Return to Iceland, Pt. 4

Western Region

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I woke up before dawn and gathered my camera gear. I was hoping to catch the sunrise. Peeking through the curtains, it seemed the weather was going to remain stable. I walked a ways along the river, accompanied by the sound of rushing water, until I found a decent spot to set up. I was at most a 10 minute walk from the hotel. Perfect – I could concentrate on taking photos, rather than, say, hiking an unfamiliar trail and worrying about whether I’d be on time. All I had to do was wait for the sky to light up.

On the other hand, I was early. Light and color only intensified about fifteen minutes after official sunrise, at which point I had already been waiting about thirty minutes. I spent the time framing my initial shot upstream and experimenting with different settings. I was happy to see some low-flying clouds – they would provide something for the sunlight to interact with.

sunrise fossatun iceland

I snapped a bunch of pictures, including a panorama, before I reminded myself to turn around and see how things were looking in the opposite direction. I got a few shots that way, too, then decided to pack up and move around a bit before golden hour ended. There was no one else around all morning except for some sheep. It felt great to be outside and to slow down a bit, to be more methodical with my camera.

icelandic sheep in countryside
grimsa river morning

I had lost track of time and was finishing up a full thirty or forty minutes after I’d planned. We got things mostly packed up, then went to the main building for breakfast. There was good coffee and rock music to get our energy up. A beautiful morning unfolded outside as sunlight spilled onto the landscape. I took some photos of us outside before getting in the car. It wasn’t until we were leaving that I realized that the building had a turf roof. I thought the melding of old and new architectural techniques was very interesting.

Our first stop was the Deildartunguhver geothermal area, which was visible from some distance away thanks to its large plumes of steam. It couldn’t have been more different than the quiet morning I’d enjoyed. It was crawling with tourists. Despite being a tourist myself, I couldn’t figure out where they had come from or what they were doing there so early. To be fair, there wasn’t much room for everyone – some kind of construction seemed to be going on, and a fence had been erected around much of the area. Unfortunately this inspired some tourists to go off the path for their photo opportunities. We scoped out what we could and I was happy to move on.

Deildartunguhver emits 180 liters per second of 100°C hot water, which is carried via pipes to Borgarnes and Akranes for central heating.

hot spring warning sign
deildartunguhver hot spring rocks and steam

We pulled into Sturlureykir Horse Farm and just like that, we were alone again. There was no sign of the owner. Instead, a friendly Icelandic sheepdog greeted us and promptly rolled on to her back for bellyrubs. Eventually we found the owner in one of the nearby buildings. She introduced herself as Hrafnhildur – “a strong Icelandic name,” she said, smiling. Some completely unscientific internet searching suggests it means something like “Raven Warrior” – a strong name indeed!

Hrafnhildur said she would prepare one of the horses for our visit and directed us to a nearby stable in the meantime. All the horses in the stable were secure in their stalls. Each stall had a bowl equipped with a lever the horse could nudge to get water. A white horse roamed free at the far end – apparently he was supposed to stay outside but had decided he wanted to be in the stable after all.

Soon Hrafnhildur fetched us and we met her horse Viking. He was very patient as we took photos and generally bothered him. Our host explained that when training horses it’s best to make them think they’re doing something because it’s their idea. They can be stubborn but respond to firm commands, as long as you don’t seem cross; it’s a handler’s job to help the horses enjoy working. Hrafnhildur made it sound somewhat easy, but then she’s had years of experience training championship horses.

The Icelandic horse is the only breed in the country. It is illegal to import horses, and those that have left the country are not permitted to re-enter.

The building we were in was formerly a greenhouse, as evidenced by the pipes running its length. In fact, the entire farm draws its heat from a natural hot spring on the property. Erlendur Gunnarsson was the first farmer in the area to use the spring for heating, cooking, and other conveniences. We walked over to the spring to check it out. It bubbled enthusiastically, throwing steam into the air, and it seemed like there were five or six different kinds of moss growing.

When we returned, we met Hrafnhildur’s husband. The farm has been in his family for generations. His great-grandfather gets the credit for looking at the spring and thinking, “I want that in my house!” Hrafnhildur showed us around a bit more, talking about their plans to expand. We capped off our visit with some coffee in the little lounge area.

hot spring
horse saddle and horse shoes

Hrafnhildur’s philosophy was to make a welcoming place in the countryside where people can relax and have an authentic experience. We certainly appreciated having the opportunity to slow down, enjoy the farm, and learn a little bit. With a highly planned trip like ours, it’s a little too easy to get “itinerary fever” and just try to see everything you can. You are constantly weighing quality vs. quantity and trying to decide where to put your time – Sturlureykir was well worth ours.

We left in high spirits, and with the sun continuing to shine, we drove about 20km east to Hraunfossar (“Lava Falls”). We couldn’t tell from the parking area how impressive it was. A short walk to the viewing deck revealed a series of waterfalls emerging from beneath a lava flow.

hvita river valley
hraunfossar waterfall in autumn

I set up my camera with an ND filter to permit longer exposure times. We thought it odd when, moments later, four or five other tourists with cameras had set up around me. It wasn’t the last time we would see this “tripod phenomenon” – where other photographers, having seen you’ve gone to the trouble of setting up your tripod, decide you must have a good shot and suddenly appear right next to you.

I had seen pictures of Hraunfossar before, but seeing it in person was something else. It’s not what you expect when you hear the word “waterfall”, in a very pleasing and surprising way. The scene felt almost painterly with the autumn foliage, black lava rock, and rivulets of water streaming down into the blue river. Sometimes it’s all I can do to say “wow!” and take a moment to appreciate how environmental forces can create such stunning features.

We followed the path upstream to Barnafoss (“Children’s Falls”) which forces itself through a narrow gap in the cliffs. The folktale goes that two children from a nearby farm grew bored while their parents were at Christmas Mass. They left the farm and crossed a natural stone arch over the river but fell in at Barnafoss. Upon returning, their parents discovered the children missing, and followed their tracks to the waterfall. Their mother had the arch destroyed so that no one else would share the fate of her children.

On the way out, we first stopped at a gas station and got a bottle of Appelsín (orange soda) to share, then wandered around Reykholt. The tiny town is best known as the home of Snorri Sturluson. He was a poet, historian, and politician responsible for landmark medieval works of literature such as the Prose Edda, Heimskringla and, likely, Egil’s Saga. He was assassinated in Reykholt in 1241. We checked out the old church (built in 1886 and fully renovated in 2006) and the inside of the modern chapel adjoining Snorrastofa, a cultural history and research center founded in Snorri’s memory. I was hoping we could see a historical exhibition there, but there was no signage and no one was around, so we headed back to the car and began to make our way to the Ring Road.

reykholtskirkja exterior
reykholtskirkja interior

It was a beautiful drive through sheep-dotted countryside accompanied by dark clouds threatening rain. By the time we reached Route 1 we were keen to eat lunch, preferably of the pylsur variety. Fortunately, there was a guesthouse and restaurant right next to Grábrók, a volcanic crater we’d planned to visit anyway. I thought the guesthouse had the best hot dogs of the trip (the bun was a cut above the rest – more robust and tasty than the soft/chewy Wonderbread-like standard).

Satisfied, we ascended the stairs to to the top of Grábrók and were rewarded with fantastic views over Borgarfjörður and the lava field Grábrókarhraun. Thousands of years ago, lava from eruptions in the area blocked the path of the Norðurá River and actually pushed it further east!

Grábrók was formed about 3400 years ago in a fissure eruption.

grabrok landscape black and white

Now we had no plans other than to enjoy the drive to Hvammstangi. The sun was getting lower so we had nice, golden light. Some rainbows came into view as we approached Hrútafjörður. A large, snow-dusted mountain, crowned in clouds, fell by our left. A sign in the shape of a seal welcomed us to town, which, at a little less than 600 people, is the most densely populated in the region.

Just north of town, we pulled up to the first AirBnB of the trip. It was a charming two-room cottage right by the water. Ingvar, our host, greeted us and let us know where we could find him if we needed anything. I asked where we might go for dinner; he smiled and said there was really only one place – Sjavarborg – but it was, at least, quite good.

fjordside cottage

icelandic beerInside, we introduced ourselves to Silke and Verina, friends and travelers from Germany. They were headed the opposite direction we were, so they had already passed through areas that were still to come for us. They said they loved Mývatn but had encountered some rough weather. At the last minute, they had booked a little hut in Ólafsfjörður which they very much enjoyed; it had a hot pot and they saw the northern lights. We talked about our experiences in Iceland and traveling in general – they get 30 days of vacation every year!

We drove down to the harbor for dinner at Sjavarborg. Our table was right next to the big windows – we watched the sunset and rain clouds over the water as we enjoyed burgers and beer. There were two tourists from North Carolina near us; I eavesdropped with amusement as they acquainted themselves with a Chinese couple, telling them “we don’t like Donald Trump!” It was kind of heartening to know there were other Americans abroad who felt compelled to comport themselves with more kindness and dignity than the President himself.