Look at the pretty lights!

Wild West Iceland – Winter Winds, Whining, and a Wonderful Waterfall

When you are travelling between places in Iceland by car it has become obvious that you need to do a few things before you set off. First, make sure you car hasn’t been blown away over night. Winds seem to scream endlessly here, switching directions at will, and well, you might need to find a good parking spot to make sure it doesn’t go anywhere! Second, check the weather. Will the next day be windy, snowy, sunny, rainy, foggy, or… all of the above. Checking the weather is more important than the distance you are driving. You could circle the island in one long day, and essentially not leave route 1, so a map, in practice is not that necessary – but the weather dictates more where/when you can go. Third, always check your fuel. Yes, just like normal back home. You don’t get a free pass on buying fuel unless you somehow rented a magical car that doesn’t need fuel. Distances aren’t great here on an average day’s drive, but the hills and curves and inevitable stops for photos and sight seeing make it seem like you are driving the car with the world’s worst fuel mileage. After a few days of driving on the coast into a 20 m/s headwind, I was sure our rental car (the trusty Dacia Duster 4×4) was getting 10 l / km instead of the reverse. Also gas stations seem to pop sporadically, sometimes many at once, other times, none for 200+ km. And certainly not last, but fourth, make sure you pack at least 30 kg of snacks (per child under 18) for each hour of the trip. Driving in the back seat of a car, while on vacation, seemingly becomes more calorie intensive than a cross-fit workout in a hot yoga studio. Endless chants of ‘snacks’ or ‘I want to eat something’ seem to emanate from the second row of the four-wheeled transportation system the second the engine starts. It matters not if breakfast was but a few minutes prior, or lunch was still freshly on their lips, the ear-piercing, soul-crushing call for food is incessant and without remorse. I, naively at first, thought the offspring had been working on their rendition of a ‘punk’d’ skit – but I was soon to learn, to my dismay, and continuing dismay, that it wasn’t so. We have been trying to mitigate it, by reinforcing the use of the term, ‘Please’ before the begging, so we somehow justify it to ourselves that our kids are not in fact miniature versions of Neanderthals, but seriously who are we kidding, we just endlessly repeat ‘Say please’, and when they eventually do we give them snacks and they have learned nothing. Kids 1 – Us 0.

So, as I was saying, driving anywhere in Iceland is a bit about time management, massive quantities of rations, weather knowledge, and skill. As our last post mentioned, skill is a sorely lacking attribute of many drivers here in Iceland. I definitely worry more about the oncoming car than the narrow, no shouldered roads, or the hurricane force winds that seemingly come from all directions. A couple cars in the ditch on lightly snowy days tells me these people have no business driving here in October – but hey, who am I to take away their dream of seeing Iceland. I am just hoping the next few days here goes smoothly on the roads!

Ok, back to some real travel stuff. Where were we? Oh yes, we left Akureyri the other day and headed west. We booked an Airbnb somewhere near the ‘town’ of Húnavatnshreppur (Yep, that is how it is spelled and it wasn’t me just mashing a bunch of keys on the computer keyboard.) We found the place relatively easy after a calm drive through the mountains and valleys of the northwest – luckily too, as a storm was moving in the next day and would have made that drive a bit tougher. Beautiful area – lots of scenic lookouts and majestic vistas. Amazing contrasts in the area, from the green fields to the white snow covered peaks abounded along our route. Horses, sheep (or as Maxine calls them – sheepees!), and even a few bovines dot the fields of the landscape along our path. Anyway, as we arrive at our Airbnb we notice it is a farm – a totally real farm. Not a ‘ranch’ or a ‘we have a few chickens so we call it a farm’, but a real local farm. We can tell by the smell – oh and the fact it is a farm, with barns and horses and a butt-load of sheep. We are greeted and shown to the one room palace that we have inherited for the night. It is small, but stylish and functional, but the real show is outside. A small herd of border collies show up to introduce themselves. At final count there are 5 of them, but generally, the mother dog goes solo while the 4 males (father, brother, and pups) run amok around the property. The girls are instantly drawn to the dogs – and likewise for the dogs. Maxine is the perfect size for jumping up on and licking, so she soon becomes a carte blanche for the dogs’ artistic tribute to muddy paw prints and saliva. They are masters at their art.

With the cleanliness factor thrown out the window, and down a cliff, Marianne searches desperately for her Norwex cleaning products to make sure Maxine once again can be seen in public. In the meantime, Maëlle and I don’t look back and head for the open pasture, dogs in tow (then way ahead of us, then beside us again – oh boy do they have a lot of energy.) We go off in search of sheepees and horses, but they see us and the dogs coming and head for the back 40. The dogs chase the sheep around a bit, more to harass than out of working instinct, but the sheep are probably used to it by now. So, we get our photos of the sheep from far, and move on. We can feel the temperature dropping and the wind picking up as the clouds descend into the valley – but knowing we are going no where that night makes us feel better.

The next day we had a surprise for the girls, we had arranged with the organizer of the Airbnb to get the girls a tour of the horse stables and to ride a horse. Maëlle was pretty excited, and showed us in her usual way by throwing a temper tantrum. Seems logical?! Someone must have added urine to her corn flavoured traditional breakfast cereal to make her so ornery, but who knows sometimes. Anyhoo… because of the weather that moved in the girls weren’t going to be able to ride the horses outside. The winds were too strong, and with the driving rain at times, it wouldn’t have been fun. The girls could barely walk into the wind – so I’m sure they would have been blown away like kites should they have been on the horses. Still, the girls got an hour with the horses; brushing them, petting them, and sitting on them. Maëlle also rode her horse around in the stable for a bit. It was pretty hard to get her to let go – as she seems to like these huge beasts. Maxine didn’t actually want to ride the horse around the stable, and seemed more interested in the dogs – especially the older male, who was absolutely attached to her. His tail wagged so much every time she walked near him that I thought he was going to take off like a helicopter. So we didn’t force her, instead as she wandered around the barn the farm / horse owners told us lots about their horses and Icelandic horses in general. Once again, the Icelanders seemed cold at first, but were totally friendly when you started to talk to them. Marianne even managed to snap a pic of me touching the horse – which I think is about the 3 or 4 horse I have ever pet in my life. Horses don’t seem to like me – not sure why, I generally don’t even try to touch them.

After this great experience we had to head out. We packed up the Duster and headed off into the blowing gale;  but just before that, I actually let the girls try to walk head long into the wind, and it almost blew them away. I didn’t stop them, I kinda wanted to see how far down the field the wind would push them, but they made it to the car! What? … like you wouldn’t do the same… 🙂

Anyway, with our visit with the horses over, we set off in the car immediately after a quick lunch, only to hear the melodic bellows of ‘I want to eat something’, followed by our one millionth, ‘You just ate, and you need to say please’. Our drives start so well!

The rest of our drive was interesting. With only about 1.5 hours of driving to the next destination, our road appeared to be clear, despite the warnings from the weather service; however, the winds were stronger than anticipated. Yes, driving in the wind requires a bit more reaction than anticipation as you can’t see the wind, but still it all comes down to slowing down if necessary. As we approached our turn off to our Airbnb, the winds had been mild, only about 20 m/s at most, and mostly from the back, so we were just getting an extra push. Well, that changed quickly. A blue sign loomed ahead with an unknown place name on top and the temperature and wind speed (I think that is what they are – I am just guessing) displayed in digital numbers, so they can be updated in real time. These signs only tend to appear when there is some sort of mountain pass or long stretch of open to the ocean road; they serve as a notice and warning to those who dare attempt the crossing. Our sign read a balmy -2C and a blustery 30 m/s wind speed (108 km/h sustained winds). I guarantee the gusts were above that! Anyway, the next section through the mountain pass was interesting – as I was seemingly dealing with swirling 100 km/s winds that were blowing the truck back and forth. I’m sure Marianne can testify that my driving technique that day resembled the old arcade days when we used to grab the steering wheel of a racing game and wiggle it back and forth in a futile attempt at making the inactive car on screen do our bidding. It almost felt like that at times as I wasn’t sure if I was helping or making it worse – but with no room for error, I decided to slow down and keep us on track. I saw a few oncoming drivers with concerned or downright scared looks on their faces as we snaked through the pass – no reassurance at all that the conditions ahead were any better. But, as I am now writing this, you have guessed, we made it! Actually it turned out to be not so bad, as our 4 wheeled steed proving itself up to the task once again. The key you see, is to slow down and not crash! I have found that the most effective way of driving from place to place here in Iceland! Who knew it was that simple?

We are now hanging out in our little chalet in the valley near Búðardalur, west Iceland. Tonight there northern lights are visible in the sky. Not the most amazing ever, but still pretty cool. I got a few photos of them – and it shows them pretty well. It actually looked better with the camera than with the eye.

Look at the pretty lights!
Amazing Aurora Borealis over the night sky in Western Iceland.

Anyway, today was a chill day with a bit of hiking, some visiting of farm animals, and some ice cream. I mean, when is a better time to have ice cream than when it is freezing outside? The ice cream doesn’t melt on you and it tastes just as good! Despite the chilly temperatures we decided to get out and explore. Marianne wanted to do a hike, but as everywhere is Iceland seems to be someone’s backyard or farm, I wasn’t sure where we could actually hike. Well, I found a hidden and amazing waterfall near by that you could hike to. And it was only about 30 mins away. Well after a disappointing lunch at the local greasy spoon, whose menu consisted of 5 types of burgers, and fish and chips (what a selection!) we decided to find this secret gem of falling water. No map seemed to have it listed, which peaked my interest, but the online photo showing this amazing wild flow of water sold it. So off we went. The road headed west on the peninsula toward Snæfellsjökull National Park, and soon turned to gravel. The posted 80 km/h speed limit seemed a bit ambitious for most, but we rumbled on over the pot holes and bumps. A quick 30 minutes or so later we approached the area of the trail to the falls. Five minutes later we backtracked, searching for the route to the falls again. It should be right where we were, but the only think there seemed to be a driveway. We tried it anyway. Icelanders have proven friendly to our feeble attempts to pronounce their place names, so I was hoping us accidentally driving across their front lawn in search of a secret and almost unknown waterfall would be met with equal kindness. I mean, why not eh? Luckily, we didn’t have to try to use our best Canadian ‘Sorry, eh’ as the road actually bypassed the house by a few metres and climbed precariously through loose rocks into the rocky cliff beyond. As we climbed, the main road slipped away, and the allure of the majestic hidden falls beckoned. But suddenly a large warning sign appeared. Seriously, here? Did we enter into a forbidden ecosystem? Was this a military installation and armaments were scattered everywhere? Were there lava flows or rock slides? Nope. It was a sign warning us not to drive on the runway. Yes, runway. But.. but… where? A barren rocky/grassy strip of land with yellow painted rocks lining the perimeter must be it – but seriously, who would land a plane here? So, we avoided the runway – which would have been harder to drive on than our road, and continued, finally reaching a small parking area, not far from the bustling airport.

Now, we hike. The kids loved the idea and instantly jumped out of the car ready to go… not! It was cold (-2 or -3C), there was no iPad to comfort them for their arduous journey of 30 minutes, and well, we wanted to do it – so that alone was enough for a full on mutiny for the first few minutes. But we overcame the opposition and marched on. We found the first waterfall / cascade only a few metres from our prime parking spot. We scampered down the loose lava stone hill to admire the view, only to tell the kids, with much backlash, that this was not the hike, but only the start. So off we went in search of the true hidden gem. Maxine did her best fire truck impression for the first few hundred metres, while Maëlle, to her credit, was great all day with the hiking. We continued along a some-what used road up into a nearby pasture. Our movements observed on all sides by the judgemental sheepees. They stared at us, but ran when we said hi. How rude! Soon we came around the corner and there it was, through the rocks, in the upper portion of the ravine, the gem of the west, the majestic and unrivaled waterfall that was supposed to be named: Lambhagafoss. Of course, that is what I thought it was called, and honestly have no idea if it was called that, as it wasn’t on any map. But there it was. It seemed a bit smaller than I expected, a bit narrower, a bit less water, and maybe not quite so majestic, maybe a bit ordinary – but still a waterfall! I had found us a waterfall in the (somewhat) back country of Iceland, far from the touches of man – except the airport and the farms and the sheep and the fences everywhere and the roads… yes yes… in the wild! So we started towards it. We didn’t get right to it, as the ravine seemed to cut off that possibility – and it seemed so remote (or the kids were complaining… one of the two), so we headed back. Out mission was accomplished, with a slightly diminished return on the waterfall awesomeness, but a waterfall none the less. I guess a few days without dramatic, enormous waterfalls all around you make you seek out what you took for granted only days ago! So, with that done, ice cream was the reward at a near by local dairy farm / creamery, where the girls also got to see bunnies, cows, and other farm like animals.

Tomorrow we are off back to Reykjavik, for a couple of final days in the land of ice before heading off to Paris. We are going to explore a huge lava tube, and hopefully try a few of the local delicacies (Plokkfiskur!), as our food budget definitely was helped by us cooking for the majority of the times. We’ll update more then, and maybe I’ll get to my take on the pools here – other than just being awesome!

Ciao for now.

M – Manager of luggage handling for the M4 travelling corporation