Posts Tagged ‘Vatnajökull’

On Day Two we prepared our luggage properly, separating actual camping supplies into backpacks, and city supplies into our suitcases. Since I’d packed to leave by essentially hurling things I thought I’d need at my suitcase, this was an important step to take before entering the hiking phase of our trip.

Elf rock

We dropped off our luggage at BSÍ to be stored (in a room choked with the backpacks and suitcases of other travellers) while we spent some more time in Reykjavik for the day. The Free Walking Tour was worth every cent. We learned a number of things on that short walk, from the talkative, bold Icelandic guide who mentioned sex often, told us what he thought of real estate and Icelandic banks, and who had lived nine years in Canada:

The rock in the picture is an elf rock. When machinery breaks or gets stuck when trying to move a rock, they don’t use bigger machinery, they call in a mediator who negotiates with the tenants of the rock for an amicable solution. In this case it was a week to get ready and a new downtown location. I guess hidden people don’t have so much to pack.

Reykjavik’s city hall houses a wonderful handmade relief map of Iceland. Odd to say, but it really put Iceland in perspective, especially the magnitude of their glaciers. Iceland’s glaciers spit on our “glaciers”. Vatnajökull wouldn’t deign a glance at the Columbia Icefields. Vatnajökull might give PEI a passing nod. Jökull = Glacier. This beautiful piece of work made of 1mm layers of paper took over 16 “man-years” to create- four people over four years. All those complicated little fjörds. I can imagine whoever worked on the Eastfjörds feeling like Slartibartfast from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy– “those fjörds there- I did those.” It is remarkable.

Inside, Reykjavík’s city hall looks like a place where work gets done, meaning, it’s not pompous at all and doesn’t put on airs. Maybe an air of streamlined efficiency. Outside, it had a striking wall of moss on rock with portholes in it overlooking a square pond.

We didn’t notice the anchor on a welded chain rising up out of the water. We saw that a week later when we went by and said “Hey! That anchor couldn’t have been sticking out of the water like that when we were here before, we would have noticed!” Are these people fucking with us? The next time we passed city hall, the anchor was sticking out of the water, but at a totally new angle. By that time, we could file it under weird sculpture, which we were quite familiar with, but we still don’t know what’s up with the anchor and why it does what it does.

Reykjavik 871 +/-2 is perhaps the world’s most oddly named museum (names of attractions rarely include tolerance factors, I’ve noticed), but it had an awesome elevator. What’s most extraordinary about this place is that an entire, modern, multi-storey building is built over top of an archeological dig, completely preserving the excavation and housing an interpretive museum around it. There’s even a window through the sidewalk looking down into the entrance “lobby” of this hall built in 871 (+/- 2 years – hence the name). They don’t seem to think this is remarkable, and all the pictures and info about discovering the remains of the Settlement Age hall under the foundation of a few other builds, the exceptional effort of preserving it, and the engineering of building around it, all live in an unassuming little room adjacent to the bathrooms. We wouldn’t have seen it except for admiring the elevator.

The elevator!

The exhibit itself is quite interactive with lots of high tech flashy bits. We were already noticing a trend with Icelandic museums: there isn’t a lot of actual stuff in them. Not stuff that’s old, and real. Every single Viking and Settlement artifact known in Iceland could fit in a short wing of the British Museum, if not a room. It was a staggering comparison- the incredible glut of collected historical artifacts jam-packed into every museum we saw when we were in London, versus the starkly empty exhibitions of Iceland (with one exception, that comes later). So, there’s a lot of interpretation going on.

Museums started to feel like books, written on walls. Like being inside a book. Walk around instead of turn pages. This made me crazy. “I want to be outside, not be in a book!” So we’d dart around museums taking pictures of all the copious text, in two-four languages, for reading later someplace more boring (like Canada) and run back outside. Or not go in the museum at all, once they started to become suspect entities. But this opinion coalesced much later on after more museums. All that my notebook said this day was: I’ic museums don’t seem to take very long to go through. As opposed to say, the British Museum, where you should make sure someone knows when you went in and how long you can live on the snack bars you brought, in case they need to send in a search party a few days later.

Despite this “lack of old stuff”, Icelanders know their history with a detailed, intimate completeness that’s unrivaled, thanks to the sagas. Caveat to this generalization about Iceland’s museums: we did not take in the National Museum, unfortunately. Possibly there’s a bunch of stuff there. We also missed the Phallological Museum, a members-only “must-see”.

Most crucial to our travel plans was the information we could glean about puffins. I was on a mission to see puffins, and we knew our timing was cutting it close, arriving in mid August when the puffins are scheduled to depart.

The Olís cat.

No one seemed to really have their ear to the ground on puffin status in Reykjavik, but consensus seemed to be “you will see puffins still, but they are leaving now.” This solidified our plan for the next couple of days- head for Vestmannaeyjar in pursuit of puffins.

We caught a kid on a two wheeled skateboard and some off-duty blue ninjas practicing in the park on our way to retrieve our packs and get on the road. We got camping gas and ice cream on the way out of town at a gas station that had an interested cat. Cat strolled into the gas station through the automatic door and weaved the aisles like it was looking for something. I shared my ice cream.

We hitchhiked to Selfoss that night, where we camped among an innundation of German travelers at the campsite. First time with the new tents, and all the research paid off: it rained, and none of our stuff got wet. Success.

***** This better not carry on like this – one post per day? I’ll be writing the most comprehensive Iceland travel diary ever- Journey to the Center of Iceland; 20 000 Photos to See (really, really bad pun). Then again…I’ve little else as exciting to write about for awhile.

More pictures of Reykjavík


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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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