Saturday, January 9, 2016

Chasing the Aurora (Part II - South Iceland)

Saturday, September 5, 2015

We left Reykjavik around 9:00 a.m. and headed for the Golden Circle which comprises Þingvellir National Park, Geysir and Gullfoss.

We started out at Þingvellir, only 45 km from the city center. At Þingvellir - literally "Parliament Plains" - the Alþing general assembly was established around 930 and continued to convene there until 1798. We parked by the visitor center which sits above a large fault marking the North American and Eurasian tectonic plate boundaries. While visiting the park is free, this was our first encounter with pay toilets in Iceland. For a service fee of 200 Icelandic króna (ISK), approximately $1.56 per person payable by cash or credit card, you can enter the attended lavatory building, complete with turnstiles, ONE time.
After paying and peeing, we had a quick look around the fairly small visitor center, then used its warmth and shelter to eat a quick snack and don our weatherproof gear. This activity became a common occurrence throughout the course of the trip, as inclement weather was a recurring backdrop to each day’s activities.
We spent a couple of hours hiking around the various sites within the park:  the great rift Almannagjá, Lögberg (Law Rock) where the parliament convened, the drowning pool Drekkingarhylur, our first Icelandic waterfall Öxarárfoss, and the old church Þingvallakirkja.
Then we drove another 60 km to the geothermal area of Haukadalur, site of the famous Geysir and, less famous but more reliable, Strokkur. After another hour spent wandering around the bubbling, steaming grounds in the rain and witnessing several entertaining Strokkur eruptions, we got back in the car to head to the next attraction, Gullfoss.
A short 10 km drive later, we arrived cold, wet and hungry at Gulfoss. Based on our advance research, we decided to splurge on unlimited bowls of organic lamb soup at Gulfoss Cafe. It was definitely worth the $15 per person, especially since I managed to polish off at least three bowls! Well nourished and at least warm on the inside, we bundled up for our hike down to the waterfall. The effort to climb around the slippery rocks was rewarded with a beautiful close-up view of the thundering dual cascades.
Upon returning to the car I took my first sip of Brennivin (Icelandic aquavit, purchased from airport duty free). Perfect for taking the chill off! After another 56 km drive south from Gulfoss, we stopped at Kerið crater, where we paid our first visitor entrance fee of 350 ISK ($2.70) per person. We hiked around the top of the crater during a respite from the rain and took a few pictures, then got back in the car for the 15 km drive to Selfoss, our final destination for the night.
We had booked a farm stay at Geirakot guesthouse on a working dairy farm. As luck would have it, the cows were being milked when we arrived, so I rushed out to the barn to say hello. As we chatted with the owner, a native Icelander who was born on the farm and has lived there practically his whole life, he told us that one of the cows would definitely give birth within the next 12 hours. We returned to the guesthouse to cook dinner and spent the rest of the evening chatting with fellow guests (from California) and studying our guidebooks to prepare for tomorrow’s adventures.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

I was anxious to find out about the new calf this morning and headed out to the barn immediately after breakfast to check in on him. Our friendly farmer had clearly been up most of the night and said the mother had needed help with the birthing. The calf was doing fine, so we said our goodbyes and loaded up the car as we had at least 143 km to cover and lots of waterfalls see.
First stop - Easily seen from the road Seljalandsfoss and the hidden Gljúfurárfoss. It was fun to climb over the wet rocks and slip into the narrow opening to see the waterfall gushing into the canyon.
Next up - Skógafoss, larger and more powerful than the previous waterfalls. A good place for a picnic lunch. We saw lots of people camping in spite of the inclement weather.
Thirty minutes later we arrived at Sólheimajökull, thankful to discover that the approach road had been recently paved. We followed the rocky path to the viewing area where plenty of people were blatantly ignoring the danger sign about getting too close to the glacier. We also encountered a guy shooting video with a drone, which created a constant buzzing noise in the otherwise peaceful landscape.
Based on my research, I decided it was safe to take our tiny rental car offroading in order to access the Sólheimasandur crash site. Closely watching for larger rocks and potholes, we slowly made our way out to the U.S. Navy plane wreckage, which is not visible until you get a few miles off the Ring Road and near the ocean. Obligatory pictures were snapped while an annoying group from a Superjeep tour parked their vehicle next to and then climbed all over the plane.
We continued on to Reynisfjara, where we viewed the Dyrhólaey arch from afar, then walked on the rocky beach to Hálsanefshellir sea cave, hoping to spot some puffins. Our timing was wrong, but I did spot one as it flew away from its clifftop nest.
We finished the drive to Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland, and checked into our hostel, surveying the kitchen facilities so we’d know what to buy at the grocery store to cook for dinner. We still had time to visit the local church and cemetery, which boasted excellent views of the town and Atlantic Ocean below.

Monday, September 7, 2015

The landscape began to change as we departed Vik in the fog this morning. We saw the first real signs of past volcanic activity in the undulating lava fields covered in a green carpet of moss. Our first stop was at Kirkjugólfið (The Church Floor), a large field of columnar basalt. We competed with some grazing sheep for the best views. A bit farther down the local road we stopped for a quick hike at Systrafoss within the forest at Kirkjubæjarklaustur. An information board revealed that the tallest trees in Iceland grow within this forest and specifically mentioned one that measured 83 feet in 2012. Considering that the fir trees in our neighborhood on Mt Tabor are around 150 feet tall, we weren’t too impressed, but the vertical greenery was still a welcome change from the barren expanses elsewhere.
The clouds lifted a bit as we approached Skeiðarárjökull and Skaftafellsjökull glaciers, giving us a jaw-dropping view of these volcano-straddling rivers of ice. We stopped at the large visitor center, taking advantage of their free facilities and observing groups of hikers bound for the mountains. The center is well-equipped, serving as a starting point for long treks into Skaftafell National Park.
As we continued along the Ring Road heading east under patches of blue sky, we encountered our first Icelandic rainbow. Then the landscape opened up and we could clearly see that we were driving straight toward our next glacier, Vatnajökull, which is the largest ice cap in Iceland. We made a quick photo stop at the glacial lake at Fjallsárlón at the south end of the glacier.
We didn’t spend much time at the beautiful lake, but only because our next destination was one of the highlights of any trip to Iceland - Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. Fed by Breiðamerkurjökull glacier, it is the deepest lake in Iceland and has been featured in many movies. While we were thankful for the blue sky, it was still cold and windy. But we couldn’t resist spending an hour walking along the shore and watching the birds and seals competing for food. We took a cue from them and ate our lunch in the car, sitting in the parking lot overlooking the lagoon.
Just over an hour later we had reached Höfn where we would overnight. We had already covered 273 km in the car today, so we were ready to do some exploring on foot. Our hostel room wasn’t quite ready so we headed down to the harbor area where most of the town’s businesses are concentrated. We enjoyed browsing around the visitor center which also housed an exhibition about the region‘s geology, glaciers and culture, with a focus on area bird life. Then we spent some time looking around the grocery and liquor store just to compare prices and see what interesting local beers might be available. After securing our dinner provisions, we returned to the hostel to check in and do laundry. Unfortunately the weather started to turn and became more overcast and windy, so our plans to dry our clothes outside had to be modified to a creative use of the minimal furniture in our bedroom.
That’s all for this blog post. I’ll cover eastern and northern Iceland, then western Iceland in my next two posts. Here are the links to all of my photos from these three days:

Vik to Hofn

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