Monday, August 30, 2010

Day 10 : Skogarfoss to the golden circle, via Eyjafjalljokull

After some early (and cold!!) shots of the waterfall here, we drove around to Seljandsfoss - a beautiful water fall that we are able to walk behind. We realise the best shots would have been last night into the setting sun, but it was not to be. A few hundred metres up the road, we find a waterfall hidden behind a small canyon, then continue up the road to Thorsmork. This is a beautiful area, and the end point of a 30 km hike from Skogar, or the start point for a 4 day hike to Landmannalaugar. We drive along the river flood plain, all covered in ash from this years eruption. The glacier itself is also almost entirely black with ash, but still steaming in places. It is pretty cool to see this famous volcano up close - but interesting to realise that this volcano is so insignificant compared to its neighbours that it is only named for the glacier on top of it - all glaciers are ‘jokull’, and all the big glaciers have at least one volcano underneath - Vatnajokull has 5 active ones. Katla is under Myrdaljokull and is one of the big ones due to go at anytime - it usually follows Eyjafjalljokull by a matter of months, and Hekla nearby is also due to go off around now.

The road to Thorsmork disappeared under the river near the hut and start point of walks, and after consulting the guide book we decided that what was on offer was not worth this deeper and scarier looking river crossing - we did around a dozen anyway, and the last few had been deeper than we liked. The wide flood plain was covered in deep ash, and there were extensive road works in places, obviously repairing damage sustained this year. All the bridges around here are very simple affairs - I guess the Icelandic philosophy is to build the bridge strong enough for the traffic, knowing it will need to be rebuilt after flood or volcano damage, rather than trying to withstand these enormous natural forces.

After making our way back to the Ring Rd, we keep heading west, towards Reykjavic. We stop for some fuel (all $2 per litre - more than at home, but really, petrol in Europe was $2 per litre 15 years ago, so I figure we are doing ok. Then again, it adds $700 to our costs), and Charlie samples a hotdog - a dog wrapped in bacon, with crispy fried onion, raw onion, mustard and tomato sauce. He wanted to get three! Interestingly, our purchase of a yogurt, a drink and the hotdog is only $6.50 - we are starting to think we have had the wool pulled over our eyes - Australia is actually getting really expensive.

Mind you, had we been here 2 years ago, the exchange rate was much worse - $1 is 100 kronur - very easy conversion, but then, $1 was only 50 kronur - petrol would have been $4 per litre. Ouch!! At Selfoss, we turn inland, but get distracted by yet another modern church. This one is the traditional shape, clad in blue tin, with enormous rectangular windows capturing the view and the sunlight. When we stop the car to have a look around, we can hear a woman singing inside - very operatic style. Another magical moment. Continuing on towards Gullfoss, one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland.

We have perfect weather - sun, big clouds, a rainbow arching through the mist over the falls, and all captured in megapixels. A beautiful setting, with a raging, roiling river disappearing through a narrow canyon below. Next stop is Geysir - the original geysir for which all others are named. Sadly, she doesn’t blow anymore. In the 1950’s, some tourists threw rocks into it, blocking the water flow. It has spouted water a few times since, but only for a time after local earthquakes (we were told yesterday that there are 30 - 100 earthquakes measured in Iceland everyday, but most are smaller than we can feel. Mind you, we both thought we felt one last night). Fortunately, it’s little sister, Strokkur, erupts every 5 - 8 minutes. We watch the steaming water eddy and bubble, before a big blue bulge appears and it erupts, many stories high (I can’t really tell, but it looked to be more than 4 stories). A couple of spouts that we saw were followed quickly by another smaller spout - perhaps house high. A very spectacular little geothermal field.

We then make our way to Thingvellir - one of the most important historical and natural sites in the country. This was the site of the original parliament, in a natural amphitheatre. It is also an area where there are many fissures and cracks, again the result of the these two northern tectonic plates pulling apart. The campsite here is surprisingly barren - no power, but free hot showers and a free washing machine. We are huddled in the laundry room because it is the only place with a powerpoint! And it is warm. With no power, our heating in the van won’t blow for long, so we’ll save that for bed time. We have done 2500km in our car so far, some of the wheels look a bit haggard after some of the terrible roads we have traversed, and our fridge smells evil, but we have had a great time. Tomorrow - a walk around here, and we’ll make our way back towards Reykjavic, the blue lagoon, ready to return the car on sunday.

Strokur Geysir about to blow!

In the shadow of the Eyjafjallajokull, the plain is littered with boulders from past erutptions.
The floodplain under Eyjafjallajokull. Notice the ash still in the foreground.

Steam rising from Eyjafjallajokull. The black areas is actually the Glacier covered in ash.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Day 9 - Skaftafell, Glacier hike, Jokulsarlon boat ride and a drive to Skogar

After showering (these times 5 minute showers are feeling long now - no need to rush so much!), packing up and moving the car, we joined Glacier Guides for a drive to one of the local glacier tongues for a 7 km hike on the ice. With crampons strapped to our feet, harnesses around our hips (just in case) and orange helmets on our heads (also, just in case), we walked up the glacier, learning about black ice (a volcanic ash layer from past eruptions, it protects the ice so it will melt slower here), the flow of the glacier (it is melting at 10 cm or so per day from the surface, and moves downhill about a metre per day), crevasses (which form where the slope is steeper and the flow is faster, and then close up again where the slope is less steep). Stunning to see.

We were supplied with a ham cheese salad sandwich and an orange fruitbox on the ice, then made our way across the ice before heading back down after a 4 hour tour. (It was funny to just get handed them - no choice, no enquiry as to allergies or preferences. Just some lunch, supplied, as per the brochure.) A short drive to Jokulsarlon for an amphibious boat ride amongst the icebergs. This time, we drove further along the road and over a bridge across Iceland’s shortest river (it is maybe 50m long, from the lagoon to the sea), that had small icebergs in it, and some washed on the black sandy beach.

On the way back to the national park, we pulled over at another glacier, also with a lagoon in front. This one was used for tours earlier in the summer, using Zodiac boats to get across to the ice. Unfortunately, where ever they parked the boats, invariably the icebergs would drift to ice it in, so they had abandoned these tours until next year, when they will have 2 boats that can be moored on 2 different parts of the shore.

After a full day’s turing and exploring it was back to the carpark to pick up the camper and head west to the small town of Skogar where we would camp. On the way we passed through Vik to photograph the famous church high upon a hill in the middle of town. In the last eruption is this area the church was the only building to survive as the floodwater and lava rumbled down the hill. Next stop was Dyrholaey, a small headland along the beach with a large natural arch that rose from the sea flow. Some nice photos of the arch and accompanying lighthouse completed this leg.

We arrived at Skogar after sunset to setup up camp in the shadow of the waterfall, Skogarfoss, nestled at the base of Eyjafjalljokull. Dinner was a simple affair of cup-o-soup and noodles as we listened to the hundreds of sheep in the paddock nearby bleating late into the night. Another long day of hiking, driving and sightseeing. It is now dawning on us that the adventure is very quickly winding up and we will be to home soil in no time.

Moving icebergs with the Zodiac.
Icecave, formed by the flowing meltwater.

Chipping out 'steps' from the glacier.

Samplng the purest water in Iceland. At .5ยบ it was 'fresh'

Sexxy crampons.

The view from our camper.

Day 8 : Kirkjubaejarklaustur to Skaftafell National Park and Jokursarlon

Probably the easiest day so far on this journey around Iceland. After a late night of clothes washing, photo editing and blog writing we started the morning at a leisurely pace.

The first stop was the Museum at Kirkjubaejarklaustur. A modest place with the obligatory pull up banners and sign boards explaining more volcanic activity in the region. The main attraction we wanted to see was a movie that documented the 1784 eruption that killed 1/5 of Icelands population. 12 cubic kilometres of lava spilled from 2 giant fissures (up to 27km long) over a period of 7 months, destroying the land at first then poisoning the air and ground. 1000’s starved and much of the livestock for eastern Iceland was lost. The clouds of poisonous gas that blocked the sun across Europe was said to have caused more than a million deaths related to starvation in lost crops. If it happened today, flights in the northern hemisphere would be cancelled for up to 18 months and untold lives lost. On average this Volcano wakes every 200 - 500 years, so it could happen in our lifetime.

After seeing this dramatized horror story of local geology it was onto to see the Vatnajokull and Jokulsarlon. It was the first warm sunny day since we arrived and we wanted to make the most of these spectacular locations. The drive to Jokulsarlon took us past the the mountain range that was home to the Vatna Glacier, and Icelands highest peak at 2000m. Permanently blanked in ice and snow, it is also the home of several volcanos. In 1996 a large eruption under the glacier caused melt water to accumulate in a large mountainous lake. The ice finally lifted after 30 days of melting and the water cascaded down the side of the range. It flowed at a rate of 50,000 sqm per second for 48 hrs destroying roads and bridges as the water carried down 3 story building sized blocks of ice and water. The movie we viewed at the visitor centre was just stunning.

At the eastern side of the Glacier is Jokulsarlon. A glacial lagoon that at the bottom of a glacier (as many of the glacial tongues around here have), causing car sized icebergs to clave off in a postcard perfect setting. One of my ‘must see’ destinations it did not disappoint. Eerily silent except for the sound of dripping water as the large bergs melted in the sun. Simply wonderful, that the pictures below can only begin to portray.

We then travelled back to the Skaftafell National Park to set up camp for the afternoon. For the first time in our trip we had time for some rest and an afternoon nanna nap. Waking at 5.30pm we decided to hike the surround hills and check out the local waterfalls. It was a 5.3km hike with beautiful vistas of the flood plains and lava fields below. After some ‘jesus fish’ (postcard) photos of the hero waterfalls and surrounding streams we made out way down to the plain. It was on the descent that we came across ‘Sell’. A 100 year old farm compete with the traditional grass covered roofs that we saw in so many postcards. Under the care of the National Museum it is perfectly restored and gives us a glimpse of how the traditional icelandic villages were like. The roof is made from beams of timber, usually driftwood, covered in slate like rock, then dirt and finally grass covering the entire structure. The buildings are semi buried into the hillside to add more protection from the elements and provide more warmth. A picture perfect setting that wasn’t outlined with the attention it deserved in our guidebook.

A little further downhill, we found a small path into a small forest. There was a lovely pool in a dell, where they would keep the lambs overnight so the ewes could be milked each morning. The forest, such as it was, was pretty - a huge poplar, spruce trees towering above, and birch trees - both silver birch and a smaller, twisted type of birch. There don’t seem to be any extensive forests here, but there are pockets, and tall trees do exist - we are seeing more farms here in the south of the country with rows of trees as wind breaks for their farms.

Curry and Rice for dinner, washed down with Icelandic Vodka and 2 episodes on True Blood ended our day, ready to sleep in our van with a view of the enormous glacier and 5 of its flows.