Iceland day 4 – Westman Islands

Unfortunately, today was yet another early start. I caught a 7am bus from Reykjavik to the ferry that would eventually take me to Heimaey, the largest of the Westman islands and the only one with a significant population. Some other guests at my guesthouse were doing the same thing but hemorrhaging a lot more by going with a tour company.

The ferry to Heimaey

The ferry to Heimaey

Some rain and fog limited the scenery on the 2 hour ride but the characters that got on and off the bus were interesting. The 2 farm boys that hailed the bus on the side of the highway and who could barely escape their mom’s hugs and kisses. The slick looking businessman with the briefcase who was heading into some very very rural areas. Or the dishevelled smelly old man who didn’t appear to pay any fare or even acknowledge the driver upon boarding. And the fun didn’t stop there. The ferry is relatively small and with the recent stormy weather it bobbed like I dunno what when we hit open ocean. I was glad I didn’t buy any food when I boarded because it would’ve ended up over the railing. Thank god it was only 30 minutes – the old 3.5 hour ferry had a reputation for being a real puke machine.

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Its a busy port, and not a minger in the bunch

Heimaey is a little fishing town who’s quaintness belies it’s importance. Although it holds just 2% of Iceland’s population, it produces 15% of Iceland’s fish. And it has a crazy history of colonies and pirates and tall tales from the sea. Like the fisherman who, in 1984, swam for 6 hours through a north Atlantic storm after his boat sunk. Cambridge University tested his fat and determined that it was closer to seal blubber than human fat.

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There are hundreds of cliffside colonies like this around the island

Obviously I didn’t come here for commercial fishing, with my landlubber stomach. First off, its a beautiful island with dramatic cliffs and lush green hills. Second, there is tons of volcanic activity and history here. Lastly, every August the cliffs are inhabited by millions of breeding birds, some of which are quite rare like the puffin.

The port of Heimaey

In the top right of this photo you can see the lava flow that almost sealed the harbour

The first thing I checked out was the “Pompei of the north”. In 1973 a volcano suddenly erupted, evacuating the entire town and threatening to close the harbour permanently with its lava flow. They stopped the advancing lava in the nick of time by pumping sea water from firefighting boats. Still, the volcano buried 50 or so homes, and added 15% more land mass and a new 200m hill. Some of the homes that were buried by ash are being excavated as a kind of exhibition.

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From there I headed up through some of the cliff areas. I was really hoping to see some rare puffins and I was not disappointed. I snuck up on some nests and got a good look at them. The only thing goofier  than their appearance is their flight, which lacks the usual avian grace. It’s like watching a novice skier confidently take on a slope that is way beyond their ability. Huck and hope. I’ve seen squirrels fly better.

The elusive puffin

The other interesting thing about the cliffs is that history comes alive. When the Turks marauded the island in 1627, women and children were lowered down cliffs to access caves to hide in. They were killed. From another cliff, Irish priests and slaves were thrown in retaliation for a murderous mutiny. Atop another cliff is the birthing stone where a woman gave birth while running from pirates. She and her baby died. This is pretty normal stuff for Icelandic history – brutality, hardship, and death. To this day, commercial fisherman die by the dozen in the fierce north Atlantic and people seem to accept it as a normal part of society.

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Chances are, someone died on this cliff

A funny pastime here is cliff swinging, or sprangen. Its exactly what it sounds like. You tie a rope on the cliff and you swing from it. For fun. It looks… kinda dumb really. A few tourists try it, Aussies I assume, and many of them get hurt. It falls quite squarely into the “WTF were you thinking” category. I had to chuckle when I saw a broken rope at the bottom of a cliff. I’ll bet an Icelander would too.

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Good one.

I’m heading back to Reykjavik tomorrow and hoping that the nightlife isn’t as raucous as people say, at least around my guesthouse.

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