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Trip 36 — Eysturoy Walk

Day 2: Gjógv to Oyndarfjørður
Tuesday, 20 June 2023

Today: 36114 steps/26.76 km/16.63 mi/5h 36m
Total: 66990 steps/52.04 km/32.34 mi/9h 58m

The Faroese like to name locations simply, after their geographical features. Eiði means "isthmus." Slættaratindur means "flat peak." And Gjógv means "gorge," so called because of the gorge that divides the main part of town from the cliff of fulmars, puffins, and other seabirds.

Gjógv has been around for at least 450 years, probably much longer. Its main industry has been saltfish, although a concrete factory opened in 1982. A hundred years ago, Gjógv had nearly 300 residents. There were only 24 as of 2020, most of them over age 50, and a few more have departed since then. I counted more visitors than that today. Gjógv has around 50 houses, painted in the characteristic black, white, red, brown, green, or yellow Faroese style, so more than half of them are unoccupied.

The Gjáargarður Guesthouse provided a breakfast of cheese, deli meat, and smoked salmon — I can never get enough smoked salmon — after which I strolled through the town and took in the main sights. At the bottom of the gorge, the sea comes in and boats often deliver goods. An incline railway — the only railway in the Faroes — leads up from here; cargo is loaded onto a dinky wagon attached to a rope and hauled up by a winch. Sadly, the wagon isn't used much these days; I would have loved to see it in action, perhaps hitching a ride, as apparently is sometimes done.

The railway's upper terminus is near the coffee shop, where I had a hot chocolate, and from here paths lead along both sides of the gorge. From the southern side, one can watch the activity in the bird cliff across the gorge, or one can head up the northern side, above the bird nests, and continue ascending for maybe an hour, to the Ambadalur valley and a view of the Faroes' largest sea stack.

I didn't go nearly that far, but the experience above the cliff was enough to make me cry at my insignificance in the universe. The wind was fierce, prompting me to hang on to the wire fence separating me from the nearly vertical drop to the sea. The hills were more suited to sure-footed sheep. Beyond the gate, where hikers are asked for a 50-kroner donation for trail upkeep — here's where I would have needed some of that cash — there are stairs, making the walk quite easy.

When I arrived at this point, I was the only one there, and the sound was an amalgam of bird squawks, sheep grunts, and howling wind. Mountains towered above me and across Gjógv. A light rain persisted. It would be hard to feel lonelier. Within a few minutes, other hikers started to arrive and pass through the gate. I might have joined them, but I'd have plenty other climbing to do today.

I descended and went past the long, white church, opened in 1929. Behind it is a statue of a mother with her two children, one seated on her, gazing out at the sea; it is a memorial to fishermen who died in the water. The names of such men, from 1846 to 1969, are embossed on plaques behind the statue.

Farther on was a giant concrete building with materials strewn about inside. Was this the concrete factory? More importantly, was this the building meant to be Havstein's factory in "Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?"

I looped around to the waterfront and back up to the guesthouse, the only place where one could get lunch in Gjógv. The restaurant gets booked up with groups, not enough to crowd the room but enough to keep the kitchen at its busiest, and by the time I'd finished my fish sandwich and tomato-olive salad, the staff was turning people away or offering only simple options.

The day was still blustery and rainy and I had at least five hours of walking ahead of me. But I was lacking motivation and in no hurry. I lingered for a tea. By then the rain had stopped, it was after 2 p.m., and the reception was open at the guesthouse, the first time I'd seen someone there. I hadn't yet found anyone to talk to about my walk or my experience with Johan Harstad's book. It seemed important to.

"May I help you?" she asked. "Or just looking?" The reception area doubled as a gift shop.

"Just looking," I said, picking up a free copy of the most recent Faroe Islands visitor's guide. "I stayed here last night."

"And what's your plan, then?"

"I'm walking around the whole island. Today I'm walking to..." I could spell it better than I could pronounce it. And I wasn't sure I could spell it. I tried my best with "Oyndarfjørður."

"Oyndarfjørður," she repeated, understanding. "By the road or by Elduvík?"

I'd forgotten that the road was an option all the way; I'd intended to walk along the road to Elduvík and then take the footpath. "By Elduvík."

She seemed concerned. "Be careful. It's very steep, and it's been wet and windy."

"Do you think it's too dangerous?"

"I've never done it. But my mother did it when she was twelve and has terrible memories. I've never wanted to try it."

"Really? It looked like an easy path, from the description."

"When it's dry, maybe," she said. "But it might be slippery since there's been rain. You have to go over the mountains."

"OK, thank you. Maybe I'll take the road, then. Perhaps I'll see what it's like when I get there." At Funningsfjørður I could make a decision: continue along the main road south and then follow the road up to Oyndarfjørður, or I could keep going around the fjord to Elduvík and then take the path. If it resumed raining or the wind continued, the road would be a good option, if a longer one.

"I'll give you this," she said, handing me a paper. It was a form for hikers to use to notify people of their destinations. "You can fill this out and leave it with me. Then call me when you arrive."

I thought about this for a few minutes. In the meantime, someone else entered the reception area. He either worked at the hotel or was very close to the people there. She spoke to him for a moment in Faroese.

"I don't know the path either," he said. "But I think it's OK. You just have to be careful." He tried to make a phone call, but he didn't reach his intended person. "I'll show you the map," he continued, calling up one of the sites I'd looked at in preparation (visitfaroeislands.com).

"I know that site," I said. "Very detailed instructions."

"The guy who made them" — he said his name, but I didn't understand it — "that's who I was trying to call. He used to guide people there."

"Oh, what's his name? I might hire him for another walk later on."

"He's not available for guiding this year. He fell down a mountain last year and broke everything."

"Oh, my goodness!"

"It can happen even to the expert."

"I guess so." I took a moment in reverence. "I have another walk in a few days, that doesn't seem so easy. Sela...." I was lucky to remember the names as well as I did. "Selatrað to Oyri."

"That one is easy," the receptionist said. "You can find any way up and down."

"Really? I want to make sure I don't step on somebody's land."

"Don't worry about it," the man said.

"OK, if you say so." Then I added, "You know the book 'Buzz Aldrin...'?"

"Yes," the receptionist said, "but I didn't read it. Did you?"

"Yes. Half of it happens here."

"Did you see the series?" the man asked.

I knew that it had been made into a Norwegian television series. "No, but I'd like to."

"I'm in it," he said. One of the church attendees, or something like that.

"I'll have to find it! All right, thank you both very much." We exchanged goodbyes. I didn't complete the form.

It was a long climb out of Gjógv, made seemingly longer because I was retracing yesterday's route for the first hour. I wasn't out of breath, though; I'd had plenty to eat and lots of water with lunch. And I'd finally slept a decent amount.

Tour buses passed me every few minutes, in both directions. I had mixed feelings about them. Gjógv is certainly beautiful enough to earn a place on the visitor's route, and one tour bus might take the place of 40 cars. But those groups also delay other parties at the town's only restaurant. It would have been nice to spend one more day in Gjójv, when I wasn't so tired and could enjoy the town early or late in the day, at its quietest. It definitely didn't seem like a town of fewer than two dozen people.

Maybe it would help to have more than four public buses from Oyrarbakki to Gjógv on weekdays in summer. There are only two on Saturdays, and none on Sundays. And from mid-August to mid-June, it's weekdays only, only three buses per day, and you have to call ahead at least two hours in advance. A better transit network would let people explore more at their own pace and would alleviate the sudden influx of people on tours. That said, the Faroes hardly seem overcrowded.

I took the zigzagging road left down to Funningur. There was probably a path here, too, perhaps the one that Gjáarfólk (people from Gjógv) used to walk to get to the church in Funningur before one was built in Gjógv.

Past Funningur, the road veered right along Funningsfjørður, the fjord that shares its name with the village an hour's walk away at the end of it. If I was going to take the path from Elduvík, I'd be rounding the village and coming up the other side of the fjord, another hour. I tried to see Elduvík opposite, to make an early judgment about the state of the path, but it was a couple of kilometers out of view.

The wind was back up, but the rain remained halted. This stretch was fairly dull, especially if I was going to do it on both sides of the fjord. I went back to the site describing the path. It was rated difficult (one level below "expert"), and it was short, only 3.3 kilometers. The path was rehabilitated in 2019. Had the receptionist known that? Had the man? According to the site, the path was "easy to walk even though it is quite steep."

Another site, AllTrails, made me even more unsure. A review from last month called it "Not for the faint of heart when windy/wet, need to be very careful each step along the steep bits." But another said "malgré la partie le long de la falaise, pas de problème de vertige." No problem with vertigo, even going along the cliff.

By the time I reached Funningsfjørður village, the wind had died down, there was still no rain, and I'd even enjoyed a total of about 15 seconds of sunshine. The main road continuing south headed upward. I didn't feel like climbing again or extending the walk by four kilometers. I turned left, back along the fjord toward Elduvík.

I kept contingency plans in my head. Elduvík was eight kilometers away. If the path proved to be impassable or inadvisable, it would be a 22-kilometer walk to Oyndarfjørður along the road. Grueling and boring to go along the fjord again, and with an arrival close to midnight, but it would be safe.

A few cars passed me on the way to Elduvík. Maybe other people would be walking the path. I'd feel a lot safer doing the hike with others.

Maybe I'd find someone in Elduvík and pay them to accompany me.

It was such a short path. How bad could it be?

A mist threatened to become rain, but it held off. I completed my passage around the fjord and continued east toward Elduvík, along the stretch where the fjord empties into the sea. Ahead was Kalsoy island, a long, narrow mountain range.

In Elduvík a signpost directed the way to various points of interest in various bright colors. One was for the public toilet, which I used vigorously. The one pointing to Oyndarfjørður was green with pink lettering, in a whimsical typeface. It wasn't "Oyndarfjørður: Highly inadvisable. Extremely steep. Do not go alone." It wasn't the typeface of court documents or mailings about tax liability. Was there really any danger?

A woman went into the toilet and came out. Should I ask her about the trail? No, I've already looked at her in contemplation for two seconds. It would be creepy to approach her.

I continued along the road until it fizzled out and segued into the trail. I passed through a couple of gates and closed them firmly, to keep the sheep where they were supposed to be.

The trail began meandering innocently enough. It was narrow, but it wasn't steep, and it wasn't particularly high up the mountain. It went gently along the side of the mountain; based on the map I figured it would be about 40 minutes like this, before it would turn right between two mountains and come down on the other side into Oyndarfjørður.

I went slowly, making sure I didn't trip. There was a steep drop-off to my left, but not such a long drop to make me nervous. If I went plummeting into the sea, I might even survive it.

At one point the trail dipped a bit more than usual, and I started to sit down to lower myself. No, don't do that. I've been in a couple of these situations before, and it can be hard to get back up again. Is this really where it ends? I asked myself. Am I going back?

Don't be silly, I answered. It's only about two steps and then the path is level again. I continued on.

From here on, the walk was easier than I expected. The path itself never became steep; it just remained narrow, lightly undulating as it proceeded along the mountainside. In a few places, handrails had been installed to allow me to pick my way forward.

It reminded me of a path in Malta, where I'd given up after an hour and gone back along a safer route. Was that one really worse? Or had I gotten more confident? That one must have been steeper and higher, because I had reached a section that climbed severely enough for me to think: If I continue up, there's no way I'm coming back down. And here on the Oyndarfjørður trail, I never felt that way.

After about 45 minutes, the path turned inward between the two mountains, and I was home free. It was a lovely walk, not steep, no drop-offs, well-marked, the sheep cheering me on, or so I like to think. It was a little muddy at the end, but not dangerous. I soon descended gently into Oyndarfjørður, found tonight's Airbnb, and collapsed into a nap instantly.

Go on to day 3