Monday, November 30, 2015

Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs (Westfjords, Iceland)

After our overnight stay in Borgarnes, we drove north to the Westfjords. We stopped at a lookout point on our way through the Breiðafjörður region that included this signage.  It tells the story of the Laxdæla saga, a love triangle that ends in tragedy.  It was a new story for me, as I wasn't familiar with the Icelandic sagas.  I couldn't figure out what this sign marked, though -- were we looking at the valley where Bolli killed Kjartan?  I do quite like the idea of celebrating famous stories with roadside markers, though.  It seems consistent with the emphasis on books in Icelandic culture.

The Westfjords are less populated and less often visited by tourists than other regions in Iceland.  It was quite a bit colder there, too, as we got closer to the Arctic circle.  The roads are often unpaved as they wind up and down around the mountains and fjords.  It takes much longer to drive than estimated by Google maps.

But even so, we took time for some side jaunts on the way to our hotel.  We drove out to Reykhólar, a tiny town with a factory and a museum.  We didn't tour the museum, but took the opportunity to sit in the cafe for coffee and a piece of decadent chocolate cake served with frozen blueberries and cream.  Later on in our drive, we passed by this turf house. I had heard about the Icelandic turf homes and wanted a closer look, so we pulled off the road so that I could stand amidst the sheep droppings and take a picture.

Eventually, we made it to our hotel in Flókalundur in late afternoon.  We dropped off our luggage and headed out again to drive to the Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs.  I was committed to getting out there so that I could get a chance to see a puffin.  Years ago, we visited Scotland (another country with puffin colonies), but we didn't go to the Northern Highlands where we could have seen the puffins.  Ever since then, I had a long-standing (jesting) pout that we "went all the way to Scotland, and I didn't get to see a puffin."  Q was going to make sure that I got to see puffins this time!

It was another long drive to Latrabjarg.  The speed limits in Iceland seem slow to an American driver, but with good reason. Even on easy roads, one is likely to encounter unpredictable sheep crossings. And many of the roads, like this one, are unpaved and winding, with blind hills and sheer drops off to one side (and few guard rails!). The sharp switchbacks along mountainous roads require slow, careful driving. So we didn't begrudge the speed limits, in most cases. This fellow was reminding us as we went through a small group of homes that we should slow down to 30kph. From a distance, the figure was very realistic -- a creative way to get the driver's attention and remind them about the speed limit.

When we finally got to the Latrabjarg bird cliffs, it was evening (although given the long daylight hours, it wouldn't get dark for some time yet).  The guide book recommended visiting the bird cliffs in the evening, as the birds would be returning to their nests at that time.  I had heard that puffins were shy -- hard to catch a glimpse of, and even more difficult to photograph.  So I feared that we would need to look around for a long time to see even a hint of a puffin.  But we got out of the car, walked from the parking lot toward the cliff edge . . . and immediately, we saw a couple of puffins.  We were even able to move toward them and take photos without having them fly away or pop down into their holes.

It was quite windy and cold the evening we were there. As you can see, there was only a painted line to indicate the minimum safe distance from the cliff edge -- there were no guard rails or fences, so we could see the birds clearly and even get close to them.  But given the signage about the danger of falling off the cliff and the very strong wind, we stayed well back from the edge.

The cliffs were full of all kinds of different birds.  I think these roosting birds are guillemot.

I'm not sure what species of bird these are -- maybe gulls or kittiwakes?

The Latrabjarg cliffs are 440 meters high and 14 kilometers long. We walked up to the top, but didn't walk the whole length of the cliff (it was just too windy and cold!).  At one point, the wind shifted and we got a strong scent of rotting fish, so I guess the cold might have been a boon in some ways.

And everywhere along the cliffs, we saw puffins.

My friend Karen captioned this one, "I can't see my toes!", which makes me giggle.

Puffins are just adorable!  I took a lot of photos of puffins at the Latrabjarg bird cliffs. I'm seriously puffin-obsessed.

Did I mention that there were puffins at the Latrabjarg bird cliffs? 

Puffins nest in little holes on the tops of the cliffs, and since they aren't hunted here, they are not shy of people. I think the person in the green jacket is putting out seeds, and that's why so many puffins are gathered there.

A group of puffins has many collective nouns, including a "burrow", "circus", "colony", "improbability", and "puffinry" of puffins. via
I love the idea of an improbability of puffins!  Except that I guess they aren't so improbable, since I finally got to see them.  

Waterfall by the side of the road
on the way back from Latrabjarg

There is water everywhere in Iceland. Iceland is surrounded by the ocean. Parts of the country are covered by glaciers. Boiling-hot, sulphuric water spurts up in geysirs or puffs out clouds of steam from fissures in the rocks. And everywhere, there are waterfalls. Large and powerful, small and quiet, water streams down from the mountains. This waterfall was so beautiful that we actually turned around on the highway and drove back to take photos of it. It's not a famous waterfall or a tourist attraction -- just part of Iceland's natural beauty.

I loved the vibrant greens of the mosses growing around the waterfall.  Our next day's journey would take us to a larger and even more beautiful waterfall.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Horses and dogs and sheep, oh my! (West Iceland)

After many hours of driving from Landmannalaugar, we finally arrived at our lodging in Borgarnes (past their check-in time, but thankfully, they were willing to stay open for us).  As we unloaded our luggage, we were greeted by a Very Friendly Dog.  While we were never introduced, the dog clearly loved people and wanted to play.  At one point, Q said "I wish I had a stick to throw for you."  The Very Friendly Dog perked up its ears, as if to say "Stick?  I have a stick!  Wait -- I'll go get my stick!"

The Very Friendly Dog then proceeded to teach Q how to play Stick.  They had a great time playing in the meadow.

Who can resist that sweet face?  The Very Friendly Dog was just one of many creatures we encountered during our travels in Iceland.

As we left the following morning, we spotted Icelandic horses in the field next to the inn.  We saw lots of horses as we drove through Iceland, particularly in West Iceland.  Horseback riding is an activity enjoyed by Icelanders and tourists (we didn't do any riding, but we enjoyed seeing the horses).

Icelandic horses in West Iceland

Icelandic horses are a unique breed. They are relatively small in stature and are adapted to the harsh climate with a double coat to protect against cold temperatures. They are the descendants of the horses brought to Iceland by the original Scandanavian and Norse settlers.  Horses were the only means of transport for many hundreds of years in Iceland.

Icelandic horses in West Iceland

Icelandic horses have a wide range of coloration. Because livestock cannot be imported into Iceland, the horses are protected from most diseases and parasites. Icelandic horses, if they leave the country, cannot return.

Icelandic horses in West Iceland

Icelandic horses have two additional gaits, beyond those of other horse breeds. In addition to walk, trot, canter, gallop, they are capable of a lateral, ambling gait called a tölt, and a fast, smooth skeið gait (or "flying pace").

The most ubiquitous animal we saw, though, was sheep.  They were scattered across the landscape, so commonplace that we noted their absence more than their presence.  We started taking bets on how long it would be before we saw another one.  We announced their presence by calling out, "Sheeeeep!  SHEEEEEEEP!" to each other.  Some parts of Iceland have more sheep than people (a pattern we noted in the West Highlands of Scotland, as well).  Anywhere that had even the barest hint of greenery seemed to sport sheep.  They slept by the side of the road.  They wandered out into the roadway (another excellent reason to observe the speed limits in Iceland).  Sometimes, they ran at the sound of the car or stared at us as we passed by.

But mostly, they just ignored us and went about their sheep-y business.

I got this tiny felted sheep (made by Steinunni Steinars) at the Borgarnes' farmers market.  Isn't it adorable?  It sits on the kitchen windowsill, along with the wooden sword swallower and pig that were my mother's, so that I can see them every day as I wash dishes.  And whenever I see it, I can call out:


Next up:  The Latrabjarg Bird Cliffs in the Westfjords

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Landmannalaugar, Iceland

Landmannalaugar is the starting point for a multi-day hike to Þórsmörk, but we just did a half-day hike from the main campground up to Breinnisteinsalda. It was chilly, overcast, and rainy, but the terrain and the views were truly spectacular.

I'm pretty sure that trolls live here. It reminded me of the stories where we think that these are just rocks, and then they start moving and talking.

You can see part of the campground from here. There aren't many amenities, but there are showers and restrooms, an information center, and sometimes a bus that sells (high-priced) food. And, of course, natural hot springs (hot pots are an Icelandic necessity).

It was the mention of multicolored mountains that drew me to this place. I drank in the sight of richly colored hills, with streaks and smears of each hue running down the sides, set off by the bright white patches of snow.

The hills are swirled with color. . .

and streaked with rainbow stripes of color.

Multi-hued stones are everywhere along the trail. I was so very tempted to take one of these colorful rocks home as a souvenir . . . but I resisted. (I saw another hiker take some rocks, but it just seemed as though it would be prohibited to remove the stones.)

I am dreaming of a rock garden made of ryolite lava stones . . . *sigh*.  

Here we are at the top of Breinnisteinsalda.  It was cloudy and drizzling, so perhaps the view was not as expansive as it would have been on a clear day, but it was still beautiful.  (Though it is hard to get a good selfie in the rain.)

Looking down the trail from Breinnisteinsalda, the valley is full of sulfuric steam emerging from the ground.  I know it's geothermal activity, but it looks like a dragon's lair to me.  Surely Smaug will emerge at any moment to defend his hoard.

As we hiked back from Breinnisteinsalda, my hiking boots fell apart.  The soles had started to split and they finally separated, leaving my feet unprotected as the sole flapped with each step.  Complete shoe failure.  Luckily, I had noticed the split before we started hiking and Q was willing to carry my sneakers in case they were needed.  So Landmannalaugar claimed my hiking boots and I finished up the hike in sneakers.  A small price to pay for being surrounded by such gorgeous scenery.

Even now, I ache a little when I think of the beauty of Landmannalaugar.  I only wish we could have stayed longer.  But we had a long drive to our lodging for that night, so we had to leave.

Next up:  Horses and dogs and sheep, oh my!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

On the Way to Landmannalaugar, Iceland

After our Golden Circle tour, we headed off to Landmannalaugar for a day hike. It was a very long drive, along some extremely rough roads at times, but the scenery along the way was stunning and varied. We saw green pastures, rocky plains, hills and mountains, and even this rare tree farm. It reminds me of one of the jokes in Iceland that goes like this:
What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?
Stand up.
Much of Iceland was forested before it was settled, but early settlers cut down the trees for fuel, so there are few forests in the country now.

Over and over again, new landscapes emerged. Steep, rocky cliffs jutting from the slope -- hard against soft, grey against green, growth over erosion. It tells a geological story that I can't quite read, but compels me nonetheless to look and look again.

This hill grabbed my attention, so we pulled off the road so I could take a better photo. The undulating shape and curving lines of crevasses makes it look like the head of a sleeping lizard or snake.

As we approached Landmannalaugar, we left behind paved roads (along with a couple of impressive hydroelectric dams). The unpaved roads were very rough as we went into the Fjallabak Nature Reserve. The terrain included lava fields like this one, with only the barest hint of vegetation beginning to take hold.  It is almost like suddenly finding one's self on a barren moon.

As you can see, the road was unpaved, and was the roughest road we encountered during our trip -- rocky and uneven, requiring a 4WD car. We drove very slowly, but even so, it was a bumpy ride, with fist-sized rocks to jar our passage. Yet, according to the guidebooks, this was the easiest road to approach Landmannalaugar! To be fair, it was certainly driveable, and I was relieved that we didn't have to ford any rivers or streams along the way. Visitors are seemingly not deterred by the difficulty of the approach, however, as we saw plenty of hikers and campers when we got to Landmannalaugar. And maybe the challenge of getting there served to enhance our experience -- if nothing else, through cognitive dissonance.

I loved the acid green vegetation on these hills, over and around the rocks. We didn't get close enough for me to tell whether this is moss or lichen or short grass or something else.

Here we stopped at a lookout-point to take in the view. It was windy, chilly, and spitting rain, but the hills were lovely.

The hills of Landmannalaugar are made of rhyolite, which is a type of mineral-filled lava that cools slowly, creating a variety of colors.  It was the promise of multi-colored hills that inspired our trip to Landmannalaugar.  Even with the cold and rainy weather, I was eager to hike among those hills.

Next up: Landmannalaugar

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Langjökull glacier, Iceland

On the way to the Langjökull glacier

After we finished the sights of the Golden Circle, we thought we would take a little side trip to see the Langjökull glacier, which isn't that far from Gullfoss. Or, at least, it didn't seem that far on the map. A wrong turn and some pretty rough roads made it a longer trip than we expected. As you can see, though, the scenery was striking along the way, with rocky plains and beautiful skies. And at least once, some rather surprised sheep.

At the edge of the Langjökull glacier (photo by Q)

We drove the narrow, unpaved road for miles, seeing a few other cars, and one intrepid cyclist (we wondered where he was going and where he planned to sleep, as night was almost upon us). As we approached the glacier, there were no other cars on the road. We passed a building that advertised glacier tours, but it was empty (not surprising, given the late hour). We passed abandoned snowmobiles, scattered like toys left in the middle of play. And then the road ended. We were at the edge of the glacier.

Photo by Q

It was cold, and getting dark. The glacier tour company had another office here, so we parked in front of the empty building. The ice field spread out in front of us as far as the eye could see. The Langjökull glacier is the second largest ice cap in Iceland -- the ice is up to 580m (1900ft) thick. We did not venture onto the glacier, as it is unsafe to do so without a guide. There are deep fissures and other dangers that are best managed with an experienced guide. So we just stood at the edge and took in the expansive views and the silence, broken only by the wind and our own voices.

Photo by Q

Visitors to Iceland seem compelled to stack rocks. We saw numerous stacked rock piles by the side of the road as we traveled. Perhaps the visiting tourist just wants to make their mark on the country, to say "I was here" in some tangible way. But rock stacking can damage the ecosystem, killing fragile mosses and other plants. There were signs that prohibited rock stacking (it took us a while to figure out the meaning of the pyramid of circles -- what was being forbidden, exactly? Do not pile up cans?). We resisted the urge to stack rocks in Iceland, but clearly some prior visitor to the glacier did some rock-stacking.

Photo by Q

We saw snowmobiles scattered across the snow, presumably belonging to the glacier tours company. It felt as though we were at the end of the world, with these machines the last vestiges of human presence.  In the animated film, The Iron Giant, the blasted pieces of the Iron Giant fall onto the Langjökull glacier. There is an interesting contrast between the expanse of ice, with its natural purity, and machinery.

Photo by Q

We took one last look at the sun setting behind the snow-dappled mountains before leaving. We had a long way to go to our B&B and hoped to get there before they closed for the night. I didn't know what to expect from seeing the glacier, but the stillness and the vast expanse stayed with me. I'm glad we were there by ourselves.

Next up: Driving to Landmannalaugar