Saturday, 4 August 2007

Iceland completed

There is far too much for me to write about. I can't really remember where Reykjavik stops and our trip north begins - but I think it's fair to say that the Settlement Museum was probably the last interesting thing to have happened in the city, save the arrival of Brother and Gaura which predictably led to an evening of drinking followed by a day best forgotten for hangover and tiredness. I really must stop getting drunk. I don't enjoy it at all any more.

A few days ago, the whole family relocated north to Lake Myvatn (translated to the most alluring name of 'midge lake') but while Sister and sons - along with the newly arrived Islander and Ma and Pa - were taking a little plane to Akureyri airport, Fisher and I had rented a 4x4. I say we'd rented it, but actually it was very kindly provided by Ma, who insisted on paying for everything despite our protestations. We were therefore able to leave a day early and drive all the way round the western ring road, from Reykjavik to Akureyri and thence on to the spot in the wilderness where Ma had rented rooms.

The drive was fabulous. We took our time, stopping several times on the way. We walked up a volcanic crater and peered inside, then gazed over the forbidding landscape from the top. We paused by the roadside at a plateau and took video footage of the incredible vista, as well as the sound of the wind whistling furiously past our numbed ears. We then took a detour to Sauðárkrokur, where a 20km dirt track leads you round the beautiful coastline to a hidden natural hot-pot. As we bumped and jolted along, we merrily followed a large coach, sharing gate-opening duties with them ... until our hearts sank as we realised it was full of 50 or so tourists, all heading to the same place. (Where we thought they were going to start with is anyone's guess, considering the only other destinations were farms, where bristling dogs barked wildly at gates and horses clustered about fences demanding to be fed). However, when we arrived, the whole area was so beautiful we decided to wait it out. We walked through a field, looking for a particular beach the guide book mentioned, which was supposed to glitter with quartz - but didn't find it. We did, however, nearly break our ankles on several occasions and therfore thought it best to walk back to the safety of the hot-pots. The tourists were still busy stripping off, in an altogether too uninhibited a manner for my comfort (especially the men, none of whom had anything to be proud of) so we wandered in the other direction. North of the hot pots lay a beautiful beach of pure black sand, where a man walked his dog. Where he'd come from, and where he disappeared to afterwards, remains a mystery to this day.

Eventually, after about an hour of pleasant wandering, we watched as all the tourists packed up and slowly made their way back onto their bus. Fisher and I then claimed the hot-pots for our very own selves ... and it was so utterly worth the wait! As we slipped into the first pool, which was a rather sweet little pot nature had built - it seemed - for two, I experiences a great wave of disappointment. The water, while warm, was nowhere near warm enough, and great clumps of muddy lichen were quickly stirred up by our feet. We soon abandoned it for the second, larger pot - and what a difference! The water was wonderfully toasty, even a little too hot in places, and I nearly burned my toes on the rocks beneath. We sighed in muscle-relaxing pleasure and watched the sun touch the mountains around the bay, surveying all the glories of our view while bathing our cares away.

We sat and chatted, swirled the glorious water for a while, and then decided we'd had our fill of hot water. The hour was late, so we decided we wouldn't make it to Akureyri that evening but would, instead, seek accommodation in nearby Sauðárkrokur. We had our eye on an expensive but highly recommended hotel called Hotel Tindastoll, whose claims to fame include being the oldest hotel in Iceland (dating back to - gasp! - 1884) and for housing Marlene Dietrich while she visited Iceland to entertain the troops. Considering she was as mad as a bag of snakes, I'm not sure that's much of an accolade, but there we go.

We were concerned that we wouldn't find any rooms at Tindastoll, but our luck was in. For a not extortionate sum, we were given a large twin room, with two double beds. It was all wood and rustic charm, and while the beds could have been a little more comfortable we were extremely happy with our lot. We even got a late supper at a nearby restaurant (pizza appears to be the national dish here) so didn't have to retire hungry.

Next day, we completed our journey with ease, discovering Akureyri was a mere hour and a half away after all, and arrived with plenty of time to spare before the family plane arrived. We whiled the time away in Akureyri museum, which was more interesting than anticipated (but not really interesting enough to relate) and then met everyone off the plane.

Next stop was the hotel Rauðarskrida that Ma had booked. We drove through the northern countryside in mist and rain, mourning the fact we could barely see anything of the views, and then arrived in a bare, rain and windswept valley of bleak beauty. The hotel was situated up a long, open drive, and tucked behind a slight rise to hide it from the road. It was nothing special to look at, being a rather traditionally bland modern set of buildings, but after a few misgivings and the disappointment of discovering Gemmill and Wrecker didn't have their own room, we settled in quite well. I found the whole situation wonderful - so remote and quiet, with enough privacy to forget other guests. Fisher, Sister, Islander, Ma, the wee boys and I all went for a good walk before supper, playing Pooh sticks in a little river and possibly causing irreperable damage to the natural environment by chucking large rocks at any stick that got stuck on the way. We searched for Trolls (found none, but plenty of evidence of their presence), and then returned to the main building to have supper and plan the coming days.

Our first day in the Myvatn area was truly wondrous. Fisher and I took Ma and Pa with us in our 4x4 to visit the astonishing amphitheatre of rock that is Asbyrgi. The massive rift of the North American and European plates has left cliffs of wrinkled rock naked in the landscape, towering above you as you look up in awe. Ma, Fisher and I walked beneath them through lush greenery, and found ourselves at the edge of a small lake. It was extraordinary, and, alas, photographs simply can't do it justice. In fact, I think that's going to prove to be a problem with all the photos I've taken of this trip - but at least they're firmly imprinted on my memory.

Next we drove through the hills towards Dettifoss - which the guidebook describes as "Europe's most powerful waterfall.' I wasn't really sure what that meant. After all, in theory it could be nothing but a single spurt of water pumped out at a billion miles an hour, which would hardly be much to look at.

I wasn't to be disappointed. While the waterfall itself is impressive in sheer bulk, it's actually the chasm formed by the waterfall and river that takes the breath away. We first stopped at a waterfall preceding Dettifoss (can't remember the name, but there are 3 all in a row, which makes the whole valley remarkable - Selfoss, Dettifoss, and the one I can't remember). Not having had any indication that it was worth looking at, we simply paused the car and jumped out for a quick glance ... only to discover a vast scar in the surface of the earth, into which water tumbled and danced in the distance. Ma was so thrilled by it all she grabbed my arms and danced me round in a circle, saying 'hee he heeeee!' ... or words to that effect. With that taster in mind, we could only be further awed by the sight of Dettifoss, where the silt-coloured water tumbles in a solid curtain and the massive canyon walls wend away from you for miles and miles. Breathtaking.

The journey home was long and tiring, but we were extremely happy. We had supper in nearby Husavik, which was actually quite jolly for once, and collapsed into bed to sleep like the dead.

The following day dawned, miracle of miracles, sunny and clear. Eager to take advantage of the weather, we planned a tour around Lake Myvatn, stopping at several points of interest along the way. We arranged to meet everyone else at 1pm for lunch, then set off in the same groups as the day before.

Our first stop was Goðafoss - a waterfall considered far prettier than Dettifoss, although not nearly as large or powerful. I wasn't nearly as struck by it as I was Dettifoss but it is, indeed, far prettier. The water is clear, the area around lush and green, and the river flows gently towards it with little black-sand beaches along the banks. Fisher had an ulterior motive for being there, having brought her geocache-found travel bug with her in order to help it with its mission to reach the north pole. We enlisted Gemmill's help in locating the geocache Fisher had put into her GPS, and soon Ma, Sister and Islander were joining the fun. I thought I'd found it, but it turned out to be someone's used bog-roll instead.


It was Islander who uncovered it, and Gemmill was allowed to choose something to take away from the cache. He chose a gold balloon - which gave Sister some serious misgivings. She wasn't too pleased with the idea of him having his mouth round something a hundred other sweaty children may have puffed at, or used to wipe their arses or something. Ma pooh-poohed her, and so did Islander, so she relented - which avoided a tantrum. Needless to say, the whole geocaching experience was a huge success, and I think we may have another convert in the form of Islander, who was thrilled to discover there were several near their home.

After Goðafoss, we decided to head straight for the volcano Krafla, which last erupted in 1984 and now has a massive power plant winding its tentacle-like pipes around the slopes, harnessing all the immense power of its heat. On top, the lava field still smokes in places and rocks give off great heat. We were a little put off by the wind whistling across the peak, cold as Scotland in autumn, and Sister wasn't prepared to put Gemmill and Wrecker through such a battering. Islander insisted Gemmill was quite up to it, so in the end she relented once more and took Wrecker and Pa to lunch instead while the rest of us (barring Brother and Gaura, who were off on their own jaunt) struggled our way up to the lava field.

It was worth the wind. The pinky rock harboured sulphurous pools of flourescent, milky water, while the crater we found resembled nothing so much as an old coal fire left to smoulder. There was no actual lava, to Brother's later disappointment, but the sense of unrest, the heat and the smoke gave an altogether too poingnant impression of the area's volatility. Gemmill was very good considering the filthy weather, giving no complaint and enjoying being swung over the gaps in the walkway. When he was told he was now inside a real volcano he refused to believe us (wisely, as we were stretching the truth - but only a little!) until Islander assured him it was true. Then his eyes grew round as saucers - and not a little fearful.

Back at the car, we zoomed down to join the rest of the family for a truly appalling lunch at a nearby hotel, and then on to our next adventure.

This turned out to be climbing the volcanic crater of black tephra - a Tuff Ring - formed some 2500 years ago. It was a stiff climb which I tackled by putting my head down and promising myself it would do instead of a run later. Still, it wasn't a patch on the Pentland Hills, so I reckon I let myself off quite lightly.

The view from the top was spectacular. The landscape went from undulating hills and mountain ranges, to the gleam of Lake Myvatn, to Krafla's classic volcano shape, to red rocky hills more like the surface of Mars than any place on earth. The view into the crater itself was a little less spectacular and far more human. The black crater itself was quite Mordor-esque, but the messages picked out in stones by petty tourists desirious of climbing all the way down into the crater in order to leave their mark were less awe-inspiring. Actually, they did provide a little added interest, but as most of them were of the bog-standard graffiti kind (including a 2 foot high FRANCE that got right up Gaura's nose) they didn't really lend our species any grace. I mean, if you're going to expend all that energy climbing into a crater and back out again, why would you just want to write AJ & CB? At least compose a bloody sonnet or something. The only British offering was, sadly, the name COLIN in rather puny letters - and whether it really was British or not, who can tell?

After drinking our fill of both view and graffiti, Fisher and I took Islander to see Dimmoborgir - a remarkable 'lava garden' where an old lake was covered with magma, and the escaping steam created stacks which, when the rest of the lava eroded away, are now left twisted in weird and wonderful formations. We stayed only ten minutes or so there, as the 25 minute walk proved seriously conservative, but it was quite eerie and strangely beautiful.

On a slightly comic aside, as we trotted down the carefully formed paths, I saw a little track leading off to the side with a small sign saying 'Caution - Dangerous Path.'

"Wait, wait!" I cried, loftily. "I must explore!"

As Islander and Fisher dutifully paused, I vanished down the dangerous path, calling :

"You know me! See a sign that say 'dangerous path' and the intrepid explorer in me ... erk!"

At which the intrepid explorer fell flat on her face and grazed her knee. And this wasn't even on the bit of path that was dangerous. It was over my own feet.

Anyway, on we went. Brother and Gaura had decided to visit Krafla and then go to Dettifoss. Islander also wanted to see Dettifoss, so after stopping and looking at the hot mud pools near Krafla, which belched sulphur to the extent I was quite nauseous but which were also rather fun - especially the vents that shrieked like boiling kettles - we set off for our last trip of the day.

This time, we approached the waterfall from the opposite direction - and what a different drive it was! Instead of rolling over the hills, through red earth and green scrub, we wound our way across a barren desert of grey rocks. Nothing living could be seen. Not a plant, not an insect, not a bird. On we went ... and on ... and on ... until I thought I'd fall asleep at the wheel, and all enthusiasm for a second peek at Dettifoss disappeared. When we arrived, the cold wind sent me scurrying back to the car to wait for Brother and Gaura to arrive with Ma and Pa. When they did, I went with them for a quick peek, then scampered happily back to the car. Fisher and I then took Ma and Pa back to the hotel, while Islander stayed and caught a lift with the others. By this time, Sister and sons were long since back at the hotel having children's supper. Alas, as we drove along we realised we were going to be hard pushed to arrive back in time to have supper at the hotel, so we ended up having another meal in Husavik. At least, brother, Gaura, Fisher, Islander and I did. I took Ma and Pa back to the hotel as they didn't mind eating the lamb stew on offer for latecomers, and Sister objected to being left all alone. It was a lot of driving so I was pretty tired by the end of the day - but no less happy with my lot.

That was our last day in Myvatn. The next day saw us all make our respective ways back to Reykjavik - but it started out badly, as it transpired that Gemmill had been ill in the night. Luckily, the plane didn't leave until 2pm, which gave them time to see if a long sleep would help. Fisher and I therefore set off on our epic trek through the Interior, which we'd been determined to do ever since we first learned we were heading to Iceland. We took Route F35, which has the advantage of not going through any unbridged rivers (you're not allowed to ford rivers in rental cars - in fact, you're not really meant to go through the Interior at all in a rental, but we thought 'screw it' and went anyway).

At first the road was easy. It wasn't fully tarmacked, but it was partially so, and good quality gravel for the rest. I was slightly disappointed, to be honest, but the scenery took my breath away in its bleakness. It was, alas, another rainy, misty day which obscured the panorama but did lend a sort of oppression to the atmosphere that seemed quite fitting. As we climbed the temperature dropped to sround 3 degrees. The wind howled about us, the rain spattered the windscreen and, every time we rolled down a window to take a photo, streamed horizontally in at us like tiny flung daggers. We passed a hydroelectric power station, most of which is built underground, and soon found ourselves travelling along the banks of its three lakes. They each seemed to glow with a faintly turquoise light, coloured by the distinctive silt of the area, and the effect of this against the lowering sky was almost alien.

I had been very worried that the Interior would look like the previous day's drive to Dettifoss, but I was quite wrong. While it was bleak and, in places, desert-like, the peaks of the surrounding hills together with the blue-edged glaciers we passed between, made it anything but dull to drive.

In the very centre, we stopped at a small 'oasis' where hot pots bubbled and spewed sulphurous fumes, and the only swimmable pool steamed invitingly ... but was, alas, full of unhappy campers.

It was, in fact, quite a remarkable sight. As we arrived there, a busload of German campers disgorged themselves from the cosy interior and just seemed to freeze on the spot. We watched them peer around through boggled eyes, taking in the scrub of grass upon which they had to erect their tents, the tiny hut in which they could find gritty coffee and rolls, and the creaking huts in which they could pee. In the distance, a young woman and man attempted to put up a tent which flapped in a thin horizontal line between them, proving quite uncontrollable.

I can't quite explain how cold it was. I mean, I know it gets colder in Scotland (although I don't think by much!) but the way the wind seemed to sear your exposed flesh was quite a novelty! By the time I'd taken a half-hearted trip around the steam vents and taken a photo of the crazy campers in the hot pool, I was bright red and quite ready for another 5 hours in the car! Fisher, too, was quite prepared to continue on our way.

We sat, stunned for a moment, and then I leaned forward to turn the key in the ignition. Then Fisher did something so quintessentially British, and so utterly all-redeeming, that we both couldn't help but giggle. With a small sigh, she reached into her bag and rustled a packet.

To which I responded:
"Oh, how lovely!"

Thus, with that small piece of Empire firmly resurrected, we found ourselves sufficiently revived. All was well.

The rest of the trip saw us bouncing over some very fun roads, and while Fisher's faith in my levels of responsibility were tested by each skid provoking a small 'wheeee!' from me, I think she was as entertained as I.

Our final stop was at Geysir, for one more peek at the famous water spouts, and then we found ourselves merging with the Reykjavik traffic, feeling rather like Lawrence of Arabia returning to London. Considering how lacking in troubles our trip had been, it seems rather pathetic that we felt so adventurous, but the experience of miles and miles of rugged, barren desert, even in a stout 4x4, really does affect the mind.

So here we are, back in Reykjavik, with just one night to go before home. I'm looking forward to seeing the pooches, but Fisher would rather stay here and have all our stuff sent for! She's really fallen in love with Iceland, and I may find myself forgoing my dreams of an Italian sabbatical for something rather less balmy and slightly more expensive!

Oh well. It could be worse.