A stroll around the island sounds nice, we thought. A leisurely pace, pleasant weather, verdant hills, volcanoes, beaches, cliffs and a bit of puffin-spotting… a perfect way to spend the afternoon! Hours later, collapsed onto a couch from which we were physically unable to arise, we reflected on this early optimism. The ridiculous buoyancy in our step as we set out on an “easy stroll” around Heimaey. Oh, we remembered how cheerful we had been. We remembered with blackest hate.
Just a few miles off the southern coast of Iceland are the Westman Islands (Vestmannæyjar). Though the archipelago consists of over a dozen islands, only Heimaey is large enough to support a community. With beautiful nature, relatively mild weather and an exciting history, the Westmans have long been a popular spot for day-tripping Icelanders.
The morning after completing the 25-kilometer Fimmvörðuháls hike, we awoke with muscles so sore that just leaving our tent took almost half an hour. The last thing we felt like was more hiking, but we had six hours to kill until the bus back to Reykjavík. And in Þórsmörk, there aren’t a lot of other options. More hiking it is!
The first half of our 25-kilometer hike from Skógar to Þórsmörk had been dominated by waterfalls, barren mountain vistas, and an unending uphill climb. But after passing between the two glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull, our path would start its descent, and the clouds which had been plaguing us all day would clear up, revealing the valley of Þórsmörk below us: one of the most stunning landscapes we’ve ever seen.
The 25-kilometer Fimmvörðuháls, or Five-Cairn Trail, leads from the Skógafoss waterfall, up and between two glaciers, and into the valley of Þórsmörk. One of Iceland’s most popular hikes, it’s often done over two days, with a night in the Fimmvörðuskáli hut, but we pushed ourselves to complete the whole thing at once. Ten amazing hours.
After hiking through a field of lava, donning a helmet and harness, and climbing to the top of a perfectly conical volcanic crater, we gathered our courage and stepped onto a cable lift… the kind normally used to wash the windows of skyscrapers. Then we were lowered four hundred feet underground into the magma chamber of a long dormant volcano. A little scary, but visiting Þrihnúkagígur was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t resist.
Upon arriving in the village of Árbær, I was amused by the men and women dressed in historical attire, toiling at tasks around the farm. But after an hour, I no longer registered their presence. And as the day progressed, I found myself worrying about the impending harvest back home. Would old Betsy survive another winter? Say, that’s a fetching wench. I wonder whither she brings that bucket of mead, and what her dowry may be. And then my cellphone rang, snapping me back into reality.
Since the days of the settlement, Iceland has been a land of fishermen. Rough characters hewn from Viking stock, daily braving the deadly waters of the North Atlantic without a second thought. But I imagine that even the fiercest among them felt a shiver when coming ashore at Selatangar.
We had spent an exhausting six days driving and camping around the Westfjords, the remote slice of land that makes up Iceland’s northwestern corner. It was an amazing trip, but also amazingly tiring. “That’s it!” we cried once back in the capital. “We’s taken all the Westfjords we can take and we can’t takes no more!” Little did we know, we’d return the very next day.
Home to millions of puffins, guillemots, razorbills and gannets, Látrabjarg is the westernmost point in Iceland and the largest bird cliff in Europe. Birds are lured here by the infinite rocky outcrops which, protected from the northern winds, are perfect for nesting. And humans come for the sheer spectacle of so many birds in one place.