***  ICELAND  2017   -  WEEKS 4~5  ***

This week's Photo Gallery Wild Flora of NE Iceland Birdlife of NE Iceland
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CAMPING IN ICELAND 2017 - NE Icelandic coast to ١rsh÷fn, Raufarh÷fn, and Kˇpasker, J÷kulsßrglj˙fur National Park and ┴sbyrgi, whale watching off H˙savik, and Dettifoss waterfalls:

North from Vopnafj÷r­ur to Bakkafj÷r­ur and ١rsh÷fn:  leaving Vopnafj÷r­ur northward, Route 85 crossed the Selßrdalur valley with distant view of its salmon fishing river tumbling over the spectacular Selßrfoss falls (click on Map 1 opposite for details of route).

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for details of North East Iceland

The tarmaced road began a long ascent over the headland of the empty Sta­arhei­i moorland, rising to a height of 278m before dropping down towards the road junction where a side-road turned off to the fishing hamlet of Bakkafj÷r­ur. 5 kms around the side-turn, we reached this end-of-the-road settlement, its former fishing industry now largely gone along with its once thriving fish-salting works. The village's shop was now closed, leaving just an automat fuel pump, yet this tiny and isolated community still lived on, the residents mowing their lawns in the morning sunshine ready for the Whit weekend. We drove around Bakkaflˇi and returned around the bay to Route 85. The road northward now became unsurfaced but smooth for the next 30kms over to ١rsh÷fn (pronounced Thors-hurf-n), passing the inaccessible but impressive Draugafoss waterfalls and the tiny Skeggjasa­ir church. Route 85 followed the lonely Langanesstr÷nd coastline with wind-driven surf crashing onto the rocky shores around bays, passing a number of sheep farms with ewes and lambs grazing the road-side. For all the remoteness of this wild landscape, these looked some of the most thriving farms we had so far seen. Around the bay of Finnafj÷r­ur, ahead at the base of the Langanes peninsula the shapely conical peak of Gunnolfsvikurfjall rose 719m sheer from the sea. The map showed a road curving implausibly around the far side of towards the mountain's summit, built by the US military in the 1950s up to a Cold War radar station.

Fishing port of ١rsh÷fn:  the unsurfaced road crossed the width of the Langanes peninsula's high ground, and in the afternoon sunshine began the long descent towards the port-township of ١rsh÷fn (see left) (Photo 1 - ١rsh÷fn port) which could be seen in the distance spread along the southern shore of Ůistilfj÷r­ur (pronounced Thistil-fjurthur) bay. Reaching the road junction at the foot of the hill, we turned into the fishing port of ١rsh÷fn. Meaning Thor's Harbour, the village takes its name from the early settlers' belief that the Norse god Thor slammed his hammer into the coastline of Ůistilfj÷r­ur (Thistle Fjord), creating this perfectly shaped and sheltered natural harbour. Traders have docked here since the 17th century, and at the turn of the 20th century a Danish fishing company opened a herring salting station and warehouse here. Today the village is home to some 400 inhabitants with fishing and fish-processing still the main employers. The fish-processing factory was clearly evident across the large but mainly empty harbour (the deep water fishing fleet must have been at sea) (see right). First impressions were of a prosperous looking community with a modern church and rows of newly-built houses all with 4WD pick-ups parked outside.

١rsh÷fn village:  ١rsh÷fn's campsite was said to be near to the sports hall (═■rˇttah˙s) and swimming pool which also served as tourist information centre, a modern barrel-roofed building clearly visible in the higher part of the village. We eventually found our way up there, and the chatty attendant told us more about the village's fishing industry and fish-processing plant, and the species of fish caught hereabouts; he illustrated this by showing us the capelin fish on the Icelandic 10 kroner coin and describing the rivalry with Norwegian vessels for mackerel fishing. Following his directions, we made our way out to the campsite in the outskirts of the village. By now, despite the bright sunshine, a keen easterly wind was blowing. The campsite seemed straightforward with 2 open, rough grassy camping areas and basic facilities hut, but totally devoid of any shelter to give protection against the merciless wind. The only other occupant was a lone back-packer who had given up struggling against the wind and was about to move on. He recommended exploring as far as possible along the Langanes peninsula's unsurfaced road for the birdlife. Before settling in ourselves, we drove back down to investigate the village. The Samkaup Strax supermarket was one of the best stocked we had seen but was closed tomorrow Sunday and also Whit Monday. Down beyond the fish-processing factory, there were a few smaller boats in the large, work-a-day harbour lit by the afternoon sun against a backdrop of village and church (Photo 2 - ١rsh÷fn fishing harbour) (see left and right).

١rsh÷fn Camping:  back up at the campsite, it was clear that the 2 grassy camping areas were too soft with risk getting bogged in, and we moved up the higher gravelled area, even more exposed to the briskly blowing wind, with no shelter whatsoever (Photo 3 - ١rsh÷fn Camping) (see left). It was simply exhausting again battling with the wind to pitch. Facilities were minimal: a cold water only wash-up sink too distant to bother with, and WC/shower in a former freight container (albeit heated) closer to hand. This basic site may once have been free, but was now expensively charged; at least it was eligible for the Camping Card. It was a relief to get out of the wind, and once into shelter the bright sun shone warmly lighting the view over the village to the church (see right). Early evening, we had just got another supper of cod fillets cooked and cooling fast when the warden called round for payment; she got short shrift. We were now approaching Iceland's northernmost point, and although the Arctic Circle does not actually touch the country, passing just to the north through the off-shore island of Grimsey, tonight the sun was still shining brightly when we turned in at 11-00pm, with time still to go before it hit the north-western horizon.

Arctic Terns at Sau­anes on Langanes peninsula:  the wind dropped a little overnight but this morning was gloomily overcast with cloud down to fjord level. It was just a pity that ١rsh÷fn Camping was in such an exposed position, totally lacking in any hedges or trees as wind protection, but at least the shower was heated. Before leaving ١rsh÷fn, we called again at the sports centre/TIC for a copy of the informative leaflet Bird Trails in NE Iceland, and drove out along the Langanes peninsula road. The tarmac lasted as far as the turning to the airfield, beyond that becoming a very rough gravelled trackway. We continued ahead for a further 5 kms towards the headland of Sau­anes, passing a couple of farms with rough moorland grazing for sheep and poor-looking, infertile land for cultivation. There had been a church and parsonage here at Sau­anes since Settlement times, and a coveted living which included the rights to harvest eider down, seals and driftwood, all of which were still much in evidence along the shoreline. A mid~late 19th century incumbent, Rev Vigf˙s Sigur­sson built the present rectory, applying his own brand of social reform, believing that hard physical labour was the most effective cure for excess drinking. He employed several local sinners/drinkers to assist with transporting stone for his new rectory, but understandably they preferred drinking to shifting stone, absenting themselves and delaying completion of the clergyman's new dwelling. The church with its farm were abandoned in 1958, and the rectory at Sau­anes now serves as a museum to farming life in Langanes. All of the farms on the peninsula are now long abandoned, leaving Langanes as a wild, desolate region of barren moorland, uninhabited apart from the prolific birdlife.

We drove slowly out along the bumpy dirt road until it reached the northern coast, where piles of driftwood (once a precious commodity in largely treeless Iceland) littered the rocky shoreline, and Oystercatchers pecked around the shingle. Our presence provoked Arctic Terns which hovered immediately above our heads with aggressive posturing to deter would-be intruders from their nesting areas along the shore. We grabbed cameras (and hats!) and managed to get photos as the Terns hovered and swooped above us (Photo 4 - Arctic Tern) (see above left and right); had their eggs been hatched, they would certainly have attacked more viciously, as we had previously experienced on Vesteralen Islands in North Norway.

A cliff-top walk in poor visibility on the Rau­anes peninsula:  ١rsh÷fn was quiet on a Whit Sunday morning when we returned along the dirt road, and through the village we turned off northwards around the shore of Ůistilfj÷r­ur bay (click here for detailed map of route). The sky was still misty with low cloud obscuring the view across the wide inner bay of Lˇnafj÷r­ur to a distant settlement on the far side. Route 85 swept some distance inland around the shallow inner reaches of the bay, before turning northwards along the far shore-line. In such misty conditions, we could see little detail of the surrounding terrain. This was clearly sheep farming country with ewes and lambs grazing the roadside pastures. A short distance further north along the Ůistilfj÷r­ur coast, with the mist now denser than ever, we reached the turning to the Rau­anes peninsula, where the Rother Guide to Iceland described a way-marked walking route around the peninsula's cliff-tops. One km along a rutted dirt track we found a parking area, and kitted up for the walk although in these misty conditions, with visibility down to less than 100m, it was doubtful we should see much of the cliff-line lava formations, natural arches, sea caves, and birds nesting on the cliff faces. In such limited visibility we moved from one way-marker post to the next, following the path across bleak moorland dotted with cushions of Moss Campion and pink Saxifrage. A side path diverted towards the cliff tops, and as we descended the mist magically began to lift revealing a line of fragmented rock formations just off-shore projecting out from the cliffs (Photo 5 - Basalt formations) (see right). Most prominent feature among these was lava arch of Lundastapar rising up out of the sea (see left). Fulmars nested on the cliff-faces (see above right) and soared around below us, and a few Puffins could be seen flying around with their distinctive clock-work motion. We edged around the lower cliff-top, as further basalt formations came into view, following the occasional marker and attempting photos in the misty conditions (see above left). When the path descended unnervingly close to the cliff edge, we cut up the steep grassy slope to regain the higher path to return inland, checking compass bearings as the mist closed in again more thickly, and returned across the moor to the parking area. As we returned along the dirt road, we spotted a Ptarmigan standing among the moorland tussocks just long enough for us to get photos before it fluttered off with its rasping call. This was a male bird with its distinctive red eye patch, still wearing its all-white winter camouflage but just beginning to gain its summer mottled grey-brown upper plumage (Photo 6 - Ptarmigan) (see left).

North over Fjallgar­ur to Raufarh÷fn:  Route 85 was newly engineered and well-tarmaced northwards from the Rau­anes turning, winding over the high ground of Fjallgar­ur and past lakes (click here for detailed map of route); we were thankful for the white line as we advanced uncertainly, and in the dense mist and minimal visibility we could see nothing of the terrain other than an occasional glimpse of bleak moorland or lake-shore. The road wound on through this largely unseen barren landscape, turning westwards, until after what seemed some distance we reached the junction where the newly re-aligned Route 874 branched off north towards Raufarh÷fn out on the NE coast. On lower ground now the mist cleared, enabling us to see more of the surrounding moorland dotted with strangely shaped lava formations as we crossed the MelrakkaslÚtta tundra plateau. As we approached Raufarh÷fn, wild moorland gave way to farmland; suddenly we were again seeing green pastures with grazing sheep. Reaching the outskirts of Raufarh÷fn and passing Lego-like modern housing, we could see the school and sports centre and turned off just beyond following a sign to the village's campsite. The map had indicated a curious circular structure, and here we discovered what this was: the flat, grassy camping area was enclosed within a surrounding turf rampart as wind protection (see right). We selected a spot in the sheltered corner and settled in; it was like camping within a Viking ring-fort! All that was missing were the long-houses. We could see nothing of the village or outside world, but at least tonight we should not be buffeted by the vicious easterly wind.

Raufarh÷fn, a fishing port in decline:  Raufarh÷fn, mainland Iceland's northernmost settlement located on the NE MelrakkaslÚtta coast, was once a major herring fishing and salting port employing many seasonal workers. But with the decline in the herring fishing industry, those days are long gone, and the salting plant just about manages to survive by freezing fish for export. Raufarh÷fn's prosperity is much reduced and with now just 200 inhabitants, the village is eerily quiet. Only the pre-fabricated houses give a clue to the port's past glory-days. To attract more visitors to this isolated corner of the country, Raufarh÷fn is now in process of 'redefining itself' (as the tourist literature proclaims), whatever that means! With the Arctic Circle passing just off the coast to the north, the once prosperous little port is now promoted as an 'Arctic Circle village', with an Arctic-Henge of huge stone arches being constructed on the headland just to the north of the village. How such an empty, futile gesture will revive Raufarh÷fn's fortune seems unclear; presumably this daft idea is being paid for out of local taxation, and it was not difficult to guess what local residents thought of it!

Compared with the totally open and exposed setting of ١rsh÷fn campsite, the circular enclosure providing complete wind protection here immediately commended Raufarh÷fn Camping (see right). Although straightforward, the facilities were functional, and no one called to collect any payment. Climbing up onto the surrounding embankment the following morning gave a clearer view of Raufarh÷fn village spread around Koltj÷rn lake with its church and little port at the far end, and the Arctic-Henge up on the hill beyond (see above left). Eiders swam on the lake, and one of the local Snipes was soaring and diving above our camp, making an even more determined and almost aggressive buzzing sound with his extended tail feathers. He had appeared on the embankment above us last evening; we could only assume that his mate was nesting in the lake-side turf on the far side of the enclosure and that hatching time was drawing close.

Before leaving Raufarh÷fn, we drove along through the village which, today being Whit Monday, was quieter than ever; there was not a soul about and the village shop was closed. Along at the far end, we parked by the church to walk over and see the rescue boat (see right) and few remaining fishing boats in the harbour (see left). The Arctic-Henge stood out prominently up on the hill-side and we drove up to take a look. Despite the down-turn of the fishing industry, some enterprising communities along the NE coast like Vopnafj÷r­ur and ١rsh÷fn seem to have made genuinely successful efforts to maintain their local economies and employment prospects. Instead Raufarh÷fn was 're-inventing itself' with its Arctic-Henge! What purpose this hair-brained and partially completed fiasco will serve in reviving Raufarh÷fn's fortunes is as dubious as its creation; it certainly will not create jobs! Along at the filling station, we tried topping up the camper's diesel but the automat was not working; instead we used the hose-brush again to remove accumulated grime from gravel roads. And that was Raufarh÷fn.

Across MelrakkaslÚtta to Kˇpasker :  the morning was bright and sunny as we returned along Route 874 across the tundra moorland of MelrakkaslÚtta, pausing to admire the scoria ridge running parallel with the road (click here for detailed map of route). Re-joining Route 85, we turned westwards across the width of this northern peninsula with the barren moorland of Hˇlahei­i dotted with lava remains. On the SW horizon, the bulky volcanic crater-cone of Val■jˇfssta­afjall, which had originally been responsible for this lava wasteland, was silhouetted against the skyline (see left). Reaching the eastern shore of Oxarfj÷r­ur, we turned north towards the isolated fishing village of Kˇpasker. Our attention was drawn to where a stream tumbled from a small lake towards the sea. Red Throated Divers swam on the lake (Photo 7 - Red Throated Divers) (see right), 3 female Velvet Scoters were perched in a group on a rock by the stream before paddling off (Photo 8 - Velvet Scoters), and Arctic Terns soared aggressively overhead. We stopped just in time to photograph the Velvet Scoters with their grey-brown bodies and distinctive white spot on the side of their head. Closer to the village we paused by another lake where female Eiders and a Red Throated Diver sat on their nests (see below left) and Red Phalaropes and Slavonian Grebes swam in the lake.

Kˇpasker: around at Kˇpasker village we found its small campsite, a area of sloping grass but sheltered on 3 sides below an embankment. Most of the camping area was too rough and sloping to be usable, with just the strip under the north side embankment flat; the facilities hut was up on a flatter gravelled area. We pitched down on the grassy area by the one power source to secure a place given the limited space, and walked up into the village. Although dry, the weather now was heavily overcast and the wind numbingly cold. With a population of just 150, Kˇpasker is a service centre for the neighbouring farming hinterland, with its economy focussed around its small fishing fleet, fish-farming and the Fjallalamb meat processing factory which is the main local employer.

Kˇpasker Earthquake Centre:  as well as the birdlife along the coast to the north and the nearby lakes, Kˇpasker's main attraction is the Earthquake Centre, a summer exhibition in the village school which documents the impact of the 6.3 Richter Scale quake which caused large scale damage in the village in January 1976 with its epicentre 12kms off the Oxarfj÷r­ur coast. The Mid-Atlantic Ridge passes across this area of NE Iceland, entering the sea at Tj÷rnes (see right). Heightened seismic activity in Jan 1976 along the tectonic plates boundary in this region caused the earthquake which shook Kˇpasker, and caused a series of volcanic fissure eruptions at Krafla near to Mřvatn referred to as the Krafla fires. With road conditions poor due to infrastructure damage, most of Kˇpasker's residents had to be evacuated amid winter snow storms, gales and fear of after-shocks. The rifting episodes of early 1976 had a marked impact on the area's topography, opening up fissures, fractures and faults close to Kˇpasker, draining lakes and creating new ones in the subsidence. The embankment sheltering the campsite had been thrown up by the earthquake. The Earthquake Centre documents the 1976 earthquake's impact on Kˇpasker, with details of geological and seismic background, and photographs, personal recollections, and an earthquake simulator to give a feel of the ground-shaking effect.

Kˇpasker village and its campsite:  having viewed the Earthquake Centre's exhibition and used their wi-fi for the weather forecast (the next 2 days promised rain with Arctic temperatures), we walked around the village. Kˇpasker's houses, inevitably modern after the 1976 earthquake damage, were widely spaced around the small square of streets, leading around to the shop and fuel-pump by the harbour jetty. Back down to the campsite, we settled in with George's nose headed into the bitingly cold NE wind and heater on full for warmth (Photo 9 - Kˇpasker Camping) (see left and right). It was indeed a cold night with heavy snow falling on the distant mountains, and we woke to driving sleet and temperature of 3║C. With the forecast for continuing cold, wet weather, we donned full Arctic gear for our chill day in camp here at Kˇpasker. Although straightforward, facilities at Kˇpasker Camping were some of the best of the NE Iceland group of village campsites, with thoughtfully equipped and heated WC/shower, and well-designed enclosed wash-up with piping hot water. The weather continued bitterly cold with wind-driven sleety rain, and although it needed some determination to go up for showers, we were snug and warm inside George with the heater going.

After lunch we kitted up fully and walked up to the village again, to examine the house in Akurger­i which was said still to show signs of earthquake damage in the form of a fissure which opened up beneath it in 1976. But nothing was evident and in this grimly chill weather with wind-driven rain, there was no incentive to look further. Instead we walked along R÷ndin past the Fjallalamb meat processing factory. The dismal and empty harbour (see left) with derelict house at its corner somehow symbolised Kˇpasker, a sad soul of a place with seemingly little future. We had earlier talked with the girl at the Earthquake Centre who was born here and now studying at Akureyri University; once she graduated, there was, she admitted, nothing of a future to keep her here at Kˇpasker. Back up into the village, we bought a few item at the village shop and returned to the warmth of George down at the campsite, and after supper that evening, the cheery lady called round for payment. Despite the atrocious weather, we had greatly enjoyed our 36 hours stay at the homely little campsite in Kˇpasker. The weather somehow seemed to match Kˇpasker's situation up here on the edge of nowhere. The little community bravely and tenaciously seemed to cling on, but with declining fishing prospects, the meat factory the only remaining employer, and nothing else to keep youngsters here, the village's future seemed as dismally bleak as the weather. Perhaps for this reason, this rather sad little village which had made us so welcome had endeared itself to us during our stay.

J÷kulsßrglj˙fur National Park Information Centre at ┴sbyrgi:  rain was still falling as sleet the following morning and wind as chill as ever, and in these gloomily overcast conditions we returned past the lakes where Red Throated Divers still swam close to the banks. With the bitterly chill temperatures, snow from the last 48 hours of rain thickly coated the surrounding mountains. Around the shore of Oxarfj÷r­ur bay, Route 85 turned inland following one of the exit channels of the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river (click here for detailed map of route). All the gravel, sand and rock debris washed down by this mighty glacial river has been deposited here, filling the inner bay to form a vast glacial outwash plain (sandur) miles wide and deep. In today's gloom, it was an eerily imposing sight. The road followed the sandur round to the innermost part of the bay where Route 85 crossed the main channel of the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum on a flimsy-looking suspension bridge (Photo 10 - J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum bridge) (see above right). Even though the glacial river was wide and fast-flowing, its black sand and gravel banks caused by Spring floods spread out so much farther on both sides. Shortly beyond the river crossing, we reached the filling station at ┴sbyrgi and turned off to the J÷kulsßrglj˙fur National Park Information Centre. Such was the complex topography of the horseshoe-shaped canyon here at ┴sbyrgi that even advance reading of descriptions made it difficult to visualise the exact geographical layout. We therefore anticipated being able to gain a fuller understanding at the National Park Information Centre, both of the ┴sbyrgi canyon and of walking opportunities further down the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river gorge at Vesturdalur. But while the staff were welcoming and helpful, no detailed maps were available; it was little more than a glorified tourist souvenir shop! The most useful visual aid was an aerial view diagrammatical representation of ┴sbyrgi which gave a clearer impression of both the topography of the horseshoe-shaped canyon and the central rock-pillar outcrop of Eyjan (Click here for plan of ┴sbyrgi Canyon), but also its formation, carved out by a catastrophic glacial flash-flood (J÷kulhlaup) 2,500 years ago. We gathered what information we could before investigating the ┴sbyrgi National Park Campsite for later.

Vesturdalur, J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum canyon and Karl og Kerling Stacks:  our plan for this afternoon was to drive the 17km into the interior on the minor Route 862 to Vesturdalur to walk the middle section of the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river gorge at Hljˇ­aklettur. Just beyond the National Park Centre, Route 862 turned off southwards, unexpectedly tarmaced for the first 10kms (click here for detailed map of route); the dreary and monotonous ┴shei­i moorland through which the road passed was even more gloomy in today's poor light, and gave no impression of the mighty river canyon carved by the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum through this landscape just a short distance to the east (see above left). The tarmaced new road ended suddenly and the way forward became a pot-holed dirt track for a further 5kms, reaching the turning very steeply down into Vesterdalur valley. Hesitantly we eased down into the craggy valley bottom, and even more uncertainly followed a black lava dust trackway over to the Vesterdalur parking area. We had arrived; getting back was a problem to face later! Our first route was along the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum's middle canyon top as far as the Karl og Kerling stacks. The unexpected attraction of the way-marked approach path through willow scrub was its wealth of wild flora: flourishing patches of Mountain Avens (see above right), pink Sedum and Moss Campion, Alpine Bartsia (Photo 11 - Alpine Bartsia), Bearberry with its elegant lantern-shaped tiny flowers (see above left), Crowberry, Juniper, purple flowered insectivorous Butterwort (Photo 12 - Common Butterwort), and lovely bushes of tiny pink Bilberry flowers (Photo 13 - Bilberry flowers). Side diversions led from the narrow path over to the canyon edge, and from these vantage points atop the sheer-sided gorge cliff-walls, magnificent views opened up along the north~south length of the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river canyon (Photo 14 - J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum canyon) (see above right). The canyon's far side was formed by a wall of harder volcanic basalt, left by flood erosion of surrounding less resistant rock and scoria debris, to create what resembled a rampart wall of cliffs lining the gorge (see right). This wall was scored by evident outcrops of inclined columnar basalt, and culminated at its southern end with a prominent stack. Despite the gloomy light, from our vantage point high on the canyon's western side these mighty formations of basalt rock eroded by river floods presented such a remarkable display of raw natural beauty (Photo 15 - Eroded basalt stacks) (see left). Continuing southwards along the canyon-top path, the stacks known as Karl og Kerling (Lady and Gentleman) came into view, standing in isolated splendour on the western bank of the canyon floor. A side path led over to a further vantage point giving a clearer view of both the stacks and the massive cave of Tr÷llahellir battered out of the basalt rampart's end wall by the river's erosive action (Photo 16 - Karl og Kerling basalt stacks).

Hljˇ­aklettur basalt formations:  back along the canyon top, we turned northwards for the second stage of today's walk to Hljˇ­aklettur. The initial 700m approach path passed through birch and willow scrub crossing the Vesturdalsa stream, leading to a high-point from where the full panorama of the Hljˇ­aklettur basalt formations opened up before us. This mass of contorted basalt features is the result of localised volcanic eruptions beneath the line of the river's course, causing steam explosions and rapid cooling of the magma. The solidifying lava flow narrowed the river, increasing its speed and erosive power of the rapids. Remains of the volcanic craters are still evident among the basalt debris. The rock formations at Hljˇ­aklettur are the leftover cones of this line of volcanoes, eroded by the river down to the more resistant plugs of crystallised basalt that had closed off the lava flow.

Ahead we could see the huge, shattered bulky rounded-top mound of basalt forming the southern end of the Hljˇ­aklettur ridge with its skirt of elegantly arching basalt columns, and to its left a grey volcanic sand and gravel field sloped uphill with the return path from the Hljˇ­aklettur circuit cutting across it. To its right closer to the present river canyon, the free-standing stack of Tr÷lli­ sloped down with a lion's back profile (see right). This slender basalt plug-stack had a distinct slanting flat top, slightly hollowed as if the remains of the plug vent, and the entire visible face was covered with both inclined columnar basalt and the hexagonal end faces of basalt (Photo 17 - Tr÷lli­ basalt stack) (see left and right). Across on the far side of the river, a further serrated and shattered stack formed the northern end mount of the line of eroded basalt ramparts seen earlier along the river's length with its skirt of scree debris (Photo 18 - Eroded basalt ramparts). Hljˇ­aklettur, meaning 'Echoing Rocks', takes its name from the acoustic effects of the river's natural rushing sound echoing around the formations.

Our ongoing path passed beneath the Tr÷lli­'s base, advancing up and over the broken basalt rubble of the stack's right hand basal slope where this dropped towards the river canyon. The rough path, thankfully marked by guide ropes, wove an uncertain route over this maze-like network of basalt debris between enclosing rock walls, giving startling views along of cliffs lining this side of the river and equally impressive views along the line of rampart-walls of eroded basalt southwards on the far side. The sun now highlighted the details of the basalt face high above us, as we stood to marvel at this beautifully sculpted basalt architecture: hollows were surrounded by radially arranged rosettes of columns, and the centre covered with the weathered exposed polygonal end faces of horizontal columns (see left) (Photo 19 - Basalt architecture). This possibly marked the position of a side-charnel of lava subsequently removed by erosion, rather like knots on a tree trunk. This entire basalt end face of Tr÷lli­ was a wonder to behold, and impossible to comprehend the process of its formation. The way-marked path rose and fell over the shattered basalt (Photo 20 - Basalt path across Tr÷lli­), leading to a vantage point above a sheer drop overlooking the river canyon. Ahead a precipitous vertical cliff rose 300m above the river, its near end graced with rows of arching columns with sunlight picking out all the detail (Photo 21 - Hljˇ­aklettur cliffs) (see right). The view across to the far bank of the river was monopolised by the massive stack forming the northern end of the basalt rampart wall (see below left). The ongoing path passed around the inner side of this massif, to emerge at the northern end by another vantage point high above the canyon precipice with a perfect but shaded profile view of the river-edge cliff (Photo 22 - J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum canyon cliffs), even higher at this end with protruding stacks high above the river.

From the northern end of the river cliff, with Tr÷lli­'s less gracefully shaped rear profile now fully in shade, another 400m of scrambling over the scrub-covered basalt slopes brought us to a paths junction where the route to the Rau­hˇlar crater row continued ahead across red cinder rubble and our return path sloped uphill. A side diversion led up to a vantage point overlooking a hollow enclosed by the surrounding shattered basalt heights. But all attention was drawn to the far side of hollow and the dark, gaping hole of the Kirkjan (meaning Church) lava-tube cave, its end-wall resembling an arching wave of columnar basalt (Photo 23 - Kirkjan lava-tube cave). This unique lava-tube cave was formed by basaltic lava flowing over a huge mound of volcanic gravel and solidifying to create the arching columns. During the subsequent J÷kulhlaup glacial flash-flood, the surrounding sand and debris was washed away leaving the hollowed out fold of basalt seen today arching over the huge cave entrance. We descended into the hollow, admiring the left hand enclosing wall which was one mass of columnar basalt folded and inclining every-which-way and in places the exposed polygonal end faces of horizontal columns (see right). At the rear of the hollow, the vaulted architecture of this natural wonder could rival that of any Gothic cathedral (Photo 24 - Arched basalt cave-entrance) (see left) and beneath this mammoth cave entrance, our photos made human figures seem minute (Photo 25 - Natural vaulted architecture). The lava-cave stretched back some 30m into darkness, and although there was no evidence of rock-falls within the cave, rather nervously we advanced up the sloping floor of the inner recess. The roof arched some 20m high, displaying a mystical pattern of basalt cubes with a classic honeycomb of weathering. Again our photos show a tiny human figure dwarfed in silhouette against the daylight in the vaulted cave entrance (see below right). High on the inner walls of the hollow's enclosing massif, encrusted areas of smoother solidified lava were visible amid the basalt, their concave surface suggesting these were surviving sections of the inner lining of the caldera vent whose magmatic outpourings had formed all the basalt which surrounded us (see below left).

Our path sloped up through a grove of low birches under the shadow of the Kirkjan massif's basalt end wall, turning back at the higher level under further walls of spectacular inclined columnar basalt. A side path led up across the rock wall's rear face to a further 2 shallow lava caves. These caves were lined with a mixture of both basalt and black pumice, formed from highly viscous lava containing much frothy gas. Fallen chunks of this pumice were therefore remarkably light in weight and the pumice material of the cave walls showed a nodular clinker texture formed by cooling viscous lava (see below right) (Photo 26 - Black pumice lava-caves). Dropping back down to the black sandy path, we took another side-diversion to a vantage point high above the inner corner of the Kirkjan hollow looking directly down into the vaulted lava-tube cave entrance with the side wall of concertina-like basalt columns on the far side of the depression. We returned down across the loose, black volcanic sand-gravel slope, passing another shallow lava cave and huge buttress faced with a further spectacular array of contorted columnar basalt (Photo 27 - Basalt column faced buttress) (see below left), part of Hljˇ­aklettur's bulky southern end ridge, another wonder of raw natural beauty. This brought us back to our start point below Tr÷lli­ (the Troll). A higher return path back through the birch scrub to the parking area gave us further panoramic view of the Hljˇ­aklettur massif and Tr÷lli­ monolith across whose basal mound our outward path had climbed. This angle also showed clearly the pinnacle's hollowed top, and brighter sun now catching its southern face highlighted details of Tr÷lli­'s contorted columnar basalt which from this distance resembled strands of the troll's hair (see below right) (Photo 28 - Tr÷lli­ monolith). Across the river, the hazy sunlight cast into profile the rampart wall of residual lava with the bulky massif at its northern end. The circuit of Hljˇ­aklettur had taken us through another wonderland of volcanic topography, the visual splendour and intricacies of the basalt structures as breathtaking as questions about their formation were perplexing.

Exploitational prices at the unexceptional ┴sbyrgi National Park Campsite:  we now faced the challenge of extricating the camper from Vesturdalur valley bottom, back up the unduly steep gravel slope to regain the Route 862 dirt road for the return drive to the ┴sbyrgi campsite. We knew there were no longer other campsites in the area and that the National Park exploited its now monopolistic position to charge outrageous prices for camping at ┴sbyrgi: 1,600kr/person (no seniors' discount), 1000kr for electricity plus an additional 500kr for a shower, making a unprecedented total of 5,200kr (ú38)/night; it was no wonder that the large camping areas were almost empty! With such prices, you would be entitled to expect more than the mediocre facilities that were available. If we were to explore fully the ┴sbyrgi canyon and J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum's natural wonders, we had no alternative but to submit to this state sponsored extortion, and settled into the campsite (see below left). The National Park ┴sbyrgi Camping would however merit the trip's first negative rating.

Topography of ┴sbyrgi horseshoe-shaped canyon:  yesterday's walk had given us more of an understanding of Hljˇ­aklettur's complex topography; today we should explore the equally unfathomable geological results of the cataclysmic events which led to the creation of the horseshoe-shaped byrgi or canyon fortress at ┴sbyrgi. The 100m high vertical rock walls enclosing a rounded depression 3.5kms in length were excavated with almost surgical precision by the impact of a J÷kulhlaup glacial flash-flood over a matter of days, some 2,500 years ago, triggered by volcanic eruption of GrÝmsv÷tn under the Vatnaj÷kul Ice-Cap. The sheer volume and pressure of melting flood water broke through the ice, forming a tsunami which surged down the valley canyon carved out by the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river over the previous aeons, sweeping away sand, gravel and basalt rock debris. Reaching ┴sbyrgi, the force of water, carrying with it all the rock detritus, gouged out the horseshoe-shaped canyon with its precipitous circular enclosing walls seen today, swirling around the harder, more resistant rock in the central basin, so leaving the isolated peninsula of Eyjan (Click here for plan of ┴sbyrgi Canyon). All of the resultant sand, gravel and rock debris was finally deposited in the Oxarfj÷r­ur sandur down at the coast. This scientific geomorphological explanation for this extraordinary topography is almost as unbelievable, if more prosaic, than the traditional Norse-Icelandic legendary account of the canyon having its origin as the giant hoof-print of Odin's flying horse Sleipnir. Today we should explore the inner depths of the ┴sbyrgi canyon, and view it from the heights of the central spur island of Eyjan.

Exploring the ┴sbyrgi horseshoe-shaped canyon: from the campsite we followed Route 861 down the length of the 1km wide canyon valley, with the side walls extending northwards almost to the coast. The road ran alongside the 30m high precipice rock-wall of Eyjan, emphasising the sheer scale of the cataclysmic gouging out of the canyon, leaving this rocky peninsula of more resistant rock extending along its central length. The height of Eyjan's cliff-wall, matching that of ┴sbyrgi's canyon-walls 500m to each side, must have represented the original ground level sloping down towards the coast before the canyon was gouged out. Reaching the parking area at road's end in the sheltered inner depths of the horseshoe canyon (Click here for plan of ┴sbyrgi Canyon), we were surprised to find how wooded this area was, a mini birch forest covering the canyon floor. We followed the network of footpaths out through these lovely birch woods to the right hand canyon wall which towered a sheer 100m above us. On a bright morning, the forest floor was a floral paradise: Alpine Bartsia (called in Icelandic Smj÷rgras, Butter Grass, because of its rancid butter smell), Bilberry laden with its tiny pink flowers (in August this would be rich berry picking), Bog Bilberry, Stone Bramble its leaves a bright Springtime green, and Common Wintergreen, its pearly-pink flowers still in tight bud (see above right). Looking upwards through the birches' bright green leaf canopy, the canyon cliff-wall towered overhead, with Fulmars nesting on cliff-ledges and the male birds soaring around. The peaceful stillness of the woodland was disturbed only by the Fulmars' raucous cries and the cawing of Ravens high around the cliffs.

The path led through the birch woodland under the cliffs down to the pool of Botnstj÷rn (cf English tarn) which nestles in the sweeping apex of the canyon head. A now meagre trickle of water still fell over a cleft on the cliff-top skyline 100m above, where once the cataclysmic J÷kulhlaup glacial flood waters had unleashed their force to gouge out this enormous canyon (see above left). The path ended at a viewing platform overlooking the tiny lake, giving a magnificent panorama of the full sweep of ┴sbyrgi's canyon head enclosing walls (Photo 29 - Botnstj÷rn in ┴sbyrgi canyon head). We followed the path around through the woodland above the lake, glancing up at the canyon's mighty cliff walls and the now insignificant residual trickle of water still falling from the skyline cleft. Fulmars and ravens soared round the cliffs, and at one point we caught distant sight of an eagle silhouetted high in the sky. Further round, the path dropped down to another viewing platform at Botnstj÷rn lake level. Here we were entertained by a very tame pair of Wigeons who paddled around and preened themselves on the lake-shore rocks (Photo 30 - Wigeons) (see above right).

The rock peninsula of Eyjan:  returning along the canyon floor, we paused to photograph the imposing rocky projection of Eyjan's cliff-end rearing up 30m and resembling a ship's prow in the centre of the wide valley (see above left). Back at the campsite parking area, we now took the path leading across the flat valley floor to the side wall of the Eyjan rocky peninsula (Click here for plan of Eyjan). The path initially swung northwards directly beneath the 25m high sheer rocky wall. Some how we had to get up this wall for the walk along Eyjan's flat top southwards to its apex and the view looking along ┴sbyrgi's valley to its horseshoe canyon head. It looked as if the only way was by a rock climb up the volcanic blocks, but some 500m along, where the height of the wall began to taper down, the footpath neatly mounted the rock-wall via a short wooden ladder. By now the sun had broken through, and once out onto Eyjan's flat top, magnificent views opened up across the full width of ┴sbyrgi's Austerbyrgi valley, enclosed in the distance by its eastern side wall which also tapered off towards the coast (Photo 31 - Eyjan skyline) (see left). Away to the north-east with the National Park Centre in the foreground, 2 snow-covered volcanic crater peaks graced the horizon, one of which was the bulky Val■jˇfssta­afjall seen from its northward side on the drive over to Kˇpasker (see right). Our height here on Eyjan's flat top was exactly the same as the flat moorland which extended away eastwards beyond ┴sbyrgi's enclosing side-wall. You could see now exactly how the horseshoe valley had been scooped out, leaving the rocky peninsula-spine of Eyjan extending along its central length.

We walked southwards along the cliff-top rim of the 2km length of Eyjan's spur, the height of cliff-wall increasing towards Eyjan's apex tip. On a sunny afternoon, with a brisk NW wind blowing, the flat moorland top of Eyjan was a sheer delight, dotted with Mountain Avens and carpeted with Bearberry flowers. We followed the turf path along the cliff-top rim for 2kms along to the rocky promontory which formed the apex tip of the Eyjan spur, looking out over the full sweep of ┴sbyrgi's horseshoe canyon floor spread out below (Photo 32 - Eyjan's apex tip) (see left and right). In the distance, the valley was enclosed by the shady cliff-walls of the wooded canyon head where we had walked earlier. Cars moved along the canyon floor road way below, from where we also had looked up to Eyjan's rocky prow-head where we now stood. A broken piece of solidified lava showed the beautiful 'ropey' flow patterns of Pahoehoe lava (see below left). The path circled back along the western cliff-top rim, looking out over ┴sbyrgi's Vesterbyrgi lower valley (Photo 33 - Vesterbyrgi lower valley) (see below right). We followed the path around across Eyjan's flat moorland top to re-join the outward path and return along the 2km length of the spur, and descend the eastern cliff-wall back along the valley path under the cliff to the campsite. It had been a magnificent day of exploring ┴sbyrgi's horseshoe canyon head and the central rocky spur of Eyjan, with the added bonus of fine weather.

Kelduhverfi earthquake prone region and Tj÷rnes:  the ongoing westward Route 85 across the width of the sandur and marshy flatlands of the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum estuary passed through the region of Kelduhverfi around the head of Oxarfj÷r­ur bay (click here for detailed map of route). This area lies exactly astride the point where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge enters the sea, with the 2 tectonic plates moving apart. This makes Kelduhverfi one of the most earthquake prone zones of Iceland, as the land spreads at the fault line creating a landscape full of fissures, cracks and grabens, depressions between 2 parallel faults. Kelduhverfi was the main focus of the 1976 earthquake which destroyed Kˇpasker across on the far side of Oxarfj÷r­ur bay. We passed the large lake of Skjßlftavatn (meaning Earthquake Lake), created in 1976 when the quake caused the land to sink and water filled the depression. To the right of the road, the flat, fertile farming lands of the estuary stretched away towards the sea; but on the landward side, the lumpy terrain and higher lava fields showed evidence of fissures, fault-cracks and chasms.

Reaching Lˇn Lake on the far side of the bay, Route 85 crossed the bridge where the lake flows directly into Oxarfj÷r­ur, and climbed steeply across the cliff-side face up onto the head of the Tj÷rnes peninsula. A headland view-point looked out across the full sweep of Oxarfj÷r­ur, showing the scale of the sandur estuary stretching around towards Kˇpasker on the far side of the bay. The road passed around the northern head of Tj÷rnes (click here for detailed map of route), a region of sedimentary rock, unlike the volcanic landscape of the rest of Iceland, formed of organic deposits dating from the Pliocene era pushed up from the seabed by tectonic movement of the earth's crust; fossils are therefore found on the cliffs of Tj÷rnes. The road followed the cliff-line around onto the western side of the peninsula, and out in the bay beyond Tj÷rnes lighthouse, a distant island was visible, the remains of the plug of an undersea volcanic eruption in the mid 19th century.

H˙savÝk and a closed campsite:  by the time we were approaching H˙savÝk it was gone 4-30pm, and weary after a long day, we were looking forward to settling into the campsite there. A new industrial development of a metal smelting plant was under construction in the town's northern outskirts, unsightly but doubtless bringing new employment opportunities. Nearer the port, just by H˙savÝk's sports ground, a sign pointed down to the campsite. But on arrival, it was clear that the place was being redeveloped and a new and incomplete camping area being terraced up the hillside. A phone call to the number given brought an admission that work was behind schedule and the new campsite was not yet open. The nearest alternative was 20kms further at Hei­arbŠr on Route 87 on the way to Mřvatn, which was to have been our next campsite. We had no option but to drive on and return to H˙savÝk at the weekend. But we also needed to shop for provisions, and in the southern outskirts found a large Netto supermarket to stock-up. Although H˙savÝk was a sizable industrial port, it looked very attractive as we drove through, glancing down at all the whale-watching boats moored in the harbour and lit by the afternoon sun against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains on the far side of Skjßlfandi bay.

Hei­arbŠr Camping, another inhospitable campsite:  by the time we had shopped and given George a fill of diesel, it was gone 6-00pm when we finally drove on from H˙savÝk to turn off southward onto Route 87 to find Hei­arbŠr Camping. In the distance along the length of this farming valley, we could see a plume of steam which we took to be the geothermal source of Hveravellir close to the campsite. Hei­arbŠr turned out to be a guest-house/restaurant with an attached rough grassy field passing as a campsite. At reception, we were treated by the surly owner with an indifferent non-welcome, too busy dealing with his restaurant guests to be bothered with us. Another more sympathetic staff member suggested we find a space in the camping area before checking-in. Unattractive and inhospitable as this place was, with H˙savÝk Camping effectively closed we had no alternative, and eventually found a space in the corner with access to power (see above right); the sun was still shining brightly but we knew it would turn cold later. Before long however hoards of tourist hired camping-cars and local Icelanders in caravans with all their customary materialistic paraphernalia and hullaballoo began crowding into the limited space; hemmed in on all sides by the sort of folk you would avoid like the plague, our crowded corner became the least desirable camping environment you could imagine in the worst nightmare! What with this, together with the owner's inhospitable manner towards his paying guests and the mediocre facilities, there was no way we were parting with money! This was certainly no place for our badly needed day in camp, but we took stock: consulting the forecast promised fine and sunny weather for tomorrow, then a return to solid overcast and rain. We therefore decided to return to H˙savÝk tomorrow and try to get places on one of the whale-watching tours even though they were expensive, and then ... well, we'd decide later. But first, a warm supper and sleep.

Whale-watching in Skjßlfandi bay off H˙savÝk:  the following morning we phoned Salka Whale-watching, the smallest and slightly cheaper (sic! 9,950kr each, almost ú80!) of the 4 whale-watching boat operators. To our surprise places were available, and we hastened through our morning routine to get away from god-forsaken Hei­arbŠr and return to H˙savÝk for our whale-watching tour in Skjßlfandi bay. With the sky clear blue and sun bright, it took us 25 minutes to drive back into the port. H˙savÝk harbour was busy with boats and the bright sun picked out details on the snow-covered mountains lining the far side of Skjßlfandi bay (Photo 34 - H˙savÝk harbour). We found Salka's cafÚ-cum-ticket-office by H˙savÝk church in the main street opposite the harbour, paid for our tickets, and kitted up to walk down to the pier to find Salka, the 1976 oak-built former fishing boat (Photo 35 - Boarding Salka) (see above left). We were greeted by our guide, a cheery Spanish lad who issued us with bulky waterproof overalls (see above right). Fortunately there were only 11 others booked onto the trip, so we had virtually the run of the boat; with its full complement of 60 passengers, it would have been restrictively crowded. The guide introduced the boat's helmsman, an experienced fisherman, and briefed us on safety when photographing whales, and as soon as the boat left harbour (see left and right), it became evident that, in spite of the fine weather and apparently calm sea, this was going to be no smooth crossing of Skjßlfandi bay! The boat headed across the bay at speed towards the line of snow-covered mountains on the far side. Sat high in the boat's prow, we felt the full force of the now less than calm sea; what it would be like in rougher weather did not bear contemplating!

The guide described whales' feeding habits and why they were attracted to Skjßlfandi bay. The 2 major rivers draining into the bay brought nutrient-rich silts which encouraged growth of algae on which plankton feed; these in turn are the foodstuff of small fish like krill and larger fish, both of which are food source for whales. A number of whale species are seen regularly in Skjßlfandi, most often Humpbacks and Minke Whales, and occasionally even the giant Blue Whale. He described the 2 kinds of whale: toothed such as Dolphins, Porpoise and Orca (Killer Whales) which eat fish and other small sea creatures, and baleen (toothless) whales which gulp in vast quantities of sea water, using the long bony, hair-coated baleen plates in their mouth to filter out plankton, fish and marine creatures. He also dispelled the myth that whales eat algae or vegetable matter.

Part-way across the bay, the boat slowed as the guide spotted a Humpback whale some 15m in length. Trying to steady ourselves, clinging to the side of the boat as it wallowed, dipped and rocked violently from side to side, and at the same time trying to handle cameras, was far from easy. The Humpback whale would partially surface close to the boat, showing its characteristic dark grey humped back (Photo 36 - Humpback Whale) (see left) and occasionally blowing. It would breach (break the surface) to breathe every couple of minutes before diving deep again, but there was no telling where it would next appear. We scanned the surface around the boat looking out for the next breach, while at the same time desperately trying to maintain balance in the rocking boat (Photo 37 - Whale-watching). 2 other whale-watching boats also came close, circling around where the whale had been spotted (see below left). Although all 4 of the whale-watching tour operators make great play in their publicity about ethical codes of conduct and environmental responsible tourism, we were left wondering about such crowding around the poor creature by 3 circling boats.

After some 15 minutes of watching this Humpback, the boats broke off and we continued across to the far side of the bay close to the mountainous coastline. Within a short time of turning along the coast, the guide who was watching from a standing position aloft called out for another whale he had spotted (Photo 38 - Humpback Whale) (see above right). By now we had become more accustomed to maintaining balance at the wallowing boat's rail, and continued with our photography as the whale broke the surface, blew, and flipped up its fluke as it dived again (see below right) (Photo 39 - Humpback Whale flipping up fluke). We would then scan the surface for signs of the splash of its next breach. The boat wallowed even more when the skipper switched off the engine, and we struggled to maintain balance, as we rushed from side to side in response to the guide calling out for a further sighting. In this way we spent an hour moving slowly along the coast some 800m off-shore, and during this time saw 2 more Humpback and 2 Minke whales.

At 3-00pm the guide called time and the boat returned at speed across the bay; we were thankful for the protective waterproofs provided to avoid a total soaking in salt spray. During the hour long return crossing, the guide gave us more information about how baleen whales breathe through the v-shaped pair of nostril-like blow-holes just behind their heads (Photo 40 - Humpback Whale blowing), taking in air (not water, another myth) around once a minute, and efficiently absorbing up to 90% of the oxygen (compared with 10% by land mammals), before exhaling as a blow. It had been a very challenging experience and indeed expensive venture, and although we had learned much, we still had ambivalent feelings about the uncertain morality of what is now a highly lucrative tourist industry.

H˙savÝk Whale Museum and Cetacean Research Centre:  back at H˙savÝk, we strolled around the picturesque harbour taking a number of photographs in the glorious late afternoon sunlight (see below right) (Photo 41 - late afternoon at H˙savÝk harbour), before visiting the H˙savÝk Whale Museum and Cetacean Research Centre. Here the conserved skeletons of a number of whale species, including that of the enormous Blue Whale (Photo 42 - Blue Whale skeleton), found stranded on Icelandic beaches were displayed. The Blue Whale's enormous jawbones enclosed its equally huge, hairy baleen plates (see below left). The skeletons showed the uncanny resemblance of whales to land-based mammals eg in the skeletal form of their front limbs modified as flippers, and even the residual remnants of hind limbs. The jaws of the Killer Whale (Orca) (see left) and Minke Whale (see right) clearly showed the difference between toothed and baleen whales. It was also fascinating to see the form of the baleen plates, which varied among different species of whale. And did you know that in the 19th century, it was whale baleen plates that provided 'whale bones' to brace ladies' corsets! During our day in H˙savÝk, we had certainly learned much about whales, a subject about we had previously known little. We had of necessity quickly gained our sea-legs on the wallowing, rocking small boat, but although the whale-watching trips are much promoted, they are certainly not for those with queasy stomachs! It was by now 6-00pm, with tomorrow's forecast cloud gathering and the evening becoming chill. Having stocked with provisions for our time in the wilds at Dettifoss and Mřvatn, we now had to decide on where to camp tonight, and after some deliberation, settled on returning for a second night at Hei­arbŠr despite its overcrowding and lack of hospitality.

Hveravellir geothermal source:  we woke to another chill and heavily overcast morning. Our plan for today had been to drive over to Mřvatn then continue eastwards on the Ring Road for a rest day at Grimssta­ir as the base for our postponed visit to Dettifoss. Over breakfast this morning, we phoned Grimssta­ir only to learn that this remote farm-guesthouse no longer offered camping. So further reconsideration of our options in the light of this suggested the least disruptive plan was to continue eastwards past the Dettifoss turning and take our rest day back at Mo­rudalur in the highlands, then visit Dettifoss on the way back to Mřvatn. Before leaving Hei­arbŠr, we had to investigate the geothermal source on the opposite side of the valley, evident from the billowing cloud of steam and the area of greenhouses supplied by this natural heat source. Higher up the valley side beyond the greenhouses, we found the hot spring's sinter-lined basin. Hveravellir was a small geyser which 'burped' a low bubble of boiling water every few minutes amid a cloud of steam (Photo 43 - Hveravellir mini-geyser) (see left).

Over Hˇlasandur to Mřvatn:  we continued south from Hei­arbŠr on Route 87, gradually gaining height along the length of the long and lonely Langavatnshei­i valley (click here for detailed map of route). Towards the watershed, the tarmac ended and 15kms of gravel road began, crossing the utterly barren wastelands of the sandy moors of Hˇlasandur which stretched away to distant horizons, crossed only by the line of the road ahead. The greatest hazard of driving in Iceland are the mindless tourists who drive on the gravel roads at the sort reckless speeds they are accustomed to in their own countries, with complete disregard for the lesser state of Icelandic roads and the safety of other road users. Today we witnessed frequent examples of this indifference to other road users by speeding hire cars throwing up windscreen threatening stones. The gravel road undulated across the sandur wasteland, rising onto hillocks and giving open vistas of the endless vastness of this bleak landscape. On and on the gravel road stretched as we moved steadily southwards crossing to Mřvatnssandur where all traces of green disappeared with the grey sandy desert dotted with volcanic debris. Eventually the tarmac resumed, and over a rise we began the long descent towards greener lowland laid out before us, the valley floor filled with the ever-spreading vista of Mřvatn.

ReykjahlÝ­ at the head of Mřvatn:  at the junction with Route 1, we pulled over into the lay-by for the classic panorama of Mřvatn spread out across the valley floor (Photo 44 - Mřvatn panorama) (see above right); from left to right, the shapely ochre volcanic peak of HlÝ­arfjall, the lava field around the settlement of ReykjahlÝ­ at the head of the lake, the low distinctive silhouette of Hverfell's scoria cone, to the east Ludent crater and the even more prominent profile of B˙rfell, Mřvatn lake spread across the valley floor, almost cut in half by the low lava peninsula of Neslandatangi, and finally on the far side of the lake the shapely cone of Vindbelgjarfjall. We continued down into ReykjahlÝ­, with reservations about what we should find compared with our recollections from our first visit 45 years ago; what had then been tiny settlement with its church, small store and fuel pump, and simple campsite among the surrounding lava field, had now grown into a seeming tourist metropolis. Amid the bewilderment of traffic and milling tourists, we pulled into the now supermarket parking area. Inside, the Samkaup Strax was now a large and well-stocked supermarket; we should be able to buy our provisions for our week at Mřvatn here, albeit at premium prices.

Eastwards on Ring Road across B˙rfellshraun:  wanting to save further exploration of Mřvatn until our return, we turned eastward today onto the Ring Road and began the climb onto the Nßmaskar­ pass (click here for detailed map of route). When we last passed this way in 1972, this was a rough and single-track gravel road, and our hired Beetle car had struggled to climb the grade; today it was a well-engineered, tarmaced highway to accommodate all the tour-buses that throng this route in peak summer conveying the hordes of incurious tourists. As we began the descent on the far side of the pass, there spread out before us was the sulphurous yellow-ochre solfatara of Nßmafjall. 45 years ago, this had been an empty, hazardous wasteland to be explored gingerly and in peace; today the huge car park was filled with tour-buses, the contents of which milled around the sanitised walk-ways and rope-barriers, now in place to prevent the mindless hordes falling into the boiling mud pools. Such is progress! We continued ahead on the Ring Road, past the turning up to Krafla; at least the progress that had brought the downside of pollutant mass tourism had also brought a decent tarmaced road to replace the former bumpy single track gravel road which the Ring Road here had been in 1972 (see left). Route 1 cut across the lava wasteland of B˙rfellshraun, with the massive volcanic cone of B˙rfell, responsible for this endless desert of lava-fields, dominating the southern skyline (see right for this view in 1972).

Across the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum to camp again at M÷­rudalur:  some 25kms further, we reached the suspension bridge spanning the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river which cut a meandering course through the grey lava desert wastelands of Austurfj÷ll. We paused at the river-crossing to photograph the desolate landscape which seemed even more inhospitably savage in today's gloomy light (see left) (Photo 45 - J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river crossing). Beyond the turning onto the unsurfaced Route 864 leading to Grimssta­ir and the eastern bank of Dettifoss, we continued ahead winding through empty, wild and cheerless terrain, the valleys lined with shapely mountains. From a highpoint, we began the long, sweeping descent into VÝ­idalur (see right) to reach the lonely junction with Route 901, and turned off for the final 7kms dirt road down to Fjalladřr­ farmstead in M÷­rudalur highlands where we had been 2 weeks ago. We settled into the camping area with the heater on against the chill air, though thankfully the viciously forceful wind of our last stay had dropped. From our pitch, we could look out to the vast empty highland wilderness moorland towards an unseen Askja. It was a welcome relief to exchange the noisy, crowded bedlam of tourists at Hei­arbŠr for the peaceful emptiness of M÷­rudalur with just sheep for company; arguably the sheep were more intelligent company than the tourists.

After overnight temperatures of 2~3║C, we woke to a bleakly chill morning for our postponed day in camp here at M÷­rudalur. The campsite's wi-fi signal intermittently reached the camper, enabling us to collect emails and catch up with the BBC News with reports of the anarchic state of British politics following the recent general election, hung parliament and chaotic non-government of a minority Tory mal-administration, led (sic!) by a third rate prime minister, and more intent on squabbling among themselves than governing the country. Camped here in the remote highlands of Iceland, it all seemed tragically irrelevant. It was a truly productive day in camp, and we both felt rested and refreshed ready for the next phase of our travels (Photo 46 - M÷­rudalur Camping). By the end of the afternoon, the beginnings of shadows announced a clearing sky and weak sun bringing a little warmth to the chill air. And as the evening grew cool again, the bright sun in an amazingly clear sky lit the snow-covered distant volcanic peak of Hei­ubrei­ away in the highlands (Photo 47 - Snow-covered Hei­ubrei­).

Route 864 dirt road out to Dettifoss:  after last evening's clear sky and sun, we woke to complete overcast again with the surrounding peaks lost in gloom, to return westwards through the highland volcanic wilderness on Route 1 down to the Grimssta­ir junction. With much trepidation about the state of the 30kms of Route 864 rough dirt road, we turned towards Dettifoss (click here for detailed map of route). To begin with beyond the side-turn to Grimssta­ir farmstead, the dirt road was reasonably smooth and we made good progress. But beyond the deserted farmstead of Hˇlssel, now converted to tourist accommodation, the route became increasingly rougher. We took it steadily at no more than 50kph, but were constantly hassled by tourists in hire-car trying to pass us at reckless speeds on the narrow road and raising showers of windscreen-threatening dust and stones. The surrounding stony wilderness became more and more barren, an utterly empty nothingness of desolate volcanic desertland stretching away to an horizon of peaks. At one point, the road approached the river giving distant views of the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum which along this stretch spread and meandered in a number of channels rather than being focussed in a single canyon. After what seemed an age bumping along this rough dirt road, we at last approached the turning down to the Dettifoss parking area, which despite its remoteness was full of tourist cars and hired camping-cars.

Dettifoss waterfalls:  having eaten our lunch sandwiches to recover from this arduous drive, we booted up and walked down towards Dettifoss falls whose spray could be seen in the distance above the canyon. On our last visit in 1972, we were one of only 2 or 3 other visitors to this remote and wildly inaccessible spot, and it was almost with trepidation about what we should find today that we descended the path which was reinforced against erosion from the 1000s of tourist feet that now tread this route each day. The view downstream along the length of the basalt-lined canyon through which the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum meandered formed such a spectacular prelude to the mighty falls themselves (see above left) (Photo 48 - Basalt-lined J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum canyon). From a distant viewpoint, the full grandeur of Dettifoss came into view, dropping 100m in height and 445m wide into the murky depths of the canyon, with an average of 200m3 of water per second tumbling over its brink, and over-topped by wafting clouds of spray (see left). Once again, 45 years after our first visit, we stood in awe and wonderment before Europe's mightiest waterfalls. In such overcast conditions, our photographs today had a monochrome tone compared with those taken in 1972 in brighter weather (see above right) (Photo 49 - Dettifoss falls and canyon). To show this contrast in conditions, each of our 2017 photographs of Dettifoss is paired with its 1972 time-lapse equivalent. We moved closer, taking further photographs at the point where the falls dropped into the well of the canyon (Photo 50 - Dettifoss falls). Across the rough, rocky ground, we approached the brink of the falls where the raging river suddenly and in apparent slow motion slipped over the lip of the precipice. The noise of the turbulent water was deafening as we stood on the brink of the falls to take photographs at this point (Photo 51 - Brink of Dettifoss falls) (see below left). Looking up-river, the grey waters of the silt-laden glacial torrent of the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum flowed towards the brink (see below right) (Photo 52 - Upper J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum). How different this rocky brink was today from when we were here 45 years ago. Today the nations of the developed world were represented here, effortlessly flown and bussed in as tourists to mill around at the precipice of Dettifoss falls. And the most  and comically absurd aspect was the length that these moronic tourists would go to taking their 'selfies', this ultimate expression of human narcissistic vanity in the face of the majestic power of natural beauty. How thankful we were to disassociate ourselves totally from mass tourism with its pollutant impact on the planet.

Click here to watch our video of Dettifoss

Selfoss waterfalls:  a way-marked path branched off southwards for a kilometre from the brink of Dettifoss to Selfoss, another set of falls higher up the J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum river, and to escape the oppressive presence of tourists and their silly antics, we followed this over rough, rocky terrain. Partway along, the path levelled out and here we found not just a small patch of Cassiope but a whole bank of these beautiful tiny flowers (see right) (Photo 53 - Cassiope). The path passed along the edge of the gorge, above a now dry cove lined with fractured and fallen basalt blocks and filled with black volcanic sand, carved out by the river on a former course where it once fell over a now dry falls-brink. We continued upstream towards the rising plume of spray which marked the location of Selfoss in the distance. The J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum torrent rushed along the narrow, columnar basalt-lined canyon, murkily grey-brown-green with all the sediment washed from its source glacier. The powerful attraction of this forceful water surging along the canyon was mesmerising (see below left) (Photo 54 - J÷kulsß ß Fj÷llum gorge). Ahead we could now make out the full scale of Selfoss, dropping just 10m but spreading widthways across a diagonal fault to create a number of subsidiary falls and filling the air with spray (see below right) (Photo 55 - Selfoss waterfalls). Needing rather more effort to reach, the stark natural surroundings Selfoss were not marred by hordes of tourists, and we had the brink of the falls virtually to ourselves. The sky however had become even more darkly overcast and the light poor, meaning our photographs were now in even more austere monochrome.

We worked our way back along to Dettifoss and up to the parking area to face the rigours of the return drive along Route 864, made even more hazardous by tourists' thoughtless driving, overtaking at reckless speeds and throwing up stones. The weather brightened enabling photographs of the featureless, stony endless wasteland through which the rutted, pot-holed dirt road passed (Photo 56 - Route 864 dirt road). Back at Grimssta­ir, we re-joined the Ring Road to head westwards across B˙rfellshraun towards Mřvatn, thankful to be back on tarmac. As the days now moved into mid-June and advancing summer, we faced the next phase of the trip at Mřvatn with some trepidation, both for the inevitable changes which the last 45 years will have brought, but more significantly for the overwhelmingly increased numbers of tourists polluting the wonders of the natural surroundings at Mřvatn recalled from 1972. More about this in our next episode which will follow shortly.

Next edition to be published quite soon

Sheila and Paul

Published:  16 November 2017 

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