Iceland May 26 - June 3/2012


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Europe » Iceland
June 26th 2012
Published: June 28th 2012
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'We do not have cash, but we do have ash', says a billboard somewhere in the center of Reykjavik.

Since the Icesave crisis in 2008 -I was one of the victims- I had in mind never to go to this country of financial scavengers. And when an eruption of the Eyjafjallajoekull (even when you copy paste such a name there is considerable chance something will go wrong) paralyzed international airtraffic in 2011, my decision was taken: Iceland is a no go area. But it is 2012 now, I have got my money back and the air is cleaned up again. Moreover Iceland is nicely positioned on our route from North America to Europe. So why not to give it a try?

We do not know so much about Iceland. We never have met an Icelander. There are only about 300,000 people in the world who may call themselves Icelanders. So the chance to meet one is quite small. In the National Museum of Iceland we learn that the first settlers came from Norwegia in the 10th century. That it were Icelanders who discovered the New World already in the 11th century. That Columbus once visited Iceland, which might have inspired him to sail the ocean looking for India.

We do know though, that there was a chessmatch once in Reykjavik. That was in 1974 between Russian Boris Spaski and American Bobby Fischer. It was in the middle of the cold war and the prestige of both countries was at stake. Iceland was positioned just in between both supernations. It is big surprise when we bump into the chessboard both gentlemen played on. It is in the same National Museum.

We also know that Iceland is a hotspot, situated exactly on the Midatlantic Ridge. It explains all the volcanic activities here. We would like to see something of these immense natural forces. But first we will make a little boattrip near Reykjavik to see some birdlife. It has become beautiful weather (which will last all week while we are here) and the sea is completely quiet. We see Eiderducks, Arctic sterns, Fulmars, Cormorants, but specially the awkward Puffins. They arrived about 3 weeks ago and now there are about 80,000 of them on a little Island just in front of the coast at Reykjavik. 'In winter they are at the ocean', tells our guide. 'In spring they come back to exactly the same spot where they bred the year before. A couple can be 30 years together'.

Next day we rent a car for 4 days. Our first aim is to visit Thingvellir to see the rift where the American and European tectonic plates shift apart. In between both plates there is a riftvalley. It is a dramatic sight, specially where the Oexara-river breaks through the American plate in a waterfall. We see several fissures in the landscapes which indicate that the earthcrust is tearing apart. Specially the Almannagja rift is impressive. As if the Vikings were aware of the special character of this spot they established here their 'Althing'. It was the first democratic parliament in the world.

A little bit further is the famous 'Geysir'. But the old geysir, the father of all geysirs, hardly erupts anymore and when he does, it is not anymore the 80 meters high it used to be. Now it is the turn to a little geysir a few steps further on to amuse the tourists. It is very active indeed, every 6 minutes or so it erupts, but the height of it is only a meager 20 meter.

We drive across the beautiful landscape to the next attraction. It is the Gullfoss, a big waterfall. It is said that a woman called Sigridur Tomasdottir saved the waterfall. The plan was to use it to produce electricity. Sigridur threatened to drown herself in the waterfall if the plans would have been carried out. In the local paper we read that there are still plans to dam the river, specially now Iceland is almost bankrupt and continental Europe is continuously looking for more energy suppliers. It seems to be an hot item in Iceland.

That night we sleep in a little B&B along the road at the foothills of the still active Hekla volcano. We come to talk with the owner. In the past he was fisherman, he tells, like so many Icelanders. Now he is a farmer. As a fisherman they had sometimes strange things in their nets. He shows me some fossilized corals which he found between Iceland and Greenland (66 N, 25 W). It means there must have been a tropical sea. I get one of his corals. I have never met a biologist who is not interested in his job, he says.

Next morning we drive to the southcoast to take the ferry to Haimaey. It is the only inhabited Island of the Vestmannaeyjar (The Westmann Islands). All Westman Islands are volcanic Islands which arose once out of the sea. Most famous of them is Surtsey. It appeared suddenly in 1963 out of the sea. The eruption lasted 4 years. Specially under biologists it is famous, because it shows how a virginal Island is colonized by plants and animals. Apart from scientists no one can go there in order not to disturb the colonization proces with human contaminants.

But to Haimaey we can go. It arose 10,000 - 12,000 years ago out of the sea and like all Westmann islands it sits exactly on the Midatlantic Ridge. It means it is dangerous to live here due to volcanic activity. The last eruption was in 1973. Half of the village was destroyed. The lava is still there. It is about 20 meters thick and blue bonnets cover it. (I read somewhere that these bluebonnets are not native plants, but introduced once from Canada to prevent erosion. Nowadays you find them everywhere and unfortunely they replace the original flora.) We walk along the beach with its black volcanic sand. Normally there is mist, rain or a strong wind. Waves can get as high as 20 meter. The highest temperature ever was 19 degrees Celsius. Today the weather is fine. In 10 minutes we drive to the other end of the Island. Because the air is clear, we try to see Surtsey, but our view is blocked by other Islands. When we drive back along the coast we see a Island we have not seen yet. It suddenly appears from behind the other Islands. It is still round, because there has hardly been any erosion yet, like at the other Islands. Finally we see Surtsey.

In the afternoon we drive back via Reykjavik to Akranes, a village North of Reykjavik. We have a nice guesthouse near the coast. Outside we smell the whaling company nearby. (Iceland is one of few the countries which resist the international stop on whaling.) Inside we smell sulphur. It appears that the hot water shower is connected to a spring, like in so many houses. After a shower we smell to sulphur ourselves, but strange enough the feeling is good. As if our skin is glowing. Our rings become black though.

Next morning we drive further to the North, to Borgarnes and from there to the peninsula of Snaefellsnes. The landscape becomes more and more beautiful. At the lefthand side we see a blue sea and at the righthand side the slopes of the mountains. In front, at the western tip of the peninsula we see the snow white cone of the Snaefells Joekull volcano. Finally we stop at Arnastapi, a little village at the coast, where we find a nice hotel.

The Snaefells Joekull volcano inspired Jules Verne to wrote his 'Voyage to the Center of the Earth'. It is based upon an old saga. It is believed that little people come out of the volcano. (Was not it Madame Blavatski who argued that somewhere near the Northpole people come out of a hole in the earthcrust and mix themselves with ordinary people?). Down at the slopes of the volcano they have their little houses. When we sit for a while at the foothills of the volcano at a little brook which drains the glacierwater from the volcano across the lavafields with their wierd forms, we indeed expect to see a Hobbit passing by. Maybe Gollem stares at us from behind that lavarock a bit further along the brook. A bit further uphill there is a cave. It is said that the dwarfs (or trolls or whatever) gathered here to sing together with the giant Bardur. When we try it out with an Dutch song ('Aan de Amsterdamse grachten'😉 we are impressed by the acoustic. The road continues further uphill along the volcano, but a billboard warns us that it is impassable due to cracks and crevices. The dirtroad is very steep and narrow indeed. We go as far as the glacier and turn back again.

Next day we round the western tip of the peninsula and drive along the northcoast. Suddenly we are wrapped in a thick mist. At first we think it is because of an eruption. But we do not smell anything, so we think there is a geysir in the neighbourhood. Finally we realize that it is just thick sea mist, due to colder water, which heaps up against the mountainslopes. It does not make sense to drive further, because we cannot see anything. So we decide to cross the mountains from north to south, expecting that it is better at the other side (which is indeed the case).

We hand in the car and spend our last day in Reykjavik. Looking back to our trip we must say that Iceland is an amazing country with fantastic people. A big surprise was the food, which was one of the best we have met on our worldtrip. (We never ate such a nice pumpkin soup).

At 1 pm we arrived in Amsterdam, where Robin picked us up with his brand new car. We saw our friends Claudia, Kees en Suzette. But it was only for one day. Next day we left for Slovakia.


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