West Fjords – Iceland (22.08.16)
The West Fjords (Vestfiroir), on the very edge of the Arctic Circle, clinging onto Iceland by a mere 10km strip of land, are one of Europe’s overwhelmingly beautiful, and yet least-known, wildernesses. Raw, relentlessly wild landscapes offer breathtaking views at every turn, whatever time of year you visit, and however you travel.
My first impressions were powerful enough; waiting for the twice-daily ferry to take me from the Snæfellsnes Peninsular to the south coast West Fjord settlement at Brjánslækur, I climbed the Holy Mountain of Helgafell and looked, like Alice through her looking-glass, at the West Fjords in the distance. Shimmering islands stretched out across northern coastal waters, giving way to the vast imposing cliffs of West Fjords. I knew I was in for an extreme northern experience as dark cliff silhouettes, icy seas and dramatic weather rolled off into the distance in gothic warning.
Even by Icelandic standards this is a remote, apocalyptic landscape on an immense scale. The sheer drama of this peninsula, covering 8,600 square kms, outdoes just about any other in Europe.
Once across the water, navigating the coastal roads, the ever-changing, sky-stretching landscapes become almost beyond what the mind can take in. Huge cliffs, at Europe’s most westerly point (Látrabjarg), drop 400m straight into the crashing Atlantic Ocean, as guillemots, puffins, fulmars, kittiwakes, cormorants and razerbills go about their business unfazed by the buffeting wind, waves and tumultuous weather.
Around every corner, over every mountain brow and across as many steep-sided fjord waterways you care to travel around, the scenery throws a new view dominated by whatever weather system prevails at the time. Sharp beams of sunlight cut through angry mountain storms, vying to impose four seasons in one hour.
In addition to the dramatic weather, travelling the twists and turns of the coastal roads one is treated to all manner of geographical phenomena. Never-ending golden sandy beaches, facing the Sea of Denmark to the west, contrast with the black-sand fjord beaches to the north. Plunging sheer-scree mountains drop out of high altitudes to calmly rest up against the mirror flat fjordland waters below. Long lazy spider’s legs of land, sparsely populated by the occasional house, hamlet or hideaway farmsteads, reach out into the sea.
With the whole region boasting a population of just over 7,000 (4,000 of whom live in the northern fjord town of Isafjirdur), it is heavily influenced by its extreme northerly weather and amount of sunlight at different times of year. I was fortunate to travel here during the summer months, with nearly 20 hours of sunlight a day. At this time of year it is easy to appreciate the more charming elements of low-intensity subsistence farming, as well as the innumerable stunning natural harbours from which to access North Sea fishing areas. Although under 5% of Iceland’s tourists visit the West Fjords, tourism is also beginning to make a positive impact on local economies.
With time on your hands I do urge anyone visiting Iceland to venture to these north western extremes. You cannot fail to be impressed. Even though temperatures hardly rise higher than 10°C and the remoteness is all-consuming, the remarkably raw scenery will leave you with a super-saturated memory of wilderness for ever.