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Faroes by Harley

 Northern Exposures

The reaction from most people I talked to was uniformly incredulous. ‘You’re going where in April?’

They had a point, since at 62 degrees North of the Equator, the Faroe Islands are further North than parts of Greenland, and share a latitude with Anchorage, Alaska.

Then I let slip that the trip was with the Shetland Islands Cruisers. On motorcycles. Cue suppressed sniggers and furtive sidelong glances in search of the crew from Candid Camera or You’ve Been Framed.

Fast forward to early April and the top deck of the mighty Smyril vessel Norrona where, twenty minutes from the Faroese capital, passengers brave a wind-chill factor that would see polar bears dreaming wistfully of cosy snow holes. One young man spreads his arms wide and flops face-first into the gale, toes dragging moisture trails as he floats around the deck at a gravity-defying tilt.

Wrapped in every item of clothing in my possession, I am numb to the bone. In a few minutes I and the three Shetland Islands Cruisers — Colin and Carol Fraser and Brian Anderson — will set off into this on motorcycles, and at this point, even I am questioning our sanity.

But we needn’t have worried, because ahead of us were four days of fantastic two-wheeled adventure set amidst landscapes to inspire paroxyxms of appreciation. So what if at times we got a little wet and more than a little cold. We were 62 degrees North and it was April.

Eighteen Faroe islands with nearly 700 miles of coastline amount to roughly 550 square miles of territory. Like Shetland, no location on Faroe is more than three miles from the sea, and its islands are deeply indented with multiple Atlantic inlets. But unlike Shetland, Faroe is liberally peppered with mountains of over two thousand feet (the highest is 2883 feet), giving it an average height above sea level of 982 feet. All of which adds up to terrain that is a never-ending procession of climbs and descents and twists and turns, with a fresh jaw-slackening vista only the next bend away.

The capital of Torshavn (Thor’s harbour, named after the Norse God of thunder and lightning), known mostly to Scots as the scene of successive football embarrassments at the hands of Faroe’s part-timers, is hospital operating-theatre clean, yet full of character and quixotic architecture. It boasts an old town where the roofs are still made of turf (indeed our modern hotel, the Foroyar, has gently-sloping turf roofs big enough to play frisbee on), and features a picture-postcard harbour brimming with Mediterranean-like numbers of pleasure craft.

About a third of Faroe’s population of 48,000 lives in or near Torshavn, but with local rider Jacky Zachhau leading us on his Yahama, it takes mere minutes for all signs of habitation to recede and the landscape to open up on a visual scale that defies Streymoy Island’s modest dimensions. It is a recurring sensation on Faroe, one of a landscape visually exceeding its actual scale, a feeling I have experienced only once before, on the Isle of Skye.

Faroese topography is the stuff of geologists’ dreams, and the direct product of colossal volcanic eruptions sixty million years ago. The results are soaring expanses of striated basalt layers separated by compacted red tuff, the compressed ash emitted by volcanoes between eruptions. Immense slopes take on the look of measureless bolts of banded textile, striped irregularly with fluttering mare’s tails of icy snowmelt. The cascades are so numerous throughout Faroe that if there were a Waterfall Olympics, Faroe would be a contender.

The road wends down towards a characteristically sloping East-facing coastline. In Faroe, Eastern shores slope down to the sea, and Western coasts rise sheer from the Atlantic. As we sweep along at the national speed limit of eighty kph (fifty mph), point man Jacky extends a foot to warn of dark-toned sheep foraging by the roadside; with so little flat land around, Faroese mutton grows on the slim pickings from unrestricted flinty hillsides.

We follow the coastline around successively stunning fiords and take to a tarmac stripe that dives inland. The narrow single lane follows a meandering river valley, and leaping up on either flank is scenery to put Glencoe in the shade. Mile after mile of towering rockfaces and sparkling waterfalls accompanies us to Saksun, a handful of homes and a miniature church at the head of its own stark fiord.

Colin Fraser’s beloved Harley, fluttering Shetland flag and all, could have been placed here at enormous expense for a Harley-Davidson advertising shoot. But today is purely about fun, and lots of it.

Back on the main roads, we skirt pristine coastal villages with no two houses the same size, shape or hue, and where Faroe’s near-total dependence on fishing is palpable. The only signs of industry are fishing boats tied securely to village jetties and oversized shoreside buildings devoted to the fishing industry. Ninety-seven percent of all Faroe’s exports derive from fishing, and it shows.

We cross a bridge over the narrow swirling Sundini Strait to the neighboring island of Eysturoy. Four of Faroe’s main islands are directly linked, three by efficient undersea tunnels that draw envious grumbles from the Shetland contingent who would like to see similar links back home. The road takes to the hills and while we savour multiple switchbacks en route to the rainbow-washed coastal town of Gjόgv, I ride pillion on Shetlander Brian’s Suzuki to take photographs. The Faroe scenery never disappoints.

And so it continues for three more days, guided and entertained by Faroe bikers like Jacky Zachhau and Harley importer and selfless local tour organiser Ove Ritter (be warned; he has two gleaming Harleys available for rent) and the ever-silent Arne taking up the rear — all eager to reciprocate hospitality afforded them by the Islands Cruisers on a 2005 visit to Shetland.

The four days are marked by superb hospitality, fine food, great live music, awe-inspiring scenery and top-notch roads. As we depart Torshavn, the four of us huddle in the comfort of the Norrona and reach unanimous agreement. We’ll be back. And who knows, maybe next time we will take in Iceland as well.

In the Summer, that is.