9 Feb 2020

Iceland #17 - Day 8: Leaving the Westfjords Behind

Day eight was my last day in the Westfjords. I had booked the last ferry across to Stykkishólmur on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula so had a full day to explore the south-western fjords. I only had one place on my list for the day though - Rauðisandur. I'd had a disappointing visit there two years earlier - failing to check tide times and arriving at high tide when you can't see the amazing orange swirls. This time I checked and planned my timing accordingly, setting off just before 10am.

Before I left, I cooked the last piece of salmon that was left over due to getting supper made for me the previous night, and added it to the salad packet for my packed lunch. Árni gave me a couple of tips of things to visit locally on my way out, together with a rather haunting story. First stop he recommended was a beach not far from the farm where a few seals lived; unfortunately they all scarpered as soon as I approached. The views on the far side of the fjord were wonderful, though, as patches of sun would light up the rocky hills. It was still extremely blustery - winter was on its way!

Not far from there was a farm where the owner - for some reason - had to sell up and move to Ísafjörður. He didn't want anyone else looking after his sheep, so he shot them all (ugh!), and then built a burial mound on the farm, buried them all underneath it, and then got two gravestones made, dedicated to his favourite of the sheep. I drove along from the house and wandered down to the graves. What a sad and strange story. Surely someone else would have looked after them? Oh well, they were at least resting in a beautiful spot.

I continued on along the road towards Dynjandi, stopping to take a few more photos along the way - I just love the way the gravel road winds off into the distance.

I didn't stop at Dynjandi, as it was in shade, but took a couple of last shots from up the hill where I could see the other waterfall.

I drove across the pass and didn't stop again as the wind was just nasty! I carried on, and instead of taking the right hand turn taking me along the road with the stunning fjord views I went straight on across the Tröllaháls pass. It's not the most exciting of roads - especially compared with the other passes in the region, but it was quick, and I was down at the end of the road in no time. There's a weird sculpture at the bottom of the hill that I took a few shots of, just as the sun came out.

I was humming and hawing about whether to get the early ferry, and then spend the afternoon near Stykkishólmur, but decided to carry on with my original plan and head up to Rauðisandur, passing along the pretty stretch of coastline before climbing the big hill and over the Kleifaheiði pass.

The road up to Rauðisandur isn't as bad as it Árni had warned it might be, and it didn't take all that long before I was driving slowly down the massive hairpin bends on the far side. Finally I reached a viewpoint where I could pull over (the road is quite wide) and took a few shots of the wonderful swirly sand banks below. It's not exactly red sand, but orange, so some people are disappointed by it. I love it, though, and it was even better when the sun came out and the sands were lit up. I walked along the road a bit to get different views. This is one place I wish I had a drone so I could be right above to capture a proper bird's eye view of the sand patterns.

I didn't go right down to the beach as it's not actually very accessible and you have to drive far to get close to it. Besides, I just wanted to see the patterns from above, so I headed back up the hill just after 1pm. I had quite a few hours left before the ferry departure, so decided to explore a bit more and turned left when I reached the main road, driving past the wonderful sandbank opposite Patreksfjörður and on to Tungurif, where I had to stop and take a few shots - I just love that massive expanse of pale yellow sand.

I continued on past the beach, heading inland, and at the far end instead of heading up to the Latrabjarg cliffs I took a right turn, not knowing where it would take me. I knew that there were some cottages to rent along that stretch and it couldn't go anywhere other than to the end of the headland, so I thought I'd give it a go. It was a fantastic drive, with the usual Westfjords big cliffs and inlets, the odd beach, and a nice winding gravel road.

I passed a few farms, and presumably the holiday rentals, and continued on, with the road taking a huge sweeping bend uphill and across a pass with wonderful views. There wasn't a soul around and the views were magnificent!

Finally I reached the top of the hill and the road turned towards the west and then I was greeted with another incredible view of a huge, white sand beach below me - called Kollsvík. I parked the car and took my tripod to the edge to take a few shots. It was windy, but not too bad, but I did feel a little precarious perched on the top of the cliff! The sun came in and out and the sea was turquoise; I was extremely glad I'd made this random detour - sometimes you just discover gems like this.

I looked out to sea and could obviously see nothing - the next land you reach heading due west is Kulusuk in south-eastern Greenland, some 590km away! I turned round, again not driving down to the beach, stopping a few times on my way back.

I parked at the western side of Tungurif beach and walked down onto the beach and had a little wander.

Obviously I had to stop again on the eastern side of the beach, where I walked up the hill to get a better view of the stretch of sand.

I began to worry about time a little, knowing that I had to get the ferry at 6pm and it was already approaching 4pm. I stopped briefly across from the wrecked ship when I saw some sheep. They were very similar to the ones I'd seen the previous evening - three of them, skittish, stopping to pose, then scarpering!

I pulled in to take some photos of the shipwreck but for some reason got a bit panicked about how far I still had to go - I realised later that I hadn't refreshed the distance on my phone since before Kollsvík, so headed off, suddenly worried I had further to drive than I thought. I only stopped again when I reached the wide open beach at Birkemelur, and realised that I'd got confused about the distance and actually had plenty of time. There were some hot pools there, which had there been no-one else around I might have gone into, but a couple had arrived and I wasn't feeling like company! I sat in the car and ate my salad, just remembering that I had it.

I reached Brjanslækur at 5.10pm so drove on a little to take some more photos as I had some time to kill. The light was occasionally spectacular, with dark clouds and very brief patches of intense sunlight.

I headed back to the ferry terminal and noticed an amazing patch of light on some jagged cliffs to the south as I watched the ferry approach.

The ferry docked, the passengers disembarked and soon we were on. It wasn't very crowded, so the cars weren't packed in too closely, allowing room to actually get oneself plus camera bag out of the car! I headed up to the deck where I spent most of the journey. The light quickly weakened, but the clouds were beautiful. It was cold and windy, but I was well wrapped up and just couldn't tear myself away! I looked back at the fjords receding and saw the peaks of Snæfellsnes Peninsula growing as we sailed across the surprisingly flat waters.

After about 45 minutes we reached the little island of Flatey, and docked there briefly to deliver some goods and pick some more up. And then it was on to Stykkishólmur, my home for the night.

Northern lights were forecast for that night, so I was keen to get to the port, check in to my guesthouse and grab something to eat before heading out to find some darkness away from the town. I was staying in the Comfort Guesthouse, where I was greeted by very friendly owners. I dumped my stuff and drove back to the town centre, hoping to eat at the recently reopened Narfeyrarstofa. There was a queue, but they had an enclosed waiting area at the back of the restaurant where I waited. I looked up and noticed that the lights were already out - I even managed to capture them with my crappy iPhone8!

Finally my table for one was ready and I had a tasty-ish bowl of fish soup and some decent bread. I should have given the meal a miss and gone out shooting the lights, but I was hungry, so that won me over!

I ate pretty quickly, paid up, nipped back to the guesthouse to get all my warm gear and camera gear and then headed south out of the town. The street lights seemed to go on forever, and I could see the aurora dancing above me, so was very keen to get past the artificial lights. Eventually I was out of town and passed a few parked cars in lay-bys where people were presumably photographing the lights. I found a little left turn and drove across a cattle grid and a little further to a safe place to stop and set up my tripod and camera. Immediately the lights went crazy, with corona coming down at me creating all sorts of weird and wonderful shapes. Camera pointed upwards I shot and shot.

The show above me only lasted about 5 minutes, and had I arrived any later I would've missed it. There were still lights to be seen in the distance, but not with the intensity of the first ones, and clouds were creeping up from the horizon.

The weather forecast was for clouds to cover the skies by about 10pm, but it was supposed to be clear on the southern side of the peninsula. Instead of staying put - and there was no interesting foreground, so I wanted to find some mountains - I decided to take the long drive across the pass to the potentially clearer weather. Not my best decision in retrospect. The lights had died down and as I drove there was not a great deal to see. It was extremely exhausting too, with the darkness quite oppressive. I found a spot to park when the lights returned a little and took a couple of shots. The colours had gone, and they were just smeary pale green now.

I drove on and took a left turn, stopping to put a bit of diesel in the car - the last thing I wanted to do was to run out of diesel in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night! I checked the weather forecast and the northern lights forecast - the Bz measure that shows the direction of the aurora was constantly north-facing, which explained the general lack of lights, in spite of the KP being at 5. I drove on a little further, hoping to avoid the cloud, which was building, contrary to the forecast I had. I stopped at a lay-by and sat in the dark for a while. It was pointless. The lights had gone and the clouds had grown. So I turned round and drove home. over an hour away, desperately struggling to stay awake - it was quite torturous! I got back to Stykkishólmur at 1am feeling annoyed with myself for ever having left the initial spot and having driven so damn far away. I had a full day ahead the following day - exploring the peninsula before driving back to Álftanes, so had a quick review of the photos before going to bed, utterly exhausted!

Please click here for my blog from Day 7 - Exploring Arnarfjörður