Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Iceland, Glorious Iceland

The wind and the rain got worse as the day progressed, and the snowline inched down the mountain.  A bunch of people arrived, and they were all stuffed in the small common space, jabbering in strange tongues and cooking strange meats.  So it was good that I had secured a single room upstairs.

As I lay there, it was instructive to be experiencing just how severe Iceland could be.  Even in August.  And to realize that before the country got rich off of sealing, fishing, dodgy banks, and now tourism, this was an incredibly poor place.  And that people had been huddling together here for over a thousand years.  And you thought 13th Century England was tough...

And it was easy to see why Scandinavians liked their Socialism.  Somehow making sure that everyone didn't freeze to death was a little more important than Personal Liberty.

Anyway, the forecast had been for miserable weather for the next few days, but early Saturday morning broke calm and clear.  I went for a very brief walk up the flat fjord grassland, and then hit the road.

One of the nice things about having your country made out of lava is that it's very easy to carve tunnels.  There was a five mile long one lane tunnel through to the next fjord, plus a left turn you could take in the middle of it for another three mile tunnel north.  When I had cleared all the tunnels I was in the town of Isafjordur, at 2000 the largest place in the northwest.  Not much happening and not much to see.  A pastry at a bakery, a quick stop at the Bonus supermarket, and now I was curving about, in and out and around fjord after fjord.

So long as the weather is at least a quarter decent, I was quickly confirming that Iceland is--and I do not use the term lightly--truly mind-blowing.  A touch of Atlantic Canada, a touch of its far north (and I love both places), but they are only a tiny fraction of the wild reality of this place.  Sorry to gush, but the combination of the blue waters, various shades of dull green moors and grasses, and every kind of lumpy and jagged mountain and eroded cliff side possible, not to mention the patches and dabs of snow, was like an endless National Geographic special.  And I was in my little red car, puttering about, taking it all in.

Not that the weather wasn't still rotten enough that you couldn't spend more than a few minutes at a time standing or walking around.  And not that most people probably wouldn't have the same tolerance I do for being stuffed in a small space driving on small (often gravel) roads for hours and hours at a time.  But, hey, leave me to my pleasures.

Outside of Reykjavik there are only about 100,000 people in a country larger than Pennsylvania.  So it was surprising to see so many farms, most of them in impossibly picturesque locations.  Mostly sheep.  But also some dairy cows.  For, what with volcanic soils and endless summer daylight, there were a fair number of extensive hayfields, and big white plastic covered balls of hay scattered everywhere.

I found the night's hostel; nothing special.  I kind of thought that I might find interesting travelers, but virtually everyone else was at least a couple, and almost all were Germans.  I have yet to meet another American, and only one Brit.  Still, hostel beds and bathrooms are clean, and it's a cheap and painless way to spend the night.

Sunday was more of the same: Twisting around headlands, stopping at small fishing towns, driving through tunnels.  It had been partly sunny, partly cloudy for the past 36 hours, but the sky darkened considerably as I got to Akureyri, at 17,000 Iceland's second largest 'city'.  I walked around the two block downtown, but it was Sunday and nothing was open.  By the time I left the cold, dark rain had descended.  There's no way to put a good spin on that.

But Monday was clear/partly cloudy again, although blustery.  I headed down towards Lake Myrvatn and its geological wonders.  Quite prepared to be amazed, I was a little underwhelmed by its 'fantastical' lava formations.  Bryce Canyon it weren't.  The pseudocraters at the south end were kind of neat, and the sky was now pretty blue, but the wind was up to forty miles an hour, so the quick walk around them became somewhat of an ordeal.

By the time I drove over the small pass and saw the giant hill of sulfuric deposits and valley of boiling pools and hissing vents that made Yellowstone look like kid's stuff, the wind was now at fifty miles and hour with gusts up to blowing you over.  This was getting ridiculous.

And then up to the Kramla site, where less than thirty years ago there was all kinds of violent activity.  And it was only about a kilometer walk to the caldera, but the wind and cold were so extreme that when I finally got to see the flat sea of recently congealed lava, I was like one of those mountain climbers who can only spend twenty seconds at the top before they have to go back down again.

About thirty km away was one more tourist site, the Dentifoss waterfall.  I sat there in the parking lot for a while, trying to remember a windier wind that I had ever walked in.  Sure, it was Europe's most powerful falls, but then Europe is a pretty dinky place.  Finally I decided to go for it.  And I'm glad I did.  Because it was really... powerful.  And you could basically walk right up to it.  One of those amazing pictures that just takes itself.

The hostel for that night was on a sheep farm way in the middle of nowhere.  In fact, it was on a peninsula that bills itself as the End of the Earth.  I don't know about that, but the northeast of the country is pretty darn isolated, and here was one of the few places in this incredibly indented place where the ocean laps right up on the shore.  I stood there, and the only thing north of me was the Pole.

Today was Tuesday, and most of it was spent driving through the wilderness, climbing up one unbelievably steep mountain and then down the other side, then climbing up another one into the interior and actually seeing Iceland's incredible southern icecap on the near horizon.  Never been close up to an icecap before...

Finally over yet another steep mountain pass and down into my first of the long series of fjords on Iceland's eastern side.  A semi-large car ferry in the harbor about to depart for the Faeroe Islands and Denmark.  Just astounding natural and quiet beauty all around me.  Why, there was even about two minutes today when the outside air wasn't freezing.  What's more, the evening sky is finally clear, so there's always a chance of northern lights.

That would just be icing (to coin a phrase) on the cake.


At 2:28 PM, Anonymous Megan said...

this is making me sooo excited to finally get back to iceland in 13 days (not that im counting or anything). i wont make it up north or east this time, but im looking to make the most of the rest of the country that ill see!

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