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Death Wish Dervla

A satnav with attitude

The deserted inlets

After a leisurely breakfast, Rich drove Aurora and I up the 946 road from Bakkagerði, to the start of trail number 14 on the wonderfully named ‘Trails of the Deserted Inlets’ map. A few kilometres in we lost all signs of the footpath and marker posts to the snow, so retraced our steps and walked in the opposite direction up track 33. Fortunately a skidoo had used the trail recently, and we followed its tramlines until it started to snow heavily, and we thought it time to return to the village. I’m sure that every villager by now knew who we were and where we were, but we still didn’t fancy getting stuck out there in worsening weather.

Back in the apartment, by 4.30pm we couldn’t see the other side of the bay what with the storm clouds, so did what all Icelanders do when it’s snowing heavily, and jumped in the outdoor hot pot – idyllic at a balmy 38 degrees C. At least it was until the blooming thing decided to stop working. Still we bobbed around until the water started to get cool, told Katljana – the supervisor, that the hot tub was on the blink just in case they needed to empty it before it froze, and ran the 5 metres from the spa to our front door, wearing our swim suits and snow boots!

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Hafnarhólmi

One of the ‘joys’ of having EDS, are occasional bouts of severe IBS. Unfortunately I had a flare up overnight, and  had to spend most of the following day lying down in an attempt to ease the pain. Fortunately Rich was more than happy to while away the time reading, and admiring the view from our picture window.

By the evening, I felt able to stand and move around more easily, so at 6.30pm we headed out to Hafnarhólmi, or ‘Puffin Hill’ as we’d taken to calling it. When we arrived we could see the puffins just out to sea, and then at 7.15pm on the dot the first landed. Gradually, the others all followed, making for a magnificent sight! They’re much smaller birds that I imagined them to be, and looked so cute as they land clumsily and then waddle around in search of their burrows. Rich quipped that they looked like me when I use a zip wire and try to land gracefully, but fail miserably! They seem to be curious creatues too – not minding us humans being up quite close, and snapping photographs. It all made for quite the spectacle, especially in such a setting, and one that I’m glad to have witnessed.

Living in a fish factory

Whilst it snowed overnight, fortunately there wasn’t enough of the white stuff to delay our journey north. As we neared Egilsstaðir however it started snowing again, and by the time we’d reached the top of the pass I was thinking ‘this is a bit scary’, what with the wind whipping up the snow, and the steep drops on either side. Little did I know that by the end of the day, I’d have driven over the scariest fell road of my life, and that includes roads in Chile and Romania!

Egilsstaðir is very much a hub town, with plenty of hotels, supermarkets and petrol stations. We bought 5 nights worth of supplies, knowing that where we were headed there wouldn’t be any restaurants open, and set off down the 94 road to Borgarfjörður eystri – the northernmost of Iceland’s eastern fjords. The www.road.is website had informed us that morning that the fell road condition would be ‘challenging’ because of the snow and ice, and indeed it was. I just kept breathing deeply, moving slowly, and praying! When we eventually reached the other side, I stopped in a layby so that I could calm my nerves. At minus 5 degrees C it was a bit chilly to eat our lunch outside, but even from within Aurora (our hire car), we could appreciate the magnificence of the scenery. Already it felt even more remote than Fáskrúðsfjörður had. The mountains were completely covered in snow, and the waves crashed on to the beach.

As we couldn’t check in to our apartment until 3pm, we drove 5km from the village to Hafnarhólmi – a tiny harbour and promontory known for its puffin and other sea bird colonies. Several platforms allow you to get close to the birds, without disturbing them. Unfortunately the puffins were all out at sea fishing, but at least we knew where to come tomorrow eve to watch them return.

Time to check in to our next base – one of Blábjörg Guesthouse’s two apartments. When first organising the trip, we’d initially discounted the guesthouse because its listed Summer prices seemed quite high. Fortunately, I later went back and emailed the owners, and we were offered an off season price that we couldn’t turn down to stay in such a fantastic location. It’s a former fish factory, and is literally on the harbour. It comes complete with a spa, including two outdoor hot tubs and a sauna – free to guests staying in the apartments. We were even getting a free breakfast thrown in each day, and this turned out to consist of such quantities of food that we made lunch out of it as well! Whereas Hóll cottage had been rustic and quirky, this place is ultra modern and totally Scandic. We love both styles, and it’s nice to combine the two.

After settling in and exploring the village, we were given the keys to the spa and left to our own devices. In Summer, it’s a popular spot for campers and holiday makers as well as locals, but out of season, well you have it to yourselves, and it’s heavenly. From the outdoor hot tub we were able to watch the sea birds sheltering in the harbour, whilst the waves crashed on to the shore literally just a few metres away. I could get used to this.

The Áreyjadalur valley

It’s not often that I deliberately get up early just to gaze out of the kitchen window, but that’s exactly what I’ve been doing here in Fáskrúðsfjörður. I could never tire of the view, and would love to watch it change through the seasons – yet another reason to return.

After failing dismally in my second attempt at using the waffle iron, I gave up and served pancakes for breakfast. We then headed back through the long road tunnel, to the start of the 936 jeep track at Sléttunes, just south of Reyðarfjörður. Unfortunately, we hadn’t expected the track to be basically an access road for giant pylons installed by Alcoa. I understand the need for utilities, but why oh why spoil such a magnificent view in this way, when the technology exists to hide cables underground? I have to be careful what I say about Alcoa, but I’m not impressed with the way they go about blighting the landscape, in order to do what they do.

We were determined not to let the pylons ruin the walk, so tried to pretend that they weren’t there and walked on through the Áreyjadalur valley. The track was still formally closed to vehicles because of snow higher up, and after a few kilometres I insisted we turn back as some of the Spring rock falls were looking increasingly fresh, and I didn’t fancy us getting caught up in one, having read about the avalanche risk here.  They’d certainly have needed to do a fair bit of work to clear the area before Summer.

We found a sheltered spot by the river for lunch, and by the time we got back to Aurora (our hire car) the wind had really picked up, so we’d made the right decision. As it was still only early afternoon, we drove back round to the Eskifjörður hot pot for the final time, at least on this trip. Again we ended up with the place to ourselves, so I embraced my inner child and made full use of the helter skelter water slide, much to the amusement of the staff.

Lunch...
Lunch…

The drive back to the cottage was made especially interesting by the wind tugging on the car whilst we drove over precarious fell roads with unprotected corners and very steep drops into the sea. We lived to tell the tale though, and to celebrate, when the temperature had dropped to a suitable minus 9 degrees C, we headed out for dinner at Cafe Sumarlina. It started snowing heavily as soon as we reached the bottom of the cottage steps, and this in conjunction with the wind meant that I had to prop Rich up to stop him falling over, making for an exhilerating 20 minute walk! This however is the Iceland that we know and love.

Dressed for dinner
Dressed for dinner

The cafe is also the local take-away and bar, and provides a birds eye view of the old harbour. In need of proper walkers food, I ordered a bun less burger, and we filled our bellies whilst watching local fishermen tie up their boats to protect them from the storm. Fortunately, with the wind on our backs for the return trip, we were soon back inside the cosy warmth of Hóll cottage.

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Why we travel

I wasn’t sure about writing this blog post, being reluctant to spill my guts to people who might just want to know about nice places to visit n’all, but I felt it needed writing, even if only to encourage others to talk.

In a nutshell, we travel to stay sane. Rich has NF2 (Neurofibromatosis Type 2) – a very rare genetic condition that causes tumours to grown on nerve endings, and indeed the little buggers do grow everywhere, and sometimes become very big buggers. His life has revolved around major surgery, hospital visits, going deaf, paralysis of different parts of his body, and uncertainty, but in spite of it all, he’s the most Zen person I know. For the last 18 months or so, he’s been having chemo for an index NF2 tumour in his brain. We found out a few days ago that this has grown a little, but at the moment we’re optimistic that upping the dose can bring it back in check. If it doesn’t, then the bridge we have to cross involves brain surgery, and possible further paralysis. Rich has trouble swallowing thanks to a previous surgery that damaged his throat, and has a plastic valve in place, but it sometimes means that I have to perform the Heimlich manouvre on him. Dinners are never dull in our house! We’ve been advised that further surgery might mean that Rich loses the ability to eat solid food again, and to speak. Whilst we joke about a voice box voiced by none other than Steven Seagal, the reality is that this outcome would make life even more interesting.

Interesting, but never impossible. If it comes to it, I’d carry feeding tubes and bags all over the world with us and we’d go places where I could arrange help from local hospitals if need be. We refuse to let ill health define us, or limit what we can do. I have a few medical quirks of my own – POTS and EDS, that sometimes mean that Rich has to look after me,  but again once I’m feeling ok-ish, we make up for the down times. We travel because it helps us forget the not so nice things, to delight in the wonders of this world, and to meet others who are in a far more unfortunate situation than ours. We both care a great deal about others, and make an effort to help where we can, and this in return helps us too. We’ve experienced extreme acts of kindness all over the world, often in the most unexpected of places, and meeting Rich in some ways seems to help other people too. They realise that if he can do what he does in spite of the obstacles, that they can too. He inspires others as much as he inspires me.

So that’s why we go away a lot. We want to see the world whilst we can. We travel reasonably cheaply – luxury hotels and resorts are not our thing, and we take things slowly. We’ll never say that we’re ‘doing’ a country in a week. We’d rather go back again and again and really get to see what’s beneath the surface. Yes sometimes it’s hard, sometimes we both feel very rough indeed, but then we’d be feeling rough at home, so it’s never seemed reason enough to make us not go. In holiday mode, pain and discomfort seems that much more tolerable, and we’ve never not had help when we needed it. Usually, we never even need to ask – most humans tend to prefer to be kind than not, and this is possibly the most important lesson traveling has taught us. Yes it’s not all sugar and spice, and we bicker when we’re tired and lost for instance, but when we arrive, and experience what we do, it makes it all worthwhile. Life really is so short that we intend on making the most of it, in as many places and ways as possible!

Petra’s stone collection

Today we sort of had waffles for breakfast. I say sort of, because I’d never used a waffle iron before, and most of the batter squirted out the sides and formed puddles on the table. Still, what was left in the iron ended up tasting very good indeed, even with gluten free flour.

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After clearing up, we drove south to the next fjord along – Stöðvarfjörður. Whilst smaller than Fáskrúðsfjörður, it packs a punch thanks to our main reason for visiting today –  Petra’s stone collection. Petra is sadly no longer of this world, but lived in the village, and spent her life collecting stones and minerals from the mountains nearby. She seemed to have a ‘second sight’, and knew instinctively which stones would contain minerals, so much so that hers is the largest private collection in the world. It gradually took over her house, and then her garden, so that by the end of her life she was living in just one room.

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The statue of Petra, in amongst her collection

As geologists in a former life, Rich and I were in our element. The whole site feels very calming, and has a luminescence, thanks to the magnificence of the minerals. As the only visitors that morning, we got talking to one of Petra’s daughters who now helps manage the collection. It turned out that her son – Ívar Ingimarsson, used to play football for Ipswich, and that Rich remembered him well! Just like Rich, Petra loved football, and after talking football for a while, her daughter handed us a gift – a copy of a book about Petra, and said that it was from Ívar, who’d also inherited his grandmother’s ‘second sight’. That’s one of the things we love so much about Iceland – gestures of kindness and generosity that touch our hearts every time. Whilst we’re both quite quiet people, we’re interested in and curious about others, and I think they appreciate this. We certainly appreciated the book, and it now takes pride of place on our coffee table.

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We left the village feeling very ‘zen’, and parked up at the end of the gravel track which leads to Stöð. From here, we followed a ridiculously scenic trail up the Jafnadalur valley. The snow had only started to melt this high up a few days ago, and Spring plants were emerging in the sunshine. With not another soul in sight, and surrounded by ryholite peaks, we walked up past the snow line until the snow got too deep for our boots, before eating our lunch whilst surveying views to die for.

 

Fortitude

After frankfurters for breakfast – hot dogs are Iceland’s national dish for some weird and wonderful reason, we fired up Aurora (our hire car) and headed for the next town north of Fáskrúðsfjörður – Reyðarfjörður, via the 5.9km long road tunnel. Fortunately the speed limit within the tunnel is strictly enforced so I didn’t feel under too much pressure. It does feel long though, and a tad claustraphobic, so I had to do lots of deep breathing, and think calming thoughts.

We parked up in town near the medical centre, and followed the footpath along the Búðará river. The snow had not long gone, and big mounds of it were still blocking the footpath, from where they’d cleared the roads. Close to the Icelandic war museum, we met a very friendly local woman walking her dog, and two Norwegian cats! She explained that the cats follow her everywhere, and even love being outside in the snow, despite the gorgeous grey one only having one eye. After animal cuddles, she recommended that we follow the track upwards for a further 15 minutes to find Búðarárfoss – a waterfall. It’s not mentioned in any of the guidebooks but sure enough was stunning, and worth the walk.

Reyðarfjörður isn’t the prettiest of towns, but it has character, and for any ‘Fortitude’ telly program fans out there – well this is Fortitude, literally. Whilst we were there, they were busy filming series 2, although try as we might, we couldn’t see Dennis Quaid. We did however find some of the key locations. We’ll have to come back for our cameo roles another time.

After stocking up at the Kronan supermarket – more expensive than Bonus but still cheaper than eating out, we drove east to Eskifjörður. We’d planned on stopping at the Hólmanes nature reserve, haven for thousands of birds, but its footpaths were unfortunately a tad too precarious for Rich’s balance, so instead we drove on to the 954 gravel track east of town, parked up and walked a few miles along the coast. Despite the sun having come out to play, we only saw 2 other cars and 2 walkers. The gravel tracks make for brilliant walking out of season as they’re so rarely used by most tourists, who tend to stay on the ring road.

We found a drying shed for shark meat – I had to hold my nose whilst taking this pic, to avoid retching.

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I was also fortunate enough to find a magnificent specimen of Iceland Spar, a variety of calcite. We could see some amateur rock hunters milling around the Helgustadir mine debris piles looking for minerals, but as former geologists we knew to look in the stream beds, and lo and behold…It now takes pride of place in my Scandi style study. Well it will be Scandi style eventually, once I’ve decluttered and finished upcycling the furniture. Baby steps.

Back in to town to enjoy Eskifjörður’s hot pool and swimming pool – without a doubt, now our second favourite hot pot location in Iceland. Grettislaug in the north of the country will probably always be our number one. Both are surrounded by high mountains, and are quiet. By the time it started snowing, we had the place to ourselves. Bliss.

Fáskrúðsfjörður’s fish factory

The temperature fell to a refreshing minus 4 degrees C last night, and we woke to find that the fjord had partially frozen, and looked stunning in the sunshine. We’ve been in Iceland during the Summer, and not had weather as good as this! I don’t think we could ever tire of the view from the kitchen window.There’s no easy way of saying this though, during the week, Fáskrúðsfjörður smells of fish. There’s a fish processing plant at one end of town, and it starts up early when the trawlers come in. I’m not complaining – I like fish, and I know that Iceland’s economy depends on it, but in case you have a sensitive nose, you might want to be aware. We keep the window open at night, and on smelling the smell I did think, “blimey, that can’t be me surely?!” so it was a relief to find that it wasn’t.

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After bacon sarnies for breakfast, cooked in Hóll cottage’s very cute kitchen, we decided that we’d explore the town and its surroundings today, having spent a long day in the car yesterday. We ambled through the streets, working our way towards the old harbour, and the wonderfully quirky Cafe Sumarlina. Unfortunately, both the museum and craft shop were still closed in April – most facilities start opening towards the end of May in Iceland, but there’s still plenty to see, such as the mast from an old French fishing ship, an old cauldron once used to melt whale liver, and stones in a streambed labelled with the names of every French fisherman who died whilst working these waters. Even the street names are written in French as well as Icelandic.

Back to the cottage for a pickled herring lunch – they never taste as good as they do in Iceland, before jumping in to Aurora (our hire car) and driving just a few miles up the road to the River Gilsa. I’d read that you could walk along the river, and then behind a waterfall, but whilst we found a track and several waterfalls, none looked safe enough to attempt walking behind without a swim beforehand, not really feasible in the cold. Still, the walk provided incredible views of the fjord and surrounding mountains.

On to the local Semkaup supermarket, which stocks just enough fresh food to make self catering viable without having to drive to Egilsstaðir, before making our way to the swimming pool and hot pot. For the equivalent of £4 each, we had the outdoor hot pot to ourselves. With a view of snow capped mountains, and then an amazing sunset, it was easy to ignore the fishy smell from the still operating factory.

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Svínafellsjökull

Dalshöfdi Guesthouse’s beds were soooo comfy! Fortunately we didn’t sleep in as breakfast turned into a race to get food before the party of Germans staying in the apartment, inhaled it all. I’ve never seen slim people eat so much! Fortunately we’re not big eaters, especially in the morning, and as the dining room was a tad warm we didn’t want to linger too long, so by 8.45am we were on the road.

Before leaving the UK, Rich had used Google maps to find a wilder alternative to Jökulsárlón – the very popular Glacier Lagoon, so we programmed the chosen destination into Dervla (our satnav), and after leaving the ring road, drove (very slowly) down a rough gravel track to Svínafellsjökull. Two words: “oh my!” This place was like a dream. Up close to the glacier snout and icebergs, without the tourists and tat. We arrived to find just the one car parked up, and two very Icelandic looking guys playing with a camera drone. When I asked to see the footage, I was very surprised to find that they were actually two red headed brothers from Bristol, and had bought their Icelandic jumpers only the day before. As film school students they were hoping to be able to sell the footage, which was indeed brilliant.

We followed the mountaineering track a little way up towards the snout of the glacier, until the warning signs became too scary, and then walked to the front of the glacial pool and marvelled at the scenery. Breathtaking. So much so that just a few miles down the road, Jökulsárlón came as something of a disappointment with its heaving car parks, and lack of ice bergs – it was too early in the year for them to start calving off. Still, we used the loos, had a quick picnic lunch, and then drove on to Höfn. Whilst the ring road at this time of year is quiet enough to stop by the roadside to go to the toilet, without being accused of flashing passing cars, we found that a huge increase in camper vans has led to people to some people using parking spots as a toilet, and not making any attempts to hide or remove their waste. Arriving at a view point to find piles of poo, is not ideal.

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All the while, the road was lined with snow topped peaks on one side, and black sand beaches on the other. We even had an encounteer with the wild reindeer that East Iceland is famous for – I had to screech to a halt as two decided to cross the road, cars or no cars. After refuelling at Höfn, I drove us to Djúpivogur, where Rich took over driving the last stretch to our base for the next few nights – Hóll cottage in Fáskrúðsfjörður, one of Iceland’s eastern fjords. Of all the fjords we’d passed, this one had the most snow, and looked the most magnificent. Fáskrúðsfjörður is a small town with oodles of character, and comes complete with a supermarket, swimming pool and hot pot, post office, vinbudin (off licence), restaurant and hotel, cafe, and views to die for.

The cottage is one of the oldest in town, and is sited on a hill. It’s just what we love – quirky, rustic, cosy, comfortable, well equipped, and with enough nooks and crannies to keep us occupied for days. After a chicken tikka dinner, courtesy of Chef Rich, we went for a stroll as day turned to dusk, to soak up the atmosphere, and get our bearings. We chose well, coming here.

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