Iceland is a unique destination like none other. Despite its prohibitively high costs (transportation, lodging, food & alcohol), Iceland is definitely worth saving up for. Touted as the land of fire and ice, we can attest to this effective marketing campaign. Where else in the world could you wear crampons to hike one of Europe’s biggest glaciers, soak in a volcanic hot spring, and hop on a boat to tour a glacier lagoon full of icebergs all in the same day? This breathtaking land of contrasts and extremes offers some of the most amazing natural vistas we’ve ever been lucky enough to encounter. Iceland really does have the “wow” factor…everything here impresses. We were mesmerized by its countless waterfalls, volcanoes, glaciers, fjords, midnight sunsets, and phenomenal scenery. Every day we’d encounter something that would take our breath away. In fact, the only negative thing we can say about Iceland is its crappy weather! Expect rain and lots of it, and count your blessing on those rare days when you have some sunshine and blue skies. Even though we spent a month soaking up all that Iceland has to offer, we will be back to explore more of this lovely country.
30 June 2014, Monday: It was a 6-hour flight from Dubai to Amsterdam, with our plane arriving at 6 am. Getting downtown was super simple…we caught the train directly from the airport into Centraal Station. 20 minutes later, we were downtown. Even though it had been 15 years since we last visited, Amsterdam was still as pretty as we remembered it with its quaint canals. Lucky for us, the weather was decent, up until we decided to climb up to the top of Westerkerk Tower. At that point, the skies opened up and we had about an hour of torrential downpour. Our freaking timing! Still, the inclement weather made for interesting photos at the top of the tower, and the rain subsided shortly after coming down from the tower. After wandering the canals aimlessly for hours, we were ready for some Chinese food! Zeedijk Street to the rescue. Our lunch of crispy duck, pork and rice hit the spot, and we felt a calorie coma coming on immediately afterwards. We made our way back to the airport and found comfy lounger chairs to crash on, and fell asleep until we had to board our 11 pm flight to Iceland.
1 July, Tuesday: We weren’t sure if we would be able to buy a SIM card at the airport but thankfully Icelandair sold Siminn starter packages (ISK 2000) as part of their duty free. The 3-hour Icelandair flight arrived around midnight. After arrival, we maxed our duty free allowance (24 0.5L beers, 2 bottles of wine, 1 bottle of vodka and 1 bottle of rum) before retrieving our bags. Something to note for midnight flights…there are no customs agents to inspect your bags! We could have gotten away with buying more alcohol or bringing in more than our allotted 3 KG (each) of food. When we made it to the arrival hall, a handsome Blue Car Rental representative was patiently waiting for us despite the late hour. He advised against exchanging too much money at the airport but we just wanted to have some Krona on hand so Robby changed $300 worth. A couple from Canada was also on our flight to get a rental car, so we all loaded into the shuttle for the short ride to the car rental office. Our older model Suzuki Jimny was waiting for us…a lot smaller than we originally thought! The Jimny is a super compact 4×4. No wonder we read comments on the internet stating it was a “toy 4×4” made for the city only! Since we hadn’t paid in advance, we settled our bill ($3320 or ISK 373960 for the month including all extra insurances to include sand/ash and gravel). The rep explained that water crossings were at our own peril (insurance void if anything were to happen), to always have the headlights on, and to be careful of wind when opening the car doors (they sometimes get bent backwards due to the strong force of the wind). He also told us to reconsider our plans as there was a severe weather advisory right now and Landmannalauger might not be the best idea.
After everything was settled, we verified that our new SIM card was able to call to the Blue Card Rental representative and we asked him if he could take us to the nearest grocery store to get some water and basic supplies (gas canister, ramen, bread) before we started the drive to our destination. The 10/11 grocery store had everything we needed except the gas canister. Since it was a 24 hour store, the prices here were high, as expected for the convenience. Even though it was now 1 am, it wasn’t dark out. We made another stop at a gas station on ring road that was still open, and we managed to buy a gas canister that fit our stove…score! The drive was quite rainy so we observed the 90km speed limit on our quest towards Skogar on Rt 1 before turning off on Rt 30, then to Rt 32. By 4 am, we were both pretty tired so we decided to find a place to pull over and get some sleep. We had reached the twin waterfalls (Hjalparfoss Waterfall) and found a nearby pull off where we could rest for a few hours. After covering the windows to make it a bit darker in the car, we both managed to get a few hours of shuteye.
Just before lunch, we woke up and checked out the twin waterfalls, managing to take a few pictures before a massive busload of tourists arrived. After that, we were on a quest to find the waterfalls of Haifoss & Grannifoss but couldn’t despite our best efforts. It appeared that the route might have been marked for ‘staff only’ and not authorized for public use. So we decided to skip it and continue onward to Landmannalauger. The drive out there was pretty straightforward (cross the Sultartangi hydro-electric dam, going onto F26, then F208 and just before arriving in Landmannalaugar, making a right turn to F224). There was a warning sign that advised only 4×4 vehicles could make the journey due to the rough terrain. However, from our observations it was a bit rough but a 2WD car could definitely make it out there as there weren’t any rivers to cross over. The scenery became quite spectacular despite the overcast/drizzly day.
We arrived around 4 pm and parked just before the main river crossing (which didn’t look that bad). After making our way to the camp headquarters on foot, we talked to the warden who showed us a couple of easy hiking trails and suggested a one hour loop that we could do to give us a taste of what Landmannalauger had to offer. First we wanted to set up our tent. Robby decided, for the sake of easily transporting our tent and other gear, to drive the car over the river and he made it with no troubles. Funny enough ours was the only Jimny to even attempt the crossing. We hadn’t set up the tent before so there were some growing pains and it probably took a lot longer than it normally would. After that was all set, we went out on our hike. Too bad the weather wasn’t cooperating as it really looked like a beautiful place to wander through. As it was, with limited visibility, we couldn’t make out the orange hues that Landmannalaugar is so famous for.
The hour hike was fairly easy (except for a little adventure involving Robby’s rain cover deciding to detach from his backpack fly several hundred meters back down the mountain and hide amongst the hillside). Becky’s sharp eye detected the bright red cover drifting across a marsh and Robby spent the next half hour backtracking and returning to where we once were. After the short wet hike, we decided to hit the nearby hot springs to soak in for a bit. It was cold, wet and windy, so we decided to change to our swimsuits before going to the hot spring as there was changing room there and no point in getting our normal clothes wet. Little did we know that making our way there would be freezing and become a mad dash to the warm water awaiting. As it turned out we ended up spending 4 hours here! It was easy to get lulled into a time warp with the warm water cascading over our bodies, everyone soaking up the warmth with the rain pouring around us. Some of our fellow hotspringers had brought their own beers which was a smart idea. By 11 pm, we called it a day and headed over to our tent for some shut eye. The sprint back from the hot springs to our tent was freaking miserable as it was freezing out and we were still dripping wet from our lengthy soak. Despite constant rain since erecting the tent, we hurriedly changed into dry clothes, we found our tent to be perfectly dry on the inside and warm sleeping bags to lure us to sleep (yeah for Marmot and Mountain Hardware!). Fortunately we remembered to pack eye-patches for sleeping because there is no darkness during the summer months in Iceland.
2 July, Wednesday: It was a cold night in the sleeping bag, and because we hadn’t showered after the hot spring, our sleeping bags were full of tiny particles of crud…a good shakeout was definitely in the cards! We woke up and decided that even though it was an overcast, dreary day, we would still make the effort to hike up to the top of Blahnukur. For the first few hours, we were the only two hardy souls who dared to hike up here…the wind was quite strong and the clouds were hanging quite low, voiding the normally amazing vistas that can be seen at Landmannalaugar. We reached the top and it looked like the clouds might separate for a brief moment but luck wasn’t on our side. Instead, we rested with a snickers bar before backtracking down the very same path we had just struggled to hike up. We met 2 other intrepid hikers, but they were continuing further on a larger loop. Down at the base of Blahnukur, we met several other hikers who asked us if the hike was worth it…hard to say. It was whole lot of effort for almost no visibility. Were we glad we did it? Yes, but whether it was worth it is debatable since the visibility was so poor.
So the plan was to make our way to Seljalandsfoss, Skogar and Vik where we intended to camp tonight. But first, we had to get gas, preferably at an N1, Okran or Shell gas station since the camping card came with a slight discount to those chains. The town of Skogar was perfect for our needs. Becky found the camping card at a post office (The card cost us ISK 14900 or about $132) and it entitled us to camp for free at 43 sites throughout Iceland, with the minor ISK 107 overnight tax extra. We calculated that if we used the camping card just 5 times, it would have paid for itself.
Surprisingly, Becky was able to pay for the camping card with Robby’s credit card…the clerk never even asked for any ID to prove the credit card was hers. Imagine that! If someone were to steal our credit card, they could go on a wild spending spree as no one ever checked for ID when swiping the card. An N1 gas station was nearby and here we discovered that our new chip/pin credit card was useless without assistance from an attendant. The pin feature, common throughout Europe would not work for us…very foreboding, as we knew that we’d be hitting lots of remote unmanned gas stations, and without the ability to use this feature, we’d be in a world of hurt. Later on we discovered the joys of the pre-paid card but for now, we just knew that we had to pay the old fashioned way (at the cashier) with a signature. Good thing this N1 was on ring road and a cashier was standing-by.
Driving through Skogar, we spotted the pink pig (aka the “Bonus” Supermarket). We knew that this is the cheapest supermarket in Iceland so we immediately head inside to stock up on some food for the upcoming week. Becky was able to score a cheap pair of woolen gloves (she forgot to pack hers) and the food was not as expensive as we had dreaded. Milk was a reasonable ISK 145, a massive block of cheese ran us just under ISK 1000, and of course we stocked up on ramen noodle (cheap at ISK 29 each). Several cans of tuna, baked beans, peanut butter, honey, cereal, a kettle, plastic Tupperware containers, plastic cups and some sausages rounded out our shopping excursion. Total damage was a reasonable ISK 7512 or about $66.56, which wasn’t too bad considering everything we had bought.
Seljalandsfoss is famous because it is one of the few waterfalls that has a footpath leading directly behind it…being able to walk directly behind the waterfall was amazing! We both donned our wet weather gear as we full anticipated getting soaked from head to toe. With our SLRs in tow, we prayed that our rain jackets would be waterproof enough to keep our cameras dry. Seljalandsfoss lived up to the hype…it was super cool to be able to stroll behind it. There was even a local couple taking wedding photos, which made for an interesting backdrop. Robby had spotted another waterfall from the road (Gljúfurárfoss), which was really cool, as it is known as “Canyon Dweller”. Hidden by a large cliff, it was amazing that Robby was able to spot this gem from Ring Road. After backtracking to Seljalandsfoss, we decided to get the GoPro to take some video of the falls. So back behind the falls we went, getting completely soaked again in the process. After a short period of drying off, we knew the hours of daylight were so long that we decided to make our way to Vik. On the way there, we took a slight detour to find a downed US Navy C47 Skytrain “Dakota” on the beach. Becky had found GPS coordinates for the aircraft at 63 Degrees, 27 Minutes, 34.3 Seconds North and 19 Degrees, 21 Minutes, 52.6 Seconds West, as well as instructions someone had uploaded to the internet. The instructions were pretty darn good, and eventually we happened upon the plane. Here they are:
“Directions to the plane wreck starting at the crossing to Sólheimarjökull. Go east on road 1. The road goes slightly uphill and after a few hundred meters you’ll have a fenced field on your right. When the road goes downhill again the field ends, but the fence continues. A few hundred meters after this point there is an opening in the fence, with a track going back to the field. This is the track to the plane wreck. I think it’s about 2km after the crossing to Sólheimarjökull. The track first goes south along the potato field, then goes south-east (marked by wooden sticks), and then goes south again to the plane.”
Neither of us realized the plane would be so close to the oceanfront. We had about 3 minutes of solitude before a Spanish film crew crashed our party. However, they didn’t stay long and we let them examine the crash first as they quickly zipped in and out. After that, we had the wreck all to ourselves, and were able to clamber in and amongst the remnants of the plane. From here, we continued onward to Vik where we discovered the town’s only supermarket (closed for the day), and the campsite which was a welcome sight. With our camping card, Robby checked in and paid the extra ISK 100 (overnight tax fee rounded down…maybe no one wants to mess with small change?). We found a cozy area semi protected by a barrier of trees to set up our tent, and were happy to discover that the kitchen had a microwave, fridge, toaster, water boiler, etc. Unfortunately, the dining area was packed so we had to wait a while until it cleared out before we could scrounge up a table and chairs to have our dinner. Amazingly, the Vik camp site provided free hot water showers, which was quite welcome after a few days of roughing it. Dinner was a simple affair and we crashed as soon as we had showered, expecting a LONG day tomorrow with the Fimmvörðuháls hike.
3 July, Thursday: After waking up we decided to take advantage of the toaster for some peanut butter and honey sandwiches for breakfast. The water boiler was handy so we brewed up several cups of tea. Today’s plan was to backtrack from Vik to Skogar and leave our carat the parking lot of the waterfall. Despite our best intentions, it took a while to get going so we started the 25 KM Fimmvörðuháls hike later than we would have preferred. In case you don’t know, this hike is rated by National Geographic to be one of the best hikes in the world, especially if you are a waterfall lover. It can be hiked from Thorsmork to Skogar or vice versa, and we opted to start in Skogar and hike towards Thorsmork as the climb to the summit (1000 meter ascent) is more gradual this way (hence an easier hike). The hiking trail goes up from Skogar Waterfall and passes countless waterfalls before continuing up between the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajokull and Mýrdalsjökull. After that, it passes through recently formed lava flow and craters Magni and Móði (named after the sons of Thor, the Norse god of thunder), which were created after the March 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano.
By the time we finally pulled up at the Skogar parking lot, we still had to decide what to pack and what to leave behind so that the load in our packs wasn’t too much to handle. Obviously, we wanted our SLRs to capture the best possible photos and we would need our tent plus sleeping bags. Food and water were also vital, and Becky opted to bring along her hiking poles (bought specifically for this hike!). With our rain covers attached to our backpacks, we geared up and debated whether to wear our rain jackets or not. The sun was peeking out but rain was sporadic throughout the morning.
The beginning of the hike was the toughest as it was an 80 meter climb up the staircase with our heavy packs strapped to our backs. How we envied the folks who were just day trippers! But the top of the Skogar waterfall was in sight and we kept trudging along, knowing that the first 3 hours of the hike skirted alongside numerous waterfalls, following the Skógá river uphill into the interior. Thankfully the amazing views kept our mind off the fact that we were steadily climbing upwards, making our way slowly but surely towards the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajokull and Mýrdalsjökull.
After the 3-hour mark, our path deviated from the picturesque waterfalls. We first had to cross over a bridge, and then entered a more desolate area leading towards the pass between the two glaciers. Our water had run out and the waterfalls were now behind us, but luckily we found a large snow bank and stopped to refill our water bottles from a river running beneath the snow. While freezing cold and refreshing, the water was extremely dirty from the riverbed’s sediments but as thirsty as we were, we gulped it down. About an hour after crossing the bridge, we reached the unserviced A-frame Baldursskali Hut, which was a good stopping point for us to grab a quick lunch of PB and honey sandwiches.
Just beyond the hut, the weather took a turn for the worse, and we hurriedly made our way towards the Fimmvörðuskáli Hut. Robby had discovered that we could slide down the ice hill on our butts, but we later found out that in doing so, we had ripped holes in our waterproof pants. No bueno! Since the weather wasn’t optimal during this stretch, we trudged across the snowy field through the fog without wasting a lot of time. Half of the hikers that had joined us on this hike broke off once we came to the intersection of the Baldvinsskáli and Fimmvörðuskáli Huts, but we followed the signs to Thorsmork and were happy to note that the trail was finally heading downhill. Yay! Plus the weather cleared substantially and when we finally saw our first view of the Thorsmork valley, we were awestruck. Incredibly beautiful, our spirits immediately soared despite our now tired, weary and aching bones. The landscape was awe-inspiring…more beautiful than words can describe. And this despite the crap weather! As the terrain transformed before us while we continued along our hike, we couldn’t help but snap countless photos from various angles. There were also a couple of day-trippers that took a helicopter ride to the top. We figured that was cheating as they got amazing views with minimal effort. But we were sure they must have paid a premium price for the ride.
Just as we were getting ready to continue for the next leg of the hike, a terrified hiker begged us for assistance getting down a steep slope leading down towards the Morinsheiði Plateau that we could see in the distance. We tried to help her but she refused to follow any directions, and we were dumbfounded that she had been able to make it this far in the journey all alone. She was too scared to take a step forward and refused to scooch down on her butt. She kept crying and pleading for help but we were wasting way too much time trying to assist while other hikers easily passed us by like nimble gazelles. After wasting about 30 minutes trying to ease her fears and urge her to take baby steps, Robby broke contact by sliding down the snowfield on his butt while Becky finally lost her shit with the woman and reverted to drill sergeant mode, figuring that yelling at the woman might have more impact that soothing her with kind words. In the end, we simply abandoned her. The constant whining, crying and sniveling was just too much to bear and we wished her good luck as we ambled down the steep slope without her. Fortunately, Robby did see here a few hours later when she arrived at the campsite, but avoided further contact with her, as we had our share of her drama.
For many hikers, the uphill portion of the hike should be harder, but it was actually the downhill portion that scared us and required more attention, as there were a few tricky spots to maneuver and it would have been so easy to accidentally slip on a loose a rock and go tumbling down. Slow and steady was our motto and we had the amazing vistas of Thorsmork valley to keep our minds off our increasingly aching bodies. We descended into Thorsmork along the Kattarhyggir ridge (“Cat’s Spine” ridge), and just couldn’t believe how scenic everything was. It was almost like we were in a delirious state where the 360 degree panorama was simply so beautiful it could bring tears to your eyes. When the campsite of Básar finally came into view, we rejoiced a little and got an extra spring in our step for the final couple of kilometers. Several hikers were just starting their journey from Thorsmork up to Skogar, and we looked at them in pity as the weather had turned yet again, and they were faced with some serious rain coupled with an extreme rise in elevation. No doubt about it…we were so glad that we were hiking downhill towards Thorsmork and not uphill. The steep slope leading down to the Thorsmork valley would absolutely have kicked our butts if we had attempted it in reverse, and we thanked our lucky stars that we started the 25KM hike in Skogar.
Once at the campsite, Becky threw down her pack while Robby did the right thing and searched for the camp warden to pay our overnight camping fees. Honestly, it would have been so easy to just sneakily erect our tent as none of the tents had Thorsmork stickers and it would have been impossible to know who had paid or not, but we had a healthy conscience doing the right thing. To our surprise, the camping fee does not include a hot shower, or hot water of any kind! That would have cost us an extra ISK 400 more (per person) and we opted for a wet wipe shower instead. After wearily setting up our tents and refilling our water bottles, we discovered to our dismay that we had forgotten to pack the camping stove. Raw ramen noodles for dinner! Yum. We were both so physically wiped from the day’s efforts that neither of us cared too much about food and just simply crashed in our sleeping bags. It had taken us 12 long hours (including 30 minutes trying to help the damsel in distress) and we were completely exhausted, each having lugged a 25-30 lb pack on our backs for the entire journey.
4 July: Happy Independence Day! We slept in late this morning, with no real agenda except to catch the afternoon bus from Thorsmork to Skogar (via Seljalandsfoss). Since we neglected to bring the stove, thoughts of hot tea for breakfast vanished, especially after Robby ran all around camp to see if he could suss out some hot water with no luck. Bummer! So we each had a snickers bar, vowing to have a proper meal tonight in Vik. The sun was shining, so we decided to dry some of our damp gear, to include the boots we had worn the day before. It felt quite liberating to don our sandals and we decided to do an easy hike around the campsite, checking out the Krossa glacial river crossing that Thorsmork is so famous for. Apparently, cars get stuck in the river by inexperienced drivers all the time. The river crossing itself is no joke and should only be attempted by experienced drivers with an appropriate 4×4 vehicle. As was constantly reminded to us, any river crossing that results in a mishap will void out any and all car insurance, leaving the renter fully liable for all vehicular damages. We had seen photos and YouTube videos of cars that had attempted the crossing, only to get stuck halfway. What a way to ruin a vacation! To our dismay, we didn’t get a chance to see any vehicles attempting the river crossing but we sure did enjoy the sunshine. After yesterday’s hike, it felt great to have a lazy morning to stretch out our sore legs. The afternoon bus departs Thorsmork at 1500. When it arrived at around 1330, Robby tried to buy tickets but was told that he could purchase them as we boarded the bus with all of our gear. Fair enough. After procrastinating as long as possible, we finally packed our gear and tore down the tent before making our way towards the camp warden office where the bus was parked.
One-way tickets from Thorsmork to Skogar cost us ISK 5500 each on the Reykjavik Excursions bus, but the ease of mind of not having to deal with the river crossings was worth it. To our surprise, the bus was packed to maximum capacity. From the Basar campsite in Godaland, we crossed the Krossa River to reach the Langidalur campsite in Thorsmork. There, a massive French group boarded the bus (an extra Reykjavik Excursions bus had been hired specially to transport half of the group, with the other half squeezing into the empty seats on our bus). A staff member from the Langidalur campsite drove a tractor trailer into the river to show the bus drivers the safest way to cross back over…even in a big bus, we could feel the pull of the river and were quite glad not to have to worry about tackling the river crossing ourselves. We made several more Thorsmork pickups (to include the Volcano Huts) before finally making our way out of the beautiful Thorsmork Valley. Once on a proper road, it was a short drive to Seljalandsfoss. We originally thought that we would have to get off and switch buses at Hvolsvollur, but our driver kept insisting that we disembark at Seljalandsfoss. When we asked what time the next bus would arrive for pickup, he simply shrugged his shoulders to indicate he hadn’t a clue. Not a great feeling! However, we did find bus schedules taped to the outside of the bathroom hut at Seljalandsfoss and figured out that the bus to Skogar would arrive around 1900. So we had an hour to kill. Something to keep in mind at the open air bus stops is that in the event of inclement weather, there is absolutely no place to go to get away from the elements (unless you decided to hang out in one of the toilet huts themselves!). It started drizzling and we crossed our fingers that it wouldn’t start to pour down with rain. Thankfully, the drizzle was light but the wind was kicking.
At 1900, we started scanning the horizon for the bus and at 1910, we were happy to see a large vehicle that looked like a bus make the turnoff from Ring Road towards the waterfall. It was our bus, and we quickly got the driver’s attention and loaded up our bags. Two passengers asked the driver how long they had at the Seljalandsfoss stop (they wanted to take a quick wander behind the waterfall). He mumbled something about 10 minutes but since the bus was already 10 minutes late, he took off right away, stranding the two passengers. Thankfully, they were able to call the Reykjavik Excursions headquarters who called the bus driver on the radio to tell him to turn around to pick them up…all in all, a 20 minute detour once the discovery was made. We were quite shocked to realize what had happened and it made us extremely conscious to be on time for any future Reykjavik Excursion buses!
Eventually, we pulled up into the Skogar parking lot where we grabbed our backpacks and found our car nestled at the edge of the crammed parking lot. Since we were more focused on our hike than checking out the Skogar waterfall yesterday, we made a quick detour to see the 60 meter waterfall up close. It is quite an impressive sight, with the waterfall completely visible from Ring Road. We found it impossible to get up close without getting completely soaked. We snapped a couple of photos but as it was a dreary, overcast afternoon, the waterfall looked much more impressive in the sun yesterday morning before we started our hike. We drove onward towards the Vik campsite, stopping briefly at Vik’s Kjarval supermarket where we bought some meat and milk (we later found out that while we thought we were eating beef, “hrossasaltkjot” is actually “salted horse meat.” It made no difference to us as ultimately, we were starving and the meat tasted just fine, albeit a bit salty!).
Vik campsite was a welcome sight, as we knew that free hot water showers awaited us. First it was dinner time, and we enjoyed our first hot meal in 2 days. The Vik campsite offers laundry services (ISK 400 each for washer and dryer). We decided that it was time for our first load of laundry as our clothes were quite grungy, having been worn for several days in a row now. Unfortunately, the power cut out on us twice, and we had to reset the washing machine to start from the beginning each time. Anyone who has used a European washer knows that it takes forever…with the frequent power outages, it took us well over 2 hours to wash our clothes. It was nearing midnight by the time our laundry hit the dryer, so we were up for the most amazing sunset. The sky above Vik first turned a magnificent shade of bright red, and then pinks and purples colored the skyline…it was brilliant. We frantically hopped in our Jimny for the short ride up to Vik church, hoping to catch a bit of the magnificent sunset by the lupine surrounded church. It was quite a spectacular sight and definitely worth staying up late to see. By the time we headed back to the campsite our laundry was almost dry and we hung out for another twenty minutes to ensure that we had clean clothes to kick off the next segment of our trip, a detour out to the Westman Islands!
5 July, Saturday: We wanted to visit the Westman Islands because our friends from our Antarctic trip (Mike & Andrea Morelock) suggested it, and a visit sounded intriguing after our initial research revealed titillating tidbits about the island. The biggest draw was the remnants from the 1973 eruption of Eldfell volcano. Apparently, it transformed the entire island overnight. Today, Heimaey has entire blocks of houses buried beneath the lava, while new buildings have sprouted against the cooled lava flow. The eruption did lead to an increase in the size of the island, and the US Army Corps of Engineers assisted the islanders to save their harbor, using massive hoses to spray ocean water against the lava flow. It was vital for this mission to be successful, because if the entranceway to the harbor were to be sealed by the lava flow, the island would have become uninhabitable as the harbor is a vital passageway linking the Westman Islands to the mainland. Amazingly, only one person died during the eruption and the entire island was evacuated within 24 hours! The other bit of information we learned about the Westman Islands is that the orca (Keiko) made famous from the movie “Free Willy” was able to spend the last few years of his life (from 1998 to 2003) here at Heimaey, which must have been such a shock after having spent the previous 20 years of his life in captivity. Anyone who watches the documentary “Blackfish” would rejoice to know that even though Keiko didn’t survive too long after his release, at least the last years of his life were spent hanging around the gorgeous oceans surrounding the Westman Islands.
We drove from Vik towards the Landeyjahofn (Bakki) harbor to catch the Eimskip Ferry to Vestmannaeyjar (Westman Islands). It was a clear day and we could easily see the outline of the island from Ring Road. Since the Morelocks had advised us to get tickets in advance (they tried to purchase twice at ferry terminal during their trip and were denied both times because it was fully booked), we had gone online to get our ferry tickets a couple of weeks ago. The round trip price for 2 adults and our Suzuki Jimny came out to a reasonable ISK 9100 with our departure at 10 am, arriving at Heimaey a mere 35 minutes later. The passage was quite windy but everyone stood on the deck to watch as we cruised into the harbor. Despite it being a sunny day, the wind was viciously strong, making the temperature seem a lot colder than it really was.
When boarding the ferry, only the driver can remain with the vehicle so we had to split up, with Becky snagging seats in the crowded restaurant area while Robby waited his turn to drive onto the ferry. The ferry was packed with tourists and locals alike. We hadn’t realized that tonight, the island was hosting a local festival celebrating the end of the eruption. Every year, the festival is held on the Saturday following 3 July (the day in 1973 when the eruption was officially declared at an end). From what the locals told us, this is the most popular weekend for former islanders to come back home for a visit. Needless to say, the ferry was packed with people from the main island coming over to join in all the fun. After arriving at the Island of Heimaey, we disembarked and decided our top priority was to find the campsite. After driving around for a bit before finally figuring out where the campsite was (next to the golf course in the middle of the Herjólfsdalur volcanic crater). We looked for, but couldn’t find anyone in charge to pay the camping fee. The kitchen was very nice and fully stocked (no shoes allowed inside the building). Overall, it was a great first impression at the campsite. Facilities included hot water shower (free), washer/dryer, bathrooms, lots of outlets to charge electronics, fully stocked kitchen with stove, toaster, and water boiler.
We ate lunch before heading back into town to visit the tourist information office to get a map and an idea of things to see and do. The teenaged volunteer working at the tourist information suggested that we check out the Saeheimar Aquarium, hike up Eldfell Volcano, drive over to Storhofdi to see a puffin colony, and party tonight down by the harbor with all the locals. Other suggestions included a visit to the Scandinavian stave church, a Ribsafari tour on a RIB (rigid inflatable boat), and a visit to the Eldheimar volcano museum. Since the weather was sunny (but super windy), we decided to head over to Skansinn, the area where the lava flow stopped in 1973. Skansinn was originally built as a fortification (to include cannons) to protect the island against Algerian pirates in the 1600s. For some reason this is known as the Turkish Invasion. Apparently, the invaders were originally thought to be Turkish. One of the oldest houses on this island is located here. Originally built in 1848, Landlyst housed Iceland’s first maternity hospital. Today, is has been converted into a medical museum. Nearby, there is a Norse timber church which was a gift from the people of Norway. This stave church was built in the year 2000, a replica of the Haltdalen stave church which was originally built in the 1170s. Near the church, we got to see how far the lava flow had reached during the 1973 eruption of Eldfell Volcano. On the eastern edge of town, we hiked up a huge section of the 1973 lava field, complete with memorial plaques indicating which of the town’s buildings are buried beneath our feet.
Afterwards, the aquarium beckoned but as we entered, a large group of adults and young children showed up, deterring us from visiting at that moment. The thought of being penned up in a tiny building with screaming, uncontrollable kids? No thanks! Instead, we noted that the entry fee was ISK 1000 and the aquarium would be open daily from 1100 – 1700, so we figured we could make a second attempt tomorrow. Next was a drive to the other end of the island. We figured it would be easy…follow the signs to the airport since it was at the midway point on our map. Not realizing that the airport is built with a looping road, we kept circling back and ending up in town, before we realized that we did NOT want to head towards the airport after all. Eventually we made it to Europe’s windiest point, the top of Stórhöfði. True to its reputation, the wind was blowing relentlessly, forcing us to retreat downhill slightly. It is said that there are only four days of calm in an average year and honestly, after our first experience here, we believe it. Just downhill from Stórhöfði, we parked our car and hiked over to the puffin viewing platform. The wind was howling and it felt as if we could be blown away. Not a good day to view puffins (commonly referred to as the “clown of the sea”), even though several dozen of them were zipping around outside. The hut is built for photographers, but we found the conditions to be too difficult to take any photos. The puffins are a good 30 to 50 meters away, constantly zooming in and out of their burrows. Even with our zoom lenses, it was impossible to get a good shot so we simply watched the puffins in amusement. The views from the southern end of the island were absolutely fantastic. Red seaweed has washed ashore, giving the black sand beaches the appearance of being red. Coupled with a blue sky, the scenery was magnificent. We debated whether to hike up Eldfell volcano as it was extremely windy. The wind kicking up red volcanic particles was dissuading us from attempting the 20-minute hike to the top of the volcano but we finally decided to do it. It was a great call. We had the entire top of the volcano to ourselves (the extra strong wind apparently discouraged everyone else from attempting the climb), and the 360-degree views from the top were astounding in the late afternoon light.
After sliding back down the volcano, we headed back into Heimaey to check out the area being set up for the festival later tonight. Preparations were under way and everyone was hoping for the weather to hold up for a huge turnout tonight. We returned to the campsite only to find that the number of tents had increased exponentially since we had first arrived. Everyone was planning to camp out and party tonight! After preparing dinner, we hung out in the kitchen’s dining room area with all the other campers. One corner of the room had been taken over by some loud, boisterous, fun-loving Icelandic girls. They had convinced an American girl to join their drinking game, which consisted of downing large quantities of alcohol while stripping down to their undies. We couldn’t figure out the rules to the game but it sure looked like fun. At 11 pm, we swung back downtown to see if the party was starting yet but it was dead quiet. Someone mentioned that nothing would become lively until about 2 am so we decided to call it a day. Despite half the campers joining in the revelry downtown, it was a relatively quiet night as people passed out silently after drinking and dancing their butts off into the wee hours of the morning.
6 July, Sunday: It was a glorious morning with the sun shining. The relentless wind that blew all day yesterday had finally subsided. Robby grabbed a quick shower before the morning crowd awoke, but most revelers seemed content to sleep in. After a leisurely breakfast, we packed up our gear and broke down the tent. Our first stop was to the Saeheimar Aquarium, which was empty when we arrived just after 11 am. The ISK 1000 entrance fee is not good value when you consider it is a miniscule “aquarium” with just two rooms of displays. However, we got to meet and play with Tori, a 3 year old orphaned puffin that has been rescued and adopted by the caretakers of the aquarium. Our interaction with Tori was definitely worth the entrance fee…where else in the world can you play with an absolutely adorable baby puffin? Tori took a liking to the fleshy bits of Becky’s hand and kept pinching them with his beak. It felt like Tori thought fish would magically appear if he pecked long and hard enough. Robby offered his hand to see if Tori could be lured away but was spurned. Tori was definitely smitten with Becky’s hand, which resulted in countless giggles as he nibbled away. The caretaker told us that Tori is allowed free reign of the aquarium but is in danger of roaming cats. Just yesterday, a cat had made it all the way to the top of the staircase before being discovered. Tori wouldn’t last a minute with a cat; he is too gentle, soft and vulnerable. With smiles beaming from ear to ear, we thanked the kindly caretakers for allowing us a magical 30 minutes of playtime with Tori before stepping out into the sunshine and seeing what else we could do with the rest of our day.
It was around lunchtime when we met a representative from Ribsafari. An American family in line ahead of us had just booked a special 2 hour tour for later that day, and there were still slots available if we wanted to join in. We were even offered a discount to entice us…the 1 hour tour was advertised for ISK 8000, but the 2 hour tour was on offer for only ISK 11500 (about $100 each). We were reassured that we would be thrilled with the trip so we agreed to join the afternoon tour. Told to be back by 3:30 pm to get fitted for our suits, our tour would start at 4 pm and we’d be back sometime around 6 pm, with plenty of time to catch our 8:30 pm ferry back to Bakki. Since we had a few hours to kill, we headed back to the campsite to have a warm lunch. Amazingly, there was still no camp staff around to collect payment for our overnight stay. Everyone that had crashed at the campsite over the weekend would have been able to stay for free! Since the kitchen had four stovetops, we decided to cook up a batch of pasta and sauce, eating half for lunch and saving the other half for lunch tomorrow. And someone had donated a half used canister of butane…score! Westman Campsite quickly became our #1 campsite in Iceland, just because its layout can’t be beat and it has excellent facilities.
After lunch, we drove over to “Pompeii of the North”, a newly opened museum called Eldheimar. This excellent volcano museum showcases what happened to the island on 23 January 1973. On display are the ruined remains of a home that have been uncovered from the ash and lava flow. Plans to expand the museum as more homes are uncovered are in the works, but for now, the current exhibits are fantastic. Entry was a bit pricey at ISK 1900 each but we both enjoyed the guided audio tour through the museum. Anyone visiting the Westman Islands who wants to better understand and appreciate what the locals were faced with on that fateful day in 1973 would be well served visiting this museum. Since it was still so sunny and warm outside, we decided to take a nap on the grassy field just outside Eldheimar. Such a perfect day! It was hard to imagine how bitterly cold the wind was yesterday as today was simply perfect, weather wise. And the day got even better.
We arrived to Ribsafari to suit up, and saw that the company has absolutely no problems filling all its available seats. A group of Icelanders were given the first 6 rows of 2 seats in the front of the boat, with all the Americans banished to the rear of the boat in the 3 seat section. At first we were a bit put off by this arrangement until we realized that we were able to easily hop out of our seats to take photos…so sitting in the rear of the boat was actually much better, photography wise. Ribsafari did not disappoint. We zipped all around the Westman Islands (Brandur, Hellisey, Sudurey, Alsey, Sulnasker) and saw thousands of birds nesting up above. There were several pairs of seals surfing in the distance but they would dive down into the water quickly as our boat approached. The island of Sulnasker with its sea cave was especially cool as we were able to cruise underneath the island. Birdlife was spectacular, with tons of gannets, puffins, black birds, seagulls, and sea ravens. As an added bonus, the crew asked us if anyone had a tight schedule. When we are murmured that we were on holiday (thus at their disposal), our driver offered to take us out to the island of Surtsey, which is one of the youngest islands in the world. It was formed 50 years ago (from an eruption in 1963) and only scientists have been allowed to inhabit the island as they are observing how life forms on a newly created island. We were thrilled…the ride out to Surtsey meant more time on the water which gave us an even greater chance to see killer whales that inhabit the waters surrounding Heimaey. And lucky for us when we ran into pods of killer whales! It was spectacular…dozens of orcas all around us, some getting precariously close to our boat. We were allowed to hop around to take photos and it was really magical seeing all the orcas swimming by without a care in the world. Definitely much better than the spectacle on display at Sea World! The American family traveling with us had a member of their party (grandpa) celebrating his birthday and what a perfect outing for him! Everyone raved at our good luck…our guides even told us that they had only seen the orcas on 4 outings so far, with ours being one of them. It was brilliant. This was the perfect way to end our visit to the spectacular Westman Islands.
Before pulling back onto the Eimskip Ferry, we decided to top off our gas. Again, our pin/chip credit card didn’t work on the machine, but we did discover the joy of buying a prepaid gas card (which can be purchased in increments of ISK 3000, 5000 or 10000), so stocking up on gas cards was added to our “to do” list. After refueling, we waited around until we were able to board the ferry for the uneventful 30 minute ride back to Landeyjahofn. From there, it was a short ride to Skogar, where we realized we had neglected to visit the Skogar turf house museum. Since it was well after 9 pm when we arrived, we were able to check out the open air museum for free, which suited us just fine as we quickly zipped in and out as it started to rain. From Skogar, it was a relatively short drive towards Vik. We wanted to see Vik’s Reynisfjall Beach (famous for its “trolls” petrified in sea). However, we never made it there, detouring instead to the peninsular of Dyrholaey, with its gigantic lava arch standing in the sea and hundreds of puffins nestled in the cliff faces. It was spectacular…even during dusk. We hung out until midnight, amused by the puffins who were settling in for the night. Some of them were close enough for us to touch, but we left them alone, satisfied at just watching their antics. It was well after midnight by the time we pulled into Vik’s campsite. We quickly set up our tent as quietly as possible (pretty impossible with a noisy tyvek groundsheet to contend with), and crashed for a few hours. Since neither one of us had our fill of puffins just yet, we made an agreement to wake up by 5 am if it wasn’t raining so we could backtrack and see the puffins again in the early morning light.
7 July, Monday: It was with a sigh of relief when we realized that it was pouring with rain at 5 am. That meant we could catch a couple extra hours of shuteye. Today’s destination wasn’t originally on our itinerary, but we had seen a blurb about it on one of the Reykjavik Excursion brochures and figured it looked interesting enough to add. Lakigigar is described as a 25 KM long volcanic fissure made up of over 100 craters. It erupted back in 1783 – 1784 for about 8 months and did so much devastation that 25% of Iceland’s population was decimated. The rest of the world didn’t fare too well either as estimates of 6 million deaths are blamed on this cataclysmic event. It is even suggested that due to the years of famine and poverty following this event, Lakigigar indirectly led to the French Revolution! We wanted to drive the F206 road by ourselves but all the guidebooks cautioned that without a proper 4×4, we shouldn’t attempt the drive. Instead, another option would be to catch a Reykjavik Excursion bus from the N1 station of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, daily in the summer at 0900. With that in mind, we got up to have breakfast before tearing down our tent and driving towards Kirkjubaejarklaustur. The weather looked promising, and we crossed our fingers that it would hold up for today’s hiking excursion. The drive on ring road was uneventful and we left with plenty of time to get to the N1 gas station without rushing. Since lunch was a “do-it-yourself” suggestion, we packed some snacks to munch on as well as plenty of water.
To our surprise, plenty of other tourists had gathered at the N1 gas station…apparently, Laki is quite a popular summertime excursion! Our tickets cost us ISK 24000 (about $211 for both of us), and we sure hoped that it would be worth the considerable expense. The bus quickly filled up, and we left the station at 9 am sharp. Our first stop was at the picturesque Fjadrargljufur canyon. This was an easy stop for everyone as it’s a short hike to the top of the canyon. 2 KM long and 100 meters deep, the canyon sure does impress. We only had a short 30 minutes here, but it was sufficient to get a quick overview of the area. Back on the bus, we bounced around as we headed deeper into the interior, with a recording playing at set intervals giving us the history of Laki and the surrounding area. Both of us can sleep anytime, anywhere, and despite the rough ride, our heads were bouncing about as we snoozed on the journey to Laki. To be honest, the guidebooks definitely use scare tactics to make their readers petrified at driving themselves into the interior. Here is an example of their warning: “The road to Laki is a rough mountain road and vehicles must cross rivers on fords that swell in heavy rain. Normal 4×4 vehicles are often in trouble when crossing the rivers. No insurance covers damage to a rental car when crossing rivers.” Since we had several guide books, we cross referenced them and none of them recommended a self-drive. However, in retrospect, this journey could easily have been accomplished in our Suzuki Jimny. In fact, we got overtaken by a couple of Jimneys, much to our chagrin! It was obvious that despite the warning that this was such a tough journey, we definitely could have tackled this journey on our own. Lesson learned…we vowed not to repeat the same mistake when heading up north to visit Askja.
By noon, we had arrived at Laki Mountain. Laki is smack dab in the middle of the row of craters and it is an easy 45-50 minute hike to its summit. From the top, we had a fantastic 360 degree panoramic view of the craters and surrounding landscape. Brilliant! And the weather was cooperating with us, so we were quite pleased at the way the day was turning out. The bus driver had given us all 90 minutes of free time at Laki. Since we had already observed passengers being left behind at Seljalandsfoss by a different Reykjavik Excursions driver, we knew that we had to be on time. As it turned out, we were the first ones to summit Laki. Seeing how the rest of the passengers were straggling far behind, we took our time on the descent and had a picnic lunch in the parking lot before boarding the bus for the next segment of our journey. Only 15 minutes away, the next stop was Tjarnargígur, which is an interesting crater as its one of the few in the Laki chain to be filled with water! A park ranger informed us that there was an easy 1 hour walk from the crater to the end of a trail, following the same exact path that the lava took. Conveniently, our bus would meet us at the end of the trail, so no need to backtrack. It was an easy and scenic hike and we soaked up the beautiful weather. Fantastic day!
Back on the bus, we made one final stop at the Fagrifoss waterfall before returning to the N1 gas station. Even though it was an expensive day trip (and we could have saved a ton of $$ driving ourselves), we were glad that we included Laki as the surrounding scenery really is breathtaking on a beautiful day. Had the day been overcast, we wouldn’t have been as thrilled, but everything worked out perfect for us. The town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur had a supermarket and a gas station so we bought another ISK 10000 gas card (gas in Iceland is super pricey…a full tank of gas was easily costing us ISK 8000), and bought some groceries for dinner tonight. Continuing on Ring Road, we headed towards the UNESCO world heritage site of Nupsstadur turf houses and church. Shockingly, at the turn off to Nupsstadur church/turf houses, there was a sign on the closed gate stating this was on private property, and no trespassing was allowed. However, we had read beforehand that the sign only applied to the owner’s farm which is set behind the turf houses and church. We can only imagine the countless tourists who see the “no trespassing” sign and venture no further! We parked beside the gate and hiked up the owner’s driveway, praying that there were no guard dogs protecting the property. Can you imagine a UNESCO world heritage site with this kind of reception? Only the determined few will make it there. The circa 1650 turf chapel is set in a scenic location. No surprise to learn that it is one of the few remaining turf churches in Iceland. It was a worthwhile stop and we were glad that the sign hadn’t deterred us.
Since there was still plenty of daylight left, we decided to drive on, heading towards Skaftafell National Park. Our destination? The beautiful hexagonal columned Svartifoss waterfall! We hadn’t realized that it is located inside the national park, with a short 1.5 KM uphill hike to reach it (about 45 minutes each way). Well worth a stop, we lucked out and had the entire waterfall area to ourselves…for about 10 minutes. Svartifoss is probably the most popular attraction in Skaftafell Park, and there was a constant flow of visitors even though it was nearing 9:30 pm by the time we left. Our goal was to drive towards Jokulsarlon ice lagoon, with a campsite of Lambhus in mind. It was supposed to be 30 KM from Hofn, and we thought we could spend the night there and back track to Jokulsarlon the next day. However, we had been going strong for a few days now and the lack of sleep and food made us both grumpy. We couldn’t find the Lambhus campsite and it felt like we had been driving for hours. Unable to take it anymore, we finally pulled over at a rest stop and decided to crash in the Jimny for the night, reclining our seats as far back as they could go. A hot meal on the stove improved morale greatly, and we laughed that we had wasted so much gas by trying to find the campsite. We definitely should have just slept overnight in the parking lot of Jokulsarlon since we were headed right back there first thing in the morning!
8 July, Tuesday: Last night, we had unwittingly driven a fruitless 40 KM past Jokulsarlon lagoon looking for the Lambhus campsite so it took a while to backtrack this morning. It was an overcast morning with just a hint of rain, so we drove quickly to the ice lagoon and prayed that the rain would hold off for at least an hour or so. At the restroom of a café/souvenir shop at Jokulsarlon ice lagoon, we hopped in to wash our dishes from last night and fill up our water bottles. The most amazing thing about water in Iceland is that it really doesn’t matter what the source is…all of it has been clean, pure, fresh drinkable water. Iceland is part of a handful of countries in the world where you’d be considered an absolute idiot if you willingly bought bottled water. We did on day 1 (just to get a large 1.5L water bottle) and had been reusing that same water bottle ever since, refilling at countless rest stops, rivers, and campsites along the way. So what is Jokulsarlon and why had we made a special effort to stop by here? It’s a large glacial lake at the southeast edge of the Vatnajokull National Park. It is one of the rare natural wonders of the world where icebergs can be easily seen on a regular basis. In fact, amphibian boat tours are on offer here, giving tourists a chance to get up close and personal with the icebergs. Jokulsarlon is considered Iceland’s deepest lake, and it has actually increased exponentially over the past few decades as a result of the melting of the nearby Breidamerkurjokull glacier (from which the icebergs calve from). The icebergs of Jokulsarlon have a relatively short life span…they are all eventually carried out to sea where they end up melting. Photographers love this ice lagoon as the icebergs have interesting shades of color ranging from baby blue to milky white. Also, the sea inevitably washes up chunks of the melting iceberg onto a black sand beach, making for interesting photos. We stayed here for well over an hour, only retreating to our jimny when the rain that had threatened to downpour all morning long finally let loose. While driving out of the parking lot, we stumbled upon an artic tern colony. These migrating birds had literally taken over an entire field just adjacent to the ice lagoon. Locally known as “kria” (a name derived from the piercing alarm call that these birds make to alert others of any potential predators), the artic terns started dive bombing us with regularity, trying to force our jimny away from their nests. Despite their small size, the terns are absolutely fearless and we hurriedly drove away from their stronghold.
After one week in South Iceland, we finally started our drive towards East Iceland. Our destination today was Djupivogur, which is a quaint village on the eastern fjords, famous for its egg stones lining the waterfront. We were debating whether or not to include a trip to Papeyjarferdir (Papey “Puffin” Island), which is a 4 hour roundtrip boat tour departing at 1 pm from the Djupivogur harbor. However, we had neglected to factor in the back and forth driving to/from Jokulsarlon, and there was no way we were going to make it to Djupivogur before the afternoon tour departed. As it was, we had a spectacular day’s drive enjoying the Eastern Fjords of Iceland. The sun was out, the clouds were high on the horizon, and the scenery unfolding around the fjords was quite pretty. Thankfully, there were several pull offs, and we took advantage of them to snap a couple photos of Iceland’s rugged east coast scene. Djupivogur has a quaint little harbor area and we thought the stone eggs on the waterfront were pretty cool. They are a total of 34 large scale stone eggs (each egg representing one of the 34 different bird species found in this area). Of course we simply had to climb on top of them and strike a pose!
From Djupivogur, we started the dizzying back and forth and back and forth drive through the fjords. We were headed to Eskifjordur, and enroute drove past Berufjordur, Stodvarfjordur, Faskrudsfjordue, and Reydarfjordur before finally reaching our destination. The towns hugging the coastline of the fjords are all built right at the base of the fjords. We thought it looked pretty cool to see all the houses nestled together at the bottom of a towering fjord looming hundreds of meters above the community. Eskifjordur is a one-horse town. We found the miniscule camp site and set up our tent. There was no caretaker to be seen, just some basic facilities (free hot water showers, toilets, sinks, running water and a couple of electrical outlets). The other campers told us that if the caretaker came by, he would collect the fee but if not….free night’s camping! Gotta love Iceland. Our guidebook mentioned a pizza place down the street so we hurriedly rushed there as some pizza was sounding mighty good to us. Of course, the pizza place closed down long ago. So, a home-cooked meal of ramen and sausages was going to have to suffice! Good thing we had stocked up on food before reaching Eskifjordur, since its sole supermarket had closed already by 6 pm. In fact, everything in Eskifjordur was shuttered up and this sleepy town did not have a lively vibe. We ended up breaking open our duty free alcohol and had a little party in the children’s playground of the campsite (no children were around). After our hot showers, we called it an early night, sleeping quite blissfully at the tiny campsite.
9 July, Wednesday: Another gorgeous day in Iceland! We awoke to sunny skies and a crisp temperature. After breakfast, we broke down our camping gear and packed up for the day. On today’s agenda was a drive up to Borgarfjörður Eystri (Bakkageroi) for puffins! But first a detour to Eskifjordur’s fish-freezing plant where we had spotted a socialist style mural yesterday. After snapping a quick photo, we were on our way. It was a pleasant drive up to Bakkageroi. The road was mostly paved except for two long sections of dirt road. Signs cautioning us of the transition from paved to dirt road were prominently displayed. The dirt roads are pothole ridden, so we definitely had to reduce our speed on those sections of the road. By noon, we had reached the puffin colony. Knowing that we were likely to spend hours watching the puffins, we opted to have a quick lunch before heading up to the lookout platform.
The residents of Borgarfjörður Eystri (all 100 of them) know quite well how popular their town is to tourists. As a result, they have built a fantastic observation platform (at Hafnarhólmi ) so that visitors can get up close to the puffins without disturbing their burrows. The Icelandic word for puffin is “lundi”, and we saw hundreds of them. We were happily surprised to see that we were within mere meters of the puffins, all of which appeared to have beaks full of tiny fish! Burrowed in the cliffs of Hafnarhólmi, puffins were flying all around us, with some returning to their burrows while others were taking off in flight. A couple of them even buzzed us, flying real low and quick just above our heads. Honestly, some of the puffins looked like they were flying in an out of control manner, and we could easily imagine them crashing into an unsuspecting tourist. We had read that the puffins arrive mid April and are gone by August so we had timed our visit just right to see them. As predicted, we spent hours on the platform chuckling at the puffins. They really are such comical birds. The way they crash land into each other is hysterical, or watching, as they appear to be bewildered as to which burrow is theirs and spend countless minutes frozen with indecision.
After a couple of hours, we decided to drive back into town (about 5 KM away) to check out the other famous Bakkageroi sight, the Lindarbakki Turf House. This house is the second most photographed thing in town (after the puffins) and it is easy to see why with its bright red exterior crowned with a turf roof coupled with snow capped mountains in the distance. We ate an early dinner in Bakkageroi before driving back to the observation platform where we wanted one final moment with the puffins. It was after 5 pm, and most of the puffins were out to sea fishing for their young. We realized that we are both puffin crazy and after penguins, puffins are our new favorite bird. After a while, we reluctantly tore ourselves away for the drive back down to Seydisfjordur, our campsite tonight. To get to Seydisfjordur, we had to climb over the Fjardarheidi mountain pass. Even in the middle of summer, the mountain pass is covered by snow and we could only imagine what the road is like during the winter time. Perhaps Seydisfjordur is disconnected from the rest of Iceland during the winter months?
Finding our campsite was easy…it’s the most popular attraction in the town! There were literally hundreds of campers here when we pulled up for the night. After sussing out the camping situation, we found a prime spot away from everyone else. Half on the campsite’s grounds and half on the neighbor’s back yard, we set up our tent behind a row of caravans, pleased that we had managed to escape the crowd. Until about 10 minutes later when another car drove right up beside us and erected their tent right next to ours! Seriously people, it is like bathroom etiquette! You don’t choose a stall right next to someone when there are plenty of other empty stalls! Same thing with tent placement….its so not cool to set your tent right up against someone else where there is plenty of flat, open space for all. To divert our attention from the new neighbors, with some alcoholic beverages in hand, we decided to take a walk around this pretty town. Seydisfjordur has lots of charm with its colorful old wooden buildings. Because the town is nestled at the bottom of a towering fjord, the sunlight gets cut off rather early so everything was in shadow, but we definitely saw the appeal of scenic Seydisfjordur.
Back at the campsite, we were happy to discover free Internet, which we used to check on the upcoming weather forecast. Weather is probably the most important thing for tourists visiting Iceland. A few days of rain can definitely hamper one’s plans and oftentimes if it is raining in one section of Iceland, the opposite side of the island might be more favorable and vice versa. We heard from fellow campers that the South of Iceland was getting pummeled with rain. Lucky for us on the East coast as the weather couldn’t have been more perfect these past couple of days. Even though Seydisfjordur was the busiest campsite we had come across yet, we still managed to get access to the stove in the kitchen to prepare another meal. Showers here were coin operated (ISK 400…no thanks!) so we quickly began to appreciate the campsites that included free hot water showers. Since we had free Wi-Fi, we did get a chance to upload a few photos to Facebook. Since we had a computer out, we also took the time to do a backup of all photos taken so far…a real pain in the butt while on holiday but an evil necessity.
10 July, Thursday: A quick check of the weather forecast this morning proved our fears to be true. Rain was all but guaranteed later today. During the majority of the day, we would have sporadic sunshine but by mid/late afternoon, constant rain showers were on all the forecasts. After a quick breakfast, we drove from Seydisfjordur towards Egilsstadir. We planned to be the first to hike up to Litlanesfoss and Hengifoss, two waterfalls that certainly warranted a visit. Directions to the waterfalls are pretty spot on: “From Egilsstaðir drive south on ring rd (Rt 1) for 11km. Turn right onto Rt 931 and follow it for about 21km as it follows the southeastern shores of Lagarfljót before eventually crossing a bridge and reaching a three-way junction. Turn left at the junction onto Route 933 and drive for 0.5 km. The turnoff for the signed car park is on the right.” We had read that it’s a 90 minute hike (one way) uphill from the parking lot. Not sure who the hell did that hike but it sure didn’t take 90 minutes! More like 25-30 minutes at a brisk pace. We had dressed in layers but the weather really was too nice for that as we were forced to strip down to the bare essentials in order to cool off.
The first waterfall we came across is the beautiful basalt columned Litlanesfoss. It is downstream of Hengifoss (which we could see off in the distance). Decision time…we briefly debated whether to check out Litlanesfoss first before heading to Hengifoss but decided to keeping to the higher Hengifoss. After all, that was the main reason for our hike. Hengifoss, at 118 meters (making it the 3rd highest waterfall in Iceland), is also one of the country’s most unique waterfalls (that’s quite a bold statement because Iceland has well over 10,000 waterfalls!) It’s claim to fame? Red strata layers! It is a sight to behold, and luckily we were the first ones here. Which was a good thing as we had finally decided to break out the tripod for some long exposure photographs! It was nice to have the entire place to ourselves so we wouldn’t feel the need to rush. Retracing our steps, we headed back down to Litlanesfoss. The hexagonal basalt columns really make this a unique waterfall as well. The morning crowd started to arrive just as we were leaving. Brilliant timing on our part! It was really magical visiting both waterfalls with not another soul in sight. On some days Iceland really spoils us.
Back down in the parking lot, we had a quick lunch before our long drive to Askja. Our plan was to drive back up on 931 towards Egilsstadir where we would hop on Rt 1 for a bit before taking 901 towards Modrudalur. Just before Modrudalur farm, we’d look for a turnoff on F905 to F910 and lastly F88 for the final drive into Askja. To be honest, there was a lot of conflicting information on the internet on the road conditions leading up to Askja. We didn’t know if we were foolish or naïve to attempt the river crossings in our Jimny but we figured that at any point, if the crossing looked too dangerous, we would give up and book a bus tour (12 hours, 130 Euro p/p from Myvatn). At Egilsstadir, we saw a Bonus supermarket and a gas station so we made a quick detour here to stock up on more groceries and refuel. Bonus supermarkets are the best…best prices, best selection…we quickly grew to love the pink pig!
Back on the road, it didn’t take long to get to the F905 turn off. From here, the adventure started. For those of you who don’t know, Askja is a volcano located in the Iceland highlands that is only accessible a few months out of the year. Our Bradt guidebook tempted us with this write up: “Mt Askja is an impressive volcano that rises straight out of the Odadahraun lava field. Its name comes from the Icelandic word for ‘caldera’, which is the most prominent feature of Askja. This volcano erupted some 10,000 years ago, but the caldera was only recently formed in the eruption of 1875. After spitting out massive amounts of ash and gas, the magma chamber from whence it came could no longer support the volcano above, so the middle of the mountain slowly began to collapse. The subsequent depression filled with water and formed the lake you see today. Lake Oskjuvatn is now the deepest lake in Iceland (220m) and is considered one of the greatest calderas in the world. Both scientists and tourists admire the volcano for its perfect shape and mammoth size, exaggerated by the flatness of the surrounding lava field. The lake is a brilliant blue color and has been the subject of much study – in 1907, a pair of German geologists disappeared in the lake while studying its chemistry, most likely drowned. A monument to them now stands near the other crater lake of Viti. Viti (aka ‘Hell’) was also formed in the 1875 eruption, but differs from the larger lake in that it is hot. The milky blue water averages a temperature of 25 C, which is a little cool for swimmers in Iceland, though many people try. If you do swim, be very careful getting in and out of the steep sides and don’t touch the bottom because it is very hot!”
Who can resist a description like that? We had also discovered that in the 1960s, NASA had sent its astronauts (Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin among them) to Askja to train for the Apollo program. Why Askja out of all other places in the world? Because of it’s lunar like landscape. Their mission was to study Askja’s geology as it would be very similar to that of the moon. And indeed it was. Our long bumpy drive felt as if it were occurring on the moon. We bumped and bounced and scraped our way across lava fields, rock shards and potholes. The road is no joke and we could now see why there was a warning sign at the beginning of F905 cautioning all visitors not to attempt this without a 4×4. And river crossings…we haven’t even discussed river crossings yet. The first few river crossings improved our confidence greatly. They were super easy and could hardly be described as anything to worry about. However, we did get to one serious crossing and we both decided to wade across it to see if it was passable. The advice we had been given was that if we weren’t willing to wade across the river (strong current, too deep, etc), than we absolutely shouldn’t attempt it in a vehicle. The water was freezing cold but thankfully it was a pleasant day so we knew we’d quickly dry off. After calculating the best route, Robby fearlessly put the car into 4×4 mode and drove across the river. No problemo! Happy that the toughest crossing was behind us, we still had a long, bumpy, and treacherous drive ahead of us. There was a brilliant tuya (a rare volcano with a distinctive shape of being flat-topped and steep-sided) called Herðubreið that kept mesmerizing us on the drive. Other than that stealing our attention away from the horizon, the terrain was relatively monotonous.
At one point, we ran into a caretaker. She was literally out in the middle of nowhere placing stones alongside the “road” to indicate what is considered off-roading. She was a bit perturbed as there had only been 6 visitors yesterday and already, there were signs that someone had purposefully gone off-roading. It almost seemed like a futile effort…there are signs everywhere warning against off-roading. The penalties (if caught) are steep and yet still, there are those inevitable jerks pushing their luck to see what they can get away with. The drive out to the Askja campsite took about 4 or 5 arduous hours. We were so happy to see the camp huts in sight! However, we didn’t realize that we still had another 8 KM drive ahead of us on F894. Finally, once we had arrived to the makeshift parking lot, we were a bit bewildered as to where to proceed next. Its not like there are any signs telling you where to go! You are literally in the middle of the highlands, and you just have to figure it out (unless you are on a tour in which case I am sure the tour guide will spoon feed you everything you need to know). We took a look at the snow banks and figured we would just walk in everyone else’s snowy footprints. However, it was a good thing we were taking our time donning our rain pants and winter boots. Just as we were getting ready to trudge through the snow, a member of the snow plow team stopped by to tell us that if we wanted to, we could follow him (in our car) an extra 5 KM further on up via a freshly plowed road. We thanked our lucky stars because that literally saved us an extra 45 minutes hike each way. There were several other cars parked in the parking lot and their owners weren’t so lucky as they all had added an extra 10 KM hike out to Mt Askja and Lake Viti.
We really hadn’t anticipated that mid July would still be considered “early” in the season, and that the roads hadn’t been fully plowed of snow just yet. As it was, from our new parking spot, we still had a tough hour long slog through the snow to get to Lake Viti. The word “Viti” means “hell” and we learned that it was a common believe in the olden days that the volcanic craters were the gates to the underworld. We were eager to check out Viti for its milky blue hue so we kept putting one foot in front of the other across the snowy field, trying not to get too frustrated as we would sink into the snow and have to pull ourselves back out before taking another step. Slowly but surely, we eventually made it to Askja! Despite it being the middle of summer, Lake Oskjuvatn was still frozen over. And any thoughts we had of swimming in Lake Viti were dashed, as there was a sign post clearly stating that it simply was too dangerous to attempt to do so this early in the season. However, the view was really nice and we were glad that we had undertaken the herculean effort it required to reach remote Askja. After taking all the photos we wanted, we started the long journey back. Now we know why a day trip to Askja takes 12 hours from Myvatn! It really is a full day’s journey. Even though the sun had peaked through the clouds for a bit while we were at Askja, the weather quickly turned (Iceland’s weather is so fickle), and we were a bit worried about the one tough river crossing as we really wanted to be across it before the rain started to come down hard.
A couple of intrepid motorcyclists were making the journey on their bikes. We waved at them and their go-pro strapped helmets and marveled that they had been able to tackle the F910/905 route on bike. Further down the road, we saw that one of the motorcycle crew had lost some food…a candy bar here, several cans of soup there. Someone sure is going to be in a bad mood later when they discover that their food supply has been strewn across the Askja landscape! Our return journey was just as difficult as the one to get to Askja. Since it was now raining, Becky waded through the river crossing and waited with bated breath to see if Robby was able to successfully drive back across. We even have photographic evidence that we were really pushing the limit on our rental car as the water came right up to our headlights. Thankfully our trusty Jimny had no issues whatsoever. We really loved that car. After the river crossing, our next biggest fear was that we would have a flat tire. The local’s advice to always travel in pairs especially rings true on this remote highland road. As it was, we didn’t see another car for the entire drive back. Thankfully, our steadfast Jimny got us back to F901 with no problems.
From the F905/F901 intersection, it was a short, easy drive to Modrudalur Farm, which was our campsite for the night. This quaint campsite is complete with turf roofed buildings (and a turf roofed gas station!). We had free hot water showers, free washer and dryer, and a kitchen to cook in. It was the perfect campsite! Robby had unwittingly left his camping card behind when he checked in. Imagine our relief when a teenage girl came running up to us to return the card. That sure saved us a lot of money and future hassle! During the setup of our tent, midges bombarded us, which was the first time that has happened to us so far. We had expected them at Lake Myvatn, but they made their presence known at Modrudalur. After dinner, we did some laundry and were up for the most magnificent midnight sunset…a brilliant pink/purple hue spread across the skyline before eventually fading away into dusk.
11 July, Friday: During breakfast in the turf-roofed kitchen, we decided to take advantage of the campsite’s stove to prepare pasta for a couple of meals. Our plan for the day was to head up north to see Dettifoss, reputed to be Europe’s most powerful waterfall. First, we had to refuel the car at what could quite possibly be Iceland’s cutest gas station. The turf roofed gas station is unmanned and locked up but we found the owner nearby. After filling up our car, we asked him about the baby foxes that have been adopted on the farm. He led us to their burrow and called out for them but they never made an appearance. Two young boys (egged on by their upset mother) approached the owner and apologized for damaging the foxes’ lair yesterday. Apparently, they became a bit too aggressive with the foxes and damaged the entrance to their burrow. No surprise the foxes remained hidden today! So we drove on with the rest of our day, heading up towards Dettifoss.
Located in the northeast portion of Vatnajökull National Park, the waterfall is fairly easy to get to. Visitors have two options…drive on the west bank of the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River on route 862 or else head over to the east bank via route 864. From what we understood, the rough road to the west bank is for 4wd vehicles only, and there are no facilities there. Additionally, the view of the massive waterfall is oftentimes hindered by its spray. On the east bank, there are toilet facilities and an information signpost that is maintained by the Vatnajökull national park staff. Easy choice for us…we drove up route 864, which was a bumpy unsealed road. Even though the road is OK for 2wd vehicles, we did see a couple of flat tire casualties. The potholes on this unsealed road can definitely do some damage! Eventually, we saw a signpost turnoff on the left hand side that led us to the car park. Dettifoss is definitely on everyone’s Iceland agenda as the parking lot was packed with tour buses, private vehicles and hundreds of tourists. Its an easy downhill walk from the parking lot through some basalt lava terrain…sturdy shoes are definitely recommended. There is a fine view from the path looking towards the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, but beware of the tourists jostling each other to get to the waterfall. Unbelievably, you can get as close to the edge of Dettifoss waterfall as you like. No guard rails, warning signs, nothing. I would be very leery with young children at this site. If anyone were to tumble off the edge, they’d be a goner for sure. The sheer force and size of the waterfall is truly impressive, and we can see why it is such a popular sight.
There was a signpost directing us to the nearby Selfoss, which is located about 1.5 KM through a rocky, boulder filled, and uneven path. This was worth the effort, as there were very few tourists that had ventured here. Although not very high, Selfoss is extremely wide, with well over a dozen different cascading waterfalls along its edge. As you walk further along, the water flow culminates into one massive U-shaped semicircular waterfall…very cool and Robby immediately voted this as his favorite waterfall of the entire trip!
After heading back to our car, we drove on Route 864 heading upstream for a couple more kilometers before pulling into a left hand turnoff which led us to a parking lot with the most amazing vista of Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. Now it was time to head to Myvatn, which is another popular stop on the tourist trail. Once we finally got off Rt 864 and were back on Rt 1, we were in Myvatn before we knew it. Our first stop was to Viti crater lake. To get there, we took a right hand turnoff from Rt 1 onto Rt 863. This led us under a pipeline bridge of Leirbotn geothermal power station. The sulfuric smell was almost overwhelming, so we quickly drove past the power plant. Further uphill (about 2 KM) was the parking lot to Viti crater. We learned that the crater was created when Krafla volcano erupted in 1724. This deep aquamarine crater lake draws a lot of tourists, and we decided to break free from the crowd near the parking lot by hiking around its rim. It was a relatively easy hike, although we read the rim can get slippery in the rain. Thankfully we had a nice sunny day to enjoy the view of fumaroles and solfatares in the surrounding countryside.
Afterwards, we drove down to the parking lot of Leirhnjukur Krafla lava field. This geothermal area is the result of the 1984 eruption. Some people say the ground is still steaming (making it feel like the eruption just happened) but we didn’t find that to be the case at all. Instead, our heads were still trying to wrap themselves around the outrageous entrance fee we had just been charged. Keep in mind that we have seen some amazing sights in Iceland thus far. All natural sights (waterfalls, volcanoes, mountains, etc) have been free. Amazing sights that we would have been willing to pay for and yet they are open to all, fee free. So imagine our shock when we approached the Leirhnjukur site to see a massive sign clearly stated that a new ISK 800 fee would be charged to access the lava field and the nearby Namafjall-Hverir boiling mud pools and steaming fumaroles. Outrageous! Apparently, the new fee was implemented on 19 June 2014, and there is a lot of controversy over it. The land owners claim they need the money for upkeep of the bathrooms, pathways, etc. We felt it was extortionate…ISK 800 for each sight is simply too much. Instead, why doesn’t Iceland just charge a flat “tourist tax” fee to all tourists at the airport? I would gladly pay that but to be nickeled and dimed at the tourist sites themselves…it just left a raw taste in our mouths, especially when some of Iceland’s more magnificent sights have been completely gratis. Perhaps it was due to the pricey entrance, but we found the Krafla lava fields a bit underwhelming. Yes, you get to walk next to the moss covered lava field (from the 18th Century explosion), and yes, there are some impressive fumaroles and solfatares, but no, we didn’t find the lava field to be especially interesting. Yeah, the entrance fee definitely dampened our enthusiasm.
Afterwards, Becky asked the volunteer we had paid our entrance fee to if we could swing back by again in the morning, as there was a blue pool that we wanted to photograph in the early morning light. The kicker was when he said “most likely no…they’ll make you pay again”. He did feel badly about the situation and then volunteered this tidbit of info…the fees that are being charged to access these areas are completely optional and perhaps even illegal. Meaning that we were under no obligation to pay if we didn’t want to! Instead, we could have just hopped over the entrance barricade and there is absolutely nothing that anything could do to us! Are you freaking kidding me? Why he didn’t volunteer that info before we paid is beyond me. Perhaps it funds the volunteers drinking fund? Who knows…Myvatn’s entrance fee policy is completely baffling! Armed with that knowledge, we absolutely refused to be suckers yet again and pay to see the Namafjall/Hverir area, so we decided to leave that until early tomorrow morning.
So now what to do with the rest of our afternoon? First, Becky just had to try out the Krafla outdoor shower. We had seen funny photos of the shower (which runs constantly by the way) next to a toilet prop. Unfortunately, someone must have taken a dump in the fake toilet as it was long gone, with just the shower for us to enjoy. Afterwards, we drove down to Lake Myvatn where we wanted to check out the unique lava formations of Kálfaströnd. The lava pillars, called Klasar and Kálfastrandarstrípar, can be seen in the southeastern section of Lake Myvatn. Armed with our mosquito net hats, we dared to emerge for a quick hike at Lake Myvatn. As we had been forewarned, the deluge of insects dive-bombing our hats was unbelievable. Lake Myvatn is famous for its midge infestation, which in turn draws countless ducks and birds to its shorelines, making this unique habitat a bird watchers paradise. The lava pillars have such unique formations, and we had chosen the perfect time of day to check them out as they were lit up in the sun’s golden light rays. Very cool! Afterwards, we made a mental note to thank Mike Morelock for his suggestion on the mosquito net hats…the midges would have driven us nuts! They were out in full force, attracted by the carbon dioxide exhaled with each breath. It was getting late and we figured it was time to start looking for a place to crash that night. Our guidebooks had forewarned us of the supply/demand accommodation situation in popular Myvatn, so we were planning on wild camping for the night. Close to the Namafjall area, we found a turnoff high in the hills that looked just perfect for our needs. Off the grid, out of sight from the road, and a nice flat area for our tent and sleeping bags…we couldn’t ask for anything better! Dinner was whipped up in no time on our stove and this secluded spot quickly became our favorite wild camping hideaway on the trip thus far.
12 July, Saturday: It was an early wake up as we wanted to hit the Namafjall Hverir’s mud pots, sulfurous mud springs, and fumaroles before the ticket seller arrived. Unbelievably, there was not a single soul at the site. We had the entire place to ourselves. Even though sunrise had happened hours earlier, the morning light still afforded us some decent photos. This geothermal region is famous for its varied hues and bubbling mud pots. Signs warning of the hot ground temperatures were posted, advising all visitors to stick to the clearly defined paths and walking trails. Failure to do so could result in severe burns. There appeared to be a hiking loop in the hills surrounding Hverir but we were quite satisfied with the fumaroles and solfatares that we had seen thus far. As we were leaving, other tourists showed up and were able to enter for free as the ticket seller was still a no show.
We decided to press our luck by revisiting the Krafla lava field, hoping to take a better photo of the turquoise lake. Even though it took us a good 30 minutes to hike there and back, the parking lot was still empty when we returned. Apparently the ticket sellers like to sleep in on any given day which was great news for us! We used the nearby facilities to refill our water bottles and kettle, as well as wash some dishes before driving up to Viti Crater to have a quick breakfast. Our big plan for the morning was to soak our bones at the Myvatn Nature Baths (Jardbodin vid Myvatn). We had read beforehand that this “blue lagoon of the north” is cheaper than its counterpart in Grindavik. Doors opened at 9 am and we were the first ones in the parking lot. As we entered the facility, we noticed that the staff has sneakily increased the entrance fee by placing a sticker over the original price list. While a visit normally sets you back ISK 3000, the new price was ISK 3500 (about $30). Everyone capitalizes on the summertime tourist influx! Still, the prices here were considerably cheaper than at the Blue Lagoon which charges a hefty 40 Euro ($53) per person. We each had to go to our respective locker rooms and were advised how to secure and lock our gear in our own individual lockers. Don’t lose the wrist band you are given since it locks/unlocks your gear. Taking a shower before entering into the baths is mandatory. We read that the hot water comes from the geothermal runoff from the nearby Namarskad Krafla power station. The bright blue glow of the water is derived from a type of algae that is unique to and thrives in hot springs, while the milky white glow comes from the silica in the water. Add silica and algae together and viola…the magical combination giving the baths an ethereal blue glow that is out of this world. Good things come to those who wake up early. We were the first ones into the pool and had a couple of moments of blissful silence all to ourselves. The water temperature varied as we explored the various nooks and crannies of the baths…the super hot spots could only be tolerated for short periods of time! This is definitely an activity to be enjoyed during Iceland’s notoriously inclement weather, as it really doesn’t matter if you are getting rained on while having a leisurely soak in the pool. After 3 hours of soaking, we felt like we got our money’s worth. Plus busloads of tourists had started arriving, so we decided to call it a morning. After showering and toweling off, we noticed a funky contraption that you could deposit your dripping wet bathing suit into. Designed like the spin cycle of a washing machine, the suit is spun round and round until virtually all the excess water has been sucked out…pretty cool and quite handy if you don’t want to have a dripping wet suit in your bag all day.
It was lunchtime, and we were eager to try out a nearby lunch buffet of Icelandic specialties (shark, sheep’s head, reindeer pate, smoked lamb and fish) at the Sel Myvatn restaurant, located in the southern section of Lake Myvatn. Unfortunately for us, the place was packed and the staff couldn’t accept walk-ins. So we opted for the cheaper option…a self-catered picnic of tuna n’ cheese sandwiches supplemented with chips from the comfort of our car, with a fine view of the lake’s pseudocraters in the foreground. We were waiting for the busloads of tourists to finish their hike of the craters…seriously, where do all the freaking Myvatn tourists come from? There were literally dozens and dozens of white haired, elderly tourists hobbling around the countryside. Eventually, the crowd petered out and we finally emerged to check out the pseudocraters of Skútustaðir on our own. The pseudocraters were pretty cool. They resemble an actual volcanic crater but were created when flowing hot lava is exposed to a body of water (like a lake or pond). As the lava passes over the water, a massive steam explosion occurs, and the superheated water violently erupts to the surface, causing the crater like formation. This process has obviously been repeated again and again at Skútustaðir, because pseudocraters abound. We hiked on the easy path that links the craters together. Honestly, being right up on the pseudocrater was cool but it would have been much better if we had a bird’s eye view of this area. If money were not a factor, we would have loved to sign up for an airplane ride over these unique formations.
Back in the car, we decided that we had hit all of Myvatn’s highlights. So goodbye Myvatn and hello Husavik. We weren’t sure if we would be able to catch an afternoon whale watching session but we sure were going to try. The distance from Myvatn to Husavik is about 60 KM and it didn’t take us too long to get there. Our first stop was to the Gentle Giants ticket booth to see if we could be lucky enough to catch the 4 pm outing. Unfortunately for us, it was sold out but we were offered two seats on an 8 pm excursion. The tour we wanted to do was called the “Big Whale Safari & Puffins” 2.5-hour tour, and it was on a RIB, which meant we could zoom in, faster to the whales. Our main concern was the lighting at 8 pm…that is awfully late to be heading out on a tour and we worried that any photos taken might be too blurry in the low light. Our two options were to hang out overnight and sign up for an earlier tour tomorrow or take the 8 pm tour. After briefly discussing the merits of each, we decided to chance it and sign up for the 8 pm tour. At ISK 16,200 (99 Euros) each, a tour is not cheap and we didn’t want to feel that we had overpaid for a mediocre experience. What to do to kill a few hours? First we checked out the town’s lovely church, which was built in 1907 having been assembled directly from Norway.
Next, we paid a visit to the nearby Husavik Whale Museum. Housed in a former sheep slaughterhouse, we found this to be the best museum in all of Iceland. We both of us highly recommend it! With our Gentle Giants tickets, we managed to save 20% of the ISK 1400 entrance fee. Neither one of us is really into museums but this one is fascinating. We learned so much about whales and Iceland’s sordid whaling history. Additionally, we got to watch a fascinating video on humpback whales. Real whale skeletons are hung up throughout the building (beached whales on Iceland’s shores), and it was a fascinating place to spend a few hours. After learning all about whales, we couldn’t wait for our whale watching trip. By 7:30 pm, we were told to report to the gentle giants booth to get fitted for our protective suits. Seasickness pills were on offer, and we snugly fit into our medium sized waterproof suits. After that, we loaded up. Since both of us were ready, we snagged the first two seats in the RIB, which gave us prime viewing opportunities. Our tour leader did warn us that the sea was especially rough today, and we needed to straddle the seat as if riding a horse, keeping our legs bent to absorb the full impact of the boat as it slammed up and down on the water. Otherwise, we would definitely have some back problems! Keeping her warning in mind, we zoomed out. The weather, which had been beautiful all day, let us down. It started pouring with rain, and we struggled to keep our cameras (and lenses) dry. However, our boat captain sped us out to a sunnier spot and we were able to escape from the rain for a bit.
After having seen puffins throughout Iceland, we didn’t care too much for the “puffin island” portion of the tour…they were simply too far away to take any decent photos of. However, some of our fellow passengers seemed riveted at the sight of the puffins, so we suspect they hadn’t encountered them on their travels thus far. Whale sightings occur 98% of the time. We sure hoped we wouldn’t fall into the unlucky 2%. Eventually, the telltale sign of a whale’s exhalation caught our captain’s eye and we sped off in pursuit. Our conquest? A whale known to both our guide and our captain…they got super excited when they spotted this whale. It is a special whale because it is super rare, a hybrid blue/fin whale. Scientists had actually tested the genetic material of this particular whale to be sure it was a hybrid and proved that different whale species can and do mate. To date, there have only been 11 documented cases of a blue and fin whale hybrid. Our guide happily chirped that we were so lucky to have spotted this guy, and our captain apparently thought so too as he radioed his buddies to come check out the whale. Soon there were two RIBs following its every movement. We initially thought that we’d run into more whales (humpbacks, minke) but it soon became obvious that we would stalk this whale until our time ran out. On the return trip, we saw a couple of dolphins but to be honest, the RIB tour in the Westman Islands was more impressive (with the pods of orcas that we had spotted). There was nothing wrong with our gentle giants tour, but we just expected to see a lot more whales performing gymnastics and only spotting one was a bit disappointing. The 2.5-hour tour passed by quickly, and before we knew it, we were back in Husavik Harbor and it was already 10:30 pm.
Since we were planning to check out Godafoss tomorrow, we decided to get on the road and drive to the nearest campsite, which happened to be Systragil (Rt 833, about 5 KM from RT 1). The campsite was completely packed when we got there, and we barely managed to find a tiny plot of land to park the car and set up our tent before cooking up dinner. It was close to midnight and our campervan neighbors were having a lively party. Camping is such a social event in Iceland! Since the showers were coin operated (i.e. not free), we opted for baby wipe showers instead. For this to be such a popular campsite with the caravan crowd, we were really surprised at the campsite’s meager facilities.