Iceland 2016: Day 4 - To the West Fjords

September 2, 2016

 

Tuesday, June 21st began with a wake up call around 6 AM to break camp and pack our stuff; we had a 7 AM bus to catch at Básar out of þórsmörk. (Forgive me as I continue to mark the time everything happened on this day, it was a looooong one.) We were tired and sore and some of us even managed to nap on the extremely bumpy ride to Seljalandsfoss, where we had dropped our car two evenings before. The bus ride took almost two hours to cover about 20 miles. This is the infamous F249, the one road that the rental car companies tell you you're not allowed to drive on even if you rent the Jeep with the big tires and high clearance. There are too many river and stream crossings to count. It also might be one of the most beautiful drives in Iceland; it follows along the back side of Eyjafjallajökull with great views of the glacier and countless waterfalls.

When we reached Seljalandsfoss around 9 AM, we did what we could to freshen up. We still had 8 hours of driving ahead of us today before we could take a proper shower. We decided not to visit Seljalandsfoss; it was already overrun with tourists and we'd seen it before. Instead, we went to check out it's lesser-known neighbor, Gljúfrafoss. Maybe only half a mile away, Gljúfrafoss drops into a cave, and only the top part of the waterfall can be seen from the road, masking what an incredible sight it is. You can enter the cave through a narrow rift carved out by the stream, then stand on a huge boulder at the waterfall's feet. You get a little damp but it's well worth it.

Seljalandsfoss as seen from near Gljúfrafoss.

Gljúfrafoss from the road. The crevasse is to the left by the woman in pink. You can also climb up the little hill in front and look down into the cave, but none of us had the energy for that after the previous day's exertion.

 

 

 

 We couldn't stick around long as we had far away places to be. The trip to Patreksfjörður in the West Fjords was going to take us 8-9 hours with a few stops along the way to break up the trip. First things first though, we hit the Vinbudin in Selfoss. The vinbudin is the liquor store, and in Iceland they usually have hours like 14:00 - 16:00. Also, you should always buy all of your booze for the trip at the airport as soon as you get there. There is a duty free store in the baggage claim area. As experienced Iceland travelers we should have known better; we won't make that mistake again. We also stopped at Bobby Fischer's grave in Selfoss but whatever (Time check: 11:00 AM).

Our "real" first stop (2 PM) was Hraunfossar, a really unique waterfall that springs straight from the ground. Like Gjáin a few days earlier, somewhere upstream the river follows cracks in the lava underground, then rejoins the main river when it hits a valley wall. Hraunfossar translates to Lava Waterfall. We may have been a little underwhelmed since we had seen a dozen or more amazing waterfalls the day before, but it's still a pretty interesting sight. Unfortunately it's close to the road and close enough to Reykjavik that there are lots of tourists there. It was very crowded.

 Five people who have not showered in 50+ hours.

Hraunfossar

 

We stopped at the next gas station we passed and decided to grab a quick lunch while we were at it. (3 PM) It was surprisingly good (featuring more Bernaise sauce!). I mention it only to share this picture of 1) the great view you can expect when eating lunch at a gas station/convenience store in Iceland and 2) to show just how tired we were. Except for Ellen, since she had slept basically the entire bus and car rides so far that day.

 

 

A few more hours of driving and/or napping and we were officially in the beautiful West Fjords. The views over every ridge are spectacular. If you just drove a circle around the West Fjords and never got out of your car you would still feel like you'd had a successful visit. And it's really desolate, even compared to the rest of Iceland. At one point I think we went several hundred kilometers without passing anything... not a gas station, or store, or even a farm.We just barely arrived at our next stop, Flókalundur, without running out of gas.

 Typical view while driving in the West Fjords.

 

Flókalundur, as far as I could tell, is not so much a place as it is a gas station/restaurant/hotel conveniently located at one of the few crossroads in this part of the country. After filling up the tank, someone helpfully directed us to the nearby hot spring called Hellalaug, which, while right off the main road, doesn't have a sign and is quite easy to drive right past. In fact we just had, and had to backtrack a tiny bit to find it.

 

Mark and I weren't really in a hot springs kind of mood, but Jeff, Ellen and Lisa took a dip for a little while. Our guidebook warned that naked hot tubbing was frowned upon, as a French couple discovered a few years earlier. And sure enough, right after we arrived, a minivan full of French tourists arrived. Thankfully they were equipped with bathing suits. The pool itself is only a few feet from the fjord, and some folks would jump into the freezing cold water and back to the hot spring again, as you can see in the photo below. Around 7 PM we got back on the road again.

 

 

 Hellalaug.

 

We reached our cute little AirBnB house in Patreksfjörður (Pop: 651)  around 8 PM. Everyone showered up (best shower ever), we spent 20 minutes trying to get the washing machine door to open, threw in a load of laundry when we did, and headed out to one of the two restaurants in town for a quick dinner.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 View of Patreksfjörður from the restaurant.

 Walking home down the main street in Patreksfjörður at 10 PM.

It had been a long day, and none of us had slept in a bed for two nights, so after dinner we decided to call it a n-- Ha! We didn't come all this way for nothing. We wanted to catch some Puffins when they weren't out feeding, so it was the perfect time to head to the Látrabjarg bird cliffs. But first we stopped at the Garðar BA 64 shipwreck, the oldest steel ship in Iceland (completed in 1912), an old whaling ship that was purposely beached in 1981 when it was no longer seaworthy.

 

 Look at this adorable picture of the Badgers! It's just after 11 PM and the sun is finally getting close to the horizon.

After a little more (sometimes precarious) driving, we arrived at the Látrabjarg cliffs. We saw our only wild Arctic Fox on the way but weren't able to get a picture. That was about the only thing that didn't go our way as midnight is apparently the perfect time to visit.

 First of all, the cliffs are beautiful in their own right (Exhibit A). The weather was absolutely perfect, and you could see clear across to the Snæfellsnes peninsula 50 miles away (also pictured above, on the horizon). There were almost no other people there besides us. Our Puffin plan worked; there were plenty of them, and these puffins are especially friendly, as if they like to have their pictures taken. Below, enjoy a gallery of way too many puffin pics.

 

Up close and personal with the Puffins.

 

We thought the Puffins would be the main attraction; but something truly beautiful and unexpected happened. As the sun just started to skim the horizon in the west, we noticed that a nearly full moon was just rising in the east. This was only one day after the summer solstice, which just happened to coincide with a full moon (which is rare enough in it's own right; four full moons between an equinox and solstice being the mythical "blue moon" scenario). So we've got the sun not completely dropping below the horizon because it's the second longest day of the year, plus it's the day after a full moon so the moonrise and sunset happen at the same time, plus the weather is completely clear from the West Fjords to Snæfellsnes which is not exactly a regular occurrence, not to mention that we're visiting a bird sanctuary at midnight like a bunch of crazy people. I don't think you could plan something like this if you tried. So please indulge me as I make too big of a deal about it.

 180 Degree Panorama with sunset and moonrise.

Zoom in on the left side of the panorama. Basically the same picture of the cliffs as the one above the puffins, but now with a full moon. The first picture was taken at 12:06 AM, this one at 12:14 AM.

 

 I just can't get over these pictures. Full Moon Over Snæfellsnes From Látrabjarg Bird Cliffs. I'm surprised that a Humpback whale didn't leap from the sea at this exact moment just to complete the "this can't really be happening" effect.

 Here are Jeff, Ellen and I high up on the cliffs.

 

 

Surely at this point it was time to head home, but what if we made one more quick stop while we were "in the neighborhood?" Our enthusiasm seemed to be bottomless, so we decided to make the drive to nearby Rauðasandur, a huge red sand beach near the bird cliffs. It was, after all, an especially gorgeous night, and we were feeling lucky. Iceland is even more beautiful at "night" than it is during the day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Adorable baby sheep by the side of the road at 1:30 AM.

The visit to Rauðasandur didn't go exactly according to plan. We couldn't figure out how to get down to the beach and I think our 21 hour day caught up to us and we hit a wall. Finally, standing around in a farmer's field, chasing sheep down a gated road in the hopes it would lead to the beach at 2:30 AM, we decided to call it quits. Still worth it though, as we got these views along the way:

 This is the lowest we saw the sun that night (1:44 AM). Still not completely set!

 Purple Haze.

 Is this ridiculous or what? Full Moon over Snæfellsjökull at 2:00 AM.

Rauðasandur beach at 2:10 AM.

 

At right is Saurbæjarkirkja. There's not really a town here, just a couple farms, a church, and a coffee shop that is supposedly really great but is not open at 2:30 AM. Not on a Wednesday, anyway.

 

I don't even know what time we got home that night. It was well after 3:00 AM. I passed out right away but somebody actually stayed up long enough to throw in another load of laundry. We had precious little time with our laundry facilities and had to make the most of it.

 

This post was originally going to cover two days, but I think this day has proven long enough to justify it's own post. From waking up in a tent at 6 AM in þórsmörk to crashing in our AirBnB place in Patreksfjörður some time after 3 AM, we covered over 700 KM and hit at least 10 sights. It was quite a day.

 

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