23 Oct 2016

East, North & North-East Iceland - Day 7: A Rainy Drive and Missed Mountain Pass

Some days on my trips to Iceland are disappointing. This is usually weather-related, and usually involve low cloud and lots of rain. Day 7 of my trip was one such day. I didn't have particularly far to go, from Hvammsgerði, just outside Vopnafjörður, to Borgarförður-Eystri, some 145km away. My plan was to drive to Bustarfell to see the turf-roofed houses, then head out towards the beach at Skjólfjörur, spend some time there (having looked up the route down to the beach again), before driving over the wonderful-looking Hellisheiði mountain pass on the route 917, before crossing the wide river plain across towards Borgarfjörður-Eystri. Sadly this was not to be. The cloud was very low and from small breaks in it I could make out snow on the higher ground. I set off, looking ahead of me to the pass shrouded in cloud, thinking that I might still give it a go (I can drive in low visibility), but as I approached the turn-off to Bustarfell I passed an orange sign with the road number and name of the pass and assumed that this meant that the road was closed. I didn't want to risk it, and realised that it might be covered in snow. I turned off towards Bustarfell and decided that I wouldn't bother trying the pass. I also then decided not to bother going back on myself to see Skjólfjörur - plenty more stacks in the sea elsewhere, after all. My change in route meant quite a long detour back to the main ring-road, which was annoying, but it just seemed the sensible option.

So, first stop was Bustarfell, in the rain. There was at least some cool moody clouds in the sky, so the drive was still enjoyable, despite my scuppered plans and invisible hilltops.

Bustarfell is a cute little old farm with a collection of small houses, the tops covered in turf. When I arrived I noticed a load of bits and pieces at the front, and a man soon appeared telling me I was an hour too early, as he was clearing all the stuff away. I didn't want to hang around an hour to get a better shot, so just took a few photos before heading on. One of the houses was open as a museum during the peak season, but obviously it was closed now it was "winter" here. Another had no turf, which rather spoiled the effect!

I drove on, stopping at the side of the road as I noticed a gyrfalcon with a small rodent near the roadside. It flew away from me as soon as I stopped, but it was still thrilling to see it.

I was able to take the route 920 back down to the 85, so as not to have to backtrack to Vopnafjörður. I rejoined the main road and headed back towards the ring-road for my rather annoying diversion. Before I reached the ring-road I saw my first (and only) reindeers - a herd grazing down in a river valley. I guess they hang out in the hills during the summer and autumn and only head down in winter. I've seen plenty in the south-east on my winter journeys.

I joined the ring-road, driving a little of it that I'd missed on my way north, as I'd taken the side road to Moðrudalur. One point was a little nerve-racking, with a large drop on the far side of the road over a canyon. It was quite spectacular, in spite of the greyness. I eventually passed the waterfall (Ysti-Rjúkandi) that I'd stopped at on the way - the car-park was packed. My next stop was after the bridge across the river, before I needed to turn east towards the coast again. There was a striking bridge above a beautiful canyon, with strange clouds above to the east (and even a patch of blue sky!).

After the bridge I took a left hand turn onto route 925. I could have carried on back into Egilsstaðir, but decided that I'd try another stretch of road, since I'd need to take that road on my way back from Borgarfjordur-Eystri anyway a couple of days later. This meant that at least I'd take part of the route I'd planned originally. I drove along the river for a while, through farmland. I stopped when I saw a cute pile of brown cows all snuggled up together. Nearby others tucked into a hay bale. A sheep stood blowing in the wind on the opposite side of the road. In the distance I could see the fresh snow on the hilltops that were now visible - I'm sure the 917 would have been too snowy.

I drove a little further and stopped to photograph a few horses, pretty much the first I'd photographed all trip. They are much friendlier in the winter, when they almost always approach for a stroke (probably wanting food). I was rather transfixed by the way two of them lay on the ground, with their legs all tucked in, similar to the way my cocker spaniel often sleeps. Others just stood there, looking as if they were just contemplating the view.

I took a right turn to continue on the 925, which crossed more farmland and a few hamlets.

I turned onto the route 944 and soon came to a weir and stopped to take a photo, the rain and wind unfortunately having made an appearance briefly. There is a large power plant nearby, creating hydro-electric power. A large sign showed me the beautiful view of the mountains in the distance that were hidden by the clouds today.

The road continued on the other side of the river before reaching the route 94 - the main (and mainly paved) road that runs between Egilsstaðir and Borgarförður-Eystri. It soon turned a bend and then continued straight, heading towards the mountains that I couldn't see. It was a fantastic stretch of road, all the same. I do love winding roads, but sometimes there's nothing quite like zooming along a straight stretch. The road started to climb and wind around the hillsides, past some cool cliffs. It was another fantastic stretch of road, climbing steeply on long switchbacks. If only there was a view!! I soon reached the signpost for the trailhead to Stórurð, where I hoped to hike to the following day, weather-permitting. It certainly didn't look very inviting today. The hillsides nearby were red and beautiful, in spite of the greyness and rain. The road continued winding uphill into the fog.

I reached the top of the pass, after passing a small lake, and soon came out from beneath the low cloud to get a view down to the Njarðvík and the fjord below, the road snaking downhill towards it. I kept stopping to take photos as the road was just so cool!

I made it to the bottom of the bends and enjoyed the last little straight bit passing the hamlet of Njarðvík. The next stretch was an interesting one that I'd seen some photos of and was a little apprehensive about. The road winds in a series of endless twists along a scree slope and it looked a bit like the scary road east of Hvalnes. It turned out not to be scary at all, since it wasn't very high above the sea, the road was wide and there hadn't been a recent avalanche to worry me. It was a particularly ugly stretch.

The winding bit soon ended and the road turned towards the town of Borgarförður-Eystri, my destination for the night and the following day. I drove past the guesthouse and continued on around the bay to explore a little before the light disappeared. It was raining hard and was really quite miserable. I drove past a small waterfall that fell on to the beach, just before a little harbour area, which apparently has great birdlife in summer (including puffins, although they were long gone). I parked at the harbour and took a few shots, the rain pelting at me.

The weather was so ghastly that I could only stay out a few minutes. I was desperate for the loo - as usual - so headed home. I stopped very briefly to take a couple of shots of the cute waterfall (I'd be back) and the pretty grey church back in the village.

I checked in to the Blabjörg guesthouse, where I had a lovely room overlooking the shore, with the waves crashing over some rocks. Later on I headed out to eat at the Álfacafé, having a couple of bowls of tasty fish soup. I didn't stay around but went back to my room for the usual beer + Skype + reviewing of photos. The northern lights forecast was still crazy, but there was not a single break in the cloud tonight, so no point worrying myself about it. I had an early night, hoping the cloud might lift in the morning so I'd be able to do the Stórurð hike, listening to the waves outside as I nodded off. The forecast wasn't promising, but you never know with Icelandic weather...

Click here for my Day 6 blog: a fantastic drive around the north-east Iceland coast
Click here for my Day 8 blog: Hengifoss again

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