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Open Features: Puffins' Paradise

...Late summer throbbed and hummed all around as our ship nudged the harbour wall, shuddered gently, and was still. Iceland, at last, with Ìsafjarđardjúp bay stretching out calm, silken and misty before us...

Jacqueline Dowling brings a shining word portrait of a magnificent country and its wildlife.

South Africans travel, regardless it seems, of whether the Rand is in free fall or simply taking extended sick leave. This South African removed head from sand one August morn' and headed towards the Arctic in search of puffins.

'Why Iceland?' our friends asked. 'It's so far away.'

And it is. Right at the top of the world. Remote and wildly magnificent.

Which is precisely why we chose it as our destination. After all, hadn't master adventurer Riaan Manser and rookie Dan Skinstad just circumnavigated Iceland, on a kayak, against all odds? And they saw lots of puffins...and lots of water. It seemed a good choice.

The sea was flat, milky green. Mountains echoed with the sound of rushing waterfalls which hovered and fell in drifts of spume to the ledges below. Gliding through a fjord in the early dawn, cliffs on either side of the ship catching stray skeins of first light, a tiny figure appeared standing by a tiny tent, orange and solitary. Beside it, on the lava, lay a kayak.

Late summer throbbed and hummed all around as our ship nudged the harbour wall, shuddered gently, and was still. Iceland, at last, with Ìsafjarđardjúp bay stretching out calm, silken and misty before us.

The weather was perfect. Boats glided over craggy inlets gnawed into shorelines over millions of years in this isolated area, the Vestfirđir peninsula- West Fjords, edge of the Arctic. There can be few places on earth with scenery as untamed, spectacular and glorious than Iceland; nature in all its raw splendour. In spite of its name, Icelandic winters are relatively mild and the summers cool, due to the presence of the Gulf Stream along parts of the coastline.

Across the bay towering mountains and volcanos shouldered into the light. Snowfields gleamed in hollows and seals flopped their way across pebbly beaches, somnolent and fat. Behind the town, waterfalls cascaded down mountainsides, the sibilence of their fall echoing from the crags. The sky was alive with seabirds wheeling, screeching as we boarded our craft in the small fishing harbour and set sail for the magic of Vigur Island.

Approached from the sea, Ísafjorđur, quaintly prosperous, and the largest town in the West Fjords, appears as a colourful ribbon on a spit of land dwarfed by towering mountains. The rock in this region dates back fourteen to fifteen million years, and is the largest part of the Icelandic landmass. Some locals feel isolated and trapped by these rocky walls; others, protected and energised.

I asked our guide how she coped with the long dreary winters.

'It's not a problem' she replied. 'It's a time for getting cosy and romantic, then we forget the weather...'

A thirty minute boat trip took us to Vigur, home to the last windmill in Iceland, the smallest post office in Europe, and thousands of sea birds. It's an enchanted place; the little grey wooden windmill perched on a hillock, looking for all the world like a character from The Wizard of Oz, toothless mouth agape in a dozy yawn, little eyes watching, expectantly. Built two hundred years ago, it last ground corn in 1915. A great peace lay over the island; sea-polished pebbles lined the shore in water so clear it seemed to blend into infinity. Delicate strands of seaweed, amber, indigo and rust floated gently on the tide and everywhere the calls and cries of birds filled the pockets of silence and beckoned us on.

Clutching white flags on sticks, our protection against dive-bombing arctic terns, we hiked along the coastal path of the tiny 2km x 400m island. Hundreds of puffins bobbed like dumpy barrels in evening dress, on the calm water.

Ruminating calves lay in lush pasture, everything washed in the purity of the air. A farming family has lived here for generations, protecting, nurturing the birds and environment; harvesting down from the abandoned eiderduck nests after the birds have flown.

It didn't take long for the terns to attack. Fearless, they came at us like Stukas, screaming and wheeling, diving at heads, camera lenses and hats – a scene straight from Hitchcock. The flags were pretty useful as they provided a target above head height for the cruel, stabbing blood-red beaks and, with vigorous arm flailing and flag waving, we managed to pass through their breeding colony more or less unscathed.

Summer flowers starred the grass; buttercups ankle deep, wild geranium and sea thrift. Tiny mottled fledgelings waited expectantly under grassy tussocks for their next meal; we trod carefully, as speckled eggs, well camouflaged, covered ground riddled with puffin burrows. Coppery lichened rock stacks provided platforms from which puffins launched themselves into rapid dives, emerged with beaks full of sand eels. Ricocheting off the rocks, they missiled back to their burrows, delivered the goods to hungry pufflings, and returned for yet another exhausting display of frantic flapping and appalling aerodynamics. Yet they are possibly one of the few bird species that walk, fly and swim – and form part of the national cuisine.

'One for a lady, two for a gentleman,' preferably served with wild berry sauce.

There are approximately ten million of these little sea clowns in Iceland, they mate for life and produce one egg each year. Their brilliantly coloured red, blue and yellow beaks can hold at least twelve sand eels at each dive; the record being sixty two. And all this to feed one puffling which is eventually left food-less for a week, scrambles out of the burrow and starts the whole process of fishing all over again. Puffins use their beaks as picks and their feet as shovels during their burrowing and, being old fashioned in manners, the male makes gifts of grass and feathers to the female to line her nest. Any subterranean growls during this process are strictly puffinesque and not incipient volcanic eruptions.

The short summer was almost over. Scents of late pasture, wild flowers and sea lulled our senses as the early northern Autumn cast its spell in the tiny island. Bird cries filled the sky, whirling spirals of gulls, auks, puffins and guillemots fiercely protecting their breeding grounds. Soon they would launch their fledgelings and head south. Which is what we did, leaving this puffin paradise with memories and images of an exceptional and unique experience.


© Jacqueline Dowling


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