Monday, January 18, 2016

Chasing the Aurora (Part III - Eastern & Northern Iceland)

Here are the links to my previous two posts about our trip to Iceland:

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Today is a driving day. Not many specific sights to see, just beautiful scenery in general. Our only decision was whether to take the shortcut on Route 939, a gravel road over the mountains which would shave at least an hour off our journey; or continue to follow the Ring Road to Routes 96 and 92 along the coast which would mean a winding route through the fjords. As there were some low clouds hugging the mountains which would obstruct our view from above, we decided to stick to the coast road.
It was an enjoyable ride, a bit windy at times, but with no rain and very few other vehicles on the road. We stopped for a short break every hour or so. We ate our picnic lunch near where some Icelandic horses were grazing just outside of Fáskrúðsfjörður. We also had to pass through Fáskrúðsfjarðargöng, a 5900 meter (3.67 mile) long tunnel.
After stopping in Egilsstaðir for groceries, we climbed high above the city as we turned east toward our destination for the night, the tiny town of Seyðisfjörður. Thankfully the road was in good shape as it was super steep and had lots of sharp curves. We left the car at the hostel and went for a nice walk around the harbor. The ferry from Denmark (via the Faroe Islands) had arrived in port that morning, but the passengers had already dispersed so the town was pretty quiet.
Our timing was right for visiting the local Vínbúðin outpost which was only open for two hours that afternoon. I couldn’t resist buying a limited edition bottle of Borg Ástríkur NR. 18, a 10% ABV Belgian strong ale. I would have loved to have a drink at the craft beer bar, but after checking out their prices (1000-1450ISK or $8-11 for a 12oz beer) I knew we had to stick with our duty free stash.
For dinner, I cooked us a nice pasta meal topped with something resembling ground beef. Before the trip I had made a short list of “grocery words” so I’d know what I was buying at the store. I knew that the meat package was labeled 50% lamb and 50% something, but what the other half was I couldn’t be sure. I asked one of the receptionists at the hostel and she said the other word was “bull.” So I guess we ate half lamb and half male cow! It definitely tasted gamier than regular ground beef, but otherwise was perfectly fine prepared like spaghetti.
We relaxed at the hostel that evening and researched our activities for the upcoming days. When we went to bed, I set my alarm for 1:00 a.m. as the locals reported that the aurora activity on the previous night was superb and the aurora forecast for that night was also strong. Unfortunately, I went out twice in the middle of the night (in the cold) to have a look but there was too much cloud cover in the upper atmosphere to see anything.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Today started out beautifully, with a long drive back out of the fjord to Egilsstaðir, then rejoining the Ring Road and continuing northeast toward Mývatn under blue skies. When we initially planned our itinerary for this trip, we intended to spend one night in Reykjahlíð after exploring the entire area around Lake Mývatn and then spend the following day driving the full loop north (called the Diamond Circle) on Road 862 to Ásbyrgi Canyon and on to Husavik. However, we had heard from other travelers that the canyon road had washed out due to the recent heavy rains and was impassible. Ultimately we decided to skip the canyon in favor of more time spent hiking around Mývatn.
Thus, we opted to go ahead and detour a bit north to see Dettifoss, known as the most powerful waterfall in Europe. I believe this was the first time during our trip that I was a bit worried. First we encountered a sandstorm, then we got pummeled by wind gusts as we navigated the rough dirt track leading back to the waterfall.
When we finally made it to the parking area, the wind was blowing so hard it was rocking our little rental car to the point I thought it might actually flip over. As you can’t see the waterfall from the car park, we bundled up and practically crept our way along the trail. Every step was a challenge not to be knocked down by the wind! When we finally saw the waterfall, it was spectacular, but we didn’t dare get close to the edge (no barricades) because it would have been far too easy for the wind to blow us over into the canyon. My photos don’t really depict these crazy conditions, but in this video I shot you can clearly hear the wind.
We survived the outing and the rough trek back to the main road. After another 30 minutes of driving through bizarre, volcanic landscape we reached the turnoff for Leirbotn, the geothermal power station at Krafla. This is yet another place where the Eurasian and American tectonic plates meet in Iceland, creating an active volcano zone which contributes to the Martian landscape. As we summited the ridge for a look at Víti Maar (The Crater of Hell), we were once again pummeled by the winds to the point that we could not stand and read the information signs overlooking the power station. Thus we also chose to forego a walk around the Leirhnjúkur lava field in favor of the warm shelter of the visitor center (and complimentary coffee!).
Thankfully conditions were better at our next stop, Námafjall Hverir, a high-temperature geothermal area with fumaroles and mud pots. Once again it was free to walk around and enjoy the otherworldly features with minimal barriers. It reminded us of Yellowstone National Park, one of our favorite places in the U.S.
From there it was a very short drive over the ridge to the small town of Reykjahlíð on the northern end of Lake Mývatn where we were spending the night. We picked up some groceries then checked into our hostel (technically a guesthouse but still with shared kitchen and baths). Then it was time to relax at the Mývatn Nature Baths, which we had chosen to visit over the larger (and more expensive) Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik. While the water was not as hot as we expected and the outside temperature was colder than we would have preferred, we still enjoyed a couple of hours of soaking in the soothing pools.
I set my alarm and got up again in the middle of the night to look for the aurora. No dice!

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Due to our change of plans caused by the washed out road to Ásbyrgi Canyon, we now had most of today to make the full circle of Lake Mývatn before continuing north to Husavik. Unfortunately, the sand storm and high winds from the previous day had now moved into the lake area and significantly reduced visibility. Not to be deterred, we still took our time exploring many of the key features of this region:

  • The tephra explosion crater Hverfjall - a very steep 1483 foot hike up gravel-size lava rocks to the crater rim
  • Dimmuborgir lava field - choose your own adventure on the color-coded paths
  • Höfði Peninsula - a nice hike through a small forest; known for bird watching, but the poor creatures had all taken shelter from the wind so we saw only a few waterfowl
  • Skútustaðargígar - a group of hikeable volcanic pseudo craters, where we encountered countless tour buses
It took us about three hours to actively explore those sites, then we started making our way farther north. We were a little surprised when the main road, Route 87, was unpaved all the way to where it bisects Route 85. But with virtually no other cars in sight, it was an easy 30 minute drive to Husavik.
Once again under partially blue skies, we checked into our hostel and headed out to get some groceries and explore the town. Greg and I both enjoy visiting places of worship wherever we travel and Iceland was no exception. Husavik’s church was built in 1907 using wood imported from Norway. It is beautiful inside and out!
While one of the main tourist activities in Husavik is whale watching, we decided to skip this excursion primarily due to the cold and windy weather. Instead, after cooking dinner, we went for a chilly sunset stroll on the hill above town where Icelandic ponies were grazing.

Friday, September 11, 2015

We had another easy drive today, a short 92 km doubling back on Route 85 until it connected with the Ring Road, which we then followed all the way to Akureyri. Known as the capital of North Iceland, the city is home to just over 18,000 people, by far the largest population outside of Reykjavik.
Yes, it was another rainy day, wet enough that we put on all of our rain gear after we dropped off our luggage at the guesthouse. Akureyri is still small enough to walk the whole town on foot, which is what we fully intended to do no matter the weather. Our first stop was the large church that sits on a hill above town. But we didn’t linger too long as we were hungry for lunch and had our sights set on the all-you-can-eat pizza buffet at a popular local restaurant I had read about. We had to walk all the way to the harbor to get there so we deserved every slice of pizza, bread stick, french fry, and onion ring that we managed to devour.
Afterward, as we made our way back into the city center, we couldn’t resist a look around the large Vínbúðin and found several bottles of beer that we wanted to try. We were carrying a backpack to keep our guidebooks dry, so now it was filled with beer! We strolled along Hafnarstræti, the main shopping & dining street, then stopped to have a look around the free local art museum. It was raining pretty steadily at this point and we trudged back up the steep hill to our guesthouse to drop off our liquid gold.
We only ran into one small glitch then as the local map we were using did not accurately depict the location of our next stop, Lystigarðurinn, the most northerly botanical garden in the world. In fact, it was so hidden in plain sight that we stood directly across the street from it and didn’t realize we were looking right at it. Instead, we walked almost a mile farther than necessary and ended up at a lovely cemetery overlooking the city. After securing the exact location of the Lystigarðurinn from the funeral home director, we retraced our steps and found it hiding beside the local hospital. It was definitely worth the effort to seek it out as we strolled the well-manicured grounds and enjoyed the beautiful flowers.
Of course, the clouds cleared out about the time we returned to the guesthouse to settle in for the evening. The proprietor had graciously offered to let us use their laundry facilities for free, so we washed a load of clothes and drank a couple of beers in the common area while taking to heart the travel-related quotes painted on the walls. We also enjoyed watching the neighbor’s chickens in their coop outside our bedroom window (thankfully no roosters!).
That’s all for this blog post. I’ll cover the western part of the country in my next post, followed by how we made our Icelandic krona last longer. Here are the links to all of my photos from these three days:
Hofn to Seydisfjordur
Seydisfjordur to Myvatn
Myvatn & Husavik
Husavik to Akureyri

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