Iceland: Go with the flow in the shadow of a volcano

Iceland's lava-strewn Westmann Islands, home to an abundance of seabirds, are about to get easier to reach.

Icelanders may not excel at accountancy, but they can certainly multi-task. With a population of 320,000 keeping a country of nearly 40,000 square miles running (just about), it's no surprise that juggling two or three jobs is the norm here. More impressive is the sheer diversity of skills each individual seems to master. On a recent trip, I met chefs who also designed artful furniture, philosophers who moonlighted as business start-up advisers, and film-set designers who also turned their hand to hotel management.

Winner of the award for the most unlikely blend of expertise, though, was "Captain Simmi". Sigurmundur Gisli Einarsson, to give him his real name, navigates tourists out to watch birds off the coast of the Westmann Islands, an archipelago of 11 islands six miles off the mainland's southwest coast. And this salt- and sun-weathered Icelander combines skippering with playing the saxophone.

We puttered slowly out from the harbour of Heimaey for our 90-minute tour. Heimaey is the biggest island in the Westmann group, and the only island that's inhabited. In a voice as gravely as the surrounding volcanic landscape, Simmi pointed out kittiwakes, fulmars, razorbills, guillemots and the site where Keiko, the star of Free Willy, was cared for during an unsuccessful attempt to return him to the wild. The biggest attraction, however, was the islands' colony of puffins.

"There are four to six million puffins nesting on the Westmann Islands each year," Simmi told us. "That's 20-30 per cent of the global population. If you include the rest of the country, Iceland is home to 52 per cent of the world's population." As we watched the comic creatures bob in the water, manx shearwaters and great skuas ogled their feathery prey from above.

There was no time to hang around and see if dinner would be served, though. Simmi turned the boat to slip into a giant sea cave, and then suddenly pulled out his sax. "I want to show you how good the acoustics are," he said, before launching into a jazz version of Besame Mucho. From out of the sharp Icelandic light we'd been steered into a place of reverberating gloom and stillness where, just for a moment, local tales of trolls and elves didn't seem so far-fetched.

As we drifted back towards the harbour, there was chance to get up close to the island's towering sea cliffs and the coats of white guano they were wearing. "People think the birds are dirty because there's poop everywhere," chuckled Simmi, "but actually they're clever. The white poop reflects the sun, keeping the rocks cool so the birds never get too hot."

Considering he lives on the Westmann Islands, Simmi is unexpectedly carefree. Unexpectedly because – vast number of puffins aside – Heimaey's main claim to fame is its part in two of the biggest disasters in Iceland's history.

The first, in the 17th century, entailed three pirate ships from the Ottoman-controlled Barbary Coast raiding the island, killing many of those who resisted and taking half the residents to Algiers as slaves. More recently, though, the island came under attack from a more natural aggressor. In 1973, a volcanic eruption destroyed one third of the island's houses, covered another third with ash and created a new mountain, Eldfell ("Fire Mountain").

However, thanks to bad weather the previous day, almost the entire fishing fleet was in Heimaey's harbour the night the volcano erupted. This meant that evacuation of the island's population could be swift. Only one person died: a sailor who was overcome by fumes while looting a pharmacy.

As we returned to Heimaey, we could make out Eyjafjallajokull on the mainland. The volcano whose eruption caused so much recent air-travel chaos was hiccupping out occasional puffs of black steam. I suggested that it must be an uneasy sight for residents, but Simmi shrugged: "Volcanoes are not scary to us. We're used to them in Iceland."

While many Icelanders will say the same, some obviously like things a little less hot. Back in the harbour, at Café Kro (another of Captain Simmi's ventures), we watched a film about the 1973 eruption. From it we learnt how pioneering work had been done pumping eight million tons of sea water at the flow of lava to stop it reaching – and closing up – one of the biggest fishing ports in Iceland. It worked. The harbour was saved, and four out of five residents returned to the island – the first people started moving back in only eight months after the eruption. The remainder, aware that an eruption had happened just offshore 10 years previously and formed the island of Surtsey, decided they didn't want to risk living on such an obviously active fault line and left for good.

Today around 4,500 people live on Heimaey. The island's history makes it a popular tourist destination among Icelanders. However, with blowing geysers, superlative waterfalls and lava-hot nightlife to detain foreign visitors on the mainland, a relatively small number of overseas tourists make it to the Westmann Islands.

All that is set to change. On Wednesday, 21 July, a new and cheaper ferry link begins from the port of Bakki – close to Landeyjahöfn, two hours by road south-east of the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik. The port is directly opposite the Westmann Islands, with a voyage of just half an hour. That makes a day trip from Reykjavik feasible. And there's an added incentive as well: the publication in English of crime writer Yrsa Sigurdardottir's novel Ashes To Dust, which is set in Heimaey.

The book includes a wealth of detail on Westmann life (with added grisly intrigue). There's the annual August festival, for example: for one weekend, hundreds of white tents are put up on the island's golf course (built in a crater) and filled with sofas, pictures and anything else the locals bring with them to make their canvas bases more homely. There's even a passage in the book about going out on a boat trip with an eccentric skipper. But the most dramatic scenes are played out around Sudurvegur, a street lined with ash-covered houses that is dubbed locally as "the Pompeii of the North".

After the real-life eruption, many of the streets around the harbour were covered in ash. As you walk through the town today marker posts show how deep the ash was in various locations. That the ash was cleared up in record time is testament to the determination of local residents. Sudurvegur, however, was so deeply buried that the 10 or so houses here were left untouched until excavations began in 2005.

Funding issues mean that the street remains only partially excavated. But walking along Sudurvegur is an eerie enough experience to make it worth exploring.

You can scramble in half an hour from Sudurvegur to the top of the new mountain, Eldfell, and up again to the 283m-high summit of Heimaklettur, the island's highest point. From here the destruction wreaked by the 1973 eruption becomes clear. A black tongue of lava rolls out over the northeast corner of the island, ending in an ugly giant lick at the waterside.

From the top of Heimaklettur you can just make out Heimaey's cemetery. A photograph of its entrance archway became a headline image during the eruption, when its inscription "I live and you shall live" was all that poked out above the ash that had coated the graves behind it. Much easier to spot, however, is the vast swathe of reconstruction that has taken place since the eruption. Heimaey's multi-skilled inhabitants are making the most of life.

Getting there

*Rhiannon Batten travelled with Discover the World (01737 214250; ), which offers similar four-night trips from £749 per person, based on two travelling. This includes return Icelandair flights (0844 811 1190; ) from Heathrow, Manchester or Glasgow to Keflavik airport, transfer to Reykjavik, hotels, three days' car rental and return ferry crossings.

*To travel independently, Iceland Express (0118 321 8384; ) competes with Icelandair, flying from Gatwick and Stansted to Keflavik.

*The new ferry, run by Eimskip (00 354 525 7700; ), starts on 21 July, with fares from ISK2,000 (£10.50) return.

*Buses from Reykjavik to Landeyjahöfn (00 354 551 1166; ) take two hours and cost ISK6,200 (£33) return.

Staying there

*Hotel Porshamar (00 354 481 2900; ). Doubles start at ISK17, 200 (£90), including breakfast. The hotel also manages the island's youth hostel, where dorm beds cost ISK3,100 (£16).

Getting around

*The island is only five square miles so you can easily walk around it. Captain Simmi's boat trips (00 354 861 4884; ) cost ISK3,900 (£20.50).

More information

*Westmann Islands:

*Icelandic Tourist Board: 00 354 535 5500;

sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Rooney celebrates with striker-partner Radamel Falcao after the pair combine to put United ahead
footballManchester United vs Newcastle match report
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - Bedfordshire/Cambs border - £32k

    £27000 - £32000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Application Support Analyst - near S...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all