Iceland Day 4 – Wednesday, September 10, 2014
The Sandar, Svartifoss, Fjallsárlón, Jökulsárlón, and Höfn



It poured down rain all night, but we awoke to bright blue skies this morning, though it was quite windy! The wind was troubling, because we were about to cross the sandar region of Iceland. This is the area the rental car companies warn you about when they stress that:
1) You are responsible if a door gets ripped off your car by wind - no insurance covers that; and
2) If you want Sand and Ash Protection (SAAP) insurance, that's going to cost $15 per day extra. The insurance covers if they have to repaint the entire car in the event the paint gets sandblasted off while in your possession. It brings your deductible for that type of damage down to “only” $1,250. Yikes! We opted out of that bit of extra insurance, thinking surely all this rain lately would keep the sand and ash settled down. Right?

Directly behind Klausturhof Guesthouse is the lovely double waterfall Systrafoss. We took the short but steep hike to the top of the falls and Systravatn Lake, but it was too windy up there to linger. Kirkjubaejarklaustur was once home to a convent, or “klaustur,” and nuns used to bathe in this lake. According to legend, one day two nuns saw a hand with a gold ring extending from the water. When they tried to seize the ring, they were dragged below the water and drowned. This is day four of our trip, and that's the third story of either drowning or boiling in water. Lovely.

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Systrafoss in Kirkjubćjarklaustur

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Systravatn

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From the top of Systrafoss

On our way out of town, we stopped at the TI (tourist information) and the VERY pathetic “farmers market” next door. The only veggies on site were about 20 sad little new potatoes. Other than that, they sold extremely overpriced (even for Iceland) crafts and sweaters. I wasn't expecting much at a farmers market in Iceland, but give me a break.

In a field just east of Kirkjubaejarklaustur is a site called Kirkjugolfid, a flat expanse revealing the tops of basalt columns, eroded smooth to resemble a church floor. There has never been a church there, but the area looks as though it's human made.

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Kirkjugólfiđ (The Church Floor)

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Sheepies

The roads in Iceland have no shoulders, but there are turnouts with picnic tables every few kilometers along the Ring Road, especially along the south coast. How many picnics do they think people take? Often these picnic areas are located at points of interest, indicated by a little sign with a cloverleaf. We pulled over at every cloverleaf we could.

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Foss á Siđu

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Dverghamrar basalt columns

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Tom saves the day!

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Turf farm Núpsstađur

The sandar are a series of glacial outwash plains on the south coast of Iceland - flat, as the name implies, full of ash and gravel, and prone to fierce scouring winds. In the event of volcanic activity under the glaciers, they are also prone to sudden and catastrophic flooding. An eruption in 1996 caused flooding in the sandar that washed away bridges on the Ring Road. Since the Ring Road is the only road for long stretches of the country, this resulted in a long detour “the other way around” for many people until the bridges could be replaced.

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Flood-destroyed bridge remnant

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Skeiđarárjökull

At Skaftafell, part of Vatnajokull National Park, we hiked 3-plus kilometers round trip to Svartifoss (Black Fall), a nice waterfall in a stunning setting, with a beautiful backdrop of black basalt columns, passing Hundafoss along the way. The weather was gorgeous, and we actually removed layers of clothing today for a change.

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Svartifoss

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Hundafoss

Fjallsarlon and Jokulsarlon are glacial lagoons where icebergs calve from nearby glaciers, crash into the water below, and slowly drift toward the Atlantic Ocean. The icebergs form fanciful ice sculptures in colors ranging from white to blue to black or even striped, from multiple volcanic eruptions over the years.

We came to the much smaller Fjallsarlon first. This was our favorite of the two lagoons. In fact, it may have been our favorite spot of the entire trip. Fjallsarlon is just off the Ring Road, down a rough dirt road, and we were happy to find only a few people there besides ourselves. We had a picnic here and even filled our cooler with bits of berg. Tom's mother had we requested that we bring her some ice from Iceland, so we selected a nice piece and brought it along as well. Alas, by the time we got to the U.S., it was no longer in our luggage. I blame TSA.

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Fjallsjökull

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Jana at Fjallsárlón

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Fjallsárlón

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Ice for Linda

Jokulsarlon is right beside the Ring Road. We stopped at an unmarked trailhead and walked 100 yards over a rise to the lagoon, just out of sight, and had that section of Jokulsarlon to ourselves, with nobody around but us and the sea lions.

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Jana and Tom enjoy Jökulsárlón

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Beautiful berg

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Jökulsárlón

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Silly sea lion

We enjoyed our secluded portion of Jokulsarlon for about half an hour before the wind suddenly went from 0 to 30 miles per hour. We then retreated to the car and drove on, stopping to view the lagoon again at the mouth of the Jokulsa, Iceland's shortest river, where the icebergs drift out to sea. At this point, though, with the wind and the incoming tide, the bergs were drifting quickly the opposite direction. On the south side of the bridge, ice chunks broken from the bergs were stranded on a beautiful black-sand beach.

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Jökulsá River

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Bits of berg

After the wind started, it didn't relent for the rest of the day. It's a good thing we were at the very end of the sandar when it started, or we might have needed that sand and ash insurance after all. As soon as we left the lagoons, we were past the sandblast danger. Whew!

It was an hour's drive to the next town, Hofn, where we were spending the night. I was glad to reach civilization because we were driving on fumes, and gas stations in Iceland are few and far between. After filling up at another unattended pump, we checked in to our hotel.

Arnanes Country Hotel is a very nice guesthouse 6 kilometers outside Hofn. We had a big, quiet room, TV, private bath, table, loveseat, and breakfast was included. It was nice to have space to spread out after the last two nights with tiny rooms. At $131, I'm glad we liked it. This tied with the apartment in Isafjordur later in our trip for the most expensive accommodation. There was a high-priced restaurant on site, but we didn't try it.

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Árnanes Country Hotel

After settling in, we drove into Hofn to look around. There are some very nice walking paths in town, but with the 30 mph winds, it was too cold to walk far. Along with the wind, it was super hazy, due largely to ash in the air from the ongoing volcanic fissure eruption at Holuhraun, so visibility was poor, and the usually awe-inspiring views over the bay to Vatnajokull and the other glaciers could not be seen.

Undaunted, we explored what we could of little Hofn, population 1,640, by far the largest town in this part of the country. There were some big, serious-looking boats in the harbor, probably commercial fishing boats, but we weren't sure.

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Waterside path in Höfn

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Fishing boat in Höfn harbor

For dinner I selected an old-school diner by the harbor frequented by locals, called Hafnarbudin. Tom had a burger, fries, and a Coke, while I ordered a local specialty, humar (langoustine) soup. The soup and fries were very good. I'm not so sure about that burger. It had a weird relish on it, but maybe he could have ordered a different burger had the topping choices been more clear. It was a decent deal, though, dinner for two for $28. That's without any overpriced beers this time. Instead, we had a nightcap back at the room.

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Local diner Hafnarbuđin

About 11:00 p.m. Tom went outside to look around and then excitedly called me out to see the aurora borealis, or Northern Lights!!! He'd seen them as a kid growing up in Michigan, but I'd never seen them before and didn't expect that we'd actually see them on this trip. Very cool! The display didn't last long, but we have many more nights in Iceland and thus many more chances. Danny and Ari, Tom's new Israeli friends from the room next door, just missed seeing the lights and were very disappointed. I hope they got to see them on a different night.


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