Day 9 was to be our last day of the trip with our traveling companionsi. We packed up early and left our coastal farm inn behind as we continued back along the southern coast to Skaftafellii. After seeing them off, Kate and I took a brief hike out to our last glacier for the trip, Skaftafellsjokulliii, and then reluctantly continued west.
Cliffs on the Southern Shore, Coastal wildflowers, Skaftafellsjokull glacier, Harebell, Redwing, Morning Ridgeline at Skaftafell
The intent was to head for the Vestmannaeyjariv Island chain off the southern coast of Iceland, potentially spend the night, then come back to Reykjavik by the end of the next dayv. Since the next ferry wasn’t until 4vi, we stopped at lava fields along the way, and at the small town of Selfossvii.
Pimpled mounds, Lava flow fields, Countryside vista, Wildflower, Selfoss waterfall, Waterfall rainbow, Selfoss with double rainbow.
Sadly, when we got to the ferry, it turned out that return tickets were in short supply. While we could get to the islands on the 4PM, the only return trip was very early the next morningviii. We decided that it was worth it anyway, even though it meant we would have very little time to see anything there. Sometimes great cost and effort yield very transient rewards. That being said, the ferry ride itself was worth the cost by itselfix. Sea birds swirled around us, pacing the ship, and we saw Puffins swarming over the cliffs. The volcanic Vestmannaejyar Islands rise like little divots, with almost vertical cliffs on all sides, in a chain of little pegs1 above the ocean to the horizon.
Ferry flag, Isolation Rock, Northern Fulmar in flight, Heimaey in profile
I stayed up top and was treated to the really incredible experience of the entrance to Heimaey harbor. Literally all of the island of Heimay is a couple large volcanic cones, or the lingering walls of previous cones. There’s a very small flat space between the outer walls. The entrance to the sheltering harbor cuts between towering, impossibly green cliffs which were lit up resplendently in the afternoon sun. The sheer size of the cliffs and the hidden harbor gave one the feeling of having arrived at the secret volcano island lair of a Bond villainx.
Entrance to the Harbor, Welcome to Volcano-Skull Island Mr. Bond, Heimaey Harbor.
Heimay itself was remarkably quaintxi, with a small downtown, and lots of little houses and cafes, but also an oddly dense and urban corexii. Unfortunately, our time was very limited so we left downtown and made arrangements to campxiii . We set up camp between huge volcanic shards, under towering volcanic cliffs, next to a Viking longhouse, and with dramatic ocean views. We noted at this point that the guidebook’s description of Heimaey as a windy place was, if anything, dramatically understatedxiv.
View from camp site, Camp site with Viking turf houses, Epic campsite!.
Now that we had spared no expense and effort to get to Heimaey, we were anxious to actually get out and see it. We tried to climb a steep and winding path up the sheer cliff face near our camp, but it was too much for mexv, and I called it offxvi. We drove to where the guidebook indicated a nearby trail was, but only found a small sheep path directly at the edge of the cliffs over the sea, in a field of burned trashxvii. At that point things were a bit frustrated, and we were starting to wonder if we’d wasted our time and money coming here. ..we’d arrived late, it had taken forever to get the campsite arranged, and now the recommended hikes were turning up non-existant or suicidal.
As a last resort, we headed out for a high promontory peninsula with a small lighthouse on it. As we drove up the impossibly steep roads, and crested into view of the sun setting over the ocean, suddenly the trip was worth it. The vast expanse of the Vestmannaejyar archipelago spread out in a line in the golden haze of the setting sun. We walked around the top of the promontory, with sheer cliffs and raucous seabirds all around. The irony was not lost on us that all the stress and effort of getting here late ended up guaranteeing us amazing sunlit vistas.
Island sunset from promontory, Lava and melted gold, Sunset fenceline, Archipelago
While we were following a fenceline looking for a point to cross, my wife spotted a small flock of Puffins along a ledge. We were able to sit down and get fairly close to them, watching them take off like little stubby torpedos toward the water, where they joined thousands more on their way out to sea. The cliffsides were littered with these guys, which I was pretty excited about. I had really wanted to see Puffins on the trip and thus far we had only seen one, from a distance, not the innumerable flocks we’d been told about.
Puffins!, Puffin pair, Atlantic puffins, Puffin in repose.
We tore ourselves away from the Puffins, and made our way around the promontory to its basexviii. It was already quite late, but the endless Icelandic afternoon let us get in one last hike. We walked along a jumbled section of rocks on the coast, seeing some truly amazingly chaotic geology , seals, of course, more puffinsxix. It was like the rocks had turned to water, then suddenly solidified and the rock waves had crumbled back to earth. We could have hiked on further, but were concerned that all the cafes would be closed by the time we got back to town.
Meadow pipit, Gate and sea, Island fenceline, Rugged cliffside, Puffins, Rugged coastline, Heimaey coastline, Heimaey coastline 2, Geology gone wild.
We made our way through downtown, looking for a café. Our first choice was closed, but we finally found something that was open that looked decent. We parked a couple blocks away, and as we walked toward it, we heard a small but angry voice across the street shout “GET OFF MY PROPERTY”. At first it didn’t register that someone was talking to us, until the shrill voice again commanded in English “GET OFF MY ISLAND”. We turned to see a trio of young teenage boys and girls hanging out on the street corner, watching us with bemused scowls. I chalked it up to the usual resentment of tourists common to a lot of kids who grow up local in tourist areasxx. However as we walked down the street past them, a massive CLANG metallic noise sounded behind us. I turned around in time to see a fairly large METAL PIPE bouncing around on the ground behind me, having been thrown at us by the kidsxxi. One of them pantomimed “not me!” pointing at the other. Part of me wanted to go give them a piece of my mind and potentially other appendages (at high velocity), but cooler heads prevailed and we just kept walkingxxii.
The little café we found turned out to be pretty decent, and gave me an opportunity to get my Icelandic food hat-trickxxiii…they served Puffin! My wife was horrified that I was thinkingxxiv about ordering a “filet of cute”, but I was not to be deterred. While it may seem odd to be so happy to see these fellows during the day, and then eat them at night, Puffin is an old and established food staple of the regionxxv. No matter how odd, I’m hard-pressed to resist odd regional flavor. Thankfully, the Puffin didn’t come served whole, but as medallions in a rich brown sauce. The flavor was very rich, with a texture like a cross between filet mignon and very, very tender chicken. In short, Puffins are as delicious as they are cutexxvi.
Miraculously, when we were done, our tent was still at the campground, and we settled in for an incredibly windy night of something-less-than-sleep.
Sunset from campsite
1 Our destination, Heimay, is the largest island, but is only about 5 square miles in area.
i Nina and Seth, who had been in-country for a week or so before us, were staying a little past our time there in order to get in a longer backcountry hike. They were working with the Canadian vacation allotment, we, on the American.
ii While we were covering ground we’d already seen, much of it from previous days had been in dense cloud cover and fog, so it was impressive to see in clearer weather
iii We’d seen it before, on our epic Skaftafellshaedi hike, but that was through clouds and fog, and from above. I did note a new bird species, the up-till-then elusive Redwing.
iv Yet another entry in the “no way in hell I’ll be able to pronounce this” theme that plagued the trip. I think part of Iceland’s economic downturn in the past few years can be traced to the inherent inefficiency of ridiculously long words. However, if that were the case, I’m at a loss to explain Germany.
v That, hypothetically, would give us the rest of the day and part of the next day to enjoy the Islands. I cannot emphasize “hypothetically” enough in this case.
vi Even though we had gotten an early start on the day, we somehow hemmed and hawed long enough that we misjudged the timing on the ferry to the Islands. We had hoped to make a morning ferry, but realized halfway there that this would not work, and ended up missing the 1PM ferry as well.
vii Even though we’d seen a million waterfalls this trip, the Selfoss waterfall was pretty impressive.
viii Additionally, there was a fairly ludicrous fee for bringing a car over on the ferry (apparently most people go over on foot..though, to be honest, at this point we’d been hemorrhaging money all week long, so that it almost didn’t even register to us anymore.
ix On an odd note, one of the amenities the ferry offered was a video viewing room showing old episodes of Friends. When we took the ferry back the next day, it was still showing Friends. I do not know if this is laziness on behalf of the ferry company, or if Icelanders really like Friends. It was a popular room on the ferry though.
x “Do you expect me to talk? “hahah no, Mr. Bond, I expect you to sightsee….”
xi I say this as compared to most of Iceland which is remarkably…practical? Utilitarian? Even the “quaint” seaside town of Vik still had a good protion of “eastern Germany pre-reunification” feel to it.
xii It was actually a somewhat odd feeling, because the downtown was of large enough size and with buildings that gave the impression of a much larger place…like if you had taken an urban core sample from a town of 10-20,000 and then dropped it directly on a volcano. Given they only have about 4000 inhabitants, sans tourists, the development didn’t match the population. I think there are dark secrets afoot in Heimay. Dark, puffin-related secrets.
xiii The camp situation on Heimay left something to be desired. There was no good indication of where the administration office was. We wandered around the supposed building, and finally found a half-obscured phone number. Then it took quite a while for an off-site representative to come meet us and make the transaction. There were also a distinct lack of modern hygiene facilities. That didn’t bother me much, but my wife was less than pleased I think. We were given two camping choices…one was a small eighth of an acre tattered and reeking field behind a the parking lot of a rundown YMCA type building. The other was a massive boulder field, in the shelter of towering shield walls, with Viking longhouses in its midst and sweeping ocean views. The choice seemed easy to me though for some reason the camp lady was very confused at why we didn’t want the former, because that seemed to be a favorite with the German tourists. Germans, what the hell?
xiv I was fairly sure our tent would be wafting, Mary Poppins-esque, over England by the time we returned.
xv I have an odd thing where when I’m on unlevel surfaces up high, my sense of perspective and balance gets a little short-circuited. Something about not having a level horizon reference. This was in overdrive on that aborted hike.
xvi “Path” is aggrandizement. “Glorified rut” is closer to fact. Glorified rut on a near vertical wall with no shoulder to the trail probably gives a better idea.
xvii Though I did note a new species of Plover here.
xviii In a truly frightening moment, we made a wrong turn, and had to hop a barb wire fence (we were somewhat unsure about the directions in the guide, since the supposed “trail” here seemed to be mostly just the field surrounding the lighthouse property, with no markings whatsoever.). As I was putting a leg over, my wife accidentally let go or let the wire raise substantially, coming in close contact with a potentially tender area. Luckily I got away with just a ragged hole in my jeans.
xix And a new species, Purple Sandpiper.
xx We were fairly obviously tourists, walking around with a large camera and tripod, backpacks, and confused looks on our faces.
xxi Part of me silently applauded their Viking urges to drive invaders from their shores. The vast majority of me wondered about the extent of inbreeding on the island.
xxii I did go repark our car afterwards though. The last thing I needed was a couple of unkempt little Vikings messing with our rental.
xxiii As noted previously, I had declared I would try (at least) the three iconic Icelandic foods: Brennivin (the “black death” schnapps), Hakarl (the fermented shark bits) and Puffin (the…well, Puffin.)
xxiv I say “thinking” about it only to be polite. It was a decision written in stone as soon as I saw it on the menu. Sorry Kate.
xxv Traditionally, they are caught in long poled nets along the cliffs, from boats. The Puffins dive from the cliffs to the water, and due to their stubby wings and inelegance in the air, are not able to easily shift trajectory, making them easy to catch.
xxvi My wife actually ended up trying it, but decided it tasted like liver to her, and declined to have more.