Iceland: Realm of Ice and Fire
Introduction - Why Iceland?
It's the middle of winter here in Canada and yet another snowstorm is on its way threatening to dump a foot of snow. Most Canadians wanting to escape winter here head south to the sunny climes of the Caribbean or Florida.
But here I am looking forward to flying north to Iceland . . . in the middle of their winter.
I can only say that I've been called to go. The desire to explore Iceland sparked in me a couple of years ago during a short stopover while traveling from my home in Scotland to the Toronto Storytelling Festival. It was the middle of February and as we descended out of the black sky into Keflavik, I was mesmerized by the billowing clouds swirling about us, shimmering neath a full silver moon. The effect was magical. It was like one of those old-fashioned daguerreotype photographs. I felt as if I was being transported back thousands of years to a mythical time.
Suddenly, the clouds broke and revealed a mass of white below us, edged by dark, inky waters. This was a stark landscape defined in black and white. Then, slicing through the ice and snow, a thin black ribbon appeared stretching off to the northern horizon. I thought it was a fissure in the ice before noticing a single pinpoint of light moving northward. It was a car traveling on the famous Hringvegur or "Ring Road" that circles the island. That journey allowed me only a couple of hours in the airport but I could feel in my soul that I would return to this island one day.
Then a few weeks ago, my brother Mark, an award-winning Nature photographer, called me and asked if I'd like to accompany him on a 10-day journey to Iceland. This journey was one of his "bucket list" adventures of which he was prepared to go alone but wondered if I, a storyteller, might like to come along. I didn't hesitate. Yes, I said.
It was not just the desire to return to this mystical place on the edge of the Arctic Circle but the opportunity to undertake such an adventure with my brother. Both in our 60s, I ventured to think that we might never get a chance like this again to travel together (something we've never done). Yes, it was going to be an expensive trip that we'd both struggle to afford but the opportunity to photograph Iceland's amazing landscapes of fire and ice, rock and water were too good to pass up. And as a storyteller, I was fascinated by the rich storytelling tradition in
Iceland where the sagas and tales are embedded in every feature of the landscape.
How could you pass up a chance to travel in a country where more than half the population openly believe in the hudderfolk or "hidden people" -- trolls, elves, fairies and such? In fact, I've been told that before a road is built in
Iceland, environmental consultants check with locals to ensure that no hudderfolk are disturbed. Roads go around them.
Thanks to a storytelling colleague, Karen Gummo, who has relatives in Iceland, I've made a connection with one of Iceland's premier storytellers Ingi Hans. Ingi operates his Storytellers Lodge during the summer months and enchants visitors with his tales and charm. (I'm hoping to interview Ingi for my radio show "The Teller and the Tale" (www.thetellerandthetale.com) on Blues and Roots Radio.
And for Mark, the Icelandic landscape offers a stunning array of geological wonders: mountains, active volcanoes, geysers, spectacular waterfalls, and more, not to mention Viking settlements, whaling stations, fishing villages, seabirds and other flora and fauna. Check out Mark's website at www.mwimages.ca to see his catalogue of photos capturing the rich wildlife in and around the southern Ontario region. Mark's a keen photographer with a strong environmental conscience and his photos are poignant reminders of the importance of our green spaces for the ecological diversity they hold.
So, on March 28th, 2018 Mark and I fly off to Iceland and begin our 10-day journey. Our accommodations are booked (mostly with local hosts) and our 4X4 chariot awaits us (highly recommended as Iceland will still be in the grip of winter and roads can be treacherous at times). Despite our plans, we are aware that Nature will have the upper hand and we are prepared to be flexible. But our intention is to drive the 1400 kms around the entire Ring Road.
Upon our return, Mark and I plan to put together a presentation in which we will share our photographs and stories and offer it wherever folk are interested.
Lords of the Ring
Reflections: An Adventure is Born
How do you know when you are going on an adventure? Is it the moment you step out the door or is it something that happens along the way? Could it simply be a spark of an idea or a long drawn-out series of thoughts? As I recall, my first solo photographic adventure was a kind of verbal pronouncement, a vocal declaration that an adventure was needed. I visualized vast landscapes made up of raw elements; sun, sky, mountains and sea.
Newfoundland immediately came to mind. In 2014 I set off on my first big adventure. When I arrived, it wasn't long before I lost control, this island they called “The Rock”, she cradled me in her hand and gently moved me from side to side like I was a Mexican jumping bean, when I returned home 10 days later, something changed, nature had put her mark on me and I had to experience more. That is what an adventure does, it changes you ... sometimes forever.
In 2018 … the call came again, but unlike 2014 this was more like a silent spark, lit from within and stoked by others. The destination ... Iceland. Like Newfoundland I was drawn to the idea of re-visiting the elements, but this was going to be different. The elements here were alive, living and breathing, there would be no cradling this time. Her visions would be mesmerizing, awe-inspiring and other-worldly to say-the-least but not without a warning; "Tread carefully with respect and above all keep alert" and with that, another adventure is about to hatch.
Lords of the Ring
Day 1: Impressions
The flight was delayed one hour. At 8pm we finally boarded and were greeted with a message from the Captain, "A minor electrical failure, nothing to worry about". Assurances given, a smooth flight ensued as we crossed over the Atlantic. We landed at 6:30am Icelandic time at the Keflavik Airport outside Reykjavik, the capital.
The four-hour time difference played havoc with our lack of sleep but the excitement pumped adrenaline into these two tired bodies to more than make up for the exhaustion. Our AirB&B check-in was not until 3pm, so we had the better part of the day to explore. Picking up our brand new Dacia 4x4 Duster (equipped with snow tires) , we headed off to the capital. After a brief drive around the city we stopped at Reykjavik Roasters and enjoyed a great cup of java. Once primed, a long walk through the city took us to the beautiful not to mention gigantic Hallgrimskirkja Church.
Michael remained below while I venture to the viewing tower eight floors up (by elevator) to witness the most incredible views of Reykjavik.
We moved on to another of Reykjavik's monumental wonders, the Harpa concert house. This was as beautiful inside as was out and the glass maze appearance really dazzled the eyes. Michael and I played "Where's Waldo" a few times with him above peering from various window panes as I tried to spot him from the ground.
And, last but not least the "Sun Voyager" ... one of the many sculptures depicting the Vikings and their influence on the history of Iceland. You don't have to go too far in any direction to find their imprint, whether knick-knacks sold in gift-shops to grand creative sculptures or just the stark reminder in the scenery that cries out the memories of "Eric the Red" or "Leif Ericsson".
Day 2: Reykjavik to Grundarfjodur
Today, being Good Friday, Mark and I decided to stay in Reykjavik and go to the iconic Hallgrimskirkja Church for the service. Thinking the service was at 10:30am and that it would be packed with tourists, we got there about 9:30am. There were lots of tourists crawling all over taking photos of the impressive, vault like interior, but Mark and I managed to find time to meditate quietly in preparation for the service. We also discovered that the service didn't start until 11am so our wait was prolonged. As the hour approached, any tourists not intending to stay for the service were asked to leave. While some stayed, it seemed that most of the parishioners were local folk. The service was also in Icelandic which lent the affair a rather unique tone. We did manage to recognise a few names of familiar Biblical characters and the hymn melodies were easy to hum along with. As we filed out, we were greeted at the door by the minister who thanked us for coming and wished us a Happy Easter.
We then retired across the road to Café Loki (those of you who know me know I love my cafés). We got a couple of espressos and headed back to the car to begin our northward journey.
The greatest danger in driving across Iceland is the scenery. One is tempted every few minutes to gaze to the right or left in awe and forget the road. In fact, this happens more often than not to tourists and we were warned. So I kept my eyes on the road, while Mark snapped photos from the open window. We did stop at a few places where you could safely pull over and got out, stretched our legs and took more photos.
Our trip was not without some unexpected excitement. We suddenly found ourselves, for instance, plunging down into a tunnel under a fjord. We must have driven some two or three kilometres underground, which was quite an experience if you've not done it before. We'd obviously missed the sign which indicated that this was a toll tunnel, so we had a bit of surprise when we emerged into the daylight to discover that we had to pass a toll booth and pay the nice woman 1000kr (about $15CDN). Over went my credit card and then we were on our way.
Money aside, no price could be put on the scenery we encountered. The Mountains and the sea are priceless. Every turn offered another awe-inspiring gasp. "Mark, look over there!", "That's amazing!"
Suddenly around one bend we came upon another small fjord where large chunks of ice had been swept in from the sea and piled up near the shore. We saw cars pulled over ahead and managed to pull into a lay-by off the road. That was fortunate because we had our first encounter with the Icelandic police.
As we were walking toward the shore, two uniformed officers--one male, the other female--caught up to us. We turned and greeted them. They asked where we had parked our car. It was beside their police car. "That's ok," the young male officer smiled. It turned out they were there to have those drivers who had parked at the side of the road to move them or get ticketed. Mark and I offered to help and went down and warned those we met. The officers were also there to warn people to get off the ice as it was extremely dangerous. In fact, entire families were out on those huge chunks of ice, not knowing they were cavorting with possible death or injury.
On we went across rocky and in some places volcanic terrain. We saw ancient lava flows where hardened pumice-like rocks were twisted and melted into one another in shapes that could remind you of trolls and ogres. They were dressed in soft green moss, the only vegetation that seems to favour the rock.
Finally, we reached Grundarfjodur and although we initially had a little trouble finding our accommodation, a quick call remedied the situation. With new instructions we found the track that wound up the hill at the foot of the mountain above. Later we supped at the Laki Café (pizza), followed by a short drive to the famous Kirkjufell Mountain, where Mark photographed some oystercatchers and eider ducks. Home to relax in our comfy room and some well-deserved rest. Tomorrow we have another day to explore this wondrous peninsula. I'm particularly looking forward to seeing the extinct volcano Snæfellsjökull, which inspired Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. I've promised my grandson a photo of his grandfather on this famous site, although I shall refrain from exploring its interior and leave that to his imagination.
Day 3: Around the Snaefellsnes Peninsula
Today was our first full day in Grundarfjodur off the Ring Road in the Snaefellsnes Peninsula. We awoke at 7am after a restless night waiting and watching for the Northern Lights. We had a clear night with some very light overcast and it was cold, good conditions ... but nothing appeared.
Packed up the car and headed out on Hwy 54 to circumnavigate the Peninsula. This would takes us to a number of beautiful spots filled with great beauty and interesting folklore. Our first stop came quite abruptly as we no more than passed through town when around the bend was an amazing falls, Kirkjufellsfoss. We caught the early morning light on the falls and there was an old walk-bridge across the top of it. I thought this serene setting couldn't have been more perfect when my tripod fell and tumbled 20 meters into the river below. Thankfully, I found my way down to the river bank and with a little rock hoping, I was able to retrieve it.
Onward we went and came to see Snaefellsjokull, the famous volcano that Jules Verne was inspired by in writing his novel "Journey to the Centre of the Earth". The entire area was filled with moss covered lava boulders that had been strewn across the land in grotesque twisted shapes resembling Trolls that had been frozen in time.
Saxholl Crater was also nearby (part of the fall-out from Snaefellsjokull Volcano) and we ventured to climb the 109 meter walkway to the top. This crater erupted 3-4000 years ago. The view from the top was spectacular.
Then it was on to Malarrif, where we visited a rocket-shaped Lighthouse, overlooking a black sand beach with smooth sculptured rock formations and three or four islands just off the shore filled with Kittiwakes. Once aware of our movements, the sky instantly became filled with these sea-birds and there were hundreds upon hundreds.
Many churches are found all over Iceland, but not always in the towns or cities as one might expect, many times a lovely lone church sat in the most picturesque of places.
All-in-all it was a great day, the weather held, the scenery was outstanding and as we arrived home (to the farm) I met with our Host Mr. Skjólsteinar, who kindly showed me around his barn. Some 250 plus sheep in every age, size and colour ... yes, there were even 3 black sheep in the family. I asked permission to walk back in the hills, high up the mountain side, where grazed a dozen or so Icelandic horses graced by a beautiful waterfalls that I had my eye on. I wandered up slowly as it was steep and rested awhile looking across the valley at the Arctic Ocean, the snow capped mountains behind and saw the sun clipping a peak ... what a beautiful way to end the day.
Day 4: Grundarfjörður to Akureyri
We knew we'd have a long drive ahead of us today but we couldn't start without a visit to one of Iceland's premier storytellers, Ingi Hans. I'd became aware of Ingi thanks to fellow storyteller Karen Gummo from Calgary. Karen has relatives in Iceland and she'd been to visit Ingi at his Storytellers Lodge in the past. I contacted Ingi and made arrangements to meet up and interview him for one of my upcoming Teller and the Tale radio shows.
Before we got to Ingi's place, we had to have a coffee and chat with our B&B host Raggna, who turns out to be a relative of Ingi's. After leaving Raggna's farm, we drove into the picturesque fishing village of Grundarfjodur and found Ingi's cottage. His home is spacious and welcoming where every object has a story to go with it. Ingi has a particular passion for toys from his childhood so we were treated to a special viewing of them in his study and storytelling space. He and his 9-yr old grandson Fridjon Ingi obviously had a very close relationship and Fridjon beamed as his Grandpa told us stories and showed off the theatre "playhouse" he built for the children. Fridjon showed us the puppets and various other characters and demonstrated how they moved them on stage.
Fridjon, incidentally, spoke excellent English, which he said he'd learned off the Internet.
Ingi then invited us to sit at the kitchen table and served us delicious espresso, while he regaled us with tales of his childhood growing up in Grundarfjodur. Then came a wonderful tale of Sterling the Cat, which enthralled us all. Later, Ingi pulled out a scrap book of childhood and family memories he'd prepared for his grandchildren and we learned about the village and Ingi's family, who originally came to the area in the late 19th century from Norway. (Some later left the area and emigrated to Manitoba in Canada).
By this time, the snow had begun falling quite heavily and reluctantly, Mark and I bid our farewells. We stopped only to fill up the car and headed up over the mountains in heavy snow and down the other side and toward the town of Borganes where we joined the Ring Road. Thank goodness we spent the extra money for a 4X4 with good snow tires.
Once on the Ring Road we turned northward for the long journey to Akureyri, about some 6hrs or so away. The first hour we travelled through rather dour weather and countryside before climbing the mountain into thick cloud and more snow. The road was, however, in fairly good shape and without much traffic. We observed that most of the traffic was coming in the opposite direction. It seemed that few tourists travel Iceland in a clockwise direction as we'd chosen and I advise this if you ever make the trip.
After a few hours, we emerged from the cloud and saw beautiful vistas before us -- wide sweeping valleys and blocks of snow-capped mountains surrounding us and gracing the distance. Having a modest interest in geology, I'm continuously in awe of the unimaginable dynamic forces of earth, fire, wind, water, and ice on this land. Everywhere you see evidence of volcanic activity with many a mountain looking down on an expansive field of twisted lava rock before it. Looking closely at these hardened molten forms of rock, you can easily see why Icelanders believe in trolls, elves and other 'hudderfolk' (little people).
Eventually, we found our way to our accommodation--Arnarnes Paradise, a rustic farm turned into art gallery and B&B, situated atop the hill overlooking the fjord below. Our host Olga and her husband welcomed us with smiles and hearty handshakes and showed us to our room. We're the only guests tonight so we have the place to ourselves. Once settled, Mark and I headed up the hill to the summit where we looked down the fjord toward the Arctic Ocean. There was an icy breeze but the views from the hill were worth every moment. Olga had told us that whales had been sighted in the fjord as have seals. The whales, she said ordinarily appear in May or June but have been coming earlier in recent years. We didn't see any but are hoping perhaps in the next day or so we might catch a glimpse of them either here or further north in the town of Husavik, a former whaling station and today a popular destination for whale watching tours.
Time to close. It's been an exciting day and more beckons tomorrow. But for now I look forward to a hot shower and comfy bed.
Day 5 - North to Husavik
The morning started with a continental breakfast of sorts, wonderful breads, jams, eggs, cucumber and a hot cup of Lemon and Ginger tea. As we are the only two guests during this Easter weekend our Host, Eygló was all ready setup as we awoke. We had some lovely conversation and learned that the Elves were very much present at Arnarnes Paradise and she works hard at keeping the energy levels positive and uplifting. We certainly felt her kindness and encouragement as we prepared to head north on our journey to Husavik.
The snow had fallen overnight a few inches and so dusting off the car and checking road conditions were first on the agenda. The good news ... the sun was shining. Once out on the road, we headed through Akureyri, then off on Highway 85 straight north. Yes, Iceland is about mountains, but weather changes the look of the landscape each hour. Light reflects off the mountain peaks, stark white snow covers others and shadows bounce in-between.
We stopped at a number of "viewing locations" along the way, some overlooking vast valleys and others perilously close to the cliff's edge looking out to the Arctic Ocean, but the real treat was Godafoss, not the largest of Icelandic Falls, but spectacular none-the-less as you can view the massive top network of streams that pour down into three distinct falls filling a giant basin below.
Then with some anticipation and wonder, we could see Husavik in the distance as the road wound down through the mountain passes. Husavik was, (is?) a Whaling town ... they have since traded their lives (at least the old-timers) as whalers on the open frigid sea for taking passengers in fancy skips to view whales and porpoises. We popped into one of the whale watching offices and checked out pricing (between $150-$200 Canadian) and other information including many sightings in the past few days of a Blue Whale!, Orcas and Minke whales.
It was nearing lunch time and we looked about for a nice place to eat. Meals were always fun, we visit Bonus in each major town and load up on the healthiest stuff we can find to eat on the road or back at the BnB. Food is noticeably expensive and Bonus resembles a small town "No Frills". We reserved a few special occasions to try the local fare and this was one of them. There was no question, the FISH meal. A white fish called "Ling" came to the table with tiny potatoes, spring salad on a bed of rice with a wonderful sauce that never over-powered but brought out all the flavours. A real treat!
The atmosphere in this town was the real McCoy ... a long row of homes each proudly displaying their heritage build date ... triggered the imagination, 1897, 1912, 1927, 1930 and the sounds and smells of the turn-of-the-century Whaling village sprung to life. How hard yet rewarding it must of been when the men returned to town after a successful catch.
We decided to proceed even further North to a road that returned southwardly down to the most powerful falls in all of Europe, Dettifoss! only to find all the roads leading south were closed this time of year. The entrance was only available off the Ring Road, which we could do tomorrow. The bonus in making this decision to go further north did bring us to where the two tectonic plates for North American and Europe meet and the "great divide" was quite obvious in the form of a large canyon with built-up walls on either side. We decided at this point to head back to Akureyri, just in case we got split up :)
On the way back we stopped at a lookout point to view a nasty looking storm blowing out in the Ocean ... we had already heard a cold North wind was blowing in, but this looked like snow ... we'll see. While at this lookout, I saw many Sea Gulls flying off the cliffs and soaring back and forth. I snapped a few in mid-flight and then hopped back into our rental and were off again. The rest of the ride home was uneventful ... as we enjoyed classical music from one of Iceland's few radio stations and the sun as it warmed us through the window.
Arriving back at the BnB we made some hot dogs on bread, with garlic hummus and polish sausages. As usual, after a meal we reminisce about the day and laugh at what might of been and prepare for a goodnight's sleep.
Day 6: Akureyri to Egilsstaðir
Woke up after a bit of a restless night, up and down looking outside to see if the Northern Lights were on show (they didn't). There were also a few shenanigans as Mark and I got up to some childish trickery leading to the giggles.
Continental breakfast served by our lovely host Eygló. What a wonderful woman she is -- so positive and passionate about what she does. Everything organic and fair trade. We enjoyed talking with her about her knowledge of the hudderfolk and the old ways. Eygló is a Reiki Master and teaches courses on healing. We were sad to leave but we had to be on our way. It had snowed during the night and we'd read warnings of road closures and snow throughout most of the day.
Indeed, much of our drive to Egilsstaðir was something of a white-knuckle ride through blizzard conditions. While many minor roads were closed, the Ring Road was open but dicey in places where drifting snow had gathered. This is where it paid to have our trusty 4X4 with good snow tires. Well worth the extra cost.
We were keen to get to Dettifoss, the largest waterfalls in Europe. We'd tried the day before from the north but were not aware that that road is closed in the winter time. So today, we'd try from the road in the south. But first, we wanted to treat ourselves at one of Iceland's hot baths in a natural lagoon where the water is heated from the geo-thermal activity underground. We drove around Lake Myvatn. Much of the lake we saw was frozen. In fact, we encountered a strange sight -- cars parked out on the ice several hundred yards from shore. I thought perhaps they were ice-fishing but couldn't see any evidence of that. Perhaps it was another strange Icelandic custom.
Further on, we noticed the Lake seemed to be anything but frozen as we travelled over old lava fields with their bizarre shapes of twisted rock. No wonder locals could be tempted to see in these grotesque shapes trolls and ogres. We stopped to take photos of the rocks and ducks in the lake before moving on as the snowstorm worsened. A little ways down the road, we came upon a strange sight -- a lake of bright turquoise, steaming water set against the white snow-covered ground. We'd reached the Myvatn Natural Baths, a sort of spa. Many visitors to Iceland take in the famous Blue Lagoon south of Reykjavik but I recommend the Myvatn Baths as they are not as crowded and a little bit cheaper. Mark and I arrived as the doors opened at noon. We paid 3000kr each (about $45CDN). The facility is clean and well-organised. We were given towels and a key to our locker. We changed, showered, and into the steam room, which is naturally heated from the steam underground. Then, a short walk in the brisk -5C temps and walk into the outdoor 'blue lagoon'. Ahhh......40C steaming water. And a snowstorm all around us. All of us bathers were giggling at the bizarre contrast between hot, soothing waters and icy, snowy weather around us. But it was lovely!! After an hour of getting suitably wrinkly and healthy (the alkaline waters are supposed to be good for your skin and general health), we left to avoid the arriving busloads of tourists.
Feeling refreshed, we headed off once again to find Dettifoss. The snow was a blizzard now. Down the road a ways, we found the turnoff. Dettifoss was north about 25km on a secondary road. We'd been told it would be closed but when we arrived we saw cars returning. We stopped the last one and the young man looked pretty disappointed. He told us we'd probably make it up the road in our 4X4 but the weather conditions were so bad that you couldn't see anything once you arrived. We hesitated and after some discussion, decided not to risk it. We turned around and drove off into the blizzard toward Egilsstaðir.
Sometimes the journey is more than the destination.
The roads were passable but in places, barely. And it didn't help that people seem to like driving fast even in icy conditions. We experienced a couple of whiteouts so the drive was a little white-knuckled at times. Then at one point we descended a mountain and came down into a sweeping plain that reminded both of us of what a desolate Arctic or Antarctica landscape might have looked like. Endless vistas of snow, rock, and snow-covered mountains in the misty distance. Then suddenly, Mark shouted, "Stop! Look! Caribou!!" I took a quick look into the rear view mirror to make sure no one was going to ram us from behind and pulled over as much as I could (Iceland's roads aren't the sort you can easily pull over on and police do not take kindly to anyone stopping on the road to photograph). However, on this occasion, without anyone else in sight, we risked it. While I watched for traffic, Mark took the photographs. Just as well too as Mark is an expert Nature photographer (while I'm an excellent driver). There must have been 150 reindeer (not caribou) grazing on the plain within a hundred yards or so of the road. Mark got some excellent photos.
The rest of the journey was relatively uneventful but both of us felt we'd been blessed with two experiences that more than made up for not being able to get to Dettifoss. About 4:30pm we finally pulled into Egilsstaðir, a rather non-descript town and probably the most modern looking we'd seen in a while. After fiddling with the GPS and digging out our AirB&B host's instructions, we found our way north on route 93. About 25km later we pulled up a track towards a farm on the gentle slope of a towering, snowy mountain. Off to the left was our bungalow, actually a series of about a half-dozen semi-detached cabins. Our home for the night is a mid-sized room with two single beds, a table and chairs, a small kitchenette with utensils and a hot-plate and fridge. And a bathroom with a welcoming walk-in shower. Our windows look out onto the mountain beyond the farm further up the hill.
The building is fairly new and seems to have been built to high-standard. It's a minimal design but functional, warm, and solid. One would imagine it would have to be to survive weather like we experienced today.
The snow is gently falling now and sleep beckons. Tomorrow is another day and another adventure.
DAY 7: White Knuckles and $100 Pizza
What a difference a day makes! After a rather quiet night and a good night's sleep just outside Egilsstaðir, it was up through the mountains, around fjords with hair-raising turns, steep climbs and sharp drops into the North Atlantic. My brother Michael did the driving and I highly commend his patience and tenacity working our way through all of this. Then, albeit briefly, the sun would show herself at the most opportune moments lifting our spirits and giving us hope that we are going to get through this. As we learned later, this stretch of highway was VERY close to be closed and was marked RED by all the road apps.
As a photographer, I was awe of the lighting. Mountain tops lit up, glaciers aglow and the sea billowed with black, white and grey swirls of cloud. We took the old Hwy 92 (which is the new Hwy 1) and headed south, it would eventually turn into the old Hwy 96 (another new Hwy 1) then finally meet up with Hwy 1 ... find that confusing? ... so did we and that led us to make a wrong turn and end up in Neskaupstadur. It wasn't a bad thing as it turned out, because we saw some beautiful mountains surrounding the village and stopped and had a coffee in the town's only grill and gas station.
Finally we got back on track and continued our journey. For several hours, it was through mixed weather and gorgeous vistas on every turn. Stopping at lookout points, pulling over and stopping in some small villages spent even more hours. Around one corner however, came a surprise ... the road ended with a hole in the mountain ... called a tunnel. Thankfully it was two lanes and dry ... but it was 7km long and a little claustiphobic:), but there was a light at the end of the tunnel and we continued southward.
We spotted some more Reindeer, stopped at some cool cliffs overlooking the Ocean near Dijupivogur and finally pulled into Höfn. Our check-in time wasn't until 6pm and it was only 4pm so we had a few hours to check out Höfn. Michael parked the car at a sea-side lot and I walked up to the top of a hill over-looking the town. Glaciers, Mountains and Oceans on display.
Since it was nearly dinner time, we decided it was one of those meals we'd eat out and try the local fare. Earlier we met Alex and Paul, two travelers from New York with their wives and they were on a similar trip to us. We exchanged greetings, swapped some contact info and they recommended a few places to eat. As it turns out, we went to the same place they did, a local Pizzeria, that specialized in gourmet pizza. We took the hostess's suggestion of Lobster Pizza and were happy to discover that Höfn was a Lobster town and in fact the season JUST started. The pizza was absolutely delicious, but we were shocked when the bill was presented to us for 7200 Krona. That was the best $100 pizza we ever had ... and the last :)
Off to our BnB, the host had left great instructions and we found the place and our room, it was in an older home, set on its own between the Ocean and the Mountains ... it really reminded me of Dorothy's farm in Kansas. That was further cemented when my brother told me our area was "yellow" because of extreme wind warnings. I hope I don't fall asleep and wake up in ...
Day 8: Höfn to Eyjafjalljokull - Ice and Fire
The Saudanes B&B was in an old farmhouse outside of the town of Höfn, where we'd had pizza for dinner, trimmed with pieces of fresh local lobster. Our room was comfy and warm. We met several of the guests including Jessica from Houston Texas who was travelling around the island in the same direction as we were. We shared scary stories of our driving through snowstorms in the north. Mark and I stayed up till midnight hoping we might see the Northern Lights but no luck. But Nature did provide us with roaring and howling winds all night, but not even gale force winds roaring down off the Vatnajokull Glacier could keep Mark and I from having a good sleep.
We woke at 6am, packed up and headed out for the volcanic and glacial area of Vatnajokull further along the south coast. Vatnajokull is the largest ice cap in Iceland and one of the largest in Europe.
What makes this one intriguing and potentially dangerous, is that there are several active volcanoes hidden underneath. There have been a number of eruptions during the past 20 years including Grimsvotn in 1996, which caused a Jökulhlaup or an outburst of glacial lake water that flooded the plains below, and washed away roads and bridges as well as destroying farms and arable land. We saw the evidence of this destruction in fields strewn with gravel and boulders and a washed out road and bridge.
It never ceases to amaze me to look upon the evidence of these amazing forces within our earth's crust, to see the lava fields, the rock-strewn fields, the black gravel sand deltas, and twisted rock formations, and thrusting columns and other outcrops of basalt and igneous rock. Then we get up close to the glaciers. These huge tongues of ice creep slowly, calving huge chunks of clear, white, and blue ice into the river below that carries them slowly to the Atlantic where they end their lives.
At Jokuskulsarlon Glacial Lake, we watched for over an hour hundreds of chunks of glacier (icebergs) slowly floating like dancers toward the sea. Among them, seals bobbed, curious at the onlookers. Later, we headed for the beach which is strewn with "ice sculptures", those same ice chunks sculpted by wave and wind. We watched one large "iceberg" make an attempt to get out to sea, only to watch it hurled back by the waves, probably to be broken up in smaller chunks and left ashore to be admired over by the dozens of tourists. More photos ensued.
We had to press on as the afternoon was waning. Still, the sun shone brightly, despite a cold wind.
We discovered a nearby cafe centre where we could also walk up a hill and get much closer to the glacier itself. We were nearly blown out to sea ourselves by the hurricane force winds hurtling down over the glacier. I don't think I've ever walked against an icy wind like that. But down in the glacial lake we actually saw folk in protective gear being taken by small boats out to one of the larger icebergs that had recently calved from the face of the glacier. Needless to stay we stayed only long enough to take a photo or two and let ourselves be blown back down to the cafe where we warmed up over a delicious bowl of mushroom soup and a mozzarella and basil pesto Panini.
Satisfied, we headed back for the car and on we went. We eventually reached the little town of Vik with its rather gothic-looking basalt stacks just off shore and a picturesque church on the hill overlooking the town. More photos. About 10 or 15km out of town, at Sólheimasandur, we saw a bunch of cars parked on the left and stopped to investigate. Signs indicated that nearby was the site of a US Navy plane that had ditched on the beach back in 1973, when it reportedly had run out of fuel. The crew survived but it was later learned that the pilot had mistakenly switched over to an empty fuel tank. So, today, it's a stripped hulk of a plane that draws hundreds of tourists. What many don't know, including my brother Mark, was that it's about an hour's walk to the beach from the parking lot -- and an hour back so you really need to want to see what's left of this plane.
Personally, I didn't so took advantage and got myself a couple hours of rest in the car.
Finally, Mark returned and we made our way down the road toward our night's accommodation at Drangshlid Guesthouse, another wonderful farm B&B nestled beneath the cliff that in part comprises the infamous volcano Eyjafjalljokull. Our host Timara welcomed us with a smile and showed us the renovated farmhouse and to our room upstairs, another simple yet cosy place to rest our heads. We're here for 2 days which will give us time to explore the area. Mark, a Nature photographer with a keen interest in birds has lots to keep him occupied, while I'm keen to see the new Volcano and Earthquake Exhibition Centre where I can learn more about the story of how Iceland was formed and is continuing to be shaped by the dynamic forces that lie within.
Mark will return tomorrow to bring you all the news from tomorrow's adventure. Until then, good night.
Day 9: The Day of the Jökull
We awoke to our second day at Mountain Queen Angelica BnB, I have to say right-off the bat, this place is the cat's meow. A beautiful farmhouse 34 km west of the nearest town of Vik. The hosts are Thorinn and Timera and they are hard working, kind and put a lot of work into making your stay a wonderful, homey experience. My brother and I had a guest room in the house which meant we got to share the kitchen, living room and bathrooms. A breakfast came with the stay and it too was superb. I finally found out why they called it Mountain Angelica ... this is in reference to a perennial herb of the same name and native to subarctic regions of the Northern hemisphere. It is used mostly in cooking similar to celery but also as a flavouring agent. In the case of breakfast it was used in a wonderful chutney-like spread and was delicious. With breakfast under our belts, we headed out east, back towards Vik, but only 5 miles or so to check out the black sandy beaches and a lighthouse. We elected to view the black sandy beach from atop a mountain where the lighthouse was situated.
Back on the road again now heading west to the Lava and Volcano Exhibition. We read about this from a brochure at the BnB and we were pretty excited as we were both wanting to understand more in depth just what was going on under this island of rock and ice. On the way, as was the custom, getting distracted was "normal". We saw a sign for Seljalandsfoss and turned in to see this very high water falls. It certainly didn't disappoint and by the time we checked it out, busloads turned up and the place was packed.
Finally we reached our destination. The small but expanding town of Hvolsvöllur hosted the Lava and Volcano Exhibition not to mention a really nice restaurant cafe. The exhibition was very well done. A large molten core was on display showing how they rise up through the mountain building pressure and waiting for a chance to escape. One narrow walkway simulated what might be felt during an earthquake and it was a little un-nerving. Well informed displays talked about the different kind of volcanoes as well as their various components. The last exhibit was a 360 degree graphic display of the nearby topology showing several volcanoes ready to blow or have blown in recent years. With a clever point-and-shoot technique using your hands to point to various spots on the display you could ignite an eruption. When the 30 min exhibit was completed, you then walked into a 20 minute video/music presentation that showed you real footage of the 2010 and 2011 eruptions as well as some old photographs of an eruption back in the early 1900s.
As we left the building, Hekla was visible some many miles in the distance, so we couldn't help but take a Selfie with Hekla in the background :) Hekla is one of Iceland's young, active volcanoes and is only a matter of time.
And last but not least for the day's activities, we stopped by a large herd of horses and I was able to feed a carrot to one - which was one of the quirkier things on my bucket list in Iceland.
Day 10: Skogafoss to the Golden Circle to Reykjavik
Sadly, today is our next to last day. Our 10-day journey around Iceland is quickly coming to an end. But not before we take in the famous Golden Circle.
Mark and I woke up to a glorious sunny morning at our farm B&B near Skogafoss. Once again, we enjoyed a wonderful breakfast and conversation with our hosts Thorinn and Timara and a new couple from Boston who arrived last night.
We thanked our hosts and took a final photo of us together and wished them well. They hoped we might return to stay with them one day and both Mark and I gave a big thumbs up to that idea.
Now that we were well fed and carrying warm wishes, we made sure we had everything and headed off, only to realise about a half hour down the road that we'd left our food in their fridge. Oh well.
All part of our contribution.
That last part of our itinerancy included a visit to Iceland's famous Golden Circle. As the name suggests it is more or less a circular route (not to be confused with the Ring Road) south east of the capital city Reykjavik that many tourists opt to do when time does not permit a more extensive exploration of the country. It includes many of Iceland's famous sites such as Gullfoss, the Geyser, the Blue Lagoon and other landmarks.
But as Mark and I have discovered these sights attract many tourists and are quite hyped up with large parking lots of tour buses and other guided tours as well as large cafes and gift shops. At least winter keeps the numbers manageable but we've been told the summers are very busy. In fact, Iceland will attract nearly 3 million tourists this year alone, which is quite something given that there are only 300,000 people living in Iceland.
But like many places, sometimes the best sights are found off the beaten track. More than once, our curiosity to take some farm track or minor road has led to a beautiful discovery as we found out when along the way we turned off on a track that led us to Urridafoss. Arriving in the parking lot we discovered that there were only three other people there. This beautiful waterfalls is Iceland's most voluminous and was once considered for a hydro project which would have dammed the river.
Fortunately, the project was never realised and we were able to enjoy its natural beauty. And while we took lots of photos, you have to allow yourself some time to just stand and be awed by the power of Nature to create such a place.
We moved on making our way North to the first of two planned stops – Gullfoss and then Geyser – although once again, we found ourselves pulling over in the middle of nowhere when we saw a small herd of Icelandic horses standing by a fence looking as if they were expecting us. We still had a few carrots in our stores, which Mark fed to our new friends and they graced us with some horse play while we photographed them.
Eventually, we found Gullfoss, one of Iceland's most iconic waterfalls. It's not the biggest waterfalls in Iceland but still very impressive and its star power is reflected in the investment in a large cafe and gift shop and other amenities. There were many tour buses here and other local guides touting for business, taking people to nearby volcanoes and glaciers.
Again, we took lots of photos and perused the gift shop without spending anything. After an hour or so, we were back in the car and off to the next stop a few kilometres down the road – Geyser.
Geyser is, as the name suggests, the original geo-thermal phenomenon for which all geysers are named. Once spouting a hundred foot plume of boiling water and steam every 10 minutes or so, Geyser had gone rather quiet as of late so its eruptions are less frequent and not so predictable. However, Geyser has a neighbour – Strokker – who erupts approximately every 6-10 minutes shooting a plume of hot water and an impressive cloud of steam between 15-20 metres and occasionally reaching as high as 40 metres. The crowds wait patiently with cameras ready and ooh and ahh appropriately when Strokker rewards them. Poor Geyser meanwhile steams away with a few tourists standing hopefully nearby before giving up and moving on. There are several other pools of steaming water and the smell of sulphur hangs in the air.
Our next stop was Reykjavik. We arrived back in the neighbourhood of Kópavogur where we started out ten days ago and settled into our B&B for our last evening in Iceland. But our activities weren't over yet. For our final night, we'd accepted a generous invitation from two locals – Audur and Johannes. Audur (pronounced “Oh-thur”) is the cousin to my storytelling acquaintance from Calgary, Karen Gummo. Karen had put me in touch with Audur and her partner when she learned of my trip. Karen's ancestors are from Iceland and she often tells stories linked to the island and her ancestors' travels to western Canada.
Mark and I arrived for dinner at 6pm and met Audur and Johannes and their two children. Audur is an environmental consultant and Johannes is an artist and teaches at the Art College in Reykjavik. He's also holds a PhD in Philosophy so we knew that we'd be in for some interesting conversation.
But first dinner. Johannes had prepared a delicious leg of lamb accompanied by roasted potatoes, corn, peas, and mixed vegetables. And it was complemented by a tasty Icelandic beer. The conversation flowed and Mark and I learned much about Icelandic history, politics, and culture.
Coffee followed and more conversation and laughter. We also discovered that Audur and Johannes had lived in Calgary for three years and had also spent a year in Edinburgh, a place that had been my home for 25 years.
Not wanting to overstay our welcome, Mark and I thanked our hosts and bid our farewell, wishing them well and extending our own invitation to them should they ever venture our way in Ontario.
Our final tasks are to wash our rental car before returning it, having breakfast and picking up any last-minute gift, before heading back to the airport to check in and await our flight back to Toronto.
We've had an amazing 10 days in Iceland. Both Mark and I feel it surpassed our expectations. We had fantastic weather the entire time, cold but sunny – why even the blizzard we encountered in the mountains near Egilsstaðir has become part of our adventure and provided such a contrast, for example, when we were bathing in the hot springs at Lake Myvatn.
We've met some amazing people, had interesting and comfy accommodation, and experienced some of the most incredible scenery I've ever seen. Superlatives fall short in the land of cliché. You have to come and experience for yourself to know what I'm talking about. Both Mark and I would return here, without question. I would certainly want to stay longer and take in the Western Fjords in particular as well as explore more of the Easter Fjords. I also loved the north and would like to return to Husavik and go whale watching and get to the island of Grimsey.
We have so many highlights to savour and look forward to sharing our stories and photos with you in the near future.
More to follow.
Day 11 - Homeward Bound
I always find leaving a bit sad, especially when you enjoy the place you have been to and Iceland was no exception.
When I first wrote "An Adventure is Born" on the blog here, I mentioned the raw elements ... rock, wind, water, ice (and fire) and how I was drawn to them. Much of that was based on seeing many of those elements from my trip to Newfoundland some years back, but in Iceland, the evidence of these were not just visual, they were felt. They weren't just amazing views, they were part of everyday life in Iceland and without over thinking it, I have discovered Iceland is continuing to evolve and change - shaped by volcanic activity beneath, erosion from the sea around it and carved out by strong winds.
Sitting on the runway ready to head back to Toronto, my brother and I were successful in completing the 1400 kilometer Ring Road journey. That was our goal. Lords of the Ring (Road). But, like any adventure, there is so much more; unexpected twists and turns, surprises around each corner, weather that changes quickly ... and we experienced all of that. After-all, isn't that what makes the journey a great adventure.
Not only were we inspired and awed by the incredible mountain scenery, the majestic falls, the herds of reindeer, rich bird-life and wild horses ... there was a real human element as well. My brother interviewed one of Iceland's premier storytellers Ingi Hans, we shared a meal with friends of friends who opened their home to two strangers and served us a Sunday supper with warm, engaging conversation. There were the hosts we met and interacted with in the various BnBs who were kind, helpful and genuine.
Iceland experienced a crushing financial blow back in 2006 and life as they knew it was shook-up to say the least, but for a people that live with earthquakes and volcanoes erupting almost daily, their tenacity and will to survive the obstacles is as strong as their Viking blood. Tourism at least in this last decade had been the answer to help the country overcome some of the financial strain - but not without its challenges. Two million visitors last year and a population of just three hundred thousand - opening their homes, creating and supporting an infrastructure to serve this throng.
The question even among Icelanders - where will it all end? As resourceful a people Icelanders are, they are also a very private people, with strong ties to family and the land. The conflict to share both is evident but for these two weary travelers, we say a heart-felt "Thank you!". You have blessed us and we are so much richer for it.
In closing, I'll leave you with a quote I saw on the airport wall in Iceland that sums it up for me.
"On earth's part
all days start beautifully
patiently it revolves and revolves
with its trees
and oceans and lakes
deserts and volcanoes
the two of us and the rest if you
and all the animals"