Young town with a long history
Þorlákshöfn is the main town in the district with a population of about 1400, and the centre of local government administration. The town derives its name from Bishop Þorlákur Helgi who lived in the Middle Ages. Fishing has always been a part of life in Þorlákshöfn, as it has the best natural harbour along the southern coast, and is only a short distance from rich fishing grounds. Until the end of the 18th century the land was owned by the church, and then by various farmers until 1934 when the Árnesinga Co-op took over ownership. In the days when fishermen went to sea in rowboats, it was common for 30-40 boats to be based in Þorlákshöfn. During winter this would mean that the town’s population would be 300-400. Living accommodations were stone and turf lodges.
A suitable harbour for motorised vessels was never built in Þorlákshöfn, and by 1950 only one resident was registered there. As the second half of the 20th century began, work started on developing a solidly based fisheries operation, and the population began increasing. In 1973 a volcanic eruption on the Westman Islands focused necessity on building-up the harbour: for a time it was feared that lava flows would close access to the island’s harbour, which was south Icelands main port. On that January night 30 years ago the entire population of 5500 was evacuated by sea and air to Þorlákshöfn, which is the scheduled ferry destination for the Westman Islands. The eruption lasted until June, and during that time Þorlákshöfn became home to many of the evacuees and a large part of the fishing fleet.
The Book of Settlements, old manuscripts describing the settlement of Iceland in the 9th and 10th centuries, recounts that Ingólfur Arnarson, Icelands first settler, spent his third winter in Ölfus. The following spring his slaves, Vífill and Karl, found the high-seat pillars that Ingólfur had tossed into the sea, stating that he would settle at the spot where they were found. They came ashore in Reykjavík, which became his home. Karl was not pleased with the move to Reykjavík. He ran away to Ölfus with his bondwoman, and although Ingólfur eventually found him, there is no knowledge as to whether he was left in peace or forced to return to Reykjavík.
The good district
Whether it was the slave Karl or someone else who first settled in Ölfus, it is likely that the area was settled early because of the thriving environment. Pastureland was good around the estuary of Ölfusár River–the river with the largest flow in Iceland–as well as in the mountains, seals were hunted in the estuary, and fishing was good in the sea and in lakes. In addition, landing conditions at the estuary were excellent, which has been of great value on the harbourless south coast.
Modern people also look to nature, but in a different way than in the days of yore when a place was considered beautiful if the fishing was good. Procuring food today is quite different, so beauty is a concept that includes diversity and uniqueness. Ölfus has a natural beauty that is in many ways quite special. The countryside is grassy, and nestled among the verdant landscapes are wetlands where birdlife thrives. There are salmon and trout rivers, and at the Ölfus estuary anglers compete with seals that often swim in the vicinity looking for fish.
The area is fertile, but it is also marked by volcanic activity–there are many volcanoes, caves, and broad expanses of lava and sand–and wind erosion, both of which are common in Iceland. Over the past decades considerable effort has been made to revegetate the land. Another feature of the area is hot springs and hot streams: enormous amounts of hot water flows from the earth’s depths. And one of the world’s most powerful geothermal areas is the Hengill field in Ölfus.
Ölfus district covers an area of 1000 km2. The economy revolves around fishing and fish processing, commerce, services, agriculture, and industry. The district is rich in natural resources and land, and encourages companies to develop opportunities built around these riches. There are also large reserves of geothermal water that can be utilised for economic development. Land, natural energy, and the harbour in Þorlálshöfn are the foundation for economic growth in Ölfus.
East of the mountains
Situated between Reykjavík and Ölfus is Hellisheiði Heath, which for centuries has been the country’s main road. Travelling from the capital of Reykjavík to towns and villages in the southern lowlands is called “going east of the mountains.” Through the centuries, this mountain road has been an obstacle to overcome, and is representative of Icelands transportation history as it was eventually transformed from a walking and riding track marked with cairns, to the paved highway it is today.
On the east side of the mountain are the remains of four tracks. The oldest is the first raised road capable of sustaining wagons, but because Icelands difficult terrain is not conducive to road building, the wheel was rarely used until the latter part of the 19th century. Instead, loads were carried by horses––or people. There are many stories of travellers who encountered difficult conditions when crossing the mountain, such as blizzards, high winds, rainstorms, and thick fog. Some made it through, others were not so fortunate. There was also the danger of coming in to contact with outlaws who robbed travellers. At the turn of the 18th century, a farmer from Ölfus survived an attack by a robbery attempt by a female outlaw by biting her on the neck.
A row of craters traverses Hellisheiði, and they have a long history of lava flows: first about 10,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age, and the last about 1000 years ago. Hengill is a central volcano, and the surrounding area is the country’s largest geothermal field, covering about 100 km2. There was a time when trolls and outlaws lived in Hengill, but they have all been pushed away by high technology as a power plant is being built that utilises steam.
With today’s excellent road over Hellisheiði Heath, it takes just over 30 minutes to drive from Reykjavík to Þorlákshöfn. It is becoming increasingly popular for people to live there and work in the capital. The Ölfus district now markets this possibility with the slogan, Ölfus – Within Reach. Large sections of land are offered for people who choose the country in town lifestyle, as the district stretches over a considerable area.
Employment opportunities are diverse, the service level is high, the environment is strikingly beautiful and clean, and facilities are excellent. There is a cultural centre, museum, coffeehouse and restaurant in Þorlákshöfn, and a variety of leisure activities, for example an athletic hall, swimming pool, and 18-hole golf course. Many marked hiking trails are in the area, and there are plans to build a riding, walking, and biking trail throughout the district to accommodate outdoor enthusiasts. A project on the horizon involves developing a high-speed communications network in the district. This will create the basis for operating an office-hotel for residents who work out of district–for example in Greater Reykjavík–but who would like to work in their home district 2-3 days a week.
Ölfus District is a modern countryside community with a developed infrastructure that is continuously expanding. The community wants to give its residents the opportunity to live in close proximity to nature, and live a lifestyle based on healthy values. It is likely that many city dwellers, looking to escape from the crowdedness and stress of their daily life, will accept our offer.