Dolphin watching is really cool – when you’re looking for dolphins. But when you go whale watching, you’re really after something bigger. You know, like a whale. These guys had a great guarantee – see a whale or your money back*. Being (back then, in 2005) smart lawyers, we checked the small print under that asterisk. “Whales includes dolphins”. Hmmm. Well, we’re here now, we thought. It’s the last day of the season. Maybe we’ll get lucky.
Iceland’s original settlement is documented in a remarkable book called Landnámabók – the Book of Settlements. It records in considerable detail the Norsemen’s discovery of Iceland and the names and exploits of those hardy souls who sailed in small boats from Scandinavia to build a new life here. Many scholars believe that the first Norseman to settle in Iceland was Garðarr Svavarsson. Apparently, young Garðarr lived in Denmark, but was married to a woman from the Hebrides (the islands off the west coast of Scotland, including Skye, Islay, Lewis, etc). Back around 860-870 AD, he was sailing to the Hebrides to claim his inheritance upon the death of his father in law. The North Sea is pretty rough going, even today in a modern ship, so he probably wasn’t too surprised when a storm blew him off course to Iceland.
Vikings were tough lads, though, and when he realised where he was, he promptly circumnavigated Iceland and proved it was indeed an island. Washing up in Skjálfandi Bay, he built a house at the place now known as Húsavík. Garðarr only stayed one winter – perhaps he missed his wife, or perhaps even the hardiest Vikings had a limit – so he departed from Iceland, and from the history books.
These days, Húsavík has 2,200 residents and is a centre for whale watching and home to the Icelandic Phallological Museum, the world’s largest penis collection. Subscribing to the view that “you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all”, we skipped this attraction. So too did the townsfolk, at first. But according to the museum’s founder (via wikipedia), “when people realised there was nothing pornographic here, they came to accept it…Collecting penises is like collecting anything. You can never stop, you can never catch up, you can always get a new one, a better one.” Imagine that guy’s man cave. Yon is just glad I only apply this theory to vintage cameras and books about the space program.
Our captain was a hardy sea dog, probably a descendant of one of those early Norsemen. Like most tour outfits, his guide or host was bubbly and talkative and got our hopes up that we’d see some whales. Iceland is one of the few countries to still hunt whales, but apparently the whales around here are comfortable enough to swim happily in the bay (Iceland is permitted to hunt 30 minke and 9 fin whales a year (in 2012) out of IWC-estimated North Atlantic stocks of 174,000 and 30,000 respectively. Put like that it doesn’t seem much, but you still wouldn’t catch me eating a whale kebab).
As you can tell from the image captions, we didn’t see any whales. Worse, the dolphins we did see were already onto us. They have remarkable hearing, after all, and they’re not dopey fish, either. They can hear the words “oh, it’s just a dolphin” and put two and two together. So, not for them the expected playful gamboling in our ship’s bow wave. Showing off to the humans? Not today. No. They knew they were the consolation prize, their incredible intelligence reduced to small print under an asterisk. So they lolled about, studiously ignoring us, waiting for us to head back to shore and leave them to their dolphin escapades. We felt for them, their talents relegated to sideshow alley just because whales are bigger. It was a strange way to connect with our cetacean friends, but we were happy for them that no more humans would be sailing circles around their bay until next summer.
A few fjords west of Húsavík is beautiful Skagafjörður. Our friendly couchsurfing host – about whom more in a minute – had generously lent us his car. We skirted up the coastline on a glorious day, so bright we wondered whether the sun had finally taken mercy on us because we didn’t see any whales.* We continued north to the tiny harbour village of Hofsós.
Hofsós looked like a wonderful place to live, at least for a while. Small, clean, beautiful air and spectacular views, right from your backyard. It also boasts remarkable basalt rock formations, which we enjoyed climbing all over.
We continued along the northern coast of Iceland. This is above 66 degrees north; just 40 kilometres south of the Arctic Circle. Past tiny farms perched above cliffs, and past Siglufjörður through the Strákar Tunnel, we reached Ólafsfjörður. This was a really remote town, connected only by boat and by this fairly precarious road and tunnel. It was quiet, and seemed in decline. We headed back, basking in the late afternoon sun and the beautiful landscapes.
Atli was a really generous guy. He needed to lay off the Coke, though (notice I spell it with a capital C; he was a sugar demon not a powder fiend). When we arrived at Akureyri he was off to the company golf tournament. “Take my car”, he said. “I won’t need it. Crap! Where’s the keys? Oh here they are”. We jumped in and headed off. “Crap! I’m out of gas”. Not even 8 a.m. and this guy was manic. We zipped into the petrol station and he popped the fuel tank lid. “Crap! I parked on the wrong side!”. Launching jerkily from the concrete, he ripped the car round the petrol pump and hit the handbrake. I looked at him and flicked my eyes outside, urging him to realise what he’d just done. He peered out. “Crap! I parked on the wrong side again!”.
I filled up the car and paid for the gas (“Crap! I forgot my wallet!”, he’d said). I would have insisted anyway, because he was already going well beyond the normal couchsurfing etiquette by lending us his car.
At night after our explorations in his car, we’d chat with Atli in his little flat. He was an IT guy, so the place was full of gear and discarded Coke bottles. Lots of plastic cups, too. Why wash up, he asked, if cups were so cheap. Somehow we hit the topic of the moon landings, probably because of the landscape we’d seen at Mývatn. “Faked! It’s a huge conspiracy. Check out this website”. We did. One of the claims was that NASA could never have landed men on the moon if they hadn’t even landed a robot there first. Sounds logical, right? Unfortunately it’s untrue. “Check out this photo”, I urged him, and found this famous image on google.
“Oh. I hadn’t seen that”, Atli said, temporarily stopped in his tracks. He recovered fast: “It’s probably faked”. We argued the toss for a while longer: why does the flag wave if there’s no air (it’s not waving, it’s wobbling); why can’t you see any stars in the photos (it was daytime on the moon); what about the Van Allen radiation belts (what about them – the dose was very low as they flew through). And then, in a terrifying segue, he got onto 9/11. Yes, Atli was not only a moon hoaxer, he was also a truther. We spent the rest of the night arguing about the melting temperature of aluminium, the missing CCTV footage from the 7 Eleven near the Pentagon, and various perceived anomalies in the story. Though not believing it for a moment (anyone who has worked in government knows how implausible the “inside job” story is), I was on shakier ground. I haven’t specialised in this particular conspiracy like I have in the space one. But it was a fun couple of nights, for me at least. Yon was less engaged in the debate, but just as awestruck at Atli’s ability to leap from one debunked argument to the next. He was a great guy, and one of the quirkier couchsurfs we’ve enjoyed. But it was soon time to leave. Six amazing weeks had finally, but inevitably come to an end.
Back in Reykjavik, we had a day or two to check out a few places. And then, with very heavy hearts, we flew away from beautiful Iceland, a place we loved. Let Yon have the last word, in her summary written to a friend at the time:
Wanky as it sounds, my soul is still in Iceland where we spent hours, days, walking across blackfields of volcanic glass, geothermal areas of steaming vents, bubbling mud, jets of boiling water. We walked up mountains of technicoloured pink, green, purple, orange, and across gorgeous green cracks in the earth. We forded several glacial rivers (most with our own bare feet), found an ice cave and saw probably something close to sixty waterfalls. The sound of nature’s traffic was conspicuous. When we got tired of walking, we set up our little tent. One night it was by a glacial lagoon full of icebergs. Another night it was right by a thundering waterfall. And there was a fishing village up north. On bad days, we’d find our pretty camp site had turned into a puddle. In the dead of night we’d have to get out of our sleeping bags and shift our tent for fear of drowning in the lake we found ourselves in. There were nights where a 100km/h wind pounded the walls of the little tent. I worried myself sick wondering if the tent would finally give up and tear, collapse, snap etc.. In the end we survived, and got off light it seems. One morning, we met a dude who watched his tent rip out of the ground and blow away in the direction of Scotland. Most of the time, I was uncomfortable. Too sweaty, too hot, too cold, too tired, too sore, too windburnt, too sunburnt, too hungry, too wet, smelly, hungry hungry hungry and cold. A cocktail of pain followed me around the country for a great deal of the time. Rich and I discovered new personal limits. On a particularly tiring stage of a walk, Rich and I found ourselves scanning mountain huts for food left behind by other travellers. When I found a packet of chicken noodles (of the super-crap Maggi variety) I grinned so hard I think I salivated. After three weeks of being cold and wet and tired of the screaming wind, we developed a habit of eating in public toilets and public showers whenever we found them. It was good shelter from the wind/rain/snow/ and whatever else was going on outside. This cooking and eating in public toilet business was a sign we had withdrawn from the world and had become ferals.