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Published: September 17th 2007
The old childhood joke goes "Greenland is all ice and Iceland is all green." Well I don't know, maybe Greenland is all ice but Iceland isn't without it either. However, for a country that nips at heels of the Arctic Circle, it shouldn't be a great surprise.
We arrived in Reykjavík, the world's most notherly capital late at an airport a long way from the city so by the time we got into town it was really late and a few locals were falling out of bars and heading home. We were dropped off somewhere in the centre and given dodgy directions to our hostel by the bus driver. We couldn't find it so asked some drunk locals who had been out and clearly drinking heavily. They were more than happy to direct us to our distination. One guy even asked me where we were from. After hearing Australia, his eyes widened in surprise. "Wow, you're a long way from home" He claimed. We found our pre booked hostel and crashed.
The next day after a small sleep in we hit the town. To say Reykjavík is bursting at the seems with attraction would be pushing the truth a
long way, however it certainly is a charming town to wander if you ignore the rain. We did check out the one big sight that everyone who comes to Reykjavík never misses, the Hallgrímskirkja church. It's quite an interesting looking building made from concrete columns and it took 34 years to build. The inside wasn't anything to rave about but the clock tower provided some great panoramic views of the city.
We took the time to sort out some stuff for the trip before we took a walk harbour-side to some local pools. Thanks to Iceland being situated on the North American and Eurasean tectonic plates and right on a volcanic zone, the country is ripping itself apart from the middle and so rife with volcanos, geysirs and geothermal spings. The great thing about this is that geothermal pools are commonplace around the country. We pay our entry fee and enter the mens changing room to find a spare locker. The first thing we noticed was that this changing room is not for the shy at heart. In fact its kind of hard to find any person with a stich of clothing on. All guests must take a quick
shower, naked, before entering the pools. Rohan and I looked at each other and shrugged our shoulders. "Do as the locals do" is our motto, so off it all came and away we went. After the shower we headed outside into the freezing cold and drizzle. For a moment we wondered what the hell we were doing going swimming on such a horrible day but after we jumped in the water, we wondered no more. It may have been 8 degrees and raining but that water was so warm we didn't care. I could tell it was cold as I looked across the water and saw big clouds of steam wafting off the water. It was great. There was even a smaller section that was like a hot tub and a big slide so we could act 8 years old again. After all the shit I had been through at work over the past months, I thought to myself, "This is what holidays are all about".
As we walked around town, we saw homes that had tiny houses built in the front yard. Apparently the majority of Icelanders believe in Gnomes, pixies and the like so they build little
houses like this in their yards for them to live in. It's easy to dismiss their beliefs with a succinct "pfft" but the fact is while most locals won't directly admit to believing in them, most don't deny their existence. Later on in the trip, our sceptical thoughts were dissuaded a little.
That night was Friday night and I was keen to check out the infamous friday night Rontur. It's the night of the week where hard working Icelanders let their hair down with a lot of booze, partying and basically get sozzled in the myriad of bars and clubs that line the streets of central Reykjavík. Iceland is the most expensive country in Europe so the deal is, everyone starts drinking cheap booze at home before hitting the streets around midnight. We followed suit by lapping up the duty free we got on the way through and headed out to see what Rontur is all about. A few places had some live music and there was a pretty good atmosphere. It was then that I was hit with the awful truth about Iceland's prices. I bought myself a single Johnnie Walker and coke... Red Label.. "That's 1100 Kronor
please" I did a double take and asked again
I handed over the cash thinking I must have calculated wrong and it can't be that expensive. I later worked out that's £8.90. Needless to say I made sure I sucked out every last drop. The unbelievable expense of the country is a shock at first but I made the point of preparing myself before I went and expected to pay through the nose for everything. After a while you just hand over money and all you can do is laugh at how much your spending on something so small. I never thought I would spend £3 on a bag of crisps but theres a first for everything.
OK, lets face it, everyone flys into Reykjavík but most don't stay there long. Iceland is an outdoor lovers dream because the real attraction is its remarkable stunning landscape and unusual countryside so thats where we went. After picking up our Toyota Yaris hire car, we made tracks out of the city into the great unknown. To be honest I wanted to come to Iceland for the scenery and country side I kept hearing about but I didn't
really know what to expect. One thing I didn't expect was as we left Greater Reykjavík, all buildings dissapeared and the main Highway that runs around the country is no more than tarred single lane road. In a country a little larger than Portugal, lives only about 300 000 (as opposed to Portugal's 10 million) and about a half live in the Reykjavík area. Basically once you leave the city, there's pretty much nothing but wide open country side. At one stage we were following our progress on the map and saw we were approaching a town. We passed literally 4 buildings and thought the town must be coming up, before we realised that actually was the town. However it's this sence of remoteness that makes the Iceland more alluring.
Our first stop was the incredible Þingvellir National Park. In 930 AD, the world's first democratic parliament was set up here and it also sits on an enormous rift caused by the two tectonic plates that pulls the country apart by 10cm every year. In essence, one can walk from America to Europe in a matter of seconds. A gorge runs down into the park and that is essentially
no mans land between the two continents. The scenery from the top of the park was stunning. Wide open vistas and mountains surrounding a picture perfect lake. Its the stuff postcards are made of but it was only a hint of the country had yet to offer us.
We jumped back in our rented red noble steed and continued on our way. There is no missing the landscape in Iceland. As it passed our windows, it changed rapidly from lush green fields, black dirt and wierd twisted volcanic rocks scattered all around. Its a surreal experience to not only see what it changes from and to but how quickly it does it.
The next stop was at the famous Geysir. It may not be the biggest in the world (That honour belongs to one in Yellowstone National Park in the USA) but it is the original. All spouting hot springs around the world derive their name from this one. The problem is that it no longer works. In the 60's, tourists tried to set it off by throwing rubble into it. Luckily the world's most reliable geyser is right next to it, good ol' Strokkur goes off about
every 4 or 5 minutes. It's fair to say after you've seen it go off a couple of times, the novelty wares off. However the area has some astounding things to look at. There is steam rising from all over and you have to watch your step, boiling hot water flows across the mud creating some amazing effects in the ground. I left the hoards of camera wielding tourists cramming around the geysir and wandered up to the hill to a small hot spring. I have never in my life seen such a vibrant colour blue. Im not sure if its just the water or what its sitting in but the scoulding hot water (yes trust me, it does scould. You don't need to know how I know that) emits a large column of steam that has the unmistakable odour of sulfur. I realised that my theory that there was no wind so it wont be too cold was a little misjudged and rushed back to the car to warm up my nearly frost bitten fingers. It wasn't that it's cold in Iceland, only around 8 - 12 degrees during our visit, but when that wind does pick up, it
has a remorseless chill to it. I guess it's kind of expected when you're only a couple of hundred kilometers from the Arctic Circle.
Just 10km up the road from Geysir is beautiful Gullfoss where the Hvítá River drops 32 meters into a misty double cascade and runs away down a rift. A permanent rainbow hangs over the waterfall and it's yet another picture perfect postcard sight. Walking on the rocks where the water falls is possible but bring nothing less that a lot of water proof clothing. The effort is worth it though, being so close such a powerful force of nature made me feel very small and insignificant. It made my camera feel a bit wet however so there was me walking around with my arm reaching inside my rain jacket as if I was about to draw a gun which amusingly drew a few suspicious looks. Back behind the wheel and leaving the carpark was about time we noticed something strange. Way across on the horizon was a mountain range with a lot of white. It was too early in the year for snow so at first I wasn't sure what it was. We referred to
the map and saw that it was Langjökull Glacier. Our first Icelandic glacier sighting was exciting but it was nothing compared to later in the trip.
The great thing about driving around Iceland is there is always some amazing geological sight to see along the way. A couple of times were found our selves going from a 90km/h cruise to slamming on the breaks, swerving across the road into the carpark of some breathtaking sight all with a minimal addition to the national roads death toll. All joking aside, Iceland does catch a few visitors of guard with driving conditions different to what they are used to such as one way bridges and dirt roads which people can't seem to apply common sence to. Keeping that in mind we were cautious, not of the roads, but of the other drivers. We definitley had our fair share of worrying drivers.
Our first night on the road was spent at a hostel in a spectacular location. It sits with a cluster of other buildings that makes up the "town" of Skógar. It is surrounded by lush green jagged mountains just to the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the south and
a spectacular waterfall just north us. We settled into our room and it was about this time we had our first encounter with a problem that can catch you off guard in Iceland. Because the word 'town' is thrown around a lot and exaggerated quite a bit, finding food when you need it is not so easy. We enquired with the lady at the counter and were given options. About 35km east is a "town" that has A shop to buy food or about 40km back the way we came to the west was another place to buy food. We could also spend a sickening amount of money on the only restaurant nearby or... we could starve. Luckily we had a few bits and pieces sitting in the car so we essentially threw it all in a big pot and see what came out... It actually wasn't too bad and we didn't starve. You would think that we would learn from that experience but it wasn't until the last night that we finally organised ourselves and bought some food for dinner.
The nearby waterfall was not to be missed. It looks pretty impressive from the hostel but as we
walk closer and closer, the true power revealed itself. I stood on the slippery rocks only metres from where the water crashes down. A huge surge of spray of water engulfs me. It came and went but at some stages it was so powerful, I couldn't stand there any longer. There was also a walkway up the very steep hill to the top where I am greeted by amazing views over the waterfall, past the mountains and out to sea.
On the road again the next day and passing some intriguing scenery of clumpy volcanic rock covered in thick green moss, mountains, waterfalls and glaciers, we travel to Skaftafell National Park. The National Park sits at the southern end of the Vatnajökull ice cap which, at 8300 square kilometres, is the largest glacier in Europe. As we get closer to the park, the glacier which windes its way through the mountains, gets bigger and bigger. At the foot of this icy behemoth we stand in awe and prepare for something I've wanted to do for years, hike on a glacier. The small building in the carpark of the camping ground is where the compay that will guide us up
These were all over the country.. It's like Blair Witch all over again
the glacier is based. We get fitted for our crampons and are given ice picks. It was all looking pretty good to go then the sky clouded over and the rain came. OK now this is not just typical weather, this is Icelandic weather and just like the wierd landscapes and unusual nature so too is the weather strange. Its the kind of place where its not unusual to get sunburned and rained on at the same time. We had experienced this kind of weather all through the trip where, as we are driving along, we are in strong gale forced winds, beautiful hot sunshine and torrential rain all in the length of 10km. It's even possible to be experiencing all these at the same time. We could even see it in the distance as we saw just small columns of rain here and there. It's just all very wierd but seems to sum up the country side very well.
We all set off, led by our very experienced New Zealander guide and hiked along the black dirt that was crunching underneath, I soon realised it was ice. We stopped just at the foot of glacier to put our
crampons on. I looked around at everyone with their waterproof clothes and hiking boots. It was then I realised that I didn't exactly plan to be climbing glaciers when I came to Iceland as I was wearing just jeans and my crampons were put over my everyday shoes. Ill equipped or not we started our ascent. Now I could tell a tale of an epic journey to the top of the glacier fraught with dangerous crevaces, avalanches, polar bears, climbing sheer vertical ice cliffs and loosing some our group along the way... but that would be lying. This was more of a nature walk as opposed to a Lord of the Rings style journey but it was quite amazing all the same. We never went anywhere near the ridge that towered over us the whole time but just on the mammoth chunk of ice that spills from hills was incredible things to see and do. We climbed through ice caves, saw a large crevace that plunged deep into the glacier and of course took a lot of happy snaps. Over the few hours spent on the ice, I couldn't help but want to just continue on further up the glacier.
I made a desicion then and there that one day I would climb right on the top a glacier somewhere around the world at some stage. It was a great experience but really just a teaser.
Back in the car and off to our next hostel further east. Ultimately we should have been heading west because thats where we needed to go but we continued east because on the map there was a little lagoon in front of the glacier just next to the road and Rohan thought it might be worth checking out for a few nice pics. What we didn't account for is this lagoon is the most amazing piece nature we have ever seen. It's the kind sight that has people slamming on their brakes and skidding off the road so they can rub their eyes to make sure they are not hallucinating. From the direction we were coming, all I could see was the glacier in the distance but it was mostly hidden behind a dirt hill just by the road. Just then, the hill lowered just low and long enough for me to catch a glimpse of what was on the other side. Rohan
was driving and so didn't see so I told him to stop in a hurry and while we didn't go skiddng off the road, Rohan didn't mess around. We get out of the car and Rohan askes "Should I bring the camera?"
"Ah yer mate, you'll want all the cameras for this". I see another car slam on the brakes and pull into our makeshift carpark aswell.
We climb the small hill and then are greeted by a sight that could only make me laugh in amazment. It was the Jökulsár Lagoon. At the edge of Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier which is part of the immense Vatnajökull Glacier was this majestic lagoon filled with huge icebergs and surrounded by small mountains... THIS is the stuff of postcards. I could only stand and stare at the breaktaking sight. The woman who drove off the road after us had the same reaction we did and a huge smile hit her face. My finger was running hot, snapping off photos left right and centre. I just didn't know where to point the camera next. We walked around the waters edge at noticed seals swimming in the freezing water (yes trust me, it is freezing.
I found out pretty much the same way as the soulding water). Back as recently as the 60's this was part of the glacier but has retreated to create this 190m deep lagoon. Because the glacier is still retreating, chunks of ice break off the glacier and keep the lagoon stocked with icebergs year round. It was just one of those places I didn't want to leave. We finally hopped in the car but were drawn back to different vantage points. There is a bridge that runs over a small river that runs from the lagoon out to sea which is a strange sensation knowing your driving over icebergs. We walked on the black volcanic sand out to the coast and saw the strange sight of icebergs sitting on the beach. We finally pulled ourselves away and drove to our hostel for the night, itself having not a bad view. It was sitting alone in the middle of nowhere and surrounded by staggering mountains and the ocean with a view of the glacier in the distance.
We woke up and basically spent the day driving back past Reykjavík to Keflavík, 40km west of Reykjavík right near the airport ready
for our flight the next day. Along the way we had to stop to see make sure we weren't hallucinating again. We pull over on the side of the road and as I open the door the roaring wind caught the door and it flung open. We struggled to stand as we watched a waterfall in the distance. As the water crept over the edge it fell down until it got half way down then flew off the rocks horizontally. It was such a wierd sight. It was at that point that I started thinking, "No wonder Icelanders believe in gnomes and fairies". After all the bizarre lanscapes, unpredictable weather and unusual natural phenomina that you would never see anywhere else on earth, you could excuse them for thinking that there are strange little creatures roaming the weird country side.
We had some dinner that night and met a few people also staying in the hostel including a group of Americans doing a similar trip to ours. We spent that final night drinking the last of our duty free and playing cards with our American friends.
We woke up on the last day we were to spend in
Iceland but we couldn't leave before we saw Iceland's most famous sight, The Blue Lagoon (Bláa Lónið in Icelandic). Far from as awe inspiring as Jökulsár Lagoon but incredible none the less. We drove the short distance through strange moon-like landscape to reach the entrance of the Blue Lagoon. These geothermal pools in the middle of this wierd twisted rock are Iceland's biggest tourist attraction but for good reason. I was expecting the BLUE Lagoon the blue but at the time we visited it was more of a milky green. The same old routine of showering before entering was the same but since it was mostly tourists at these pools not many people were naked. Once you brave the short dash from the warm building through the icy air, the water is a welcome relief. It wasn't drizzling this time but it was overcast and pretty cold but that just didn't matter, it was bliss floating in that water. The bottom of the pools is home to a slimey, stinky white mud called Silica Mud that apparently is very good for the skin. I look around and see people layering this stuff all over themselves so I do the same.
I can't say I felt 10 years younger afterwards but it did make the skin feel softer. On site is also various things like a small waterfall to stand under and a sauna. The pools were great and unsurprisingly like myself, they were all tourists. I didn't hear a word of Icelandic spoken and we even met up with the Americans again who dropped by at the same time.
On the way out on the other side of the rock, we saw the water as it's meant to look before people from all over the world dive in. The creepy looking milky blue water scatters its way through the twisted rock which creates an amazing sight. We finally drive away, drop off the car, catch our flight and as we fly back over the Blue Lagoon and the Icelandic coast, I think to myself that this has been the most enjoyable trip I've taken in quite some time.
So now its back to Brighton, UK for the last month of work before I leave Europe for the first time in ages and fly to Brazil. Can't wait for that one. Cheers for everyones continued emails, sms' and general
support. I've been having a blast over here and I have a few other things planned before I go home.
The Big Five:
This is the second place I have visited on my Big Five list.
When I left Australia, stary eyed at the thought of living in Europe and seeing every inch of it, I guess I made a few bold goals of seeing 5 certain places before I went home again. I went to the first, Stockholm, Sweden, and with just 5 months left on my visa, I visit my second, Iceland. The chances of getting to all of them is probably pretty remote now but you never know, I might see a couple more yet.
Why was it on the list?: I had heard of the out of this world scenery and wanted to see it for myself
Was it worth it?: Absolutely. Not only did everything I want to see blow me away, but I saw a few surprises aswell like the Jökulsár Lagoon and had an awesome time.
Would I go back?: Definately! The next time I would want to drive around the whole island.
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