Places: South Iceland 2001 and 2013

Looking South from the Island of Heimaey, Vestmannaeyjar

These are my oldest image files. They were converted from my Kodachrome slides from a trip I took to Iceland in 2001. Before I went to Iceland, there were parts of Europe that fascinated me. After Iceland, I was fascinated only by Iceland. Was it that I have an inborn need for wastelands like Patagonia or the Southwestern Deserts of the United States or the Peruvian Altiplano? I think so.

With the above photo, I was trying to see if I could find Surtsey, the island that was created by a recent volcanic upheaval beneath the sea. (The island still exists, but it is gradually getting smaller.)

The Ice in Iceland

The Jökulsárlón Glacial Lagoon Near Skaftafell

One of the most incredible sights in South Iceland is the Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon visible from the Ring Road on the way to Höfn in Hornstrandir. On one side of the road are these incredible chunks broken off from the giant glacier Vatnajökull; on the other, is a black sand beach dotted with tiny chunks of transparent ice like diamonds in a black satin setting.

The lagoon and beach are so spectacular that it is almost impossible to just pass on by. Even the bus to and from Höfn stops for a half hour or so. It’s not long enough for a boat ride on the lagoon—but it makes you want to come back, as I did in 2013.

Ice like Diamonds on a Black Sand Beach (Breiðamerkursandur) 2013

Why I Want To Return

My two visits to Iceland have merely whetted my appetite. I have read all the major Medieval Icelandic sagas, most of the novels of Iceland’s lone winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature (Halldor Laxness), and the superb books by Jesse L. Byock on Medieval Iceland. Plus there are parts of Iceland I have not seen, such as the Eastfjords, the stretch between Bru and Akureyri, Siglufjörður, and the Sprengisandur route through the middle of the island.


Carmen de Patagones Seen from Viedma

Carmen de Patagones Seen from Viedma

The two cities sit on opposite banks of the Rio Negro. Carmen de Patagones, on the north bank, is the southernmost city of the State of Buenos Aires; Viedma, occupying he south bank, is the capital of the State of Rio Negro, which extends west as far as the Andes and the Chilean border.

It seems that the current edition of the Lonely Planet Guide to Argentina no longer has chapters for the twin cities on the Rio Negro. I guess they’re not Disneyfied enough to draw all the tour groups. For travelers driving from Buenos Aires to Patagonia, it is at best a stopping place for the night before big chunk of attractions around Puerto Madryn and Trelew.

Viedma also happens to be the terminus of the Tren Patagonico, about which I wrote yesterday. From there, it goes clear across the State of Rio Negro to the Patagonian Lake District around San Carlos de Bariloche. Today, I finally got an e-mail response from the Tren Patagonico people telling me they’ll be ready to take my reservation for November in a week or so.

If my reservation is confirmed, I’ll spend a couple of nights in either Viedma or Carmen de Patagones and wander around both towns seeing the local museums.

In 2001, I remember being the only visitor in a two-hour period to the old fish canning museum in Heimaey in Iceland’s Vestmanneyjar Islands. I loved every minute. The curator gave me a personal tour and explained how Heimaey was the main fishing port in Iceland, a country whose GDP is based on their fish catch. Even though the museum is no more (I looked for it in 2013 but couldn’t find it), I have special memories of my visit. And that is much better than being jostled by huge crowds of tourists who distractedly push their way past all the exhibits on their way to the next destination.

So Viedma and Carmen de Patagones have been demoted! So much more for me to see!

Iceland 2001: Returning to Heimaey

Heimaey Wrapped in an Embrace by the Volcano Eldfell

Heimaey Wrapped in an Embrace by the Volcano Eldfell

It was difficult getting to Heimaey back in 2001. I had two choices: Either I could take a gut-wrenching 3½-hour ferry ride across the stormy North Atlantic from Þorláshöfn (famous for seasickness) or I could fly there. Now there is a cheaper choice: I could take the ferry from Landeyjahöfn, which is only a 30-minute ferry ride. Back then, I took a ruinously expensive day trip by flying Flugfélag Íslands from Reykavík. Below is a picture of the prop plane I took on that occasion.

The Prop Plane to Heimaey

The Prop Plane to Heimaey

The main reason I’m going to Heimaey is the same reason I decided to go in August 2001, namely to see puffins. I was just a tad late, as I could see the white spots of puffins leaving the bird cliffs for their flight to the British Isles. Here is a picture of the puffins vacating their nests for the flight over the North Atlantic:


The Little White Spots Are Puffins

This time I did my research and timed my visit right. There should be something like two-three million of the little birds feeding their young when I get there.

I will be staying at the Hotel Vestmannaeyjar for two nights, so I should have plenty of time to see the bird life on the island, as well as the volcano show and little natural history museum. There also used to be a fish cannery museum, but I no longer see it mentioned in the lists of sights to visit. Nonetheless, I plan to have plenty of fish, as Heimaey is the busiest fishing port in Iceland. That’s why the Icelanders were so frantic about saving the harbor in 1973 when the volcano Eldfell erupted.

New Land

Islands Seen from Storhofdi Peninsula on Heimaey

Islands Seen from Storhofdi Peninsula on Heimaey

Geologically speaking, the Westmann Islands south of Iceland are brand spanking new. The most recent island in the group, Surtsey, suddenly rose up from the sea during a volcanic eruption in November 1963. Even fifty years later, access to the island is restricted to scientists and naturalists. Even Heimaey, the “Home Island” of the group, was enlarged by the world’s youngest volcano, Eldfell, which came into existence in January 1973, forcing the evacuation of the island.

As the result of a miraculous save by the Icelanders, who pumped cold seawater on the advancing lava forcing it to form an ever-higher berm that prevented the town from being more than one-third inundated. (The story is ably told by John McPhee in his book The Control of Nature.) On the other hand, two square kilometers of new land were created on the east side of the island.

The only fatality from Eldfell was a druggie who broke into an apothecary and was overcome by the fumes.

I will be spending three days and two nights on Heimaey in June. I plan to visit the Storhofdi Peninsula and photograph the puffins that congregate on the cliffs there.


I Book the World’s Youngest Volcano

The Town of Heimaey, Iceland, Flanked by Two Volcanoes

The Town of Heimaey, Iceland, Flanked by Two Volcanoes

I had been there on a day trip from Reykjavik twelve years ago. Because I was afraid of seasickness on the three-hour ferry from Þorlákshöfn, which was famous for rough seas, I flew from the small Reykjavik airport. Several years ago, the Eimskip Line opened a new ferry port at Landeyjahöfn, which is only a thirty-minute ferry ride from the Westmann Islands. This time, I’ll take the ferry, fortified with Dramamine.

Heimaey (literally “The Home Island”) is a beautiful town flanked by two volcanoes, Eldfell (on the left) and the extinct Helgafell (right). Until January 23, 1973, Eldfell didn’t exist. What was a suburban development suddenly turned overnight into a volcano, forcing the evacuation of the entire island. While lava destroyed some 400 homes, the ingenious Icelanders found a way of forcing the lava to form a berm by endlessly pumping cold seawater on its leading edge. The story is told by John McPhee in his book, The Control of Nature.

I had a difficult time booking a room in Heimaey on my original desired dates. Then, just for the heck of it, I decided to hang around a few extra days along the Suðurland, or South Coast, of Iceland (at Hvolsvöllur and Höfn) and try for a few days later. Bingo! I got into the best accommodation on the island. My guess is that there was a local event, like a soccer game or a festival, that drew a crowd on the original dates.

Why do I want to go to the Westmann Islands again? First of all, it is drop-dead beautiful, a major fishing port, and the place where I am most likely to be able to photograph puffins:



I am told the island’s southernmost peninsula has the world’s largest concentration of the picturesque seabirds at a place called Störhofði.

Puffins and I go way back. I tried to find them in Scotland in September 1998, but they hadn’t arrived there yet. Then I went to Heimaey late in August 2001, but they had all just left.

Martine would love to see them, but I’ll just have to take a load of pictures so that she could enjoy them vicariously.