En route from Keflavik I wonder if the Irish monks that settled here first saw Ben Bulben in the ridge over Rejkyavik. Lava fields become the fringes of the city where boom-built tower blocks are empty epitaphs of the capitalist quest. Thousands of years of backwards evolution from monk to banker; a paper trail of Iceland’s fluctuating fortunes.
On forty-five minutes sleep I collect a battered 4×4 estate from a friend of a friend and gun it to Porlackshofn – two solid points, backlit under the fast-moving sun, solid and sideshore and empty. A half-Portuguese surfer with no board called Saevar waits on the point and we paddle out together. I break my shoulders on the outside, trading waves with two local guys. “Where are you from?” one shouts over the whistling offshore. “England.” He grins widely. “Welcome.”
On the drive north that night the moon becomes so huge it seems to invite a touch. Silver ribbons of water cut deep trenches in the lava. Half tripping with tiredness and paranoid about the oncoming trucks laden with cod I pull off a snaking high road where pools of impossibly calm water lurk. I duck my head deep into one and when I emerge the sky explodes green. Ripples extend away and I am the only moving thing in a still world. The next hour is uneasy autopilot, like Wim Wenders is guiding me through 12 miles to Trona.
I find Henry’s house in Skagaströnd and he turns up, fresh from looking at the lights on the mountain, munching foraged dulse. On the north coast, passing uncharted reefs and points, I’m struck by the vast, aching potential. We paddle out early and gorge ourselves on the headhigh waves, dodging rocks down the inside. As the tide gets higher I swap to a Paul Gross air-mat and get one wide across the bay. Around us, snow-capped peaks grasp for the sky. On the homeward drive a gaping slab defies the ebbing windswell.
Nomadic photographer James Bowden and filmmaker James Aiken arrive. We haul ass for the West Fjords but it becomes apparent en route that we’ll never make it. In the falling snow the Hotel Reykjanes is straight out of The Shining, but the pissed-up owner throws open a huge thermal plungepool and we soak road dirt in the surreal night.
We head for a rendezvous with Danny O’Farrell, a Canadian transplant who has been quietly living an adventurer’s dream out here. Danny is the great-great-grandson of the Englishman Richard Jeffries, a wilderness sage and author of seminal Walden-style tomes. The genes are strong – Danny is super-stoked on anything from bolting new climbing routes, hardcore backcountry snowboarding, ice ascents, tying his own flies and surfing remote waves.
He leads us to a wilderness pointbreak that peels into a fjord. Small, raging offshore and nestled between giant glacial ridges. Irregular Vs of geese head south whilst fulmars swoop the lineup. There are more waves up the point and James, A and I paddle out to a little slab, christening it Gwyneth’s after our beaten Subaru.
The next day we go to Betty’s valley. She’s the sixteenth generation of her family to live in this remote enclave, which had a population of 200 people at its peak. Now there are two full-time; Betty and her son Thor. Sometimes, Betty is stranded in the valley alone for three weeks or more with snow-drifts almost covering her windows, wind raging around the house. She talks about the seasons. To live in the valley, she says, she must let them control her life.
Whilst we drink Betty’s coffee, Aiken and I scout the beachbreak out front. The light is starting to fade but there is the odd little wedge. We paddle out and it’s deceptively big and hollow. Henry bites his board and spits blood. That night, the rain beats relentlessly on the tent roof and in the morning the snowline has lifted.
The next chapter in the trip is a radical onshore gale. Out on the point at Skalavik we leap into the wind as it strips at our faces. There is low pressure bumping every shore of the island and Betty tells us a huge ice-storm has hidden and possibly killed 2,000 sheep in the north-east. Here, it is all about the fate and fortune of the sheep.
We talk long into the night with Vidar Kristinnson. He gave up life in Reykjavik and bailed to the West Fjords in search of simple purity, living in a house with no electricity or running water, at the heart of a nature reserve with boat access.
He’s fresh back from sailing to Greenland and dispels any romantic illusions – photos of piles of rubbish, a dumped orca head, a chained wolf. Most disturbingly, he tells me of the red flowers, tens of thousands of rusting oil barrels dumped by the US army post WWII. Here they sit and rot, some spilling open to pollute the pristine land. “It’s still a frontier out there,” Vidar says.
We go on to discuss Iceland in the wake of the financial collapse. “Before, money was worshipped and people built their own private kingdoms and stopped caring about anything else.” He talks about the banks and the way they had strangled the country, how before the collapse one was fifteen times the size of the economy. The conclusion though is positive. It’s a reset button for Iceland, the chance to create a new, sustainable and community-focused country. From his lips it is convincing.
Around midnight, Danny’s birthday, the Aurora Borealis appears in tides of green fury. The dancing wall of energy cements the focus. This is real, this is what counts. We sink beers as an artic fox screams in the hanging valley and the sky boils above the Saebol.
At dawn the swell is clean and little barrels spit on the river bar. We fly fish the river in the hope of char or salmon, waiting for warmth. My suit is frozen stiff. The first clean conditions allow us to see the quality of the wave. I think of the orcas in the fjord, the fulmars swooping across the bay, and kook it pulling into the little runners.
All that is left is the relentless haul to the airport, hurricane swell lighting up Rejkavik, and a grey-dawn goodbye to this most magic of countries. Then Hackney, all the unnecessary madness of the modern world and I am left thinking of An Icelandic Economist in Soho, by Sjón:
around the pub
and he wonders
if the flies that seek his beer