“Party until the cows come home” is not just an expression—you can actually do it in Lake Myvatn, in northern Iceland. In fact, you can have breakfast with the cows too.
But first, Kim and I had to grind our molars through a sandstorm warning in the east fjords. A cheery cherub of a woman at the Hofn tourist info centre suggested, “If you see the sandstorm coming, just stop and wait before you continue driving.” Right, because sandstorms conveniently give you that kind of head’s up. This particular section of the Ring Road had been closed the day before, due to “sandfoki.” We were reassured that the worst stretch was only 0.2 to 1.4km long.
A few other windstorm-haggard travellers found their way into the tourist centre while we were there. Collectively, talk was about turning around and heading back along the south coast to Reykjavik. Our eavesdropping tourist info lady piped up: “The roads are closed in that direction as well. Oh, and if you are heading to Egilstaddir, the shortcut on 92 is closed as well…due to snowstorms.”
Fast forward through sheer cliffs, falling rock warning signs and HOT PRICKLES from a sudden blast of gravel as we entered the sandfoki zone (but managed to roar through, unscathed–muttering a few fokis en route). Enter BLINDING snowstorm, complete white-out conditions and fish-tailing with tractor-trailers.
By the time we reached Egilstaddir with hot dog and vodka gut rot, the Vinland Guesthouse in Fellabaer was like an oasis: non-stop hot water and a respite from shallow breathing for four hours. Though the shower was heavy on the sulphur (I swear all of Iceland was built upon a giant egg salad sandwich), the good and starchy towels and highly efficient thermostat in our room were welcome. It was still spitting snow outside when our guesthouse host, coincidentally an air traffic controller at Egilstaddir, informed us that the road ahead of us was closed and impassable due to snow.
While mixing numbing vodka concoctions to quell our nerves, we heard a tentative knock on our door. Two ‘representatives’ from the girl pack staying next to us had come to ask for help. From Mekong, Hong Kong, nobody in the group had ever driven in snow—did we have any tips? Kim gave a spontaneous and colourful lesson half in charades to the reps—and to the rest of the women who poked curious heads out of the door adjacent to us. It was a SNL sketch—questions coming at all angles in rapid Chinese, Kim driving an imaginary 4×4 to demo, pumping an equally imaginary brake pedal.
On our left, we had two jovial Brits—accustomed to Iceland’s unpredictable weather as they had been to the area over a dozen times. Every hour or so, with a ciggie in hand, the Brit wife would pad over with her iPad and a weather report that we would extend to the Hong Kong girls. They had already been storm-stayed two nights, and we resigned ourselves to the same fate. We tried deciphering the local news on TV—we could only guess whether the Icelandic words were indicating Mon-Tues-Wed or wind-temp-snow. What we were able to translate regarded the sheep. They were already being herded down from the mountains to avoid last year’s disaster when an early blizzard left 12,000 sheep trapped.
We slept like the dead after a very fancy dinner of canned tuna, butter crackers and a wheel of gouda in bed. By the time I had come back from a crisp suburban run through Egilstaddir in the morning, the Hong Kong convoy had left. Our air traffic controller and the smoking Brit meteorologist said the roads west of us would be clear by noon. Besides, Kim grew up driving up and down the Hamilton mountain—surely this northern pass would be a cinch!
Scene: ochre dirt, bleached grasses, neon green and scarlet lichens
Scene 2: Ansel Adams territory, reindeer tracks in virgin snow, snow-saddled summits reminiscent of our mighty Rockies
Scene 3: snaking gorges, cantering peg-legged sheep, an impossibly blue sky, Icelandic horses en masse
It was my birthday. 39. I’ve been privy to some exceptional far-flung birthdays (Galapagos–Uganda–Alexandria, Egypt)…but spending it in Lake Myvatn? I couldn’t design a better birthday—we found a top-notch bird museum (where you can rent duck blinds for serious duck observation), tromped through the spooky lava fields at Dimmuborgir, poked around bubbling mud pots and smokin’ fumaroles in Hverir (scratch and sniff scent here: egg salad sandwiches), had a solid feed of smoked arctic char on dense rye bread and pints of Kaldi at cozy Gaemil Baernin (the loaves of rye are baked in the geothermal ovens of the ground!), hiked a crater rim that made us both pant from the elevation and capped it off with a geothermal soak just 100km south of the Arctic circle. Oh, and throw in some Northern Lights for good measure.
Kim and I made an executive decision to skip the Blue Lagoon in Reykjavik—the epicentre of most travellers’ Iceland itineraries. But, take away the obnoxious crowds, visualize a killer sunset and an infinity hot pool overlooking Lake Myvatn and the Hverfjall crater– and you can nod in agreement as to why.
Steam billowed off the surface of the 104 degree waters at Myvatn Nature Baths (geothermal water is pumped from 2,500m below). The steam clouds were so thick that we felt alone—despite the hushed German, Spanish and Chinese conversations surrounding us. We retraced our day with laughter and watched the dropping sun catch the sky on fire.
Home base was with the cows at Vogafjos Guesthouse. Owned by the same family since 1890, the manure-heady air reminded me of childhood. The guesthouse opened in 2005, after the new ‘Cowshed Cafe’ and its picture-window dairy shed received unexpected fanfare in 1999. With over a hundred sheep and 40 cattle, we were truly partying until the cows came home.
Inside our swank guesthouse I unfolded and highlighted maps. I read bits about the whale museum in Husavik and lake trails in Dalvik aloud to Kim while she rinsed and hung our wet swimsuits. As the sky grew darker I continued to hop up and peer out our window, feeling certain that we’d witness the aurora borealis that night. Amongst the lava on the Vogar farm, there was a desert-like stillness at night. Cue up a solitary loon on Myvatn and that was the only noise pollution to be had.
“COME! LOOK!” I unexpectedly hollered.
Kim followed my lead, both of us stuffing shoes on and running out the door. We had seats to the best drive-in theater going. Milky bands and waves of white and soft emerald rolled across the sky. For fifteen solid minutes we refused to leave our post. Shivering and thrilled, we held strong to watch the Northern Lights as we knew the show would soon be washed out by the rising moon.
But of course, it’s like finding money on the sidewalk. You get obsessive! I couldn’t stop looking out the window, waiting for an encore.
The rest of the night was spent with window-checks. Both of us agreeing that if another show took to the sky during the night that we’d wake the other.
Happy birthday indeed. Round that out with breakfast with the cows. Watching them be milked as we shared plates of skyr (like a thick Balkan yogurt), figs, dates, cashews, big hunks of edam, brie and gouda, smoked lamb and char, split hard-boiled eggs and rye bread studded with dried fruit.
Oh yeah, a bespoke kick-off to 39.
*Extra tidbit: The bird museum in Lake Myvatn is a lovely tribute to Sigurgeir Stefansson who drowned in the lake at the age of 37. The museum (housed in a traditional turf home with a modern uptake) is Stefannson’s private taxidermy and outstanding egg collection.
Wanna sleep with the cows? Check out Vogafjos www.vogafjos.net ($130/night includes breakfast and sometimes, the Northern Lights)