Travel tales: Iceland’s dancing Northern Lights

During this period of time when we cannot travel, let’s look back and share stories of past trips – ones that have come about so we can make life changes or holidays where we had a once-in-a-lifetime experience. First up is my own recollection of a trip that I took with my flatmate to the Westfjords – in the west (actually, northwest) of Iceland – that involved heaps of snow, an abundance of human kindness and some milk.

Iceland black sand beach

Black sand on Dyrafjordur beach

Yes, many milk phrases spring to mind for this particular daytrip from Ísafjörður in the Westfjords – not least the one about ‘not crying over spilt milk’ but that doesn’t seem so appropriate, seeing as though there were a few tears on the day in question. So, let’s stick with the ‘milk of human kindness’ one, as that was found flowing in abundance in the isolated Mjólkárvirkjun power station at the end of one very long fjord (if you know that mjólká is Icelandic for milk, then you might see where I am coming from here). Though, let’s not jump too far ahead in the story of two tourists who had a particularly nasty run-in with the Westfjords weather.

Rewarded by a magnificent light display after a hair-raising trip

The day started off in our home-away-from-home in Hnífsdalur, nestled between Bolungarvík and Ísafjörður, on a wintry yet blue-sky morning. We were on our last day of a three-day trip before heading back to the big city of Reykjavik for a music festival. Glorious weather had so far accompanied us (although not-so-much the elusive Northern Lights), and we had done a fair share of touring around, discovering black sand beaches, taking a dip in a magical hot spring (at Nauteryi) and hiking to a picturesque waterfall (at Valagil). Yet visiting only one waterfall while in the wilds didn’t seem enough, not when another was in our reach (at Dynjandi). The car had its winter tyres on, we had checked the weather website and knew that the roads were open, so off we set for a bit of a drive south (and yes, now I know ‘you should never go south’ from Ísafjörður, but at this stage I had not met Hálfdán so couldn’t heed his advice yet; that’s a whole other story from this trip, see here).

Iceland gas station

Gas station at Þingeyri

Magnificent views and stunning scenery graced our journey, naturally, as did some particularly cute seals spotted lolling in the sea. We made it as far as Þingeyri before lunchtime, where we discover pretty much for the first time how ‘out of season’ it is. Nowhere is open, so we grab a coffee in the gas station before planning the next move. The weather is still good, so the decision is made to continue on to the Dynjandi waterfall, up and over the mountain towards Arnarfjörður – ‘the most beautiful fjord in the region due to its diverse landscape’ (so our guidebook says). It is the mountain in between that became the problem. In a blink of an eye the weather can turn for the worse.

There’s a storm on the way

Following a steady climb, the road gets increasingly snow-laden towards the summit. Winding our way in the tracks created by fellow intrepid explorers who had gone ahead of us, one thing is for sure – we begin to appreciate the snow tyres that our rental vehicle adorns. Slipping on ice? Not once. The underside of the car catching on piles of the white stuff? Yes, that is starting to become a problem. At one point, whilst on the descent on the far side of the mountain we become stuck in a snowdrift but – luckily – we aren’t stopped in our tracks for long and with the help of the first kindly souls of the day (an Icelandic tour guide and the two Norwegians of his party, who had passed us on the road earlier, got worried about us and turned back to see how we were getting on – oh how glad were we to see them!), we eventually managed to make it safely onwards and down into the calm, snow-free valley.

Iceland snowy mountain

Icelandic weather: it can go from sunshine to snow in the blink of an eye

Comments from the trio of ‘There’s a storm on the way’ and ‘You better turn around and get back over the mountain while you can’ were not ones that my (uber competent yet slightly distressed at this point) driver was too keen on hearing right about now, as it felt too soon to be  negotiating that route again. Though bearing in mind that the road we had just come across that was rapidly being draped in evermore thicker blankets of the white stuff was the only way back to Ísafjörður, it was better to consider it sooner rather than later. Cue the appearance of a well-travelled – OK, slightly battered with a dint in the driver’s door – four-by-four being driven northwards by a local. Icelandic discussions ensue and a pact is made on our behalf. Yes, the new driver will lead us back over the mountain. With some trepidation and after inadvertently insulting our Icelandic friends (‘Are you sure he wants to help?’ says I, to which I am reprimanded with a comment of ‘If we Icelanders agree to help, we help’), we are rapidly gaining height towards the snowy summit. Only to realise that our non-four-by-four is not going to make it through the now pretty deep drifts, even by following the tracks of the vehicle in front. There is only way thing for it: the kindly Icelander manages to turn our car for us amidst the rapidly piling snow, and before we know it, we are on our way back down into the fjord, again. This time, there is not a soul around.

Stranded in a snowy fjord

Iceland snow drift

Before we got stuck in the first snow drift

Hmmm, what to do now. Phone signal? No. Anyone home at the museum at Hrafnseyri? No. Ah, but of course, it’s all shut up because, yep, it’s out of season. Maybe we’ll find a farm to ask for help, but it turns out that this north side of Arnarfjörður is pretty deserted and it is one crazily huge fjord – well technically it is three; with the first leading into Dynjandisvogur and Borgarfjörður. If you follow the road around a bit further, you’d discover that impressive waterfall. However, we didn’t make it that far, nor cared much for it anymore. By this stage, we were slightly more concerned about where we might be staying the night and were already considering ways to conserve energy in case we needed to sleep in the car.

We kept on driving and still nothing, until we flagged down the first car that approached us whose driver said there was life at the end of the fjord. That was when we caught our first glimpse of the Mjólkárvirkjun hydro-electric power station in the distance. On driving into the premises, we felt a little out of sorts, and totally out of place. How many times have the staff here had unprepared tourists wandering in asking for help, I wondered – which is pretty much what we did, although exactly what they could do, we had no idea.

Seeking help at the power station

There weren’t too many bodies bustling about inside. Through a full-glass wall, we saw someone fiddling with electrical panels. This was the friendly power station employee (who I think was called Gunni, although it is all a bit of a blur) and for a while he was the solitary welcoming party and he listened quietly to our tale of woe – before returning behind the glass wall to retell our story to his colleague. There was much discussion, all in Icelandic of course so we were none the clearer as to what was being said. Maybe it was whether any road-clearing-crew might be heading this way any time soon – or were we just being hopeful with that thought?

At the far end of a long corridor, a lady was waving madly at us. I waved back. She seemed so smiley, and a smile could go a long way at this stage. We were offered coffee and a seat in the reception/lunchroom, at which point the lady decided to have a break too (time check: sometime around 15:00). It turns out she was here for a few days with her brother painting the power station. As we sat there amidst talk of snow ploughs and weather systems, we were beginning to wonder how many days we might be in this room and which bit of floor looks most comfortable to sleep on. Naturally, talk turned to why we were in the fjord in the first place. When we told them that we were on a daytrip to see the Dynjandi waterfall – at the end of October – we were almost laughed out of town (or of this one building and its smattering of attached houses). I take it that the waterfall is another place people don’t normally visit out of season then?

‘Something remarkable happens when we step outside – an overwhelming sense of together we will get through this’

Just as it seemed that the smiley lady was seeing way too much sunshine at the end of the tunnel, a decision was made. There was an electrician in the building who also needed to get back to Ísafjörður and so he and us (in our cars) would follow Gunni (in his beast of a truck) and he would lead us back over the mountain before it got dark and the storm well-and-truly set in.

Force of (human) nature

Just as we were getting ready to set out, a truck (which actually turned out to be a milk truck, the poignancy of which only just occurred to me now) drives past the power station, quickly followed by another tourist-looking vehicle heading in the direction of ‘the’ mountain. Before too long they would join in our convoy I thought (and yes, they did). The more the merrier to battle the force of nature.

Something remarkable happens when we step outside. It is not just the natural beauty of the landscape that commands our attention. It is the kindness of strangers and an overwhelming sense of together we will get through this (we hoped) – and we did. After a lot of blizzard battling, snow shovelling, car pushing and pulling – Gunni had to tow us at one point – a couple of hours later we were driving down the other side of the mountain and back to safety. We had to stop for a breather in the gas station at Þingeyri. There was not another car from in sight. The convoy had dispersed, calm had returned. We were in awe, and slightly bewildered by the surreal course of events.

A while later, as we arrived home to Hnífsdalur with dark skies surrounding us, it seemed we were being treated to the icing on the cake, perhaps as a reward for what we had just been through and for making it back after such a hair-raising trip. As we stepped out of the car and looked up, there was a delightful display of Northern Lights dancing above our heads. It has been 7 years since this trip and that magnificent memory has not faded – nor has our gratitude to the kindly souls we met that day.

Iceland's Northern Lights

Such dancing lights are glorious at any time, but even moreso after such an expedition

• One year after this trip, I managed to get in touch with the folks at the power station and they told us that after that storm, the road over the mountain was closed until April!
• The gas station at Þingeyri features in the Icelandic film Noi Abinoi – which takes ‘snowy tales’ to a whole other level.

Don’t have the time to read this whole article? Check out the shorter version in the form of a ‘comic strip’ – you’ll never guess who the first people were that I bumped into on the return to Reykjavik (yep, the lucky chaps who joined our convoy)! (link)


Credit: All photos courtesy of Sanne Faessen