Pioneers

The southern coast of Iceland is among the most beautiful and dramatic parts of Iceland. It is also one of the least hospitable areas, dominated by washed-out sand and lava flows, and an exposed coastline with no natural harbours for hundreds of kilometres west of Höfn. Inevitably given its location, it was the first part of Iceland that many travellers came to, including the very first Norse settler, Ingolf Arnarson. It shows either confidence or desperation that Ingolf and the settlers that followed him pushed on past this unpromising beginning to find good land and safe harbours further round the coast.

Ingólfshöfði

Ingólfshöfði

In 874, according to The Book of Settlements, Ingolf Arnarson and his sworn-brother Hjorleif arrived in Iceland and were separated as they approached land. Ingolf spent his first winter on Ingólfshöfði, a distinctive 77m high headland in a vast expanse of flat sand. During that first winter they must have explored the surrounding area and found some of the pearls of the Icelandic landscape.

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Svartifoss

Svartifoss

A short way to the north of Ingólfshöfði they would have stumbled upon magical Svartifoss, framed by its overhanging basaltic cliff; like many thousands of visitors since they must have been entranced by the delicate waterfall in its wooded gully.  From Svartifoss they would have continued up the mountain behind what is now the main centre for Vatnajökull National Park at Skaftafell, until they came out onto a viewpoint like this over the glacier Skaftafellsjökull:

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Skaftafellsjökull

Skaftafellsjökull

Probably Ingolf and his followers would have continued up the mountain until the vast bulk of the Vatnajökull ice cap appeared before them, Europe’s biggest by volume. On other expeditions they might have travelled east along the coast until they came to Jökulsárlón, a glacier lake made famous by several films and television programs, including two James Bonds. They would surely have been as enthralled as I was by the landscape, but they must also have been worried by the apparent lack of good land – though a couple of successful farms were later established along the foot of the mountains here.

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Jökulsárlón

Jökulsárlón

On Kvíárjökull

On Kvíárjökull

I hitched my way westwards along the coast from Höfn, stopping to visit glacial lakes, waterfalls, and for an ill-advised scramble onto a treacherously ridged glacier. My aim was to get to Vík that night, near where Hjorleif landed and spent his first winter. Here too natural wonders abound; the petrified trolls of the Reynisdrangar sea stacks and the basalt cave at Reynir. And not least the miles and miles of perfectly black beaches, emphasised by the white foam of endless waves breaking on them.

Black beaches at Vík

Black beaches at Vík

On the cliff above Vík

On the cliff above Vík

Reynisdrangar from cliff

Reynisdrangar from cliff

Reynisdrangar from Vík

Reynisdrangar from Vík

Basalt cave at Reynir

Basalt cave at Reynir

Further west is the waterfall Skógafoss, among the most distinctive and postcard friendly of Iceland’s waterfalls; it was even the scene chosen for Iceland’s Eurovision introduction this year. The land around Vík and westwards along the coast is better, though natural harbours are still lacking, and Hjorleif decided to settle permanently. The story goes that having no oxen he forced some recently captured Irish slaves to pull a plough before sowing the first crop the following spring. They weren’t overjoyed by this task, and at the first opportunity they killed Hjorleif and his followers, took his boat, and rowed out to some islands they could see offshore.

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Skógafoss

Skógafoss

Later that spring Ingolf discovered his sworn-brother’s body, and noting the absence of the boat, correctly guessed where the slaves had gone. He followed them there with his men, and catching them unprepared slaughtered the lot. The islands are still called the Vestmannaeyjar (Westmen Islands) after their first unfortunate inhabitants, and they have a history of disaster.

First of the Vestmannaeyjar the ferry passes.

First of the Vestmannaeyjar the ferry passes.

In the seventeenth century the islands were targeted by raiding Algerian pirates and a large proportion of the islanders were killed or captured and forced into slavery. Then in 1973 a two-hundred metre high volcano appeared on the edge of the main town literally overnight, and spewed out vast quantities of lava for months. The entire population of about five thousand people was evacuated in a few hours that first night, and then a desperate battle began to halt the lava by cooling it with seawater before it overran the town and blocked the only entrance to the harbour. The total area of the island was increased by one fifth during the eruption, but the cooling efforts were eventually successful and both the harbour entrance and most of the town were preserved.

Interior of Heimaey

Interior of Heimaey

I spent a night camping on Heimaey, the main island of the Vestmannaeyjar, and an afternoon climbing the steep ridges that line the nothern side of the island, and the young volcano Eldfell. Today it looks as innocent as Hverfell by Mývatn, just a pile of black and red shingle in a U-shape around a burst crater, and makes a great viewing point for looking over the islands.

Heimaey town and harbour from Eldfell

Heimaey town and harbour from Eldfell

Vestmannaeyjar from Eldfell

Vestmannaeyjar from Eldfell

Up Mountain, Along Fjord

The mountain range of Esja lies across the fjord to the north of Reykjavík, and is a popular destination for walking amongst locals and tourists.  Peaking at 914m, it is a serious climb, though most walkers are happy to stop when they reach the top of one of the outlying ridges.  At about 800m, after a final hands and feet climb, the mountainside levels off and disappears up towards the central ridge; but it is rough, difficult ground further up, and the view is already fantastic at 800m.

Esja from Mógilsá

Esja from Mógilsá

I took the main path from Mógilsá up to the ridge of Þverfellshorn.  It was the last day of good weather for three weeks, and the view over Reykjavík and the fjords was superb.  In the distance I could see the entire northern coast of Reykjanes Peninsula, even out to the lighthouses at Garður where I had camped my first night, 50km away across the fjord.  Only the industrial shoreline of northern Reykjavík marred the view, but I was more interested in looking down the valley to the west of Þverfellshorn.

Reykjavík from Þverfellshorn

Reykjavík from Þverfellshorn

At the bottom of this valley lies the ancient saga site of Esjuberg, a farm established by some of the first Irish Christians to arrive after the Norse settlement had begun (speculation abounds as to whether Irish monks or even settlers had made it to Iceland before the vikings arrived, only to think better of it when they met their new neighbours).  They were initially welcomed by the open-minded local chieftain, the pagan Helgi Bjolan, whose father had ruled the extensively Christianised Scottish islands for a time.  However, when his more aggressive son and grandson took over relations soon deteriorated.  According to the Saga of the People of Kjalarnes a young man of Irish descent called Bui lived at Esjuberg with his Irish foster-mother Esja, a Christian and a magic-user.  This was an unusual combination in the world of the sagas, but very useful to Bui.

Esjuberg just out of sight at foot of valley; Seltjarnarnes at the end of Reykjavík Peninsula in middle distance; Garður and Reykjanes Peninsula just below horizon.

Esjuberg just out of sight at foot of valley; Seltjarnarnes at the end of Reykjavík Peninsula in middle distance; Garður and Reykjanes Peninsula just below horizon.

With her help Bui fought back against the new chieftain and his son when they tried to exile him for refusing to pay taxes to their temple to Thor.  He killed the son while he was worshipping in the temple, and then set it alight.  With Esja’s help he hid in a cave high up in the mountainside, somewhere above the valley I was now looking down 1100 years later.  Meanwhile down at the foot of the valley the chieftain set out to avenge his son, but when he couldn’t find Bui he instead killed his old friend and sworn-brother, Bui’s father.  So, as is the nature of a feud, no one really won.  However, years later Bui and the chieftain were reconciled, and Bui married his daughter, so there seemed to be a happy ending; until Bui was killed wrestling a son he had fathered on a beautiful troll princess in the mountains of Norway.  This may serve as a timely reminder to treat all the stories in the sagas with healthy suspicion!

Driving along the road afterwards I was able to see the site of Esjuberg, still an active farm, off to the right against the mountain.  Further on there is good farmland in the area where Helgi Bjolan and his descendants had their farm.  This area was once heavily wooded, according to the saga, but like around Reykjavík, it was all used up and destroyed in the first centuries of occupation.

Akrafjall at mouth of Hvalfjörður

Akrafjall at mouth of Hvalfjörður

To the north of the mountain range Esja lies Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord), a long, narrow fjord that carves its way into south-western Iceland.  I wanted to get to the head of the fjord, for two reasons: the waterfall Glymur, and the island of Geirshólmi.  I got a lucky lift with a young Austrian man who had no fixed schedule and thought Glymur sounded interesting.  After driving the 35km to the end of the fjord, we set off on foot together on the two-hour return walk to Glymur, Iceland’s highest waterfall at 198m.  And the waterfall did not disappoint; spilling over the end of a terrifying gorge that climbed suddenly from the gentle valley floor, the fall disappeared out of sight into the depths of the chasm.  Seagulls flew around, below me in the gorge as often as above, and when I dared to peak over the crumbling edge I could see gull chicks in nests below me.  It was exhilarating, impressive, terrifying, and well worth the walk.

Viewing point for Glymur

Viewing point for Glymur

Glymur

Glymur

Back at the fjord Geirshólmi poked its tiny cliffs out of the water, silhouetted by the sinking sun.  On this islet, 50m across and only slightly longer, between 80 and 200 outlaws lived for a time, according to the Saga of Hord and the People of Holm.  From the mainland the island looked far too small to accommodate so many people, but the longhouses at Hafnir and in the 871±2 museum had taught me that the medieval Icelanders could sleep a lot of people in a very small space, so I reserved judgement on the truthfulness of the story.  Undeniably it was a good defensive position, surrounded by steep cliffs several metres high, and with a clear view over the fjord in every direction.

Geirshólmi from west

Geirshólmi from west

It is no wonder the local farmers found the outlaws difficult to deal with, when it was impossible for them to retaliate for all the cows, sheep, and pigs they had stolen.  In the end though the stronghold was self-defeating.  The outlaws got so bored sitting on their rock that they allowed themselves to be duped into coming ashore with a promise of an amnesty, where every last one of them was killed.  The hero, Hord, was the last to leave, and his wife stayed behind with her two sons.  When he didn’t return she set out to swim ashore with the children, escaping just before the vengeful farmers turned up to complete the job by killing Hord’s sons.

Hvalfjörður from Glymur path; Geirshólmi beyond narrow peninsula from north shore.

Hvalfjörður from Glymur path; Geirshólmi beyond narrow peninsula from north shore.

Hvalfjörður and Esja are both beautiful places in their own right, with excellent walking and rewarding views.  There is, however, something extra special about the area when you know that this peaceful mountain valley, or that apparently insignificant little rock out in the fjord were the central sites of such dramatic events.  Even if you dismiss the stories as entirely fictional, the landscape still has something to say.  For when you then read the story again you can imagine the events in their natural setting, as the original saga audience would have done, and you become a part of that thousand-year old tradition.  And there is after all nothing in the landscape to say they didn’t happen…

Hvalfjörður; sun sinking behind Geirshólmi

Hvalfjörður; sun sinking behind Geirshólmi

Searching for Iceland

The first time I travelled to Iceland I flew in over the Reykjanes peninsula during the day, so that my first impression from the plane window was of a terribly bleak and desolate landscape, an impression that the bus journey from the airport to Reykjavík seemed to confirm.  I was mistaken, however, to think that these vast lava flows and barren moorland were the essence of Iceland.  But how many visitors come to Iceland and never see anything more than this, stopping over for an afternoon to visit the Blue Lagoon, or perhaps for a night or two in Reykjavík?  How many tourists leave thinking Iceland is a wasteland punctuated only by the occasional stunning tourist attraction and by the sprawling city of Reykjavík?

I would guess that the single greatest category of foreign visitors is the visitor who is in the country for three or four days, and spends it in Reykjavík, leaving the city only to do a mandatory Golden Circle tour: a coach trip round Þingvellir, Geysir, and Gullfoss.  There is nothing wrong with this.  They will have a great time, and some of them may resolve to come back, because even on such a short visit the natural features make quite an impression.  But this is no more the essence of Iceland than the lava fields between Keflavík and the Blue Lagoon, though many of these visitors will undoubtedly make the mistake of thinking they have ‘seen Iceland’.  I know, because I made the same mistake, and I had a whole week to make it in.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss – the essence of Iceland?

I had two days in Reykjavík, and then spent a day hitchhiking round the Golden Circle, before continuing along the south coast.  I had three more days to race to Jökulsárlón, a spectacular glacier lake, in the southeast of the country, and back to Reykjavík.  They were three truly incredible days, and a major factor in my decision to return to Iceland just over a year later for a longer visit.  This journey along the south coast is probably the most common route for tourists going beyond the Golden Circle, and with good reason, as the waterfalls, cliffs, and glaciers it passes are truly stunning.  It is also a route which seems to confirm a first impression of Iceland as an exceptionally bleak country.  While the road first crosses the extensive grasslands of the Rangár district, these soon give way to hundreds of miles of washed out black sand, regularly reshaped by glacial floods and supporting a little grass only in those places that have for some time escaped these catastrophic interludes.  Just when the traveller thinks the landscape can get no bleaker or more inhospitable, the road hits a series of tremendous lava flows, mile after mile of twisted and lumpy rock supporting no life except a thick layer of moss.

Lava flow on south coast.

Lava flow on south coast.

When I left after my week’s visit I was amazed and appalled in equal measure.  I knew I would have to come back to explore more of the natural features of the landscape, but I could not understand how or why a people had come to settle this desolation in the first place.  Bleak as it seemed to me, how much worse must it have looked to settlers who knew their lives depended on making a living out of this harsh land?  To me it seemed a landscape divorced from its inhabitants – an easy conclusion to reach on the south coast, where there are in any case large areas with very few people living there at all.  I thought this alternately and often simultaneously beautiful but bleak landscape was essentially Iceland, but I was wrong.

Actually I did come closer to the real heart of the country when I walked out along a long dirt road to a tiny youth hostel in a narrowing lowland valley to the northwest of the famous glacier called Eyjafjallajökull.  On this little croft, with only a single staff member for company, the croft itself in the company of a single farm, there was a sense of peace, and of harmony with the landscape.  But I had to get back to Reykjavík the nest day, and so this brief experience of a human place in peaceful coexistence with the landscape was overwritten by more sandscapes, lava flows, and by the bustle of the Blue Lagoon, where I rounded off my trip that afternoon.  Iceland, I could declare on my return to Britain, is an unbelievably bleak place – beautiful, but no place to live.

However, as a student of the medieval Icelandic sagas, I could not escape the fact that for over eleven hundred years people had been living on this island.  And more than that, they had created, told, and written stories of all kinds that demonstrated their interactions with the landscape, showing that these people existed not in spite of the land, but with it and because of it.  My experience of Iceland made this difficult to understand, but there it was, demonstrated in forty medieval sagas and numerous other stories and folk tales, taking place in real locations all over Iceland, and all crying out that there was more to this country than waterfalls and lava.  So when I went back this summer I carried with me two kinds of guidebook.  I had an up to date Lonely Planet to lead me to more of the natural features that had so impressed me on my first visit, and in my rucksack I had a five-volume collection of the Icelandic family sagas, or Íslendingasögur.  These would be my guide to the landscape behind the landscape, the Iceland the settlers saw and lived in, visible now to foreigners only with the aid of these stories, but preserved also in the memories and national consciousness of the Icelanders themselves.  It is an Iceland that takes time and effort to discover, but it is an Iceland worth making the effort for.  It is the nature and the people, the history, and the literature of Iceland.  It is Iceland.

Gisli rock

Geirþjófsfjörður – a landscape with a story.