Beach Day

After breakfast we climb the steps to the observation platform overhanging Skógafoss. Then we pack up and drive to nearby Reynisfjara Beach. During the short drive the weather turns from beautiful summer morning to North Atlantic gale. By the time we arrive at the beach the rain has mostly stopped but the wind is still howling. I had primed the kids by showing them a YouTube video of stranded tourists on this beach. They had wandered to the edge of the water as most people on beaches do and a rouge wave had come out of nowhere. Several of them suddenly found themselves foundering in waist deep ice cold water. No one was washed out that day but it does happen. Vivian and Evan stop and read the warning sign before they go on the beach, and they are extremely cautious.

The waves that reach this coastline of Iceland have had a lot of room to gather energy, and often a rouge wave gets a bit rowdy. If you swim straight south from here, you’ll miss the bulge of Western Africa as well as the protrusion of Brazil and get all the way to Antartica without touching land anywhere. We are at about 65 degrees N here. Antartica starts at about 72 degrees S at the point directly below Iceland. So that is 137 degrees of latitude or 8220 nautical miles or 9459 miles or 15223 km. The circumference of the earth is about 40,000 km at the equator, so this isn’t too shabby. For those that want to know, the longest distance you can sail in a straight line starts at the coast of Pakistan, passes between Madagascar and Africa, threads between Tierra del Fuego and Antartica, crosses diagonally across the Pacific not far from Hawaii, and ends up in Kamchatka, Russia. That is a 32,000 km straight line, just 8000 km short of going fully around our watery home planet.

We wander around the beach and stick close to the giant cliffs of twisted basalt and try not to get blown away by the wind. Behind us the surf pounds the black sand beach and we keep a wry eye out for tourists being washed away by rouge waves. Fortunately no one obliges and Evan is slightly disappointed.

Incidentally, the last time we were here, there was not another soul and no YouTube videos or warning signs. Evan was four and Vivian was seven and they ran up and down right by the water and we didn’t know any better.

Reynisfjara Beach is a sandbar that runs east to west. We were on the eastern end of it. The western end of the sandbar almost touches the towering cliffs of the island of Dyrhólaey. The island is connected by a causeway and we drive around to it and park next to the trail head at Dyrhólaey. In front of me is one of the most beautiful public restrooms I’ve seen. I stop to admire it and take a picture.

Looking further west from the trail at Dyrhólaey is the view above. Access to the black sand beach is closed off with a rusted chain and a sign that says it is too dangerous to go down there. Eight years ago we had strolled on that beach for an hour and the kids had frolicked on the sand and played below the cliffs. I compare photos – the strip of black sand is much narrower today and it does look precarious with no way to run from a rouge wave.

You may not be able to spot it in the photo above but there is a dot of orange up on the cliff. That is the Dyrhólaey lighthouse and our next destination.

The view from the Dyrhólaey lighthouse is stunning. Cliffs drop away on three sides and puffins cling to tufts of grass. Far below them the black sand beach stretches to the horizon. This is our last stop before a two and half hour drive back to the big city lights of Reykjavik. About halfway back to Reykjavik we drive through the town of Selfoss. There is a Bobby Fischer museum here. In 1972 Bobby beat Boris Spassky in Reykjavik to become the chess world champion. It was the chess match of the century, the chess version of Rocky, a proxy war between the US and back then the USSR, and Bobby returned to America a hero and a household name. In 1992 Bobby, by then more notorious for his antisemitism than his chess, and Boris played again in Yugoslavia. Bobby ignored US and UN sanctions to go to Yugoslavia and a warrant was issued for his arrest by the US government. Bobby never returned to the US. He was eventually arrested trying to leave Japan years later, and while he was in prison there awaiting extradition to the US, he was granted full Icelandic citizenship by the Alþingi on the strength of his 1972 world championship in Reykjavik. Bobby died in 2008 in Iceland and is buried in Selfoss.

We get to Reykjavik and check into our hotel downtown. I look around and find a pho place around the corner. People with Vietnamese sounding names have given it good ratings on google. A few minutes later Vivian, Evan and I are slurping up pho with four heaping spoons of chili oil. Ahh – it is sooo good.

That evening I take a stroll around downtown. It is a beautiful evening and I run into crowds of tourists and some locals. At 10:30 at night it is bright enough to do brain surgery outside. Next morning we pack and I take another walk around downtown, this time with the fam. We are excited to be going home, but mostly we are excited to see Ouiser who Grandma has been taking care of. We are not looking forward to the 67 consecutive days of over 100 F days back in Texas.

We travel well. Fourteen days driving around in Iceland, preceded by two weeks of Jo and the kids driving through Virginia and Maryland. This trip felt different. Vivian and Evan interacted with each other as almost adults. And Jo and I think they had a good time. As the plane rises up into the deep blue sky and the island falls away below us, Jo’s face says it all….

Mossy Lava Rock

Today we have a three hour relaxed drive from Jökulsárlón, the glacier lagoon, to Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s well-known waterfalls. Most of the ring road here is not far from Iceland’s southern coast. We start the morning by driving around the glacial fingers of ice coming down from Hvannadalshnúkur, Iceland’s highest peak, and the southernmost extention of the Vatnajökull ice cap.

We drive into the Skaftafell Visitor Centre, a part of the huge Vatnajökull National Park. I take a short 2-3 mile hike to see Svartifoss, a pretty little waterfall surrounded by basaltic columns. At the park I read about the flooding here in 1996 and look down at the flood plain from a viewpoint and see where the flooding created giant ripples in the flats below. We get back on the ring road and drive over the black sand flats that connect the sea on our left to the mountains and glaciers to our right. In a few minutes we drive past the twisted steel beams of the Skeiðará Bridge Monument. During the 1996 floods, and several times since, including during the infamous 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption that halted air travel in most of Europe for a couple of weeks (Sharath was conveniently stranded in Amsterdam during this time), there were subglacial eruptions in these areas. A tremendous amount of ice is quickly turned into water. The water initially lifts up the ice as ice floats on water, and then drains out of the volcanic caldera, leaving behind giant whirlpool patterns of ice. The warm water (actually it is pretty cold at 6-8 degrees C) then flows under the glaciers and lifts them up again like it pushed up the ice in the caldera. Eventually the glaciers can no longer hold back and millions of tones of melt water, rocks, and icebergs come crashing down across the coastal flats on their way out to sea. The ring road and several bridges here get destroyed by the floods and Iceland quickly builds them back. This road is the only connection to people in the eastern part of Iceland, where we were a few days ago. We saw lots of earthworks in progress and at least a few new bridges being built.

The vocabulary of a language often gives away things about the culture of the people that speak that language. Apparently the Inuit have a couple of dozen words for ice and snow (not 52 though, that’s a myth), and the Hawaiians have words that describe different types of lava rock. The Icelandic people have a word: jökulhlaup. It means glacial outburst flood. I bet there isn’t a word for that in Bangla.

Gradually the scenery is less stark and the glaciers give way to rolling green meadows and steep rocky cliffs. For miles at a time we drive over what were once lava flows but are now shaggy layers of spongy light colored moss. It looks like someone has dribbled it over everything. We stop and goof around on the moss for a bit. It is soft and warm and has a pleasant smell and I could go to sleep in the perfectly sized depressions. Evan does fall asleep.

We stop at the little town of Vik for lunch. On the way out I see the church on the hill and ask Jo to take a hasty photo out of the car window. I remember taking an almost identical photo eight years ago. Soon after Vik we drive to our hotel next to the Skógafoss. The weather is nice and we think about walking up to the falls that we can see from our window. But we wait till it starts raining. Evan sensibly decides to stay nice and dry inside and at about 11pm Jo, Vivian and I put on our jackets and stroll out to base of the thundering Skógafoss.

The next morning is beautiful. We climb up a bunch of steps to the observation platform over the top of Skógafoss. In this last photo you can see a bit of the falls on the top right corner. On the bottom left corner you can see the curve of the black sand bank on this side of the river after the falls. You may be able to spot a few tiny people standing right at the edge of the shore there. That is where Vivian was standing in the photo the night before.

Tomorrow is our last full day in Iceland. I am already missing it. Though I can’t wait to see my doggy again!


Vatnajökull is Europe’s largest ice cap. It covers an egg shaped area about 150 km long and 100 km wide. In places it is over one kilometer deep. Though Iceland got its name when Raven-Flóki saw an ice filled fjord in the north west of the island, if there is a heart of ice in Iceland, it is here on Vatnajökull. Snow falls on Vatnajökull and over centuries it is compressed into clear bubble free ice. In places all around its perimeter, under the force of its enormous weight, the ice cap very very slowly descends in tongues of ice. One of these tongues of ice on the southeast side of Vatnajökull is Breiðamerkurjökull, a name that just rolls off your tongue. In the map below, it is the small darker green patch that leads down to the coast at about 5 o’clock.


As the ice cap shrank, Breiðamerkurjökull retreated from the Atlantic and left behind a depression in the earth’s crust created by the weight of the ice over thousands of years. In the past century this became one of Iceland’s newest but deepest lakes. Most of the other glaciers end in braided rivulets that becomes streams and then rivers of glacial melt. Breiðamerkurjökull terminates at Jökulsárlón – the glacier lagoon – where ice calves off the glacier, floats around in the lake, and then flows out to sea under the one-laned suspension bridge on the ring-road.

Jo had planned a glacier hike for us. We got into an enormous franken-jeep and drove along a very rocky path on the eastern flank of the retreating glacier up to where a new lake is being spawned. Then we walked another mile or two up to the ice, put on our harnesses, crampons, and brain buckets, and then took a nice guided walk up the lower part of Breiðamerkurjökull. We got to descend a part of the way into a crevasse and we explored an ice cave.

The bad news is that this glacier is melting fast. We can quibble about what is causing it. Evan’s grandkids will one day be incredulous that their grandpa actually walked on one of those things called glaciers. In the next 50 years the probability of bringing back dinosaurs is higher than for saving glaciers. During our lifetimes, in South Asia, between Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh, over 700 million people’s food and water sources and way of life will be disrupted severely by the disappearance of some of the world’s largest glaciers.

This depressing news made me very sad and when we got back to the hotel I finished the rest of the bottle of Olafsson Icelandic gin while Jo and the kids got into the nice wooden hot tub that was filled with hot water without requiring fossil fuels. In the morning we went back to stare at Jökulsárlón some more and to walk along it’s shores and up to the swirling blocks of ice on the beach on the Atlantic side. In the very last photo Evan is running along the lake like a freak. Behind him and across the lake is Breiðamerkurjökull. To the right there is a brown hulking mass of a rocky mountain sloping up above the glacier. The four of us were up there on the ice yesterday for the walk of a lifetime! Thank you, Iceland.

Another Travel Day

It’s Day 10. We have to go from northern Iceland to the eastern fjords. The drive takes us into the desolate highlands further than we have been before. But first we climb an extinct volcano.

Hverfjall is a 1000 foot tall pile of grey tuff. About 2500 years ago there was a tephra explosion. Magma ran into water on the way up which turned the lava into bits of something called tuff, ranging from particulate ash to furniture-sized rocks. Then it all blew up and made a beautiful conical volcano. Almost nothing has grown on this tuff since long before Jesus was a twinkle in his father’s eye. We climb to the top and pose for a photo in front of the bowl of the crater. The rim is an almost perfect circle about a kilometer in diameter but we are too lazy to walk around. In the second photo below, you can see the cars down in the parking lot. The view from up here is great.

Then we drive for a few hours till we get close to the east coast and we stop for lunch at the town of Egilsstaðir. The waiters at the restaurant there speak more languages on any given day than at the UN. After lunch (and a brief stop at the Netto across the street for more spicy mini sausages) we start driving up the mountain to the east of town. Our destination is a small town at the end of a fjord on the other side of the mountains. The view to the west is amazing. To the east the mountain levels off and we are in a the high heath with patches of snow around the road. Then clouds creep in. Pretty soon we are in thick pea soup. We are descending through god knows what. The road is narrow with occasional guard rails. I think there is water on either side, or steep drop offs. We crawl down the road practically feeling our way. As we descend we finally get below the cloud bank and we see a green valley with a stream running through it and waterfalls along the way. We are in Seydisfjordur, our destination for the night.

Seydisfjordur is a lovely little town of 700 people. It is at the end of a fjord with steep mountains on either side that should be towering above the town but are completely hidden by a think bank of clouds close enough to touch from the upstairs window of our Airbnb. This evening the town is bursting at its seams with young people. Cars are parked in every possible spot and tents are pitched in front and back yards. Hundreds of people have descended into town for the LungA 2022 art festival. There are panels and performances and live music and kids wandering around with pillows and picnics. There is a pub right at the entrance to town and everyone is stopping by to drink a beer. The lone Lögreglan (cop) drives by slowly every few minutes. This is where having to plan and reserve things suck. We’d have stuck around for a few days and enjoyed Seydisfjordur but tomorrow at noon we are going to climb a glacier 400 km away. So we walk around and take some pictures in front of the powder blue church with the pride-painted path. Jo does three loads of laundry (really). And we get to bed for an early start tomorrow.

Around Mývatn

Today we explore a few places around Lake Mývatn (because so many Icelandic names include the word for “waterfall” or “lake” or “mountain” in the name I am be constantly making the chai-tea faux pas). And furthermore, we are going to strictly stereotype Iceland and only see things related to geothermal activity or waterfalls today. So our first stop is Hverir, the geothermally active region at the base of the Namafjall mountain (chai-tea again). As we descend down the pass over the mountain we see steam rising from the fumaroles half a mile away. Soon the smell of farts is strong enough to make Evan gag. I repeat my old central Texas joke about hydrogen sulfide laden air:

How do you know you’re driving through Luling, Texas? You roll up the windows when someone farts.

Something about the abundant smell of farts makes everyone act like a child. We laugh wildly as we run from one bubbling mud pot to another.

Evan is distinctly taller than both Vivian and Jo (not much of a feat), and is close to catching up with me (not a feat either). But you can see Jo trying to push Evan down in the photo above so he doesn’t look taller. Eventually we tire of fart jokes and we drive a few miles north to Krafla. Along the way we see the Krafla geothermal station. Steam at high pressure from about two dozen boreholes are fed into two turbines at the station to generate electricity. The Krafla power plant is Iceland’s largest geothermal power plant and provides about half of Iceland’s entire residential power needs. Construction of the power plant was interrupted by an active lava flow during the 1975 swarm earthquakes. One of the boreholes holds the world record for producing the hottest steam (430 degreed C), supposedly because it is so close to the magma. I’m thinking we’re pretty darn close to magma even up here on top.

A by-product of the power station that is more famous than the electricity it produces is the Douche Perpétuel. No, not The Donald. This perpetual douche is a shower beside the road next to the power station that always has warm water coming out. There is no faucet to turn it off. People often pull up and park and strip and shower right here. There is no one today and we don’t stop for a photo, but I have linked to See and Savor’s photo from her blog.

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We drive past the Douche Perpétuel and under steam pipes at the geothermal station to where lava flowed during the 1975 activity. We park and walk across about a mile of lava rock to a small pale blue lake that is gently steaming. Further to the west we see the extent of the lava flows. Black fresh lava rock covers many miles of low-lying land, rising up around the edges of hills and nearby mountains. Steam emerges from fumaroles though it doesn’t smell half as bad as it did down in Hverir. Or perhaps I am desensitized to farts.

On the other side of the Krafla flows is a crater lake with the bluest water. There is a path around the rim of the crater – if you look carefully there is a long line of people just over Jo’s head. We drive back down the way we came, past another older geothermal power station and another very blue lake.

Then I need to join a zoom for work for an hour. I put on my headphones and zone out. My phone’s signal is good enough to carry on a video zoom with several people scattered around the US while Jo drives us to our next destination, conveniently just over an hour away. When I finish my meeting I find that Jo has taken one of her famous shortcuts and we in the middle of nowhere. We are on a narrow remote dirt road. A few minutes later we turn up into one of those dreaded F-roads, but just for half a mile. We park and walk the last mile and arrive at one of Iceland’s most dramatic and remote waterfalls – Aldeyjarfoss. The Skjálfandafljót river (“the river of trembling rapids”) gushes out of a barren rocky moonscape down twenty meters of basalt columns into a churning cauldron of seething water before making a right angled turn and flowing on downstream.

We stay and enjoy the stark beauty of Aldeyjarfoss for a while. Then we drive downstream along the Skjálfandafljót river on to another one of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Goðafoss. There are tour buses and paved trails here and we descend to the level of the river below the thundering falls. According to one story, this is where the law speaker of the Icelandic parliament threw his pagan idols away after Iceland converted to Christianity. So, God Falls.

We stop at the Netto in Húsavík on the way back. I am amazed how well stocked these small grocery stores in this tiny places are. There are more spices and Indian and Thai food on the shelves than at big chain grocery stores in Falls City, Nebraska or Hiawatha, Kansas (I only compare with these because I am somewhat familiar with them). And there is Stubb’s barbecue sauce all the way from Austin! We pick up some fresh North Atlantic salmon and head back for our last night at Svartaborg.

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.


By now we have spent three days and driven around 800 km and seen bits of the Golden Circle and the Snæfellsnes peninsula. Today we take a two and a half hour ferry ride from Stykkishólmur to the Westfjords, firmly getting us out of the main tourist splash zone.

Our ferry is the Baldur, the most recent of a long line of proud Baldurs who have plied this route, their photos gracing the walls of one of the companionways leading up from the belly of the ship where we parked our cars to the top deck and the “floating restaurant”. The 68 m long vessel with a cruising speed of 14 knots was built in 1979 in Norway and extended by 12 m and outfitted with new motors for this current assignment. Things are chill in Iceland. We rolled into the car hold of the Baldur with no supervision at all. A few minutes later a 15 year old kid showed up and directed us to our parking spot. Then we were left to our devices to find our way out of the hold and to wander around the ferry.

The ship stopped briefly at the island of Flatey (where I took a photo of the red toy-looking tractor on the quay) and a bit later we found ourselves driving into the Westfjords. There wasn’t a town of village at the ferry terminus. We drove up to a nearby church and found a cafe next door. We had a quick snack (lamb soup for me, hot chocolate for the kids), took a photo of the departing ferry through the windows of the cafe, and headed out into the Westfjords.

The Westfjords are remote and empty even by Icelandic standards. The area is vast (about a half the size of Switzerland), and the deeply indented coast is about a third of the total length of Iceland’s coastline. But only about 7000 people live here, half of whom live in the town of Ísafjörður. So the rest of the Westfjords has about as many people as Jester, the largest dorm at UT. Geologically it is the oldest part of Iceland and has no active volcanoes and less seismic activity than the rest of Iceland. During the Quaternary ice age about 2.5 million years ago, huge glaciers shaved off the tops of the volcanos leaving behind flat topped mountains with steep sides that reach out into the ocean. The gaps between the fingers are the fjords – narrow inlets of the Arctic Ocean. Waterfalls and creeks collect ice and snow melt and cascade down the often desolate sheer cliffs. The few people that do live here cling to the coast when it is flat enough to build homes and sheep farms. The driving is dramatic, sometimes even more so because roads are often unpaved.

Our first stop was Rauðisandur – literally red sand. This is a beach reached by a dirt road that drops a few hundred meters in the last three switchbacks. There is a beautiful church and a cafe. We predictably stopped at the Franska cafe for waffles and more hot chocolate and then set out on foot to explore the area. The pictures say it all!

We then drove back over the heath and around the next fjord to the town of Patreksfjörður where we met Alu and Michelle for dinner at Albina – a small grocery store, ice cream shop, and pizza and burger joint. Here is Vivian reading/annotating her book because she didn’t need diner (too many summer sausages in the back seat). We saw an Italian couple we had seen with bicycles in our ferry that morning. They were going to spend the next 10 days riding and camping around the Westfjords.

After dinner we drove for 45 minutes on dirt roads to a point almost exactly across from Patreksfjörður on the other side of the fjord. We drove past the hulking rusty remains of an old whaler and then the wreckage of an US Navy DC-3 (you get the theme) to the end of a dirt road where we found the rather strange Hotel Latrabjarg. Unfortunately we were too wiped to drive to the famous Latrabjarg cliffs at the very western point of Iceland where puffins and other birds nest. Jo had to settle for a calf in the yard next to the hotel that was very curious about her. She initially shied away, but eventually came over and licked Jo’s hand like a big cow puppy.