Journal of a 23-day Icelandic road trip

Thursday August 20

We awoke at 7 am. It had rained so much during the stormy night that the ground was waterlogged and spongy. The office was still closed, and our only neighbor was also packing up.

You see that volcano in the center of the photograph? Well, that’s Eldborg (Fire Castle), 5,000 years old, and visible from our campground.

I’m fascinated by volcanic craters, and I always want to go and explore the inside of them. But it would have been at least a two-hour walk to Eldborg and back, and we didn’t have time. Our guidebook said that it was filled with moss and lichens, so I contented myself with imagining it.

We hit the road at 8.30 am.

SNÆFELLSNES PENINSULA, WESTERN ICELAND

This would be a very full day, since we’d be exploring the Snæfellsnes peninsula, a place that concentrates the essence of Iceland. No time to lose. It’s off for a day packed with surprises.

As we passed near to the above church, Emilie suddenly realized that it was the same church as on the cover of our guidebook!!! So we tried to take the same photograph.

The track took us to an almost imaginary world. There was a perfectly shaped volcano, with red sides. A few crows were wheeling above it to complete the scene.

We couldn’t go any further, since the track was barred by this gate. And the weather? Rain. Wind. 8 °C (46 °F).

We passed this solitary horse, then got back on Route 54 along the peninsula.

Here we are at Miklaholt church.

This is Ytri-tunga beach. We’d read that you could see seals here, but seals there were none.

It was the first time I’d seen a yellow sandy beach in Iceland, and the place combined everything that I love: wild beauty, a lowering sky, windblown grass.

We continued on our way, through a vast lava field that stretched as far as the eye could see. And there, seemingly lost in the middle of this black ocean, was Buðir church. Also black.

The church is situated very close to the sea, and it’s here that the Búdahraun nature reserve starts.

There are several long hikes, lasting six to eight hours, through the lava field and along the coast.

This really is a beautiful church.

We got back in the car and left Buðir church behind us, lost in the immensity of Búðaklettur.

Look closely at the above photograph. You see that fault on the right? Well, we decided to go and have a look at it.

A stream flowed through the middle of the fault, inviting you to explore, to penetrate this mineral world.

It was time we reached Arnarstapi, and the statue depicting Bárður Snæfellsás, the mythical half-ogre/half-human character who protects the peninsula, and after whom it’s named. Behind us soared the pyramid-shaped, and supposedly magical Stapafell mountain, home of the elves (according to legend). Just the other side of this mountain lies Snæfellsjökull glacier, also said to be a place of supernatural energies.

Jules Verne was inspired by this place to write Journey to the Center of the Earth, the story of a scientist, his nephew and their guide, who undertake an expedition to the center of the Earth, entering through an extinct Icelandic volcano (Snæffel, under the glacier).

You can get to Hellnar on foot from Arnarstapi, walking along the magnificent basalt cliffs, where many birds nest.

Here’s the fragile natural Gatklettur arch.

A colony of arctic terns in a nearby grassy field was struggling against the extremely violent wind; their flight skittish and disorderly. I stealthily approached to try and photograph them.

Contrary to appearances, the one below was flying on the spot.

All along the cliffs, here and there among these wild grasses, the sea has carved out wide wells, the basalt columns collapsing into the waves. They’re a blessing for the birds, which use them to shelter from the wind and predators. Every nook and cranny is used, and the birds fight beak and claw to hang onto them.

It’s an unhoped-for place to observe them. I squeezed as far into one of the wells as I could, and asked Emilie to hold onto the hood of my parka in case I fell forward!

The adults birds are white with yellow beaks; their young have black beaks and feathers, and are still fed by their parents. The adults keep an ever-watchful eye on their offspring; contrary to appearances, it’s an edgy, vicious place, where birds fight over food and shelter.

The two birds I shot in close-up are the ones on the right of the photograph below.

I forgot to mention the soundtrack: a deafening racket of bird cries; the young because they’re hungry; the adults to reassure the little ones of their presence.

Suddenly I was witness to an assault: a youngster of flying age lunged straight for the one I was photographing; the adult immediately moved to defend her offspring, and a fight ensued.

The adult ended up grabbing the assailant by the neck and sent them packing to the bottom of the well.

The youngster, which owed its life to its mother, stared darkly at me, frightened by the danger but not yet able to defend itself.

Then the mother returned to finish feeding its little one.

All this under the impassive gaze of their fellow arctic terns.

We finished our hike and returned to Arnarstapi.

Then we hit the road toward Hellnar.

We had a look in the little Visitor Center, where there was a exhibition of some superb old photographs of people living here at the beginning of the century. Nearly all of the portraits were taken with Stapafell mountain in the backdrop, which shows how important this mountain is to the people who live around here.

A little path led to a creek by the water, where we found a magnificent arch. I absolutely wanted to photograph it, but two key elements seemed set to confound my plans:

– the tide that was rising before our eyes,
– the rain that had started falling very hard.

/

But armed with an umbrella, and perched on a rock, I was able to make this very long exposure (30 seconds), as the high tide washed over the creek.

/

The corpse of the young bird you saw three photographs up was carried away by the sea.

/

It was already 5.30 pm, and time for a lovely slice of cake and a nice cup of tea to warm us up!

These twin pleasures were to be found in a charming teashop nestling in the creek, where we gratefully sat down for a well deserved break.

I can’t say it enough: the Icelanders make fantastic cakes. They’re not just beautiful to look at, but extremely delicious.

The lace on the windows made the place even cozier. There was a little exhibition of paintings by an Icelandic artist; I really liked her work.

We got back on the road at 6 pm, driving onward without really knowing what we’d find. We spied an impressive lighthouse that we added to our collection: Londrangar lighthouse.

I spotted a volcano not far from the road, or so it seemed. I parked, left Emilie in the car and headed straight for it. I hadn’t realized that it was actually a little way off, and it took me ten minutes to reach its summit.

Here’s the inside of the crater. Not very impressive, you might think, but I was seized by a kind of vertigo before this sight; like the world’s end, a sensation of emptiness, as the screaming wind sent the clouds scudding toward me at full tilt. It’s difficult to explain.

The sublime beauty of Dritvík beach.

We paused in front of Saxhóll crater. The time was 7.30 pm, the sky was darkening, and we were now at the westernmost tip of the peninsula.

SKARDSVIK BEACH, EXTREME WESTERN ICELAND

I’d dreamed ever since I was little of seeing a tempestuous sea breaking over rocks, and I’d always thought I’d see that one day at the Pointe du Raz in the extreme west of France. But I never imagined that I’d find it here, in Iceland, at Skarðsvik. Apparently, there’s a yellow sandy beach, but we didn’t see it!

It was possible to walk down a few wooden steps to the beach, or else stand overlooking it admiring the view from the rocky outcrop on the right of the photograph. The wind was wild, the sky magnificent, and I sensed that I was in for a spectacular show. We saw a couple carrying a boom microphone and a tape recorder; they were recording the sound of the storm.

While they captured sound, I tried to capture an image. We glanced at each other without speaking – the wind made that impossible – but we shared our admiration for such energy, such beauty, with a knowing look.

The waves were so huge, so violent, that stones were sometimes hurled out of the water. But words are useless, so here are some images which I hope will speak to you:

I went down onto the beach and attempted a 30-second exposure before we left. It wasn’t easy with that wind! But the result was magical – the violence of the waves transformed into a vaporous veil.

A track wound its way through the lava field to the westernmost point of the peninsula. An apocalyptic setting. It was nearly night, and the track was very tricky to negotiate, dangerous even; a continuous succession of hollows, bumps, and hairpin bends. It really wasn’t sensible to drive down it at night, for the car’s headlamps weren’t very good at properly lighting this kind of terrain, and veering off the track was simply unthinkable: the lava field was as sharp as a knife.

It took 20 interminable minutes to reach the end and add these two lighthouses to our collection.

We were alone, at the world’s end, a feeling which quite turned our heads.

Above, "sheepies" shelter from the wind behind Svörtuloft lighthouse; below, not far from its neighbor, stands Öndverðarnes lighthouse; between the two, the menacing cliffs of the world’s end.

Then it was back on that damn track, direction the free campground in nearby Hellisandur, site of a gigantic antenna, one of the tallest in the world.

At 9.15 pm, we decided to go for a final wander by the sea to capture the day’s end. The birds seemed to be enjoying the moment too.

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