Guest post: Writing and photos by Luca Danzi
Living in a 12 million people city for years, I often feel the need, almost physical, of loneliness: I have the urge to isolate myself from the rest of the world. In London, where I’ve been living for the last 10 years, there is almost no place where you are not annoyed by the traffic noise or by the sound of an ambulance screaming in the distance, by day or night.
I've always been fascinated by Iceland: a country in an unusual position, culturally and geographically close and faraway from Europe at the same time. With only 300,000 inhabitants, 2/3 of which are in Reykjavik area, it immediately seemed like a great destination for my hermit desire.
With a population density below the 3 people per square-kilometre, Iceland offers almost endless opportunity to explore remote areas. However my choice falls on what is considered one of the last wildernesses in Europe: the Hornstrandir peninsula, in the extreme northwest of the island, on that imaginary line that represents the Arctic Circle.
In the middle of nowhere, abandoned for decades, it is a place where men had to surrender to the bitterness of nature, to the incessant cold wind blowing from the nearby Greenland and an atmosphere as brutal as much as unpredictable.
The preparation is essential: on the peninsula there aren’t shops where you can buy food or hotels to find refuge in case of need, and there is no signal for telephone calls. There aren’t roads that connect this stretch of land with the rest of the West-Fjords, the only way to get to Hornstrandir is by boat from the nearby Isafjordur. You need to agree on your return trip with precision and, if you are not present at the meeting point at the agreed time, you are considered as missing: the coast guard is alerted and a rescue mission will probably be launched.
You must have a good tent and a winter sleeping bag (summer temperatures are generally between 0 and 10 degrees, sudden snowfalls are not uncommon), a sufficient supply of food and a camp stove, hiking boots and all the equipment needed for a winter hike: Goretex, thermal or merino wool clothing.
A good map and a compass are essential, although the latitude prevents an accurate detection of the magnetic axis, and it’s advisable to bring a GPS system.
You should remember to check a tides table, because parts of the coast can be crossed only when the tide is low: even if the interested areas are small and therefore the phenomena is not particularly insidious, having to swim in this cold water means dying of hypothermia in less than 2 minutes.
You can reach Isofjordur with a domestic flight from Reykjavik in 40 minutes. Once arrived in the city, I bought extra supplies and the fuel for cooking, and I then made an agreement with the West Fjords Tours agency to be taken to the peninsula.
Hornstandir had been settled between the late ‘800 and early '900, when several small fishing settlements were built along the coast. Over the time, however, even the ingenious Icelanders had to surrender to the harsh climate and the peninsula became uninhabited again in 1952, being officially declared nature reserve in 1975. Today, it is forbidden to build anything and only the descendants of the ancient inhabitants are allowed to renovate the ruins left by their ancestors.
I decide to start my journey from the old Latrar settlement, on the west coast, inhabited by 18 families until the 20s.
Following the old telegraph poles and what remains of a stony path, probably built with shots of dynamite, you reach the Hesteyri village.
This was the main "town" at the beginning of the 20thcentury; now only a dozen houses survive, used as holiday homes. The most famous building is known as "The Doctor's house", where in summer you can meet the few visitors, take a coffee, try one of the famous pancakes and exchange tips and experiences with other travellers.
I decide to pitch a tent in the only space unofficially used as campsite: a small portion of land with a beautiful view of the fjord. Nearby, a small abandoned cemetery, almost entirely covered by weeds that makes it become part of the landscape, absorbed by nature, in a parable that seems emblematic of these places. Some tombstones survive intacte. I read the names on them, looking at the dates I try to guess the lives of these people, probably simple but hard: some died young, other didn’t, all of them probably fought against the elements that certainly amplified the everyday difficulties, the wind, the long and cold winters, perhaps the loneliness.
The next morning I get up early and, to my surprise, I see a small arctic fox approaching curious. Its tail is still white after the long winter season. In Iceland, these animals are found only here and, as the hunt is obviously prohibited, their natural shyness is often won by an equally irrepressible curiosity about the intruders.
I start walking towards the northeast, in the direction of the Kjaransvikurskaro pass. There are still large areas covered with snow, but today is a beautiful sunny day. A few hundred meters after the doctor's house, I see the ruins of the old factory for the processing of whale meat, a symbol of the decadent recent past.
It 's a strange place, gloomy, almost spooky, like a painting by Friederich, almost a shrine to remember the harshness of the forces of nature.
There is no real path, but on clear days it is easy to find the way: all along the road there are tall pyramids of stones (Cairns) built no one knows exactly when, presumably by the first inhabitants of this peninsula, to move from one settlement to another when GPS didn’t exist: to get lost in these valleys should not have been a pleasant experience. Following "the streets of Cairns” is a bit like connect the dots in those puzzle games, but it' s also a way to trace the history of these places and of those who lived here: it’s like listening to the tale of an old storyteller.
After 5-6 hours of walking I find myself in front ot the sea. I descend to the foot of the fjord, where the ruins of an old farm can be barely seen. Livestock farming has always been a difficult activity in this area and it is probably one of the reasons why people decided to leave. The cold and the wind do not allow the grass to grow enough and transporting the animals every time from the mainland is exhausting and expensive.
I walk along an empty beach at the end of which I decide to stop and pitch a tent. There 's an eerie silence, broken only by the sound of the sea and the screams of the seagulls.
Two are the undisputed protagonists of my trip to Iceland: light and silence.
The experience of the cold light is intense and it’s simply amazing how it defines the landscape, so different from the warm light of the Mediterranean where I come from. And, above all, it’s impressive that here in summer it never gets dark: the sun sets at 1 am to rise again after a couple of hours, never stopping to light up the horizon.
Sometimes I slept in the afternoon and then got up and start walking at night, or read a book at 4 am with the sunlight: the time simply assumes a different connotation and both the body and the mind struggle to get used to the new rhythms.
Silence is the other key component of this Nordic wandering. A complete, surreal, inhumane silence so enveloping to be almost painful, because it prevents thoughts and feelings from going away. The mind is under its control and the loneliness that comes from it may seem overwhelming: I needed several days to be able to process these new moods.
The following days I continue to walk, now accustomed to the new environment that surrounds me. I hike through two snow-covered passes, closed until the week before my arrival: I have been lucky.
After 2 days of walking, I finally arrive at the Royal Horn, the group of cliffs to the farthest northeast of the peninsula. The landscape is breathtaking: waterfalls, streams that flow fast into the ocean, green fields that after the long winter can now blossom, huge groups of seagulls flying regardless of the human presence. I stop, I explore the area, it seems like being at the end of the world.
On the sixth day I get up early and head south this time, to the Veidileysufjordurfjord, where a boat is waiting for me at 5pm.
Arrived at the agreed meeting point in advance, I stop and think about the experience of the last few days. I walked about 100 kilometers through this beautiful but harsh land, always alone. I have always considered hiking like an extension of my thoughts or at least like a way of thinking from a different perspective.
I believe it was Nietzsche to have said that "All the great thoughts can be born only by walking."
I do not know if it's true, but definitely walking surrounded by nature helps to reach some form of meditation. Travelling alone has always been an essential experience for me, the best way to discover, define myself as a person, identify what I am and what I am not.
It's almost 5pm, other travellers who are going to take the boat with me are coming. We look at each other with a gaze of understanding, all aware to have visited an amazing place, maybe even to have learnt something.
Meanwhile, from a distance, punctual appears the shape of the boat that comes to pick us up.
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