On the shore of the beautifully serene Lake Mývatn, there is something to explore at every turn. I was disappointed to have run out of time to include a hike up the distinctive cone of Hverfjall volcano thanks to my misdemeanour with the tyre on route to Dettifoss but as much as the hours were marching on, the fact that the sun wasn’t setting till after midnight meant that there was still lots of time to explore the area before my bed called me. Not far from Hverfjall was the mysterious world of Dimmuborgur, an area where a lava flow has hardened, cracked and peaked in a manner as to produce tall, spiky turrets and pillars of all sorts of shapes and sizes. There are a selection of trails to follow and I chose the one that looked like it gave the best overview of the place. Unlike the sites I’d previously visited in this area, the vegetation here was thick and widespread. There was a cave that could be walked through on one section of the trail and on route back to the car park, a raised portion of the trail provided a good vantage point to look across to the lake and its far shore.
After collecting some takeaway pizza from a popular local eatery, I headed to the south shore, to the little settlement of Skútustaðir to enjoy it whilst looking out across the lake. From here, a walk leads round a small lake within the main lake that is surrounded by pseudo-craters, as well as up onto and around a few of the larger craters. The lake had quite a few water birds floating around with their young in tow, learning how to dive and feed below the surface. It was a lovely place to spend the evening but the flies threatened to drive me a little insane. It was a strange landscape with circular mounds sprouting up from the ground in many directions, and from the crater rim of the taller ones I could see across to the steaming vents of the power station to the east of Reykjahlíð. It was incredibly peaceful, just a slight ripple on the water, and for the most part, I had the place to myself. On the northern edge of the lake within the lake, some Icelandic ponies chewed on the grass which was plentiful here, before the path skirted some wetlands on its way back to the car park.
I drove round the circumference of the lake past the large wetland zones to the west that are perfect for bird watching. With more time here, I would have explored this region too, but now it was after 8pm and I had only one thing on my mind: the Mývatn Nature Baths. Like the Blue Lagoon to the south of Reykjavik, this is a popular tourist attraction in the area, but with the tourist numbers round this part of the country much less than in the overly popular Golden Circle, the experience here was a little different. As is commonplace at Icelandic geothermal pools, it is required to shower naked before entering. Unlike at the larger Blue Lagoons, there was no privacy at these nature baths with just an open shower area before leaving the building. The pools themselves were also a mere fraction of the size, and having forgotten my GoPro camera last time, I took it out with me, only to quickly regret it, standing out from everyone else, with not a single other person having one. Once I rid myself of it, I was then able to relax and enjoy the warm water. There was a group of adolescents who were playing the fool and being told off by the guards regularly which marred the experience slightly, but otherwise it was an enjoyable experience, although I personally preferred the set-up at the Blue Lagoon.
I had an early rise to set off north and awoke to a light drizzle that got heavier the further north I went. I followed route 1 to the north west before splitting off to take route 85 north to Húsavík, the most northerly place I’d visit in Iceland, but indeed the most northern I’d ever been on the entire planet. Previously I’d only been as far as the most northern Scottish Islands, the Shetlands, so I was excited to be exploring this northern land, having previously done plenty of exploring in the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. The constant drizzle made for a very overcast view of the town, and the clouds were low across the surrounding landscape. One of the main tourist draws here is whale watching, an activity that I will happily pay to do anywhere in the world. Aside from travelling, cetacean spotting is a massive love of mine. I have been immensely lucky to see many species in many seas around the globe, and this was my best chance yet of spotting a species of whale I’d never seen before such as a fin whale or blue whale.
My carriage for the day was a lovely old wooden frigate which could travel either under sail or with the power of an engine. There are a few choices for whale watching trips here, and with a love of puffins too, I opted for the trip that combined a visit to a nearby island which was a prime puffin breeding site. Skjálfandi bay is expansive, and despite the gloomy skies, the seas were very calm. We sailed north to the island of Lundey and I revelled in the knowledge that with every passing moment I was going more north than I’d ever been in my life. Even before we reached Lundey, puffins began to be spotted in the air and on the surface of the water. First it was ones and twos but as we got closer to the island there were hundreds of them flying around us, and whilst it was hard to see many of them close up, it was certainly the highest concentration of puffins that I have ever seen in my life.
We sat for a while watching them before heading west in search of whales. There is always great anticipation on these trips not just for what might be seen, but also whether this will be that trip where we see nothing. I’ve been lucky to see whales or dolphins on every whale watching trip I’ve ever done, but each time I worry that it will be the first time I see nothing. But eventually that call came out that a whale had been spotted, and in the end we ended up in view of around 3 humpback whales. I love humpback whales, they are my favourite species of whale, and this was the fifth country that I had seen them from. There was a part of me that was disappointed it wasn’t a species I’d never seen before, but these whales still put on a good show for us, coming very close to the boat on several occasions, including swimming right underneath us at one point. One of them had a very unusual fluke colouration which I’ve never seen before, and I still felt highly satisfied at the end of the trip. As we headed back to Húsavík, the clouds on the far side of the bay began to lift revealing the glorious snow-peaked mountain tops of the far shore. It was incredible to think these behemoths had been hidden the whole time, and it was spectacular to see them poke through the wisps of cloud.
Húsavík itself felt like a fishing village. The harbour sat below the main street which was nestled below a lupin-covered hillside. The rain threatened to drop for the rest of my time there. After a wander around past the iconic church, I stopped for lunch overlooking the comings and goings of the boats in the harbour. As a cetacean enthusiast, I was keen to explore the whale museum in town which has an impressive collection of whale skeletons. Iceland is much more famous for its whaling activities than it is for its whale watching, and there was information within about the various species that have been sighted in Icelandic waters, as well as displays on the hunting of whales. Whilst a lot of information in tourism centres discusses whaling as a thing of the past, it is still very much a thing of the present too, and I had been warned in advance to expect to see whale meat on the menu in some eateries. Despite this, I had yet to see any physical evidence of present-day whaling since I’d arrived in the country.
Despite the drizzle, I took a wander around a local park towards the back of town before leaving. There was a reasonable sized pond where some duck families were hanging out, and some statues and pretty houses lining the paths by the river bank. But there’s not a lot more to see in Húsavík so before long, I was driving back south in the rain. On reaching the ring road, Route 1, it was just a brief back-track to visit yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Góðafoss. It was raining constantly now, and I toyed with coming back the next day, but there was a good few people in rain jackets there too, and I joined them to follow the path from the car park up river to the viewing point for the falls. Getting close to the falls meant a bit of rock hopping towards the end of the path, and with the rocks wet under foot, everyone was taking extra care. This was not a place to fall over with nothing to stop you tumbling over the cliff edge. The reward though was getting very close to the main body of the falls where the extent of the force of water could be heard and felt. Like Dettifoss the day before, you could feel the immense power of water thundering over the lip of rock to the river below.
The cloud and rain kept me company as I followed Route 1 on its convoluted route west. Eventually the path swung over to a long fjord and followed the eastern bank south before descending down to the water level and crossing a causeway across to the city of Akureyri. This is the biggest settlement outside of Reykjavik, and it was strange being in a city again after days of small towns and villages. A viewpoint across the fjord looks out over Akureyri which had a couple of large cruise ships in dock at the time. Down by the waterfront, a promenade provides a nice waterside walk, starting from the ferry terminal and heading south past a beautiful ship statue and beyond. The place was bustling with bus loads of people clambering about the steps up to the Akureyrarkirkja which dominates the city skyline. It was strange wandering down a pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and packed full of tourists. I shouldn’t have been surprised what with the cruise ships in port but it was a slight shock to the system after having felt away from it all for the last few days.
Having spent the night in the city, I had a lovely breakfast in a quirky little cafe surrounded by locals and tourists alike. After perusing round the shops and ogling at some large ogres in the middle of the street, I headed up the steps to Akureyrarkirkja, the church which was built by the same architect that built Reykjavik‘s famous Hallgrímskirkja. The style is recognisable as being the same, although the size of Akureyrarkirkja is much smaller in comparison. Inside there is a beautiful organ which was expertly played by an organist whilst I was there, and as often churches are, it was adorned with some beautiful and striking stained glass windows. Outside it has a distinctive look, and from nearby there is a view down over the roofs of the town and the cruise ships below.
A few streets back was the city’s botanical gardens. There appeared to be some sort of pilgrimage here with a steady stream of people walking from Akureyrarkirkja through the streets to the gardens. They certainly weren’t the biggest of botanical gardens, nor would I class them as particularly pretty but they were still nice enough to wander around and by the time I was leaving, the sun had started to burst through the clouds. From the nearby road junction I could look down on the ship statue below on the promenade walk and the Akureyrarkirkja looked even better with the sun shining on it.
Whilst Akureyri certainly had more to offer than a few other places I had been, I wasn’t particularly fussed about staying much longer. My stop for the night was at a hostel in the middle of nowhere, and I had to carry all food supplies with me. Every other night I had eaten out at a local restaurant but this would be the first night I’d have to prepare a self-catering meal. I stocked up on supplies in one of the many supermarkets in the city, but then, having spotted something to the west to do on a whim, I decided to leave the city behind and bolt west across the landscape. I’d spotted a boat trip to do in Hvammstangi to a nearby seal colony, and decided I’d chance my luck by turning up without a booking. I was exceptionally tight on time to make the last trip of the day, and the landscape went by in a blur as I whizzed through it, past a few settlements on route. When I got to Hvammstangi, I arrived with just 5 mins to spare and then couldn’t find the turn-off to the harbour. When I got there, I was sure I would have missed the sailing but in the end it was all good.
The wind was whipping along the fjord making for a choppy sailing and a lot of spray. We got kitted out in head to foot waterproof jackets, and despite the weather, there was quite a few of us on board. Unfortunately the weather conditions also meant that there weren’t a lot of seals hauled out of the water, but we still managed to see a few. We were even lucky enough to see a sea eagle as well, and it was so far away and so blended in to the hillside that I was as much impressed with the skipper spotting it as I was with actually seeing it. Back in Hvammstangi, near the pier was a pillar of wood used to hang the day’s catch out. This was the image I had in my head of arctic village life, having seen photos of Inuit villages to the north with their fish and seal pelts hanging out to dry. The ticket for the seal watching trip also included entry to the attached seal museum. Like whaling, there is a lot of regional history to do with hunting the seals and the effect this has had on populations. It was a compact museum, but there was enough to occupy me until closing time, and I was glad I’d made the effort to get there.
To the south was my hostel for the night. I arrived just as the UEFA EURO 2016 match of England vs Iceland was starting and everyone at the hostel was glued to the television to watch the match. We were a mix of nationalities, none of us Icelandic and none of us English, but every single one of us were routing for Iceland to win. Iceland as a whole is not a football nation. In fact the team’s manager is a part-time dentist, and when speaking to the locals, they joked that all the Icelanders who liked football had gone to France to watch the games live. But because Iceland started off surprisingly well, the rest of the country began to get behind their team. It was a great atmosphere at the hostel that night as Iceland won the match, and I went to bed just a sleep away from completing my circumnavigation of the island, with Reykjavik in my sights that next day.