Hrafnabjargafoss: A Complicated Beauty and One of our Favourite Waterfalls in Iceland

A powerful horseshoe-shaped cascade of water flows down a series of steps
A powerful horseshoe-shaped cascade of water flows down a series of steps

Watching the movie Rams almost a decade ago, Magellan and I didn’t know that one day our hiking boots would trod upon the mud and moss of the Bárðardalur Valley in northern Iceland where the story of the estranged Grimurson brothers was filmed.

The complicated story of two estranged brothers, bachelors whose greatest love is their sheep, was filmed near the intricate waterfall, Hrafnabjargafoss (Photo: Rams film website)

The critically acclaimed Rams doesn’t go into the reasons for Gummi and Kiddi’s feud. But the film’s director says his dad told the story of two brothers living on adjacent sheep farms who had a falling out over a woman—and stopped speaking to each other for forty years! In the film, when communication was absolutely necessary, the brothers send each other rolled-up dispatches, using Kiddi’s dog as the messenger.

The brothers both raise Calgan Horn sheep, an endangered heirloom breed. In an annual competition for the best ram, they are archrivals.

Complications begin when Gummi notices that Kiddi’s winning ram shows signs of an incurable and highly contagious bacterial disease. Word spreads. An investigation follows. After the townsfolk vote to have all the valley sheep slaughtered, each brother has his own “rammy” way of dealing with the tragedy.

The storytelling and cinematography engage you in the complicated lives of this absurd pair and their sheep, and when the cameras turn to the heathlands, you are swept into the stark beauty of the isolated moors. (But as we recall, the film didn’t have any scenes of the valley’s awe-dropping waterfalls.)

We didn’t know Rams was filmed near Hrafnabjargafoss until I started writing this story. It was through the professional lens of the photographer Dan Zafra, who Magellan follows, that put Hrafnabjargafoss on our itinerary.

The Bárðardalur Valley is one of the earliest-inhabited settlements in Iceland. As Rams depicts, today there are very few people. Or sheep. Or tourists.

Few people veer fifty kilometres off the Ring Road to see Hrafnabjargafossar, which is just outside the northwestern edge of Vatnajökull National Park. It’s a ninety-minute journey on a gravel road that dwindles to a sign-posted track. Accessible only in summer. You’re advised to have a 4×4. In winter (which officially starts a week after we were there), the road is unmaintained and covered in snow, closed to the public, unless you’re on a tour. The directions say,

Continue until you get to a fence that leads down the hill to Íshólsvatn lake on your right hand side. Drive or hike in the opposite direction of the lake, alongside the fence until you‘ll reach the river where you‘ll find Hrafnabjargafoss waterfall.

The waterfall is in the mighty Skijalfandafljot (Trembling River), the fourth-largest river in Iceland as measured by water flow, and one of the longest rivers in the country. It originates in the Vatnajokull glacier—the largest glacier in Europe. We’re talking waterpower.

Multiple cascades start off falling into a rock bowl, funnel through a small arch and then flow further downstream

Hrafnabjargafoss is difficult to pronounce, photograph or describe. Here’s a version of the best depiction we could find:

Falling in two flows on each side of a large rocky outcropping in the middle of the river, its eastern and northern section is composed of cascading rapids and small streams that pour over the side of the island, while its western and southern part is a thundering waterfall that falls into a concentrated bowl, tunnelling under a low stone arch before flowing back out into the river.

We felt, with the multiple viewpoints of the falls, the need to scamper about for optimum angles, juxtaposed by an equally compelling desire to simply stand still and admire. As you might expect, there were no people blocking our view.

The region has a chain of spectacular waterfalls, including the well-known Goðafoss and the remote Aldeyjarfoss that we’ll tell you about them another time—besides, Hrafnabjargafoss was our favourite of the three and became one of our best memories of Iceland. Which is saying a lot!

When Rams premiered in Cannes in 2015, it won best the Prix un certain regard, given to “recognize young talent and encourage innovative and daring work.” Perhaps in a subliminal way, seeing Rams gave us “un certain regard” for Iceland (which was not yet in our travel plans), as a country to be visited. But you knew I was going to say that, didn’t you?

And here’s another surprise.

Not only was the film made near one of our favourite waterfalls in Iceland, the location shoot, the farm with two houses shown above, is the very one where we saw the sheep round up that we did a story about:Retir: The Nationwide Sheep Round Up in Iceland!

Retir—The Nationwide Sheep Round Up in !

Navigation

How to pronounce Hrafnabjargafoss

Awards for the film Rams

8 Responses

  1. Absolutely amazing photos of the waterfalls. I cannot image how loud it was to stand so close to those powerful torrents. I’d love to see it in winter, but I wouldn’t stay long …. brrrrr

  2. Iceland holds some marvellous views and will not be for everyone, such is the country of wilderness. The waterfalls are awesome and the whitewater is such a wonderful white, pure as the driven snow of the north.
    The brothers invite a wonderful contrast in human nature, almost dissimilar in looks yet not far apart in overall kinship.
    Nice story to be sure.
    👍👍👍👍👍

    1. Can you imagine these falls in winter? Pure white wilderness, frozen water..Definitely not for everyone in the winter, (including me).

  3. I love all your stories of amazing insights into the treasures and stories of Iceland! They also take me down memory lane and the last trip my husband and I did together! He did so want to return! Perhaps I will do so in his memory! Thank you for the wonderful photos too!

    1. Thanks Mary Ann. I wish we had known the farm where saw the sheep round up was the one in the movie–we’d have stopped and talked to the owners. (Who would likely have told us to buzz off; they were busy!)

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