Posted by: nmancini04 | August 22, 2011

Day 5: The Desert and the Whale

Greetings, from scenic Húsavík! The whale watching capital of Iceland! Home to the renowned Icelandic Phallological Museum! This town is full of whales and penises (it even has a whale penis) and it’ll be the upset of the trip if we get out of here without seeing any of them. But how did we get here?

The Interior
The interior of Iceland is a vast, uninhabited region of mountains, glaciers and deserts and most of it is largely inaccessible, except by bus or on foot for serious trekkers. But there is a small section of the Ring Road that cuts west into the interior from Egilsstaðir. We spent last night in Egilsstaðir, of course, so we started early this morning and headed west.

At this point, the Ring Road tracks up into the mountains, through the high passes and across the lava fields and gravel deserts that mark the beginnings of the wild interior, cresting at the alphabet soup that is the Moðrudalsfjallgarðar mountain range. It is astonishingly stark up there and unsurprisingly the formerly ubiquitous sights of farm houses and sheep soon faded into rock and gravel covered emptiness.

The bleak emptiness of the interior desert

Boy…there is not a lot up there and the harsh landscape is pretty awing. We did stop at one lookout point once we reached the top of the Moðrudalsfjallgarðar range, where the road looked out onto an impressive valley, but other than that, we just pushed on through. At the lookout point there was also a big stony mound where hundreds of visitors had built small cairns. Maggie and I made our own before fleeing from the biting cold wind.

The valley from Moðrudalsfjallgarðar and the wastes of the interior

Maggie photographs the valley

The cairn mound

Our primary destination for the day was Jökulsárgljúfur National Park, home of mighty Detifoss and some pretty interesting hikes. This required a significant detour from the Ring Road, as we pulled off to approach the park from the south, taking the road along the east bank of Jökulsá á Fjöllum, Iceland’s second longest river. The road to the park was a very, very rough gravel track, so we had to kick the Suzuki into four-wheel drive for the first time on the trip. Along the way we saw an unlucky car that had somehow gotten jammed on top of a large rock with its windshield and back windows shattered.

At the southern end of the park is the sight everyone comes to see: Dettifoss. You may be sick of waterfalls in this blog — hell, we’re practically done with them by now — but all the waterfalls to this point have been just vassals to Dettifoss, Europe’s most powerful waterfall.

Me above the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon, just north of Dettifoss




I get close to the falls…although not as close as some of these other insane people

Maggie by Dettifoss

So…um, yeah. P.S. See those crazy people so close to the edge of the falls? It was even worse than it looks. They were tramping around these jagged, wet rocks with terrible footing, going right up to the edge and planting to take pictures. It was insane. It make my stomach churn so much, I wanted to push them over myself.

From Dettifoss it’s a short one kilometer walk to another set of falls, Selfoss, which are remarkable for their stark contrast to Dettifoss. The falls drop a comparatively very short distance, but are extremely wide, cutting diagonally across the river. It was much less crowded in this area, as it seemed like every tourist we’d ever seen on the road was gaping at the big guy.



Maggie snuggles up at Selfoss

We walked back to Dettifoss to pick up our car and fled the hordes of zombies feasting on the waterfall’s flesh and continued north on our rough gravel road. Once we reached the northern end of the park, we went for a walk into the Ásbyrgi canyon. The canyon’s distinct shape gave rise to the legend that it is the hoofprint of Sleipnir, Odin’s eight-legged horse. The walk took us through the first “woods” we’ve encountered (they barely qualify) to a small, pretty lake, where the world’s boldest duck flirted with us, and then up higher against the cliff wall, where we got a beautiful view of the whole canyon. After that, we headed out of the park…and the desolate interior.

The flirtatious duck

The lake and the canyon wall

The lake from higher up

The Ásbyrgi canyon

The Ásbyrgi canyon

We begin to see settlements again during our descent

A house by a lake

The North Coast
Leaving the park, we drove down out of the mountains and to the northern coast along the huge bays of Öxarfjördur and Skjáfandi. Húsavík sits on the coast of the latter. We reached Húsavík in the late afternoon and it has already replaced Seyðisfjörður (from yesterday) as my favorite of the towns we’ve seen since we left Reykjavík. There’s a lovely harbor, some beautiful houses and more to do than most of the small towns we’ve seen so far. We’re staying in a very sweet guesthouse, which is clearly just someone’s house converted to accommodate tourists. We got a cute room in what used to be the attic.

Our room in the Árból guesthouse

A small window in our room

Húsavík's beautiful church


The harbor in Húsavík

Having arrived early, we had some time to kill after getting our room, so we decided to go to the museum….but not the penis museum, the Húsavík Whale Museum. The museum is full of information and artifacts, ranging from the history of the whaling industry to scientific data on whales and their behavior to facts about conservation and the various threats to whales’ survival. But the highlight was definitely the whale skeletons hanging from the ceiling, accessible on a spooky and fascinating mezzanine level.

A narwhal skeleton in the Whale Museum

The skeleton of a sperm whale

Maggie walks among the whale skeletons

After that, we went to dinner by the harbor and decided to call it a night. We’re still debating what to do tomorrow and that decision will affect the next couple of days and whether or not we travel to the western peninsula of Snæfellsnes or hang out an extra day in the central north of the country, where there’s a lot to do. Some big decisions tomorrow: Whale watching? Phallological museum? Those are the two things this town is best known for…. We’ll see.



  1. Nick,
    Jeff told me that Vickie was born in Akureyri in the north.
    Have you been there?

  2. Maggie looks like a native. What are the prices of meals and room there?

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