Day 2 |
Sep 08, 2010

Heimaey, Vestmanneayjar

By Sue Flood, General Naturalist

Co-ordinates: 63°26N, 20°16W
Weather: Extremely windy! Cloudy.

The day got off to a very blustery start, as Captain Alexander Golubev skillfully negotiated the very narrow, twisting entrance to the harbour of Heimaey, the largest of the Vestmann Islands, an entry made more hazardous by the 1973 eruption of the volcano Eldfjell.

Three buses with excellent local guides were awaiting our arrival at the dock to take us on a fascinating tour of this volcanic island. The guide on my bus, Unnar, was a lovely woman from Reykjavik who had married a local fisherman and settled here. She entertained us all with stories of her life in Heimaey where she works as tour guide, café owner and also raises sheep and smokes lamb for the local farmers. Clearly a very enterprising individual and an excellent source of knowledge; she kept us entertained for the morning!

Our first stop was at Sprangan to witness the skillful demonstration of rope swinging by a local youth. This sport evolved from the islanders’ tradition of egg collecting, which is still practiced to this day, where local men hop expertly along precipitous cliff ledges to collect birds’ eggs. It was very impressive, but I can happily say that I was not tempted to try this sport!

Next we drove along the Herjolfsdalur valley where we were able to see the ruins of old farmhouses, remains of the first Norse settlement on the Vestmann Islands, before heading along the narrow, winding road to the southernmost point of the island, where we all enjoyed a brief and blustery stop at this, Europe’s windiest point.

As we returned northwards, the road was festooned with foam from the tempestuous seas, and we were all relieved to know that our departure was going to be delayed until this evening to allow the weather to die down and avoid too rough a passage to Greenland.

Our tour continued, taking in the various highlights around the island, with its stunning scenery. I was particularly interested to visit the site of recent excavations to unearth houses buried by the eruption of Eldfjell, which has been nicknamed “Pompeii of the North”.

After lunch we walked into town for a fascinating screening of a documentary about the volcanic activity in the Vestmann Islands, which emphasized how the character of the local people had ensured that they had, against the odds, managed to bounce back from the incredible setback to their lives and livelihoods caused by the traumatic events of 1973.

Guests were then free to explore the town on foot for the afternoon and some walked to view the Skansinn wooden church, donated to the locals by the state of Norway to commemorate the millennium of Christianity in Iceland.

After a recap from the Expedition Team and briefing from Robin West, we enjoyed dinner in The Restaurant, after which I retired early, hoping for a calm night ahead!