Posts Tagged ‘Patreksfjorður’

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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We slept in on our first morning on the Westfjords, awakened at 9 by keener tourists driving slowly by on the rocky road towards Látrabjarg.  We joined them at the bird cliffs after breakfast.  Látrabjarg is a renowned area for seasonal nesting birds, where they congregate in the thousands on the sheer cliffs of the jutting fjords.

We took our time, and leisurely walked along the cliff edge that juts up at a defiant angle towards the sea.  It was sunny, warm and clear, and we relaxed, lounging in the grass looking over the edge of the cliffs (me), and staying well back from the edge taking birds-in-flight pictures (my brother). It was another site of powerful natural magic, which I was coming to recognize now by my intense desire to fall asleep and dream there.

Closer to the parking area there was higher visitor traffic and more impatient tourists here to see and then leave, asap.  I was astounded by the nerve or idiocy of some people, striding to where the sod curls over the edge and leaning over for a look at the birds clinging to the cracks in the rock.  There were no ropes or guardrails (of course), and over the edge was a 400′ drop to certain death.  Seeing some people being so cavalier with the risk made my stomach lurch, and it seemed no wonder that a German tourist was said to have recently fallen over. That accident was also said to have sparked discussion on whether or not to install guardrails or limitations.  I hope they haven’t.

At least I had the sense to get down on my belly and elbow out to the edge to look over, not just lean out.  Some people!  And that’s where I was, down on my belly, when I saw the puffin!

The current tenants dominating the cliffs were guillemots, whose little white bodies speckled the black rocks, as did their droppings.  They were perched in lively groups and pairs on every available foothold, grooming, dozing, and defending their territory.  Everywhere you looked, there was drama and action, and it was all noisy, the juveniles crying constantly to be fed, a cloud of sound drifting up from the folds of the fjords.

So I was on my belly, and just happened to be looking in the right place to see the one tiny black puffin among all the guillemots swoop in with a mouthful of silver fish spilling over her bright beak and disappear under the sod curled over the cliff’s lip just a few feet away.

I hollered and gesticulated madly at my brother across the fjord, and although I could see the exact place she’d disappeared into, we didn’t catch sight of her leaving.  It was way past puffin season now, and this late bird and her brood were probably doomed, but it was still an exciting sighting.

On the drive out, we stopped at Hnjótur for some delicious waffles, and then drove on to Patreksfjörður, Cheryl driving now so that I could catch up on my travel notes in my little yellow book. We went straight to the swimming pool, which we had to ourselves in midday, and we napped in the pool, bathing in crystal clear 42 degree water, warm sunshine, and a view of infinity.  I highly recommend the pool at Patreksfjörður, even just for the view.

After some groceries at the tiny store and some gas, we took off for Dynjandi.  With a few stops for views on the way, we reached the spectacular waterfall in the early evening.  It’s an incredible cascade waterfall the kind that is so wide and grand it’s impossible to fit it into a picture, let alone represent the scope of it, and it was set in a huge blueberry field.   It was exactly blueberry season, and I wandered barefoot in the sometimes swampy and scratchy bushy hills and ate blueberries until I was full.

At the base of the hill, there was  a herd of Icelandic horses picturesquely plunked in an emerald pasture with a background to die for and a low sun providing dream lighting.  Derek spent some time seeking the “quintessential Icelandic horse picture”.

This was such a glorious location, we unanimously decided to camp here for the night.  The campground was busy, and like the book said, promised to be loud, but the surroundings were more than worth it.   However, first there was  a sunset to be chased.  Dynjandi is a low spot, and we could see the road winding uphill again around the high mountain/walls of the fjord.  Derek wanted a vantage point to shoot the sunset, and we had to move fast.

Driving as fast as I comfortably could, we passed some seals in the bay, and then climbed up over the peninsula.  We drove through an absolute moonscape, a desolate, green-less field (possibly the Gláma moors?).  Near the top of the climb, sobered by the bleak surroundings, we suddenly encountered a group of sheep near the road, and we all burst out laughing,  “Of course!” and “Even here, there’s sheep!”  This proved definitively that sheep get around, truly everywhere in Iceland (Hornstrandir excepted).  the sheep looked a good deal more at home in this moonscape than we felt.

Although we thought we’d missed the good sunset, we were closer to Þingeyri now than turning back to Dynjandi, so we pressed on.  As we summitted the pass, we chanced upon a shocking red red and apricot sunset.  Awesome!  It lasted only for moments, but we caught it, once again feeling the magic of being the only people to see that scene, in that transitory moment.

Driving on downhill in the darkening dusk now, I musingly commented “I want to sleep on a mountaintop tonight”.  No sooner had I said it than a turnoff  appeared and I swung into it.  Place names will be deliberately hazy for awhile now to protect the identity of our location;)

On the dirt road up the hill, we encountered the strangest birds waddling on the road ahead of the car.  They were too big to be quail, too upright to be grouse, and they waddled quick like penguins.  Dodo birds came to mind.  They were just utterly mysterious, and of course we could get no photo evidence or clues of colouring in the dark before they turned off into the brush.

We parked and walked to the top of the hill, which was serene and slightly breezy, with a view of the lights of a small town far below us.  The summit was narrow and long, and we could see the ripples of mountain ridges, varying shades of ink in the full moonlight, for nearly 360degrees, and we could see to the ocean.  The sky was spectacular.  I casually asked if anyone else wanted to sleep right here, and was surprised that Cheryl eagerly pounced on the idea.

Derek made it clear he thought we were both crazy, by now a familiar motif.  We talked him into it and overcame his objections.  I set up my tent for him (better in the wind and less dependent on pegs in the hard dirt of the mountaintop), and he retired with the food bag.  Cheryl and I chose to sleep open air, and she chose a deluxe location on a mattress-sized tuft of grass and moss that she declared simply luxurious and promptly fell asleep on.

I moved down the slope a little, tossed my thermarest on a patch of moss, and nestled down in my sleeping bag.  Then I had a princess and the pea moment with my choice of bedding.  My first choice didn’t seem quite right, so I hopped around in my sleeping bag like some demented one-man sack race and scooting my thermarest around to try other spots of moss.  Eventually I returned to the first spot and found it perfect.

For more photos from this day, visit the Extra Photos

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