NORTHERN ENCOUNTER – by Clive Tully a British Travel Writer
“Twelve o’clock – it’s a humpback!”
Whale-watch guide Nils has already briefed us on how to tell where he wants us to look. Just a mile outside Húsavík’s picturesque harbour in the north of Iceland, and already I’ve seen my first whale. It’s almost as though they’re out here waiting for me. It isn’t the best of days weather-wise, with an overcast sky and an icy biting wind, but that doesn’t seem to deter the 30 or so passengers on the whale-watching boat Bjössi Sör, all keen to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the gentle giants of the deep.
They’re not disappointed, and I’m ecstatic. I’ve seen whales before, but never so close. There are three humpbacks out here lazily displaying their flukes before they dive out of sight. But they reappear, again and again. My only regret is that I happen to be looking in the wrong direction when one of them breaches – leaping right out of the water and crashing back in with a mighty splash.
It seems amazing that the Icelandic government should even consider wanting to hunt these beautiful creatures. The whale-watch guys agree. Apart from anything else, whale tourism has turned their community around after a quota-blighted fishing industry – a fact which is driven home when you wander around the beautifully presented whale museum overlooking the harbour.
After three days in the relative bustle of Reykjavík, and a short flight to Akureyri, I’m in the north of Iceland, determined to make the most of my two-day Mývatn Extension. It’s possible to do what I want on public transport, but to give myself a little more flexibility, I have a hire car. Well, actually, it’s one of those monster four-wheel drives – scorned when sighted on the school run, but which seems more than appropriate for Iceland. While the main road between Akureyri and Mývatn is surfaced, the road between Húsavík and Mývatn isn’t. As the cloud and rain sweep in, and all I can see is a line of yellow posts delineating the track across a barren grey snow-patched landscape, I feel comfortably secure in the knowledge that my chunky studded tyres and diff lock will get me out of anything.
Mývatn is one of the world’s natural marvels. The name means “midge lake”, and even in early May there are plenty of the little blighters about. I set off on a leisurely tour, stopping first at the point where the Laxá River tumbles away from the lake in a series of swirling rapids. Here I spot a couple of Harlequin ducks. They’re North American birds, and this is one of the few places in Europe you can see them.
East of the lake is the crazy maze of lava slag known as Dimmuborgir. The name means “black castles”, and you certainly get that impression as you wander amongst dark, brooding craggy towers. Nearby is Hverfjall, a 2,500 year-old volcanic ash crater just begging to be climbed. It’s hard work following the path up its loose gravelly side, but the view from the rim makes it all worthwhile.
All hard effort deserves reward, and close by is the perfect one for a cold day. Nature Baths takes geothermally heated mineral-rich water – in abundant supply here – and pipes it into a pleasant lagoon in which you can soak away your aches and pains. If you’ve done the Blue Lagoon near Reykjavík, it’s like that, but without the crowds. Come to think of it, there aren’t any crowds anywhere. And that, I guess, is why I like it so much!
Clive Tully traveled with Discover the World on their Reykjavik city break with a 2-night Myvatn Extension. For further information or to make a booking, please contact Discover the World (UK) on (+44) 01737 214214 or visit the website at www.discover-the-world.co.uk/iceland
The pictures below are taken during the first few days of whale watching May 2006.
Nils, one of North Sailing’s guides prepares for departure on ‘Bjössi Sör’
Two humpbacks swim just by the boat
Humpback lifts its fluke – with the snow-capped mountains in the backdrop
And more humpbacks….
The four North Sailing boats rest at the pier waiting for more eager passengers to arrive