Pastures New – North & East Iceland

I had one more day before the next group arrived so I spent the morning enjoying wandering around Laugavega, the main shopping street, before Oskar came to pick me up at 1.00pm. Oskar introduced me to the two women in his life, his girlfriend, just back from the Landmannalauger trek and home only for a day before going off to do it again, and his 7 year old collie. I felt guilty taking Oskar away from his girlfriend when they had only a short time together, but she was going to have her hair done and then cycle home on the bike which was now attached to the roof rack.

Dropping her off, we continued around the bay to the north of Reykjavik to a car park at the foot of 900m Esja, the mountain that dominated the view from the Kex Hostel. Patches of snow still lay on the upper slopes. Oskar told me that up to 1000 people a day climb it in the summer, it being a favourite place for people living in Reykjavik to go when they have some time to spare. The lower slopes were lushly vegetated with a variety of plants but dominated by largely blue lupins. The warmth and the lack of wind brought out the flies, which were annoying. The dog was happy to carry her own lead and walk with us. She was totally reliable and was not distracted when other dogs had less control of their urges. She treated them with disdain.

As we climbed the vegetation thinned and a freshening breeze took the flies away. It was a steady climb throughout and there were plenty of people on the route. It was good to see lots of young children enjoying being on the mountain and coping well with both the gradient and the terrain.

Reykjavik

Reykjavik

Reaching a large rock, we stopped for a rest. There were quite a few others doing the same and writing in the visitors book secreted in a waterproof container. From here we had far reaching views across the whole of Reykjavik and beyond towards Keflavik. Inland, we could see small puffs of steam rising from a number of vents, the largest of which highlighted the location of a thermal power station.

We had a decision to make, either continue up the steepening slope for another 150m to the plateau of a summit, or venture down. The summit is so large an area it would not afford views beyond and it would do nothing to improve the view over Reykjavik, so we decided to go down and shorten Oskar’s separation from his girlfriend. On the way down we met the President and his wife walking their dog, a black Labrador that was showing less than friendly signs towards Oskar’s dog, who remained as demure as ever. There was no security surrounding the president, which must be a rarity in this day and age.

Gradually the group began to arrive, Mike first, on the 23rd, then Mark and Shona on the 24th and finally Helen and Claire in the small hours of the 25th. Waiting for them, it was weird to watch it not get dark. It had the appearance of a perpetual sunset.

Akureyi

Akureyri

Despite the late night, we had an early start the following morning, with a taxi taking us to the city airport for our forty minute flight to Akureyri. We had none of the fuss normally associated with flights, arriving at the airport just twenty minutes before departure for a ‘no fuss’ check-in, minimal security, last minute boarding and immediate departure once all the passengers were seated. The first half of the flight took us over ice caps and circular craters before the cloud came between us and the ground. As we descended through the cloud, we looked down on to a damp Akureyri. Oskar, who had flown in the day before to get things ready for us, was there to meet us with a minibus. Akureyri is Oskar’s home town and we could not leave without having a tour, which took us to the house where he was brought up, his school, his father’s house, his mother’s house, from where he collected a wide range of his mother’s home baking for us to enjoy, his father’s fishing boat and, sadly, the cemetery where his daughter now rests. He talked about everything with affection and this is clearly where his heart is, despite having a house in Reykjavik.

Godafoss

Godafoss

After his nostalgic tour we left Akureyri and headed over misty, damp mountains to Godafoss, a not particularly high waterfall by Icelandic standards but dramatic all the same. Oskar told us that kayakers paddle over them, but unfortunately there were none about today to excite.

Continuing our journey as the weather began to improve, we headed to Lake Myvatn. Having read about this lake on numerous occasions and about the wonderful features it has I was a little disappointed. It was beautiful but I think, in my mind, I was expecting something more dramatic and different, perhaps a sulphurous lake, not a normal lake. It seemed to take the form of a number of smaller lakes all joined together by little necks of water; although large in area, it was not a huge expanse of water. There were a lot of interestingly shaped little islands in it but, obviously we could not get close to them. Small lava towers rose up out of the water. The bonus was that the flies were not very active.

Mt. Hvell with Lake Myvatn in the background

Mt. Hverfell with Lake Myvatn in the background

This whole area has seen a great deal of volcanic activity and is still very active in places. Conical mountains rise up in every direction. One of those, Hverfell, is close to the lake and very accessible. Before we set out we feasted on some of Oskar’s mother’s baked delights. It is a steep climb up to the rim of the 2500 year old crater. On reaching the rim we looked down into a barren landscape with a secondary cone rising from within. We walked around the crater and it was from here that we probably got our best view of the lake. We could also see much larger mountains in every direction and the edge of the Vatnajokull icecap to the south.

There is so much evidence of volcanic activity in this area with large lava fields with huge cracks formed as it has cooled. In one such crack is a cave with a hot water pool, too hot to keep your hand in for very long.

Mt. Viti

Maar Viti

Another crater we climbed, Maar Viti, had a turquoise blue lake in it. There had been some rain around and the rim had been turned into very slippery mud, which stuck to our boots, making them very heavy and making it a less than enjoyable walk around the crater, so we only went part way round before turning back.

Amusingly there was a safety rope, not to prevent you from falling down the steep slope into the crater lake, but to prevent you from straying off the rim on to the much gentler slope leading away from the crater. I don’t think it was a safety issue, more a desire to protect anything that might want to grow there. With all of this thermal energy about it was hardly surprising that there is a thermal power station nearby.

DSC_0707Visiting one hillside at Namafjall, we were surrounded by so much thermal activity it was difficult to know which to visit first. As with all these sites there is very little intervention by health and safety. Small ropes, six inches above ground level, may create a barrier not to be crossed, but there is very little else to prevent you getting very close to these geological phenomena. They allow people to use their common sense. However, they must feel confident that, although active, they are stable and are not going to suddenly change into something potentially dangerous.

There were some wonderful bubbling mud pools, some very noisy steam vents and colourful deposits of sulphur.

The Myvatn Nature baths

The Myvatn Nature baths

This was all a prelude to visiting the Blue Lagoon of the North, Myvatn Nature Baths, a much smaller, less commercial version of the one near Keflavik. It was also a lot more pleasant as it was less crowded. I no longer enjoy visiting the Blue Lagoon but I found this a very enjoyable experience and also enjoyed the meal in the restaurant afterwards.

Not everything is perfect in Iceland and our accommodation on our first night out of Reykjavik was poor. The bunk house accommodation was attached to a campsite but did not have enough bunks for us. When Oskar pointed this out we were given two more additional rooms in the staff quarters. The rooms were incredibly small and as with most temporary staff accommodation, it was a mess. Hardly ideal for the amount of money we were paying. Oskar agreed and Travel East will not be using them again.

Husavik

Husavik

The following morning we drove to Husavik on the north coast. It is a small fishing port with facilities for cruise ships to dock, but is now the whale watching capital of Iceland. We were booked for a three hour tour of Skjalfandi Bay in the hope that we would have some close encounters with whales. It was still a dull morning but it was dry so we were hopeful that we might get some sightings and stay relatively comfortable. It is inevitably colder on deck so we layered ourselves up to stay warm. The boat does provide all-in-one suits for passengers but, never having been in favour of uniforms, I declined.

Ready to sail

Ready to sail

We were sailing out on a beautifully restored fishing boat, part of a fleet belonging to North Sailing. Our particular boat was Gardar and I am guessing there were about 100 of us on board. While most people were kitting themselves out with an all-in-one suit, I managed to secure the bow of the boat for our group so that it would be easier for us to see either side of the boat.

Setting sail I was hopeful that we would have an enjoyable time. On the quayside there was a poster of all the whales known to frequent the bay and those that had been seen in recent days had a tick by them. There had been recent sightings of the hump back whale, the minke whale, the white beaked dolphin and the harbour porpoise. Looking back at Husavik from the water it was easy to see what an attractive little town it was with the church rising above the harbour-side buildings.

Our commentator for the trip spoke in English and German, he being of German origin. He had been working for North Sailing for nine years, having discovered his love of whales. Every so often he would tell a joke and when there was little reaction he would have to tell us it was a joke. His job was also to spot the whales but he spent more time talking to passengers rather than being on the lookout that he relied very much on those passengers with sharp eyes to spot them for him. He was a jolly man and certainly added something to the experience

DSC_0743There were about three similar vessels out looking for whales and two inflatable speed boats. The sea was flat, calm. About half an hour into our journey we came across our first humpback whale. All boats turn to head towards the area where the whale was seen. The speed boats noisily sped across the water to get there first. The whale was not on the surface very long before it dived. We then scanned the water to see where it came up again. Once seen we headed over to get closer, but not too close. Now we were able to keep better track of it and make sure we were better positioned for each time it came to the surface. While boats like ours kept a respectful distance from the whales the speedboats tended to get much closer, often between the bigger boats and the whale and were a lot more noisy. Eventually this whale decided to dive and not resurface, so we headed off in search of another. It was not long before we found one, but again all the boats converged. It would be great to get close to one of these gentle giants but it has to be on their terms, not ours. They have to break surface near the boat, not the boat to hound it. Eventually, our captain felt there were too many boats and that the whale would become stressed, so we left. The other boats stayed and continued to pursue the whale. It was a shame for us as I felt we were getting quite close when the decision to turn away was made.

About as much as you are going to see of a Minke whale

About as much as you are going to see of a Minke whale

We headed off to an area where there were no other boats and were rewarded with several sightings of minke whales. These, in my experience are less dramatic than the humpback as the do not display their fluke when they dive. However, they are renowned for sometimes leaping out of the water and, being the weight of three fully grown elephants, come crashing down dramatically. No such luck today.

With two humpback whales and two or three minke whales sighted we slowly made our way back to port sipping hot chocolate and eating cinnamon rolls. It was a very enjoyable three hours even if it was not quite as dramatic as we would have liked, but that is nature for you.

Asbyrgi

Asbyrgi

Back on shore we had a traditional lunch of meat soup and home baked bread before continuing our journey east. Our afternoon destination was Asbyrgi, a horseshoe shaped canyon, famous as much for its legend than it is for its geological splendour. It is 3.5km long and 1km wide with a distinctive rock island running through the middle of part of its length. Legend has it that Odin’s eight legged horse accidentally touched the ground here with one of its feet. A good story but the geological theory is that it was caused by a catastrophic glacial flood at the end of the last ice age and again about 3000 years ago. Since then the river has changed its course but the niche in the cliff at the head of the gorge suggests that water once flowed over the edge and the pool beneath could be the remnants of a plunge pool. It is also said that the hidden people live in the cracks in the cliffs.

DSC_0776We walked through the forest of birch trees, which here grow significantly taller than in other parts of Iceland simply because they are protected from the worst of the weather. Beneath the trees there was a bed of, largely, deep blue/purple and yellow flowers.

The pool at the head of the gorge is home to a number of birds from fresh water ducks to sea birds that nest in the cliffs above.

DSC_0778Oskar’s uncle had a farm on top of the cliffs and it is an area he knows well. It is on the land above that he goes ptarmigan hunting just before Christmas and the gorge is a place he used as a playground as a child. Strangely, in the middle of it all is a playing field with a swing at one end. You have to remember that this is a recreational place for Icelanders as well as a tourist destination for visitors. Each year a music festival takes place in the gorge.

Sadly we did not see any of the hidden people in the cliffs, just nesting birds.

That night we were staying in a cabin attached to a Hotel Skulagardur in Lundur. The hotel is a former boarding school, converted into a hotel when there was no need for the school. Oskar’s mother attended the school.

Jok

Jokulsargliufur

The accommodation was much more comfortable and the food in the hotel was excellent. No complaints at all. I say no complaints but the flies were a more trouble here than at any other time on the trip. They are not biting or stinging flies but they are so numerous that they get everywhere and it is so easy to swallow one if breathing through the mouth.

Leaving the flies behind, we headed out the next morning to Dettifoss and Selfoss but on the way we stopped to have a look at Jokulsargljufur, a gorge of spectacular volcanic rock formations. Running through the gorge is the river that once flowed through Asbyrgi but has since diverted to the east. This river flows from the Vatnajokull Ice Cap and this particular section is incredible.

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Kirkjan

I really did not know what to expect when we set out but we had not gone far when it soon became clear. Huge columns of volcanic rock was thrust in numerous directions creating fantastic patterns in the rock. Basaltic columns had been exposed to great pressure and instead of being vertical were thrust horizontally, creating rose head and fan-shaped patterns. Each corner turned produced another jaw dropping view, not least the Kirkjan, a band of rock that had been thrust up in the middle to produce an arched entrance to a cave resembling a church. It just brought home the powerful forces that were needed to produce such a feature.

Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Talking of powerful forces, Dettifoss, just a few kilometres up stream is the largest waterfall in Europe according to volume. It certainly was a thunderous sight. Again, there was little evidence to over anxious health and safety with just the minimum of guidance and instruction. Why spoil something with large barriers and conspicuous signs when all that is needed is common sense.

Almost 100m wide with a drop of 44m it is not the biggest waterfall. It was impossible, from our vantage point, to see the bottom of the falls; the sheer volume of water and spray made sure of that. Dettifoss is not the most beautiful or the most dramatic of waterfalls but it is, nevertheless, awesome simply because of the noise and sheer volume of water going over it. It might have been even more so had the sun been shining and there had been rainbows in the spray.

Selfoss

Selfoss

Either side of the river is a complex lava field with ridges and hollows devoid of any vegetation. It was through this area that we walked up stream to the next waterfall, Selfoss, a much more attractive horseshoe fall. It was impossible to get as close to these falls, because of the nature of them. The horseshoe continued to have smaller waterfalls tumbling over the shelf, making access impossible. Again it was common sense that determined what was safe and what was not rather than any signage. Selfoss is probably my favourite falls in the north.

We were coming to the end of our touristy bits. We now had a couple of hour’s drive to Eggilsstadir, through some beautiful countryside, before continuing to Bakkagerdi, the starting point of our trek.

In Eggilsstadir we stopped for tea and ice cream, sitting outside in pleasantly warm sunshine.

The Dyrfoll Range

The Dyrfoll Range

Refreshed, we headed out to the north following a lush valley. We had a superb range of mountains on our right, not entirely visible as clouds hung around them, but we saw sufficient to realise they were very interesting. It was the Dyrfoll range. All being well we would be climbing one of them from the other side, if the weather is kind. First impressions were that they were challenging to look at even if they were more accessible to climb. There were lots of sheer faces on them and significant amounts of snow.

Reaching the north coast, we followed it eastwards, passing one small bay before following the coast further round Landsendi (!) to the village of Bakkagerdi. Here we were staying in the very smart Alfheimar Hotel. Alfheimar translates as elf’s home. The rooms were clean and tidy with en-suite facilities, the public areas were restricted to the restaurant only, which limited relaxation opportunities but the food was excellent. We had two nights here and when we left we said we would recommend it to people. The owner asked us not to as he didn’t want crowds turning up. It was rubbish! I wouldn’t bother going there.

This is the peak we hoped to climb

This is the peak we hoped to climb

Towering above the village were the three peaks of the Dyrfjoll range. Most of the time they were hidden by cloud but every so often it would clear sufficiently to show spectacularly craggy peaks. If the conditions were right we were going to climb the 1025m Dyrfjallstindur, the more accessible of the peaks. However, it did very much depend upon the weather as there was an awful lot of snow still covering large parts of the mountain. We would decide in the morning.

The following morning there was a little dampness in the air and clouds still hung around the summits. We were going to have to have a plan B. Oskar suggested we could drive back the way we had come to walk around the coast to Stapavik where there is an interesting cove. I felt we would probably be better off getting some mountain walking done in preparation for our trek. Looking at the map I noticed that there was a circular walk in the valley directly beneath the three summits of Dyrfjoll. It also meant that we would not need to use the vehicle but could walk from the hotel.

DSC_0878Choosing this second option we set off, but it was not long before we had to don our waterproofs. We walked along the road for some distance before we headed across rough ground, passing friendly Icelandic horses on the way. We climbed steadily, soon reaching large patches of snow. Above us the peaks glowered darkly at us they came and went in and out of the cloud. It was cold as well as wet and was very reminiscent of winter walking in the UK. Despite the conditions it was really enjoyable and we made the most of the opportunity to play on the snowy slopes, even to the extent of climbing up them again so that we could toboggan in our waterproofs without the encumbrance of rucksacks on our backs, which inevitably slowed us down.

The rain ceased and by the time we returned to Bakkagerdi the sun was beginning to make an appearance. It was the right decision not to go for the summit but it was also the right decision to get some mountain walking under our belts. We had covered 15km, had a good time and left us time to make one more visit before we started the trek proper.

DSC_0909This visit was to the small fishing harbour that serves Bakkagerdi, not near the village but in a sheltered little spot on the other side of the bay, sheltered by a small headland that sticks out and creates a natural barrier to the prevailing winds. It was not the harbour we were visiting, but the little headland that was home to colonies of puffin, kittiwakes and fulmars. Here, we could get much closer to the puffins, although there was a fence protecting them from humans walking over their burrows. On the cold, exposed side of the island kittiwakes noisily clung to the cliffs, the noise increasing considerably when parents came back from a fishing trip. It was strange that such a small piece of headland should provide homes for three species of sea bird, that they should have their clearly defined areas for living without too much encroachment and that they should all live in harmony.

During the evening Oskar’s son Gunnar arrived with Oskar’s four wheel drive land cruiser with large, very expensive tyres. Gunnar, at 19 years old, would be the envy of any young man in the UK, being able to drive such a vehicle. This was now our support vehicle, the minibus no longer being any use to us. From now on we had to rely upon ourselves to get us from one place to the next.

One last look at the summits Dyrfoll

One last look at the summits Dyrfoll

In the morning the land cruiser made a couple of trips with us round to Runa, close to the little fishing harbour, and the starting point of our trek. The sky was clear, except around the summits of the Dyrfjoll peaks and the sun was shining. The temperature was still in single figures so the conditions for walking were perfect.

The trek started with a climb up to the pass at Hofstrandarskard, which gave us superb views behind of the Dyrfjoll range with the summits clear but with scarves of cloud around their necks. Ahead of us we looked down into the bay at Brunavik (Brown Bay), a deserted, lush, green valley and blue watered bay.

Brunavik

Brunavik

Until 1944 there was a farm in this valley but it was then deserted as life was too tough and it was very hard to make a living. All that remains now are the ruins of the farmhouse. Although life must have been hard, particularly in winter when you could be cut off from the outside world for many weeks, it is a stunning location. The fact that the sun was shining enhanced our view of the place. The only building now is a tin shed which acts as a shelter for stranded walkers. It contains three bunks, a table and benches and a stove, which I very much doubt would work. On shelves above the stove were emergency supplies which were so far beyond their best before date that they were fossilised. We spent a very lazy half hour sitting by the beach, exploring the area and enjoying the sunshine.

DSC_0961Precariously crossing the river just above the beach, we began our next ascent over the highlands. The weather was constantly improving with large patches of blue sky. It made for very pleasant walking. Those mountains facing the on coming sea breeze had cloud bubbling up around their summits but as we were passing between the peaks we were not affected. The slopes we were climbing were not too steep and there were fewer snow patches on these hills so we didn’t have much trudging through wet snow to do.

Helen strolling up to join usafter stopping for photos

Helen strolling up to join usafter stopping for photos

We were in no rush. It was delightful to be out among the hills with no pressures whatsoever. Time did not matter. Nobody could disturb us from our enjoyment. There was nobody to disturb us, we had the mountains to ourselves. This was idyllic walking country. We rested often and we rested long, just absorbing our surroundings.

All too soon we began our descent towards Breidavik (White Bay). On the way down we seemed to temporarily lose the marker posts that show the route, taking us down one or two steep, loose sections, but we eventually found them again and they led us to the hut, half a mile inland from the beach. Gunnar had already arrived and produced bowls of sliced banana, apple and orange as well as river cooled cans of Viking Classic. Gunnar will go far.

The hut at Breidavik

The hut at Breidavik

I decided that I would camp on this trek so set up my tent close to the land cruiser where there was a decent patch of flat grass. The camping area was full with a large group of Germans. Luckily for the rest of our group, they had the hut and its facilities all to themselves. Five of them could spread out among the thirty two beds in the hut. Oskar had told us beforehand that the huts we were using on this trek were better than those we have experienced elsewhere. They were superbly equipped with everything you could possibly need in the kitchen. All the furniture, walls and floor were made of pine and it was all very clean. It was just as comfortable upstairs. I wonder if I would have felt the same had the hut been full? It may then have been a little crowded. As it was it was perfect and the barbecued chicken that Oskar and Gunnar produced was excellent.

DSC_0983With everybody having had a good night’s sleep, we set off the next morning on the second leg of our journey. This was to take us largely along a dirt track for four wheel drive vehicles. It was slightly disappointing to be walking on this and not on mountain paths but there was no choice. If the conditions are right we will make a detour to climb a peak called Hvitserkur, at 771m not particularly high but affording excellent views. As we set out clouds hung around the summits so it looked doubtful that we would be able to take the detour, not because we would not get a view but because, in cloud, it would be too dangerous with a narrow path and cliffs on either side.

Low cloud intervenes again

Low cloud intervenes again

Although the mountains are not particularly high in this area, 600-800m on average, they appear to be much higher. Some of them are quite dramatic with cliffs and jagged ridges. Snow was also dominant on the higher slopes, but I think the thing that made them appear higher was the fact that they rose up out of the sea, so we were seeing them in their entirety.

As we neared Hvitserkur and looked up at the route as it disappeared into the clouds it was clear that the climbing option was not going to be available. Only Oskar could be the judge but the bit of the ascent route that I saw looked challenging.

Oskar relaxing at Husavik church

Oskar relaxing at Husavik church

With the decision made we headed down towards Husavik. Now we were in good time, so instead of going to the hut we headed out to the bay to visit the little church overlooking it. After an hour’s walking we turned a corner and there was the church, a beacon of white and red welcoming visitors. The church is no longer used on a regular basis as there is no longer a congregation to fill it, the last farm being abandoned in 1974. One of the farms has been updated to provide a summer home but there are no longer any permanent dwellings in the area. The church can still be used for weddings and christenings. Unfortunately it was locked so entry forbidden but we sat and lay on the grass in the churchyard enjoying brilliant sunshine with plenty of warmth in it.

Our mountain now clear in the evening sunlight

Our mountain now clear in the evening sunlight

Heading back to the hut we were greeted not only with Gunnar’s fruit delights and beer, but also freshly made pancakes and cheese from the warden who, on seeing us heading in the direction of the hut set to in the kitchen. I don’t normally like pancakes but these were delicious.

The wardens of these huts are all volunteers and they have to apply to become one for a week during the season. The season is quite short, starting in late June and ending in early September. The wardens are responsible for the upkeep of the huts, although the bulk of the cleaning is done by the visitors just prior to leaving. In return, they get the use of the warden’s hut and all that goes with it. All they pay for is their food. The warden who greeted us is in charge of a hospital orthopaedic unit in her everyday life and she uses these weeks each year to re-charge her batteries.

At the end of the season the huts are locked up, the toilets and showers also with the water disconnected, but the warden’s hut is always left open as an emergency shelter for anybody passing through during the long out of season period. There is also an out of season toilet that can be used. This would certainly be an improvement on the emergency hut we saw in Brunavik.

Again the hut was for our use only with the exception of a couple of French girls who were camping and the warden allowed to use the facilities. They did not really get in the way; while we ate some superb barbecued salmon, they had Cup-a-soup.

This peak, like a castle dominated the skyline above the hut

This peak, like a castle dominated the skyline above the hut

The following morning was again bright and dry with not a cloud in the sky. According to the weather forecast it was to remain so throughout much of the day. We could expect some cloud in the afternoon. We started climbing immediately up the dirt track to the top of the  Neshals Pass. From here we had fabulous views looking back the way we had come. The peak we had wanted to climb the day before was now totally clear. Ahead of us was another outstanding view of the Lodmundarfjordur with mountains rising steeply from the other side. Beyond the headland the beginnings of a much bigger fjord could be seen, Seydisfjordur with more mountains beyond.

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Lodmundarfjordur with Seydisfjordur round the next headland

Dropping steeply from the pass we took the route running parallel with the water’s edge. We stopped for lunch on a promontory overlooking the fjord and scouted the surface for any whales that may have ventured in. All we saw were Eider ducks as there is an Eider duck farm at the head of the fjord. We did spend a lot of time scanning the hills through binoculars as Oskar had heard that there was a herd of about 200 reindeer in the area. No chance, increased by the fact that more cloud had developed than forecast, and earlier, so that the higher reaches of the hills were beginning to disappear.

Oskar and Gunnar

Oskar and Gunnar

We eventually reached the hut which we affectionately called Oskar’s Hut as he was one of the volunteers who helped to build it. Having arrived in good time we enjoyed a leisurely late afternoon, relaxing, chatting and showering in readiness for Oskar’s evening meal piece de resistance, reindeer burgers. Watching him work the minced meat into similar sized balls, he than flattened them out. This was from a stag, the meat being better and less dense than that from a female. There was absolutely no fat in the meat. Having flattened each portion out he placed peppered cheese on every other portion. The blank portion was then placed on top and the edges sealed so that the cheese was trapped inside. I don’t think I have ever had finer burgers and I certainly won’t be rushing to buy Tesco’s cheapest for my next barbecue.

DSC_0052_2The best day’s walk was saved until the last day. Retracing our steps for the first kilometre, we then took an off piste route around the Eider duck farm. The owner is not happy about walkers crossing his land. He is only in residence for the short summer so I guess he has a right to protect what he has while he can. It necessitated us climbing above his farm and struggling across tussocks of grass to get beyond it. Once beyond his boundary we soon picked up the path and began the fairly lengthy climb up to the pass. We were going higher on this section of the route than on any other and encountered quite a lot of snow as we gained height. We were expecting to have to de-boot for river crossings but found them to be easier than expected. It was beautiful walking with always something of interest to attract you attention.

DSC_0065_2Coming over the brow of the pass we feasted our eyes on the view into Seydisfjordur and the snow streaked mountains beyond. Out to the east was the open ocean but here, in the fjord, the waters were calm and blue, reflecting the sky above. It was stunning and none of us wanted this day to end. We wanted to absorb everything in front of us, to take it all in, to ensure it remained imprinted in our memories for ever. A happy moment.

DSC_0081_2Dropping into a gully full of snow and with a fast flowing river issuing from it, we could not rely on the fragile snow bridge to get across. We could, however, manage to pick our way gingerly across the stones. With the last river crossing safely negotiated, we stopped on a grassy knoll for our second lunch. We had got into the habit of spreading our lunch out over two sessions, an early and late lunch. This was a most beautiful location.

Seydisfjordur

Seydisfjordur

We, again, scanned the fjord for any signs of watery activity and this time, out towards the mouth of the fjord, we could see dark shapes on the surface of the water. They would disappear briefly and then return again. These were definitely whales and there were at least four of them. It soon became clear that two were much larger than the other two and we could only surmise that we were watching two females with their calves. Even through binoculars we were not going to get much of a view but it was fabulous to sit there knowing that a few hundred metres below us and a kilometre or so along the fjord there was a pod of whales. It was a truly magical moment, perhaps the more so because we did not go looking for them, they were an added bonus to the day. Eventually they disappeared under the surface and we continued our descent towards the fjord. Gunnar was parked by the road at the bottom and offered anybody a lift who wanted one but most of us were wanting to finish the walk. Some minutes later he returned to say that the accommodation had changed and we were staying on the other side of town. All bar Oskar and me took his offer of a ride, and having deposited them he returned for us.

DSC_0115_2Seyoisfjordur is a very attractive little town completely surrounded by high mountains which rose steeply out of the fjord or valley floor. In winter these mountains are prone to avalanche because of their steepness. Historically the town has had a number of avalanche disasters, the most recent in 1996 when a factory was flattened, fortunately without loss of life. A memorial of twisted girders from the factory commemorates the towns history of avalanches. It has a ferry terminal with a link to Denmark and cruise ships often come into the fjord. It has a couple of smart hotels and the hostel we were staying in came under one of them. Our hostel was the old hospital, a new one having been built next door. It was smart and comfortable. We were to take our meals in Hotel Aldin,  by the water’s edge, and we had a superb meal of lamb chops. Afterwards, Oskar and I went to the adjacent bar named after a British oil tanker that was sunk by the Germans during the Second World War. The ship still sits on the bottom of the fjord, and because it is deep, does not interfere with modern day shipping. The ship was called the El Grillo and there is now a beer, brewed on the premises by that name. Over a pint of El Grillo, we discussed the trip, how lucky we had been with the weather and the huts and what a good time we had all had, much of it down to the care and attention shown to us by Oskar and Gunnar.

In the morning a minibus collected us from the hostel and took us over the mountains to Eglisstadir to catch out flight to Reykjavik. Climbing out of the valley we encountered a really wintery scene with lots of snow on the slopes and the water on Lake Heidarvatn being partially frozen.

The Kex Hostel

The Kex Hostel

In Reykjavik summer had arrived late. The sun was out and the temperature was in the high teens. On arrival the group split up, Helen had a flight later in the day, Mark and Shona very early the next morning, so they had booked themselves into the airport hotel. Mike, Claire and I made our way back to the Kex Hostel. I was now ready to go home so I had little on my agenda for Reykjavik. I think I have done it now and there is not much I haven’t seen. I was content to relax and read my book, a Reykjavik murder mystery. The following day, Claire and I left Mike to enjoy a couple more days before he returned.

I have had a fabulous time in Iceland with two very different trips. This second trip had given me the opportunity to explore completely new territory. Next time I will be looking to explore the wild, remote North Western fjords. Anybody fancy it? 

Westman Islands (Vestmannaeyjar)

Leaving the group behind at the hotel, either asleep or waving me off, I was picked up by minibus at 7.00am and taken to the main Grey Line bus station. There, I transferred to another minibus and waited for Lars, Charlotte and their two children from Sweden, my fellow travellers for the day, to arrive. All assembled we set off with me sitting up front while my Swedish companions spread out in the back. Our driver seemed very fidgety to begin with and was trying to do several things at once, which distracted him from his driving, to the extent that on a sweeping curve we mounted the kerb and ran over the grass verge. This seemed to have the desired effect and from then on he concentrated on his driving. It was not a very encouraging start. We chatted on and off throughout the journey and I discovered that he had five children, three of whom were living and working, or studying in Berlin. The other two would leave Iceland as soon as they had finished their schooling. This highlights a real problem that Iceland is facing, the desertion by its young talent for more vibrant and opportunistic cities. All the traditional industries of Iceland are dwindling. Since the crash of 2008 many professional opportunities have gone and there does not appear to be a very optimistic future for the next generation. Tourism is bucking that trend and is a success story. It is now bigger than any other industry and is set to grow further. I hope so, because an awful lot of money is being invested in the building of new hotels etc. Not everybody wants to be a servant to tourists and so they feel they have to leave. Like the rest of Western Europe, East Europeans are filling the jobs that Icelanders don’t want to do.

This filled the time and we arrived at the small, but busy, quayside at  Landeyjahöfn, at the mouth of the Markarfljot River, soon after 9.00am. As we turned off the main road to the quay, Seljalandsfoss could be seen to our left. Our driver sorted the tickets for us and we boarded the ferry, Herjolfur, for the thirty five minute trip across to the main island, Heimaey. Nearly everybody chose to travel on deck to enjoy the view. The sea was calm, the sun was shining. Than was no reason to hide away. As we left the quayside the propellers churned up mud from the seabed which attracted numerous noisy Arctic Terns that dived into the churning water to catch morsels that had been disturbed.

The islands of Ellidaey and Bjarnarey

The islands of Ellidaey and Bjarnarey

Beyond the breakwaters we rocked gently as we ploughed our course across the short stretch of water to the largest of the islands. To our left, or should I say port side, two islands rose vertically out of the sea, with towering cliffs providing plenty of nesting opportunities for colonies of sea birds that left white streaks trailing from their perches. On both of the islands there is a single house, although nobody actually lives on them. They are, maybe summer residences, although I don’t know how they gain access to the islands as they seem to have precipitous cliffs all around them.

Heimaey before the 1973 eruption. Helgafell is on the right, Eldfell is now in the middle of the flat farmland.

Heimaey before the 1973 eruption, taken from a book.  Helgafell is on the right, Eldfell is now in the middle of the flat farmland to the left.

In January 1973 the island of Heimaey suddenly erupted forcing all of the island’s 5200 inhabitants to evacuate. For many years the people, the bulk of whom lived in the town surrounding the busy fishing harbour, had lived in the shadow of Helgafell, a perfect cone-shaped volcano. But this was a new vent. Had there not been a severe storm in the days leading up to the eruption, the fishing fleet would all have been at sea. As it was, they were all in port and were able to evacuate everybody to the mainland, and safety. The eruption continued for five months, spewing out over 30 million tons of lava, destroying one third of the town (360 houses), increasing the size of the island by 2.5 sq. km. When the lava flows threatened to close off the harbour, firefighters hosed it down with cold sea water, stemming, and eventually halting the flow. Had they not done so and the harbour entrance closed there would have been little reason for people to return. Remarkably the eruption and the intervention of the fire service resulted in a much more sheltered harbour with a long narrow entrance between high cliffs and new land. When things had calmed down, two-thirds of the population returned to rebuild their lives.

Helgafell on the left, Eldfell on the right

Helgafell on the left, Eldfell on the right

The outcome of five months of eruption was a new volcano, the 205m Eldfell. It was originally 240m but it contracted as it cooled, although it is still far from being cool.

I remember seeing images on the news of houses being engulfed under a wall of creeping black. I also remember images from ten years previously when Surtsey, another of the Westman Islands, emerged from the sea in a dramatic under-the-ocean eruption. On the news this week it was reported that Surtsey is warming up and threatening to erupt again in the not too distant future.

Entering the narrow harbour

Entering the narrow harbour

As we turned in towards the harbour it was hard to believe that it was not only wide enough but also deep enough for a vessel like the Herjolfur. On the starboard side brown/orange cliffs towered above us while on the port side black 42 year old lava seemed to get closer and closer.

Having docked we disembarked and headed straight to the jetty from which I was to take the round the island boat trip. Unfortunately, the boat was going nowhere. There was a fault wit the engine and it was going to take a while to repair. The sun was shining and it was pleasantly warm so I did not mind too much. Things looked bad when a man with very oily hands came along the jetty carrying several pieces of cast steel that should have been one piece. He sped off in his car, returning a few minutes later with a replacement part that was quickly put where it should be. A few minutes later the engine spluttered into life and we were, apologetically, welcomed aboard forty minutes later than scheduled.

Black lava tumbling into the sea

Black lava tumbling into the sea

Leaving the harbour, we travelled clockwise around the island. This took us immediately to the side of the island that was facing the incoming wind, so, being a relatively small vessel we bobbed about a bit. Looking at the island we were looking at the new land. It was jet black and devoid of any vegetation. It tumbled over itself in liquid folds until it fell into the sea, creating a stark contrast with its white froth caused by it crashing into the lava, sending spray up into every reachable nook and cranny. A black column rose up from the sea, detached from the island, standing like a sentinel on guard.

Volcanic islands trail south from Heimaey

Volcanic islands trail south from Heimaey

As we cleared the new coastline the colour of the cliffs became more traditional with wave and wind smoothed features creating caves, arches and stacks. Out to the south more sentinel islands rose vertically out of the sea in dramatic fashion. They were stunningly beautiful and changed with each turn of the rudder. Furthest south stood the baby of them all, Surtsey with a mixture of dramatic cliffs and a tail drifting off into the sea.

A large elephant dipping his trunk into the sea

A large elephant dipping his trunk into the sea

Travelling up the west side of Heimaey we were sheltered from the prevailing wind. If anything, the coastline was even more dramatic this side with towering cliffs colonised by thousands of noisy sea birds. We entered colourful caves, wary of the birds above as we entered. Seals basked on rocks. The rocks now took on other features as they displayed huge volcanic upheaval with basaltic columns twisted and contorted into fantastic shapes, rose heads and spirals. To the side of one cave we entered was the largest elephant in the world, its head clearly seen with eye and its huge trunk disappearing into the sea below. Such natural beauty and drama far surpasses anything man can produce on such a scale, and it too such violence to create it.

On the north coast we hit the fish processing plant. Having been in awe at such grandeur, we now cringed by the smell that came from it. While we cringed, sea birds gathered in their hundreds, attracted by the smell and the opportunity for an easy meal.

Viking saxophonist

Viking saxophonist

Soon clear, we rounded the headland and headed towards the harbour. Hugging the cliffs, we entered one last cave where the engines were cut and the captain played his saxophone. Acoustically it was superb and everybody on the boat was mesmerised by this unexpected treat. Having applauded him, the engines were fired up and we exited the cave to find the ferry baring down on us, overtaking us and beating us into the harbour. It struck me how fast it was going in such a narrow channel of water and of what confidence they must have in the ship and themselves.

It had taken us an hour and a half to travel round the island and it was now lunch time. After such an early start and no breakfast I was ready for it. Our guide took us to Gott Restaurant in the centre of town for lobster soup and bread. It was a busy, vibrant place with as many locals there as tourists, which is always a good sign. The soup was delicious.

The delayed departure of the boat in the morning put us behind schedule so the coach trip round the island compensated and delayed its departure. Our guide arranged for the coach to pick up up from the restaurant, ensuring we were not rushed. By the time the coach picked us up it was already half full of ageing tourists, mostly American. They were all enthusiastically seated in the front half, leaving me free to spread out near the back. There were no more pick ups so I was able to enjoy the space and not have to indulge in any conversation.  I don’t normally cherish the thought of a coach trip but it was a quick visit and I wanted to make the most of the opportunity to see as much as I could and not waste time trying to find it for myself.

The community ground in a huge natural amphitheatre

The community ground in a huge natural amphitheatre

Leaving the town we went to the community ground, passing the football ground where a junior tournament was taking place and adjacent to the golf course. For such a small place and a population of less than 5000, Heimaey has everything. The community ground is the site of an annual festival held during the first weekend in August, in fact, next weekend. Teams of people in high vis vests were busy making ready for the huge numbers that attend, approximately 15,000, who enjoy lots of music from the festival stage, dancing, gallons of alcohol, fireworks and a huge bonfire. The site is a huge natural amphitheatre rising steeply to the cliff top.

Our driver/guide talked constantly switching between Icelandic and English with ease. He was local and talked with passion about his heritage. He experienced, as a child, the 1973 eruption and was able to give a graphic description of what it was like before he was evacuated to Skogar on the mainland.

A narrow isthmus separating two craters

A narrow isthmus separating two craters

Heading south we stopped at various places of interest and were given time to wander around. Towards the south there is a narrow neck of land where two underwater craters almost meet. At the most southern end of the island (it is only 7km long) is the official windiest place in Europe, although today it relatively calm. Nearby was a puffin colony but, having recently been to Skomer, this was a disappointment. Heading back towards the town we passed between the two volcanos of Helgafell and Eldfell before ending up at the museum marking the 1973 eruption. I wanted to leave myself enough time to climb Eldfell, so I quickly went through the museum, which was interesting and probably deserved more time spent there than I was prepared to give. There was the remains of a house, plenty of film and lots of first hand accounts and personal stories.

Looking down on Heimaey from Eldfell

Looking down on Heimaey from Eldfell

Leaving the museum, I headed for Eldfell. A Redshank standing, unperturbed by me, on a road sign distracted me briefly from my mission. Leaving the road, I took the track to the hill. At 205m it does not qualify to be anything other than a hill. However, it was steep and the path was made up of fine volcanic ash, making it more of a challenge. The rim of the crater is on the south and east side, with virtually no rim to the north and west. This was the direction that all the lava and ash spewed, engulfing the town and threatening the port. The rim is made up of red cinder. In places there are small vents emanating heat. No smoke or steam is apparent but the rocks and the air in the vent is still hot to touch and feel. From the summit you could see the full extent of its effect as well as the whole of the rest of the island. The island can be roughly divided into four quarters. The town accounts for a significant proportion, the small airport with its two runways accounts for much of the central portion, the new volcano and its lava flows another significant section and the southern tip beyond the two bays the fourth quarter.

Where the street once was but now buried under 20m of lava

Where the street once was but now buried under 20m of lava

Descending by a different route, I came to the area where the lava flow encroached on the town. Signs stuck into the ground show the street names where they used to be but are now under 20m of lava, hidden for ever. Walking through the suburbs of the town it was clear that this is a relatively prosperous place. The houses were quite large, well appointed and cared for, unlike some other rural areas of mainland Iceland. Of course Heimaey has a lot in its favour. It is small, it has a very successful and prosperous fishing industry and it is very much on the tourist trail.

Light illuminating the side of an old crater on Bjarnarey

Light illuminating the side of an old crater on Bjarnarey

Back at the port the Herjolfur was waiting to return me to the mainland and then the minibus journey back to Reykjavik, getting back soon after 9.00pm. The driver took me to Hotel Cabin to collect my luggage and the helpfully took me to the Kex Hostel on Skulagata. The front of the building and the entrance is not encouraging but once inside the former biscuit factory it becomes a vibrant, lively and fascinating place serving good food and beer. What more could I ask for after a good day on Heimaey?

King’s/NCW Iceland 2015

The journey down to Heathrow was tortuous. For a start it was not a comfortable bus; the seat belt was so uncomfortably positioned it felt as though it was trying its hardest to break my collar bone. The driver was an odd character. With everybody on board, he said let’s go, only to then delay so that he could have his full fifteen minutes break. As he had only come from the depot two miles away, why did he need a break. We stopped for a toilet break at the first services we came to on the M4. Again he prevaricated as to whether this was a quickie or an official break. Thinking he wanted an official break we allowed fifteen minutes. Then he insisted we should be going but we were all waiting for him. Worse was to come when there were ninety minute delays on the M4 near Reading, the result of an accident. Google suggested taking the A34, A303, M3 to bypass the hold up and get to Heathrow in good time. This did not take into account a broken down vehicle on the slip road from the M3 on to the M25 and a further accident. It took three and a half hours to reach terminal 2, still leaving enough time but it is a frustration we could have done without.

Oscar met us on our arrival at Keflavik. As we came out of the terminal it felt remarkably cool. Snow still lay on the mountains in the distance. A bus drove us into Reykjavik over the barren volcanic landscape. As it did so it started to rain and continued to do so for the next three or four hours hours. Our hotel, CenterHotel Midgardur, is a former bank, converted into a smart boutique style hotel. It took a while to sort out the rooming detail, not for any other reason than the fact that we wanted to sort out the pairing. After the students had gone to sort themselves out in their rooms, we spoke at length with Oscar about the itinerary. He was concerned that, because of the snow, large parts of the highlands were closed. This also meant that the huts on the route were also closed. The support vehicles cannot do their job either. Until recently vehicles have been able to make use of snow bridges but they have now collapsed, making rivers impassable. There is still 4m of snow in the hills. The outcome is that we will make our way to Landmannalaugur, explore areas nearby before trekking the same route as we did last year. The only difference is that we would have to put two days into one, making it a 24km trek, which some of the students might find very challenging, particularly with so much snow around. If we feel this would be too much for any of them we have the chance to put them in the support vehicle.

There were one or two discrepancies with the detail of the early part of the itinerary. Caz and Russ had spent a long time getting it right only to find that Arctic Adventures had adjusted it back without letting us know. At least Oscar is accommodating and is happy to comply with our wishes.

In the evening we wandered down Laugavegur looking for somewhere to eat that could take 23 of us. We eventually found one that served burgers, ribs and chips. A good meal for a group of young people.

It is now past 10.30 and it it still bright outside. The sun has yet to set and it will not get properly dark so I hope the curtains do their job.

After a surprisingly good night’s sleep, I woke afresh and ready for the day. Reykjavik is renowned for its heavy partying on Friday and Saturday nights, with bars open until 6.00am. I heard nothing until I was awake after 6.30, when there was some drunken shouting outside the hotel.

Phil had had a less than good night, beginning to feel bloated and ill immediately after eating. He spent most of the night commuting between his bed and the bathroom, and, as a result felt unable to take part in any of the activities of the day.

I had a leisurely breakfast and gradually the group joined me, the bulk of them arriving at 8.00 as arranged. The spread was quite good but the best item was warm flapjack. It was really nice.

DSC_0010We spent the morning of exploring the best bits of Reykjavik, the church built to look like a Viking helmet with ever ascending columns of concrete rising to a capped tower. Everything about the church is plain and simple, both inside and out. Most of the group took the opportunity to take the lift to the top of the tower to get the aerial view of the multicoloured roofs below. I think this is the best view of the city showing the traditional with the functional and rather unimpressive modern, of which there is plenty being developed as Iceland’s climb out of recession continues to gather pace.

For a capital city it was remarkably quiet, even if it was a Saturday. There seemed to be no rush to get shops and cafes open and most of the people on the streets were tourists eager to get going. There was still the odd remnant of overindulgence staggering in the streets or sitting on a bench looking very sorry for themselves.

DSC_0014Down on the waterfront the sea was like a millpond hardly making a ripple as it lapped against the huge boulders which act as a sea defense. The hills across the water had a lot more snow on them than they should at this time of year, the height of the summer. In a few weeks time the first snows of next winter will fall long before that of last has gone. Behind the tranquil coastal scene the waterfront continues to be developed with new high rise apartment and office blocks, and the conversion of former warehouses and factories into hotels and residences, just to prove that Iceland is successfully climbing out of recession.

DSC_0019Returning to the hotel we made ready to leave for the hour long drive to the start of our walk to the hot springs. We visited them two years ago coming in from above. This year we were taking the slightly longer approach from the valley on the other side. This took us past a couple of interesting fumeroles but nothing like the number on our previous approach. We were plagued by small flies by the thousand. Although they did not sting, they got inside your glasses, in your mouth if you breathed through or up your nose if you breathed through that. It didn’t matter how you breathed you were going to ingest small black flies.

DSC_0032As were reached a high point that brought us into the hot spring valley, we saw steam rising from the stream snaking through the valley, flanked on either side by vivid green grass. Colourful flowers, yellows and vivid purples, broke up the green. All along the side of the stream duck boards had been laid to make it easier for bathers. Every so often shields had been erected to make the changing of clothes a much easier process. In places the stream had been dammed to create pools and steps led into them from the duckboards. I tried the water where we bathed before but it was much too hot so I went to a point just below where a cold stream flowed into the hot one. It was still plenty hot enough. We spent an enjoyable hour or so wallowing in hot water, making balls of the green weed flowing by and throwing it at each other, students unable to enjoy the experience without playing. The only one who did not seem to enjoy it was Josh who had to be persuaded to roll his trouser legs up and paddle reluctantly, detached from the group.

Returning to the bus we travelled the short distance to Hverageroi and the Hotel Ork, fully equipped with swimming pool, water slide and hot pools. Before and after dinner the students took full advantage of the pools, although the water slide lacked water, so was anything but slippery.

The walls may have been smooth but the floor was littered with large boulders

The walls may have been smooth but the floor was littered with large boulders

The following morning, with Phil feeling much better, we headed to Thingvellir, the site of the world’s first parliament and the place where the North American and European plates are separating to dramatic effect. However, we did not wait there very long as we were there to meet up with another Arctic Adventures vehicle where we were to receive our helmets and torches for caving. Travelling a short distance further, we reached the entrance to a 300m lava tube, Gjabakki cave. Kitted out with helmets and torches, we clambered into the tube over the rock strewn entrance. This was to prove to be the first real test for the visually impaired students and those guiding them. Firstly, those with visual impairment were as good as blind in the tube, resulting in the guides having to be very aware of the extra needs required to pass through  safely. It wasn’t just the entrance that was rock strewn; it was thus throughout its length, meaning there was no opportunity to relax. Unlike the floor, the walls were smooth, smoothed by molten lava rushing through while the outer crust cooled first and hardened. Subsequent collapsing of the roof resulted in large blocks littering the floor and making our passage through challenging. The rocks were cold to touch and rough on the hands. The tube was not straight, far from it, but it swept round in fluid arcs. It was really quite beautiful. At one point we sat on rocks and turned out our torches, guaranteeing that everybody was blind and equal. An opportunity to tell stories! I was really impressed by the way the King’s students rose to the guiding challenge, reassuring us that, when it mattered, they were more than up for the challenge. It also assured us that the impaired students were not going to be put off by a new experience, but were up to facing them with determination.

The guides had to be really vigilant

The guides had to be really vigilant

It must have taken us the best part of an hour to travel the 300m through the tube. Certainly the walk back to our bus over the surface took a lot less time.

This had been a fabulous experience and it confirmed what a good activity it was to include. We even felt that, irrespective of whether there is caving in any future itinerary, it might be worthwhile including in any training regime as it brought out the best in both groups of students.

Moving on, we drove to Drumbo, the rafting centre, for lunch before facing the challenges of the Hvita river.

Following a lunch of soup and bread, there was some delay while we waited for a group to join us. A group of Danish scouts were to be rafting with us (not in the same rafts but at the same time, as well as a third group. When they eventually arrived things began to happen quite quickly. I had decided not to raft this time, preferring to position myself to take some good photos and video, something that cannot be adequately done from the raft.

DSC_0073As they prepared and went through the safety procedures, I positioned my self on the river bank as close to the first, and most interesting, set of rapids. While I waited I was bombarded by a couple of terns who saw my presence as a threat. They provided a spectacular aerial show. Five bombing towards my head, screeching loudly as they did so, and pulling out of the dive at the last moment. On other occasions they would hover, making full use of their tail feathers to hold their position and intimidate me into retreat. Retreat I did not, so the terns moved away, regrouped, and set about removing me again.
By now the rafts were entering the water and the two rafts of Danish scouts passed through the rapids first ,giving me the chance to perfect my photography. Out two rafts were next so I got one videoed and the other by a series of dramatic stills,

DSC_0091Then, it was quickly rush to the bus to get to the next photogenic opportunity, a road bridge over the river as they entered the gorge. This was to be quickly followed by the point where they beached their rafts, climbed the cliff and bravely jumped 7m into the cold water. But they didn’t stop. They continued through the gorge and out the other end. There had been talk beforehand that the river might be running too fast for this to be possible. Clearly, the raft captains had made an on the spot decision to avoid unnecessary risk. Practically, a wise decision but a missed photo opportunity.

Back in the bus, we made our way to the finishing point. There were no more rapids on this stretch of the river but it was the stretch where they played games, often resulting in people ending up in the river.

It was funny, as they came ashore, the number of people who, being so pleased to see me, wanted to give me a hug.

DSC_0138

Geyser

Back at Drumbo we enjoyed barbecued lamb steaks with grossly undercooked jacket potatoes before visiting Geyser for its regular four minute eruptions. We chose to do this, and also visit Gullfoss while we were in the area rather than add many miles to our itinerary the next day and put us under unnecessary pressure. The geyser never fails to impress. It is not as high as some but it is very predictable, although, while we were there it managed to tease us twice with double eruptions, always just as we had turned our backs on it.
Gullfoss, never fails to amaze by the sheer volume of water falling over its various shelves, the noise it creates and the spray from it that fills the air.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss

With these two items ticked off we headed for our overnight accommodation on a horse ranch just inland from the main ring road that circumnavigated the island. Here, we were in one large dormitory, with two rooms off for the staff, adjacent to the ménage. It was comfortable but there were not really enough facilities for such a large group as ours. It was comfortable enough and we had the added treat of a large, very hairy, goat sheltering from the rain in our porch, as well as lambs and piglets running around beneath us.

Skogarfoss

Skogarfoss

In the morning it was still damp and the forecast predicted it would get worse rather than better during the course of the day. Because we had taken the time to visit Geyser and Gullfoss the evening before our start to the day was a little more relaxed than it might have been. We were booked in for the Eyjafjallajokull film show for 10.00am, with a chance to visit Seljalandsfoss on the way. As it was we went straight to the film, a good insight into the events that led to the shutting down of much of the world’s airlines in 2010. Afterwards, we continued along the main road to look at Skogarfoss.

Enjoying the Solheimajokull Glacier

Enjoying the Solheimajokull Glacier

As the morning progressed I began to feel unwell and could summon little interest in the stunning waterfall in front of me. Skipping lunch, I decided that it was probably not a good idea to go with the group on to the Solheimajokull Glacier, preferring to lie down on the back seats of the bus and wait for what might happen. The weather deteriorated as well, and the group spent a very wet afternoon on the glacier. It got colder and colder as I dozed there until the inevitable happened. I began to feel a little better. Shortly afterwards the group returned from their venture on the glacier, excited by their experience even if they were all a little cold and wet.

On the journey back to our barn I concentrated really hard, keeping my eyes firmly focused in front of me. It worked, but as soon as I got to my room I had to rush out again to be ill.
While the rest of the group enjoyed lasagna and evening activity, I slept and, thankfully, was not ill again.

In the morning I felt much better, if not a little weak. Fortunately, it was an easy day, simply travelling by bus to the start of our trek.

This is where we veered away from our planned itinerary. There is so much snow in the highlands, up to 4m in places, that many routes are still closed. Where some routes might be accessible on foot, the roads for the support vehicles are closed, severely restricting where we could go. We had known about this problem since our arrival so it did not come as a shock to us. As far as the students were concerned it did not matter a great deal. For the staff, Caz and myself in particular, it meant covering the same ground as we covered last year. As it turned out it was so different from last year it was of no consequence.
Changing from our old, 1998, converted American school bus to a high wheel based four-wheel drive we headed into the mountains and Loomundur, the starting point for our trek. Siggi followed us in his land cruiser and trailer full of kit for the trek. Passing Helka, which I climbed last year, gave us some indication as to how different the conditions would be this year. Last year Hekla had just patches of snow, this it was completely covered and still very much inaccessible to the average walker, largely because vehicles could get nowhere near it making it a much more serious proposition to climb in a day.

Working together

Working together

Arriving at the small group of huts that make up Loomundur, we set up camp on soft grass by the side of the river. It may be summer in Iceland but it felt more like winter. A chill wind blew across camp and the temperature was only a few degrees above freezing. I began to regret not having my down jacket. The fact that I had starved myself for 36 hours might have made me more susceptible to feeling the cold. I was not the only one who felt it. Yet despite the cold the students played cricket using a selfie stick for a bat. This caught the attention of a film camera man who started to capture this strange behaviour on film. Later, when we were eating, the camera came closer and we eventually learned that they were making a news documentary on tourism in Iceland. Clearly not enough happens in Iceland. Speaking to them they requested the opportunity to interview a couple of the students so we elected Tom from King’s and Amy from NCW. Tom is a lot taller than Amy so he bizarrely had to stand with his legs wide apart, like a giraffe going to drink, in order to make him more compatible with Amy on film. It looked very strange.

A helping hand

A helping hand

In the morning the sun shone, taking the edge off the chill. Once we got walking it would soon feel better. Our route was going to take us to Landmannalauger, the starting point for many doing the classic trek to Thorsmork. For the first 6km the route was flat but we often had to skirt round waterlogged ground. We had a river crossing fairly soon into the walk and there were many other water channels that had to be jumped. All around us the hills were covered in deep snow. It was fun looking for shapes that fired the imagination. One looked like a duck skiing on one very muscular leg while the other leg trailed behind. Another resembled a fierce cat attacking a defensive bear. There were many more to indulge the imagination.

Emerging from the snow cave

Emerging from the snow cave

At one point we dropped into a gully full of deep snow. Snow caves had been carved into it by water making them fun places to explore. The face of the packed snow became a challenging playground for the students as they kicked their toes in to make steps. Some were more successful than others. These distractions slowed down progress but with virtually 24 hours of daylight there was no hurry to get into camp. It was great to enjoy these playgrounds in each others’ company and not worry about how long the journey was going to take.

The trek over to Landmannalaugar

The trek over to Landmannalaugar

After the flat we began to climb, so far avoiding snow but once we reached a high lunch spot we looked down on the route ahead and there was plenty of snow to cross. While some of it was energy sapping, some was also a lot of fun as we were able to toboggan on our backsides. It was incredibly beautiful. Walking across the snowfields made the going quite heavy and the occasional patches of volcanic rock gave some welcome relief before the next snowfield.

DSC_0317Coming to the crest of a hill we dropped down steeply to a flood plain where several mountain streams converge and are hemmed in on all sides. On three sides the hills sweep down to it. On the fourth side a lava field separates it from the main valley of Landmannalaugar. I remember looking across at this area last year and wishing we had time to explore it. Now I had my chance. There were several river crossings and more snow fields to cross before we reached the lava field. Staying in water shoes for the snowfields soon cooled the feet down to an uncomfortable level.

The tent city of Landmannalaugar

The tent city of Landmannalaugar

Having passed through the fascinating lava field with its fluid, tumbling rocks and deep clefts, we dropped in the tent city of Landmannalaugar. Before you can pitch a tent here you have to be as vigilant as possible and remove as many stones as you can, otherwise at least you could have an uncomfortable night, at most tear the floor of your tent or puncture your thermarest. However hard you try it will be impossible to remove them all. The next hurdle is to drive home the pegs far enough into the stoney earth to be able to hold the tent firm should the wind get up. Fortunately, there was little wind but we do know that it can be very windy here, as was the case two years ago when we watched a tent flying across the campsite with its owner chasing after it, in probably a lost cause.

Making the most of the sunshine!

Making the most of the sunshine!

It was pleasantly warm and many of the students ventured into the hot pools, although they were not that reliably hot this year as a large amount of melt water was flowing into the stream diluting the effect of the thermal springs. They came out saying that when it was hot on the surface it was cold at lower depths and vice versa in other spots.

During the night I began to get stomach cramps with sweeping pains. I feared that the bug was back. Several trips to the loo in the night, which never got dark, seemed to sort me out, but I decided I would starve myself yet again and not do the walk to a crater rim that the group were doing that day. By the time they returned I was feeling much better and also much more positive about the days ahead.

For some reason I was awarded the “Puffin of Shame” in the evening, and given the responsibility of looking after it for the next 24 hours while everybody else in the group did their utmost to steal it from me. I honestly cannot remember why I was awarded it. Clearly it was for some trumped up reason. Having taken possession of it, I was going to look after it well.

Because of the conditions we were going to have to do what should be covered in two days, in one. The hut at Hragntinnusker was inaccessible to the support vehicle and was surrounded by deep snow. It was still only 24km but with a group such as this it would take most of the day and some of the walking would be difficult. We had concerns about two of the NCW students and their ability to cope and not slow down the rest of the group. They would travel round with Siggi in the vehicle and Caz would sacrifice her walk to accompany them. When spoken to one was relieved while the other was a little put out. I believe it was the right decision. I was now fully recovered and was looking forward to this section of one of the great walks of the world.

With the “Puffin of Shame” very firmly attached to my rucksack we set out at 8.00am. Immediately, we started the steady climb out of Landmannalaugar, soon hitting snow once we were through the lava field. It was a beautiful morning with plenty of sunshine. Sometimes I would go on ahead to film the group as they came through, while at other times I would drop behind to film them from below. This was particularly effective when the appeared in silhouette against the sky.

Meg has that look of satisfaction on her face that should tell me something has happened to the puffin

Meg has that look of satisfaction on her face that should tell me something has happened to the puffin

Many of the steep little valleys on the route were full of snow having the effect of levelling out the route and in some respects making it a lot easier. It was at one of these small valleys that disaster struck. In amongst all the snow there were some bubbling hot springs. I wanted my Gopro, which was attached to my rucksack, on the other side from the puffin. Trusting Tom, and saving me taking my rucksack off, I asked him to remove the Gopro. He claimed to be struggling and it took longer than it should. I thought I had all angles covered but his fumbling allowed Meg to release the puffin from my possession, without me knowing. I will clearly never trust Tom again and as for Meg!!! I never saw the puffin again until the issue of my care was brought up after dinner.

DSC_0357We were making good progress, although the higher we climbed the more snow we encountered. On the steeper sections we used the steps cut by those who had gone before us. It was much tougher on the flatter sections of snow where it was more difficult to get proper purchase on the soft snow and it got hotter and hotter as the sun radiated off it. The final push up to the highest point was long and hard, much too much for Josh, who got flashing lights in front of his eyes which made him feel dizzy. We can never be sure how this environment affects those with vision impairment. While he slumped in the snow we fed him fluid and high energy bars in case his fluid sugar levels had dipped. Thankfully, after half an hour or so he recovered sufficiently to carry on.

Approaching Hrafntinnusker hut

Approaching Hrafntinnusker hut

Once on the high point it was only a short drop to the hut for lunch, where we were booked to eat our packed lunch inside rather than on the crowded terrace outside where we would also cool down rather rapidly. Oskar and Danni also made us bowls of warming soup which was just the ticket.

To the side of the hut there is a valley with lots of thermal activity. This has had a fascinating effect on the vast quantities of snow filling the valley, sculpturing it into fantastic shapes. Stunning.

Around the hut were deep, circular pits in the snow from where tents had been pitched. I tried to suggest to the more gullible members of the group that they were created when people made hot tubs in the snow. Although not sure at first they did not fall for it.
After lunch with most of the uphill completed the going should be a little easier. But we now had a couple of miles trudging through deep, soft snow, so the going was not that easy. The heat coming off the snow, despite the fact that it was less sunny, was intense and I found myself sweating profusely.

Looking back

Looking back

Eventually we climbed out of the snow on to a clear ridge. From there we could look back over in the direction from where we had come. Last year it was a scene of multi coloured rock – oranges, browns and blues with vivid patches of green where water nourished what little growth there was. This year it was so very different, a sea of white with only the occasional patch of colourful rock, now dulled by the brightness of the snow. There was hardly any green to be seen as the snow had only just cleared from those occasional patches, not giving any time for any growth.

Some relief to be walking on firm ground

Some relief to be walking on firm ground

It was pleasant to walk along the snow clear ridge and feel some firmness under our feet. Gradually, ahead of us, the stunning view from the edge of the cliff unfolded. It has to be one of the best views I have ever had. It was really good to just sit there and take in the view, to absorb it in every detail. I couldn’t help but marvel at how different it was from when I sat in exactly the same spot twelve months previously. Then the volcanic ash was covered in lush, green mosses and there were barely any patches of snow. For whiteness we had to look at the ice cap to the south-east. Now, there were so many patches of snow and there was hardly any greenness to be seen, because the snow has covered the ash for so long, the mosses have not benefited from any sunlight to enable it to turn green. The lake at Alftavatn Is called swan lake. On the hillside above the lake one of the patches of snow caught my attention. It very much resembled a swan.

This year

This year

Last year

Last year

 

 

 

 

 

Having spent at least half an hour soaking up this wonderful view we set of down the steep slope to become part of it. It was quite tricky for the visually impaired students so the guides had to be particularly helpful in their guiding. We had one more river crossing to do at the foot of the slope but, fortunately, a snow bridge meant we did not have to wade across it.Reaching camp we pitched our tents on stoney ground adjacent to the huts, although the students chose to pitch their’s some distance away where there was some greenery.

Arriving at camp we promised ourselves that we would not say too much to Caz about it being one of the best day’s walking we had ever had but by the time we saw her it was impossible to keep quiet and once started on how good it was it was very difficult to stop.

That night, after dinner I was charged with the crime of negligence and lack of care during my the period when I was responsible for looking after the puffin. The students had to choose my forfeit and Laura was very quick to suggest that the following evening I should sing ‘Head, shoulders, knees and toes’ in Icelandic with the actions. Lovely girl, Laura!

Our first river crossing of the day

Our first river crossing of the day

The following morning there was a great deal of early morning activity. An Iron Man race was taking place and where we were was to be one of the checkpoints, 24km into a 55km race from Landmannalaugar to Thorsmork, a journey we were taking three days over.
As we set off we kept looking back to see if the front runners were on their way. As we crossed over a ridge and began to descend to our first river crossing of the day, the leader came into view. He looked so strong as he powered his way along the mountain tracks. He passed us, dropped down to the river, crossed it with ease and then climbed up the other side to the next ridge, not once changing his remarkable pace or faltering. It was a full twenty minutes before the next contenders came through so, barring accidents, there was only going to be one winner. As each of the runners approached us from behind, we stepped aside and applauded. This slowed us down considerably but it was good to get their varied reactions to our support. None of them looked as fit and as determined as the leader and were out to compete for and against themselves and to enjoy it, if it is possible to enjoy a 55km run!

Cold concentration

Cold concentration

The event certainly made the next river crossing easier as stewards had put a rope across the river and were helping people across. It also marked the halfway point in the race where contestants had supplies of energy supplements, fresh socks and trainers.
We were now walking on the flat dirt road approaching the volcanic ash desert. The going was easier and we made good time, catching up on that lost watching the runners go through. By now they were all ahead of us and any who might have been behind us had been withdrawn if they hadn’t reached the halfway point within a certain time frame. As we left the road we came to a checkpoint clearing up. They were able to tell us that the chap we had seen long before any others had won and had broken his own record, covering the distance in 3 hours 59 minutes. Amazing!!

DSC_0426Now that we had left the road the track was more like walking along a sandy beach, only the sand was black volcanic sand. It got everywhere, particularly into our boots, requiring several stops to adjust boots and socks. The wind was beginning to pick up, blowing dust into the air so that it now penetrated our eyes, noses and mouths. By the time we reached camp at Emstrur it was blowing quite strongly and the Icelandic flag was straining to escape its attachment to a flag pole. This made putting up tents interesting, the more so because we were putting them up on loose, black sand, which gave no purchase to the pegs. Sand blew into the tents at every opportunity from which it got into everything. Not only was it windy but also quite cold.

After dinner I was required to sing my forfeit song. It went like this:

Höfuð, herðar, hné og tær

hné og tær

Höfuð, herðar, hné og tær

hné og tær

augu og eyru og munnur og nef

Höfuð, herðar, hné og tær

hné og tær

Emstrur

Emstrur

Throughout the night the tents were buffeted by the wind and taking them down in the morning required more than one person, just to make sure it did not blow away. Several poles snapped as the canvas strained to get away. In the mess tent the dust got everywhere and many of us would be having gritty sandwiches later in the day. Luckily, we were not camping again, as we were booked into the hut at Thorsmork, an much of the kit could either be left for other groups to collect or could stay in Siggi’s trailer.

A steep descent to cross the canyon

A steep descent to cross the canyon

Despite the wind it was a lovely day and the students coped well with testing parts of the route. As the day progressed the wind died and the sun shone more readily. Much of the route involved walking through the volcanic sand but we eventually reached the first grass and trees we had seen for several days. Taking the opportunity to sit on grass for a lazy lunch in pleasantly warm sunshine it was not long before most of the group drifted off to sleep. It was very relaxing. It was with some reluctance that we stirred ourselves, booted up and donned our rucksacks for the last two ridges with a river crossing between, before we reached the beautiful valley of Thorsmork.

Nap time

Nap time

The days of activity and walking were beginning to have their effect on the group. They had been excellent at getting up in the mornings, being ready when we wanted them to be ready, but clearly tiredness was setting in. When we stopped for lunch, we stopped on the first grass we had seen for several days. The sun shone brightly and it was surprisingly warm, or possibly even hot! Having lunch, and in no rush to move on, virtually everybody in the group dozed off and had an afternoon nap. Bless them!

Story time with Danni

Story time with Danni

On our way to Basar, where our hut accommodation was and just before we dropped to the river in the Thorsmork valley, we stopped by a cave. Here Danni, who is a great believer in elves, and there are supposed to be a great many of them in Iceland, told the group a story that involved a farmer dying in the cave when he sheltered there from a storm. The students, always ready for a good story, sat mesmerised by it.

The next day the students had a voluntary walk led by Danni. All bar three went so, as two of them were from King’s, I volunteered to stay behind and keep an eye on them while Phil did the same for the one NCW student who stayed. They took no looking after at all and Phil and I spent the day chatting and reading.

That night we had the traditional barbecued legs of lamb. They were delicious.

Seljalandsfoss

Seljalandsfoss

The next morning the bus was there to collect us and we were away by 9.00am. This four-wheel drive bus took us to Seljalandsfoss where we transferred on to a traditional coach, but not before we visited the falls, walked behind them and got wet from the spray. Thinking everybody was going to also visit another waterfall in a narrow cleft a few hundred metres up valley, I took Ellie and Catherine, only to discover that nobody else followed. It was well worth the diversion but made us late getting back to the bus.

Getting back to Reykjavik by 2.00pm we gave everybody the freedom to explore and shop. My priority was to get my washing done in preparation for my next Icelandic adventure, so I went to the Laundromat Cafe and enjoyed a beer while my washing was doing. While it was drying I visited the tourist information office and booked myself a day trip to the Westman Islands for the next day.

What a superb group of young people

What a superb group of young people

In the evening we all went out for a last meal together. As I would be leaving before them I said my farewells at the meal.

I was touched the following morning when many of the group got up early to say ‘Goodbye’. They have been a great bunch of young people who never cease to amaze and inspire me.

 

Pembrokeshire Coast Path

David Thomas, Simon Davis and I set off early on the 26th June to travel to Broadway and Creampots Camp Site, just a couple of miles inland from Broad Haven. Our objective was to set up camp prior to the rest of the group arriving. After all, I had advertised that by the time they arrive, the kettle would be on, the wine chilled and the dinner cooking. So, having lunched at the Galleon, a rather seedy looking pub that served good food, in Broad Haven, we set about the task of setting up camp. We had the whole, substantial field to ourselves, allowing us to spread out enough to satisfy Ros, our characterful campsite owner, and the fire regulation of placing the tents at least three metres apart. The conditions were perfect and, true to my word, camp was set up and all those bold statements in the advertising material were in place by the time the group arrived. We were not a large group, just eight in total but growing to nine by midweek. That night we ate a lovely beef goulash and celebrated Sandy Davis’ birthday with bubbly and cake, although the breeze meant that it was impossible to light the zillions of candles.

A damp start

A damp start

During the night rain drummed on the taught canvass of our tents, promising us at least a wet start to our Pembrokeshire Coast Path journey. It was still raining, not too heavily, as we drove to Newport, the starting point of the walk. It was sufficiently wet to have to don our waterproofs, to protect us from the wet vegetation on either side of the narrow path as much as anything. As we left Newport, with light rain still falling, we were approached by a local in shorts and wellies returning from a dog walk. As he passed he advised that we would have been better staying in bed. But he was wrong. Within an hour the rain had stopped, the clouds began to break up and the sun shone. Waterproofs were bundled, damp, into our rucksacks and we enjoyed pleasant walking conditions, sunshine, not too hot with a cooling sea breeze, for the rest of the day.

In places the path was very narrow and in need of a little maintenance to cut back the encroaching vegetation. For much of the time we were walking along a narrow channel, not quite wide enough to walk properly along and causing us to have to concentrate on each foot placement. The route was also very up and down, none of them being excessively long but collectively energy sapping. The steeper parts were stepped, not evenly, but with a varied drop, some of which were excessively high and particularly difficult when going down. It was hard to get a proper rhythm on them.

DSC_0015The coastline was dramatic throughout but I was particularly looking forward to walking around Dinas Head. It bulges out into the sea from a relatively narrow neck and is often referred to as Dinas Island. It is approached from the north via Cwm-yr-Eglwys (Valley of the Church). Following storms in 1850 and 1851the church was seriously damaged. The graveyard was breached by the sea and human remains began to appear. Another storm in 1859 rendered the church unusable and it was immediately abandoned. The sea continued to claim the church until all but west end was demolished in 1880. The sea continued to attack the remains and the graveyard, and, after a storm in 1979, a new sea wall was built to protect what was left. For us it was an attractive resting place. The sea was a placid as it could possibly be and it is hard to imagine the force that was necessary to do such devastating damage to a solidly built church.

Dinas Head

Dinas Head

The east side of Dinas Head is protected from the prevailing winds allowing for a much wider variety of plants and trees to grow. The flowers that lined the way were in full bloom, something we saw throughout our journey along the coast path, and their perfume filled the air, particularly so on this this morning after being freshened up by the rain. Sheltered from the wind, it was much warmer travelling up to Pen y Fan (top of the hill) and the heat emanating from the vegetation was stifling at times.

A colony of guillemots

A colony of guillemots

It wasn’t just plants that thrived on this sheltered side of Dinas Head, birds also. Stacks, now separated from the mainland, were safe havens for colonies of sea birds. Guillemots crowded on to precariously sloping ledges, jostling for position and producing a cacophony of noise. We were fascinated as to why some stacks were heavily populated while others were devoid of any bird life at all. I think there may be a number of factors which determine which stacks, cliffs and rocks are favourable to colonisation. Shelter from the elements must be a major influence. I also think the type, texture and angle of the rocks is important, accessibility to a reliable food source and protection from predators.

On reaching the top of the headland the wind was in our faces again and it was much fresher, and continued to be so all the way down the western side of the headland. The vegetation was much more limited, with largely grasses and brackens and no trees. The few trees that could withstand the elements were stunted and severely shaped by the prevailing winds.

Back on the north coast we looked out into Fishguard Bay and along the coast to Fishguard, and Goodwick from which the ferry now left for its crossing to Rosslare in Ireland. Stopping at Penrhyn Campsite we enjoyed a refreshing ice cream before completing the final leg of our day’s walk. It was warm and very sunny, stark contrast to the conditions we set out in, and the ups and downs were beginning to take their toll on our legs.

Lower Town

Lower Town

Passing through the attractive Lower Town, we followed the coast round, missing much of Fishguard  and meeting Angela who walked to meet us. Finally we reached our designated finish point and while Angela took David and John back to Newport to collect their cars the rest of us contemplated a drink. Seeing brown signs for the Ferry Boat Inn, we followed their direction, inland for quarter of a mile. On arrival we discovered it had changed from being an inn to a b&b with no bar! Trudging back to the finish point we popped into Tesco and bought bottles of beer having been confidently informed by Claire that she had a bottle opener. Salivating, we waited while she rummaged in her rucksack to produce her credit card size Swiss Army Knife, not with a bottle opener but with a pair of scissors. Desperation, or was it experience, enabled us to remove the caps and savour the nectar within, while we waited for our lift back to camp.

Although I had tweaked the itinerary in order to make the days more even, the second day was always going to be a tough one. Even with the new finish at Abercastle, we were still going to walk in excess of 16 miles with over 4,000 feet of ascent. At least the weather was in our favour. While the rest of the country was entering a heatwave that would see the highest July temperatures on record, we were blessed with sea breezes which kept temperatures down to a maximum of the low 20s. Stella, had a foot issue and, having only walked a few steps, decided not walk but to keep Angela company for the day.

DSC_0043Zig-zagging our way through woodland, we climbed out of Goodwick to join the clifftop path which hugged the line of the coastal cliffs. The scenery was, again, spectacular with stacks and arches adding to the interest. Also adding to the interest were our first sightings of seals basking on rocks and playing together in the water. We heard them before we saw them, their deep, guttural barks alerting us to their presence. Despite the fact that we were 120 feet above them, they knew we were there and played to their audience, gamboling and rolling in the water, or simply treading water so they could see us more easily.

DSC_0051Dropping yet again to sea level we climbed back up through cooling woodland back to the clifftop and a memorial stone at Carreg Goffa, to mark the place where the last invasion of mainland Britain took place at Carregwastad Point on 22nd February 1797. The invasion by 1200 French soldiers, led by Colonel William Tate, an Irish American, resulted in the Battle of Fishguard. The invaders saw little success and surrendered three days later.

DSC_0067Following the coast we reached Strumble Head in time for lunch, sitting a short distance from the lighthouse flashing its powerful light as a warning to any passing ships. I was looking forward to rounding this headland as it would mean we would not be able to see Dinas Head again and that we were making progress. The coast was now at its most spectacular with some beautiful, inaccessible coves, dramatic cliffs and many jagged stacks constantly lapped by the sea. I couldn’t help feel how dramatic it would look in a storm.

Dramatic coastal scenery

Dramatic coastal scenery

The heat was beginning to take its toll and we were beginning to run out of water so we sent a message to Angela to meet us where a lane came down to meet the coast path and to bring water and other refreshments to give us a boost. It was so welcome. Claire, having stopped for a break, decided to call it a day and forgo the last three miles or so in favour of staying with Angela in the car.

Angela, Stella and Claire walked towards us as we approached Abercastle and the refreshments Angela gave us at the finish were unexpected but most welcome. While some went off to get the other car from the start, the remainder of us enjoyed some good beer and this time we did have a bottle opener!

We had now completed, probably, the two most arduous days of the trek. Day three was another beautiful day and while temperatures soured even higher in other parts of the UK, here they remained comfortable. The walk involved less up and down and had long stretches of relatively flat, clifftop walking. We were back to a full compliment of walkers.

Porth-gain's industrial past

Porth-gain’s industrial past

Leaving Abercastle, we continued westwards, bypassing Trefin and eventually came upon Porth-gain with its rich, but short, industrial past. Porth-gain harbour was used for almost one hundred years, until 1931 for the export of roadstone, slates and bricks. Alongside the harbour are the remains of the old brick works and the massive bins that held the crushed stone. Now it is quite a smart village with some of the old industrial buildings converted into smart restaurants and curio shops. We took advantage of the facilities to rehydrate and eat local ice cream.

Whitesands Bay

Whitesands Bay

St David’s Head was getting ever closer. Looking back the way we had come we could again see the winking eye of Strumble Head lighthouse, now more than twenty miles away. The coast here was less indented and the inland scenery more interesting with the hills of Carnedd lleithr, Carn Llidi and Carn Hen rising to their impressive rocky outcrops. Rounding the headland we could see Whitesands Bay and the expansive beach that attracts many holiday makers on a good day. It is a bit of a Mecca for surfers, being exposed to the Atlantic swell and the opportunities that gives for riding the waves. Today there was little swell but it provided excellent conditions for novices to hone their skills.

It proved quite warm throughout the day and I had been dreaming of having a swim when we reached Whitesands. Going on to the beach, we released our feet from the confines of our boots and wandered down to the water’s edge. We did not go far and any thoughts of having a swim were quickly dispelled. The sea was not warm. This was confirmed when you took time to observe those that were in the sea, were all wearing wet suits.

After three days of walking we deserved a rest day so I arranged for the group to take the boat from Martin’s Haven for the short crossing to Skomer Island. Thankfully it was only a short crossing as I don’t think Simon would have been able to keep his breakfast had it been much longer. You only had to look at him to realise he was concentrating hard.

DSC_0131In parts of Britain this day was the hottest July day on record with temperatures above the mid thirties. On Skomer, we started out in sunshine but after only an hour there the sea mist rolled in and temperatures were suppressed. Although we could not see much of the cliff colonies and there was no chance of seeing seals, porpoises and dolphins we had such a wonderful time enjoying the clown-like antics of the puffins. Not only do they look like clowns, they act like them. They are such delightfully innocent birds and I could spend hours watching and enjoying their company. They seem to have little fear amongst humans, which makes them all the more attractive.

DSC_0169It was a calm day but the unseen noise of the sea on the exposed side of the island suggested that it was quite rough. I wish I could have seen it. I would love to see it during stormy conditions. I imagine it being a very dramatic place to be in a storm. I certainly want to go back and spend a night or two on the island, enjoying the birds after most of the tourists have gone home. Then we might be able to see something of the 316,000 Manx Shearwaters that emerge from their burrows at night.

DSC_0185Before heading to Whitesands Bay for the resumption of our walk we spent a little time in St David’s, taking time to visit the cathedral. It is unique as a cathedral as it is build in a hollow and cannot be seen until you actually stand on the edge of the hollow, almost level with the top of the tower. Most cathedrals are built in prominent positions where they can be seen from some distance. At least, being built where it is, it is protected from the strong winds coming off the Atlantic. I have been to the cathedral a number of times but I don’t remember the pronounced slope of the nave, nor the angle of the supporting pillars either side of it. They lean out at quite a sharp angle.

The western end of the peninsula around St David’s was far less indented and good progress could be made. At St Justinians, path diversion signs redirected us around the construction of a new lifeboat station.

Ramsey Sound

Ramsey Sound

Our interest was now drawn to Ramsey Island, or more precisely to the stretch of water between it and the mainland. This stretch, where the tidal currents are squeezed, is renowned for its choppy water and strong currents. The rocks that jut out from the island at its narrowest point and adds spice to the flow are known as the Bitches of Ramsey Sound. We watched a launch make little progress against the flow despite having the engine running at full throttle. Suddenly, having fought its way through it is released by the currents and shoots forward.

At one point, just ahead of us we saw somebody take a tumble. Rushing to their aid we discovered an old lady half lying, half sitting uncomfortably among the rocks. I think what had happened was that she looked up when she saw us and lost her footing. Although she had not broken the skin she had raked her shin over a rock and her knees were also showing signs of bruising. Sending the rest of the group ahead to wait for us, David and I patched her up, made sure she had food and drink, and that she was not suffering from shock. She was very chatty and as I eventually helped her up to negotiate the rest of the rocky slope I asked her how old she was. Pauline was 81 and was on holiday from Leeds, walking the coast path and staying at youth hostels. What a game old bird. We watched her as she continued in her sprightly manner and then spoke to another female walker going in her direction to just keep an eye on her.

DSC_0214It had been the tendency throughout this walking week to have two lunch stops. Today was no exception and as we sat on a grassy bank at the side of the path, enjoying the sunshine and the opportunity to rest, we were joined, at first by one gull, waiting in the hope that we might throw it some scraps. Doing so, we were then joined by several other gulls who then proceeded to give us a fantastic aerial display as they jostled for food and position. It gave us an opportunity for some great action photos.

This southern section of the headland was again more indented, not with wide sweeping bays but with narrow inlets. It was to the largest of these inlets that we were heading for at Solva, a quaint village at the top of the inlet. Here, as it was my birthday, we relaxed at the pub, sitting in the sunshine, while waiting for our lifts to materialise. There was no rush, we had made reasonably good time and we had a good reason to stay for a drink or two.

Me and my cockerel!

Me and my cockerel!

In the evening I was presented with my rucksack with a rear view mirror attached so that I could keep an eye on the group behind me, and a horn! I later found a former shop display cockerel in my sleeping bag, which I was instructed to wear on my shoulder for the next day’s walk. This created some fun on the walk as we would meet people who would look at me and not notice the cockerel. David would ask people who had just passed me if they had seen a man with a cockerel on his shoulder. They would look blankly and say ‘no’ to then have me pointed out. One man did say that he hadn’t seen a man with a cockerel on his shoulder but seen a cockerel with a man up its arse! When people did notice, they demanded an explanation.

Stonechat

Stonechat

It was quite a long walk today all along the edge of St Bride’s Bay from Solva to St Brides. It was also a varied walk with fantastic clifftop stretches, long beaches at Newgale and Broadhaven. Throughout the walk we had been attracted to the wildlife, the occasional sightings of seals, the gulls soaring on thermal currents of air, the dogfights between peregrine falcons and gulls, kestrels, once so very common but now a rarity, the beautiful, vividly coloured flowers that attracted so many insects, butterflies in their thousands and the constant song of the stonechat, perched on the highest twig above the bracken, singing his heart out while he flitted from high twig to high twig to follow us for a while.

Monster!

Monster!

On reaching Little Haven, we met up with Angela, which gave those who had had enough a get out for the last five miles to St Brides. My cockerel had had enough so I detached him from my rucksack for the remainder of the walk. This just left four of us for this final stretch, through more varied terrain. We were again on a stretch of coast sheltered from the westerlies. Here trees grew and we walked for a while through mature, broad-leafed trees. Among them it was hot and humid and we were constantly pestered by flies wishing to drink our sweat. Eventually we emerged onto the fresher treeless cliff path. Out in the bay were some rocks with a natural arch passing through them. They gave the appearance of a sea monster wriggling its way through the water.

Dramatic coastline and waters

Dramatic coastline and waters

The final day saw us walking from St Brides round the peninsula to Martin’s Haven and then along the cliffs above the inaccessible Marloes Sands and then around the peninsula that is St Ann’s Head before finishing at Dale. There was more wind today and the sea on exposed coasts crashed over the rocks on the shore. A few large tankers were anchored off shore awaiting their opportunity to birth at nearby Milford Haven. The chimneys of Milford Haven could be seen for most of the day but despite it being Europe’s largest oil and gas terminal it does not seem to encroach too much on the rest of the beauty of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path. Obviously you cannot avoid seeing it but it did not, as far as we were concerned, detract from the beauty or enjoyment of the walk.

Cobbler's Hole

Cobbler’s Hole

While some of the old lighthouse properties are now abandoned, the lighthouse itself has been turned into residences with outstanding views across the water. Rounding St Anne’s Head we detoured slightly to have a look at Cobbler’s Hole, a small inlet that displays the pressures forced upon rock way back in geological time and how it has been shaped.

We now only had a couple of bays to walk around before heading for Dale Point and then into Dale. There was a Pirate’s party taking place to raise money for children’s play equipment. There was a lively atmosphere, added to which were numerous sailors visiting for the weekend. The bay was littered with anchored yatchs and the Griffin, the pub we veered towards was busy. We sat on a balcony overlooking the activities and enjoyed a few beers in the sunshine.

In the evening we returned to the Griffin for a celebratory meal. It was not disappointing at all, but extremely good. We had had a good week with good walking, good weather, good company and good food. What more could you ask for in life? Oh yes, not to rain heavily when we struck camp the next morning!

 

 

Charity

Last weekend had a strong emphasis on charity. On Friday 19th I found myself walking the length of the Worcestershire Way (officially 31 miles of undulating Worcestershire countryside, but proved to be a mile longer according to GPS) for the annual St Richard’s Hospice challenge walk. John Woodcock had enticed me to join him in return for him coming to a dinner I was organising for the Nepal Earthquake Appeal. Thinking about it, I seem to have picked the short straw in this deal. Where is the hardship in eating a meal? Nevertheless, I agreed, on the understanding that I would not be seeking sponsorship at a time when I was wanting to encourage people to support the earthquake appeal; I would simply make a donation to St Richard’s.

I have often walked the Worcestershire Way, but over two days finishing the end of the first day at the Admiral Rodney pub in Berrow Green. Doing it in a day would seriously challenge my ability to walk past the Admiral Rodney and not go in to rehydrate on Butty Bach.

Gathering at St Richard’s at 4.45am in order to catch the bus provided to take us to Bewdley. Conversation, for the most part, was muted but there were one or two who were clearly more ‘morning’ people than others. It was quite a bright morning but there was a promise of heavy cloud developing in the morning, keeping temperatures down but without the chance of rain. Perfect conditions. The fact that it remained sunny all day, that it was quite warm and I was grateful to long stretches of walking in the shade and a hat when I wasn’t, goes to show that the forecasters for the 19th June got it very wrong.

IMG_0002There were 82 walkers in total. John and I had David Woodcock and Mike Brennen walking with us. We started walking at 5.45am and set ourselves a good pace. Navigation was never an issue, for not only is the route well waymarked, I have walked it so many times I know it with my eyes closed. Every so often a female voice emanated from John’s pocket telling us how far we had walked, our pace, the number of calories we had burned and the number of steps we had taken. This was encouraging, particularly as we seemed to be setting a pace of 17 minutes per mile. Even a few ups did not seem to diminish the pace that much. Hang on though, this was not a race. It is supposed to be a lovely country walk. So why did four people just run past us?

Abberley clock tower

Abberley clock tower

The climb up Abberley Hill, quite steep at times, slowed us down. It was from here that we had our first view of the finish, Malvern, the hills being a hazy lump in the distance. Then we had the mile undulating along the ridge, not making any forward progress but walking across our route rather than along it. At Abberley we were a third of the way. This was our first opportunity to take a break as the Abberley WI were providing tea and cakes in the Abberley School cricket pavilion. It was still only 9.00am and I was eating cake! While some sat down and took the weight off their feet I was reluctant to do so, knowing that it would make it much harder to get going again. There was a great atmosphere of being in this together. People were easy to talk to, the most often asked question being, “Have you done this before?” While there were some Worcestershire Way virgins, like myself, there were many who were repeaters, people dedicated to supporting St Richard’s.

Not over full with cake we started the second third with the steep pull up Sheep Hill. This led to one of the most beautiful sections of the walk, along the ridge overlooking the Teme Valley. In these conditions it was perfect. Once up the hill we were able to pick up the pace again and, although 17 minute miles were a thing of the past we were still managing sub 20 minute miles.

On the ridge there is a seat dedicated to the Martley Path-or-Nones, a fabulous resting point with stunning views across the Teme to Shelsley and Clifton. Two walkers were resting when we arrived; two walkers I had never met before. That did not stop me from telling them that their time was up and that they should bugger off. They did! After a short rest, a bite to eat, a drink and an appreciation of the view, we were off again. As we descended steeply to the river the knees began to feel the pain but, as with all the hills on this route, they are short lived and so is the pain.

Soon we were passing the Admiral Rodney and I wondered if this might not be a psychological hurdle for me. It proved not to be. I was feeling generally good and wanted to see this through to the end.

Lunch was at the Talbot at Knightwick, 21 miles into the walk. Two thirds completed. John and Mike’s wives, Chris and Geraldine, were there to meet us with a clean shirt for John and a selection of boots for them to change into if they so needed. It was also an opportunity to offload any unwanted kit we were carrying to lighten our loads.  A large buffet spread was set out for us but I was more interested in fluid, water, orange squash, anything to rehydrate. Beer was not a temptation at this stage. A massage service was available and David took advantage to have his legs pummeled ready for the final third. I changed my socks and the inner soles of my boots. While I was doing this a thought occurred to me. Why am I doing this? I don’t have any sponsors. Nobody is relying on me completing this walk in order to give me money. I am making a donation. If I am doing that I could sit at home all day and send a cheque. I must be mad. With those thoughts we set off for the last ten miles or so to Malvern.

The pace had slowed, not hugely, but sufficiently for me to notice that the voice from John’s pocket was not as encouraging as it might be. Before we reached Longley Green I began to visualise the village shop and its supply of Magnums. Meeting up with a fellow walker, I warned him that if he was planning to visit the shop for a Magnum, and it was the last one in the shop, I would have to kill him. The threat was enough to deter him from doing so. As it happened, there were plenty in stock and we allowed ourselves a brief rest while we savoured our Magnums!

Mike, John & David

Mike, John & David

The lump that is North Hill began to loom over us and the end was clearly in sight. We just had to climb over the Malverns and drop down into the town and, more particularly, the Red Lion. This was the hardest bit at the end of a long day. I took my sticks out ready. The flight of steps from lower West Malvern to upper West Malvern are a real killer and they are followed by a steep climb past the now closed Lamb Inn. It was here that I hit a wall. My pace slowed significantly. I had led all the way but now I was at the back, struggling to find the energy for the climb to the top of the ridge. As the path became less steep and eventually levelled out, I found my energy again and enjoyed the circumnavigation of North Hill. Here we paused for photos.

John & I with Mike behind

John & I with Mike behind

Finally we reached the point of descent, the knee jarring route down to the pub. It hurt but we knew that soon the pain would end, John’s blisters could have the pressure taken off them, David’s saw bits would no longer chafe. If Mike had any problems he kept them to himself. Our wives would be there at the end waiting to mop our brows, pat us on the back, fetch us pints, massage our sore bits. They would be there at our beck and call. And so they were, all except Chris, who was caught up in watching Andy Murray, much more important than seeing her husband and eldest son finish a 32.11 mile walk in twelve and half hours.

Having sat at the pub for an hour, getting up to go to the car was painful, not only to achieve but also to watch. And so it was for the next twenty four hours until my became accustomed to moving. They felt as though somebody had stamped on them. Despite the aches and pains, it was a great day out in perfect conditions. I don’t need to do it again, I have done it. Would I do it again, if asked? Probably, yes!

Still aching a little from Friday’s exertions, I organised a fundraising meal at Cromwells, a Nepali/Indian restaurant at Powick, just outside Worcester. I arrived an hour before the main body of guest in order to set things up to find a number of table occupied by people I didn’t know. While I was setting up other came in looking for a meal, and were accepted by the Nepali staff. There were still a few tables occupied when the main thrust of of my booking arrived between 7.00 and 7.30pm. It did not matter, as the sixty four people who came all knew each other but had not necessarily seen each other for a while. They were happy to crowd around the bar, and it was an impenetrable crowd for a while, have a drink or two and chat. Anna, my daughter, got trapped and could not easily move around the room to sell raffle tickets.

Satisfied diners

Satisfied diners

Eventually the tables all cleared and we were able to release the pressure around the bar as people sat down and Anna could move freely, making the most of the selling opportunity. It still took a while for the food to be brought to the buffet table. I was concerned that people would be feeling hungry but nobody seemed to mind and once the food did arrive and people began to taste its delights, any negative feelings I might have had soon disappeared. The food was stunning. So much so that Pradip declared it was the best authentic Nepali food he had tasted outside Nepal. High praise indeed. Nobody had a bad word to say about the food and when I offered the chance for people to return to the buffet table for more, many did.

Before we got down to the serious business of the evening we played the birthday game, which, if it had worked out properly would have had one winner. As it happened we ended up with four, who shared the massive box of Swiss chocolates with the whole room, although I think it bypassed me. The aim of this game was to raise some quick cash to give to Gill and Pradip for all the fabulous work they do with their charity, Jamarko.

More happy diners

More happy diners

I spoke briefly about the trust and showed the assembled crowd two short films of the trust’s day to day work in education and health. Gill Spilsbury, a good friend, spoke for a few minutes about her experiences of the earthquake and the impact it has had on peoples’ lives. I then showed a short, graphic film of the quake and some of the images that have since come out of Nepal. This was designed to be emotive just before I held an auction. I have seen the film many times but it never fails to draw upon my emotions.

The auction was approached light heartedly and we even got £50 for Kevin Poole’s flat cap that he bought on the Dales Way and that we pinched. We did have some special items, the best of which was a summer print by the Sherpa deaf and dumb artist Temba that had been signed by Ed Hillary, George Lowe, George Band, Mike Westmacott, Doug Scott, Stephen Venables, Chris Bonington and Rebecca Stephens, a venerable collection of Everest achievers.

We concluded the evening with a game of Heads and Tails for a bottle of wine, the proceeds of which also went to Jamarko before drawing the raffle with its wide selection of prizes.

Afterwards many people stood talking, reluctant to leave, but gradually the numbers thinned out. It was great seeing so many good friends in such a convivial atmosphere. While the shape of the room was not perfect for such an event, it was cosy and the food was truly exceptional. Financially, it was a huge success, raising approximately £4500 for the Himalayan Trust UK Earthquake Appeal. Thank you to all my friends who contributed in such a positive way.