*** ICELAND 2017 - WEEKS 9~10 ***
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CAMPING IN ICELAND 2017 - West Fjords: Ísafjarðardjúp, Ísafjörđur, Bolungarvík, Flateyri, Þingeyri, Dynjandi, Tálknafjörđur, Patreksfjörđur, Látrabjarg Cliffs, Reykhólar:
NW from Hólmavík towards the West Fjords: glad to be leaving Hólmavík Camping, we were up at 6-30am to drive over to the NI service station at the village outskirts; George was given a hose-brushing to remove all the accumulated dirt road slurry-mud from his wheel arches and lower bodywork, and we shopped for provisions at the supermarket. We headed north-west from Hólmavík on Route 61 alongside the inner arm of Steingrimsfjörður to its head, where Route 645 branched off for Drangnes. Our road continued ahead into Straðardalur, gaining height steadily up onto the broad and bleakly grim plateau of Steingrimsfjarðarheiði (click on Map 1 right for details of route); this stony wilderness stretched away into the distance in all directions. A long descent on the far side brought distant vistas of the inner head of Ísafjarðardjúp, the fjord which slices deep into the West Fjords mountainous landmass.
Ísafjarðardjúp: this long arm of the Denmark Strait extends 75kms inland from its mouth at the mountainous NW corner of Iceland at Bolungarvík, with 8 side-fjords cutting deep into the southern coastline of Ísafjarðardjúp (click on Map 2 right for details). From this viewpoint on Steingrimsfjarðarheiði, remote, uninhabited and forbidding fjord-land stretched away as far as the eye could see. With just one small village, Súðávík where we should camp tonight, along the 200kms length of lonely Route 61 winding along the southern, much-indented shoreline, the northern side of Ísafjarðardjúp is lined with the sheer, snow-capped mountainous coast of Langadalsströnd and Snæfjallaströnd (see left); these are cleaved by the glacial lagoon of Kaldalón, which is fed by meltwaters from the Drangajökull glacier which caps the wilderness of Hornstrandir. Until the mid-late 20th century, this northern coast was dotted with isolated farms eking out a precarious subsistence living from sheep-farming and fishing. Today they are all abandoned; life up here is unbelievably tough. Even the white fish have left Ísafjarðardjúp in favour of the open North Atlantic, leaving the more sheltered fjord to shrimps.
Route 61 around the southern shore of Ísafjarðardjúp: as we descended from Steingrimsfjarðarheiði, just before reaching the innermost head of Ísafjarðardjúp, the stony road leading up to the valley of Kaldalón below Hornstrandir's Drangajökull glacier branched off. Route 61 continued ahead to Ísafjarðardjúp's shore (see right), and turned into the side-valley around the shores of Ísafjörður, the first of a series of 8 side-fjords cutting into Ísafjarðardjúp's southern coast from the main fjord (see left). A long and lonely 25km drive along the side-fjord's eastern shoreline brought us to the valley head; the surrounding mountains enclosing the glacial valley seemed lower and less overwhelming than expected in the morning sunshine. We passed frequent bird-life in the fjord-side shallows, but with nowhere to pull in, it was impossible to stop. Rounding the valley head, we then had the 25kms drive back along the western shore, bringing us along the narrow spit of Reykjanes. We turned off here to pause at the hotel, a grim-looking concrete bunker of a place which takes advantage of a local geothermal source to heat its swimming pool.
The on-going Route 61 crossed the mouth of the second and smaller side-fjord, Reykjarfjörður on a causeway (click here for detailed map of route), and climbed steeply over the peninsula-finger of Vatnsfjarðarháls which tapers northwards to its tip projecting into Ísafjarðardjúp main fjord. Route 61 then crossed the mouth of the larger Mjólfjörður, the third side-fjord, on a causeway-bridge, saving a 40kms drive around its shoreline, before tracing a route around the much-indented southern shore of Ísafjarðardjúp, each little bay and cove with Eiders swimming in the shallows. In the distance across the broad width of the main fjord, the snowy mountains, sheer sea-cliffs and barren wastes of the now uninhabited Hornstrandir peninsula, the northern extension of the West Fjords region, stood out. Looking across from Route 61 to this wild northern coastline, the gaping mouth of Kaldalón could also be seen clearly, backed by the white snowy mass of Drangajökull glacier. Hornstrandir is now one of Europe's last remaining truly wilderness areas, with some of the most extreme and inhospitable parts of Iceland. A number of farms had existed here until the early 1950's, all long since abandoned, and since 1975 the 580 sq kms of tundra, fjord coastline and alpine upland have been protected as Hornstrandir Nature Reserve, with strict conservation rules to protect Iceland's only large mammal, the Arctic Fox. But the delicate balance of Hornstrandir's wilderness natural environment now faces further threat: the voraciously greedy mass tourism industry now organises wild-life adventure tours into the region for gullible tourists from developed countries seeking ever greater novelty on which to expend their surplus wealth. Is there no part of the planet that is safe from the ravages of the mass tourism industry?
Route 61 wound around Ísafjarðardjúp's southern shoreline (see above left), and turned into the fourth side-fjord, Skötufjörður for the 15kms drive along its eastern shoreline (see above right). The road shelved high above the fjord, passing beneath towering mountainsides down which multiple water courses poured. We paused for lunch at the fjord's innermost head on a spit of land by an abandoned farm, before beginning the 15km return drive along the western side of Skötufjörður. Towards the fjord's mouth, we paused at Hvítanes to watch a colony of Harbour Seals basking on shore-side rocks. Up to 8 seals wallowed by the water's edge basking in the sunshine just 200m away (Photo 1 - Basking Harbour Seal), some swimming alongside in the fjord. We were able to take a series of good telephoto photos of the seals, as Golden Plovers and Gulls pecked around beside the basking seals (see left). For our Harbour Seals Photo Gallery, click on Harbour Seals of Hvítanes.
Around the point of Hvítanes, Route 61 turned into the fifth of the side-fjords, Hestfjörður, for the 20km drive along this broodingly darker, more narrow fjord-valley to its head, culminating in a gloomy rounded cirque, classic glacially formed topography (click here for detailed map of route). Back along Hestfjörður's steep-sided western shore, the road mounted the narrow neck of the Hestur peninsula which projected northwards out into Ísafjarðardjúr. The road continued along the sheer-sided eastern face of Eyrarfjall, high above the fifth of the side-fjords Seyðisfjörður, up to its narrowing northern tip where Route 61 turned sharply into the mouth of Áltafjörður, the seventh of Ísafjarðardjúp's side fjords. The gloomy valley head was enclosed by high, snow-covered mountains (see right), and the view across the width of this this watery gulf to the sculpted mountainous massif on the far side was inspirationally spectacular; and there at the foot of these shapely mountains, the two parts of the isolated village of Súðávík nestled at the fjord-side water's edge.
The village of Súðávík: in 1995 Súðávík was devastated by a series of avalanches falling from the mountain face towering overhead. 14 villagers were killed in the tragedy, which prompted Icelandic government funding for construction of avalanche protection bunds for communities like Súðávík vulnerable to avalanches, as we had seen at Ólafsfjörður and Siglufjörður on Iceland's north coast. The village of Súðávík with its 180 residents was re-built a little further south at a less vulnerable point, and the 'old village' under the avalanche path is now occupied only in summer; this includes Súðávík's campsite where we should camp for the next 3 nights!
We drove around the 30km length of Áltafjörður to reach the southern 'new village' of Súðávík (click here for detailed map of route). The coastal strip which the 2 parts of the village occupy was wider than the map's contours had suggested, and Súðávík's white painted wooden church stood by the fjord-side, against the backdrop of Hornstrandir's distant snowy mountains on the far side of Ísafjarðardjúp (Photo 2 - Súðávík's fjord-side church) (see above left). The church had originally stood at the now deserted farming settlement and herring station of Hesteyri in northern Hornstrandir; it was dismantled when Hesteyri was abandoned in 1952, and transported to Súðávík where several Hesteyri families had moved to start life afresh. We paused for photos at Súðávík 's fishing harbour (see above right) (Photo 3 - Súðávík fishing harbour), marvelling at the backdrop of snow-covered Hornstrandir mountains, then found the delightful little campsite on the hillside in the northern 'summer village'. Looking up at the sheer walls of Súðárvíkurfjall's mountain face towering above (see left) (Photo 4 - Súðárvíkurfjall's mountain face), it was immediately evident why this was vulnerable avalanche terrain; and we planned to camp directly at its foot! Fortunately there was little trace of residual snow on the mountainous massif today.
Súðávík Arctic Fox Centre: back along to the southern 'new village', we topped up George's diesel and bought provisions at the village shop, before heading up to Súðávík's Arctic Fox Centre. This impressive rescue centre aims to educate visitors about Iceland's largest native carnivore, conduct research into its living and breeding habits in the wilds of Hornstrandir, and rescues and rears orphaned fox-cubs to release back into the wild (Photo 5 - Arctic Fox) (see left and right). The centre's film gave invaluable information about the Arctic Fox through the seasons. There are 2 genetic colour morphs: one is pure white and the other 'blue', in fact a chocolate brown or grey-brown colour, better adapted to its scavenging life along the seashores. The Arctic Fox (Alopex lagopus) has inhabited Iceland since the last Ice Age when they are thought to have reached here on ice floes from Greenland, and became trapped as an isolated strain. In most of the country, Arctic Foxes are now regarded by sheep farmers as vermin and shot to protect livestock, bringing the foxes to the point of extinction. In deserted Hornstrandir however, they are protected by law and are breeding again in the wilds as solitary animals, living off mice, sea birds or carrion.
Súðávík Camping: back along to the campsite in the northern 'summer' half of Súðávík, we settled into the corner space reserved earlier. The afternoon was still fine, but with a northern chill in the air. This charming little campsite, set on a hillside terrace above the fjord and fishing harbour, and in the looming shadow of Súðárvíkurfjall's mountain wall towering overhead (see right), was arranged in 3 small, flat grassy camping areas either side of the facilities hut: the first (with power supplies) which we had entirely to ourselves was for campervans, the second was reserved for trailer-tents (a curiosity not uncommon in Iceland), and the third, a secluded area for tents. The facilities were limited but first class, brand new and spotlessly clean, with 3 WCs, 2 showers, and wash-up sinks, all with piping hot water, but no kitchen or wi-fi. But after the disgraceful absence of facilities, overwhelming noise and shameful price at Hólmavík Camping, Súðávík Camping was sheer heaven! The lady called round early evening to collect the rent of 550kr each for seniors (a superb half-price reduction from the normal price of 1100kr) plus 900kr for power, making a total of 2,000kr/night, by far the best value campsite so far experienced in Iceland. And most importantly there was total peace and freedom from holiday-makers, with just the sound of the wind and birds in this momentously memorable mountain and fjord-side setting (Photo 6 - Súðávík Camping). Súðávík was self-evidently a +5 standard campsite. And in this lovely peaceful setting looking out across the fjord, we slept the sleep of kings.
The fishing port of Ísafjörður: we woke to a lovely sunny morning, and having luxuriated in lengthy hot showers after the absence of decent washing facilities for the past few days, we set off northwards along the fjord. Beyond a 3km stretch of rock-fall high risk hazard area, we paused just before the point of Arnarnes to admire the magnificent vista across the mouth of Áltafjörður and the width of Ísafjarðardjúp to the distant mountains of Hornstrandir (see left). The views across to the sheer cliffs of Snæfjallsheiði on the far side, and along the misty length of this enormous fjord, all lit by the morning sun, were simply sensational (Photo 7 - Arnarnes vista across Ísafjarðardjúp). Colonies of Eiders oo-oo-ed on the shore-side rocks by the water's edge below us. Rounding the point of Arnarnes, the road passed through a 50m long tunnel cut through the rocky headland, and turned along the eastern side of Skutulsfjörður, the 8th of Ísafjarðardjúp's side-fjords (click here for detailed map of route). On such a bright morning, what magnificent views: directly across the mouth of Skutulsfjörður, the bulky massifs of Eyrarjall, Búðarfjall and Hádegísfjall, all ending abruptly in sheer cliff walls, dominated the northern vista (see above right); we could just make out the tiny settlement of Hnífsdalur squatting in the valley mouth between these overpowering mountains, and just beyond the tiny mouth of the tunnel through Hádegísfjall which took Route 61 onwards from Ísafjörður to Bolungarvík. Nearer at hand, Skutulsfjörður itself was enclosed on 3 sides by monumental mountains, the details on their rock faces and sculpted corries highlighted by the morning sun. And there in the distance nestled in the head of the side-fjord was Ísafjörður, spread around its L-shaped sandspit in such a dramatic location, surrounded on 3 sides by high mountains and on the 4th side by the dark waters of the fjord (Photo 8 - Mountain-enclosed Ísafjörður) (see left).
Along the shore-line of Skutulsfjörður towards its head, we approached Ísafjörður's tiny commercial airfield nestled on re-claimed land alongside the fjord (see right). With such a seemingly short runway and surrounded by high mountains, landing here must need extreme piloting skills, banking tightly around, dropping down into the fjord, and skimming past the sheer face of Kirkjubólsfjall on the runway approach (Photo 9 - Ísafjörður Airfield). The road swung tightly around the head of the fjord under the towering cliffs and huge corrie on the flanks of Kirkjubólsfjall (see left), passing the outlying settlements of Holtahverfi and Skeiði and the turning onto the ongoing Route 60 towards the Vestfjarðagöng Tunnel, and just beyond we pulled into a large Bonus supermarket for provisions. Continuing along the far fjord-side, we reached the main part of the town; by the roundabout junction, we spotted Ísafjörður's parish church, an ugly architectural monster of a structure looking more like an ochre-coloured folding accordion, built amid controversy to replace an earlier wooden church which burned down in 1987. We turned off onto the L-shaped peninsula of Eyri, where the main part of Ísafjörður's old town and harbours are located. Just along towards the town, we found a Netto supermarket for items unavailable at Bonus; as we had learned at other Icelandic towns, Bonus was cheap and cheerful, Netto a little more classy and better stocked! In the supermarket, we enquired after barbecue charcoal, and were helped by a lad who turned out to be from Macedonia; he had come to Ísafjörður originally to watch an ice-hockey match and had stayed! Looking around, we could understand why as we parked along at the TIC in the heart of the old town by the harbour.
With a population of 2,800, Ísafjörður is the largest town in the West Fjords and the region's administrative centre. Despite the decline of fishing in the 1990's, fishing is still Ísafjörður's principal industry with one of the largest fisheries in Iceland, which along with fishing-support and marine engineering industries, together account for 30% of employment. A sign of the times, local and national government services account for 40% of the town's employment, with tourism contributing increasingly to the local economy. But it's Ísafjörður's dramatic location that so astounds: standing here by the quayside on this spit of land projecting into the fjord, whichever way you looked apart from down the length of Skutulsfjörður, you were left agape by the over-towering sheer walls of the mountains that surround and enclose the town and port (see left and right), their faces scarred by crags and scree, with mighty corries sculpted out of the high walls as if by a giant ice cream scoop (Photo 10 - Mountain face and sculpted corrie). During the long, dark months of winter, it is a major struggle with the elements to keep open the tiny airfield, which often provides the only means of contact with the outside world. During the darkest months of December and January, the sheer height of the enclosing mountains on 3 sides of the fjord prevents the low winter sun from shining directly onto the town for several weeks; the sun's re-appearance above the mountains at the end of January is a time for celebration. Although the area was inhabited from the time of the Settlement, it took several centuries for Eyri at Skutulsfjörður (as the settlement was then known) to become established as a trading post and fish-salting station. Finally in 1786, with the ending of the Danish Trade Monopoly, the town was granted its municipal charter; 100 years later, Eyri received its city status, changing its name to Ísafjörður, meaning Ice-Fjord named from the ice floes which once drifted into Ísafjarðardjúp from the Denmark Strait.
Our day in Ísafjörður: Ísafjörður felt a homely and thoroughly likable place, and we set off to wander around the port and the labyrinth of back streets making up the old town spread around Eyri. Every photo we took, whether of the fishing boats in the old and new harbours, or of the brightly painted wooden houses in the quaintly rambling streets of the old town, was set against a dramatic backdrop of mountain walls and which towered over the town. You could understand why the people of Ísafjörður are so proud of their brave northern town: as we strolled around, we also shared that feeling. Ísafjörður had an old-fashioned and unpretentious work-a-day appeal which set it apart, an air of welcoming homeliness in a remote wilderness.
From the warehouses and marine engineering workshops of the old harbour, we wandered among the former fishing shacks now converted to cafés and fishing museum, and found the campsite at Suðurtangi; the setting was starkly grim, and facilities ... well, to call them basic would be a kindly overstatement; but the price told a story of greedy exploitation. The owner who stood guard actually seemed to believe we should not find a better price than the 4,000kr/night he was demanding, and failed to understand the mocking irony of our dismissive response! This was no place for us. But it was the vista from the new port behind the fish-processing plant on the outer side of Eyri that took top prize: the view looking across the fishing boats moored in the harbour to the sheer wall of mountains rising beyond topped by a mightily sculpted corrie simply epitomised Ísafjörður's outstanding location (see above right) (Photo 11 - Ísafjörður fishing port); it was one of the most memorable of our experiences in the whole of Iceland.
We continued our wanderings around the grid of back-streets, past rambling wooden houses, some brightly painted, others ramshackle, but all with trim picket fences (see above left); it was sheer delight. This led us to small, laid-out town gardens, all freshly planted with flowers, and back along Aðalstræti to the town square (see left) (Photo 12 - Ísafjörður's town square); we might have been in any attractive small Icelandic town, but what set Ísafjörður apart was that, whenever we looked up above the wooden buildings, the supreme mountainous backdrop reminded us that this was special (see right) (Photo 13 - Ísafjörður's mountainous setting). It was an afternoon to remember and to savour.
A return to Súðávík Camping for a day in camp: we drove back around the bay, pausing for more photos of Ísafjörður's dramatic mountainous setting and the mountain-enclosed backdrop across the head of Skutulsfjörður (see below left and right). Before leaving Ísafjörður, we turned off along Tungudalur to investigate the campsite there, knowing it also was ludicrously over-priced and likely to be overcrowded with rowdy holiday-makers; but it was an Icelandic Camping Card site and we were at risk of not using all 28 slots on our expensive card. It was a fine location up the wooded valley below the attractive Bunárfoss waterfall, and not as crowded as feared. But the peace and charm of Súðávík Camping was more appealing, and we set off to return around the bay past the airfield, pausing twice to photograph the setting of Ísafjörður township on its peninsula against its mountainous backdrop and the mighty mountains and cliffs northwards towards Bolungarvík. At the second stop, the Arctic Terns were particularly aggressive, swooping down to attack our heads as we took our photos.
Back at Súðávík Camping, the site was still deserted and we settled back into our corner to relax in the bright early evening sunshine after our splendid day in Ísafjörður (see left and right). The barbecue was lit for supper of grilled pork and sausages, and as the sun set behind Súðárvíkurfjall's mountain wall above us, the evening grew instantly chill. But even though the sun had set on us in the mountain's shadow, its light still reflected on the mountainside on the opposite side of Áltafjörður, casting shadows of the mountain peaks above us; it was an eerie sensation. The forecast for tomorrow was for rain, and since the peaceful environment, setting and price here at Súðávík were so so favourable, we decided to bring forward our planned rest day and stay on for a day in camp and third night here.
The following morning was overcast and by mid-morning the rain had started. The few others camped here departed, leaving us to enjoy our day in camp in peace. Without wi-fi, the only way to collect an email from our daughter Lucy in Australia was to make sparing use of our phone's mobile hot-spot feature. She was about to embark on a 10 day mountain-cycling expedition of the Mawson Trail from Blinman in the Flinders Ranges on the remote South Australian Outback to her home city of Adelaide, entailing 900kms on unmade roads through wild country. We collected the email with schedule for this astonishing undertaking, and exchanged further messages with her as she set off with Ben and minimally loaded bikes on the 8 hour outward journey by rural bus to their ride's start point. The pouring rain continued all afternoon, with low rain cloud obscuring the surrounding mountains and the view across the fjord. Mid-evening, the lady warden came round for rent money, and we learned more from her about the 1995 Súðávík avalanche tragedy: her home then had been the nearby corner house, now a holiday home, and she had been forced to move to the 'new' village; she had lost a friend among those killed in the disaster. There had then been 300 residents in Súðávík, but the population had dwindled now to 180 as younger people moved away to Reykjavík and Akureyri in search of work.
Bolungarvíkurgöng Tunnel connecting Ísafjörður to Bolungarvík: the following morning was still gloomily overcast with low cloud still covering the mountains behind us and across the fjord. On the way out of the village, after our 3 happy days in Súðávík, we paused to pay respects at the memorial to the 14 villagers, including 8 children, killed in the January 1995 avalanche disaster (see left). Into Ísafjörður, with cloud still hovering in strands along the walls of the surrounding mountains, we paused at the Polish shop by Bonus supermarket for nostalgic polish foodstuffs (including Bigos mix, borsch and urek soup), and Polish beers from the local Vinbuðin. From Sam the Polish shop owner, we learned that over 1,000 Poles live and work around the West Fjords; he did not bat an eyelid when we greeted him with Dzień dobry! As well as being a welcoming and homely town, Ísafjörður was also cosmopolitan: during our brief time here, we had spoken with Thais, Poles and a Macedonian! Into town, we shopped for the bulk of our provisions at Netto, then drove along to photograph the town's eccentric parish church (Photo 14 - Ísafjörður's modernistic parish church) and the Culture House, designed originally as the Ísafjörður's hospital in 1925 in stately Modernist style by Icelandic State Architect Guðjón Samúelsson, who also designed much of Reykjavík's public buildings and Akureyri Cathedral. Alongside stood a statue of 2 of Ísafjörður's fishermen hauling in a net-full of cod (see above right).
Finally leaving Ísafjörður today, we headed out on Route 61 around the northern coast of Skutulsfjörður (click here for detailed map of route), under the towering shadow of Eyrarfjall, and beyond the outlying village of Hnífsdalur, just before the portal to Bolungarvíkurgöng Tunnel, we turned off onto the start of the old pre-tunnel coast road to a viewpoint to eat our sandwich lunch. The ongoing old road was now abandoned and clearly in a dangerous state, subject to regular rock-falls from the unstable Óshlíð mountain face towering overhead. This was the reason for the 5.3 kms long tunnel's construction in 2010, to provide a safer and more reliable connection between Ísafjörður and Bolungarvík, and replace what had been one of Iceland's most dangerous, rock-fall prone roads around the coast under Óshlíð. After photos from Hnífsdalur village of the Búðarfjall massif with its huge cliffs tapering down to the sea (see left), and the tiny concrete tube-portal of the tunnel-mouth at the mountain obstacle's foot, we drove on to enter Bolungarvíkurgöng Tunnel (see right).
Emerging into daylight at the tunnel's exit, we turned off around the remaining northward stub of the old coastal road which led to the Ósvör Maritime Museum, a group of reconstructed turf-roofed fishing shacks once used to house fishermen during winter; an oil-skin clad old salt was showing visitors around. We parked here and walked on around the low cliffs, photographing the imposing vista across the bay towards Bolungarvík and the overshadowing majestically shapely bulk of Bolafjall (see left) (Photo 15 - Bolungarvík village from Óshlíð coast road). Beyond the squat lighthouse, the residual tarmac road was increasingly littered with rock-fall debris and huge boulders to the landward side (see right), and lined with Lupins on the seaward side. At the point where the old road turned around the northern face of Óshlíð towering menacingly overhead, a massive slice of mountainside must recently have fallen away, the debris from the rock-fall blocking the way forward entirely. It felt a very vulnerable place to hang around, and having taken photos of the vista across Ísafjarðardjúp to the distant snow-capped mountains and cliffs of Hornstrandir, we beat a hasty retreat.
The fishing port of Bolungarvík: returning to the main Route 61 by the tunnel mouth, there ahead was the large fishing port of Bolungarvík spread around the bay, also enclosed on 3 sides by over-towering mountains. This work-a-day fishing village, with a population of almost 1,000 residents, suffers from being set at one of Iceland's most isolated and exposed locations at the mouth of Ísafjarðardjúp, facing the full force of the Denmark Strait. Hemmed in by high mountains, it is also vulnerable to avalanches and, before the tunnel's construction, to being shut off by winter weather and rock-falls.
We drove into Bolungarvík and found the campsite behind the sports centre/swimming pool. But was this a campsite or a building site? This rough patch of muddy grass was dominated by the noise and dust of parked builders' trucks and concrete sanding from work on an extension to the sports hall. Despite all this disturbance, we decided to stay, and found the least poor of a poor lot of spaces to install George and walk into the village. At the corner of Aðalstræti and Skólastígur, a small botanical gardens had been laid out, the West Fjords Botanical Gardens, an initiative by the West Fjords Natural History Unit; this included many Icelandic plants set out in ordered beds and all admirably labelled. We crossed to their offices to congratulate them on this lovely creation, strangely out of place in this isolated and functional village. From here we ambled down to the fishing harbour (see left) (Photo 16 - Bolungarvík fishing harbour), and round past the modern fish-processing factory we again photographed the smaller boats returning with their catches to the quay. Crates full of fish were craned from the holds onto the quay (see right) (Photo 17 - Unloading today's catch), hoisted up deftly by fork-lift tractors, and their contents of white fish tipped into larger crates. The fork-lift operators skilfully stacked the full crates for transportation in batches over to the fish-processing plant (Photo 18 - Crating up unloaded fish) (see left and right), and the little boats returned to sea. It was all a fascinating working routine, and we spent a happy hour at the fishing quays taking many photographs.
Bolungarvík Camping: we walked back up to the campsite to set up camp, assuming that, as it was now approaching 5-00pm, the building work would stop, bringing relief from the noise and filthy dust of concrete sanding. But no ... these must have been Polish workers, who continued all evening until gone 9-00pm until they were satisfied that the job was completed. We had only chosen to stay at Bolungarvík because it was an Icelandic Camping Card site to use slots on our card. But in addition to all the noise and filth from the building site, the campsite was very limited: facilities were rudimentary and minimal, with antiquated WCs, unusable wash hand-basins, paper towel and loo rolls left unfilled, no kitchen or wi-fi of course, just cold water outdoor wash-up sinks, and with showers only in the swimming pool at 400kr separate admission. Normal prices were 1,100kr each (no seniors' reduction) plus 1,000 for power and 800kr if you could afford swimming pool showers, an unforgivable cost for such low standards, along with the building site noise and filth. We had to grin and bear it, but no one had the nerve to come round for money, and we were determined on no payment for such a shameful place. The only good thing about Bolungarvík Camping was its outlook and setting, alongside the Hólsá River where it tumbled down to the sea, and looking directly up at the magnificent mountain walls enclosing the village, with the sculpted corrie on the face of Hádegisfjall and the jagged walls of Óshlíð under which we had stood earlier (see left).
South from Ísafjörður through the Vestfjarðagöng Tunnel to Suðureyri: with the sky heavily overcast, we returned from Bolungarvík the following morning to drive back through Bolungarvíkurgöng Tunnel to Ísafjörður to top-up our provisions at Netto (the last supermarket we should see for a number of days) and for final photos across the bay of the mountain massif and corrie above town and port. It had been a privilege to visit Ísafjörður (one of our favourite places in Iceland), and we finally left now to turn off onto Route 60 (click here for detailed map of route). The road climbed steeply towards the concrete tube of the tunnel portal (see right), seemingly tiny against the bulky massif of Botnsheiði. Vestfjarðagöng Tunnel, Y-shaped in plan, was at the time of its construction in 1996 Iceland's longest tunnel with a total length of 9.1kms bored though the bulky massif of Breiðadalsheiði. It connects Ísafjörður with Flateyri and Þingeyri to the south, with a junction part-way through, where Route 65 branches off down to the isolated fishing port of Suðureyri. The first section of the tunnel was normal dual-lane and well-lit, but when we turned off at the junction part-way through onto Route 65 to Suðureyri, the tunnel became single-lane with frequent passing places (indicated by the M-sign for Mætast - Meeting place) (see left) and priority for returning traffic. We took it steadily but fortunately met no on-coming vehicles, and emerged into gloomy daylight high above Botnsdalur to descend steeply towards the head of the narrow Súgandafjörður (see below right). The upper valley was totally deserted apart from one large farm whose home-pastures had been recently cut for hay. The road shelved along the mountainside above the inner fjord for 10kms, with not one dwelling other than a couple of abandoned farms the whole length of the narrow fjord, until at last we reached the outskirts of the little fishing harbour of Suðureyri.
The isolated village of Suðureyri: the tiny fishing settlement of Suðureyri with its 270 residents, is set at the mouth of the deep, narrow cleft of Súgandafjörður. The settlement founded in the early 20th century grew rapidly with the mechanisation of the fishing industry, but until the tunnel's completion, it was entirely isolated by the forbidding massif of mountains. Suðureyri now has its own supply of geothermally hot water from bore-holes above the village, used for heating homes, supplying energy for the fish-processing plant, for fish-drying and heating the village's outdoor swimming pool and hot tubs, one of the most popular in the West Fjords. Fishing and fish-processing still dominate the village, but fishing has now been turned to advantage to lure tourists out to this remote settlement, thanks to the tunnel now accessible by road: you can, for a price, spend a day out in a fishing boat, visit the fish-processing factory, sample fish dishes at the café, and even feed the cod kept in the village lagoon. Every summer, sea anglers from around Europe are attracted to Suðureyri.
The houses of the village are clustered along its main street of Aðalgata. We followed this through and turned off to find the campsite behind the village shop; the fjord-side setting looking westwards to the mouth of Súgandafjörður was really stunning (see left), but the campsite was tents only and no power. Having eaten our sandwiches, we found the café to enquire about visiting the fish-processing plant. The village was certainly doing well from fish-tourism since the charge was now 5,000kr each, almost £40! Þakka þér en nei takk (Thank you but no thank you)! Instead we learned from the information panels outside the difference between long-line fishing and hand-line fishing. For long-line fishing, the lines are cleaned and prepared by a baiting team on land before sailing: fish-bait (either squid, mackerel or herring, depending on what is being fished) is attached to up to 500 hooks along each line, before the lines are loaded into drums; a boat will usually carry up to 20 such loaded drums, making a total of 10,000 baited hooks per trip. When a boat reaches the fishing grounds, the lines are laid on the sea bed for 2 hours, then hauled back on board loaded with fish to be unhooked and crated up in the hold. Smaller boats equipped for hand-line fishing have 5 or 6 wheels mounted at the boat's rail, each carrying a line with 6~8 hooks baited with artificial lures. The motorised wheels automatically cast the lines with their hooked lures, and reel in the catch from just above the sea bed. The lines are hauled back aboard for the catch to be removed from the hooks and crated. It was these loaded crates that we had regularly seen being hoisted ashore onto the quay back at port.
We drove through the village past the fish-drying plant, and here reached the mole at the very mouth of the fjord beyond the village. Today, although the sky was heavily overcast and rain beginning, the sea was benignly calm. But the open mouth of Súgandafjörður faced directly out over the Denmark Strait into the teeth of North Atlantic storms which could blow from Greenland; today a lone fishing boat returned through the fjord mouth to Suðureyri port (see above right). Having taken our photos of fish farms by the mole (see above left), we returned through the village for photos of the open-sided fish-drying shed. Some fish are still dried in outdoor covered racks, but only over winter; in summer flies would ruin the fish. At the nearer end of village by the fish-processing factory, we paused for photos of the fishing boats moored in the harbour (see right) (Photo 19 - Suðureyri fishing harbour).
Back through Vestfjarðagöng Tunnel and south to Flateyri: with the sky now leadenly grey, we returned along the length of the fjord and uphill to re-enter the tunnel-mouth, now having priority in the single-lane tunnel (click here for detailed map of route). At the road junction in the centre of the tunnel (see left), we turned south towards Flateyri, the tunnel still single-lane, and emerged into pouring rain high above Breiðdalur to descend to the junction with Route 64 and turn off to Flateyri. Visibility was now poor and the surrounding mountains buried in rain cloud, as we drove the 6kms along the fjord-side of Önundarfjörður to reach the village. In the outskirts of Flateyri, behind the NI filling station and directly beneath the enormous bund of Flateyri's avalanche protection barrier, we found the little campsite. But this was a poor affair, the most basic site yet in the West Fjords, which despite its superb setting looking out over the village and fjord and under the shadow of the avalanche protection bund, had only the most basic of facilities: 2 WCs and outside wash-up sink, but no showers or hot water and no electricity, not even lighting in the loos. But at least it was peaceful, and we found a spot away from the trailer-tent and camping-car here already, and pitched behind a sheltering hedge with George's nose pointed into the wind and rain driving down the fjord.
Flateyri Camping: by now it was gone 4-00pm; it was too wet this afternoon to explore the village and avalanche protection today, and we each did a couple of hours work before cooking supper on this gloomily wet and chill evening. A local family called round to collect rent money: 900kr each senior discount (normal price 1,100kr), expensive for such a basic site with poor facilities, and we rated it at +1. We did however chat with the family about the October 1995 avalanche which engulfed part of Flateyri village killing 20 people and giving further inducement to the Icelandic government to fund a construction programme of avalanche protection walls which we had seen in several vulnerable villages. It was a grimly chill night without power for heating, and we sat huddled in multi-layers for warmth.
Flateyri and its avalanche protection bund: a brighter morning (see left and right) (Photo 20 - Flateyri Camping), and after breakfast we walked up through the tunnel in the lower avalanche protection wall to a footpath up to a look-out point on the 20m high avalanche bunds. Their A-shaped layout was designed to deflect snow-floods (snjóflóð in Icelandic) sideways into the fjord, away from the mountainside towering above the village below (see above right). A lower crossways wall connecting the two bottom ends of the side-deflecting arms was intended to trap any excess of snow over-spilling the side-bunds into a central compound. From the look-out point, the vista was magnificent looking out over the village built on a spit of land extending into the fjord (Photo 21 - Flateyri village) (see left and below right), and down the length of the silver-grey Önundarfjörður reflecting the morning sunlight, to the sharply sculpted peaks surrounding the fjord-land along the far side. The view upwards revealed the purposeful profile of the wedge-shaped triangular 20m high avalanche protection bunds, with the apex high on the mountain slope above to deflect falling snow-floods around the two sides, safely down into the fjord, so protecting the village. It was such a pity that it required the 1995 tragedy and loss of 20 lives to prompt governmental resourcing of bund construction for vulnerable communities.
We packed and drove down into Flateyri, pausing by the church to pay our respects at the memorial to the 20 village residents killed in the 1995 tragedy. The protective bunds spread up the mountainside towering high above presented an ever-present but reassuring reminder of the tragedy which buried part of the village under a million tones of snow killing 10% of residents, a calamity from which the community has never fully recovered. The flat spit of land (eyri) projecting into Önundarfjörður on which Flateyri now stands was first settled in the late 10th century by Önundar Vikingson, an illegitimate son of King Harald Fairhair of Norway. The village later developed as a trading post from 1792, and formed the base for a whaling station in the 19th century. The fishing industry prospered in Flateyri until recently but since the 2008 financial crisis it is now in serious decline, with many of the population departing leaving just 180 residents. Whereas Suðureyri retained a thriving and purposeful air with its fishing industry still vibrant and fishing-related tourism being exploited to supplement the local economy, Flateyri in contrast had a run-down air. There was still a small fish-processing plant along by the port, but most of the buildings and houses had a sad feel. Even attempts to tap into the burgeoning Icelandic tourist trade seemed rather half-hearted. The village's highlight however was its second-hand bookshop (Bókabúðin), a quaint and seemingly incongruous curiosity, founded in the early 20th century by the great-grandfather of the current owner, where books are sold at 1,000kr per kilogram. We drove around the village, pausing to photograph the fish-drying shed and the few boats in the harbour, and that was about all that Flateyri had to offer. There seemed little left to stop the inevitable population decline as youngsters left to find work elsewhere, attracted by the bright lights of Reykjavík and Akureyri.
The Skrúðor Fell Gardens at Núpur in Dýrafjörður: back along Route 64 to rejoin Route 60, we turned south across the causeway spit bridge over the inner head of Önundarfjörður (click here for detailed map of route), and began the long, gruelling climb up and over the pass of Gemlufallsheiði in gloomily overcast weather. Down the steeper southern side of the pass to the shores of Dýrafjörður (see above left), we turned off onto the tarmaced but single-track with passing-places side-road, pausing by a sandy beach for our sandwich lunch, with Oyster Catchers pecking on the sandy beach. Ahead the shapely peak of Mýrafell rose by the fjord-side. 6kms along, we reached a side-turn to the Skrúðor Gardens. This quite miraculous little walled garden, set amid trees on the bleak and otherwise barren fell-side, was laid out originally in 1905 by Pastor Sigtryggur Guðlaugsson who had been appointed priest at the nearby hamlet and boarding school of Núpur. He had been brought up at Eyrafjörður in Northern Iceland where from a young age he had learned an enthusiasm for vegetable growing and horticulture. When he settled at Núpur with his wife, he saw an opportunity to begin a garden on a plot of fell-land, with the intention of teaching botany, horticulture and tree growing, to show his pupils that with care and attention plants could be cultivated even in these bleak Icelandic fell conditions, and to introduce vegetable growing as part of a healthy diet. The walled garden was laid out and opened in 1909, developing and thriving until 1980 when the school closed. The Skrúðor Garden fell into neglect and decay, but in 1992 a group of volunteers began renovating the gardens. The Icelandic Ministry of Education, which still officially owned the land, handed ownership and care of the resurrected gardens over to Ísafjarðarbær local authority who still maintain the garden as a memorial to its founder.
Within its turfed walled enclosure, these beautiful lawned gardens surrounded by the most un-Icelandic trees were filled with almost English country cottage flowers, a floral oasis in the bleak fell-scape and overshadowed by towering craggy peaks (see left and above right) (Photo 22 - Skrúðor Fell Gardens). It truly was an amazingly beautiful spectacle, a little known haven of peace. Quite stunned by its utterly incongruous beauty, we strolled among the flower beds and read of the Garden's history in the little greenhouse. The only concession to its Icelandic fjordland setting was the whale-bone arch at the entrance to the gardens.
Around Dýrafjörður to Þingeyri: thinking this was the last we should see of Núpur, we returned along the single-track lane to re-join Route 60. Across the width of mountain-surrounded Dýrafjörður, we could see the sizeable village of Þingeyri spread along the far shore, but to reach it, we had a 20kms drive around the inner arm of the fjord. We were spared some 18kms of driving around the innermost fjord head by Route 60 crossing partway along over a causeway-bridge, to return along Dýrafjörður's southern shore-line. We were expecting there to be more of Þingeyri judging by its apparent size, but it turned out to be as sleepy and run-down as Flateyri. The harbour was almost empty of boats, and apart from a filling station cum shop, TIC cum homemade knitwear shop and bank, together with remains of the Settlement era Þing (Assembly) that gave the place its name, that was about all. Things had not always been as quiet in Þingeyri: with its sheltered position in Dýrafjörður, Þingeyri had been one of the earliest trading stations in the West Fjords, and had developed as a significant fishing port and mercantile centre, attracting numbers of foreign vessels. But in 1602 the Danish Trade Monopoly brought all this to an end, with Icelanders forced to trade only with Danish merchants. When the Monopoly ended in late 18th century, Þingeyri again resumed its European commerce, attracting many trading vessels to Dýrafjörður particularly French and German. In 1855, Þingeyri was at the centre of a potential international turf-war: the French wanted to establish a large fish factory at the port, provoking England to threaten war with Denmark (who still ruled Iceland) if the Danes allowed the French to get a tow-hold in the West Fjords; the French backed down. Fishing is now in decline and Þingeyri's population is reduced to some 200 residents.
But at least there was a camping site which accepted the Icelandic Camping Card, even if it had limited facilities and no showers. We had been seeing obviously holiday-making cars loaded with bikes all round Dýrafjörður, and on reaching the campsite at the far end of the village, we found out the reason. The site was crammed full of tents and trailer-tents of those taking part in a weekend mountain-biking and cross-country running event. Horrors! We turned and left to take stock. One thing was clear: we could not stay here, nor was it appealing to return for a further chill night without power, heat or hot water and showers at Flateyri. First thought was to phone the Korpudalur Hostel just off the Route 60/64 junction; their campsite was expensive but gave a senior discount. We set off back around the fjord, but on reaching the causeway crossing, another thought occurred: there was also Núpur Guest-house near Skrúðor Gardens which was much closer. We phoned, and yes, not only did they offer camping with full facilities, but at an all-inclusive charge of 2,000kr. No issue, and we set off to return there.
Núpur Guest-House/Camping: Núpur turned out to be a large and rather institutional-looking former boarding school which, just like Húsabakki near Dalvik in Northern Iceland, now incongruously promoted itself as a guest-house, with a large and rather bleak-looking flat, grassy field which served as a camping area. But the youngsters at reception were welcoming, and showed us the facilities which were seemingly scattered around the former school. It would certainly serve for tonight; we settled in behind the shelter of a hedge, eventually finding a live power connection, and brewed tea (see left and below right) (Photo 23- Núpur Guest-House/Camping). Investigating the facilities further showed that they were not only not as institutional as initially feared, but actually quite homely with fully equipped kitchen (including a microwave), good showers (phew!), and the staff would launder and dry a load of washing for just 500kr. And to top it all, there was a slow but useable wi-fi signal reaching the camping area. Out of potential disaster, we had emerged smelling of roses: we had found a second Húsabakki worthy of +5 rating, and should stay a second night here to take a much-needed rest day to catch up.
A day in camp at hospitable Núpur Guest-House/Camping: we had the peaceful campsite to ourselves, but overnight the warmer SW wind had shifted around to a cooler NW, bringing rain and heavily overcast skies, with a forecast of more rain for Monday's crossing of the Dynjandi mountains on steep hairpins and gravel roads; we were very tense about this. Over breakfast, we received messages from our daughter Lucy in South Australia, telling us of a near-disaster on her Mawson Trail mountain-biking expedition: she had ripped a tyre, but they had managed by a supreme effort to get back to Hawker. There, by the kindness of a stranger, they had borrowed a car from the café owner, driven with the damaged bike to Quorn where they had arranged for a cycle shop to undertake a repair, and returned for a second night at Hawker. They could absorb this loss of a day in their schedule by using a planned rest day at Melrose. She seemed remarkably sanguine about the entire stressful episode. What a remarkable bonus modern electronic communications are, never to be taken for granted. We exchanged further messages and, from their experience of Outback gravel roads, they suggested lowering George's tyre pressures for the forthcoming dirt road drive over the mountains. We spent the day catching up with practical matters, including a batch of laundry, charging everything up while we had power, and luxuriating in Núpur's first class showers. We had now completed the first half of the trip, managing to eke out our first gas cylinder for 10 weeks, by careful usage of the barbecue and campsite kitchens. Cooking supper this evening in Núpur's well-equipped kitchen, we got into conversation with an Icelandic family from Reykjavík; we thought no more of this at the time, saying goodnight and thinking this would be the last we should see of them. Little did we know then that Serendipity had other plans!
The gruelling drive over the mountains to Arnarfjörður: the forecast for today's long and gruelling drive over the gravelled mountain roads to Arnarfjörður and Dynjandi was for heavy cloud cover and rain (click here for detailed map of route). Refreshed both mentally and physically by our rest day at the fortuitously discovered Núpur Guest-House/Camping, we set off to return along to re-join Route 60 around inner Dýrafjörður into Þingeyri. A brisk wind kept the clouds moving but the fully overcast sky brought drizzly showers. The little shop at Þingeyri's filling station was fortunately well-stocked and we were able to secure essentials. Before leaving Þingeyri, we had to see the turf mound which was said to be the site by the village church of the ancient and eponymous Þing; this was mentioned in the Gísla Saga which recounted the tale of the outlawed tragic hero Gísli Súrsson who was forced to stay on the run for 13 years before being hunted down killed for the revenge killing of his brother-in-law. We dallied by the Þing, perhaps as a pretext for putting off tackling the coming mountain road.
But the time had come, and from Þingeyri we turned up onto the on-gong Route 60. The gravelled surface and steep gradient began immediately, and we were following the service bus which regularly crosses this mountain pass over to Arnarfjörður, both reassuring and unnerving since we were bound to be slowed by the bus and needed all the revs that George could muster on the hairpins. The road shelved directly uphill on a steep gradient high above Dýrafjörður, rounding a bend at the top to drop unexpectedly into a long valley. Along the length of this, the gravelled road surface was freshly scraped and reasonable, but as the real climbing began, the road surface deteriorated markedly. Ahead we could see the first of the tight bends and hairpins, with a fearful gradient. George kept up his revs, tackling the first hairpin, fortunately not meeting any of the tour-buses that clearly travel this route. But on the approach to the second hairpin, the gradient was even more steep; after recent rain, the gravelled surface was coated with slithery, muddy slurry, giving an insecure feel of lack of adhesion. Fully loaded, George had at one point to drop down to first gear to negotiate a broken down vehicle right at the apex of the bend. The gradient up to the final bends to reach the Hrafnseyrarheiði watershed was even more grindingly severe, and we were now catching up with the bus (see above left). The narrow road seemed darkly enclosed within a defile, shelved into the severely sloped and crumbly rock, with fearful and unprotected drop on the outer side. On this relentless gradient up to the crest of the pass, the narrow road seemed to cling precariously to a vertical wall of dark, fragmented rock. Steadily and in second gear now, George struggled up the unremitting gradient, and rounding the final curve, reached the highpoint of the pass. The bus pulled over at the watershed, allowing us to squeeze past, but there was nowhere for us to pull in. We were committed to beginning the descent, unable to pause for a breather and to appreciate this hugely dramatic terrain, surrounded by 700m high mountains.
Way below in the misty distance, we could just see the outline of Arnarfjörður as we rounded the first of the hairpins on this dramatically steep down-slope (see above right). Visibility improved as we descended onto more open, sweeping fell-side to reach the next tight hairpin, quickly followed by a sharp curve leading into the third and final hairpin. Ahead the road descended steeply in a direct line towards the Arnarfjörður valley floor. George coasted steadily down the final stretch, and with much relief pulled into a lay-by at the farming hamlet of Hrafnseyri on the shore of Arnarfjörður, for a breather and for us to recover with our lunch sandwiches. We had made it over the severest section of the pass, but the price was that George was filthy, caked high on each side with the dirt road's muddy slurry.
Hrafnseyri on northern shore of Arnarfjörður, and the Jón Sigurðsson Museum: Arnarfjörður is a huge fjord, 10kms wide at its mouth and cutting 30kms deep into the interior, to fork at its innermost head into 6 finger-like sub-fjords separated by high, sharply pointed mountainous projections. Directly across the fjord's width from Hrafnseyri, shafts of sunlight picked out 2 particularly shapely sculpted, flat-topped mountains, with the tiny settlement of Bíldudalur nestling between them in this titanic fjord-scape (see above left). The little port at Bíldudalur along with the farmstead at Hrafnseyri are the only settlements on the entire coastline of Arnarfjörður. Hrafnseyri is named after one of Iceland's earliest doctors from the period of Settlement, Hrafn Sveinbjarnarson who died here in 1213 having trained in Italy and returned home to practise.
But the farmstead and church at Hrafnseyri (see left and right) (Photo 24 - Church at Hrafnseyri) is best known as the birthplace of Jón Sigurðsson (1811~79), the politician and leader of the 19th century Icelandic Independence Movement, whose agitation and diplomacy secured Iceland a degree of independence from Danish rule, after the Danes had almost bankrupted the country during the period of Trade Monopoly. For Icelanders, Hrafnseyri has become something of a national shrine, with the three gabled, turf-roofed farmhouse and little red and white church, and the modern museum documenting in rather over-romanticised terms Jón Sigurðsson's life and achievements.
Born on 17 June 1811 (a day still celebrated as Iceland's National Day) and son of the local pastor, Sigurðsson left home at Hrafnseyri in 1833 to study at Copenhagen University. He clearly enjoyed the city good life since he contracted syphilis and failed to complete his degree, both facts conveniently air-brushed out of Icelandic tradition! Instead he devoted his time to campaigning for the return of Iceland's medieval Saga manuscripts kept by the Danes in Copenhagen. In 1841 he began his political activities, campaigning for greater independence for Iceland, and in 1843 was elected to the Icelandic Alþing, which regained its powers as a consultative body in 1845 thanks to his agitation. He convincingly argued in his political writings that since the Danish king had agreed to forego absolute powers in 1848, the decree of 1660 binding Icelanders to the absolute rule of the King of Denmark was no longer justifiable, and that Iceland should therefore be given self-rule. Further reforms followed as a result of his agitation, including the right to free trade in 1854, finally removing remaining trade restrictions, a measure which more than anything improved the quality of life for Icelanders, and eventually 20 years later a favourable new Constitution for Iceland in 1871 which returned full legislative powers to the Alþing Icelandic parliament, making the country self-governing at least in home affairs. Jón Sigurðsson died in Copenhagen in 1879, not living to see Iceland become a sovereign state in 1918 and gain full independence as a republic in 1944 on the anniversary of his birth. His body was returned to Reykjavík for a state funeral.
We viewed the modern museum learning more about Sigurðsson's life and works, and walked around the restored farmhouse, where portraits of recent Icelandic presidents were displayed, along with a portrait of Jón Sigurðsson (see left) and the painting of Sigurðsson and a group of Alþing members meeting in 1851 with representatives of the Danish state which helped pave the way to Icelandic home rule (see right). While we were exploring the museum area, a Snipe landed briefly in the moorland grass immediately in front of us; we had earlier in the trip regularly seen and heard these charactersome waders performing their buzzing aerial courtship displays, but never been able to see one close up on the ground (Photo 25 - Snipe).
Dynjandi waterfalls: Re-joining Route 60 (click here for detailed map of route), we continued eastwards along the desolate shore of inner Arnarfjörður, the sky still gloomily overcast and the road still gravelled and severely pot-holed (see left). 20kms further, the road rounded the head of Borgarfjörður, the northernmost of Arnarfjörður's 6 forked inner recess head-fjords, passing the small Mjólkárvirjun hydro-generating plant. As we drove from Hrafnseyri along Arnarfjörður's northern shore-line, in the far distance the triangular upper spread of Dynjandi's falls could be seen (see right). Now, as the dirt road rounded the headland high above Dynjandisvogar (the second inner recess head-fjords), the falls were even more evident (Photo 26 - Approaching Dynjandi waterfalls). But so also were the number of vehicles in the parking area at the foot of the falls where we planned to wild camp tonight!
Without doubt, Dynjandi is the most attractively impressive of the West Fjords waterfalls. The main upper cascade, visible for miles around, plunges over the high escarpment brim, falling in an elegant fan-tailed triangle over a 100m drop, 30m wide at the top and spreading symmetrically to 60m width at the base (Photo 27 - Dynjandi waterfalls). Looked at from a distance, the falling water spread against the backdrop of dark basalt resembles lacy curtains (see below right) (Photo 28 - Main upper 'lacy curtains' cascade). Below the main upper cascade, a series of 5 further smaller falls carry the waters of the Dynjandisá torrent down the tiered basalt slope to the shore of the fjord. The rocks of the West Fjords region are the oldest in Iceland, originating during a series of volcanic eruptions during the Tertiary Period 14~16 million years ago. Successive layers of basalt and lava slag have been deposited in this area, and during the Ice Age which ended 10,000 years ago, the retreating glaciers gouged out deep valleys and fjords in the landscape, leaving behind layers of rock of differing degrees of harness. These eroded strata form the terraced waterfall of Dynjandi, where the river torrent, which originates high on the Dynjandisheiði plateau, plunges over the escarpment and cascades down into the head of Arnarfjörður.
Ignoring the swarms of tourists milling around, we kitted up and followed the path upwards beside the cascading torrent, pausing for photographs at the lower and middle series of falls (Photo 29- Dynjandi waterfalls). The 4th set of falls, immediately below the uppermost fantailed cascade, dropped impressively into a dark cauldron, making a perfect foreground for the upper dominant lacy cascade (Photo 30 - Middle falls dropping into gully) (see left and right). As usual, we suffered the gross ill-manners of tourists who with blithe indifference wandered in front of our cameras. The wild flora growing alongside the path was almost as impressive as the falls, with much Alpine Bistort (Bistorta vivipara) (Photo 31 - Alpine Bistort) and several plants of Heath Spotted Orchid (Dactylorhiza maculata) (Photo 32 - Heath Spotted Orchid), the first seen growing wild in Iceland. We continued up the steep path to the lower brim of the upper cascade, standing in the thundering spray to admire the perfect symmetry of these elegant falls (Photo 33 - Dynjandi upper cascade).
A wild camp at Dynjandi waterfalls: having enjoyed a couple of hours alongside the layered falls at Dynjandi, we returned down to the parking area and found a flat spot to set up camp. Just in time as a horrendous convoy of 8 Italian camping-cars swarmed in, disgorging their rowdily babbling occupants; how can such folk make so much racket? We had been told that the parking area was available as camping space with WCs and even a cold water wash-up sink. But an official notice by the loos made it clear that camping was now forbidden in Dynjandi Protected Area; how far did this ambiguity stretch, and how firmly would wardens enforce the ban? We should find out later. But even though there were no signs in the parking area forbidding over-nighting, it was clear that abuse of Iceland's freedom to camp by excessive numbers of tourist hire-campers had restricted the freedom; it was entirely understandable that camping was being discouraged at Dynjandi. In the meantime, we tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible, despite George's roof being up showing an obvious intention to camp! But then, it seemed, so was this herd of Italian camping-cars, and the car park remained crammed full of tourist hire-cars. To our relief, all the Italians returned, having spent a cursory 10 minutes 'doing Dynjandi' and snapping their selfies by the lower falls, and one by one moved out with as much hullabaloo as when they had arrived. So gradually did all the hire-campers. We relaxed and, fearing at any moment a warden would arrive to move us on, hesitantly cooked supper. As the evening wore on, all of the tourist hire-cars disappeared, leaving us virtually alone to enjoy the thundering Dynjandi Falls in peace (Dynjandi means Thundering One) (see above right) and the view down the length of Arnarfjörður (see left) (Photo 34 - Dynjandi wild camp). Having taken evening photos against the backdrop of the falls with the parking area now empty of tourist cars, we turned in, to be lulled to sleep by the distant roar of Dynjandi's thunder, still not expecting to pass the night unchallenged.
A rough and filthy muddy drive over Dynjandisheiði plateau to Flókalundur: we were not disturbed overnight, and what a view to wake to!. Although the grey, overcast weather had denied us the view of Dynjandi Falls lit by evening sun, the memory of waking to the sight and sound of thundering Dynjandi will live with us for ever (see left). In fact we had not been entirely alone camping here: there were at least 2 other small campers and even a back-packing couple in a tent camped in the grassy space. We breakfasted and packed, but from an early hour the tourist hordes were moving in; by the time we departed, the overnight peace was long gone, the parking area was full again, and the approach path to the falls swarming with tourists.
The air was moist and drizzly rain was beginning by the time we returned to Route 60 to begin the final stage over the mountains with the climb up onto Dynjandisheiði plateau (click here for detailed map of route). The gravel road, already wet with mud, climbed steeply up from fjord level weaving around bends to gain further height, with a final tight hairpin followed by a straighter climb to bring the road up onto the bleak and cheerless plateau top. The road surface was a red, muddy slurry with the rain, visibility was poor, but worst of all were the pot-holes. This truly was the roughest 30kms of so-called road we had travelled in the whole of Iceland, the surface rutted with constant pot-holes making fearful impact on tyres and suspension. Yet still the silly young tourists in hire cars drove at alarmingly irresponsible speeds, failing to slow in passing. 3kms along the plateau top, we paused where Route 60 crossed the Dynjandisá river as it flowed from the plateau towards the head of the falls at the upper escarpment edge (see right) (Photo 35 - Escarpment edge at head of Dynjndi falls). Route 60 continued, a narrow, filthy muddy, rutted and pot-holed route in appalling condition, weaving every-which-way across the cheerless, misty plateau-scape for another 25kms. At one point, there was a brief misty distant view of the third of Arnarfjörður's inner finger of head-fjords, Geirþjófsfjörður way down below. Although there were no further severe gradients to tackle, the rough, rutted surface demanded constant care and attention on the narrow road's slithery, slurried surface to avoid hitting the worst of the constant pot-holes. It was a truly dreadful stretch of road, made worse by the inconsiderate speed at which tourists in hire-cars passed with blithe indifference to others.
We reached the junction where Route 63 branched off around the 3 other inner recess fjords to reach Bíldudalur on the southern shore of Arnarfjörður. Beyond here Route 60 continued, as rough and pot-holed as ever, finally beginning the steep descent towards the coast of Breiðafjörður at Flókalundur. George bumped along the pot-holed road, counting off the kms to reach tarmac again. Towards the bottom of the descent, stunted trees began again, and ahead was the road junction with Route 62, and tarmac at last. We pulled into Flókalundur Camping to pause for lunch sandwiches and to recover from the stressful experience of driving this fearful, rutted road in such filthy, wet conditions. And poor George was filthy, his sides and back chocolate-brown with mud from the slurried road surface. The Icelandic Roads Authority web site gives invaluable information on the state of roads across the country, wind and weather information, advice on driving conditions, and detailed maps identifying tarmaced and unsurfaced roads (click here for road surface map of West Fjords); we used this web site's maps regularly as a planning aid to determine routes according to road surface condition.
Flókalundur Camping at Breiðafjörður: Flókalundur is named after an early settler Flóki (Raven) Vilgerðarson who had overwintered by Vatnsfjörður at Barðaströnd around 868 AD, and named the land Ísland (Iceland) from the packs of sea-ice floating in the fjord. The harsh winter weather had killed all his livestock, and in despair he had returned to Norway. It is now nothing more than the road junction, a hotel, filling station (we hoped they had a hose-brush to clean up George), and the campsite where we planned to stay tonight. The campsite had several large, flattish grassy camping areas tiered up the hill-side, but just a few power supplies on each level. The price was unduly expensive for an unexceptional site: 1,500kr/person plus 1000kr for power, but it was an Icelandic Camping Card site so at last we could use one of the slots on our card. As we looked around to reserve a good pitch (see above left and right), a convoy of 7 holiday-making Icelandic caravans arrived. We quickly selected a spot on the far corner of the middle tier and secured one of the only 3 power sockets, reserving our space. The caravans clustered in a tight-knit wagon-trail circle towards the entrance where, far from us, they could make as much noise as they wanted! Having secured our space, we took George down to the filling station and used the hose-brush to clean off all the filthy mud accumulated over the 2 stages of unsurfaced mountain roads driving over from Þingeyri (Photo 36 - Hose-brushing) (see left); George emerged white again after his period in chocolate-brown!
The Vatnsdalsvatn Nature Reserve: we planned to spend the afternoon walking the trail alongside Vatnsdalsvatn in the Vatnsfjörður Nature Reserve. The lake was said to be a nesting ground for the Harlequin Duck, our last opportunity to see this colourful bird, and for Red Throated and Northern Divers. We got a copy of the map-leaflet from the Flókalundur Hotel, and drove 5kms eastward along the shore of Vatnsfjörður to its head. Parking by the spit of land of harder rock now separating the inland lake of Vatnsdalsvatn from the main fjord, left by the glacier which had carved out the side valley of Vatnsdalur, we kitted up and set off on the path alongside the lake. But rain was now beginning and there was not a sign of bird-life on the lake. In such poor light as the rain worsened, this was pointless; we were getting a soaking for no gain, and disappointedly we returned to George.
The inadequacies of Flókalundur Camping: back at Flókalundur Camping, we settled in and brewed tea. It was a now wretchedly miserable afternoon, and misty rain cloud obscured any view across Vatnsfjörður, a side-fjord off the main Breiðafjörður. More campers and tents arrived, and by early evening we were surrounded. The rain eased but down here at the coast, it was a warm, muggy evening with many flies. The rent-collector came round and we paid by Camping Card. We woke to another overcast and muggy morning. In the warm, misty weather, the campsite was infested with as many midgy flies as Mývatn, and this morning we were forced to use the Bagon again to deal with them swarming into the camper. Sheila managed to get an early shower in the grubby cupboard which passed for a shower-cubicle, a thoroughly un-refreshing experience, but by the time Paul went over, all the hot water was gone. For such an expensive but otherwise unexceptional campsite, Flókalundur's facilities were woefully inadequate. The Hotel/Camping was clearly milking its position here on the Látrabjarg tourist trail, and the tourists simply kept on coming in ever greater numbers! This was one of the worst campsites so far, over-priced and under-provided with facilities.
Along the Barðaströnd coastline and over to Patreksfjörður: we set off westwards on Route 62 around the broad farming coastal strip and sandy shore-line of Breiðafjörður (see right) (click here for detailed map of route). The fjord was dotted with dozens of islands, and on the distant southern skyline, the western cliffs of the Snæfellsnes peninsula were silhouetted. As we rounded the Barðaströnd coastline, in the far distance the eastern end of the extended line of cliffs making up the Látrabjarg peninsula became visible. Beyond the sweeping bay of Hagavaðall, the road rounded further coastline before turning inland to begin the long, steady climb up onto the Kleifaheiði plateau. Across the broad watershed, the descent on the western side was steeper, dropping via a pair of hairpins to the head of Ósafjörður inlet at the road junction where Route 612 branched off towards Látrabjarg. Route 62 crossed the inlet's head to continue along the northern coastline of Patreksfjörður with the town that takes its name from the fjord visible in the distance. Approaching Patreksfjörður, we turned off into the town and found the small campsite alongside the community centre. The camping area was quite small, but the facilities in the community centre were first class, with homely and fully equipped kitchen/common room and clean, modern WC/showers. Patreksfjörður Camping's one downside was its high price of 1,500kr/person plus 1,250kr for power, and not a Camping Card site when we had so many unused slots left on our card.
Patreksfjörður is the largest town in the southern part of the West Fjords, with a population of some 750 residents. It is named after St Patrick of Ireland who had been the spiritual guide of Örlygur Hrappson, the earliest settler in the area. The fishing and fish-processing industries have always dominated the little port-town, now extending into fish farming in the fjord. We drove around the main street of Aðalstræti and found 2 supermarkets; both were small but we managed to stock up with 2 days' provisions, inevitably at seemingly enormous cost. After photos of the harbour full of fishing boats (Photo 37 - Patreksfjörður fishing harbour) (see above left), we sat for our sandwiches looking out over the harbour to the cliffs on the northern side of the Látrabjarg peninsula across the fjord.
The isolated port-village of Bíldudalur on southern coast of Arnarfjörður: leaving Patreksfjörður on Route 63 (click here for detailed map of route), we began the long and increasingly steep ascent of Miklidalur, rising to around 500m at the watershed, to descend on a steeper gradient on the northern side, down into Höfðadalur and the head of inner Tálknafjörður. As we coasted down towards the fjord, the small town of Tálknafjörður came into view on the far side. Round the head of the fjord, the road immediately began the long and grinding ascent of Gildalur, rounding a sweeping hairpin and rising steeply to reach the 550m high watershed of Hálfdánarfell, now hitting the cloud-base. Across the bleak, stony summit area, the long and sweeping descent rounded a couple of hairpins, dropping steeply towards the shore of Arnarfjörður. Ahead across the fjord, the prominent cliff-end of Langanes point rose imperiously dominating the near skyline. Down to the road junction with the Route 63 dirt road coming in from the Dynjandi mountain road which we had driven 2 days ago, we turned into the tiny isolated port-village of Bíldudalur (see left and above right) (Photo 38 - Port-village of Bíldudalur).
We found Bíldudalur Camping, set by the swimming pool; the fjord-side setting was magnificent, but facilities were Spartan, just 2 WCs and no sign of anything else. Patreksfjörður had the facilities, Bíldudalur had the setting, but both were expensive and not Camping Card members. Tálknafjörður Camping accepted the Camping Card, but perhaps had neither facilities nor setting; we should find out when we got there later. What was particularly stunning about Bíldudalur village however was its panoramic vista across the width of Arnarfjörður: in the murky, misty distance, not today visible across the 10kms width of the huge fjord, was the Jón Sigurðsson Museum at Hrafnseyri where we had been 2 days ago. We could however just make out in the gloom the distant valley down which Route 60 descended after the hairy drive over the mountain pass dirt road from Þingeyri.
This thriving fishing port of Bíldudalur is the only settlement on the whole of Arnarfjörður's shores, along with the farming hamlet of Hrafnseyri on the north coast. It is really just a speck of a place with only 200 residents, and judging by the boats moored in its harbour, fishing and shrimping were still the main occupations (see right and left) along with a factory producing animal feeds and fertiliser from seaweed. The village was dominated on 3 sides by dark, brooding mountains, especially overshadowing on a gloomy afternoon. We drove along to the harbour to photograph the boats, despite the poor light, and walked around the village. At the far end, the road petered out to a trackway which continued out towards the western tip of Arnarfjörður's peninsula, barren mountainous terrain totally deserted save for the ruins of a few abandoned farms.
The sheltered port-village of Tálknafjörður and its campsite: back over the Hálfdánarfell mountain pass (click here for detailed map of route), we turned off to the little fishing port of Tálknafjörður which lies in an uncharacteristically benign fjord-land setting, with gentle hills lining the broad coastal strip of the narrow, sheltered fjord from which the village takes its name. Again fishing and fish-processing are the mainstays of the local economy (see below left). At the far end of the village by the swimming pool, we found the campsite. The unusually flat, grassy coastal strip gave space for several camping areas sheltered by hedges, and in the neighbouring swimming pool building, the facilities included WCs and a large kitchen/common room/wash-up, with showers in the swimming pool at 330kr each extra; the Camping Card was accepted, plus 1000kr for power. Not sure how busy the campsite would get later, we selected and reserved a pitch, using the 12th of the 28 slots on our Camping Card, then drove back along to the village to photograph the boats in Tálknafjörður's harbour (see below left); we also bought good value packs of salmon fillet from a self-service booth. Tálknafjörður Camping's green and sheltered surroundings and reasonable facilities would make it a good base for our rest day tomorrow (see right) (Photo 39 - Tálknafjörður Camping), before tackling the wilds of Látrabjarg at the weekend. During the early evening, the campsite filled up with both tents and campers; it was far from a peaceful spot.
After some rain in the night, we woke to a gloomy, drizzly morning with low, misty cloud clinging to the surrounding hills above the fjord. Yesterday morning, Paul had observed that, despite Iceland's weather, we had both surprisingly managed to avoid colds so far this trip; Sheila obligingly began sneezing, so this morning it was double doses of Vitamin C to combat colds! Immediately after breakfast, we managed to connect the laptop to the Tálknafjörður swimming pool wi-fi for update news of Lucy's Mawson Trail adventure. They had now passed the Goyder Line (which demarks rainfall, dividing cultivable land from the South Australian Outback), and had reached Jamestown and Burra copper mining country. We were able to download her current set of photos, and marvelled at the challenging severity of the 900kms cycle ride through such wild terrain. Our own trip this year had been so intensively busy and demanding, that we had made little progress with web writing, but the first edition was beginning to take shape, as we now reached the half-way point. Compared however with all we had experienced in the intervening 10 weeks in Iceland, the events of the first few days and the journey out seemed a different universe! As others left this morning, we moved George into a corner position by a sheltering hedge, as the weather got gloomier with 100% cloud cover down to fjord level enveloping the surrounding hills and the air moist. It was a thoroughly miserable day, only fit to spend in camp. We expected the campsite to fill up again this evening, but fewer arrived giving a more peaceful night.
A grim drive out along the Látrabjarg peninsula: the forecast for today's drive on dirt roads out along the desolate Látrabjarg peninsula, and the weekend out at the bird cliffs, could not have been worse: wet, wet, wet! George was going to be filthy again by the time we returned on Monday. But here at sheltered Tálknafjörður, this morning the cloud was beginning to lift from the hills along the fjord and it was not raining. Along at the village, we got more salmon fillets from the booth, provisions at the little shop, and filled George's fresh water at the car-cleaning point. Back around the inner head of the fjord (click here for detailed map of route), George tackled the steep gradient over the high fells, and coasted down Miklidalur into Patreksfjörður to complete our food shopping. Beginning the eastward drive along the shore of Patreksfjörður, heavy gloomy cloud still clung to the fjord-sides, a portent of the weather to come (see right). 12kms along the inner head of the fjord, we turned off onto Route 612 around the northern shore of inner Ósafjörður. The first 5kms were tarmaced as far as a farm and the beached wreck of a stranded vessel. But beyond here, the tarmac ended and rutted pot-holed dirt road began, continuing along the sandy shore-line and rounding headlands for some 10kms. Across the mouth of the sand dune-filled valley of Sauðlauksdalur, the road became narrower and rougher, rounding a series of rock-fall prone craggy headlands on an airily exposed and unprotected shelf, where spurs of Vatnsdalsfjal projected northwards to the fjord coast. The rough, narrow and pot-holed road was not as caked with mud as feared, but we were relieved to shelve around the final spur-point to advance inland along the side of the wide, sandy valley of Örlygshöfn to reach the farmstead and museum-cum-campsite at Hnjótur (see left).
Grateful for a break at this halfway point of the difficult drive, we pulled in for our sandwich lunch, gazing at the bizarre sight of the remains of a Douglas DC-3 US navy aircraft standing by the museum's hangar. We should visit the museum on the return drive from Látrabjarg to learn the full story of this strange collection at Hnjótur. Before leaving today, we walked over to check out the campsite, having exchanged pre-trip emails with the owner Kristinn Thor Egilsson who had confirmed camping availability. He now showed us around and told us something of the history of the Hnjótur museum and its aircraft. But the approach to the supposed camping area was treacherously wet after all the rain; set on an exposed hillside, with ramshackle and semi-built facilities, the campsite looked uncertain, and we left it for now to continue on towards Látrabjarg.
Around the head of the valley, Route 612 branched off to climb steeply high across the valley side. The road was now very rough, rutted and pot-holed on a narrow shelf, eventually rounding onto the broader, open fell-side of Hafnarfjall, to gain further height into cloud across the watershed (see right). This was a bleak and desolately cheerless fell-scape, utterly deserted apart from the rough, pot-holed narrow ribbon of muddy dirt road stretching into the distance. This so-called road descended for a further 10kms, eventually reaching the side-turning down to the Breiðavík Hotel and campsite. Breiðavík Camping was very expensive at 2,200kr/person all-inclusive of showers, wi-fi and washing machine, but it was the only viable camping option for the Látrabjarg bird cliffs, especially in poor weather. At the hotel reception, we booked in for one night and reserved our pitch since power supplies were limited. There were basic WC/showers in a hut by the camping area, but facilities in the hotel were of luxurious standard, including a fully equipped kitchen/wash-up. It may have been expensive, but you got what you paid for including free cups of tea/coffee.
The Látrabjarg bird cliffs: the weather forecast had changed back to wet for the weekend, so as it was only 2-30pm we decided to make an exploratory foray to the Látrabjarg cliffs. A further 5kms on freshly scraped dirt road brought us across the final stretch of fell-scape to descend to the peninsula's northern coast via 2 hairpins down to the tiny holiday settlement of Látravík Bay (see above left) (click here for detailed map of route). Around the sandy bay, the road was at its roughest and caked with filthy wet mud. We took it steadily past the basic camping area, as tourist hire-cars sped by. On the far side of the bay, the road shelved steeply and very uncertainly around a final headland, and across the far side of the flat cliff-top area we reached the parking area close to Bjartgtangar lighthouse. We had made it to Látrabjarg Cliffs, 64.5º west, and (leaving aside the Azores) the westernmost point of Europe (see left and right) (Photo 40 - Látrabjarg Cliffs, Europe's westernmost point).
Inevitably there were many tourist cars parked here, and we kitted up to explore the cliff-tops (see right and left) (Photo 41 - Látrabjarg cliffs). Just beyond the lighthouse, we immediately began seeing Puffins perched sitting and standing preening themselves on ledges just below the grassy cliff-edge. Safe from predators, the 14kms length of Látrabjarg cliffs is Iceland's largest bird breeding colony, with millions of sea birds nesting on the cliffs' tiered basalt ledges, coexisting in high-rise avian apartment blocks: among the scree and fallen boulders at the foot of the 400m high cliffs, the world's largest single colony of Razorbills nests. Fulmars nest on the grassy lower ledges, while the higher ledges on the vertical cliff face are home to Kittiwakes and Guillemots (both Common and Brünnich's). The Brünnich's Guillemot, with its distinctive white streak extending back from the bill, breeds only in the North Atlantic around Iceland, Greenland and Northern coast of Scandinavia, whereas the Common Guillemot breeds as far south as the Spanish coast; for a comparison, see the Nord University bird identification web site. Neither species build nests as such, but lay their conical, roll-proof eggs on precarious rock ledges. Puffins occupy the topmost 'apartments', nesting in burrows in the grassy cliff-top turf.
Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica) are members of the Auk family and live for 25~30 years. After a winter-long separation at sea, the breeding pairs arrive in early April to re-unite at their nesting burrows in the turf on Látrabjarg's cliff-tops. Single eggs are laid in the burrow mid-May, and one of the adult Puffins remains incubating the egg in the burrow-nest while the other adult flies out to sea fishing. The Puffin chicks (Pufflings) hatch at the turn of June~July. The adult birds bring back beakfuls of sand eels garnered on their fishing trips, and can be seen standing by their burrows early evening. The Puffins depart from Látrabjarg mid-August to over-winter at sea. We had not expected to find many Puffins at this time of afternoon, assuming they would only return early evening from their day time fishing at sea for sand eels. But in fact all along this stretch of cliff-top, Puffins in ones and twos were standing or sitting on the ledges just over the brink, or waddling rather clumsily along the cliff-top turf almost tripping over their over-large webbed feet. They were literally just 2~3 metres distant from us, showing complete indifference to our presence, or simply gazing with apparent curiosity at these strange human creatures pointing cameras at them (see left) (Photo 42 - Photographing puffins). The cliff-top turf must have been the location of 1000s of Puffin burrows, now no longer in use in late July since this year's young were by now almost ready to depart in 3~4 weeks for the winter at sea. We spent a totally absorbing hour, buffeted by the wind on these exposed and precarious cliff-tops, taking many photos and videos of these charactersome little Auks, as they stood or sat by their cliff-top burrows:
Up the muddy slope, we reached the higher bare cliff-faces where 1000s of Kittiwakes were still nesting. We were able to photograph them as they reared their now quite large but still fluffy chicks (Photo 43 - Kittiwake and chicks) (see below right). Sharing the ledges with the Kittiwakes were Brünnich's Guillemots (Photo 44 - Brünnich's Guillemots and Kittiwake chicks). The noise of the nesting birds and the stench of their guano on the ledges just below the cliff-tops was overwhelming. We spent almost 3 hours along the cliff-tops, enjoying the spectacle and taking our photos, particularly of the Puffins as we edged warily along the cliff-tops, surprised at the ease with which we could approach them (see left) (Photo 45 - Puffins at Látrabjarg). Back down to the parking area, we bumped back along the 12kms of rough, muddy roadway to Breiðavík, and settled into our reserved place (see above right) hoping, weather and wind permitting, to spend a second day at Látrabjarg bird cliffs tomorrow.
Our Photo Gallery of the Puffins, Kittiwakes and Guillemots of Látrabjarg Cliffs can be seen on: Puffins of Látrabjarg Cliffs.
A second day at Látrabjarg bird cliffs: we woke to the sound of wind-driven rain, and it continued raining all morning with a brisk 10~12 m/s wind blowing from the SE. We packed and departed at noon, with the rain at last beginning to ease. After 12 hours of continuous rain, the dirt road across the fell-top was in a truly filthy state with liquid mud. Down the hairpins and around Látravík Bay, and around the final headland, we parked again by the lighthouse. George was now filthier than ever and covered with mud spray. By now the rain had finally stopped, and the forecast showed a 4 hour window without rain until 4-00pm. We just had time for our second visit to the bird cliffs before the rain was forecast to start again, and we kitted up fully with waterproofs, as much against the strong wind as against the possibility of rain. Over at the cliff-top, it was now more evident than ever just how strong the wind was: 10~12 m/s did not sound an excessively strong wind, but on an exposed 400m cliff-top, we were just thankful that it was blowing from the SE from the sea onto the land!
Standing on the cliff-edge brink, it was difficult to hold cameras steady as we were buffeted by the wind. There were fewer Puffins about today, and some were generally hunkering down in the face of the wind (see left) (Photo 46 - Látrabjarg Puffins sheltering from wind), others still standing on the cliff edge in the face of the wind (see above right) (Photo 47 - Wind blown Puffin); perhaps the rest were taking shelter in nooks and crannies out of view just over the cliff-edge. We spent more time photographing the Puffins again, before heading up the slope to the edge of the higher cliff face where the Kittiwakes and Guillemots were nesting . On the higher ledges, we could clearly see this year's chicks, now juvenile and almost fully fledged but still fluffy. Part-way down the cliff, a whole colony of Common Guillemots were perched, mainly facing into the cliff for shelter from the wind. It was hard work struggling up the muddy, tussocky cliff slope in the face of the head wind, and up here in a more exposed position it felt unsafe to stray too close to the cliff-edge brink. Back down to lighthouse, we spent another hour taking photos and videos of the Puffins as they stood in front of us at the cliff-edge (see right) (Photo 48 - Puffin perched on Látrabjarg cliff edge). But it was by now almost 3-30pm, and we had a long and challenging drive if we were to get back to Flókalundur this evening. Returning to the parking area, we removed muddy boots and stowed waterproofs, just in time as heavy rain started again.
Return to the extraordinary Hnjótur Farmstead-Museum: finally leaving Látrabjarg cliffs in now pouring rain on the muddy dirt track (see left), we began the return drive (click here for detailed map of route); this was the furthest west we should travel this trip, so at just after the half-way point of the trip, the journey home began here. Back across past the turning to Breiðavík Bay (see below right), the fell-land plateau was now bleaker than ever in driving rain, and the road wound a lonely way, endlessly across the dreary, wet fell-scape until at last beginning the steep descent into the Örlygshöfn valley (see below left) to reach the farmstead-museum at Hnjótur. The previous farmer at Hnjótur, Egill Ólafsson had spent much of his life collecting anything and everything, amassing an eclectic collection of both everyday and unusual objects reflecting the daily life of farming and fishing; his extraordinary museum illustrated local and national life in rural Iceland during the 20th century. His wide-ranging collection was augmented during the British and US occupation of Iceland during WW2 and the Cold War. In addition to tools, farming implements and fishing equipment, his interest in aviation led to the acquisition of the semi-dismantled remains of a US Navy Douglas DC-3 aircraft from the Keflavík Airbase and a Russian Antonov AN-2 biplane (see below right) with Aeroflot markings which landed nearby on some dubious mission. The museum also shows a 1949 black and white film of the rescue by local farmers of the stranded crew of the British trawler Dhoon from Fleetwood which had run aground at the foot of the Látrabjarg cliffs during a severe snowstorm in December 1947. The rescue teams from Hvallátur and Breiðavík abseiled down the 300m cliffs using skills learned from egg gathering, fired a line to the stricken trawler, hauled the surviving crew ashore by breaches-buoy, and managed to lift them back up the cliff. This incredible rescue gained national attention, and a documentary film was made the following year with the farmers re-enacting the rescue. During the filming however another British trawler, Sargon also ran aground nearby in Patreksfjörður, and the rescue mission was repeated to save its crew, providing coincidentally live material for the filming. We chatted with a local lad from Hnjótur (who spoke his English with a marked Scottish accent from time spent in Aberdeen) about the Museum's history, and about Egill Ólafsson's life-long gathering. But time was now pressing; we still had a long drive ahead and, after a quick look at the 2 aircraft, we resumed our journey.
A wet return to Flókalundur Camping: the stretch of narrow dirt road along the Örlygshöfn valley, and around the unstable, rock-fall prone headlands were even worse than ever with constant deep ruts; fortunately we met no on-coming cars. Across the heads of 2 further valleys, and around further shaley headlands, the road dropped down to cross a broader valley-mouth, still as muddy and rutted as ever. One further headland brought us down to cross the sand-dune valley, past the old airstrip and along a better fjord-side stretch finally to re-join the tarmac at a farming settlement. The gusting wind was whipping up breakers on the grey, stormy fjord with driving, misty rain filling the air. Picking up speed, we drove along this final stretch to Ósafjörður and the junction with Route 62. In now pouring rain, we now tackled the steep upward slope, rounding a couple of hairpins and continued ever upward reaching dense cloud-base. The climbing continued, and with visibility almost at zero, it was an uncomfortably eerie feeling advancing ever upwards. The road was raised on an embankment, making the fells to the side invisible against the cloud; all we could see was the semi-visible road ahead advancing upwards. At last the gradient eased across the high Kleifaheiði plateau, and we began the descent into Miklidalur, regaining some visibility as the cloud thinned. Another equally long descent brought us at last down to the Barðaströnd coast by a broad delta estuary, with the rain now pouring more than ever. We hoped the driving rain would serve to wash some of the caked dirt road mud from George's bodywork and wheels, as we picked up speed along the southern coastline. Visibility was still poor with low rain clouds covering the craggy basalt headlands; mist obscured the view across Breiðafjörður and the wind drove breakers and spray onto the shore-line.
With the pouring rain heavier than ever, we continued around the Breiðafjörður coast, rounding a deep bay with forlornly wet farms, past the Brjánslækur ferry terminal from where ferries crossed Breiðafjörður, along the shore of inner Vatnsfjörður, finally reaching the junction with Route 60 and Flókalundur Hotel. We booked into the campsite and drove uphill to find a pitch (see above left). After 24 hours of rain, the campsite was sodden muddy, but we found an empty space near where we had pitched on Tuesday, an apparent age ago in time and space. It was by now 6-45pm and we were exhausted. But we had made it back from Látrabjarg on that dreadful, muddy road and in the worst of weathers. Tonight we should sleep the sleep of kings!
Long drive around the fjord-indented southern coastline of the West Fjords: the rain had stopped the following morning, although it was still very dull (see above left) for today's 120kms drive around the fjord-indented southern coastline of the West Fjords (click here for detailed map of route). Before leaving Flókalundur, we gave George another hose-brushing at the filling station to remove all the Látrabjarg dirt road mud (see above right). The first section of road around rounding Vatnsfjörður and the Hjarðarnes peninsula was newly engineered, tarmaced and wide, and we made good progress around the craggy headland into the bay of Kjalkafjörður. Our map still showed the course of the old gravelled road which passed around the inner head of the fjord. But a new road now cut across part-way along on a causeway-bridge saving a few kms. We continued around the pointed tip of shapely Litlanesfjall, and another new stretch of road cut across the mouth of inner Mjóifjörður, saving further kms of the old road's course into the innermost head of this side-fjord. As we sat eating our sandwich-lunch at a lay-by, we got a message to say that Lucy and Ben had reached home in Adelaide, having completed their 900kms, 9 day wild terrain cycling expedition of the Mawson Trail, a startlingly impressive achievement. We now crossed the head of Kerlingarfjörður; the impressively craggy mountainous profile of the Skálmarnesmúlafjall triangular-shaped peninsula is still connected to the mainland body (but only just) by a narrow tarbert-isthmus which the road crosses to join the old section of road along the shore of Vattarfjörður around its innermost head where dirt roads cut up into the valley to abandoned farms. All along this coastline, the shallow fjords at low tide presented a desolate scene of coastal mud-flats dotted with scattered rocks and seaweed.
Around the next craggy headland, the road followed the shore-line around Skálmarfjörður, and on the far side of its head valley it turned sharply uphill to cross the fell-land heights of Bæjarnesfjall peninsula, descending equally steeply via a hairpin into the head of Kollafjörður. Rounding the fjord's narrow head, we now had the long drive along the whole length of Kollafjörður's eastern shore-line, shelving high above the fjord as we approached its mouth onto the main Breiðafjörður. Reaching the tip of the Skálanesfjall peninsula, the tarmac ended with the start of a 30kms stretch of dirt road whose surface was as rough and rutted as some of the worst we had driven at Látrabjarg. George advanced steadily around the coastal strip of Gufufjörður. Again with low tide, the shallow fjord presented a dismal vista of mud-flats scattered with rocks and seaweed. Around the valley-head, the road climbed steeply to cross the high shoulder of Ódrjúgsháls, descending via hairpins on the far side to the shore of Djúpifjörður. Rounding the narrow valley-head, we could see the steaming waterfall of a geothermal source on the hill-side. The rough, pot-holed dirt road now began a series of hairpins to gain height steeply over the shoulder of the Hjallanáls peninsula. The rough road made some of the most demanding driving of the trip, but this was compounded by the reckless speeding of tourists in hire-cars trying to force a way past. Beginning the steep descent via hairpins on the far side, the skyline vista opening up ahead across the gulf of Þorskafjörður was monumental, dominated by the twin peaks of Vaðalfjöll, an extinct volcano whose outer layers have been eroded away leaving the two basalt plugs. But all our concentration was focussed on the descent, dropping on a severe 15% gradient on the narrow, pot-holed dirt road, shelving in tight curves down to fjord level.
Grettislaug Camping on the Reykhólar peninsula: Route 60 rounded the head of Þorskafjörður and, along the far shore-line, turned inland to reach the Bjarkalundur Hotel. The campsite there was expensive, and the presence of a host of caravans on the forecourt was an additional incentive to move on. We turned off onto Route 607 for the 12kms drive down the Reykanes peninsula around the shore of Berufjörður to reach the scattered village of Reykhólar towards the southern tip. Thankfully the little shop at the filling station was open for us to buy essentials. We knew of 2 campsites at Reykhólar, one of which was jam-packed full of Icelandic holiday-making caravans and trailer-tents. Thankfully the other by the Grettislaug swimming pool was almost empty. Just a few tents occupied the flat, turfed camping area below the swimming pool, which overlooked the moorland spreading out towards the peninsula tip. We quickly secured a good pitch and settled in. Facilities were straightforward but more than adequate with hot water, and showers available in the geothermally heated swimming pool.
It was by now 4-00pm and we settled in (Photo 49 - Reykhólar Camping) (see above left), spread out wet kit to dry in the sunshine and brewed tea. Although not an unduly lengthy, today's drive had been demanding, crossing high land on rough dirt roads, with the additional hazard common throughout Iceland of youngsters in hire-cars driving at excessive speeds on the narrow dirt roads. George's odometer today showed that we had now completed 2,000 miles of driving in Iceland. In contrast with the dreadful weather of the last few days, the air now here at Reykhólar was balmy warm and full of bird song, with a hazy sun shining. We could relax at last. Looking south across the moorland, the skyline vista showed the mountains and glacier of the Skarðsströnd peninsula, and the distant misty outline of Snæfellsnes. This evening we managed to complete a full 11 weeks of cooking suppers still using the first gas cylinder.
A relaxing day in camp, and the birdlife, wild flora and geothermal springs of the Reykhólar peninsula: at last a fine day, and in the balmy air of Reykhólar, we sat out for breakfast at a picnic table (Photo 50 - Breakfast at Reykhólar Camping) (see above right). This morning we booted up and followed the network of paths out across the former meadows, which had now reverted to rough moorland and marshes, to a bird hide on Lake Langavatn. The path was detailed as Route 44 in the Rother Walking Guide to Iceland, which had served us so well this trip. In hazy sunlight, we crossed the wild moorland and found beautiful specimens of Northern Green Orchid (Photo 51 - Northern Green Orchid) (see above right). We were soon seeing Whimbrel perching on mounds and soaring around (Photo 52 - Whimbrel), constantly singing their distinctive call. A Golden Plover perched on the boulder (see above left) (Photo 53 - Golden Plover), joined by a smaller Ringed Plover (Photo 54 - Ringed Plover). We were able to stand quite close for photographs of these attractive and seemingly attention-seeking waders. Our Photo Gallery of Reykhólar's bird-life can be seen on: Whimbrels and Plovers of Reyhólar. Following the wooden peg-markers, we took an indistinct path through the marshes to reach a small area of geothermal springs, where 80~100ºC water bubbled up from the sinter-lined rock crevices (see above left) (Photo 55 - Reykhólar geothermal hot spring). We had seen the steam rising from the springs last evening. Heat-loving vegetation grew in profusion in the marshy ground around the springs, including purple Bugle plants, Grass of Parnassus and Marsh Cinquefoil. Finding a way with difficulty across the marshland, we reached the hide. A fat mother Eider waddled and preened on the bank below the hide, while further out in the lake, Red Throated Divers swam around making their distinctive wailing calls. After a late lunch at camp, we again walked out across the wider area of rough meadows and marshland; Whimbrels constantly flew around, perching on mounds and singing heartily, demanding to be photographed (see left and right) (Photo 56 - Whimbrel). Further out we reached another larger geothermal spring, where boiling water bubbled up from a sinter-lined pool and trickled downhill to the lake amid clouds of steam. Mint plants flourished in the warm, moist ground around the spring, but we could find no trace of the Small Adder's Tongue fern, said to grow here and other geothermal areas of Iceland.
Further out across the marshes to a far corner of Langavatn, Phalaropes darted around in the shallows and Divers swam further out in the lake. Back up at camp, we relaxed in the bright afternoon sunshine with ice-cream from the swimming pool; today was the very first time we had been able to be out without sweaters. Iceland's brief summer had begun at last, and it was a gloriously warm, sunny afternoon and evening as we cooked supper of delicious trout fillets brought from Tálknafjörður. Once the sun dipped however, lighting the craggy hills on the far side of the fjord, the evening inevitably grew chill.
Next edition to be published in due course