This latest hiking excursion of ours reconfirmed for me how much I absolutely love travelling in Iceland. It’s so vibrant with all sorts of impressions – from beautiful landscapes to incredible history, particularly the stories that abound in each place. In fact, to me that’s one of the most fantastic things about travelling here – the immensely dramatic narratives associated with every place. The Icelanders are a nation of storytellers – and story lovers.
The hiking group I belong to has been together in some shape or form for about the last 12 years. We’re all very different – of various ages and professions, and have somehow been drawn into this group. These are people I’d probably not hang out with under normal circumstances – we’re too different for that – but I’ve come to treasure being with them once a year because I just adore each and every one of them. There’s one thing they all share – a vibrancy of spirit, an agelessness, that makes them absolutely unique, and so much fun to be around. Plus, I’d trust each one of them with my life.
One of the group is a seasoned mountaineer who has been a guide with the Iceland Touring Association for years and knows countless locations off the beaten track. Those are the places we tend to go. This time we were based in a small village called Reykhólar and explored an area called Barðaströnd, on the southern coast of the West Fjords.
On day one, we set off along the picturesque coast of one fjord and hiked to the end, then up the coast of the next one. Day two we drove to a fjord somewhat further away, then turned off the road and took a bumpy jeep track to a country church in a highly remote location. We stopped to have lunch next to a boulder known as ‘Prestasteinn’ or ‘parson’s rock– which is believed to contain the skeleton of a mean old parson underneath [see here]. We also looked for the ruins of a sheep shed that featured rather dramatically in another tale, too long to recount here, but were unsuccessful [I guess we were fairly optimistic to expect to find the remains of a 200-year old sheep shed – not the most robust of structures]. On the way back, we stopped and hiked across a mountain pass known as Gufudalsháls, the so-called ‘kirkjuleið’ or ‘church road’ that the locals used to take in centuries past when they went to church. It took about four hours, went up to an elevation of 380 m., and ended at this gorgeous little country church.
On day three we headed for the mountains known as Vaðalfjöll – very stunning both in shape and formation – they’re essentially made up of basalt columns, which routinely fall off and create deposits in the surroundings. It was quite a hairy climb to the top, along a very steep and narrow pass, and even hairier going down. From there we drove to a place called ‘Borg’ and hiked down to the seashore where we were stopped in our tracks by the vision of two eagles circling overhead. As is the case elsewhere, it is extremely rare to see eagles here in Niceland, much less to be treated to a lengthy show of their aerial acrobatics and harrowing battles with a handful of arctic tern that seemed to take it in shifts to go after them. The tern are beautiful birds but highly aggressive – they even attack humans who dare venture near their nesting areas, and act as ‘soldiers’ for other birds, who make a point of building their nests near them. This particular tern was relentless, screeching and dive-bombing on the poor eagle, which made feeble efforts to swat it with its wings. While we sat there and ate lunch we pondered the mystery of why the eagle didn’t just swoop down on one of the islets offshore, where there were nests aplenty filled with succulent little baby birds. Later we found out that there’s an eagle’s nest in the cliff behind us and incredibly, eagles don’t hunt within two kilometers’ radius of their nests. Fascinating. Anyway, after observing this for a while we carried on to this rock, known as the ‘trading post of the elves’ – the story behind which I do not know, apart from that elves feature prominently in Icelandic lore. It, incidentally, contained falcons’ nests.
On our fourth and final day we hired a boat and skipper and headed out to Skáleyjar in Breiðafjörður bay, a cluster of islands that are still inhabited by two elderly brothers – who because of their age only live there in summer now. They keep sheep and collect eider down from the nests on the islands, which they refine and sell for hefty sums. We were promised coffee and ‘kleinur’ [Icelandic dough pastries] while out there, but as it turned out, the brothers weren’t home that day so were unable to receive us. No matter, because our skipper showed us around – he turned out to be incredibly well informed and a natural guide. Since we had to miss coffee he suggested we sail over to the nearby island of Flatey [one of the most charming places on earth] for soup and homemade bread at the sole restaurant. He didn’t have to ask twice – and so we got a guided tour of Flatey as a bonus. It was an excellent day, much longer than we’d originally bargained for, and our skipper refused to charge us a krona more than had initially been arranged.
A massive ‘gala dinner’ that evening wrapped up those four excellent days; however EPI and I hadn’t had quite enough of the West Fjords so we struck out on our own in a westerly direction. I’m sure I could write a short novel on everything we experienced in those two days, but the cursory version will have to do: we headed out to Tálknafjörður, a small fishing village that I absolutely fell in love with three years ago on one of our hiking trips. From there we explored some of the amazing sights in the region, including Rauðisandur [Red Sands] and Látrabjarg cliff, where the puffins are so friendly you can virtually reach out and touch them. The latter is the westernmost point of Iceland and hence Europe, and rises straight up as a sheer cliff face 441 metres [around 1,500 ft] from the sea. Rauðasandur is amazingly lovely and has been the site of some incredibly dramatic events in the past, particularly Sjöundá [site of one of the most heinous murder cases in Iceland, two centuries ago] and Skor, a remote headland that we hiked out to, and that takes hikers along a highly treacherous path that is definitely not for the faint at heart.
Anyway, the West Fjords have completely captured my heart – it’s such a magnificent area, filled with amazing people and stunning scenery. Mysticism, too – in addition to the dramatic tales that abound, it’s been the main site of sorcery and witchcraft in Iceland. In fact, while driving up there I was flipping through the real estate ads and found a small guest house for sale in Tálknafjörður for a pittance … tempting. Very tempting.
Fair and windy, temps around 13°C [57F]. Sunrise was at 4:33 am and sunset due for 10:32 pm.