We've got a sliver of a view from our rented house up to the Remarkables, Queenstown's instantly-recognizable and always-looming guardian mountain range. A few weeks ago, the day-end light was unreal up there, and I had no choice but to keep running outside with a camera as it went from rad to jaw-dropping to surreal.
If I'd known it was gonna be this good, I would have just left the camera on a tripod. And in case you'd like to see the individual frames...
We pass through Sauðárkrókur, do some resupply (pro tip: restaurants are expensive in Iceland! Shop in grocery stores!) and stop in Reykir for the night. Reykir is the jumping off point to Drangey, a special little island with a unique past and a unique present. Drangey's awesomeness, however, shouldn't take anything away from Reykir's own flavor of rad. Just to set the stage:
Much green; Reykir and Skagafjörður (click for bigger)
About all that's out there is the ubiquitous guest house/cafe/campground that serves as the one-stop shop in countless little locales across Iceland, and the huge bonus is the pair of hot springs that's mere steps away from the ocean. They. Are. Epic.
Reykir isn't on the open ocean, but rather alongside a big fjord (Skagafjörður) that sure as heck feels like open ocean. The setting is nearly beyond description, and the young family who runs it is super friendly, too. They operate the tours out to Drangey as well as fishing trips etc.
"Summer" oh god where's the hot spring
Minus the soggy grass (because Iceland), the campground is perfect. There's a bathroom building and a mess hall, both alongside the fjord, and as the afternoon presses on, the campground slowly attracts more and more visitors. There's a weeklong horseback tour pulling in, and then, in what I'd call impressive, we watch a crew of not-super-fit people clamber down the side of the mountain; they've traversed all the way from Sauðárkrókur without the benefit of a trail and through some pretty awful weather.
Perfect spot for a drink if you don't mind a wet butt
Mess hall, overgrown
The Old Hag looms
As the eternal evening wears on, the weather eventually improves a little bit, so we commemorate it by going for a walk around their little mini-peninsula. Drangey is prominent on the horizon, but the shoreline of the fjord is plenty interesting on its own.
Rain, always rain (or drizzle)
Eventually, between rounds of hot spring, snacking, wine, and wandering, we decide that we've had enough for the evening and retire into the Not Even Remotely Dark confines of our tent, where sleep comes easily.
Hardy little flowers
Even if we weren't going to be visiting Drangey the next day, this excursion would have been perfect as-is. Idyllic setting, super friendly people, and stunning oceanside hot springs ought to be enough to keep one happy!
After completing our stint on Vestmannaeyjar, Murphy and I cruise off the ferry and back on to the mainland. Before we've covered too much more ground, we have left the coast and started across the highlands.
Rad way to see the country; good job guys!
Could explore for weeks
We've barely covered any ground before the paved road gets narrower, then turns to dirt, then becomes a poor dirt road. Not to despair; it's still a state highway! In reality, it's one of the better roads across the highlands; many of the others require armageddon-ready 4x4s and feature treacherous river crossings every few km. So, really, we've got it pretty good.
Sorry, Hertz #sorrynotsorry
We eventually figure out that the trick to the potholes is to not drive too fast, but to also not drive too slow. Classic Goldilocks scenario. Otherwise, you have to drive so slow that you'll never make it anywhere. Seriously.
Escape from the fierce storms that scour the highlands
Endless ribbon across the landscape
We post up for the "night" at a roadside pullout in the middle of nowhere and deploy our tent. It's darker than expected as the weather is atrocious, and the combination of thick cloud cover and incessant rain allows us to sleep more peacefully than normal. The weather is kind of a bummer, as I've been really looking forward to seeing the highlands in their surreal glory, but hey, you can't win 'em all.
After a few solid hours of sleep, we start driving through the potholes again, and before too long, we've made it to Hveravellir. Hveravellir is an awesome little outpost literally in the middle of bloody nowhere, and it features lots of geothermal activity, a little lodge/cafe, and a variety of trailheads that head off even more into the middle of nowhere. Most importantly, though, "geothermal activity" = "hot springs" sucka!
Alien rock farm
Yeah, things grow here, but they might have a rough go of it
The hot spring is largely a Choose Your Own Adventure type of place, with two pipes running into the pool. One pipe feeds cold water, and the other pipe feeds near-boiling death water, so it's up to the users to best mix them according to taste. And safety.
After a hearty dip in which our flesh stays attached to our bones, we go for a wander through the geothermal attractions. A key piece of guidance is to stay on the paths, as any diversions may result in hilariously grotesque hot water- and steam-related injuries. Around one corner, I spot the overgrown roof of a cool hut, take a closer look, and then run back to the car for the flash. Murphy does an excellent job of lighting the place, and I leave smug about the #neverleavehomewithoutalight mantra I've been on about while traveling.
Oh what's that?
Good job Murphy
We finally continue down the "highway," bouncing along and fording puddles instead of rivers. Around every corner is the hint of an incredible vista, and sadly most of them are locked beyond highly unpalatable weather that either robs visibility or hinders movement. Probably the most unfortunate thing is that now we have to go back and catch some better weather; the secrets of those highlands may never be known in full, but I'd like to have another crack at a few of them!
Can't feel my legs
When we emerge back into civilization on the north end of the country, we point the car towards Sauðárkrókur and count our lucky stars that we haven't run out of food or fuel or gotten swept down some glacial river or driven into an ice block.
First sign of civilization...awesome Icelandic horses
Behind-the-scenes aka how to get horse slobber on an expensive lens
We pause in Sauðárkrókur for snacks, coffee, and wi-fi before continuing out to Reykir where we'll spend the night before a mission to Drangey...up next!
We awaken, still full from our feast at Slippurinn, and are faced with a slightly more incessant drizzle than we've been used to. Fortunately, there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad gear, so we lightly breakfast and start exploring.
Drizzly volcanic coast
We first make our way to the lava flows that devastated the island four decades ago. We tramp around through the neighborhoods surrounding the flow, which survived intact and are largely unchanged since then. Before too long, we have a huge pile of lava to clamber around on. Fortunately, lava is still grippy when it's wet.
Sums it up nicely
After a healthy amount of exploration, we continue to the other end of the island and look south out to the vast North Atlantic. There's some grazing land up there, which terrifyingly ends in sheer cliffs to the sea, and I imagine at least a sheep or three has miscalculated a step.
More of the Westman Islands
Wonder what's over that way?
I do my best to not be one of the clumsy sheep.
Oh right it's a cliff don't die please
Mind yer own bizness
The sun has made a grand appearance for about an hour, and we revel in being able to soak it up, even if it means walking around ankle deep in sheep dung. As our first walk through the lava flow featured poor weather, we head back that way to poke around some more. There's lovely detail and evidence of life trumping destruction around every corner and in every nook and cranny.
Looks good anywhere
We've finally had enough of the lava flows, so we make a retreat to a spot we scoped earlier during a rather unpleasant downpour.
I almost fell down these stairs to make this photo
Murphy is a very patient model, and I believe this is one of my favorite photos of her:
We jettison Joe and Svein into The General's care at the ferry terminal and drive our trusty steed onto the lower deck; next stop Vestmannaeyjar. The ferry ride is short, and it takes us past a few incredible tiny islands that are used as farming outposts. Waste not, want not.
There's a near-constant escort of birds surrounding the ferry; they range from gulls to terns to puffins to guillemots. The puffins are a bit clumsy when it comes to water takeoffs, hilariously splashing along until they finally generate enough lift to go aloft.
As we approach Vestmannaeyjar and the main town of Heimaey, the ferry winds its way between massive sculpted cliffs that are filled with birds in every nook and cranny. These cliff walls are surreal in their form and coloration (much of which is attributable to the birds...).
Guillemots and gulls
Upon landfall, we locate our accommodation and pretty promptly make a move for dinner. We have been advised to go to Slippurinn as a treat, and HOLY WOW is it amazing. We kinda splash out, have some delectable food and drink, and are made to feel exceedingly welcome by the staff (including the chef). We eat fish and lamb and skyr, all seasoned with herbs and flowers from the island, and I know I'd recommend it to anyone as well as go back there at the drop of a hat.
We stumble, engorged, from Slippurinn at something like 10 or 11pm and decide to walk it off for a while and explore Heimaey.
This island has a unique history; it was substantially destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1973, forcing widespread evacuations and altering the landscape forever. Or at least until the next eruption...
Fun fact: the harbor was saved from the lava flows by the application of nearly 7 billion liters of seawater. Saving the harbor was a big deal, as their primary industry is fishing. No harbor, no industry, game over. Ever resourceful, Iceland built power plants that harnessed energy from the cooling lava to provide heating for the island. Again, waste not, want not.
There's a fair bit of traffic, surprisingly, for a town of ~4000 people. Turns out we're walking around just before a shift change at the fishery, and once that clicks over, it's back to being a ghost town.
You are here
We make a pretty good lap of town and finally meander back to our hotel. The majority of the island is well outside "downtown," and we've got most of the next day to explore the outskirts.
After a few days of no darkness, we're starting to settle in to simply being awake until we're actually tired of doing stuff, no matter what time it happens to be, and then peacefully sleeping until we're rested, somehow not minding the brightness leaking in from outside. Perhaps the perpetual drizzle has something to do with it...