circled for an hour, waiting for a window in the weather so we could land, but eventually it became clear it was not to be, and we headed back south. So in the end, after a day of drama and chaos, unbelievably, I found myself spending the night in Aberdeen.
Fortunately, the next day saw better weather, and I finally arrived in the Faroe Islands just before midday. I got a bus from the airport on Vágar island to Tórshavn, amazed to have actually made it, and stunned by the dramatic scenery, made gloomy and ominous by dirty grey clouds and persistent rain. From Tórshavn I travelled on to the Faroese transport hub of Oyrabakki and then to the village of Gjógv, on the northeastern coast of Eysturoy. I arrived at about 9pm, to find the few scattered houses almost invisible in fog. I went for a walk down to the sea shore and out onto the rocks, enjoying the strange atmosphere of a bright foggy arctic summer evening.
My plan here had been to climb Slættaratindur, the Faroes' highest mountain, if the weather was good enough. But the next day still saw dense cloud clinging to the mountains, and the advice of the campsite owner was that climbing into the clouds would be a very bad idea. So I contented myself with a hike around the cliffs near the town instead, past nesting puffins and some good views over the straits to other islands in the archipelago.
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I thought about staying another day to see if the weather improved, but with only a week here I decided to head on to other places. The campsite owner was driving to Eiði on the other side of the island to pick someone up, and offered me a lift. We had a good drive over the bleak highlands, stopping briefly to help two teenagers who had driven their car off the road, and then again to catch some fine views of Risin og Kellingin, two sea stacks which according to Norse legend were broken from the mainland by a troll who was attempting to drag the Faroes towards Iceland.
In Eiði I had a couple of hours to wait before the bus to Tórshavn came. The sun came out and the temperature was almost 15C. It was too much for the locals - there were not many people about at all but I had a brief chat with one old gent who was mopping his brow and saying "So hot... so hot..." The bus eventually came, and after a twenty minute stop in Oyrabakki during which I bought an ice cream and sat in the sunshine, we headed back to the capital.
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I headed over to Borðoy and the Faroes' second-largest town, Klaksvík. The journey involved getting the ferry from Leirvík to Klaksvík, which has been described as 'one of the loveliest half-hour ferry rides anywhere', and it was pretty impressive. A new road tunnel replaced the ferry route a few months after I was there.
In Klaksvík I camped about a mile out of town. After I'd set up camp I walked into town to get some fuel for my stove. After I'd walked back out, I realised I didn't have a lighter, so I walked back in again. After I'd walked four miles and was ravenously hungry, I found that the fuel pump on my stove had stopped working. Luckily, another traveller, Doug from Alaska had just arrived at the campground and lent me his stove. It was my 27th birthday.
After a misty day, 11pm saw the sun come out. It was surreal for it to be so bright, so late at night. Throughout my time in the Faroes, it never got dark, and I hardly slept.
While I was in Klaksvík I met two Norwegians who were driving around the place and invited me to join them. We drove to a few of the other nearby islands the next day. In these parts the villages were tiny, and in some cases they've been abandoned.
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The Norwegians were going to get a boat from Hvannasund on the island of Viðoy, out past the island of Svinoy to the eastern-most island of Fugloy. I'd thought about doing that, and so I joined them for the trip. We drove from Klaksvík to Hvannasund, with a little look around some of the north-eastern islands on the way.
At Hvannasund we got on the boat. The passengers looked to be about half locals and half travellers just out for the ride. For a mere 30 kronur, we could all spend a few hours chugging along through the islands, amongst some amazing north Atlantic scenery. The sun shone, the weather was calm and warm, and puffins dotted the waters.
I watched the islands drift by. We stopped at Hattarvík, and I considered getting off and walking over the island to Kirkja, where the boat was going to call on its way back. But I wasn't sure how long the walk would take, and getting stranded on Fugloy would be pretty inconvenient. So I stayed on the boat for the return journey.
We stopped at Kirkja, and then at Svínoy. The incredible weather was slowly giving way to clouds as we chugged back to Hvannasund.
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I headed down to the southernmost island of Suðuroy, where the weather is supposed to be nicer than up north. The weather was atrocious during my bus journey from Leirvík back to Tórshavn so I was hoping it would be true. In wild wind and rain I thought the ferry journey there might be a bit of a vomit run, but the M/F Smyril was a big ship and the run past Sandoy, Skúvoy and the wild islands of Lítla Dímun and Stóra Dímun was smooth.
I got off the ferry and onto a bus to Øravík. Øravík is a tiny settlement, but with great views over the wild north Atlantic, and a campsite and tiny hostel. I set up my tent in gale-force winds and driving rain, and then cooked dinner in the empty hostel building.
From Øravík I got a bus to Famjín on the other side of the island, and walked back across the island over a high windy pass in the mountains. I asked the driver what time the bus was going back to Øravík, in case the weather got too bad for walking and I wanted to pick it up somewhere along the road. He asked me what time I needed it. I liked that. I said I was going to walk over the pass, and he said he'd look out for me on the way.
I saw the bus pass by on the road as I was approaching the top of the island. The weather was OK so I gave him a wave and he carried on towards Øravík. The views were spectacular but so was the wind whistling through the gaps between the hills. I headed down towards the village.
The weather became typically north Atlantic in the evening, and all I could do was sit inside the hostel, listening to the rain battering against the windows. The next day I was up at 5am to catch the 7am ferry back to Tórshavn.
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From Suðuroy I headed back to Tórshavn, where I spent my last evening in the Faroes. There had just been a whale kill in the islands, and a Norwegian girl in the hostel I was staying at had got hold of a bagful. There's a lot of international condemnation of Faroese whaling these days but I can't say I have a problem with it. It's entirely sustainable, and I just can't see any particular moral difference between killing cows for food and killing whales for food. I don't eat meat and I think it would be nice if no animals were killed for food, but if people want to eat animal flesh, then surely the most important thing is that it's sustainable. North atlantic cod virtually disappeared because of overfishing but the number of whales the Faroese take is a tiny fraction of the population. So if whale meat is as sustainable as cow meat, why shouldn't they eat it?
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I took a boat over to Nólsoy, where I planned to hike to a lighthouse at the south end of the island. As I headed out of the village, I got chatting to a friendly local on their way home who invited me in for a coffee. They were friendly but a bit odd, and I didn't have long before the boat back to the mainland, so I declined and headed on south. But not long after that, it started to rain heavily. It was seriously windy as well, and after a while I was completely soaked on one side. I decided that the lighthouse was probably not worth a miserable hike, and decided to turn around. By the time I got back to the village, I was soaked down the other side as well. There was not much to do but wait for the boat back across to Tórshavn.