Travel: Edge of the world

Full set of photos

The clouds had rolled in by the time we got to the hotel last night, so I was pleasantly surprised to find in the morning that we were surrounded by mountains. After a quick hotel breakfast, we piled into our van and headed  to our first stop, Ytri Tunga, in search of seals. We did spot a few seals bobbing in the sunrise-dappled water, but my attention was largely focused away from the water. For all my desire the previous day to see mountains, I definitely had the chance to drink them in today. The beach was situated next to a breathtaking range of mountains. Though largely overcast, the cloud cover was high enough to actually see the mountain tops, and the sun was just beginning to peek through in places, shining a spotlight on a few glaciers.

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From there, it was a relatively short drive to Búðir, a hamlet on the westernmost tip of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. I was surrounded by stunning vistas, from waterfall-draped mountains to shorelines strewn with chunks of basalt rock. It’s also the site of a charming inn and tiny church–apparently ships and fishing boats had been landing here for hundreds of years. After about 30 minutes of strolling the beaches and drinking in the view, we piled back in the van and headed onwards.

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Our next destination was the fishing village Arnarstapi, situated at the foot of Mt. Stapafell and alongside some impressive basalt cliffs. We took the path from the village and followed the coastline, glimpsing striking views including the one below (I dubbed it the Lonely Mountain, which I felt befit my journey).

Mt. Stapafell
Mt. Stapafell

There were a number of interesting land bridges and holes in the basalt cliffs, where one could peer down into the ocean. Waves would sporadically crash dramatically against the cliff base, usually when my camera was down. Nevertheless, I felt that surge of joy that one gets when traveling, the thrill of seeing a new place and being awe-struck by its beauty.

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cliffs at Arnarstapi

We eventually wound our way back to the van, where we drove to a nearby cafe for a quick lunch. Quick only because we had a date with a lava tube. Vatnshellir cave was created after an eruption around 8000 years ago and purportedly the entry site that inspired Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth. Equipped with helmets and flashlights, we met our lava tube guide by what looked like a miniature missile silo but was really the entrance to the cave via a spiral staircase. We learned about the different lava formations that resembled stalagmites and stalactites. The walls glittered with flecks of gold (actually bacteria and basically the only life capable of surviving down there). We descended another spiral staircase into a lower tube, a vast cavern 35m below the surface. Our guide had us turn our lights and electronic equipment off to experience true darkness. It was haunting being in the black, but peaceful. Perhaps peaceful because one doesn’t have to worry about processing stimuli from one of our dominant senses and can just listen to the sounds of dripping water making its way slowly from the surface.

Vatnshellir cave (8000 year old lava tube tunnel)
Vatnshellir cave (8000 year old lava tube tunnel)

After we’d had our fill of the cave, we headed back to the surface and rejoined the land of the light. It was a relatively short drive to our next destination, Djúpalónssandur Beach. We didn’t go down to the beach right away but instead by a “secret” path along the cliff’s edge. For those willing, it eventually involved some mildly precarious scampering. But it was there, looking out into the mist, that I found the end of the world. Not really, of course, but standing on a lava formation jutting out into the ocean, where one cannot see anything beyond, does make one feel rather dramatic.

Djúpalónssandur beach
Djúpalónssandur beach

From there we made our way down to Djúpalónssandur beach. There was a kind of a beauty to its stark severity, with its black sand and rusted fragments of a long-forgotten shipwreck strewn about. It apparently used to be a major fishing port but has long been uninhabited. I wandered down through the  rocks and came across “lifting stones”, a set of smooth, very heavy rocks that were historically used to test fishermen’s strength (weight ranges from 23-154 kg/50-340 lbs). I love the translations of the different names of the stones (“full strength”, “half strength”, “weakling” and “useless”). I was with the English/American group at the time, and one of the guys just had to have a go. Needless to say, he was not successful and, to the amusement of all, split his pants trying!

We eventually headed off to our final stop of the day, the famed Mt. Kirkjufell, which is apparently the most photographed mountain in Iceland. And indeed, when we arrived, there was a line-up of photographers camped out with their tripods (packing some serious hardware that made me feel a little inadequate). As we walked up, one moron had stepped over the rope to set up his gear essentially at the top of the waterfall and was therefore sitting in everyone’s shot (in his bright orange jacket). I commiserated with one of the photographers in the line-up, and he thankfully had the wherewithal to go shout at him to get out of the way. It was a beautiful mountain (I imagine even more so when one can see the top of it). But I was equally struck by the beautiful mountains behind the line of photographers–snow-covered and peeking out through the mist, with Icelandic horses grazing below–I was bemused that they were all so fixated on shooting this one angle, perhaps without noticing or appreciating the beauty behind them.

Mt. Kirkjufell
Mt. Kirkjufell

We drove about halfway back to Reykjavik before stopping at a gas station/diner for a spot of dinner. Night had fallen, and as we continued onward, we gazed hopefully out the car windows, praying for a flicker of light in the sky. But alas, despite spotting a few stars amongst the clouds, it was too overcast to see anything. No Northern Lights for me! I wasn’t terribly disappointed, as that certainly wasn’t my main reason for coming to Iceland. I felt worse for a couple of the girls on the trip, one of whom had saved for years to travel to Iceland and see the Lights. I did have a chance to chat with the folks from the English/American group a bit more. They all met while traveling and continue to travel like crazy (one of them says he travels about 120 days a year). I mentioned there’s a possibility I might be in the UK this year for a conference, and so we exchanged emails with the hope that we’d be able to meet up again. All in all, a very successful day, and certainly my favourite of the trip thus far. Seeing gorgeous landscapes and making new friends–isn’t that what traveling is all about?

 

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