25 Oct 2016

East, North & North-East Iceland - Day 9: Finally Making it to the Incredible Stórurð!

It was my last full day in Iceland and I woke up to almost completely blue skies - a welcome relief after a couple of days of low cloud and fog. A little cloud lingered on the horizon. I didn't make it up for sunrise - I just couldn't respond to the early alarm call. I'm sure sunrise would've been good, but sleep often has to come first (I'm a bad landscape photographer in that respect!). At breakfast I saw the guys who'd set off on the hike the previous day and we chatted for a bit. They were from Antwerp and were driving around the ring-road from the south, and the hike to Stórurð had been the highlight of their trip so far, they told me, with the cloud lifting enough for them to get some views after all. On that I decided that I'd have to do it after all, even though I then had to drive onwards to Seyðisfjörður, where I was spending my last night. It would mean that I'd miss the harvest festival there, but the hike sounded unmissable. How right they were.

I would love to have had a few more days to explore the area, especially now the weather had improved, but obviously that wasn't possible (unless Hekla suddenly erupted and spewed volcanic ash into the atmosphere). Before I left the little town I remembered that there was another cute turf-roofed house there, called Lindarbakki. Oddly, I must've driven past it a few times and even stopped nearby, as it was next to the quaint grey church that I'd photographed - I just hadn't noticed it. The house looked adorable in the morning sun, with red walls and chimney, and the mountains peaking above the hills behind.

The church looked lovely in the sunshine too (don't most things, after two days of gloom?).



A little fog lingered on the mountains as I drove out of the village, sad to go.


The hike ahead of me was going to be a long one, so I tried not to stop too many times along the way before reaching the trailhead; obviously this was hard for me! There was a striking white house at the edge of the fjord that I'd passed a few times and had to stop to capture that. The view back to the town wasn't bad either.


Next stop was the muddy section of wiggly road. I'd passed a rock painted with a face and decided that it deserved a picture too. This really is the ugliest road I've seen in Iceland!


I was very self-controlled and only stopped once, very briefly, on the switchback section, to take a photo. I was keen to start my hike and didn't want to hang around. I guess if the light had been better (not right in front of me) I might have taken more.


As I approached the top of the hill I suddenly had a brainwave. I was planning to do the same as the Belgian guys and leave the car at the bottom of the hill, walking up the road at the beginning of the hike when I'd have more energy. My brainwave was to leave my heavy tripod and water at the top of the hill, so I didn't have to carry it that additional 3km. I could have probably left all my gear up there, but I was nervous to do that - the tripod and water would be fine and were unlikely to be stolen (I'm sure I could've left my whole bag and wallet too and it would've been fine). Another car was parked so someone must have started the hike ahead of me. After dropping off the heavy goods I drove down to the bottom car-park, got my gear ready (changing socks to thick ones as the thin ones made my wellies rub against my heels - yes, I was doing a 20km hike in wellies!), and headed off. It was already 11am, but I'd have plenty of time to complete the hike before it got dark.

The first stretch was tough - steep uphill, but the views down to the coast and across the river plain were delightful. There was an enormous expanse of black sand, dotted with grasses, and the sea was a beautiful blue. In the valley a blue river meandered inland, and the mountains above were covered in fresh snow. If those views had been the only ones I'd seen it would still have gone down as a magnificent hike, but a lot better was to come.



I had hoped that a car might have passed that I could have hitched to the trailhead with, but the first car to go past me was when I was about 30 metres from my destination! As I neared the top of the hill I noticed a coach pull in to investigate a couple of new huts that were being built; I'd noticed the workmen there when I passed the previous day. I also decided to have a look, and reached them once the coach had continued on. They had massive glass windows overlooking the valley, but I couldn't work out what they were going to be for - no plumbing or separate rooms, so definitely not cabins; perhaps some kind of museum or monument.


I reached the lake at the top after about 35 or 40 minutes and walked a little further to pick up my tripod and water (glad to have a good slug of it!) and head up the trail.


Ascending the trail the views just got better and better. I had a fantastic panoramic view of the road winding up from the flat valley and down to the fjord at Njarðvik on the other side of the pass - it was just beautiful. The roads and rivers snaked across the landscape. Perhaps the road designer had seen the rivers and wanted to mimic their path...


The higher I got, the better the view became. I was so glad I'd waited a day and was so glad that I was actually doing this!




The wind picked up as I got higher, so I stopped to put on my windproof jacket and hat, which helped a lot. It wasn't long until I reached the top and found myself overlooking a huge valley below with stunning mountains behind. This was Geldingafjall and was absolutely spectacular. I really couldn't believe how lovely it was! I stupidly took my photos there without my lens's hood on, so all of them have massive sun flares, although some of them looked okay. Photographing into the sun at midday certainly wasn't ideal, but at least the sun would be moving west which would help the views later on!




It was truly glorious and even the wind had dropped at the top so it was pleasant and warm. I took a few self-portraits of me enjoying the wonderful view.




The hike passed a few little lakes and continued on south, to the west of another small peak called Súlur. I passed patches of recent snow, mainly in the shady areas. I was glad for the wellies as the ground was pretty squelchy in places and I didn't have to worry about where I trod. Old wooden posts marked the way - they were spaced at intervals of about 20 or 30 metres, so I was glad visibility was good!




The path continued below a few small mountains, some of them craggy and rocky.


Exactly two hours after I set off I came around a hillside and got my first glimpse of the strange Dyrfjöll mountain - the pointy one with the gap in it.

I almost raced the next section, keen to see the mountain in its full glory. It didn't take me long to come over the brow of the hill and the whole of the impressive range was there in front of me. Again, the view took my breath away! When I'd seen pictures of it and even got a glimpse the previous evening I'd thought it was a rather ugly mountain, but in the flesh, with a fresh covering of snow, in the sun, it was just stunning!

The sun was hidden behind some clouds, so the pointy peaks were in the shade, but soon it came out. Down the hill slightly was some incredibly intensely green moss, so I set my tripod up and took a few self-portraits, wowed by the view ahead of me. The green is real!


I continued on, keen to get to the large boulders and coloured pools of Stórurð (which means giant boulders, I think). Walking towards those incredible snow-covered peaks was just fantastic; I couldn't have wished for better conditions either.

I soon reached the top of a hill which led down to the black glacial boulders and pools - I could see them stretched out below me. The mountain flanks were made of red rhyolitic rock - it was a geologist's heaven.





I reached the bottom of the hill, and there was a huge, flat grassy area, with a river flowing downhill. I crossed the river and headed towards the pools, following the signs for a Stórurð loop hike. It took me to the turquoise pools that I'd seen in pictures. They were indeed an incredible colour. Everything here was really mind-blowing!



The path took me up a path on the far side of the pool and brought me to possibly the best spot - a little pool in which the mountain was perfectly reflected. I was in heaven: the sun was shining, the sky was blue with some wispy cirrus clouds, snow-covered jagged peaks towered above me, and the whole thing was reflected in a mirror-like pool!

I carried on around the loop, and found another lovely little river. The gloriousness just didn't stop!


I stopped and ate my packed lunch, but was keen to continue as I knew I had at least another 8km to get back to the car (and I still had a fairly long drive). Before I headed on I wanted to find a viewpoint where I could see the blue pools with a backdrop of the peaks; I hadn't really passed such a view on the loop walk. I went back to the beginning and then crossed to the other side of the boulder field and clambered up in between a few, finding bits of path here and there where others had presumably tried the same thing. I found one area that was nearly what I was looking for and took a few shots. It wasn't quite perfect, but it'd have to do for this visit (this was somewhere I would definitely be coming back to).

I finally tore myself away and started the long walk back to the car. It was almost 4 hours since I'd set off - the same time the Belgian guys had taken to do the whole hike!

I turned round every few minutes, stopping to take more photos. No more, I'd tell myself, then have a sneaky glance over my shoulder to check out the view, stopping again to take just one more shot of the view. The landscape covered in red leaves didn't help my cause. It was just idyllic. The clouds over the mountains were growing, but the sky was still mostly blue.



Soon the mountains were out of view behind me, but things still didn't speed up for me, as the landscape was just amazing, bathed in late afternoon sun. The colours of the leaves and grasses were just divine, mainly soft reds and oranges. I past a few streams and large rocks in the middle of the path, and lots and lots of bog. I was very grateful for the wellies - it made it a lot easier and quicker than it might have been.








The trail went on and on, and even though it was long and I was tired, it was still very enjoyable. I just couldn't stop taking pictures of the pathway through the red vegetation. I came to a sweet little waterfall and stopped and got the tripod out again (most of my shots by now were handheld as I was too lazy to set the tripod up).



The path seemed to go on forever. The light was beginning to fade and the ISO was getting turned up to cope with the lack of light.


I kept thinking that the end of the trail must be just around that next corner, but it never was. It just went on and on! And my snapping away went on and on, slowing me down even more. I was really tired by now.


Eventually the road loomed into view - I had turned that corner. It was a sight for sore eyes (and legs!). The last bit didn't take too long, now I had my destination in view, and soon I could see my little white car.

I was exhausted, but I still had to drive all the way back to Egilsstaðir and then on another 30km across another mountain pass down to Seyðisfjörður, so no chance for a rest yet! The drive down was lovely, the sun low in the sky, and a few picturesque clouds. I stopped along the straight stretch to capture a cute little farm, set out all on its own, sitting beneath a cloud.



 
I zoomed back towards town and took the turn-off just before you reach it that heads up across yet another mountain pass. It was almost sunset and I stopped at a pull-out at the top of the hill to look down across the town, under a rather pretty sky. From that point I could see the whole of Lagarfljót and the mountains beyond - visibility was amazing in comparison to the past few days!


The pass took me across a high flat area with a large lake. There were some snowy mountains, glowing vaguely in the dusky light, but there was no opportunity to stop. Before I knew it I was winding down the usual switchbacks and hairpin bends and heading towards the little port town.

The Post-Hostel was at the far end of the town, near a little harbour, and I checked in before having a quick drive around to scope out potential spots for northern light spotting later on. The road became gravelly a little further on, but it looked as if there might still be too much light pollution from the little town. I then drove, rather lazily, to the centre, and parked opposite Kaffi Lara El Grillo Bar, where the two girls from San Francisco I'd met at Möðrudalur had recommended, telling me that it had an awesome beer selection. I was rather disappointed not to have spent longer in the town, as it was such a quaint place, with pretty wooden houses, and a pale blue church, with its own rainbow pathway leading up to the front door. The restaurant/bar was cosy and I ordered a delicious lamb dish, washed down by an extremely expensive limited edition Borg beer (AYC Ayia - an Indian Pale Ale for Kr 1,600 - about £11!!). Just as well as I was driving, as I didn't want to order any more of those, even though it was tasty.

After supper I headed back to the hostel, a pleasant-enough place, and got my gear ready for my last chance at aurora spotting. Obviously the clouds had grown as the sky had darkened, leaving very few patches of clear sky, but most of the cloud was very light. I wandered across the road first to the harbour to see what I could see. There was a vague green glow above the fjord, but not a great deal to write home about. I took a couple of shots of the boats too, but the lights from a couple of houses drowned out everything!


I got all wrapped up and decided to head out of town, in search of something better, the sky still relatively clear, with only patchy cloud. It was 10.30pm already. I reached the first waterfall where I'd noticed a large parking area, so thought I'd give that a go. The view down to the town was quite nice, with a little glow from the houses, and vague lights dancing behind the light clouds above. I tried a few directions, but over the town was the nicest composition. Every once in a while a car would drive past, but it wasn't quite the right angle for decent car trail shots. I waited a while, and the lights did improve, giving quite a good show from time to time. Having seen such good ones, with clear skies, I've definitely become spoilt and just wish they'd get a bit better! They did come out a little better in pictures than in the flesh, so that was something.




I tried a few shots of the Milky Way above the mountain pass and noticed a strange orange glow low on the horizon, which must have been from the "city" lights from Egilsstaðir - it was quite eerie.


The cloud came back, getting thicker and thicker. Together with that and the lack of hood and thick scarf meaning my neck was constantly cold, I didn't manage to stay out long, calling it a day at 11.45pm. Besides, I had to come home and pack, as I had an early start the following morning to get back to the airport at Egilsstaðir - I also wanted to have a quick look around the town in daylight.

It had been such a fantastic day - one of my best in Iceland, starting with a beautiful morning, one of the best day hikes I've ever done in my life, some awesome roads, a pretty sunset, tasty food and beer, and finally a little spot of northern lights to see me on my way and remind me of why I keep on coming back...