In what is becoming a rather increasingly common occurence, I am at a loss of words in doing justice to describing this amazing island of contrasts. My eyes still sting when I close them, after 246 consecutive hours of sunlight. The sun never sets in Summer (which isn’t a bad thing, as I’ll admit I still fear the dark) but not so good when local accommodation doesn’t believe in black-out blinds.
On June 2nd, I flew into Reykjavik with two college friends, Jayne and Katie, who are now living in London. We arrived at 1am, to a sun that didn’t quite know whether it was rising or setting, so just glowed orange upon the horizon. Reykjavik is a modern city, with Scandinavian flare, and unfortunately an American influence, as the Yanks have used the island as a Cold War monitoring station since WW2, (and then forgot to leave). It has rather modern architecture, and a-mazing restaurants! In fact the food all over was rather good – when you found a place to eat. Outside of the capital, there are barely any options. But local cuisine consists of minki whale (cheaper than beef!), lambs head, horse, reindeer, seal (how dare they!), and puffin (barbarics!). Puffin is actually their most prominent bird, with 10-million of these clumsy, yet adorable birds nesting over the Summer months.
Our first, and final stop of our 10-day excursion was the Blue Lagoon… steaming hot baths in the middle of literally no where. We had to shower naked before entering in their communal showers. I was almost ready to back out! A worker overhear us arranging to go in one at a time, and she kindly showed us to some private facilities. Apparently, stripping off in front of everyone is no big deal for the Scandinavians! (despite this, you will not find a single strip club in Iceland. Or McDonalds btw). As we floated in the 39-41-deg water, we applied silica mud masks, and gazed upon the misty horizon of the lagoon, feeling utterly content. I do recommend!
We spent the first 2 nights in Reykjavik, then proceeded to make our way clockwise around the island (and driving on the wrong side of the road!). There is a main road that goes around the island (The Ring Road, completed in 1974 – and they’re very proud of it), but it’s not tarred the whole way. We went off the beaten track more than once, although we’ll keep that under wraps in case Eurocar is reading.
The single-lane roads are built up, so there’s no quick turning off for a photo. So, we would stop in the middle of the road. After all, outside of the city, we didn’t see any other cars, and were wondering whether we’d missed the memo regarding a new erupting volcano? I realise Iceland has so few people that their PM is even listed in the phone book, but didn’t know we had timed our trip perfectly to miss the tourist rush.
Our first stop was Snæfellsnes National Park, believed to hold magical and healing powers, and to some, a meeting place for aliens. The Icelandics are mystical people, believing in trolls, ghosts and elves. In fact, there is a committee set up to converse with elves, because if they aren’t consulted on constructions, their projects fail, and machinery gets mysteriously destroyed. Google it.
We spent out first night at Sæberg, a story in itself.. then proceeded up to the North’s capital, Akureyri. It’s a cute town, of 17-thousand (my definition for a ‘big’ town has now changed – anything with 200+ is considered a booming metropolis around these parts!). The best part of Akureyri, was the Icelandic lamb (as cute as it is tasty) and the red traffic lights, which boomed out rays of red hearts. We certainly were feeling the love!
My most favourite part was Myvatn, in the north (the north kicks over the south, despite what the weekend tourists will tell you – plus the weather was superb with clear skies – unlike the cloudy south). This area is bubbling with mud cauldrons, steaming with hot smoke vents, painted in yellow sulfur deposits, and buzzing with midges! It felt like we had walked into another universe. And just beyond it – snow!? We climbed craters, hopped over hot springs, and breathed in the rich, sulfuric air…. ah, something I won’t miss! The water on the whole island tasted and smelt bad too, but next time I smell sulphur, It will take me back to pleasant memories..
What we found most incomprehensible was that one minute we were avoiding hot inner-earth eruptions, the next we were bobbing around in a glacial lagoon or gazing at yet another dramatic waterfall (Iceland has over 10,000 – so many, they don’t even name them anymore). Speaking of waterfalls, we also ran into one of China’s high standing men of the Communist Party at Gullfoss, and made it onto their nightly news, waving madly, like drowned rats in the middle of the worse downpour I’ve ever experienced! He was there to bail out their economy and tie it to the Yen – and already by the time we left, our British pounds weren’t worth what they were at the start of our stay!
We also spent the night in Vik, a not-so-sleeping town of about 600, under Katla – the big volcano overdue to erupt and cause widespread damage. It erupts twice a century, and the last time as in 1918, so of course, we stayed awake that night, believing tonight just had to be the night… and were slightly disappointed when we woke, unfried, and with not such a great story to tell.
However, we had consulted with the local girl working at the small tourist office, who gave us comfort in telling us we’ll feel the earthquake first, and get 1 hour warning, before moving to higher ground. And not by car – their engines die with ash in them, so it’s by foot – to the highest hill possible. And she added, not to worry as the lava will spill either side of the mountain range, and will just cut them off from the rest of the island. It’s the glacial flooding to be aware of – and don’t try to take a boat out to sea – there’s no harbour. They actually speak about Katla as if “she” is a person, and are wishing she’d just hurry up and do her damage! She even related it to her recent overdue pregnancy. Oh the Icelanders.. what a wonderful breed of people!
Katla is next to Eyjafjallaökull, which by the way, I can pronounce! (after several lessons and humiliation by our new friend in Vik). The area all around is covered in ash, and there is still significant flooding.
But these two are by far not the only volcanoes in Iceland. There are over 200 known active volcanos, dating back 11,000 years. They’ve experienced 41 volcanic activities in the 20th and 21st Centuries, with Laki being the worst in human history (1783 – we drove past her but it was foggy that day. She’s believed to be responsible for 23,000 deaths across Europe, and a factor in sparking the French Revolution). So as you can imagine, most the countryside in Iceland is made up of lava fields, covered in a pretty pastle-green moss.
At Jökulsarlon, we took a boat ride around the lagoon which features in James Bond and Tomb Raider – only formed in the 1940s after a volcanic eruption melted some of Vatnajökull (the largest glacier outside of the poles), and mixed with the salty seawater, and how could we forget good old global warming to further its melt?
We stayed in Hofn, pronounced by making the sound of a hiccup, so you can imagine the fun we had here 🙂
The Golden Circle is regarded as one of the best places in Iceland, as it includes the geysir (a water spout that shoots up with dramatic effect every 6-10 mins, and a second one which only goes off 3x a day, and is much larger) and Gullfoss. But this was the particularly rainy day, and I must admit, I was far more concerned that my clothes were now see-through from the soaking, than engaging in any further water activities.
We spent the last two nights back in Reykjavik, and went horse riding on their special Norwegian breed horses brought over during the Viking Age. They all had horse flu though, so some how I think I may have difficulty getting back into Australia if I let that one slip. Jayne and I also went on a puffin watching cruise.
The Icelanders are wonderful people – friendly, and haven’t had their opinions tainted yet by the unfortunate Aussie backpacker stereotype (in all honesty, we only came across old travelers anyway – you know, old ones like our parent’s generation). But, if you do wish to offend an Icelander, here’s 3 ways: 1. Call their horses ‘ponies’; 2. Don’t bathe naked before entering their pools (oh my, I have seen more naked women than I ever care to have seen!); and 3. Wear your shoes inside.
I could say so much more, but as this is already so long, I’ll let my photos do the talking.