Come wind or rain, Rauðasandur continues
Red sands, yoga, seal-watching, camp games and nightly concerts in a barn—the only thing the organisers of Rauðasandur Festival couldn’t promise was good weather. The festival, held during the first weekend of July at a remote farm in the West Fjords, is ambitious in its design: 500 eager festival-goers and musicians abandon modern comforts for a four-day marathon of concerts, camping, coordinated activities, and revelry in an idyllic location reachable only by a treacherous, winding dirt road. Icelandic weather being unpredictable as it is, however, the festival organisers are used to changing plans by now. After four iterations—the first of which was a small trial run for the organisers and their friends—the festival has gone according to plan, on site, twice. Of the three (sold-out) festivals open to the public, only the 2012 iteration has had such luck. Heavy winds and rains forced last year’s festival to be evacuated on the first morning. Needless to say, organisers and festival-goers had their fingers crossed for better luck this year, undaunted by (and despite) nationwide weather advisories. But as I pulled out of a wind-chilled Reykjavík on Thursday morning to catch the first night of the festival, I found out that the organisers had preemptively opted for Plan B: hold the concerts in Patreksfjörður (the town nearest Rauðasandur) and host guests in the town’s community center. My tent would only be dead weight.
I Never Went
As I arrived in Patreksfjörður that night, the sun peaked out from the clouds, rendering the fjord’s seawater a brilliant blue and illuminating the cliffs on the other side. “What nasty weather?” I wondered. The concerts were held in The Pirate House, an old workshop that has recently been converted into a bar, café and venue. The mood was subdued and cozy in the old smithy where the bands played. A wood fire burned in the industrial furnace, filling the room with warmth and the comforting smell of campfire.
People joked that the festival should be called “Rauðasandur at Patreksfjörður” or “Aldrei fór ég á Rauðasand” (“I never went to Rauðasandur”—a play on the Ísafjörður festival “I Never Went South”). But if there was disappointment in the air, I couldn’t sense it, or was talking to the wrong folks. Nevertheless, excited rumours had been circulating that we were going to be hitting the red sands the next day; in between sets, Kristín, an organiser, confirmed that, indeed, we would be making our way across the fjord and over the mountains. The crowd cheered. No one knew the adventure we were about to embark upon. We danced our unwearied bodies to Boogie Trouble whose Icelandic disco tunes work magic on the stiffest, most reluctant person. Satisfied for the night, but ready for more, I headed to the community center to sleep amidst the surprisingly calming chorus of a hundred snoring sleepers.
Friday morning, the festival staff opened the blinds in the community center to commence the move to Rauðasandur. A local travel company, Westfjords Adventures, ferried musicians and crew members to the site. On the way, our driver provided snippets about Patreksfjörður, its geological setting, the different kinds of ducks floating in the fjord. Before long, however, he interrupted his trivia lesson and turned to the practical: “Does anyone want tips about how to set up a tent in very windy weather?” “Yes. Yes, we do.” As we descended the winding dirt road, the broad beach appeared, glittering in the sun. It wasn’t until I got out of the van that I realized why our driver had spent so much time giving pointers. A ferocious, frigid wind blew down the mountains, across the broad sands, towards the sea. I kept our driver’s pointers in mind as I pitched my tent: loose objects in my pockets, door away from the wind, gear in the tent. I looked at the little thing, afraid that if I walked away, it’d blow into the sea. I hedged my bets and hit the sands to explore.
To describe Rauðasandur as a beach might be misleading: it’s a broad swath of auburn sand, intricately carved by wind and water, flanked on one side by a tidal lagoon, and on the other by the waters of Breiðafjörður. It grew longer and wider the longer I walked on it. Wind blew sand across sand, towards the sea. Rauðasandur, in a weird way, feels like a desert—a desert littered with whale and sheep bones where seaweed clumps roll like tumbleweeds across the prairie. The cold wind empowered me, but turned my hands purple. I was half-surprised to find my tent still standing when I returned. Voices paraded around the campground inviting people to play: “Party later! Play now!” A fierce gale shook the tent—”I’ll stay here,” I think. But as evening approached, the winds died down and the sun appeared. The site came alive with heretofore unseen campers. Silhouettes in the distance explored the sands; people joined in the games; some just stood outside, soaking up the elusive warmth.
During this interlude of sunshine, music started in the barn, a covered shed with a sand floor. Children sat up front on whale vertebrae. A steady buzz of chatter floated in the back, but up front the music was immediate and intimate. Sam Amidon, the only traveling artist who played the festival, rotated between guitar, banjo and fiddle, putting new spins on traditional American tunes—songs of love, deceit and God—fitting for the setting, an American fantasy in rural Iceland. By the time the music was over, the weather had turned again. The wind picked up. I tried to sleep despite the thundering of the tent’s plastic walls.
Oh, the Wind and Rain
I awoke just before ten and the wind was worse then ever. I heard voices throughout the campground. “Early risers talking loudly,” I thought. They continued and multiplied, and when I heard a siren, I knew what was going on. Three rescue trucks had pulled into the campground. “Wake up.” I shook my friend, “We’re being evacuated.” An emergency rescue team had been dispatched to the site; men in red suits went from tent to tent, waking up campers, bunching tents up. I hastily packed my tent and headed to the barn for shelter. Despite the circumstances, the mood was jovial. As the campground cleared, we waited for a bus to bring gear and crew members back to Patreksfjörður. In the meantime, a seemingly endless thermos of hot coffee had appeared, as did a number of percussion instruments. Before long, the ragtag bunch in the barn was singing, almost forgetting that we were waiting. When the buses arrived, we eagerly boarded and bid farewell to the empty site.
Back in Patreksfjörður, the mood was anything but disappointed. Folks sat at a long table in the community center, sharing snacks, meeting people they would not have otherwise met in the privacy of tents. Several people went back to sleep, catching up on shuteye lost during the evacuation. Meanwhile, yoga, as promised, took place amidst napping bodies. When the concert started up in The Pirate House, people seemed relieved, relaxed. After so much commotion, Emilíana Torrini’s soothing, smoky voice was calming. Sóley, after an eight-month break from performing, came back with new song-stories to tell. But if I thought that people would be too tired to party, I was proven entirely wrong. Somehow, the festival organisers were left with too many cases of beer than they knew what to do with—tall boys of Thule were passed out freely as Kött Grá Pje dropped beats and riled up the crowd to new highs. I went to sleep early, but as I found out, a raucous round of limbo followed the concert, then a jam session and a set of accordion music into the wee hours of the morning.
The festival’s organisers seemed surprised at how smoothly the festival ran, despite the shuttling back and forth. It became clear with each turn of events that they had thought each step out in advance. After two years in a row of “Rauðasandur at Patreksfjörður,” I asked the organisers about the festival’s future. For them, the remoteness is part of the magic of Rauðasandur—the fact that 500 people have schlepped to a location in the middle of nowhere for four days of music and activities. The remoteness, however, contributes to its unpredictability. They have studied meteorological records for the area and found that, over the last 20 years, the first weekend in July has had the best, warmest weather. Past precedent, it would seem, is hardly a reliable way to predict weather in Iceland. Nevertheless, the organisers are not going to give up on Rauðasandur—the challenges are part of the fun; each unexpected turn is a learning experience for future reference. With an uncompromisingly positive attitude, they’ll continue to hold Rauðasandur, whether or not red sands are included.
Transport around Patreksfjörður provided by Westfjord Adventures.