We spent this week in Iceland where the tourists and the sheep vastly outnumber the local population and Stuart has had his ‘at-the-checkout-in-Waitrose’ face on for a few of our purchases. (“HOW MUCH?”)
The £37 pounds we paid for two bowls of soup spring to mind.
The massive and sudden boom in tourism and its impact, good and bad, is the ongoing big news story here. An estimated 2.4m visitors are expected to holiday in Iceland this year to an island of 330,000 people. Most arrive in on flights to Reykjavík on the south west coast and focus on what’s called the ‘golden circle’ of sights within a two hour drive of the capital.
Our ferry from the Faroes arrived in to the south east coast port of Seydisfjordur…
…and after dithering about which direction to travel on the Ring Road that circles the whole of Iceland, we opted to drive anti-clockwise and go north.
Hopefully that way we’d see fewer tourists and more sheep. And as September is the month when the farmers gather family and friends to help herd their flocks down from summer grazing on the mountains, maybe we’d get a chance to see this Rettir tradition in action.
The scenery when we first set off was ‘ a bit like Scotland’ which has become Stuart’s mantra for the trip whenever we drive through countryside with green hills. But then it all changed.
This doesn’t look like Ayrshire anymore.
The gravelly expanses stretching out on all sides reminded us of when we drove through the Sahara desert along the Moroccan/Algerian border a few months back. (Apologies – please do feel free to give me a clip across the ear if I come out with stuff like that back home)
Along the road we’d seen signs warning against any ‘off road’ driving, not that Molly had any chance managing the rocky terrain around us. But over in the distance on a narrow track off the Ring Road, we could see a motorhome slowly working its way around.
It definitely wasn’t a 4 x 4 so if they could do it, why couldn’t we? We left the Ring Road, googling our destination as we went through the desert landscape.
It turned out to be Möðrudalur. It’s a working farm…
…the highest farm in the country apparently but it is also a tourism business with a thriving business enticing travellers off the Ring Road.
Inside the turf roofed building was a restaurant…
…serving this excellent lamb soup.
And as well as a helipad offering volcano tours, there was a campsite though unfortunately not one offering any electric hook up to campers. It did mean we were in for a chilly night as our gas heater isn’t working. But still it was the perfect place to stop for our first night in Iceland.
We bought a round chewy doughnut from the restaurant to have with a cuppa back in the van…
…and then settled down in our deckchairs …
…to enjoy the view and take in the last rays of the unexpectedly warm afternoon sun.
Rhonda and David from North Carolina arrived on the campsite in their hired campervan and we got talking about all sorts including this shared irritation…
….these heaps of stones. We’ve seen them in every country we’ve been to on this trip. Take a walk out into the wilds and you can bet that someone ahead of you will have marked their presence with a carefully arranged pile.
I get the point and real importance of cairns to mark a path for hikers but these piles are surely a form of landscape graffiti. OK, that’s the soapbox rant over…and if you don’t agree, then you might like the rainbow in the photo.
Getting back to our first evening, our new friends had heard that, despite it being quite early in the year, there had been sightings of the Northern Lights already. All the signs were good for tonight.
The sky was cloudless…
…and so we all waited up in our van till midnight before finally calling it a night.
Next morning we headed back onto the Ring Road…
…and then very quickly left it again to travel down a very, very bumpy gravel road…
..to reach Detiffloss. Remember that waterfall in ‘Prometheus’? This is it and mighty impressive it is too.
Heading north towards Husavik, we travelled through black lava fields spotted with splashes of bright yellow lichen…
…which was an apt spot for the van’s water temperature warning light to start flashing. (gulp)
After giving it time to cool down,and topping up, we were back on the road where the spectacular sights kept coming.
Here’s the boiling hot lake near Krafla. The ‘No Swimming’ sign seemed a tad redundant.
We walked through the eerie post-Apocalyptic world of the Krafla lava fields…
…and around the steaming rocks…
…and mud pools at Hverir.
At sulphurous steaming Namafjall., we followed the marked trails through the geothermal area.
…and enjoyed the more gentle landscape of Hofoi’s lava towers.
After a drenching during a rain sodden stomp around the Hverfjell crater…
…we warmed up that evening with a long soak in the Myvatn Nature Baths. They have been dubbed as the North of Iceland’s answer to the far more famous Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik. They may well end up being our less expensive substitute for the famous attraction.
Next day we headed to Akureyri, Iceland’s second largest city where we went for a Japanese-Icelandic meal in ‘Rub 23’.
That’s a fusion which means you get reindeer in your bento box starter along with the prawns….
…followed by a main course of cod (it being Iceland..).
In just a few days, we had already seen some spectacular scenery but the undoubted highlight was our afternoon whale watching at Hauganes.
Looking like we were on a NASA mission we set off on the boat trip with, I admit, low expectations of what the day would hold. Maybe a few glimpses of black shadows in the water somewhere off in the distance? We weren’t overly optimistic.
We certainly never expected to see this humpback whale breaching the water beside us…
…or watch as three humpbacks took it in turn to dive beneath the water, like synchronised swimmers rehearsing a routine.
It was breathtaking to see their speed and grace so close.
The captain called time on the whale watching and offered all a chance to try their hand at sea angling. Drop the line to the bottom of the sea and then move the rod up and down is the technique apparently.
It didn’t work for me…
…but Stuart caught our dinner. It’s all in the wrist action I believe.
Here he is with our two fillets to take home…
..and with a dollop of olive oil and a slice of lemon they tasted delicious.
I mentioned sheep earlier on and how we hoped to see the annual sheep round-up or the Réttir in action. Well we did! Or at least we saw a part of it.
As we were driving north from Hauganes, we heard the whoops and watched as a line of high-vis jackets gradually worked their way down the mountain, herding the sheep down to the fields around the farm.
The annual Rettir usually ends up with a ‘Réttaball’ – a night of music and dancing to celebrate the end of the round-up. Who knows, maybe we will stumble on one of those next week.
We continued our route north, past fields of Icelandic horses…
Stopping to sort more van trouble, this time a puncture….
…we eventually reached Siglufjordur. On a grey, drizzly day, it had a desolate feel.
…but this small village used to be the herring capital of Iceland with a population of 10,000.
Inside the fascinating Herring Era Museum, the story of the ‘boom and bust’ years of Iceland’s herring industry is brought to life, vividly telling the story of the gold rush atmosphere where thousands came to make their fortune.
They fished and they fished until there were…. no more fish.
Walking through the accommodation used by the men and women employed to salt the herring, it’s as though they had just stepped out for a moment.
We stayed in Varmahlio that night and talking to the campsite owner, it sounds like the big tourism numbers arriving into Iceland have not yet reached the north of the country.
He didn’t sound too sorry about this and talked about how difficult it is now for locals to find somewhere to rent in Reykjavik because so much property is now being let through the airbnb market. And he grumbled about how he took his family on a trip to see Gullfoss but was standing in a queue five deep to get a look at the most famous waterfall in Iceland.
Next week we are heading south to see Gullfoss and the rest of the big attractions in the Golden Circle but first we will enjoy the pretence of having Iceland to ourselves by heading down Route 35 through the Icelandic Highlands.