Having had the opportunity to be in Iceland for a week really has been the highlight of my year so far. From the moment we hit the ground I was stunned by the views and the alien landscape. It was like nothing I had ever encountered before. Ever the “easily entertained tourist” I began clicking snaps even before the plane had the chance to land. Inside the airport arrivals hall the snapping continued. They did a very smart thing by making the majority of the structure out of glass, affording arriving passengers unparalleled views across the runway into the distance where snow capped mountains reign supreme.
The rest of the landscape was pretty much just flat spaces filled with grass and lava rocks … not a tree to be seen. Why? Coz when the first vikings landed ashore and inhabited the island they chopped down the trees to build houses, for wood fires and ship building. It wasn’t as tho the island had a thriving forest at the time either. A guide was telling me that Iceland in those early days only had 20% tree cover. Not a lot of tree to barren land ratio. On top of man’s imprint on the landscape, many trees did not have the nutrients to survive in the harsh and unforgiving environment. Strong winds blew away top soil and drastic climate changes meant that saplings could not adapt to the erratic swings. Frequent earthquakes and volcanic activity further complicated matters; huge ash clouds sometimes blocked out the sunlight for months. According to the guide, every single tree you see in Iceland today has been planted there by design.
Iceland is a relatively “young” island … oh, in the realm of 18,000,000 years young. It sits on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and by doing so automatically wins it the rights to do fabulous things with it’s geology ~ the famous of all being the ‘Rift‘. It essentially refers to a tear in the earth’s crust where the Eurasian and North American plates are stretching away from each other, creating the impressive Reykjanes Rift that stretches over 1,500 km, most of which is underwater. The bits that we do see on land however, is known as the Almannagjá fissure and can be marveled upon when you visit Þingvellir National Park, about an easy 45 min drive out of Reykjavic. The fissure expands at a rate of about 2 cm every year, and it carries on for a good 7.7 km.
Apart from the rift in the earth’s crust, Þingvellir National Park is also home to the Alþingi (Althing), an open-air assembly area known as the first parliament if Iceland, established circa 930 A.D. Every year for a period of two weeks village elders and representatives from all corners of Iceland met here to discuss important matters and to settle disputes. The last meeting at this site took place in 1798. In 1930, the area was turned into a national park, with the aim to protect remnants of this ancient parliament along with the surrounding fields, the Almannagjá fissure and Þingvallavatn, Iceland’s largest natural lake.
I visited this park twice during my stay in Iceland; once with the Sisters of EVE Adventure Tour and the other was with R. and his friends on the day after Fanfest. The pleasant thing about visiting sights like these around Iceland is that it’s practically free. There is no charge to visit any of the national parks, their numerous waterfalls or the geysers. Just jump in your rental and go, go, go!
The people who organised for us girls to go sight-seeing on the Super Jeep Adventure Tour were amazing. CCP are the folks behind the game EVEonline, and they hired Eskimo Tours to look after us while we all lost our other halves to the craziness of Fanfest. Our husbands/ boyfriends were tied up all day everyday at the Harpa Convention Centre getting their geek on and spending the rest of their free time socialising with corp mates. Endearingly we were what gamers commonly refer to as ‘EVE widows‘ because we not only lose contact with our partners here at Fanfest but on most days in ordinary life when they are busy co-ordinating a virtual attack in cyber space against their respective online enemies. Playing EVE is like having a second job and these players take their commitments to the game very seriously.
Bright and early on Friday morning, when all the lads were still tucked up in bed I left the apartment and headed down to Harpa Convention Centre and joined the ranks with all the other girls who had signed up for this tour. Seven ginormous super jeeps were lined up along the kerb and at 9:30 am we pushed off, seven ladies per jeep. It was a glorious day and I could tell we were off to a great start. The tour exceeded my expectations by miles! The tour guide really looked after our every need and co-ordinated the logistics flawlessly. They were punctual to the last second and made everything look effortless. During the drive to various attractions Mr. Tour Co-ordinator could be heard over the radio giving very informative commentary about the sights and the history of the land (in flawless English). I learnt a lot that day. Eskimo Tours have a reputation as being the best and most reliable tour company in Iceland. They organise a wide variety of tours, tailor-made to suit anyone and everyone, from the family trip to the most extreme of adventurer. They can take you sight-seeing on horseback, take you whale watching, camping, caving, ice climbing, snow mobiling, dog-sleding, skiing, white-water rafting and Northern Light sighting amongst other things. All the guides are locals so they know the land like the back of their hands.
After visitng Þingvellir National Park we were driven to visit the Geysers just 30 km away in the Haukadalur valley. This was my first geyser experience and I was excited. *snap snap snap*
As we approached the area I could smell the sulphur just pouring out of these holes in the ground and it filled our jeep with the stench of rotten eggs. Fabulous.
This country is just a hub of geothermic energy. Every house is heated by the heat of steam and all the hot water comes from the stuff that comes out from the ground. All utilities and water is therefore free in this country. Must be nice. Thermal spas are everywhere and every summer home is fitted with a hot tub because for Icelanders having a relaxing soak in the sulphur-rich waters is a way of life.
The geyser park was smaller than I had expected and it had pools of bubbling water all around. Ropes cordoned off these pools to make sure no one did anything stupid, like fall in. The two famous geysers are Geysir and it’s baby brother, Strokkur. The big guy, Geysir, used to shoot boiling water up into the air frequently, but it is heavily influenced and affected by volcanic activity underground. Over the many centuries it has been both very active and almost dormant. In 2000 an earthquake revived Geysir’s water-spouting activities but it didn’t last very long. By 2003 its frequency had decreased to about a mere 3x per day. .I never saw any aqua theatrics from Geysir when I was there both times.
Strokkur however was wowing visitors every 5 – 10 mins. I remember it being a fairly chilly day when I first visited. Many stood around with frozen fingers on the shutter button of their cameras, waiting for the moment Strokkur would dazzle them with a show.
After our time at the geyser fields we trooped off across the road and had a hearty lunch at the Geysir Hotel. Awesome food, and you should go there if you had the opportunity. On offer was an incredible buffet spread that consisted of a combination of cold fish salads and hot meals. The lamb lasagne was sooooo good I ate it twice! I wish I could tell you if the lunch was worth the price tag but I can’t coz lunch was included as part of the Adventure Tour.
After lunch we were whisked off towards the glaciers for some off-roading and fun in the snow. Technically, you could do this on your own but just be prepared with a good reliable 4 WD vehicle and maps. Timing is also cruicial. For most of the year these inland roads are covered under a think blanket of snow, so much so that you will have to rely on yellow poles as road markers. Other than that it is a sea of white up there. It is also very isolated so if you are planning on doing your own driving up there try not to get stuck in snow drifts. A big truck with big wheels is the answer. Even then, we still got stuck in the snow and the trip had to be cut short. Our drivers had to take turns winching each truck out.
When I got out of the vehicle I sank up to my knees in the snow. It was really hard to walk without falling over, but it was a perfect day to be out there in the glacier. The sun was out, not a cloud in the sky and best of all there was no wind. We had a lot of fun frolicking in the snow until my boots started to get soggy. I think we spent a good 40 mins waiting for the trucks to get unstuck and then we were off again towards our next destination : the famed Gullfoss.
Iceland is famed for their fjords and cascading waterfalls. Pristine glacial melt water running from the mountains down to the ocean has helped carve out the landscape over millions of years. You can be driving along the highway and then BAM! you’d come across some spectacular falls. Hit the breaks and pull over gently onto the road shoulder and have your fill of serene, unspoilt beauty. Chances are you will be out there all by yourself. There were times along the roadtrip we did where we did not encounter a single other car on the road. I have to point out here tho that where the roads are paved, they are all in pristine condition, as though they were built only yesterday. And I thought European roads were kickass.
Gullfoss is Iceland’s most visited waterfall, likely so because of the relative ease at getting to it from Reykjavic. The roads are all very well signed so you can’t possibly get lost. The falls cut through some impressive canyons and from the road you can’t tell it is there. You may catch a glimpse of the spray rising up from afar but its easily mistaken for hot steam vents. As you approach the falls from the carpark the view will blow you away. It is sssssssssstunnning! The sheer size of the canyon and the volume of water pouring over the edge makes you feel really tiny. Its all power and force of nature ….. very awe inspiring.
Visitors can really get up close to the falls, and take a shower in the spray. The falls consists of two drops, the first being 11m and the second 21m, before draining into the canyon. Gullfoss means ‘the Golden Falls’ and refers to the golden hue of the mist that rises off the water as it tumbles.
R. and his pals were all equally gobsmacked at the sight of Gullfoss ~~ they were just lucky to have been able to come along for the ride. R. and I had always planned to take the time to do this roadtrip to the south bits of the island even before we landed. We gave the Party on the Top of the World a miss and went to bed early on Saturday. None of the other boys did tho. So come Sunday morning they were still tucked up in bed while we slipped out of the house to get the rental car and some breakfast into our bellies. Nada had expressed an interest to join us and made us promise to call him up no matter what happens. We managed to get him on the phone after the fifth try; mildly incoherent but at least he was awake now.
On the way we stopped by the apartment again and, lo and behold, Spujo and Dom were now awake and at the last possible moment decided to jump in with us for the roadtrip. They had missed breakfast but oh well … we’d find something along the way for sure. I knew for a fact that Þingvellir National Park was a mere 45 min drive, and I was sure they sold coffee there even tho there was no food.
I had seen most of what we would be seeing on this roadtrip already with the Sisters of EVE two days prior, so I had insight on travel info: distance, time, what to see and what not to see. As per the map above, those markers were what we took in on Sundays drive. It was a fairly easy trip … 12 hrs in all and R. did all the driving himself. Highway 1 is the main road around the island. If you took that road from Reykjavik and kept on it the entire way, eventually you’d end up back in Reykjavik having done a trip round the entire circumference of the island. The centre of the island is quite rural and uninhabitable; dominated by huge mountains and not much else … probably just horses, reindeer and other animals best suited to live in such harsh conditions.
Speaking of the animals, here is a fun fact: The only native animal to Iceland is the arctic fox, who got to the island via an ice bridge in the last ice age. Other than that all other animals, the cows, the horses, the reindeer, have all been brought over by settlers from Scandinavia. The Icelandic horse has been living a secluded life in Iceland for a seriously long time, thus making them a very unique breed. They are the only horses to have a fifth gait, and despite their pony-like size they are NOT ponies. Icelanders make this distinction very clear to foreigners.
Another consequence of their relative isolation is that they have not been exposed to a lot of equine diseases thus making them susceptible. For this reason Icelandic law forbids the importation of any other horse breed from outside the country, and if an Icelandic horse should be exported it is never allowed to return. This seemingly small directive would prove to have big consequences for Iceland’s economy in the late 1990’s when Peter Jackson was out scouting locations to shoot the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everyone knows today that the film was shot entirely in New Zealand, but back then the film crew had initially set their sights on filming in rugged Iceland. However, the horse issue would prove to be the key factor that had Peter Jackson turn away from the north and shoot the film down south instead. The Icelandic horses were not to the desired scale and would throw the visual illusion between man and hobbit off balance if they all stood side-by-side; yet, they were not allowed to bring in regular sized horses. Therefore, their plan to shoot in Iceland had to be abandoned. Yay, for New Zealand.
Anyway, I digress. On the day we made this trip, the weather left much to be desired. While it was not raining or snowing, the wind was relentless. It shook the entire vehicle! R. said at a certain stretch along the coastal road on the way to Vik he had to maintain a 5º turn on the wheel just to keep it from being blown off the road. Getting out of the car proved to be a challenge as well ~~ Spujo tried getting out at one point and simply got pushed back into the car, the door slamming shut after him.
Townships are few and far in between, so pack a good supply of water and definitely warm clothes. Temperatures swing pretty erratically and the day can flip on you in the blink of an eye. Even if it is a sunny day when you left base, you don’t want to mess with arctic winds. Gloves are a wise choice. Had to throw away my pathetic European ones in favor of proper Icelandic knitted wool gloves. Super warm and cozy on the fingers.
After we did the usual Golden Circle sights (Þingvellir National Park, Geysir, Gullfoss) we turned the car around and headed south. Funny story here as well. R. had read of a majestic waterfall called Selfoss and said that before he leaves Iceland he must see it. Okay, not a problem … I simply keyed in ‘Selfoss’ into the GPS and off we went. There were plenty of road signage pointing us in the right direction anyway. “Selfoss : That way!!” However, at some point of our journey the GPS told us to make a U-turn and head north. We chose to ignore her and keep to the road and believe what our eyes were telling us. She must be lying coz all the signs said we are heading in the right direction ~ Selfoss 55km south. Eventually we turned her off coz she was beginning to annoy the hell out of us.
Incidentally, I decided to Google said waterfall and discovered our error : There was Selfoss the waterfall in the north (GPS was right!), and then there was Selfoss the town in the south. Bummer. Now R. was really miffed. What were we meant to do or see now?? Fortunately, I had just purchased some postcards at the Þingvellir giftshop and on it was a picture of yet another amazing waterfall which was said to be in the south, not far from the town of Vik. Well we were heading to Vik anyway to see its famous black-sand beaches, so once again enthusiasm in the car resumed to a high.
On the way to the waterfall we got the chance to feast our eyes on the foreboding Eyjafjallajökull looming up in the distance. It is one of the smaller icecaps in Iceland, with Vatnajökull further east being the largest. The most positive thing I can say about my trip to Iceland this time round is that I came away being able to actually pronounce this freakin’ name flawlessly, all thanks to Nada repeating it over and over again for my benefit. The rest still refer to it as “Eyja-what”.
Soon enough we reached our destination : Seljalandsfoss, Icelands prettiest waterfall, the jewel of the south. And it’s not hard to see why. How often can one say they could walk behind a waterfall to snap pictures. This waterfall is very accessible ~ right off the highway on the left (if you are coming from Reykjavic heading towards Vik). You can’t miss it, you’ll see it from the road itself.
Glacial water coming off the Eyjafjallajökull icecap feeds this waterfall and offers visitors a most dazzling display of colours. The best time to visit the falls is said to be in the evening. When we arrived it was about 5pm, and the most spectacular rainbow greeted us as we approached. It was almost a full circle! It is not often that I get the opportunity to walk under a perfectly formed rainbow.
The falls drop an impressive 60m (200 ft) into a shallow pool. It is possible to go swimming in it in the hotter months but not today. There were not a lot of people there when we arrived so to me that was perfect. We got to snap lots of photos uninterrupted and we got to stay behind the waterfall for as long as we wanted. Be prepared to get a soaking tho … and keep your cameras well wrapped under your jacket.
Right round the corner from Seljaladsfoss is Skógafoss, a large waterfall measuring 25m wide, with a drop of 60m. To the right-hand side of the waterfall there is a trail + stairs leading up and above the falls. If you follow this trail further you will eventually reach the Fimmvörðuháls pass, the area between the glaciers of Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull.
After Skogar we were famished and made a beeline towards the township of Vík í Mýrdal.
Vik, popolation < 300, is the third most populous town in all of Iceland. There isn’t a whole lot going on in this town but it is famous for its black-sand beaches. There’s a petrol station, a church, a few hotels + guesthouses and a handful of restaurants. We popped into the first one we came across and it felt like a blessing to be indoors, away from the crazy wind and falling temperatures.
Food wasn’t bad at all. I had unlimited supply of creamy mushroom soup, which is apparently an Icelandic tradition (the unlimited supply of soup I mean). Many places have soup kettles simmering away on the counter, and you are more than welcome to help yourself to as much soup as you like, for a small price. My soup was just what I was looking for and I helped myself to two full bowls. Mmmmm … warmth then began creeping back into my body and I felt whole again. The lads had pizzas to share.
After dinner it was back in the car for the 2 hr drive home. For most of the drive we were the sole car on the darkened road. Headlights are a must. The wind was frightening me as it rocked the car violently, pushing it all over the road. R. had to put a lot of effort into stabilising the car as the wind roared about us, ripping up grass and blowing it in every direction in front of the wind shield. Eventually, R. decided that it would be safer to drive in the middle of the road, half on the right side and half on the on-coming side, just to ensure we were not blown into the gutter. About halfway home we were again freaked out by the sudden appearance of a ram, calmly chewing cud in the middle of the road! It just came out of nowhere; one minute we were alone and the next there was this animal. Honking at it failed to encourage movement, so we had to drive around it as it stubbornly stood it’s ground.
Apart from the wind and the stubborn-ram scare our journey home was pretty uneventful … until of course I saw what I initially thought was a very odd white cloud. There was still a hint of light in the night sky. It was about 11 pm but the sunlight was lingering just over the horizon, casting a beautiful pink hue all across the sky. I looked up to admire the multicoloured sky and noticed an odd streak. It looked like a cloud but it was stark white and it was going in the opposite way to all the other clouds. I had my suspicions but I was afraid of being laughed at. Eventually, I mentioned it to R. and the gang. The car screeched to a halt and everyone had a good look. But 2 seconds later it vanished. Everyone kinda just dismissed it as a passing cloud, but then it reappeared again … and this time it was GREEN!! For the second time our car screeched to a halt and everyone had their face all but plastered to the windows, with ‘ooohs’ and ‘aaahs’ emanating from the back seat. It danced about in the darkening sky for all of 5 seconds and then it vanished once more. It had to be one of the most frustrating things to witness, EVER, yet it was also the most beautiful. I am convinced what we had just seen was the Aurora Borealis; it could not be anything else. We knew April was the wrong time of year to see any ~ the best times being between the months of November and March. It was almost a cruel stroke of luck, to have appeared so late in the season, given us a sliver of taste, and then to vanish almost as suddenly as it appeared. It was so quick, a fleeting moment, it was as if it never happened at all … but we all saw it and even tho we stayed in the same spot with the car lights turned off it never returned. I came away from that experience feeling rather depressed.
Next year R. wants to return to Iceland ~ Fanfest has him hooked. Unfortunately, Fanfest 2014 will be in May so there will be even more sunlight in the sky and less chance to see the Northern Lights. Well, even so, there are still much more to see and experience in and around the island. He wanted to head north to Akureyri and perhaps even make a stop on the island of Grímsey just so that we can officially cross into the arctic circle. As for the Northern Lights, well we’ll save that experience for Christmas in lapland Finland or Norway.
~ The End ~