Drop Sheep!, Spoon-Licker and the Sausage-Swiper.
It is well known that the early history and culture of the northern lands first explored and settled by the Vikings is colourfully recorded through the 'Sagas' - a wonderful collection of stories, part fact and part mythology which are, even now, still an important and integral part of Nordic culture. After a month in Faroe and Iceland I can attest the culture of story telling here is alive and well!
We have travelled approximately 850nm since leaving the Shetland Islands in mid June. The two 'open ocean' legs, firstly 200nm between Shetland and Faroe and then 250nm between Faroe and the east coast of Iceland were uneventful with almost calm conditions for the first leg and nothing more than 20kts on the second. I like to keep a flexible schedule without tight deadlines so as to be able to pick the most comfortable weather conditions for exposed passages. As it turned out, close to ideal conditions emerged exactly to my months before pre-planned schedule and we have not had to rearrange dates at all. Apart from a couple of stormy days (where we were snugly tied up in port) the weather conditions around the coast of Iceland have also been very benign. This has been most fortunate because the coast is very exposed and sheltered anchorages and ports (particularly along the north coast) are quite some distance (50nm -80nm) apart. Happy days; happy wife; happy life!!
So let's start with our 10 day stay in the Faroe Islands or Foroya as the locals call it (pronounced 'furryia' - as in 'my cat is furriya than yours'). Firstly, I have to renounce my declaration that Norway has the most dramatic marine landscapes on the planet and hand the mantle over to the 18 islands that make up the nation of Faroe. The drama and rugged beauty of 900m high cliffs dropping straight into the sea along the NW coast (the highest sea cliffs in the world) left us breathless and the accompanying bird life is the most abundant and vibrant we have seen anywhere.
Dramatic Sea Cliffs, Rock Formations (and Handsome Hikers!) on the NW Coast of Faroe
We were blessed with two perfectly calm sunny days to explore and enjoy this area in comfort, close up and apart from the stunning scenery, we particularly enjoyed watching the comical aerobatics of large numbers of puffins. These funny little birds, with their brightly coloured beaks and orange legs are prolific in Faroe and Iceland, where they come ashore to nest during the summer after having spent the entire winter at sea.
They are nervous little creatures that take flight (either above or below the sea) as our boat approaches. It would seem they are much more proficient flying underwater (they are reported to be able to dive up to 80m deep!) than they are in the air. An aerial escape involves a solid 50m of frantic wing flapping and foot paddling to get airborne and, having reached a safe distance from our imminent threat, an ignominious crash landing follows, usually made up of a belly flop, face plant and somersault. We never tired of their antics.
We also kept out a good eye to try and spot the 'drop sheep' we had heard stories about from the locals. (The Faroese don't call them 'drop sheep' but I gave them that moniker in recognition of our infamous Australian 'drop bears'.) The story goes that small grassy ledges which have been heavily fertilised by thousands of birds nesting on the cliffs make excellent fattening pasture for sheep. In early spring, courageous but heartless farmers are said to scale down the cliffs with lambs slung over their shoulders to deposit them on suitable ledges to graze and fatten over the summer. Come autumn, when it is time to harvest the lambs, they have grown far too large to carry back up the cliff, so they are simply pushed over the edge to a boat waiting below. We saw no evidence of nervous lambs stranded on ledges and certainly hope it is just a tale told to visitors, just as we tell tales in Australia about drop bears! (For the unfamiliar - drop bears are koalas (which aren't even bears!) that drop down from trees onto passers by - just another deadly creature to go along with our sharks, spiders, snakes and crocodiles out to attack unsuspecting visitors.)
Faroe is a nation of only 50,000 people which was first settled around 600AD by Irish monks. It is an autonomous country (according to Wikipedia - but not sure what that means exactly!) and part of the Kingdom of Denmark. They use Danish currency and rely on Denmark for Defence, Ministry of Justice and Foreign Affairs but are otherwise self governing and financially independent. They claim to have the oldest parliament in the world (dating back to around 900AD) which is housed in the delightful and wonderfully preserved "old town" in the capital Torshavn (no photos because I spent 2 days taking pictures without an SD card in my camera!!!). The main industries are fishing and sheep farming, which must be productive and profitable judging by the extent and quality of infrastructure. There is an amazing network of roads (including many tunnels both through mountains and under the sea), ferries, bus routes and active fishing harbours connecting the islands (and even their own airline!) which I think is extraordinary for such a small population.
Another one of their 'industries', more likely real and definitely more distasteful than drop sheep farming is whaling. I had an interesting discussion with a fuel company sales manager (who sold me 8,000L of duty free diesel at less than US$ 90c/L - more happy days!!) about the Faroe history of whaling. He proudly claimed that whaling is an important part of Faroese culture and still extensively practised but that they have never hunted whales - they only harvest pilot whales (and dolphins!) when they venture into traditional 'harvesting bays' - coves where the whales are trapped and then slaughtered in the water by fishermen (not hunters!) working from small boats. He was highly critical of international media distributing footage and images of waters turned red from the blood of these poor creatures rather than focusing on the humane and sustainable techniques and cultural significance of their craft. At times like these I think it best to just respectfully acknowledge, albeit sadly, there will always be alternative cultural views about what is considered morally right or wrong.
Whilst we did not come across any sheep stranded on cliff ledges they are omnipresent! Faroe is said to mean "Land of Sheep", which if true, is certainly appropriate. We enjoyed many days of hiking here (if you are keen on hiking put this place on your bucket list!) and sheep were never out of sight. They are most unusual and are nothing like sheep I have ever seen before. They look like four legged Wildlings (out of Game of Thrones), with shaggy moulting coats and luminescent widespread eyes, and are recognised as a unique species found nowhere else. Interestingly, when we got to Iceland we also found sheep to be prolific however totally different to the Faroese breed (our sheep are furriya than yours!) and also recognised as a unique breed (New Zealand readers will be getting seriously attentive by this stage with all this talk about sheep). I prefer Icelandic sheep! For a start they don't look like Wildlings. They are small with neat tidy coats and eyes more closely set together making them look less evil, and interestingly, whilst the Faroese sheep only have one lamb at a time the Icelandic ones are much more efficient, commonly give birth to two or three lambs at a time, often of different colours! And ..... according to Icelandic farmers there are rare more genetically distinct sheep amongst them known as 'leader sheep' that can sense oncoming bad weather and lead the flock back from free roaming highland pastures to the comfort and safety of the barn. These sheep are said to display great leadersheep characteristics - but then again it might just be another story.
We have now neatly segued on the sheep's back from Faroe to our arrival at Seyðisfjörður, the first of many impossible to pronounce towns in Iceland. The first thing I noticed was that the ferry wharf was the one used in the Icelandic thriller TV series 'Trapped' and that this was the town where 4 people were murdered in 2 days in the midst of a terrible winter storm. The harbour master assured me this was just a modern Icelandic saga and nothing to worry about and more importantly that the best pizza restaurant in the whole of Iceland was located just 150m from our berth at the dock. After our 34hr passage from Faroe, pizzas for dinner sounded like a great idea so despite the town's murderous reputation we ventured down the road. Having not tasted any other pizza in Iceland, I cannot verify the harbour masters claim but I can certainly say they were some of the finest pizzas I have eaten anywhere in the world!
Early the next morning we moved on another 60nm to Vopnafjörður (I'm going to continue to torment you with these Icelandic place names) to take advantage of a day of calm weather before two days of forecast strong head winds set in. It was here, through a courageous and selfless act by our good friend Simon, that disaster was narrowly averted! The wind increased dramatically after we arrived in port, and it was only by sheer chance that Simon, whilst raiding the wheelhouse bar fridge in the middle of the night clad only in his underpants, happened to notice our Australian ensign, flagstaff and all, part company with the boat in the high winds and disappear over the side. With lightning fast reactions, and complete disregard for his own well being in his near naked state, in freezing conditions, he raced outside to un-lash the boat hook from its stowage position and to recovered the flag and flagstaff before it drifted out of reach and out of sight. Karen and I were woken by the commotion and ventured on deck to find Simon shivering fiercely but proudly holding aloft our rescued but very sodden Aussie flag.
It turned out the reason the flag had gone over the side was because the screws securing the stainless steel mounting bracket to the transom had come loose and pulled out. The bracket had become detached from the flagstaff and was now laying at the bottom of the harbour and we went back to bed worrying about how to locate and recover it in the morning.
After a futile hour or so spent dragging the bottom (about 6m deep) with a home made grappling hook type of contraption we gave up and flagged down a passing fork lift driver working in the nearby fish processing plant to inquire if there might be a diver in town (somewhat unlikely in a town pop. 250) who could search for the missing bracket. Within minutes a dry suited diver miraculously appeared and after a brief negotiation and exchange of a US$100 note the missing bracket was quickly recovered from the harbour floor and our Aussie flag flies proudly (now more firmly secured) from our transom again!
A few days later, once the weather had settled down, we moved on to Iceland's oldest (and pleasantly pronounceable) town of Husavik, where we had booked a Land Cruiser and guide for two days of touring. I am extremely glad we did this because, whilst the coastal scenery is impressive, the real scenic highlights in Iceland - massive waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers and lunar landscapes are all well inland. Our guide Ari turned out be (a) an extremely cautious and competent driver (once again ... happy wife, happy life!); (b) a local boy through and through with an endless repertoire of unofficial 'sagas' related to the areas through which we travelled, and (c) an amateur geologist/volcanologist with an impressive understanding of the dynamic geological forces that shaped Iceland and continue to do so today.
We saw some amazing sights (far away from the heavily trafficked tourist trails closer to Reykjavik) during the two days we spent driving around with Ari - with an overriding theme of recent (in geological terms) geothermal and volcanic activity. I found the contrast between our Australian landscape (geologically one of the oldest in the world dating back more than 2 billion years) and Iceland (which only emerged above the ocean some 16 - 18 million years ago) extraordinary. We drove for hours through lava fields dating back approximately 9,000 years that looked like it had been laid down last week! A few days later we sailed down a fjord (carved out by a glacier, which must have occurred more recently than 16 million years ago when Iceland was born) where I was able to count more than 40 layers of lava and volcanic ash on an exposed cliff face - each one probably happening thousands of years apart and the result of a cataclysmic volcanic eruption possibly lasting for many years. Seeing and appreciating first hand, the scale, magnitude and enormous time frames of the forces that have, and continue to shape, our ever changing planet only makes me more sceptical about mankind being responsible for current changes to our climate and even more sceptical that we are powerful enough to do anything about it!
So finally we get to my attention grabbing headline about Spoon-Licker and Sausage-Swiper. These are not (as you might have thought) references to some of the guests we have had on board the last few weeks, but rather just two of thirteen characters (along with Pot-Scraper, Door-Slammer and my favourite, Window-Peeper) who substitute for Santa Claus in Iceland.
These 13 mischievous 'Yule Lads' live in caves, under bridges, etc in an area called Dimmuborgir (which we drove through with Ari) and arrive, one each day starting 11 December, to all be present on Christmas Day. Children in Iceland place their best shoe on their windowsill before going to bed and each night a little gift is left in it from the Yule Lad that came down from the mountains that night. If the child has been misbehaving or is late to bed, there might be a raw potato left instead. The 'Lads' leave, one each day, in the same order they arrived until all are gone on 6 January - the last day of Christmas in Iceland. Their mother Grýla (an ugly troll!), has a cat called Jólakötturinn (the Christmas Cat), who eats children who did not get new clothes from their parents for Christmas! Don't you love these stories??
Stay tuned - next post from amongst the icebergs of Greenland!