Jul 09 2019

The Road to Látrabjarg

Published by at 3:02 pm under Travel

Tuesday, July 2, 2019

I had been dreading today for seven months, for the simple reason that I was pretty sure I was going to die on the road to Látrabjarg, today’s ultimate destination. Today, I’d drive, because being a helpless passenger would be too much for me.

Molly and I both awoke at 1:00 in the morning to find the sun low in the sky but still bright. At 3:30 a.m. we heard a thundering on the little wooden porch at the front of our cabin. I looked out to see a bunch of sheep tap-dancing with their hard little hooves, making quite a ruckus.

[Photo by Molly]

I was amused, until I couldn’t get back to sleep. Exasperated, we both got up at 5:00, our internal clocks and the external environment conspiring against us. Shortly thereafter the earth shook as there was another thundering, this time from dozens of horses galloping past just ten feet from our door.

It’s just as well we had these unconventional alarms, because we had to be up early anyway, to leave by 7:00 to catch the Baldur ferry over to the Westfjords. We headed northeast up to Stykkishólmur about an hour away, and after getting our tickets were seventh in the queue for the boat. At 8:30, I drove the massive car on board. An attendant held up his hand to prevent me from pulling forward where everyone else was. Instead, he directed me to the tiniest parallel parking spot up against the metal wall with pipes and bars sticking out of it. I can’t get this big car into that tiny place, I told him, quaking. He ignored me and continued to block my forward progress. I had no choice but to obey. I started to back in, but no way it was going to happen. Keep your eyes on me, not on the parking space, he admonished. It was a leap of faith, to try to follow his directions without looking where I was going. The automatic danger-sensor in the car, warning me I was about to hit something, started to beep, and then, as I crept back, faster and louder until it was a drone. Still he signaled me to continue. He got me squeezed in there so tight I had no idea how I’d drive away again. I was (I measured) exactly two inches from the floor-to-ceiling wall on the passenger side, with about eight inches in front and back of the car.

[Photo by Molly]

Up on deck, I met up with Molly, who’d been instructed to walk up the gangplank rather than ride with me. As we chugged out into Breidafjörður Bay, calm in the lightly breezy day, we found a seat and drank coffee and ate gummies and chips, venturing outside for the occasional photograph.

Three hours later, after a short stop on the island of Flatey, we arrived at the ferry’s destination, Brjánslækur, and, after extricating myself at length from the parking spot, aimed for the bird cliffs of Látrabjarg. This is what I’d heard about the road there: that is is narrow, steep, gravel and winding, with lots of potholes and plenty of other cars that you have to pass from the opposite direction. And the worst part is that in sections, the road is carved into a cliffside with a vertical drop of hundreds of feet and no guardrails.

With a firm grip on the wheel and on my resolve, I proceeded. The weather turned windy and the sky clouded partly over, but no rain. The paved road ended and a good gravel one began. We were merrily going east when we came upon a turnoff for a road to a red sand beach called, aptly, Rauðasandur. This rough road had more chunky gravel than the main one, with steep drop-offs and sharp curves and hills with signs warning blindhæð (“blind rise”). Up and over the ridge we went, and reached the beach. If you’d followed it down the coast a bit, you would have hit Látrabjarg, but it was 50 kilometers by road.

Nestled between the foot of the mountain and the beach was Saurbæjarkirkja, a quaint little church that looked like it was painted with pitch.

Now bound for Látrabjarg in earnest, our car climbed back up and down the mountain, crunching over gravel. We reached the main road again. I was driving merrily along toward the bird cliffs when I happened to glance down at the dashboard:

Low tire pressure
Right rear
24 psi

I figured 35 psi was about where it should be, so I was pretty concerned. We were in the middle of nowhere: a good 20–30 kilometers from our hotel, and in fact from any civilization at all, in any direction. I wasn’t sure what to do. I don’t remember how to change a tire, and there was certainly no one around for miles who could help.

A kilometer or two passed. 23 psi. I drove on. 22, 21… losing air fast. I decided my best option was to drive as quickly as I could, figuring time was of the essence. I hit the gas. 20, 19, 18. Molly checked her phone and updated me on how close we were to the Hótel Látrabjarg, where we had this night’s reservation. Eventually we saw it in the distance ahead. As we pulled in to park, the pressure monitor registered 16.

I walked into the wee lobby of this simple little hotel consisting of about a dozen rooms in one building and a dining room in the other. A nice man, name of Joél, who had a hard time with my fast stream of English (his being from Cuba) finally understood our dilemma. He wouldn’t think of dealing with our problem until he had settled us comfortably in Room 12. Then he proceeded to put on the spare tire for us: a tiny little thing that looked like it wouldn’t support the weight of the car, and that was itself under-inflated.

Joél pointed out across the fjord to show us a town, Patreksfjörður—only several kilometers away as the puffin flies but over 30 by road—where, luckily, there was a tire repair shop. He sent us on our way. I crept along the gravel route, afraid to blow the small tire. A full hour-and-a-half later we arrived, found the shop less than an hour before it closed, got patched up (the culprit was gravel), and drove home, which took only an hour at regular speed this time. Phew.

At 7:00 we walked over to the quaint little restaurant and got into a conversation with Joél and later the Icelandic owner, Karl, both warm and delightful people. Karl had some amazing stories about Moonies, having encountered their insidious ways when he was a teenager visiting the U.S.

Put on my blinders and went to bed early, around 10:00.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “The Road to Látrabjarg”

  1. Molly says:

    I love that horse photo! It captures the motion and the light so well.

    It’s so handy that you’ve looked up translations. I hadn’t known what blindhæð meant either, beyond meaning “blindhæð.”

  2. Elana says:

    Absolutely agree with Molly! Such a lovely photo. And the best alarmosheeps! Car things sounded harrowing – so glad it all worked out!

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