I slept sooooo good. My bed in our cute little hotel room was like a cloud, and once I gave up seeing the Northern Lights, I fell fast asleep with visions of Icelandic horses in my head. The Icelandic elves must have wanted us to enjoy a little more sleep because our alarm never went off. Fortunately, we woke up with enough time to get ready and eat our delicious hotel-provided breakfast. Pickled herring, anyone? I’ll admit, I skipped the pickled herring but one thing I do not miss on any European vacation is NUTELLA. It’s my guilty pleasure when I’m galavanting the globe! It’s just not the same at home!
Greeted with a beautiful sunrise view, we rejoined our group, refreshed for another day of adventure. After the previous day’s wind, I decided to throw on another sweatshirt and made it a habit to wear my outer shell at all times. This ended up being a great decision as the wind was just as bad as the day before, if not worse in some places.
Our first stop was at the Budir black church. This is a beautiful little church in the most scenic of places. On the grounds was a small cemetery, and several walking trails through the lava fields nearby.
Once we’d had adequate time to walk around and take some photos, our tour guide, Ricky, took us to the small village of Arnarstapi. Most of the homes in this village are summer homes, and in the winter months, there are only a handful of people who live there. Beside each of these homes is a small fishing boat. Although, in one case, the fishing boat was larger than the home itself. (It was a really tiny house)! This is a huge fishing village due to a natural harbor that exists.
Ricky took us to some beautiful viewpoints and gave us ample time to explore the area. There was a beautiful rock arch with basalt columns lining the way to the water. On some of these were perched seagulls, nibbling at bits of food.
There were enormous cliffs, similar to what I saw in Ireland 6 months ago. I was less ambitious to walk near the edge as the wind was quite heavy. One swift gust and that would be the last of my wanderlusting.
Opposite the vast Atlantic is Mount Stapafell, which towered high over the small village and a beautiful icy lake.
With many adventures awaiting us, and the bite of the cold wind freezing us to the core, we returned to the warmth of the minibus. As we drove to our next stop, Ricky very genuinely discussed Iceland’s cultural belief in elves. I had read before our trip that a large majority of people believe these “hidden people” exist. They look like you and me, but they are in fact, elves.
Ricky told us a story about how he was once saved by an elf. These elves are good, but if you disrespect them or their territory, bad things begin to happen. In Ricky’s account, he was traveling back to his hometown during a massive snow storm. The pass can quickly close, so he was driving like mad to get to the other side. The whiteout conditions became so horrible that he was no longer able to drive. He admits he made a mistake by leaving his car. He was trying to look for help, but instead got lost in the blizzard conditions. He said he walked for hours seeing no sign of anyone and soon he was becoming hypothermic and laid down. Suddenly he felt a hand on his shoulder. He turned around to find a man who instructed Ricky to follow him. He mustered some strength and followed him through the heavy snow and was led to a nearby home that Ricky had not seen before. Ricky says he ended up staying at that home for 2 days until the weather improved. He fully believes it was an elf who led him to safety.
To us it may seem silly, but there is no question for many Icelanders. In fact, Ricky advised us a local poll indicated over 70% of Icelanders believe in elves. It is very much a part of their culture and should be respected by us – even if we don’t believe in them! It was actually quite special to hear him speak of it with such sincerity.
Ricky soon stopped the minibus and we hopped out to find a long path down to a beautiful black beach, Djúpalónssandur. We carefully walked down the jagged, sometimes icy path, called “The Path of the Bulls,” as farmers used to lead their bulls down to the fresh water lagoons below. As we neared the safety of the level black “pearls,” Ricky stopped us to point out a very special lava rock formation, known as Gatklettur. On the other side is a fresh water lagoon that is thought to have healing properties. On a sunny day, you can see the glacier, Snæfellsjökull through the formation.
We continued down the path to the beach. At the bottom of the path were 4 “lifting stones.” This area was frequented by fisherman and these lifting stones were used to determine a fisherman’s fitness, and whether or not he could work on the boat. They are several different weights. I attempted to pick up the 54kg stone without success, but was certain my bulky mittens were the culprit – not my lack of strength. A few men in our group showed off for us, picking up the 54kg and then the 100kg stones.
Stubborn as I am, I took off my mittens and tried my luck at the 54kg stone once more. Not a problem. Not only did I pick it up off the ground, but I was able to bring it up to my shoulder like a boss! Mission accomplished, I dropped the stone back into the sand and walked away with my pride. (I also felt a little satisfaction getting a very mini workout)!
We walked further across the sand over to one of the fresh water lagoons. Nearby were old rusted pieces of metal. We learned they are the remnants of an old fishing boat from 1948 that led fourteen British fishermen to their deaths. As I’ve mentioned before, fishing was a lifeline for Iceland. The ocean can be extremely violent and many fisherman commonly lose their lives due to the vicious storms that roll through.
Ricky has experience as a boat captain and told us stories of some horrible storms he has navigated through. He compared some of his experiences to “The Perfect Storm,” indicating the swells were as big as depicted in the movie.
Because fishing is so important to Iceland’s culture, they have left the debris from this boat as a memorial and way of showing respect to these British men and other fisherman who have lost their lives at sea.
We walked the beach and took time to appreciate the peaceful rolling of the waves. This beach has a history of unexpected waves that have taken distracted tourists off their feet. It even has the potential to pull people out to sea. Many unsuspecting tourists suffer injury and death every year as a result of this beach and others on the island.
After getting our fill of the quiet, unspoiled black sand beach, Ricky took us to the even quieter Vatnshellir Cave – a lava cave believed to be 8,000-10,000 years old. Hundreds of years ago, Snæfellskjökull erupted and as the lava began to quickly cool on top, remaining hot lava below created tubes. Eventually over many years the lava on the bottom began to drain out leaving these caves.
The volcano/glacier stood hidden in the clouds for us, with a large hole full of snow as a landmark for this fascinating cave.
We crept 30 meters deep into the cold, dark cave. There were stalactites and stalagmites as are prevalent in caves I’ve seen at home. However, these are made from lava rather than limestone, so they will never grow bigger. Furthermore, because they aren’t as sensitive to harm, it’s also ok to use flash photography in the cave. (Not that those photos were any good)!
One thing our guide pointed out was the development of these “Twins” – two stalagmites just next to one another, which is an unusual phenomenon. I couldn’t hear the guide’s explanation of why they are unusual, so ask your closest geologist friend and then let me know.
One by one we emerged from the lava cave. I, for one, was happy to be out. I don’t like heights, especially not on wet metal stairs. Of course the tall and narrow spiral staircase is made to grip your shoe, and there were railings. However, I don’t really trust my footing, as you’ll see in a moment.
We grabbed a quick lunch and then hit the road to travel the north side of the peninsula. On this side of the peninsula we drove through Ricky’s hometown, a big fishing village. It was fun to hear his personal stories. He pointed out his old school and the church, which interestingly looks like the economically important fish from an aerial perspective. We stood outside the bus chatting at the chilly harbor, fishing boats bobbing up and down. He directed our attention to his childhood home up on the hill – his actual birthplace. He informed us they’d recently sold it as his father had just passed away 3 months prior. As we drove out of town he showed us the assisted living facility to which his mother had just moved, and the building where his first apartment was located.
The last site on our list was the widely popular Mount Kirkjafell and Kirkjafellsfoss (the waterfall). Unfortunately, when we popped over the hill to the falls, I was both disoriented by what I saw and also disappointed at the vast number of people there. So, so disappointed. If you’re going to go to Iceland, you better go fast because it’s not a hidden gem anymore.
We pulled into a full parking lot, people milling about the grounds just scheming how to ruin my photos. Besides the Aurora, this landscape was what I was most thrilled about photographing, so I was super bummed to see all the tourists. I know, I know… I’m a tourist, too. But it’s ok if I’m there because I have to take the photo! 🙂 In addition to my disdain about the crowd, the waterfall was not what I expected from the pictures I’d seen, nor was the mountain. In fact, the mountain wasn’t even the same shape. I was so confused. For a moment I thought I’d gotten my destinations mixed up – easy to do when you don’t speak Icelandic and all the words look the same and have 15 syllables.
Nonetheless, I had 20 minutes or so to try to get some good photos. The wind was much worse than we’d experienced the entire trip. As the sun was also starting to set behind the now cloudy skies, the temperature was dropping drastically.
The longer we were out there, my phone got colder and colder until it started malfunctioning. At first I just thought the correct part of my glove wasn’t touching the screen, but then it just shut off! Annoyed, I put it in my pocket and decided it wasn’t a big deal since the sights were not what I was expecting anyway.
Then I turned around.
There it was! As I stood at the top of the waterfall Mount Kirkjafell stood exactly the way I’d seen it in the photos! The reason it didn’t look the same is because we approached the mountain from the front, but when viewing it from the waterfall you see the mountain from its side, which gives it a funny cone appearance. I pulled out my phone to capture the beautiful image and remembered it had shut off! Had the battery died and I didn’t know? I tried helplessly to turn it back on, even taking off my glove and risking frostbite (dramatic, I know), to turn it back on! Then I saw that brilliant little apple logo… loading… loading… boom! It was working and I had 10% and an unknown amount of time before it shut off again.
I started snapping and snapping and got my shot! Hooray!
I was so thrilled! Not only had I gotten the “perfect” picture, but I had accomplished what I set out to do and there was a warm minibus waiting for me!
A poor photo for comparison (as it was taken from the bus), but here is Mount Kirkjufell from both perspectives. You can see why I was so confused. It looks like two different mountains!
Eager for a warm reprieve from the harsh conditions, I started to walk down the path beside the waterfall and came upon an icy patch on a decent decline. The sides of the path were roped off to prevent foot traffic and I have a thing about following rules and respecting these sites. In hindsight, I wish I’d done what Taylor did and walk around it. BUT… I didn’t.
I remember thinking: “That ice is going to be really slippery. These hiking boots have amazing traction, but I need to be very intentional with each step.”
Third step in was the last one I needed to get to the bottom. I immediately heard a pop in my ankle and then slid to a stop on my butt. I just sat there for a moment petrified to stand and bear weight on it. I was convinced it was broken. Very carefully I stood and slowly put pressure on it. I could stand! But holy moly it was hurting. I gimped my way back to the bus and informed the girls that I’d really done a number on myself this time. Being only two days into a four day tour, I was worried about how this would affect my trip and really mad at myself. Through all my travels I have never had an incident, yet I have always been prepared with every type of first aid item and medication I could possibly need – except this time. I had moleskin for blisters. I still have no blisters but WOW do I have a whopping sprained ankle!
I decided to leave my boot on for the 2 hour ride home to keep the swelling down and tried to elevate it on the seat next to me. However, my boot extended over the aisle so my ankle ended up just flopping around a lot, which I decided probably wasn’t helping.
We finally arrived to our hotel for the evening and I immediately took my boot off to survey the damage. It was swollen, but no bruising was apparent. I had looked for an ACE bandage on the way home at the few restroom stops we made, but couldn’t find any first aid equipment. Perhaps I should start selling first aid kits for $400 per kit. I know I’m not the only idiot around here getting hurt. I knew I needed to provide compression and I wasn’t going to sleep in my hiking boot, so I pulled out all my wool socks and tied them around my ankle and it worked beautifully! Who needs an ACE bandage, after all?
You’d think in Iceland, ice would be readily available. This hotel didn’t have a little cubby off to the side with an ice machine like US hotels tend to have. I’m sure we could’ve gotten some from the reception desk, but I didn’t want to trouble Sarah or Taylor to go down and get me any. I would, however, like to point out they were very empathetic and helpful. I will also be selling ice kits to hotels for $400 each.
As the faucet water is so cold (hello glaciers!) I simply filled my water bottle and tied it to the side of my ankle. I didn’t have great resources for the best ankle sprain treatment, but I was pleased with my creativity! Sarah loaned me one of her pillows and, feeling a little defeated, I fell asleep with my ankle on a little mountain of my own.