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.  

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