Published: August 28th 2012August 28th 2012
Sheep of Iceland
blowin' in the wind
One of the many things we have observed to this point is that there does not appear to be many trees here. The relative youth of the nation geologically precludes their growth. To this point, our guide guggabraga
asked if we knew what to do if we got lost in an Icelandic forest. After a few seconds of thought on our part, she told us “you stand up!” Okay then….
Visitors to Iceland usually attempt one or both of the familiar routes when exploring this unique land. One is the Golden Circle, which can be seen in one day or the Ring Road, which we’re told can be done in as little as five days (although that is certainly rushing it). This will normally satisfy the average traveler and they are able to return home safe in the knowledge that they have “seen” Iceland. However, the roads less traveled are the ones that lead to the Western Fjords.
In preparation for the Icelandic portion of our journey, we asked Gugga which part of Iceland was her favorite. She responded without hesitation “the Western Fjords,” so of course that had to be on our itinerary of
places to explore. Travel tip #49: always ask the right question to the right person to get the right answer.
One has to bear in mind that the journey to the Western Fjords is not a straightforward endeavor. It’s not like you take the main highway, turn off somewhere up the road, drive a few kilometers and you’re there. Quite the opposite actually. Although it’s true that you can drive from Reykjavik to these fabulous fjords, the journey includes a ferry ride and driving on unpaved (unsealed) mountainous roads that the average American rarely sees. The only road that remotely approaches this type of driving that we are aware of is the journey up to Pike’s Peak in Colorado. But the journey is a large part of what makes this voyage absolutely marvelous. And so….off we went, in search of fjords located just below the Arctic Circle.
Setting off from Reykjavik we headed towards the Snæfellsjökull glacier (with apologies to our Icelandic readers as our computer does not always include all the letters of their noble alphabet), which is unfortunately in retreat due to the ever-warming
no words can explain
conditions of our planet. We’ll leave the arguments for the reasons why to climatologists, geologists and other more educated persons. You could still see parts of the 4700-foot snow-capped peak through the passing clouds and fog. For those who are familiar with Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” this is where the traveler’s journey begins. Heady stuff, no? Stopping to admire blowholes and birds flying in the water’s breezes brings great serenity to us as we soaked in the sights and sounds. Along the way we hear mythical stories about the Whale Fjord, trolls, and folklore that is a great part of this nation’s history.
We overnighted in Stykkishólmur and in the morning took a ferry from Stykkisholmur to Brjanslaekura, a 2½-hour ferry ride. Originally, we planned to stop on Flatley Island for a few hours to hike. That morning it was quite chilly and the ferry ride convinced us that perhaps this was not a wise choice. Now, a well known clothier of the Icelandic nation will tell you “there is no such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothing.” Count us among those with the wrong clothes then. We had
brought enough clothing layers to keep us fairly warm, but our wardrobe was no match for temps around freezing along with 30 mph sustained winds. These conditions would have rendered us miserable within an hour and the plan was to stay on the island almost five hours and take in the various birds living there. So on to plan B, where we opted to remain on the ferry and continue on.
This is the portion of a trip to Iceland that the average traveler does not normally take and you become aware just after disembarking from the ferry. The roads are unpaved and meander through the mountainous fjords, with no guardrails and on occasion, only enough room for one vehicle at a time. Blue signs with the letter “M” indicate a meeting place. No meetings take place here in the traditional sense as it serves only to let two cars pass each other in opposite directions. Luckily for us there is little to no traffic and this posed no issue. But the end point was well worth the journey. Kristjian (Gugga’s husband) proves to be an excellent driver and negotiated each turn with expertise.
Cliffs of Latrabjarg
in summer full of puffins
The sun was out on our drive to the cliffs at Látrabjarg where we had hoped to see Puffins, but at this time of year we were told it was unlikely. Indeed, the cute birds had flown off to the sea by the time we arrived. We are late in the season and this was not unexpected by all account. Fortunately, we had the good luck to see them earlier in the week in the Faroe Islands. Látrabjarg is the western most point of Europe (if you don’t count Greenland and the Azores). There is something really cool with being at the edge of something like this. If gives one a sense that you’ve arrived at an end, and there’s nothing but water as far as one can see. The cliffs were majestic and we saw other birds circling in the wind as well. You feel like you’re a part of some National Geographic special and that the theme music will cue any moment. The drive was mesmerizingly stunning and we were content with a short walk to the top of the cliffs to enjoy the panoramic scenery that abounds in this land. At this point in the blog, we
are running dangerously low on appropriate adjectives to describe what were seeing. Seems all the superlative ones are in short supply, so if we repeat ourselves accidently, we hope you understand.
We drove the serpentine mountain roads to visit several small fishing communities. One has built what appears to be large mounds of rocks and soil that serve to slow down and possible divert avalanches during the winter. We learn that more towns have done the same and that avalanches have wiped out more than a few homes and killed people as a result. This does not occur with any frequency fortunately. Perhaps this is comparable to those who build homes on the ocean’s edge in the Eastern U.S. and figure it has been a long time since the last hurricane and it probably won’t happen again. Nature has a way of reminding people of what is possible and the results are deadly at times.
We found ourselves longing for the ethereal pools of the Blue Lagoon (mentioned in an earlier blog) until we arrived at the Hotel Flokalunder, located in the area where the first settlers of Iceland landed. Just a
short walk from where we were staying we had an opportunity to soak in the luxury of a stone hot pool along side of one of the fjords. Turning left from the hotel, we walked across the road and less than a half mile and there it was, a thermally-fed warm natural stone hot tub, located right on the water’s edge with a view that was beyond words. We needed to pinch ourselves to make certain it was real. We sat in the warm pools with a dozen locals, watching the fulmars fly and discussing how fortunate we were to be exploring the natural wonders of Iceland.
Soaking in the warm waters induced a great sleep and in the morning, we headed even farther north towards the town of Ísafjörður, which is where Kristjain lived until the age of 15. It is a small town of fewer than 3000 residents, but has a surprisingly urban feel to it. Its history is steeped in the fishing industry, like many towns in Iceland. A good chunk of the Icelandic economy is related to fishing. As you travel around the country you will see whaling and fishing stations from the
located in the fjords
past and present along with structures used to dry the fish heads and skins. Icelanders utilize each part of the fish and you will find no waste. The head and skeleton are dried and then shipped to African nations for soup making. Note the photos of the cod fish-farming tanks in the sea and the wooden structures used for drying the cod. Not being from a fishing community we found it fascinating.
Another interesting facet of life here is the presence of a radar installation. Bob Home and Away
told us during a visit that he had been part of the construction of these installations. They were built several decades ago in response to increased Soviet activity in the North Atlantic during the Cold War. We drove up an incredibly steep (ten percent grade) gravel road, which led to its location. The view from here is unbelievable and was perhaps the darkest blue seas we have ever witnessed. Today, Kristjian’s nephew is the director of the installation. Small world, don’t you think?
We spent our time wandering the streets of this lovely place and soaked in its ambiance. We were invited up to Gugga and Kristjian’s
summer home and it was exquisitely cute and in a great location. From their deck, you could see (and hear) a waterfall along with a great view of Ísafjörður below. They told us they could only stay there from about April through October due to the risk of avalanches.
Our drive through the fjords was filled with geologic wonders and numerous waterfalls. One of our favorites was Dynjandi. It was majestic and contained smaller falls as well as the crystal clear water made its way down to the fjord below. We could easily fill these pages with photos of waterfalls. We must say that Brutus found it breathtaking.
Geologically, this land is as diverse as they come. This is primarily due to the relatively young age of Iceland in a geologic sense. If all of geologic time were put into a calendar year, Iceland was born about two days ago. This Western Fjords represent the oldest part of Iceland (some 10 to 15 million years old) and it seemed as if the types and contours of the formations changes with each turn in these lands. A student of geology could learn more in two
weeks in this nation than they could in two semesters of school. Now if you’re keen to know a little more, Iceland has a lot going on given its location between two major tectonic plates along with all the freezing and thawing and raining and snowing and such that takes place all the time. Tectonically speaking (if indeed that is a word) Iceland is split between the North American and European plates, which are constantly shifting. Most have heard of the volcano eruption a couple of years back from Eyjafjallajökull
(we could spend years trying to learn how to pronounce this). This is another example of the changing makeup of the land here. Thrown this all together and this is one busy place! Like we said, send all the geology students here so they can gain a superior education.
We’ve never been birders but maybe we are heading in that direction. A better camera lens and some binoculars and we’ll be all set. Today we saw oystercatchers and they are beautiful. Their bills are uniquely designed for their work. Eider ducks are also in abundance. Seems their feathers are in great demand for everything from pillows to
Bolafjall Radar Station
stunning views, strong winds
duvets. The gulls and fulmars are also pleasant to watch.
It would seem that we have used up all the possible adjectives to describe what we’ve seen here, but our voyage is only a few days old and there is so much more to see and learn. Time to pull out a dictionary and be ready for the next chapter as we head on to the Circle Road for more adventure…… Places we stayed:
There are more photos below