Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Birds, new friends, and a bus ride home

With such a clear sky and no clouds, it’s always quite cold in the tent at night, but by 6am the sun is shining down, warming everything up and by 7am it’s unbearably hot inside, despite stripping away the layers and opening my sleeping bag. I crawl out for a shower and a few cups of free coffee. No breakfast today. I want to get in a good hike before the bus picks me up at 2. 

This morning I head out for the old road behind the cemetery and take along my wading shoes and a towel so I can cross that river. It’s cold and just above my ankles, but the hot sun dries my feet in no time at all. Even after the river, traces of an old road or trail are long visible. It climbs a bit into the mountain after turning towards the sea, passing some old ruins again, and when I reach the sandy coast there’s a fantastic view. Off to the right is a sort of obelisk that I closely inspect before turning back. There might have been an inscription one day, but it’s weather-beaten now. 

The beach here offers a lot of goodies to look at – first of all, so many different animal footprints! Bird prints of all shapes and sizes, fox prints and who knows what all else. Just no humans. There are also all kinds of bones, including a fox skull with teeth (which will later adorn my kitchen window sill), driftwood and various other items that have washed up onto shore.

I finish the circuit by hiking back along the beach. All in all, 6km this morning and I’m back by 11 to tear down camp. The friendly German mother and daughter team invite me for a cup of tea, which I gladly accept. The midday sun is warm and it’s nice to sit outside and chat. But I’m hungry now and grab a quick burger in the cafe. Afterwards I just wait in the sun for the bus, while watching with amusement how two Icelandic girls try fishing their credit card out from under the steps that they dropped there. I was able to witness their success before climbing on board.

Dagmar & Laura
 It’s a different bus driver, plus one Italian girl and a Danish couple as passengers. The Danish woman had a biking accident on these roads yesterday. She took a fall and needed stitches in her arm. Even something simple like that is a major action in these remote parts, and anything more than that would require evacuation to Reykjavík by helicopter since the tiny hospital in Patreksfjörður just isn’t equipped and staffed to handle anything more. I count my lucky stars than nothing happened to me out there alone, since my cell phone didn’t even have reception in that area to call for help. But I am aware of these dangers and as responsible as can be, and take the necessary precautions. You just can’t stop living life to the fullest worrying about what might possibly all happen. After all, my life motto is: I don’t do “what ifs”.

Museum at Hnjótur

We stop at Látrabjarg for a good hour, and although it’s my third time here in the last four days it’s not one bit boring. My new German friends are there too and it’s fun to share the excitement with them. The puffins are photogenic as ever and the time is over way too quickly. The poor Danish couple also wants to stay longer. The wife makes it to the bus on time but her husband comes jogging along all sweaty about 10 minutes later. He just couldn’t tear himself away from those cute little birds. But it’s time to go. We drop off the Danes in Hnjótur and take a 20 minute break, just time for a piece of apple cake and a quick look around outside. There’s no time to go into the museum, which I really would like to do one day. In Patreksfjörður we have another 20 minute wait and the Italian girl and I continue on to Brjánslækur, where we switch drivers and busses. But during the wait, I start chatting with the bus driver’s wife Þóra, who doesn’t speak a lick of English and comes from Ísafjörður, living on my same street just down the block. She’s a really friendly, jovial lady and I get many hugs and kisses from her and we exchange numbers and agree to meet soon for coffee. 

Ferry Baldur
We’ve picked up 4 more passengers in Brjánslækur and the rest of the ride is uneventful although beautiful. I’m really tired and struggle to keep my eyes open because the scenery is so fantastic and the mixture of sun and interesting clouds so pretty. At Dynjandi we only have 15 minutes, and in Þingeyri there’s time to grab a sandwich at the gas station, and it’s almost 10pm before we finally roll into Ísafjörður. I’m exhausted and look forward to my own bed.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Biking to seals and puffins

Breiðavík in the background
I sleep well, there’s no wind, no clouds and once when I opened an eyeball during the night I saw the red glow of the midnight sun through the walls of the tent. Today will be physically quite tough, so I again chow down at breakfast and also drink as much water as I can. Roadrunner and I are on the road at 9:45. 

It’s uphill all the way until the pass at Látraháls and I don’t want to wear myself out too early so I walk and push my bike. There’s not a cloud in the sky. It’s hot and the road is dusty and my lips are dry and cracked and I’m constantly thirsty. It feels like the desert. Every time a car passes, which thankfully isn’t too often, it kicks up a cloud of dust covering me and my bike. The sand grits between my teeth and I can feel my face getting sunburned. I stop at lake Svartbakavatn for a good long drink and fill my water bottle. 

Road to Keflavík
Soon afterwards I check out Taglbrekkur, the road to Keflavík, pedaling down it a few meters before quickly giving up. As one of the staff at Breiðavík warned me, the road is not good for biking. The rocks are too big and the rest too sandy. Besides, the road looks thoroughly uninviting – a drab and dusty road to nowhere. I’m sure it gets pretty in due time, but I will save that for another day.

Beaches at Brunnar
So I continue on to the bird cliff and after the steep serpentine pass, things get easier. I take a long break in the beaches at Brunnar. A French couple is having fun filming the krías attacking their heads. The campsite there is very near to the beach and the view is amazing. There are no facilities except for a toilet, and all the busses going to Látrabjarg stop there to use it. Despite that, I can imagine it would be nice to camp there and walk on the beach at night.

And here out in the middle of nowhere I see a familiar face – it’s Einar from Westfjords Adventures. I roll up on my bike much to the amusement of the elderly passengers in his bus and have a nice chat. We meet again later at the bird cliff for more small talk. 

From there the rest of the route to Látrabjarg is easy by bike. Light ups and downs to keep things moving, but nothing too strenuous. I find a safe place to park my bike and head to the lighthouse. Einar said that seals often sit out on the rocks, and indeed there are at least three of them out there today, sunning themselves. 

I point them out to a British lady, who in turn shares her binoculars with me. Then I hike up the cliff again, but not too far. Today my legs are tired and I prefer to sit in the grass enjoying the view. I head back at about 3pm. It takes an entire hour to push my bike up the serpentine pass and I pass a Dutch guy on foot with just a light daypack. After the pass, it’s downhill most of the way back to camp. I feel light and free and although I am covered in grime from head to toe, I playfully swerve back and forth on the road. All in all, each route took me about 2 hours excl. breaks.

It’s been a perfect day but I have never been on such a hard bike tour before, and it reminds me of the marathon trekking tours I took years ago through the highlands. I love the combination of physical exercise to the limit, being outdoors, and doing it all – for the most part - alone. I roll into camp feeling like a warrior, and indeed several people stop to chat. Some saw me on the road, others saw me at Látrabjarg – they wonder about the little gear I have, and the fact that I am a woman travelling alone makes their jaws drop. 

Roadrunner climbing the pass
10:30 pm
But I don’t much feel like chatting just yet. Basic human needs take priority. I take a full shower, clothes and all, and wash the grime out of my hair. Then I relax in the sun on the terrace of the hotel with a cold Cola Lite waiting for the restaurant to open. I’m treating myself to a good meal tonight, I’m famished! Lamb chops, red wine, and dessert of catalan crème custard. Later, around 9pm while relaxing at the tent, a young girl from Berlin comes up to chat. Laura is in Iceland for 9 months, working on various farms. Her mom Dagmar is here too, and now they’re seeing some of the sights together. It’s nice to have some friendly campsite neighbors. (Please get in touch if you read this!)

Monday, July 6, 2015

Hike -> Keflavík via Stæðarvötn

Breiðavík hotel & campground

It’s 12:30 am and I wake up for nature’s call. There’s a beautiful midnight sun over the ocean. Sleepily I crawl out of my tent to take a picture and realize many other campers have the same idea. I fall back asleep until 6:45. I’m the first person in the shower – I like to be an early bird. The breakfast buffet for ISK 1900 (€13) is really nice and worth the price. It’s quite large and nicer than the past few days in the hotels. I particularly enjoy the waffles again. In any case, I stuff myself to the brim. It will be a tough day of hiking. Before I head out, I tell one of the employees my plans for the day for safety reasons and she gives me some valuable tips about the trail.  

The small, lower lakes 

My goal is the bay of Keflavík. If the weather is clear, I should be able to see the red sands of Rauðisandur as well. After hiking up to the main road, I cross it and head out into the moss-covered lava. There is no trail and for the most part it isn’t marked. It’s a gradual uphill all the way. I pass several lakes belonging to Stæðarvötn, keeping south of them until the largest and last lake, where I hop a small river and cross to the north shore. This lake offers grassy shores, so it’s a nice place for a first longer rest and swig of cold water from the river. A singe loon (himbrimi) floats on the serene lake for me to admire. The water is fairly warm – at least not ice cold like most mountain lakes.
So far the terrain has been tough on the feet – very soft moss covering lava in some spots, twisting my feet as I sink into it, and in others very hard, rocky lava with lots of gaps in between to catch feet and ankles. It’s very strange seeing this route in person after planning it so carefully on maps two years ago. 

Larger, upper lake

At the end of the lake, the cairns begin marking the way over the pass. I lose them once and get off the trail, but it’s not a problem with GPS. The terrain is vast and simple, with no dangerous surprises if you take a wrong turn. I hike just beyond the pass, to a spot with the best view over the bay and red sands, with the little red emergency shelter dotting the coast. And there I sit for a long time admiring the view. I don’t want to hike down to the bay because that means going back up on the return trip. (Later I find out there is a beached whale down there, it’s a shame I missed it although I heard the stench was pretty bad). 

I head back when the wind gets chilly and the return trip is much easier, quicker, going downhill all the way in familiar terrain. The cairns are also easier to see from this perspective. As I pass the upper lakes again, I think this would be a nice place to camp. Grassy shores, and a river or two for fresh water, offer all a camper needs. 

View of Keflavík
At 4pm I’m sitting on the terrace of the hotel restaurant sipping on free coffee. There’s a bit of sun and I’m alternating between writing, reading a book, and watching people come and go. Afterwards I take a refreshing nap in the tent, before heading back to the café for a burger. After a day of hiking in the vast outdoors, this burger tastes real fine. While munching, I see a huge container ship on the ocean off in the distance. I wonder where it’s going, where it’s from, it seems so close to shore. It reminds me of an Icelandic movie I saw, where the country folk would swim out to meet passing foreign ships to trade alcohol when it was banned for a period.  

Heading back
I top it off with more coffee, and deem my feet sufficiently rested for an evening walk. Off in the other direction this time, past the old cemetery, then following an old road towards Hafnargil until I reach a river that is too wide and deep to hop. I don’t have my wading shoes or a towel, so I call it a day and head back. After yet another shower, I treat myself to a glass of wine in the café.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Puffins and a dead seal

Breakfast at Ráðagerði is fine, the same old buffet stuff with no surprises, although the view in the breakfast room is beautiful overlooking the fjord. I sit at a table with stuff left from the previous guests, and there it sits throughout my entire breakfast, although the table is very small and it’s overflowing with dirty plates and coffee cups. The nice thing is that checkout isn’t until noon, which is the latest I’ve seen so far in my travels. Usually guesthouses are keen to get rid of their guests right after breakfast so they can start cleaning. Since I’m catching the bus later to Látrabjarg at 1pm, I stay in the room as late as possible, even taking a last-minute bath after getting sweaty during my morning walk through town (and notice that the tulips are still in bloom!).

There’s an eerie low fog this morning that makes for interesting photos, but it burns off by noon. I’m the only person on the bus to Látrabjarg, so there’s plenty of room for my bike. I pay close attention to the road, seeing it now from the viewpoint of a mountain-biker. It’s really dusty and dry and the slopes are steep, doesn’t look like too much fun to be honest. 

We stop at the bird cliff for about 25 minutes and it’s simply awesome. I’ve been here just once before several years ago. I don’t feel it’s overcrowded one bit. Sure the parking lot is full, but it’s a small parking area and the people spread out over a large area. There is plenty of room to sit entirely alone and watch the birds. There are puffins galore and they are so close and tame. I walk as far along the trail as time allows. I really need to hike the entire trail one day, most people only stay on the very first part. I nearly jog back to the bus with a grin on my face. I’m certain I have some really good puffin pictures. 

Then the bus drives to Breiðavík, where I get off. The hotel is hopelessly full but I knew that and have my tent. Besides the weather is good (partly cloudy today, no wind and mild) and will get even better the next few days. The campsite is not as nice as I remember it. It’s just a big open field and there is no spot specifically for tents only, meaning cars and campers can park right next to a tiny tent like mine. That’s not real nice since tent campers with no cars are usually seeking solitude. I pick a spot in the corner with the vestibule facing the beach, where the evening sun shines right inside. It turns out to be a wise choice although other tents and cars surround me eventually an all sides, but I can lie in my tent with the door open and look out onto the beach into the sun without anyone seeing me.

It costs 2000 kr to camp (€14) but showers are free as well as free tea and coffee day or night. More importantly, campers can hang out in the café inside, just reading or having tea, or sit out on the deck in the sun. So although this is one of the more expensive campsites, I feel it’s worth the price. It’s priceless to be able to warm up a bit inside when you camp. 

After getting settled and having coffee and a piece of chocolate cake, I go for a really long walk on the beach. There’s just so much to see! I walk all the way to the old fishing huts of Bót and Kumbarapollur. There are interesting flowers and moss to look at, and a stinky dead seal, lots of sponges, driftwood, a whole paddling of ducks, various bones … I sit and watch the waves for a while and daydream. 

When I get back to the campsite, the sun is shining brightly but my legs are really tired, walking in the sand is hard! I take a shower and at 10pm I’m lying in my little tent bed with the vestibule open and the sun shining in my face. Life is good!