Friday: a birthday in blissful hot water

After breakfast of actual toast and hot chocolate, I set off for for Mývatn, via Goðafoss (can you tell I’ve got a real Icelandic keyboard? Things are not all in the same place but the special letters exist!) for a few photos, because you can never have enough photos of a famous historical waterfall, and then on to Mývatn, where I had a look at Grjótagjá which has always managed to elude me – it´s a cave under where the rock is pushed up like a tent, where the water is hot. And I mean hot. Too hot to swim in, anyway. It was always a popular bathing site and then in the Krafla Fires of the 70s and 80s, they got hotter. I stuck my hand in one, it´s pretty uncomfortably hot.

The Jarðböðin, the Mývatn Nature Baths, are a lovely temperature. That´s where I´d always planned to spend this birthday and it was delightful. It´s like the Blue Lagoon but with a much better view and it doesn´t taste as salty if you accidentally get any in your mouth. It´s on the side of an active volcano, so on one side is steaming red mountainside and on the other is a view stretching away across the lake and the plains with conical volcanoes rising up and a snowy mountain ridge right at the back. There´s not much to say except that it´s very nice spending several hours floating in warm water with a view like that.

I have a computer but it won´t accept my camera. I was hoping I could finally put up some of the pictures from my camera but it is not to be and I have such a lovely one of me looking scared on the rocks in Grjótagjá.

Thursday: to Mývatn

On Thursday I set sail from the Hotel Puffin, bound for the north.
Mývatn, my ultimate port of call, is 166km from Egilsstadir. At 90kph, that’s under two hours. But today was the day I finally noticed that there’s something wrong with my speedometer. 0-60 are marked in tens, then it’s in twenties. The smiley-face speed checkers on the side of the road say that when I thought was 55 is actually only 50, so I no longer have any idea what speed I’m driving at. No wonder I’m always getting overtaken – I could very easily be doing 20 less than I realise.
I made a few stops on the way, to enjoy the way northern Iceland is such a grey-brown desert – the Odadahraun is good for this. Literally “the Desert of Misdeeds” – that’s the best place name in the world! I stopped at Hrossaborg, the collapsed crater from Oblivion, which I’ve wanted a closer look at for two years. It’s just inside the F road – that’s the ford-ridden Highland roads I’m legally not allowed on, but there’s a car park and an info board just at the turning and I’m allowed to go there.
I stopped at Námafjall, the high temperature area where blue mud bubbles and Earth put on two kettles a few millennia ago and forgot about them. It’s unbelievable how long those two piles of rocks have been steaming for – and not just gently, idly steaming – steaming like a steam locomotive in a race uphill. I’ve been there before but on an afternoon tour of everything interesting within about eighty miles, which doesn’t give you time to look at anything properly. I ambled. I got laughed at by an Icelander called Olaf P because the steam made my glasses steam up. I wondered why on earth tourists were standing so close to the kettles – touching them! – for photos.
Next stop was Leirhnjúkur, where a series of fissures opened between 1977 and 1984, the Krafla Fires. Krafla itself – right opposite – had its own Fires in the 1720s but they were called the Mývatn Fires. Krafla Fires not actually from Krafla. Easy. Anyway, it was amazing! Ground Zero of an eruption recent enough that the ground is still steaming, still hot to the touch. In places, the rock is whitish. I thought that was where it had got really hot, like charcoal, but no. It’s where a light coat of moss is starting to grow. Spread out in front is a big black fresh lava field, hardly any older than I am. I loved it. You propose to me on that fresh lava and I will marry you (I will consider it; I don’t actually want to tie myself down with unwise promises just because I got overexcited at some warm rocks).
Final stop was Víti, another crater filled with turquoise water, but not the same Víti that I swam in on top of Askja two years ago. I could see Askja very clearly on the horizon today, far more clearly than I could see her when I was standing on top of her. And Herdubreid, who finally shed her crown of clouds. She’s very easy to recognise, and huge. I don’t remember her being so big when I was right at her base hut.
This is Krafla’s Víti. You can’t swim there, I think you’d be an idiot to even try to get to the water.
The road back to the Ring Road goes through the Leirbotn Geothermal Power Station. It has boreholes all over the mountainside, joined to the central station by big silver pipes. One of those pipes meets the road and their solution was to bend the pipes over in a big arch, limiting the size of traffic that can go under it.
I am staying tonight at Stórutjarnir, four miles from Godafoss, 25 miles from civilisation. It was the only hotel available for under a certain price in miles. It’s pleasant – very isolated and quiet, give or take noisy guests down the hall. My view is down a valley with a lake in it, mountains rising up each side. There’s a pool – the only Edda with a private pool. I had the hot pot to myself for half an hour before I was joined by two elderly Australians, whose travel agent seems to have gone out of their way to give them hotels in the middle of nowhere – I think they were at Neskaupsstadur last night, half an hour further along the eastern fjords than I was. They can’t pronounce any Icelandic names and they’re not even going to try – they think they were in a place that begins with F and had about fourteen letters in it. I think they mean either mean Fjardabyggd, the collective name for the three fishing villages, including Eskifjördur, where I was (not enough letters) or they’ve mistaken the first letter, because Neskaupsstadur is about right.
Anyway, we boiled ourselves in the hot pot, an Icelandic lady and a girl from an unidentified place that isn’t Iceland joined us and I was delighted to find that I could comprehend the girl’s attempt to pronounce Hveravellir and I knew where it was but the Icelandic lady didn’t have a clue. Mwahaha, I am better at Icelandic geography than you!

Wednesday: Borgarfjördur Eystri

On Wednesday I left surprisingly early. The road out of Reydarfjördur had mysteriously turned into several kilometres of gravel road in twenty-four hours and once I was past there, my car suddenly demanded that I check the oil now. As I was going through Egilsstadir, I popped into the airport where I hired the car to seek their advice. No one there. There are three sets of in/out flights a day and not a soul around in between. But Hertz do have a phone that connects directly to Hertz in town (not that they exist on any map). They asked if a number matched a number on the inside of the windscreen. I had no numbers at all so I pulled out the dipstick and made faces at it and apparently that pleased the car, because the warning promptly disappeared. The man on the phone said it’s just a reminder, which the mechanics must have forgotten to reset. Anyone know anything about Golfs have any opinions on that?
Off I went to Borgarfjördur Eystri, supposedly a highlight of the area. Four stretches of gravel road, including one over corkscrew mountain roads and the “loose cliffs” just outside the village are a massive landslide waiting to happen. It dwarfs the potential landslip at Dinah’s Hollow. When these cliffs go – and I’m pretty sure they will – it’ll be colossal. You don’t hesitate on that bit of road. Pretend it’s a rally, hope there’s nothing coming the other way and run for it.
Borgarfjördur – or Bakkagerdi, a village far too small for two large names – sits prettily by the sea between rhyolite mountains but there’s nothing there. The drive is nice enough but the village is just a teeny-tiny fishing village.
I came back to Egilsstadir, checked the oil properly because the car was complaining again and then went to wander around the rocks next to the pool.

Tuesday: escape

Having not really slept, I’d decided to depart the tent and find somewhere with a roof. There being nothing of the sort available in Egilsstadir, I ventured further away – to Eskifjördur, which had a very nice room in the Pufffin Hotel, with mountain and fjord views. True, the name over the door said Hotel Eskifjördur, which meant I drove past it three times before concluding that it wasn’t a coincidence that it was covered in pictures of puffins.
Oh, it felt good to have a real bed, with pillows and there were curtains to block out the incessant light and my own shower – adjustable temperature and no strangers watching. Bliss. Such bliss that all I did all day was have a blissful shower, nap, read, eat and watch Wolf Blood on CBBC before going to the pool in the evening. Not that Egilsstadir is a big town by any means but Eskifjördur really is remote and quiet – give or take the “main road” to Neskaupsstadur right outside my window.

Monday: Hengifoss and Seydisfjördur

Monday was a bit clearer. I’d more or less worked out the art of The Morning in a Tent and so I was out much earlier, to drive around Lögurinn, a lake that’s actually a bulge in the river. Its southern bank is lined with trees, which Icelanders are very excited about, as Iceland is very short on trees. It’s nice but there’s nowhere to stop to get a proper view of the lake.
Towards the end is a bridge and on the other side, there is a canyon cut out of the mountainside. I immediately decided I wanted a closer look and soon found there was a car park and trail for just such a purpose. Hengifoss, the waterfall that carved out the canyon is Iceland’s second or third highest, depending on where you’re reading it. It takes about an hour to walk up – it’s a lot further than it looks from the ground and it takes longer if you stop for lots of photos or to enjoy the posing sheep, who are clearly very accustomed to having cameras pointed at them. Hengifoss has carved out a little horseshoe, which has several thin but bright and very visible red layers between the basalt. It’s very pretty – I don’t know why it isn’t better known.
I came back through Egilsstadir and took the “good mountain road” to Seydisfjördur, where the Denmark-Norway-Scotland-Faroes ferry comes in once a week. It’s an unexpected road – very steep, very twisty, very high, with a winter wonderland at the top – a half-frozen blue and white river. Just a few miles further on, you descend the other side and almost immediately it’s summer. Seydisfjördur sits at the mouth of the fjord, with steep mountains, several snow-capped all around it. It fails on information, though. No maps. No idea where anything is. But pretty. It also fails on people ambling across the road randomly – not defiant of cars, just totally oblivious to them and deserving of being run over. The pool is inside so I decided not to bother and instead to enjoy the mountain road back to Egilsstadir – much more enjoyable when you’re expecting it.
I lounged in my tent for a bit when I got back, slept a little bit and then went to the pool – which is hiding a nice warm play area separated from the main pool by a piece of glass – I thought the pools were connected but they’re not and it’s nice and warm.
Tomorrow night I may move into the Edda hotel. The night after I definitely will – I want a proper roof over my head for at least one night before I move to Mývatn on Thursday.

Sunday: Fortitude

Sunday morning dawned clear and bright, until I unzipped the yellow tent and discovered that the reality was a grey and miserable-looking day.
It was a slow start. I went to the N1 just down the street for juice and in the hope of finding a plastic plate and/or bowl – last year I brought one and it spent all its time on the back parcel shelf. This year I want to use one and don’t have it. Neither does the N1.
I had Weetos and Apple juice for breakfast and then went looking for Fortitude.
Yesterday, when driving around Egilsstadir, getting used to everything being the wrong way round, not knowing the speed limits and whether my lights were on (as according to the law, they must be), I didn’t notice that I had a reversing camera or that I had six gears.
First port of call was Reydarfjördur, where Fortitude was supposedly filmed. I say supposedly because I didn’t see a single thing I recognised – not the supermarket, not the police station, not Charlie Stoddart’s house. And it was so quiet! I’ve never really noticed Iceland being closed on Sundays – there was hardly a soul in Reydarfjördur. Nice fjord views and a very nice drive down – through a place called Fagridalur, which my limited Icelandic knows means Pretty Valley – although most of them are unless they’ve got an aluminium smelter or fish processing plant in them. Alright, Reydarfjördur does have a huge aluminium plant just out to its east but it doesn’t spoil the views.
The road carries on to Eskifjördur, via a magnificent viewpoint/picnic spot. On its east side is a little collection of cabins with lovely views and also the site of Iceland’s last public execution.
If you drive on up the mountain, there’s a third village – up a steep, winding road, up to the snowline and then through a most unexpected (although, admittedly marked on the map) 650m tunnel. A two-way tunnel wide enough for only one car. Oh, the fun reversing down a tunnel in the dark! The sort of industrial-looking tunnel where they could seal you off to die. Also, I had to figure out pretty quickly how my headlights worked – wasn’t expecting that in a place where the sun doesn’t set. I was so worried about going back through that tunnel that when I reached Neskaupsstadur I turned straight round and came back again. Also, it was cold and windy and again, not Fortitude.
I went back to Eskifjördur and went in the pool – overlooked by mountains on three sides. I spent an hour and a half in the hot pots before venturing into the lane pool, which wasn’t as cold as I’d expected.
It rained on the way back, so I got to try out the wipers too. I overtook two cars and I dodged lots of sheep in and around the road. I don’t think I’ve ever overtaken anything in the UK that wasn’t either stationary or on a dual carriageway/motorway.
Back in Egilsstadir, I found the big supermarket. It doesn’t have plastic cheese slices either (or plastic plates or bowls) but it does have sour cream stars and plain ordinary Milka. And when I’d eaten it, off I went to sit in the pool car park to borrow their free wifi to write and post this

Friday & Saturday: Heathrow to Egilsstadir

On Friday evening, in a bus stop in Heathrow’s long stay car park, in the pouring rain, I made a wondrous discovery: that the 100 litre duffel bag I haul my camping stuff to Iceland in every summer was light enough to hoist onto my back. Not hugely comfortable and I couldn’t carry it long distances but clearly I’d achieved either a miracle of packing or I’d forgotten a lot of stuff.
There is a person on the shuttle buses at Heathrow called an ‘air porter’. This person attempted to grab my bag out of my hands and carry it off the bus for me, which I’m not having – that’s my big heavy bag and I’m going to haul it around, don’t you dare assume I can’t lift my own luggage. And then I put it on a trolley because it’s a bit heavy.
Having been prewarned at check-in that my gate would be a B-gate, I decided to go down that tunnel to the satellite terminal before our gate was called, making me the first by far to be there when it was, giving me a long time to watch the Singapore Airlines double-Decker being loaded and to see the interesting uniform of their stewardesses. Our plane (Laki, which I was pleased with because Laki is a volcano with whom I’m personally acquainted) was delayed by about half an hour and it was nearly ten by the time we took off. I watched the first episode of Fortitude – skipping through the bit where the murder victim is found – and half of Kingsman before being distracted by coming in over Reykjanes and seeing Snæfellsjökull silhouetted against the sunset on the horizon.
Things have changed with Greyline. You now get delivered to their bus terminal in the east of the city before being decanted into minibuses for delivery to final destination. I’d opted to go to Lækjatorg, the downtown square where this usually happens to avoid it and it happened anyway – because the car park is now a construction site/archaeological dig. The minibus driver helped me hoist the bag on my bag – impossible alone from a pavement although fine on a raised surface like a bench, chair or bed – and I scuttled off up Laugarvegur, witnessing the rúntur, the way Icelanders get drunk in the street until crazy hours on Friday and Saturday nights, for the first time ever – I’m not usually downtown at 1.30am.
My guesthouse was locked but I’d been given instructions to get in – I coped with the coded key box but then struggled to spy the lift. My room was on the fourth floor and overlooked Eymundssons, the big bookshop on Skólavordustígur, and Esja just visible behind.
On Saturday morning I was up earlier than I really wanted to be to go into town and get some breakfast. I popped down to Tjörnin, the Pond, to find the birdlife was not in feeding position at 8am, and then I went to say hello to Esja, and popped into the Greyline offices to check that I could get a Stræto bus to the airport from right there at Lækjatorg before going back to eat and pack.
No, the Number 12 doesn’t actually go to the airport. It goes to five minutes walk away. The driver stopped the bus for me – since I obviously had no idea where to press the button and then he gave me directions.
Five minutes with a 16kg+ bag that isn’t really designed to be worn means two stops and arriving exhausted, sweaty and with pain in shoulders, only to find check-in literally does not start until half an hour before the flight, which gave me over an hour to watch an Akureyri flight and two Ilulisaat flights board and take off, plus have a selfie demanded by a man in a tutu skirt and some kind of tuxedo wetsuit who was being filmed by his mates and was on ‘a mission’ of some kind.
My flight was five minutes late taking off but made up for it with some good views. We crossed three glaciers – I recognised Mýrdalsjökull and Vatnajökull but I swear the first one was the wrong shape and too big to be Eyjafjalljökull and therefore must have been Longjökull, except that’s not a logical route at all. You know when you’re flying over one, even when all you can see is cloud – turns out a massive sea of ice affects temperatures around it and especially above it – the plane went ice-cold every time we flew over one. Nature air-conditioning the plane.
We landed at Egilsstadir, as expected – or Fortitude Airport, if you prefer. No polar bear on the conveyer though. We stood in baggage reclaim and looked at our bags on the truck parked next to the plane thirty yards away – no actual hold on the Fokker 50; it had all just been behind a screen in the back of the plane – and waited for it to finally be delivered to us. Then we waited ages at the Hertz desk while the one employee was busy dealing with a stolen car. Don’t know why anyone would bother stealing a car in Iceland. It’s not like you can get far with it and you can’t hide it anywhere.
I have a dark silver/grey Golf, a bit of a step up from the three-door Aygo or similar I ordered. Actually, I was expecting a Hyundai i10 – all the hire companies were using Hyundais last year. Golfs do tend to clatter a bit, even the petrol versions but my real problem is the electronic handbrake. That and getting used to a wrong-way-round car and not being certain of the speed limits when there’s always someone following me.
I made a detour (got lost) round the residential back streets of Egilsstadir before finding the campsite. I paid for three nights and was given the ever-exciting sticker to put on my guyropes. I put the tent up – such stony soil. I don’t have a single peg in half as far as it should be – and then went off to the pool.
I’d forgotten how naked the changing rooms are but at least I was in the right place (in Tallinn, I was in the wrong place) and off I went to the water – the pool, of course, is outside. Two hot pots, a lane pool and a slide (which was closed). It was lovely for a while but then the hot pots were too hot and the pool was too cool so I got out. I stopped off at the supermarket for some basics and then more or less went to bed.