Monday, October 31, 2016

Iceland 2016: Egilsstaðir to Ásbyrgi

Hey, it’s Friday!

When I woke up this morning I looked at the map of Iceland and decided to try and make it to the northern-most point on the island. Let’s do it. The campground I stayed in last night in Egilsstaðir had a café and I spent a couple hours this morning having a coffee and finally uploading a few blog posts thanks to the free Wi-Fi the tourism official working the desk offered up to me. I talked with her about all things Iceland and got such a good perspective and learned a few things about life over here. Her kids, like all in Iceland, are still forced to learn Danish in schools, alongside English. Even though Iceland has been free, independent from Denmark for quite some time. She went on to tell me how she’s afraid kids in Iceland are going to lose the ability to speak and learn their native Icelandic language. 

Tourism continues to be on the astronomically-high rise in Iceland and I agreed with her that there need to be two major concerns to be cautious of: damaging this precious environment by not teaching others how to respect it and the lingering question if Iceland’s infrastructure can handle the rush. I’ve said this for years- there’s a difference between a traveler and a tourist. A traveler is responsible, caring, courteous, eager to adapt and learn the new culture and ways of life they're exposed to. A tourist is one who is rude, not patient, lacks manners and appears completely oblivious to their surroundings as they refuse to accept and intermingle properly with the new culture and way of life they're currently exposed to. And there’s my morning thought haha. Blame it on the coffee.

After explaining to me how one of Iceland’s active volcanoes in the south of the country is longgggg overdue for an eruption, hilariously mimicking a pregnant woman about to pop, she gave me a few recommendations on where to go and then gave me a piece of advice. “What do you do if you get lost in an Icelandic forest?” she asked me and then laughingly responded…. “Just stand up!” The reason being is are very few trees rooted in Iceland are smaller birches rising only a few feet high. Love it.

I hit the road and quickly took a detour through the wash area onto route 917, a precarious and adrenaline-rushed 73km dirt road that takes you towards the eastern coast and then up an ungodly tall mountain pass that scales 665m Hellisheioi. Like I mentioned I’m a sucker for good drives. The Suzuki 4x4 wasn’t keen to the wind, as having it in 2WD (two-wheel-drive), on a dirt road with 60 mph crosswinds knocked the car sideways and I almost lost control. 
I laughed and put it in 4WD for the rest of the trip. There was a 30-minute stint where I had the wheel cocked to the left towards 10 o’clock just to keep the little Japanese jeep going straight. Crazy crazy wind! But then the road went up, and up, and up into the mountains and it was spectacular. 
Views of the blue ocean and snowy peaks everywhere. It was breath-taking. When I pulled over at the top of the pass, I walked towards a ridge to snap a few photos. I unexpectedly saw an older man with a camo hunting vest on, propping a shotgun over his right shoulder. We exchanged "Hallos" and I tried to ask him what he was hunting but he only spoke Icelandic. He explained to me what the animal was but I’ll have to wait for a translation. I’m guessing it was probably reindeer. 
Down the mountain pass, the road mirrored the Vopnafjorour and Bakkaflöt bays along the North Atlantic, passing petite fishing towns like Bakkafjörður, which was the setting for prize-winning views of snowy 719m Gunnólfsvíkurfjall and sister mountains on the Langanes peninsula. Road conditions turned to winter, with snow and ice everywhere. Gorgeous though.

I was only about an hour away from the remote town of Raufarhöfn, which was near that northernmost point in mainland Iceland. Just outside this fishing town, there’s this huge stone sculpture called Arctic Henge. Four bold, 21m tall gates open up to all cardinal directions representing each of the four seasonal solstices. You can see the North Atlantic and slow sunset through them. It was mysterious, magical. 
Then I followed a bumpy road along the water, north towards Hraunhafnartangi, the point on any map of Iceland where you can't go any further north. I parked and hiked about an hour to the end of the shoreline towards a lighthouse. I passed washed-up fishing nets, driftwood, boulders, the occasional orange buoy, and rusty remanents from vessels. There was no one else out there, but me.
The lighthouse door was locked and I tucked into the doorway for a brief moment of relief from the biting wind. Then I left to climb up on to the rocks and stare out over the water north. The Arctic Circle was only 3km away. Time seemed to be in slow motion for a few minutes and I did some reflecting on my travels, life, and this part of the world. I don’t think I’ve ever been this far north in my life. 

The sun was down and sky dark by 5:30pm, and I still had a few hours of driving until I reached Ásbyrgi, farther west and south, which is where I’d park and call it home for the night. A reason I chose Ásbyrgi is that it's the northern end of the incredible Votnajökull National Park and I miss it already haha (having visited the southern end three days ago). 
When I arrived, the sky above was explosive with Northern Lights, waves, flickering, shimmering and dancing. I was able to get a short glimpse last night in Egilsstaðir but tonight was insane. It was wonderful. I’ve never, ever seen anything like it before. Cross that off my bucket list. It’s just fantastic to see the black sky light up in a colorful astounding show. Literally, the whole sky was covered with the Aurora Borealis. Wait till you see the pictures below. I don't have my good digital SLR camera with me or my sturdy tripod so I did my best with my kick-ass point-and-shoot Canon. Also...did you know you can actually hear the Northern Lights? It's like a faint buzz, like the sound of static electricity.

Enjoy a few photos from today's adventures below.