Iceland diary

Mike Beeston

Day 1

We’re slowly working out what’s what.

Reykjavik airport was efficient and the shuttle bus worked well. The connecting flight was on time and everyone on board looked normal. This evening’s meal at a café in Isafjordur was really nice and the town itself is quaint. But then…

… the veneer of normality started to crack. A few minutes after leaving Isafjordur to drive here to the hostel we saw a muddy rectangle at the bottom of a valley. Runar, our Icelandic guide, said casually “that’s where we play swamp football” which it turns out is the same as six-a- side football only played in knee-deep mud.

Runar is clearly proud that the European championships arew held on this field in the middle of nowhere. This year’s winners were dressed as ZZ Top-style rednecks with long beards and beer bottles. There was a team of Baywatch girls who called themselves the Hasselhofs, and a team wearing metal bracelets around their thighs. Runar said their coach stood on the touchline (yes, they have swamp football coaches) and gave the players an electric shock through the bracelets if they miskicked.

For a few seconds I wondered if Fjord might put in a team next year…

We’re now at the hostel and it’s really nice. Paul is our host. He tells us that the house is one hundred years old, built of wood and that he was born here sixty-six years ago. It’s already clear that he is a gentleman of the highest order, and equally clear that he too has a touch of the Icelandics.

Within minutes of arrival he was telling us about the custom of catching a shark and burying the pieces in soil for a couple of weeks before drying them in the sun. He says the underground process gets rid of poisons and turns the fish a brown colour on the outside, which apparently many people prefer to the lighter coloured inside.

I think he thinks this is normal.

He’s now serving us dried fish for supper. Straight from the freezer. With butter. Alfred has just smudged some butter onto a piece of dried frozen fish and Paul told him to put on more. A lot more.

See… this a strange place below the surface…

Day 2

Where’s Sam?

He’s gone up the hill.

Which hill?

The one at the back of the house.

How long has he been gone?

Ages.

Do you think we should go and look out for him? It’s nearly dark.

Did you notice how long it took to get dark?

Yes. And I saw the sunset.

So did I. Amazing.

Sam forgotten – he did eventually return – Emi and I talked about the day’s kayaking. It proved quite satisfying to move through the water with such little effort and fun to see who could get closest to the seals on the seaweed covered shoreline before they lolloped into the sea.

Along the shore in a different part of the fjord we paddled into the rising mists of a volcanic spring that issues hot water into the sea, then disembarked to put on swimming stuff and sit in a pool of hot volcanic water.

It was after getting dressed that we discovered they eat puffins here in West Fjord. Runar told us. He said that local people with a touch of the Icelandics catch them in nets on the end of poles four or five metres in length. They lie low and zap the net up just as a puffin, torpedo-like, flies in to land on the grass bank.

Not many puffins are caught this way nowadays, although apparently it’s still possible to find them on the menu in restaurants.

We walked around the back of the hotel behind the volcanic swimming pool to see a couple of sheds where salt is made. Seawater is pumped into the first shed and geothermal heat used to evaporate the water until it is 17% salt. The solution is then transferred to the second shed to complete the evaporation process. In the hotel reception we bought 250g packets for 450 kroner. None of us were sure how much that is.

The light on the drive back was just wonderful – all the clouds had lifted from the mountains and a soft sunlight suffused the vast epic landscape of mountains and blue water fjords.

Day 3

Today’s hiking was pretty tough. It started soon after 9.00 and took us up through long grass and low forests of arctic birch, across streams that led to waterfalls and up banks and streambeds, eventually to our lunch spot. Here we ate homemade bread sandwiches and pieces of super-intense flapjack made in the café in Isafjordur. We also calculated that half way through the day we’d completed little more than one quarter of the trek.

The going got even tougher as we struggled over boulders, up scree slopes and across small snowfields until we reached the summit, a pass between two mountains. There was a cairn and a box containing a book that we all signed – as had others before us, the most recent a month ago. Everyone who’d written in the book down the ages said the same thing – nice spot, tough walk, windy.

The way down took hours and hours. Once off the rocky reaches we had to tramp through long grass in squelchy mud and it wasn’t until 5.00 ish that the ground turned dry and we were able to enjoy an easy hour’s walk directly back to the house where we’re staying.

This evening Paul (our host) has been telling Inga about mountain grass soup. Eventually we discovered that he doesn’t mean grass. He means lichen – but there’s probably not much difference once you’re at that level. The lichen grows on the rocky mountaintops and is collected and mixed with sour milk and made into soup. We half expected him to produce some for us to taste but instead he produced a bucket of bilberries, which his lovely wife tipped onto the pie that we ate for desert.

Day 4

At breakfast there were few signs of yesterday’s exertions.  A little ibuprofen cream and a couple of blister plasters fixed all injuries and at 9.00 we set off to drive around another fjord to a horse riding stable run by a man whose English was noticeably better than the three Brits in our group. He explained what to do in short, happy-sounding sentences and soon we were riding in an orderly queue into a grassy valley. The trail criss-crossed a river and took us down to a beach, by which time we were riding at a faster pace, a sort of rapid-rumble rather than a walk and somewhere between pleasure and panic for us novice riders.

After the horse riding we ate sandwiches – home made bread as on previous days together with the by-now-addictive-flapjack – before splitting into two groups, one to stay and chat in a café and the other to march up to the top of a hill and stand in the wind, full on to the elements…

… which in combination is a metaphor for life at Fjord.

Day 5: epilogue

Mox is wise. He says that fjords define the environment in the West Fjords. He points to the road that traces the shoreline and the homesteads sited to enjoy the tempering effect on climate. The occasional village occupies a spit of land and the signs of industry are fisheries out in the water. Seals live in the fjords and tourists visit the seals.

Mox says that in other places we change the landscape to suit our needs. We build on it and farm it and lay down roads anywhere and everywhere. Not here. Here the environment is given definitive shape and quality by the fjords. It is home to people who are integral with rather than separate from the environment, undivided by money, together in survival.

And it really is much more beautiful that way.

Mox, Yvonne, Alfred, Rob, Sam, Inga, Emiliano and Mike.

 

 

 

Mike Beeston

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