19 February 2012

the land of ice and fire

Phew! It's been a super busy week. Now that I'm through it I can tell you about the week before. ^^

On Wednesday evening I rolled my suitcase along the London streets to the local tube station. It was the 8th of February. Winter in the northern hemisphere. At a station down the line I waited in my puffy down coat, watching trains pass causing the ebb and flow of passengers. Then round the corner she appeared. Smile on her face which my face replied to. Our long anticipated adventure was beginning.

Stephanie and I arrived at Heathrow airport in comfortable time. Already checked in we bought some tea and headed to our gate. We chatted and ate until called to board our airplane, named Hekla. We raised our eyebrows at the name. Being named after a volcano also known as the gates of hell was definitely an interesting start to our journey.

We sat on the plane, buckled in and ready, for an hour before we finally lifted off. This extra time to our flight though allowed us to watch the travel show about our destination and view the whole of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One, which Stephanie had not yet seen. After our late delayed flight followed by an hour bus trip, it was the early hours of the morning when we walked into our room at Hotel Klettur in Reyjkavik, Iceland.


We arose at 9am and peeked out our curtains only to find we couldn't see much. As we wandered down to the breakfast area we wondered when the sun would rise. It's pretty sleepy during the winter months in Iceland after all that partying over summer.

This day--and Saturday morning--was our exploration of Reykjavik and tourist shopping. This city, the northern most capital in the world, is one of colourful buildings and 'decoration' (aka. artful graffiti). Snowy mountains were a delightful sight across the bay. The names and words provided entertainment as we wondered how to even pronounce them. But the puzzle that first hit us was stillness in the streets. It was weekday. Late morning now and occasionally a car would pass by with just a scattering of people about. It was strange to think this was a capital city; especially since we both just came from London where we've been living recently. But I suppose it's to be expected when the whole country's population rounds to 330,00 or so.

After the various staff at the tourist information centre kept changing our minds we finally booked a day tour for the next day. We dragged our feet through a supermarket, sometimes guessing at what was being sold, and then on through the streets to the hotel where we rested for a while.

At half past eight we stepped through the doors of the elevator all rugged up. The lobby was filled with other rugged up people talking softly. We squeezed around to a spot on the couch and waited alongside them for our bus. This evenings excursion was particularly anticipated. One of those events that's on your wish list but as Australians has a good chance of not ever being done.

We rolled out of Reykjavik and along the highway and soon turned off onto a country road. Hoping but not entirely hopeful we gazed out the windows as we travelled along. There was not much to see. The dark night was all around, disturbed in patches where towns and highways lay. Every now and then a star or two could be seen for a while before it disappeared again. It had been raining in the afternoon and the clouds still lingered. The bus frequently stopped so the guide could step out and check the skies. Eventually we pulled onto a dirt road and were told our chance had come. In hopeful anticipation we stepped into the cold night air and stared up into the sky. The clouds parted and there it was, right above us. Aurora Borealis. I was stunned. Was that the northern lights? I looked at Stephanie and she looked back just as puzzled as I. In the clearness of the patch was a wide streak with perhaps a faint tinge of green, not quite cloud shape. Disappointment rolled in and flooded out my expectations. While the sky was the clearest my camera remained off. While I had expected that this natural phenomenon would be less brilliant than the pictures on the internet and in books, I was expecting colour. The phenomenon of this night was seeing how green the lights appeared when you photographed them. Vastly different. As the clouds filtered across the sky again it was quite hard to distinguish where the northern lights were. I was taking photos to see if those clouds I was looking at were actually the lights.
As we were heading back to the city we stopped in a street briefly as the clouds parted again and gave us all a better viewing. This time, further from town lights, the green was more noticeable to the naked eye. Stephanie got a few good photos with her mini tripod though I managed to take some ok ones too considering mine were all handheld. The guide obviously had a proper tripod and good camera to take this picture.

Unfortunately my disappointment tainted this experience. I hope in different, in better conditions with more luck the viewing of the aurora borealis could feel more magical. Since I plan to head somewhere further north at the end of this year in hopes to achieve a white Christmas (another on the wish list of maybe nevers) I think I'll try view them again.


A late night and an early morning is a mix that produces a sleep start. By breakfast the excitement of today's adventure had us fully awake. Soon enough we were aboard the bus heading along the south coast passing snowy, volcanic scenery. Iceland is situated just south of the arctic circle and over the line where the Eurasian and North American plates meet. All the geothermal activity makes this country a fascinating place. Active volcanoes, geothermal springs, glaciers, geysiers and bubbling mud mixed in with it's viking history. Iceland makes use of its geothermal treasury and most homes are heated naturally. The water that comes from the hot taps comes straight from the earth.

In our quest to experience Iceland and as much as our krona allowed, we had decided on glacier hike. We walked up the ash and lava rock covered ground at our expedition location. Already in harnesses (for the unlikely event of needing to be pulled out of a crevasse) we paused to strap metal spikes to our boots. With ice pick in hand, we stomped cautiously onto the ice of the glacier as we'd been instructed. Perhaps a little overzealous as we didn't need to stomp as hard as we all started out doing so. We found the crampons gripped amazingly well in the ice and were soon trodding along. The sound was an unusual experience. I think its one that will stick with me. An odd delight.

The glacier beneath our feet stems from the volcano, Katla. The same one our plane was named after. It's one of the ten largest volcanoes on earth and it erupts every 80 years or so. The last eruption being a little over 80 years ago. Our guides reminded us of the news events of the trouble caused in 2010 when the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted. Katla, they informed us, is a hundred times the size of that one. Previously unconsidered, the volcanic erruption, which would unleash tremendous havoc of lava, ash and smoke, would also cause great flooding as the glacier would melt. This knowledge, withheld until we were half way up, made the experience that more surreal. We saw pyramids of lava gravel where the glacier had swept it all together, various formations of ice sculpted by nature, layers of ash stuck in the ice. We caught a little flowing ice cold glacier water in our hands for a taste. Clean and fresh. We stopped at a narrow crevasse and our guide chipped at the ice and we listened to it fall in an almost crackling manner. That was apparently the sound the ice made when the volcano was disturbing the ice below. At another hole the guide chipped again at the ice but we never heard it hit anything. We did make sure we walked where the guides did and followed their instructions seriously.

And as if the sounds and sights and updated knowledge weren't enough, the weather kicked in its bit. They say here in Iceland, "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes and it will be worse". Once we were near the top--or rather as far as we would be going--it began to snow. That was a delight. It also meant more danger as the snow hid the dangers in the ice. We paused to eat a bit of lunch and then as we headed downward again along came the hail, then sun, then snow, hail, wind, sun, rain, wind, hail...

The glacier walk behind us, the bus pulled into our first stop on the return trip. We stepped off a moment of sunshine. Colours shimmered through the mist. Skogarfoss was showing off. Our last stop before Reykjavik was another waterfall, more casual than the previous one. It may not have been as grand but it allowed you to walk all the way behind it. Which we did and increased our dampness. Back at the hotel we had a quite night in.


The morning we spent wandering the streets again as I mentioned earlier. We saw the viking boat sculpture, an icon of Reykjavik, and visited the Church of Hullgrimur which is the tallest building in the city. You can climb the tower there and get a broader view of the city. The bell is really loud when you're in the tower too. We continued attempting to pronounce icelandic words. Especially Eyjafjallaj√∂kull which according to the tourist t-shirts is easy to say,...“AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl-uh”. I still can't say it. It's the last 'll' that really gets me. It's quite a different sound from 'l'.

Our afternoon excursion ended up being the most anticipated. Being left till last. The blue waters surrounded by black jagged rocks and rising vapour as we approached had us buzzing. We walked through a valley of volcanic rock to a building that ushered guests through to the Blue Lagoon.

We braced ourselves a moment at the door. Then we pushed ourselves outside into the freezing cold in naught but our bathers. The air stung our skin and our hairs instantly pricked up. We walked quickly to the water's edge and stepped delightfully and carefully into the murky blue water that now tingled and warmed our bodies. There's something quite blissful about soaking in fabulously warm water in freezing winter temperatures. The blue lagoon was never more than about chest deep but we mostly sunk ourselves to our necks or pulled ourselves along with our hands, legs trailing behind, in the shallower areas. We floated all around the lagoon and played in the mineral mud that covered most of the bottom. In some areas it was so thick and squelchy, grey and gritty being mixed with the volcanic dirt, up to our ankles. It was textural pleasure. We stayed all afternoon. Happily soaking for hours. Covering our faces with the white mineral mud, the clean version, that they kept in boxes around the lagoon a couple of times. We spent some time in the sauna and the steam room. We had a cold mist shower and sat in cave. We stood under a pelting waterfall and let the pounding massage our muscles. We bought and ate ice creams from the in-water kiosk. We talked, played, laughed and thoroughly relaxed.
We did some cold stints traverse the bridges and paths to fetch cameras and take photos. The first half our pampering was really quite foggy and sometimes we couldn't see much beyond two metres. The second half was clearer and grew darker as the twilight came and the lights were turned on. But we got out in time to change and poke around the shop before catching the 7pm bus back to Reykjavik.

Once ready we walked into town and eventually decided on a place to eat. In a cosy pub we sat ourselves down for an icelandic meal. Sadly unable to try puffin, it being out of season, I settled for a jar (side dish/starter) of mink whale, a jar of icelandic cheeses and fruit and a lamb burger. The whale, which was only seared, was a bit too fishy and gross for me. I tried it but Stephanie finished it for me. The cheeses I mostly liked and burger was good. This day rounded off our trip nicely.


I fumbled out of bed and across the room to my phone to switch off my alarm. I sank into the chair with a groan. It was too early to be awake. And that is what I complained about to Stephanie who was still in bed. But awake we needed to be. I hauled myself out of the chair and moved across the room. The light blinked on and I squinted a moment. We were now both half lively and moving about getting dressed and packing the last few things into our suitcases. We snacked on the last of our food stash and then pulled our weary selves down to the lobby to catch the 5:30am bus. Link
It's always a bit somber heading to the airport when it's for the return flight after a holiday. But we went satisfied. We checked in the quick way and then Stephanie slumped in a chair while I queued for some duty free tax back. I rumaged around a tourist shop trying to hurry as the duty free station took up more time than I'd hoped. I spent the last of my krona and then went to find Stephanie at the gate. We boarded the plane and settled in. As soon as our in-flight screens allowed us, we set Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part Two playing and watched it all the way home.

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