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Posts Tagged ‘Vestmannaeyjar’

The next morning took us to Vestmannaeyjar.  Vestmannaeyjar is an island group off the southwest coast, the largest of which is Heimaey, widely known for its populations of migratory birds, and also for erupting with no warning in 1973 and forcing a five month evacuation of all its inhabitants.  We were going there for the puffins.

The puffin is a small, entertaining bird that lives its life at sea except for four months every year when massive flocks of them find the most unfriendly forbidding cliffs in the world and then raise their young there in burrows in the ground.  Mid August, the last of the nesting puffins are going back into the sea until next summer.  I’m not sure anyone knows quite where they go, but they leave, like clockwork.  And we’d been told they were going.

I should take responsibility for the whole puffin thing.  I was in Newfoundland ten years and never clapped eyes on a puffin; when we visited St. Mary’s Bird Reserve years later the gannets were in season, the puffins were out.  So if there was a puffin in Iceland, I was going to see it.

(There was, and I did).  Just in case the suspense was getting to be too much.

The weather was Maritime; when we got deposited at the new, swoop-roofed ferry terminal, I had to walk around on the breakwater because it was blocking the view.   Of course it was only blocking the view of a few hundred meters of ocean, but it still felt elemental to walk around on the recently built breakwater in the insistent wind and rain.  Vestmannaeyjar used to have a much longer ferry route to reach it, a three hour trip from þorlákshöfn, but lucky for us, a month ago the new, half-hour route went live from Bakki.

More due to boredom and inattention than anything, I did a really stupid thing in the ferry terminal.  We had to wait a fair piece for the next boat, and after getting thrilled on the seawall, there was nothing more to do but eavesdrop on the mysterious international football players in the lobby.  Their presence there made no sense.  There were men from more than two continents, switching among at least four languages that I could distinguish, and half of them were wearing their kit.  Obviously a team, headed to what?  Play in the rain on Heimaey?

Derek amused himself with the talking Icelandic robot vending machine.  Feed it a Visa card and let it serve you!  So what with all the entertainment, when time rolled around to move upstairs to load in, I just walked away from my journal notebook that I’d set down on the seat beside me.

I’d “prepared” for this eventuality on the transAtlantic flight by writing a heart rending appeal to anyone who might find it, should I lose it, to return it to me, and including every scrap of contact info possible.

From past experience, I know that on a big trip like this, the stimulation barrage is completely overwhelming, and I have to furiously empty my brain’s short-term storage onto paper every night to save the day’s  points of interest.  Either my RAM’s not adequate or I absorb too much to hold – I don’t know, but I have to do this.  In two weeks, I just will not remember the way we heard a horse whinny from the back of a horse trailer traveling the other direction at 100kmh.  It sounded like a horse traveling supersonically.  And I remember that because I write it down, see?  Horse whinnied.  So, the notebook I store all these little sensation triggers in is indescribably valuable to me, and I’d said so on the inside cover of this one.  Of course, I’d only put two days in it so far.

I seem to have a thing with losing small notebooks filled with really precious stuff, but I always get them back.  No big whoop, I thought when I missed it after the boat took off.  We’d be going right back through the same place on the way back; I’d pick it up then.

There was a wee bit of a sea on for our crossing.  Derek took an insurance Gravol and I don’t get seasick, so we snickered good at ourselves and everyone else lurching tentatively around, tumbling sideways from one handhold to another, more often than not just running into the opposite wall, oh! and then the first wall again, oh!….

There was a contingent of “I will survive”s clinging to posts at the fore of the cabin, staring unblinkingly at the mostly invisible horizon with clenched jaws as the bow heaved up and down.  And the soccer team was roaming around in shorts and socks, squawking in many languages at getting tossed around and at the sideways rain outside.  My mouth hurt from laughing.

Disgorged onto Heimaey (no idea where the footballers disappeared to), the rain and fog and wind somewhat influenced our unanimous decision to not camp for the night, made very quickly at the door of the first hostel we passed.  Thrilled with that moment of brilliance, we left our gear and ventured out in full rain garb to see Heimaey on foot.

“See” turned out to be far too strong a word.  The fog was Maritime too.  Half way up Helgafell, logic kicked in and we asked “for what do we climb?”  We could barely see where we were going, enough to recognize it as an incline, but if we continued to the top, we’d only know it was the top because there was no higher ground.  Were we climbing to have done it, or for the view?

We  “saw” most of Heimaey in the next few hours just like Helgafell- a short ways ahead of us at a time.  In this way, we saw some horses, saw some farms as we trespassed through them, saw the landfill, saw more football pitches than make sense for such a small island, all empty (where was that team headed?) and saw a lot of hraun.  Hraun = lava.

We pretty much had no idea where we were, and vaguely wandered back into town after getting really, really wet.  Wet doesn’t really translate in photos, but rain drives in through zippers and drips off your face down your neck and hair, and leeches up your sleeves inside the jacket from bare hands, and the whole protective shell you’re wearing delivers all the water you get in the way of down to your boots, where it keeps trying until it breaches whatever waterproofing is making an effort there, promptly turns your boots into small swamp replicas and starts climbing your socks, going “that’s right, we’re gonna get your pants too.”

We rainchecked the bird cliffs, since it seemed a little bit dim to go walking around looking for deadly dropoffs in low visibility, and went back to the hostel to “dry out”.  We’ll get you later, puffins.  “Dry out”- also too strong a phrase.  Cranking the radiator to its cautionary max and opening a window to let out the steam only raised the ambient humidity to about equal the outdoors.  But we warmed up, and ate dinner, gathered info (no one had seen puffins today; forecast for tomorrow was more of same), and started a load of laundry.

The promise of the same weather tomorrow meant we may as well go out again tonight to hunt the puffins and then leave tomorrow am for bluer skies.  So, back into dry first layers and wet outer layers and back into the dusk in a different direction, hunting puffins.  A long trudge, featuring more soccer pitches and more weird sculpture.

We found them!  We found the puffins!  We found all the puffins that were left, I think.  About a dozen of them.  They were cute, and entertaining, and brightly sleek in spite of the totally grey conditions.  I got the impression that the paltry few that were left were just saying their last goodbyes, that they were taking off for their final flights that very night.

Anti-climactic doesn’t quite cover it.  After all that trudging around thinking about my boots being from Squornshellous Zeta, by the time we saw the damn puffins, it was like Thank God, now we can go fall into bed.  Puffins, check.  Now can I be dry?

We snuck up on them very carefully and… these were the best pictures we got.

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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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