“Sleepy” is an adjective so frequently and tiresomely appended to the noun “town” that together the phrase “sleepy town” seems to convey nothing at all, save an author’s uninspired attempt to recycle generic diction for a specific circumstance. Yet here in Hafnir, on the western limits of Reykjanes, as tattered flaps of a homemade geodesic dome ripple in a noncommittal breeze and three dogs sit solemnly on someone’s doorstep, not one of the town’s hundred-odd inhabitants is in sight and I can’t help but think, “What a sleepy little town.”
Situated just beyond an estuary from Keflavík International Airport, Hafnir seems indifferent to the changes of the last decade, to the millions of new visitors landing—loudly—in full view across the water. Although it’s still not unheard-of to find a town so unamenable to the whims and wants of travellers—there’s neither gas station nor shop, hostel nor campground—Hafnir’s proximity to the airport makes this lack all the more remarkable. Only a small sign, hardly noticeable, vaunts the town’s extraordinary claim to antiquity. The remains of hunting and fishing cabins recently unearthed here are possibly the earliest traces of human inhabitation in Iceland and may well revise the narrative of settlement, suggesting that the island’s first inhabitants were temporary, seasonal visitors seeking the untapped bounties of an unpeopled land—bumbling foreign backpackers in a 9th century tourism boom.
Lonely lava road
We’re gliding through Reykjanes peninsula today, eschewing landmarks with jam-packed car parks, seeking instead unfrequented novelties and oddities along the way. Suburbs turn to lava fields along the expanse of Route 42 that extends south of Hafnarfjörður. Two long, straight stretches of relatively flat road make this a popular cycling route: dozens of cyclists, heads hunched over handlebars, pedal through the monotonously igneous terrain. The landscape becomes more mountainous in the approach to Kleifarvatn, the largest lake on the peninsula, but before the lakeside vista opens up to us, we find our first impulsive diversion and turn onto Route 428.
A sign at the entrance to the road warns of its potential dangers: stony, sinuous, sometimes soggy. But without a technical designation as an F-road, we’re cautiously undaunted in our Subaru. The road takes us through archetypically Icelandic lava fields abutted on either side by craggy hills, but every so often a twist in the road reveals an uncharacteristically lush expanse of grass rolling along the hillsides. Hiking trails branch off the road, some several kilometres long. It’s not an activity for today—we’re in sneakers, and somewhat hungover—but at only forty minutes’ drive from Reykjavík these paths would make a quieter alternative to scaling Esja for the umpteenth time. Except a lone teenager revving along on an ATV and a handful of sheep, there’s not a soul in sight on our hour-long sojourn through the region.
The pebbly percussion of gravel turns to asphalt’s continuous hum as the road spits us out by Krýsuvík. We take a spin around the area, towards the sulphur clouds billowing from the fumaroles and mudpots of Seltún, but having all visited before, we remain in the car and instead discuss what it means to really see or visit a place. I argue—unoriginally—that photographing a landscape robs one of the experience of the landscape, at which point we all realise how hungry we are.
Grindavík is a charmless place, but that need not be a value judgment. An active fishing town and one of very few harbours along Iceland’s south coast, Grindavík wasn’t built to charm tourists. We stop for lunch in Salthúsið, a fish restaurant housed in a large pine cabin, a mountain lodge amidst strip malls. Over oven-roasted trout, we plan to continue not planning our day; like the independent grownups that we are, we order deep-fried banana for dessert. We pass through the town’s tiny church on our way out of town. Instead of tombstones, colourful play equipment encircles the building—a metaphor I won’t belabour. Horses graze nearby. I snap a selfie with an equine pal and wonder—unoriginally—whether selfies rob the self of experience, or if they reinforce it.
Continuing along the coast, we pause briefly at Brimketill—a rock formation which resembles a seaside hot tub—but interest wanes when we realize that resemblance is not equivalence, and it’s simply a cold, photogenic pool buffeted by an unrelenting tide. We cruise by the geothermal Gunnuhver region, taking to heart the timeless adage, “If you’ve seen one fumarole, you’ve seen them all.” Stopping at the so-called Bridge Between Continents, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates creep apart from each other, we stand staring, but nothing moves. I demand a refund only to remember I hadn’t paid anything.
And so we come to Hafnir, refreshingly devoid of human life, nonchalantly unconcerned with the arrivals and departures down the road in Keflavík. It’s a decently pleasant Saturday evening; the sun seems poised to make an appearance; there’s laundry flapping in the wind.