July 11, 2016

#49 - Icelandic Adventures! (Part 1)

Dear Dubrovnik,

It is with quite a delay that I retell of my travels to the wonderful island of Iceland! Among some crazy changes at work, projects for school, and summer finally arriving, time has truly slipped by with great haste. One of the more challenging components of this trip was having homework due, and minimal internet reducing opportunities to upload photos, stories and all the normal 'vacation' highlights. So without further delay, I'll share what I have, and can recall from my journey to the center of the earth!

Nothing sets the stage for a great trip like a cheap flight, packing your own food, and even cheaper bus tickets, except maybe a 2:15am bus departure time, or maybe a flight that arrives at 4:15am to your destination. Nevertheless, These facts paled in comparison to the idea of not having 'nigh time' for a whole week when I'd had a consistent sun rise and set everyday of my life no matter where I've roamed. However, I can honestly say it's an experience to have, and it's much more soothing and refreshing than I could have even imagined. Thinking about even the longest dog days of summer here on the East Coast and we have maybe 16 hours of sunlight, which don't get me wrong, is a lot of time. However, when you have an additional 6-8 hours of light - you're working with another 'days' time' to appreciate and soak in the beauty. And if Iceland knows one thing, it's beauty. 

Whether that be on the faces of the youthful, gorgeous, punky citizens, or nestled in the rolling hills with the Icelandic ponies and sheep, there wasn't a place that felt like it was uncared for. The phenomena of litter-free highways and crisp clean water was one I thought to be lost with the rise of the technology, excess, and travel.

When I officially set out, around 1:45am to catch my bus I ended up waiting with a fellow who got out of the cab talking on a headset, and walked over to me and set down his bags and walked away. I began to get a sinking nervous feeling, why was he leaving it, would he be back, what was inside his bags? And though I never found those answers, he ended up being a a polyglot name Juan from Brazil who was a translator working with humanitarian groups. And to my good fortune, he spoke Italian better than English so I got a little practice in! After a delayed departure I did my best to sleep until our 8am arrival. From there I spent a few hours in South Station people watching and after lunch eventually made my way to Logan to meet Marge for our 7pm flight. We repacked our one suitcase and had a pre-flight dinner before boarding our economy flight. I got the loathed middle seat and really got the full experience with one woman already open mouth snoring, and the other having burps or nervous gas. But the real test of patience came from the row behind me where two people talked for five full hours about what they do in the classroom pertaining to history and science classes. But that's the ONLY TOPIC they had. Even with ear plugs I could still hear them and couldn't have been happier to arrive anywhere at 4am despite the time change feeling like midnight-thirty. This was also the first "night" where we didn't have a dark sky, just flying with the sunset which melted into a low sunrise. 

Upon arrival the three of us got coffees and headed out to our tiny sneaker rental car. The air outside was cool and misty with a pungent odor or sulfur which we'd soon loose notice of together. We passed some daunting human-esque statues along the highways that really evoke the feeling of the mythical world as they towered in the fog.

We headed into town to visit Sandholt, which is claimed to be one of the only places open before 9am in the city of Reykjavik, or really, anywhere in Iceland for that matter. Little did we know, and to our good fortune, they were closing for construction the following day so we got a chance to sample their baked goods during our trip! However, if you're planning a trip anytime soon, I have another suggestion for a wonderful breakfast nook that opens just a half-hour later at 7:30am. I'll mentioned it towards the end of my post, but it felt much more authentic and less touristy, and oh, so, tasty.

The Sun Voyager - promising undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.

So after a quick breakfast we walked around town which was totally empty and made our way to the waterfront and got a tiny glimpse of the vast mountains in the distance cloaked in fog. 

The Harpa Concert Hall
We stayed 'in-town' mid-trip so we'll revisit Reykjavik and all it's wonders then! From downtown we went to gas up for our trip south-east! We had to get some directions to the 1 road during this first stop and found that even the people who don't know English are very kind and helpful. On the way to our first town, Hveragerði, (which is rightfully nicknamed the hot spring capitol of the world) we hit rain and fog as thick as ever which made us wonder how our week ahead looked. 

Fog thick as soup!
The coloring changing moss!

The temperatures dropped and we really questioned what we'd be able to see. Upon arriving into Hveragerði, we learned that supermarkets didn't open until 11am and hit up the local tourist center for advice on our next move. Surprisingly, for a town of hot springs, they'd mostly dried up, which is quite normal, and also means they'll be 'popping up' elsewhere in town soon. An odd thought that one could go from having a normal, plain house, to having your own backyard hot spring! 

We drove about five minutes thought green-house lined streets into the foothills where we started our 3km hike, (which felt like 10km,) to Reykjadalur hot springs.

Steamy streams!
Our first up close and personal geyser!

An aggressive boiling geyser spitting all over our path!
The beautiful, well maintained hot spring area!
Worth the trek!
One funny thing we learned later in our trip was the fact that bugs, much like humans, hate the stinky smell of sulfur. Although we encountered no biting bugs, we did encounter ones that flew into faces, especially walking to the hot springs. Upon our return however, we were so unfavorable compared to those heading towards the springs! We also had a close encounter with a pack of mini ponies and almost got pushed off a cliff... but we tried to forget that quickly!
We headed back to Hveragerði around 11am and got our food provisions (Icelandic food is $$$!) and began our way to Kirkjubæjarklaustur where we'd post up for the night. But of course, we had to plan in a couple stop along the way... including an ever so regretful/ mandatory stop for paprika Pringles. If you've never tried them, take this as a word of caution, they are phenomenal. Before you know it you've had five tubes and can completely justify another seven.

Here we stopped for one of the first photo-opts of about 5,000 as the sun peaked through the fog for the first time! And to our blessing and amazement, it didn't go away for the remainder of our stay! We have many ships, Huldufólk (hidden people), and owls to thank for our great fortune! 

Our first stop East was Seljalandsfoss, a stunning 60 meter (200ft) waterfall which is one of a-kind, allowing visitors to walk behind the falling water. 
It's like we went for a swim or something!
Iceland has a pretty minimal array of flora and fauna, but these little
fellas certainly beautify any and every ditch we passed! 
After our first waterfall we walked a few minutes to the lesser known Gljúfrabúi, which is largely tucked into the mountain, only seen by dipping into the walls and hopping some rocks to emerge into the tiny canyon.
We next set off for Skógafoss which was surprisingly close, dropping about 60 meters (about 200ft), spanning 25 meters (82 ft) across. The waterfall sits between the Eyjafjallajökull and Mýrdalsjökull glaciers which can be seen by hiking to the top of the waterfall. Long ago this drop-off was a sea facing cliff, but the sea receded long ago, it left these huge steep cliffs inland along the whole South of Iceland.

Across the Skogar river a farm sat nestled into the mountain
The "off path" route folks take to see a bit closer to the right!

Laufskálavarða was a random stop on the way to our Air Bnb which marks the site of the first believed houses (which had real doors) in Iceland. A big eruption called Katla in the year 894 is said to have destroyed all that remained. Now it is customary for first-time passerby to add a rock to one of the many cairns to ensure safe, and enjoyable travel. *Also, on the chance you were thinking I'm a walking encyclopedia, almost all sites have a brief bit of history of the site, and I bought a small stack of books for the trip which I'll be sure to mention as they come up!

From here we set off for Kirkjubæjarklaustur, just a half hour away to test our luck with paid, timed showers at our cute little cabin which sat just below a big ol' mountain! We made about 30 servings of rice and enjoyed some vodka cranberries as the sun proceeded to not set and we questioned everything we knew about "knowing" what time it was.
Our little sneaker car! Could you believe this is 10:45PM?
We repacked our bags (which we'd do at least once a day) and settled down for our first night in Iceland! We got up at about 8am, which felt like 4am to Marge and I, and 10am for Sego, so we often found one party fighting sleep, or being totally awake, but the sun, and lack of darkness helped us all transition quite quickly. And unlike that hangover exhaustion that travel can often bring, this was a very refreshing feeling as we were just packing in that vitamin D.

We headed out for Skaftafell National Park with hopes of seeing Svartifoss, a waterfall tucked way in the mountains, only to learn it was quite a long trek with not the most stunning view (mind you we pulled over about every ten minutes to see stunning waterfalls,) so we opted for Skaftafellsjökull! This was a super clean, cute little campsite, info center, cafe, guide post, and it was our warmest day for sure, about 75°F+ (28.9C) in the sun. I opted for a tanktop and carried my coat (layers, layers, layers!) and we all sported sun glasses as the reflection from the distant snow and water was mirror like. 

Along our route there was never a dull site, we even saw some buttes along the way!
Casual backyard waterfall, no big deal!
  Our first glimpse of the Skaftafellsjökull (glacier) all covered in soot closer to the bottom with the fresh(er) snow towards the top extending way back into the mountains. Oddly enough, out the right window felt like a scene from Mad Max with flat, desert like land as far as we could see.
 En route to our first stop we saw the first person we'd seen doing something outside. Before this I'd seriously begun thinking sheep ran things around Iceland.
 Walking down the path towards the glacier, tank tops and all!
 We could only get as close as the water due to the fast currents, and well, freezing cold waters zipping by, but perhaps it was for the best. We don't need to touch everything in nature to appreciate its' beauty.
 Driving to our first glacial lake we passed purple mountains painted by an overabundance or sweet lupins as far as the eye could see. Lupins, or as I proceeded to call them on our trip, lilacs, lillys, and lavender, were introduced as a means to protect against soil erosion. So time to blow your mind, if you haven't noticed this unique fact already. Iceland has like thirty natural trees that exist across the whole island, period. People plant some between their houses and the nearby mountains as a means to protect against avalanches, but privacy? Not a thing. According to my little guide from Piret Uustal & Karin Kurzmeyer called Straight Stuff, to go with VERY SERIOUS PICTURES FROM ICELAND, many Icelanders believe that trees are useless and ruin the view of the beautiful mountains and seas.
 At last we crept along the gravel road and crested a hill to see the splendid, silent, lake Fjallsárlón which is home to the glacier, Vatnajökull seen in the distance. It was filled with little Icebergs calving and moving about as they slowly thumped and glided about.

We then packed up and headed just down the road to the Glacier Lagoon, or Jökulsárlón, where we saw the bergs zipping about thanks to the quick current of a nearby river feeding into the lagoon making for a funny scene with birds, seals and tiny boats darting about.
 This is a very strange site to me, this thick fog the we saw many times on our trip. No indication of rain by any means, but very dense, and totally opaque even with full sun!
 Below you'll see an Eider duck couple showing off their little pack just a couple feel from the three of us seated on the shore, and I'd never thought I'd make a declaration about ducks -- but Eiders are the most flirtatious, interactive, and curious of the wild birds I've ever met.
 Heading back we had a grandiose view of Vatnajökull glacier, and aside from almost running out of gas, we still got in many more stops before our resting place Vik!
We saw some little cuties down in the bank, literally everywhere we went, all little new babies, and moms puffed out wide with a presumed second litter.
Some of the beautiful black sand dunes.
Icelandic mossy lava
So these strange landscapes merit a story because they are so bizarre, and I really thought they were a hard pumice stone, kinda what one would expect from a volcanic eruption right? Nope - the hundreds of miles we passed were blanketed in a soft, oh so plush moss that cloaks every inside of roadside lava field as far as the eye can see. And, thankfully we opted to stick around this site a bit longer and learned that the moss turns green when it's wet opening up little tiny branches as you can see below where we poured some water. If you were to zoom to the top of this post, you can see the moss in full green, unbeknownst to us, they're one in the same!

As we approached Vik, we started to see that eerie fog again, but still no sign of rain or bad weather!
In Vik we stopped for more food and to see our first Black Sand Beach, Reynisfjara.
Vik is city of roughly 300, and has a very interesting future to face at some point. The small town is situated between the volcano Katla, which last erupted in 1918, and the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. The biggest concern for this little town is that an eruption, anticipated sooner than later could melt enough of the glacier to flood the town. The church seen below is the highest structure and is believed to be the only place that would survive such an event so the towns people occasionally practice evacuations to the nearby hill.
On the driveway to our second Air BnB!
I consider owls to be tremendously good fortune, which is why upon see this owl below we all rejoined in our good weather and days to come! This photo really captures what I find to be true about the hidden, and often unseen owl who turned it's head as the last moment before the shutter, "Beautiful things don't ask for attention" - James Thurber. This quote makes me smile because it was said of a rare arctic cat in the film, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,  which was partially filmed throughout different locations in Iceland.
Laying dormant under that glacier is Eyjafjallajökull which is the volcano that literally rocked the world back in 2010, changing crop climates, weather patterns, and causing droughts, among all the effects felt locally including feet of ash resembling a snow storm.
This stunner was one of the many ponies owned by our hosts, and as you can see for yourself, they're quite social and aren't too shy about showing off their wild, yet styling locks.
After the got over the hangries by having dinner we headed out for a walk on the beach about five to ten minutes from our cabin, at 9:30PM.
The beach was marvellously rich in color speckled with all sorts of rocks, mostly round and predominately white and tan, for anyone from Maine it may resonate the alluring spender of Jasper Beach.

This I've finally learned is indeed a white rainbow, also referred to as a fogbow - that sounds like it has to do with archery so I stuck to white rainbow. I thought it may have to do with the beach absorbing the color from the arch itself, though little studies indicate it may just be an occurrence within the fog where the pigments are too pale for us to see.

Strange to be on a beach, where within a half hour we could cross grassy fields,  and ascend a glacier.
About 10:30PM and the horses are still at it!
I got up at about 3AM and peeked out the window to see it was still light out (though my Iphone doesn't quite do justice.) The horses are still chopping away off in the distance!

And it's on the eve of our third day that I feel I'll have to split this trip into two so as to not bog down the internet, and give this trip a little breathing room! Plus, there's just as much crazy stuff to explore over the last four days! ;)

Stay tuned for part two! It's a story of fire and ice!