Southeast Iceland

Maybe I’m emotionally on edge, maybe I haven’t had enough sleep in the land of the midnight sun, maybe it’s because it’s my first leg of this journey but there’s something about this volcanic island in the North Atlantic that makes me smile and cry at the same time. I’ve been welcomed so open heartedly by its brilliant and warm people, I’ve been treated by the weather to a spectacular show of scenery and bird life as well as interesting and challenging conditions on the sea. The island seems to be struggling with its own problems of increased tourism and fast paced development. If Reykjavik’s clogged roads are anything to go by, infrastructure is lagging behind. I’m reminded when I meet a British photographer for lunch that there are still signs saying no tractors on some of the main roads through the city right next to holes in the ground for New 5 star hotels. It’s certainly a place of dramatic contrasts. 

I’ve spent just over two weeks in Iceland and have had nine days on the water. After the waiting around, then rush to leave, standing at small pebbly beach at the back of an industrial estate I’m suddenly on my own. Launching from Höfn overloaded with stuff, I recalled FitzRoy’s Feugians, left on a wild beach in Patagonia with a collection of utterly useless trinkets and linens from the good people of Walthamstow. I didn’t quite have cut crystal with me but certainly had too many clothes. The bulky bag I’d strapped to my back deck catching the wind and spinning the bow of my boat around, making it hard to stay in a straight line. I knew at the end of that first day that I needed to ditch it somehow. 

The tidal harbour was drying out quickly to reveal a black sandy mud, I needed to get going on this tide and make the most of the day. I pushed my hands off the bottom and slipped through the weeds towards the lighthouses marking the entrance to the harbour. A pointy headland loomed to my left at the end of a long stretch of inhospitable steep slopes of black sand. The place had an underlying menacing feeling that whilst it was calm now, I knew any minute, the clouds could descend and the sea would start to play rough. Limited landing places of this first stretch made me push on for the next nine hours in the kayak. Stopping briefly on an island where seals were bathing in the sun and surprised birds squawked and fired their streaky poo at me. The scale of the landscape is immense and over the next few days, I spend many an hour staring at the same headland, lighthouse, mountain range or fjord. I break these sections down into smaller challenges in my head, if I just get past that next bit...I’m so ready to land at the end of the first day that the small cove I’m looking for materialises in several places in my mind as I try to fit what I’m seeing with what I’m looking for. I land briefly on a wide west facing beach having convinced myself this must be the north facing sheltered spot I’m looking for. Big dumping waves coming from a relatively flat sea tell me that if it is, I’m not staying here. I push on and am rewarded by the most beautiful pinky purple sky and perfect camp spot. 

There is an intermittent stillness on the water as the sun beats down in the deep blue sky. It’s whipped up frequently by side winds gusting down valleys, cold air rushing of the mountainsides and some tidal movement around headlands. I’m paddling against the prevailing current which runs clockwise along this bit of coast. The wind in in the south F 2-3, gusting 4 behind me. I suspect some wind against the tide has picked the sea up around the shallow outcrops, there is some swell but not huge. I stop and send a parcel home at Briedalslavik. I’m met on the beach by Inko who is a kayaker running the local breakdown garage. He offers me water and wonders why my boat is not a Nigel Denis Kayak (made in Anglesey, paddled throughout the world) I’m hanging around in ‘the old stores’ waiting for the post office to open. All the buildings here seem to have signs on them prefixed with ‘old’ to attract the tourists, apart from the micro brewery opened in 2016. A demanding woman turns her nose up at coffee from a machine and asks if the beans are freshly roasted. I wonder if she realises how remote this place is. When I hand over the unwanted package, wrapped in an orange survival bag, the Australian/Icelandic woman at the counter happily tells me it will make me 8kg lighter. Mentally, it is a big weight off my mind. There’s a large part of a trip like this that is just about lugging stuff, packing and repacking everyday, so I am pleased to ditch it. The mist clears and I have a fun  afternoon exploring caves and waterfalls. Through a friend I used to work with, I’ve got in contact with another UK kayaker who has sailed from Falmouth to Iceland and is starting a circumnavigation from a town just north of where I am. We’re sure our paths will cross and sure enough, we meet on a remote headland near a lighthouse in thick fog. We share our apprehensions about the trips ahead, chat about mutual friends and I get some tips about tide information and navigation in the Faroes. I love the coincidence of meeting a guy from Cornwall in this faraway place. 

On the next stretch, the ring road moves inland from the coast and the place takes on much more of a wilderness feel. The bird life is fantastic. It’s been pretty good up to now but in this untouched corner, goes into overdrive.  Fulmars and gulls fly low, right over the bows of the boat and flocks of Puffins, Guillemots and Kittiwakes flap and bob on the water and oysters catchers fuss and peep around my tent. The constantly surprised ‘Oooohhh’ call of Eider ducks makes me chuckle as they sit and gossip around my boat on the beach, ducklings waddling and bobbing behind. It’s teeming with life and the bright green mossy ledges contrast sharply with the black, charred rock faces. It’s bulbous and strange, like whipped cream splurging out of a layered cake. Sometimes it’s stacked in lines like a clutch of pencils, occasionally snapped and broken. The mountain faces are formed in steps, laid down as the lava set over millions of years. I’m told that at around 13million years, Iceland is a relatively young landscape with the East and West fjords being the oldest parts. There are no metamorphic rocks here but there are some very special minerals and geodes. I can see at a large scale, the effect the water has had on these giants.  This all disappears in an instant when thick fog descends the next morning. Both compasses giving different readings and an hour long crossing of a fjord ahead of me, it’s totally disorientating. The wrong bearing could easily send me way out into the Icelandic sea. Tentatively I push on keeping the just visible sun behind me and checking a gps I’m carrying.  My route track looks like that of a drunken spider until I settle into it and gain confidence. 

I stop in Neskaupstadur, the largest fishing port in Iceland. I’ve been in contact with a guy who runs and has built a kayak club here. His passion for it demonstrated at the age of 15 when he made his own boat out of timber and fabric, not from drawings or patterns or photos (as this was pre internet) but just how he imagined it might look. He admits it’s not really sea worthy but out of this has grown a local club, new club house and 50 or so kayaks stored in a beautiful spot by the side of Nordfjordur. I’m greeted by a group of swimmers taking a dip in the icy waters, they’re as intrigued by me as I am by them. One has a belly so round it has become his whole body, he stands there proudly showing it off and grinning. Over the next few days I look around Neskaupstadur including its open air pool and hot tubs (for research purposes) and a really great museum about the fishing industry, rocks and wildlife. I’m excited to see ships instruments from London, Hull, Birmingham, Hamburg, Bergen and Aberdeen. I become intensely interested in Icelandic knitting as I stretch out a coffee long enough to charge my things in a wool shop and cafe. Knitting is a big thing here and jumpers are for sale for upwards of £150 handcrafted by a 67 year old man in the town. There is also a knitting and gossip circle on Thursday evenings and the shop has an informal lending library of new and traditional patterns. 

I’m welcomed by a very friendly family who let me into the club house, cook me a delicious cod supper, feed me dried fish, fish smoked on sheep manure, take me on a drive into the valley to see the horses and tell me about previous generations of their family that have lived and worked there. The guy who set up the kayak club (their son) has been away from work in Reykjavík and is travelling back via the northern town of Akeyri. He makes time to meet with me, shows me round the club which involved moving an old frame building from further down the coast onto land donated by the community and funded by the local fish factory. It’s a brilliant project driven by a few people’s vision. He tells me stories of the first modern kayaks in Iceland that were bought here from the UK strapped to the bridge of a fishing trawler. He also tells me the sad tale of kayaker, Neil Shave who moved here from the UK and ran activity trips for people with learning difficulties, introduced the British Canoe Union coaching scheme and is buried in the cemetery here after taking his own life. 

Setting off the next day filled with fish and clued up with local knowledge on points of interests including caves, lighthouses and Eider duck fjords, I’m glad I’ve had time to look around properly.  I have a few days before my ship leaves from the town of Seydisfjordur to the Faroe Islands and options for exploring the coast and hills. It’s fairly wild on the sea as I pass the oldest lighthouse in Iceland where I was hoping to stop and over the next day I make it my mission to get back there by foot or kayak. A hike back over the hills has been mentioned and after attempting this and spending a few hours scrambling up a vertical scree face, I realise the Icelandic meaning of ‘hike’ is rather different to ours. I’m camping on the southern side of the entrance to Seydisfjordur and the hillside is covered in a carpet of alpine lupins. A contraversial non native species in Iceland that has been introduced to rebalance nitrates, reduce erosion and help other species grow. An American research student based at a nearby centre is monitoring diversity of pollinators  in this ecosystem. She’s clearly visible by the bright pink flags on long metal wires that she is carrying, she has one strapped to her head to stop the Arctic Skuas dive bombing here. She looks a bit like a fancy dress alien. 

In the evening, realising it was a stupid idea to try to walk, I take to the water fo the quicker route back to the lighthouse. They are bright orange here and stand out clearly in a landscape that doesn’t have any other bright orange things. They look like small castles with crenelated tops and small red hats. I see two sailing boats on the sea which is an unusual sight and actually I haven’t seen many boats at all for the whole trip, I later find them in the harbour and notice they’ve come from Shetland. As I wander ashore in the evening light after an hour and a half in the kayak, I’m met by three sheep dogs running towards me barking, they skid past at high speed rolling over each other before returning to jump up at me to give them some attention. They are playful and friendly, followed by a woman in blue overalls riding a quad bike. I hope that this might be the 67 year old lighthouse keeper I’ve heard about and low and behold, it is and she’s equally friendly. She’d seen my small boat on the water yesterday and is interested in what I’m doing, she lets me look around the lighthouse and tells me about it as she cuts up horse meat for he dogs. ‘It was an old horse belonging to a friend’ she says, and the dogs are working sheep dogs. She tells me that the fog horn isn’t used anymore but sometimes she fires it up just for fun. Her parents were lighthouse keepers here and she took it on from them. ‘It’s just a job’ she says as I perhaps over romanticise the role of a lighthouse keeper. I wave goodbye and pat the dogs once more before paddling back to my camp. 

Seydisfjordur is a pretty place and knows it. Quaint could be a way to describe it, tourist honey trap could be another. It is rammed with motor homes, motorbikes, American and Germans. Makeshift craft shops and galleries give it an arty edge with a rainbow pavement leading the church and a street art covered traditional Nordic house on the high street. A classic car buzzes past as I try to readjust to this strange film set like place and find a cheap, or less expensive beer. I’ve had a great final day paddling down the fjord with snow topped mountains ahead of me and the mist chasing me in. A passing cruise ship which looks miniature against the mountains is a final reminder of the scale of this place that I’ve grown used to. The next morning I wheel the kayak onto the ship with nothing more than a piece of blue paper in my hands saying ‘Faroe Islands’. As I stand on deck watching Iceland drift away, they’re playing a familiar song about the blues which perhaps sums up my mood on leaving this beautiful, friendly and varied island.