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11 Northern lights over Skaftafell

Determined to make it to Skaftafell, we were riding (our bikes) late at night across the sandar. The great expanse of grey sandar, a thousand square kilometers of volcanic ash and gravel coughed up by the eruption of Öræfi, is eerie and beautiful in the dark, silent and glittery with the numberless rivulets of water finding their way to the sea.  There is no option to camp in the sandar, so once we entered it, we knew we had to make it the whole way.   There was no traffic but the big trucks that haul after dark, and they were few and far between.   My brother was far ahead of us in his truck, and we were riding hypnotically side by side and talking, comfortable knowing we could see traffic in either direction ten miles away.  There are long wooden bridges with grated metal decks crossing the rivers.  Some seemed a half mile long.   The last one was mangled and tossed aside by the water in 1996 when Grímsvötn erupted, and there are some twisted steel beams like modern art on the side of the road there as memorial.

Just as we passed there, the indigo sky opened up in Northern lights, and we overtook my brother, who was parked taking pictures.  He said he could hear us coming by our excited whooping and shrieking at the sky.  Over and over the waves of lights flickered through the sky, brighter than moonlight, gorgeous.  We were cold from riding hot and stopping, but we couldn’t stop watching the lights, and we posed for some pictures with our bikes.  Late in the night, we rode the final miles to Skaftafell, looking forward to the flat camping and hot showers we knew to expect there, and the thunderous cracking of the glacier next to the park.

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12 Invited upstairs for tea at the herring factory museum in Siglufjörður

The town of Siglufjörður was wet and cold when we got there, but when we were looking around the herring factory museum, a man came out, said it was closed for the day and he was tired, but he would open it up in the morning around 8.  Interested, we decided to bed down early and visit the museum in the morning.  It was a good choice.  We soaked at the pool, the hostel was wonderful and we had it to ourselves in the off season.  In the morning we went around to the museum again.  A young woman turned on all the lights for us and left us to our own devices.  An hour or so later, the man from the previous day came downstairs, talked with us and then invited us upstairs for tea.  There were a couple of other men there, directors, or sponsors?, and the young woman. They shared tea and cookies and talked about the administration of the museum,  the history of saving the property, and scrounging up the parts of other abandoned herring factories that were being scrapped to reassemble the museum as it is now, housed in multiple buildings with the multiple functions the factory had.  About three hours passed before we’d seen it all, and I left with a children’s book written and illustrated in exquisite watercolours by the same man who invited us for tea- the museum director and driving force of the whole project.  I wasn’t able to find him again to have my book signed, though.

13 Bowling in Akureyri

There’s a very prominent bowling alley on the strip of museums of all sorts that have sprung up on the road to the airport.  Since we were resting up in Akureyri and enjoying the sundlaug and buffet at Bautinn, we thought we’d try out some bowling.  Nothing prepared us for Friday night at the lanes.  It was crowded with young people, but not just young people.  There were ladies dressed to the nines and eyeballing the boys two lanes over, the booze was flying (literally- glasses of beer smashed on the hardwood), there were catastrophic drunks, we got invited to a party, a scuffle broke out, and there was some majestically abysmal bowling.  Clearly it wasn’t about the bowling skills at all, since it didn’t seem to matter if a ball even made it down the lane it was meant to or any lane at all.  It was pretty typical style for nearly everyone to hurl the ball out and release it at eye level, where it would smash down painfully onto the lane and possibly make it down to the pins.  More than once someone wiped out and hurtled themselves into the gutter.  It was a mesmerizing spectacle.  It was also the first time I’d bowled tenpin, so I thought that was pretty cool.  It was so totally fun we came back with my brother the next night, and that’s how we missed the significant earthquake that knocked plates off of shelves and shook the earth all around us in the north of Iceland.  Everything was shaking and rumbling already in the bowling alley, and we had no idea.  In retrospect though, there was one patch of time where half the lanes malfunctioned at the same time, resetting pins inappropriately or not resetting, and not counting the scores or returning balls.  That was probably the moment of the earthquake.

14 Jolaöl and Jolaskyr

Besides the off season perks of having special attention as the only tourists or else empty hostels to ourselves, the best thing about being in Iceland so late in the year was the Jolaöl, and the hilarity of trying to pronounce it.  Already knocking back the familiar Egil’s Malts like nobody’s business (tall cans of non-alcoholic orange flavoured stout-esque non-beer), one day in Mývatn there were these blue cans that we hadn’t seen before.  Wow!  Jolaöl was the tall blonde version of Egil’s Malt, perfectly sweet and bubbly and orangey-beery.  Technically a soda, although it tastes more like a beer, this blew away every soft drink I’ve ever had (except OOgave is pretty darn good too).  It’s a special holiday beverage, appearing just shortly before Christmas.  We promptly started buying it 12 at a time and freaking out when there were no cans left in the back seat.  Especially incredible had cold with a hot pool. Likewise for specialty Christmas products was Jolaskyr- skyr, which we were eating pounds of daily, packaged with Santa Claus on it, and flavoured with candied apples!

IMGP395415 Vík in the sunshine

Vík, or more specifically the famously recognizable rock formations at Reynisfjara and nearby Dyrhólaey, is notorious for being socked in, grey and overcast and rainy.  In 2010 we passed through a total of four times and had the same weather every time.

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This time, the sun was out in full force, warm on the black rocks and black sand beach, and the stacks were bright and formidable in the sea, haloed with swirling birds.  My brother and I  climbed over the piles of huge black rocks, farther and farther from the main beach in the low tide, finding little coves of pebbled beaches strewn with bones and bird bodies, until I could see Vík and was sure I could get all the way around the point by the beach.  My better sense prevailed – my bike was at the parking lot, and by the time we got back out to it, the weather had changed, surprise, surprise.

IMGP137616 The amazing proprietor of a hotel in the Westfjords

who told me No he couldn’t rent me a room, they were all closed for the year, and the restaurant was closed too.  He called a restaurant in the next town to see if they were open and could feed us, and when they were not, then said Well maybe I could feed you some bread, and salad, and maybe there’s some soup.  He produced a wonderful meal, then told us we could sleep in the gymnasium if we wanted, and by the way there was a ping pong table.  Best night ever!

IMGP363617  Derek learning to drive a gas vehicle.

He’s only ever driven a diesel before, with the ultra-slow accelerator response, so his first time in a gasoline vehicle was like the Formula 500, and it was a pretty large truck.  The first two days were full of peeling away with a screech from green lights (Ooops, sorry.  I hardly pushed it!) and very abrupt halts (Ooops, sorry.  Wow, these brakes really brake).  It was pretty funny, especially when I was coaching him on the drive out of the parking lot from the people we just rented it from:  Okay, just barrrrely touch it.  Errrrk!  Whoa!!  I barely touched it!  Are all gas vehicles like this?  This is what people are driving in all the time?   Uh, yeah, it is!  Watch out for the sidewalk there-  Errrk!   Did they see that?  Ummm, yep.  They’re watching.  I wanted to email a week later- your truck’s still intact!  I just about died laughing.  But he got used to it and no one and nothing got hurt.   I wanted to email a week later- your truck’s still intact!

Also very special was:

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Sleeping in caves.  There was one big enough to set up two tents in, right next to the road, dry and open, and another half full of snow that we threw down sleeping bags in the bottom of.

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The solar powered drink dispenser in the middle of nowhere- wonderful!

Hotel Hellisandur and the fancy buffet of exotic foods and meats.
IMGP3545Walking on the beach by Hvítserker, where 24 seals bobbed in the water watching us and following us along the beach, popping under the water if you made eye contact.  Psst, we’re being watched.

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Despite staying up with the Northern Lights, we woke at 7am to break camp.  We headed southeast around Snæfellsnes peninsula to approach Snæfellsjökull from the south (again).  On a tightly planned schedule for the day (never a great idea), we made a quick stop at the little (300m) volcanic caldera Saxhóll.  I sprinted to the top, up and down, back on the main road in 15 minutes.  I thought my heart would burst, but it was worth the run.

As we rounded Snæfell from the south in brilliant sunshine- another perfectly gorgeous day- we had to stop to take a picture of the unique ripples in the grey mountain side on our left.  The spot we pulled over had a little path that led to a hollow with a spiral staircase disappearing into the ground!

This just happened to be Vatnshellir, a 100m long cave formed in the lava 8000 years ago.  Access was denied to random tourists without a guide (atypical for Iceland’s tourist philosophy, but probably very appropriate), and the steel silo housing the staircase was all locked up.

We could still see down into the railed viewing hole, and the air coming from it was cold and smelled like winter.
I believe we were near Lóndrangar.

A little farther down the road we stopped for the columns of rock we could see rising from the horizon against the sea on our right.

Walking up and out to the cliffs, we saw an arctic fox running across the field below us, and hung out on the cliff edge high above the surf breaking on the black rocks below us.  Birds were sailing around on the updrafts.  I was already loving the bluntnosed guillemots, ubiquitous but cute and bright white.

  After walking around for some time, perching on the edge, and taking vertiginous birds-eye shots of the birds swooping in the drafts, my brother found a warning on a post.

“Oh, here’s a sign!” he called out.  A little 4 x 4” sign on a post, floating out there in the field of gently waving grass.  Watch out for the cliff!

On to Arnarstapi and the “must-do” seaside walk to Hellnar.  The beginning of the hike at Arnarstapi is guarded by an impressive stacked rock sculpture – Baldur of the Sagas.

As we walked the winding path along the black basalt cliffs (close the gate behind you to keep the sheep out!), we tried over and over to capture the swooping seabirds in our shots.

This place was gorgeous, with the radiating patterns of basalt columns forming caves, ends rounded by the waves.

The sun was shining brightly off the water and the oil-black diving birds clustered on the black rocks, against the deep blue Atlantic and green grass topping the cliffs.

From there we drove up the mountain, stopping en route at Sönghellir, one of Iceland’s singing caves.  This was the most magic place ever, the second place so far that I felt powerfully the magic of the earth.

It’s called a singing cave because of the acoustic resonance, how sounds inside vibrate and shimmer.  I crawled up the curving shelves in the wall of the cave and settled in there, watching tourists below me coming and going without ever seeing me.  Dozens of them strode in, nattering the whole time: “Oh, here it is…It’s not very big…My flash isn’t working…What’s next, honey?”  I was amazed and appalled that they weren’t all struck with awe, considering how the place made my spine tingle and made me want to fall to my knees.  I couldn’t leave, going into the cave again and again, singing, and clambering around the general vicinity until I felt I’d adequately communicated with the spirit force in that cave.

In the parking “lot”/patch of gravel, it was so windy I grabbed the opportunity to dry out our tents that we’d rolled up still wet with dew.  One tent at a time billowed out like a sail and dried in seconds.

The gravel road up to the jökull was a steady ascent in a rust coloured wasteland moderated by moss and lichen.  We stopped several times to take pictures of the developing southward view behind us, and to dry out the second tent.  The view was breathtakingly expansive, of the ocean, that sandar, and a fascinating mountain- Stapafell.

Giants are said to have populated this area in the past, hence the rock monument at Arnarstapi to the last giant, and the cairn atop Stapafell rather corroborates that as a literal possibility.  The spike on Stapafell’s peak looks exactly like the other rock cairns speckling Iceland, but it’s HUGE.  No humans hiked those rocks up there; there’s no way.  I didn’t find any commentary on it, but it’s surely not naturally occurring, and it’s too massive to be human-made.  It’s a mystery.

We were spectacularly lucky to see the glacier at all.  Snæfellsjökull is notorious for being cloaked in clouds 90% of the time, like it was last night.  But the day was still clear and cloudless, and we quickly made the short climb to see the jökull up close – as close as one can without a special guide or pass to get on the glacier.  The ice was close, we could feel it.  Quite nippy on the top of the hill.

Our schedule revolved around catching a twice per day ferry at Stykkishólmur for the Westfjords that afternoon, so we headed down the north side of the peninsula from the mountain with a mission to cover ground quick.  We stopped at Kirkufell to see some sheep hanging out in the low surf and seaweed – clearly sheep are truly everywhere they’re not fenced out of in Iceland, and to pick up our first hitchhiker.  Of course, she was Canadian.  Not only that, but she was from Vancouver, and it took us about four minutes to establish one degree of separation.  So we practically knew each other already, having just met in Nowhere, Iceland.

We had the same destination, Stykkishólmur, but we were headed for the Baldur ferry and she was undecided about going to the Westfjords.   On the drive, we stopped at the “Lonely Planet notable destination” of Helgafell, where you may be granted three wishes if you follow the correct process of climbing the hill to the chapel ruins from the grave of Guðrún Ósvífursdóttir.  This was a lovely, serene place, overlooking green squares of fields.

At Stykkishólmur, we bought our passage on the ferry, Cheryl still undecided, and then sped off for the ultrafast tour of Stykkishólmur.  My credit card decided to work again for the tickets, happily.  Ignoring the problem seemed to work.  We had been hoping to stop in at the swimming pool for a soak and to clean up before heading into the remote Westfjords, but that was out of the question with under an hour before sailing.  We rapidly took in the church, Stykkishólmskirkja, as distinctive as all Icelandic kirkjas, but towering and majestic.  The bell tower was receiving some kind of industrial attention at the time.

We had more trouble finding the Library of Water, but it was worth it.  The minimalist art installation in a former library – I missed the “former” and was expecting art and books – was an irregularly shaped room with two dozen acrylic columns filled with water, and a rubber floor with words stuck on it. 

We had to trade our shoes for very unphotogenic white slippers to walk on the sensitive floor, but the place was a kind of high-brow funhouse, with the columns of water refracting the views out the windows and of each other as we walked among them.  At the last minute we ran (quite literally) out with our shoes untied, leapt back into the car and sped down to the ferry landing again.

Cheryl decided to stay with us for at least a day, and she dashed out to buy her ticket as cars began to roll onto the ferry.   So now we were three.

The ferry was shockingly slow.  For a 25km crossing, it took two and a half hours!  We were not expecting that much time in the least.  I suppose it was an older boat, with a closed car deck that you couldn’t stay on during passage.  Luckily, I snatched my laptop off the car deck at the Flatey stop, and we tanked up on fries and skyr at the cafeteria.  Mid-trip, the ferry docks for a moment at Flatey, a tiny island that you can see the whole of from the boat.  Everyone was crowded around that side of the boat to see the island, and a big ruckus broke out.  The ferry pulled away from the dock to leave, then reversed hard and docked again, as a man dressed like the captain, or maybe first mate, descended from the tower and much hollering burst out in Icelandic.  Nothing was unloaded or reloaded, though, and the ferry departed again.

The Baldur ferry is one of two ways onto the Westfjords – the large northwestern peninsula that looks like the head of the creature-like shape of Iceland overall.  The other way is to drive there, through the neck, which means much purportedly less interesting driving.  The ferry gets you to the interesting parts faster, supposedly, with an Atlantic Ocean boat ride thrown in.  The ride was bracingly windy and salt-sprayed, with a large outdoor deck close to the surface of the water.  It was a gorgeous day – our luck continued – and it was lovely to be outside in the mixture of sun warm and wind cold.

We were heading to the Westfjords to go hiking and camping in the lesser-seen Hornstrandir, the uninhabited nature preserve at the northwesternmost tip.  For this first night, though, we were headed directly for Latraberg,  one of several famous bird cliffs.  We stopped to tank up at the one-pump, last chance station, where everyone else off the ferry was also stopping.  We had to wait for another couple to finish filling before we could, and it turned out they were Canadian too.  After I paid and came back out, putting away my credit card, I heard the next couple pumping gas talking, and they were also Canadian!  All the Canadians we’d met so far on this trip,  all in the same day!  I started talking to them, and she said, “Well, apparently only 3% of all the tourists who visit Iceland come to the Westfjords.  I guess that’s all the Canadians”.

The road out towards Patreksfjorður was another contender for world’s worst road.  Paved with rugged 3” gravel, it was a very slow, teeth rattling ride.  As the road curled around the point and descended into a tiny hamlet of four or so houses, the beach stretched out long and bumpy with grassy hummocks, dotted with a few sheep.  We stopped to watch the sunset and wander on the beach.  As night fell we decided to just camp there next to the road.  The beach was tangled with seaweed, swampy in places, and the sheep were shy.  But the usual Inspirational Calendar sunset bloomed over the water, changing by the moment, and then, as the sun fell, we spotted the most mysterious line of bright pink chunks of light on the distant horizon.

They were bright, they were pink, and most mysteriously, they stayed there, illuminated long after the sun set.  We just couldn’t figure out what they were.  They were too far too see distinctly, on the edge of distance where your eyes throb with the effort of focusing.  But Derek took dozens of pictures and zoomed in on those, and we speculated what they could possibly be.  They must have been ice, to be so reflective.  Icebergs seemed most likely, but the light reflected from them was so strong it seemed they must be bigger than that, and they didn’t move in the least, even as the hours passed.  Someone said “Greenland!” and that seemed like the answer.  We were standing on the westernmost point of the westernmost tongue of land on Iceland, the closest one can possibly be to Greenland while in Iceland, although it’s still 300km away.

Long after we made supper, set up our three tents, and let tiredness close the day, the pink mystery still glowed faintly on the horizon.

We asked over the next few days about the horizon iceberg/Greenland phenomenon, and were told it was impossible to see Greenland, even from the highest point of Iceland, certainly not from sea level.  I frowned at this.  I know what I saw.  After we got home though, Google answered the question for good.  It is indeed impossible to see Greenland because of the curvature of the Earth, but there is an optical phenomenon called a fata morgana, or “hafgerdingar” in Icelandic, that bends light rays in different temperature air, especially in polar regions.

For more photos of this day in Iceland, visit the Extra Photos page.

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