Posts Tagged ‘sandar’

In the morning the full house erupted rather at once.  Notable events of the morning: the hut keeper didn’t recognize me, and was obviously perplexed how I’d gotten into the place during the night without him noticing.  The female occupant of the bunk above ours tried to climb up the wall because I was blocking the way to the ladder (the long table down the center of the hut could either be walked around or sat at, not both at the same time- the space was too tight).  She was using admirable climbing form, and had her feet above her hands before the sideboard she was grasping gave way and she crashed full onto her back to the floor.  I broke her fall a little, and the Belgian snatched a cup of tea out of her path preventing multiple scaldings.  She leapt straight up, mostly embarrassed, but it was a hell of a crunch.  She thought she’d killed my brother I think, but it was just his backpack.

Rustling around all the other hikers trying at once to stuff bags and get awkwardly out the door, we got ourselves packed and squeezed out, chatting for some minutes on the deck with an Icelander who was thrilled to be escorting two American friends over this hike.  The climber girl who had fallen on me, and her boyfriend, in fact.  He rhapsodized about fiskar (dried fish) with butter, and proudly shared some orange flavoured Icelandic chocolate, creating instant addicts out of us.  The morning was clear and crisp, a “bracing” cold, and the mist was scuttling away so we could see where we had been the night before- an expanse of rolling hills pocked with those mysterious pits.  The strange bowls were created by the action of the sun on the layer of ash heating the ice beneath, he explained, and we marvelled at this phenomenon.  He pointed out the path we should take down- one of many threads of footprints spidering away from the hut.  We could see the tracks of a Cat through the ash that must have brought supplies.  He warned us that the first half of the walk down was numbingly boring, and at that we set out into the grey ash desert.

A couple of km down we checked out the “free hut”.  It was a  corrugated iron shack cabled down to bolts in the ground, with an A-frame outhouse heaped in rocks to keep it from blowing away too.  The door opened on an enormous mound of garbage, behind that a filthy plywood floor.  The wind was whistling piercingly through the joints, rattling the windows, and banging the door against its latch.  Not inviting.  We agreed, we were glad we had paid for the Útivist hut.

The Icelander had been right: for a good while the walk down hill was pretty monotonous, following the treads of the Cat, which met a road, which rolled ever onward downhill through this desert of ash.  Slowly, the severe landscape changed.  Green was introduced, and on our right, a creek was making itself known in a cleft that got deeper and louder every time we paused and stepped off the road to look down into it.  Soon it was a foamy, milky rapids, and later, cleaner, with swirls on the surface that betrayed the speed and depth of the water now.  We crossed the river once on a footbridge, and for the rest of the way, the river stayed on our right.  Near that bridge we saw our first fox tracks in the ash, and shortly after that it got green.  Where there’s green, there’s sheep, so we saw lots of sheep and even more sheep evidence on our way down.  The sheep all stared back at us, usually while chewing rythymicly.

Today’s hike was very, very easy.  Going downhill generally is.  It was a steady, gentle slope.  The river beside us, the Skóga, grew larger and fell over a series of falls.  Not little waterfalls, either.  Considering we were descending a moderate grade, it wasn’t logical how again and again, we’d encounter a huge raging waterfall.  An interpretive sign at the end of the road would tell us there were 21 falls on the route we walked this day.  There were at least that many.  The frequent long stairstep falls probably didn’t count.  Unique, gorgeous, calendar beautiful falls, every one!  It was an abundSo terrible.  The battery would get one snap and then turn off- no time to adjust settingsance of beauty that seemed so excessive and extravagant that it became humorous.  Derek started saying “Oh, just another foss” at each, next, extraordinary spectacle.  “Oh, another foss” was something we said with a grin and shrug quite often the whole rest of our trip, as Iceland turned out to be truly thick on the ground with world class waterfalls.  Sometimes we’d hear the roar a ways off; sometimes the sound would be blocked by the land, or we’d turn a corner to discover another, suddenly.  Sometimes the trail would wind to the base of a foss, sometimes you would see one below you from the top of a cliff.  At every one we were just killing ourselves that we had no camera at all at this point to preserve it with, and we’d just pause and stare instead, trying to fix it in memory.  The sound and the mist and the “good ions” made for a very peaceful day’s walk downhill.  It was quite far, but not at all hard.   The nearer we drew to Skógar, the more oncoming hikers we saw, some out for a day hike up the Skóga, some setting out for Básar.

Most of the time we were walking through trenches in the grass that were sometimes hip deep.  The walking trails had compacted down, digging a ditch through the sod.  This turned out to be characteristic of trails everywhere in Iceland.  When they got too uncomfortably deep, a new trail would start right beside it, so in softer places there would be two or three trenches of varying depths with obvious historical order.

Our hike terminated at Skógafoss, a 62m waterfall missed by few tourists, because it’s readily accessible right off the Ring road at Skógar.  We came on it from above, climbing a stile, having a dizzying look down the falls, and at the backs of the gulls circling in the mist and nesting in the mossy rocks.   It was like reentering another world; as a tourist attraction, Skógafoss is very well traveled.  The steel stairs to the top of the foss are a revolving treadmill of steady foot traffic at all hours.  We were grubby, backpacked, and all serene from solitude and exercise.  Who were all these people?  Society has benefits though- we beelined to the visitor’s centre to immediately plug in our camera batteries and eat, as we had budgeted very accurately for food.  In other words, we had none left.  Menu options?  Minimal.  Fries.  Chocolate.

After the recharge, we went back to the waterfall and climbed it again to get some pictures.  Then we got on the road and hitched out of Skógar, headed to Vík. Vík is supposed to be a must-see for exceptional basalt columns rising out of the ocean at Reynisdrangur, and the sea arch at Dyrhólaey, and I really wanted to take this in, but we never did.  Ironically, we ended up passing through Vík FOUR times, but sadly it remained a list item for “next time”.

This time, it was raining, and we lucked out on a really long ride who was going straight through to Höfn, so we did not stop in Vík, but took the ride to Skaftafell.  This super friendly guy who was thrilled to stop anywhere we we curious about to take a picture, and who talked endlessly about the beauty and history of his country as we drove through it, just happened to be former CEO of one of Iceland’s big three banks.  Yep, all in a normal day for him to pick up a couple of unwashed Canadian backpackers in the rain.  He totally resisted my attempts to draw him out on the topic of Iceland’s recent, crushing economic crash, however.

It was hard to grasp the magnitude of the event from ground level, but this drive crossed miles of sandar -devastation created by the jokülhlaup of the 1362 eruption of the volcano Öræfi.  This sandar, Skeiðarársandar, is the largest in the world, a 1000 sq km floodplain of sand deposited by billions of gallons of water released from the glacier by the volcano’s heat beneath it.  Even to say you could see it from space is an understatement.  A smaller but more recent jokülhlaup event in 1996 took out all the bridges across it like they were made of matchsticks (see picture).  When we later saw it from a height, the grey plain is so large that it fades into mist at the horizon, and is totally impossible to take a picture of.  It’s just so big, it’s all that you see, for as far as you can see.

At Skaftafell we were greeted by a huge, modern, bustling visitor’s centre, gift shop, and regimented square acres of green lawn for a campsite, which we promptly set our tents up on, in the shadow of a green mound of a mountain.  Our tents drew comments, based on their resemblance to alien spacecraft.   I didn’t think they were that weird, but I guess, a bit different.  Derek did a  lot of research before buying our tents, based on weight, ease of setup, and packability.  I loved mine.  Derek spent an inordinate amount of time fidgeting with his, usually every night, trying to get it perfect.  Both of them were ultralight, set up pretty quickly, and dried out very fast, which was perhaps the best feature, since every day we’d wake up in heavy dew if not rain.

Tired from the hike, we got showers (cold), didn’t do  laundry (huge lineup), charged all our accessories (“chargers found plugged in here will be confiscated”), and ate in the cafe.  The cafe served coffee, sheep soup, cake, skyr, and junk food, all shockingly expensive.   I stocked up on skyr, cheese, and chips.  My love affair was skyr was just beginning; Derek had already had enough.  We watched the looped movie about the ’96 jokülhlaup, repeatedly.  I kept falling asleep in it, waking up, and then watching it again to see the parts I’d missed, only to nod off again, until i gave up and went to bed.  Well, first: I was craving a hot spring, we were hitting a week here without having been in one, and everyone we talked to was raving about hot spring this and that, so I hitched up the road to a pool noted in the LP that was supposed to be very nice, only to arrive just as they were closing for the night, alas.  It was dull, rainy, and we couldn’t see a thing for the heavy fog, but we were content to crash.


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I was up with the first sunbeam to a gorgeous, cloudless day.  I jumped on laundry, although making the electronic washing machine work was a bit of a time-consuming challenge, and several other early risers got involved with me pushing buttons, before the thing miraculously came alive.  After that I was a relative expert, and had to start the thing repeatedly for other foreigners.  (Hold this button for ten seconds, then press this one and this one at the same time, then release the first while holding this other one, then wait 5 seconds, then press this one). Really. Or at least it seemed like that.  It was like arcane knowledge passed down between travellers.

I felt blessed to be able to watch the mist coil away from the grass, lift off the mountains and the glacier, to reveal for the first time where we actually were.  I made good use of my Thermarest chair (essential), ate skyr, and made notes in the white space borders of our LP guide, as I was still bereft of my journal.  The ground was drenched with dew and very cold on the soles of my feet, as I made frequent barefoot missions to confirm that the laundry STILL wasn’t finished.  Eventually I gave up and hung all our socks on the bushes and the guy lines of our tents, in good company with all the other campers.  Something is up with their laundry.  The first time I spent $16 and three f@#king hours to do one load of laundry I thought it was anomalous.  The third time it happened,  laundry ceased to be that big a priority.

After leisurely awakening, we decided to spend another night based here, bought new tent tags, then left around 10am for Jokülsárglón, a little further east down the Ring road, getting a ride from a French/Swiss couple with barely enough room for themselves and their gear in the car, let alone us.  But hop in!

Jokülsárglón is another site of stunning beauty easily reached off the Ring road that could be considered a tourist trap.  They definitely process a great many tourists that come for a quick lap in the amphibious boats, a few pictures, and maybe a waffle.  What it is is a great glacial lagoon formed by the ice melt off a tongue of the (inconceivably huge) Vatnajökull glacier, filled with little icebergs calving off the glacier, then drifting slowly towards the sea.  The ocean’s tide backwashes into the lagoon,  so it’s partially salt water, and the seals come in for respite too.

Good tourists, we promptly hopped aboard the next amphibious boat departure, price be damned, which drove into the water and toodled around among the icebergs, preceded by a zodiac there to find a safe route.  A beautiful Icelandic girl in a skidoo suit with a river of blond hair told us in perfect English how quickly the glacier was retreating now, 100s of meters faster every year, but that was ok, because global warming wasn’t happening fast enough for Icelanders.  She held a big chunk of ancient ice with bare hands as she talked, then passed it around for the photo ops and smashed it up on the deck of the boat into little chunks for us to nibble on.  I really liked the amphibious vehicle, and the transition from water to land, as you could feel the engine switch to the axles again and drive out of the water(no one else seemed quite as excited as me so I tried to keep a lid on it).

That was the Jokülsárglón tourist experience.  One can also walk leisurely around the banks of the lagoon and take pictures from the land.  Other interesting facts are that they filmed parts of Tomb Raider and Die Another Day here, and to do so they artificially froze some of the lake, and closed off the lagoon from the ocean (!).

The icebergs are gorgeous: stacked layers of white and blue and turquoise with streaks of black ash, and different degrees of opacity, depending on how the ice was formed in the glacier and the pressures exerted, on how long they’d been in the lagoon and how recently they’d rolled over, and on the vagaries of the sun’s action upon them.  We could have taken 100 times as many pictures here as we did, and Derek’s not having his DSLR hurt.

From the blue iceberg lagoon (time limited offer- will no longer exist in 25 years or less), we inhaled waffles with jam (breakfast was non-existent at Skaftafell, although sheep soup would be reheated later, ten bucks a bowl), and walked across the bridge and the road to where the lagoon really comes out to meet the sea.  Glistening, perfectly clear and intricately sculpted pieces of ice like we had sampled on the boat were washed up everywhere on the ash-black sand beach, looking for all the world like a black and white photo even in colour.  We spent some time here, taking pictures of the millenium-old ice in their last days as ice before returning to water, handling the smooth rocks and waiting for the other hitchhikers to be picked up before we got back on the road.

We got a ride back to Skaftafell with an Austrian couple.  I don’t remember any of it.  I was making a habit by this time of falling asleep as soon as I got in a vehicle or a movie.  It was starting to make me worry.  So weird, but as soon as I put the seatbelt on, it seemed, I was struggling to stay awake.   Still early in a sunlit day, we seized the opportunity to go on a glacier tour.  Only the beginner tour (“Intro to glaciers”), as we couldn’t afford much else.

Before that tour departed, we ran over to see the glacier that we were essentially camped beside, a short walk off the visitor’s centre to the oozing spread of ice reaching down towards sea level, and the canyon it had created.  The plain before it was rugged, scraped and sandy, with some rugged shrubbery, pools and rivers of cement, and an awesome view up over the cracking, pressured ice near the bottom to the expanse of snow and ice that Vatnajökull is.   There’s something about that much ice that can silence you with power.   It’s not silent though, it groans.  All night, it sounded like far off thunder, the ice heaving in the night.

Vatnajökull is vast.

We have some glaciers in Canada.  You can walk around on them and drive on them and even go on a very similar guided tour.  See the rocks that are mossy on all sides, see the cauldrons formed by whirlpools.  But Vatnajökull is larger than PEI (a bit smaller than Cape Breton), the same size as Lake Titicaca, with ice a kilometer thick.  All you can ever see of it at once is one little finger of it reaching between mountain ranges.

Our glacier tour was really lucky, there were only the two of us plus one crazy Isreali (non-stop clowning around), with our quintessentially Icelandic guide (rugged, blonde, stoic), who was also very indulgent, letting us climb down into any of  the maligns and crevasses, and climb higher and higher on the glacier, although he was really unhappy when we came down to see a family of tourists clambering around on the ice in running shoes.  “I will not rescue you when you fall in”, he spat, disdainful of fools.  On the way home the tour bus even paused at a gas station/grocery store, for us to buy bananas (a miracle!), rice (lifesaving!) and tomato sauce (hallelujah!) for dinner, which the Icelander approved of.  “College food”, he nodded.

We were starting to notice the food in Iceland, or rather the lack of it.  There’s plenty of chocolate and plenty of ice cream, but there never seems to be much choice for veggies and entrees. Between Vík and Höfn (150 miles), there seems to be two places to eat.  The visitor’s centre (sheep soup again?) and the Jokülsárglón cafe.  Waffles.  Delicious, but they’re two mouthfuls apiece; start with three per person.  This was a hungry day.  A person cannot live on skyr alone!  Not at this pace, anyways.

Back at our campsite in the lee of ridiculous vistas, we made rice, and saw the couple who had left us to our own devices at Gigjökull again.  Iceland is a really small world, for tourists at any rate.   Skaftafell is a major hub.  Oh, there’s that other hitchhiker, the one that had the Vík sign (wave); oh, there’s that Austrian couple again, (wave, “Hi!”); oh, there’s the unusually tall Belgian… you see other travellers over and over again at different hikes and campsites, and on the road.

After wolfing down dinner for four between the two of us, we went for a hike up to Sjónarsker.  Buried in the hills above us was Svartifoss, foss of a thousand postcards.  It was a long steep walk down to it (after walking very high up), and along the there were several other unique little fosses- long ribbons, wide washes that fell in steps, and there was a mossy structure that seemed to house a now-disused hydro-electric generator.   This was one of my favourite fosses of Iceland, although it wasn’t all that swashbuckling, considering the majestic curtains of water we’d already seen.  It was just… special.  It was like a cave, the bowl of space that held the fall, damp with mist held in the air and dripping off the black rock.  It’s the black basalt that makes this one so unique, all the columns of hexagonal rock for all the world like a church organ turned to stone. In the river’s spill out, there were piles of boulders, all hexagonal, different lengths, different dimensions, but all black, all six sided, everywhere you looked.  Amazing.

Sandar, as far as you can seeWe lingered around that strangely “holy” pool and its quiet trickle of waterfall for awhile, then carried on up and out of the ravine and across the top towards the glacier again.  This was a profoundly magical place, something I’d only visited in J.R.R. Tolkien’s imagination.  After gaining altitude, we could see over the sandar, the surviving evidence of power on a biblical order, and then we were in a maze of trails and boardwalks through short trees and thick hedgelike bushes.  It was exactly like being hobbits.  I would lose sight of my brother ahead of me, then would see him bobbing along among the twilit green.  The sun started to set in the west, silhouetting the peak behind us and setting the whole sky and the smattering of clouds ablaze in colours that would change by the second.  In the other direction, the setting sun was lighting up the snowy alpine of the mountains beyond the glacier with pinks and oranges and blues that looked fake.  Us, tiny creatures in between, wandered among the shrubs, laid on the moss that felt thick as muskeg, and ate blueberries by the handful, giving up on capturing any of this on camera.

This area is intricate with hiking trails.  I really don’t know exactly where we went, or how far, but we climbed for hours.  The sun seemed to never set, and we just kept going.  Eventually we reached the lip of the glacier-formed canyon of “our” finger of Vatnajökull that terminates at Skaftafell, so we knew where we were.  We were so high here, looking down from the cliff onto the ice, almost small below us, and across the wide canyon at jagged, majestic mountains.  I was seized by an urgent and totally illogical urge to summit Kristínartindar, a conical, steep peak with a clear trail up it,  although it was nearly dark.  It was right there!  So close!  Derek groaned; we argued.  Derek put his foot down and talked me out of it, after I tried to talk him into letting me go alone.  At this point, the sun was well below the horizon, but there was still light, a dreamy, glowing kind of light that seemed to come from everywhere.

I bargained with myself I’d climb here again in the morning (I did not), and headed down with Derek.  About an hour down, and descending started to seem just as hard as the ascent, plus we were in total darkness eventually, with meek headlamps, and it was gnarly.  Wet and slippery, rocky, craggy, and thick with strong, stubborn trees.  By the time we made it back to camp, my legs were jelly.  Sleep hit hard and fast, and the glacier went on thundering through the night.

The Extra photos are really worthwhile for this day: click here

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