Iceland 3/9/2019 - 3/17/2019
Wednesday, March 13, 2019 - Wonders of Snæfellsnes: Day 1
We had a quick breakfast at the hotel buffet, then took only what we needed for one night away in Snæfellsnes and headed to Bus Stop 3. We left the rest of our luggage in our room at the Konsulat. We were double-booked for tonight (we had a package deal with flights and hotel); even though we had booked an overnight excursion, we still had our room at the Konsulat. Not ideal, but it did make it a lot easier not to have to re-pack and carry all of our luggage with us.
Shortly before 8:30 a.m., a minibus from Icelandic Mountain Guides pulled up. We met Sölvi, our driver/guide for the next two days, as well as the seven other travelers in our group. We were the last to be picked up, and got settled in the back of the bus. The bus was spacious, immaculate, and comfortable, with plenty of leg room. It had large windows and a USB outlet at every seat. It seated 16 passengers and, like all vehicles in Iceland, had studded tires for the often slippery road conditions. Our first impressions were very good, and we were excited for this adventure.
Sölvi had been guiding five of our seven companions for the past two days around Southern Iceland. They were from France, and he is fluent in French. He mentioned to us that they have preferred to spend more time at destination stops than eating in restaurants. He said it would need to be a group consensus going forward, and asked what our opinion was. The French comically pantomimed to try to influence our decision. They needn't have worried, we are all for maximizing sightseeing time. We are not foodies, and functional food is absolutely fine with us.
As he drove, Sölvi regaled us with Icelandic folk tales, as well as historical and cultural information. He was very impressive, repeating everything twice, first in French and then in English. Neither of us know French, but hearing it spoken we were amazed at how much meaning we could pick up through our knowledge of Spanish.
For the past few days, we had been in the city. The city has beautiful views of the ocean and mountains, but we had not yet experienced nature in Iceland firsthand. We were eager to do so, and the excitement mounted as we left the city and suburbs behind.
Iceland is the only place where the mid-Atlantic ridge surfaces from beneath the ocean. The island contains 30 volcanic systems. The North American plate and Eurasian plate are pushing apart, 2 cm/year, right down the center of Iceland. A third of all of the lava that has erupted on earth within recorded history has come from Iceland. 11% of Iceland is covered with ice, with glaciers and ice caps dating back to 500 B.C. However, the ice has recently been receding due to climate change.
We took a shortcut to get to Snæfellsnes (Snow Mountain Peninsula), which lies just north of Reykjavik's Reykjanes (Smoky Peninsula) via a 6 km tunnel underneath Hvalfjörður (Whale Fjord). This tunnel opened in 1998.
As we passed through Grundartangi, Sölvi drew our attention to smelters where bauxite from Australia is processed into alumin(i)um. It seems crazy that shipping bauxite all the way to Iceland from Australia for processing would be economically viable, but Iceland's surplus of hydroelectricity makes it cost effective enough to offset the shipping costs.
Sölvi explained the rich history of folk tales in Icelandic culture. He said that J.R.R. Tolkien spoke Icelandic and employed Icelandic au pairs to care for his children. He was envious of Iceland's rich history of folk tales and "hidden peoples", and was inspired to try to retroactively provide the United Kingdom with a similar folk history.
This was the perfect lead-in to a folk tale about the Hvalfjörður area.
People would rappel down cliff faces at Hvalfjörður during the spring to collect bird eggs. One man was missing when the others returned home from their annual egg collecting mission. They didn't have time to return to look for him because they had to tend to their farming during the growing season.This must explain the red-headed sea monster depicted in this fjord in the Iceland mural we had seen at lunch yesterday!
We stopped at an N1 gas station / convenience store in Borganes (Rocky Crag Peninsula) to use the rest room. Sölvi suggested that we buy food here that we could put aside for lunch. They had a wide variety of items, including hot meals. Craig and I opted for pre-made sandwiches, chips, and a drink.
We got settled back into the van and continued our journey. We were soon in the countryside. What looked like grassland was actually lava fields through which grass has sprouted. The ground holds water and has a marshy quality, sort of spongy like tundra. Farmers dig canal-like trenches to collect the water and reclaim the land for grazing pastures.
Sölvi took us to Stora-Hraun, a tiny natural hotspring located in one of these lava fields. It lies on the site of an abandoned farm. To get to the hot spring, we had to cross some standing water using stepping stones. It was a bit of a challenge for Craig with his cane, but he did very well!
We took off our shoes and socks and rolled up our pantlegs to soak our feet in the warm water. The small nature of the spring meant that we were all sitting quite close to one another, and it was a great opportunity to get to know one another.
Angel and Hoi Ming are from Hong Kong, and came to Iceland to celebrate their 10th wedding anniversary. Marie-France and her nieces Delphine and Marie had come from France to celebrate Marie-France's 80th birthday. Francois had been to Iceland before and had loved it, and this time he brought his wife Patricia. They are also from France, and wanted to explore some parts of the country that he had missed last time.
The tiny hot spring was surreal. I took my feet out of the water and walked around to get some photos. The ground was boggy and frozen, which was a strange sensation on my bare feet, which were still warm from the spring water soak. We spent about half an hour here before returning to the bus.
As we passed a certain fjord, Sölvi told us about a recent incident when a huge school of herring got itself trapped in the fjord. They used up all of the oxygen in the water and died. The piles of herring were knee deep. So, naturally, schools were closed for a week while everyone shoveled up the dead herring. Because...Iceland.
Sölvi taught us about the Icelandic language. It is similar to Old Norwegian, and has thought to have not changed much since medieval times. In actuality, there was some Danish influence to the language over the years, but the nationalist movement of the 19th century purged Danish influence from the language, reverting back to its purest form.
Unlike some languages which adopt foreign words for new concepts, Iceland creates its own unique words. Sometimes these are combinations of existing words (computer = number sorceress), while other times they will repurpose old words. For example, the word which was once used for a window made of translucent sheep's stomach has been repurposed to mean a TV screen or computer monitor. People congregate in hot springs and try to come up with punny words and phrases to describe new concepts. There are often cometing translations, but the most clever ones tend to stick. Sölvi gave the example of the word "mansplain". In Icelandic, it is Hrútskýring - a combination of Hrútur (ram, also a colloquialism for old man, and "hr" is an abbreviation for Herra, or Mister) and útskýring (explain, or shine a light). It is a pun that works on several levels, ramsplain.
[This particular incident was quite funny, as Sölvi told the story first in French. Craig and I each looked at each other at one point and said quietly, "Did he just say 'mansplian'?" It seemed so unlikely, we thought we must have misheard a French word. But he had, indeed!]
Sölvi wanted to take us to see a "surprise," and stopped by the Fossá river. The landscape was gorgeous, rendered black and white by the light dusting of snow on the lava rock. Soon we could hear the surprise, a thundering waterfall cascading down several layers of rock. Sölvi is not sure of the offical name of the waterfall, but has heard it called Fossárfoss (Waterfall River Watefall) and Selvallafoss (the waterfall of the plains of the sel, or shieling).
The waterfall was beautiful. The winter sun was barely visible behind the cloud cover, which gave everything a very frosty look. Icicles clung to the rock face. Parts of the Fossá River were covered with a thin layer of ice. The liquid water provided a perfect mirror for the peaks which surround the area. This really whet our appetite for the wonders of nature to come.
We drove on a road which cut through a lava field of dark volcanic rock frosted with snow. Sölvi said that this was called the lava field of the Berserkers, and told us the following folk tale:
We passed through several picturesque fishing villages on the north coast of the Snæfellsnes peninsula. In this area we were the furthest North that Craig and I have ever traveled: 64.97 degrees.
In Grundarfjörður, we could see the majestic Kirkjufell (Church Mountain) towering over the landscape. At 1519 feet in height, it got its name from its resemblance to a church steeple. We don't watch Game of Thrones, but it is filmed in Iceland. Apparently Kirkjufell was a featured location, used as the "mountain shaped like an arrowhead" in Season 7. The snow on the mountain helped to emphasize its geology; scree-like slopes at the base with horizontal rock stratification towards the peak.
We stopped at Kirkjufellsfoss, a waterfall in the shadow of Kirkjufell. We followed a slippery path (which luckily had good traction) up the hillside so that we could see the waterfall from above. A small bridge spanned the gorge.
After exploring the waterfall, we got back into the van. We were the first ones back, and chatted with Sölvi while we waited for the others. He told us a bit about consumption of whale meat in Iceland. The types of whales which are hunted today are minkie and fin whales. Although Iceland has a tradition of eating whale meat, they do not have a long tradition of whale hunting. In the pastm they would mainly eat whales which washed up on the shore. In fact, the Icelandic word for windfall is literally "beached whale." Today, the majority of whale meat consumption is by tourists rather than locals, as it is seen as a novelty. Sölvi thinks that while the current whale hunting quotas are probably ecologically sustainable, he questions its economic viability. The social backlash in the international market can turn against Iceland's other fisheries.
When everyone was back in the van and we resumed our drive, Sölvi suggested that this would be a good time to eat our lunches, as it was a bit of a drive until our next stop. We broke out our surprisingly tasty roast beef and pickle sandwiches, along with sweet chili pepper Doritos. We also each had a bottle of Appelsin, an Icelandic orange soda that has been produced since 1955. We were more than happy to eat on the road, since it would afford us more sightseeing time at our various stops.
Roads came late to this region. The area was accessible to boats and planes long before it was ever accessible to cars. There were passes between the mountains and sea cliffs which could only accommodate one horse at a time.
We passed through Olafsvik, population 1100. This is a prosperous fishing village, which boasts a bike path, well-maintained roads, a bakery, etc. Due to the road to Keflavik, the village is well-connected to the international airport. They can send fish out of the country the same day they catch it. This has brought prosperity to this rural town.
Overfishing was a big problem in the early 20th century, largely due to the activity of large British trawlers. After World War II, Iceland closed its fjords to international fishing. The UK navy was not pleased, and picked a fight with the Icelandic Coast Guard. Iceland had joined NATO, and threatened the USA that if they didn't receive defense support, they would side with the USSR. The US supported Iceland, which came out of the dispute with 3 mile territorial waters. Over the upcoming decades, Iceland's national waters expanded to 200 nautical miles. Illegal British trawling continued to be a problem until 1976. Iceland developed a weapon to combat this: trawl wire cutters, as we saw yesterday at the National Museum.
Snow flurries developed as we continued our drive along the northern coast of the peninsula. We stopped at a convenience store in Hellisandur to use the rest room. Courtesy dictates that you buy something as well, so we bought a package of cookies. There was an old fashioned baby pram outside, covered in several layers of quilts and a layer of transparent plastic to block the elements. The baby was apparently in the carriage. Icelanders believe that babies should sleep outside in the fresh air. There are urban legends that this has caused some Icelandic parents to be arrested in the USA for leaving sleeping babies unattended outside of coffee shops.
There was a spray painted sign that proclaimed that Hellisandur is the street art capital of Iceland, though we saw no other evidence of this as we drive through town.
Saxhóll is a volcanic crater which is easily accessible from the road. Its last eruption was 3-4000 yars ago, and there is evidence of lava tubes beneath the surrounding lava fields. The crater is 100 meters tall, and is easy to climb thanks to a relatively unobtrusive metal staircase. We climbed up to the top, from which we could not only get a 360 degree view of the surrounding lava fields, but we could also see down into the depths of the crater itself, long dormant and covered with moss. We got a chance to inspect the lava up close. The Icelandic word for lava is "hraun." Slow moving and fluid lava (called "pahoehoe" in Hawaii) comprised of basalt is known as "helluhraun," whereas the more jagged jumbled lava ("a'a" in Hawaiian) is called "apalhraun."
As we descended the stairs, we could see a pair of legs sticking up in the air, with the torso inside a small opening in the earth. It was Delphine, posing for a photo by going into a small lava tube head-first. Such a fun group! After Delphine extracted herself, we got back into the van and continued on our way.
As we entered Snæffelsjökull (Snow Mountain Glacier) National Park, the weather started to get rather wild. There were strong winds which broadsided the bus, and it started to snow heavily. Sölvi told us that this area has a history of treacherous conditions when the weather is stormy. One time he was driving through here and saw a car which had been blown off the road by the wind. He stopped to help them and when he exited his car, he was blown off his feet. He literally had to crawl along the ground to reach them. Luckily, nobody was hurt, and he was able to transport the family to safety. On another occasion, the wind was so strong here that it ripped the tarmac off of the road and blew it away. The weather conditions in Iceland are no joke.
Sölvi pointed out two volcanic pillars at Londrangar. We could barely see them through the windswept snow. He told us a folk tale in which these formations had once been trolls: a troll king and his lady love. They went down by the shore one night, and sat watching the waves together. They were so enamored with each other that they never noticed the coming of the dawn, and they were turned to stone when the sun rose.
We stopped at the National Park's Gestastofa Visitor Center and took a short walk to the coast to admire the rocky cliffs and a Malarrifsviti lighthouse. The lighthouse was first established here in 1917, and was rebuilt in 1947. In its current incarnation, it is 20 meters tall. It was once run by gas, and later changed to electricity. Its light had a range of eighteen miles. We walked over to the cliffs as the wind blew the falling snow. The gray sky blended into the gray sea at the horizon.
We went inside the visitor's center. I had been looking for a book of Icelandic folk literature, but had been unsure of what to get. I didn't want anything too dense, and I wanted something that was somewhat relevant to our travels in Iceland. I hadn't found the right thing in Reykjavik's book and souvenir shops. But here in the national park I found it: A Traveller's Guide to Icelandic Folk Tales by Jón R. Hjálmarsson. Two to three page folk tales organized by the region of Iceland in which they are said to have occurred. They also had Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth. Neither of us had ever read it, and it only made sense to buy it here, where the fictional journey began.
There wasn't anyone behind the cash register, and I asked Sölvi if the shop was open. He said that he knows the guy who is working today (Sölvi used to work for the National Park Service), and he should be here shortly. Soon the old timer appeared. As he rang up my order looked at me and deadpanned, "Are we boring you? You are going to spend time reading?" before cracking into a smile. We love the Icelandic sense of humor...who else would heckle you as you make purchases to support their national park?
At 3 p.m., we arrived for our scheduled tour of Vatnshellir (lake cave), an 8000 year old lava tunnel. Craig and I are big fans of Rick Wakeman's Journey to the Centre of the Earth concept album, so this was a big selling point of the trip for us. The chance to "Descend into the crater of Snæffelsjökull" was too much for us to resist. We even wore our T-shirts from Wakeman's Return to the Centre of the Earth concert in Quebec in 2001! The cave guides are prog rock fans and got a kick out of it.
We gathered in the office along with other tourists who were here for the 3 o'clock tour. We were each given a hard hat and a flashlight. We were split into two groups and each assigned a guide. Our guide was Gunnar, who was quite entertaining. It was pretty much full-blown blizzard conditions as we made our way to the cave. A wooden shed had been built over the entrance to the cave. We walked along a boardwalk and then down a set of wooden stairs to the mouth of the cave. Once inside, we descended a metal spiral staircase until we reached a chamber below.
"Descend into the crater of Snæffelsjökull, over which the shadow of Scataris falls Before the calends of July, bold traveller, and you will reach the centre of the Earth I have done this.Craig and I were really nerding out over this whole experience. Sölvi made sure to get our photo in the cave with our Wakeman T-shirts visible.
Gunnar asked us all to turn our flashlights off. Then he asked us to close our eyes. He turned his flashlight off. When he told us to open our eyes, it was a crepy experience. We were enveloped by complete blackness, and there was no difference between having our eyes opened or closed.
Lava tubes like this are formed when lava is on the move during a volcanic eruption. A river of lava forms, but the exterior surface cools down when in contact with the air. It solidifies and acts as insulation, which allows the molten lava to flow through it like a pipe. Once the eruption has finished, these tubes stand empty. We were now standing inside one.
There was a sign that said the distance to Stromboli (where the Journey characters exited the volcano in Italy.) The lava formations in this tunnel were not as delicate as ones we had seen in Hawaii, and in fact the lava tube doesn't extend very far in distance. It is, however, impressive in terms of the size and depth of its chambers.
We had a very enjoyable 45 minute cave tour before we climbed back up the metal spiral staircase and emerged from the wooden hut. The weather had continued to deteriorate while we were inside the shelter of the lava tube. A cold wind whipped snow around and the visibility was quite poor. The whiteout was quite jarring after emerging from the blackness of the cave.
We walked back to the office to return our gear. Craig also bought a T-shirt to commemmorate the occasion.
In a blizzard, what better to do than to go to the beach? Sölvi told us how much he liked our next destination: Djúpalónssandur beach. It sure didn't look like a beach when we first arrived. We walked down a hill via the Nautastígur (Path of the Bull) with jagged lava formations on either side of us.
When we got to the bottom of the hill, this corridor opened up to a vast expanse of black sand beach, littered with large stones worn smooth by the waves. The patterns that the wind made with the coarse black sand and the snowflakes were mesmerizing.
Strewn along the black sand and stones of the beach were the rusted iron remains of the trawler Epine out of Grimsby, which was shipwrecked here coincidentally on this exact day (March 13), 71 years ago, in 1948. One crewman washed up on the beach alive. From the shore, rescue crews from surrounding communities shot a harpoon to the ship. The crew tied the line to the mast and four crewmen were pulled to shore. The other fourteen perished.
The conditions today were such that we could easily imagine a ship running into trouble. The wind was howling, and the snow stung our faces. As Craig and I posed for a photo in front of the roaring waves, the wind nearly blew me off my feet, and my scarf blew over my eyes. This extreme weather was so raw...and it was a highlight for us to experience the rugged beauty of nature.
Wild weather at Djúpalónssandur
There was a tall rock pillar here which also has a folk tale associated with it. Sölvi explained that there was a troll woman whose husband had gone off fishing and had not returned. She went to the shore to watch for his return, and the sun came up and she turned to stone. She is facing away from the sea with a rucksack on her back.
As we walked back up the path towards the parking lot, we were walking into the wind. It was genuinely difficult to walk. My eyes were stinging as snowflakes assaulted them. I hung behind to take some photos, and when I emerged at the top of the trail, I turned to read an informational sign. Craig had done the same thing, and knew that I would too. The sign was illegible as it was completely covered in a layer of snow. He had traced the letters "Hi Steph" with his glove in the snow.
When we got into the van, Craig's window was totally obscured by snow. Our clothes were now covered in snow, and the heat of the van made it all melt. This then fogged up some of the windows inside. Suddenly everything was feeling quite humid.
We arrived at our final destination, the village of Hellnar, at around 5:30 p.m. It is a fishing port which dates back to at least 1560 A.D. Today it has a year-round population of fewer than 10 people. It really feels like a frontier outpost, with only a handful of buildings and an abundance of unfiltered nature.
Sölvi parked the van on a bluff and announced that we would be visiting a beach here too. Golden beach grass was visible under the snow. We walked down a path to the shore. There was a small building down here...a coffee house, sitting incongruously amidst the raw landscape. It was closed, perhaps only open in the summer months.
Here the "beach" was comprised of black volcanic rocks, worn smooth and rounded by the punishing waves. Sölvi led us across this irregular footing toward a lava arch called Valasnös. We slowly and carefully stepped across snowy smooth lava rocks. It was difficult footing, as they were slippery and moved under our feet. I suggested that maybe Craig and I shouldn't continue, since it was the end of the day, our legs were tired, amd I didn't want to risk injury. But Craig felt good, and with his cane as another point of contact, he was confident. So we continued, and Sölvi made sure that we were safe.
On this beach, the basalt cliffs were very brittle looking, shards breaking off and leaving sharp polygons. We worked our way toward Valasnös, which turned out to be a lovely natural arch in the basalt cliffs. We saw sea birds roosting on tiny rock outcroppings on the cliff face.
Sölvi drew our attention behind us and led us up a rocky slope into a large cave called Baðstofan (a baðstofa is a heated sauna shed that was also used as sleeping quarters). We entered the cave and were immediately sheltered from the storm. Sölvi showed us one section of the cave in which rocks had been fashioned into a windbreak. He climbed inside this area and explained that people would spread sailcloth over the top to create a roof. We could tell that in extreme weather this could be the difference between life and death in a survival situation.
We had a nice view of the beach from the cave, and Sölvi showed us that if we climbed up some rocks toward the back of the cave, we would emerge through a narrow hole. We really felt like explorers as we emerged through the cave skylight into the snowy landscape.
We got back into the van and drove up to higher ground, where the Fosshotel Hellnar is located. We arrived at 6 p.m., right on schedule. The hotel itself is a single story structure. In the center is the lobby and restaurant, and there is a wing of guest rooms on either side. We checked into room 12, a cozy room with a view of the nearby church.
While the rest of the group relaxed and took showers before our 7 p.m. group dinner reservation at the hotel, we couldn't resist the opportunity to check out the church and graveyard. They are so picturesque, and overlook the ocean. It would be a completely different vibe than the urban oasis of Hólavallagarður.
So we changed out of our wet jeans (why hadn't we put on our waterproof pants earlier? We don't know...by the time it started snowing we were so deep in activities that we just hadn't bothered). We hung our wet clothes in the bathroom (the room where the heat was located) in the hopes that they would dry soon. We hadn't brought a lot of clothing for this short excursion.
We walked up the road in the snow to the adorable corrugated-metal clad church. Its walls are painted white and the roof is painted red. The first church was built here in 1880 with peat walls and a wooden roof. The church was demolished and rebuilt in 1945. It has required much maintenance due to the harsh conditions, and the current church had its most extensive renovations in 1990.
We peeked into the windows and could see small pews. It reminded us of some of the corrugated metal clad churches we had seen in Chile. We walked through the graveyard (most of the stones, which faced the sea, had a coating of snow on the front which made them difficult to read). We could see down to the shore. There was a feeling of isolation; just us and the elements, very happy that we had a warm room waiting for us nearby.
We arrived back at the hotel just in time for dinner with the group. Our table overlooked the ocean. I got a Somersby blackberry hard cider amd Craig got a Myrkvi Porter (No.13) by Borg Brugghús. We were served bread and butter. Craig and I had both wanted to try lamb since arriving in Iceland. Fine dining is quite expensive here, so we had tended to avoid it thus far. But tonight was the right place and the right time, so we ordered "fillet of lamb marinated with wild thyme from the lava fields of Hellnar, served with beetroot textures, potato and red wine sauce." It was artfully presented and absolutely delicious! So tender!
We enjoyed chatting with Sölvi and our fellow travelers over dinner. We all got along so well as a group, which unfortunately is not always the case. We felt quite fortunate and enjoyed every minute. It was cozy in the restaurant as the weather raged outside. Darkness fell at around 8 o'clock.
As we sat in the dining room, we caught a glimpse of a cat passing through. Icelanders love their cats, and we were not surprised to see that there was a hotel cat. What we hadn't realized at the time is that she is actually a celebrity. Her name is Pál Dánielsdóttir, the FossHotel Mousekeeper. She even has her own Instagram!
Sölvi explained the patronymic naming system which has traditionally been used in Iceland. Icelanders don't have family names; instead they use their father's first name with a suffix of either "son" or "dóttir." Traditionally, a first born male would also take his grandfather's name, which would mean that names would repeat through the generations (Jon Arison would name his child Ari Jonson, and so on). Only certain names are allowed, and any new names that anyone might want to introduce must meet the approval of the Icelandic Naming Committee.
For dessert, we couldn't resist the Snæffelsjökull cake, which was basically a chocolate lava cake with meringues and berry sauce.
After dinner, the French gathered around Francois' map of Iceland and Sölvi marked all of the places that they had visited on their last 3 days traveling together.
We returned to our room after a busy but incredibly satisfying day. It was quite hot in the room, and there were down comforters on the bed. Craig actually shut the heater off, as otherwise we would be roasting all night. The hotel has wi-fi, but it was overloaded, and I didn't have any luck posting any photos from the day before going to bed. However, when I happened to wake up at 2:30 a.m., I was able to do a quick post.
Soaking our feet in the miniature hot spring at Stora-Hraun
Sölvi's surprise waterfall at the Fossá river
Journey to the Centre of the Earth - Vatnshellir
Wreckage from the trawler Epine, which sank 71 years ago today at Djupalonssandur
Trying to stay standing in the wind at Djupalonssandur
Craig leaves me a message at Djupalonssandur
Climbing up to Badstofan cave, Hellnar
Sölvi in Badstofan cave, Hellnar
Steph emerges from Badstofan cave, Hellnar
Dinner at Fosshotel Hellnar: Patricia, Hoi Ming, Angel, Sölvi, Steph, Craig, Delphine, Marie-France, Francois, Marie
See all photos from March 13
Soaking our feet in the miniature hot spring at Stora-Hraun