While visitors throng to Reykjavik, free-spirited Icelanders head north for their own adventures
I’d given up trying to sleep. A pale but insistent light had been soaking through the wide skylight above my bunk all that sub-Arctic midsummer night – and the three nights before – tickling my retinas through tightly clamped eyelids. I call it night – how is it night if there’s no darkness? Resigned to wakefulness, I crept on deck.
Gently rocking aboard the Aurora, the 60-foot clipper that was my home for a week, the idea that I was surrounded by magical creatures capering among the glaciers and misshapen rocks seemed not just plausible but entirely probable. If the map of Iceland resembles a deformed duck, the Westfjords is the strangely ragged head on its spindly neck.
It’s an extremely isolated region in a lonely land, and in Hornstrandir nature reserve, the Westfjord’s yet-more remote northern zone – no permanent human population, no roads – logic and common sense were fighting a losing battle with imagination and legend.
Icelanders, one Reykjavíker told me, see ghosts. I don’t mean they’re always clapping eyes on sheeted spooks; it’s more that they aren’t prepared to deny the existence of huldufólk or ‘hidden people’. According to the tourist board, 80% of them believe in elves.
At the time I’d thought my Reykjavík friend a bit of a loon; now, with the wind making the radio antenna hum with the wail of a mournful spectre, I wasn’t so sure.
But that’s the thing about Icelanders: they won’t be told what to believe or not believe. They choose for themselves what things to like, and do, and eat. And a few days exploring Hornstrandir’s peaceful wilderness aboard the Aurora with a bunch of locals is the ideal way to find out what those things are, and why.
Like the superstitions, once immersed in Iceland’s remote north-west, those things mostly made a lot more sense.
We spent a fair bit of the voyage from Ísafjör∂ur harbour laughing at puffins.
I know, it’s cruel to point and snigger. But, truthfully, they’re deserving of a bit of a tease; ungainly in the air, positively catastrophic when landing and with an out-of-proportion, rainbow-striped beak seemingly fallen from a cheap Christmas cracker, puffins are the clowns of the avian world. And they like an audience. As we rounded the headland that separates the Westfjord’s settled southerly regions from the emptiness of Hornstrandir, we were greeted by a screeching fanfare: the circus was in town.
The Big Top was a vertiginous seacliff, barnacled with puffins and guillemots – tens or even hundreds of thousands of them – occasionally dropping off and joining the mobs of skuas, Arctic terns and fulmars turning the sky dark above us. Ropes hung from the rocks, reminders of the bravery (or foolhardiness) of men who scale the cliffs each spring to collect eggs.
Steering east, we sailed past a craggy double rock arch and into Jökulfir∂ir, accompanied by dolphins porpoising alongside and more puffins bobbing comically, tossed about by the choppy waves.
“You know that puffins can’t take off if they can’t see water?” observed Páll. “Sometimes scores of them land in the streets and can’t take off again because their view of the sea is blocked – kids carry them down to the harbour to release them.”
Or back to the kitchen to cook them, I thought but didn’t like to say. After all, we’d only just met.
Páll (pronounced, approximately, ‘Pow-kull’), a seemingly inexhaustible source of yarns and titbits, was one of my ten companions aboard the Aurora, along with his wife Ásta (say ‘Ow-ster’), friends Gu∂run (‘Guth-roon’), Dagny (oh, work it out for yourselves), Finnur and three fellow limeys, Andrea, Margaret and Tim. Skipper Siggi gave the safety briefing as guide/first mate Rúnar prepared to drop anchor.
“Remember the golden rules. First, don’t fall in. Second, if someone does, scream and point at them; that usually does the trick.”
He pointed out the life rafts with an attempt at reassurance. “The Aurora is a really safe boat, with a six-compartment hull – it’s actually quite difficult to sink. But,” Siggi smiled dryly, “as we know from history, it’s possible to sink anything if you really try.”
That night, as music drifted from the ship’s speakers across the millpond waters of the fjord, I began to learn how almost-continuous daylight messes with your internal clock; we practised salsa dancing on deck into the small hours, stopping only to slurp wine and collapse into hysterics as a seal turned away in disgust at our slapdash mambos. With no closing time or darkness, it’s hard to know when to call it a night. Literally.
Apart from a wispy tablecloth trailing over the ridge to the south, the sky was near cloudless; Drangajökull glacier glistened to the east, cascades striping the rock walls across Leirufjör∂ur. As the inflatable ferried us to shore, I dipped my hand in the dappled water: bone-chillingly cold, and murky from glacial runoff (Leirufjör∂ur means ‘silt fjord’).
Our party all ashore, Siggi led us east alongside the fjord towards the glacier. A family of eider ducks paddled by; Siggi picked up a football-sized clump of down from the grass and handed it to me.
“That’s worth a lot of money – collect a kilo and you’ll have maybe 160,000 króna [almost £1,000]. Eiders have been protected here for 200 years; farmers make nesting spots for them, collecting the down for duvets and pillows.”
I put it down carefully; holding a grand made me nervous. I know it’s hard to break feathers, but I’m good at breaking expensive things that don’t belong to me.
The landscape in the Westfjords is extraordinary, even by Icelandic standards. In the other bits of the country I’d seen, barren beauty was the norm – lunar rather than luminous. Here, the flat-topped peninsulas and the valleys’ sweeping expanses dazzle with greens; I’d never imagined there could be so many variations on that one colour.
Hornstrandir is a sheep-free zone, so the whole region is a sanctuary for native flora. In common with most of Iceland, you won’t find trees here, or even much growing over a metre tall; a local joke runs: ‘What do you do if you get lost in a forest? Stand up.”
Instead, we tramped through meadows speckled with purple seathrift, orchids, buttercups and cottongrass, stopping to nibble ‘sweetcups’ – baby blueberries, more like flowers than fruit – and bitter wild sorrel. The path, such as it was, was a springy pavement variegated with countless hues of moss and trailing azalea. Some mosses were so lush and spongy that my feet vanished into a calf-deep bog when I unwisely trod on them. Others were grey and crisp, the texture of burnt paper.
Drangajökull, when we reached it, was dusted with icy couscous – Siggi called it “spring corn snow”, a result of continual cycles of thawing and re-freezing. Climbing the glacier was like walking on a steep, very slippery carpet of Crunchies. If you’ve never walked on a carpet of Crunchies, I assure you it’s not easy; breathless, our chatter soon tailed off, replaced by the rustle of footsteps and the gurgle of streams, reaching our ears through countless crevasses spidering the ice.
Two hours’ crunching brought us to the top, some 900m up and with vistas to match – snowy outcrops to the north-west, a sea of cloud to the north-east, and the valley curving beneath us back west to the Aurora. Seeing her moored there, patiently waiting for us, warmed the cockles (which, on the glacier, were getting rather chilly).
Cloud had closed in during the night, cloaking the peaks above our new anchorage at Hesteyri, emphasising the Brigadoon ambience. This tiny settlement, like the others in Hornstrandir, is a ghost town for most of the year. It’s over half a century since the last permanent residents abandoned fishing and subsistence farming for a less arduous life in Ísafjör∂ur; now the families of the original inhabitants occupy the tiny tin-and-clapboard houses for just a few months each summer. Understandable, really – you could imagine conversations between those tough old crofters in the so-long, so-dark winters:
“What’s for dinner, Helga?”
“Salted fish. Again.”
“Ahhh... When do the birds arrive? I could really go a fried egg.”
“April, Jón. Same as last year. Same as every year.”
“And now it’s...?”
“December. How’d you want your fish?”
The land behind the wooden jetty was tufty with angelica, like a forest of Brobdingnagian cow parsley; its scent blended with that of wild thyme underfoot. We followed a path tracing the shoreline around to the lichen-rusty ruins of a Norwegian whaling station, deserted even longer than the village. En route, Páll and Finnur chatted in an accent that sounded strangely familiar; with gentle cadences and rrrrolled Rs, it feels more Welsh than Scandinavian.
“Perhaps that’s not a coincidence,” Páll chuckled. “Many Icelanders would claim descent from Celtic slaves brought by the Norse settlers – maybe the accents came along for the ride.”
But surely they’d rather be Vikings than slaves?
Both men erupted into hoots of laughter.
“You have to understand,” explained Finnur, “that Icelanders are all obsessed with independence, after centuries of rule by Norway and then Denmark.”
We wandered among the tumbledown relics of the whaling station: huge vats for rendering the flensed blubber, squared chimney for the furnaces. The cries of the seabirds were muted and eerie among the dead buildings, and I was glad to return to the village’s makeshift café for coffee and traditional pancakes, rustled up in a doll’s-house kitchen that could hardly have changed since those whalers last flensed and rendered. Thank god they’d got decent coffee in the meantime.
It’s a blessed day on which you meet more seals than people. Moored on Lónafjör∂ur, far from any settlement, we launched our kayaks into a mist-muffled morning; Siggi headed for shore to pick mussels and set a gill net, while four of us paddled around the bay to say hello to the neighbours.
In a secluded cove we spotted a haul-out, a dozen common seals dozing on the rocks; they plopped into the water at our approach. I expected them to vanish, but no: they came to investigate, shining dark eyes inspecting us intently. Like a fairground game of ‘mallet the moles’, heads bobbed up randomly around our kayaks, then disappeared back under the surface with an aqueous burp.
Shoulders aching pleasantly, we clambered back aboard the Aurora, lured by a tantalising garlic aroma: Siggi had come up trumps with the mussels, as well as a couple of Arctic char, dished up with wild rocket plucked from the shore. Plans for the afternoon were mulled: half of our party would paddle out to make the seals’ acquaintance; another four of us went ashore, to fish, walk and, in my case, snooze. I’d intended to hike over the ridge, but only a few hundred paces from the inlet I’d been overwhelmed by the silence, soporific as a roaring fire. Finding a sheltered hollow lined with springy moss, I opened my book.
I jolted awake to find a column of midges swirling above my head, and wondered what had disturbed my snooze – there was no noise, just the distant rush of the stream. Then I glanced down: a young Arctic fox stared at me from ten steps away, rounded ears standing to attention, plump tail extended. For a few seconds he measured me up before zigzagging off up the valley, springing over rivulets and stopping every few seconds to check I wasn’t following him. Interesting role reversal: makes a change to be watched by wildlife.
The clowns joined us again as we steered back towards Ísafjör∂ur – to curtains that block the midnight light, to a shower and a bed that didn’t roll. Just before the harbour came into sight, a minke whale breached, tossing us a jaunty wave with his broad fluke.
I wished him a long, flense-free life.
That goodbye wave brought on my end-of-trip blues. I gazed around the Aurora, trying to see her with an Icelander’s eyes: who is she? For her passengers, she’s freedom to explore the Westfjords as and how they wish. To Siggi and Rúnar, she’s the office, the fishing boat, the excuse to never again have a boss.
“She’s not a luxury yacht,” said Siggi, fondly. “She’s like a mobile mountain hut that we can take to our favourite places.” And that nails it, really. She’s the Icelandic dream: 60 feet of independence in fibreglass, sailcloth and rope.
When to go: June-August is summer, which means long, warm days, almost 24-hour light and crowds at tourist sites. May and September are also pleasant, although some accommodation may not be open. October to March is winter; it's cold, dark, many hotels are closed but there's a good chance of seeing the Northern Lights. Skiiing is popular in the Westfjords during March and April.
Health and safety: Weather can change rapidly even in summer, so be prepared for all conditions: pack warm layers, hat and gloves as well as sunscreen and sunglasses. If you’re prone to seasickness, take preventative measures (tablets, ginger biscuits, acupressure bands). You’d be hard-pressed to catch anything worse than a cold in Iceland – or a hangover: in summer, there’s no significant change in daylight until well into the small hours, and it’s all too easy to lose track of time in a convivial bar.
Food and drink: Siggi rustles up surprisingly tasty meals in the Aurora’s small galley, often featuring fish and herbs collected during the trip. Elsewhere, lamb and seafood are excellent, while skyr – a thick, fruity yoghurt-like treat – is everywhere. Alcohol is pricey, particularly wine; amazingly, beer was illegal until just 20 years ago. Brennivín, a potent schnapps flavoured with caraway seeds, warms the cockles on chilly nights, but avoid Gammel Dansk, another spirit popular with Icelanders, unless you relish the taste of furniture polish. If you’re lucky enough to be in Ísafjör∂ur during one of the four saltfish festivals held each summer in the museum, try to join in – a range of delicacies concocted using salt cod are dished up to the soundtrack of a lively local jazz band; it’s a hit with locals, and the dancing gets pretty lively after a couple of drinks.
The author sailed with Borea Adventures on a five-night summer Multi-Adventure aboard the Aurora
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