Reykjavik, Northern Lights, Geysirs, Waterfalls and Hot Springs.

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Having made it to Reykjavik with only 2 days to spare before our flight to Ireland, I decided that the easiest way to do the three things we really wanted to do (try to see the northern lights, visit a natural hot spring and see the famous geyser Strokkur that shoots hot water 30 metres into the air) was to do a couple of tours. I don’t normally like tours, preferring the independence of hiring a car and doing our own thing, but in the icy conditions and with such short time, it was a good call.

Reykjavik itself seemed a nice quirky city, with a glorious view over to the mountains from the front, lots of cosy cafes and restaurants, and a big frozen pond that all the kids were skating and skidding on.

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I absolutely hated being on this frozen lake, despite it clearly being safe as many of the locals were letting their kids play on it.
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On the front. Chilly but beautiful.
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Sculpture on the front.

The first tour we did was entitled ‘Warm baths and cool lights’, and combined an evening visit to the thermal pools at the ‘secret lagoon’ with a northern lights search.

The pools were built over a geothermal area, that also heated the entire village and provided enough heat to bake bread in the ground. I tried some and it was very tasty – they make the dough then bury it in iron pots underground, and it bakes from the heat. It reminded me of a cross between a Korean steamed bun and ordinary bread, and was definitely delicious.

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Minus 8 degrees on top, 39 below…

There were four pools of different (but all hot) temperatures and given that it was minus 8, it was quite an experience to wallow in them, looking up at perfectly clear skies with millions of stars overhead. There were also saunas, but I’m not a fan of saunas, so we focused on the pools.

There was a non-heated lake that you could throw yourself into, and after egging each other on myself and an Irish woman built up the courage to try it. We had to walk through the snow and down some icy steps to get into the lake, and there were icicles hanging from the rails by the steps to get it. I couldn’t actually feel my feet by the time we got to the lake, and it certainly wasn’t a situation for dithering, so we threw ourselves in, did a few strokes, then raced back out and into the nearest warm pool. I can’t say it was enjoyable, but it did give us some major bragging rights for the rest of the evening. Lauren didn’t fancy it as you couldn’t see the bottom of the lake, but she did go in as far as her ankles, which was further than most adults.

After the hot springs we headed out into the national park to get away from ambient light and look for the northern lights. It was incredibly cold parked up halfway up a mountainside, and for a long time nothing happened. A number of people gave up and went back to the bus. Gradually however, on the northern horizon, a greyish light appeared – if you weren’t told you’d have thought it was a cloud. It gradually got brighter and turned a greyish green, and at its strongest you could see it moving about and swirling a bit like mist, but it was only when looking at photos taken with a long exposure that you could really see the vivid green. I was glad I’d brought a decent camera, although the guy with the tripod got the best pics as he could have exposures of 25 seconds. We were thrilled to have seen them, although it was a fairly weak sighting compared to some.

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Eventually they faded and we headed back to Reykjavik. We didn’t get back to the hostel until nearly one o clock, and I needed to get our stuff organized for an early start the next day. Lauren was supposed to be sleeping but she suddenly piped up: “mummy, I can see the northern lights again”. I was kind of skeptical and annoyed, thinking she was just avoiding going to sleep, but sure enough, despite everyone telling us it was essential to get out of town and away from ambient light, the strongest sighting we had was from our bedroom! They were ‘properly green’ seen with the naked eye, and Lauren was justifiably happy to have spotted it herself. I didn’t really have the camera on the right setting, but you can see how vivid they were from the photo below.

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The next day we joined a ‘golden circle’ tour, hitting the highlights of Thingveller national park, the geothermal area where the original geyser can be found (after which all other geysers are named) and where the strokkur geyser still erupts every few minutes, and the gulfoss waterfall. We also crossed from the American tectonic plate to the Eurasian one, crossing a wide chasm where they are moving apart from each other at a few cm per year. Iceland is like one big, fun, geography lesson. It was minus ten, but a glorious sunny day (for the few hours of daylight, anyway!).

The scenery en route and at each of these places was stunning, including some pretty decent views of the volcano that erupted a few years back causing chaos in European airspace. I can’t really do the scenery justice with words, so check out the photos below.

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Next up: Ireland and lots of catching up with friends!

 

Escape from Seydisfjordur!

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We made it out!

It was looking a bit touch and go there for a while, but thanks to the efficient work of the Icelandic road authority and a highly competent bus driver, today we escaped Seydisfjordur and made our twice-rescheduled flight with minutes to go. We were the first vehicle through after the road clearing bulldozers.

The mountain pass between us and the nearest town with an airport was completely closed for 48 hours, as Eastern Iceland was battered by snowstorms. And yes, I know, its Iceland in winter, but I was told this is highly unusual at this time of year.

We were holed up in the lovely guesthouse for longer than planned, along with a German couple who had planned to leave even before us. Yesterday and the day before it didn’t feel like to great a hardship – we were warm and safe and had enough food and drink, and wifi. We even ventured out yesterday in a blizzard – Lauren wanted to see what it was like. She was full of bravado, but after 30 minutes was basically wimpering. A useful lesson in respecting the full force of nature.

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Making the most of a gap in the snow… it didnt last long!

But today we’d had enough and it was starting to feel claustrophobic.

Yesterday night we were told the forecast was for the wind to drop, meaning roads might be cleared, and that the bus should come at 0930.

We were ready by 0900, and then spent the day monitoring the roads authority website to check whether any cars had made it through, and if the road had been opened. The website is quite amazing, it has the exact weather conditions of each and every road – including gravel ones – updated regularly throughout the day – including temperature, wind speed and direction and level of snow and visibility. They even have webcams on many of the mountain roads that log how many vehicles have passed and when. It was quite frustrating to see various impassible roads turning ‘clear’ during the day until the one road out of our village was the only one still not clear.

Eventually about 3pm, when I was seriously beginning to wonder if I should reschedule the 6pm flight to Reykjavik yet again, the owner of the guest house came to tell us she had spoken to the bus driver and he would attempt to make it through in the next hour, and pick us up from the guest house at 4.30.

He turned up at 4.25, and our excitement at seeing him was tempered only by the difficulties in actually getting to the road… with heavy backpacks on we all sank straight up to the tops of our thighs in the snow and if it hadn’t been so damn cold and it we hadn’t been quite so on edge about the conditions, I suppose it would have been funny. We floundered and scrambled our way to the bus – a sturdy ford transit type affair with 12 seats and snow tyres – and piled in, trying to brush off as much snow as possible. The bus driver then drove around the village to pick up other people who had obviously been in touch – there was a couple with a young child of about 1, an elderly lady, and a girl of about ten travelling on her own.

We then set off climbing on roads that are no doubt treacherous at any time of year, twisting and turning steeply along the side of a mountain. Visibility was minimal and as far as I could tell the driver just aimed between the snow poles with reflective tops on either side and accelerated, hard. I was anxious to get to the flight on time, but not that anxious to go quite so fast. But he clearly knew what he was doing and its not like I could have driven in those conditions. It was still snowing heavily, but the wind had thankfully dropped, and sitting in the middle of the van I was almost grateful for my limited view. We did skid a few times, the back end swiveling away from us, but the guy was clearly a pro and we never felt (completely) out of control.

We made it to the tiny airport just as they were closing check in, but it was one of those relaxed regional airports that feel more like bus stations, they didn’t even check our passports, just asked for our names and gave us our boarding cards.

There were no fancy gangways here, we simply walked out onto the tarmac, avoiding the worst of the ice underfoot and holding tightly to each other as the wind had picked up again, and climbed aboard the relatively small plane that would get us through the snow storm safely to the capital. The plane had 9 rows of 4 seats, all full.

It was a slippery-slidy kind of take-off, you could feel the forward motion negating the plane’s desire to skid sideways, and I was glad when we were airborne. It was a fairly bumpy ride, but nothing we couldn’t handle, and Lauren who had the window seat watched avidly for the northern lights. It kind of felt like the weather gods owed us one, but no such luck, the lights weren’t out to play.

One nice little Icelandic kind of twist, in the pocket on the seats in front of us were notebooks to ‘fill with our adventures’ and people had written where they were travelling from/too and why. It was kind of poignant, all these people leaving their notes and making their mark. Some visiting family, others heading out for wilderness camping, others on a world tour…. Modern day sagas :-).

So, we made it to Reykjavik – admittedly 2 days later than planned, and with poor probability of northern light sightings here for the next few days (frustratingly, after great sightings down here up to yesterday!) but we will pack in what we can in the 2 days we have left – geysers, waterfalls, and thermal lagoons all beckon.

And then, off to Ireland for a catch up with all our Irish friends – Can’t wait, folks!

 

 

 

White Out

I am sitting in the kitchen of the guest house we are staying in in Iceland, looking out at a complete white out. Occasionally chunks of snow that have been blown off nearby roofs hit the window, but apart from that its totally white.

The wind is racing up the valley at over 50km/hour and hitting this little village with incredible force.

When you can make out individual flakes of snow they are flying horizontally and occasionally creating little ‘dust devils’ of snow (snow devils?’), whirling round in a circle before smashing into the house. No one is out in this, not even the hardened locals, although the odd car does venture past incredibly slowly.

Buses are suspended, as the mountain roads have been closed. There is now no way in or out of the village. A snow plough was the last vehicle through and brought milk to the village shop. People here assure me that this weather is very unusual for November.

We were supposed to leave tomorrow on the bus to the next town, where we would catch a flight to Reykjavik, but that is definitely not going to happen. I can’t really imagine the weather could get worse, but apparently it is forecast to do so overnight tonight and during the day tomorrow.

I’ve tentatively re-booked for the following day, on the promise of a lift to town if the bus can’t make it and the local authorities deem it safe to re-open the road. Here’s hoping.

In the meantime, we just finished Laurens last exam for her second module, and I just uploaded the whole thing (5 exams, of between 5 and 10 pages each) so we are going to celebrate with a cookie and some Tv.

We got a lift to the shop this morning by the very friendly lady running this place and stocked up on essentials, so basically, we are going to be keeping our heads down until this passes. Even Lauren who has been loving getting out and about in the snow has agreed she’d rather snuggle down in our cosy room and wait this one out.

No pictures today, because, well, it’d just be white!

 

East Iceland

The ferry from Torshavn pulled out of port and in an unexpected sightseeing bonus headed right through the islands before reaching the open sea. It was too cold to be out on deck for too long, but the scenery was absolutely stunning as we passed between the various islands.

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Leaving Torshavn.
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Up on deck, excited to be off on another adventure.
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Just leaving, having executed an incredible manouvre to turn the ship around in the very tight port.
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Torshavn from a distance as we pick up speed
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Passing the island of Nolsoy.

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The sailing was smooth, with quite a swell but nothing like the rough conditions of the trip from Denmark. We both felt fine, which was quite a relief as we have 32 days on a ship coming up later in the trip!

We arrived in Iceland – at Seydisfjordour to be exact – at 6 in the morning, but weren’t allowed to disembark until the customs officials arrived from the capital Reykjavik, the other side of the country. Apparently, they fly over once a week to do this international arrival.

So you’d have thought they’d do more than welcome you to Iceland, express disbelief that you are here in winter, and point you in the direction of tourist information. But that’s exactly what the immigration/customs official did. I didn’t even realise he was an official until he’d taken us through to tourist information and wished us a nice stay. No passport check, no bags checked… just a smile. Nice.

Mind you, disembarking from the ferry was more adventurous than it needed to be. It was pitch black, and deep snow outside. We were told over the tannoy that foot passengers (us, basically, as the other few passengers had cars or trucks) would have to disembark from car deck three, as they were not going to use the gangway. At 9am the woman in charge removed the padlocked chain that ran across the stairs down to the car decks, and Lauren and I descended to deck 3, into the bowels of the ship. The deck was completely empty, apart from the odd pool of greasy water, but the back was open, so we ventured carefully out to the ramp. A guy in an orange boiler suit appeared and pointed out a light down the far end of the quay, and told us to head for it.

So off we tottered, backpacks on, ice and snow at our feet, in the biting wind and almost complete darkness of an Icelandic winter morning.

It occurred to me that with the weight of the backpack, if I slipped I wasn’t getting up again.

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Lauren was so excited to see real proper deep snow that she was prancing about in it, despite having a pretty heavy bag herself. I kept turning round to find she was eating it, or throwing a snowball, or just turning her head upwards and enjoying it landing on her face. In the end I made her walk in front, disguising this as ‘clearing a path’. They were still unloading some enormous trucks and I didn’t fancy her chances of being seen as one of them pulled away.

Anyway, eventually we met happy customs guy, then happy tourist information guy, who pointed us in the direction of the hostel I’d booked, luckily only a few hundred metres from the ship. The ship docks at this village, basically at the very end of a very long fjord, and looks ridiculously oversized compared to the handful of coloured houses and few streetlights. There’s no room to turn round so I guess it backs out for a good way back to sea.

The place we are currently staying is tiny– the supermarket is the size of a minimarket and also functions as a post office, the postwoman comes in for a cup of coffee, and a guy with a JCB drives up and down all day clearing roads as the snow just keeps on coming. There’s a small church, a primary school where all the kids wear snowsuits and play outside even in minus 2, a petrol station with one pump, and a couple of closed guesthouses. I hear rumours of a café  but we haven’t found it.

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Lauren has been playing out a lot in the snow, her waterproofs thankfully keeping up with the weather, and yesterday we built a ‘snowlar bear’ together.

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We have been making good progress on her schooling and I’ve been tying up a few loose ends of our travel plans. I woke up every couple of hours last night to try to see the lights, but its been thick cloud cover and snow since we arrived.

In theory, we fly out of the nearest town in a couple of days, to the bright lights of Reykjavik, but I’ve been told the mountain pass between us and the town may be blocked “but don’t panic yet”.

So, I’m not panicking. yet. 🙂