HVALFJORDUR, Iceland- From our position at the mouth of a river running into the fjord at the tail end of a hard day of traveling, both Pierre and I needed to find a place to camp. It was not looking good, signs were posted everywhere saying “no camping.” We would have to look elsewhere for a place to set up camp. No sites were around, tonight we would be camping on the sly — camping for free.
Sitting down next to me on the picnic table near a river running into Hvalfjordur — Whalefjord — after hitching a ride with two girls, Pierre broke out his own cheese sandwich. Only his had meat on it too. I thought of the fact that I had considered leaving as a gift one of my plain, deficient cheese sandwiches for this guy who not only had cheese but meat with him. I laughed, thinking how my gift would have been like handing someone a beef jerky when they were eating steak. Um, thanks, but, uh . . .. I had rode my bicycle to this point from Reykjavik, and Pierre walked and hitched. We met up previously on the road.
Read Reykjavik to Hvalfjordur by Bicycle for this story.
Now, to find a place to sleep for the night. No campsites were anywhere near us, it was obvious that we would have to camp on the sly. Pierre walked over to the river and read the signs that were posted around it. In half a dozen languages, they all read: “This is the best salmon fishing area in Iceland. Do not go by the river bank or disturb the fishermen. No camping.” Additional “no camping” signs were posted all around without the additional warnings about disturbing fish.
“That sign says that we can’t camp here,” Pierre stated, but he then proceeded to look for a place to camp in bold defiance. “So many possibilities,” he said. It seemed to me that he was nervous about where he would bed down, or perhaps he was too tired to bother thinking about it too hard. This guy had just climbed a huge snow covered mountain and then walked 20 km down a busy highway on this day.
I began packing up my bike to get moving on to find a place to sleep myself. I wasn’t going to bother trying to camp in the prohibited area by the river — the landscape in Iceland is wide open, there are few places to hide, even less trees, and, at this time of year, no cover of night. I did not want to go through the rounds of setting up my tent just to be told that I would have to pack it all up and leave. I would just go and camp somewhere else, somewhere far from “the best fishing river in Iceland,” where it didn’t matter if I disturbed the fish.
Then something overcame me: I didn’t want to leave my new friend of the Way. I’ve been in similar circumstances dozens of times throughout the world — I knew what to do here.
“Hey, I’m going to ride up to those farmhouses up there to see if I can get a farmer to give us permission to camp in one of these fields. I’ll be right back,” I said to the French tramp.
I rode up a hill and off to the farms. It was quiet up there, the houses all looked deserted, though it was only around 9 PM and Icelanders tend to stay outside late during the summer months when it is not raining. The driveway leading to the farm roads that the homes were on was long, I thought about the possibility of being shot as I pushed my bicycle up it. I went to one house that looked a little less destitute that then rest, knocked on the door, nothing but the barking of dogs answered. I peered in through a window to find the place gutted and full of dogs going nuts with defensive rage. I moved on to the next house.
Slowly pushing my bike to a big, red, ranch style house, I noticed a light on in a workshop in the back. I went towards the light like a moth in the night. Halfway there I saw a head pop up in a window. It was old, wrinkly, and had a crumpled up hat plopped sideways upon it. The farmer. I waved — what else was there to do?
To my relief, he waved back, smiled even.
I went to the door of the workshop, there was a row of cows bedded down in an a space that looked as if it was made to be a car garage. I met a girl who looked to be in her early twenties decked out in sweat pants and a t-shirt as I approached.
“Hello, I am traveling with my friend and we are wondering if you know of a place where we can camp for the night?”
“I don’t know,”she replied,” but that man in there can definitely tell you,” she said while pointing inside the workshop. She then yelled into the workshop, announcing my intentions to the farmer in Icelandic. He finishes up what he was doing, and I talk with the girl.
“Do you live here?”
“No, I am just working here for two weeks. I am from somewhere else. Hyaerhaeoafanaboajkerralfjord.”
“Oh, do you get paid for working here?”
“No, I just stay here and work, volunteer.”
The farmer comes out. Old, thin, opaque blemishes upon the skin of his face and hands, he introduced himself as Kristinn. We shook hands. I asked if he knew of a place to camp. He said that he didn’t. I asked if we could camp on his land. He thought about it, hesitated.
“I don’t know, we don’t have this organized,” he finally spoke.
“That is OK, we just need a place to pitch our tents. We are very simple travelers. We don’t need anything more than a little land.”
I thought I was being turned down, and revved up the smiles and good graces. It seemed to have worked.
“So you just need some flat land then?”
“Yes, that is all we need, just a place to set up our tents for the night.”
“I don’t know,” he replied, “we have cows here, so you can’t sleep here.”
“We will go anywhere.” I kept at it, knowing that there was someplace we could set up a couple of tents on this farm.
After thinking about the predicament with his head down for a moment, Kristinn looked up at me quickly with a big smile on his face:
“Ok,” he spoke, “you can go down in the field with the cut hay. There is flat land there, with no cows.”
I thanked him, we shook hands again, and then we began our departure moves — waving and such. But then the farmer doubled back and took a few steps towards me.
“Are you from Britain?” he asked.
“No, I’m from the USA.”
“Farther up north they are having some bad weather, it is very cold,” he continued.
“Yes, Iceland is having its worst summer weather in 60 years, right?”
“Yes we are,” Christian proclaimed, “I don’t know where all of this global warming is,” he joked. Laughs.
“Did you live here your entire life, were you born here?” I then asked.
“Yes, I will never get away from here,” he said with smiling gusto, and we laughed again.
He then told me a little about his farm: 60 milk cows, hay, mountains, all on the bank of the “best salmon fishing river in Iceland,” hugging a large fjord firmly.
“This place is really beautiful,” I said.
“Yes, it is the land of the wind.”
“Yes! I know,” I proclaimed. “Wind” is a buzz word for the bicycle traveler in Iceland, it is the adversary of our days, an arch enemy perhaps. “It is very difficult to ride a bike here,” I spoke, “this [pointing to my baggage] acts as a big sail in the wind.”
“Yes, I can see that,” Kristinn replied, “but it will make you very strong.”
“Yes, I will get strong just in time to leave Iceland.”
We laughed, then parted ways with smiles and waves.
I returned to the French tramp at the picnic table down by the river and told him that we have permission to camp.
“The farmer’s name is Kristinn,” I told him, “so if any locals give us problems for going on the land just tell them that he gave you permission to camp there. This is important.”
“That is OK,” Pierre spoke, “just so they don’t come after me with guns.”
We walked over the the hay field, entered through an access road, and began looking for a place to set up our tents.
“So what campsite number are we?” Pierre joked.
“I think he said we are in site number 24, next to the bathrooms and the swimming pool.”
A perfect night. The wind stopped blowing and the clouds cleared. A translucent orage, red light filled the sky — like the light that shines through the translucent red paper of a Chinese New Year’s lantern. I look out the slit in the opening of my tent, and smiled as my broken zipper had provided me with a great view of a bright green, freshly cut hay field, bails tightly rolled and standing in proper order, set against a background of sharply rising cliffs, snow capped mountains, and a river running wild with salmon. The stillness of the scene seemed permanent, there was no indication that anything would ever move or that it had ever had moved before. I laid still, just looking out at this painting. I felt as a piece of crud stuck on an otherwise perfect picture — something that is not suppose to be there that has clung to the surface. But I thoroughly enjoyed my position, stuck upon a perfect scene of beauty, in a place where happenstance, chance, and, perhaps, a touch f serendipity lead me.
This roll of the proverbial dice, the hands off free fall into probability and possibility is a big part of the underlying essence of travel.
It all worked out this night in Iceland, as the French tramp and I camped in the hay field. Nobody could ask for more from travel. I stretched out my sore legs in my tent, massaged my thighs, calves, hamstrings, rolled my ankles and drifted off into the picture that I found myself in. A perfect sleep until the sound of the best salmon fishing river in Iceland woke me gently in the morning.