You ain't seen puffin yet
By Paul Oswell
“Boat tour is cancelled. Have a soup.”
As welcomes go, it was certainly succinct. And unarguably informative. And it involved an invitation to dine so it was hard to fault, really.
A small group of us were gathered in the Kro Café, the hip, hot and happening social centre of Heimaey, the largest island in Vestmannaeyjar - the Westman Islands to you and me.
Three hours previously, we had left Reykjavik on a day’s expedition to see the island and its famous puffin colony. Our guide, Ludwig, was evidently the strong, silent type, and had hardly breathed a word on the two-hour drive south to the port, where we caught a new, high-speed ferry service to Heimaey.
The sea had been what’s known as ‘a little bit choppy’ on the 45-minute crossing, and the captain showed no little skill in threading the boat through the towering needles of rock that jut out around the island’s harbour.
As we disembarked and regrouped, Ludwig decided that the weather would be too much for the tour boat, and we would have to forgo the puffin spotting in favour of a short film about the island and, apparently, a soup.
An American woman - she must really have had her heart set on seeing puffins - started to cry. “What can I say?” offered Ludwig. “It’s Iceland.”
Despite the apparent lack of empathy, Iceland does specialise in inclement weather, a risk you need to factor into any excursion. But still, we were in a warm café with all the soup we could slurp - so most of us were happy to settle down to a nice film.
It turned out to be a disaster flick, albeit one with a happy ending. In January 1973, the resident volcano decided to announce its presence to the world and started pumping out lava while at the same time opening up rifts of earth that weren’t previously there.
This was seen as somewhat of an inconvenience to the 5,000 inhabitants, who were relying on their island being lava-free so that they could go about their daily business. By some miracle, all of them were safely evacuated thanks to the timing of the eruption coinciding with all the fishing boats being in dock.
The eruption lasted six months, after which half the town was covered in lava and ash and the other half was saved by some ingenious diversion tactics. Fast forward 30 years and there were small mountains where fields previously lay.
The tale told, Ludwig led us out to another tour bus, which he said would take us around the island in lieu of the boat tour. The group cheered and the American woman smiled.
We drove away with our new guide, who had a broken arm and a nice line in witticisms, to take in Heimaey’s famous landmarks. First stop: the windiest spot in Europe (and the fourth windiest in the world). Yes, it was mildly breezy. You could lean into it and stay held up at an impossible angle.
Next, we drove up to the volcano and walked for a few minutes up brick-red lava hills which were the ocean just 37 years ago. It was like walking on Mars, and we found a pocket in the hill into which we put our hands and felt the residual heat. Our guide revealed that islanders sometimes bake bread in the pockets.
We heard about the visiting president of Finland, who wanted to try the bread. The person responsible for baking the bread forgot to put in the dough, but called the mayor to say that he had bought some from the store and that the president would never be able to tell the difference. When the bread came out however, it was sliced. How they laughed, presumably.
We ventured further along the coastline, past some hills “where the puffins would be if they were still here”. Apparently they had left - without anyone’s permission - a few days earlier. An American lip trembled.
The finale of the tour is a walk around what’s known as The Pompeii of the North. This is an eerie section of the town that is half covered in solidified lava and ash, roofs peaking out of the slopes, and houses preserved underneath the flow. It’s quite a strange experience. Even though you know that no one died, there’s a ghost-like quality to it, a picture of a past life that somehow exists in the present.
Back at Kro Café, Ludwig has another announcement. “The 3pm ferry is cancelled,” he tells us. “We will get the 9pm ferry, I hope.” At least he was branching out into multiple sentences. I didn’t even want to check how the American was reacting.
The delay gave us the chance to wander around the centre of Heimaey. There’s a small museum that has more information about the volcano (which is called Eldfell - much easier for English newscasters to pronounce than Eyjafjallajökull).
There’s also something that is optimistically called an aquarium. It is itself fairly interesting in that it contains most of the species of marine and bird life that populate the island, the qualifier being that they are all stuffed and mounted in glass cases, save a few dingy tanks with some solitary fish milling about.
My girlfriend and I head back to the Kro Café for some warming, er, wine, and a chat with the owner, who is effortlessly matching Scandinavian stereotypes and actually does resemble a Viking. Gradually, the rest of the group arrive.
Ludwig is grimacing. This can’t be good. “9pm ferry is cancelled. We stay here tonight.”
This does cause, as you can imagine, some remedial kerfuffle, but Ludwig heads off to arrange accommodation for us all, phone calls are made to hotels and airlines, and everyone straps themselves in for a bonus night in the Westman Islands. We take no chances and buy another bottle of wine.
The B&B is perfectly comfortable and welcoming to its unexpected guests, and after a good night’s sleep and a hearty breakfast (although I did hear the American woman complaining that the muesli was “too salty”), we’re feeling sun on our faces again, looking out over calm seas and stepping back onto the ferry. Even Ludwig seems in good spirits.
“Well, that was a little adventure,” we tell him. “What can I say?” he says. “It’s Iceland.” Only this time, he’s smiling.