I am writing these comments in Iceland which I think is the 100th sovereign state or independent territory that I have visited since I first left the UK in 1964 on a school visit to what was then West Germany.
In truth when I was a teenager and even in my twenties when travelling through Asia to Australia, I kept an accurate count of all the countries that I visited but I had long since given up counting. Indeed interest in my current ‘count’ was only reawakened when I read ‘Maphead’ written by Ken Jennings a few years ago.
This is an amusing and informative read written by a former American Quiz Show champion that will be of interest to any Geographer or individual interested in maps and travel and I qualify on both counts. Like the author my interest in travel was also awakened by countless hours spent tracing and copying the outlines of countries and island groups like Indonesia as a school child.
In his book Ken Jennings devotes a chapter to Travel Clubs whose membership is restricted to those who have visited 100, 150, 200 and so on separate countries, territories, colonies etc and the rather obsessive individuals who aspire for membership and the lengths to which some individuals will go when making travel plans to increase their tally.
That inspired me to revisit and calculate how many ‘countries’ I had visited and I came to ninety nine and a half!
You will immediately ask where the half came from!
Macau? Uzbekistan when it was part of the USSR? Tibet? Antarctica?
It was none of these (all counted by the way) but the fact that in 2003 I led a group on a 6 day hike along the Drakensburg Escarpment in South Africa. The unmarked and unguarded frontier between South Africa and the post apartheid independent nation of Lesotho was generally 2 – 3 miles to the west of the sheer escarpment that we followed but at times approached as little as half a mile of the escarpment. As we were sometimes as much as half a mile or more away from the edge I always felt there was a possibility we ventured ‘into’ Lesotho without being aware of so doing. So hence the half!
On the assumption that I did not enter into Lesotho (or if I did as I was unaware of the fact I was not deserving to count it!) that means that Iceland is my 100th country which in itself is quite surprising because between 2002 and 2011 when my company Casterbridge Tours was selling tours to UK schools, Iceland was the most popular destination for UK teachers and group leaders.
This is not so surprising as like New Zealand in the southern hemisphere it is famed for the wide variety of physical features and landscapes that Iceland affords to the visitor.
For a small nation Iceland has always had a high profile on world affairs. The national airline Icelandair has for over 50 years promoted itself as a low cost option for travelling between Europe and North America and in addition offered free of charge stopovers which has enabled millions of travellers who had no plans to visit to Iceland to do so when taking a ‘free’ stopover.
However, in 2008 Iceland imposed itself on the rest of the world in a more negative fashion when largely being held responsible for initiating the global financial crisis, perhaps unfairly, as it seems the world’s financial systems were in some areas akin to a row of dominoes just waiting for a nudge.
Iceland, with a population of just 330,000 has continued to ‘punch above its weight’ most notably when emerging from a difficult group to qualify for the knock out stage in the recent 2016 European Football Championships, the most important tournament in the World after the much maligned FIFA World Cup. And subsequently perhaps the greatest day in Iceland’s history was when they eliminated the England football team (population 55 million) and qualified for the Quarter Finals where they acquitted themselves well against France, the tournament favourites and subsequently finalists.
Iceland’s defeat of England was seen as the biggest shock in World Soccer since England’s (!) defeat by the USA in the 1950 World Club but it was day of national rejoicing for Iceland.
So when Sharron and I decided to join a small Expedition cruise to Greenland, as the meeting point was in the Icelandic capital of Reykjavik we decided to come a week early and explore Iceland.
And for the first time on this website I have decided to write an article in a Diary format so read on and discover what I made of this small nation of just 300,000 hardy souls living in the North Atlantic, just to the south of the Arctic Circle.
Tuesday September 13
We arrived at 0630 after a 7 hour flight from Vancouver, BC after a hectic month in Canada where our family had gathered for nephew Patrick’s wedding to Meghan.
The Icelandic Air flight had the dubious distinction of being the first long haul flight I had been on where you had to purchase your food but the seats were spacious and the range of films and TV shows available to watch was impressive. I decided I should devote as much of the flight as I could when not dozing to learning as much as I could about our destination so watched an Icelandic movie (Sparrows – beautifully filmed and not uninteresting) and reading an Icelandic novel, Arnaldur Indridison’s ‘Hypothermia’ .Icelandic writers have been near the forefront of the ever popular Nordic crime genre.
We landed at a grey overcast Kevlavik Airport at the godless hour of 0630 and so were in no hurry to pick up our rental Jeep but when we did venture out of the airport we realised it was cold, much colder than expected. And by the time the attendant failed to sell us additional add on insurance and told us we would be responsible for paint chips that could result from the gravel roads, sand storm damage (‘Just try and drive through it) and the door being blown open and causing (‘very expensive’) damage) I had the ominous premonition there was going to be a damage penalty at the end of our hire. This was hardly mollified with the attendant’s parting comment which was meant to be positive – ‘You are lucky, with a grey car its harder for us to see the paint chips!’
As it was still only 9am there was no chance of checking into our hotel so we had decided to head inland to see some of Iceland’s famed natural attractions and as we sped along the modern road that connects Kevlavik Airport with the capital Reykjavik I could not help but think ‘How does this work’ i.e. How does Iceland work.
The airport had been large, modern and impressive. With a population of just 330,000 I found myself wondering just how does the country generate and train sufficient pilots to keep a successful international airline in the air, and engineers to build and maintain the road system, architects to design all the buildings, brain surgeons and other medical specialists, university academics across a range of subjects let alone the tax revenues to fund and maintain the infrastructure.
No one denies that Iceland is a fully fledged grown up member of the international community but how does it manage this with a population of just 330,000. The English football team are still asking the same question – after all if you are an Icelandic male aged between 20 and 40 you have a one in two thousand chance of playing for the National team and 10% of the Icelandic population visited France this summer to support their team!
After all we are talking about a city with a population the size of Belfast or Leicester in the UK, Alicante in Spain, Thessaloniki in Greece, Malmo in Sweden or Santa Ana California, Honolulu Hawaii or Corpus Christi Texas in the USA.
We quickly passed through Reykjavik, home for almost two thirds of the Icelandic population and headed east towards Thingvellir National Park. And as we drove I was reminded of three things – the landscape was similar in appearance to the Scottish Highlands and as bleak and windswept as Patagonia with a similar absence of trees. However, in Iceland’s case this is explained by a fact I had discovered in Icelandair’s inflight magazine, that a third of the country is covered by Lava the result of repeated eruptions of Iceland’s many volcanoes. The evidence was all around us with black rocky rounded peaks and rock/gravel/lava where one would expect to find soil.
When we stopped at the viewing area above Lake Pingvallavatn we were bitterly cold because although it was allegedly ten degrees centigrade the strong and bitter wind went right though us so the first thing we did after arriving at Pingvellir was to put on all the warm clothing that was easily accessible which in my case meant two fleeces and a gilet (vest) as well as T Shirt, Wind Jacket and gloves.
For a Geographer Pingvellir is a fascinating destination because it is here that the Eurasian and North American Continental Shelfs meet and are drifting apart by about an inch (3cm) every year.
Sharron decided she did not have the footwear or enough warm clothing to walk along the Almannagja gully (or small gorge) with the cliffs of the North American Shield on the left but I set off with Sharron agreeing to drive on and wait in the warmth at a café about three miles away. I followed the Almannagja for almost two miles passing the area where Chiefs used to meet in a National Assembly and where Iceland celebrated its independence from Denmark in 1944.
I also made a detour across the braided streams to visit Pingvellir village which really only consists of a historic church, the Prime Minister of Iceland’s official summer residence (quite modest) and a cemetary!
I rejoined the Almannagja and visited the Oxararfoss waterfall where adulterous women were executed for their sins by drowning in the Middle Ages.
Progress was quite slow as I was walking into the teeth of a really strong and vicious wind with particularly strong gusts almost causing me to loose balance when I stopped to take photos. In truth this was the strongest wind I had encountered since sleeping at Everest twelve years ago and that was at 6200 metres!
Somehow I missed a turn and ended up in a subsidiary gully which took me back to the road and after almost two hours walking Sharron came and picked me up and after a short drive on a minor road towards the eastern shore of Lake Pingvallavatn we decided to head back to our hotel in the suburbs of Reykjavik.
The guy from Namibia who was manning reception was impressed that not only had I heard of his home town of Swakopmund but I had actually spent a few hours there with my mother in 2010 exploring the town and its hinterland in a 4 x 4 when she was 95!
After unpacking we caught up with a couple of hours sleep and being unable to find a restaurant in the vicinity of our hotel went into Reykjavik. We ended up eating in a Thai Restaurant where the waitress hailed from the Surin district of Isaan in North East Thailand, a district I have visited many times. And the cook came from Pratumnak (in Pattaya Thailand) where I and my colleague and friend Tony both own homes!
It is indeed a small world with few boundaries and we are all connected. The UK’s decision to vote for Brexit is sadly little more than a failure to accept the reality of today’s world – a futile gesture like King Canute trying to turn back the tide.
As if to confirm that we all live in a multi ethnic world this we had desert and a coffee in a restaurant owned by a Turk – there is clearly an interesting combination of nationalities working together as a vibrant community here in the far reaches of the North Atlantic!
And as for Reykjavik? It certainly seemed to be a funky town with some interesting older buildings. We walked up and down the main street Laugavegur which had many interesting craft shops although prices were not cheap.
And who would have guessed that not only was there a Watchmaker in Rekjavik but he was a member of the Icelandic Association of Watchmakers which implies there are more – all servicing a nation of just 330,000 souls – and a lot of tourists!
I sense Iceland is going to serve up a lot of surprises and I am looking forward to exploring Reykjavik.
Wednesday September 14
By the time we had overslept, missed breakfast, started this article, got our act together, grabbed a coffee and refilled the Jeep with Gas it was almost 1pm before we traced our route yesterday, passed Pingvellir and continued to perhaps Iceland’s most famous geothermal area Gullfoss.
Enroute the Rental Car company called me to advise that I had not paid for the Gas at the Service Station! I thought I had but it turned out I had only paid for the usb charger that fitted into the cigarette lighter (£1/$1.50 in Thailand but £15/$22 in Iceland! And we left two in Canada just 48 hours ago!). I assumed the service station had realised I had filled up the Jeep as well!
Interestingly enough after we passed Pingvellir and headed further inland the landscape was less wild with more homesteads and grassy areas usually providing pasture for the horses which certainly appeared to outnumber the still sparse population.
However, whilst everything in Iceland- meals, accommodation, clothing, food etc appears very expensive there has been no admission charges so far to any of the natural attractions and Geysir (which gives its name to Geyser) was no exception.
It is over 30 years since I visited Yellowstone and 40 years plus since I was at Roturua in New Zealand so I had forgotten what to expect but it was interesting to wander amongst the hot pools and blowholes.
The star of the show was Stokkur which explodes with a 15 -30 metre spout every few minutes surrounded upwind by crowds of tourists with cameras and smartphones at the ready.
I could not resist the temptation to make a short 10 minute hike to what I think was the former rim of along extinct volcano above the Geysir area which afforded fine views of the surrounding area and the now habited crater area below.
Although by now it was after 4pm we continued onto the famous waterfall at Gulfoss and I am so thankful we did as it was one of the most spectacular waterfalls I had seen anywhere in a long time with two levels – the upper falls which curved around to a very steep lower falls which immediately tool a ninety degree turn to the left and flowed on down a gorge.
I have seen plenty of waterfalls this summer in Switzerland and Canada but this was easily the most spectacular – indeed the most spectacular I have seen in Europe and it was not dissimilar to Iguazu on the Brazilian Argentinian border but on a much smaller scale.
We went to both the upper and lower viewing points before setting off back to our hotel with stops for me to spend 20 minutes photographing around an abandoned homestead just outside Giyser than I had noticed earlier and also to explore another narrow gorge/gully in the Pingvellir area.
Dinner consisted of a Dominos Pizza and a Subway in our hotel room!
Thursday September 15
Very easy to recount today – Sharron did not sleep well and the weather was rainy so we spent most of the day in the hotel room with myself arranging the photos on my iphone in new folders and also having a sleep.
We drove into Reykjavik and as we passed the port area I was again wondering how such a small country could build and maintain such an expansive port area,
After dinner in a Turkish restaurant we had a treat – Sharron had noticed that Sharon Robinson, long term Leonard Cohen collaborator (she first worked with him as a backing singer in 1979) was performing the last concert of her current European tour in Reykjavik tonight and had bought tickets months ago.
I have seen Sharon perform with Leonard over 30 times since 2008 and her solo renditions of ‘Boogie St’ and ‘Alexandra Leaving’ are always rapturously received by audiences of up to 15,000. As well as being held in the highest esteem by Leonard Cohen enthusiasts as a result of her long rewarding partnership with Leonard she is a formidable and multi-talented solo artist – singer, songwriter and instrumentalist.
The Café Rosenberg had great acoustics, her voice was in fine shape and it was a real bonus to see her in such an intimate setting after seeing Sharon perform so many times before stadium audiences.
The Icelandic audience clearly appreciated good music instantly applauding the introduction to many of the Leonard Cohen songs she had co-written.
After the audience I was talking to the couple who shared our table and I commented that I was continually surprised at how with just 330,000 population Iceland trained all the engineers, architects, surgeons and specialists to maintain the infrastructure, health systems etc and he laughed and said that both he and his wife were Engineers and it is
‘because we believe anything is possible. We do it because we have to!’
My wry response was
‘There are 65 million of us in the UK and we could not even get a decision on Brexit correct!’
After the concert I came to the conclusion that the IMF did not trust Icelandic Banks sufficiently to allow them to administer ATMs because despite enlisting the help of locals and Mr Google (who was less than helpful with a slow 3G connection) it took us almost an hour to find a cash dispenser!
Friday September 16
After breakfast we headed off on a 5 day circumnavigation of Iceland. As we had not made it there yesterday we decided to head for the geothermal Blue Lagoon, just 45 minutes from Reykjavic, which after all is famed as Iceland’s number one tourist attraction.
Iceland is a country where much of the landscape is devoid of trees because of the cold climate, lack of soil, strong winds and proliferation of lava and the Geothermal area was characterised by lots of rock and azure blue streams and ponds which we walked through before we arrived at the Spa/Hot Pool/Lagoon area.
As we had other places that we wanted to visit and it was already 1pm we decided not to fork out the 55 Euros/£45/$70 for what would be a short visit and after a quick look at the Spa Facility with hundreds of tourists enjoying a dip in the warm waters we headed off and followed the coastline east and then southwards.
The landscape was bleak but both imposing and impressive with many rocks small and large peppering the lava coated land on both sides of the road and distinctively shaped landforms, hills, small mountains ensured that between the heavy rain squalls there was an ever changing panorama around us.
For a country with so few inhabitants if one scoured the horizons you could usually see a small hamlet or isolated dwelling or an isolated church sitting on a beach, perhaps marking the spot of a former fishing colony?
We stopped for a coffee in Selfoss and it struck me that with a few exceptions most of the buildings I had seen so far in Iceland, whether in towns or isolated rural settings were undistinguished in design and aesthetic appearance in comparison with mountain communities in Switzerland or Austria for example.
On thinking it through I realised this was not dissimilar from the architecture I had seen in Spitzbergen and Patagonia and was a reflection that on the extreme peripheries of continents approaching the Polar regions the weather is so severe that buildings are functional and communities make their priority staying alive and earning a living in harsh climes – less emphasis is given to aesthetic design, than functionability.
We continued on to the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall and this was really very very impressive with a torrent of water flowing down from the Eyjafjallajokull ice cap off an overhanging cliff into a large pool below. I have seen a lot of waterfalls in the Alps and North America and Iguazu on the Brazil – Argentina border is without doubt the most spectacular of all but Seljalandsfoss was really very impressive, more so as you could walk on a circular trail behind the waterfall and view the hundreds of thousands of litres tumbling down from the rear.
I have only been in Iceland three days and am clearly no expert on this small but impressive nation but whilst I was aware of the ice caps, volcanos and geothermal areas I certainly was not aware there were so many spectacular waterfalls and I have been well impressed with both Gulfoss and Seljalandsfoss.
Our journey continued across the narrow lava plains between steep scree slopes, flat table topped hills and jagged cliffs and ridges on our left and the sea on our right. The Cloud level was low, the light sombre and the effect quite dramatic!
We skirted Eyjaffjallajokull, whose eruption in 2010 quite literally brought Europe to a standstill when the unrelenting clouds of ash that it spewed drifted over Europe and led to the cancelling of flights for several days. We were too late to see the 20 minute film at the Visitor Centre but the outside displays were informative.
I did wonder if the sign forbidding the flying of drones was because of a fear they might trigger another eruption!
In only a few more kilometres we reached our hotel adjacent to the waterfall at Skogafoss which we will explore tomorrow.
Saturday September 17
Another day, another waterfall and so despite the heavy rain once we left our hotel we had to go and see the Skogafoss Falls which were almost adjacent to our hotel, indeed we could see the Falls from our room.
This time there was just a tremendous volume of water pouring over the plateau cliff and dropping 60 metres into a pool. Whilst Sharron waited in our rental Jeep I braved the rain and spray to get as close as possible to the foot of the Falls (maybe 50 metres away) and then climbed the stairway to the viewing area near the top, over a stile and walked up the river a little way towards some rapids amidst scenery very reminiscent of the Yorkshire Moors.
We were surprised at the high volume of visitors but it seems both Tour Operators and individuals latch onto the same key attractions as they encircle Iceland!
We rejoined Route 1, the road that circles Iceland but our next stop was fairly close as we parked our Jeep in another busy car park and walked 15 minutes to the snout of the Solheimajokull Glacier which flows down from the Myrdalsjokull ice field, one of the three major ice fields in Iceland into a small lake. An interesting display showed how the glacier had retreated 1000 metres from 1930 to 1995, advanced 500 metres between 1995 and 2006 and subsequently retreated another 1000 metres for a net loss of 1500 metres.
There were many parties of tourists wearing harnesses and with ice axes in preparation for some glacier walking and we could see many parties on the glacier itself but after having undertaken a lot of glacier trekking in my life at different times and as I was crossing glacier in Switzerland less than two months ago this was very definitely not on todays agenda.
The landscape was wild, harsh and rocky with not a single piece of vegetation to be seen, the cloud cover low, the rain came and went and my photos look like they were taken in black and white.
After a quick coffee and some Icelandic cake we were on our way again but soon left the road again to visit the Dyrholaey Nature Reserve. Although the cloud was low, the wind blustery and it was raining more often than not the dramatic landforms and changing light provided many photo opportunities and I got Sharron to drop me on the causeway road between two lagoons so I could take pictures of the Dyrholaey Headland between squalls and also of the patterns in the black sand lagoon.
We scrambled over the rocky cliff tops at the end of the road to view black sand beaches, natural arches and wild seas but the cloud was so low at times it was covering the adjacent cliff tops so we called it a day and continued on our way without visiting the light house area.
It was 3pm before we got to Vik which had originally been our destination for last night and Sharron wryly commented that we still had 260 kilometers or over 160 miles to go to get to our hotel near Hofn and she was doing all the driving!
That was her choice I would hesitate to add and I have not worked out if this is because she wants to drive and enjoys it or because she does not trust my driving and/or as she is incapable of not telling me how to drive and as she knows I can’t stand this believes it is easier to drive herself.
So in Australia last January she did 95% of the driving both in Tasmania and as we drove from Queensland to Sydney and the same to date here.
After Vik it was raining heavily and consistently and we passed some impressive waterfalls falling down the cliffs from the plateau to our left and several isolated mountains that looked as if they were volcanic in origin.
However we were soon driving across several desert like, featureless and desolate lava plains characterised by an abundance of dark rock, some moss and no trees!
And something else had changed.
Although Iceland is a fairly large country and only has a population of 330,000 I was surprised that in the 120 miles between Reykjavic and Vik there was usually a building or homestead somewhere in view.
But not any longer – the featureless terrain certainly did not provide a livelihood nor attract settlement.
We stopped briefly at Laufskalavaroa where it is clearly an Icelandic tradition to pile stones up to build Cairns around the site of a long abandoned homestead. It was quite bizarre to see thousands of small cairns carpeting the landscape and the Icelandic government has actually shipped in more small rocks so people can keep building more piles!
We continued on across more featureless Lava Plains, crossing many wide rivers on single width bridges until we finally reached the Skaftafell National Park Visitor Centre, close to the Vatnajokull Ice Field which is the largest in Europe.
It was too late to contemplate either of the 30 minute walks to the Skaftafellsjokull Glacier or to the Svartifoss waterfall and in any case the rain was too heavy so we grabbed some coffees and made do with driving down a short 2km pot holed track to Svinafellsjokull where wonder of wonders there was only one other vehicle (and an abandoned tour bus on the track!).
The glacier flowed into a small lake with ice bergs that had calved off but in truth the visibility was not good and the driving sleet like rain was the wettest rain I have encountered for a long time so after a quick walk to the moraine that contained the lake and a few hurried pictures we were back in the vehicle and back on Route 1 heading east.
There was still time for one final stop however at Jokulsarlon, renowned as one of Iceland’s most famous attractions as the lagoon is a graveyard for many small icebergs that have calved off the Breioamerkurjokull glacier.
I have seen similar features in Alaska and Antarctica but it was nonetheless impressive to see so much powder blue ice nestling up against the shore and just as well as a combination of the late hour, cloud and rain made it impossible to see much more than 100 metres over the lagoon!
And by not long after 8pm we finally made our hotel with Sharron having driven the best part of 250 miles and undertaking a myriad of stops.
The weather had not been with us but it was still a full and interesting day, the scenery was impressive and interesting even with the poor weather and it would surely have been a magnificent drive on a blue sky day and they do have those in Iceland – I’ve seen the postcards!
Sunday September 18
Unbelievable – there is a sun in Iceland as we woke to see a partially blue sky and sunlight and when we looked westwards we could clearly see the elevated plateau area upon which sits the Vatnajokull Ice Field and indeed two glacial tongues reaching down almost to sea level. It was good to see what we drove past yesterday! And behind the hotel the hills were very reminiscent of the Drakensberg in South Africa.
After breakfast we drove into Hofn to fill up with petrol and to look at the colourful port area with fishing boats. The architecture of the houses was very ‘samey’ – undistinguished, rectangular, functional. But not unpleasing as the town had an orderly, tidy and clean feel.
We returned to Route 1 which followed the coast with some of the most impressive steep scree slopes I have seen on our left and a coastal plain on our right. The scenery was pleasing – and what’s more we could see it!
After about 35 minutes we pulled over on the slip road to the orange Hvalnessviti lighthouse on a small headland which marked the end of a long black sandy spit which had enclosed a large lagoon. Our reason for stopping was because we were adjacent to Eystarahorn, one of Iceland’s most dramatic and iconic mountains. It was at this point that we noticed a small chip on our windscreen – uh uh. Neither of us had noticed this yesterday and nor have we been on any gravel roads or noticed/heard anything. Reader I refer you to Day 1 and my comments when hiring our Jeep – this could cost us plenty!
Indeed, the view of Eystarahorn was so impressive it graced the cover of the one book I had bought in Iceland ’22 Places you absolutely must see in Iceland’! Books were very expensive in Iceland – at least 100% more than the UK and basic soft cover coffee table pictorial books started at about £30/$50.
After thanking the Thor Gods to allow us to view and photo this magnificent mountain adjacent to the coast we continued on a spectacular cliffside route until we descended into the fjordland of Eastern Iceland. The scenery was pleasing but with few places to stop on the narrow road with single lane bridges (last to arrive gives way to the first) I took pictures through the windscreen which I can crop and edit later.
At the head of Berufjordur we left Route 1 (or took the Route 1 alternative) – 15 kilometers of gravel road which would save us about 70km going back to the coast and up the next fjord.
We only climbed some 500 metres but into a rugged glacial valley that had been carved out by the same glacier that formed the fjord. As our family will testify Sharron is neither a fan of nor the fastest when driving on gravel roads so I finally had a chance to drive as an alternative to spending my time taking pictures out of the window and sending them by Viber to friends around the world and responding to their questions and comments!
Social Media – where would we be without it! It may kill conversation but nevertheless I’m a fan and an avid user of Viber and Instagram.
We made good time and by mid-afternoon had arrived at Eglisstaoir in the heart of Eastern Iceland. This is where we had originally planned to stay but we had decided to continue on today as far as the geothermal Lake Myvetn area via Europe’s biggest waterfall, Dettifoss. This would give us most of the day at Lake Myvetn tomorrow before continuing to Akureyi and leaving us a shorter drive back to Reykjavik on Tuesday.
The scenery was different, very different after Eglisstaoir as we climbed onto the high plateau of the Eastern Highlands. Initially following a large river, I was surprised at how many sheep farms seemed established on the flatter and lower slopes just above the river with lots of silage bound up in plastic bags in the ‘fields’ just as in the UK but after another 30 minutes and it was if we were driving across the surface of the moon. It was rugged, rocky, black and initially featureless, indeed a true desert albeit one for which vulcanisation was at least partly responsible.
The late afternoon light had a pleasing effect on ponds and streams and as more and more rounded peaks featured in the landscape around us it was not unattractive in a very rugged way – but it was just like driving across a black desert.
Eventually we came to the second Dettifoss turn off (the first is for 4×4 vehicles only) and after another 15 miles though a flat boulder and rocky strewn landscape we were at the Dettifoss car park just after 6pm and 7 hours and 200 miles since leaving our hotel.
A six hundred meter walk through the boulder fields brought us to a viewing point above Europe’s largest waterfall (by volume) although we could not quite see the foot of the Falls from the west bank. It was noisy and cold with lots of spray being gusted up towards us. The river had carved an impressive canyon below the Falls and although there were restrictions to access on the west side we noticed one brave (foolhardy?) soul on the less visited east side standing within a metre of the top of a 50 metre fall – one errant swell, a strong gust or a stumble and he would have been gone.
And talking of stumbles I paid a price for choosing to ignore a sign that said ‘Path Closed – although you may not see a reason the path may be muddy’ so that we could access the second viewing platform. I felt sure the sign was bound to be taken down when the Park Rangers next returned, and we were not from the only ones to ignore the sign.
And indeed, the path to the viewing platform was no worse than any of the other paths.
However, when I continued on the cliff top path further downstream to try and get a view of the entire waterfall including the foot I did indeed slip and fall heavily with nothing more than my ego bruised.
I continued on, wet and muddy, took some pictures with my camera and decided to take a few more with my iphone………………which was no longer in my pocket!
Sharron had gone back to the Jeep so I was on my own as far as locating where I had fallen and hopefully finding my phone and whilst I did so I was asking myself why I had not backed it up since July and why was I was too mean to pay for icloud storage to protect the data in case of mishaps such as this.
I had fallen so heavily I was convinced that was where I must have knocked it out of my pocket but when I found where I thought I had fallen there was no sign of it – and at 7.15pm it was getting darker.
However, alls well that ends well as I soon saw it on the ground not too far from where I thought I had fallen. I was lucky. I had envisioned having to come back tomorrow with Sharron to look for it.
We continued on our way to Lake Myvatn passing the geothermal area of Hverir billowing plenty of steam and soon arrived at the cottage we had booked at a campsite at Reykjahlid, the main village for Lake Myvatn.
The more I see of the infrastructure of Iceland, farms, roads, ports, domestic airports the more I am amazed that this is all managed by just 330,000 people – as I said before a community the size of Leicester or Corpus Christi.
When I commented accordingly to the young woman checking us in she looked up and said
‘You know I never thought of it as being unusual, we just take it for granted’
Our cottage was in fact a quarter of a newly built wooden cottage/cabin on the edge of a Lava Field and was an extreme example of a tendency common to Finland – small rooms and expensive!
Our cabin was new, immaculate but with a double bed there was just room for a chair (no desk or table). Sharron could just fit her bag between the bed and the wall but nowhere for me to put my bag unless I wanted to either block the entrance door or the entrance to the (small) toilet.
It was nicely landscaped with a garden of ………….dark lava rock and a big lump of lava outside each cabin. This was presumably to wedge the door open in summer but unfortunately I did not notice it in the dark and it sent me tumbling down the steep slope into the Lava Field adjacent to our cottage. I was extremely lucky to keep my balance because if I had gone over I would have broken something or suffered some pretty uncomfortable lacerations amidst all the hard and sharp lava.
After dinner at a nearby Bistro I balanced the Laptop on the chair and sat on the bed typing this journal until 3am with Sharron periodically getting up to check on the Northern Lights but the cloud cover was too great.
Monday September 19
After breakfast it was cold, cloudy and trying to rain but all was not left as there seemed to be brighter weather on the horizon i.e. lighter clouds rather than darker crowds and indeed by the time we drove to the nearby geothermal area of Hverir, located just a few kilometres away it was brightening up but it was cold……… very very cold! Although the temperature was a reasonable 6 degrees centigrade the wind chill factor was at least another 10 -15 degrees so it had to be the equivalent of minus 10 degrees at least.
Hverir is a fairly extensive desert brown like area located below Namafjall mountain, itself venting steam from several fissures on its slopes. One can wander around Hverir at will but obviously the mud pools and hot springs are roped off so you can get close enough to watch the bubbling mud and boiling water but are not at risk of falling in.
Perhaps the most interesting features were the mini cones or vents perhaps a metre in height, naturally formed but gushing steam like a Victorian Factory chimney. The steam was being driven dramatically across the ground like in a jet like plume for at least 20 -30 metres. The cones were attracting most of the visitors to have a picture taken standing adjacent to this harmless warm air vent and as the wind was truly bitter it also provided a source of warmth!
There was a path that went to the back side of Namafjall and then on to the summit and then down via the northern ridge which was probably a 40 -60 minute walk but that did not appeal to me in such a cold wind although I did spot one couple on the ridge. And besides we did not have the time.
We were both very impressed with the vents and mud pools at Hverir and by the time we returned to the car we had a fair bit of blue sky above us as we drove to the Krafla area, named after the volcano of the same name and only about 4 miles away. We passed the geothermal Krafla power plant which generates electricity from the large amount of thermal steam produced daily. There were pipes and steam everywhere as we drove past the plant and passed below a ‘bridge’ of elevated pipework as the pipes crossed the road.
We could drive to the actual rim of the perfectly formed Stora Viti Crater with a blue lake in the crater bottom. It takes about 40 -50 minutes to walk the rim but once we had taken some pictures we had no desire to stay on the cold and exposed rim any longer than necessary.
We returned to our vehicle and drove back to the Leirhnjukur Parking area where a 15 minute level walk (part on a Boardwalk over the lava) brought us to two large and impressive bubbling hot pools and another 5 minutes brought us to a Lava crater with some smouldering vents that were remnants from the 1975 -80 Krafla Fires where burning magma flowed on the surface as part of a smouldering Krafla eruption. As we looked around the dramatic and desolate landscape we could see many areas with steam slowly drifting up from rock vents.
At this point Sharron returned to the car but I headed on for another seven minutes or so to the summit of Leirhnjukur which afforded great views over the hot pools below, Krafla, the perfect volcanic cone of Hlidarfjall as I looked south towards Reykjahlid where we stayed last night indeed over and the entire Lake Myvatn area.
I rejoined Sharron in the Jeep and as we drove back to Reykjahlid we were amused to see a shower and handbasin erected on a dirt clearing adjacent to the road. Plenty of cars stopped to let their occupants take pictures but I did not see anyone using the shower but I assume it was naturally heated water!
By now it was mid afternoon but there was still plenty more to see and we headed for the Myvatn Nature Baths just outside of Reykjahlid. This was a similar facility to the more famous Blue Lagoon outside of Reykjavik but in a more spectacular setting and almost half the price. It was busy with visitors relaxing in the naturally warmed big pool and I took the opportunity to surreptitiously buy a wedding anniversary card for Sharron – we were married over 35 years ago today in New Westminster, BC, Canada.
With a couple of coffees in hand we were on our way driving south along the eastern shore of Lake Myvatn with some lovely views acrosssheep grazing on the grassy pastures adjacent to the Lake usually with sheep grazing between the road and the lake. And on our left there were sheep pens constructed from lava rock.
I noticed a large volcanic crater to our left and asked Sharron to stop so I could scramble up some lava and take some pictures of the crater with bushes and some sheds in the foreground only to drive on and ask her to stop again for another five minutes when there were much better views with just some pasture in the foreground. And then we came across a sign which allowed us to drive up much closer to the dramatic steep sided crater (more photos) and then at the end of the track there was a car park and a sloping trail that climbed up the cinder to the crater rim.
Sharron stayed in the car and fifteen minutes I was on the rim of Hverfjall looking down into the interior of the cone and outwards across Lake Myvatn and all over the surrounding area. This was a much larger crater than Viti and it would normally be a pleasant 60 minute walk around the rim but it was still cold and windy although thankfully now there was more blue sky than cloud above.
There was still a lot we wanted to see so I descended a lot quicker than I ascended and we drove another mile or so to Dimmuborgir where there are many strange shaped lava formations and an extensive network of trails. The most well known is to the famous “Church” Formation but as that involved a return walk of an hour or so we settled for a 15 minute stroll around the Little Circuit admiring the Autumnal colours of the bushes and trees which formed a nice juxtaposition with the lava with the late afternoon sun.
We continued around the south end of the Lake to Skutustraoir which is the setting for some of the best examples of psuedocraters in the Lake Myvatn area. These are so named because they are just small hillocks but resemble a fully fledged volcano in shape if not in scale. They are formed when steam blisters pop through the hot lava when flowing over marshland. I found the group of grassy pseudocraters on the Lakes edge to be both interesting and photogenic.
And that was our day in the Lake Myvatn area and if you include the Nature Baths we had managed to get to 7 attractions in a very full day – and all except the Nature Baths had free admission.
When you consider that one can very easily spend a relaxing half day at the Nature Baths and that there are also a number of interesting hiking trails connecting the various attractions (notably Reykjahlic to Leirhnjukur which can incorporate an ascent of the impressive Hlidarfjall volanco cone) one could easily fill two or indeed three days in this area with no shortage of interesting activities to keep you occupied.
I certainly would not recommend a visit to Iceland without incorporating visit to the very impressive Lake Myvatn area as there is so much to see and do.
All that remained was for us to drive the 60 miles to Iceland’s second city of Akureyi which would leave us with a 5 hour drive back to Reykjovik tomorrow and on the way we admired the sunset and strange cloud formations in the sky above.
We were well into the gloaming at the end of the day when we noticed a large waterfall on our left which was not unusual in itself as wherever we were in Iceland there was often large waterfalls dropping down from the plateaus at the side of the road, always fed by hidden glaciers and ice caps.
A quick reference to our guidebooks revealed this was Godafoss, one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland which is saying something as this is a nation rich in spectacular waterfalls and we discovered that Godafoss deserves to be near the top of the list!
There were only about 10 cars in the car park and most people were leaving so in the end Sharron and I had the Falls pretty much to ourselves and both of us thought the same – the Falls were very similar to Niagara with a central ‘island’ dividing the Falls into two but on a smaller scale, though still huge!
We hopped over the braised streams and channels to get level with the top of the Falls but behind so we could watch the water disappear far below and then I boulder hopped and scrambled to get on a large cliff top adjacent to the very edge but I did not go within 4 metres of the drop off.
Wow, this was quite an unexpected bonus at the end of the day. A very full day!
We continued onwards until eventually the road dropped to a large ocean inlet Eyjafjorour. We followed the road inland and soon saw the bright lights of Akureyi the other side of the fjord but we had to drive around the end of the fjord before reaching our hotel, the aptly named Hotel Akureyi which I would describe as a ’proper’ hotel, a large older comfortable building with a friendly and courteous young man on reception.
As we had travelled around Iceland it was clear to us that the Icelandic Tourist Industry was vital to the economy of this proud nation and equally importantly that the Hotel industry could not survive, or should I say prosper without the young, always polite and presentable, East Europeans who manned the Reception of at least 70% of the Hotels and Restaurants that we visited.
‘Are you from the Czech Republic’ I asked the young man on the desk, as it seemed the Czechs made up the majority of the workers as well as some Slovaks and Romanians.
‘No’ he replied ‘I am Polish’
It tuned out that Andrej was studying at the University of Akureyi and had previously worked and studied in the UK where his cousin’s family had lived since the Second World War.
I was amazed that Akureyi, on the north coast of Iceland, population 17,000 even had a university let alone one that attracted exchange students from the UK, Canada and Poland and we talked about his studies and plans and then it turned out he was a big fan of football in general and the English Premier League in particular.
When I told him that I supported Yeovil Town he said he found it difficult to pronounce Yeovil (Yo Vill) but he knew of it because a Polish player named Bartosz Tarachulski had played for the team a few years ago.
I told him it was actually 12 years ago and I had written a book about Yeovil’s League Two Championship winning season (‘Around the World with Yeovil Town’ is still available on Amazon for anyone short pf a little reading folks!) and that I had a actually met and interviewed Bartosz Tarachulski for my book!
Andrej was such a nice guy and knowledgeable about football that I promised him I would send him a copy of my book – Gratis, and asked my assistant Oliver to do so the following day. There was no lift and he had upgraded us and also offered to carry my (heavy) bag up the stairs. I should have let him as I strained my recently repaired hernia by carrying it up two floors and also upgraded us.
There was an interesting postscript to this story which will teach me not to spend so much time talking as Sharron had long since given up listening to the two of us chat about football and had gone up to our room.
Andrej had upgraded us to a sea front room and given Sharron the key but had not made a note of which room he had upgraded us to but he thought it was on the second floor. He was obviously using American terminology as in fact it was on what we call the first floor and I spent the next 10 minutes gently knocking on doors until I found Sharron!
We went into town and had our Anniversary dinner at a Fish and Chips Café (!) and then coffee at a very nice Coffee Shop.
Akureyi had a really nice feel to it and some interesting shops which stayed open until 10pm but we could not help that notice a day trip back to Lake Myvatn to visit most (but not all) of the attractions we had seen today plus dinner plus 3 hours viewing (hopefully!) the Northern Lights cost an unbelievable £260/$380.
Clearly the cheapest way to see Iceland is by car hire as we have done.
As on every night so far I was up until 3am keeping this journal up to date!
Back to Reykjavik tomorrow but I really like Akureyi – a great place to come and write a book but some social activities and great outdoor activities when one wants a break.
But its not cheap!
Tuesday September 20
Tomorrow we are flying to Greenland and Sharron wanted to buy some toothpaste which was a good excuse to look around Akureyi so I walked the half mile into the centre of town whilst she drove the cat there and parked.
I passed several fine old characterful large houses with what looked like a corrugated metal siding or exterior but solid and substantial with balconies that would not get much use in the short winter days (or cold summer days!).
The small downtown area had some attractive buildings containing some interesting craft and bookshops and Coffee Bars (often combined). These were the first architecturally distinctive buildings I had seen in Iceland and both Sharron and I were both quite taken by Akureyi which we will be briefly visiting in two weeks when our Expedition ship returns here from Greenland and we will take a domestic flight south to Reykjavik.
This time however we have to drive the 225 miles and so we were on our way a little after midday. For the first hour we followed a wide valley with plenty of farms in evidence and snow capped rounded peaks on either side.
The journey to Reykjavik was undemanding although I was surprised there was a long deep toll tunnel under the Hvalfjorour fjords about 30 minutes before the city. I could not work out how the savings in time or distance nor the volume of traffic could justify the huge construction costs.
For the last 90 minutes I was pleased it was raining because maybe the car hire company would not notice either the small chip in the windscreen nor the tiny dent in the door if we returned it at 4.59pm just before the staff went home! However we did not reach our hotel until about 5.15pm so we would just have to leave it at their downtown office and put the keys through the letterbox.
The following day we were joining another 56 travellers to take two charter flights to Greenland for an Expedition cruise with 10 days of walking and Zodiac exploring of Eastern Greenland and maybe if we are lucky to sight the Northern Lights.
Our pre departure accommodation was included in the cruise price. so after checking into our hotel Sharron was kind enough to return the car whilst I tried to catch up with emails and put together a schedule of work for my two assistants whilst I am out of email contact for the best part of two weeks.
So our eight days in Iceland had come to an end and now it was time to get in Greenland mode but meanwhile…………………
What were my thoughts on Iceland?
I don’t think we could have packed much more into the time we had available other than taking half a day to relax in the hot pools at either Lake Myvatn preferably (and cheaper!) or the Blue Lagoon.
For sure the country is expensive and the prices for good and accommodation is probably (no certainly) the highest I have seen in Europe.
And equally certain is the fact that the cheapest way to see things is to rent a car and drive around. Some day tours from Reykjavik cost as much as £250/$350 as did some glacier walking excursions.
The Icelandic people were friendly, hospitable and pretty much everyone speaks English although I am not sure the Icelandic Tourist and Hotel industries could survive without the assistance of an efficient young labour force from Eastern Europe.
So perhaps car hire and camping is the most cost effective way to visit Iceland or just select your hotels carefully as there are cheaper options around – we usually paid about £100 – £130 ($140 -$180) per night but were definitely at the budget and of the range – it was not unusual to see fairly standard hotels advertised for two and three times this rate.
The weather can always be iffy in Iceland – we did not have the best of the weather and I think it was perhaps unseasonably cold for September but nevertheless the cold wind and some rain did not really detract from our enjoyment.
At the end of the day most people come to Iceland to visit and enjoy the Natural attractions. The wild and rugged scenery, the spectacular coastlines, the waterfalls and especially the famous geothermal areas.
And so as someone who has worked pretty much my entire life in the travel industry I would recommend one of two options – either come for a long weekend or on a free of charge stopover with Icelandic Air between Europe and North America, hire a car and spend a couple of days visiting the attractions close to Reykjavik – Pingvellir, Gullfoss, Giyser, The Blue Lagoon and Seljalandsfoss.
Or alternatively come for a week, drive around the island and make sure you allow at least two full days for the Lake Myvatn area.
And as for me I will have two abiding memories from my first visit to Iceland.
Firstly, the scale and variety of the waterfalls was truly spectacular. I think my favourite was Seljalandsfoss but Gullfoss and Godafoss were also truly spectacular.
I was aware of Iceland’s geothermal attractions before my visit but had no idea that it offered so many impressive waterfalls. I think a great theme for a return visit to Iceland would be to plan a tour visiting ten or twelve most famous waterfalls and perhaps do some hikes and walks in the vicinity of each.
And secondly, I make no apologies for returning to the theme I have continually referred to during this narrative which I have been asking myself at every turn as we travelled through this interesting country not least today when going down the undersea tunnel when approaching Reykjavik.
How and how does this nation afford to do all this with a population of just 330,000 and how impressive is it that such a small nation can develop, nurture and pass on the skills to be so self sufficient. And when the 330,000 hardy souls are spread over such a large rugged and remote area it is truly impressive.
Go and judge for yourselves.
Meanwhile I am off to country/territory number 101 tomorrow!
And if you and some of your family/friends are interested in forming a group for a bespoke customised tour of Iceland you could have no better partner than the team at Kipling Tours www.kiplingtours.com who have been organising and oiperating customised tours to Iceland for over ten years. Just drop Andy and co an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
© Michael Bromfield