Day Six – Kirkjufell: ‘Iceland’s most photographed mountain.’

Kirjufell in early morning mist…see below to see it in all its golden glory

Kirkjufell (church mountain) snuck up on us. We approached it from the rear and didn’t immediately recognise what we were seeing.

“Wow, look at that slope, that’s really weird,” I said to Tessa and checked it out in the rear view mirror.

“Hang on we have to stop.” I saw a conveniently placed pull over. “That’s it. I can’t believe I’ve just driven past it …oh my god, it’s amazing.”

‘Iceland’s most photographed mountain’, could hardly have looked less photogenic in the dull mist however.

“Let’s hang about for a bit and see if it clears,” Ever the optimist, my photo juices were rising. “Is it getting a bit brighter over there?”

We went down to the shore and watched a couple of squeaky-clean black and white Eider ducks pottering about and waited for the weather to change. Why wouldn’t it? We’d been incredibly lucky so far, apart from the 90mph winds it had hardly rained on us, and we hadn’t had to contend with driving in snow. Some days had even been gloriously sunny.

Everything comes…our patience was rewarded with knobs on.

‘Arrowhead Mountain’ according to Game of Thrones Season 6 was birthplace of the Night King. I still prefer Kirkjufell, Church mountain. Gradually the sun came out. Kirkjufell gleamed golden against the blue sky. Climbable only by experts, because it’s so crumbly, I can’t help feeling it’s good to keep it that way, its pristine bare slopes are an extraordinary sight.

By miraculous synchronicity there was an article in yesterday’s Guardian (Why Scottish celts are key to Iceland’s past – Severin Carrell, Wednesday 4th January 2023) that neatly explains its name to me. Aren’t churches in Scotland called kirks? Carrell points out that Icelandic folklore has a Gaelic speaking warrior queen called Aud, who was among Iceland’s earliest settlers. Carrell writes: “a book by Thorvaldur Fridriksson, an Icelandic archaeologist and journalist, argues that Gaelic speaking Celtic settlers from Ireland and western Scotland had a profound impact on the Icelandic language, landscape and early literature”.

To me this explains the predominance of Icelandic redheads, sagas, poetry and come to think of it…wouldn’t it take a hardy Celt to have the bottle to settle in such a challenging land? I understand the first person to come across it called it ‘Iceland’ and hightailed it away as soon as he could.

To the side of Kirkjufell we were treated to a rainbow as the sky cleared.

Who was overdressed? Tessa and myself bundled up in our rain gear and walking boots or this dapper fellow? Or was he an airline pilot out on a jolly?

Click on the image to see a video of the falls beside the mountain.

We drove on along the peninsular and headed north towards the lava tube cave which was next on the agenda. David at Rickshaw had booked us on the Vatnshellir Cave tour with Summit Adventure Guides (helmets and head torches provided) and we needed to be there by 12.30.

Snaefellsnes presenting another National Geographic calendar view.

But Iceland has so many surprises and distractions. As we drove on across some of its most stunning, ‘ooing’ and ‘wowing’, we came across another extinct volcano.

“A cinder cone, Tessa, that’s a cinder cone…we have to stop… there’s a track to it.”

I climbed one once in Lassen National Park in California. They are the young pups of volcanoes, not yet sealed with vegetation, showing their makings. The Lassen cone was a taller than this one, more pointy. Climbing it was an exhausting experience, taking one step forward only to slide two back on the steep loose cinder. I thought I’d never make it to the top. Eventually when we got there, skirted the rim and climbed down into the centre of the caldera, we found three young men squatted down in the dip right in the middle discussing their investments. I looked at my ex and laughed. Californians eh?

Tessa spent a long time bent double taking artistic pictures of rocks for her Instagram feed near the car park while I wandered around the base taking pictures of the cone and feeling very glad she wasn’t suggesting climbing it, despite the fine stairway – the clock was ticking to get to Vatnshellir Lava Caves on time.

Lava caves form during the last stages of a volcanic eruption. The surface sometimes develops a frozen crust over a still flowing lava stream below. As the lava dwindles, molten material drains out from under the crust leaving long cylindrical tunnels. Gases from bubbles in the lava collect under the tunnel roof and support it. As the gas mixes with air from vents in the roof more intense heating from oxidation raises the temperature enough to re-fuse the ceiling rock which sometimes drips remelted lava, forming rough stalactites and stalagmites.

You are only permitted to enter the Vatneshellir Caves with a guide and I would have it no other way. We parked, gobbled up our ‘left-over breakfast’ in the car, fed the crows (waddling around us like they were wearing wet nappies) with crumbs and ran up to the visitors centre getting there just in time to get kitted up for our descent into the depths. As we were adjusting our helmets my phone jingled a news flash.

“She’s gone” I beamed at Tessa, “she’s out. Resigned. Woo Hoo.” The rest of the group around us looked quizzical. “Liz Truss, our truly dreadful Prime Minister?” They beamed sympathetically.

Imagine being the first person to discover one of these caves?

One part of the cave appeared to be dripping with chocolate sauce.

Other areas were green with sulphur or possibly copper.

There were some remaining stalagmites in places, sadly many had been snapped off by early explorers and taken home as mementoes.

Can you see the saw-toothed monster living in the depths?

“Will you be asking us to turn off our torches so we can experience total darkness and silence?” I asked our guide.

“Shh,” he said with a wink “in a minute.”

There was a man who worked in the caves at Cheddar Gorge in Somerset. My my mother took me when I was about 14. He’d been given the job of guide there after WWII because his lungs had been badly damaged in gas attacks and it was the purest air for him to breathe. He told us to switch off our torches and for a few minutes we experienced 100 per cent darkness, 98 per cent pure air and total silence. It was unforgettable.

Our guide stopped in a large chamber where we could spread out and stand safely on solid ground. “Now you are going to experience something very special. When I say ‘off’ I want you to all turn off your head torches, keep silent and just listen. Two minutes, that’s all. OK?”

Not an anorak rustled, not a drip dropped. No child giggled. We stood, and breathed and listened, even my thoughts stopped clamouring. Once again my whole body, all my senses thrilled to the experience.

It would be easy to spend an entire week on the Snaefellsnes peninsular, there is so much to explore there. Once again we had too many plans to fit in the afternoon. We drove on to Djupalsonssandur black sand beach on the south western prominence of the peninsular. Another place where you definitely don’t want to turn your back on ‘sneaky’ waves.

The path to the beach takes you through a corridor of lava rock formations of sea dragons and trolls.

Djupalonssandur used to be a large winter fishing port. Farmers would stay for weeks in tents or small shelters and brave the rough seas to fish in rowing boats. Djupalonssandur was chosen for its fresh water supply from a small pond behind the beach. Farmers-turned-fishermen from Dritvik, a half hour walk over the lava fields, also had to come there for fresh water. To prove their strength, and my god would they need it in those savage seas, fishermen held competitions to lift increasingly heavy stones, the largest weighing 155 kg. The stones are still at the beach near the remains of their shelters although fishing there gradually tailed off and ended around 1860.

As you approach the shore you walk through the wreckage of a British trawler, the Epine from Grimsby that sank there on March 13th 1948.

Chunks of metal from the wreck have been left there as a memorial to the drowned.

If ever there was a place to contemplate mortality, this is it. The rescuers were forced to wait until the tide came in as the Epine was smashed against the rocks. Of the 19 men on the boat 13 were lost. The others were rescued, one by tying himself to the mast, another was washed ashore by the tide, the remainder when a line was attached to the boat thrown to one of the trawler men still on the boat. The drowned had survived the war only to drown in the raging, ice-cold North Seas.

The beach was almost deserted. Were the two men in the video the ones who found my credit card? I’d fished in my pocket for my phone to take a picture of the information board about the shipwreck as we left and it must have dropped out. We ran back to the beach in panic to search for it, Tessa asked the first guys she came across if they’d seen it.

“This?” they said grinning and holding up my bright blue card. “It’s your lucky day.” Nowadays the card goes in a different pocket from my camera if I take it out with me. A lesson learned.

The freshwater pool behind the beach. I was tempted to have a dip. But honestly? All that faff getting layers of clothes off, and struggling back into them with nothing to dry myself on. Besides I had no cozzi. My swim friend Jo would have dipped and Mandy would have cozzi or not, I’m much more of a wimp.

From the beach we drove 2km south to Malarrif to explore the area around the splendid rocket-shaped lighthouse.

You have to admire the tenacity of nature. Pumice isn’t exactly the most comfortable of homes for a tiny seed to germinate.

An old cod curing hut that had been used as a schoolroom, now a visitors centre

Here is one of the kid’s sculptures. Penny for the snot man?

I don’t know who Steinn was but I definitely wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night.

I imagine any child would develop a plutonian view of the world living in such a dramatic landscape. You certainly wouldn’t want to let your children pop down to the beach and play on their own.

Rough seas at Arnastapi

Always good to turn around and look behind you. Another cinder cone seen from the entrance drive of the Foss Hotel.

It was clear we wouldn’t be able to get a meal at the Kast and we were relieved to find the Foss Hotel in Hellna where we could have a cuppa and book into dinner,

If I ever return this is where I’d choose to stay for a night or two. A really fabulous hotel.

Best lounge area yet.

Views from the lounge down onto holiday homes where rich Icelanders have weekend breaks, not for the likes of the Hoi Polloi.

The Foss Hotel’s greatest asset – Matt, a fount of knowledge about Iceland and thoroughly nice bloke. It was Matt who told us the little cabins below the hotel were holiday homes for rich Icelanders, who apparently spend not a penny in the hotel. Same on the Gower Peninsular in South Wales and everywhere I guess where second homes mean people stocking up in the local supermarket on the way and contributing zip to the local economy. We sipped our Earl Grey tea and scanned the evening’s menu. I chose the veggie thing like a mushroom wellington and Tessa a fish. We both tucked into the national dish of superb bread with salt-grained butter served on black pebbles. Very stylish. Something I must remember to do at home.

“I know it’s not the end, I know there’s more crass misgovernment to come but I hope you’ll excuse me having a drink to celebrate?” I asked Tessa.

I can confirm Icelandic gin is deliciously fragrant and that eating in such a lovely place with mouthwatering food cost no more than anywhere else in Iceland.

Congratulating ourselves for coming across such a fine dining experience and comfortable hotel we drove the short distance back to the Kast Guesthouse. It was dark by the time we arrived.

“It’s absolutely freezing in here,” I frowned at Tessa “did you turn the heating off?”

“No. Must have been the cleaners.”

Tessa climbed on a chair to adjust the heating.

The night before we’d had no luck with the Norther Lights. Time was running out for a re-run.

“What if we set our alarms for quarter to midnight and go and look for them around that time? It’s when we saw them the first night?” As if there was any sense in that. They are totally random but it was something to try.

“If we leave the curtains open we might see them?” I went to bed in my woollen long johns, merino tee shirt and thick socks. I couldn’t sleep. Only two sleeps left. I tossed and turned for a bit then put on several more layers and went outside to look. Nothing. I still couldn’t sleep. I lay staring out of the window. I got up and looked. I kept checking the app. They were definitely in the area, it was tantalising. I went back to bed lay staring at the black rectangle of the window, slept briefly and woke and looked again.

“Oh my god.” I sat bolt upright and called out to Tessa.

“Tessa? Look. Lights. I think the sky is getting lighter or is it my imagination?” We started piling on extra layers. It was -5C with the windchill. We huddled by the side of the building to shelter from the brutal wind and stared at the hill behind the Kast.

“It does look a bit lighter. Try taking a picture with your phone” said Tessa.

I took a photograph.

“Yes. Yes. There they are. They’re here. I can’t believe it they are actually here.” Tessa was somewhat underwhelmed and I admit they weren’t the most spectacular, but for me they were still magical . It was a brief showing but to see them twice on our trip, well that was awesome.

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