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Posts Tagged ‘hitchhiking’

On Day Two we prepared our luggage properly, separating actual camping supplies into backpacks, and city supplies into our suitcases. Since I’d packed to leave by essentially hurling things I thought I’d need at my suitcase, this was an important step to take before entering the hiking phase of our trip.

Elf rock

We dropped off our luggage at BSÍ to be stored (in a room choked with the backpacks and suitcases of other travellers) while we spent some more time in Reykjavik for the day. The Free Walking Tour was worth every cent. We learned a number of things on that short walk, from the talkative, bold Icelandic guide who mentioned sex often, told us what he thought of real estate and Icelandic banks, and who had lived nine years in Canada:

The rock in the picture is an elf rock. When machinery breaks or gets stuck when trying to move a rock, they don’t use bigger machinery, they call in a mediator who negotiates with the tenants of the rock for an amicable solution. In this case it was a week to get ready and a new downtown location. I guess hidden people don’t have so much to pack.

Reykjavik’s city hall houses a wonderful handmade relief map of Iceland. Odd to say, but it really put Iceland in perspective, especially the magnitude of their glaciers. Iceland’s glaciers spit on our “glaciers”. Vatnajökull wouldn’t deign a glance at the Columbia Icefields. Vatnajökull might give PEI a passing nod. Jökull = Glacier. This beautiful piece of work made of 1mm layers of paper took over 16 “man-years” to create- four people over four years. All those complicated little fjörds. I can imagine whoever worked on the Eastfjörds feeling like Slartibartfast from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy– “those fjörds there- I did those.” It is remarkable.

Inside, Reykjavík’s city hall looks like a place where work gets done, meaning, it’s not pompous at all and doesn’t put on airs. Maybe an air of streamlined efficiency. Outside, it had a striking wall of moss on rock with portholes in it overlooking a square pond.

We didn’t notice the anchor on a welded chain rising up out of the water. We saw that a week later when we went by and said “Hey! That anchor couldn’t have been sticking out of the water like that when we were here before, we would have noticed!” Are these people fucking with us? The next time we passed city hall, the anchor was sticking out of the water, but at a totally new angle. By that time, we could file it under weird sculpture, which we were quite familiar with, but we still don’t know what’s up with the anchor and why it does what it does.

Reykjavik 871 +/-2 is perhaps the world’s most oddly named museum (names of attractions rarely include tolerance factors, I’ve noticed), but it had an awesome elevator. What’s most extraordinary about this place is that an entire, modern, multi-storey building is built over top of an archeological dig, completely preserving the excavation and housing an interpretive museum around it. There’s even a window through the sidewalk looking down into the entrance “lobby” of this hall built in 871 (+/- 2 years – hence the name). They don’t seem to think this is remarkable, and all the pictures and info about discovering the remains of the Settlement Age hall under the foundation of a few other builds, the exceptional effort of preserving it, and the engineering of building around it, all live in an unassuming little room adjacent to the bathrooms. We wouldn’t have seen it except for admiring the elevator.

The elevator!

The exhibit itself is quite interactive with lots of high tech flashy bits. We were already noticing a trend with Icelandic museums: there isn’t a lot of actual stuff in them. Not stuff that’s old, and real. Every single Viking and Settlement artifact known in Iceland could fit in a short wing of the British Museum, if not a room. It was a staggering comparison- the incredible glut of collected historical artifacts jam-packed into every museum we saw when we were in London, versus the starkly empty exhibitions of Iceland (with one exception, that comes later). So, there’s a lot of interpretation going on.

Museums started to feel like books, written on walls. Like being inside a book. Walk around instead of turn pages. This made me crazy. “I want to be outside, not be in a book!” So we’d dart around museums taking pictures of all the copious text, in two-four languages, for reading later someplace more boring (like Canada) and run back outside. Or not go in the museum at all, once they started to become suspect entities. But this opinion coalesced much later on after more museums. All that my notebook said this day was: I’ic museums don’t seem to take very long to go through. As opposed to say, the British Museum, where you should make sure someone knows when you went in and how long you can live on the snack bars you brought, in case they need to send in a search party a few days later.

Despite this “lack of old stuff”, Icelanders know their history with a detailed, intimate completeness that’s unrivaled, thanks to the sagas. Caveat to this generalization about Iceland’s museums: we did not take in the National Museum, unfortunately. Possibly there’s a bunch of stuff there. We also missed the Phallological Museum, a members-only “must-see”.

Most crucial to our travel plans was the information we could glean about puffins. I was on a mission to see puffins, and we knew our timing was cutting it close, arriving in mid August when the puffins are scheduled to depart.

The Olís cat.

No one seemed to really have their ear to the ground on puffin status in Reykjavik, but consensus seemed to be “you will see puffins still, but they are leaving now.” This solidified our plan for the next couple of days- head for Vestmannaeyjar in pursuit of puffins.

We caught a kid on a two wheeled skateboard and some off-duty blue ninjas practicing in the park on our way to retrieve our packs and get on the road. We got camping gas and ice cream on the way out of town at a gas station that had an interested cat. Cat strolled into the gas station through the automatic door and weaved the aisles like it was looking for something. I shared my ice cream.

We hitchhiked to Selfoss that night, where we camped among an innundation of German travelers at the campsite. First time with the new tents, and all the research paid off: it rained, and none of our stuff got wet. Success.

***** This better not carry on like this – one post per day? I’ll be writing the most comprehensive Iceland travel diary ever- Journey to the Center of Iceland; 20 000 Photos to See (really, really bad pun). Then again…I’ve little else as exciting to write about for awhile.

More pictures of Reykjavík

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Because it was a “sure thing” that the torrential downpour and fog blanket would continue the next day, naturally I opened my eyes at 6am, startled that the sun was beating down on me through the window.  I leaped out of bed and into my damp shoes.  Completely blue, clear sky.  I thought I was gonna bomb around solo, but Derek woke up too while I was getting dressed and came along.

the old town water reservoirs, where the edge of the lava flow stoppedWe could see where we’d been the day before!  Without the visibility, the magnitude of the eruption that flowed over part of the town could not be understood.  In the crisp dawn air, we climbed up on the hraun, and could see the line where the lava had claimed the ends of streets, where it had destroyed the water tanks, where it had built itself into a mountain and endangered the bay.

We were determined to get on the morning’s departing ferry, so we hurried (in fact, we hurried a little too much, and we lost each other for a time in the maze of hraun when Derek paused to photograph a cat and I ran too far ahead trying to see things fast).  We crossed town and climbed a short steep hike for spectacular 360 views of  Heimaey’s neighbouring inhabited islands, the volcanic cones and the hraun field of devastation, the colourful, cheerful town, wharf, and Iceland mainland across the water.

“The book” had warned that this hike got treacherous, as it wound around the cliffs where men hunt puffins by hanging from long ropes, swinging to and from the cliffs and snatching the birds off the rock.  Traditional method: no harness, just a rope with knots in it.  By all accounts madly dangerous, but still practiced on Heimaey.

We only went to where we could look over the edge of the cliff straight down on cream specks that were sheep grazing the edge of the golf course, took some pictures, basked in the sun, and then scampered back down to our hostel to eat and pack up, starving now from a few hours of moving at a clip and climbing.

We were escorted a few blocks to the Bakari by a large kitten (or small cat?) that was sweetly friendly.  Bakari = bakery/cafe (although we saw a whole lot of bakari’s this trip, Heimaey’s was notably superlative). We’d already decided that cats formed a very strong presence in Iceland, and that observation was reaffirmed almost daily.
the Bakari
The ferry ride back across was a completely different animal.  Smooth, picturesque; cute blunt-faced gulls  later identified as guillemots wheeled around n the surf.  When we docked, we more or less ran across the parking lot, determined to catch the ferry traffic as it drove off the boat.  If all the cars got away without us in one of them, it was going to be a very long wait or a very long walk down the 30 some km ferry road.

I wasn’t used to Iceland hitchhiking yet.

The moment we reached the road and I spun around and threw out my hand, the next car, with two pretty women in it, stopped for us.

At this point we hadn’t really decided on our next destination.  There were two choices- north towards Reykjavik, and south towards Vik.  Vik=bay.  Influenced by the fact our Finnish drivers were headed north, we decided to go to Hella with them, hitch from there to Landmannalaugar and embark on the four day Landmannalaugar to þórsmörk hike.

That’s about when I realized I’d completely forgotten the most important mission of yesterday- recovering my precious yellow notebook  at the ferry terminal!!  Alas.  The day was not starting well.

Hovering around Hella, scrounging for something to eat, reading the Lonely Planet’s warnings about this hike and contemplating buying four days of provisions at a gas station brought us around to the conclusion that Landmannalaugar was too ambitious for this day.  Instead, we backtracked south again, aiming for Keldur.

Deposited at the turnoff to Keldur, 15 km away, we waited.  There was a nice interpretive sign describing the historical site from Njal’s saga perfect for leaning our packs against.  Other than the signs, there was nothing.  Flat horseless fields, chilling, persistent winds, a grey overcast threatening to rain, and a long flat gravel road.  Most pertinently, no cars.  After zero cars took this turnoff for a half hour, we discussed walking, perhaps only to the stables four km away, whose roofs we could see.  After 45 carless minutes, we debated other plans.

The day was not getting better.  My hitchhiking experience tells me that anytime you have to wait a long time, someone special is coming to pick you up, or else there is something developing that you must be delayed in order to encounter.  This idea was really tough to relax into though, after just arriving on a terribly exciting island with so much to do.  Especially when cold and still damp, waiting for Godot at a drab intersection notable only for how unusually unscenic it was. It was already afternoon, and we hadn’t made it to a single “sight” yet.

Then, a speck appeared in the distance on our gravel road.  After more minutes, the speck resolved into a walking person, which eventually became a blond girl walking in yoga pants.  She was about to pass us without speaking, as though hitchhikers on a road that no one else seemed to want to travel was an everyday occurrence.  When I spoke to her, she pulled out an earbud, told us she walked to the stables daily to unwind after work, and responded to my question about traffic frequency with a shrug.  “Every few hours.  There’s not much down there,” she said.

That did it.  We relinquished Keldur and moved back to the ring road headed south.

Another law of hitchhiking: as soon as you give up on something…. the very next car by turned down the road to Keldur.  Arrrugh!!!!  Just after that, though, we got a ride from a Spanish couple who were very nice but we could hardly communicate with.  They got out and repacked their small 4×4 to fit us in, and as he drove, she wrestled with a huge detailed road map that we envied very much.  In fact, we never ever found one like it for sale, and we really could have used one like it many times.  They were clearly hunting for something we couldn’t help them at all with, and they only took us a short ways, but we quickly got another ride from a Torf (“turf”) farm worker and fisherman who was very knowledgeable and helpful.  He was going way past the Westmannæyar turnoff, so I let go of returning to the ferry to get my notebook.   Instead, the young Icelander drove us right into a different weather system and brought us to Seljalandsfoss.

Seljalandsfoss is a glorious waterfall visible from the highway and visited by hundreds daily.  Its loveliest characteristic is that the water freefalls into a pool carved out of the rock that has abundant room behind it to walk right around under and a behind the roaring foss (falls).  No cramped, crouching path, either, a thoroughfare with plenty of headroom.  The day was looking up!  The sun was shining now, and Seljalandsfoss was at the head of the road to þórsmörk.  Our new mission was to head for þórsmörk and do the much shorter hike to Skógar.

We trotted further down the road after absorbing the main attraction and hunted out the lesser-seen foss, Gljúfurárfoss, in the back of a lush field behind the very well-appointed camping site Hamragarðar.  This foss had carved a canyon out as it retreated into the shelf of rock it fell from, so that now, you can only see the water falling by taking your shoes off and walking in the stream through the narrow gap the water has eroded over millennia. Or you can climb the goat path, using the ropes and ladders provided, and even scramble the last wall of rock, knobby as a climbing gym wall, to look straight down into the shaft that the strand of water currently drops into.  Breathtaking!  The mist prisms the sunlight into a thousand tiny sparks and the sound of the water striking the bottom many metres below spirals up at you in a roar.

Thrilled with today’s discoveries, we peacefully got on the road to þórsmörk.  The sun was warm enough to get down to a t-shirt.  There were some sheep who came and looked at us.  There was a bridge over the stream to practice balance walking on.  We could watch the tour buses in the distance arriving at and leaving Seljalandsfoss at exact intervals, and there were other entertainments.  We could see the mouth of the Gljúfurárfoss canyon, and sound carried well enough for us to get the gist of what the four young men approaching the stream were planning.  Especially when three of them started stripping off their clothes.  They were speaking another language, my guess Italian, but the top-of-the-lungs bellowing that started as they disappeared over the bank was unmistakable swearing, with unmistakable cause.  That water was glacial.  We weren’t too far away, either, to hear the sustained laughter of the fourth guy, who opted to climb the goat path instead.  The laughter (his and ours), continued as three semi-naked, shrieking and swearing men raced to their car, snatching up shoes and clothes on the run and practically hurling themselves in.

We waited.  We made pita bread sandwiches and waited.  The afternoon was getting late, but the difference here was that there was traffic.  Pretty regularly, a vehicle every ten or fifteen minutes.  Most of them were very impressive Hummer-ish trucks with huge tires, roof racks and exterior mounted lock boxes.  Straight out of Indiana Jones style.  This did not, however, alarm us one bit.

And then, a Suzuki nearly screeched to a halt by us.  It was the Spanish couple!  We were old friends now, and they’d already made room for us in their little truck.  We were going to þórsmörk.  “Yes, yes, þórsmörk.”  In moments we bounced off the paved road onto gravel, barely slowing to ignore the sign that admonished only 4×4 vehicles should pass this point, and river crossings were inevitable.  This guy drove like an Australian in a hurry.  I can’t say I’ve ever been in a car with an Australian, but I imagine an outback driver jouncing around with the contents of the truck smashing from one side to another, all the while talking a streak like XXXXXXX.  We were nicely wedged in with our packs on our laps, but still, this drive was impressive.  Derek and I grinned at each other, and I was thrilled with this ride totally outside of my realm of hitchhiking experience.

The road faded into more of a suggestion, as it was all chunky riverbed gravel.  The truck bounced up and down and plunged again and again down the banks of small rivers and up the other side.  His wife was totally serene, and the two of them looked over their shoulders over and over to piece together chat.  We learned he was a professional photographer.  They were questing for a glacier, and they’d been trying to reach it all afternoon.

The river crossings grew wider and deeper.  Unfazed, our driver drove fearlessly into each one, making water spew up over the windshield and come up the doors.  He turned to tell us “rental car”.  The surroundings got more and more desolate.  Occasionally we stopped and our driver got a camera out of the back with a lens the size of a bazooka to take a couple shots.
We could see civilizationö houses flecks at a great distance to the left.  It became apparent that we were driving through a vast river delta, several km wide, and the track we were following meandered across all the streams headed for the sea from the distant glaciers.

As we started to feel dwarfed by the landscape and more and more in the middle of nowhere, I was increasingly pleased with our fantastic luck to be in this great ride with an intrepid driver in a perfect little 4×4, making this startling journey into the unknown.  Nevertheless, here in the unknown, there were still sheep, chewing their cuds and gazing at us like we were crazy.

About 10km into this adventure, the road forked at a sign, and our hosts stopped to confer.  We were near Gigjökull, a finger of Eyjafjallajökull.  After map consultation and conferencing, the man turned to us, pointed to the right fork, said “we go,” and “you stay here.”

With startled consternation, my brother and I looked at each other.  I went through the motions of thanking them profusely with a forced smile as I clambered out with my pack, inwardly gripped with worry.  I’d be damned to have come so far and retreat now, but we were officially in the middle of nowhere, halfway between there and back, and our hosts were unflappably abandoning us.  Suddenly they seemed like cruel, heartless people.  They knew all along they weren’t going to þórsmörk, and yet, they had driven us into the void.  In retrospect, the language barrier was too great to distinguish “to þórsmörk” from “towards þórsmörk”.    So there we were.

They rumbled off, and there we were, standing next to a fast-flowing translucent river grey with silt.  Tire marks drove out of the water on the opposite bank, headed to þórsmörk.  After some exclaiming about this unexpected turn of events, I changed to my sandals and strode into the river (Note: river-fording instructions always command that you wear your hikers to protect your feet and ankles.  Foolish though it may be, I was determined that the comfort of dry boots, so recently recovered, was too important to sacrifice, and I’d sooner go barefoot into the water. But one should wear boots when crossing rivers.  What I say, not what I do).  Two steps in and I realized the water was deadly cold.  A third of the way across I realized how dangerous it would be to fall.  The water was moving so fast and strong when you lifted your foot you had to hard fight the water pulling it away, and at the bottom the water was flipping over big stones that could roll on your feet.  Half way across it got quite scary, rolling over my knees.   With relief, I made it, dropped my pack and immediately headed straight back across before my feet could get going with screaming at me.  I figured I’d help my brother, as a four legged beast would fare better than two, and I didn’t plan on standing by and watching him flounder if he fell, despite his shocked protestations that I was coming back across.  He was also carrying the ultra-valuable camera.   This time, I fell halfway.  I went to all fours, the water dragging at my arms and feet like a wild animal, but I crab-walked a little, recovered, and made it to Derek’s shore.  We rested, made a game plan, and then started to ford together holding onto each other.  Again halfway, Derek got in a bit of trouble, and although I could barely stand myself, feeling nothing below my knees, I kinda helped him balance his pack and he got back to his feet and crossed.  It was absurd luck I made it the first time.

Phew.  We looked back at the innocently smooth flowing water, 30 feet width of quietly stealthy danger.  Only an unknown further number of fords between us and þórsmörk!

Now we were definitely committed to our goal.  We could see it, in fact, a small red roof where the mountains rose up again from the edge of this great rock and sand delta, I reckoned 6km away.  We were very lucky.  Both of us had legs and arms both soaked, but happily, our packs were bone dry, and our torsos mostly so, so we kept some core heat.  We changed quickly, put on toques, and draped all our wet gear over our packs to hopefully dry out a little in the sun as we walked barefoot along the road as the sun dipped towards the earth behind us, laughing at the pure absurdity of all this.

After we’d gone a kilometer or so through the hugest empty space I’ve ever felt, holding only us, silence, and the background purring of water on the move, a vehicle came along behind us.  We watched it approach with delight, and I prepared a self-deprecating grin on my face to counteract our drowned-rat appearance, totally confident in the common humanity that makes people help each other in distress, totally confident that this jacked up truck would stop to help us.

It roared right by, barely swerving to avoid us.

We kept walking, slapping along like Gollum, still dripping, but with feeling returning.  This time, as we had miles of visibility, we could watch the unhelpful truck bounce along, revealing the route, and  judging by his speed, gauge how far we were from that red roof.  It was still, optimistically, 6km away.  We would not make it by dark.

The next vehicle stopped.  It was kind of awing that even out here, there were still trucks coming.  This one was a very nice Pathfinder with EU plates driven by an Italian tourist who clearly did not want to take us on board.  I understood, as we were going to leak all over his leather interior, but we really needed a ride.  He pointed at the hut we were headed for and said “2km, walk”.  I said “No, 6km,” and climbed in.  I started chatting and charming for all I was worth to make up for imposing ourselves on him, and he warmed up.  We encountered more rivers, and they were still getting bigger and deeper.  This man was cautious, but determined, and we kept on crossing the fords as I praised and exclaimed and offered encouragement.  It really looked like we were going to make it.

Then it got gnarly.

The red roof we’d seen, over 6km away as it turned out, was Húsadalur, still 3km shy of þórsmörk, and the river between us and it wasn’t conceivable to cross.  It was thundering, dark, and deep.  Húsadalur was totally cut off.  Past Húsadalur, the rivers became more frequent, and the river rocks were getting much bigger.  This made for a  rougher ride, and scarier climbs out of each crossing as the tires strove to purchase on the grapefruit sized and up, round rocks.  Worst of all, the track disappeared.  Each crossing was only indicated by tire tracks leaving the water on the other side, telling that at least one other driver had made it, and was often hidden when the route is actually driving up the middle of the river to a place where you can get out.  Now the rocks were hiding the tracks, so the route became guesswork.  Several times he stopped, and we walked in three directions, looking like trackers for tire marks in a patch of sand that revealed the next stage, sometimes backtracking to find the ford.

When we got close enough to see þórsmörk, we started looking for the ford across the main river, peering at our Lonely Planets in our respective languages, and seeking the pedestrian footbridge mentioned therein.  There was some long wooden structure on the opposite bank, but it was clearly not a bridge, and the river was formidable and 100 feet wide.  I’d have sooner walked into Niagara.  We could SEE the þórsmörk hut and its promised hot pools on the other side, but it was utterly unachievable.

An enthusiastically adventure-tour branded Hummer came along, shouted unhelpfully and incomprehensibly at us, and another arriving tour guide, with much angry gesticulation, managed to communicate that he was going back because it was hopeless.  Our Italian wasn’t going back.  We stopped at the clear end of the road, where the last tracks disappeared into the water at a hopefully wide (and therefore the shallowest) place.  Here the mountains were starting again, a craggy field of badlands rising up from the edge of the river.  We unpiled from his truck and peered together at the hut across the expanse of water.   There were cars on the other side!  Cars!  How did they get there?  I could see the Italian thinking “if they got there, I can”, but it wasn’t possible.   I ventured into the nearest marshy shallows of the river far enough to know for sure it was undriveable, and even if we could make it through waist deep parts, we’d never survive that exposure.  It was half a km wide of water.

He decided to wait for someone else to come.  Why, I wasn’t sure.  We’d definitely bonded by now, but still, we were ticks hitching on his mission.  I felt like we’d worn out our welcome, and we should shove off and make our own way now.  The sun was setting now, the temperature was dropping, and if we were going to camp in this wasteland, we needed to find a place and set up with some light.  Derek and I agreed to do this, and I explained our plan to our driver.  He looked at us with some alarm, asking where we were going repeatedly.  I would gesture sweepingly at the mountain beside us with a big smile and he would frown.  He was clearly unconvinced this was an attractive option, but he was also ok to be rid of us, and accepted it.  He’d be ok, perhaps he’d sleep in his truck; but first he’d wait for another vehicle.

After goodbye, we plunged headlong into the brush and started clambering up the hill, slowed by the deep sandy volcanic ash and dense brush, aiming to make it over the shoulder of this small mountain and find someplace sheltered and flat to camp.  Near the top, another entertainment began below us, and we stopped to rest and watch.  A giant yellow tour bus was approaching.  It was clearly adapted for the drive, with impressive clearance and tires.  It stopped below us, and the entire contents spilled out, too far away to hear but clear enough to see, taking pictures, smoking, and scurrying into the bushes.  The driver conferred with our driver friend for some time.  Then the bus swallowed everyone back up, and started to roll.  I started to film, sure I was going to have a YouTube hit in the next 5 minutes.  The bus went straight into the water, driving smoothly …. and disappeared around the corner of the hill/mountain we’d almost crested.  What?  We didn’t expect to lose sight of it.  We “ran” to the top, reached it out of breath, looked over, and there was no bus.  It had utterly disappeared.

Our view, though, was straight into Goðaland, the land of the Gods.  Countless towering rock forms like badlands making faces and bodies and creatures of every kind in their caves and complex shapes.  It was amazingly beautiful, but the light was so poor now that we did not get very good photos of the complicated texture of the forms, and we never returned to this place.

We descended the other side of our “mountain” and discovered the most shocking, unexpected thing at the bottom.  Emerging from the river where it curved around the mountain we’d just climbed over, was a road.  A real road.  Clear, pronounced, indisputable: a road.  We followed it in, surprised, hopeful, amazed, and happy, under a sunset sky and surrounded by the frozen forms of magic.  It was a km or two on this straight road to the mountain hut of Básar.  We walked into a shockingly modern and well-equipped encampment we’d no idea was there.  Boardwalks, BBQs, showers, numerous timberframe buildings, kitchens, and water taps at the campsites.  This was especially startling after the day we’d just had, to find this small city where everyone had 4x4s emerging from the mountains and trees.

There was the disappearing bus.  There were a dozen jacked up Toyotas and Pajeros, transporting dozens of tour groups.  All of them had driven into the river, followed it around the foot of the mountain, and carried on down the road.

We tracked down the warden, paid for our camping, quickly climbed a short trail to a marked summit to have a look around, and set up our tents in a lovely magical dell next to a trickle of bubbly creek.

As it turned out, tour vehicles never pick up non-paying riders; the Italian had been the last passenger vehicle of the day and therefore our last chance at a ride.  We weren’t being wimps about the river.  It’s almost never this high, but the Króssa was flooded because of the sun on the glacier and the heat of the eruption beneath it we didn’t know about yet.   When I talked to the hut guide later (when he picked me up hitchhiking), he shook his head in amazement that we made it that day, and said many tours had turned back, because it was so dangerous in flood.  The river had tossed the pedestrian bridge aside and downstream, but the next day the water had much subsided, and the bridge was hauled back into place.  It also emerged later that Landmannalaugar was a totally unreasonable goal for one afternoon, and to say the road to Keldur was infrequently traveled is a great understatement.  So all in all, we couldn’t have done better for this day.

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Septmeber 16, 2010

I had to throw out all my Canada-based generalizations about hitchhiking in Iceland.

No room for a driver to pull over?  No problem.  They just stop on the highway anyways and throw open the door where you’re standing.  In the event of cars behind, and oncoming traffic, the cars behind will wait politely while you stuff your backpacks into the trunk of your ride.

Oh, there’s three people in that car already, they won’t be stopping?  On the contrary.  What’s two more people with backpacks the size of young obese children?  No problem, we’ll fit you in.

Going somewhere other than you are?  Well, it’s not too far out of our way; we’ll just take you there.  Elderly drivers, and the ultimate never-stop-for-hitchhikers-people, mothers with little kids?  Of course, get on in!

WOW.

Our first week in Iceland, we hitchhiked everywhere we were going, which was, all over the southwest of the island.

For me, hitchhiking is completely the most desirable way to travel, if your schedule is at all flexible.  I’m writing a book about why hitchhiking rocks and why more people should do it, but to summarize in three bullet points, it’s because:  you meet the raddest people you wouldn’t otherwise, your itinerary may spontaneously divert in a positive way, and it’s free.  So, it was an automatic choice for me.  After a cursory glance at the prices of buses for the hordes of tourists, it was a no-brainer.  Hmm, we can pay to get driven around, OR we can eat.

And then, Icelanders took my biggest hitchhiking-induced observation of people (that people are basically good and generous and love helping others if you give them an opportunity to do so), to a whole ‘nother level.

(more…)

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Day 8 was difficult. It was characterized by hunger, inconvenience, frustration, helplessness, and weakness. It was a travelling day. All my hitchhiking has told me that when you wait forever, then there’s somebody coming that you’re supposed to meet, but this day’s struggle was really hard to see the silver lining in (although it appeared, eventually).

We started out on the road before noon, headed now back toward Reykjavík, having sorta tasted most of the southern coast of Iceland. Almost immediately, a guy with a dog pulled over who was going to Vík, however…. there was another hitchhiker ahead of us, who had oddly walked far down the road away from us, to a bad place to stand (in my opinion), and hadn’t responded to my yelling into the wind at him/her. I did the honourable thing, pointed at the hitchhiker who’d been there before us, and waved goodbye to the guy with a sheepdog in a zippy car.

Then we waited for two hours before anyone else stopped.

Who stopped was a pair of Italian men in a tiny car that was full of stuff, reticent about our chances of fitting in their vehicle. I was NOT about to let them go too, now, so we wedged ourselves in, with our backpacks on our knees, and a limited view of each other and our hosts. The Italians were hilarious though- super nice, adorable, and adoring (the colour in my hair- “bella, bella!”). The smaller one (“I’m an assassin!”) kept up a running stream of song and commentary and swearing in Italian and English, mixed with questions and short stories fired into the backseat and punctuated with outbursts of abuse hurtled out the window at any hapless sheep we passed, while the other, more sedate one drove at a leisurely pace, with frequent stops for pictures. We couldn’t really figure out if he didn’t like the sheep, or just enjoyed screaming at them, but at any rate, it was all so funny we laughed until we cried, until it was just a perpetual state of achingly funny entertainment.

We made it to Kirkjubæjarklaustur,that's the salad, lower right. hoping to find something to eat. After frowning dubiously at the hideously garish hotdog menu of the gas station for awhile, the four of us looked at each other and piled back into the car, to go down the road to a eating place recommended in our trusty Lonely Planet books (his in Italian, ours in English). This place was an odd cafe/bar hybrid where the staff was utterly disgusted to see clients walk in the door, and the food was just weird! I ordered a caesar salad, and I confess this was the first caesar sal"I swear, I'm an assassin!"ad I’ve ever had that included canned black olives, canned pineapple tidbits, sundried tomatoes (haha! my spellcheck called them “sundered tomatoes”), and cocktail sauce for dressing, all on a bed of iceberg lettuce. Not one single ingredient corresponding to a caesar salad as formerly known. This salad definitely expanded my “caesar salad” consciousness. I took a picture of it, and ate it. Did I mention how hungry I was? The bowl it was served in was really cool though; all the bowls were like ufos crossed with art deco chairs. After an hour of clowning around, we got back in the clown car and headed for Vík, where we parted with the Italians. They were on a decidedly more unhurried schedule, our legs were atrophying from holding our packs on our laps in their little car, and I wanted to make tracks while the sun shone.

I made the excuse of wanting to explore Vík, which was true, but it was raining when we got there (so much for the shining sun), Derek was manifestly getting a cold now, and tramping around on seacliffs in the rain fully loaded was unappealing. So we bought food with fervour at the first real grocery store we’d been in, in Vík, almost too much to fit in our packs, and got back on the road. This time was better.

We got an “instant ride” from a shockingly good-looking, talkative sheep farmer and his quiet wife, who took us to Hvolsvöllur. They were really helpful, telling us stories, telling us about the annual evacuation practice that the residents of Vík do in the event of another eruption or flood (after releasing all their animals, they have to mark their farm as evacuated, so any potential rescuers know where to direct their energies). There is also no speed limit on the highway in the event of a disaster. Just get the hell out, afap. They told us (well, he did) that their favourite place in Iceland was Ásbyrgi, where Óðinn’s horse “put his foot down”, and gave us a battered postcard of Askja caldera, along with a whole bunch of practical advice about what to skip and what was underrated, that influenced lots of our choices. He also gave us the most valuable tip of our entire trip, that shaped the whole rest of our stay: two website addresses, the equivalent of an Icelandic Craigslist, and the tip that since the crash, people were renting out their second cars privately in order to make ends meet, and you could rent a car privately for a week for what it cost commercially for a day. It killed me that I didn’t get either of their names when they dropped us off, although Derek said we could always find them by word of mouth in Vík. I would have loved to thank them; they were magic.

Our next ride, a German/Icelandic international translator, took us to Selfoss, confidently assuring us that there was plenty of summerhouse traffic to Laugarvatn. On the way he suggested a short detour and took us off the path to Urriðafoss, a giant waterfall that almost no one goes to see. It’s not exactly in a pristine setting, it has something to do with hydroelectric generation, but it is huge, unexpected, loud, and impressive. He just grinned at our delight in the understated way we were getting used to from Icelanders, took pictures of us standing in the wind and the roar of the water, and then took us back to the road and to where we were going.

We were aiming for Laugarvatn at this point. We were on our way to Reykjavík, to sort out the drowned camera and because the next day was the Reykjavík marathon/ Culture Day, but I was pushing for making this day hold some adventure in its own right. I was trying to squeeze in the Golden Circle on the way back to the city, but we had taken so long to get back here from Skaftafell, that we’d toned it down to just hopefully hitting the hot springs at Laugarvatn. This was a mistake; seriously trying to push the river. However, it all seemed to work out in the end.

We got a ride from a young mother and her two children from that windy corner at Selfoss (sunny again though) in the late evening, opening her hatch and reshuffling all her cargo to fit us in, too. The people who were picking us up were turning all my hitchhiking assumptions on their head, and they all played out new generalizations: they will always pick you up if they are at all able to, they will take you out of their way to show you something cool if they think you might miss it otherwise; they are very well-traveled and know their country very well, and love it passionately. True to form, she turned off to stop for us at Kedir caldera, a small volcanic caldera totally out of sight off the road, with a blue eye of water at its base. I say small, but it was big enough that none of us could throw a rock far enough to land in the water. Even the kids talk English. I talked about Björk in the backseat to her son (I was pronouncing it wrong), and she drove us through a lush country speckled with little cottages- summerhouses, to Laugarvatn, and dropped us off at the hostel.

The hostel was full. No vacancy, try the other hostel. Full. The hotel: full. The hot pools (still never been in one!) closed 15 minutes ago. Hot pools are not an evening pastime for Icelanders. By now, Derek looks like he’s dying, we’re starving, it’s late, and now, we have no where to sleep. We walked down the road towards Geysir, me begging Derek for another 15 minutes on the road, to maybe get to the next town where there was a nicer campsite (according to the book). The campsite in this town was apparently notorious for partiers, and in fact, we could hear it thumping as we approached. Not to mention, the wind was blistering.

We saw our first Icelandic horses here, though! Three of them, eyeballing us from where we stood on the shoulder from across the road, so we visited. They were very sweet; friendly and cute, bumping shyly for pets.

After 15 minutes, I walked up to the “art galleri/bed and breakfast” that we were hitchhiking in front of and asked for a room before asking the price.

This would be the last night I spent under a roof in Iceland, although we didn’t know it at the time.

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Day 9 was worse.

The Galleri B&B was gorgeous.  Luxurious, in fact.  I highly recommend it.  It was a bit out of character on this trip, an extravagant exception to sleeping in tents, but it was necessary, especially since Derek’s cold could either get better or really bad at that point, so it was important to have a comfortable warm sleep.  We had long hot baths, drank lots of hot tea, and slept as long as possible.

In the morning, breakfast was served in the gift shop, a mixture of food that Icelanders eat and what they think Americans eat.  Very cute, and ample.  I had multiple waffles, still making up for lost time and perpetually hungry.  The gift shop was full of beautiful handmade things, lots of them made by the two beautiful (blonde) daughters of the proprietors, whom we saw flitting about and who’d let us into our room in the night.  We lingered there for awhile, bought a few things (made more mental notes), and reluctantly got on the road in the late morning.

I wanted to go to Geysir, because we were “this close”, Derek wanted to get into Reykjavík to catch some marathon day events.  For awhile we played both sides, darting across the road to stick out thumbs at any vehicle passing, either way.

This did not work out.

After finally committing to definitely going to Reykjavík, and then walking all the way out of town, we still waited, and waited, and waited…  We took pictures of the sheep grazing in the median, and laughed at them.  The sheep moved on.  We decided there was more traffic going off the split to Selfoss than the more direct way to the city, so we moved over to that arm of the roundabout.  And waited.  And waited.  What traffic there was appeared to be horse trailers going to þingvellir, to the pony show we’d heard about.  There was no bus, unless we got to Selfoss.

In the afternoon, we got a ride.  Partway to Selfoss.  It was starting to look dismal to get into Reykjavík in time for the evening fireworks.

Then the guy with the stuffed Komodo dragon in the backseat (some vague explanation involving a strip club) picked us up, and things started looking up.  He drove like a demon, and took us right into town.  We asked about a Pentax dealership, and he took us straight to an Elko, the equivalent of a Best Buy.  Unfortunately, they don’t deal in Pentax, but here’s the address of the place that does.

On the city transit to get to the campground (more waiting), and finally, to set up our tents and drop the packs we’ve been standing around wearing for hours.  On the bus again to find some food (more waiting) downtown.  Happily, we chanced upon this amazing quasi-Indian cuisine place with a mad salad and soup bar, all fantastic ingredients.  SO good, and the first time I got full in days, it seemed like.

We wandered along the crowded downtown Laugarvegur to take it all in, saw some good music (and some bad) and then I got the bright idea of taking advantage of the free Culture Day public transit, and going to pick up our suitcases from the BSÍ.  We went and got them, then got on a couple of the wrong buses going in the wrong direction, got yelled at by a power-tripping driver for standing too close to the door, and finally made it back to camp just after the more cautious couple who decided to wait for the right bus. note- two sweaters in the same picture, and that was an accident!

The buses were all off schedule, crowded, and unpredictable because of the holiday.  On the bright side, the BSÍ guy “remembered me”, remembered what luggage was ours (!), and then charged us for about half the time we’d left it there, with much winking.  I didn’t remember ever seeing him before, but I was grateful for the break in this expensive land, and happy.

Nearing dark, we headed back downtown for the fireworks.  Everyone was wearing Icelandic sweaters (a fashion statement that has no boundaries at all) and there were many handheld beers walking around.  Various street vendors and performance artists were doing their things.

One cooler art piece we noticed was spontaneously shed shoes and pants lying in little heaps in the street.  We didn’t see any pants actually being shed, but over and over, you could spot shucked clothes left behind.  We saw the rather talented blue ninjas tumbling and running through the street, and ran after them a ways to keep watching them, with several other kids.

Mainstage, in the heart of downtown, was blaring abominable music, but the hill above was the best place for the fireworks, so we joined the throng converging to wait and jockeyed for a place to set the tripod.  Children swarmed all over the sculpture of Ingolfur Arnarson and teenaged couples snuggled in the grass.

Icelanders even do fireworks differently.

In Canada, say, firework displays start tentatively, maybe with a bit of a teaser, then they escalate to the big stuff, with some pauses in between, with some attention to colour combinations, with some obvious planning of how two effects might overlap to best evoke ooh and aah, and then there’s a notable crescendo, culminating in an obvious finale- the big bang.  Then everyone knows it’s definitively over.

Well, Iceland fireworks aren’t like that.  They start cold, without warning, just as strong as they finish; just a full-on withering blast with no pauses, no crescendos, no altering in any way of pace, as though a small army of people is dashing around lighting fuses willy-nilly as fast as they possibly can, until they run out of explosives, at which point it all just stops dead.

It was possibly the most interesting display I’ve ever seen.  It was about as much TNT as three Parliament Hill Canada Day shows, all used up in an action-packed 15 minutes straight of constant explosions, just puking out fireworks until -pht- all over.   Derek and I look at each other like “WTF just happened?” then look around at everyone else, cheering and folding up the lawn chairs.   For them that’s normal.  The atrocious main stage act resumed belting it out, and the crowd started to disperse.

Wow.  Iceland.

This was the biggest party of the year in Iceland, but we just wandered slowly back to our camp, people-watching.  The streets were closed to vehicles; the crowds were as thick as a subway at rush hour; strollers were as thick on the ground as teenagers weaving among the crowd, and almost everyone suddenly had a can in hand.  It was like a family friendly folk festival, only with booze, blackouts, and an ambulance fighting through the crowds to reach an unconscious drunk.  Amazing.

It was a bit anti-climactic to make hot chocolate between our tents and go to sleep while a city-wide party raged, but Derek didn’t seem inclined to seek out a drunken good time, and I was more than happy to concur.

Yeah, boring.  Cities rattle me at the best of times, and crowds worked up to that pitch unsettle me big-time.  Even in this amazing place, I was emotionally exhausted by the whole thing; sad, shaken, tragic, overwhelmed with wanting and hunger to BE more.  I had a serious case of not enough; not pretty/young/successful/bold/talented/rich enough- a sure indication that I’ve let the city get to me.   I felt terrible too, guilty that my choices had screwed us up right and left, gotten us stuck and dragged us all over wrong turns for two days, and now my brother was sick and without a camera.  I went to sleep in my clothes, waking at 5am feeling like I hadn’t slept at all, resolved to surrender.  Surrender.  Surrender.

All night the wind chimes hung in the tree between our camp and the next sounded like cutlery clinking, and I dreamed our neighbouring campers were eating.

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Up, straight onto the internet, I looked for a car to rent.  Putting every page through Google translate was ponderous and hilarious.  “Want not irresponsible but nice only persons,” and the like.

Reykjavík downtown looked like it had suffered an outbreak of plague.  There was no one around, nothing was open, and garbage tumbled down the streets in the wind. Together we took a bus to Kringlan mall just before it opened at 1pm.   All the staff there was fumbling around like hungover zombies.  Amusing.

We got lots of business taken care of- a Sim card to make our phone work at Vodafone; a new backpack cover and boot waterproofing at Útilíf, a whack of CDs from Skífan and a big bag of food from the health food store (happy me), and ate at the food fair.  It was an oddly generic mall, unlike everything else Icelandic.  Hee hee hee - I was thrilled about thisApart from the corrugated iron on the ceiling, this could be a mall in any city.  We strolled the big grocery store just marvelling at the prices: a pomegranate- $7.59 (kr, but roughly equivalent in dollars) – ONE pomegranate.  Kettle Chips, $6/bag.

We sat outside and called my private car rental leads, trying to figure out insurance issues.  Apparently there are none, and there’s no distinction between third-party and collision insurance, there’s just insurance.  Try getting that across in a foreign country.

I tracked down the number of the Westmannaeyjar ferry and called them about my journal.  They did have it; they were just about to mail it off!  So I suddenly left on a solo hitchhiking mission to recover my journal, Derek skeptical that I would make it back in the same day.

It was a first-car trip.  I took the same bus across town to the hitching spot, a pro now, and the first car by took me to Hveragaerdi, the next first car to Selfoss, and the next first car by was Jón Gísli, who was on his way to Hvolsvöllur, but since he “had time”, would just drive me to the ferry and back (!).  Just 80 km extra or so.

After I started fuelling up our rented car, I realized the magnitude of generosity like this.  It’s not just time and a little gas.  Gas is $2 a litre, it costs at least 25 cents a km to go anywhere, and a “minor detour” like that has a very real price.  About $20.  But no problem.

He loved his country, loved hitchhikers, loved showing them stuff.  We talked about the Landmannalaugar to þórsmörk hike, and he considered doing it with us, if he didn’t have to go back to Denmark too soon.  On the way down the very long road (30km) to the ferry landing, we saw two wretched hikers dragging themselves the other direction.  Obviously, they had missed the ferry traffic.  You could almost see Jón hoping that no one else would pick them up before we were coming back the other way, so he could take them.  No one did; he did.

At the terminal everyone smiled at me like they knew me (indeed they may have, they had my journal), and they had my little yellow book all packed up with my address on it, ready to be mailed at their expense, back to Canada.  I was so touched, but they were like, “obviously, it’s important,” and handed it over like the precious object it was, to me.

I was all one smile.

The sky was behaving exceptionally, so I ran up the seawall to take a picture, so different from the first time we’d been here, Heimaey clearly in view on the hazy late afternoon ocean.

On the way back with the tired and grateful French hitchhikers (who had also gone to see the puffins and had not had a good time of it), Jón suggested another detour, to show us something cool.

Indeed.  He took us on a thunderously speedy drive on a dirt road into Njál’s land, then parked to look at a waterfall, a little waterfall, not a showstopper from the road but unique, with its own story.

It was a very cool waterfall, one with space behind the water for us to crawl into, perch, and look out through the water.  “This is where he sat,”  Jón said, “and shot out arrows through the water at his attackers, but they couldn’t see him, so he lived.”

This is where I really got that the “land of the sagas” as they call it, is living memory.

The sagas aren’t a story of other people in another time.  Icelanders can look at a farm and say who used to live there (in the time of the sagas), who got killed there, what took place there.   There is no divide, no gap; it’s all linked to now in a continuous chain.  Njál of the sagas used to live right here, this farm, this whole plain used to be his.  All of Iceland’s history is known.  It’s specific, it’s relatively short, and the people and gods who populated history are remembered, literally.

From Hvolsvöllur, sustained with a donut, I got a ride from an elderly lady (never in a million years in Canada), who was the first Icelander I met to really struggle with English.  We didn’t talk much, but she was sweet and happy to bring me to Hella.  I gathered she had been a farmer all her life.   From Hella I got a ride from the Básar hut warden, to Reykjavík.  He said that the Krossá had gone way down, to its usual volume, and also advised me that the Landmannalaugar to þórsmörk hike was “no problem”.  55km, 3 days, no problem.  I wasn’t convinced, but hopeful, because I really wanted to do this hike, and the book called it 4 days min.  I was doing my fall-asleep-like-a-baby-in-a-carseat-when-I-get-in-a-vehicle thing again, he wasn’t very talkative, and I felt bad because he eventually admitted he was trying to stay awake himself, but very kindly, he took me (well out of his way) straight to the campground.  I was starting to feel like I shouldn’t hitchhike anymore, I was putting too many of the locals out!

I rolled home, happy and exhilarated,  as Derek was getting up from a long nap and starting to do laundry.  I started making food.

Halfway through adventures in making pasta in gale force wind, I got the call about the car, and our car renter/host came to pick me up and have me deliver him back to his house so I could take the car.  We stopped off at a bank teller so I could pull out a wad of cash to give him.  Not even last names exchanged, just phone numbers and a couple bits of advice.    Lots of coaching on the way back to his place, he so didn’t want me to get lost on my way back to the campground.  This, no problem, I said.  If I manage to find your place again in two weeks, you can be impressed (I didn’t, although I tried).  See ya in two weeks!

It was a little beauty of a car, a black, manual, four door Rav4.  Pretty much a dream car for us, for Iceland.  It was a tremendous charge driving back to the campground, by memory, on the wide, empty freeways through the city, in the dark, all lights and magic.  I’m driving, in Reykjavík, I kept thinking. I’m driving on a four lane freeway in Reykjavík!  And we have a car now – a car!  Our car, for two weeks!  “Imagine the freedom!”  Oh frabjous day, now there were no limits.  We were going to go everywhere.  And we were definitely going to go to Keldur, and back to show my brother Jon Gisli’s waterfall, if I could find it again.

This night I also made it into a hot pool, finally, at the Laugardalslaug right next to the campground, that had friendly evening hours.  I was mightily confused at first with the whole changing process, but I figured it out, fumbling around trying to follow the locals, and decided I quite liked this pool, with five different hot pots of varying temperatures.  I didn’t find the hairdryers at this visit so I left wet but plenty warm, and went to sleep filled with life force energy again.

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I woke up to a gorgeous open view that was all mine because the others were still sleeping.   The sun had warmed me enough to come out of my sleeping bag, and  I communed with the guide book, planning the future for some time, until the wisps of cloud in the blue morning sky coalesced into overcast, and I woke the others as it began to sock in and cool off.

We drove off from our renegade camp spot at the secret mountaintop location at 10:30.

What to do?  Suðereyri or not?

We chose Suðereyri, and it was bust.  Nothing was open, and it was a weird place.  It looked impoverished, but supposedly it is a progressive model of a green community committed to sustainability and thriving on tourism.

We didn’t see that.  We didn’t see anyone, or anything, interesting in the least, and we turned directly around and left.

At any rate, it was worth the trip, because the only way to Suðereyri by road is by an amazingly long tunnel bored 5km through a mountain.

A lovely green view approaching Suðereyri

This seemed astounding.  First of all, it’s the longest road tunnel I’ve ever been in, bar none (five kilometers!), and it seems a  monumentally costly road construction project to connect one tiny town that used to be boat-in.  Also flabbergasting, it has a T-junction in the middle of it.  After driving in the dark for minutes, there’s a T-junction!  Somewhere in the depths of rock under a gigantic mountain, there’s a little sign.  Notifying you: left turn to Suðereyri.  Another wonder of Iceland.

We sped on to Ísafjörður, where we promptly went to the Gamla Bakaríið bakery and ate a lot of bread.  We were near crisis with our camera batteries now, perhaps accounting for the dearth of photos on this day.  Everywhere we went we subtly sought out outlets and plugged our batteries in to snatch a few minutes of borrowed power – at the tourist outlet, the bakery, the library.

Our “hitchhiker” Cheryl was leaving us.  We were destined to go on a Hornstrandir hike, and she had less time left in Iceland than we did and wanted to be more economical.  At the tourist office she investigated flights and we bought tickets for a passage to Latravík at 6pm.  The man there grilled us about our preparedness and experience hiking, looking skeptical and intoning about “cold” until I bristled and said “Look, we’re Canadian, ok.  We’re prepared!”  Then he warmed up.

6pm seemed to allow us tons of time, but as it turned out, it ran out fast.  We took Cheryl to the road to hitch out of town, dropped a load of clothes in the laundry at the campsite, and Derek camped at the library to empty SD cards and charge batteries in preparation for a multi-day hike while I picked up stamps, provisions, and shuffled the laundry.

Laundry is no joke in Iceland.  Unbelievably, our single load of laundry cost $8 here.  To wash.  It cost another $8 to slightly overdry it. For a country with abundant geothermal heat and energy, the cost of laundering is astonishing.  It also takes forever.  I never thought a wash cycle could last two hours.

One $16 load of laundry later, our time had run out, and we were hastily packing our expensively clean clothes into our packs for Hornstrandir.  12 minutes away from 6 o’clock without the food packed yet, we panicked and rushed off to our departure dock at Bolungarvík… and promptly ran into road construction.

Road construction in Iceland – well.  The fend-for-yourself and we-assume-you’re-not-an-idiot ethos is alive and well in this aspect of Icelandic life too.  Clearly, they think flag people are a waste of money, or who could stand to do that job anyway, and cones and pilons must be considered a nuisance too.

We hit construction elsewhere too, and never saw a flagger.  But this was a rather massive operation, over a couple of km, with multiple lanes torn up and the traffic of a pretty busy road diverted.  No signs, no pilons, no flaggers.  That’s right, just traffic rolling pretty smoothly around the big yellow machines that were busy working.  Everyone was working!  I held things up a bit, because  I didn’t know where I was supposed to drive for a moment, but I figured it out.  And I guess that’s what they expect- people will figure it out.  When there’s an excavator sideways in the road, you stop for it.  When it gets off the road, you go around it.  Who needs flagpeople?  If there’s traffic waiting both ways, they work it out, like at a stop sign.  No biggie.  This was totally amazing to me, though, used to a million-cone line marking a lane reduction, flashing arrow signs, temporary streetlights, and flaggers in chartreuse jumpsuits with radios, ubiquitous everywhere there are potholes being repaired in North America.  Where we still have accidents.

We reached the dock at Bolungarvík in the nick of time to find our boat obviously there but no one in sight, thankfully giving us time to pack our food and snack a little.  Someone came to tell us we were departing around 7 instead, so we had time to repack, properly, grease our boots, and mail postcards.

We were the only tourists on the boat with a group of men who stood outside the cabin drinking beer and talking Icelandic.  Their cargo was two bales of insulation, which was really strange and mysterious to me.  I wanted to know, but didn’t know how to ask.  Why were four men taking two bales of insulation to Hornstrandir? That won’t go very far.

The boat ride in the flat light of an overcast evening put Hornstrandir in perspective real fast.  This was the open ocean.  Although Hornstrandir is connected to mainland Iceland, the fastest way to the eastern edge of the peninsula is by boat, which cuts across the Atlantic much more efficiently than overland.Departure from BolungarvíkThe bow of the boat was bouncing up and down, smacking the waves and throwing spray over the cabin.  Weirdly, the captain of our shuttle would not speak to me at all, directing all his speech to my brother, including his responses to my questions, steadfastly refusing to make eye contact with me.  He would ask my brother questions, looking at him, and then I would answer some of them, and he would continue talking, to my brother as if it had been he who just spoke.  It was a bizarre experience.

I stared out at the waves until my vision blurred, hoping to see a whale.  I saw a spray I was pretty sure was a spout, but it was too far off to confirm.  After the long boat ride, we slowed into harbour, where there was a lone bundled-up woman waiting on the dock to be picked up.  The men with their insulation put out in the zodiac to cross the shallows, then we went.  The boat zoomed off with the woman at the end of her trip, and the men had vanished somewhere as we walked up the beach, alone.

Its hard to describe, but there is no “alone” until you’re alone on an uninhabited island with no phones, radio, contact of any kind.  Hornstrandir isn’t an island, but a 580 sq km area without a road may as well be.  We were scheduled to be picked up after three nights at Hesteyri, a mountain range away.  We were completely on our own until then, and had to manage navigation, food, weather or injury without any back up plans. There are almost no paths, no trails, because the routes aren’t traveled heavily enough to create many.

Where we disembarked at Látrar there was garbage everywhere.  Rusty shells that used to be cars and farm equipment, grown-over, hollow foundations, and random buckets and trash almost hidden in the long serrated windswept grass.  We quickly found the emergency hut and curiously checked out all it offered.  There were blankets and candles and fuel and firewood.  There were quite a few snacks and bits of gear, obviously left behind my hikers finishing their hikes for others to use.  We were quite delighted with the emergency hut.

Since 1975, no one has lived on Hornstrandir, and the whole peninsula (the curved “horn”, or a rooster comb, of what I’ve always thought looked like the head of the creature that Iceland’s outline resembled) is a wildlife preserve.  There were several boarded up houses, and we followed the beach line looking for a place to camp for the night.

We chose the sandy bank of the river we’d have to cross in the morning, at the delta where it spilled out into the sea.  Seabirds were gathered on the surfy edge of the water, but they were too shy to let us approach them.

Camping on the sand has never worked out that well for me.  There’s always a humid feel to the air so you wake up feeling damp and wet, and I hate sandfleas.  There’s no purchase for tentpegs, and although the sand promises to dish into a cozy nest shape, in reality it tends to pile up in the wrong places and make a lumpy night’s sleep.  There was nothing but sand, though, sand and sand with coarse grass growing in it, so we chose a spot sheltered by a little dune and sought out rocks to anchor our tentpegs with.

We ate noodle soup and fell asleep on the beach.  It was loud- the waves.

For a few more pictures from this day, click for the Extra Photos

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