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Published: June 27th 2015
So today I begin my 2-day trip to the south of Iceland with EXTREME Iceland. I'm hoping the tour company's name provides the exciting trip it seems to promise. I've been looking forward to this trip more than any other so expectations are high.
I'm picked up at my hotel and taken to Extreme Iceland's base where Bjorn our tour leader for the trip is waiting for us in a minibus that quickly fills up with people among whom are lots of excitable young Chinese girls! As we set off we have problems with Bjorn's headset mike - he's on his own so needs to be driver and guide as he's going along so this is kinda important equipment. We even have to go back to base to sort it out which isn't a good start, but eventually the mike is fixed and we set off for a second time. The sun is shining again - I've been so lucky with the weather on my travels in Iceland - but Bjorn is full of doom and gloom and predictions of snow and rain to come. We all look pretty sceptical as we don sunglasses to cut down on the glare
from the brilliant sunshine reflecting off the snow and streaming into the minibus. Thermal energy
As we drive out of Reykjavik we are on a volcanic plateau boarded by blue mountains - the place Reykjavikers love to go skiing. We pass some more steaming bore holes. Icelanders have really mastered the elements to their own advantage. Hot steam at high pressure goes towards generating geothermal power. Mist eliminators are used before sending the hot, dry air into turbines connected to massive generators producing electricity. Hot water is used to heat homes and businesses and even some underground heating for roads and pavements to keep them ice free, but this water has unwanted materials in and cannot therefore be used for hot water straight out of the tap. Instead heat exchange is used to heat water from nearby rivers which is then run through underground pipelines via gravity feed. A small amount of sulphur helps to protect the pipelines so it isn't advisable to drink or cook with the hot tap water. Pretty clever stuff. Selfoss Town and tales of 6 year old McDonald's burgers!
We pass Ingolfur's Mountain Ingolfsfjall. Remember Ingolfur? He's the first settler of
Iceland who chucked the two wooden posts into the sea from his boat and wherever they landed would be his home. Supposedly both Ingulfur and his gold are buried somewhere in the mountain but we don't stop to have a look for them. As we drive further on the sun is still shining - so much for Bjorn's predictions we smuggly think. We pass through the town of Selfoss. Bjorn tells us it is the main centre for the south coast and is where all the surrounding farms come to get their supplies. With only 5-6k population it's pretty small but for Iceland this amounts to a major metropolis! It has the ubiquitous Domino's Pizza and Subway food outlets BUT there are no McDonalds in Iceland any more. The financial crash was a blessing in disguise in this respect as the company found it was too expensive to operate its franchise in Iceland and pulled out selling one of it's last cheese burgers to Hjortur Smarason in October 2009. Instead of eating it Hjortur decided to test the non decaying properties of McDonalds burgers that he'd heard rumour of and put it on a shelf in his garage to see
what happened. Apart from the gherkin disintegrating, the burger is still going strong today 6 years later and is now on display at the Bus Hostel in Reykjavik with its very own webcam! http://bushostelreykjavik.com/last-mcdonalds-in-iceland if you want to check it out! Hekla 'hooded' Volcano
As we carry on further south along the main ring road circling Iceland we see the volcano Hekla in the distance covered in snow. This 1400m high volcano tends to erupt two times every century, the last time in 2000, but apparently they are expecting another one quite soon. Hekla was thought to be the entrance to hell in times gone by and its not hard to understand why when you think what it would look like when in full angry mode! Secret Gljufrabui Waterfall and spectacular Seljalandsfoss Waterfall
We stop off to have a look at the famous Seljalandsfoss waterfall, but before we head towards the hoards Bjorn takes us to a spot along the cliffs way off to the left of the famous falls. We see and hear water crashing down from the top of the cliff but it seemingly disappears into hillside. As we get closer we realise that
there is a cavern in the rock face and some of us brave the rocky stepping stones and squeeze through the little gap to get inside to see the falls. It's really special with light flooding down into the cavern and cold spray hitting our faces.
In the clifffaces between the two waterfalls I notice pairs of birds nesting and on closer inspection see that these are fulmars. Also flitting about are loads of red wings - small birds from the thrush family, speckly and buff coloured with a burnished red tinge under its wings and on its face. They have a great latin name 'Turdus iliacus'.
Gotta love the toilet humour!
And so to the main attraction, Seljalandsfoss waterfall. This is the mighty waterfall that you can walk behind, but in wintry conditions this is easier said than done. The ground is covered in strangely shaped bobbled ice making it almost impossible to stay upright and icicles, like a snow witch's gnarly fingers, point downwards from the rock faces all around. Lottie Let Loose is pretty determined however and I manage to get up the ice covered steps by clinging onto the hand rail for dear life.
Once up to a flatter area I think it's going to get easier but even this graveled surface is treacherous. Tiny steps and arms out to the sides to help balance are the order of the day. This is all accompanied by thunderous water crashing down into the pool below, the noise heightened and amplified by the cavern behind the falls. I make it to the level area behind the falls and get doused by a fine mist of spray from the water smashing into the rocks. It's an incredible and exhilarating experience. Getting back down the other side is equally challenging. Even with really good walking boots I'm skidding all over the place and don't avoid the inevitable fall or two with accompanying shriek! Back down at the base of the falls I can see Seljalandsfoss in all its glory, water crashing down from the 60m high cliff face above.
Another secret at these falls is a sneaky geocache hidden in some very obvious rocks but not near to any main paths. It's actually a pretty big box - happy, happy. I love finding geocaches in spectacular places with so many people around who don't have a clue
it's there. 'friedagaric TFTC'. Eyjafjallajökull Volcano
We get back into the minibus and a little later as we are approaching yet another volacano Bjorn sets us a challenge - to be able to pronounce its name by the end of the trip! And when we see the high scrabble score potential for this amazing jumble of letters we can see why he thinks it will be a challenge for us. I write down the phonetics which go something like this 'Ay-er-furt-la-yurgurt-ll' the 'll' being pronounced the way you'd say double L in Welsh. This is the volcano whose eruption stopped air traffic in Europe in 2010 for about a week and a half with 95,000 flights cancelled, many people left stranded far from home and £1.1 billion of lost revenue! It was the ash from the eruption that caused all the problems, with airlines understandably not wanting to risk their plane's engines getting damaged and risking air disasters as a result. We stop to take photos of the volcano and the farm that was totally covered in ash during the 2010 eruption. Photos on the information boards show the huge plumes of black smokey clouds emitting from the
Eyjafjallajökull. The farmers were evacuated for 5 days but the livestock had to be left behind because of movement restrictions/disease precautions. Now there is a visitor centre explaining the eruption and what happened to the farm. Skogafoss Waterfall
Wow this part of southern Iceland is so cool. Volcanoes and waterfalls appear every few miles and we have yet another waterfall to see a little further along Iceland's famous ringroad. This is the mighty Skogafoss, a photographer's paradise. Instead of heading to the base of the waterfall I start the long climb up the metal staircase that hugs and zigzags the hillside to the right hand side of the falls. A geocache symbol is flashing on my gps and I'm on a mission to get this one however knackered I am when I finally get to the top. When I make it the cache is located a little way along a muddy path off the main footpath that takes you to view the top of the falls. The cache container is a small, glass jam jar which seems to be surviving ok. I sign the log, re-hide the cache and then head back down the stairs, passing the Chinese
girls on the way. I'm starting to get to know a few of them, despite the language barrier and they are a really fun bunch. They love taking silly photos and I'm sure I must appear in quite a few of them. Back down to earth I learn from an interpretation panel that there is actually a legend of hidden treasure attached to Skogafoss, but this is no glass jam jar. A settler named Prasi is supposed to have hidden his chest of gold behind the waterfall. Three men from Skogar tried to retrieve the chest and managed to get a hook into the iron ring on its side. They pulled as hard as they could but the chest was too heavy and the iron ring broke off. The ring was put on the church door in Skogar and now can be seen in the Skogar Folk Museum. I try to get my photo of Skogafoss, but find there are too many people dotted about to get a clear shot without them milling about in the foreground. Then suddenly they part and there balanced on a rock really close to the base of the falls is a tiny, lone figure
in a bright red coat. Perfect! Reynisdrangur and the black sand beach (near Vik)
The geological marvels don't stop coming. We head off towards the coast and take a little walk to get to the black sand beach near Vik. Here also are the famous Icelandic basalt columns that were the inspiration of Gudjon Samuelsson's Hallsgrimkirkja and Akureyrurkirkja designs. We are all wrapped up to the nines as the weather has suddenly got much colder and here on the coast a biting wind is almost tugging us over. There is a cave hewn out of the basalt columns and we shelter in here. The angular, dark-grey, stone columns towering above us are amazing. I get a great photo of a girl in a bright, white coat with fur lined hood standing on the columns. The contrasting colours and hardness of the rocks set against her softness are fab. Dripping down from the ceiling of the cave are more long, glistening icicles. It is so surreal to be by the sea with icicles in the caves and snow on the black sand!
Out to sea there are three 60m high, rocky sea stacks pointing skywards. These are the
Reynisdrangur and provide the home for many arctic terns. Legend tells of three trolls Kessundrangur, Laddrangur and Lanhamar who were hauling a three masted ship in to shore when they were caught in the dawn's sunlight and turned to stone. Another folk tale tells of the seals, who were thought to have descended from humans, that would come ashore once a year, shed their skins and dance in the moonlit cave we had been sheltering in. One year a fisherman found one of the discarded seal skins, took it home with him and locked it in a trunk. A few days later, on returning to the cave, he found a beautiful naked young woman - the seal whose skin he had stolen. He took the woman home, clothed her, fed her and eventually took her as his wife. Despite growing to love her husband the woman longed to return to her life as a seal and would often sit on the black sand beach looking sadly out to sea, but her husband kept her seal skin locked in the trunk, the key kept on a chain around his neck. The years passed and the fisherman forgot about the seal skin
in the trunk and was careless with the key. On returning from a fishing trip one day he found his wife had vanished, having said goodbye to her seven children. From that day on a single seal would swim close to his boat and come to watch her children on the beach. It's said that you can see tears falling from her eyes. Moduhardindin 'Mist Hardships'
We pass through an area covering 206km2 called Laki covered with moss covered rocky lava fields and pseudo craters as far as the eye can see. We have a quick stop to climb one of the rocky outcrops by the side of the road and view the weird lava field spectacle. It's only a quick stop because the weather has really turned, with blustery snow whipping horizontally stinging our faces. We take a quick photo then rush back into the warmth of the minibus. The area is like this because in 1783 a fissure opened up with steam bursting through to form over 180 pseudo craters. Lava spilled all over the valley. The eruption lasted 8 months and produced catastrophic consequences for the people and animals living in the area. It is
estimated that 20-25%!o(MISSING)f the local population and over half the animals died from the resulting famine and flouride poisoning. This era in time became known as the 'mist hardships' due to the mist that lingered in the air. The mists didn't just affect the people of Iceland. Weather and crops were affected by the poisonous mists as far afield as Scandinavia, Scotland, other European countries, Russia, north Africa, Asia and Japan. A local phrase from those times is still used today 'Retja, retja' or 'it will be fine in the end'. Despite their grim existence following the eruptions it seemed the Icelanders of the south remained optimistic. The only signs of life we see today are a few geese spotted in the fields as we drive on through the blizzard conditions. I think they are pink footed geese - different from the greylags we saw near the waterfalls. Black sand breaks bridges!
This unlikely headline is actually true. We stop off to see ruined parts of Gigjukvisl bridge that had been washed away along with the road crossing the Skeidarasandur sandflats in 1996. An eruption in the Vatnjokull glacier caused glacial floods containing icebergs and black sand
to gush down the valley. The water load from the glacial floods built up so much that the road and bridge was washed away. We cross another bridge made to replace this one and it's narrow enough to need passing places along it. Half way across Bjorn points out the different colours in the water flowing down from different mountains into a confluent point under the bridge. One is a normal blue colour and one is green from glacialial water. Road Closed!
By now the weather is so bad that Bjorn is having to concentrate really hard to keep the minibus from blowing or skidding off the road. Anyone who tries to take a photo, the red light showing on the windscreen, is roundly told off for putting him off his driving. This is serious stuff. We realise quite how serious when we find our road blocked off by a rescue vehicle and a sign displayed saying the road is closed until further notice due to the strong winds. So Bjorn was right all along. His doom and gloom predictions all those hours ago in sunny Reykjavik were proved to be correct.
We are forced to bundle
out of the minibus and into the garage cafe/restaurant to sit and wait out the storm. Just as we are starting to have a look around at some of the souveniers and food and drink on offer I spot our minibus, minus driver and passengers, being slowly blown away past the window! I shout to Bjorn who runs out of the garage and manages to get into the minibus and put on the brakes before it crashes. He parks it in a different place around the other side of the garage a bit out of the path of the gale force winds. Every so often an extra strong gust shakes the building we are in. Exciting! There's a TV screen showing the forecast and changing weather conditions around Iceland and where the road closures are. It seems Bjorn had something similar in the form of an app on his phone. So despite the sunshine in Reykjavik in the morning he knew it might be bad further around the ringroad later in the day. Sneaky! In the end we have to stay in the garage for just over an hour. It's getting pretty late by now and we hope we can
get to our hotel. The road opens and we head off into the night. The surface of the road is obviously now covered in snow and the going is therefore very slow. Poor Bjorn has been driving for hours already today and this is just lengthening the journey time even more. Eventually we limp into our hotel. Fortunately the hotel owners seem used to this kind of thing and we are treated to a lovely meal, soup followed by, for me, a really nice vegetarian option of a fried potatoes, cheese, salad, nut thing. After a beer and a chat we are shown our rooms into which we collapse. I have a lovely big room with a massive bed all to myself. Quite a luxury after my youth hostels. And so to sleep after an amazing journey. EXTREME indeed!
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