Iceland Day 4 – Heading Home

The following morning 05:00 seemed far too early after at most 5 hours of sleep. We thought we were being picked up at 05:15 so got ready quickly and checked out. Whilst we were standing around the receptionist told us we could get tea and coffee downstairs so we quickly headed down for a drink. To our surprise we could have actually had breakfast despite the signs saying breakfast didn’t officially start until 07:00. So with no breakfast we were eventually picked up at 05:45 and were taken back to the Reykjavik Excursions building for the last time to change over to the shuttle bus that would take us to the airport.

It took around 45 minutes to get to the airport and it stopped only once to pick up another passenger. The airport is actually quite a small one as we could see arrivals from the departure entrance and at that time was already practically in front of the gates. The check-in was relatively quick and fortunately we’d managed to decrease the weight in our suitcases to ensure we wouldn’t have to pay an excess baggage fee. Unfortunately going through security I had to empty my backpack of camera equipment (always seems to happen at least once per trip), though they were good enough to repack it (very well) for me afterwards.

Just after security we had a good look around for somewhere to get breakfast and found a place that served what resembled a full English breakfast. It was relatively cheap compared to other meals, but was still expensive for a breakfast. The bacon wasn’t great either as it looked and tasted like they’d started to cook it a few days previous (so probably since we arrived). It was however much needed food that could keep us going until we could get some lunch back in England.

The shops in the airport aren’t too bad, and interestingly the electrical store did sell camera equipment cheaper than it’s Heathrow counterpart. There is also a 66° North shop that sells Icelandic souvenirs similar to what we’d seen previous and a bookshop that also sold books about Iceland and it’s Sagas – both good ways of using up leftover currency.

After this we then headed through passport control and to the gate where unexpectedly they weigh every single bag that is going onboard as hand luggage. Though even if you’re over, which we both were, they don’t appear to charge you. One person was even 3Kg over and did not get charged. I would assume they do this just to keep track of the weight that is being put onto the plane.
Eventually we were back on a plane and heading home.

Iceland Day 3 – South Shore Adventure

Another 07:30 start, but this time with considerably more sleep. The breakfast was identical to the day before so they don’t really offer much in the way of variation. For this day’s travelling we were doing the “South Shore Adventure”. The journey was far than the previous day, but the weather had improved massively which was nice.

Outside Tryggvatorg

After about 1hr30 we stopped at a place that was little more than a petrol station and a supermarket where we bought food for the evening meal. By this time the sunrise had finished and the day looked a vast improvement over the day before. Apparently on Iceland’s shortest day (around 27th December) the Sun can rise around 11:00 and then set around 16:00 – very short days but they are further North (just outside the Arctic circle). At the time we were there the Sun would finish rising around 09:00 and set around 17:00.

Eyjafjallajökull

About 30 minutes later we stopped to take photos of Eyjafjallajökull (which translates to English as island mountain glacier), the volcano that caused chaos with flights around Europe in 2010. You can’t really see much of it though as the ice cap pretty much covers the entire caldera. There is a pile of ash at a viewing point in front of a farm, and they did actually say if you have a bag on you, you could take some ash with you should you so wish. When the volcano last went off it didn’t affect Iceland’s internal air traffic due to the wind direction and it’s closeness to the south coast. What it did effect though was the surrounding farmlands which were covered with ash. The farmers feared that they would never be able to farm their land again and many were on the verge of moving.

Fortunately enough of the ash eventually blew away to allow crops to be planted. For the first year after the eruption the farmers were able to harvest an increased number of crops per field due to the ash acting as a fertiliser – ash being rich in minerals.

Me at Mýrdalsjökull Glacier

Further down the road we stopped to drop off those going on the ice walk, and took the opportunity to get close to the glaciers. The path to the Mýrdalsjökull glacier was a slow one due to it being thick with snow and ice. The path for walking to the glacier wasn’t much better either – even in walking boots it was extremely slippery. The sight of the massive blocks of ice that formed the glacier were amazing and made the effort worthwhile.

Underneath a Glacier at Mýrdalsjökull

It’s hard to describe how impressive the blocks of ice were, but they were big enough in some areas to have space underneath them to crouch. You do have to watch your step here though, although in some places the snow looks like it’s level you may find yourself knee high in snow or putting your foot through some thin ice into pools of water.

Once we’d finished exploring the glacier, we left the people ice walking behind and continued on to the Eastern most point of our journey. This stop was at a place called Halsanefshellir from which you can see Reynisfjara. The beach itself is dark with all the ash that has run down to the coast along with the sand. The waves there can be incredibly high and are very unpredictable, it is here where you can see the reason that they don’t have any fishing ports or harbours around this area as the sea is far too rough which makes it dangerous.

Halsanefs hellir

The rock formations of Halsanefs hellir are quite impressive and are reminiscent of the rock formations known as the Giant’s Causeway in Ireland. We were told not to get too close to the rock face though as apparently there was a danger of rocks falling.

This area had an abundance of sea gulls – the only wildlife I saw in the entire trip. Apparently in the later months, they often see Atlantic Puffins (Fratercula arctica). In fact, Iceland is home to the largest number of Atlantic Puffins with around 10 million individuals. Unfortunately during the winter months this is not something you get to see.

Víkurkirkja (Church in Vik)

From there we headed back to Vík í Mýrdal where we stopped for about an hour to have dinner. The food at “Strondin” was cheap, but was very limited in choice and was soaked in grease. The biggest downside to this was though that we had a 30-40 minute wait for food after ordering a BBQ burger with fries. This didn’t really leave any time for looking round due to the slow service. Next to the food place there is also a souvenir shop that also sells a lot of woollen products.

Skógar Turf Farmhouse

After this we started our journey back towards Mýrdalsjökull to pick up the ones we’d left to do ice walking. On the way though the coach dropped us of in Skógar at the Skógasafn (Skógar Folk Museum) whilst it headed to the glacier to pick up the others. Whilst we were at the museum we were shown around and told about Iceland’s history by it’s founder Þórður Tómasson, and his daughter. They are both very enthusiastic about the history of Iceland and this does easily come across in their fantastic tour of the museum.

Inside the museum the most obvious attraction is the large Pétursey fishing boat, though they also have many tools, books, furniture and examples of traditional clothing. Outside of the museum there are numerous buildings that have been relocated from elsewhere to preserve the style of Icelandic building. Amongst these examples are turf houses, a church which is a collection of parts from other churches – such as the majority of the interior that came from Kálfholt Church, built in 1879. There is also a schoolhouse that was formerly the elementary school at Litli-Hvammur, Mýrdalur and was built in 1901.

Skógafoss

During this trip we also saw two large waterfalls – the first of these was Skógafoss, a waterfall fed from the Skógar river. When we were there it was possible to see a rainbow due to the amount of mist that drifted in front of the waterfall. This is apparently one of the highest waterfalls in Iceland and is situated at what was once the coastline of the island, but is now about 5km from the new coast.

Seljalandsfoss

The second, not quite so powerful waterfall we saw was Seljalandsfoss. Although it may not be as powerful as the previous that does not stop it from being particularly picturesque. This waterfall is fed from the Seljalandsá river and is once again a waterfall from what was previously the coast. This one does have the advantage that you can walk round behind the waterfall to get some interesting views, though sadly on the day we were there the paths were frozen and impassable due to the previous day’s weather.

Sunset in Iceland

As we headed back to Reykjavik we were treated to an impressive sunset, but at the same time the perfectly clear day was coming to and end with it clouding over. This did make us question whether seeing the Aurora Borealis would be possible, but towards the end of the journey it was confirmed that the Northern Lights tour would be on. We got back to the hotel for just after 19:00 which gave us a couple of hours until we had to be heading back out to see the lights. This gave us just enough time to eat the food we’d picked up earlier, get camera equipment ready and to change into warmer clothes. We also had to confirm with reception we still wanted the return shuttle bus journey the following morning to get back to the airport. Something we almost forgot to do.

When the Reykjavik Excursions coach turned up it then took us as normal to the hub where we dropped a few off to change to one of the many other coaches that were preparing to go out. It was then around a 30 minute drive out of Reykjavik to an area that was not so affected by light pollution so that we would be able to see the stars, and more importantly the Northern Lights. On the way the guide explained that people should not bother using flashlights or camera flashes as it will not make any difference when trying to take a picture – a pretty obvious thing, and we’d prepared by getting red lights beforehand as they preserve your night vision when used.

Along the journey the Northern Lights were eventually pointed out to us, and they were far from what we expected. We were told they could be seen out the left-hand side of the bus but all I could see where these wispy clouds in the night sky. Eventually it was explained that those “clouds” were in fact the Northern Lights. Very different from the colourful lights I was expecting! Eventually we pulled off the road and the coach turned off all it’s lights so we could allow our eyes to adjust to the night sky. Sadly this didn’t really help as several more coaches turned up with their lights on initially, and even then people were ignoring the advice and attempting to use their flashes to take pictures of the lights.

The session lasted for around 1hr30, all this time we were continuously shooting photos at different settings, all at around f/1.4 but with varying ISO and exposure times. To get some variation we took shots at different places and had to move our tripods forwards a few times to try and reduce the effects of people using flashes. Through the camera we could seen the green hue we’d been expecting so we were pleased we’d got to see what we’d hoped. Admittedly most of my photos didn’t come out great, but it made for a good learning experience and was enjoyable.

As time got on it did get colder which made us grateful we’d planned ahead with warm clothing and hand warmers. One thing of note though is that it would have been better to get the hand warmers warming up about 30 minutes before we needed them as the chemical reaction in the pockets can be slow to get going and start producing heat. Amazingly though the following morning there was still some heat left in the one I’d used during the lights.

The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

As the light show finally came to and end the coach turned it’s lights on to indicate it was getting ready to go pretty much straight away. Neither of us had time to pack our tripods away properly before the bus got moving. Not particularly considerate of them but they did turn the lights back on when my friend moaned about them. By the time we got back to the hotel it was 11:20, so we spent the next 20 minutes getting suitcases repacked ready for the 05:00 start.

Iceland Day 2 – The Golden Circle

After four hours sleep (at best) it was time for breakfast. The breakfast was better than some we’d had, but not that filling. The bus from the hotel is the same no matter which trip you’re on. It stops of at Reykjavik Excursions which is kind of like a hub for the trips. It’s also handy that the coach has a Wi-Fi connection. The trip we were on this day was the “Golden Circle” tour booked through Iceland Air, one of the most popular tours in the country.

Skálholt Cathedral

The bus journey was about 1hr30 to the first proper stop of the day. All this time it snowed with varying levels of accompanying fog. The first stop was a place called Skálholt where there was little more than a church (though it was referred to as a cathedral). We had to hurry though as it was going to be off limits to tourists not long after arriving for the Sunday mass. Inside there were many stained glass windows on each side (made by Gerður Helgadóttir), a large piece of art behind the altar, and an organ that was being played with accompanying vocals.

There were a few buildings outside the cathedral as well including a cafe and some figures carved into stone. This area is an important part of the Church of Iceland, and although was only built for the Millennium celebrations there had been previous churches that have stood there since the Icelanders converted to Catholicism in the 10th Century.

At present the majority of Icelanders are Protestant, though as they are the descendants of Viking settlers their ancestors worshipped Odin, Thor, Loki and the other Norse gods. When travelling around this is often evident in the names of places, buildings and companies. Although they are now Christian, they have not forgotten their roots.

Gullfoss, The Golden Waterfall

Quite a way down the road we stopped at Gullfoss (which can be translated into English as Golden Falls) which is part of the Hvítá river. By this time the snow had increased considerably to the point where it was difficult to stop my camera getting drenched. The falls were pretty amazing though. I liked the ice formations around the rock too. It’s possible to get several different views as you walk along the path on the cliff edge, or down some wooden stairs (which are tricky to go down when icy) to another viewing area. The falls themselves are actually made up of three stages with a total height of 64 metres.

At various points in Iceland’s history both foreign investors and the government itself have wanted to harness the waterfalls for generating electricity – though this has met opposition and financial issues. Although providing renewable energy sources is important I think it would be an incredible shame if they ruined these incredible waterfalls.

Strokkur: The Water Bulges

After that was the lunch stop travelling for 15 minutes back the way we’d come, to a place called Geysir. It seemed to make sense to get lunch first as we’d then know how much time we’d have left for looking around – and it meant we could get into the queue quickly. It’s possible to eat at a hotel there which serves a warm buffet meal, though we expected this to take too long so would eat into our photography time. Instead we went to Geysir Verslun which is the building that contains fast-food, souvenirs, and a multimedia museum. Lunch consisted of a chicken burger and macaroni cheese dips for 1860 krona with a drink.

By the time we’d finished eating this left us with about an hour to look around the geysers. The snowfall changed from bad to extremely bad which made it harder to take photos. I suspect this entire area would have looked far more impressive if the snowfall hadn’t been so heavy.

Geysir: Blesi

The area where the geysers Great Geysir and Strokkur are located is over the road from the shops and food place and areas are roped off to avoid you getting to close to boiling water. The geyser known as the Great Geysir is classed as a High Temperature Geothermal Geyser – so not one you want to get too close to anyway. The first sign of geological activity was a small pit of bubbling water, but eventually we got to Strokkur where we saw it “erupt” a couple of times before we moved on to look around the rest.

At the top of the path is a pool of extremely milky blue water indicating it is filled with glacial water (it is the mineral content that causes this milky cloud). Heading slowly back to the shops we stopped and watched Strokkur erupt a couple more times, but as it was getting colder we didn’t stick around too long. Inside the shopping area they also have a multimedia tour of sorts where you can learn about the geysers in Geysir and how all other instances of this phenomena are named after the one in Iceland. We found these shops were prone to people jumping the queue, but that of course is down to the tourists visiting  rather than the shop. The shops sell the usual Icelandic souvenirs such as model viking ships and t-shirts, but they also have an extensive clothes department selling woollen products.

Geysir – The snow covers all

Apparently the hot springs in Geysir have been there for around 10,000 years, though was first recorded in 1294. The activity of Geysir varies greatly and can often spend many years practically dormant until another earthquake, such as the massive one they had in 1630 wakes it up again.

From here we continued our journey back to Reykjavik via two places in Thingvellir (spelt Þingvellir in Icelandic, and meaning Thing Fields in English) where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet to form the mid-Atlantic ridge. The path at the first place leads you over this ridge and you can see how the plates have separated causing a small crevice filled with water. There is also a good view point from here where you can look back over the path and the largest natural lake in Iceland, Þingvallavatn.

Between tectonic plates

At the time we were there it was entirely frozen over. Apparently it had been here where the National Parliament had formed in the year 930. There is also some good areas around there for scuba diving in fissures, and we did see one group doing this. Sadly this was not something we had time for, but probably could have if we’d had an extra day in Iceland.

At some point prior to our visit it had been possible to walk from the first viewing point to the second, but apparently one day a hole started to form in the path. This eventually collapsed to reveal that for some time the path had been there with nothing beneath it. On the way to this second viewing point we passed another bus from Reykjavik Excursions which had broken down.

Þingvellir National Park

It was a change for us to not be the ones on the bus that was broken, so we stopped briefly to pick up a couple of extra passengers. This second viewing point gave a better view of the lake and also had facilities and a shop. We didn’t really get any good photographs from this viewpoint as the snow was blowing the wrong way which meant any attempts resulted in a snow coated lens. It was a pretty good view though, at least what we could see of it, and I imagine on dry days it would have made a good picture.

From here we then started the long journey back to our hotel, though on the way we suspected the Northern Lights tour for the evening would be cancelled as although by this time the snow was easing off there was very little chance that the clouds would clear in time. Sure enough, by the time we got back to the hotel they had confirmed that the tour would be cancelled. We’d also heard it had been cancelled due to the weather for a few days previous as well, and that the last time the tour had actually run there had been no solar activity to produce the light show.

As we knew there was no tour that night it seemed like a good opportunity to get a shower and go out for food. The hotel receptionist recommended a place around the corner from the Klettur Hotel called Potturinn Og Pannan (I believe this would translate to English as Pot and Kettle). They’re about mid-range in terms of pricing but do pasta dishes for between 2000 and 3000kr. The salad there was also very good, so is recommended if you feel you need something healthy.

The remainder of the evening was spent watching The Mummy on ITV1. By some miracle the hotel had most the UK terrestrial channels. Although BBC 2 didn’t work so we couldn’t watch Top Gear.

Iceland Day 1 – Leicester to London to Reykjavik

At last the day had come, and despite the reports of bad weather and low solar activity we were still hopeful of seeing the lights. With all the camera gear we were taking we were cutting it pretty close on the weight limits with both suitcases being around 19.4kg and just over the 6kg limit for hand luggage.

For an evening meal we ate at Heathrow, but it wasn’t great. To start with we both got different menus with different prices for the same dishes. When we asked which one was the right one we were told that likely neither of them were correct, but as expected it was the more expensive one that was correct. The prices weren’t great either – it was about £10 for a burger or £5 for a bacon sandwich with wedges. We had been told food and drink in Iceland would be expensive, but we didn’t expect to be paying Iceland prices in the UK!

We finished the meal just in time for the scheduled boarding time, but alas the flight was delayed until 21:10. This meant we wouldn’t be able to get to the hotel before 02:00 the following morning. It’s not that ideal when you have to be up 5 hours later. We landed 2hr54 later in the snow, onto a frozen runway. Though the flight wasn’t without drama – about an hour into the flight they asked if there was a medical doctor on-board due to a passenger having an allergic reaction. It’s the sort of thing you tend to believe is reserved for films.

The immigration control was as relaxed as the UK, so didn’t take too long to get through customs, baggage claims and out of the Keflavik International Airport. We expected to queue to exchange our printed receipt for a proper bus ticket, but we were told that wasn’t required and we could just use the printout we’d got.

At the time we arrived in Iceland it was evident it hadn’t been snowing long as there was very little snow on the ground. For the entire bus journey to Reykjavik the snow fell vigorously so that by the time we reached our destination an hour later there was already around a foot of snow. For the snow they were getting it would have ground the UK to a halt. Not in Iceland though, they’re prepared for snow. They use snow plows on the roads, as well as grit and snow tyres so they couldn’t really be any better prepared which is what allowed the coach to travel with some speed.

By the time we got to the hotel and checked in it was 02:55.