Thursday, 29 September 2016

Iceland Pt 1

We come from the land of ice and snow,
From the midnight sun,
Where the hot springs glow.
Immigrant Song, Led Zeppelin

When Robert Plant wrote the above on a plane back from Reykjavik he missed out "weird", "wacky", "jaw dropping" or any other myriad terms you can pull from a thesaurus that apply to Iceland. Given the war like tone of the rest of the song, it's ironic that Iceland is one of the few countries in the world that doesn't have to go to war to increase the size of its territory, nature just keeps going: "Here, have some more".

Coloured landscape at Landmannalaugar

They should really hand out jaw straps at the exit to Keflavik airport, all those cliched phrases about the place are true, the locals must have a phrase for "tourist standing open mouthed at something". The landscape looks as if they got hold of H R Giger and Salvador Dali and just let them get on with it. Cobalt blue pools? Check! Blood red streams? Not a problem. Rainbow coloured scree? Did that before breakfast! Vast lava fields that can be used as Mordor? Of course!

There's something else that will make your jaw drop - the prices. Coming from the UK where everything is driven by pricing as low as possible Iceland is a shock, typically add 50% to UK prices as your starting point. Surprisingly one of the few things that isn't expensive is fuel which is around 10% above the prices you'd pay at an urban filling station in the UK. For nine days touring around the SE of the country and covering nearly a thousand kilometres we used just £50 of fuel.

The harshness of the landscape and the relatively isolated location do mean that Icelanders have their own take on things: a 3 metre wingspan eagle and a Massey Ferguson 135 tractor as garden ornaments? In the same garden BTW. Then again they did have a geothermal vent steaming away in their back garden.

If the landscape is totally over the top then the weather is more than a match. The weather forecast on the other hand takes British understatement to extremes: a gentle breeze translates as "hoolie" for the northerners among us or "A woman rang in to say a hurricane is on the way" for the southerners.

Although we took the bikes (see the next post) this was as much a general holiday as a biking one, there's a lot to see. A day and a bit seeing the sights in Reykjavik is enough city for us rural folk. We managed to see most of the museums, some traditional and a bit staid/boring but others were really interesting like the Viking long house that was preserved "underneath" a modern building. Eating out at night was fine, if expensive, though we probably dropped in to the "tourists out of their depth" on the first night. On the second night I remembered seeing a small restaurant as we'd walked in to town and it was much better. It's worth noting that although the restaurants are pricey the food is very, very good 

The next day after our first trip to a thermal baths we head out of town (although it's the capital, Reykjavik is little bigger than a British provincial town) towards Thingvellir, the world's first parliament. When we get there the car park is packed plus there's four coaches, as a result the first viewpoint is packed. As we walk further along there are fewer and fewer people. By the time we get back to the car the car park is almost empty. With the weather being poor we decide not to go for a ride but to continue along "The Golden Circle" tourist bit. It turns out that we are following a "wave" of tourists, we get to each attraction just as most of them are about to leave.

Strokkur letting off steam

Next up is Geysir the eponymous, err, geysir. Due to geological activity it is regarded as dormant these days and only the smaller Strokkur performs on a regular basis. The eruptions are all very sudden and it's a bit hit and miss getting a shot. The final stop is GullFoss which is simply stunning, even several hundred other tourists can't detract from the spectacle.

We camp in the area for a couple of nights doing a ride (again, see next post) before heading towards the centre of the island stopping at the rebuilt viking long house at Stong. 

Inside the reconstructed long house at Stong.

A short walk behind this reveals a fantastic set of waterfalls. This is something that we've not really expected, sure there are the well known falls like Gullfoss, Dettifoss and Skogarfoss but there are countless others which whilst not having the sheer size and impact of the main tourist oriented falls are nevertheless just as impressive or beautiful.

After more jaw dropping, stop the car and take a photo, vistas we arrive at Landmannalaugar. This is one of the main hiking centres in Iceland (it's the starting point for the Laugevegur Trail, reckoned to be one of the best trails in the world) and is known for the multi-coloured mountains and its hot springs. The name translates as "community hot springs". 

The campsite at Landmannalaugar

The campsite is a little "firm" and we have to pitch the tent using rocks rather than pegs. Iceland is as close to being a cashless society, even here in what might be described as "The middle of nowhere" you can pay for the campsite using your debit card. The site attendant suggests we only pay for one night in case we change our minds. The weather is, hmm, bracing.

In the morning we prevaricate for a while, decide not to go for a bike ride but go for a walk instead. We do a combination of three trails and come to the conclusion that we'd have struggled to stay on our bikes in the wind. Deciding to cut our losses we head out of the area that afternoon and head down to Skogarfoss on the coast.

Skogarfoss is one of the posterchildren of Icelandic waterfalls, plainly visible from Route 1 it's a simple walk to the base. Even better is that the campsite is all of 100 metres away, though the constant noise through the night takes a bit of getting used to.

The big waterfall you can walk behind

Like this.

At the top of Skogarfoss
Just along the coast is a turning to a low lying glacier. Low lying as in 50 metres a.s.l. What is shocking is the amount that it has receded in the last twenty years - nearly a kilometre.

Heading back west towards Reykjavik we stop in the Hveragerthi area. More hot springs (this area is known for them) and then increasingly bad weather means we chicken out of camping for our next to last night so find a hotel which is very nice.

Our last day is taken up trying to stay dry interspersed with a visit to a geothermal power station and the Blue Lagoon thermal baths - yes it's really tacky and touristy but I suppose it's got to be done. Then it's back to the airport to drop off the hire car and check in at the hotel. We pack the bikes in to their bags in the foyer, grab a meal, arrange a 5am alarm call and we are done.

And what's with the horses?

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