From Aalborg to Skagastrond (Saturday, May 8th – Tuesday, May 10th)

This is part 3 of 3 from the blog post Driving From Ireland to Iceland. If you follow this link the original post will explin these entries further.

Saturday, May 7th 2011 – International Waters

Saturday started understandably groggy. After breakfast and a fond farewell or three I hit the road and got agonisingly lost again in Aalborg, seething at the inefficiency of the traffic system and worrying more than a little about missing check-in for the ferry to Iceland at Hirtshals port, over an hour from the Danish City. I eventually broke free from the web of the city and was on my way with time to spare.

The port was as disorganised a place as I have ever visited. There seemed to be no concrete system for checking in, and cars and campers were parked flecked and scattered across the four lanes of entry as we waited for the ferry arrivals to slowly pass us by. When they eventually did, I drove on to the second biggest ship I had ever seen (this time with what seemed a completely bursting-to-the-brim full contingent of passengers, although on board it seemed like they could take more) and got a jolt of giddiness as the engines roared and we set sail. The next time my feet touch land I will be in the ambiguous state of the Faroe Islands, and the next stop after that will be in the unambiguous certainty that I am for the first time in my life no longer resident in the European Union. This ship (the Norona, a Faroese ferry that is a central force in the Faroe Islands’ tourist industry) is taking me far, far away.

Sunday, May 8th 2011 – Sea Legs

Met an amiable German named Martin, who, it turns out, is also a couchsurfer, and is moving to Reykjavik to do some web work for a new company. We talked about systems and getting around such things, and figured out a couple of harmless scams to make the journey a little more comfortable!

Sailed past the Shetlands too as fog began to descend. Two shipping boats surrounded by flocks of pestering seagulls that looked like TV static in the distance braved the high waves and low visibility.

Monday, May 9th 2011 – Meeting Vikings

Monday brings us to the Faroe Islands. The fog is thick and heavy as we land at 5 a.m. I had declined the option to bring my car onto shore here when in Hirsthals, and wonder (after a conversation with Martin, who had done the opposite) whether I had done the right thing. I choose to brave Tórshavn on foot, and soon enough realise this was a good idea.

There are no customs checks, passport checks or really checks of any kind entering or leaving this Danish principality, despite the fact that it is a nation unto itself (sort-of technically) and is not an E.U. state (to all extents and purposes). Really, it just seems like the folk here couldn’t care less about customs etc., it’s all very easy-going from the off.

The first sight encountered is a beautifully classical red-and-white striped lighthouse at the port. Climbing its hill I discover that the area is a former viking fort, and was a military station for the Danes during the 17th-19th Centuries. In World War II the British took control of the Faroes after Denmark had been occupied by Germany, and used this same hill as a garrison fort. The old Danish cannons and more recent British guns are still situated here, rusty and forlorn on the hilltop.

I walked along the shoreline taking in the tumultuous waves as they pounded the rocky shore, and I decided to follow a path off the main road and up along this shoreline, past an abandoned quarry. The fog was incredibly dense and there was unfortunately little visibility. Before long I was no longer in the Faroese capital Torshavn (which is little bigger than my hometown Sligo) and am walking in full countryside. Before long again I end up back in Torshavn.

The people here really resembled vikings in every Asterix-comic way. But all were very friendly, greeting me even at the early hour that I was out for a stroll with a smile and an unfamiliar hello. And there seemed to be children everywhere as the hours rolled on. I presumed that either the Faroese are very fertile or everyone on the islands goes to school in little Tórshavn (I learn later that the latter assumption is correct – as the furthest town in only an hour away, most children travel to Torshavn for their education). I circled the city a few times aimlessly – it is extremely hilly and there are a lot of side-streets so I found myself lost and found regularly. Eventually I stumbled across the national football stadium and pop in to see if Brian Kerr is in. He’s not.

A short walk from the stadium I discovered the national gallery. An exhibition by Faroese artist Edward Fuglø was advertised, and it looked pretty interesting so I decide to visit, but unfortunately it has a later opening time than 8.30 a.m. and I had to return later.

In the meantime I sauntered around a wonderful park next to the gallery, which has a centre-piece of an enormous sculpture dedicated to second world war victims, featuring a figure on top staring out into the south. On the subject of sculptures, the city is full of bronze-cast figurative works that almost all seem to be made by one artist (I later discover that this artist is Hans Pauli Olsen, and is quite famous in the Faroes).

Back to the museum then! I sat outside waiting for the opening reading Man’s Search For Meaning until early arrival school tours clear out of the building and it is (almost) time for it to officially open. Greeted by the invigilator, who has good English and suggested I go for the student rate, I was given a brief description of Fuglø and the museum before I entered. The museum houses a collection of art from the Faroes from the last 100 years, curated (I was told with an air of pride) by Mikael Wivel, the famous Danish curator and writer. The Fuglø exhibition is their current temporary show.

Fuglø is a contemporary Faroese artist. He works in painting, photography and mixed media installation. He is very well known in the Faroe Islands. And he is very, very good. The show, entitled Merry-Go-Round was about Faroese identity, politics between the Faroes and Denmark, birds, eggs, and art. It’s really very strong work, in particular the semi-surrealistic painting pieces which are as bizarre as they are brilliant. The level of professionalism catches me completely by surprise, which might seem a little philistinical, but I had not expected such a small country to produce such powerful, professional and high-budget work. I had just presumed the funding wouldn’t be there for the 50,000-odd Faroese inhabitants, but apparently it is there in buckets! Fuglø has also managed to sell a couple of the pieces, which I imagine went for several thousand euro, if not tens of thousands each (judging by prices on other works). I felt completely ashamed of Ireland at this point.

My shame worsened as I see that Fuglø was not a one-off. The rest of the Faroese artists in the permanent collection showed an acute knowledge of contemporary art and a high level of professionalism and investment in visual culture. The tradition of visual art in the Faroes is relatively recent, but it has been taken on with fervour. The quality of work would challenge any national museum that I’ve been to, although there is understandably less of it, in particular the paintings of Ingalvur Av Reyni and Thomas Arge, the former a recently deceased expressionist painter whose shown work was from the 90s, the latter’s work was 1970s work and also really expressionist and vivid. I began to wonder whether Ireland will ever search out any form of cultural identity, or will continue to hide it while we pine for international recognition through economic prosperity (it’s a pipe dream lads, and the alarm clock’s ringing).

Back to the ferry in a hurry then.

Throughout the city the tradition of grass-roofed houses can still be seen on many old buildings, including the port-side governmental houses that I happened upon by chance after getting lost on the way back to the boat. My tourist info came as I met a friendly port engineer who walked me back, accompanying the stroll with some back-story to the area. The government buildings were apparently situated there since the landing of the vikings in the 10th Century, I learn through unconfident but strong English. There are also 500 boats in the harbour, the grass roofs have had a resurgence in modern buildings and the Faroese intend to stabilise a rock-face near the port with steel beams (I kept the engineer talking as we walk).

On board again and we set sail at 3 p.m.

Tuesday, May 10th 2011 – Sublime

Here at last we hit land at Seydisfjordur. My cabin-mate from my last night on-board, a German called Ro (again, a member of the Couchsurfing community), requested a lift as far as Akureyri, the second largest town in the country, and, as it was on my way to Skagastrond, I happily obliged. As he has no strict schedule, all was gravy with regards adventuring when we hit land.

Initial impressions of the country couldn’t have been much grander. Ice-capped mountains surround the small port town of Seydisfjordur. We journey a short distance through valleys until we come upon another small village, Egilsstatdir, where I stopped for diesel and some breakfast

Myself and Ro hit the road once we had fuelled car and people adequately, and aim for Akureyri. There is one ring road that runs around the entire island so we’re either going straight for the town or directly away from it. Map and compass told us that we were on the right path.

There was heavy fog when we departed. The road leads up and up until we are driving on top of a constant mountain of around 600 metres (surrounded on all sides by higher peaks still). There is still some of Spring’s ice on the verges, which are terrifyingly steep. Best to keep on the road here – any veering into the ditch would mean certain write-off. The fog cleared eventually, and cloudy but sunny weather stayed with us for most of the rest of the day.

At this juncture I would like to just point out the extreme culture shock faced when beginning this journey. I was down a 2-lane motorway in the middle of the day where I pass a car once maybe every five minutes (more seldom again at parts). People don’t bother to stop at junctions at all – there is no need. The population is so scattered we barely saw a living soul for long stretches. I had expected a sparsely populated country as promised, but did not realise that it would hit me this hard upon arrival.

There is an abundance of waterfalls on either side on the drive from Seydisfjordur, but very little in the way of civilization. On the lower levels we passed some minute towns, on the higher terrain there is nothing at all – not even the semi-common fields of grazing Icelandic horses with their drooping manes and heavy fur subsist at these heights. We stopped briefly at a small car-park (these are dotted about all over the place on this road, strategically located next to particularly scenic views) and admire a pthalo grey, hilly landscape. The rock we encountered here seems to suck the daylight away, and as this deep grey was the only colour for miles, and with no traffic on the road, it felt as if we are taking a break on a dead planet. All the waterfalls make me think of Dettifoss, the largest ‘fall in Europe according to tourist guidebooks, and I suggest a detour slightly off our route to Ro, who was more than happy to journey out and see the waterfall.

We took a side-road that gradually dissipates into nothing but dirt towards the waterfall. I drove in the middle of the road here to avoid wrecking my suspension. There was not another soul for miles around. Construction vehicles sat by the road as we travel, but they looked like they had been inoperative for some time. It is possible that this road was one of the casualties of the recession here. We got out at a toilet that stands like an island surrounded by run-off water next to a car-park (by car-park I mean a flattened mound of loose gravel where one other car is parked). There are two enormous waterfalls here – Selfoss is the first, and this runs further downstream into Dettifoss.

After a relatively brief hike, we came to Selfoss. There were a few other hikers out for a stroll on this sunny day, but most were on the far side of the river where there is another more popular tourist trail. The canyon is about 40 metres wide at least. This waterfall is astounding. Water runs from all sides down in streams in a semi-circle into the fast-flowing river below. I adventure up as far as I can to the top of the fall, skipping over the fast-flowing water onto dry rock patches to get a few shots and have a look straight down. I eventually dragged my hesitant traveling companion along for a view. Although we were at the top of the fall, the impact spray from the bottom jumps so high we can almost feel it. We are both astounded by this – little were we to know what was coming next.

Dettifoss is remarkable. For someone who has never seen a really enormous waterfall, I had no idea what to expect. In this case, the spray came so high and in such quantity it soaked us both to the skin as if we are in the middle of a heavy downpour. The banks that we walk along have patches of ice marbled with grey gravel or dirt that looked like something from another planet. The waterfall itself is indescribable. All I can say is it is enormous, powerful, loud, and very very wet. It is around 60 metres tall and gushes water in a long line that bridges the gap between the side that we were standing on and the far side of the canyon. From over a hundred metres downstream, high up on the hilly canyon sides, we were still showered with the ‘fall’s impromptu rain.

Eventually we decided that it was time to return to the car and get back on the way. Honestly, I felt as if I could continue hiking forever here, but we had to move on at some point. Time is ticking away and night will fall eventually, and I need to reach Skagastrond and rendezvous with the residency co-ordinator at some reasonable hour.

On the walk back Ro told me about his business in Dresden – a bakery employing over ten people, which I have to say I am very impressed with as I imagine he is not yet thirty. He has a lust for travel, however, but he feels safe leaving the shop in the hands of the others he has in his employ to take three weeks and venture around the Faroe Islands and Iceland.

We made our way back along the dusty trail and back onto the “1” road, promising no more stops until we reach our destination.

Less than half an hour later we stopped when we saw an enormous plume of while cloud emerging from the horizon to the right of the road, and on the left a field of fumaroles erupting the same white smoke on a smaller scale. This was Námafjall Hverir, in the Krafla valley. I parked and we got out to have a look.

The newer earth-stacks are built up like anthills, and hiss steam out at a colossal speed and with a piercing wheeze. There are a great number of them here, situated on the slopes of a mountain-peak (we are still 600 metres up at this point) that is made up of a strange bright orange clay, discoloured with an emerald-green mould and white residue that sprouts near the geysers. The older ones have collapsed in and form grey murky pools of angry, bubbling goo that heats to over eighty degrees. The smell in the air here was like sweetened sulphur, overpowering at times. Standing at the belching and gurgling, odious pools I tried to imagine what foul creatures the vikings might have first thought lived beneath the grey slime at these geysers.

We hit the road again after an explore. No more stops now.

Two minutes later we passed the hill that these geysers were on, and come across one monstrous “daddy” geyser on the far side. We stop for a look.

There are strange space-age domes built near the base of the billowing crevice. These are part of the geothermal power system that keeps Iceland electrified. There are natural baths here too. This is Myvatn, a popular tourist spot. Rain started to fall a little here, and lasted for a short while. At the foot of the geyser there was a small pool of near-luminous cyan-green water, that, Ro told me (he has seen geysers before in New Zealand) is the colour of water run-off from geysers such as these.

Onwards then, past thousands more waterfalls, looking into the distance at tall mountain peaks, all snow and ice-capped, black and white in the distance with thick, fluffy white clouds for contrast. This time there really is no more stopping, and a couple of hours later we reached Akureyri (a 4-hour drive has taken 7 hours at this point, including detours).

Ro departed at a guest-house in Akureyri and I move on alone. It is another hour and a half’s drive to Skagastrond, but I am geared up and giddy at this point so even thick fog coupled with stuck-behind-a-lorry-itis does not affect my mood. Eventually I find the turn and I contact Ólafía, the residency co-ordinator to let her know I will be arriving soon.

The town, directly translated meaning “peninsula strand”, sits at the foot of a monumental mountain that I will climb before the end of my stay here. There is a wall of mountains on one side almost separating Skagastrond from the rest of Iceland. On the other side is the sea, blue-black in the overcast evening. The buildings are all brightly coloured and noticeably spaced very far apart. So much so, in fact, that this town of just over 500 people seems much larger than it should.

And so ends my adventure from Sligo, North-west Ireland, to Skagastrond, North-west Iceland. 3 ferries, 18 hours of driving, 5 seas, 8 countries later and I had arrived at my home for 3 months. More Icelandic adventures to follow…

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