Iceland: Day 5
I woke up today around 0850. Today we depart Hrífunes for our next stop. I woke Rob up and told him that he had to get out of bed if he wanted breakfast. We don't sleep this late when we are home. I think we still haven't adapted to the time here yet, which might be a blessing if we continue this way as it will make the transition easier when we return home. Reluctantly, Rob complied and climbed out of bed. Breakfast is only served until 10. We ate and discussed our plans for the day.
Originally, we planned to return the rental car by noon. But we had changed this plan with the rental car company yesterday because of several factors. First, the original return time was noon in Reykjavik, which is a 3 hour drive from Hrífunes. We already blew that option by the time we woke up. Second, since the weather was not cooperative on the drive in we were not able to check out the sights along the way. By postponing the dropoff time, we could make the drive leisurely and stop wherever we like. Third, our next Airbnb check-in time was at 2pm. That would mean walking around with luggage for two hours minimum after we returned the rental. Finally, the aurora forecast was quite good for tonight and there would be minimal cloud cover. Keeping the car one more day would give us the opportunity to drive to dark skies outside of the city and hopefully catch the lights again. So our plan was to leisurely make our way back to Reykjavik and explore along the way since we had no real deadlines.
To get to Reykjavik, we had to head west, back the way we came. So we went east. We hadn't traveled this stretch of road yet, nor explored the surrounding area at all, so we were curious. We could finally see rather far, and we learned that we had actually been in a quite mountainous area for the last couple days. Surprise! We'd had no idea from looking into the grey abyss.
We went the long way back to the "ring road" over the foothills and through farmlands, and only then turned west. We tried our best to stay on the road while we gawked at the amazing scenery. In clear weather, the region is stunning. We made our first stop at Skógafoss, a very popular waterfall. We took some pictures at the bottom to savor the natural beauty. Then we hiked. At the top, several people were smoking cigarettes, and the viewing platform was packed with people, so we just kept hiking away. 100 feet after the platform, we were essentially by ourselves. We followed the trail along the riverbank, discovering more and more waterfalls. The hike was very windy, but it was great to expend some energy after having been mostly cooped up inside for the last couple of days.
When the wind began to wear us down some, we decided to turn back. We weren't sure how much further the trail went, and we didn't have any gear with us. We didn't want to overdo it and run into any problems. The hike down was much easier as the wind was at our backs, pushing us along. We made great time getting down, and we hopped back in the car and continued west.
We didn't go very far before we stopped on a random side road. We were hungry and thirsty. Mandy cut up cheese slices with a coffee stirrer and prepped some crackers and pepperoni while I filled our water bottle with fresh mountain stream water, right next to where we were parked. It was so cold and clear and refreshing! We ate and drank, and enjoyed the awesome scenery. Then we moved along. Our next stop was at Seljalandsfoss, another waterfall. Normally, there is a path that leads behind this waterfall, but today it was completely icebound and therefore closed. The sun had ducked behind a shoulder of the mountain, and so we were mostly in shadow. We felt cold fairly quickly, and so we got back into the car after we'd gone as far as we could up the falls.
We cruised for a while after Seljalandsfoss without stopping. There were amazing views all around us, but we reasoned that if we stopped to photograph every one, we'd have to live permanently on the island. After a time, the flats met some foothills and we started cruising uphill in clear, sunny weather. Minutes later, we were crossing a mountain pass, subject to intense winds, and doing our best to navigate through heavy snow drifts. It was remarkable how rapidly the conditions changed. Then, as rapidly as the conditions deteriorated, they cleared as we wound down the western side of the slope. The area was more populated here as we made our way into the city.
We found our airbnb after only a couple wrong turns. Once the car was parked, we checked ourselves into the apartment and unloaded our things. We prepped some cold-brew coffee in a French press we found in the tiny kitchenette. Then we set out on foot to find a beer and wound up at Micro Bar. We were the only patrons until one other pair showed up, so we chatted with the bartender for a while. We learned there’s some sort of collaboration going on between Maine and Iceland breweries, and so he knew a lot of our local-to-home beers and breweries. We enjoyed some really good Icelandic beers and worked up an appetite. We thought about going to the restaurant upstairs for food, but felt like we were underdressed, so we braved the winds and cold in search of dinner.
There were many restaurants very close by. We eventually decided on Hressó. It looked how we felt, except warmer. We opened the door to a large party of men yelling and cheering each other on. We were definitely not underdressed. We grabbed a table and ordered the special pizza which was hot chicken wing pizza – we were hoping that actually meant buffalo chicken pizza. We got another round of beers as well. The pizza came and was really good; better than we expected! It was buffalo chicken, not whole chicken wings on pizza. I was still a bit hungry so I ordered the special “meatsoup”. It was really tasty; I think the meat was lamb? It was a very similar taste to chicken noodle soup, minus the noodles. After we ate, we paid and left.
We went back home to change up our gear a little bit. We donned warmer clothes, and packed thick gloves and headlamps. We also packed the photography equipment. We loaded into the car and headed eastish and a bit north. You could almost say we headed northeast. We’d kept an eye on solar and terrestrial weather for the whole trip, and tonight was forecast to be one of the best of the trip. We navigated towards Þingvellir National Park, but stopped along the way. Since it’s a national park, there’s hardly any artificial light nearby, so the night sky gets super dark. We were on the outskirts of Reykjavik when we first saw the aurora. We stopped at what we thought would be an interesting spot to photograph the lights, but there was just too much ambient light. We pressed on, further from the city. We stopped at another random spot on the side of the road, across from a moderately large mountain and in a fairly dark spot. The lights were neatly framing the mountain from this vantage point, and it photographed surprisingly well. We struggled against the intense winds to keep the camera absolutely still and avoid blurry photos during the long 30 second exposures. But it was worth it!
We pressed on still further into the darkness. We tried stopping at a few pull-offs on the highway but were forced to continue when they were completely full of cars! Eventually, we found one with only one giant bus parked in it. We joined the bus passengers in taking more pictures, until we were frozen and the lights were beginning to fade. Unfortunately, while we were busy working, another car pulled in behind us, and the bus passengers were still milling about the parking area. So we sat in the warm interior of our rental until someone was ready to leave; we were the meat in this vehicular sandwich. The car behind us was finally ready to leave, and made a valiant effort, but was thwarted by the snowdrift at the entrance to the highway. We couldn’t pull forward because the tour bus was in the way, and the whole parking area was flooded with people standing around taking photos. Eventually, the bus driver directed us so we could safely complete a 357-point turn without running over any cameras, and we passed by the car that had been behind us and got out onto the highway once more.
We drove to the entrance to Þingvellir. We found a spot in the corner of two large snowbanks, and parked to block wind on the third side. Even with only one direction exposed, the winds cut right through as if they did not care. We got a few pictures we were not enthusiastic about, and noted that the aurora was still fading, and only showing very dully at this point. We waited a while in the car with the heat on hoping they’d return. Eventually, as it was approaching midnight, we decided to call it a night as we were getting a bit tired and we had a decent drive remaining to get back to our bed for the night. We stopped once or twice on the ride home, but ultimately we didn’t find any fantastic locations, and the aurora didn’t come back with any real strength. We arrived back at our place and pretty much crashed once we got there after parking the car.
Iceland: Day 4
Yesterday we received the unfortunate news that our trip to hike up Skaftafell glacier and into ice caves under the glacier had been cancelled due to weather. Skaftafell is about an hour and a half further east of Hrífunes, which is the main reason we decided to stay so far out in the middle of nowhere. Skaftafell is also close to Glacier Lagoon and Diamond Beach. We were able to book a different tour into a different glacial ice cave. This one would depart from Vík, which is only 40 minutes away and should be an easier drive given the worst of the weather had passed.
So, after we had a tasty breakfast at the guesthouse, we headed back the way we came. The weather was similar to yesterday, although the wind had died down a bit. The visibility was still the same; white everywhere we looked. Once in Vík, we found our designated meeting spot, and eventually found our tour guide, and hopped into a very custom E350 van. The van had enormous 46" tires, a huge lift kit, and an on-the-fly tire-pressure adjustment system. As we set out on the highway, the van had about 25psi in the tires. As soon as we turned off, onto the snow fields, the driver hit a button and the pressure dropped to about 8psi. The tour guide explained that this allows the tires to flatten out and spread the weight of the vehicle over a larger area, reducing the apparent pressure on the top of the snow. In short, we drove on the snow rather than through the snow. He told us that in Iceland, it is illegal to drive off the roads, but if the land is covered with snow and you are not leaving any tracks on the ground, then it is legal. Driving over the snow assures that they are compliant, although it sounds like a bit of a grey area that just doesn't get enforced as long as you're not destroying the land.
We arrived in the "parking lot" (just a particular spot where they'd dropped a GPS pin in the middle of the white nothingness) after about a half hour of off-roading and a minor stream crossing. The van handled the route very well, even with about 15 people on board. We were given helmets and microspikes, and set out along a trail. Early on, we made the mistake of trying to pass someone who was taking a picture. Since the trail was only about a foot wide, any missteps caused us to posthole in soft snow up to our knees. Thereafter, we stayed on the trail, and waited, watching the leader get smaller and smaller in the distance. (Several people in front of us had to stop and take a picture every few steps.)
Eventually, we arrived to the entrance to the cave. Here we had to do a delicate dance to let others exit the cave without stepping too far of the trail to sink in, before we could enter. Once inside, it was really beautiful. It's hard to describe, so we took pictures. Inside the cave there are clear layers of ice and what appears to be dirt. The guide told us that the layers are actually ice and ash. Whenever a volcano erupts in the area a layer of ash settles on the glacier and eventually the snow that gets packed on top forms another layer of ice. They estimated, based on the number of layers, that the cave that we were in represented about 400-800 years of glacier in the making.
The ice cave that we visited was in Kötlujökull (Katla Glacier) which is an outflow glacier that is part of the larger Mýrdalsjökull (Myrdals Glacier). This particular glacier sits on top of Katla volcano which is one of Iceland's largest and most active volcanoes. It erupts on average every 80-100 years, according to our guide. The last eruption took place in 1918. When the volcano erupts it has to melt through the 800m thick layer of ice to release the pressure. This creates a temporary river larger than the Amazon. In the 1918 eruption, the resulting flood carried debris and deposited it, extending the south coast shoreline by 5 km. The amount of power released is incredible.
After we'd checked out the whole cave, we trekked back across the frozen desert to the van, and made the ride back to Vík. We hopped in the car, and drove over to Smiðjan Brugghús, a brewery. We ordered a burger and a beer each. All of it was wicked good. We debated on what to do next. It was still pretty windy out so we decided to take a drive and explore the small town. We eventually made our way onto the black sand beach in time for sunset, and caught our first sight of the sun in a few days. The timing was perfect, so Rob made his way onto the sand and began snapping pictures. The waves were still huge. I climbed down the bank and joined him on the beach. Suddenly a wave came out of nowhere and rushed up along the beach. We both started moving to higher ground. Rob made it in time, but unfortunately I wound up with seawater and black sand all through my boots. We later learned that the Icelanders call these "sneak waves" and that they are quite common along this beach. Surprisingly the water was not as cold as I anticipated. Or my boots and wool socks just did an excellent job of keeping my feet warm.
After the sun fell behind the cliff, the cold began to grab hold of Mandy's feet, so we headed back to the car. Thinking ahead, about what to do for dinner, since we wouldn't be eating at the guesthouse and there was nothing else near Hrífunes, we got some snacks at the grocery store that we could eat later on. We went back to Smiðjan Brugghús for one more round, and picked up a bottle of wine for after dinner. Then, we went home.
The ride back was pretty uneventful, and the weather was noticeably improving over the course of the day, which was welcome. We spent most of the evening relaxing, sifting through pictures and writing here for you all. We supped on cheese and crackers and shared a bottle of wine. Once it was well dark, we tried to get some pictures of the night sky, but unfortunately it was still too cloudy. If it had been more clear, it should have been fantastic, as there was a completely unobstructed view, and very few artificial light sources for miles around. Oh well! We caught up on some reading before eventually winding down and heading to bed.
Iceland: Day 3
We woke up at 7am, thanks to an alarm clock. We wanted to make sure we would be awake early enough to hit the road before the storm. Neither of us really slept much to be honest. The wind was really loud all night. We showered quickly and made breakfast which was left over sweet potato and broccoli with eggs. We packed our things and loaded them into the car. Luckily, the host had asked us to leave the keys in the cabin and the door unlocked during checkout. This was great in case we decided the weather was too bad because we knew that we could turn around and head back and we'd be able to get back in.
We set out on the ice-covered roads that we were growing used to. Our route would take us south, and then east. We figured with a wind coming from the east that the southbound leg of the drive would be the trickiest part. The wind was fairly strong, but once we left Flúðir, the main roads were pavement. Actual pavement! This drive would be a piece of cake. I told Rob that our new host said the worst roads would be around Seljalandsfoss waterfall, or about halfway through our journey. We made the drive south without any issues, and once we hit the "Ring Road" which is the main road around the island, we turned east.
From there, we were dealing with a strong headwind, which was much more manageable than the crosswinds when we were driving south. We pressed on. At the rate we were going, we would be at our destination well before noon, which is when the highway was set to close. The winds were noticeably increasing. Our weather app indicated that it was only 32 mph constant, but the gusts were predicted to reach 90mph. As we saw the sign for Seljalandsfoss waterfall, we relaxed a bit, since the worst of the driving was now behind us. East of Seljalandsfoss waterfall are several mountains. They continue all the way to the next major town of Vik. As the road began to wind it's way under the mountains after Seljalandsfoss, we realized that the driving was much worse here. I reread the message from our host. "The worst conditions will be under the mountains after Seljalandsfoss waterfall towards town of Vik." Ah. I think she meant the whole section of road between the two which made a lot more sense. I checked http://www.road.is which is a guide to road conditions all over Iceland. The segment of road to be closed was from Hvolsvöllur to Vik. We had already driven through Hvolsvöllur, 22km ago. Now we only had 60km to go winding just below and through the mountains to Vik.
We finally came up over the mountain pass and wound down the hill into Vik. We stopped for fuel and a coffee, and to stretch our legs for a bit. The weather was really intense. We had to use extra caution (and usually both hands!) when opening and closing car doors. Walking into the wind was significantly more effort. The rain/snow mixture that was coming down sideways hurt. Vik is right on the coast, and if we could have seen that far through the haze, we would have seen gigantic waves crashing on the breaker.
When we fueled up with diesel, we figured out something that had been bugging us since we picked up the car. Since day 1 with the car, there had been a smell. Almost like paint, but not quite. Smelled just like diesel, which wasn't exactly surprising, since it had a tank full of it all the time. We couldn't figure out why we could smell it. Do all diesel cars smell? Well, when the tank filled up, the pump did not shut itself off quick enough, for whatever reason, and it dumped a bunch of fuel on the quarter panel. We noticed afterwards that many of that generation Dacia Duster (of which there are tons here) have clear signs of diesel spilled down the sides, so perhaps it's a design flaw in the vehicle?
We continued east for another 45 minutes that seemed like an eternity of driving on the surface of another planet. For as far as we could see in every direction, was just white. Except directly ahead and directly behind, which were a solid black line where the road was. There were very few other cars, and the landscape was exceptionally flat. The landscape lended exceptionally well to snow drifts, which added an additional layer of driving excitement; sometimes you could see the road! We eventually arrived in Hrífunes, which is a town, we think, but there's like 3 inns that comprise the entire place, and nothing else around. Not even any houses. Normally, we'd get settled in and explore around outside. Because of the severe weather and approaching dark, we opted to stay in and relax.
We had signed up to have dinner at the guesthouse where we were staying. Dinner is at 7:30pm, and is homecooked by the innkeeps. We had pork roast, beef stew, red cabbage slaw, white cabbage curry, salad, white rice, fresh breads, and cauliflower soup. All of it was absolutely delicious. Dinner was sort of a buffet, and all the guests who opted to have dinner shared 2 large dinner tables. This was a great opportunity to meet other fellow travelers, and share itineraries and tips for places to check out. We ended up at the table with another couple for a few hours chatting until we all finally decided to head to bed.
Iceland: Day 2
We woke up after about 10 or 11 hours of sleep. It had been a long day; nearly 40 hours awake! We made some breakfast, showered, and dressed. After that, we loaded up our gear for the day and set out. We navigated to Gullfoss, which was about a half hour away. The road surfaces were entirely ice, so that added an adventurous element to the excursion. We stopped at a few places for some photos along the route, but realized it was perhaps a bit too early for good lighting. Once we arrived at Gullfoss, I realized that I forgot to wear anything besides my t-shirt and coat. A third layer was needed.
We wandered in and around the canyon for a while until the cold was really beginning to bite, then we went into the gift shop/cafeteria to thaw out and get a cup of coffee each. We used this time to plan what we were going to do next, as we hadn't yet figured that out. Once we'd determined a game plan, we made our way to the next stop.
The next stop happened to be Farmer's Bistro, back in Flúðir, where we were staying. Farmer's Bistro is a local farm that showcases their produce in their own restaurant. Nearly everything they serve is grown and harvested on site. I guess it is owing to the season that there was not a lot of variety; everything was mushrooms and bread. They told us that they are the only mushroom farm in Iceland. There was mushroom soup, three types of breads, and a bunch of different butters and spreads. The soup was amazing, and the garlic bread was our favorite. We ate until we were full, then we stopped at our house for a minute to put on another layer of clothes.
Dressed appropriately, we navigated next towards Þingvellir ("thing-va-leer") National Park. The park is situated on the boundary between two separating tectonic plates. This movement causes deep and narrow fissures to form, some wide enough to walk between. There is also a large lake in the park, and lots of geothermal activity. We wandered around enjoying the scenery in various parts of the park. Unfortunately, it seemed a lot of the hiking trails were closed because it's winter, so we didn't get to do much hiking. This is probably a blessing, though, because of the very limited daylight (sunrise isn't until nearly 10am!). We were making our way back to the car around 5pm as we were starting to lose daylight and the temperature drops pretty quickly!
We navigated back in the general direction of our house, pleased to find that there were bits of pavement exposed. We could even see the road paint in a few small spots! Back in Flúðir, we went to Secret Lagoon. This spot is similar to Blue Lagoon, though much smaller, much less popular, much cheaper, and much closer to home! (also it is not blue.) Relaxing in the natural geothermal hot water pool was a great way to thaw out from wandering about in the cold and wind all day. We met some fellow travellers in the pool and shared stories from all around the world. Once we were all wrinkly from the water, we got out and made the rest of the way home.
At least, we tried to get home. Along the way, there was a car off the side of the road. This wasn't the first we'd seen, and we felt guilty each time for being unable to offer any assistance. Back home, we have plenty of recovery gear and a proper vehicle to facilitate extraction. Our little Dacia Duster would be useless, even if we had the necessary equipment. As we approached the stuck vehice, we realized it wasn't actually stuck. "They have a tripod," Mandy said. "Well, that's wei- OH! The lights are out!" We stopped as soon as it was safe to do so, and started taking pictures.
The light show was amazing. We took pictures until they left, and then we finally got home to make dinner. I fiddled with the hot tub, per the host's instructions, to try to get it to fill with water. Unfortunately, I had no luck; previous guests may have caused some damage, somehow, we're not really sure. Oh well! Mandy cooked sweet potato, broccoli, and chicken thighs all of which were wicked tasty. After we cleaned up, we took a peek outside to see if the lights had come back. They had! We climbed up the hill behind our tiny cottage to get to a good vantage point and took some more pictures until they went away again.
After the encore, we climbed back down and went inside to find an e-mail from our rental car company. They sent a weather alert for the following day that several major roads would be closed due to extreme winds with gusts up to 90mph. They recommended postponing travel along the south coast of Iceland. That's where we were planning to go! Our Airbnb host for the next night had also messaged us to inform us of the severe weather alerts. She recommended getting to the south coast as early as possible (the storm was supposed to be the worst between 3pm and 10pm with road closures expected at noon). We debated our options. Our current host in Flúðir had offered us a free night due to the hot tub being non-functional. We could take them up on the offer but that would mean losing out on a night in Hrífunes ("ri-voo-ness") and likely missing our tour we had booked for a glacier hike and ice cave tour for Wednesday morning. We decided to try to get some sleep as soon as possible, as it was nearing midnight, and get up early to trial the roads for our 2 and a half hour trip to Hrífunes.
"It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to."
- Bilbo Baggins
We're just an adventure-loving couple with a puppy looking to share our stories with the world.