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The Land Of Maybe

 By Phil Hawksley (1993)
It began for me, late one evening in early August. A casual conversation with Nigel Huish revealed that Nigel, John, Graham and Julie Bissell were off on holiday to the Faroe Islands in less than two weeks. The Faroe Islands? Where are they? I hear you ask. That's exactly what I said too! For those of you whose ignorance of geography is akin to mine, they are roughly two hundred miles north of Shetland - around the halfway point between Shetland and Iceland. They are Danish territory although they govern themselves and have so far, successfully resisted the pressures to join the EEC. An intriguing idea. Somewhere different. I know many people who have been to many places but I don't know a soul who has been to the Faroes. "If I can find the time," I said rashly, " can I come?" After regaining his seat, Nigel gave me a brief outline of all the arrangements that he had spent weeks making ( I wouldn't want to be paying his employers phone/fax bill! ). Two days later after plumbing the depths of my bank accounts it was on. I must confess to feeling a bit of a fraud as Nigel had done all the groundwork - thanks.

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Those of you who know me, probably know that although I've ridden bikes all my life and BMW's for the past thirteen years, I have never until now taken the bike abroad, so the concept of taking the bike on a ferry was a little daunting. Never having been on a ferry either, I had no idea of how my stomach would fare on a channel crossing let alone a 22 hour crossing of the North Atlantic. A perverse type of logic prevailed - it was rather like leaping in at the deep end without knowing whether you can swim but I figured that at least it would prove the matter one way or the other! The decision taken, it was panic stations to book ferry tickets, accommodation, green card etc. in the ten days before departure. Ferry confirmation didn't arrive until two days before sailing, so rather than put myself at the mercy of the Post Office I arranged to collect the tickets from the terminal. Green card got lost in the post - never did arrive - so I had to collect a copy from the Norwich Union offices.

The ferry was due to sail at 1800hrs from Aberdeen so I decided on a leisurely start to the holiday by taking two days over the journey and stopping for B&B in Edinburgh. Have you ever tried to get B&B without booking in Edinburgh in the middle of August? I started looking at around 7.00pm and I finally found somewhere with a cancellation just before 10.00pm. Quite a relief as a night on the M90 service area didn't appeal. This gave me the whole of the next day to cover the remaining 150 miles at a leisurely pace. By chance I met up with Nigel and John just before Dundee, only to discover that Nigel, never one to waste an opportunity, had arranged to have a look at a BMW that was for sale in Forfar and seeing that I was there would I go along to give a second opinion? Nothing like a working holiday is there?

 

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We caught the ferry in plenty of time and I learnt a valuable lesson within minutes - if there is anything resembling machinery, don't go near it because it's covered in black grease which is impossible to remove from waterproofs! I survived the choppy 22 hour crossing in far better condition than many so it's the FIM in Norway for '95. For any who may fancy a Faroese holiday, the ferry from Aberdeen is 'Smyril' run by the Smyril Line and provided that you have a sleeping bag with you, you really don't need to book and pay for the very claustrophobic accommodation as there is a large compartment at the stern, with tiers of around 150 bunks and which are free to use.

Our first sight of the Islands were breathtaking - bleak almost bare rock jutting out of the sea with mountain tops shrouded with mist, and in the distance, Torshavn, the capital, where we were to stay, looking like a large, multi-coloured Lego Land. In fact all the villages looked like that - brightly coloured wooden houses, many with sod roofs. The Faroes are a group of seventeen volcanic islands in the middle of nowhere and being pretty far north they are subject to the vagaries of both north and south winds which tend to make the weather extremely variable. We wore winter waterproofs all the time as temperatures aren't particularly high at that latitude. It can be raining or foggy at one end of a mountain tunnel and bright sunshine at the other. The Islanders themselves call their homeland 'The land of Maybe' and the rapid weather changes combined with the totally unhurried way of life make it easy to understand why. Ask any question of a local (most can speak some English) and the answer will always begin with "there may be a possibility of...". Nothing is guaranteed to happen as and when it should. It would be rather frustrating if you took traditional British values with you. You have no choice but to live on the principle that if you can't do it today, there's always tomorrow. A lovely way of life and the world would be a far better place if we all lived that way. Tradition has it that the first settlers of these islands were Vikings who were just too seasick to carry on to Iceland. It's easy to imagine how welcoming even the sheer rock cliffs and the awesome fiords would have looked to the crew of a storm lashed Viking longboat.

We were booked into bunkhouse type accommodation, with breakfast and cooking facilities included, in one of the few Guest houses on the islands. The guest house was called Skansins and despite being only 300 yards from the docks, it took us around half an hour and a couple of skirmishes with local traffic before we found the place. We were greeted by the landlord, Frants Restorff and his wife, holding a frantic discussion in Faroese - it didn't look promising and had Nigel panicking as he'd spent a lot of time and effort organising accommodation etc. and thought he'd get the blame if it didn't work out as planned. It turned out that our accommodation wasn't free. No problem! We were shown into the normal B&B rooms which we used for the first two days at no extra cost (price was double what we were paying). Nothing was too much trouble for our hosts the whole time we were there. He telephoned almost every day, checking weather forecasts, seeing if ferries etc. were running and one evening entertained us with a bottle of Schnapps and samples of the local delicacies - foods which didn't appeal but we had to avail ourselves of the opportunity. Where else can you sample a slice of whale blubber or a slice of dried, uncooked lamb? Not a diet I'd like to live on but the lamb at least, was almost palatable. These foods are traditional and some no longer eat them but many still rely on home produced foods like this to survive. Being as isolated as they are, the islands and many of the families are more or less self sufficient and only rely on imports for the luxuries. In fact, virtually the only produce that grows is potatoes, with each family having it's own potato patch, usually halfway up the mountainside.

Talking of home produced food brings me to a rather emotive subject. The only time we, in this country, ever hear of the Faroe islands is in relation to sensationalised TV news stories regarding the Faroese traditional whale hunts and recently a campaign outside a number of supermarkets demanding that Faroese goods be removed from the shelves until the whale hunts are banned. What we tend to forget is that we only see one biased side of the story. Whilst over there we all attended a lecture/discussion, in English, on the subject. It is a matter with which the people are all concerned because most of the world is trying to deprive them of one of their major food sources. To hear the other side of the story certainly gives you a different perspective. Many of the islanders are more or less self sufficient and would suffer hardship without this extra supply of food. The whale hunts are not commercial and certainly aren't undertaken for sport but for their valuable food supply, with every islander being entitled to a share of the catch . Pilot whales are the only ones hunted and are not an endangered species, with scientists estimating around 778,000 in the Atlantic of which the islanders catch averages around 1,500 per year. In current jargon, an unarguably sustainable catch. If anyone is interested in the other side of the story, a newsletter and Facts Sheet (in English) should be available from Kate Sanderson, The Museum of Natural History, Futalag 40, FR-100 Torshavn, Faroe Islands.

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The beauty of the islands is stunning, all mountains and fiords, superb road surfaces and very little traffic. A 50 mph speed limit and rush hour traffic comparing favourably with a country ride at 5.00 am over here make it very pleasant and easy to potter along admiring the scenery. We were able to meander alongside the fiords, with photo stops about every half mile, and enjoy the thrills of mountain hairpins all in one short ride. Many of the mountains have tunnels, most being lit and fairly wide but the worst one we found was unlit, over three kilometres long and 3.3 metres wide with passing places - not a tunnel I'd like to travel through too often although I think Julie enjoyed it because she started showing off - trying to ride her GS sideways! It was deliberate wasn't it, Julie? The local Police ride BM's too, R100RS's of all things. I don't think they have much to do though, the crime rate is very low and we quite happily left helmets, gloves etc. by the bikes whilst we went exploring, with no fear that they wouldn't be there on our return. Quite a number of tourists were around, East and West Germans, Dutch, Australians, New Zealanders and of course, Americans but very few British. Most were travelling on to Iceland - a thought for another year.

A few words of warning to anyone considering going. The cost of living is high with petrol (at that time) around 3.80 per gallon and everything else at proportional costs. If you like a drink in the evening, take your own! It's expensive and not very easy to obtain as it hasn't been legal for long. On our last evening there we managed to gain entrance to a private club with a Scottish Folk group (it was Folk Festival week) and paid 2.50 for a small lager. The advantage of this is that the only place you meet a drunken Faroese is on the ferry. The petrol? Well we clocked 600 miles in the time we were there, so the cost isn't really critical. Finding somewhere to stop for coffee can be difficult with few of the villages having a shop let alone a cafe or restaurant but even in riding gear you are warmly welcomed in the poshest of places. If, like Graham, your wife is seriously into woollen jumpers, then take a blindfold with you if you are planning a walk around Torshavn as wool is one of the few local products. Graham spent half the holiday un-gluing Julie from shop windows and finally had to agree to her buying a Faroese jumper. Saturday evening in Torshavn was enlightening, Apart from one or two cafes we saw no entertainment for the youngsters so they make their own. Cruising the main street alongside the harbour is the thing to do, either in the car or on the moped. The traffic was constant. When you get to the end, just turn around and do it again! I'm sure if Nigel had stood there long enough, he'd have been picked up. Quite funny in a way but at least it's harmless fun.

 

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We took a two hour boat ride around the bird cliffs and grottoes one day, expensive but worth every penny. Seeing the 300-400 metre high cliffs from that angle was unbelievable with sea birds of all sorts flying around like swarms of gnats. The islanders catch large numbers of birds as food, not an idea that would appeal to us but living where they do it's easy to understand that they have to make use of every possible food source. Even the small, steeply angled grassy ledges on the cliffs have grazing sheep. The owners actually climb the cliffs and then haul up the sheep to graze. Getting the sheep up there must be a risky business but I'd hate to have to catch them to bring them down again.

The return trip was via Shetland where the others were to stay for a further week, unfortunately I had to head for home. Julie, an enthusiastic amateur geologist managed to leave the islands 5lb lighter than when we arrived - too many visitors like that and there won't be any islands left to visit! We were all sad to leave such a beautiful and friendly country and I'm sure will all return one day even if it's only a short stop-over on the way to Iceland. The way of life in the islands probably hasn't changed dramatically over the past few hundred years although in Torshavn itself, the signs of creeping 'Westernisation' can be seen. It's sad and I hope they manage to limit the damage and keep their way of life intact - most won't realise what they have until it's gone for ever.
 

 

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