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Posts Tagged ‘Westfjords’

Drangsnes

Drangsnes

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Special:
Mývatn Nature Baths. These blue hot pools are like the Blue Lagoon only so much better because the water isn’t salty.  Everyone goes to the Blue Lagoon because it’s the done thing, and all that, but if you had to choose only one, these are better.  The pool is huge and there are multiple areas with different temperatures and room to lounge in the dreamy steam for hours, especially in the dark.  One of the best pools in Iceland.  However, this place gets a total fail on the changerooms.  A surprise, since it’s all tarted up with art and spa facilities with a price tag to match, but the women’s changeroom was tiny, wet, had tepid showers, and was absolutely filthy when I was there.  No more than 6-8 women at a time could use it comfortably at once; it was smaller than some of the smallest town sundlaugs, and I was very happy it wasn’t crowded when I was there.

Hot pots off to the left

Gvenarlaug-Hot pots off to the left

Second Hottest:
Gvenarlaug. Next to the friendly Hótel Laugarhóll and the turf roofed Sorcerer’s Cottage (connected to the Hólmavík witchcraft museum) lies a beautiful rock-lined and very hot outdoor pool.  It’s even holy water.  When you get too hot you can lay in the small cooler river flowing next to it.  Ahhhh, so hot.  Often in Iceland because it was so cold in the fall we were disappointed when the hot pools weren’t, quite, hot enough.

Krossneslaug

Krossneslaug

Hottest:
After hunting for Hellalaug in the night and not finding it, we were delighted to locate the pool near Reykjafjörður.  At first it wasn’t promising- the rectangular pool full of cool water, but following a watery ditch uphill we found the real hot pool, one of the loveliest outdoor pools in Iceland.  The water here was almost too hot at first, and there are tiered pots to get farther from the hot source.

Reykjafjörður

Reykjafjörður

Best view:
For the best view from a hot pot there’s Hellalaug, an unmarked right turn less than a mile to the right getting off the ferry from Stykkisholmur.  The rock pool looks out over the fjord, but it wasn’t hot enough to be exciting in the wintertime.  Krossneslaug, two km north of Norðurfjörður at the end of the world has an incredible view, but not from in the hot pot- that’s walled off for wind.  On the way at Drangsnes there are three cute square jacuzzi tubs on the side of the road overlooking the beach, and there are even fancy change rooms across the road.  It makes for a cold dash across, and the water wasn’t quite hot enough for the wintertime.

Drangsnes

Drangsnes

Public pools:
We became connoisseurs of the public pools, sundlaugar, especially the waterslides.  Stykkisholmur, Akureyri, and Höfn have big beautiful sundlaugar, the best slides are in Reykjavík, and Siglufjörður has a short waterslide but the fastest- it made me dizzy.  Dalvík has a beautiful fancy pool but the waterslide didn’t have enough oomph to spit us out, although it was funny to squeak to a total halt on the last turn and then scoot the rest of the way out.  Patreksfjörður has a lovely serene pool in the sunshine with a view.

Hrísey island has a treasure of a sundlaug, with the cheapest admission and the best showers, also jets in the outdoor hot pool.  Djupivogur is like being in the pool inside of a greenhouse, with a solid wall of windows.

Novelty:
At Djupidalur on the Westfjords we were hot pool hunting and surprised to find a pool on a farm in the middle of nowhere (also a guesthouse).  The small lap lane pool was totally indoors in a building of it’s own, with a hot tub outside in the back (pay at the farm).  It was so windy that even with the barrier walls around us, the water was lifting out of the pool in little sheets, and it was extremely painful to get out to run back inside.  The incongruous pool inside(!) was lovely, though.

Grettislaug

Grettislaug

Grettislaug, north of Sauðárkrókur, is supposedly the same water that Grettir of the Saga bathed in after swimming across from Drangey.  His pool isn’t that warm though. Jarlslaug (right next to it) is much better.  These are kind of odd rock hot pools, rather on an exposed beach, with a few buildings around.

Ambiguous:

Seljavallalaug.  This was a really cool pool built in the 40’s, I think, with an incredible Lord of the Rings-esque view of a dark green valley with walls looming over you.  Even more amazing than that this pool is out there in the middle of nowhere is that we found it, based on this solitary sentence in the Lonely Planet: “Built into a hillside at Seljavellir…Park by the farm and follow the path upwards”. The ambiguity is not only “the farm” (there are several candidates on a road that makes a loop), but also that the path hardly goes “upwards” in elevation, like I assumed, rather continues from where a spur road off the loop ends.  We carried straight on into the valley, following the water flowing out and an occasionally visible path through the gravel and on the side of the hill at times, and that worked.   The problem is how darn cold the pool was.  We huddled tightly in the corner of the pool that had the warm inlet, hugging the pipe and trying to stay as motionless as possible, but still the water leeched our body heat more than it warmed us, so eventually we cut our losses and fled, colder than we’d arrived.  Would be a “worst” candidate, but the cool water temp could be pleasant in high summer, say for a vigorous swim, and the surroundings are gorgeous.  Just don’t expect be be warmed.

Worst:

By Lýsuhóll on Snæfellsnes there’s an “outdoor pool” next to the sundlaug (didn’t try either) that is just -whoa.  It’s a square tub buried to grade level in an open field of spongy mud by the road, with not very hot water piped in and then overflowing all over the area.  The whole tub and surroundings are encrusted with orange mineral buildup.  If the wind, exposure, and muddy approach doesn’t put you off, the dirty water and slimy algae beards might.  I got the impression no one goes in the outdoor pool anymore.

Finding hot pools can be no mean feat.

If you can find (and afford), this book, then you’re done.  It has it all.

Enjoy Iceland is the best map resource online.  Some of the directions, though…super vague.  Good luck.

This site has a different opinion, but a lovely picture of Seljavallalaug, and a couple pools we haven’t been in. Grjótagjá is actually too hot to get into unless you grew up getting into it or you’re outside the normal range of pain and pleasure tolerance.  It’s super-cool and a Mývatn must-see (walk further away from town and there’s another cave too), but don’t be disappointed that you can’t get in.  It’s a critical few degrees above tolerable.

Actually I disagree with most of the lists I’ve seen, that usually lead with the Blue Lagoon, and carry on to describe the most tepid, windswept, crowded, and most accessible, or most expensive.  Hmmmm.  There’s a reason why Nauthhólsvík, and Landmannalaugar isn’t on my list.  I have not sampled Fontana or Laugarvallalaug (next time!)

Krossneslaug

Krossneslaug

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Arctic Henge

1 Dinner at Hotel Norðurljos and the Arctic Henge

Because we had time, we went up the northeast corner of Iceland hardly any travellers check out,  cutting off the corner from Mývatn to Egilsstaðir on the Ring road.  There’s a great outdoor sundlaug north of Vopnafjörður, Langanes peninsula, and the northernmost tip of mainland Iceland, but still, it sees far fewer tourists.  In Raufarhöfn, there’s a project to change that- the Heimskautsgerði, or Arctic Henge, is partially constructed.  We arrived at dusk and found the giant columns of stone in the twilight much larger and impressive than I expected.  Just like Stonehenge, I was wondering how they built the center piece, with massive rocks leaning together and dependent on the last keystone at the top.  Hungry, we then wandered into the recommended Hotel Norðurljos for dinner.  The only customers there, our host Erlingur made us a truly exceptional meal (no menu, just a couple of verbal choices), talked with us at length, and then turned out to be one of the main incentives behind the Arctic Henge.  Hotel Norðurljos DessertHe brought out a scale model of the full project, talked about how they had done what they had so far, the other minds and skills at work on the project, the meaning and philosophy of the design, and the full vision of the completed ideal.  It is layered and deep and rooted in Icelandic mythology and poetry, and it will certainly be an un-missable attraction, one of Iceland’s great sights, when completed.  We studied the plan and talked about it for some time, and he explained how they had built the four legged central spire.   I could not have been more enchanted with the idea.  I hope work continues and it sees completion.

Arctic Henge Model

Arctic Henge Model

2 Secret hot pool at Mývatn.

No I’m not going to explain where it is.  Apparently the instructions of how to get there are on the internet already, and other tourists find it.  We had a friendly local tell us about this hot pool that the locals  keep to themselves, as they must- Mývatn area is inundated with flocks of loaded tour buses in the summer.  After saying that it’s closed to tourists, especially since one tourist broke a leg there, he then gave us exact (if arcane) instructions, saying you could find directions on the internet anyways, and if we could find it, we were entitled to be there, and besides if we encountered anyone, tell them he told us about it.  We followed his insider instructions in full night darkness (instructions like “walk along the fence until you see a rock on the other side…the fence curves a little and there’s a bit of a shrub…walk along the edge and look down into it until you see a board”), and we found it.  I memorized his words as he spoke, and I was going to find it.  The best part was the “it’s all straightforward from there”, referring to the technical scramble down the wet and icy crevasse down to the water.  I can sure believe someone broke a leg there, what I can’t believe is that he was extracted from the spot with a broken leg (“Icelanders do it blind drunk all the time, I don’t know how”).  The water was an ideal temperature- clear and clean and deep.  Crystal clear is a term often applied to water, but this water was so clear we could watch H.W. dive to his limit, about 50 feet, without finding the bottom, and I could still see his tattoos by headlamp, while stars from the Milky Way shone dimly overhead.   We even survived the climb out, and that night was possibly our best in Iceland.  In gratitude we tidied the place up and packed out a bag of garbage.

Herring Factory

3 Herring factory at Djúpavík.

The road north of Hólmavík on the east side of the Westfjords from Drangsnes terminating at Krossnes (both places with notable hot pool action), snakes along a minimally populated fjörded coast and through Djúpavík, a ghost town relic of the herring industry.  The three water tanks standing outside the factory have old heating coils in them, and are majestic, echoing concrete cylinders, astounding that they were formed with wood and poured by hand in the 1930’s.  H.W. especially was fascinated by the huge factory building, and naturally, with that much dedication, he found a way to slide into the inside.  I’m not going to describe that, either.  The place is deadly dangerous and there are tours of the factory in the summer, but be assured our entry point didn’t involve any doors, damage, or force.  There just happens to be a way in that really doesn’t look like a way in, so it has probably been overlooked.  Or else they don’t care too much, if you’re that determined to get inside.  The inside is a catacomb of multiple layers, floors full of ancient, rusted equipment, storage, and parts of it have been turned into museum and art exhibit space.  We tiptoed around for a long time, mesmerized by the abandoned infrastructure that became useless so suddenly when the herring schools failed to return.

4 Pool with kids at Höfn.

Swimming pools in Iceland are social spots, especially for children.  There are piles of bicycles outside, and the kids seem to all come to the pool after school, leaving just as suddenly before suppertime.  They play wildly, a dozen children with only a few adults around, splashing and running and leaping and shrieking with exuberance never seen or permitted in North American pools.  It works, because there are distinct kid areas and adult areas, so the kids play wildly without rules or restriction in their area, and behave in the hot pools, where the adults soak and chat.  Icelandic philosophy of ‘full freedom as long as it doesn’t impact others’ in full effect.   Amazingly, no one ever gets hurt.  We were minding our own business in the hot pool, but apparently the pair of foreigners aroused the kid’s curiousity.  As if on a signal, every child suddenly got up out of the kids side and filed deliberately into the hot pot we were sitting in, completely filling it.  There were about 18 kids, approx ages 8-13.  They rambunctiously hollered between themselves until one boy, who’d clearly been prearranged, possibly dared, to do it, turned to us and said “good morning”.  That brought a cascade of scorn down on him, which I could understand, of course.  They teased him for having said good morning, when it was nearly dark, and he defended that’s what Anglos say!  Then one astute little girl who’d noticed I’d responded to him in Icelandic, quietly and shyly asked if I spoke Icelandic.  I told her some, yes, I’ve been learning, and that was it.  All the heads swivelled and stared raptly at us, and question after question was shot at us in Icelandic and English.  “Can you understand what we’re talking about?” (in horror).  Yes, some.  Where are you from?  All the usual questions, and then, asking me to say word after word in Icelandic, their names, names of towns and places, pointing at things for me to name them in Icelandic, asking about my husband’s tattoos that announced he was Amerískur while I was Canadian, questions about movies and TV shows, laughing uproariously at my pronunciation and correcting it patiently, answering my questions of how to say stuff in Íslensk.  It was like a media scrum.  One of the boys routinely held his arms out and pushed back on his friends, “back it up, back it up”, doing crowd control, because they were literally pushing on us, crowding in with their little faces and rapid fire questions, all shouting at once.  “No, niður”.  It was kind of scary to have that much questioning attention turned on us,  my Icelandic was being severely tested, and it was adorable, too.  For some reason I found their voices vastly easier to understand, and it was easy and fun to talk with them.  I learned a lot, very quickly.  They were so shy to speak to us and bold with each other.  Eventually our novelty wore off, and they said goodbye and filed as one back out of the pool to resume chicken fighting in the big pool and dancing on the pool deck to Lady Gaga blasting from the loudspeaker.

Ísafjorður Theater

5 Watching Looper and Skyfall in Ísafjorður.

Ísafjorður has a wonderful old movie theatre.  The kind with a double pair of big wood entrance doors, and between the inner and the outer doors, there’s a ticket window on the side.  Pay your fare for lower or upper balcony (and get a seat assignment), then go through the inner doors and you’re looking at the screen and the back of the seats.  There’s a little kiosk on the left back corner selling popcorn and candy, but not fresh stuff- pre-made, in bags, which by the way tastes like Smartfood and is amazing.  The bathrooms are in the same big theatre room, and stairs go up to the balcony.  I love the institution of intermission.  No matter what is happening on screen (Intermission in Skyfall caught Javier Bardem with his mouth open mid-sentence in a very intense part), someone pushes pause, the screen freezes, and everyone rouses to reality momentarily to go pee, buy more popcorn, and stand, stretch, mill about, and chat.  It’s a great opportunity to talk about what’s happened so far and share your speculations about what happens next.  Intermission rocks, and this beautiful theatre is wonderful.  It doesn’t even play shows every night.  Possibly, the schedule may have influenced our decision to spend another night.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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We totally got checked out by a fox in the night!

In the morning, there were delicate little prints thoroughly circling our tents.  I thought I’d heard walking in the night but was too tired to wake up and look out.

Gratefully, it was a bright sunny morning and we woke up warm and dry.

We walked up the river and crossed it where it was wide and therefore shallowest.  It was cold, and flowing strongly but smoothly, with a smooth sand and rock bottom, so it was by no means a scary ford.

Contrary to all instructions about fording rivers (always leave your boots on)- and there are good reasons for those instructions – I crossed barefoot.  I spend most of my summers barefoot so my feet are hard and tough, and it was such a delight to be in sand and grass I couldn’t stand to be in my boots.

Then I stayed barefoot for a couple of hours, until we got into terrain full of scratchy bushes, and it was amazing.

Derek thought I was crazy.

Whole essays and poems could be written about the pleasure and reward of being barefoot, but I’ll restrain myself here.

After crossing, we backtracked on the sandy opposite bank of the river to skirt Klief, the fjord in our path, by climbing over the rocks at the sea’s edge.  This was very beautiful, with the black rocks and peach sand.  However, it would not be nearly so pleasant on a stormy day.  After nipping around the base of the fjord we were on another beach (Aðalvík), and we crossed the river at the bottom of that valley and walked up the other side.

We were navigating with a topo map of the area, that had suggested routes and advice marked on it.  Routes are different from paths.  There’s a general direction you’re advised to take, but there are no walking paths worn down by frequent foot traffic.

We walked steadily and sometimes at a fair distance from each other, peacefully walking in the sun.

Our overall route was over the next fjord to Buðanes.  There is another cliff edge route around the base of this fjord, but it is marked as impassable at high tide, which it was.  The map also noted that you’d better move quick even at low tide, or you’ll be seriously f#$%ed when it goes underwater again- I forget the exact wording.   The cliff-skirt route is considerably shorter, but we weren’t nearly on time for low tide.  So it was over the top for us.

On the way we stopped for lunch by a little foss in the middle of the bushy field of blueberries, everywhere.

We encountered some mystery poop, as well.  I can’t imagine what produced this.  It’s still a mystery. Foxes are tiny, and while polar bears are known to occasionally swim over from Greenland, and this scat was pretty huge, it didn’t seem grand enough for the world’s biggest bear, nor likely.  Could it be – a swan poop?

It was a long climb up.  Climbing, or walking, on a trail is a different world from climbing or walking through vegetation.

It wasn’t exactly bushwhacking- the bushes weren’t that tall, but constantly lifting your feet up and over, and the small muscles constantly working to balance your feet as you place them on uneven ground, is fatiguing over time.  It’s about the difference between walking on a sidewalk and climbing stairs.  With nothing in their way on a sidewalk, your feet just swing forward with almost no effort and you can go forever.  Just walking through the scrub was like climbing, and on top of that, we were climbing, and it was steep.

Happily, it was a fantastic day, clear and warm.  Still, we climbed high enough to need to put cozy shirts back on.   It was cold enough for some snow to survive the beating sun at the top.   The snow was unexpected (in August) and refreshing. It was spring snow, grainy and heavy.  We promptly made a small snowman.

Next there was another climb, over the next bump of desolation- the grey wasteland of plateau atop the fjord.  There was a fantastic view, grey and hazy, over ridges of fjords, with the ocean eventually on both sides.  It was a wild feeling to know that literally as far as we could see, there were no other people out there.

Leaving the plant zone and entering the rocky “tundra”(?) was a welcome change of terrain for our legs. We were vague on our exact location per the topo map in such a monochromatic, featureless field of rock, but we were headed down into the next valley between fjords.  We had to go east in order to go west, because there was a clearly impassable area where the topo lines were all squeezed together.  We had a discussion about steepness relative to how close topo lines appeared.  Rather than walking all the way to the east where the route map suggested, I wanted to cut a little bit closer where the topo lines were only “pretty” close together, not “very” close.

So we popped out at the top of this:

As soon as we could see over this, we could mark exactly where we were, and it cleared a few things up.  Topo lines “very” close together means a sheer vertical; topo lines “pretty” close together means very very steep.  Still impassable.

We kept going east at the top of this stone amphitheater, although not as far as the map suggested.  Where it seemed safe we started to zigzag down.  It was crumbly, grainy orange dirt and rock, and it was definitely still too steep for comfort.  We were fine, however, and we saw some interesting birds nesting in the scrub on the way down.

Back into the land of vegetation, here the bushes were very deep, and there were actual walking paths here and there that semed to be formed through the thickest stuff.  Everywhere there were billions of blueberries.  Literally.  All the bushes were heavy with the clumps of blue fruit, and our entire view was carpeted with the reddish green plants.  I could lean on the bank of the trail and stuff blueberries in my mouth for minutes without moving.

Down in the valley with still miles to go to the beach mouth, it was rough going, and wet; swampy.  At the bottom of the valley, there was a pond in a marshy flat that had swans in it.  Exhausted from the day’s hike, I hit the wall, dropped my pack, flopped over and declared we were camping right here.  Everything looked the same, anywhere was as good as anywhere else.

We walked packless to Buðanes for the sunset.  There is an abandoned settlement of houses and a church on the coast, all brightly painted and picturesque.

Some of the homes don’t seem so completely abandoned- locked up and accessorized with modern BBQs and yard appliances; perhaps they are maintained for vacation homes.  It was a beautiful stroll in the late evening light, on winding paths that crossed many streams, to the little vacant town and the beach.  We saw four seals lounging in the bay, and inspected another emergency hut.  Far across the water, we could see Látrar, where we had started from yesterday, and it seemed amazing we had walked so far in one day.

So we started the day on a beach, and finished it on one, at sea level with a monster climb in between.

I slept beside my tent, set up in case it rained.  It didn’t though, so I spent the night outside.  The swans and loons farther down in the bottom of the valley were making an energetic racket, almost loud enough to keep me awake.   Besides that, there was another kind of singing, a subtle, mesmerizing kind, that lasted all night, and in my sleep I knew it was the elves.

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I woke up early and almost woke my bro because I could feel rain on the way.  But I was tired so I figured he needed sleep too.  I just scuttled into my tent before the rain started, sure enough.  One can hear so much more when you’re not in a tent.

In the rain I saw a line of swans come slowly down the hill to the pond, chattering away.  It was hard to kept count as they navigated the bushes, but there were possibly 9 little white S-curves behind the big capital S mama swan.

We got a break in the rain to break camp, and then we climbed the east mouth of the fjord valley, skirting the pond. We expected it to be very marshy but it wasn’t bad at all.  It rained most of our climb up the other side.  Already tired, it was a dreary and challenging trudge.  There was no view, because it was socked in, and there was no visual reference for our destination, because it was socked in.

Over and over there were “false summits”, where it appeared we’d finally hit the plateau at the top, but after walking a little farther more hill would loom out of the mist.

We had one Arctic fox sighting, one little brown furball dashing away from our intrusion.

Everywhere there were swans.  Usually there was one bright white couple in each small pond we came upon, but there were two pairs of swans in Teislavatn (sp?).  At the next lake, far up the hill in a pond surrounded by rock, there was another pair of swans.  In their rugged environment and the stinging rain, we dubbed them “back to the land” swans.

Today was hard going and plodding.  Over the top, there was a very long, long flat, on the rocky plain, marked with cairns.  In weather more inclement, they would be nearly useless, but from each cairn we could see the next; the visibility wasn’t that limited.

Our route drifted down towards sea level again after we saw the lighthouse at ? from above.  The rain lifted but the greyness didn’t.  Derek went blazing ahead because bugs suddenly appeared, swarming us like adoring fans.  Most unpleasant was sucking a bunch in on an inhale, something that fortunately doesn’t happen to Justin Beiber.

Over and over we crossed little streams, and the going was very up and down, although overall down.  Here trails began again, and it was very nice to have a trail to follow.  Pathfinding is kind of mentally tiring.

Finally we reached the beach and followed that to the attraction of Hesteyri, an “abandoned” town.

A trudging day. You can see how happy we are about it.

We trekked around, checking out the houses, and were disappointed.  Nothing seemed abandoned nor neglected.  Everything was locked up, well-secured and maintained.  Peering into windows revealed some very attractively appointed houses, that looked so much like they were locked up and walked away from yesterday it was discomfiting.  There was even a guesthouse, clearly equipped to entertain large groups.  There were coats hanging inside doors, boots in the tray, dropped gloves and tools, and food and dishes in evidence.

If this is a place abandoned in the 70’s, then the gnomes run an impressive maid service.

We cooked in the shelter of an old ruined foundation a little way from the “town”, barefoot.  My feet were cold and soaked white and they needed a break from the sopping boots.  A 100% hot meal, with soup to start, tortellini for main, hot chocolate to finish was just the ticket.   I got into dry clothes and we were off to bed at 6pm.  My legs were twitching as I drifted off, achingly tired.  I could feel them healing as I slept, trying to keep up with what I was asking of them awake.

I woke up again at 9, but the fjord was all locked up in fog, so there was nothing to get up for.

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