Iceland 2005 (Day 4)

Posted on 20 September 2005 in Travel and Holidays (No comments)

On 19 August 2005 Catherine and myself flew out to Iceland for a ten night touring holiday round Iceland. We drove round the country and saw many an exciting and interesting thing. This is one of many blog posts about that holiday - this particular post is about day four, where we'd drive from the top middle of the island, to the middle right. And see some sights on the way.

First Things First

After the delights of Eurodance accompanying the previous days breakfast, we couldn't wait to see what would accompany our cheese and bread this day, So it was with much delight that we recognised the wonderful strains of panpipe versions of the hits as we munched on our food.

Leaving our room key in the door where we'd found it (there was no one to give it to), we packed up the car, popped to the Post Office to send our postcards, and got on our way, heading towards Húsavík, along a pretty empty and barren road.

Húsavík

After a while, we found our first stop for the day.

Húsavík is known as the whale watching capital of Europe. We'd decided not to go whale watching ourselves, but did pop into the extensive Whale Museum in the town where we wandered round seeing whale skeletons and factoid information boards. This being Iceland, there was naturally an area looking at commercial whaling, presenting the information in a balanced and impartial view. That said Húsavík as a town has a huge tourist industry built around whale watching and as such, the locals tend to be against commercial whaling.

Wierdest moment was walking into a room playing a video and hearing a voice that I thought I recognised. After much thinking, I suddenly realised I was listening to the voice of Countryfile's John Craven!

Of all the places you expect to come across John Craven, on a video in an Icelandic whale museum isn't exactly high up my list. However it turned out that it was a video about whale watching, made by our tour operator, and as such, was British made.

(No) Puffins

That conundrum answered, we headed back on the road and drove through the Tjörnes penisula, pulling over to where - we were told - we'd see puffins.

Our itinerary told us to park up and walk to the cliffs. This was the first problem - we followed a path which ended up taking us to a gate marked 'private'.

Going back, we walked further up a wide hillside path, that turned out to actually be an old bit of gravel road which had obviously been replaced. Climbing to the top, we found a vague path towards the see which we followed, before eventuallly seeing the cliffs.

View from a hill near Húsavík

There was some lovely views, but unlike yesterday when ducks had been aplenty, the puffins were not to be found. Scour the view as much as we like, they weren't to be found. Slightly disappointed, we walked back and went back on the road.

We later read that puffins actually go out to see in August so it's not exactly surprising that all we could find were ducks and gulls.

Horseshoe Canyons

A 67km drive up the road, we entered the Jökulsá Canyon National Park and drove up to the car park at Ásbyrgi which is a vast, horeshoe shaped, forested canyon.

We strolled down the tree lined paths to the small lake at the head of the gorge, which was filled with ducks. And a coach party of tourists all taking photos. Still it was a lovely view, and naturally I took a few myself.

Looking over the lake of Ásbyrgi

Overtaking the coach party we walked back into the woods and round to another side of the lake for some even nicer views of the canyon and the lake, stopping en-route to try some of the wild blueberries that grow in the area.

Walking back to the car, we stopped off at one last, final, important part of the park - a large concrete stage where the locals used to hold dances. Must have been a lovely place for a shin-dig before they were moved elsewhere, and the concrete floor a reminder that places were not always the wilderness they appear now. Well, I say wilderness... It's not exactly easy to be in the wilderness with coach loads of tourists every day.

The Lunch Break

Having not picked up a sandwich, we stopped at the nearby petrol station cafeteria for some food - ending up with a cheese and ham toastie with chips for me (if there's anything that's an Icelandic national dish, this has to be a contender) whilst Catherine opted for the delighful sounding 'Bowl of Vegetables'.

In the UK something with a name like that would probably get you some sort of vegetable stew, but Iceland isn't the UK and as such, a bowl of vegetables actually gets you a bowl of Iceberg lettuce, cucumber, tomato and egg.

Icelandic salads remind me of the sort of salads people in the UK used to have in the 1970s and 1980s - pretty dull and unadveturuss. No rocket or rosso lettuce here. That said, all the vegetables are grown in greenhouses rather than being air-freighted thousands of miles to get there, so perhaps it's a good thing.

Roadworks

Refuelled (stomach-wise) we set back off on the road, and headed for Hafragilsfoss - a waterfall that is, unfortunately, 23 bumpy kilometers down a pretty poor gravel road. Proper tarmac is something you certainly don't take for granted in Iceland...

This was especially true when we hit some roadworks - something else you get very used to. Iceland seemed to be in a near constant state of road improvements, and given the state of some of their roads, this is something that has to be thanked.

Unfortunately for us, it presented us with a slightly tricky problem.

You're in the middle of nowhere and the road is being dug up. There is space for one car and one car alone for quite some way. So you're merrily driving along, past some diggers and what not, and suddenly, there's a car going in the opposite direction. You can't both get past - what to do?

I knew not far behind me was a little layby - we'd just passed it after all. I didn't know what was in front, but I knew I could get something behind me. So off we go in reverse...

Imagine reversing down a very gravelly, twisty road. Now imagine your natural driving instincts have finally kicked in, and you keep lucking over your left shoulder, not your right... Now imagine you're really crap at reversing in a straight line as it is. And imagine too that there's lots of diggers around, and you might have an idea of how much fun this was.

So bad was my reversing, that I ended up on completely the opposite side of the road and with barely enough room for the other car to pass. Take my advice - let someone else do it.

Waterfalls

Delighful roads do lead to delightful places...

Hafragilsfoss

Foss incidentally, means waterfall and Hafragilsfoss is certainly one of those. It sits on the mighty Jökulsá river and although the waterfall is just 27m high, the water certainly comes crashing down.

Our next visit was also a waterfall, and an even bigger one. The mighty Dettifoss, just upstream.

The Mighty Dettifoss

Dettifoss is powerful. So powerful that it's the most powerful waterfall in Europe. 500 cubic meters of water per second crash through here. And it's only 44m high!

Driving On

It was getting on in the day and we still had a long way to go before we could stop for the evening. Day four turned out to be quite a slog on the driving front and not surprisingly really. We had to drive from the top middle of the country to the middle right!

Part of the reason for this was because once we'd left the two fosses, there really wasn't much - anywhere - to see or do. Houses were rare, yet alone guesthouses, eateries and tourist attractions.

After a bit more gravel track, we rejoined road 1 - the main ring road around the island - and then took road 901.

901 was labelled road 1 on our maps, and where the new road 1 went, appeared to be very little, but our instructions had told us to go up this gravel road.

The area was deserted. Even the one small settlement - Möðrudalur - was nothing more than a smattering of houses and a church. We drove on, up on a mountain pass, bumping over the rough road to the top. There was nothing to be seen, anywhere. Just barren, desolate landscape.

It was slow going - the state of the road saw to that. No doubt the new road 1 was nice, new shiny tarmac, but 901 was still in business, despite the fact that it didn't exactly look maintained nor used.

Yet right of the top of the mountain, was the surreal sight of a picnic table and small parking area. We naturally pulled over and stopped to admire the view.

Top of the mountain

Everything was so quiet, so tranquil. No signs of civilisation bar the road and the picnic area. No sounds bar the winds howling round. No vegetation, no greenery. Just rocks, mountains and sky. No cars, no people. Just you, and the wilderness.

It was wonderful. Simply wonderful.

Cairns on the top of the mountain

Despite the remoteness, despite the fact that it looked like no one ever came here, the place was full of one thing. Cairns. Lots of them.

These little piles of rocks were originally used by travelers to mark out the roads - a job now done by yellow plastic poles which line the sides of the roads. But no one throws away a tradition here as you'll see the cairns everywhere, now made by modern travellers who have latched on to the idea. Usually you'd see one or two, but at the top of this pass, were loads of the things - some very large indeed.

Just as I was about to walk to see the view from the other side of the mountain, our aloneness was no more as a large coach thundered past over the mountain road. There was life on the 901 after all.

Towards Jökuldalsheiði Plataeu

The other side of the road offered a similarly desolate view. This was the Jökuldalsheiði Plataeu, where we would drive down - the gravel road reaching out in the distance as just a grey line.

We drove through, alone once more. Apparently there are the ruins of old farms round here. Quite what anyone farmed out in this wilderness, well I can't tell you. It's not exactly fertile land, and the costs of getting things to market would no doubt have been enormous. Little wonder they were abandoned around a century ago.

To Egilsstaðir

Many bumpy miles of road covered, we finally rejoined road 1 and rejoiced the appearence of tarmac as we gradually drove through increasingly greener and more fertile land.

We stopped a few times to admire the view, before finally arriving at Egilsstaðir - the main town of East Iceland. Parking up at the petrol station, we roamed the empty streets before finding a cafe, ruled it out as being too expensive, and went for pizza back down the road at the cafe at the Esso petrol station.

One veggie pizza, coleslaw and onion rings on, we were getting tired - it was around 8:30 and we'd had a long day, and still had a way to go before we could hit the hay. That said, we also needed petrol.

Glug Glug Glug

Now it's a long day, and I'm tired. But I can clearly tell that the petrol station has a row of pumps that are red, and a row that are blue.

The red ones have a credit card reader on them. The blue don't. There's some arrow and a sign pointing to the blue ones, and one for the red. They're in Icelandic but the blue ones say 'full service'.

I opt for the blue ones - I wanted to pay by cash and I'd no idea if I could with the red ones. I go for the presumption that 'full service' means I can pay by cash. Fair enough.

I start filling the tank when an Esso woman looks at me strangely and mutters something about full service at this pump. It's then that it all becomes clear. There's still petrol stations in Iceland where the attendent serves you - attendent service. Maybe they used to call it that in Britain, but I haven't ever used a non-self service petrol station in my life, and can't remember my parents ever using them in Britain either - just in France - so this had completely flumuxed me.

As she looked a little put out that I was doing her job for her, I left her too finish off, wondering what on earth I was supposed to do in the meantime. Go to the till being the obvious one now I think about it (and remember her telling me to go there) but like I say, I ain't used to this 'being served' stuff in petrol stations, and I'm tired and can't think straight.

Later on, I realise why the word 'discount' features on the red signs. Pump yourself and you pay less. Of course, that's just on the red pumps...

And to bed

Our stop for the night was at Eiðar - about 12km up the road - so with fuel in the car, we drove on to a town which seemed to consist of a few houses, our hotel and a very large transmitter.

We were staying in the Hotel Edda - a member of chain of budget hotels which mainly use boarding schools which are closed for the winter. Our room stank of smoke, but I was too tired to go and ask for it to be changed, or to get some airspray. I should have really, as whilst we got used to it, every time I popped back from the toilets or the shower, I had to get used to it all over again.

Plus they were really stingy on the pillows.

Still, sleep was what was needed. It had been a long day...

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