Jul 20, 2006

Atop a Volcano

Out of the house at 8 a.m., a record for this holiday so far! We walk a few blocks to the Kokuhus bakery and sample 6 different pastries for breakfast. This is a great place! We determine to come back and buy sandwiches for our return trip on the ferry late this afternoon.

As I write in my little journal I am seated on lava at the top of Mt. Eldfell, 725' high. It is a perfect day: warm, slight breeze, cloudless, and I have a 360° view of all the islands, the mainland, the glaciers, and the sparkling ocean. This is heaven, as long as I don't allow myself to think of the scary hike back down. The "boys" (all three) are exploring the summit. They find a puffin colony below, and Ruth's "bread oven."

The story behind this volcano and its eruption is fascinating. John McPhee creates a dramatic cliffhanger in The Control of Nature (1989)--a book about "places in the world where people have been engaged in all-out battles with nature." A large section of the book describes the 1973 eruption on Heimaey and the ensuing campaign to save the island's all-important harbor. A six-month battle took place in which sea water was pumped, with hand-held hoses and by boat, in an effort to cool and direct the lava. Not only was the harbor saved and the future of the island guaranteed, but the harbor was actually improved and made more secure by the extended lava flow. John's drawing shows the view west from Eldfell.

We hike back down to the guesthouse, and speculate that the temperature must be close to 75°F. Later we find that it was only 61°--are we becoming acclimated to Iceland? Whatever the temperature, we spend some quiet moments enjoying the flowers in Ruth's garden before we embark on our next adventure, which is...Peter's first horseback ride!

Ruth's daughter Sudrun ("Sunray") accompanies us to the horsefarm, and acts as a co-guide. The other guide is Fannay (possibly spelled differently), the new school principal for the island. Since Icelanders use first names almost exclusively, we ask Fannay what the students will call her when school begins. She replies that they will address her by her first name, of course--"we want to be friends."

They take us on spirited, surefooted Icelandic horses, which are the size of ponies. We ride English-style, and get to experience the famed tolt, or 5th gait of the Icelandic horse. We find the tolt to be somewhat between a fast walk and trot, and incredibly smooth. Fannay takes us down country roads, across fields, along the black sand beach, and to steep cliffs where sheep graze and puffins fly. (The sheep come in many colors, and apparently the genuine Icelandic sweather need use no artificial dyes.) The horses are comfortable moving at a tolt through rough, rocky terrain. We are able to see a lot of the island, for Fannay keeps us at a quick pace. Unlike the sluggish walk that trail horses in the U.S. are encouraged to maintain (by guides who probably want to ensure the riders' safety at the expense of their pleasure) Fannay frequently breaks us into a tolt or canter, glancing mischieviously over her shoulder to assess our progress and our enjoyment. This is exhilarating fun on a lovely, hot sunny day: the still ocean is spread out before us, with grassy-topped islands in crazy shapes scattered about.

Fannay and Sudrun deliver us back to town with just enough time to spare so that we can pack, pay for our room, get to the bakery, and race over to the ferry--at a human trot, rather than a tolt. Just in time, we board the ferry, select our seats, eat our late lunch, and lay down on comfortable couches inside, or stretched out on benches outside, for some serious naps.

Back on the mainland we pile back into our car and drive east, counterclockwise along the Ring Road, with Heimaey visible offshore. We stop in Selfoss for groceries and a Thai meal, where our waitress enlightens us to the fact that people don't tip in restaurants in Iceland. News to us! Later I scour my three guidebooks and find absolutely no mention of this key fact: key, because food prices are extremely high even without tipping!

We stop at Skogafoss so that I can see the lovely falls at twlight. You may recall that John, Gabe and Pete saw them on their ice-climbing expedition...so, we have retraced their journey of two days ago, and are now going beyond the point where they traveled. We hike to the top of the falls, in the lovely light of 10:30 in the evening, and Peter steps close to the falls to take pictures, probably enjoying John's discomfort. I look the other way, for on this trip I have already discovered that teenage boys on steep cliffs are best ignored if one requires peace of mind.

Our lodging consists of a quaint cabin in Vik (pronounced "week") and is surely one of the best places in town, situated at the base of a huge, rocky overhang where noisy fulmars nest. A waterfall runs next to our cabin, "Sumarhusid Hotturinn." We have a kitchen, living area, loft and bath. In the guestbook we discover a fine drawing by a previous guest, showing a family cozily inside the cottage while behind, deep in the rocky cliff, a troll in a cave stirs a great pot of human limbs! I really want to steal this drawing. I refrain. We sleep very well in this idyllic, troll-infested setting.
High 61°F Low 51°F

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