Sometimes I think I travel to remind myself how small I am, a mere pipsqueak on the planet with less relevance than a grain of sand. I love volcanoes, deserts, wilderness, mountains, raging seas and waterfalls. Skogarfoss, a short diversion off the south west Golden Circle route, was filled with the possibility of that tingle. Back home in Stroud I’d managed to track down a friend of a friend who lived on an island off the south coast of Iceland for a couple of years, “what’s unmissable?” I asked.
“Skogarfoss,” she said “it’s easy to find, there should be a sign to it off your route.”
We had a long drive in prospect but it was on our way to Skogar anyway where the next guesthouse, the Drangshlid (for those Ds pronounce a ‘th’), within range of the black beach, and right by the Folk Museum. It was going to be another day packed with adventure but hey we had all day – or we would have if we’d set off in the right direction. We were on the right number road, Tessa was doing really well driving on a motorway again (I felt terribly guilty but still thought it best to keep shtum ). It was a little while before we realised we were headed north not south. We found an industrial estate to pull into, take a breath, look at the map and turn around.
Stopping by the side of the road in Iceland, unless at specifically designated pull ins, is illegal. Apart from the slick new motorways getting you in and out of Reykjavik the roads are two lanes wide, with drop offs either side and completely stunning National Geographic views all around. Without that law the roads would be full of people slamming on the brakes and taking photos. We had to make good with a lot of moving car photos. “Take that,” said Tessa and I’d try to hold my phone steady enough to get a shot. But we appreciated that because of that law and the moderate speed limit (90kph/55mph at the most) the roads are pretty much a dream to drive on, well maintained and very safe. (Which is more than I can say for Stroud, whose council borrowed a lot of money from Iceland back in the day before the crash and we’ve been paying for it in bust tyres and wrecked suspension ever since.) We had been worried about icy roads and the possibility of snow, it’s a risk you have to factor in if you go when when there’s a chance to see the Northern Lights – but look at the sky in this car picture. It was our luck that, although windy, we set out in gorgeous clear sunshine.
“Geysers, Tessa, look.” Nothing like a geyser to get the blood flowing.
Once we were on the right track it wasn’t long before picked up the Golden Circle road. It was a relief when, after a few hours, we saw the sign to the Skogar Folk Museum. I ran in ahead of Tessa “Hello do you have any loos? Oh, are you Icelandic?” he had to be with that red beard “am I saying this right – Eyjafjallajökull?”
“Not really” he said and rattled it off. I tried again. “Better.”
Tessa and I ate fruit bars we’d brought with us from home and browsed the museum. (Sneaking a sandwich from breakfast hadn’t worked. After the two busy days in Reykjavik we’d slept too late and we’d arrived at breakfast just as they were clearing it away.) I loved the coils of ropes, saddles, a wooden ‘washing tub’ with a kind of rocking paddle to churn it – I lusted after the rows and rows of wooden spoons but I was itching to get outside and look at the reconstructed badstofas.
I’d recently read the prize winning book by Australian Hannah Kent based on a true story. Burial Rites tells the story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir (I can’t believe it took me all these years to cotton onto the fact everyone from here is either a dottir or a sson). Agnes, Magnus’s dottir, was a servant in northern Iceland in the 1800s who was condemned to death after the murder of two men, one of whom her employer. She was the last woman put to death in Iceland. Agnes was imprisoned in a badstofa with an understandably reluctant family in winter until she was tried. That seemed like an unusual arrangement to say the least. She was found guilty, beheaded and her head stuck on a stake. Here was a chance to see what a badstofa (traditional dwelling) looked like both inside and out to get a feel for that life.
The row of badstofas look cosy from the outside tucked up as they are in living turf. But remember the winters are long, dark and freezing cold in Iceland.
Imagine being stuck inside with an unwelcome guest, thought to have murdered two men, in a remote badstofa. The legal system wasn’t exactly in a rush. Things might get a little bit tense spending all winter stuck inside your badstofa in normal circumstances, let alone with a murderess who fascinates one of your daughters. Knitting needles might clack rather more loudly, pots of skyr be thrown. But maybe not. Food would have been too precious to throw.
Outside at last I had a chance to snoop around the row of badstofas and see what life was really like in the 1800s.
I guess you’d want an entrance that keeps out the elements.
And a quiet place in the window near the light to read and write your poems. There aren’t many books published in Icelandic – the population is too small for publishers to bother – I understand it’s a land of poets and spoken sagas instead.
You’d need to be near the light to spin enough wool for all those jumpers.
And maybe send your dottirs early to bed to do a bit more spinning and wool winding.
If it all got too much you could go to the stable and sulk with the horses or sheep.
Or churn a bit of skyr.
Behind the row of badstofa’s we found little houses and a schoolroom that were presumably from the 1900s.
They were obviously able to make babies despite the lack of privacy. I bet they were glad of that potty on a chill night in December.
Such was the fascination of the museum it was almost four o’clock by the time we reached Skogarfoss, a short hop from the museum. We stopped at Mia’s adorable fish and chip van.
“He’s closing Tessa, but he’ll stay open for us if you like? What do you think?” It was getting late, nudging 4 o’clock, we decided we’d better go on to the Foss.
We soon forgot our hunger when we saw the Skogarfoss falls. It’s really hard to avoid cliches at this point. So I won’t even try. It was awesome, breathtaking, stunning and not remotely tempting to try and find the legendary chest of gold hidden behind it. Normally I can’t look at a body of water anywhere without thinking ‘oo that looks nice for a dip’. Not there. You’d be thrashed to death by a foss that powerful and this wasn’t even during the spring melt. Imagine. We put our waterproof over-trousers on and got as close as we dared.
We wanted to do at least some of the waterfall walk, a 45 mile hike to Prosmork along the side of the river running into the fall passing several smaller falls with glaciers either side. We reached the top and drew breath. There’s a natural law. Most people only stray 100 ft or so from their cars. As we thought the crowds thinned out and we set off along the path at the top. I just discovered another reason it was so crowded (apart from its beauty) it was one of the locations for filming Game of Thrones. Most people got to the top took a selfie or ten and went back down again. We set off and walked past a couple of other smaller falls, but sadly it wasn’t going to be a long walk for us. The light was already fading and I didn’t fancy those metal steps down in the dark.
Hunger and step fatigue got the better of me as the sun began to set over the fall. We still had to find our way to the Drangshild Guesthouse and we’d only eaten a fruit bar since our rather minimal breakfast and we’d not even got to the black beach.
“How about we get up really early tomorrow and go to the beach and the basalt cliffs first thing?” I said. Tessa was up for that.
As we turned out of the car park it was almost dark and very cold. I saw lights in the distance. “What’s that over there?”I said. “Looks like it might be a restaurant? Shall we check it out?”
Hotel Skogarfoss looked very posh. We waddled in in our soggy layers and asked if we could see the menu.
“Oh my god look at this? Vegetarian lasagne.” I did a quick calculation on my currency conversion app.
I had my second experience of being fed really well as a vegetarian in Iceland. Tessa had fish.
“I don’t care what it costs” I said. “Let’s do it.”
We arrived around 8pm at the Drangshild and saw through the window that the dinning room was packed. We couldn’t make ourselves heard at reception. After a while we gave up and found our way to the dining room to ask if we could check in. The manager looked embarrassed.
“I am so sorry we have no a la carte left” he said “we had a large group of Italians arrive by coach.”
“We already ate” said Tessa. He looked distinctly relieved. .
“I’ll take you to your room. It’s not in the main building.” He led us outside to a separate block. We were desperate for a cup of tea. Our room was very new and smart but bare.
“No sign of a kettle?” I flapped my Earl Grey Tea bag.
Which was when I got very sweary again. We were both tired and cross and missing that small comfort. It felt like we’d been overridden by a coach load of unexpected guests and given a raw deal. The main building was warm and had a place to make yourself hot drinks.
“I’ll go and ask for a kettle” I said. The outside light wasn’t working. I slipped on the icy decking, more swearing, and made my way over to the main guesthouse. I asked for a kettle. Poured two mugs of hot water which was tepid by the time I got back to our room. We set our alarms for 6, I rubbed the damp off the windows and scanned the sky for lights. Nothing. My bed felt cold. I wished I’d done the sensible thing and brought a hot water bottle like Tessa.