DAY 71: FINAL FAREWELL TO ICELAND…


One last day in Iceland…

After so many days of sightseeing and travelling around the Icelandic countryside we decided to give ourselves a day off to relax and just enjoy Reykjavik. We had a pile of laundry to do too (including all our thermal underwear!), and some banking and emails to catch up on, so today wasn’t nearly as exciting as the last few days have been. Still, it was great having a “day off” and wandering through Reykjavik, checking out all the souvenir shops and doing a bit of people watching. Having an occasional chill-out day is the key to longevity when it comes to this travelling thing, I think, otherwise we risk “burning out” and needing a holiday from our holiday! We didn’t take many photos today, but here’s a little reminder of where we are and the scenery around us…

 

Magical Iceland.

 

These are the memories we will take with us from Iceland.

 

Seems Iceland was ready for a break too; after the last couple of gorgeous sunny days we’ve had, the weather today was overcast, drizzly and cold. No gale force winds or dashing, icy rain like Wednesday, but still the kind of weather that makes you seek out cosy coffee shops and linger over hot cups of cocoa. And who are we to argue with the weather?! We visited one of Reykjavik’s cosiest cafes for our morning cafe latte, then just strolled through the Main Street in town. It was a great day for people watching as today was the annual Reykjavik Gay Pride Parade and the streets with packed with people in town for the party.

 

Reykjavik goes off for the Gay Pride Parade.

 

Iceland does good weather for cosy cafes and hot chocolates.

 

There’s a big concert on down at The Harpa tonight with lots of local bands playing (Iceland has a lot of live music on and a pretty funky music scene, with lots of alternative and folksy stuff on offer). We will, unfortunately, have to miss out on the party because we’re flying out at 7:00am tomorrow (which means a 4:00am wake up call – ouch!), but it was great to see all the locals out supporting the local gay community. Iceland is actually very “gay friendly” and generally very egalitarian; while much of the rest of the world is still struggling with issues of gender equality, racism and/or discrimination based sexuality, Iceland has had multiple female prime ministers (they even elected openly gay female prime minister!); they lead the way in terms of equal pay and opportunities for all races and across the genders; and gay marriage was legalised in 2010. People here generally seem very open, fair and accepting of everyone; the people of Iceland have in fact been one of the highlights for us – they are as wonderful as their country!

 

Where else but Iceland can you enjoy a day at the beach like this?

 

Iceland – land of trolls, dwarves, elves, fairies and nature spirits.

 

The Icelanders we’ve met have all been incredibly friendly, welcoming and seriously funny. They have the BEST sense of humour – it actually reminds us a bit of home the way they happily tease tourists, feed us tall tales about Iceland and make fun of us. I was discussing this with Johan,one of our driver/tour guides, the other day and his perspective is that Iceland can be so harsh, and people here have had to fight so hard to survive over the centuries that their sense of humour has evolved as way of coping with the earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, glacial floods, freezing winters, famines, etc. In that sense Iceland really does remind us of Aus – I think the “Aussie larrikin” evolved out of hardship as well. For us it’s been great being somewhere where we can absolutely be ourselves, senses of humour and all, and not have our jokes fall flat on their face because nobody gets it, or worse, risk offending or upsetting someone with our jokes. I think any Icelander coming to Australia would similarly find themselves at home and socially comfortable. There are other similarities we’ve noted with Australia too. Not the landscape of course, that is uniquely Icelandic.

 

Icelanders have great senses of humour. How else could you survive 9 months of winter living in a small stone hut, with a turf roof and your animals housed next door, like this?

 

The uniquely Icelandic landscape. Need a sense of humour to survive this…

 

Even though the landscapes in Iceland and Aus are vastly different (almost opposites really), there are things about Iceland that remind us of home. Things like:

  • The original settlers of Iceland were criminals, exiled from Norway. Like Australia, it seems Iceland was founded by convicts! 
  • The distances between things here are quite large, and there’s nothing in between places. Sure, they don’t have anything the size of the Nullabor, but we drove for hundreds of kilometres this week through desolate lava fields with not a village in sight. Then suddenly, after miles and miles of nothing, there’s mountains, a glacier, a volcano. Like Aus, it’s the contrast that blows you away.
  • The isolation and desolation. Some of the small fishing communities we passed get cut off for weeks in winter, and some of the farms are so isolated that they have their own mini-geothermal plant supplying their electricity. That kind of self sufficiency and survival, despite the elements, definitely reminds us of parts of Aus.

Obviously Iceland is a hell of a lot colder, wetter, greener and windier than Aus, but we can almost relate to the landscape here. One thing Iceland does WAY better than home: they don’t have any bities! No snakes, no scorpions, no spiders, no deadly octopi, no crocodiles, no lethal jellyfish… nothing nastier than a puffin. If we could handle the cold, this would be paradise for us!  

 

The isolation and desolation of Iceland reminded us of home at times. 

 

One of the things that made us fall in love with the warm, friendly, welcoming, funny people of Iceland even more is the way they speak. Icelandic is a beautiful language. It’s quite similar to Norwegian and Swedish in some ways, but with a lilt to it that is absolutely unique. The language has an almost Gaelic cadence to it, which would make sense as many of the earliest migrants to Iceland were Celtic thralls the Vikings brought over with them. Icelanders roll their “r’s” beautifully too; not like in the Mediterranean languages though, this is a warm, fuzzy rolling “r”, deep in the back of their throats. And when they speak English they carry the cadence with them and continue to roll their “r’s” in a way that makes English sound so lovely. The way Icelanders speak is PERFECT for storytelling; hearing them talk about their beautiful country and its history made us want to curl up with a cup of hot chocolate in front of a fire, with our feet tucked up under us all warm and snugly, listening to their stories for hours…

 

We could sit and listen to Icelanders tell us stories about their beautiful country all winter…

 

Icelandic history and folklore is told through “The Sagas”. These long tales were traditionally told around the fire through winter and are still taught to children in Iceland today. These epic tales have helped keep the essence of Icelandic culture alive for 1,000 years. They tell of how mountains were formed, how valleys came to be and how men learnt to live in harmony with this incredible landscape.

 

One of the other things we fell in love with while in Iceland was the food. Specifically, the lamb and the skyr (translation = traditional Icelandic yoghurt). The lamb here is soooooo tasty; Iceland has ruined us for lamb – no lamb will ever taste as good, nor be as tender or as succulent…. I have no idea what type of sheep they farm, but I DO know that we saw them everywhere, and they are seriously shaggy and scruffy looking. They are also seriously delicious. Skyr is also seriously yummy! Tarter and tangier than yoghurt it is made in a similar way but is fermented by totally different bugs to the yoghurt we’re familiar with and is much higher in protein. Apparently skyr was how the Vikings used to ferment their milk but it went out of fashion in mainland Scandinavia. Recently, however, Iceland has been exporting skyrto Finland, Sweden and Norway where it has been “rediscovered” as a health food. Finally, we love the idea that food here is often cooked “by steam” or “by earth”. That is, they stick your food in a pot or in some aluminium foil and bury it in the hot volcanic ground  or suspend it over a geyser. This effectively slow cooks the food, making it very tender and tasty. Mmmmmm… tasty Iceland.

 

Just another gratuitous photo of awesome Iceland for your viewing pleasure.

 

 

We have not loved some of the other traditional Icelandic foods so much. Like kæstur hákarl (translation = fermented shark). This seriously stinky meat is made by hanging Greenland shark meat up for 4-5 months, letting it decompose enough for the ammonia-rich meat to become non-toxic and edible. Apparently Icelanders still eat kæstur hákarl in February, when they celebrate mid-winter. They also eat fermented lamb and beef, which did not tickle our fancy much at all. Instead of curing with salt, the practice of preserving meat in fermented whey became dominant in Iceland. The lactic acid in the whey denatures the proteins, effectively preserving them the way acetic acid in vinegar preserves pickled vegetables. To our fussy modern palates it sounds horrendous, but these foods allowed the Icelanders to survive the long winters. Svið is another traditional dish we didn’t have the guts (literally) to try. This is half a sheep’s head with the brain removed, singed to remove the fur and then boiled. Not sure I could eat a sheep’s head with the eyeball still in there, staring up at me. Mind you, after 8 months of winter, if I was hungry enough, it would probably sound very tasty!

 

Surviving out here in winter must have taken some serious ingenuity.

 

Alas, however, we have eaten our last meal of tasty Icelandic lamb (“earth” cooked), with skyr for dessert. Tomorrow we leave this wondrous place and head to Munich, ready to begin the Germanic leg of our journey. We have 6 weeks in Germany, Switzerland and Austria to look forward to now! We bid a very fond farewell to Iceland, and a grateful “so long” to Scandinavia in general – it’s been an amazing 6 weeks in the lands of the Vikings and we thank you from the bottom of hearts Finland/Sweden/Norway/Denmark/Iceland for a magnificent experience.

 

The sun sets on our Icelandic experience….

 

May our lives’ paths lead us back here once again to experience more of this wonderous place.

 

DAY 70: GLACIAL BLUES OF ICELAND


How many shades of blue did you see today? We saw this many….

 

Iceland Blues.

 

As if one day of glorious sunshine wasn’t enough, Iceland gave us another day like that today too! We couldn’t waste it so we decided to take a trip to the Jökulsárlón, one of Iceland’s largest glacial lagoons. Jökulsárlón is on the far south-eastern coast of Iceland, about 5 hours’ drive from Reykjavik. It’s a long way for a day trip but after the glimpses of glaciers we got to see yesterday, we wanted more! The drive took us past the farmlands and waterfalls we saw yesterday, and through the village of Vik. The other side of Vik the landscape changed from farmlands to lava fields. Great expanses of crumbly, ragged lava; some of it so new it hasn’t even been covered by moss yet*.

*Iceland’s Laki volcano began erupting on June 8, 1783, and continued doing so for months, causing a major environmental disaster. The volcano spewed out ash and toxic fumes that spread over northern latitudes, causing widespread losses of human and animal life. The ash cloud from the volcano caused a summer heat wave, widespread famines, crop failures and livestock losses – it’s even speculated that the volcano-induced crisis might have hastened the French Revolution. The following winter, record cold was seen around the Northern hemisphere. In Iceland the volcanic eruption caused a toxic mist to settle over the land for months, producing such devastation that 80% of their livestock and 25% of the human population died. The Icelanders call this time the Móðuharðindin (translation = The Misty Hard Times). The lava flow from the Laki explosion was the largest ever recorded and is so recent that it is mostly still barren, with just a light covering of moss over it. 

 

Today we drove up over the hills around Reykjavik and through the South Coast, towards the Vatnajökull glacier and Jökulsárlón lagoon.

 

Once we passed the farmlands of the South Coast the landscape became quite barren and desolate.

 

We crossed numerous rivers that carry glacial melt waters (and snow melt in the spring) to the ocean.


After about 4 hours Vatnajökull began to appear in the distance. This massive glacier is Europe’s largest – it covers a surface area of 8,100kmand is 500-1,000m thick. The glacier conceals a number of mountains, valleys, plateaus and volcanos, reaching a maximum height of 2,000m above sea level and a low point of 300m below sea level. This thing is HUGE! 

 

Our first glimpses of Vatnajökull glacier.

 

The glacier gradually got bigger and bigger….

 

…until it filled our entire field of vision.

 

We were able to get really close to the edge of the glacier which was amazing; to see something of such magnitude and force sure does leave you feeling insignificant and small. This glacier was grinding its way past mountains, creating valleys and flattening hills long before humans even existed; no doubt it will still be there shaping the landscape long after we are gone.

 

A quick photo stop as we approach the glacier, just to prove we were really here!

 

We were able to get close to the glacier’s edge…

 

…so close we could almost touch the 1,000 year old ice at its edge.

 

Jökulsárlón lagoon sits on the southern edge of Vatnajökull. The lake connects directly to the ocean and waters flowing off the glacier flow through the lake on their way out to sea. The lake is filled with fish (e.g. herring, trout, salmon) and seals gather in large numbers at the mouth of the lake to catch fish during the winter (in summer the seals are out at sea eating and having babies). It’s a big lake – over 284m deep and covering an area of 18km2; it wasn’t always that big however, the size of the lake has increased four-fold since the 1970s. This is believed to be due to Global Warming, though no one knows for sure (all over Iceland glaciers are retreating and thinning though so something is going on). With the waters a deep aquamarine blue and numerous icebergs bobbing around in the frigid waters, Jökulsárlón looked like something off a postcard – it just didn’t look real (felt VERY real when we stuck a hand in the water however – the water hovers around 2-3C in summer and often freezes over in winter).

 

Allow me to introduce to you Jökulsárlón lagoon.

 

Walking around Jökulsárlón lagoon, marvelling at all the various shades of blue.

 

Iceland’s best blue.

 

Jökulsárlón Lagoon, Iceland, with Vatnajökull glacier in the background.

 

We spent as much time as we could walking around the lake and were even able to cruise around the lake on a boat, getting close enough to some of the icebergs to touch them. It was absolutely stunning.

 

Check me out – cruising on a glacial lagoon in my cool orange life jacket. Oh yeah… (Who are they kidding with that life jacket? With water that cold you wouldn’t survive a minute. The jacket’s probably just so they fish your body out of the water easily.) 

 

Cruising Jökulsárlón lagoon was awesome. Totally awesome.

 

Some of the icebergs were crystalline and white. These are apparently the ones currently melting

 

Others were quite glassy and almost transparent. These are apparently icebergs that have flipped over and exposed their underbellies, which are usually more of a vivid blue and transparent.

 

This iceberg was in the process of flipping, as you can see.

 

As we sailed past the icebergs, in a moment of absolute silence, you could hear the ice cracking and the icebergs breaking up.  The cracks were so incredibly loud – like gunshots across the water.

 

The icebergs with black striations through them are chunks of glacial ice that formed in years when there were volcanic eruptions. The ash from the eruptions settled on the ice and just became part of the structure of the glacier.

 

After a couple of hours of admiring the lagoon it was unfortunately time to head home. Today was our last big outing in Iceland and WOW, what a day trip it was. If you’re ever in this part of the world and are trying to decide whether to make the effort to go all the way Jökulsárlón – DO IT! Today was definitely a highlight for us, something we will remember forever.

 

We’ll definitely remember this day forever!

 

DAY 69: THE GRASS REALLY IS GREENER IN ICELAND!


Exploring Iceland’s South Coast by the light of the sun

Turns out Iceland was testing us yesterday; testing to see if we could really love this place, even when it’s cold, grey, wet and windy. Those that couldn’t hack it and left the island with their tails frozen between their legs obviously don’t love Iceland enough. We stuck it out though – we pressed on… and were suitably rewarded for our valour with a magnificent, sunny, wind-free day today. We woke this morning to see that yesterday’s rain, wind and freezing temperatures had been replaced by sunshine and blue skies. Yay!

 

We loved you before Iceland, when you were cold, wet and windy; but now we absolutely ADORE you!

 

The landscapes here are impressive enough, but add some sunshine into the mix and it takes your breath away. We were so lucky to have such a splendid day for our trip to the South Coast. This scantily populated area is Iceland’s main farming area; from the ocean to the foothills of the Central Highlands, the wide, flat lowland plains of the South Coast are divided into pastures for hundreds of kilometres. Most of the farms here are animal farms* (i.e. cows, sheep, horses) and the pastures are mainly used to grow grass during the short 2-3 months of summer; this grass is then turned into hay to keep the animals fed during winter. At the moment the fields are all so green it almost hurts to look at the fields when it’s this sunny!

*There is a little wheat grown along the South Coast too, and recently greenhouse-based farming (heated and powered by geothermal power) has also become more common in this area. Iceland is self-sufficient when it comes to fish, lamb, beef, dairy products and horses (we found out today they eat their cute little ponies, as well as ride them and use them as working animals), but most of the grains, fruits and vegetables Icelanders need are imported. Hardly surprising really!

 

The grass was so green at times it almost hurt to look at it!

 

The flat expanse of the Icelandic South Coast plains.

 

This is prime farming land, with pastures full of fat, happy cows, sheep and horses everywhere.

 

Geologically speaking it is the newest part of Iceland, with much of the land being just a few hundred thousand years old (very new compared to Snaefellsnes where we were yesterday that is 2-3 million years old, mainland Europe which is around 300-400 million years old and Australia which is about 3-4 billion years old). There are numerous active volcanoes on the southern side of the Central Highlands, including Eyjafjallajökull, the one that erupted in 2010, spewing millions of tons of ash into the atmosphere and disrupting air travel around the world. The mountain itself is only about 1650m tall and the crater is barely 3-4km is diameter, but it is one of Iceland’s more active volcanos. All around the base of the volcano there are farms, many of which were devastated after the 2010 eruption due to the ash cloud. As our guide informed us, however, the farmers banded together and worked to clear all the ash away; once the ash was cleared away, life went back to normal. I guess you have to be pretty resilient living under the shadow of an active volcano that erupts every few years!   

 

Farms at the base of the infamous volcano Eyjafjallajökull.

 

Some of the farms at Ellie’s base still had the original turf houses standing. You can just make them out in this photo to the left of the modern farmhouse.

 

 

Our tour today took us out of Reykjavik, past the now familiar steaming geothermal power plants and over the hills that surround Iceland’s capital city. As we crested over the hills, it was awesome seeing the South Coast open up below us.

 

Driving past the steaming vents of one of Reykjavik’s geothermal power plants.

 

Cresting over the hills behind Reykjavik, with the South Coast plains opening up in front of us.

 

First stop was Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls. The Skóga River plummets 62m here, carrying glacial melt and snow melt waters down from the Central Highlands. The cliff the waterfall cascades down used to be a sea cliff, when this part of Iceland was under water (today the sea shore is 5km away); now though it is an easily accessible slice of Icelandic wonderland.

 

Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls. And us.  Look – we’re not wet and barely cold

 

The epic drop of Skógafoss.

 

The beauty of Skógafoss, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls (note size of people in the foreground for perspective).

 

From Skógafoss we carried on to the village of Vík where we had ample time to get lunch and explore the village. This tiny hamlet of 300 people is famous in Iceland for its wool and the jumpers they knit. This may not seem like a big deal but Icelanders take their jumpers VERY seriously (understandable given the weather). Traditional Icelandic jumpers all have 3 things in common: they are incredibly warm; they’re made from the softest of wools (not itchy at all); and they all have a decorative yoke around the neck (the design resembles fragments of a snowflake to me). These lopapeysa (translation = woollen sweater) are sooo common here – everyone wears them!

 

The village of Vik. Famous for its wool and woollen jumpers.

 

The view back to Vik from the beach.

 

From Vík we also got to go down to black, basalt sand beach to see the Reynisdrangar Rocks and go puffin-spotting (Iceland is home to most of the world’s Atlantic Puffins – about 10 million of them nest here during the breeding season). Unfortunately we saw no puffins (they must have been out of their burrows enjoying the sunshine too), but loved the Reynisdrangar Rocks. These craggy basalt stacks are the remnants of much larger cliffs that used to stand there tens of thousands of years ago. The cliffs have been eroded by the wind and waves – there is no landmass between Vik and Antarctica and, consequently, the ocean there can be pretty rough. According to Icelandic legends the Reynisdrangar Rocks were formed when 2 trolls were trying to drag their ship to land; they took too long to get ashore and turned to stone when daylight broke.

 

Vik’s black basalt beach. And us.

 

The Reynisdrangar Rocks near Vik. Can you make out the 2 trolls and their ship?

 

Vík lies directly beneath the Myrdalsjokull glacier, which itself sits atop Katla, one of the biggest and baddest volcanos in Iceland. Katla has a caldera over 10km wide and erupts every 50-100 years (the last big eruption being in 1918). When it last erupted Katla spewed out so much lava that the southern edge of Iceland expanded by 5km! We didn’t go onto the glacier but admired it from afar, watching it sparkle in the sunshine.

 

The Myrdalsjokull glacier, covering Katla’s flanks.

 

We could see the glacier sparkle in the sun from our vantage point.

 

Finally, from Vík we wound our way back along Iceland’s Route #1 (the island’s ring road) to Seljalandsfoss. This 60m high waterfall is unique in that you can walk behind it to get a great view out into the surrounding wilderness. It was wet and slippery back there but very cool (actually it was bloody freezing – that water is straight off a glacier!).

 

Seljalandsfoss waterfall, Iceland.

 

Seljalandsfoss waterfall from the front….

 

….and from the back.

 

On the drive back to Reykjavik we were able to enjoy more glorious sunshine and epic views, sending our grateful thoughts out to the powers that be for a marvellous day up here in The Land That Time Forgot.

 

More epic Icelandic views.

 

Just watching the scenery roll past…

 

Iceland – there’s nothing like it.

DAY 68: BLOWN AWAY BY ICELAND


 

Cold, windy, rainy… why, that’s perfect Icelandic beach weather!

For today’s Icelandic adventure we went to the Snaefellsnes, a rugged peninsula North of Reykjavik known for its mountainous terrain, fishing villages and beaches. This unique promontory is considered quite rugged and isolated, but is said to best exemplify Iceland’s coastline and showcase how its many fishermen live. Fishing is Iceland’s top industry, followed closely by aluminium manufacturing and tourism (can you believe 1 million people visited Iceland last year?!). Given that 96% of Iceland’s population live within a few kilometres of the coast, and that fishing has been a cornerstone of Icelandic life for literally 1,000 years, visiting Snaefellsnes seemed like a good way to understand a bit more about this fascinating country. The landscape on the peninsula was indeed mountainous and rugged, as you can see.

 

The rugged beauty of Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

 

It was a great day out, though the heavens conspired to keep us as wet and cold as possible. It rained virtually all day and the 60km/hr wind was frigid and incessant. We both came to Iceland expecting it to be cold and rainy, but even 4 layers of clothing (which included an inner layer of thermal underwear and an outer layer of water-proof Gortex) didn’t quite do the job. Iceland really tested our love today with its sideways rain and icy winds, but we’re still hanging in there!

 

We still love you Iceland, even when you do THIS to us!

 

It was dark and rainy as we drove out of Reykjavik and North under (yes under – there;s a tunnel 150m below sea level) Hvalfjordur (translation = the whale’s fjord; so called because legend has it that the shallow, short fjord was formed by a giant whale slapping its tail and rending the land asunder). When we popped up on the other side of the fjord and the rain was really bucketing down, but our guide told us the weather is often better over the mountains on the Snaefellsnes Peninsula proper. So we persisted, eager to be across the mountains into the “better weather”.

 

We were eager to cross the mountains, hopeful of better weather…

 

Across the mountains the first town we stopped in was Borgarnes, the capital of this fishing region. This town of 2,000 hardy souls sits at the mouth of the Borgarfjordur (translation = Borgar fjord) and is beautiful on a sunny day I’m sure. Today the steely skies painted the town grey and made the rising mountains along the fjord seem rather foreboding, though no less impressive. 

 

The impressive Borgafjordur.

 

Having by this stage accepted that today was going to be wet we were happy to continue on, knowing that at least we would be dry and warm in our little mini-van. At least we were until we reached the tiny fishing village of Langaholt and our guide informed us it was time to get out of our dry, warm mini-van and go for a walk on the beach. Seriously?! Sure, why not – 3C, Arctic winds and pelting rain… that’s PERFECT beach weather!! Why get out and go for a walk? Well, we were there to see Iceland’s only white sandy beach. Most of Iceland’s beaches are black, due to the volcanic sand, but the Löngufjara (translation = long beach) is a white shell-sand beach. I can’t say Löngufjara has anything on the beaches we have back in Aus, but it was certainly unique.

 

Perfect beach weather! Relaxing on Iceland’s only white beach, Löngufjara.

 

After our rather invigorating beach walk we were sooooo happy to get back in the heated minivan, and soooo scared when our guide pulled up a few minutes later at Budir to show us the blowholes and unique rick formations. *SIGH* Still, we’re only going to be in Iceland once (this time ’round anyway), so we got out and once again braved the elements. And it was totally worth it. Iceland is spectacular; the landscape is just so dramatic and wild. 

 

Braving the elements to check out the unique coastline at Budir.

 

The blowholes were in full force, with the sea churning and boiling through the holes in the rocks.

 

Even through the rain we could see how extraordinary the coastal rock formations were.

 

Iceland’s spectacular West coast.

 

Next bracing stop was Dritvik Beach, where pieces of a wrecked fishing trawler that ran aground during a storm in 1943 can still be seen strewn across the black volcanic sand. On the beach there are also 4 big stones which used to be used by local fishermen to test their strength. The idea is that you have to lift the stone to at least hip height and hold it for at least 3 seconds for the lift to count. A man’s strength was then classified into one of 4 categories, depending which stone(s) he could lift: 

  1. Stone #1 (23kg) – Wimp.
  2. Stone #2 (54kg) – Weakling.
  3. Stone #3 (100kg) – Half Strong.
  4. Stone #4 (154kg) – Full Strong.
 

“Weakling” marked the line between real men and boys; any man who couldn’t at least lift Stone #2 was deemed unsuitable for a life as a fisherman. Tough lot these Icelandic fishermen hey! These days the stones are mainly just lifted by tourists looking to prove themselves. Given the icy rain and gale force winds, Shane and I decided we really didn’t care to test our strength and just settled for a walk around and a quick photo of the beach. 

 

Dritvik Beach, where Icelandic fishermen used to lift big rocks to test their strength (and where tourists now go to do the same and injure their backs in the process).

 

By this stage it was lunchtime and we we were very grateful to find a warm, cosy restaurant in Hellissandur where they served hot soup and fresh bread rolls to frozen tourists at very reasonably prices. If you’re ever in this part of the world we can highly recommend the fiskisúpa (translation = fish soup) and the kjötsúpa (translation = lamb soup). We also recommend checking out the traditional Icelandic turf houses – they are so cute! There are a couple of these preserved in the village of Rif in Snaefellsnes and we got to have a look. The houses were built half underground or half in caves if possible, then covered in turf for insulation and protection from the harsh Icelandic weather. This style of housing continued to be used until well into the 20th century, especially in the more remote Western and Northern parts of Iceland. Farmers built the houses as conjoined twins, with one of the houses for themselves and the other for their farm animals. This way the animals were kept alive in winter and the body heat from the animals helped keep the humans alive too. The smells from the animals must have been a little ripe by spring though!

 

An example of the traditional Icelandic turf house. One for the humans, one for the cows, sheep and horses.

 

The inside of the human half of the turf house. Tiny but very warm in winter I’m sure.

 

By this stage we were around the Northern side of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, behind the mountain range that runs up through the centre of this finger of land. This meant  we had some protection from the rain and those insane winds. Yay! It was still cloudy, but at least we didn’t feel like human icy poles. When our guide pulled over in Stykkisholmur to show us the harbour and Breidafjordur islands, we were actually really excited to jump out of the minivan and have a look around.

 

The fishing village of Stykkisholmur.

 

We’re dry! Yay!

 

The Breidafjordur islands.

 

With the rain busy drenching the Southern side of the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, our journey along the Northern coastline became quite pleasant and we got to see lots of mountains, lava fields, rivers and waterfalls. This peninsula is one of the oldest part of the island of Iceland, geologically speaking, and the Northern coast gave us an opportunity to see 3 million year old extinct volcanoes, valleys formed by ancient glaciers and lava fields covered over by Icelandic moss. The drive back to Reykjavik was awesome, with some amazing landscapes and vistas. We’ve included below a few of our favourite photos from today – enjoy (we did)! 

 

The rugged mountains of the Snaefellesnes Peninsula, Iceland.

 

Ancient lava fields overgrown with moss on Snaefellsnes.

 

Mountains towering before us as we drive through the Snaefellsnes Peninsula.

 

There is so much water here, cascading down mountain sides like this.

 

These immense valleys were carved out by ancient glaciers, grinding past the mountains on the way to the ocean.

 

Some of the farms were so isolated it left us wondering how they survive the long winter when roads can get cut off, the snow is thick on the ground and there are only 4 hours of daylight.

 

Many of the homesteads were dwarfed by the mountains around them. Iceland makes you feel very small and insignificant.   

 

DAY 67: EXPLORING ICELAND’S “GOLDEN CIRCLE”


What’s triangular, grey and beautiful? Iceland’s “Golden Circle” of course!

Gott kvöld (translation = good evening) blogaholics! Salutations from Iceland, officially one of our favourite places in the world. Who says love at first sight doesn’t exist? We’ve only been here 2 days and we’ve been half frozen the whole time, blown off our feet by 80km/hr Arctic winds and soaked by rain that was more ice than water, and yet WE LOVE IT HERE! Not saying that we could live here full-time or anything (coz if this is summer I cannot begin to imagine what winter is like), but there is something about the landscape here, about the people and about the feel of the place which is magical. Moments like this have helped us fall in love with Iceland…

 

Iceland, in a moment of sunshine.

 

Fortunately the intense wind* from yesterday actually eased off a bit today  and in between clouds we even had occasional moments of sunshine, making our day trip out to the so-called “Golden Circle” far more pleasant. The “Golden Circle” is the most popular sight-seeing tour out of Reykjavik. It’s an easy 8 hour day trip that includes the Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur (see map below). 

*We’ve been informed by the locals that wind is THE defining feature of Iceland’s weather. That and changeability. They say their summers have perfect “window weather” – i.e. it’s beautiful weather, as long as you’re behind a window, sheltered from the WIND. Having a day that was virtually wind free, like we did today, is apparently exceedingly rare. How lucky are we?!

 

Iceland’s “Golden Circle” tour.

 

Even though this is the most well-worn of Iceland’s tourist trails, we were intrigued enough by what the tour offered to sign up, accepting that we would be sharing the views with hundreds of other Iceland fans. To try and avoid the worst of the crowds we intentionally chose a smaller tour company that only takes 16 people max (Salty Tours), and it was sooo worth it! The driver/tour guide was awesome and he took us to a couple of places with our minibus that the big coaches can’t reach, like Vatnsleysufoss Waterfall. Affectionally known as “Faxi”, Vatnsleysufoss Waterfall is as Helgi, our driver/guide put it, “a good warm-up waterfall”. That is to say, it’s small, accessible and yet still impressive. See what you think… 

 

Faxi falls, Iceland. The falls only drop about 2m but the sheer volume of water cascading down was quite impressive. Located on the crystal clear Tungufljót River,the pool downstream of Faxi is popular with trout fishermen. There were a couple of guy there today, thigh-deep in the water. Brave souls (or just very hungry) – that water must have been freezing!.

 

“It’s not a huge waterfall, but I bet it’s bigger than yours.” says Shane.

 

Faxi is the warm-up act for one of Iceland’s biggest waterfall: Gullfoss. Located on the sediment-rich Hvítá River this huge waterfall is actually 2 consecutive drops (11m then 21m), down which spills 140,000L of fresh, glacier-melt water every second. It’s an incredible amount of water and makes for a pretty spectacular spot to enjoy a cafe latte, which we did, being the stupidly spoilt tourists that we are.

 

Gulfoss Falls, Iceland. In summer about 140,000L of water flows over the falls every second.

 

Zooming in on Gulfoss Falls. You can see the people in the picture – this gives a bit of a sense of perspective, showing how big the falls really are.

 

The final epic drop of Gulfoss Falls, Iceland. You can see how the water plummets and disappears down a deep crevice.

 

We love waterfalls!

 

Having been wet and deafened by Gulfoss Falls we then went to see the original geyser: Geysir.  This hot spring was the first geyser known to modern Europeans and the word “geyser” is derived from the Icelandic name of this gushing spout of boiling hot water. Geysir has been active for thousands of years, though these days it only erupts a few times a year (he’s getting old and thinking of retiring apparently, or so we were told by Helgi). Younger and more active is the geyser Strokkur; just a few meters away, this hot spring goes off every 4-5 minutes, shooting water up 30-40m into the air. The water comes out of the ground at a temperature of 80-100C, making for loads of steam and a hot shower if you get too close. the water coming out of the ground was pretty sulphurous and every time Strokkur erupted, the stench that filled the air was rather unpleasant, to say the least. It was fascinating watching the pool bubble and churn and then build up to a giant, stinky eruption.

 

The eruption of Strokkur – 1.

 

The eruption of Strokkur – 2.

 

The eruption of Strokkur – 3.

 

The eruption of Strokkur – 4.

 

The eruption of Strokkur – 5.

 

Around the valley there were about 40 other hot pools and geysers, all boiling hot and belching their sulphurous stenches into the air. Perfect place for lunch right? Well, we thought so and happily ate our tuna sandwiches on a grassy knoll overlooking Haukadalur Valley. Having been to Rotorua in New Zealand we knew a bit about geysers and geothermally active areas like this, but it was still very cool seeing the bubbling, steaming pools everywhere and trying to imagine the forces at work below our feet creating all that heat.

 

The stinking, steaming Haukadalur Valley.

 

The original: Geysir. Now semi-retired. When it does blow though it still manages to shoot air up 70m into the air.

 

Bubble, bubble, boil and bubble… One of the stinkier hot pools in the Haukadalur Valley

 

Litli Geysir (Little Geyser). What a cute little boiling, steaming, acrid, sulphurous hot spring!

 

One of the other hot springs in the valley. This one only goes off 2-3 times per day and not at all while we were there. The water was such a beautiful blue colour, but at 80-100C, it’s totally off limits!

 

From the Haukadalur Valley we went to Thingvellir National Park, which was by far the highlight of the day.  This area was designated a national park in 1928 due to its historical and geological significance (it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for this reason). From a geological point of view the valley marks where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet; or in this case, don’t meet. The plates are pulling apart in this region, and continue to do so at a rate of about 2cm per year. The movement of the tectonic plates has produced a massive rift valley called Thingvellir. The area is full of cracks and faults, with some of the cracks now filled with crystal clear glacial melt waters, forming lakes and ponds the likes of which we have never seen anywhere. The water in this lakes is so stunningly blue and clear that even on a cloudy day like today, it was breath-taking.  

  

The crystal clear waters of one of Thingvellir’s lakes. People fo diving through these lakes, though with a water temperature of around 4C, I don;t think there’s wetsuit thick enough in the planet to get me in there!

  

The craggy, rocky edge of Thingvellir. The valley below was formed when the two tectonic plates first tore apart.

 

Standing in the lowest point of the valley, with the edge of the North American tectonic plate looming to the left.

 

This crack in the Earth’s surface is huge – a canyon large enough to walk through!

 

Thingvellir is also of great cultural value to the Icelanders as this is where their first parliament was held in the year 930. The Alpingi (translation = “all thing” or assembly) began in 930, about 30 years after Iceland was first settled by Norwegian Vikings. The settlement of Iceland began in 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingolfur Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island. Over the next decades, people of Norse and Celtic origin settled in Iceland. Early on, district assemblies were formed, but as the population grew there was a need for a general assembly. Anyone could attend the Alpingi and present their grievances and have them addressed by the Law Council, and this was where chieftains met to make decisions that affected the whole nation. The assembly was also a social and trading event, with thousands attending it every in June. The Alpingi at Thingvellir was Iceland’s supreme legislative and judicial authority, and remained so until 1271 when Iceland was invaded by Norway. Then, in 1814, when Denmark colonised Norway, Iceland became part of the Danish Empire (Iceland only became independent again in 1944). Throughout its history, however, the Alpingi continued; effectively making Iceland’s assembly the oldest, still-running parliament in the world. It was cool to be in the Thingvellir Valley today, and thinking about the 1000 years of history that was shaped there.

 

Thingvellir National Park  was our final stop for the day, so from there Helgi took us back to Reykjavik, past some typically Icelandic scenery. As the moss-covered lava fields, farms and mountains rolled past, Helgi fed us interesting tid-bits and facts about Iceland. Things we learnt today:

  • Icelandic horses are unique in the world. They represent a genetic strain of Nordic horse that has disappeared from mainland Europe. These short, stocky, hard-working, but gentle animals are bred only in Iceland and are apparently exported all over the world. Their good temperament and strength make them popular with farmers. Interestingly Icelandic have 5 gaits, not just 4 like other horses: Icelandic horses tölt as well walk, canter, gallop and trot. The tölt involves the horse only having 1 foot on the ground at any one time and makes for smoother movement over rocky ground. 
  • Icelanders pay up to 45% income tax and have the highest VAT/GST in the world: 25.5%. For all their taxes however they get lots of public services, including good roads, schooling and healthcare. There are no private schools or hospitals in Iceland because the public ones are so good!
  • Iceland has 130 active volcanoes, hundreds of geysers, and 13 major glaciers. The glaciers cover 11.1% of the land area of the country. A volcano erupts here every 2.3 years on average and they have earthquakes so often it’s not even news-worthy!
  • Due to the harsh climate and frequent natural disasters (i.e. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc), Icelanders have a deeply ingrained culture of helping each other out in the event of some misadventure or disaster. The national sense of community is palpably strong.
  • Like all parents, Icelanders tell their children tall stories to amuse themselves, terrorise their kids and keep them entertained. For example, apparently kids here get told the rolled up bales of hay in farmers’ fields are giant marshmallows, left out by the farmers to attract trolls own from the mountains. This is done so thee trolls get so busy eating the marshamallows they don’t notice when the sun comes up and get turned to stone. This way the farmer gets himself a new mountains for his efforts and the world is free of one more troll.
 
A paddock full of 5-gaited Icelandic horses.

 
 

A field full of troll marshmallows!

 

Look – the troll marshmallows work! That farmer got himself a new mountain!

 

Helgi was great – he knew heaps about the geology of the landscape around us, the history of Iceland and all sorts of other random stuff about his home country. He kept us well informed and entertained for the whole day, peppering the commentary with what we have come to recognise as the dry wit of all Icelanders (they have THE BEST sense of humour EVER). The best quote of the day from Helgi, however came towards the end of the day, as we pulling back into Reykjavik. He said: “Life is pretty good here in Iceland. We have amazing nature all around us, clean water, food to eat, clean air to breath and we are a healthy lot. We have a good life here in Iceland.” Love it.

 

DAY 66: WELCOME TO ICELAND – IT’S GREYKJAVIK!


Vlekomin til Islands! 

We’re in Iceland people – actual ICELAND! Land of volcanoes, lava fields, black sand, glaciers and geysers. We’ve been REALLY excited about this leg of the journey; the desire to see the unique, unspoilt wilderness of this volcanic island was irresistible. This is the farthest North either of us has ever been (Reykjavik sits at 64°08’N – just 2° below the Arctic Circle; it’s actually the most Northerly capital city in the world) and it is so unlike anywhere we have ever been that already we’ve been left a little awed. Just look at the views we had from the plane as we landed:

 

The views from the plane as we landed were quite extraordinary. Blue glacier-melt lakes set against a lunar landscape with no trees and just a bit of green grass to off-set the greys and browns. Very cool.

 

Iceland from the air. 

 

Iceland is most certainly unique. It’s one of the most geologically active sites in the world, with a landscape that looks almost alien due to its desolation and topography. There are virtually no trees and out on the open plains, where winds blast across the island from the North and the East, there are only rocks, carpets of pale lichen and a few sturdy grasses. We passed through landscapes like this on the drive from Keflavík International Airport to Reyjavik. 

 

The unique landscape of Iceland, as seen from the windows of the bus from Keflavík International Airport to Reyjavik.

 

We flew directly from Copenhagen to Reykjavik this morning on a ridiculously early flight (we knew it was going to hurt when we booked it, but it was just so cheap!), which was not much fun, but did mean we had almost an entire day to explore our new home for the next week. We’re staying in Reykjavik for the whole week we’re here and exploring as much as we can of the rest of the island on day trips. Given Iceland is quite small (about 100,000km2), we’re actually going to be able to see a lot without having to move every 1-2 nights which is nice. We also decided to rent an apartment for our stay as we’re here long enough that it seemed worth it. The guesthouse we’re staying in has great 1 bedroom apartments and it’s right next to one of Reykjavik’s main tourist attractions: Hallgrímskirkja.

 

Guest House Sunna: our Icelandic home for the next week.

 

The bedroom (with some 10:00pm sun streaming through the window).

 

We can actually cook for ourselves in the kitchenette, not sure I remember how though…


Hallgrímskirkja is the main Lutheran Cathedral of Iceland. It was constructed in 1945 and is incredibly stark in its design,especially inside. And yet its the very simplicity of the church renders it so captivating and awe-inspiring. Also captivating is the statue in front of the church of Leif Eriksson, the first European to have set foot in North America. Nearly 500 years before Christopher Columbus made his way across the Atlantic, Leif, an Icelandic Viking, led an expedition from Iceland to Greenland, then on to the North American mainland. The statue was a gift to Iceland from the USA in 1930, commemorating the 1000th anniversary of Iceland’s first parliament. It’s amazing to think that whilst the rest of Europe was still picking the fleas of its butt, the Viking settlers of Iceland already had a system of elected leadership and parliamentary decision-making in place! 

 

We really enjoy being able to explore a new city on foot, so once we’d checked in, unpacked and seen Hallgrímskirkja, we set out to see more of Reykjavik. With a population of about 200,000, Reykjavik is Iceland’s capital city and most populated area (there’s only 320,000 on the whole island). It’s a small town by most standards, but it’s quite cute. We went all the way down to the harbour as well where we saw The Harpa, a concert hall and conference centre built in 2010 that is just extraordinary in design; and The Sun Voyager, an iconic sculpture designed to capture Iceland’s Viking heritage and the spirit of exploration those early explorers must have had. 

 

The Sun Voyager.

 

The Harpa.

 

The harbour-front was pretty, but unfortunately we couldn’t hang around to enjoy it because IT WAS SO DAMN COLD WE ALMOST FROZE TO DEATH. We knew coming here it would be cold (like maximum temperatures of 10-15C cold), so we brought our thermal underwear, a couple of jumpers and our good wind proof, weather proof jackets. NOT ENOUGH. It’s not the 10-15C ambient temperature that was the problem, it was the 30-60km/h winds blasting us from the Arctic that left us looking like this:


“Far out it’s cold out here! Hurry up and take the bloody photo!” says Shane.
“I think my butt is frozen to this stone! Hurry up and take the bloody photo!” says Robbie.
 
 
Fortunately the winds settled down later in the day, the clouds dissipated and we were able to venture out again a little later on to wander the streets a bit more. With the sun out, it was just beautiful out. And with less of an Arctic breeze, it was far more pleasant touristing weather! 
 
A Note on Iceland’s Weather
Cloudy and windy in the morning, blue skies and not a zephyr in the afternoon? Nothing unusual ’round here apparently. We discovered today that Iceland can be very WINDY (winds around 60km/h are common all year round!), but that the weather is also notoriously variable; so much so that the locals have a saying: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait 5 minutes”. Generally though the climate here is surprisingly mild, given how far North the country is (temperatures don’t often get below -5 or above +15, all year round). The secret to Iceland’s inhabitability is the North Atlantic Current and the Gulf Stream which bring with them warm air which helps keep average temperatures higher than in most places of similar latitude.
 
 
 

Hallgrímskirkja late in the sunny evening.
 
 

The Sun Voyager lives up to its name as the late evening sun reflects of it.
 

Views over Reykjavik towards the harbour.

 
 

Views over Reykjavik towards the peninsula.

 
 

Can you see why, even though it’s only our first day in Iceland, we love it already? Here’s a few more things about Iceland we discovered today that just make us love it more and more: 
  • Icelandic is the closest modern language to Old Norse. It has the same North Germanic roots as Norwegian, Danish and Swedish, but is much closer to its original Viking roots than those languages. Apparently Icelanders can read Old Norse texts without much difficulty due to the similarities.  We, however, have no hope with their language. Thank goodness everyone speaks English! 
  • Most Icelanders believe in the huldufólk (translation = the hidden people), including what we would think of as elves. 
  • The sun barely sets between mid-May and mid-August, and barely rises between mid-November and mid-February. We almost have a midnight sun here at the moment!
  • Cold and hot water come from totally different sources: glacial runoff for cold, geysers for hot. This makes cold water from the tap VERY COLD, but also very pure. It makes hot water from the tap VERY HOT and slightly sulphurous.
  • 85% of their electricity comes from geothermal power.
  • Icelanders have one of the highest life expectancies in the world (82.5 years).
  • This is one of safest countries on Earth. Like Japan, people leave their bags on tables and go order at cafes and restaurants and it’s fine. Crime is virtually non-existent.  
  • In 2008 when the Global Financial Crisis hit, Iceland’s banks went bankrupt. The people voted to let the banks collapse, rather than bail them out. The feeling was that it would tougher times for all in the short term, but that the people that did the wrong thing needed to be held accountable and that it would be better for everyone in the long run. 
  • Iceland is all about gender equality. It consistently rates highest for equal rights, equal pay, etc.  It was one of the first countries in the world to give women the right to vote.
  • They have no military force, just a Coast Guard. They spend their money on a socialist system that gives all its citizens free healthcare and high quality education instead. How awesome is that?
  • Iceland has a 100% literacy rate. They read more books per capita than anywhere else in the world and publish more books per capita than anywhere else in the world.Long winters I guess. What else you going to do? (You certainly wouldn’t be touching anyone with those cold, cold hands!)