11 Oct 2016

East, North, & North-East Iceland - Day 1: Flying to Egilsstaðir and Hiking to Hengifoss

September saw me fly back to Iceland for my 11th trip (and second one this year). Instead of visiting my beloved south coast favourites (Jökulsárlon, Vík and Stafafell) I decided to explore an area that I had only touched the edges of before - the east, the north, and the north-east. Finally - 14 years after my first visit - I would complete the ring road that most people try to complete in a week or two.

I flew in to Keflavik on the late flight (on time, for once), having had a lovely fish 'n' chips at the new Heston Blumenthal restaurant in the delightful Heathrow Terminal 2 (where I also randomly bumped into my oldest sister on her way to Greece, having missed an earlier flight from Gatwick!). I stayed at the Kef Guesthouse nearby; it was cheaper than the airport hotel, and they had a pick-up and drop-off service, so easy enough to get to, even late in the evening. It was one of the nicest places I stayed during my trip too.

My plan the following morning was to get up reasonably early, get the airport bus into the centre of Reykjavik, have a quick stop at a jewellery shop that a friend recommended (and that I'm now obsessed with), before heading on to the domestic terminal to get my hour-long hop across the country to Egilsstaðir. Things didn't really go to plan: I didn't get up quite early enough, hadn't checked what time the planes arrive, just expecting a constant number and therefore buses from the airport every 15 minutes or so. When I did check I found that there was a big gap in arrival times - and therefore airport buses - and I had to wait until 9.45am for a bus. This didn't give me enough time to visit the shop, so I just got taken straight to the domestic terminal. The bus did at least take a nice route past the wonderful Sólfar sculpture and Harpa before dropping me at the airport, and it was a nice Icelandic day - with sun, clouds, rainbow, rain... The flight was delayed for about half an hour, so I got an expensive sandwich before my wonderful flight over the Icelandic landscape. I would just have had time to visit the shop after all, but it would've been a bit stressful.

The weather was cloudy as we left Reykjavik, but improved along the way, with only a small amount of cloud lingering over the hills as we flew east. I had a window seat facing the south, so got a great view of the edge of the ice-cap, beautiful lakes and braids of the endless rivers reflected in the sun once the clouds were left behind.

(One of these days I must take a small plane with windows that open and fly over the river braids that seem to be everywhere in Iceland. They are just so stunning from above!)

We landed in Egilsstaðir and I picked up my rental car - a white Hyundai I-30 - the same model I'd driven there two years earlier (no point paying double for a 4WD at this time of year - although it would've been useful a couple of times). I immediately checked the car it had a USB plug so I could listen to my iPod (a road-trip alone without music would have been a disaster). All was good, although I found the whole gears things took a bit of getting used to (after my last two rentals that were automatics I just kept on forgetting to put my foot on the clutch when I stopped!).

My first stop was the supermarket (a tiny, not particularly great Netto) in the town centre, where I stocked up on the usual stuff for my packed lunches (rye bread, cheese and ham), as well as some water and juice. All of the guesthouses I was staying apart from the last night included breakfast, so there was no need to get my granola and Skyr, and I wasn't planning on any self-catered dinners, so no need to get the tuna pasta ingredients that I usually bought either! Next stop was the Vin Buðin shop, to stock up on beers for the trip - oddly my first trip to this Icelandic institution. Usually I buy beer at Duty Free on arrival at Keflavik, but given that I had to take an internal flight and my bag was completely full (two tripods, wellies, etc..) I had no way to carry the Duty Free across with me. I paid twice as much in the booze shop, but was able to get a good selection - a couple of bottles of a few different beers to try, including my very favourite - and extremely strong - Garún Icelandic stout.

There were two excursions that I wanted to do from my base in Egilsstaðir - the multi-tiered Klifbrekkufossar waterfall at the entrance to Mjóifjorður (and the fjord itself), and a return trip to Hengifoss, which I didn't quite reach on my previous trip to the area, owing to too much snow. The weather was so nice that I decided that the longer hike would be the best choice, so I set off along the south shore of Lagarfljót. The trees (and there are lots here, unusually for Iceland) looked stunning with the autumnal yellow and orange leaves backlit by the afternoon sun. I should have stopped but wanted to get to the falls to complete my hike early enough in the day. I know better than to continue on, but sometimes I just fail to heed my own advice and regret not stopping later. Shoulda coulda woulda (Buddha also rhymes with this, I realised, as I spent an increasing amount of time on my own, talking to myself in the car...).

After a splendid drive along the wonderful roads winding along the lake, I reached the bridge from where I could see the sun reflecting off the cars in the car-park at the foot of the hill beneath the waterfalls; I could also see Hengifoss up in the distance. The car-park was packed - I was the 17th car to arrive (having been the only person visiting on the last occasion this was quite a shock!). I'd kind of expected this part of the country to be far less busy, but it's still a stop along the ring-road, so it is still a well-beaten track.

One of the reasons I particularly wanted to return here was actually to see Litlanesfoss - the waterfall half way along the route - from the east side, where you can get a great view of the top of the falls and the basalt columns that surround it if you perch on the edge of the cliff. There isn't a proper trail on the far bank, but it was easy enough to find my way, ensuring the tree-filled canyon was always to my left.

I had to climb over a barbed wire fence, but decided that this was to keep the sheep in, not a sign that I was trespassing. In the canyon I passed beautiful autumnal colours of the trees. The basalt columns in the canyon were spectacular too. The sky became cloudier as I ascended.

Eventually I realised I was close to the top of Litlanesfoss so headed carefully towards the edge of the canyon to try and get a good view. I'd seen some photos and just loved this angle, especially because of the tops of the basalt columns there arranged in decreasing ledges. I found the viewpoint, but felt rather nervous, very cautiously creeping up to the edge and peeking over. I was quite determined not to fall over the edge. The first couple of shots I took were fast exposures with the ISO yanked up, my arm out-stretched above the drop and my camera hanging precariously (but clutched tightly)!

I set the tripod up at a few different spots, but couldn't get quite the angles or views I wanted; it was just too dangerous. I climbed down to a little grassy verge, but still couldn't quite get the shots I wanted, climbed back up and tried a little further along the cliff edge. I just loved the columns framing the meandering river and falls and the vegetation perched atop some of the columns.

I headed onwards, keen to see Hengifoss and its red stripey backdrop before the sun completely disappeared. The rest of the hike was pretty straightforward, and when I reached the river's edge I realised I could go no further. The river was very fast-flowing and too deep to cross, the falls in the distance. I'd read that even on the other side it wasn't possible to get very much closer. I wandered along the river-bank for a place to cross the river, but couldn't see anywhere suitable, so took a few shots before heading down.

I descended reasonably quickly, but obviously had to stop from time to time to capture the trees or small waterfalls.

The sun came in and out, beautifully backlighting the remaining cottongrass and other grasses from time to time.

I drove back on the south side of the lake again, stopping a few times to capture the road and the trees. The sun was low in the sky and the light was pleasant.

Towards the town I pulled in at a little turn-off where I'd captured sunset on my previous visit. I found the exact same spot, but it didn't look nearly as special without the snow. A whole load of cabins had since been built, dotted along the hillside above me.

I didn't think there would be a particularly great sunset, so I headed back into town, keen to check in to my guesthouse (Birta, the sister guesthouse to the one I'd stayed in before - Olgu, next door). I stopped briefly at Fellabær on my way back, but was dying to go to the loo, so didn't hang around for long. The colours in the sky faded as it darkened.

There was an intercom at the guesthouse and the woman said she'd be there in a few minutes, so I waited for her to arrive, and actually almost missed the sky as it suddenly lit up red. I didn't have time to get in the car and drive anywhere, so just got a few shots from the garden of the firey skies. It was a good half hour after sunset, so I was quite surprised.

Later on I ate at the Salt Café, where I'd had a tasty flatbread before. I ordered a similar dish - this time with prawns, but it was rather disappointing. I chatted to the English waitress who'd moved there having met an Icelandic boy. The place was busy - clearly even though I was in the far east of the country there were still plenty of tourists. After dinner I got home, had the first of my beers (an Úlfur - an IPA that I'd had before from the Borg brewery), Skyped hubby, checked northern lights forecasts (pretty much nothing, and it was cloudy by now), reviewed my photos, before heading to sleep relatively early.

Not a bad first day back in my favourite little country :)

Check out my blog from Day 2 here

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