Eastern Iceland

For over one hundred kilometres along the main road between Mývatn and Jökuldalur in the east there is not a single house or farm to be seen. The landscape is desolate and moonlike; mile after mile of ancient lava, dust and rocks, and sand. Some of it has grown over with grass and moss, but the overall impression is of a bleakness to rival the washed-out sandflats of the southeast. In the middle of this emptiness, some way north of Route 1, is Dettifoss, the third largest waterfall by volume in Europe.

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

It is not beautiful, but the roaring mass of muddy grey water hurtling into the canyon below is overwhelming. It is one hundred metres wide and 44 metres high; the scale is hard to grasp in a photo, but those are people on the far side.

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

A short way upstream the same volume of water spills over an eleven-metre V-shaped ledge in a score of smaller falls. Selfoss is more aesthetically pleasing but difficult to appreciate fully after the awe-inspiring raw power of Dettifoss.

Selfoss

Selfoss

Not surprisingly, there are few stories about this part of Iceland; it is only when you come down again into the valleys to the east that names and places from the Viking Age reappear. The story of a merchant who grew up beside the glacial river Jökulsá Á Dal gives an insight into what the Vikings got up to when they weren’t feuding or raiding, and the perils that accompanied even peaceful pursuits. As Thorstein the Fair discovered, a simple trading voyage to Norway could lead to you contracting scurvy and becoming bedridden. Your partner and crew might turn against you and mock you in your helplessness, then abandon you with little money and no friends in a large city in a foreign country. To top it all off, your partner might then spread a rumour back in Iceland that you had died, and marry your intended himself. Fortunately, if you were as handy with a spear as Thorstein the Fair there would be a simple solution to all this dishonouring and treachery. Unfortunately, this would inevitably drag other innocent members of both families into conflict; but as long as you protect your honour the retaliatory murders of your brothers is just the price you have to pay.

Jökulsá á Dal

Jökulsá á Dal

At last the road comes down into a wide fertile valley near the town of Egilsstaðir. The 25 km long lake of Lagarfljót runs down the valley floor, and the eastern slopes of the valley are home to Iceland’s largest area of woodland. This was an important district during the Viking Age, and several short sagas are set along the lakeshore and in the valleys around. Of these the most famous is The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi, most of which takes place in a valley to the west and south of the lake. It is among the most highly regarded of the sagas for its literary qualities, and unusually the moral, if there is one at all, seems to be that to live in dishonour is better than to die. Hrafnkel kills a servant for riding a horse he had dedicated to his patron god Frey, and some time later finds himself hanging upside down from his barn roof from a rope threaded around his Achilles tendons. His attacker, Sam, gives him a choice between death and disgrace, and choosing the latter Hrafnkel limps off to set up a new farm by Lagarfljót. After several years of managing his new farm wisely he is as powerful as ever, and is eventually able to offer Sam the same choice from the same uncomfortable position. Sam too chooses to live, and the saga ends ambiguously, with no clear villain, hero, or moral, and with success found in the balance between patience and opportunism. Sort of like real life.

Lagarfljót

Lagarfljót and Egilsstaðir

Further on again I came at last to the sea where it snakes its way through the mountains of eastern Iceland to form the Eastfjords. The Eastfjords have magical, promising names: Seyðisfjörður, Reyðarfjörður, Fáskrúðsfjörður, Stöðvarfjörður (remember ‘ð’ is pronounced ‘th’). And apart from the huge and controversial aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður they live up to the promise of their names.

Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður

Aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður

Aluminium smelting plant in Reyðarfjörður

The village of Seyðisfjörður, surrounded by thousand-metre peaks, is where the weekly ferry from Europe arrives, and I could wish I had travelled to Iceland by sea just for the pleasure of arriving into such a charming and unlikely little place; there can hardly be anywhere less like an international ferry terminus. The disadvantage of the place is that it is a very long way from anywhere else; but on the other hand, when you’re there you’re not sure you want to be anywhere else anyway. An unseasonably early display of northern lights brought the entire population of the youth hostel onto a small roof terrace and confirmed a shared sentiment that Seyðisfjörður was the place to be.

Northern Lights above Seyðisfjörður

Northern Lights above Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður on a rainy September morning.

Seyðisfjörður on a rainy September morning.

Want to or not, I had to continue my journey, and a cold rain (falling as snow on the peaks) made hill-walking, the main activity available in Seyðisfjörður, an unattractive prospect the next morning. Instead I hitched my way on down the Eastfjords, stopping at various towns and museums, including the incredible Steinasafn Petru, a small house and garden entirely filled with beautiful rocks and minerals collected over a lifetime in Iceland by the zealous Petra.

Steinasafn Petru - Petra's Stone and Mineral Collection

Steinasafn Petru – Petra’s Stone and Mineral Collection

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I arrived at last the following evening at Höfn, another magical harbour town on the southeastern tip of Iceland. Höfn is built on a peninsula in a lagoon protected by two narrow sandbanks; behind it rise mountains and the vast bulk of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier by volume in Europe. The summer sun sets over the glacier, and it is hard to imagine a more beautiful location for a town than this.

View to glacier from Höfn

View to glacier from Höfn

Sunset in Höfn

Sunset in Höfn

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Grettir and the North

The afternoon of the same day I had toured Laxárdalur found me travelling eastwards across northern Iceland with the owner of the tour company IceAk. As you might expect, an experienced tour guide makes an excellent lift; once we had swapped stories of the Westfjords (he had also been to the magical Einhamar in Geirþjófsfjörður) he took care to point out other interesting places and saga sites.

Hot streams along Hrútafjörður

Hot streams along Hrútafjörður

Grettir the Strong, you may remember, lived for a time in a cave in Hítardalur under the protection of the poet and champion Bjorn. But long before Grettir became a fearsome outlaw, murdering his enemies, robbing travellers and stealing sheep, he was a fearsome little boy who grew up in a valley we now drove across. Grettir had a difficult relationship with his father, who Grettir punished for his lack of interest by playing the cruellest pranks. Ordered to look after the geese, he broke all their wings and snapped the necks of the goslings; told to watch the horses, he flayed the hide off the back of his father’s favourite mare; asked to rub his fathers back, he took a vicious wool comb and scored deep wounds into his flesh. Kids those days.

Bessaborg - where Grettir herded horses.

Bessaborg – where Grettir herded horses.

My driver pointed down the valley in the direction of the farm where all this happened, and then as we drove past a low hill he added:

“This is the hill where Grettir went to look after the horses, you know the story?” Unremarkable in every other way, the gentle slopes suddenly took on character and significance. I had to ask how he could know something like that; someone must have told him once? “I don’t know; I’ve always known it”, was the reply.

Turf built farm (now a museum) at Glaumbær, near Sauðárkrókur.

Turf built farm (now a museum) at Glaumbær, near Sauðárkrókur.

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Some time and several lifts later I arrived in the town of Sauðárkrókur, on the shores of the fjord where Grettir finally met his end. From a low but steep ridge behind the town I could see 20 km over the fjord to the natural fortress island of Drangey, seven kilometres from land and protected all around by hundred metre cliffs. Drangey had been shared by the farmers around the fjord as a place to graze sheep and collect eggs, until one autumn when they came to collect their sheep and found their rope ladder drawn up and Grettir at the top with two companions. Even from a distance I could appreciate the predicament of the farmers, faced by the double challenge of the perilous cliffs and Grettir waiting at the top. The island looked every bit as impregnable as the saga had led me to believe, and yet it was the place of Grettir’s downfall and death anyway.

Drangey

Drangey

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(Both taken with substantial zoom)

After Grettir had been some years on Drangey, a local chieftain won the support of a witch who cursed a twisted tree stump and sent it out to the island, where Grettir, his brother, and a good-for-nothing servant needed all the driftwood they could gather for their fire. Grettir was chopping wood in a hurry, and his axe glanced off the stump and into his leg; a flesh wound only, but it festered and rotted. The hero of dozens of fights and the strongest man in Iceland, Grettir was lying dying, delirious and weak with fever, when his enemies came for him. Grettir’s brother was nursing him and the servant had neglected to pull up the ladder; before they knew it a crowd of warriors were tearing apart their turf hut, and after a desperate and bloody fight Grettir was dead and his brother captured. When he warned them that if they let him live he would come back for them they beheaded him on the cliff top at dawn. The servant annoyed them so much with his whining on the journey back to the mainland that they finished him off too.

Lone rider in the morning light - outside Sauðárkrókur.

Lone rider between morning showers – outside Sauðárkrókur.

The next day I continued across the North to Akureyri, Iceland’s second city, and from there on towards the lake of Mývatn. Some way past Akureyri I stopped at Goðafoss, a waterfall distinguished not for its modest 12m height or its power, but for its beauty, and to a lesser extent, historical significance. The ‘Waterfall of the Gods’ is so named, according to the sagas, because the lawspeaker who declared Iceland a Christian country in the summer of the year 1000 came here afterwards and threw his old idols into the falls.

Goðafoss

Goðafoss

Some years later Grettir came to this area, and risked being swept over the falls himself. He was staying with a farmer’s wife a few kilometres upstream, because he had heard that a murderous spirit of some kind was plaguing the household and had killed the farmer. For all his wrongdoing, Grettir was a scourge to anything more monstrous than himself, and this was a challenge he could not resist. On Christmas Eve a sudden thaw prevented the farmer’s wife and daughter from travelling to mass at a neighbouring farm, but Grettir took them on his shoulder and waded out into a chest-high flow of freezing water to see them across. Huge lumps of ice hurtled downstream towards them, and any normal man would have been swept helplessly away downstream and, dead or alive, over Goðafoss. But Grettir fended off the ice with his free arm, managed the crossing both ways, and then fought all night with the trollwoman who had been terrorising the household.

Mývatn, when I got there, I found to be a particularly beautiful and wonderful place; lying on a faultline between continental plates, the lake is surrounded by extraordinary natural features, better shown than described:

Hverfell crater

Hverfell crater

Grjótagjá

Grjótagjá

Hot pools in cave at Grjótagjá.

Hot pools in cave at Grjótagjá.

Hverfell crater

Hverfell crater

Inside the crater.

Inside the crater.

Lava towers at Dimmuborgir

Lava towers at Dimmuborgir

Shadowy figures at DImmuborgir - the 'Dark Castle'.

Shadowy figures at Dimmuborgir – the ‘Dark Castle’.

Bubble bursting in mud pool at Námafjall, just east of Mývatn.

Bubble bursting in mud pool at Námafjall, just east of Mývatn.

Fumarole, Námafjall.

Fumarole, Námafjall.

Víti crater, Krafla.

Víti crater, Krafla.

Krafla geothermal power plant.

Krafla geothermal power plant.

Leirhnjúkur (not a typo), near Krafla.

Leirhnjúkur (not a typo), near Krafla.

Lava field at Leirhnjúkur - 30 years old and still steaming.

Lava field at Leirhnjúkur – 30 years old and still steaming.

Leirhnjúkur

Leirhnjúkur