We stared at the grubby-green mountainside, propped up on our tools - spades, pick axes, a curious sort of shovel - with so little clue what to do, but so much enthusiasm to do it.
The task was to cut out a path to the summit of a peak called Klakkur, currently (and perhaps always) hidden in the clouds 150 metres above, but with an estimated zero construction experience among us, how to start was anyone’s guess. Dig? It seemed a good - and the only - place to begin and so, with a furious wind beating our backs, I took a tentative mark on the sodden turf and dug.
Only 100 people were allowed to visit the Faroe Islands last weekend. They were not tourists but volunteer “workers” invited in the name of sustainability, and I was among them. In February, the country’s tourism chiefs declared that it would be “closed for maintenance” for three days in late April and asked if a century of unskilled labourers fancied helping out in exchange for bed and board. More than 3,000 applied and the quota, which the organisers feared would never be reached, was filled in days.
Cut adrift in the Atlantic, half-way between Scotland and Iceland, the Faroes is a new front in the global battle against overtourism. A couple of decades ago, just a handful of visitors wrestled their way to the smattering of 18 roughly-hewn islands each year. But a growing desire to see the unseen and explore the unexplored is driving more and more tourists to seek out its baffling landscapes. In 2013, 68,000 made the trip. Last year the figure reached 110,000, more than double the Faroes’ resident population, raising fears about how long its unspoilt natural attractions would remain unspoilt.
The maintenance weekend is also a shrewd marketing campaign, of course, promoting the country as a destination while making it clear that only tourists who intend to respect its fragile ecosystem should come, but it has its practical uses.
The 100 “voluntourists”, aged between 18 and 75 and drawn from 25 countries including the US, Israel, and all of Scandinavia, were put to work across 10 of the country’s most popular sites. Some hiked to their temporary office, some took a ferry, others a helicopter. The jobs included constructing steps into steep hillsides, building cairn wayfinders and digging out paths, but all were working towards a single goal: helping visitors enjoy the landscape without damaging it.
“Let the path follow the land,” explained Hans, our Faroese overseer, during a crash course in the fundamentals of path-building. “Nature isn’t perfect, so the path doesn’t need to be either.”
Good, because it wasn’t going to be. The route up Klakkur was loosely visible but vague, splitting and winding, rejoining and retreating. Our job was to cut out the turf - six or so centimetres deep, 50cm wide - use it to support the sides, lay down fibreglass mesh and cover it with gravel. At first, we hacked at the earth with intention but no direction, but within 20 minutes we started to see more clearly our purpose. Among us were students, an accountant, a computer engineer, a cartographer, and soon enough we found our rhythm.
One marked out the course, tracing the path of least resistance, three of us, myself included, then removed the bulk of the turf. Another pair followed picking out loose debris and tidying up the base for the mesh, while behind them the gravel was lugged up the mountain, laid, raked and battered flat.
Within hours what felt at first like the result of aimless enthusiasm was transformed into an actual, functioning trail – one that would keep walkers on the straight and narrow, protecting the nature either side and transporting generations to come to a beauty spot that boasts 360-degree views across the north-east Faroes. I will bring my children here, I thought, only partly in jest.
An enormous sense of pride grew within the team. We were realising our potential, forging well ahead of the expectations of our local foreman. After a lunch of fish soup and crusty bread, made by a resident of the town below, I had to carry two buckets of gravel to the leading edge of the path (there was a “no empty hands” policy in place), and while picking my way up felt that, despite having only been aware of its existence for a morning, I now knew this mountain well.
I knew where the thick turf gave way to rocky soil, where the bogs presented bridging conundrums. I looked at the stepped section like it was a riddle I had been musing for years. How to navigate best the boulder run? How to support the eastern edge when the hill dropped away? I looked out at the steep fjords across the water, still smothered in cloud, and down towards the small town on its moss-carpeted isthmus, and felt an extraordinary sense of belonging.
The next day everything hurt. Muscles I never knew I had were on fire, alarmed and concerned by activity after 31 dormant years. But there was no time of self-pity, I was transferred across the Faroes to another project.
The Faroes is 99 per cent sea. Its islands are set out a little like a ribcage and connected by a relatively new set of sea tunnels. The scenery seems to surround at all times, brutal, bold and uncompromising. I was taken aback by how, despite being a mere 540 square miles of land amid the totality of the Atlantic, the Faroes always boasted a sight off in the distance: a far-flung island, a lurking fjord, a fleeting mountaintop. Not once was there an uninterrupted view of ocean.
Until I reached Trælanípa. Here - on a perch that is also known as Slave’s Rock, on account of Vikings chucking their unwanted help into the water below - I helped lay out a second path that ran to the clifftop. One of the most popular viewpoints in the country, the steep hike reveals the mind-boggling angles of the jagged cliffs opposite, jutting out into the sky like a mountain trimmed with a chainsaw. It was here I offended the few untrammelled muscles I had left, pushing and pulling wheelbarrows of rock up the hillside.
After two day’s hard work, my adopted team took the weekend off, our path in a greater state than anyone had imagined. Our Faroese leader, who oversaw our labours while fortifying himself with 44 per cent ABV Underberg liqueur, handed out his remaining supply and we rested under the first sunshine of the trip.
Beneath us the “hanging lake” of Trælanípa poured into the ocean at a break in the cliffs and at once I felt both insignificant but proud. If our work helped protect even a square foot of this remarkable country, it would be worth it – a message I was sure to relay to my aching bones the next morning.
Return flights from Copenhagen or Edinburgh with Atlantic Airways (atlantic.fo) cost from £150.
For more information on the Closed for Maintenance weekend, which the tourist board intends to run again next year, visit visitfaroeislands.com.