Posts Tagged ‘Vík’


11 Northern lights over Skaftafell

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

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



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

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

13 Bowling in Akureyri

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

14 Jolaöl and Jolaskyr

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

IMGP395415 Vík in the sunshine

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


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

IMGP137616 The amazing proprietor of a hotel in the Westfjords

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

IMGP363617  Derek learning to drive a gas vehicle.

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

Also very special was:


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

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

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


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In the morning the full house erupted rather at once.  Notable events of the morning: the hut keeper didn’t recognize me, and was obviously perplexed how I’d gotten into the place during the night without him noticing.  The female occupant of the bunk above ours tried to climb up the wall because I was blocking the way to the ladder (the long table down the center of the hut could either be walked around or sat at, not both at the same time- the space was too tight).  She was using admirable climbing form, and had her feet above her hands before the sideboard she was grasping gave way and she crashed full onto her back to the floor.  I broke her fall a little, and the Belgian snatched a cup of tea out of her path preventing multiple scaldings.  She leapt straight up, mostly embarrassed, but it was a hell of a crunch.  She thought she’d killed my brother I think, but it was just his backpack.

Rustling around all the other hikers trying at once to stuff bags and get awkwardly out the door, we got ourselves packed and squeezed out, chatting for some minutes on the deck with an Icelander who was thrilled to be escorting two American friends over this hike.  The climber girl who had fallen on me, and her boyfriend, in fact.  He rhapsodized about fiskar (dried fish) with butter, and proudly shared some orange flavoured Icelandic chocolate, creating instant addicts out of us.  The morning was clear and crisp, a “bracing” cold, and the mist was scuttling away so we could see where we had been the night before- an expanse of rolling hills pocked with those mysterious pits.  The strange bowls were created by the action of the sun on the layer of ash heating the ice beneath, he explained, and we marvelled at this phenomenon.  He pointed out the path we should take down- one of many threads of footprints spidering away from the hut.  We could see the tracks of a Cat through the ash that must have brought supplies.  He warned us that the first half of the walk down was numbingly boring, and at that we set out into the grey ash desert.

A couple of km down we checked out the “free hut”.  It was a  corrugated iron shack cabled down to bolts in the ground, with an A-frame outhouse heaped in rocks to keep it from blowing away too.  The door opened on an enormous mound of garbage, behind that a filthy plywood floor.  The wind was whistling piercingly through the joints, rattling the windows, and banging the door against its latch.  Not inviting.  We agreed, we were glad we had paid for the Útivist hut.

The Icelander had been right: for a good while the walk down hill was pretty monotonous, following the treads of the Cat, which met a road, which rolled ever onward downhill through this desert of ash.  Slowly, the severe landscape changed.  Green was introduced, and on our right, a creek was making itself known in a cleft that got deeper and louder every time we paused and stepped off the road to look down into it.  Soon it was a foamy, milky rapids, and later, cleaner, with swirls on the surface that betrayed the speed and depth of the water now.  We crossed the river once on a footbridge, and for the rest of the way, the river stayed on our right.  Near that bridge we saw our first fox tracks in the ash, and shortly after that it got green.  Where there’s green, there’s sheep, so we saw lots of sheep and even more sheep evidence on our way down.  The sheep all stared back at us, usually while chewing rythymicly.

Today’s hike was very, very easy.  Going downhill generally is.  It was a steady, gentle slope.  The river beside us, the Skóga, grew larger and fell over a series of falls.  Not little waterfalls, either.  Considering we were descending a moderate grade, it wasn’t logical how again and again, we’d encounter a huge raging waterfall.  An interpretive sign at the end of the road would tell us there were 21 falls on the route we walked this day.  There were at least that many.  The frequent long stairstep falls probably didn’t count.  Unique, gorgeous, calendar beautiful falls, every one!  It was an abundSo terrible.  The battery would get one snap and then turn off- no time to adjust settingsance of beauty that seemed so excessive and extravagant that it became humorous.  Derek started saying “Oh, just another foss” at each, next, extraordinary spectacle.  “Oh, another foss” was something we said with a grin and shrug quite often the whole rest of our trip, as Iceland turned out to be truly thick on the ground with world class waterfalls.  Sometimes we’d hear the roar a ways off; sometimes the sound would be blocked by the land, or we’d turn a corner to discover another, suddenly.  Sometimes the trail would wind to the base of a foss, sometimes you would see one below you from the top of a cliff.  At every one we were just killing ourselves that we had no camera at all at this point to preserve it with, and we’d just pause and stare instead, trying to fix it in memory.  The sound and the mist and the “good ions” made for a very peaceful day’s walk downhill.  It was quite far, but not at all hard.   The nearer we drew to Skógar, the more oncoming hikers we saw, some out for a day hike up the Skóga, some setting out for Básar.

Most of the time we were walking through trenches in the grass that were sometimes hip deep.  The walking trails had compacted down, digging a ditch through the sod.  This turned out to be characteristic of trails everywhere in Iceland.  When they got too uncomfortably deep, a new trail would start right beside it, so in softer places there would be two or three trenches of varying depths with obvious historical order.

Our hike terminated at Skógafoss, a 62m waterfall missed by few tourists, because it’s readily accessible right off the Ring road at Skógar.  We came on it from above, climbing a stile, having a dizzying look down the falls, and at the backs of the gulls circling in the mist and nesting in the mossy rocks.   It was like reentering another world; as a tourist attraction, Skógafoss is very well traveled.  The steel stairs to the top of the foss are a revolving treadmill of steady foot traffic at all hours.  We were grubby, backpacked, and all serene from solitude and exercise.  Who were all these people?  Society has benefits though- we beelined to the visitor’s centre to immediately plug in our camera batteries and eat, as we had budgeted very accurately for food.  In other words, we had none left.  Menu options?  Minimal.  Fries.  Chocolate.

After the recharge, we went back to the waterfall and climbed it again to get some pictures.  Then we got on the road and hitched out of Skógar, headed to Vík. Vík is supposed to be a must-see for exceptional basalt columns rising out of the ocean at Reynisdrangur, and the sea arch at Dyrhólaey, and I really wanted to take this in, but we never did.  Ironically, we ended up passing through Vík FOUR times, but sadly it remained a list item for “next time”.

This time, it was raining, and we lucked out on a really long ride who was going straight through to Höfn, so we did not stop in Vík, but took the ride to Skaftafell.  This super friendly guy who was thrilled to stop anywhere we we curious about to take a picture, and who talked endlessly about the beauty and history of his country as we drove through it, just happened to be former CEO of one of Iceland’s big three banks.  Yep, all in a normal day for him to pick up a couple of unwashed Canadian backpackers in the rain.  He totally resisted my attempts to draw him out on the topic of Iceland’s recent, crushing economic crash, however.

It was hard to grasp the magnitude of the event from ground level, but this drive crossed miles of sandar -devastation created by the jokülhlaup of the 1362 eruption of the volcano Öræfi.  This sandar, Skeiðarársandar, is the largest in the world, a 1000 sq km floodplain of sand deposited by billions of gallons of water released from the glacier by the volcano’s heat beneath it.  Even to say you could see it from space is an understatement.  A smaller but more recent jokülhlaup event in 1996 took out all the bridges across it like they were made of matchsticks (see picture).  When we later saw it from a height, the grey plain is so large that it fades into mist at the horizon, and is totally impossible to take a picture of.  It’s just so big, it’s all that you see, for as far as you can see.

At Skaftafell we were greeted by a huge, modern, bustling visitor’s centre, gift shop, and regimented square acres of green lawn for a campsite, which we promptly set our tents up on, in the shadow of a green mound of a mountain.  Our tents drew comments, based on their resemblance to alien spacecraft.   I didn’t think they were that weird, but I guess, a bit different.  Derek did a  lot of research before buying our tents, based on weight, ease of setup, and packability.  I loved mine.  Derek spent an inordinate amount of time fidgeting with his, usually every night, trying to get it perfect.  Both of them were ultralight, set up pretty quickly, and dried out very fast, which was perhaps the best feature, since every day we’d wake up in heavy dew if not rain.

Tired from the hike, we got showers (cold), didn’t do  laundry (huge lineup), charged all our accessories (“chargers found plugged in here will be confiscated”), and ate in the cafe.  The cafe served coffee, sheep soup, cake, skyr, and junk food, all shockingly expensive.   I stocked up on skyr, cheese, and chips.  My love affair was skyr was just beginning; Derek had already had enough.  We watched the looped movie about the ’96 jokülhlaup, repeatedly.  I kept falling asleep in it, waking up, and then watching it again to see the parts I’d missed, only to nod off again, until i gave up and went to bed.  Well, first: I was craving a hot spring, we were hitting a week here without having been in one, and everyone we talked to was raving about hot spring this and that, so I hitched up the road to a pool noted in the LP that was supposed to be very nice, only to arrive just as they were closing for the night, alas.  It was dull, rainy, and we couldn’t see a thing for the heavy fog, but we were content to crash.

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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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