Westman Islands: a story of suffering and wonder ;)

Published on 1 May 2023 at 08:35

A tale as memorable and fraught with trials and errors but conquered by sheer will and beauty deserves its own saga. So here I am to recount my tale, which in my opinion, could have done with a few less woes. 

It started on a dreary Saturday, I was driving away from the glaciers and diamond beach, a difficult parting, but even more so because of the four hours of driving in heavy rain which made me want to hibernate in the car and halted any dreams of wonderful scenic stops along the trip. I did stop at diamond beach on the way out which was beautiful but I was drenched by the time I left!

blue glacier ice!!

I did have one quick stop and Skool Beans Coffee shop, a unique cafe located in an old parked school bus at the base of a mountain in Vik. walking into the doors, I was greeted by the hum of clients waiting for their coffee, the clank of coffee cups as lattes were served, the sound of the espresso machine whirring, and the gentle crackle of the fire in a tiny wood-stove in the corner. I propped my feet up by the fire and enjoyed the heat seeping through the chilly air, and had a wonderful conversation with a couple from America while sipping my latte. 

so good to warm up after being very wet and cold

After that I was westbound again to catch the ferry departing from landeyjahofn at 6pm. I arrived a little early but there were no cars or ferry in sight which concerned me. I walked inside and was greeted by a lone worker behind the desk and glass. When i mentioned that I was there for the ferry he had a very confused look and told me that the ferry was not going out from the port today because of weather but if I wanted I could catch the ferry the next day out of a port an hour away. The downside is this other ferry took three and half hours instead of 45 min. The next day was Easter Sunday, and while I did not look forward to spending my Sunday morning on rough seas, I was determined to make it to westman islands. I reluctantly agreed and changed my ticket, and then found a gem of a guesthouse to stay at for the night (not super cheap but the wonderful family I met from India made the detour feel worth it). I departed early the next morning to catch the first ferry. Apparently people in Iceland know exactly what to do when driving your car on the ferry, because there was no instructions, and after I had driven on I wandered into the stairwell and got off on the first floor where I found a cafe. I set down my backpack, I didn't plan to buy any food their in case I got sea sick, but there was perfect view of the horizon and water by one of the tables. I was optimistic that I wouldn't get sea sick as we set out as I felt just fine for the first 15 min of the trip, Ha what a laughing matter that is now. As soon as the boat left calm waters I felt my nausea bubble up, but I stamped it back down, concentrated on the horizon like I was studying it for a test. This worked for a little while but then I realized i was hearing car horns below deck and all I could picture was cars rolling and slamming into my rental car as the waves tossed the boat. I had no idea if they secured the cars after we left, but I assumed they did not with how fast we left port. I realized to my continuing horror that I had not even thought to set the parking brake. All that ran through my mind and completely distracted me from my task of focusing on the horizon, and now the nausea had loomed its head so aggressively that no amount of focus to calm it. The sickness feeling spread to the tips of my toes to the top of my head and I had the alarming realization that I was loosing my sense of hearing (which for me is one of the final symptoms to loosing consciousness) The world felt fuzzy, and their was a ringing in my ears, I knew I had less than 5 minutes and I would pass out. So I started counting in my head to stay awake and blessedly found that if you tilt your head and rest it on you a bent arm while staring at the horizon and counting you can keep the black dots from spreading over your vision. I remained in that position for the rest of the trip for fear of moving would disrupt the little bit of calm I had found in my nausea- it pressed just outside of unbearable and I managed to not get sick the entire ride. Now I would like to add that I did see a whale at some point during this trip, but everything outside of pain being experienced seemed insignificant at the time. At one point I felt drowsy enough to lay my head down on my arm and slept for 15 intervals. The last hour of trip however became so volatile that the boat was tossed to and fro in the waves, upending people from their seats, and sending food and pots and dishes crashing to the ground in the kitchen and cafe. All I could do was hold on to the table and stare outside while I held back my nausea by sheer will power. Upon final arrival to the harbor I drove to the next hostel which was a capsule stay. It may have been cool if there were other people about with futuristic vibe, but I saw one soul there who departed quickly after my arrival. The pods were gaping open and the columns between dimly lit with black walls and ceiling, the common area was decorated with sterile black and white furniture with sharp edges and no cushion. I can only guess that the black paint was an attempt to hide the fact that you were in a basement with the only natural light being filtered through smudged glass in dining area. In the corners lay piles of old furniture and changing room stalls, the kind you would find in a department store. The place was so dreary and creepy that it felt like a graveyard of coffins. This is the part of the story that I interrupt your reading to remind you that its easter day, I'm still nauseas but now also slightly hungry because I have had nothing to eat all day. I still had some freeze dried chicken noodle soup which was actually perfect for my body at that moment and I ate that with some stale bread I had left over. After my mournful meal I recognized my emotional need to talk to a loved one. So I checked in with my brother Daniel and talked to him for about an hour. Just being able to hear his voice while I felt very alone and isolated lifted my spirits enough to determine that tomorrow was a new day and we would make the most of whatever it held. 

I woke up early the next morning packed my bags and was out of the hostel and in the fresh sea air with blue skies all around. Already the day felt so much more positive than the previous one. I drove around part of the island and walked over volcanic rock to a viewpoint where the sea glistened in the sunlight and the cliffs popped against the blue with vibrant warm tones.

I was meeting a kayaking group that morning so I drove to the parking lot and saw them readying the kayaks and gear down by the water. It was located next to a historic viking church that is popular on the island. My heart sang to see those kayaks and anticipation soared, I was so ready to get back into a kayak and explore. I walked down and was greeted by Rodrigo who gave me a bright smile and an introduction to his girlfriend Ava. One of their friends who was on the island for a couple months of work also showed up for the paddle. We loaded up and headed out, every dip and stroke of my paddle lighting my spirit. The conversation flowed from historical and scientific facts about the islands to the birds that inhabited it and the ecological work in the area. Rodrigo is and ecologist and works with tracking and counting the puffins each year with their migration; Ava works with the beluga whale sanctuary, which currently has two whales they are moving to more natural environment in the harbor after living in captivity. They both have multiple jobs and described some of what their days look like. It was a fun mix of information and also getting to know who they are and what they are passionate about. One common denominator of everyone I met in Iceland, is they all come for a short time and end up staying so much longer. The took me past the beluga whale sanctuary . Rodrigo said they will probably be staying in the little hut that is on the edge of the enclosure at some point. the harbor gets too hard to cross in rough water during certain seasons and the whales have to have a daily feeding. (you have to have a intensive boaters license from Iceland to drive a boat over 6 meters) We traversed crystal clear blue waters into deep sea caves below dramatic towering cliffs. while the birds swooped and squawked and splashed around us. Ava picked up some floating styrofoam which had escaped from the sanctuary and Rodrigo helped a boat in distress tie up to the rocks in one of the caves. The whole trip felt like a paddle and adventure with friends not a just a tour. 


Back at the launch point we talked about iceland, labor laws and holidays vs USA holidays and time off expectations, it was eye opening and surprising how different they are. They were so kind and offered that if the ferry couldn't get back the short way to let them know and I could come to their place for the night. I was so thankful for this offer because I did not want to back to the hostel I stayed at the night before! During our conversation I mentioned my seasickness on the trip there, and Rodrigo and I talked about how sometimes suffering makes the beautiful parts of a trip more worth it. That was a point that I had been contemplating with a book by A W Tozer, I summed it up as: All good stories need a little bit of suffering otherwise the tale would be a lot less interesting and not nearly so memorable!

the little hut they will be staying in if there is bad weather, apparently it has a bed and toilet and potentially some food??

Rodrigo helping the boat that was having motor issues

But my tale was not done surprising me yet! I went for a hike up home rock which is the highest point of the island, it juts way up into the sky leading to a grassy patch with sheer drop off cliffs on either side. The only way up is by wooden ladders chained to the cliff face and cable strung along the steeper areas where you can hold on where there is little foot room on the rocks. there are about 4-5 ladders along the ascent. Once passed these ladders the view backwards is breathtaking, blue ocean against a black sand beach and dry grassy mounds covering towering cliffs in every direction. Tan grass, rippling mounds of soft ground up steep slopes as you crest the top, sheep dotted along the edges of the trail were the views all overlooking a tiny little city far below. Every direction you turned in a circle filled me with wonder, endless sea to one side, tiny city on another, cliff faces dropping off into beach on another, and distant islands surrounded by ocean on another. But my favorite part was when I crested the top and looked over the volcanic formed island to a natural lagoon with the beluga whale sanctuary in the very hollow of the lagoon. I took in the bright turquoise water and ate a snack while taking some pictures, the guest book was also sealed in a metal locker that I opened to find a red leather journal that i signed. I found some cute little succulents that were hanging off the rock which made me so happy seeing their tiny little faces peaking out at me. I named one of them katla, and blanked on names for the rest, but at least one felt loved and seen!

At this point my phone was getting low on battery so I plugged it in to my portable charger, but as soon as I plugged it in an weird beeping alarm went off, and a message popped up saying I had water in my charging port. My phone was my GPS, internet to find when and where the ferry was leaving port, my communication (my mom was waiting for an update after the hike), and my means to contact my air bnbs. So now I had none of that my phone quickly lost the 5% battery it had. On the way down I saw a lamb that was so cute, I captured it with my camera instead of phone. Down at the parking lot a couple pulled in beside me, up till this point there had been no one on the hike with me. I asked if I could use their what's app to contact my mom since my phone was dead, and let her know what was going on and that I would be going dark for a little while. Right before my phone died I saw that the ferry was going out at 17:00 and it was the shorter 45 min trip! Which meant I had time to explore. Without a GPS I just drove around the island and ended up on road that took me into a giant bowl of a park surrounded by giant cliffs on 3/4 of the sides, there was trail that seemed to lead straight up to the sky, and I decided to try it. I made it to the ridge-line top and this height felt more dramatic because the ridge was narrower. looking one way the trail continued for the foreseeable distance in a straight line at the same elevation, to the right the trail led up a slope and then to rock jutting out way above me. I didn't know if I would have time to conquer the height but I had to try. This path was definitely less traveled and led up rock slides with frayed ropes tied together to help pull yourself up the slippery rocks. I was as much an arm workout as legs to make it up some places and I prayed that the knots in the rope would hold. I met a guy at the very top and we sat and took in the beautiful view in silence. A group of three Icelandic guys came up after and I asked if they knew the name of the hike I had just summited, they looked surprised that I had found my way up without even knowing where I was, they said it was called blue top and it was the second highest peak in Iceland (the first hike I did that day was the highest.)  I have pictures from this hike on my camera, at some point I will try to upload some of them here!


I made it back just in time to get to the ferry and load my car, remembering to put on my parking brake this time! I also remembered that I had a left over box of unused rice in my food bag so I dug that out and stuck my phone in it for the ferry ride to mainland. At this point I was just happy to be heading back and if my GPS didn't work than I would figure out what to do when that time came!

This time there was no nausea and the it was easy breezy trip back, pulling off the ferry I fired up my phone and tried plugging it in, and it worked!!!(at least for this time, it was not the end of my phone problems) but it held a charge for long enough to get my up to my next air bnb, which was a cozy camping pod, the kitchen at that sight was a bit of a disaster, but that's another story for another time ;)

I wouldn't have known what beautiful views were on the otherside of suffering if I hadn't tried, I wouldn't have met some amazing people if I had taken the easy way and skipped westman islands, I wouldn't have realized the mental durability I could possess if I hadn't fought nausea and loneliness for hours on end, I would have missed out on a solo adventure that challenged me mind and body-adventures aren't always easy but I have yet to experience one that wasn't worth it.

The box of rice that saved my phone

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Tracy Oblak
a year ago

Absolutely beautiful Julie. Your experience is amazing and thank you for sharing all the details! Adventurous souls & not all goes as planned, so good to see!