Tuesday 23 August 2011

Journey to the centre of Snæfellsnes

One of the many things Jules Verne forgot to mention about Iceland in his really not that great Journey to the Centre of the Earth, which properly begins there in a land he never visited, is that there's a spectacular glacier on the top of the dormant (not extinct, please note) Snæfell volcano. And nothing in his novella, which can't make up its mind whether to mangle geological facts or go all-out for fantasy (I wish he had - the underground sky and sea are the most imaginatively described things in the book), can touch the wonders of this extraordinary country as we experienced it in mostly clear, coldish and always sharp-focused weather.

It might have been the sunlight and the relative ease of access, but I couldn't find it in myself to fear these powers of nature or use the terms 'horrid', 'dire', terrifying' - awesome it all certainly is. And I really don't know where to begin. The motivation for visiting a country I've always wanted to see in the summer was the little weekend jamboree in Reykjavik centred around festivities in the spectacular new Harpa concert hall/arts centre, about which I'll be writing for The Arts Desk on Sunday.

As it was the diplo-mate's Big Birthday, I thought I'd treat him (and myself too, of course) to four days on and around the Snæfellsnes, the peninsula on the west coast north of Reykjavik which is supposed to have a little bit of everything in the geological makeup. Icelandomane Hilary - Hilla to her northern friends - Finch told me I'd chosen well over coffee in a Prom interval the week before last, and was delighted to give plenty of helpful tips.

We based ourselves in the beautifully located harbour of Stykkishólmur, the furthest point north in the top right hand corner of the map. That and its archipelago are going to need an entry to themselves. Otherwise I just couldn't decide where to start and stop today. So, reluctantly passing over our bracing journey in the hire-car from Keflavik airport, I'll confine myself to the momentous 11 hours - making use of a sun that didn't set until after 10pm - we spent driving and walking around Snæfellsnes.

First stop was a lavafield with flora and mountain backdrops very much its own, the 4000 year old Berserkjahraun named after the path through it forged by two doughty warriors of that name. These lavafields look alarming at first, and you could describe them as old stony bones covered in mould, which essentially is what the moss is. But look closer and all manner of flowers grow on them and in the cracks. That, I reckon, is going to have to be a separate entry too, once I get to identify which plant/flower is which.

The road goes west across the water and mountains of the Kolgrafarfjordur

before hitting the first settlement after Stykkisholmur, Grundarfjordur, an 18th century commercial centre monopolised by the Danes. A good place to base oneself, I reckon, with all the waterfalls around it

and the shape of Kirkjufell, dominating the harbour and rising to 469 metres, across the water.

You catch a first, heart-in-mouth sight of Snæfellsjökull as the road bends to descend towards Olafvik.

We turned off before the village to take (with great care and speed of 5mph, I hasten to add) the track up towards the eastern side of the glacier. Parked where the moraine looked grimmest, the winds keenest and the view along the south coast first apparent and then trekked upwards as far as we could go before the glacier takes over (even with full mountaineering gear you're advised not to go on it, though apparently there are moon-vehicles that do, occasionally). Occasionally we caught sight of the two 'horns' which from certain angles crown the cone with devilry, but mist and cloud swirling against the blue kept disappearing them.

Up here, you'd expect the colours to be lava/basalt black, but the lichen is still with us and the range of tufas stupendous (I won't pretend, as Verne does, that I know what I'm talking about, but I'm taking up volcano studies with the expert who's set up the handsome little Eldfjallasafn Volcano Museum in Stykkisholmur, Haraldur Sigurðsson).

The track then winds down past Stapafell to the south coast.

I guess we should have driven down to the curious harbour of Arnarstapi, but we had several objectives for late-afternoon walking so we pressed on, first to the long-defunct fishing village of Hellnar with its excellent visitors' centre run by a very helpful warden and its tiny church which forms such a homely foreground both to Snæfellsjökull

and to pointy-headed Stapafell, which rises to a mere 521 metres (compared to the summit of the big 'un at 1446).

Dates on the tombstones in the graveyard make it clear that the fishermen and their wives tended to live to grand old ages - most died aged 90 plus.

Snæfellsnes's green and peaceful coastline, shining in a relatively warm August sun, put me in mind of Cornwall's West Penwith peninsula, round which of course we walked on our long-term coastal trek; but then you look inland and there's the volcano.

The rock formations here, too, are not dissimilar to Cornwall's granite outcrops, but again on a bigger scale. We carried out our desired expedition to the Londrangar rock pillars, the tallest of which rise to 75 metres.

The description on the edge of my big map tells me that 'these are remnants of a long-vanished volcano: eruption vents filled up with volcanic material, which formed a hard "plug". The plug, of much harder rock than the surrounding volcano, remains as a pillar when the rest of the volcano has been eroded away.'

Well, we really did feel like we were in Cornwall, taking half an hour's kip on the grassy cliffs before retracing our steps. Back in the car, missed the turning to the harbour of Dritvik and found we'd got further round the coast road than expected, so instead of driving back to Buðir, we pressed on. The wide open spaces of the far west made it feel like an American road movie. And Snæfellsjökull kept revealing its different faces - from Kothraun

and from the bird-rich wetlands around the glacier-water plant at Rif.

So, at 9pm, it was back to base for sunset over the harbour and the best fresh haddock I've ever tasted. And now, heck, I must get back to a mountain of work. Next blogstop: Stykissholmur.


Susan Scheid said...

Breathtaking. Your photographs are glorious, and, as always, you provide a brilliant walking guide to the terrain (despite the things you don't know . . . yet . . .). I love the look of that lichen flowing over the lava field.

toubab said...

Yes, indeed, breathtaking!
I wish I could have been with you too- never visited but want to now! all the best and all love to the diplo-Mate too,xx

David said...

Well, we plan to return to explore the south coast next May - Juliette and Rory may join us: want to come? Of course you would be in your element with the horseriding, too, though we'll stick to our own two feet.

Sue, you will be most welcome too as I know from our brief blog acquaintance that you love the Great Outdoors...