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Published: February 14th 2010
Geysir's most reliable geyser can shoot up to 30m.
Whenever someone asked me what I was doing for Christmas, and I replied "Iceland", I got this crazy stare back in return.
"Won't it be cold there?"
I still honestly can't answer the second question. I guess I was looking for somewhere that would take a few days to explore and somewhere that I haven't been before, and I came up with the crazy idea of going to Iceland - and I'm so glad I did.
Travelling on Icelandair, it was awesome to be flying a proper airline again where you don't get charged to check in a bag - and you get in-flight entertainment!
My choice of entertainment was a documentary about Sigur Rós
, in my opinion the best band to have come out of Iceland. The whole documentary was about a free tour they did of Iceland in 2006, where they played in small towns all over Iceland, in some of the most coolest venues, including open valleys, an old fish processing plant and small tea houses. The documentary magnificently captured the beautiful and serene scenery of rural Iceland and the ambient music of Sigur Rós was a perfect match for it. It left me feeling
Iceland's most famous and spectacular waterfall.
excited about what Gkee, Davies and I were going to see in our six days here.
Touching down in Keflavik, it was unsurprisingly cold
. It ain't called Iceland for nothing.
Perhaps of more concern were my blocked ears. As a result of a sinus that has refused to go away and the flight, I could not hear shit as we talked to some Aussie girls on the bus into Reykjavik.
The shuttle service dropped us right outside the front door of our hostel and we learned from the guy at reception that we were the only people in the hostel that night. Guess not too many people are crazy enough to come to Iceland for Christmas then. Felt bad about having to make the reception dude come in to work though. I got a fright when he asked me for twelve thousand kroner. 200ISK = £1, but being asked for 12,000 of anything is a bit of shock. We'd all been at work that day so we didn't have any trouble getting to sleep.
As the alarm went off at 9am, we looked out the window to discover it was still pitch black outside.
We needed to get across
Over Hveragerði on Christmas Day. Photo: Michael Gardner.
town to pick up our hire car but ended up missing our bus as we scurried around freezing streets of cute, wooden, Scandinavian-style A-frames in a sleepy stupor, trying to find the bus stop. We ended up just taking a taxi, as it wasn't too expensive.
We were going to be staying the next two nights in Hveragerði, a small town 45km west of Reykjavik with a population of 2,000 people. We figured that nothing would be open on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day so we needed to stock up on some groceries - our guesthouse did have a kitchen after all. So after picking up the car we stopped by at a local supermarket.
If you can't get Christmas turkey, then chicken is the next best thing and Gkee has done a few roasts before, so we bought a whole chicken and left it in his hands. We actually could've got a 8kg turkey if we really wanted to, but even over two nights I don't think we could've got through 8kg of turkey between us, let alone afford it. Turkey is overrated anyway, it's always so dry.
As we were paying for our groceries, a tall trucker behind
us noticed we were speaking English to the checkout lady.
"You from England?", he asked us.
"Yeah, we live in London", replied Davies.
"You know you're not welcome here?", he replied.
We laughed at what seemed like an unusual joke. Except he wasn't joking.
"You're not welcome in this country", he continued, "you English still think that you're the Empire...arrogant scum. You guys can fuck off! Get out of our country! English fucking scum!"
He went on for awhile, but he didn't seem crazy - he just really hated the English. I wanted to tell him we were actually from New Zealand, but I realised that there was probably no point.
It was quite a scene and everyone in the supermarket looked on in total shock. This was our first morning in Iceland, remember. Welcome to Iceland and Merry Christmas.
Just as we were about to pull out of a carpark, a middle-aged lady knocked on our window.
"I just wanted to apologise for that horrible man", she told us, "I want you to know that that is not what the Icelandic people think. We are a very friendly and welcoming people and I hope you will see that...I'm so
Another awesome Icelandic waterfall. Photo: Steven Davies.
It really touched us for her to come and say that. We thanked her, and went on our way.
No-one really talked much for the next hour or so in the car. I was understandably upset about the whole episode. I knew that the majority of people here are not like that, but it nevertheless was a horrible experience, despite the fact we weren't even English. I later did some research on Icelandic-British relations and discovered that politically, relations are actually quite, errr...chilly. The British had actually occupied Iceland during World War II fearing an Axis move against the country, despite Icelandic protestations. In the 70s, there were disputes over fishing and territorial waters and recently the political tensions have been high following the Icesave dispute
which followed the economic collapse of Iceland's banks in October. Britain had demanded that UK citizens who had lost money due to the Icelandic bank collapse should be covered by the Icelandic government, citing an anti-terrorism law. This thoroughly offended Iceland, and the Icelandic government refused, stating that it would kill the Icelandic economy.
So perhaps that guy in the supermarket had lost everything in the bank collapse and was looking for someone to
Þingvellir National Park
The birthplace of Iceland.
blame. It is entirely possible.
Although most locals I had encountered had been extremely friendly, we did talk to a few who were willing to hold a conversation, but at the same time noticed or suspected that there was perhaps something simmering beneath the surface. I hope that it was my paranoia after the supermarket episode, but some of the Icelanders that I had talked to did seem a little stone-faced during conversation.
About an hour later, we had arrived at Þingvellir National Park, the most historically important of the three attractions in Iceland's "Golden Circle".
Þingvellir is basically the birthplace of Iceland. The first ever parliament in the world, the Alþingi, was established here in 930. It is quite the setting too - it is where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet and separate. Apparently, as you walk down the main footpath from the carpark, you have North America on your left and Europe on your right - a true continental divide.
The scenery is quite something too, as you look across "Parliament Plains" and frozen rivers to the rocky hills in the distance. Coming from London I think we definitely all appreciated the lack of
Mini-canyon created by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. View from the top of Öxarárfoss.
people and peacefulness of the place and the fact we were looking at natural sights while on holiday, rather than city sights for a change. We tested the thickness of the ice in certain places on the river by hurling huge rocks onto it - I was pretty sure that we weren't gonna be breaking it but we thought we would jump as hard as we could on it just to make sure. Yep, it's pretty thick. About half a foot thick at least I reckon.
The sights we walked past included a rift called Peningagjá where visitors have thrown coins into the water here since 1907, a river where women were once drowned for serious crimes back in the day, an amphitheatre where audiences were addressed by parliamentary leaders, and a pretty little waterfall.
We then reached Almannagjá, which is pretty much a small canyon created by separation of the two tectonic plates. It is here where the River Öxará falls into the canyon creating the mostly frozen but beautiful waterfall Öxarárfoss. We then decided to do a spot of freestyle rock climbing as we clambered up the rocks next to Öxarárfoss for some more stunning views across Þingvellir
Where the Öxará River falls into the Almannagjá at Thingvillur National Park.
National Park. The place was so scenic - and many, many photos were taken.
After a long walk along the highway back to the carpark we then drove to our self-contained guesthouse in Hveragerði. Having always stayed in hostels when away, it was really nice to have our own space and leave our stuff everywhere without worrying about it for a change.
The cold really knackers you so what better way to relax than to sit in an outdoor hot tub when it's -6 degrees outside. The hot tub was so hot though, that you could be out of the water from the waist up without feeling cold. Pasta and poker was story of the night, while we each took intermittent checks outside for the Northern Lights. Unfortunately for us, they never came.
The next day we were going to complete the our tour of the "Golden Circle". First up, was Geysir. Gkee reckons it pronounced "geezer" but I'm pretty sure it's "guy-ser". The geysers in Geysir are the first geysers recorded in history and as such, all spouting hot springs are named after Geysir.
There are several geysers and hot pools in the vicinity, a lot of them
This hot pool was a brilliant shade of azure.
named, all with steam floating off them. One of them, "Blesi", is a brilliant shade of azure. Run-off water from the geysers have frozen over on the footpaths making walking across it treacherous. The biggest geyser, "The Great Geysir", unfortunately does not spout anymore as it was plugged with rubble thrown in by tourists trying to set if off in the 1950's. Luckily, the most reliable one, "Strokkur", goes off every six minutes. Meaning you have to patient waiting to take a picture of it - very hard to do when the wind-chill feels like -30 degrees. It was freezing. The wind was strong and literally burned your face. Having just got a new camera - my old one was stolen in Geneva
- it was brilliant for taking shots of geysers, as I made the most of the burst feature of my camera, allowing me to take 10 shots a second.
The one good thing about feeling the coldest wind I have ever experienced was that when we got to Gullfoss, the last sight of the "Golden Circle", we were errr, kinda prepared for the wind there. Not.
Gullfoss is a huge and magnificent double waterfall that eventually falls
Each strand of grass is frozen against the backdrop of Gullfoss. Photo: Steven Davies.
into a gorge so deep, that it looks like it is falling into an abyss. It is definitely an awe-inspiring sight and with a lot of the waterfall frozen, it made it look even more spectacular.
Geysir definitely didn't hold the record for coldest-wind-ever for long - Gullfoss soon took it over pretty quickly. I had through necessity taught myself how to take pictures with my gloves on, but it still didn't really help as the wind was getting through my gloves, freezing my hands. Each angle of the waterfall kept giving us new pictures to take, so we were sure braving it. My nose was running like a tap the whole time. The wind was strong too, with enough force to blow you off-balance.
Thankfully there was a cafe on site where we could thaw out.
And it was here where I tried Icelandic skyr
for the first time. It is pretty much yoghurt with a texture like sour cream and comes in all sorts of sweet flavours. I had a pear one, and I have to say that I am a fan.
On the way back to the guesthouse, we stopped by at Kerið, a volcanic crater lake.
Frozen volcanic crater lake on the Golden Circle trail.
We had just missed what would have been a gorgeous sunset from atop the old volcano, so feeling adventurous, we decided to scramble down the red rocks into the crater lake itself. The whole lake of course, was frozen over. Standing on the lake itself, I could see from the cracks in the ice, that the ice was thick - at least 3/4 of a foot thick. There was no way we were falling into the water here. The fact also, that the lake's water would've been still, would have helped make the ice even more solid. The stillness of the lake water also ensured that the surface was really smooth - this place would have been an awesome
place to ice skate. Unfortunately we didn't skates, so Converse would have to do, and I could actually slide quite far in them. It was pretty dirty though - a Maradona-style dolphin slide ended up just dirtying my jeans and jacket with red dirt.
I don't really know why, but the other guys weren't keen on venturing out into the middle of the lake, despite how thick the ice was. I even jumped as hard as I could on it just
Moonwalking across the ice on Kerið.
to prove it. Oh well.
Back at the guesthouse, it was time to roast our chicken as it was after all, Christmas Day. Leaving the chicken to roast for an hour, we decided to walk around Hveragerði. There really isn't too much to see. There is a swimming complex, a natural hot-spring enclosure much like Rotorua's, a river that supposedly had hot water (it didn't - we may have been in the wrong part of the river) and a bakery that baked bread using the natural geothermal heat beneath the town. It was Christmas Day however, so everything was closed.
We arrived back at the guesthouse to find it completely filled with smoke and with the smoke alarms blaring. Shit. I think that it must've been residue from previous usage burning off as our chicken was - most importantly - fine. Delicious, in fact. It was soon under control however, after opening some windows to clear the smoke.
And with some roast vegetables and potatoes, our Christmas dinner was complete. Yum. We were looking forward to the apple pie for dessert - only to find out that what we had bought was not in fact an an apple pie,
Hot Tub In -6 Degrees
No chilly bin required.
but just sheets of pastry. Ah, the perils of not being able to read the labels. It was good laugh.
I seem to be spending Christmas somewhere different each year - Dubai
last year, London the year before that, and Auckland the year before that. Where will I be next Christmas? Somewhere warm if I have anything to do with it. It was technically a White Christmas here in Hveragerði, as there was snow on the ground from a previous dump - even if it wasn't snowing on the day itself.
Before we set out on our tour of the town I had asked the guesthouse owner if we needed to drive out of town a bit to see the Northern Lights. The lovely old lady told us that we didn't need to, that we could see them right here. Just after dinner, she came and knocked on our door, telling us that they were on, that she had seen some.
So we did a stakeout - in the hot tub with a glass of whiskey.
As we soaked, we stuck our heads towards the clear night sky, where we saw really faint glimmers of green. The glimmers got a
Close-Up Of Seljalandfoss
I put myself in grave danger to get you this shot.
little brighter, but they weren't spectacular and as we tried our best to take some photos, they disappeared. Gkee did however, manage to take an awesome photo where the lights look a lot brighter than they actually were - the photo you see at the top of this blog entry. With the lights and our hope of seeing them again melting away, we were left in the hot tub to drink our whiskey. One thing that wasn't melting away was the ice in our glasses - I think that it was about -4 at the time.
We were heading back to Reykjavik the next day, but thought we'd travel down to the south of Iceland first to see another famous waterfall, Skogafoss. Following the highway that hugged the southern coast of Iceland we ended up passing another tall, pretty waterfall - so we pulled up and had a look. Just so happened we had pulled up at Seljalandfoss. Although we had not heard about this one, it was still rather famous in it's own right. We walked around the base of the waterfall, feeling the icy water spray into faces. We crossed a small wooden bridge over the clean
Gkee & The Slippery Staircase Of Doom (TM)
Gkee begins the ascent up the Slippery Staircase Of Doom (TM) at Seljalandfoss. Photo: Steven Davies.
dark-blue water where we got to staircase, that had been completely covered in ice created from the spray of the waterfall. Once again feeling adventurous, Gkee managed to slip and slide his way up the staircase for a nice view over the pool that the waterfall fell into. If he thought getting up the slippery staircase was difficult, then he didn't think about coming back down. Not being able to grip the banisters as they were too slippery, Gkee pretty much slid the whole way down on his ass. While Gkee was complaining about a sore tailbone, we were complaining about sore diaphragms from laughing so hard. So of course I had to have a go. I think it's all about technique as I dug my toes into the ice, making grooves to stick my toes into while carefully grasping the poles holding up the banister on my way up. No problemo. It certainly was a nice view and you could really feel the spray of water on your face up there. Coming back down, the boys both had their burst photo functions ready - but it was all a bit unnecessary. Digging my heels
into the ice this time,
These are the only types of horses you'll ever see in Iceland.
I managed to stagger my descent and it was done pretty neatly in the end.
"Damn, that was a bit more graceful than I was hoping for", remarked Gkee.
On the way to Skogafoss, we stopped by the side of the road where a herd of Icelandic horses had gathered by the side of the road. Short and stocky, and with more hair than a standard horse, Icelandic horses resemble ponies more than horses. Apparently, no-one is allowed to import any horses at all into Iceland. Seems they are happy with these local ones, brought over by the vikings all those centuries ago. They certainly are cute.
We finally arrive at Skogafoss, another magnificent waterfall. Wide and tall, the drop is about 60 metres from the top. I tried to get as close to it as I could, carefully treading the ice, sticking close to the cliff where the ice had more traction. I then realised that with large stalactites directly above me, perhaps it would be a good idea to move away from the overhanging cliff. Literally ten seconds after I had moved away from the edge, I hear a crash behind me, like glass breaking, as the tourists
Ice settling on stone pebbles creating a cool bubble effect at Skogafoss.
in front of me collectively gasp. Wow, that could've been deadly. In front of the waterfall, the ice had formed like bubbles coming up from the ground - it was strange but cool.
Davies and Gkee then decided to walk up stairs leading to the top of the waterfall. Up top, the wind was strong and unpleasantly cold - again. The gravel up there was loose as well, which was why Davies and I actually got a little bit worried when Gkee went over the barrier rope in order to get closer to the waterfall. One gust of wind or one slip on the gravel and it looked like he would've been a goner - into the river or off the cliff. Thankfully he came back alive.
On the way back to Reykjavik, we tried to find a pretty little fishing village the boys had read about. Unfortunately, with night setting in we couldn't quite find it and so continued on to back to Reykjavik.
The official sunrise time over here is around 11.30am and the official sunset is listed as 3.30pm. The sun is always low however, and it takes a couple of hours to fully go down,
Stretch of treacherous highway coming up to Seljalandfoss.
so you have a beautiful sunset that lasts from about 3.30pm to 5pm. So apart from not getting any light at all until about 10am, the lack of light didn't feel like too much less than say, LONDON.
The Icelandic countryside is actually quite barren and stretches of highway resembles the Desert Road in the North Island of New Zealand. The land is also quite rocky and full of light brown shrubs - the colour that tends to dominate the land.
Having seen postcards and photos of Iceland in the summer, I think that I would really like to come back in the warm season. With almost 24 hours of sunlight a day, the entire country turns green and looks a completely different place. Although the waterfalls that we saw still looked magnificent, especially with parts of them frozen, I couldn't help but feel that during the summer these same waterfalls would be a little more spectacular with a higher volume of water falling and the contrast of the green land against the white of the water spray.
The best thing about rural Iceland though, was being away from masses of people. There are only 320,000 people in Iceland and
The barren and rugged terrain of the Icelandic countryside near Thingvillur National Park.
103,000 square km of land. So that is only three people in every square km of Iceland. The place is so unspolit as well. If ever you wanted to find a beautiful, culturally unique place to get away from it all, Iceland would certainly have to be high on your list. And with friendly, beautiful people who speak English well, what more could you ask for? Well, there IS more - and you can find out what in the next blog entry.
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