Iceland, 9 June 2012.
It is five minutes to midnight. Outside it is light and a Redwing is singing its heart out in an Alder tree (trees are pretty rare around here, birds are not). There is still pale pink sunlight on the snow slopes of the fjord opposite the house we are in. It isn’t really going to get any darker.
Manuel is editing video interviews on his iPhone. Most others are in bed. We’ve had a big dose of sea and chilly sunshine today. Leaving tomorrow will be hard.
Arriving was too.
This year’s Fjord journey is to Iceland. We arrive from Berlin (via Copenhagen), NY, San Francisco, Helsinki and London at separate times across the day, and then make our way to the domestic airport for a 45 minute flight to our destination, Isafjordur (note for Norsk geeks – normally this has funny letters with lines through them or one more dot than is usual, but I cannot find them on this MacBook). We wait a long time. It turns out that the flight to Isafjordur (capital of the West Fjords, pop 3.500) is cancelled due to high wind. Apparently it is rather a difficult airport to land at. Later, we will get to see this for ourselves.
The airline puts us up in a fairly prefab kind of hotel in Reykjavik, rather aptly named Hotel Cabin. Those of us with jetlag eat there, others head out to find a burger down by the fishing port. It’s a disappointing start.
Our flight heads out at 10.20 and at last we feel our journey has begun but we are flying to a different town than planned because of last night’s delay. We get a smallish propeller aircraft to ourselves, and head north west to the West Fjord region. We land at the smallest airport any of us has ever been to. The local football team and supporters are heading in the other direction out to the capital (summer is the football season here). Eventually a coach takes us to our destination (nothing happens fast in Iceland – it’s a glacial thing). The airport closes as we leave.
To get to Isafjordur from our arrival airport we go through the only single track tunnel any of us have ever seen: it has passing places. Even more surprise to find there is a junction in the tunnel. A unique concept that probably would not work that well in Italy.
The town is an old whaling centre built on a spit of land that curves out into the middle of the fjord. Nowadays it is still a fishing port and industry ranges from tourism to making fish processing equipment, It is charming, sleepy and feels like the end of the world. Lunch is at a lovely café run by the wife of one of our guides – Runar. Afterwards Runar and Roope (who organizes Fjord Journeys each year) take us on a hike up a mountain opposite the town. It turns into a very tough scramble on scree as the gradient worsens towards the top. The girls go with the guide up jumbled rocks, the boys a better looking but more treacherous scree path to the right. We learn our lesson the hard way with more than a few “moments”. At the top there is a cairn and a visitors book, snow and a biting wind. Even as we put clothing layers back on we also start to shed our city skins. Looking down Runar gives us a lesson on fjords and how they were created by glaciers sandpapering the mountains with ice and rock over the millennia. We see hanging valleys and morains and understand them just a little bit better than at school.
After a stumbling descent, we have dinner of lamb stew and cheesecake back at the café. Charmingly it has an old fashioned record player playing James Brown. It also has a new pet. Runar and his colleague Siggi have rescued a two week old seal pup abandoned by its mother near the town, and found by them. They are feeding it milk mixed with cod liver oil out of a baby’s bottle. It mews piteously but turns its huge eyes on each human that visits it and seems completely unafraid. Next day they had shifted the diet to fish (hand fed) and it looked much happier bathing on a rock in a plastic pool outside. Their plan is to return it to the water when it is ready. The children are looking forward to swimming with it….
We head out to our accommodation for two nights. It’s a farmhouse in a lonely fjord about 20 minutes from the town. The house – Korpudalur – is one hundred years old, and the husband of the lovely couple who run it was born there. His eyes are amused and have the gaze of a farmer who has only four months to grow and harvest and knows his seasons. The house is near the head of a steep sided fjord, with lush green water meadow fed by snow melt on the valley floor. Streams race chattering through the grass. The countryside around is alive with birds. They sing, call and shout all night long as it never gets dark here at this time of year. It feels timeless. Hobbits would feel at home in June here.
Today is kayak day. It’s a two hour drive to Reykjanes. The country here is sensational. We loop along the shores of fjord after fjord with names you cannot say without biting your tongue (Roope says we saw more fjords than any other Journeys crew so far….). Impressions blur – sea, snow, mountains, pastures, tiny communities, sheds for drying shark.
Reykjanes is weird. Hot volcanically heated water rises to the surface here. The slightly run down buildings are an ex-boarding school but it’s nothing like Hogwarts. (It turns out that the man who owns Korpudalur went to school here when he was 16. Teachers used to lower hessian sacks of potatoes into the hot spring to boil them for dinner.)
First of all we go sea kayaking among seals. For those of us who have not done this before it is a revelation as a means of travel. The chief sensation is of being very in touch with the environment. And it is surprisingly swift. But the highlight are the seals – big dark eyes like especially lovable dogs that can dive with flippers. We must have seen 30 or more in the day – all interested by us but keeping a discrete distance. They arc to dive silently and never re-emerge where you expect. Occasionally they splosh to make a point – perhaps a seal joke at our expense.
Back at the ex school, we swim in a volcanically heated concrete pool, do seal impersonations and laugh. The air temperature with wind chill must be 7 or 8 degrees Celsius, but the water is beautifully warm and the views amazing. We are joined by a seabird (a Black Guillemot) that swims nervously amongst us for a while.
Back at the farm, dinner (except for the vegetarians) is roast lamb (by now you can tell this is the national meat of Iceland). It is strong tasting and good. We laugh when we discover that Manuel has brought a flashlight to the land of the midnight sun in June. With no darkness at night many of us take a late walk out to the river and drink in the sounds of Snipe drumming and geese calling. It is still, and getting warmer,
The sunniest and warmest day so far. We are learning on our journey how quickly the weather can change around here and how different conditions can be from one fjord to another. Iceland is not a country for those who like their weather gentle and predictable.
Today we ride horses. Iceland is famous for its horses, which developed over time to be very tough indeed. In fact they have developed their own gait – a fifth (horses normally have four) called Tolt. The horses are small and hairy and apparently it is very important you do not call them ponies. But they do look like the kind of ponies the trolls eat in Lord of the Rings (we would not have been too surprised to see a troll in the countryside here).
We are each assigned a horse. Mark’s is called Sparkle (surely a My Little Pony name if ever there was one) but he is told his is one of the feisty ones. Josh gets the other troublemaker – looks nervous at first then starts to grin from ear to ear. In fact after some very good instruction, they all behave themselves on the three hour ride up the river valley through stunning scenery. We cross the river several times, and ride along the black volcanic sand beach. Giovanna has the closest to an accident when she tries to mount but goes straight over the top and falls off the other side. Luckily she is fine and no-one laughs till later.
The afternoon has two highlights – the local café (run by the wife of the Belgian man who runs the riding school) serves terrific coffee and of all things genuine waffles with wild rhubarb jam. Hanna Mari is in heaven.
A few of us – Tomas, Mark and Josh – go for a short hike with Runar up the side of a fjord. Our effort is rewarded by spectacular scenery and views from the top (where there is a cairn and yes, a visitors book).
That night we fly back to Reykjavik. This time the airport at Isafjordur is open and we have the experience of taking off on a runway which if the plane continues to fly straight for too long heads straight into the side of a fjord. Banking to our left we wave goodbye and sigh with relief that we are climbing away from the rock.
The journey finishes with a fabulous 8 course meal in Reykjavik – of which the highlight for curiosity value must be Minke Whale (which tastes a bit like beef and paraffin). We reflect on our journey. We have in three days used three ancient ways of travel – walking, riding, kayaking. Each puts us closely in contact with nature but each in a different way. We’ve seen nature’s grand designs – fjords – up close and learnt to understand something about them – how they were made, what lives there, how man has adapted to his environment.
Not the least, we have spent time with some wonderful people from across Fjord – our company – and built some new shared memories together and learned about each other. One observation that night that strikes a chord with all was that one of Fjord’s special qualities is the generous mingling of nationalities in all our offices. So here’s a toast to three Germans, one South African, two Finns (even though one insists she is Karelian), one Austrian, one American, one Englishman and one Italian.