Thursday 5th January 2017
I sifted the black sand at Reynisfjara Beach through my fingers and looked onto the crashing waves, thinking of the endless swell of the Atlantic Ocean, how it surged without the interruption of land all the way to Antarctica. “Don’t turn your back on the sea, not even for a moment” our guide had told us, a party of five travellers: one couple and two other women travelling solo. ‘Sneaker waves’ prowled the shore here; creeping, powerful things hiding behind small, innocent waves that lured naive tourists to the water’s edge before the lurking breakers pounced. “I worked in sea rescue for years but let me tell you, if one of those waves gets you, there’s no hope. Either the current or the cold will get you before I can.”
Reynisfjara Beach, a stone’s throw from the most Southerly village in Iceland, Vík í Myrdal or Vik for short, was the site of several such fatal accidents in recent years; the latest fatality would occur just four days after my visit. Giving the surf’s edge a wide birth, I battled the horizontal rain and salt water that infiltrated my mouth and marched laboriously East along the beach under the premise of admiring the black basalt columns that framed the cliff. In reality I had hoped to shelter from the wind and rain in a small cave long enough to take some photos. Vik sits on the windward side of the Gulf Stream and experiences three times the rainfall than Reykjavik, just 110 miles away.
The most dramatic view from the beach was Reynisdrangar, large basalt sea stacks protruding steeply from the sea. Icelandic folklore tells of two trolls who tried to drag a ship to shore before they were interrupted by daybreak and turned to stone, forming the standalone shapes. Having re-traced my footprints to the minibus, I imagined the swathes of endless black sand, strangely symmetrical basalt columns and grey sea on a sunny day. Listed as one of the top ten most beautiful non-tropical beaches in the world by Island Magazine in 1991, it was indeed a place of dramatic scenery and in an obscure way, it was beautiful.
The crashing water at Skógafoss, a surging and powerful waterfall, later replaced the crashing of the waves, the water’s path made even more thunderous by the mild winter, melted ice and subsequent increased water flow. We stopped for 20 minutes, wary of the waning winter light. 20 minutes gave us enough time to either admire Skógafoss from the base or climb the 527 steps to a viewing platform at the top. I opted for the latter and was glad that Iceland was experiencing a winter mild enough to allow a speedy ascent (and descent) on metal grate steps. The sound of the nearby squawking birds was muffled by the cascading water, the rain eased and clouds cleared momentarily to allow clearer views of the coast; Skógafoss forms part of what used to be Iceland’s old coastline before it receded seaward.
A short drive further along Iceland’s Ring Road brought us to another waterfall, Seljalandsfoss. In better weather conditions, a walk along a winding path behind the waterfall would lead to a small cave, allowing a remarkable view out through the water that is often accompanied by a rainbow on sunny days – or so I had read. On that day however, the path was icy and unfeasible without crampons. Looking front on, Seljalandsfoss is less dramatic than Skógafoss. Both offer a drop of ~60m, but Skógafoss dwarfs Seljalandsfoss with a width of ~25m. An opportunity to see the views from behind Seljalandsfoss might have changed my mind, though.
Back on the minibus the weather closed in around us, visibility was poor and the dark encroached. For the first time that day our guide was silent as he drove, his eyes narrowed and eyebrows furrowed in concentration on the road ahead while we all sat in a comfortable quiet with him, replaying the sound of rushing water in our ears.