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Iceland: Day 8 – on which I rested

I said my goodbyes to Gröf in the morning and was back in Reykjavik by lunchtime, sorry to see the end of my riding trip but secretly looking forwards to some less social time after the big riding group (yeah…introvert problems).

Reykjavik Botanical Gardens

An unexpected turf house in the Botanical Gardens.

Since my overnight hotel was further towards the outskirts of Reykjavik, I was also within easy walking distance of the Reykjavik Botanical Gardens. I was thinking rather more in terms of a quiet walk than anything else, but in actual fact the gardens were well-worth the time to visit: I can only imagine it’s a labour of love keeping everything alive through an Icelandic winter.

There was also an expected bonus to my walk: a turf hut that frankly looks as if it was in use as a storage house, with strong overtones of Edoras. I’m pretty sure that’s not what I was supposed to be photographing in the Botanical Gardens, but it is, nonetheless, what I photographed.

Iceland: Day 9 – Into the Westfjords

My destination for day 9 was the town of Ísafjörður, the largest settlement in the Westfjords. Google indicated somewhere around six hours’ driving, which is a short day by my standards and left plenty of time for stops to drool over the scenery.

Iceland

Somewhere on the road North.

Icelandic roads are mostly one lane either way, and because of that, they prefer that you don’t just stop your car wherever you happen to be to take photos. Sadly, this is a losing battle against the hordes of tourists infesting the roads, but usually a dodged tourist reveals a perfectly good pull-over space no more than a kilometre on; the Icelanders know their scenery is liable to instill an itchy photo-finger in most people.

I headed out of Reykjavik – actually not in the first car that Nordic Rentals tried to give me, because not only was it beat to hell but the engine wouldn’t start. (Agent: “It’s a manual transmission. You have to put the clutch down.” Me, in irritation, having done just that five times: “My own car is a manual. I know how to drive one. Your car won’t start.”) The second one started on second try and the driver door wasn’t falling off, so I cut my losses and hit the road in a beautiful sunny morning. The road got more spectacular the further North I got, although as I headed up into the highlands, the weather began to close in.

As I hit the Westfjords proper, I turned off the main road onto the 60, billed as a slightly-less-main route along the South edge of the Westfjords to Ísafjörður.

Fjords. Waterfalls. Scenery. It sounded like exactly what the doctor ordered for a vacation drive, and actually I can well believe that in clear weather it would be a really beautiful, if technical drive. You meander along the edges of fjords, climb up to passes cut through with little streams and lakes full of swans, and aside from the occasional intrepid camper van or local (you can tell who the locals are, they pass you at +30kpmh), the road is largely empty.

Dynjandi

More Dynjandi, because you really can’t do it justice without visiting…

However, what the map doesn’t quite make clear is that a few kilometres into the Westfjords the road loses its surface. No worries, I’d hired a 4x4 (SUV for my North American friends), so I had the clearance and suspension to deal with most of the potholes, and happily my guesses on which ones I could safely put my nose into without bidding a fond adieu to my axles were good ones.

Less fortunately for me, the weather decided it had given me enough of a free ride the previous week, and within an hour of hitting the unsurfaced part, I was in torrential rain (which turned my road into a mud track), cross-winds quite capable of staggering a big 4x4, and very variable visibility. I’ll colour in the picture a bit by adding that my muddy track in many places had a sheer cliff up one side and a sheer cliff down the other side into a fjord, and long stretches of hairpin climbs up the sides of passes where there was nothing at all to stop the wind…but at least the cloudfall meant I couldn’t see just how far down a misjudgement could send me.

My track, however, had one major advantage, and that was that it led directly to a spectacular waterfall, quite literally 500 metres off the main road: Dynjandi. I was very ready for a stop by that point, even if it took me a moment to pry my grip off the steering wheel, and so I went to explore.

Dynjandi is actually the big fall at the top of the trail, but there are four or five minor falls on the way up there in the space of maybe a kilometre and half walk, and some of them, while smaller, are equally beautiful, with white spray, black rock, and some of the greenest moss I’ve ever seen. After 45 minutes wandering around and staring at water having fun, I felt equal to getting my ass back on my track and getting to my hotel. (Google, by this point, had conceded that six hours’ driving time was wildly optimistic, and upped its total trip estimate to 8 or 9 hours.)

After another couple of sea-viaducts, where intrepid people have built a road short-cut right across a fjord to save time (the wind loved these sections), I was in the last 12 km to Ísafjörður, and breathed a sigh of relief when I got tarmac back under my tyres. It was a trifle premature. The next road sign was for a tunnel. OK. Look on the positive side: no way in hell was there going to be a storm-force crosswind in there. I drove on my merry way (no need to turn the headlights on, I’d been relying on those suckers for hours by then…). About 500 metres into the tunnel, there was a single track road sign. I may, hypothetically, have made some comments. While I was still expressing my opinion on one way freaking road tunnels, I saw oncoming lights, and realised in very short order that I was in a one-way tunnel, and I had nowhere I could pull over. My reaction put even my previous commentary in the shade.

My car

After another couple of days of high-velocity rain, my car looked much cleaner.

However, at some point in every abject clusterfuck, you realise that going back will be more painful than going on, so I prayed my oncoming wasn’t a tourist, and kept going. After all, someone, somewhere, must have put a pull-over somewhere…right? Sure enough, 300 metres past my come-to-Jesus moment, I passed a car politely tucked into a pull-out, and realised that northbound (me) had right of way, and southbound got the pull-outs.

Luckily for me, my hotel was clearly used to people showing up late, and equally used to cars plastered a uniform shade of brownish-orange. I got a grin and my key, and an off-hand comment that the restaurant was serving and hotel guests got 10% off. All this sounded good to me.

It wasn’t until I got up to my room and realised that my hotel had concrete walls half a metre thick, what looked like four layers of glass in the windows, and some of the gusts were still making the lights flicker that it came to me I hadn’t just been over-reacting to the road conditions.

Iceland: Day 10 – Ísafjörður

Isafjordur

Ísafjörður from a trail above town, looking NE towards the mouth of the fjord.

I’d had some plans to drive out from Ísafjörður and see puffin nesting sites and shipwrecks and whatnot, but morning the next day indicated that the weather had settled in for some fun, and I wasn’t tempted to try my luck on the back roads again. (My decision was solidified by an email from the Super Jeep tour organisers I was supposed to be visiting Askja with a couple of days later, politely notifying me that the forecast was so bad that they were cancelling that day.)

Instead, I put on my rain gear and went to explore Ísafjörður, which was actually thoroughly worth the time. I hit the tourist office first, since it was across the parking lot from my hotel, and got a wide grin and a ‘Yeah, we keep thinking we should add some signage to that tunnel, but we’ve never quite got to it.’ from the staff. Fifteen minutes later, armed with a town map and a comprehensive inventory of walks suitable for the weather, I got started.

Ísafjörður harbour

Westfjords Heritage Museum at Ísafjörður.

The oldest part of Ísafjörður is built on a low-lying spit that pushes most of the way across the fjord, but the town now stretches back quite a long way along the edges of the fjord, buttressed by some of the biggest anti-rock-slide / snow-slide defences I’ve ever seen. It would take a tank battalion some time and effort to blast through. I’m standing on one for that photograph of town, above.

Operating on habit, my second stop of the morning was the harbour, populated by some very business-like looking trawlers, and much to my surprise, some yachts. Between the tunnel and those yachts, I was seriously considering finding the local office and turning in my ‘crazy’ stripes. Five minutes after that, I came across a group of people in drysuits (which actually made sense in that weather). I watched them for a few more seconds, and realised that they were planning on sea-kayaking. It’s official. I’m not crazy.

I headed back into town and repaired the damage to my ego in the Gamla Bakaríið, which was a very good brunch stop, and, especially for Iceland, very reasonably priced.

I decided not to try the scramble up to the Troll Seat above town; not only could I not see a clear path up, but the Troll Seat itself was only intermittently visible from sea level. Instead, I walked inland along the top of one of those rock-slide defences I mentioned, and got a feel for the layout of town while stretching some of long-distance driving kinks out.

By the time I got back into the town centre several hours later, it was dinner time, and if anything, the wind had got up. I’d been assured by the tourist office that if I’d survived driving the 60 the previous day, the 61 out of town to Akureyri would be a cake-walk, and I’d believed them…right up until I saw that squad of sea-kayakers.

I wandered off to the Húsið restaurant for dinner, and got the kind of hot chocolate that brought a tear of appreciation to my eye after a day walking in the cold, and a window seat. By my window seat were flag poles. There are all kinds of formulas for amateur sailors about how you calculate wind speed by the average angle of flags in said wind. As these were straight out and vibrating the very sturdy poles they were attached to, I took a flyer that even the less experienced sailor would probably agree with my estimate of wind pushing 60 knots.

In fact, Ísafjörður looked as if that kind of weather was exactly what it was designed and built for. I didn’t get more than a glimpse of it in sunlight, but I’m actually weirdly glad I saw it in a storm – not least because there was a trio of ravens doing their damnedest, when I walked along the seawall, to land on the top of a radio aerial in the teeth of the gale. I’ve never seen a raven grimly hanging onto a landing spot with its beak while trying to get a grip with its claws before.

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