Iceland 2009: The rest of the trip
Chapter 7: Remoteness
We actually just missed the sunrise having been woken up at 430 by the newly risen sun. That didn’t stop the photo opportunities however and we both headed out to the fields pleasantly surprised that the 5d was again temporarily working. Empty fields, friendly horses, iced over lakes, dawn light and remote mountains – what more could one ask to wake up to! We managed to even head back to bed for a couple of hours afterward before packing up and moving on to Myvatn.
Along the way to Myvatn, we attempted to visit Dettifoss as did many other couples including , you guessed it , Rolf and Sylvia again! After another exchange of pleasantries we went on our way and were slightly disappointed at not being able to see these series of falls. Myvatn would prove difficult to navigate as new roads and misleading signs lead us to strange areas of the park that we did not intend to go. The lakeside itself was frozen over and ironically, we did not even stop off there. We did however make it up to Hverfell crater which is a huge crater that seems to be literally a pile of gravel 400m high. At its rim, the 360 degree views of the Myvatn area and surrounding mountain ranges was worth the climb and the gale force winds but Marianne was not impressed and promptly raced down the same way we had come up in record time.
Dimmuborgir would be a place a I remember for two reasons. Firstly, the strange rock formations from lava really did seem to contain many ghostly images of trolls, old women and deformed beasts. Secondly, while trying to take a picture, I’m convinced that the trolls were at play and pushed me over while setting up for a shot resulting in the 5d sustaining some external damage as well as the internal misfirings. Fortunately the lens still seems to be working reasonably well even if the polariser was stuck on it for a good few weeks afterward. We would have stayed longer in the Myvatn region, however we knew that we had a long drive to Kopasker for our next planned site of accommodation and set off – somewhat glumly on my part.
The drive however took us through snow capped mountains, waterfalls falling directly into the ocean , a pretty town by the name of Husavik with its cottage like church and phallic society museum! Kopasker itself was a pleasant small town which I believe is known for its red church and scarecrows of all things. The hostel was very friendly and was more or less like staying in someone’s home. He even let us use his washing machine free of charge and his own washing line. That evening, we saw our first clear sunset for the trip – a slowly sinking red globe with a lighthouse silhouetting its glow. Unforgettable stuff. Sleep did come easy that night and for once I did sleep right through the night until about 6am.
Day 8: By the roadside
It was to be another long day on the road and I felt up to it due to the previous night’s good sleep (our first on a double bed for the trip to date). The drive back was equally as spectacular even if a little dreary and rainy. We tried to visit dettifoss again from the north side but the park rangers informed us that the path was closed so we opted instead to visit Asbyrgi canyon. This was nothing like I had imagined from the photographs mainly because all of the images I had seen were undoubtedly taken during the summer months. At this time of year, the head of the canyon was covered in snow with a waterfall plunging into a frozen lake. Beautiful in a different sense and we both enjoyed our time there even if it was raining. I bumped into Rolf and Sylvia yet again in the parking lot while returning for the other camera! They had stayed near the park the previous night and had experienced the wonderful sunset from on top of the canyon.
Our next stop would be the appropriately named Godafoss. Approaching this from Myvatn, the falls are in sight from several kilometres away. With the backdrop of snow covered mountains and a canyon of roaring water beneath, its name befitted the entire area. You guessed it, while taking photos here, we bumped into Rolf and Sylvia again! We figured that since this was near the end of their trip, we were unlikely to see them again and hence exchanged email addresses and took a photo with them for memory’s sake. Bumping into them repeatedly was a pleasure during this trip . We soon recognised their bronze yaris and they also recognised our white Suzuki wherever we went !
As a parting gesture, they recommended us a melting lake on the way to Akureyri which was well worth a stop. Instead of melting away normally, this particular lake had crystallised and the waves driven by the wind were creating a surreal crackling sound on each beat. A scene I don’t think i’ll be seeing again in hurry.
The road to Saeberg contained more monotonously beautiful scenery and our only stop along the way was the Akureyri church and bonus supermarket to stock up and take the opportunity to take yet another image of twiggy and chip.
We arrived at Saeberg quite late at just after 8pm . Stopping at this hostel was fortuitous because we then had the opportunity read up on the Vatsnes peninsula and it’s various sights which we would visit the next day.
Day 9: Northwest Iceland
Hvitserkur off the vatsnes peninsula was a bit of lucky find for us. I had been seeing images of this rock at various places around Iceland but never noted its name. Finally in the saeberg hostel there was a poster of several of the sights in the area including this rock which lay 30km off a dirt road into the peninsula. Getting there was not too difficult and definitely worth the effort. It was set in a sheltered beach with black rippled sand that was untouched save by Marianne and myself. The rock itself was an arch with 2 smaller arches at its base giving it its characteristic appearance of a horse or rhino bending over to drink.
Next stop that was dictated by us chasing the Icelandic tourist sign was borgarvirki. What the heck was a borgarvirki? We had no clue but decided to see anyway since it was an alternative route back to the ring road. What we stumbled upon was likely an old 11th century fort that was made up of natural basalt columns reinforced by a wall of rock at its entrance. From here there are 360 views all round which made it an ideal location for sentry I suppose. Another well worth visit on a winding bumpy dirt road.
Next stop, the Kolu canyon and its various waterfalls. As if we hadn’t had enough of canyons and waterfalls, we decided to visit one more and were once again not disappointed. This canyon spans only about 20 m or so but its 40-50m deep and carves its way through the landscape with a torrent of yellow water. Seeing this makes you wonder what dettifoss must have been like at this time of year. Having only one camera between us now, we were taking longer at each site but that was no problem given that we had a relatively short drive ahead of us.
After those 3 sites, we decided to make it to the hostel early having booked accommodation there earlier. Along the way , one could not help but notice Gerduberg from the right of the road. These basalt columns were far larger than its southern counterpart in dverghamrar but weren’t quite as intricate or arranged. They still made quite a sight however and some of them looked as though they would topple over with an unnatural tilt. This would be our last stop and gave me good breathing space. I was very tired driving this day and at one point, Marianne took over for 30 minutes. Even though I was tense sitting in the passenger seat as she must have been at the start of our trip, I was tired enough to fall soundly asleep on a car chair!
Grundafjordur is a lovely town in the Snaefellsnes peninsula and is flanked by the picturesque kirkjufell mountain. From certain angles, this looks like a witch’s hat. The colours are vibrant and the usual church stands overlooking the town as if to remind its inhabitants of god’s creations around the area – or evolution’s – whichever takes your fancy but whatever created them, had a true sense of grandeur. The hostel itself was run by some Italian speaking Icelanders who gave us a rundown on what to do in the area. After sitting down to dinner and finding the bad news that the error20 and error30 messages on the 5d were unfixable, we endured some routine conversation with 2 20 year old Canadians who thought we were of similar age. They were very young in conversation , but no younger than I would have been in their position. Getting to sleep was trial due to the other american guests yelling at the top of the voice advising crap to the Canadian girls. It’s really interesting listening to ‘advice’ being given by other tourists that just seems so inaccurately biased its laughable. Sites recommended were odd, roads to beware of were actually quite good ……shoulder shrugging type stuff except for the fact that instead of being bemused, we became annoyed as it was loud and keeping us up.
Day 10 : Rained out
Dawn around Grundafjordur was clear , however we would soon find out that this was a misleading portent for the rest of the day. I hiked up to a hill above the town to take some images of the town and wandered down to the shore to spend some time with the birdlife at the base of kirkjufell. At 5am in full brightness there wasn’t a soul awake to trouble me but I did feel waves of hunger and sleepiness which directed me back to the hostel for more sleep before the day’s start.
After the customary breakfast of cocoa puffs with plenty of milk, Marianne and I set off in calm overcast conditions to the falls just outside of town and spent a good hour there taking images of the falls with the witch-hat shaped kirkjufell looming in the background. The weather was cool but pleasant and we didn’t feel that we even needed our waterproofs on. It’s amazing how much better one can feel while wearing clean clothes even if its a psychological phenomenon. Our host had recommended a few sights along the peninsula for the day which we had also researched previously. Thus we set off with a grand plan to visit these locations for the rest of the day with a late return for dinner.
We got as far as Skardvik and the Onverdarnes lighthouse before the elements really opened up and prevented us from doing anything else during the day. Skardvik was a great change in scenery- its golden beaches a stark contrast to the black sands we had been seeing along the coast for the whole trip. The lighthouse itself was nothing spectacular – a squat yellow building with orange top – typical fare for an Icelandic lighthouse we would soon find out. By the time we left this place and headed for djupalon and dritvik, the rains poured. I was flagging by this stage too due to the early start and together, we decided we would take a nap in the car park to see if the weather would pass. It didn’t ….so , we drove back to Grundafjordur for some rest, relaxation and a chance for me to catch up on this diary to this point. It was a good change of pace as this would probably have been the first afternoon that we weren’t on the road or on the trail. After several hours of resting, reading and writing, we decided to go out for dinner for the first time on our trip. The Kaffi 59 provided us a 12 inch pizza 2 drinks and a small (but really large) bowl of chips for 25 bucks. Not too bad really – not much different to say what we would get at Cafe Primo down the road. The cafe itself was clearly a spot for the local fishermen to knock off and relax after work before heading home. We noticed then in particular that everyone in Iceland drinks coke. Literally everyone we see having a drink with a meal has coke. Cold drink for a cold climate ….odd .
We weren’t sure if the weather would clear up that evening and took a chance travelling out to the peninsula again and to our surprise, the weather cleared as we drove along. The only problem was that we were stuffed with food and not inclined to do much walking, only one camera was working which meant that we had to compromise somewhere between Marianne not wanting to walk and me wanting to explore as much as possible in the late evening light. Djupalon provided entertainment as I tried to lift the 50kg rock ; I was successful only if you count lifting it 10 cm off the ground a success. The beaches at Dritvik were magnificent but our limited time there meant that we could not do it justice with images. Similarly at 10pm we hiked out to londrangar and sadly could not get any decent images due to poor light and a growing interest in sleep rather than touring. We finally arrived back to the hostel at 11pm to the pleasant surprise of no one else sharing our room! Rest was much better due to that fact and our eyepatches allowed us to sleep a little better.
Day 11 : Crossing the elements
We woke to the same foggy conditions in Grundafjordur and were fearful that we would see nothing more of the peninsula but thankfully, part of the peninsula did clear up for a short time. In the morning we woke to the sound of two german men in their 50s pottering around the house. As we set off back to the west, the weather cleared enough for us to make a decent fist of budir church, an isolated black church in the middle of nowhere save for an expensive hotel that lies next to it. Marianne became a little spooked from the graveyard there so we moved on. The further west we drove, the worse the weather conditions became until when we arrived at Arnastapi, there was near zero visibility and snow was blowing horizontally. We did not get out of the car! So, onward we drove to stykkisholmur for our ferry ride with a brief stop at a rather unremarkable beach at Ytri Tunga.
Along the way, we had two stops. The first was for a rather remarkable scene of an old lavefield with red mounds protruding set in a mountain tarn. The other was an arctic fox scampering across the road! We tried to back up to find this very white and agile creature – something like out of a computer game – but to no avail. Stykkisholmur is a reasonably large town by Icelandic standards and its HI hostel looked very pleasant and unoccupied. We secured our bookings and moved on to explore the rest of the town. The space age church looms over the town and certainly seems like an engineering black duck in the town of box houses with brightly coloured rooves. Similarly , the rather squat orange lighthouse certainly stands out over the town on a crop of basalt rocks. We look forward to spending a night there later . I should’t even really call it night – it just seems like eternal twilight even now.
The Baldur Ferry was our preferred option to driving to the West Fjords. We payed 100 dollars for the two of us and car which is probably what petrol would have cost us anyway. The trip was quite rough and even though I didn’t suffer from true seasickness, my stomach did tend to belch on its own accord far more than it usually would have. There really wasn’t much to do on board and about the only remarkable incident if you could call it that, was that 2 asians sitting in front of us were drawn like bees to pollen to the pokey machines below deck. Such a sad stereotype perpetuated yet again by my fellow people. I managed to get an hour’s sleep that night , rolling around on the lowermost deck where there was no lighting.
What an impression the West Fjords makes when you arrive. Sheer cliffs, ledges of snow , rugged rocky outcrops that have the appearance of dodgy CGI. It really does make you feel like you are living in an animated movie. The drive to Bildudalur was challenging due to winding roads, snow, poor visibility and blind loops but nothing stopped the scenery from being simply amazing even in the conditions. The town of Bildudalur is in probably the prettiest fjord with high mountains all around and a cute small harbour with the fishing trawler bildudalur docked. The HI hostel was also undergoing large improvements and was presently housing several local Icelandic workers but no tourists. We had a room to ourselves and felt energetic following our rest on the ferry and so , set out to Arnafjordur. This was a little trip which I’m so glad we took at 10pm at night. Only the pictures can begin to give it any kind of justice to its remoteness and beauty. After witnessing the kind of scenery that makes you not want to tread on sand for spoiling it with footprints, we finally went to bed, satisfied that we had chosen to come out to this region.
Day 12 : The elusive puffins
We awoke on this day keen to see lots of those cute little puffins at Latrabjarg. The day had dawned murky but the weather forecast was for sunshine over the peninsula and so off we headed with ever improving weather the further we drove. The road to Latrabjarg is long a bumpy and certainly gave the 4×4 a run for its money. When we finally arrived, there was no one there but us and so we set off. There were a lot of birds but no puffins! Still hopeful, we wandered up the cliff to find that elusive colony – it never came – the closest we got was Marianne seeing one solitary puffin for a minute or so. None the less the cliffs are still very impressive and with the teeming bird life there, it was definitely worth a visit. Our only source of disappointment was our level of expectation.
Breidavik is another one of those gold sand beaches along the coast that looked magnificent from above. However , at ground level, even though it was expansive, it lacked the power that it did from afar. We really didn’t stay here very long and with those smelly repulsive old men on our tail from late on our stay at Latrabjarg, we decided to move on.
Raudissandur is about 10km off the road to Latrabjarg and don’t believe a word lonely planet says about the path. It is actually a better road than the one to Latrabjarg. What lonely planet doesn’t tell you however is that it is a long walk from the road to the red sands, one that we weren’t willing to embark on since we were tired from our walking up Latrabjarg. We were however chased a long way along the road by an inquisitive dog with whom we spent some time afterward entertaining until both parties became bored.
The Gardar wreckage is a large, in tact wreckage just off the main road back to bildudalur and worth a visit. It was a Norwegian ship that was beached in the early 1900s and there it sits gathering rust. I managed to have a very quick power nap in the car while Marianne took some photos of the ship and I must say, that nap did me a world of refreshing good. That evening, I did relish the thought of doing nothing and did exactly that. Marianne was keen to get some images of Icelanders at work, so she wandered out on to the docks of Bildudalur in the late evening light for the first time this trip. Sleep this ngiht was assisted by the use of eyepatches which fooled my body clock only slightly as I was still waking up periodically in the middle of the night.
Day 13: The elusive and found waterfalls
It was the usual scramble to pack and get ready for the road. This day was not meant to be long on driving at all. A trip to Dynjandi and the central westfjords, then a wander back to the ferry for the trip back to Stykkisholmur. Plans however don’t always come to fruition and the weather forecast was again inaccurate this day, Instead of bright sunshine, there were overcast skies with blowing snow. This only got worse the further we drove. At the initial stop at a town called foss, we took some more waterfall shots in the cold before moving on to the real destination for the day. At the turn off for dynjandi high up at a mountain pass however, the visibility was near zero and even though we tried a couple of times to take the route, the road became more icy and visibility became poorer on each occasion. We great sadness , we then took the path back down to the ferry terminal at the mere hour of 11. The ferry was due to leave at 6. Instead of bumming around for 7 hours, we decided to drive back around to Reykjavik and see some of the things that we had planned to see on the next day.
The road back was difficult, There were sections of limited visibility, buffeting winds , ice on the road and growing fatigue to contend with. Not a good combination for safe driving knowing that you had several hundred kilometres to go. At one stage, I tried to take the middle section of the road through some snow and very nearly skidded off the road which gave us both a momentary heart in the mouth before I regained control of the car. It was so tiring that I had to stop for lunch early and then have another power nap after the dirt road section was over. It was however far better once we reached sealed straight road all the way back to Reykjavik.
To make up for missing out on Dynjandi, we stopped off at a couple of waterfalls that I had heard of. The first was Laxfoss in the Glanni region. This was a peaceful broad three sectioned waterfall that only fell about 5m or so but was peacefully attractive in its own way. It was a good change to stretch those legs anyway and I was glad that I had read up about it on the internet before arriving. The next stop was at Hraunfossa and Barnafoss inland along route 540. These falls were every bit as I had imagined. The strange appearance of appearing out of the ground from lava flows and emptying into turquoise waters was enchanting and certainly photogenic. We spent a good hour there before confirming our accommodation for the night in reykjavik and heading back to civilisation for the first time in nearly two weeks since we set out in a jet lagged haze. I’m sad to know that for the next two days, we will be in the process of reflecting on this country rather anticipating it . For me , it has been a magical journey and I am so glad that we decided to venture out here instead of Tasmania. It was also pleasing for me as I had planned the whole trip with the exception of air transport which mum had done. For the most part, apart from the public holiday issue on the east coast, everything has gone according to plan but Dynjandi and the puffins. I never really expected to be able to see dettifoss but to see alot of the other places such as Husey, Asbyrgi and the far north were all bonuses. We will be exploring Rekjavik and its peninsula in the two days left.
Day 14 : From pampered to pummelled
The day started in not a very restive way. There were many snorers in our dorm the night prior which meant that sleep was constantly broken. We snuck out of the room hoping that a couple of the pigs in there would be moving the following night. There were no definite plans for the day except that I wondered if we could get lucky with the puffins again down at krysuvik. We drove off toward the end of the Reykjanes peninsula and noted that even though the skies were relatively clear, the car was being buffeted from the northerly winds. The gardskagi lighthouses are a combination of historic and rebuilt. The historic one was by far my favourite of the two. While we were there, we tried to take note of all the birds that we had seen so far. The list is as follows : oyster cathcher (tjalduk) , common eiders, fulmar, gulls, razorbills (black heads), whooper swans and various others that I’ve no doubt forgotten. There were plenty on display at the lighthouse and its surrounds but the wind was too strong for us to hang around.
On the way back to Reykjavik, we figured that since we were in Iceland, we had to drop by the Blue Lagoon. As we expected, it was overpriced at 20 euro a head and 8 euro for Mariannes hire of towel and swimsuit. The complex however was quite remarkable in its comfort, technology and cleanliness. The blue lagoon itself is a remarkable sight – cloudy turquoise waters set around lava flows steaming from natural energies. We kept to Icelandic custom (or at least I did) by showering completely and in the nude before entering the lagoon in a rushed flurry to escape the few seconds of cold exposure. Once in the lagoon, its so pleasant you just don’t want to move from it. There are many pots of clay to treat yourself to a natural face mask to and a few steam rooms to visit. Unfortunately, after 30 minutes or so, my unwarmed face couldn’t really handle the cold up top much longer so I set out and showered myself with an extra helping of conditioning. Thereafter , we took a few photos in the blustery wind, looked at a few very overpriced products in the gift shop and set off to see if we could catch some puffins on the cliffs around the area.
Puffins were again elusive, the wind gale force, the road horrible and impassable and our efforts and desires waning. The combination of the above meant that after 20 minutes on the worst dirt road to date and 30 minutes walking with and against the gale winds, seeing no significant bird life – and we were through we putting ourselves through needless pain. Lonely planet got it wrong though to be fair, it isn’t quite the peak of summer yet in Icelandic terms. Krysuvik gets a rare cross on the list of things done in Iceland. If we weren’t so battered, we might have appreciated some of the sights on the drive back a little more. The lake Kleifervatn certainly has its charm and there were many geothermal areas similar to the Krafla region hidden around the hills. We drove on by with hotdogs for lunch on our mind as it was well after 2pm.
Reykjavik city in the middle of the day is very congested – for such a relatively small population there are a remarkable number of cars on the road blocking up the downtown streets to a crawl. Drivers seem to be more aggressive than in Australia on the whole but do obey street laws except for speed limits. We stopped off at the harbour where we visited the hotdog stand made famous by Bill Clinton’s visit then set off for a fact finding mission for what we could do on our last day that did not require venturing out of the city. We found some nice streets around the town and managed to see the city hall and cathedral before heading back to our car to catch up on the mounting pile of laundry. We noted to our suprise that even parking meters accept credit cards in Iceland! So here I am now up to date with the diary for once and waiting for the drying to be done. Later I may venture out to the harbour again to get some views of Esja, or I might just veg out and sleep early!
Day 15 : Farewells
The previous night I decided to head out after all and what a scene greeted me when I pulled up at the harbor to videy. The sun was setting slowly through layers of clouds and all around, the sky of reykjavik and surrounds were illuminated in varying warm colours. The island clouds were by far the most spectacular scene so I spent some time at the end of a rock barrage trying to take pictures while dodging crashing waves. After a while however, the wind and water battered my will down and I headed back inland toward a couple of churches that seemed to have their spires illuminated by spirals of glowing cloud. It was a good way to spend the last meaningful evening of Iceland although Marianne was back in the hostel resting up. That night, 3 snorers made sleep less restful than it could have been once again.
The next day, we only had two goals. To find some gifts for relatives back home and to see some puffins. Along the way , we would walk Reykjavik city central in a self guided tour that took us past the city hall, several squares, lots of quaint tilt rooved houses, the Hallgrimskirkja, the harbour and the shopping street of Laugevegur. The highlight of the day’s walking was the interior of Hallgrimskirkja. Its stark white stone walls really belonged on the set of Return of the King as something Gondor would be proud of. Unfortunately, the exterior was being renovated which meant that we couldn’t appreciate it, nor we could we get any decent viewing from its tower since the scaffolding obscured much of the clear views.
Another aspect of our city walking was our encounter with public toilets! Fully automated for opening , closing, locking , flushing and washing and drying hands. It reminded me of something out of a scene from Tiphares in Alita comics. We also noticed that Icelanders must really love their hotdogs and coke because on every corner, there would be some shape or form of store selling the above combination of ‘pylsa’ and coke. In terms of souvenir shopping – that was done with relatively little fuss except for the GST we couldnt’ claim back from one store who kept trying for us for 6-7 times! This was at the rather tackily named ‘viking store’ outlet.
Our last activity for the day would be the puffin cruise. We were excited to see these birds for real but in the washup , we were disappointed slightly with the outcome. The boat operators were honest and friendly enough but there was no way that the boat could get close enough to take those up close and personal shots and close up viewing of puffins that we were looking for by finding them by land. Not their fault, just our lofty expectations. Our final dinner in Iceland – a burger for me, seafood for Marianne at a decent price of 50 odd dollars Australian including desert. Strangely enough, on this last day was the first time all trip that we had gone out for a proper meal and it was the first organised tour that we had been on. Reflecting on this trip, going by ourselves gave us so much more latitude than tours would have given us , however, on the rare occasion, when things didn’t work out, it was a source of stress which could have been avoided with the use of guides and of course, money.
All up for this trip, we both got the kind of experience we wanted and as a secondary outcome , the amount spent was far less. 6000 on airfares, 3000 on the car and accommodation, 450 petrol 250 in supermarket bills, 100 for the rare occasions we ate out and another 100 dollars I spent randomly on the money I exchanged on arrival. If you’d have asked me that we would spend 10k on a 15 day trip to Iceland, I would have laughed but it is possible thats for sure.
That last night, we tried to be as considerate as possible , packing all of our gear except the sleeping bags and clothes so we wouldn’t disturb our roommates the next morning. We laughed when we found out that they too were leaving on the same fly bus in the morning. This brings me to the people we’ve met this trip. Icelanders on the whole were a friendly bunch. All of the hostel operators save the one in Arnes were helpful and friendly and spoke excellent English. The puffin tour operators were similarly cordial if not somewhat depressed by the Icelandic economic crisis.
With these memories in mind, our minds are set. We’re revisiting Iceland in 2010 and will spend time on the trails (landmannalaugar) , in the interior, the north and westfjords which we really had limited time for this trip. After that, Scotland for 1 month and to finsih off, a trip up the Annapurna Sanctuary! Ahhh the benefits of living in a country with long service leave:)