Tourist-tailored representations of the country – so focused as they are in selling glaciers, hot springs and volcanoes – often tend to neglect the sea as a central element of a travel experience in Iceland. Peculiar and quite unfair: after all, the sea is a dominant part of the Icelandic landscape, and it is the place where Icelanders have found the core of a pioneering national identity in the course of their history and upon which they have built their wealth over the last century. And – it cannot be denied – it is where the land meets the ocean that Iceland can still offer some of the most awe-inspiring instances of its beauty. Take Hornstrandir, for example, a place beloved, respected, almost feared by Icelanders, and yet unknown and largely ignored by the main tourist flows.
Located in the northernmost appendix of the Westfjords, Hornstrandir is a claw-shaped peninsula attached to the rest of the country by a thin 6 km isthmus. Whereas the Westfjords are usually considered as Iceland’s least reachable area and – in virtue of their beauty – the country’s best kept secret, Hornstrandir constitutes the region’s most inaccessible and remote location and its hidden treasure. A cruel and still irresistibly charming land, facing the Greenland Sea, homeland of tales of trolls, elves and witchcraft – the Icelandic witch-hunt (yes, there was an Icelandic witch-hunt) struck hardest here. Hosting a small and scattered community until the 1950s (“enduring people who feared nothing” in the words of a fisherman I had the pleasure to share a cup of coffee with), Hornstrandir was eventually deserted by its inhabitants, tired of the isolation and hardships the location imposed on them. In 1975, it was turned into a privately owned nature reserve and today it represents one of the main wild areas in Iceland, offering a display of flora and fauna among the richest in the country. A rather convincing confirmation of the natural value of the place seems to be provided by the number of people who come here to carry out fieldwork in the context of environmental science.
Hornstrandir greets the visitor with no facilities whatsoever: you will find no roads, no hotels, no organised campsites, nor even toilets. The amount of comfort you will be able to enjoy – from food to toilet paper – is basically what you carry with you. Your GSM phone will not help you communicate with the outside world once in Hornstrandir. And you won’t get far by car; walking remains the only possible way to move within the region, while travelling by sea is surely the best option for approaching the peninsula. All the major bays are well served from Ísafjörður, with daily trips running: the boat takes you to the coast, where the captain says, “Enjoy your stay and good luck.” You watch it leaving and know that you are left there alone – or perhaps in the casual company of few other visitors – until the time for pick-up comes.
It goes without saying that walking in Hornstrandir’s solitude is a most exhilarating experience – one which Icelanders in particular approach with some sense of awe, as a sort of hiking initiation.
Open ocean, plastic bags
I am sailing to Hornvík today, at the northeastern corner of the region – the most popular destination for visitors, they tell me. I boarded at 9:00 on Monday morning, after a night spent at Ísafjörður campsite and a cosy breakfast in the adjacent Hotel Edda. It is an about three-hour trip to get there. Of the 20 passengers on the boat – most are Icelanders, though there are several tourists on a day tour. The atmosphere onboard is electric with apparently everyone enjoying the trip, charged with excitement and expectation. Until a cute and innocent-looking little girl starts it all. We have reached open sea by now; the ocean is not particularly rough today, but we are facing an ominous headwind. The young girl does not handle our first wave collision well. The first plastic bag – provided in timely fashion by the only crew member – makes its appearance. It won’t be the last one: the chain reaction is irresistible, and in a short while a good half of the passengers is nailed to their seats, helplessly struggling against the contagious sea-sickness. The rest of the trip will be a neverending via crucis for some, an inebriating run on the waves for others. A few people are even out on the deck, boozing around under the splashes – they are clearly having a good time. “If you feel something strange going on in your stomach, look to the horizon!” my seat-neighbour suggests, a biologist from the University of Iceland with some years as a fisherman behind him. I gladly follow the advice and feel thankful to be among those able to enjoy this two-hour experience.
Fortunately, sailing to Hornvík is not the only option to reach the shores of Hornstrandir. Going to Hesteyri or even Aðalvík, for example, offers a much more sheltered passage: you never enter the open ocean and, unless you hit adverse weather conditions, you should be able to avoid that kind of tormenting sickness.
The northern part of the peninsula is probably the best place to start in approaching the region. The large majority of the yearly visitors used to roam between Aðalvík, Hælavík and Hornvík: paths there are more clearly marked and easier to follow and the locations you cross simply magnificent. I already walked the northern area three years ago, so I have picked a slightly different itinerary this time: my plan is to walk southwards from Hornvík, towards Hrafnfjörður and finally to Dalbær in the southwest, where a road (a real road!) will take me back to the populated world.
There is no dock in Horn (the final destination of our boat trip) so we have to jump onto a dinghy to land. A thick veil of mist is hiding the vastness of the landscape at our arrival (thick fogs are unfortunately common here), the south-easterly wind is blowing harshly and the temperature feels rather cold (less than 10°, I suppose), but at least the weather is dry: we are at not even 100 km from the Arctic Circle here, so the bargain is acceptable, even in summertime.
The weather is dry, but the soil certainly isn’t: it recently rained and the pouring water has left the terrain soggy. My steps often sink deep into the muddy ground, and it is a matter of a mere couple of hours before I feel the humidity finding its way inside my boots.
The cliffs of Hornvík are a renowned wonder in Iceland (for some, the most spectacular view Iceland has to offer): sheer walls covered in green moss and perpetually confronting the ocean. From the top, it is well above 100 metres of vertical fall towards the water: not the dream-place for those who do not enjoy heights. These cliffs are one of the most populated nesting locations for birdlife in Europe. Given that, today, the visual range is reduced to only a few meters, I decide that a visit to the bay’s rocky edge would be a pointless effort: I will walk due south.
During the first day, the trail leads me from bay to bay all the way down to Smiðjuvík. It is a continuous walk on high, sheer cliffs, towering above the roaring water underneath. At least for the first half of the route, the path is clear and easy to follow. I have the pleasure of enjoying the company of an arctic fox for a couple of kilometres (for some reason, the oft-hunted animal is not intimidated by the sight of a human being) and am accorded sporadic moments of decent visibility, but for the rest mist and wind are the overwhelming presence.
A delightful surprise is given to me at my arrival in Látravík: while I found it uninhabited during my last visit in 2003, there are now people in the old lighthouse. Ævar and his wife are spending the second summer in a row running a guesthouse there: hikers can enjoy a cosy indoor accommodation at least for one night – a blessing, especially in stormy weather. The weather is certainly not stormy now and I am well motivated to push forward, but a cup of excellent coffee and a good chat are very welcome nonetheless.
When I wake up in Smiðjuvík the day after, I find out the weather has slightly improved: the fog is slowly beginning to lift and the wind has nearly ceased. I am heading towards Hrafnfjörður today. In the improved conditions it has become easier to appreciate the extraordinary flora all around: only grasses, mosses and shrubs, but with a surprising variety and diversity in shapes and colours. Most of the vegetation is of the sort I had not seen elsewhere.
The cliffs descend towards the sandy and astonishingly vast shore of Barðsvík, and then it is an interrupted climb towards the stony plateau of Bolungarvíkurheiði. The pass is located at above 400m ASL. It is a tiring walk, only made more difficult by the need to negotiate steep slopes still covered in snow. The particularly dense fog and the snow mantle give the whole place a very sinister aspect up here: in such surroundings and battered by the renewed wind, it is hard to believe it is the middle of summer. I usually like to smoke when I reach a summit – a well-deserved gratification after an effort – but this time I gladly give up the pleasure, waiting for better times.
The descent towards Hrafnfjörður brings interesting novelties: at 100m ASL the fog disappears, as well as the veil of clouds. It is already quite late in the evening, but finally the sun is making its appearance. The wind ceases and a perfectly still sea lies before me. The melting snow feeds the streams flowing from the mountains at an impressive rate: small rivers that in other conditions would present no problems, now require some time and care to be crossed. An emergency shelter lies on the other side of the fjord, but it is cold and windy around there: even the mist is again descending from the mountains to envelop the small hut. I do not like the place, there is something grim and unfriendly about it, and even though it is getting late – I have been walking for more than 20 exhausting kilometres today – I prefer to keep on another while, in search of a warmer and more welcoming spot to camp.
Warm weather, high water
I wake up early in the morning on Wednesday. No mist nor wind today. Instead, a bright sun and a temperature well above 15°. I do not feel particularly in a hurry, so I think this is the right opportunity to have socks and boots dried. I will set out again at 13:00. It is just too bad that in the process I happen to walk barefoot on a tent stake. I search my memory for a picturesque way of swearing in some roman language. Nothing comes out and in the end I just have to limit myself to some plain swearing in English. It does not help much: shutting up and applying first aid turns out being a much better policy.
It is a pleasant walk along the shore today – no cliffs. The water of the ocean is transparent and absolutely calm and the very hot afternoon sun. I assume this is as close as Iceland can get to the Caribbean. The vision of a good creamy piña colada served inside a fresh pineapple comes to my mind and for a while it does not seem possible to be eluded. A dozen seals are lazily lounging in the Kjós bay: I wonder whether they are sharing my same thoughts.
The day will offer better sights. In clear weather, Leirufjörður is a place of rare beauty: the shore leads to a deep valley overlooked by the colourful ice of Drangajökull glacier, and you enjoy the spectacular view on the row of fjords and their sharp cliffs, standing out in the northwest. The glacial rivers Landá and Jökulá branch out into six channels, criss-crossing the land. The melting of the snow in this season makes them big. A team is even at work – something I surely did not expect to see – trying to contain the Jökulá within its banks: the river may sooner or later end up flooding the area and this is not supposed to happen. I go for it and begin to ford channel after channel, but when I realise that the fast-streaming waters are about to reach my hip, I find it wise to start considering other ways to reach the other side of the fjord. When the low tide comes, I should be able to walk along the shore, avoiding the dangerous river-crossing.
A large number of the houses in Hornstrandir have fallen into ruin after being abandoned: solitary relics encountered from time to time while roaming the coasts. Many, however, still stand and are employed as peaceful summer residences. Leira in Leirufjörður is one of these. It is populated now. The good people there inform me that the next low tide will be at 19:30, in about two hours. They even offer me hot coffee (the second unexpected coffee in just three days) and a bunch of homemade cookies, which I put away with embarrassing voracity: a mostly delightful detour and way to dodge waiting for the tide.
It is a soggy terrain to walk, where the ocean’s water has just retreated. And even at low tide, the last fluvial channel remains to be forded. The water is chilling and running very fast, pushing small stones and glacial silt into my river shoes. Soon the numbing cold and the pain become unbearable. Something must have made its way through the plaster and a flow of blood surfaces through the water around my left foot. With the blood, so goes my sense of adventure, and I feel as miserable as never before during this trip.
When I get up on my fourth and last day of trekking, clouds have grown thick in the sky again. It is dark, but very still and dry. The temperature feels extremely mild and the air charged with humidity: it will be a very sweaty day.
Besides hosting some of the country’s richest and most diverse sub-arctic flora and fauna, Hornstrandir is also homeland – and this is no plus – to numerous colonies of the most annoying species of flies and mosquitoes you will ever know in Iceland. They are the villain of the day: they start following me from the moment I set out at 9:30 with no intention of leaving me in peace when the trail starts climbing up towards the 600m ASL of the Dynjandisskarð pass. It is a tiring climb. Few people a year employ this route and there is no path to really follow: just sporadic footprints every now and then. The cloud of mosquitoes floating around me as I move is killing my nerves. If anyone could be a spectator, surely they would find rather comic the image of me grunting horrible curses and twirling my trekking poles in a quixotic fight against the flying beasts, while dragging my tired legs up the slopes.
At 400m ASL the snow makes its appearance. And in this case it is a mostly welcome sight, as its arrival finally sets me free from the evil flying creatures’ siege. For several kilometres the trail keeps at an altitude between 400 and 600m ASL. It is an endless stretch of stones and snowfields, the only dull part of my trip. The visibility conditions certainly don’t help: it is not foggy, but the Westfjords at the horizon – which could make a glorious view from up here – are completely clad in haze.
The arrival to Dalbær early in the afternoon, after a hike of 68 km altogether, marks my return to “civilisation”. But it is a purely formal way of seeing it: there is no one around, only a couple of houses, a desert guesthouse and campsite, and a church. And the road is nothing more than a thin and dusty stripe of gravel winding southwards. The traffic is far from intense: I count two cars in about six hours. I will enjoy a warm shower tonight. Then tomorrow the issue will be how to get away from here with no buses scheduled and so few cars driving by.