The cliff of Hornberg.
I had no clue of what to expect when photographer Fredrik Schenholm invited me to Iceland, a place he enthusiastically loves. In fact so much so, he insists calling it Niceland.
Iceland is famed for unique sights, like sources of steam and boiling water called Geysirs, tamed at recreational parks like The Blue Lagoon. Another thing that comes to mind is action-injecting activities like heli-skiing or white water rafting and cruising on glaciers and volcanic dirt with snowmobiles, quads and super jeeps. And of course fishing, at sea, and inland with dry flies. That may all be cool stuff, but Fredrik wanted to venture beyond the easy thrills.
“Hornstrandir offers a contrast to Iceland's sort of mass-tourism”
Uninhabited since the 1950s, and vast relative to the number of visitors, it offers a haven for large populations of birds and a sense of tranquillity rarely experienced for the few people who choose to spend time there. We had set out in June, still a month before the main season and expected our timing to further amplify our isolation.
Our journey took us by plane from Reykjavik to the small fishing village Isafjordur. From here we took a regular boat service to the abandoned whaling station Hesteyri. Most tourists on the boat spend some time here before getting back on the boat. A coffee and some supplies can be bought here.
A few steps later we were on our own. A sort of narrow path appeared to once have been a road built before horsepower produced any exhaust. But gradually the road merged into a path, that soon more or less disappeared. No-one followed behind us, and no sign of humans could be seen in front of us, as we crossed over a mountain plateau and took in the view of the Atlantic Ocean below.
Somewhere behind the horizon is Greenland. It was in the following hours we got an idea of the size of the peninsula, as we spotted a sandy beach. Our planned camping site was at the far side of the beach. A stream split the beach in two as it cut its way through the treeless flats below us.
Hours later our naked feet waded across the river. What had looked like a tiny, silvery string of water was now hundred-wide meters of sheer cold. Being used to the 1:25000 maps of the Alps, distances are four times longer when using the 1:100000 map of Hornstrandir, a scale typically used in wilder, larger environments. It’s not as if we did not know that, but the cold water put it into the proper perspective…
That beach was long. As we continued our stroll across the fine sand we later could make out some colors that did not quite fit in, we had reached a few houses, remains from the 50s. The houses are still used, but now only as summer-cabins for the children of the previous owners. We had reached Adalvik.
The day after we continued eastwards. An old road ascends the northern part of this short valley. It leads to an abandoned radar station established by the Americans at a place called Straumsnes. Soon we took off from it and set our course for the next valley, a place called Fljótavik. The walk would offer what we learned was a typical day on these hills. Some 500 meters of vertical ascent and descent, and a distance of anything from 10 to 20 km.
As soon as we had gained a few hundred meters of elevation, the mist would often approach from the nearby ocean. Cairns tended to be small and few. This made staying on trail tricky. It may be, that later in the summer, when the main holiday season kicks in, the trail gets beaten down a bit more, and it may then be easier not to lose your bearings. We sometimes had to keep the compass handy to keep going in the proper direction.
“From time to time shy foxes ran across the hills”
Under us, the beach is white as far as our eyes can see. As we approach we understand that the color is not due to coral-sand, but tons of sun-bleached driftwood. We approach and explore the big piles.
How did it get here, is my first thought, but the question is not too tricky. Natures forces are strong, and these are timber that has fallen into Siberian rivers and brought out to sea. Then the current has pulled it across the icy North Pole.
Most of the coastline at the peninsula is near-vertical but here it is possible for strong tides and waves to deposit the logs more than 20 meters above the water below us. We climb on to the logs, struggling to keep our balance as we explore what the ocean has tossed ashore.
Some of the wood is shaped with tools, some of it is painted. Fishing gear like ropes, nets and floats are everywhere. Most of it may be lost without any drama, but it’s hard not to contemplate the forces that rule the cold waters north of this place, and is able to spit wreckage high up onto this shore.
As long as a millennium before us, the Vikings sailed here to gather firewood, a useful resource supplied to this treeless land by the ocean currents. We camp by a river-rapid for the night, there are no burn marks from the driftwood, and we take care to leave the place as we found it.
“It’s strange having a feeling that we might be the first people ever to visit this place while being aware of the history of human presence dating back a thousand years”
To continue the journey we have to wait for the low tide, and then walk on a narrow wet beach with cliffs on our right. We then approach the final part of our journey, having to cross the biggest river in the area. Fortunately it has by now become routine, but this one is slightly deeper, and to make sure to keep everything dry we balance the backpacks on top of our heads.
Our journey nears its end when we get to Hornberg, where a group of scientist and volunteers monitor the arctic foxes that thrive in the area. An important explanation to their wellbeing is the vast population of different species of birds that seek refuge on the steep hillsides of the 400 meters high Hornberg. For our last day we set out to pay a visit to the cliffs where the birds live.
Below we can see the boat dock, and a small group of people following in our tracks. I like the idea of getting to cliffs in front of the tourists, that way we can acclimatize ourselves gradually to reentry to urban life, and pay our farewells to this special landscape. It takes a little more than half an hour to get to the top of the cliff.
“The wall drop vertically some five hundred meters below us”
I toss a rock. Counting the seconds. Fredrik wants me to stand close to the edge, for some photos. I’ve always been very fond of flying. The possibility to travel great distances. The strict demands to performance that apply to aviation.
The seagulls appear to be masters. They hitch free rides with the air flow pushed upwards when the wind from the sea hit the cliffs. Their wings change constantly to create any shapes like winglets, long sailplane-like wings or stubby fighter plane-wings.
When we first came here it looked a bit like chaos, but studying the individual birds I start to suspect they are not flying only because they want to. When performing snap rolls and other maneuvers associated with dogfights and the acrobatic flight I suspect they are in love with flying.