Meet the Puffins

To inaugurate TravellingMogwai.com, let’s fly into the North to discover the fascinating landscape of Mykines, the westernmost of the eighteen Faroe Islands, a tiny nation located in the middle of the North Atlantic between Scotland, Iceland and Norway. Among the many species of birds in this ornithological paradise are its most iconic inhabitants: the clumsy, parrot-like puffins, whose Latin name, Fratercula Arctica, translates as « little brothers of the Arctic ».

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Vers MykinesFrom the helicopter that flies over the breathtaking bay of Sørvágur and glides over the sharp peaks of the Tíndholmur islet, I cannot help but breathe a sigh of contentment, even despite my usual apprehension of being in the air. Arranging the ride has been rather complex, from booking the ticket to the inevitable risk of last-minute cancellation due to emergencies or bad weather. But now, after a bumpy takeoff, we’re finally heading west – to Mykines. My noise-canceling headphones dull the infernal roar of the tyrla as I gaze out at the breathtaking scenery that spreads out beneath the copter. Seated in the center, I have a privileged perspective looking out between the pilots. The other five passengers have crowded against the windows to enjoy the spectacular surroundings and taunt the travellers below. Likely numb with cold on this rainy June day, they see us fly over their boat with ease. We cross through a gray curtain of rain to see the foot of the cliffs emerge more and more clearly, rising from the dark, effervescent waters of the North Atlantic. They will not be shattered by land again from the time they leave these tiny isles until they reach Iceland, almost five hundred kilometers away. The summit of Mykines is wrapped in thick clouds; I will not see it at all during my three days there.

MykinesEverything happens very quickly at the heliport. After landing on top of a cliff, I grab my backpack and leave the pad, passing a small group that embarks in turn and the helicopter takes off again for the airport once again. The sudden silence and the ringing of my ears after the deafening roar gives the hamlet a strange, surreal atmosphere, whose silence is broken only by the sound of the wind. My flight companions vanish as well, and I find myself alone, walking on the uneven ground towards the grass-covered houses. A map of the village, nailed to a wooden house, points me towards a campsite on the banks of the stream. I establish myself in the tall grass on the flattest spot I can find, and prepare to hike despite the weather – conditions I would consider rough, but which are probably only an ordinary, early summer drizzle here. What draws most travelers to this island on the edge of the world is much lighter and more innocent than the impressive journey would foreshadow. On an archipelago home to two million birds, the real celebrities of Mykines are neither the oystercatchers, national birds of the Faroes, nor the rare gannets that inhabit a rocky outcrop at the western tip of the island, but rather the cute and curious puffins. These fly now in the thousands, clumsily flapping, fishing at the foot of the cliffs and nestling in their green sides. They coexist with more than a thousand sheep, freely wandering the hills of Mykines, as well as fellow birds such as the Arctic tern, the great skua, the guillemot and the petrel… and the 13 human villagers who call the island home year round.

Mykines
Mykines village – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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MykinesFor the closest glimpse of the feathered species, travellers take the path that leads upwards from the rocky basalt cove that shelters Mykines’ small harbor against the unceasing waves. A steep and difficult slope leads to the heights of the village, and from there hikers must navigate the rocky ridge that runs along the top of the cliffs. From there, the first puffins come into view. In flight, or walking on the thick grass carpet that blankets most of Mykines, they are recognizable from the first moment. Their awkward gait, sad eyes, and colorful beaks are unmistakable, and unforgettable. It is an endless pleasure to observe and photograph the puffins all the way to the lighthouse on Mykinesholmur. They are not overly skittish, generally letting visitors approach with just a watchful eye, flying away only at the very last moment. Beneath your feet, hundreds of their companions float on the rough waters and dive for food beneath the sea. On the left, a memorial stands through the mists, erected in memory of the many victims of the fine nature of Mykines, dead at sea (while travelling or fishing) or on land (while hunting puffins or rescuing sheep). The beauty of the island reaches its climax when the path takes an unexpected turn, diving along the cliff via a flight of stairs constructed God-knows-how on the rocky ledge. The view of the natural wall of the north coast is breathtaking. After a few minutes of adrenaline, hikers return to the grassy slopes, surrounded by hundreds of nesting puffins, and descend to the Atlantic Bridge that links Mykines with the islet of Mykinesholmur over the chasm of Holmgjógv, resonant with the sounds of waves and the shrill cries of the kittiwakes, who keep the rocky ledges. Despite the bridge’s solid construction, the crossing is exhilarating. If, earlier in the day, the village seemed to me like a world apart, Mykinesholmur is even more transcendent.

Mykines
The Atlantic bridge – Grégoire Sieuw ©

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The number of birds overhead continues to grow as you press on the last short distance to the lighthouse that marks the westernmost point of the Faroe Islands. Here one also finds the gannets, who take refuge on a thick sea stack a stone’s throw from the cliff. At the edge of the void, the puffins are the least wary. Sometimes flying, sometimes tucked into small burrows, they are everywhere. Approach them, and they will waddle off, wagging their heads at you when you come a bit too close, their curiosity undaunted. By the time I reach the lighthouse, the fog is so dense that I cannot see – or even sense – the sheer cliffs that surround me on three sides, providing an unforgettable panoramic view on a sunny day. Meeting up with a group of Faroese hikers, we share a Black Sheep, a beer from the local Föroya Bjor brewery, and they unpack boxes of boiled potatoes, dried fish, black pilot whale meat and translucent blubber. We raise our goblets of akvavitt together for a general « Skál » that suddenly warms me all through, and speeds my return to the village to what seems no more than half an hour.

Two days later, I will return to Sørvágur by private speedboat. The helicopter had been cancelled, and a Dane – to whom I had fortuitiously lent my phone charger – invited me on board. I would only see the top of Mykines twenty days later, from the island of Vágar, in a rare moment of good weather only hours before my departure from the Faroes. A mysterious island, fascinating and full of contrasts, of an austere and attractive harshness, just like the whole of this misunderstood and often criticized archipelago. Ironically brought into the light by the shadow of an eclipse earlier in the year, the Faroe Islands still do not have the crowds of tourists Iceland has. Although they will probably never be a mainstream travel destination, the Faroes remain a gem well worth visiting for their fantastic landscapes and shy, but welcoming, people.

Mykines
Puffins on the southern coast of Mykines – © Grégoire Sieuw

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  • How to get there: Getting to Mykines is simple in theory: information for the helicopter and the boat is available on the websites of Atlantic Airways and Strandfaraskip Landsins, respectively. However, the schedules are very irregular, online booking is not available, and helicopter trips are limited to one per day for tourists, as the service gives priority to locals. The risk of cancellation for helicopter tours is also high – but the view, experience and value are hard to match.
  • Pronunciation: Few things are as humiliating as visiting a country without even being able to pronounce the names of people and places. Here’s a guide to prepare you for this visit: Mykines is pronounced « Mee-chin-ess » Holmgjógv is pronounced « Holm-jegv » Skål is pronounced « Skaol » and Sørvágur is pronounced « Survaovur ». You should also know that the archipelago is called Føroyar – the islands of sheep – and puffins are here called lundar (singular: lundi) ! I recommend the website Forvo for listening to the local pronunciation of locations you may visit.
  • Surrounding areas: On Mykines, two trails lead to the summit Knúkur, whose 560 meters dominate the island. The rest of the island is wild and to be explored at your own risk. Mykines is only one of the eighteen islands in the archipelago, which I will most certainly write about in future articles. On the island of Vágar alone, where the international airport is located, one can find the waterfall of Bøsdalafoss and the remote village of Gásadalur, accessible by car for scarcely more than a decade thanks to a tunnel that now allows more visitors to admire its waterfall in its dramatic setting. The rest of the archipelago only brings even more surprises…
  • Practical information: Most visitors come to the Faroes by plane, although some take the ferry (an option ideal for those who wish to bring their own car). The airline Atlantic Airways offers flights from London, Edinburgh, Copenhagen, Billund (Denmark), Reykjavík and Barcelona. The currency is the Faroese crown (FOK), which has the same course as the Danish krone (DKK) – but beautiful notes and coins! The only business on Mykines is the guesthouse Kristianshús. There are 35 beds, and the price per person per night is between 33 and 53 euros. The house’s snack bar open to everyone during the day on the ground floor.

Thank you Erna Falkvard Simonsen for the missing information and thank you Miranda Metheny for the translation into English! 

Mykines
Mykines village turf houses – © Grégoire Sieuw