Exploring Vestmannaeyjar

Vestmannaeyjar, or the Westman Islands, is a group of around eighteen islands off of the south coast of Iceland. At the end of August this year I visited Heimaey, the largest, and only inhabited of these islands.

Pearl Jackson-Payen
5. November 2018

Our journey to Heimaey began in Reykjavík, where we waited for several hours for an organised lift share that never came. Somehow, getting out of Reykjavík is always difficult. It’s as though the city clings to you with grasping fingers, denying any easy exit. After many hours waiting for the lift that never came, we decide to hitchhike.

A red car finally stops. Opening the doors, emerge Rodrigo and Steingrímur. They both have huge distinctive moustaches, and talk about how they have been picking up hitchhikers all day. Steingrímur’s moustache is carefully curled at each side and Rodrigo’s is huge, joining up with an unusual reversed mohawk on his chin. Perhaps because of their facial hair choices, my first assumption is that they are related.

However, we soon learn that Rodrigo is also a hitchhiker, from Portugal, who was picked up by Steingrímur earlier that day. Steingrímur tells us that he lives on the island with his wife, and has for most of his life. He invites all three of us to stay at his place in Heimaey. He wears a red bowler hat, round glasses, and a shirt and waistcoat.

After managing to squeeze all of the bags in, we get in the car and start to drive. After some conversation, we realise that we met Rodrigo only the day before, at the Reykjadalur hot river. The first of several strange coincidences.

View of the islands from the ring road

Driving along the southern part of Iceland’s ring road, the Westman Islands are a constant visceral presence. Strange shapes rising out of the sea, always on the horizon, form coming out of nothingness, pointing upwards out from writhing wild Atlantic.

The Vestmannaeyjar archipelago is made up of eighteen islands. The biggest of these, Heimaey, is inhabited by around four thousand people. The other islands are uninhabited. These islands are geographically fairly new, having been formed by eruptions over the last twelve thousand years. The volcanic system of the region is comprised of around eighty volcanoes both above and below the sea.

The newest island, Surtsey, was formed in 1963. A group of sailors saw fire on the ocean and took their boat closer to see what was going on. Lava exploded from the crater up to one hundred meters into the air, forming rock and land. The sailors were watching the birth of Surtsey. It is now on the Unesco World Heritage list, and is under scientific observation.

Only researchers or people with special permission are allowed there. They are monitoring the island’s natural evolutionary processes without any human interference. A friend of mine told me a story about Surtsey, that one year, a mysterious tomato plant grew on the island. This development shocked the researchers who could not understand where it could have come from.

They later discovered that one of the scientists, who had eaten tomato with their lunch, had broken the rules of not interfering with the land, and gone to the toilet in the earth on the island. No one owned up to this and today it is still unknown who is responsible.

Driving to Landeyjahöfn from Reykjavík takes around one hour and forty minutes. Then the ferry ride, through liminal ocean and between immense hulking rock emerging from water. The changeover from Iceland to Vestmannaeyjar takes you through an otherworldly elemental landscape.

As the ferry draws towards Heimaey, it passes monumental rocky islands made of strange yellowing rock. Some of these islands have only one house on them. These are hunting lodges for wealthy gentlemen clubs. The rock faces are strangely yellow with shapes and faces in them, like vast abstract expressionist artworks emerging out of the sea. Their surfaces are unlike any I have before seen, yellow, textured, and strange, with lines running over them in tendrils.

We pass by strange dark caves filled with seawater, vast holes in cliff faces, nesting birds, strange faces emerging from rock.

The ferry ride towards Heimaey 

One of the islands with a single house on it 

The unusual rock faces

Shapes emerging from the rock face

A mysterious cave

I have been camping around Iceland for many weeks, and eating what I could find through dumpster diving. As we approach the island, my friend asks me what food I would most like in the world, and I think longingly of vegetable soup and homemade bread.

Arriving at Heimaey, we walk to Steingrímur’s place. His wife makes us African vegetable soup and homemade bread, the meal I had not so long ago wished for. This had been a day of mysterious coincidence. Over dinner, we learn about Steingrímur. He is a Christian missionary. He often goes to Africa to build schools and convert people to Christianity. We learn his name means ‘Stone masks’. He is performative; he peers at me with watery blue eyes and moves his hands over his face to signify many layers of masks. He smiles strangely. He talks to us about his work and shows us photos from his travels.

He tells us he was once stoned in North Africa for being there as a missionary. While he is very hospitable there is a gap between us. After dinner, he shows us his hat collection. He has many hats. He is wearing a red one, but tries on a white fluffy one for us. He tells us we have a good chance of seeing the northern lights tonight.

It is night. We go out. Pascal and Rodrigo talk over each other, telling stories of their travels, while I do not really listen. We explore the town and walk by the harbour. Boats are strangely illumined. We look in at them, vacant and empty but glowing and filled with strange pipes and equipment, floating in a strangeness. Pascal and Rodrigo want to climb one of the island’s several mountains, to try and see the aurora that might come.

We ask some local kids, what mountain should we climb. It is dark now but I can see and sense vague hulking shapes of mountains all around. The kids say do not climb any mountain without a guide. It is dark and steep. And wild. They say we need a guide even in the day time. I feel a bit put off by what they say, but Pascal is fixated on the idea of climbing a mountain.

So we approach the tallest mountain on the island. Approaching the mountain in the dark, I can vaguely make out its huge blackened form - it scares me somehow. We climb it in the dark, and most of the journey upwards is by rope ladder. 

Almost at the summit there is a huge nest of sheep wool. We sit in the wool and look out over Heimaey. The northern lights do not come.

Ascending the mountain at night

That night I dream that I am climbing a mountain holding onto a rope, and jumping between cliff faces.

The following day, Steingrímur offers to drive us around his island. He used to be a highland guide. He takes us to the elephant rock and tells us some history from the archipelago.

We see where the Turkish pirates came in on three ships many years ago, docking at Pirates’ Bay. In July of 1642, they invaded the island. At the time there were 500 inhabitants. 242 of them were killed or kidnapped. Around 220 islanders managed to hide from the pirates in various caves over the island. One famous cave is called Hundred Man Cave, where 100 people supposedly hid from the pirates. They were discovered and captured because of a dog waiting outside. The people who were kidnapped were taken to Algeria as slaves, but many died along the way.

We drive up to the windiest point in Europe, Stórhöfði, but today it is completely still. Standing here and looking southwards, apart from the other islands in the archipelago, there is nothing but sea all the way until the South Pole. Heimaey has the largest puffin colony in the world, and although it is the end of the season, we still see a group of around forty puffins underneath a huge rocky overhang.

The elephant rock

View from Stórhöfði towards the South Pole

View from Stórhöfði, downwards

Puffins!

I learn that the favourite sport of people on the island is called Sprangan, and involves hanging from a rope over a cliff face, and using it to jump across the rock. I remember my dream. Steingrímur tells us that his son is an expert in this sport.

I wander the island with Rodrigo and Pascal, and when we return to the house, Steingrímur has captured a bird. He invites us to watch him free it into the sea. We drive past the region where the eruption in 1973 destroyed everything. This eruption lasted from between the 23rd of January to the 3rd of July, and the islanders eventually stopped the lava flow and protected their port using sea water. Now an immense lava field covers much of the town, a region that used to be entirely residential.

I am struck by the immense power of Icelandic elements, the immense power to destroy and reform space. This eruption destroyed nearly one third of the island’s homes and buildings, but the land size increased by more than two square kilometres / 1.2 miles. For several years after the eruption, heat from the lava was harnessed to heat the homes of people living there, and projects to rebuild the town were implemented.

Steingrímur releases and throws his bird into the sea. He tells us that often pufflings are rescued by children in the town and thrown into the ocean.Steingrímur releases his bird

Steingrímur releases his bird

We observe a cave in the vast rock face. Steingrímur says they sometimes get a boat into the cave and play music there.

We see the old black Scandinavian church that was a gift from the king of Norway, and I walk along the seafront near here, observing the strange unique rock faces. The beach is eerie and strange, black sand and old grey waters, with faces in the rocks. I regard twisting blackened lava and imagine the island ablaze with fiery lava in the seventies, the people fleeing their destroyed homes for the mainland. For one so young, this is an island with much history and stories of destruction and rebirth.

Later that night, Pascal has fallen ill with a fever. Leaving him to sleep, me and Rodrigo go dumpster diving together, and I see my first ever northern lights. Thrown out by the island’s supermarkets, and left in open bins, we find around seventy packets of fresh pasta, and a bin bags filled with fruit smoothies, and cakes and juice and pesto.

Heimaey is only 5.2 square miles (13.4 square kilometres), yet everyone on the island has a car. It is Friday night, and the hobby of many inhabitants seems to be cruising very slowly around the island in groups of two or three. While we dumpster dive, the same car drives past three or four times, its driver eyeing us strangely. When he has driven past us four times within fifteen minutes I make eye contact with him and laugh. He breaks his air of seriousness and laughs back. Later I see him in Heimaey’s only bar, drunk and dancing to Icelandic hip hop.

It is cold and clear and a tentative northern light streaks overhead. With our food, we head to the lava field to watch the northern lights. It is very early in the aurora season, and my first time ever seeing the lights. I know that Pascal has been trying and failing to see the lights for the few months I have known him, so I call him. He replies that he is still sick but at the top of Eldfell, the island’s volcano.

After a while spent gazing at the aurora, we decide to look at the island’s only bar. It is exactly what I had expected - Icelandic chart music, drunken islanders, and expensive beer. But it is fun to dance for a while and meet Heimaey’s people.

Catspotting at Heimaey! 

Catspotting at Heimaey! 

Catspotting at Heimaey!

The next morning I leave the island on a ferry. On my way out I see Steingrímur has captured a new bird to throw into the sea.

The journey back to mainland is just as beautiful and strange, standing on the top deck and moving past huge hulking rock and empty space.

Ferry ride back to the mainland

Heimaey is a land with a history of hiding people.

I recently read an Icelandic folktale about a group of wizards who hid on the Westman Islands while the plague spread over the mainland. After spending some time at Vestmannaeyjar, one of the wizards went back to Iceland to see if there was anyone left living. He found and fell in love with a girl in the south whose family had deceased. When he didn’t return, the other wizards sent spells to him from Vestmannaeyjar to kill him, but his lover managed to protect and hide him.

During the settlement years, Irish slaves hid at Vestmannaeyjar, but were discovered and slain by Vikings. The Westman Islands are named after these slaves, for the Irish were known as ‘west men’.

Heimaey is a land enclosed in narrative. Gathered stories hover over the place like an immense cloud, forming its identity as much as the strange streaked yellowing rock with faces in it and pink and black volcano still radiating heat.

Stories live in the earth and in the lava, stories remembered but also forgotten, stories of pirates, of volcanoes, of land forming and reforming, stories of the Irish hiding from murderous Viking settlers, and of  Icelandic wizards hiding from the plague. It is an elemental place, of water and of fire, of huge hulking rock and of the strongest winds in Europe, a place of huge suffering, a place of many stories and of many identities.

Whenever I drive along the southern part of Iceland, I gaze out to the strange shapes of Vestmannaeyjar, and imagine Steingrímur on his island.

Q&A

How can I get to Vestmannaeyjar?

Ferries leave several times a day from Landeyjahöfn in good weather, and from Þorláshöfn in bad weather. They can be purchased online, or at the ferry port. Heimaey also has an airport, and it is possible to fly here from the mainland.

What makes it an interesting place to visit?

It is the southernmost point of Iceland, and has the largest puffin colony in the world. It also has about it a very distinct feeling to the rest of Iceland. Exploring the lava field and other historical sites is very interesting. It is also a place of astounding natural beauty.

Every summer in early August there is a big music festival on Heimaey, called Þjóðhátíð. The atmosphere of the island is supposed to completely transform during these few days, when tens of thousands of Icelanders descend upon Heimaey for drunken revelries and music.

What is there to do?

There are many beautiful hiking routes all over the island. It is possible to climb up to Eldfell, or ‘Hill of Fire’. The volcano is still warm from the eruption. There is one other volcano, called Helgafell, that last erupted six thousand years ago. Many hiking routes lead up to the island’s other mountains. Heimaey also has a swimming pool, a football pitch, and a golf course. It is possible to hire bikes, or boats, to further explore to archipelago, and have a close look at the many interesting caves, as well as the elephant rock.

Where can I stay?

There is a campsite at Heimaey, and also beautiful turf houses that can be hired out.

Turf house at Heimaey