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Entries in Iceland (9)


Near death between tectonic plates

Ever get the feeling that you are in a place where humans are just not meant to go? I spent the morning diving in the ice-cold glacier water that fills up the Almannagjá fissure, the crack that has been created by the tectonic plates of Eurasia and North America pulling apart. It is this primordial activity that has created Iceland, by allowing the upwelling of magma from below the surface of the earth. The enormous forces have created both the volcanoes and this rift valley that cleaves Iceland in two. Part of the rift valley is filled with water, forming Lake Þingvallavatn, while the rest of the rift is a scenic valley of massive fissures and soft green moss. Our destination was the Almannagjá fissure. When I saw it I thought "is this it?", just a narrow crack in the rock, only 2-3 metres wide but kilometres and kilometres long. Yet this narrow crack goes down 60 metres and is the site of nearly daily earthquakes - it is the exact epicentre of the rifting between tectonic plates, on one side you are in Europe on the other side you are in America.

The fissure is filled by glacial meltwater filtered through volcanic rock. The slow seep of glacial water keeps it at a constant 2 degrees Celsius, so unlike the lake it never freezes in winter. British troops stationed in Iceland during WWII thought the water itself was special and used it to fill their radiators instead of anti-freeze, which of course ended in destroying their engines. We suited up in dry suits to descend down, my first (and now probably only) experience in a dry suit. It is incredibly constricting, layer upon layer tightly wrapped around your body to stop you dying of hypothermia in the freezing waters.

I could hardly move in the ill-fitting suit and it was so hot that it was a relief to step into the freezing waters - until they hit my head and hands (due to small tears), when I felt coldness so severe it seemed like I was burning. The pain numbed as we prepared to dive, and underneath the water we could see the startling blue of crystal clear waters - visibility 100+ metres, the best of anywhere in the world with perfectly pure water.

Oddly, after successfully getting down, my suit started to self-inflate and I bobbed up to the surface. The guide said it was normal on the first dry suit experience and stuffed more lead weights into my vest. I went down, then a few minutes later the same happened - over and over again I was frustrated as I rose to the surface and was just given more lead weight, until finally I sunk well, straight to the bottom of the rift.

The happiness lasted only a minute as I worked out why I was now sinking - a faulty tube had leaked my entire oxygen tank into my suit until it ran out, leaving me with lead weights at the bottom of a tectonic right without any oxygen!

It could have been a lot worse, the rift was only 10 metres deep at that point and I didn't have so much weight on that I couldn't swim up to the surface (the lead vest was impossible to take off wearing the dry suit mittens), but I was fairly oxygen-deprived when I did make it there. My tour operator finally recognised the faulty tube and offered to change it for the second dive, but I instead decided to indulge in oxygen and watch the goslings graze of the green grasses of the rift.

For our last evening with Icepedition, Chris organised an amazing traditional Icelandic meal in the house of some good friend of his, with great food and drinks and a delightful end to a perfect holiday.



Icelandic horses

We spent the morning with the beautiful Icelandic horses that we have seen all over the island. These horses were originally brought to Iceland by Vikings between 860 and 935 CE. Early on, in 982 CE, the Althing passed laws to prevent the import of new horses into Iceland,so the breed has been reproductively isolated for more than 1000 years. Even now, importing horses to Iceland is illegal, even Icelandic horses that have just left the island to compete - in order to keep the purity of the breed and to protect them from diseases (especially thanks to the genetic bottleneck that occured in 1783, when 75% of the horses were killed by the fallout of volanic eruption). They are very tough little horses, able to cope with the freezing Icelandic winter and living up to 56 years. We noticed as well that the Icelandic horses seem to be very fond of sleeping lying down, on sunny days three quarters of the herd would be on the ground, very unusual for horses.

The horses are eaten, especially the foals, but typically they are used for pleasure riding, which was our experience this morning. We rode out through the fields, across rivers and along the beach, a perfect way to see this perfect land. Unlike other horses, Icelandic horses have five gaits - in addition to the walk, trot and canter they have the tölt and the skeið/flugskeið. The tölt is an ambling gait faster than a trot but still comfortable to ride, while the skeið/flugskeið is a fast/smooth pace. My horse became extremely painful to ride when it went faster than a trot, so I kept it at a walk. It was just a loan horse from another stud, so perhaps it was untrained - untrained Icelandic horses can slip into a "Pig's Pace" or a "Valhopp", which are versions of the tölt that have mixed paces and are uncomfortable to ride. Lydia experienced the true tölt, with her horse becoming smoother as it moved above the trot, and really enjoyed her first horse riding experience.

And now, the driving over and our holiday coming to an end, we are in Reykjavik.


Splendid isolation

This is a study in rural idyllic isolation. We are at Budir, an abandoned 18th century fishing village on the shores of the western fjords of Iceland. On the drive here sheep were common and a risk - the skittish lambs always responded to the panic of a car by running to their mother, even if they were hidden on the opposite side of the road. People, on the other hand, were so rare that warning signs were given as if they were reindeer, prone to wander onto the road in the next 5km.


There are long flat lava plains between us and the mountains, a setting so remote that it was used by Jules Verne as the location where the entrance was discovered in "Journey to the Centre of the Earth". The silence is deafening as you sit on the black rock at the shore, the only sign of human footprint being the subtle ruins of the turf houses. My ears are struggling to pick up the noise they assume must be there, and generate random white noise. The relaxation is complete.


Puffin magic


In my mind's eye I had an image of Iceland, perhaps only half articulated before today. A verdant farm, at the edges of the arctic ocean, with a small ramshackle hut and a natural geothermal pool. A craggy old sea-captain with an aging fishing trawler. Chugging slowly across the ocean, the fierce wind and biting cold of the Arctic spray deadening feeling in my hands. Sheer cliffs rising out of the ocean, covered with nesting sea-birds, screaming and cawing.


Today this all became real to me with an experience that will always typify Iceland to me. Our captain was Jon Eriksson (Icelandic surnames are patronymic, changing with every generation, so their phone book actually lists the population by first name). The location was Drangey Island, the scene of a saga-era tail about an outlaw who escaped justice by hiding out on Drangey. The island rises sheer from the ocean, with a single cleft allowing a dangerous pathway to the summit to be carved out.


Most people climbed to the top to see the small hut where egg-collectors stay during raids, but John, Lydia and I soon climbed down to wander along the shore and stare at the colony of thousands of golden plovers, kittiwakes, arctic turns and of course the famous puffin. Drangey Island is one of the largest colonies of this remarkable bird. They look almost like short little penguins, 20cm tall with stubby wings and a small tuxedo, with perhaps a dash of toucan in that ridiculous beak.


It is almost a shock to see them awkwardly take off in flight, their stubby wings designed for diving into the ocean at depths of up to 60 metres, but they manage quite well, flying at an average speed of 80km/hour. The birds are here to breed, flying in during April to meet their life-long mate, cleaning out the 1.5 metre burrow they nest in and laying a single egg. The egg would have hatched recently, after 6 weeks of incubation, and now the adults are making 5-10 trips a day to feed the young a rich diet of fish. As foolish as these birds look, they are superbly adapted to the Arctic. They live for an average of 25 years and have been found to live more than 35 years in the wild. They are so successful that they are the most common bird in Iceland, with around 10 million individuals. I now know from personal experience that they are no fools, taking off well before all the other birds when I tried to get close enough for photos – showing the legacy of a thousand years of hunting by Icelanders.


In our hotel we climbed exhausted into the hot tub, soaked away the tension of long days and short nights, and slept for 12 hours.


The sun never sets in Iceland

Today we explored the area around Lake Myvatn. We started at the lava fields of Dimmuborgir for a few hours hiking among the twisted lava plumes, with a scattering of a few hardy plants including the carnivorous butterwort. We then drove past the pseudo-craters of Myvatn and to the spectacular waterfall of Godafoss (Waterfall of the Gods). Godafoss is so named because it was here, in the year 1000, that Dogeir the Lawspeaker of the Althing decided to convert Iceland to Christianity and symbolically threw Norse idols into the waterfall.


From Godafoss we drove to Akureyri, a charming little town which is the second largest city in Iceland (with around 16,000 people). From Akureyri to Husavik to visit the famous Icelandic penis museum, full of jars of picked penises from all the Icelandic mammals and dried whale penises mounted on the wall the way a more traditional collector would display heads. The weather was just perfect at Husavik so we sat on the water front in the sunlight drinking coffee and beer and watching people dive off their yachts in the still harbour into the freezing water of the Arctic Ocean, framed by ice-capped mountains.


After dinner we drove up to Vikingavatn on the coast. We walked through the coastal meadows looking at the nests of sea birds, watching the seals off the shore watch us in return and building a bonfire on the black sand beaches. Around midnight the sun went into sunset, hovering above the horizon and giving us spectacular pink clouds. It stayed there until 2am when it started to rise again, never having dipped below the horizon. This was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in Iceland, with 24 hours of sunlight. In Icelandic mythology it is one of the most powerful days of the year. On this night it is said that if you roll around naked on the sunrise dew you will be cured of all that ails you. Also on this night, if you pull up the root of an orchid and put one stem under your pillow and one under the pillow of an unrequited love, they will wake up the next day in love with you. Summer solstice is also the night to visit the wishing stones of Iceland and ask for your desires.


Arctic desert and boiling sulfuric acid

Our drive across the interior of Iceland was simply astounding, showing us whole new aspects to Iceland. For hours we drove across the featureless high-elevation arctic desert, barren black rock with a scattering of moss (sprinkled with purple flowers). After the bland monotonous drive for hours we turned a corner and the stunning ice plateau of Herdubreid rose out of the desert. A perfect cylinder, it climbed up sheer cliffs into snow-topped hights before creating a level surface. I couldn't figure out how such a structure could be formed, it didn't make sense as either a volcanic or glacial feature - according to our trusty Icelandic geology book (bought at a petrol station) it is an excellent example of the result of a short volcanic eruption that takes place underneath a glacier. 


We stopped to stare at the magestic site, before pushing on to the active geothermal fields of Namafjall Hverir. These were just fantastic, features due to the rift between the North American and Eurasian plates occuring right at the centre of Iceland. The thinness of the continental crust allows the circulation of magma to deliver massive quantities of heat (and chemicals dissolved in boiling rock) to the surface, creating fumaroles (steam vents, where ground water hits hot rock and is boiled off), solfaras (boiling bits of mud, made liquid by intense heat and constantly discharging reeking sulfur bubbles from the depths of the earth, creating the stench of rotten eggs that permeates the site) and the fantastic colours that stain the landscape, courtesy of rare oxidation and reduction reactions that occur at high heat and high sulphur concentrations.


Empty Iceland

On the long drive from Djupivogur to Myvatn we really appreciated just how sparsely settled Iceland is. There are less than 300,000 people on an island bigger than Belgium, and half of them live in Reykjavik. The other 150,000 or so live in tiny communities scattered across the island, few of them with even a thousand people - the biggest is only 16,000 people. The national Icelandic map we are using for driving includes a name for every settlement, including ones with only a single house, and yet we still drove for hundreds of kilometers without seeing any signs of civilisation beyond the long road ahead of us.


We drove along the fjords of eastern Iceland through the small communities, stopping off at Stodvarfjordur. Stodvarfjordur is famous (by Icelandic measures) for the rock museum of Steinasfn Petru, collected by Petra Sveindottir and now displayed in her house. Disturbingly her children still live in the house, so as you wander through the collection you see family photos, people having a coffee in their kitchen and bedroom doors open. It must be a strange life.


From Stodvarfjordur we took a short-cut to Egilsstadir through a 15km tunnel under a mountain, had lunch and then drove up over a snowy mountain pass to picture-perfect Seydisfjordur. Seydisfjordur was built from pre-fab houses brought over from Norway, all painted pastel colours and perfectly framed on a blue harbour dwarfed by the sheer mountains of the fjord, very similar to Milford Sound in New Zealand. I particularly liked the pastel blue church built from corrugated iron, with views of waterfalls cascading down the walls of the fjords. As we drove back up over the mountain pass we stopped by the side of one of the waterfalls, enjoying the magnificent power of the water crashing through the granite, with the perfect blue sky and vibrant green of the alpine meadow.


The icebergs of Iceland


Our second day in Iceland started with a back-track. We had been too tired the night before to visit the black sand beaches near Vik, so we drove back over the lava fields and through the lupins to Dryholaey. The beach was stunning, high black cliffs, twisted basalt shapes, arctic sea terns wheeling in the sky. We also stopped at Nupssadir to see traditional Icelandic houses built under the green turf. In this region Iceland was all green, glowing with fertility. The adorable Icelandic lambs (always in pairs) were everywhere, and herds of handsome Icelandic horses grazed serenley.


From Dryholaey we drove to Skaftafell National Park, home of the largest glaciers in Europe. We saw three glacier fronts and drove across the glacier delta, where the summer floods from glacier melts wash away all in their path, including the occasional bridge. One of the most perfect sights I have ever seen is Jokulsarlon, at the base of one of the glaciers. Around seventy years ago the summer glacial flood opened up the glacier to the open ocean, allowing salt water to enter the melt estuary. With the addition of salt, ice melts much faster, and the glacier has been calving off ever since, filling up the lagoon with ice-burgs.


The lagoon looked just like Antarctica, a perfect blue sky and blue water, filled with ice crystals, shaded from white to blue (with streaks of black from when volcanic ash fell on the snow thousands of years ago when the ice formed).


We went out on a boat to glide between the ice-burgs, 200 metres above the surface of the fjord (under the glacier itself, ice has carved out a 300 metre deep trench, the lowest point in Iceland). Arctic turns flew over the water and every now and then a seal pocked its head up. As we found out, 73 seals live in the estuary, our guide commented that they "are cuter than ocean seals as they don't have whiskers".


From Skaftafell we drove through to Djupivogur on the east coast of Iceland. A few times we stopped to watch the adorable lambs and horses, tramping across farmland to look at old ruined farm buildings (Iceland has a "right to roam" law, so there is no trespassing). The final few kilometres were along the stunning fjords of the coast, with the golden light of the fading sun lighting up the steep mountains and cold oceans.



Geothermal delights

We started the day with vegemite on toast then headed to the airport to greet John, Jay, Charles, Rob and Diane. We were in Iceland! We hired our car and headed out from Keflavik. The land was just stunning, harsh lava fields covered with the barest moss. Once this may have been light forest, but 1200 years of occupation since the Vikings resulted in 99% forest clearance and massive erosion, undoing thousands of years of soil creation and exposing the lava basement. There is an active program to prevent further erosion by planting purple lupins from Alaska - we drove though hours of lupin fields, neat rows of purple flowers in bloom.


Lydia was not thrilled with the biting cold of the Icelandic summer, but we had the perfect cure - a two hour soak in natural geothermal springs. With snow-capped mountains around us and everyone wrapped up with multiple layers against the freezing wind, we stripped off and bathed in the boiling water, finding our perfect temperature with the intersection of hot and cold streams. The heat created a microclimate up in the desert mountains, with soft peat and verdant growth extending just a few metres from the heat.


Afterwards we drove past the beautiful waterfall of Seljandsfoss, which we could walk behind to see the thundering water shield us from the green fields. We also saw Skogarfoss, the largest waterfall in Europe. Past Vik we had a magnificent dinner in Kirkjubaejarklaustur (all place names in Iceland are literal translations, Kirkjubaejarklaustur literally means "church-farm-cloister"), with perfect pizza. We then retired after a very long day of driving, the sun still up lighting up the green pastures, well after midnight.