Are we there yet?

Posted August 16, 2013

Are we there yet?

When my husband emerged from the Ísafjörður tourist office waving a detailed hiking map of the Westfjords, my heart sank. When it comes to choosing a walk, we have very different views. I believe in knowing your limits and sticking to them; my husband (the one I vowed NEVER to go walking with again!) prefers to push the limits.

We studied the map together. His first choice - a steep mountain route - was met with a withering look. He next suggested a hike through a valley that involved wading across a river. Was he mad? Finally, we both agreed on a walk around Hestfjörður, which the tourist literature described as easy going. I was so relieved to find a relatively straightforward walk that I forgot to check how long it was.

I would regret that.

Ducks, geese and a kamikaze Arctic tern

It all started off pleasantly enough as we followed a clear track along the eastern side of the peninsula. We were flanked by the magnificent cliffs on our left and the deep waters of Hestfjörður (The Horse fjord) on our right.

A group of ducks waddled down to the water and swam in a line into the middle of the fjord. The air was still; the water lapped gently against the shore. A pair of geese flew out of the cliff side and landed with a heavy splash. High above us, a few tiny, fluffy bundles stumbled across the rock face as their parents honked protectively from the water’s edge.

We walked on.

We had enjoyed the promised easy going for about an hour when my husband asked, 

“What’s that funny clicking noise?”

I looked up. A beautiful black and white bird, with a finely shaped tail like a swallow, was circling above us.

“What kind of a bir....? F**k!!”

We both ducked as the avian kamikaze swooped down and launched an attack on the tops of our heads. We tried to fend it off but our windmilling arms only made matters worse. Relentlessly, it dive-bombed us. Click-click, peck, peck.

“Do something!” I yelled.

“Find me a stick,” said my husband. He’d heard that the best defence, when being attacked by an Arctic tern, was to wave a stick above your head. I looked frantically around.

“There are no sticks. It’s Iceland - there are no trees!”

My husband resorted to brandishing the case of his camera above his head as I cowered by his side, flapping my arms and shouting,

“Get off me, you mad bint.” 

We scurried on.

Jarred ankles, stubbed toes and an Arctic fox’s den

Once we had cleared the danger zone, we allowed ourselves a laugh at being ‘bested’ by such a small bird. And after another hour or so, we felt we’d deserved a rest. We ate our sandwiches and I checked our progress. So far, so good - we’d almost reached halfway. We should be able to complete the loop of the peninsula on schedule.

As we crossed from east to west over a low outcrop of rocks, I became aware of a low, guttural sound. I looked apprehensively at my husband (I was on alert for any unusual sounds, following the clicking tern incident). Suddenly an Arctic fox appeared from a large mound of rocks. I realised that the noise - a rasping bark, like an old man clearing a fish bone from his throat - was coming from it.

We had visited the Arctic Fox Centre in Súðavík a few days earlier so I knew that an Arctic fox never bares its teeth in aggression. Instead, it raises its tail, which was exactly what this fox was doing to us now. We had obviously stumbled across its den. The fox bounded over the rocks, stopped and turned to eyeball us, then bounded off again. We watched as it, and its large bushy tail, disappeared into the distance.

When we turned into the western side of the peninsula, any semblance of a path vanished and the terrain became rougher. We gingerly pushed our way through thick tufts of knee-high grass. I jarred one ankle, then the other as I sank into the deep crevices that lurked beneath. I stubbed my toes on hidden rocks. At one point my husband’s entire leg disappeared down a hole. The more he writhed and twisted, the deeper he sank.

“I think I’m stuck,” he said.

I looked on with horror. Who was going to hack a path through the grass for me now? I told him to try harder. He did, and eventually succeeded in freeing himself.

We struggled on.

A beach assault course of slippery seaweed and gigantic boulders

By now our progress had slowed to a snail’s pace. It was getting late and more endless swathes of grass lay in front of us. Surely there must be an easier way around than this? We scanned the cliff side. Maybe there was a track at a higher level that we’d missed? But all we could see was sheer rock and ominous dark scree.

We looked down at the water. The tide had gone out, exposing a rough shingle beach. It had to be easier to negotiate than the hellish grass. It was ... but only marginally. What looked like rough shingle, from a distance, turned out to be large, uneven pebbles and rocks, freshly coated with slippery seaweed. We slithered and teetered along the shoreline. The beach assault course eventually gave way to soft, black sand and, for the first time in hours, we found ourselves walking on a level surface. The lights from the roadway twinkled tantalisingly. Nearly there now; we punched the air in triumph. Little did we know that the worst was yet to come.

We rounded the last bend only to discover that our path was blocked by gigantic boulders. It was as if a giant troll had hacked chunks out of the mountainside and tossed them over his shoulder. My husband asked me anxiously if I thought I could climb over them. Tears welled in my eyes.

“I’ll bloody well have to, won’t I?”

Fear (a sheer cliff loomed above me; the fathomless waters of the fjord lay behind me; it was almost dark!) drove me on. I succeeded by scrabbling across them, like a crab. I’d have given myself a celebratory pat on the back but I needed both claws (I mean hands) to cling to the rock. I stifled my sobs and comforted myself with the knowledge that it was a circular walk. We weren’t lost. We would eventually complete a loop.

And so we staggered on.

We finished our ‘easy going’ walk just after midnight. It had taken us nine hours. My legs were so heavy and stiff that, for the next two days, I lumbered around with all the grace and charm of Frankenstein’s bride. But, you know what? It felt like a real achievement and we formed an even closer bond with the raw and spectacular wonder of the Westfjords.


Source: The Reykjavík Grapevine Issue 7 — 2013

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