To get to Dyrhólaey, we had driven up a winding rock road onto the mainland, an enormous mountain bordering the ocean. There we found a lighthouse and a flattened patch of grass, which served as a makeshift parking lot for the dozen or so rental cars and tourist buses eager to visit the adjoining peninsula. The edge of this cliff mainland provided an incredible panorama, a preamble to the view from Dyrhólaey: The coastline stretching west, Mýrdalsjökull to the north and the bright blue North Atlantic Ocean reaching impossibly far towards the southern horizon. Looking east, I saw for the first time Dyrhólaey looming in its entirety. Below it, the cliffs cast an ominous shadow that, from time to time, swallowed the eider ducks and ducklings splashing in the water below its gate.
The headland is thought to have been created from an underwater volcanic eruption late in the ice age. Stretching off the country’s south coast, the promontory has a giant circular gap in the centre of its base from which it draws its name, meaning literally “door hill island”.
From a few hundred metres away, the cliffs of Dyrhólaey looked nothing less than deadly. Rising a full 120 metres out of the ocean, the steep rock stretched daringly out into a peninsula, shunning the grassy mainland, and, somehow, the bright rays of the sun.
As I drew nearer, following a dirt path towards the cliff, the horizontal landscape slowly began to lose its gloomy vibe. I saw that the mainland connects to the skinny peninsula in a broad embrace, the grass spilling over onto it and the rounded lava formations that constitute its rock floor. The space on the top of the peninsula was broad and bright, and soft moss, covering much of the brown rock, stood in stark contrast to the jagged rocks hanging just below.
In a surreal way, this place was peaceful. In fact, in the span of ten minutes, I had managed to forget all about the deadly drop that awaited me over the ever-near edge and the fact that a few metres below my feet there was a giant hole.
I half-crawled over to the edge of the cliff to peek at the drop-off. Below me the rock curved into a concave bulge, then plunged in a perfectly vertical line downwards. The ocean below, a lighter shade of blue from up here, looked enormous. I threw a rock as hard as I could against the wind, and, steadily plummeting, it quickly escaped my eye and earshot before even coming close to the water. Looking to my right, I caught sight of my first Dyrhólaey bird. About ten metres down was a small shelf of rock, where the sun, touching nothing else, cast a warm spotlight on a fulmar nestling next to a small bouquet of white flowers growing out of the side of the cliff. For a moment, looking at that bird, I found the cliffs of Dyrhólaey charming... a very short moment, before I remembered that I had neither wings nor superhuman powers, and that being shit-free was not enough to qualify something as cute. This was, after all, still a jagged death plunge. I inched my way towards safer ground, and sat down on the strangely comforting, and soft, dirt.
A few metres ahead of me flew a seagull, resting heavily against the wind. He was soaring, yet he was directly in my line of vision. I realised that perhaps this was a cool thing. That there, with that obnoxious little bird, the humbly named “rat of the sea”, flew the bizarre thrill of this giant rock. I wasn’t looking up towards the sky to see birds, I was looking down. I was the sky. As the bird passed, I noticed a small white chunk dropping from its nether region. Fighting the wind, it dropped straight down, splattering majestically on the rock mass a hundred feet down. Suddenly, this seemed like a good place to be.
– Car provided by Hertz Car Rental, Flugvallarvegi, 101 Reykjavík, Tel; 505-0600, www.hertz.is
– Accommodations provided by
Hótel Edda, Tel; 444-4000,
Driving towards Dyrhólaey from the west, the first thing you notice about the colossal rock mass is the bird shit. All around the “door”, splotches of droppings visible from a kilometre away effectively outline the cliff’s outcrops, where the fulmar, sea hen, razorbill, puffin and seagull have standing, sitting and shitting room. Yet even here on the top of its neighbouring precipice, there was not a single bird to be found.