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Trip 12 -- Iceland

Message 2: Sheepishly horsing around from Lßtrabjarg to Mřvatn

From: <seth@sethweinstein.com>
Sent: Mon, 18 May 2009 05:50:34
Subject: Iceland update #2: Sheepishly horsing around from Lßtrabjarg to Mřvatn

The strong winds lasted one more day.

Lßtrabjarg is a 14-km-long series of bird cliffs at the westernmost point in Europe. It's only 12 km from the Brei­avÝk farm, but it took me about half an hour to drive, thanks to the potholes, curves, and rocks in the road. This is where I learned to respect "large rocks that have already fallen," though admittedly they're much easier to avoid than those that are preparing to fall as you drive by.

Bumpy Route 612 ends without warning at the parking lot next to a dinky white lighthouse. I was the only one there -- there wasn't even a caretaker at the little hut. I figured at least I'd have seen the Germans who had stayed at Brei­avÝk -- why come all this way and then not visit the most spectacular place?

A trail runs for at least 6 km from the parking lot up to the highest cliff, which is 441 meters high -- almost half a kilometer up in the air! I made it to the first tier and immediately felt like I had stumbled upon day three of the Creation, or whenever it was that He created birds. I felt like I was at the junction of the heavens and the earth. Way out in the distance the sky met the North Atlantic Ocean. Straight down below me, waves crashed loudly against rugged rocks. Behind me were bulbous lumps of grass and jagged rocks. And right in front of me, the immense bird cliff jutted out. There were thousands of fulmars, guillemots, and razorbills, all singing to each other. This was their world and their language -- probably exactly as it had existed before there were any humans. They'd fly out for a bit and then come back to perch in individual holes in the cliff, like some giant Automat -- and this is where they'd lay their eggs. People used to hunt the eggs by lowering themselves down the cliff by a rope -- a scary profession indeed.

The cliff is made of layers of rock that settled after each volcanic eruption; vegetation would grow on top, creating soil, which hardened into clay, and then it would be covered by the next layer after the next eruption. Puffins live here during the summer, too, but I didn't see them -- they spend the daytime away from the cliff, returning only at night, and it's possible it was too early in the season (or too windy) for them anyway.

The trail runs roughly parallel to the cliff line, separated by about six feet of grass. Logically this is enough of a buffer, but boy did I feel vulnerable up there. This was really the edge of the earth, and the winds were still blowing at around 40 miles per hour -- maybe more. I climbed up a few sections of cliff, for about a kilometer. I looked ahead of me and the trail seemed to disappear over the cliff. It was very lonely -- not silent by any means, due to the wind and the birds, but I certainly had a sense of me-the-protagonist-versus-the-world. When I pictured myself in the grand scheme of things -- a speck on the fringe of a giant land mass next to a 200-meter drop -- I was suddenly much in awe.

Loneliness and winds provoked me to descend a bit and cut through the valley toward a higher cliff farther up the trail. There was no way to get lost, really, since it was easy to spot the cliffs from any direction. I climbed down and across the mounds of grass, which eventually gave way to sharp rocks interspersed with thick moss. I might have gone faster except that it was like walking over sponges -- my foot sank down a couple of inches with each step. The wind was relentless, and it made me lose my footing several times.

I kept approaching the highest cliff around, but my estimates were distorted by the magnitude of the place. Every time I thought it was just over the next hill, I got to the top and it seemed to have gotten farther away. Even above me, nature was playing tricks. Clouds seemed to swirl upward and away from me. Was I thrown off by the angle of the cliff?

The wind howled. "All right, I get it, it's windy!" I yelled. "That's enough!" And it would stop for 15 seconds before resuming with even more force. I found a rock and sat down for some lunch -- more of the stuff I'd bought in Patreksfj÷r­ur. I could barely hold onto it.

I finished eating and looked back at the cliff I'd been approaching. I had no idea whether it was a 20-minute hike or two hours, but I'd had enough of the wind and the trudging. I decided I was content to admire and respect it from a distance.

I cut back through the valley and found the cliff I'd descended from originally. I followed the trail back down to the first tier, where I'd first spotted the birds. I watched and listened to them for a while, and then I went back down the hill and past the little lighthouse. I hadn't realized earlier that even the lighthouse was fairly high up, and I could see eider ducks and seals below, playing in the swirling water. This was a fast-moving ocean, and this point was historically notorious for shipwrecks.

It started to drizzle, and I was glad I'd come back when I had. There was a particularly steep section of road that wouldn't be fun in the rain, but it was probably better in the rain than after rain. I got in the car. "Five twenty-seven is the magic number!" I cheered at the dashboard -- the trip odometer was at 515, so at 527 I'd be safely back at Brei­avÝk.

Brei­avÝk was built in 1912 and was a boys' reform school until 1980 (is that why I felt like I belonged there?). It's nestled in between two cliffs along a sandy stretch of beach. It's run mostly by a woman (I saw a man my last morning) and her son and daughter. The daughter almost always had headphones on. The highlight for me was the sheep, who were being kept inside because of the high winds.

May is birthing season for the sheep. The son and daughter took me down to one of the buildings. There were two lambs, and the son gave me one of them to hold.

"How old are they?" I asked.

"The one you're holding was born last night, and this one here, just a few minutes ago."

My lamb was "baaa"-ing and licking my fingers and my face.

"This is a very busy time," he went on. "We have to come down here every two hours, even throughout the night, to check on the lambs."

"Do you help them give birth, or do they give birth all by themselves?"

"It depends. If we're here, we'll help them. But sometimes we'll come down and they're already born."

"What do you use them for? Meat? Or do you sell them?"

"Meat. When the lambs are the right age, we sell them and then they're used for meat. Obviously, the old sheep are..."

"...For making new sheep," I finished.

"And we sell the wool."

"I noticed that your sheep are already shorn." He was very proud of this. "I passed some on the road that still hadn't been shorn. They had very long hair."

"Those are not our sheep!" He laughed. "Even when it's chilly like today, sheep don't need all that wool. It's better for them to be shorn."

"How many sheep do you have?"

"About six hundred."

He took the newest lamb and its mother into a special room. "We keep them here for a day, so they can get used to being around other sheep."

I guess they're expected to grow up fast. The lamb I'd held -- who was nearly a day old -was already back in the large pen, with all the other sheep.

He spread some hay across the floor and the sheep clamored for it. We went back outside. I thanked them for showing me around.

This time the woman in charge made me dinner. There were two new guests there -- the fourth and fifth of the year. The daughter served us; this was the only time I saw her without headphones on. She spoke to all of us in English, even though I think the other guests were speaking Icelandic.

We had ham for dinner. The woman had warned me in advance. "First it was mad-cow disease, and no one would eat beef. I had made oxtail soup, and people wouldn't eat it because of the powder, even though it had been packaged long before. Then was the bird flu, and no one would eat chicken. Now everyone's afraid of the swine flu."

"But you don't even get it from eating pork!"

"Exactly."

It was a three-course meal: mushroom chowder; ham with pineapple, baby corn, and rice; and chocolate cake. Brei­avÝk's meal charges are on the high side -- 3,500 krˇna (around $27) for dinner -- but the woman charged me only 2,500 krˇna a night for the room instead of the agreed-upon 3,500, so I suppose it all evened out.

On Thursday I had a long drive to Gauksmřri, just south of Hvammstangi. Finally, the wind calmed down, and there was bright sunshine all day. It was the first of nearly four days of perfect weather.

Iceland is shaped a bit like a moose's head. Imagine that the West Fjords are a sort of antler-gone-wild attached to the head, with lots of branches. Now imagine that you are the tiniest ant at the farthest end of the last branch, and you have to get to the beginning of the head proper. That's what it's like coming from Brei­avÝk and trying to make your way to Hvammstangi. Much as the ant would have to crawl around every branch of the antler to get to the rest of the moose, you have to follow Route 60 around every fjord on the way back to the main part of Iceland. It's beautiful but tedious.

The first stretch -- unpaved Route 612 back toward Patreksfj÷r­ur -- was the slowest. Back I went over potholes and rocks, hoping the Alfa's tires would last. Then I got on paved Route 62 and went past the ferry terminal where I'd gotten off two days before. At Flˇkalundur, a few kilometers past the ferry terminal, I stopped for gas. The pump was unattended; thank goodness my credit card worked!

At this point I got on Route 60, where I learned that the absence of "BlindhŠd" signs doesn't necessarily mean that there are no blind hills, and the absence of "Malbik endar" signs doesn't mean that the nice, comfortable, paved highway I'm on won't suddenly turn into a pothole-riddled gravel road. Route 60 had a split personality indeed.

I rounded fjord after fjord after fjord. I didn't see anyone else on the road for two hours. I didn't see another gas station for two hours, either. I found a spot overlooking a fjord (I don't know which fjord, and no one else was around, so I'll claim it as my own and call it Se■fj÷r­ur) and had a picnic lunch. No one passed me while I ate, and the only voices I heard were the birds chattering to each other.

Route 60 would eventually turn south, and I needed to cut east to Route 61 to get to Hvammstangi. There were several roads where I could do this. On the map, Route 608 looked like it was the best-maintained of the lot, but it had a sign saying it was impassable. Route 605 seemed likely for a couple of kilometers, until a sign deemed it closed. Route 602 passed through a little village, where I stopped at an office of some sort. The lady said I had to continue down Route 60 to Route 59 and then follow signs toward Akureyri.

Route 59 was another dirt road with numerous farms -- I had to slow down or stop for sheep several times. After the farms ended, I went up a seemingly endless incline -- up and up and up to the heavens. Eventually I came down the mountain and connected with Route 61. I arrived at Gauksmřri at 5:00. It had taken about seven hours to go 357 kilometers.

Gauksmřri is a horse farm with about 90 horses, though the owners own only around 40 of them. The others they keep and train for other people. The Icelandic horse is a small, beautiful animal with a long, flowing mane. They're quite gregarious -- at the farm they were clustered together, eating together, brushing up against each other, affectionately biting each other's backs to scratch itches. Much as May is lambing season, it's also foaling season; there was a six-day-old foal when I arrived, and some of the mares were about to burst. Alas, the horses were just being trained for the season, so I'll have to find another place to ride.

Gauksmřri's restaurant wasn't open for dinner yet. The owner pointed me down the road toward a diner, but all I wanted to do was finish my Patreksfj÷r­ur food (boy, did I overbuy) at a picnic table in view of the horses and next to a lake, where I could see ducks, whooper swans, and snipes, whose wings make a "babababaBA!" sound when they fly. Their Icelandic name means "horse-cuckoo" in English.

I sat there for a while and then the owners themselves came down the path and sat by the lake, and I figured I had hit upon the preferred nighttime activity at Gauksmřri.

With about 17,000 people, Akureyri is Iceland's second-largest city. I was due to spend the next night there. I could have driven straight there from Gauksmřri, but I decided to detour and visit the little towns of Sau­ßrkrˇkur and Siglufj÷r­ur. Sau­ßrkrˇkur thrives from fishing and from its shrimp factory (which you smell from anywhere in town), and it's got a pretty harbor and colorful old houses on its main street.

Siglufj÷r­ur is Iceland's northernmost "large" town, with around 1,300 people. During and just after World War II, it was a bustling place based entirely on the herring industry. For unknown reasons, the herring disappeared in the late 1960s, and now it gets by mostly on its looks.

It takes some effort to get there. The only road in is a 25-kilometer connecting stretch of highway that winds its way around a fjord and then goes through an 830-meter-long one-lane tunnel. Cars approaching Siglufj÷r­ur have the right of way; cars coming out have to pull aside into one of the pull-out bays, situated about every 200 meters, to allow oncoming traffic to pass.

There's a herring museum, but it doesn't open for the season until June. I bought a lamb-and-potatoes prepared meal from a butcher-fishmonger (and some dried haddock, a snack for later) and ate it in the main square, enjoying the warm weather and the surrounding hills. Siglufj÷r­ur is avalanche-prone, and the hills have retainers to try to keep snow from destroying the houses.

I also changed some money, and here's where I began to appreciate what this economy has done to the volatility of the krˇna. Before walking around town, I'd asked the exchange rate at a bank: 167 krˇna to the euro (I've been changing cash euros left over from my Germany trip last year). When I did the exchange an hour later, I got only 166.25. "The krˇna has gotten stronger since you spoke to me," the teller said. "It goes up and down all the time." I'm used to exchange rates fluctuating from day to day, but in the space of an hour?

Next year, it will be possible to get from Siglufj÷r­ur to Akureyri by taking a tunnel southeast out of town. I had to go the old way: via gravel Route 82 -- 33 bumpy kilometers that took me up and down a mountain pass. At the coast, Route 82 finally was paved again, and I went through a 3.4-km one-lane tunnel. I had the right of way, but there was considerable traffic in the opposite direction, and I wondered what would happen if all those pull-out bays filled up. It was a little unsettling being down in the dark for that long, in a narrow tunnel that could be closed at either end with giant, heavy doors.

Seventeen thousand people may not seem like many, but Akureyri was a huge metropolis compared with the other places I'd been all week. For one thing, there were stores. It hadn't occurred to me that there had been nothing to buy (except food) all week -- it's not as if Lßtrabjarg has a gift shop. And there were other tourists in significant numbers, there was more than one restaurant, and there were teenagers walking around being teenagers. I'd seen small children in the little towns, but I hadn't seen anyone between ages 10 and 20 anywhere else.

Akureyri sits on a hill overlooking a fjord called Eyjafj÷r­ur. The city was settled twice: first as a normal town with houses and shops, in the late 1700s. Then, somewhat humiliatingly, its charter was revoked after 50 years due largely to a lack of people and business. Then, in 1862, farming-distribution warehouses were set up at another end of town and the city was reborn.

It didn't take long to have a healthy walk around town. By the time I'd walked the few main downtown streets, climbed the hill up to the cathedral, and walked down by the botanical gardens, I'd pretty much seen it all. I had dinner at Bautinn and ate guillemot, that black sea bird I'd seen in such abundance at Lßtrabjarg. It tasted a bit like beef liver, but firmer.

It was Friday evening, and Akureyri parties on the weekends in a unique way. The teenagers, not old enough to drink, spend the entire evening in cars, driving around just a few central streets. From what I could tell, passengers in different cars rarely speak to each other, and people rarely get out.

I settled in for a beer (an Icelandic brew called Kaldi, which managed to be both dark and weak) at CafÚ Amour and watched the same cars go around and around. I soon got to recognize the cars, and then the occupants, and then their plate numbers. I started taking bets with myself, pondering the odds that the driver of UH-726 would get off her phone by the next time she came around, or how many circles BS-466 would make before the back-seat passenger finished her ice cream, or whether any more pieces would fall off of VT-444.

I spent most of the night -- a relative term, as it didn't get dark until almost midnight this far north -- at Kaffi Akureyri, where I drank the light, hoppy Akureyri brew, VÝking. I made conversation by rooting for people spinning the big wheel: For 1,200 krˇna you could buy a spin, and depending on where it landed you got from one to six beers or from one to three shots.

Gudr˙n talked to me the most (and shared one of the three shots she won on the roulette wheel). She was there with her boss, visiting on business from ReykjavÝk. They worked for 66░ North, a company specializing in winter clothing. She also said she was from the "rescue team" (I'm not sure how the two jobs aren't mutually exclusive), and that everyone from the "rescue team" was in Akureyri on convention. ("I guess nobody better need help this weekend!") The DJ turned up the music -- mostly modern American pop songs that everyone but me knew the words to -- and we joined everyone in dancing. By the time I left, around 3:00, it was already bright outside, and BS-466 was pulling up to the bar to pick up her friends. I hoped she hadn't been driving around for five hours. I got a hot dog with everything on it at a cart in the main plaza, and if "everything on it" was supposed to enhance the taste at all, well, it succeeded in doing just the opposite.

I slept in, had a final walk around town, and then joined everyone in town in watching the Manchester United?Arsenal game over a burger. The majority of the town were Man-U fans, and they came decked out in red to pack the pubs. As for me, I was torn. Didn't I share a night in Ethiopia last year with die-hard Arsenal fans? It's hard to give up that kind of deep-rooted loyalty.

It was a painless hour's drive to Mřvatn, which means "midge lake" owing to the summer swarms. Outside ReykjavÝk, it's Iceland's main attraction, due to the volcanic and other geological forces that have battered it around over the millennia. The rock formations are bizarre indeed -- pillars of lava that look like giant chessmen in the water; "pseudo-craters" formed when hot lava comes into contact with water; oddly shaped fissures with steam rising from below; sulfuric-smelling natural hot springs; and another amazing variety of bird life, all in the setting of a clear lake backed by mountains that are starting to lose their snow this late in the spring.

There are two towns of significance along the lake, and I stayed at the larger one, ReykjahlÝ­ (with a whopping 210 residents). Saturday night I did a couple of the little hikes, acquainting myself with lava pillars and pseudo-craters, and in hiking met a couple from Cornwall. "Actually, we are from Penzance," the wife said. "That, people have heard of!"

This was their second trip to Iceland; the husband was very interested in weather and geology, so it was a natural vacation destination -- for him, at least. The year before, his kids had bought him a ticket for his 70th birthday, leaving his wife to accompany him -- or not! This year, it was the wife who had wanted to return. They came in May both years, to try to avoid the tourists -- and everyone else.

"We haven't spent any time in ReykjavÝk," the husband said. "And I saw this thermometer I liked, hanging from two buildings. I asked where I could buy one, and they gave me the name of a store in Akureyri. Fortunately the store was just on the approach to the city. We got the thermometer and turned right back around." Even Akureyri was too crowded for them!

Many of Mřvatn's attractions are conveniently spread out along a seven-kilometer trail. Yesterday I got an early start. The first two points of interest were two fissures that have resulted in the creation of geothermally heated caves. The second one, Grjˇtagjß, had wonderfully clear hot water that reflected the little ray of sunlight coming through the crack.

Then it was on to Hverfell, an almost perfectly symmetrical crater -- the result of an eruption 2,500 years ago. It's about a kilometer in diameter and, being just a pile of loose volcanic detritus, stands in stark contrast to the greenery, birds, and lake immediately nearby. The trail took me halfway around the rim before forcing me into around 40 quick, steep descending zigzags, Lombard Street?style. I was grateful for the rope-holds, which were more for mental peace of mind than anything else -- one of the iron anchors they strung together had been uprooted. The final stretch was fun -- there was no zigzagging; I just held onto the rope and skidded down the sand to the bottom. Whee!

Twenty minutes later and I was in the middle of Dimmuborgir, a lava field with many intriguing formations such as arches and pillars -- the result of a flow of lava being dammed and cooling (and hardening) at the surface followed by the draining of the still-liquid lava underneath. Here I had my picnic lunch, which I'd picked up at the ReykjahlÝ­ supermarket, and then I walked a few of the trails through the area.

Now the only problem with this nice seven-kilometer trail is that it is also seven kilometers back to ReykjahlÝ­. I greeted the sheep along the way, and I rewarded myself for the day's exercise with a session at the Mřvatn Nature Baths -- geothermally heated pools (much like the well-known Blue Lagoon just outside ReykjavÝk). The water is kept at around 40░C, and although it felt a little slimy and smelled like sulfur it was very relaxing. And of course it was scenic, with the remnants of snow on the mountains in the distance, and the layer of steam making people at the opposite end of the lagoon fade into a haze.

I gorged myself on the dinner buffet (you knew there was going to be one eventually) at the Sel-Hˇtel Mřvatn's restaurant, in the other town next to the lake. I timed it brilliantly, arriving 15 minutes before a busload of tourists. I got to try a few of the local specialties -- a chewy rye bread called hverabrau­, baked in geothermal heat ("They have that gingerbread!" one tourist shrieked); reindeer-lamb pate with cowberry sauce; and smoked trout ("That's fish," another affirmed). The trout had a sharp, salty, earthy taste -- the tradition in these parts is to smoke it in sheep dung. Then there was gravlax, broiled trout, lamb, chicken (surprisingly -- I haven't seen a chicken anywhere in Iceland), and excellent rhubarb pie, among other things. I was a little disappointed -- my Bradt guide promised Viking-style sheep's heads and shark -- but I couldn't really complain.

I thought about climbing a mountain after dinner, but it had started to rain, I'd hiked enough for the day, and my two guide books disagreed on the length of the hike (Bradt said it was two hours each way; Lonely Planet said it was 30 minutes), so I'll have to save it for next time. Instead, I went back to my hotel and found out that someone else had moved into my room.

I knew this was possible -- cheap sleeping-bag accommodation is usually hostel-style -- but I didn't expect it to happen. His name was Brad and he was from New Hampshire originally, but he had spent most of his later teenage years living in Somerville, Massachusetts -- about 12 miles from where I spent mine. He had been in Iceland for five months as an exchange student at the University of ReykjavÝk; he had just finished classes and was bicycling around the whole country (putting my Alfa Romeo to shame!). He averaged around 100 kilometers a day and usually slept at campsites (or even, he said, in the washrooms at campsites if they were nice enough and heated), but last night it looked like it would rain, so he wanted some proper shelter.

A very nice guy, but I've seen almost a dozen tourists in ReykjahlÝ­. Obviously, Mřvatn is getting too crowded. On we go!

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