Asbyrgi and Dettifoss

When I was a couple of weeks old my parents moved from Kolkata to Hyderabad. Our first house was in a neighborhood called Domalguda. “Doma” in Telugu is mosquito, so the name of the neighborhood roughly translates to the mosquito place. Which isn’t surprising. A few decades before my arrival in Hyderabad, Ronald Ross, an English army doctor, had discovered the malaria parasite while he was posted in Hyderabad. In 1902 he got the Nobel prize for this and later they named a street after him in my hometown, not far from Domalguda.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered that Mývatn in northern Iceland is “the midge (or sandfly) lake”. For the next two days Jo has planned an exploration of the region around this midge lake.

We set off from our cabin in Svartaborg across a broad valley and up though a lava flow to the lovely little town of Húsavík. The town is on the eastern side of a bay and directly to the west across the bay is a snow covered range of mountains. Overlooking the harbor is a hundred year old wooden church that is quite different from the churches we have seen everywhere in Iceland. Next to the church we found the Lókal Bistro, and settled down for a breakfast of crepes. It’s another lovely summer day in northern Iceland.

After breakfast we drive to Asbyrgi canyon about 60 km away. The canyon is approximately 3.5 km long and 1 km wide with towering walls of geometric basalt. A small creek runs through the middle. At the far end there is a tiny lake and a lovely woodland which is unusual in Iceland. The canyon ends rather abruptly in a horseshoe shape and you are surrounded by walls of rock and a tiny waterfall. Legend has it that Odin’s eight-footed horse stepped here during his travels to middle earth and made this canyon. The truth is scarier. To our south is the mighty Vatnajökull glacier which covers 8% of Iceland’s landmass. The ice of Vatnajökull so vast and deep that if it was spread evenly over Iceland it would smother the land under a 90-story thick slab of ice. But under the ice is fire. About 8000 years ago, and then again about 3000 years ago, a volcano under Vatnajökull erupted and melted a chunk of ice. That resulting melt-water gushed out to sea along the shortest straightest path and carved out the Asbyrgi canyon out of ballast rock in a catastrophic short and sweet flooding event. Even today, flooding caused by volcanoes remain Iceland’s greatest geological threat. People live along the coast at sea level. Towering above them are huge chunks on ice under which lay smoldering volcanoes.

From Asbyyrgi we drive south along the river valley. It looks like a desert on one side with undulating heaps of brown sand and grey ash and occasional enormous rocks, weathered into strange forms, and rolling green plains on the other. In the distance we can see the snows of Vatnajökull but the huge Icelandic desert highlands separate us – with no habitation at all in between. We pull up at a scenic spot where the kids and I are pummeled by wind when we step out to take a look. Occasionally we see an F road branch off into the distance, with pictorial and written warnings that only 4-wheel cars with high clearance should be driven on these roads. Normal rental cars are not permitted. There is a big sticker across the passenger side dash in our rental car with the same message.

We soon arrive at the west side of Dettifoss, “Europe’s most powerful waterfall”. A mile long hike over a desolate field of geometric basalt rocks (I tried to photobomb Vivian’s picture but only got an eye in there) brings us to the almost chocolate colored Jökulsá á Fjöllum river which flows out from under Vatnajökull’s ice fields carrying millions on tonnes of crushed rocks. At Dettifoss, the river plunges about 45 m, sending a roaring torrent of water downwards and a cloud of mist upwards that can be seen for miles. Even from a distance you can sense its power. In the second photo you can see some people including the person in white pants standing close to the near edge of the falls while we are still a bit further away. If you look carefully you can see people on the other bank too, almost directly above White Pants. Vivian’s next picture was taken from approximately where White Pants is standing.

And here’s a photo of the top of Evan’s face at Dettifoss that I exported from Vivian’s camera. Worth saving : – )

After Dettifoss, we drive back towards Húsavík with a quick stop at a view point above a cliff overlooking the sweeping Öxarfjörður bay. The cliff directly below me is full of nesting puffins and periodically a few fly up in front of my face. Puffins look like tiny flying penguins and to my untrained eye they appear to put a lot of effort into flying.

Remember that southwest to northeast continental rift that cleaves Iceland which we met on our first day at Þingvellir National Park? This is where it comes out on the other side. In 1975 there was a swarm of earthquakes in this bay and the ground subsided by about 6 feet. This area was filled with water to form Skjálftavatn, or “earthquake lake”, which you can see in the background towards the right end of the photo below (which I share from the internet, but as much as I have tried, I can’t find the original again to link to it or credit the author).

We finish the day with a lovely sit-down dinner at Naustið, a restaurant in Húsavík that reminds me of East Side Cafe, that restaurant-in-a-house in Austin that no longer exists. We head back to Svartaborg and a soak in the outdoor hot tub before retiring for the day.

Horses and More

The sun came up bright and it was going to be a beautiful day. We drove for a few miles back west along the ring road till we came up on a turn that took us to the Galsi farm and a sign that said “horse rentals”. It was indeed a good day to rent a horse. So we parked by the barn and walked up to the corral that had several horses. Three dogs, two cats, and an ewe with two kids came up to greet us.

Presently two young women rode into the corral. They and their horses were breathing hard and the girls had big grins on their faces like they had just finished having fun. The horse trainer (the other one worked mostly with the sheep) told us to sign up and pay online which Jo did on her phone. Then they got Vivian and Jo their horses (Naria and Doogar), and a bucket full of brushes and showed them how to brush their horses.

Everything in Iceland on a beautiful summer day moves slowly. Vivian and Jo brushed away for a while. The horses were like big dogs and loved being brushed. Jo’s horse, Doogar, nuzzled into her. Presently the horses were saddled and the four girls went off riding over the meadows towards a river.

The horse trainer girl was German and she was taking a gap year to work in Iceland and have fun. She was an experienced rider and had just returned from a horse show where they had put the horses through their paces. While the girls were out riding I spent some time reading about Icelandic horses, or simply Icelandics while sitting on a great wooden chair outside, with a dog asleep at my feet and a cat on my lap.

Icelandics are considered their own breed. Horses were brought to Iceland by the Norse. In 982 AD the AlÞingi, the Icelandic parliament, passed a law banning the import of any more horses. For the last 1000 years the Icelandics have developed on their own. There are few natural equine diseases in Iceland, and the breed is long lived. But the population is susceptible to foreign pathogens because they have lost their natural immunity. To protect the herd, once a horse leaves Iceland, it can never be readmitted. The Icelandic is small at 13 to 14 hands but it is considered a horse, not a pony. It has two additional natural gaits that other horses don’t have. These gaits apparently allow the horse to be ridden fast but still very comfortably. Icelandics are mostly used for recreation these days, but they are still often used during the roundup of sheep in the highlands. While we’ve been seeing Icelandics all along our journey, the density of horse farms in this region is definitely higher. On our way in yesterday, we saw mares and feeding foals and large herds frolicking around spiritedly in the meadows and river banks.

Jo and Vivian had a great time and returned happy riders. Jo said their horses were gentle and fast, though she did turn down an invitation from the trainer to go even faster.

After riding, we turned east once more and continued along the ring road till we took a diversion to see the turf house at Glaumbær. This is a large home that is built out of 13 interconnected turf buildings. The walls of these buildings are made of cut and stacked blocks of sod, and there is grass growing on the roofs. Imagine taking the “tiles” of sod that you use to lay a lawn, and stacking them on top of each other to make walls. The walls are two meters (six feet) thick and have stood for over 200 years. The work and storage rooms and kitchens have bare walls and you can see the layers of turf. In the main living areas the rooms are fully paneled in wood and you can’t tell that there is anything different about the construction. In addition to the names of places we’ve been seeing, these houses made me think that Toklien must have visited Iceland. I can imagine this home in the Shire.

Unrelated to the type of construction, the area around Glaumbær is historically important. Many well known Icelanders including Lief Erikson (Lief the Lucky) had familial ties to Glaumbær. The church behind the sod home is located where one of the earliest churches in Iceland once stood, and is related to the christianization of Iceland.

Some say it is myth, others believe this is actually how it happened. By the late 900’s, Christianity was poking its head up in Iceland. There were foreign monks. An occasional chieftain had converted. But King Olaf of Norway had still not convinced Iceland to convert. So Olaf took Icelandic people in Norway hostage, hoping this would help convince the islanders to let the Lord in to their hearts. Two chieftains returned to Iceland and the AlÞingi was called to order in 999 AD to discuss the business of Christianity. After much discussion, it looked like there would be civil war, Christians versus pagans. But cooler heads prevailed, and the chiefs agreed that they would all abide by the decision of the lawspeaker. The wise man retired for a day and when he returned, his verdict was a compromise: the entire island would convert to Christianity but secret worship of Odin (Marvel had a firm grip on people even back then) could continue. He himself was a pagan, and he was respected and besides, there was the business of King Olaf. So everyone converted and either hid or threw away their pagan idols. In 1016 AD they got rid of the compromise bit about secret pagan worship and everyone lived in harmony ever after.

After Glaumbær we drove on to Akureyri, the most populous city outside of the region around Reykjavik. It is a lovely city located at the end of a fjord and at the base of a large mountain. Akureyri’s natural harbor doesn’t freeze in winter. There was a giant cruise ship at port and the sidewalks near the harbor were bustling with people. After we went through the town we passed by Iceland’s newest lux geothermal spa – the Forest Lagoon – owned by the same people that run the famous Blue Lagoon spa. Further up above town the ring road passes though a relatively new tunnel. It is the only place where you pay toll in Iceland, using a QR code and your phone. When they were building the tunnel they ran into a big geothermal flow that flooded the tunnel. Work had to stop. Delays and expenses mounted. They eventually diverted the hot water to a stream below and finished the tunnel. Meanwhile, a new spa, the Forest Lagoon, was built to use the hot water down below. Parts of the tunnel were about 10 degrees C (almost 20 degrees F!) warmer than the surroundings.

We continued east and north on the ring road after Akureyri till we finally got to Svartaborg, our home for the next three nights. The cabin is one of six lovely modern buildings well spaced out on the side of a grassy hill. Vivian read, Evan and I played chess, Jo got the outdoor hot tub ready, and we enjoyed the rest of the lovely day. Another day in paradise.

Travel Day

And on the seventh day they rested. While I drove. We had nothing planned except to get from point A to point B about 300 km away. Which was perfect for a rainy gloomy day. We spent the first half of the day on dirt roads in cloud covered heaths, crossing over the “thumb” of the Westfjords. Even for the emptiness of Westfjords this section was desolate. There were no villages or even sheep farms here. Just patches of snow and glacial lakes and ancient lava flows.

At the other end of the road was the village of Hólmavík on the eastern coast of Westfjords. When we got to Hólmavík it had stopped raining and the sky looked a mite brighter. With a population of around 300, Hólmavík has a grocery store, two gas stations, several restaurants (most were closed), and a big modern church on a hill with rainbow painted steps leading to the top (July is Pride month in Iceland and they are proud). Hólmavík also has the Galdrasýning á Ströndum, the Stranda Museum of Sorcery and Witchcraft.

The museum was interesting. The Icelandic sagas, like so many other cultures with a rich heritage of storytelling, are full of tales of magic and witchcraft. For example a few chapters in the Eyrbyggja Saga recounts happenings during the 10th century at a heath in Snæfellsnes, the Fróðárheiði, that we drove over a few days ago. There are ghosts and ghouls and death promises not kept. But this museum isn’t about stories. It delves into the factual history of Iceland from 1640 to 1690 when many people were burned at the stake or tortured to death after being accused of magic and witchcraft. Most of this was concentrated in Stranda, this region of the country, whose symbol today is the three pronged magic wand. The museum explains that economic mobility was very limited. So people were ready to resort to magic to get rich or settle old debts or accuse someone of magic for similar ends. So much of the magic described has to do with making a few extra bucks. Like the trick we nicknamed “money pants”. Here’s the English version of the story of money pants from the most excellent book I bought at the museum. There is a life-sized replica of moneypants with penis and scrotum and all but I’ll spare you.

We finished the self-guided tour and Vivian and Jo had a bite to eat at the cafe. We just missed J. K. Rowling who visited the museum too, on her private yacht. By a couple of years, according to a framed newspaper clipping at the cafe (what’s a newspaper, dad?)

We continued along the coast of Stranda all the way to the southern tip of the Hrútafjörður fjord and joined the paved ring road (which skips the Westfjords). The road swung inland and upwards in the northeast direction till we caught up with the coast again at the nondescript town of Blönduós where we spent the rest of the evening and the night in a nondescript cabin while it continued to drizzle off and on. I got meat soup at the Nesti attached to the local N1 gas station while Jo made the kids some pasta we had been carrying around for just a day like this. We hope for better weather tomorrow.

More WestFjords

We start with a nice breakfast at the Latrabjarg’s dinning room – a beautifully proportioned room that used to be the auditorium of the community center when more people lived around here. Michelle discovers an old upright in the corner and recognizes the brand as popular American piano manufacturer from the past. The owner sees her interest and when he finds out that she is a professional musician, asks if she’d like to try it. She does and the room is full of music for a few minutes. The piano sounds great and Michelle says that it is in good shape.

Then it is time to say goodbye to Alu and Michelle. We are so glad they came. They drive back to Reykjavik today and head back home in a couple of days. The week has gone by quickly.

We drive over the pass at Kleifaheiði heath and back along Vatnsfjörður past where the ferry dropped us off, to the tiny village of Flókalundur. According to local history this is where the first Norse, Raven-Flóki settled, sometime before 900 CE. He climbed up to a mountain and saw an ice filled fjord believed to be Ísafjörður to the north, and said something like “I shall call this land Iceland”. At Flókalundur Jo has plans. Instead of following a nicely paved road along the southern coastline of Westfjords that would get us to our destination sooner, she has me turn north into unpaved cloud covered wildness. Almost instantly we run into road construction. I mean literally. There are huge slowly moving machines that are excavating and dropping rock and aggregate that we drive on moments later. We don’t understand what’s written on the orange warning signs. There are few people in Iceland, so nobody is around to direct traffic. But the construction crew must be better at seeing through the foggy soup because 1) they don’t seem surprised to see us, and 2) they avoid making us a part of the road.

We wind along the cloud-covered muddy road for quite a while – this is a big heath. Around us we get peeks at massive cliffs and mountains and snow banks and eventually the clouds lift and we find ourselves in a beautiful spot. I get out to stretch my legs and look around. I notice that our rental isn’t exactly clean. I can’t tell what color it was. Getting in and out without getting muddied requires acrobatics skills and steady surgeons’ hands. Alas I have neither so instead I have muddy pant legs and hands.

There is a lake to our right and a cliff to our left. A stream cascades into the lake and flows out the other end and disappears over the cliff. Far below I see that there is another wide flat heath with more streams and then even further below is the next fjord, Arnarfjörður. Somewhere around here there’s got to be a nice tall waterfall. Aha! That is why Jo brought us here.

We drive along the edge of the heath and down a steep curved grade to the fjord. The views are fantastic and I have to stop driving a couple of times to take it in (the option to drive and look at the same time is a non-starter). At the bottom we look up and see Dynjandi with six or seven waterfalls tumbling down into one another. The crown jewel is the topmost fall, the tall and badass Fjallfoss. Here’s Jo at one of the other lovely falls.

Vivian and I start climbing up the trail to the base of Fjallfoss, the big bridal veil like falls on the top. It is hard to tell how big the falls are in the photos. The total combined height of the drop of all six falls in Dynjandi is over 150 m. The height of the topmost falls by itself is 100 m. In the photo below there is a ledge at the base of the top falls. There are a handful of people standing there, one with their arms outstretched over their head if you look carefully. That should give you some scale. It also made me wonder why that person and then one by one the others strike Instagram worthy poses. Even from here I can see they aren’t taking selfies.

Then Vivian and I come around a corner on the trail and see a small forest of tripods with cameras mounted on them. The cameras are outfitted with zoom lenses. Two people with hand held radios man the cameras. When the tourists are ready up by the falls they radio the camera crew who then go to that person’s camera and click away. This tour group is going to have some solid Instagram posts. Vivian and I have to make do with this selfie when we get up there on the ledge below the thundering falls…

The road out of Dynjandi is paved. We drive along the first fjord and pass through two tunnels in short order. The second tunnel, Vestfjarðagöng, is the longest tunnel in Iceland. It even has a roundabout in the middle where three highways meet! A large portion of the tunnel is a single narrow lane with tunneled pullouts where oncoming traffic wait for us. The instructions are obviously in Icelandic. Jo follows the car in front of us and we make it out in one piece without pissing off anyone – I think. When we exit from the tunnel we are above the lovely town of Ísafjörður and a fjord with the same name. That fjord is one of six smaller side arms that connect to a bigger fjord, the Ísafjarðardjúp (“djúp” is deep). The views are magnificent. This is the fjord that Raven-Flóki is said to have gazed upon over a thousand winters ago when he named this land Iceland. I look at the very same bit of land and water as Flóki. There is no sign of human habitation as far as the eye can see northwards (there is a two-lane highway with a hybrid car directly behind me : – ). We are as far north as we’ll go. We are above 66 degrees N, but not inside the Arctic circle. But even up here we can’t escape our effects on earth. Iceland is losing its ice caps fast. If Flóki lands here fifty years from now he’ll have to come up with a different name.

We stop at the town of Ísafjörður for gas. Then we notice two guys at the far end of the gas station washing their truck with a hose attached to a big brush in a bay that has a couple more setups to wash cars. We pull up in our muddy car and ask them where/how to pay. They tell us it is a free service. Jo and I get to work and minutes later we have ourselves an almost clean vehicle. We drive around a bit and then stop to eat. We walk past a Thai restaurant with not great reviews and then find a kabab joint. As usual in Iceland there is only one person running everything. He is out of several items. But what we get is great and all four of us chow down our lunch. By then we are the only customers (it is a late lunch) and we chat with him a bit. He is from Kurdistan and arrived in Iceland with his family as a child. He offers his view on Icelandic food. “Their soups are terrible. No seasoning. All my Icelandic friends eat here.” And on geopolitics. “We like the Americans. They are honest. They only want money and oil. The Russians like to kill.” And finally on Turks. “Fuck the Turkish”. He pronounces the “u” as “oo”, and the “T” with a soft “th”. Thoorkish. I apologize to Turkish readers for the man’s rudeness.

We head out with full bellies and a happy clean car and drive up and then down the other side of five of those six southern side fjords of Ísafjarðardjúp for the next couple of hours. At the start the views are nice and I take it all in while I drive. By the time we get to the last one I am beginning think of fjords the same way our new Kurdish friend thinks of Turks. Finally our Apple CarPlay announces “In 600 m turn right”. We go up a dirt road along a lovely mountain stream through a steeply glaciated valley and in a few miles we arrive at Heydalur, our destination for the night.

Heydalur is a country adventure “resort” for people and families. There is a large campground that is slowly filling up with campers and tents and kids. The reception is in a big barn-like wooden building that also houses the dinning facilities and bar and Jo checks us in. The kids’ room is around the other side of the one of the buildings from us. They chill while Jo and I step out to explore. The property in interesting with a near-by outdoor hot tub, an indoor hot pool (in a fairytale-like indoor arbor), and a further away natural hot pool on the other side of a stream. We walk down to the stream but can’t cross it without getting our shoes wet so we return via the stables where we see the horses being led into the pasture for the day.

After our walk and a nice dinner (fish soup, lamb, arctic char) we tell the the kids to go explore and I go back to our room and nod off. Jo wakes me up later and says she can’t find the kids. She’s looked everywhere and even went back down to the stream to check the natural hot tub. She says that there were three naked people on the other side of the stream but it was too far to tell. We agreed that while we can see Vivian getting naked and going off with others, we could not imagine Evan doing that. Then Jo heard their voices from up the mountain on the north side of the valley (I can’t hear shit). After a while we see them and they wave back from what looks like the top of the long flat-topped mountain. I start climbing to go meet them. There is a trail now and then over rocks covered with heather and though the slope is steep the climbing is easy. I pass Vivian and Evan on their way down and Evan warns me that it is a hard climb. Now I have to do this. An hour later I’m on top of the third false peak that I have encounter (Vivian and Evan were on the first when we saw them), and there is at least one more above me, though the top has flattened out. I’m pretty high and can look over to the fjord now. I sit down the enjoy the soft moss and the lovely evening and the total silence. After a while I add a tiny rock to the top of a nearby cairn and walk back down. Meanwhile, Vivian and Evan have been to the nearby hot tub (clothed in swim trunks) and then settled down for the night. It is past 11pm and still bright outside. I fall asleep thinking happy thoughts about Iceland.