Monday, October 17, 2016

Iceland Day 3 (Part Two): Gullfoss and Þhingvellir

When we left off, I was on a super jeep tour of Iceland's Golden Circle and had just explored a bit of the Langjökull Glacier. Now, we drove down to Gullfoss, an impressive waterfall.  It was now brilliantly sunny (with a killer windchill) and the views of and around the waterfall were gorgeous.



It was so windy I had to keep my hair bundled in an unattractive collection of clips.

Where there's a waterfall, there will be a rainbow


In addition to showing us these sites, Arni gave us a lot of information about Iceland. It's only 16 million years old. Compare that to the Appalachian Mountain chain, which had its beginnings in the Grenville orogeny about 1 billion years ago. The Rocky Mountains, relative babies, are still 64 million years older than Iceland. The island was formed by volcanic activity that persists to this day. The geothermal areas generate electricity and hot water for most of the country, so there's no need to burn fossil fuels. The drinking water, Arni said, is filtered by glaciers. Arni and I hung out a bit when the Hong Kong couple were off doing their thing. I told him about mistaking city hall for the National Museum. "I suppose it happens all the time," I ventured and he responded in a polite, noncommittal way.

Our next stop was a brief one at Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal area with a spa and baths. We didn't go to the spa, but walked along the shore of a lake. The lake water itself was cold but steam was rising from the beach and in one spot, water bubbled briskly out of the sand. Arni pointed out mounds of black sand, under which was bread dough, left to bake in the geothermal heat. The only picture I took is this movie of water boiling out of the sand.


Our last stop of the day was Þhingvellir National Park, site of the world's first parliament and the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Althing (parliament) was found in 930 A.D. Later, Iceland fell under the rule of Norway and then Denmark. In 1944, when Iceland once again became an independent nation, citizens gathered at Þhingvellir. 

Image from here

The two tectonic plates are drifting apart at the rate of one inch each year. That's quite fast when you consider that just within my own lifetime, the landscape has shifted four feet. If you're really adventurous, you can scuba dive between the plates here. 

Icelandic flora

North American plate

Þhingvellir was our last stop and it was only a half hour drive from there back to Reykjavik, where Arni dropped me off at my guest house. It had been a nine-hour day and it wasn't over yet, because this was my last chance to try and see the northern lights. Most people book a tour, where you're taken out into the country, but I didn't want to spend three hours on a bus, so I decided to take my chances in the city. Arni said they're only visible from Reykjavik if they're very strong, but I didn't feel discouraged. 

I finished dinner around 9:00 pm and headed out for a sculpture garden we'd visited on the walking tour on my first day. Audur had said it was a good place from which to see the northern lights. But then, while I was still downtown - right in front of Government House - I saw something in the sky. It could have been a wisp of cloud, but I knew it wasn't a cloud. It faded and then reappeared as a stripe of bright green across the sky. The green faded and came back a few more times and I knew I wasn't imagining things because other people had stopped to look too. This day had been my best-ever travel day, but for it to be finished with a northern lights sighting was almost unbelievable. 

This picture is terrible. You can barely see them, and you'll have to take my word for it that the lights were more intense than that in real life. Another word of wisdom from Arni was that all the fantastic northern lights pictures you see were taken by professional photographers with a slow exposure. This fleeting glimpse seemed to be it for the night, in the city at least. I walked up to the dark sculpture garden and waited there for a while, but didn't see anything. (Another thing about Reykjavik - I never felt unsafe, not even when walking alone at night.) 

So this was my last night, but since my flight home didn't depart until afternoon, I had time for another Icelandic experience the next day, which I'll relate in the next post.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Iceland Day 3 - The Golden Circle

For my third day in Iceland, I booked a tour of the "golden circle," a ring of geysers, waterfalls, volcanos and geothermal areas all within day trip distance of Reykjavik. It's like doing Ireland's Ring of Kerry, only with less seaside and more explosions. I didn't want to be on a huge tour bus, so I booked the "super jeep" tour through the company Extreme Iceland. These have a max of ten people. The tickets are pricey, but for one person, it was cheaper to do this than to rent a car and explore the area on my own.

We started at 9:00 am, and when the jeep picked me up, there was just a young couple from Hong Kong and our guide, Árni, who told us that with such a small group, we would have the opportunity to do some extra things. Did we want to go up on the glacier? Of course we did.

Our ride for the day. It's so high off the ground, we needed a step stool to climb in and out.

Our ride wasn't actually a Jeep, but a Ford van, jacked up onto a massive chassi with huge wheels. We stopped at a gas station for a quick toilet break and headed to our first destination, Kerið, a volcanic crater lake, where we hiked around the crater, an exhilarating experience in the brisk wind, with beautiful views into the crater and of the countryside all around.

Around Kerid

I saw this red shrub everywhere but I don't know what it is.
I saw a lot of rainbows in Iceland

After a brief stop at the Faxi waterfall, we went to Geysir, a geothermal area that has several geysers: the famous Geysir, which is now dormant, and the active Strokkur, which erupts roughly every ten minutes. Despite it's lack of activity, Geysir is an interesting sight because of the delicate blue color of its water, and even though it doesn't erupt, its water is scalding hot. Árni told us that Geysir became active again for a while, after an earthquake in 2010, but then went back to sleep. It was freezing cold with a stiff wind and it was tempting to try to warm yourself by the geyser, as if it were a campfire, but the steam loses its heat immediately, and you can't touch the water because you'll scald yourself. 
Water literally boiling out of the ground

You can tell when Strokkur is about to erupt because its water will start to gloop and gurgle, and then blast, a huge plume of water rises into the air and immediately dissipates. (You don't want to be standing downwind or you'll get soaked, but not burned because it cools so quickly.) The quality of this video is so bad - I'm too discouraged to load more, but I put a couple of other ones on my Patience Crabstick facebook page, so you can check them out there, if you want.

There are toilets, a cafeteria, and gift shop at Geysir, so we stopped for an early lunch and rest. Árni, in addition to being very knowledgable about all the sights and wonders of the surrounding country, was a pleasant guy with whom to spend a day. 

Langjökull is the large glacier, furthest to the left.

Not too long after we headed for the Langjökull Glacier, the paved road ended.  Árni pulled over to let some air out of the tires, explaining that for the terrain we were about to cover, this was necessary to reduce bouncing and to allow as much rubber as possible to come into contact with the road. The vehicle was equipped with a system for efficient deflating and re-inflating of the tires and soon we were on our way again and Árni let us know that the tires were down to just 10 psi, which is pretty flat. ("We go down to 5 psi in the winter," he said.) Anyway, at first the road didn't seem THAT bad, but then Árni said, "We don't need roads. Roads are for cars," and made an abrupt right turn and we went jouncing down a rocky cliff, until we reached a river, which we drove through - the bridge well above us - and then clawed our way back up to the road.

The "road" to the glacier

After that exciting diversion, the road became pretty bad and eventually ended altogether and we slowly progressed across a difficult, rocky terrain. But let me back up to when we were still on the paved road. As we drove, I could see, far off in the distance, a vast, inexplicable thing such as I'd never seen the likes of before. It was high above us, seemingly at the same height as the mountains in the distance. With a mist rising off it, it looked as if the sea had somehow invaded the mountaintops. Of course, the thing was the glacier, which sits about about 4,000 feet above sea level. Langjökull Glacier is the second-largest in Iceland and covers roughly 1500 square kilometers.

The landscape changed dramatically as we neared the glacier. The grass and trees around Kerið and Geysir gave way to a greenish-grey moss which eventually disappeared and we drove through a barren moonscape, devoid of all life except for patches of livid yellow moss. (Fun fact: astronauts were sent to Iceland to practice before going to the moon because Iceland is the most like the moon of any land on earth.)

On the glacier

The black cones are volcanic ash

The glacier itself has a deep margin of black volcanic ash. We drove right onto it, past the ash and onto the ice and got out of the car to walk around.  The ice is blue, because, Árni explained, it is so compressed. It was absolutely freezing. The wind was from the north, and thus had traveled across 1500 square km of ice before hitting us. The air temperature itself was probably not that cold, but the windchill was easily as cold as the coldest winter day you'll ever experience in Virginia. (But not as cold as weather I've experienced in Buffalo.) I'd lost my hat on Videy Island :( 

After we left the glacier, we made three more stops, but this post is getting long, so I think I'll save the second half of this day for later.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

Iceland Day 2 - Viðey Island

For my second day in Iceland, I had a mini-excursion planned to Viðey Island, which is a twenty-minute boat ride from the Reykjavik Old Harbor. I really wanted to do some hiking on this trip and my original plan was to hike Mt. Esja, an imposing mountain that dominates the Reykjavik skyline and whose trailhead can be reached by public transportation. But then I wasn't so sure that I wanted to hike a big mountain by myself. The weather in Iceland is notoriously unpredictable and I didn't want to be stuck, alone, on an unfamiliar trail, in a sudden storm.

Mt. Esja as seen from the Viðey Island Ferry

The free ferry ticket that came with my city card was another pull in favor of Viðey Island, which is uninhabited and criss crossed with hiking trails. There's a deserted fishing village at one end of the Island, and Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace tower near the other end, plus the oldest stone house in Iceland, an old stone church, a series of sculptures by Richard Serra, and abundant bird and plant life.

The weather was pretty discouraging with rain and a freezing wind. I didn't mind the thought of hiking in the rain. Iceland's climate being what it is, I figured that if you postpone your outdoor plans because of rain, you wouldn't get to do very much, so I was mentally prepared and dressed for wet weather.

It was only a five minute walk from my house to the old harbor, where the ferry picks you up. You can also catch it from Skarfabakki from where there are more frequent departures and a shorter boat ride. There is some twaddle on Tripadvisor saying that it's easier to get a spot on the ferry from Skarfabakki, but actually, they're the same boat. It comes to Old Harbor first and then stops at Skarfabakki to pick up more passengers. So I'm really glad I didn't walk all the way to Skarfabakki, which I seriously considered doing.

At the appointed time, I was waiting at the harbor. There was no one else around, except for the owner of the bike rental shop, who was wearing a threadbare Icleandic sweater and leaned against his doorway, gazing out at the bay. I'd been told to catch the ferry from the floating dock, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to just walk out to there, or if I had to wait for a summons from the ferry captain. The last thing I wanted was to get told off by an Icelandic port authority. I felt like an idiot, standing there alone in the rain and got some curious stares from a few cars that passed. The ferry arrived and the captain and his mate made no move to summon me onto the dock so I had to gather some courage and ask the bike shop man if I was allowed to walk out on the dock. "Of course!" he said.

My new worry was that they wouldn't make the journey for just one passenger, but they simply took my ticket and I sat in the cabin, out of the rain, and soon we were underway. And then, halfway across the harbor, we stopped. I thought they'd decided to cancel the trip after all, when suddenly two additional passengers boarded, seemingly as if they'd been walking on water. I stood up to get a better view out the cabin window and saw that another dock was built out from the opposite side of the harbor. Then we were really underway and after about a fifteen minute journey across Kollafjörður bay, we turned in to Skarfabakki to pick up an additional passenger, an older lady arrestingly costumed in a Pucci print polyester jumpsuit, a full length orange wool sweater coat, a black hat topped with black lace, and a black and white striped handbag adorned with a large pink bow. She spoke in Icelandic with the crew and I assumed she was acquainted with them. When we landed on the island a few minutes later, she walked up the hill and disappeared. She wasn't a tourist, but what in the world was she doing? I'm truly not making fun, I just really wonder what her story was. 

I was keen to explore the island and headed east, toward the abandoned fishing village, eventually making my way to the north shore of the island, where a sign announced that the trail to the east was the most difficult and least frequented one on the island. Check and check. I followed it and experienced what it is like to have an entire island to yourself. 

Climbing to the top of the "women's walking hills" where fairies are said to live.

The path wasn't really very difficult, just narrow and overgrown. A few times I thought I'd lost it altogether. You couldn't get seriously lost on an island of this size, but I didn't want to strike out across country and break my ankle in a hole. I was always able to find it eventually. I loved the solitary hike and by the time I got back to the landing it was almost time for the ferry. I had just enough time to run west to see Yoko Ono's Imagine Peace tower, but I didn't see any of the sculptures.

Imagine Peace tower

The tower is a bit underwhelming, I admit, but when it's lit (between October and December) it's impressive. Click here for a picture of the illuminated tower.

I waited for the ferry with the two people I'd arrived with (but not the lady with the eccentric dress) and when it came into view, a large crowd of middle-aged German women came charging down the hill toward us. This was somewhat surprising, as I hadn't seen a soul on the island. They must have all been looking at the sculptures on the west end. It seemed there wouldn't be room for all of us, as the boat is pretty small. So the three of us sat up on the top deck and let the German ladies have the cabin. It had stopped raining by this time. The ferry crew consisted of a young man with dark hair and piercing blue eyes and his even younger assistant, who now climbed the ladder a few times and regarded us with a worried facial expression. I think he wanted to suggest that we move down to the lower deck, but was too shy. It was pretty windy.

All the German ladies got off at Skarfabakki and we headed across the bay back to the old harbor. The wind picked up and the boat heeled alarmingly from side to side. I had to cling to the rail and the young assistant popped his head up, looking even more worried than before, but we gave him a thumbs up to show we were OK and once the worst was over, I was able to take some video footage of our progress. Still, I was glad when we reached the calmer waters of the harbor.

Reykjavik from the water

Back on land, it was nearly 3:00 pm and I hadn't eaten lunch, but I decided to explore the Harpa concert hall, a stunning glass building on the waterfront. I learned on the walking tour that you can wander around inside for free, so I did and it was worth it. (On the way, I stopped to view a sad exhibit about all the shipwrecks in Iceland since the 1800s--so many that each decade needs it's own large display.)

Harpa was stunning. The building looks dark green from the outside, but inside the glass is clear and it's a really beautiful place to explore. My pictures really don't do it justice.

Harpa from the outside

Harpa from the inside

I was also stymied by this toilet stall door (see?? door handicap) because I couldn't figure out how to turn the latch. I spent about a full minute trying to turn it by sticking a fingernail into the slit and then discovered it pushes inward. Architecture is hard.

After Harpa, I went to a cafe and had the hottest, most delicious bowl of tomato soup the world has ever known. It was so late that this meal counted for lunch and dinner. Then I went to the Icelandic Hand Knitting Association. Icelandic sweaters are serious. The wool is thick enough to stop even the coldest wind. I didn't buy one - it is never cold enough in Virginia to need one and I wouldn't have been able to fit it in my bag. And they're expensive. I did see lots of Icelanders wearing them. It seems the thing is to buy one and wear it until it is spent. I saw one man wearing a sweater that was almost completely shredded, but with a nice shirt and tie underneath.

I spent the late afternoon exploring the shops. I didn't intend to buy souvenirs, but I couldn't resist picking out some small gifts for my family. Also, I had been alarmed on the flight over to see that many passengers had my exact backpack, and when I had to stow my own several rows ahead of my own seat, I was seriously worried that someone would take it off the plane by mistake. So I bought myself this puffin luggage tag - handmade in Iceland. (I didn't see any puffins on this trip. I think I missed their season.)

Altogether, this was a very satisfying day.