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The Northeast and the Dark Castles

Published
October 25, 2021
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Northeast Iceland, from Djúpivogur to Akureyri

AFTER Djúpivogur, the roads formed something of a network. But there were basically two main options for getting to Egilsstaðir; one that went inland, and another that hugged the rugged coastline. The beaches below were covered in ink-black sand bordered by high rocky cliffs. I felt I had seen enough of the coast to warrant following an inland route. This turned out to be partly a gravel road. I crossed over vast expanses of water, and in places the road was so narrow there was only enough room for one car. I was lucky I didn’t meet any other oncoming traffic. In some places the mist was thick and then it would disappear and instead cover the tops of mountains and hills. There were plenty of potholes filled with water along the gravel road, too, so it was just as well I was already going slowly in any case.

I loved how dramatic the landscape was: all twisted into rocky mountains, and with snow-covered shrubs and moss instead of grass. It was very mountainous along the way to Egilsstaðir; it looked like someone had just pinched the earth together.

At several spots along the way, I saw an Icelandic horse tethered to a post and grazing along the side of the road. It was very windy in parts and there was just the odd house here and there. I drove past lakes, past rocky areas with splats of ice and snow, then through areas that were covered in more green tufts of moss. Then there were parts that honestly made me think for a moment that I was driving through New Zealand.

After an hour and forty minutes I got to Egilsstaðir. That was how long it took, even though Egilsstaðir is only about eighty kilometres from Djúpivogur by the shortest route.

Egilsstaðir was a town founded in 1947, when the local farmers realised that they needed a town to service their needs. This makes it fairly modern and new compared to other places. Still, with a population of more than two thousand permanent residents, it was quite well established and very pretty. There were shops, and the streets were filled with people out and about. It was incredible to drive through barren landscapes where you saw nobody and to then arrive here and see Egilsstaðir full of life and teeming with tourists.

The very oldest house in the town was only built in 1944, yet it has already become a bit of a tourist attraction. Lots of towns and suburbs, in places like New Zealand or America, have a founder’s house that’s called the Old Homestead or something like that. Well, in Egilsstaðir, they’ve got the not-so-old Homestead!

Adding to Egilsstaðir’s allure was the fact it sat on the banks of the lengthy Lagarfljót lake. Within the lake there is a creature that is like the Icelandic version of the Loch Ness monster. It’s called the Lagarfljót worm or the Iceland worm monster — first mentioned, as far as we know, in Icelandic folklore from the 1300s. It’s supposed to be a snake-like creature that occasionally emerges from the murky depths and can be as long as a bus — safe to say I never saw one. But there are plenty of locals who claim to have seen it. An interesting tale!

A 1585 map of Iceland by Abraham Ortelius includes a Latin inscription beside the Lagarfljót lake, to the effect that it contains a serpent of monstrous proportions which is a menace to the inhabitants and comes out when something important is about to happen. Spot the struggling polar bears as well!

A new attraction in this area, west of the Lagarfljót lake, is the Stuðlagil Canyon, in which the river Jökulsá, or Jökla, flows between basalt columns that rise dramatically on both sides. The river through the canyon used to be very deep, swift and turbid, until the taking of part of its flow for hydroelectric power in 2009 permanently lowered its level by seven or eight metres. This revealed more of the columns and also made the canyon more accessible to visitors. The usual colour of the water in the canyon changed from brown to blue as well. This is perhaps one of the few cases where hydro works have resulted in some natural wonder being revealed, as opposed to being submerged!

There are lots of amazing canyons in Iceland, by the way — like Fjaðrárgljúfur, further back toward Vík, Stuðlagil is just one of them!

I spent the night in a hostel, and then carried on the next morning to my next stop, Húsavík, which was further two-and-a-half-hour drive according to the road maps and guidebooks. Although, it took me longer as I stopped constantly, snapping photos and just staring out at the icy land.

I drove past the beautiful shallow inland lake and thermal spa called Mývatn. I would double back to visit it to the next day. Though coastal in most places, Route One turns inland in this part of Iceland to go past Mývatn, surrendering the coast to a local coast road called Route 85. I had the choice of getting to Húsavík by way of Route 85, but that road was just too circuitous. And I’d seen plenty of coast anyway, which was why I had already taken the rough inland road to Egilsstaðir.

This time round, the inland road was going to be the better one. All the same, I planned to then scoot northward to the coast and spend a night in Húsavík, the first town on my itinerary that was actually on the northern coast of Iceland, facing the North Pole.

Húsavík means bay of houses. It’s thought that it may be the first place where actual houses were built in Iceland, sometime around 870 CE, though Reykjavík is said to be the first completely permanent settlement.

A more recent claim to fame is that the Apollo astronauts did some of their training in the vicinity of Húsavík, in a patch of volcanic desert that scientists thought to be more like the surface of the moon than almost anywhere else that was easily accessible to the astronauts, though they trained at various barren locations in the USA as well. The Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden called the wilds outside Húsavík “a place so stark and barren I felt as if I were already on the moon.”

Driving to Húsavík was amazing. It snowed, there was sleet and then there was wind. You name it, I saw it.

Húsavík was very small and compact, with a population of about two thousand once again. I could see that tourism made up for a lot of its income — everything was related to tourists. It sits tucked in around Skjálfandi Bay and offers whale watching tours. In fact, the town claims to be the capital of Icelandic whale watching (that is, as opposed to Icelandic whaling).

I found this great church from the early 1900’s, Húsavíkurkirkja. The church had a high forest green steeple and looks down toward the bay. I stayed in a hostel with views over the bay that night: it was so cosy.

I went to the Turf House Museum, also known as the Culture House, which was about twenty kilometres out from Húsavík in the direction of Akureyri, in a village called Grenjaðarstaður.

Gosh, was that interesting! It reminded me of the hobbit houses in Matamata, New Zealand, that were the abode of the Hobbits in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies. Turf houses used to be found all over Iceland in the past, and the more I read and saw, the more I understood why!

The houses are built from stone and wood (when available) and then covered in moss and grass on top — truly a ‘green’ house. It was interesting, because I had heard of the same style of houses being built in other parts of Scandinavia, most especially in Norway. The Norse brought the style to Iceland. They are called ‘sod roofs’, and it is considered a traditional Scandinavian style.

In Norway the homes were built of logs and the roof was covered in soil and grass to stop it blowing away in the strong winds and after seeing that all for myself it made complete sense!

They had teacups on display, and this incredible ring made from wires all plaited together to make an engagement band. It was fitted with a piece of metal that had a little coloured gem in the centre. It was quite amazing, and I had never seen anything quite like it before! It seemed the more of Iceland I saw, and the more I discovered and learned, the more intricate and unique I found the culture! It was a solid, distinct culture that I really did admire.

The sod houses stood in rows, cutting down on the need for walls and on the heating requirement, which would have been greater if they were separate. Rocks walls separated them and on top were the sod roofs. In Iceland, a lot of the houses had sod walls as well. Some of the interiors like the cooking house had stone walls — which surprised me because I thought that would have made the room too cold — but I suppose when the stones heat up they hold the heat longer then wood. That would have been magical in winter!

It was a very odd experience wandering around these homes. They didn’t smell damp but very earthy and weren’t as dark as I thought they would have been.

In finding out about the turf houses, I was surprised to learn that there was actually a farm in the western part of the island that is said to have been Erik the Red’s. I made a note to stop there when I got over to that part of Iceland.

I spent the night in this little guest house called Árból, which only cost me about US $100 a night. It was a historic house which just added to all the excitement of being in Iceland. It wasn’t super old, but it was one of the older ones in the area, built in 1903. The owner was extremely nice and gave me plenty of information about the area and what to see and do. He told me all about the hot pools in the area, and I decided I would check those out the following day. I did have to share a bathroom, but that didn’t bother me because there were only a couple of other people spending the night there at the same time I was. It had a very cosy feel about it, and the bed was comfortable!

I went out the next day in my car. It was an easy forty-minute drive around a headland and back inland towards Ásbyrgi, a large and sheltered canyon containing a forest of birch and willow, which looked so green and lush compared to the rocky landscape above it.

This was the spot that I showed a photograph of in Chapter One. Here is a photo of the head of the valley, which is horseshoe-shaped with a pit, called the Botnstjörn Pond, under the horseshoe. There is a bit of greenery on view in this photo, taken in late May, but not as much as in the photo in Chapter One, which was taken in late July.

‘Aerial View of Ásbyrgi’. Photo by Hansueli Krapf, 21 May 2008, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

I was there even earlier in spring, just before the movable date in late April when the Icelanders celebrate the first day of summer under the old Norse calendar. So, I was fortunate to see any greenery at all.

Ásbyrgi means ‘shelter of the gods’. In Norse mythology it was created by the hoofprint of Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir. A more scientific view is that it was formed by a huge, temporary waterfall bursting out from melting glaciers, which scoured Ásbyrgi out from the surrounding plateau and presumably also formed the Botnstjörn, where the waters must have fallen with greatest force. In many places the walls are about a hundred metres high, that is, more than three hundred feet. Where would that flood have stood on the kayaking scale, I wonder?

Back in Húsavík, I visited the Húsavík hot pools. I was told there was a small geothermal lake just to the south of Húsavík, which was another popular spot in which to relax, but I didn’t go there.

Hot pools and springs are a big deal in Iceland — one the most popular activities. The enjoyment of bathing in the geothermal hot pools and springs, dates right back to the time of the Vikings. I thought then what a pity it wasn’t the right time of year for the jaw-dropping display of the Northern Lights, imagine sitting in a Viking age hot pool watching the panoramic display light up the sky. Now, that would have been awesome!

The hot pools I ended up at were not a natural geothermal formation; they were artificial pools fed from pipes driven into the ground at a campsite. I had a quick soak and decided it was time to move on. I was headed to Mývatn next. I had heard that the Mývatn spa was temporarily closed for maintenance at that time. But that wasn’t a problem for me, even though I had hoped to visit them earlier on. I was in the land of natural hot springs, so surely, I would finally get to one in my travels. Meanwhile, there were plenty of other things to do and see at Mývatn.

I packed up the car and headed off along the route to Mývatn. Mývatn is one of the most beautiful lakes in the world. It is a shallow lake full of clear water, with a flat bottom and a maximum depth of only 4.5 metres. Within it sit tiny islands covered in greenery, in stark contrast to the usual rocky landscapes of Iceland. Everywhere you can see the bottom and the algae growing on the bottom, and how the islands rise up from the bottom, often quite abruptly like rocks.

The name Mývatn means Midgewater, or Midge Lake. The midges apparently get very bad here. I had experienced them in their dreaded swarms when I was hiking in Scotland!

There were several walking trails at Mývatn, and I wanted to do some of them that day. I had to drive to a small town called Reykjahlíð and walk to the areas I wanted to visit. You could drive to some of the lakeside attractions, but I saw that the road was in three digits, so I wasn’t going to attempt it.

I walked, first, to a place called Dimmuborgir which was known for its unusual landscapes. There were rock pillars and tube-shaped formations. These accounted for the name Dimmuborgir, which meant ‘dark castles’ — very fitting I thought.

It was bitterly cold, and I was dressed in all my winter get-up, which paradoxically meant that I soon got too hot from all the exercise. I decided to take it easy and walk at a slower pace. The place was well sign-posted and I was relieved to find that all the signs and information panels had an English text alongside the Icelandic. I came across one panel that was about figures from local folklore called the Yule Lads.

The Yule Lads are little dwarf-like men that are said, in folklore, to live in the area. They are a band of thirteen brothers who have now become associated with Christmas in Iceland. A more modern tradition is for children to leave a shoe on their windowsills thirteen days prior to Christmas and depending on their behaviour the Yule Lads will place a rotten potato if they are bad or a small treat if they have been good. I thought it was brilliant little tradition and one I had never heard of before I stumbled across the signpost. That was also the first I’d heard of the Yule Lads themselves. I later went and looked them and was in fits of laughter as I read the English translations of the Icelandic names; stubby, spoon-licker, door-slammer, candle-stealer and doorway sniffer were just some of the thirteen! They are funny.

On a more serious note, though, Icelandic people are quite in tune with traditional folklore and people still tell their kids these stories today. They tell of mythical elves and trolls who live in stones, and construction workers have even avoided areas because mythical beings are supposed to live there too. In Norse mythology elves come in the light-side and the dark-side versions, that is, good ones and evil ones. I was amazed to discover after my walk that elves, trolls and such beings seemed so incorporated into the local culture still. I found it all quite intriguing and really wanted to find out more about it all when I had the time!

I managed to get one more walk in for the day and that was to the exquisite Grjótagjá lava cave. The route there was busy, and a few other people were walking to it as well. It used to be a popular bathing spot, but now people aren’t allowed into the water because, after a 1975 eruption, the water temperature rose to over 50 degrees Celsius in places. This created a risk that people would be scalded as they moved around. It was a neat place to see, though, and I heard that it was also a film site for some scenes in the Game of Thrones TV series. A bathing sequence was spliced in to make it look like actors were bathing in the Grjótagjá lava cave’s pool, when of course they weren’t. The whole walking day took around seven hours and left me quite tired.

I returned to my base at Reykjahlíð, which was quite a hilly area and quite green too. It sits on the shores of Mývatn and only has 300 permanent residents. A volcanic eruption from the nearby Krafla volcano, called the ‘Mývatn Fires’, destroyed the original village by means of a lava flow and associated fires in 1729. The lava stopped short of the church, supposedly because of the prayers of the village priest. The church was rebuilt in 1972, so nothing much now remains of the old village. The nearby Krafla volcano still has eruptions every now and then.

I found a place called Hlíð Cottages that sit up on the hill behind Reykjahlíð with views to Lake Mývatn below. I had a cottage to myself, and it was lovely to retreat to after a day out walking. Incidentally, you can treat ð as a d for the purposes of Internet searches; Hlid Cottages will get you there!

The following day I decided to set out on another walk, so I drove about 8 km and parked up. I found the Krafla Caldera, a collapsed volcanic area with a stunning crater. I was a bit worried about walking there on my own, so I brought an Icelandic SIM card. I always buy a SIM card for whatever country I am in; among other things, it saves on the costs of global roaming. I had learnt my lesson when I visited India the year before and clocked up a NZ $2,000 phone bill — I wasn’t pleased, obviously.

I got back to my accommodation quite late and was popping out to the supermarket in the dark when I found my car had got stuck in the snow. Luckily, the guy who was working on renovating a building helped me out.

I ended up at a bar and got talking with some of the locals. I asked them about the Yule Lads, and they told me, very seriously, that they were real and lived in a cave nearby. I told them that one of the caves I had walked by did look like someone was living in it. I said that I had got spooked and left without taking any photos. They all burst out laughing and told me it was a local joke they played on tourists! The joke got me even more interested in the folk tales, though, and that’s when I found out about more of the revival in Norse mythology.

The following day was the first day of the Norse summer … and it snowed!

After a short drive I found myself in Akureyri, a city dubbed the capital of the north and the second most populous urban area in Iceland after Reykjavík. It was a beautiful place, and also a busy fishing port. It was here that I tried the dish called skyr, a milk-cultured product that was brought to Iceland 1,100 years ago by the Norse. It was like yogurt topped with sugar, but with a milder and less acid flavour than most kinds of yogurt. I’ve seen it since in the supermarket back in New Zealand. Other traditional foods I had heard that were still quite popular (unlike the fermented shark) were boiled sheep’s heads, fluffy pastries, and fish.

Reference

The quote from Al Worden comes from his book (with Francis French), Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon, Washington DC, Smithsonian Books, 2011, at p. 118.

This post comes from my new book Incredible Iceland, available on this website a-maverick.com.

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