Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Aurora

Around midnight, the hotel reception calls to let us know that the aurora borealis or Northern Lights could be visible from the front of the hotel. Not seeing anything, we walk to the harbor. After some time, the show begins and what a thrill it is! The photo doesn't do it full justice as I am unprepared and not very knowledgeable in how to set the camera properly; the iPhone does an ok job. 

Aurora borealis is the result of electrons colliding with the upper reaches of the earth's atmosphere. Starting in August, especially in the north, when nights get darker and the air is crisp and cool, away from city lights they can be seen as green waves and arcs that twist and turn. Knowing this, we will watch for them when we are out camping in the next few days. 




The Hotel Kea serves a great breakfast buffet with a wide assortment of breads, eggs and meats. We are delighted to see blue skies and sunshine for our drive up the western Eyjafjorður (fjord). This area is  farmland and the big plastic balls of hay stand like big bowling balls on the grass. Ray tries to push on one and it barely budges; we estimate each to be 500 pounds. Now let me tell you about those hay bales. After they are gathered into balls, the baler's huge prongs pick them up one by one, spinning it as the rolls of white plastic wraps it like Saran Wrap. 

Dalvik is the jumping off point for ferries to the island of Hrisey, a barren teardrop
Occupied by ptarmigans and a few hundred people. It is also the quarantine center for Galloway cattle from Scotland. 
The road winds uphill and suddenly we see a gorgeous waterfall cascading over the cliff into the ocean. We spend several hours here photographing the falls. An elderly Icelander with a white bucket appears to be picking berries on the grassy slope, and is very friendly but doesn't speak English. We rush back to the van to look up berries on the Internet and sure thing, growing in the wild are Bilberries, closely related to wild blueberries. We pick a bowl for our cereal tomorrow. 

From this point, you can see Grimsey Island in the distance, part in Iceland and part in the Arctic Circle. 

Onward to the highly recommended drive around the tip of the peninsula and through the 2 mile, one lane tunnel, a pretty wild experience! The opposite lane has the right of way, so if you see headlights, you are to turn into the bays until they pass, then continue on. 

Olafsfjorður is a nice place for a break and the Kaffi Klara, a book cafe with homemade cakes, great coffee and two lovely women is the only place in town. I photograph the angular lines of the local church and boxey brightly colored buildings made of corrugated metal. 

Two more tunnels, this time two way but long, at 7 km and 4 km which separate the two towns. We arrive in Siglufjorður, an old herring fishing town that sits amidst glacial mountains, population 1,200, 40 km from the Arctic Circle, and as far north as central Alaska.

There are two campgrounds but difficult to find. I stop to ask for directions in the garage of the hostel and a friendly Icelander shows me about a dozen assorted electric carts that he has just purchased from Tsingtao, where he says he goes often. He is obviously delighted and proud of them, and asks me if my ancestry is Chinese and if I can read the characters on the back; I think he is disappointed that I do not know what they say. They look like big tricycles with flat carts on the back and I have no idea what he plans to use them for. He tells me, "to transport things"!

We check out both campgrounds then decide to have dinner at the picnic rest area high above the town and wait to see if the aurora appears tonight as it is crisp and cool, and we are as far north as you can go. So here we sit, with a view of the bay, waiting for darkness to fall. The lights are twinkling from the town below and the sky is a beautiful shade of blue. 

Ready for winter!

Hay bale wrapping machine


Ray picking bilberries


One lane tunnel

Olafsfjorður

Siglufjorður

Civilized

Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) is a large arc of cascades, where the Skjalfandafljot River tears through the canyon right next to the Ring Road. It's glacial blue water winds its way through Barðardalur Valley, the 7000 year old lava field. It is a beautiful sight, though we don't stay long in the drizzly and gusty morning. 

Today we are headed west to Akureyi, Iceland's major northern town with a population of 18,000. The road runs through grasslands rimmed by a mountain to our right, snow sits in the bowls at the top and heavy clouds roll past. Akureyi sits at the inner tip of Eyjafjorður fjord and the drive in is spectacular, coming down from the highlands on the road that winds the length of the fjord. They say that despite the fact that we are only 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, Akureyi has the mildest and warmest weather in the country-Ha, could have fooled me! 

We park in the bus terminal lot and walk to Hotel Kea, right on the edge of the old town pedestrian walk, which is about 3 blocks long and consists of a few restaurants, bookstore and a few shops. 

Ray meets the fishing guide for his outing (more on that later) and I spend several hours walking - up to the church Akureyrarkirkja, a modern structure with a model ship hanging from the ceiling, to protect the city's fishermen at sea. From there, I walk to the botanical gardens and then across the residential and business section of town and back down to the harbor. It is a tidy middle class town. 

Finding a fishing guide for a single day outing is not an easy feat, especially as today is the last day of the season on the River Laxa.  Rivers run through private land and permits are sold for sections "beats" on the river. Agents handle all beat permits, take reservations and arrange for guides or lodges. On the upper Laxa, permits are only given to those staying at the lodges. The lower Laxa is below the dam and available for 5-6 hour slots from 9-3pm or 3-9pm. Since Ray didn't bring any equipment or waders/boots, the guide would need to get them in Akureyi. To complicate things, the weather is cold and gusty. But all is well- Ray's guide is a Ph.D. Student in fish biology, making for interesting conversation. He caught many trout, didn't get too cold, and basically had a good time. All is well!

Dinner is at the quiet Rub 23 across the street, praised for their fresh seafood, sushi and dry rubs. My salmon is buttery melt in your mouth, scallops are fresh and tender and the langoustines herb covered and tasty. 

What a luxury to have a hot shower in a heated room! Their high flow shower head, compared to our conservation minded California low flow head, delivers the fullest shower I have had in ages. The water in Iceland flows from mountains and glaciers, and is apparently drinkable everywhere, meaning streams and waterfalls. It is also the best tasting water I have ever had. 

Did you know that Icelanders have the highest life expectancy? I'm not surprised given the clean air and water, healthy lifestyle and diet, and food that is produced naturally in unpolluted environments. You just have to be able to withstand the elements!
Goðafoss



Akureyi


Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Steam

It was sure cold last night, down to the high 30's! Although the camper van has a small heater, we discover it runs on diesel and the fumes would obliterate tent campers on the grass around us, so we huddle deep in our sleeping bags and  look forward to hot coffee with bell pepper/ham egg scramble in the morning. The campground at Lake Myvatn is basically a place to park; I have to say the bathrooms in all the campgrounds are too few in number but really clean. The hot water from the faucet, heated geotherally, is burning hot. 

Lake Myvatn (Midge Lake) district is one of the most volcanically active on earth. Oddly shaped pillars of lava dominate the landscape, the smaller ones covered with moss. Surrounding wetlands are a breeding ground for waterfowl. The lake (14 sq mi and average depth 7 ft) is covered in ice for 7 months of the year and I imagine winters are harsh! Clouds of midges fly into your face- tis the season - but also for big Atlantic Salmon and trout in the River Laxa,  which feed on them. Yes, Ray will go out with a guide tomorrow to check it out. 

The one town, Reykjahlíð, has a church, small hotel, gas station/convenience store, atm, and bar/restaurant. North of town, the landscape is so barren that NASA sent its Apollo 11 crew to train in the 1960's. 

Our first stop around the lake is Dimmuborgir "black castles", a 2,000 year old field of arches, caves, tunnels and contorted volcanic pillars some 65 ft high. In the distance, the flat top of crater 
Hverfall, shrouded in clouds can be seen.

The road runs to the southern end, a lovely conservation area with footpaths in the woods and rising to a viewpoint overlooking small grassy isles in the lake. 
Skutustaðir has a dozen or so grassy pseudo craters, formed by lava flowing over the marshland and water boiling up to form craters. 

Back to the northern end of Bjarnarflag, a thermal zone, we stop at the steaming aquamarine hot spring pool Grjotagja and small geothermal power stations. Behind it is a sandy hill and geothermal pipes billowing clouds of steam. Across the road, I explore Iceland's"largest" "geyser bread bakery", two small circles with assorted steaming underground pit ovens, each covered with scrap metal covers and rocks/bricks. It is hard to imagine that the geyser bread "hverabrauð" we ate last night is made with rye dough, yeast and molasses, baked underground overnight in milk cartons. What is baked is sold in town and for promulgate consumption. There is no one manning the place; it is just out in the open! 

Down the road a bit are the Myvatn Jarðböðin Nature Baths. We pass on that but watch others soaking in the 30-40C pools. 

The skies are darkening and it is misting. As we have pretty much seen everything here, we decide to head out toward Akureyi. The land is flat and reminds us of Nebraska. We camp across from the roaring Goðafoss, about 30 min. From Akureyi. The campground, a grassy fieldbehind  the guest houses - the bathroom - a converted container with sinks on one side and stalls on the other. There are no tent campers only one other campervan here -yeah, we can use our heater. We eat our fresh lox and frozen veggies and call it a night. 





Geyser bread bakery

Monday, August 29, 2016

Fjords

Our journey takes us northward from Hofn through the Lon glacial river valley, 
a 30km wide estuary framed by granite spikes on the west. Long sandbars across the mouth of the long bays have silted it into lagoons, home to assorted bird life. Puffy white clouds reflect off the calm blue waters and this calm scene rolls on for miles and miles. 

We enter the eastern fjords. Since our GoCamper agent had advised not driving Route 1 (not as well paved) but to traverse the coastline of 4 long fingers, in and out of beautiful bays. Unlike New Zealand and Norway, where the roads run high above the fjords, here the road hugs the coastline at sea level and at times rises above wild and rugged rocky points of the Atlantic. On the left are tall cliffs with eroding black sandy hillsides, multicolored in the mid day light. The views are jaw droppingly beautiful. We see very few cars and often wonder if GoCamper was right in sending us this way. 

Heading into one of the longer bays, the road is no longer paved and we bump our way along past Faskruðsfjörður, a fishing village with a large frozen fish processing plant at its shore. We relish the clear skies and sunshine of the day. 

As we head into the last of the bays, I come across a write up about Reyðarfjörður, the town at end of this bay, which has succumbed to the world's demand for aluminum and built a huge smelter there. This was the center of Iceland's biggest environmental row in 2004. Apparently aluminum processing is energy intensive and foreign companies are attracted to Iceland's renewable energy sources to power their smelters. In 2093, the government approved the building of a dam, a huge construction project on the northeast edge of the big Vatnajokull glacier which provides power for this American smelter we see! Shame, shame! 

At Egilsstaðir, we decide not to stay but to forge on to Lake Myvatn, a couple of hours away. We are now fairly far north and drive due west to the geothermal area of the island. The landscape starts out as grassland with the Jokulsa runoff carving a gorge through the rocks, then turning into a moonscape of black pumice. Waterfalls meander down the surrounding cliff sides everywhere you look. 

We end the drive at Volgas Cowshed Cafe, truly a cowshed to delight diners, the most wonderful lamb shanks, Arctic char and geyser bread(baked in a hole in the ground). Geyser bread ice cream and fresh cream made onsite from the farm's own cows. 

Tonight is quite cold and we will be hiding in our sleeping bags. Ray is exploring the possibility of fishing the Laxa river on Wed. Stay tuned..,








Sunday, August 28, 2016

Ice

Well we have spent 5 days 24/7 living together in a camper van often hours on end waiting for the rain to quit and talking pretty much only to each other; I say that it is a good sign we are still liking each other's company! Ray is doing a great job driving our home on wheels, one lane bridges, dodging potholes on gravel roads, and what Icelanders refer to as "suicide sheep".

The weather no longer overwhelms us and I know by the end of the week, we won't even be talking about it. I've figured out, 90% chance of rain means 10% of the day will not be raining! 

According to the guidebooks, just past the suspension bridge is Jokulsarlon, the largest glacial lagoon formed from melting glacier Vatnajokull and one of the most photographed sites. We decide to explore a road before that, marked Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon - Glacial Boat Rides, and walk a path with a smattering of people. To our surprise, it leads to a gorgeous small lagoon with icebergs of all shapes and colors. The water is crystal blue and calm, translucent crystal sculptures float close to shore, medium ones with pointed tips skim the surface like boats, and huge ones with undulating shapes stand like fortresses. Beyond the lagoon is the broad ice field, its crevasses like black wrinkles. We stay a few hours taking numerous photos until the winds and drizzle break the mirror surface. 

The "tourist" lagoon is just that, a huge parking lot with cafe, tour buses and cars. Large groups of people are on the little hill overlooking a large lagoon. The icebergs ressemble bumper cars that have all run in to each other! We are happy we had our secluded glacial experience.

The rest of the drive to Hofn meanders along the coastal spit, inland toward other tongues of the glacier, and back out again. Tourist traffic is greatly reduced now.  The expansiveness of pristine landscape is unlike that of anything I have ever seen and I lack the words to describe it and know my photographs won't do it justice.  Its natural beauty and vast variability every direction you turn, is an incredible visual feast. The fragility of the space  is also evident despite the extreme weather challenges of life here and no where else is the threat of climate change so obvious. I fear the wave of change that comes with each new hotel, one more tour bus, cruise liners, and the world adventuring beyond the boundaries of Reykjavik. 

Hofn, a harbor fishing town, is the largest "city" east and about 300 miles from Rejkjavik, and consists of a few residential streets, one discount grocery/sundries store (the size of a small Trader Joe), a few hotels and restaurants. I see kids on bikes and assume there is a school. We buy food for the next 3 days-produce looks great; some meat is unidentifiable (maybe horse meat?). Tripadvisor leads us to a great restaurant Pakkhus and we start with langoustine (lobster tail) bisque and local smoked trout, then each order a plate of grilled langoustines, about a dozen - so fresh and delicious! What a great ending to the day. We walk along the harbor where an enormous trawler has come in with its catch and small tractors scurry back and forth with tall stacks of cardboard crates.  Our campground tonight is another grassy field just outside of town. 
Fjallsarlon Glacier Lagoon



Icelandic horses



Saturday, August 27, 2016

Wary of Raindrops


The day starts gray and drizzly and most of the tent campers pack up early. We have a leisurely morning, knowing that there is not much to rush to in this weather. We head back to the park and take the gravel road to Svinafellsjokull. A short walk up to the ridge overlooks the glacial lagoon with twisted icebergs of all sizes. The main glacial walls reflect in the murky but mirror like water. We have a good couple of hours before the raindrops fall. Hiding in the camper, we watch bus loads of tourists get drenched. The rain let's up for a short while and we walk down the path, only to get caught in another downpour. This time we were prepared, fully covered in rain garb. The rain never stops and after a number of hours we give up and leave. We think the glacier creates its own weather. We take a short drive and walk to the side of Hvannadalshnukur, its peak at 2199 meters emerging from the clouds. Back to the campground, charging devices and dinner finishes the day. 

A few interesting observations thus far -there are no public restrooms along the highway and no porta potties at scenic
places in the park. We have seen a few picnic tables along the sides of the road though infrequently. Directional signage is poor however the simplicity is refreshing -no billboards, commercial buildings and signs, no construction vehicles, no factories, strip malls, subdivisions,fast  food, etc

Travel around the country is still fairly rustic with very small and plain guest houses, cabins and campgrounds.  Between Rejkjavik and Hofn, we only saw a couple of small motels. Restaurants are few and far between; around the park, there is only a small cafeteria/ gift shop. The campers here are from all over Europe, mostly young; older people come on buses. We wonder if the increasing influx of tourists is going to change this country. It in many ways would be a shame.

Campground at Svinafell

Friday, August 26, 2016

Ending in a Downpour

Í They say if you don't like the weather, wait 5 min. So true...so true! We wake up to cloudy but dry skies, spend the day with intermittent mist, sunshine, drizzle, and heavy downpour - comment how lucky we are to have blue skies to photograph under then shake our heads when soaked through and through. We end the day in the campground basement laundry room, drying our wet clothes and never before so happy to don our warm jackets. 

Our day starts cloudy but dry and after coffee, scrambled eggs and croissants in the van, we are full of anticipation about the day's drive to the glaciers. Leaving Vik, we see the turnoff for Thakgil, the campground we had read about online, with beautiful moss covered columns and hidden caves. Being curious, we drive down the road and are soon convinced it is not the road for us. 

Route 1 heads northward up the coast, low mountains and the Myrdalsjokull Glacier ice field on the west, vast lava fields from Volcano Katla on the right. Glacial water undulates through enormous black expanses called sanders, wide shallow rivers and narrow rivulets, shimmering in the daylight. 

Suddenly before us unfolds a scene from the middle world that stretches for miles - bright green moss covered lava rock piles, a fuzzy rolling landscape, a photographer's delight. I half expect trolls and elves to come trotting out from behind the rock piles and little gullies! What a delightful place. 

The one street picturesque town of Kirkjubaejarklaustur sits by the Skafta River, with a backdrop of a double waterfall Systrafoss cascading down behind red roof cottages. We eat our lunch by a miniature waterfall at Foss. As we near the 2500 ft high Lomagnupur cliff that marks the beginning of a sandy lava field Skeiðararsandur, clouds move in and we see short showers mixed with patches of blue, and interesting cloud formations. A huge rainbow appears, heralding the upcoming entrance to the 580 sq mile Skaftafell National Park, on the edge of the immense glacier ice field Vatnajokull in the newly created  Jokulsargljufur National Park at 5300 sq miles. It is Europe's largest national park and covering 13% of Iceland. The volcano Grimsvotn sits under this ice cap and was responsible for the eruption in 2011 interrupting air travel in Europe. We see before us, three icey glacial tongues flowing down - Morsarjokull under black billowing clouds, Skaftafellsjokull a swirling twisting mass 20 km wide a the front, shrouded in mist, and Svinafellsjokull's  heavy ice mass rising up to puffy clouds and a patch of blue. Breathtaking and jaw dropping as we get closer and closer to the park. Skeiðararjokull presented such an obstacle to road building that the Ring Road was not completed until 1975, before then traffic from north to south was only possible on inner roads. 

The visitors center sits between two ice fields and as it is getting late, we decide to do a 3 mile round trip walk to the closest, Skaftafellsjokull. We walk quickly and just as I start to photograph the 4m high glacial wall, black with dirt, and the contrasting ice folds, droplets start to appear on the glacial pool. In a matter of seconds, the skies open and we are in the midst of a heavy downpour, drenching us immediately. Fortunately,  I manage to quickly hide my camera under my rain poncho but our walk back seems to last forever. So wet are our boots that we pour water out of them afterwards. Thus the soggy ending to our beautiful day! 

We camp at Svinafell, a private farm campground outside the park. It is Friday night and we are among lots of young people in tents, brave souls they are! But we have dried our clothes and cooked a hot dinner. Our second set of boots saved the day as with this damp climate, our boots may not dry until we get home ... such are the adventures of an unfamiliar country!







Thursday, August 25, 2016

Home Away From Home

Typical Icelandic day, low clouds, light drizzle from time to time. Today we pick up our camper and what a busy morning it is. We return our car, exchanging it for a Big Campervan, not an RV but about the size of a Sprinter Van.- complete with cabinet holding cooking and eating supplies, small sink, running water from a big jug, and butane campstove. We learn that water anywhere in Iceland is clean amd drinkable, having been filtered numerous times through volcanic rock. The table folds into a bed; it is a very cool unit! We pick up our Trawire wireless hub, buy gas cards (US chip and signature cards do not work at gas pump machines) and food. The grocery store was another example of simplicity with very fresh offerings of produce and meat but center aisles (packaged goods) was a third of our stores- no sugary cereals, no sauces and dressings, no aisle upon aisle of junk food etc. Quite simply, a healthy diet within a store.

We are finally on our way, a little anxious about driving this big thing, and hopes that parking isnt a problem. The plan is to drive counterclockwise around the island on the ring road, which is about 800 miles. Other than taking a few side routes around fjords on the east and west coasts, we will stay on route 1, as the roads going toward the interior are gravel and not recommended for camper vans.  Route 1 or the Ring Road is a 2 lane well maintained road with not much shoulder and rarely a place to pull off for photos. Occasionally, a short section of farm road can be used, but once we stop, everybody else seems to want to stop as well! Heading east outside of town, the terrain changes from lava fields to green farmland with Icelandic sheep and horses. We stop at what is to become my favorite falls thus far, Seljalandsfoss, three falls cascading over a long cliff, the largest of which has a footpath leading to and behind the falls along the carved out rockface. As you walk through, the spray is immense and the view breathtaking. The path leads you out over boulders and down a long staircase.

The second set of falls for the day is Skogafoss with 527 steps leading to the top. Yes, I did climb them but the view is more magnificent from in front. Our last stop is the black sand beach at Reynisfjara along the southern coast near Vik. The tall basalt columns cliffs resemble a rocky step pyramid called Gardar with puffins and sea gulls nesting in the ledges. Once I start taking photos, everybody on the beach has turned their cameras up to the cliffs! The interior walls of a cave are made up of what looks like twisted basalt columns -I promise to share photos. The beach itself has polished smooth black pebbles wet and shiny from the mist. In the distance are sea stacks called Reynisdrangar. Twilight here is long;  darkness does come but not until close to 10pm. 

The campground at Vik, rated one of the poorest in Iceland, truly does leave something to be desired. Essentially several open parking areas with a low wood structure in the middle. Inside are picnic tables where close to 100 young people are crowded together, cooking food over their camp stoves. The assortment of odors is somewhat nauseating. We cook in our camper and bed down for the night in our home away from home.
Campground at Vik


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Spray and Steam

All flights and connections through Minneapolis to Iceland on time, hallelujah! We landed in Keflavik, a small airport town outside of Reykjavik. The very efficient Grey Line door to door service whisks us to Hotel Vellir in less than an hour. I am immediately struck by the simplicity of the towns and buildings.  For example, our hotel looks like a concrete block with windows but inside is typically Scandanavian - clean, tidy and utilitarian. It is a pleasant change from the traffic, heavy construction, and overabundance of material goods we have gotten used to. I love the crystal clean air with dampness from a recent light rain, and the unbelievably quietness. With barely any traffic on the highway, it certainly seems that stress levels must be low here!

In the morning, a large German tour group occupies most of the seats at breakfast and we end up sharing a table with a woman who lives on an island north of Hanover. She is here with her adult son who is accompanying her on her dream trip, so sweet. Our Go Car driver arrives and we set off in a little VW Polo. We are feeling lucky as we are told this sunny clear day is highly unusual! The plan for the day is to visit stops along the Golden Circle just outside of Reykjavik. First stop, Pingvellir National Park, site of one of the world's great geological boundaries, a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian continental plates are breaking apart. This rift stretches across Iceland but here is 4km wide and 16 km deep at this location. Pingvallavatn was the site where Iceland's chieftains gathered to formalize their laws.

Only 30 min. from Rejkjavik, this is a top tourist stop and we are shocked by the large numbers of people. The crowds thin a bit as we walk further to the boardwalk and descend to the Almannagja Canyon. The footpath follows the river past the old church to join a network of paths.

Leaving here, we follow the tour buses past Geysir, a gift shop and small geothermal area in the grasslands. Next stop up the road is Gullfoss, where the mighty Hvits River thunders into the canyon at the "Golden Falls" with its massive spray and rainbows delighting the hundreds of visitors. Two viewing platforms give very different perspectives.

Back on the road, we take the road until it ends as a gravel road and are at the edge of Iceland's interior, with a view of the glaciers. Our afternoon is spent making our way back, stopping at small geothermal areas with very unusual permafrost-like undulating scenery. We end the day with a quiet meal of fresh fish and lobster bisque from Talent in Hafnarfjorður where we are staying.
Gullfoss