To the edge of the world – Hornstrandir, July 2012

ImageWe got to Isafjordur’s Tourist Information office, which doubles as the West Tours office, by about 9.10am to check in for the boat and guide to Hornstrandir. I had booked the tickets weeks before: this was to be one of the highlights of the whole trip and I had wanted to make sure. Ahead of us in the bleary-eyed queue, a guy with an enormous rucksack was debating with the young woman behind the desk about whether it would be possible to fit five days of wild camping on Hornstrandir around the schedule for boat crossings. Our one-day hike seemed suddenly very puny in comparison.

We picked up our voucher and were directed towards the harbour. Outside, the low clouds hung on the tops of the cliffs that enclose the town. We convinced each other that the breaks were growing and that the tiny patches of blue held promise for later in the day. It was not, at least, raining.

We found the jetty after a little confusion. Isafjordur is not a big place and, as promised, there was a flag fluttering above the assembly point, but on sea West Tours trade as Sjoferdir. A slow process of elimination eventually confirmed what should have been obvious. There to greet us was Albertina, our guide. A young Masters graduate in human geography, she specialised in depopulation in remote areas. She ushered us onto the bustling boat and, bang on 9.30am, we slipped the harbour and headed out into the narrow neck of Skutulsfjordur.

Soon we were out onto Isafjordurjup (literally, Ice Fjord Deep) where the sea became more assertive. When we crossed the broad mouth where Isafjordurjup meets Jokulfjordur, the wind picked up and raised surf and spray against our incursion. Thus far, this was as near as I’d ever been to the open North Atlantic and, even on such a calm day, it was feisty. Fortunately, I did not think to speculate what this might mean for later.

Things calmed down as we sailed into Hesteyrarfjordur. In the shortening distance, the abandoned settlement of Hesteyri transformed itself into distinct houses – fewer than ten of them are left although there would have been many more of them when the whaling station, and then the herring factory, brought work and a reason to endure the winters. The church, ‘stolen’ by the National Church and relocated to Sudavik after the settlement was abandoned, could seat one hundred worshipers.

ImageLanding at Hesteyri was easy (something for which I wasn’t sufficiently grateful at the time) and our group (about ten, plus Albertina) gathered on the grass between the wild flowers and the relics of human habitation. Hesteyri, along with the whole Hornstrandir peninsula, was abandoned to permanent human habitation in the early 1950s, the result of too little work as much as the fierce winter weather.

The whaling station closed in the early twentieth century, when the Government imposed a temporary ban. Shortly after, the buildings were converted into a herring plant. Then, as they so often seem to do, the herring moved on, leaving the residents largely workless.

Albertina’s family left Hesteyri with the rest in 1952 – her choice of Masters degree suddenly made much more sense – and she was full of stories and nostalgia. She pointed out her uncle’s house, still owned by and maintained by the family. She retained a raw resentment about the theft of the church and bemoaned the arrival of the lupins that have colonised so much of Iceland. She had a fierce loyalty to a place that had been abandoned long before she was born.

Most of our shipmates decanted to the Doctor’s House, the guest house that operates through the summer and looks remarkably comfortable even without electricity; its water is taken from a mountain stream above the (un)settlement.

Looking down on what's left of HesteyriOur group however, continued up alongside that stream, following a hand-made road, built by the locals after the Second World War as part of a Government make-work scheme, compensation for the departing herring. Despite its claims to be a road, Britain’s uplands are crossed by many more accomplished tracks and it is in such a state of disrepair as to be unobtrusive.The path/road rose alongside the stream, passed a series of unnamed waterfalls, past the Elf King’s Rock, and then between Kagrafell (an inviting climb) and Burfell. In places, the track disappeared beneath the remnants of the winter’s snow but it was easy to follow. By now, the buttercups and soft turf of the southern slopes had gone and, even though we were still only at 300m, the terrain became rocky and barren.

At tImagehe pass, with the sea visible to both the north and south, the main path to Latrar stretched on, marked only by cairns (the locals hadn’t bothered with the road any further, able to see the writing on the wall more clearly than the officials from Reykjavik). We took a detour, turning westwards along an intermittent path. Out target was Midvik, the middle bay of the three that make up Adalvik. To the left, three massive flat-topped crags fell 300m to the sea; to the right, Grassdalsfjall, the cliff top where the US placed a radar station during the early days of the Cold War, a twentieth century Hadrian’s Wall, where unwilling soldiers shivered at the edge of the world, watching for invaders.

Up on the pass, I had my first real sense of the emptiness and isolation of the place. I had wanted to come to Hornstrandir since I heard a walker on the Laugavegurinn talk about it so effusively three years before. The initial landing, the tidiness of Hesteyri, the slow and easy ascent through familiar mountain scenery had all pushed me towards disappointment. But at the pass, it had come into its own, as the cascading ridges of emptiness swept off into the increasing wilderness. As we made our way down the northern slopes, easing from snow and rock to turf and wild flowers, I began to imagine another trip here, a multiday hike eastwards.

We paused on a horseshoe plateau above a lush glacial valley: Midvik. Below us, waterfalls; surrounding us, the steep valley walls fell in endless layers, laid down by ancient eruptions. Our platform was one of these strata, strata that make up the whole of the Westfjords, one of the oldest parts of Iceland, scraped through by long lost glaciers into the steep valleys and fjords that characterise the region. On our plateau, we ate our lunch and looked out towards the sea.

ImageThe descent to the valley floor began beside another nameless waterfall (that things are unnamed emphasised the emptiness). Albertina was unsure about where the formal path was, so we picked our way down the steep bank like sheep. Once down, I almost wished for the rocks once more: the valley floor, particularly by the base of the falls, was an enormous, sodden meadow and standing still meant sinking into the waterlogged turf. But the discomfort passed quickly and it became clear that the meadow was full of wild flowers: three varieties of wild orchid and countless other rare and delicate flowers, the names of which I shall never know.

The first task was to cross the stream that flowed from the waterfall to the sea. Again, Albertina was unsure of where to find the best crossing point, so we made it up and picked our own fords, wading through the chilly water, hoping it didn’t reach the knee. The flies swarmed as we dried our feet and rebooted, and Albertina distributed fetching face nets to keep them at bay.

ImageThen it was off around the northern flank of the valley, maintaining a bit of height to avoid the worst of the marshiness. The orchids grew like daisies and with every ten metres a new rare flower was discovered. The sheep and other livestock left with the people in the 1950s, and were completely banned in the 1970s. Since then the flora of the peninsula has recovered magnificently, beautifully. The abandonment has also had a great impact on the fauna of Hornstrandir. The Arctic Fox, Iceland’s only native wild mammal, has found something of a refuge. Its hunting is banned, but in any case, the absence of anxious farmers and their nervous sheep means that Mr Fox is safe from the traps and rifles of all but the abjectly malicious.

There were undoubtedly foxes around: a cluster of feathers here, a pair of dismembered wings there. But Mr Fox was being shy. I paused frequently, both to look at the ground with its flowers and to scan the hillside for brown fur and pointy ears. It made for slow going, but we eventually made it down to the shore, skirting tightly around where the craggy foot of Mannfjall met the beach. There on the sand, within the tidal reach, were paw prints. Fox paw prints. They were in disconnected runs of three or four pads, where the little creature had had no option but to hop from the rocks and onto sand before once again finding firm footing. They were less than an hour old, given the tide, and they were as near as we were to get.

Around the headland, craggy Mannfjall became a massive sand-dune, the result of the driving winds pushing the sea sand up its flank. And the wind could blow: it was coming in straight off the open ocean to the west. Thoughts of the lush and sheltered meadow behind us were rudely blown from our memories as we started to walk along the beach, K and I chatting to Albertina about restaurants and cafes in Isafjordur, plans for the rest of the weekend. Then the ground gave way.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI’d seen quick sand before, even unwittingly walked onto its fringes, feeling it give too easily in that soft relentless way it has. But I’d never walked out into the middle of it, blithely unaware, the slow realisation of what was beneath me coming too late. The news that something wasn’t right made its way from my boots to my brain eventually. Looking down, thinking the sand is soft, that it isn’t going to stop, looking at K and at Albertina, then back to the cracking, collapsing ground around us, suddenly sure that it’s time to leave, to get back to firm ground, pulling K back to her feet and across the quaking surface that is no longer willing to support our presence: I guess all this took only a couple of seconds, but it seemed like an eternity. Back on the real, reliable beach, we were a little sand-shocked and a lot sand-caked, and wetter than either of us would have liked. Albertina could only laugh. We continued, K testing every new step as if it were her last.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAlmost immediately we arrived at our second crossing. The Teigur, a wide stream, maybe 20 metres, separated the beach under Mannfjall from an area of sand dunes, the Melur, sitting behind the beach arcing around the next bay. Off in the distance we could see the collections of colourful wooden houses at Latrar, our destination. K’s nervousness about soft sand only heightened the discomfort of the cold water as we waded across. On the other bank, fly free in the stiff breeze, we rebooted and set off across the dunes and back down onto the slow arc of the beach. The sun had come out, but the wind washed away its meagre heat. The surf rolled in.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the far side of the bay, a path ran under Grassdalsfjall, flanked by more flowers and iridescent mosses, until it reached the Black House, where its current, temporary residents were starting up a barbeque, a tinfoil-wrapped leg of lamb and a pile of baking potatoes sitting among the coals. We waited for the boat, along with another group eager for rescue. We spent the time watching a third group loading their gear, including generators and a set of intriguing and heavy black cases, onto their own boat. They ferried people and equipment across on a small, inflatable motor dinghy, bobbing precariously over the insistent waves. It dawned on me that this was how we were going to have to board our own boat, when it eventually arrived: the sea was too rough to get close to the collapsed concrete jetty.

Now, I’m not good with small boats in choppy seas, much less so climbing out of them at sea wearing a backpack. My anxiety rose as the temperature dropped, and we waited in the weak sunlight and chilling wind. Conversation became stilted, and the barbeque smoked into life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe boat appeared, a speck in a white plume of surf on the other side of Adalvik. While it circled in the bay, its tiny tender, an inflatable with an outboard, wearied its way back and forth to the beach beside the pointless jetty. I speculated that, on calmer days, they might string a floating pontoon to that jetty, although I found it hard to imagine when this bay would be in any way calm.

On the third shuttle, K and I clambered on board through the surf – our boots and trousers were already wet, it made little difference. I clung to whatever I could as we scudded over the uncertain surface to meet the mother ship. There was a nervy scramble aboard, leaping as the two vessels kissed in the swell, and we found a seat inside, out of the wind at last. The pallor of the early boarders and the wallowing of the idling boat foretold of a queasy journey ahead.

Four or five shuttles later, and we found out just how queasy. We set off at speed, and the boat jumped and slapped into wave after wave, a cloud of spray whiting out the world. As we passed the point of the last headland, we were effectively in the open ocean, despite being only a few hundred metres from shore. The boat seemed undecided as to whether it wanted to be a plane or a submarine: the stomach calming trick of focussing on the horizon became impossible since the spray obscured everything. It was like being in a washing machine.

At first, the faltering sunlight made a silver thread of the ocean horizon, but soon even that disappeared, obscured by brine. I elected instead to sleep. When my eyes reopened, something over an hour had elapsed and the gravel spit of Isafjordur lay across the fjord. There were no more waves; it was 9.30pm.

Soon after, we tied up and rediscovered solid ground, gratefully. I was cold, damp, tired and queasy, hungry too. The vinbudin was shut and there was only a can of baby beer in the fridge back at the apartment. Yet I was satisfied, content, and wiser too: I had learned three lessons. First, Hornstrandir is well worth a further, longer visit. Second, quicksand is unnerving stuff and best avoided. And third, there is a reason why I choose the mountains over the sea.

I’ve written about other walks in Iceland, including the Laugavegurinn and the Fimmvörðuháls pass. There’ll be more from the West Fjords and Hornstrandir soon.

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