Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Driving in Iceland 5 - Sizzling earth, Gushing water and getting close to Arctic

The Geo thermal activity became a fascination for all of us. It smelt terrible though. 

The earth sizzles and smells but looks exotic

Being in Iceland gave me a fair idea now what earth must have looked like in nascent stages. There is no predictability in what you would come across next and after a couple of days we were no longer surprised by what came along as we drove from one place to another. This does not mean that fascination deserted us. Each new thing concerning nature fascinated us and we hungered for more. 

As we drove towards north Iceland and crossed the Myvtn lake area, we could see smoke from a spread out area. Many cars were parked there to see this wonderful Geo thermal phenomenon of this place called Námaskarð which earns its notoriety chiefly because of its sulfurous mud springs and steam springs. You can smell sulfur in the air and it is extremely overpowering. While the rocks sizzled and smoked, the gurgling sound of hot pools could be heard a few hundred yards away as it spurted small quantities of hot water. Pathways have been made and certain areas had been cordoned off to avoid accidents. We walked around these rocks, pools and the sizzling earth in a very disciplined manner. 

This is next to Námaskarð pass. The color and feel of landscape is very different in this area. I loved the way the road meanders in between the brownish hills.

The Myvatn area itself can surprise you by it's beauty as well as ugliness. Some parts of earth look as if the inside of the earth has erupted and come out on surface. Someone described it as earth turning upside down. The Myvatn lake is nice and was formed due to volcanic activity and nearby are sizzling lava fields as well as the Krafla Caldera. Krafla lava fields have walking trails and that is another experience as rocks could be hot and falling on them dangerous. Nature itself is strange. While these volcanic activities sound unattractive, they have produced areas having rare fauna and flora. The fish are the best and birds found here are rare. 

The boiling pool. I think it was 100 mtrs deep. It would keep gurgling and spitting.
My wife Devicka doesn't like strong smells but here surprisingly she looks very comfortable even as sulphur smell rules the atmosphere. 

Dettifoss- The strongest falls of Europe

While you get the views as per the photographs above, not very far from here are the strongest waterfalls of Europe called the Dettifoss. The falls are 100 metres (330 ft) wide and have a drop of 45 metres (150 ft) down to the Jökulsárgljúfur canyon. While coming towards Myvatn we had taken a detour to go to Dettifoss as these falls are pretty famous. The road going to the falls was not too good but once you reach the destination, you feel refreshed seeing the gushing water. You have to hike down to the falls from the parking area. There were just basic toilets here and once again there were no tickets and no please to eat or drink. Many people were walking to another falls around 45 -60 minutes hike away. We didn't do that but lazed around and walked around. The water is slightly brownish here and it's all to do with volcanic activity. The area around Dettifoss is rough and rocky and it's difficult to believe that just a few km's away the grounds are green and lush. 

The sound is deafening as the Dettifoss plunges deep down the gorge. 

The Jökulsárgljúfur canyon cut by river and the rocky landscape near the Dettifoss waterfalls. 

The Northern Capital -Akureyri 

View from our apartment.of a town normally covered with clouds. Cruise ships come from Norway. 

One would have liked to spend more time at the Myvatn area as it had a lot to offer and lot of interesting 'nature' to offer including a Geo thermal hot bath, but it poured incessantly so we went for lunch. My son Kartik was interested in Volcanic caves and Krafla lava fields but as the rain refused to stop we decided to drive on to our apartment at Akureyri. Akureyri is the second largest town of Iceland and known as the Northern Capital. Our Halllandsnes Apartments were bang opposite the town on a hill and we had the sea between us. The apartments had in it's vicinity a gushing waterfall and it was boiling hot water !  It was while we were in Akureyri that Iceland played an important match of Euro 2016 against England and came out victorious. Iceland Captain Aron Gunnarsson was from Akureyri so the entire town went doubly wild. It was a night of celebrations all over Iceland. 

Victory of England meant all night of celebration and hangover the next day. 

We were in Akureyri for 2 days and our time in Akureyri was a relaxed time as we went for long walks, bathed in hot tub, had self made barbecue dinners and we went for a drive near the tiny but scenic airport and found a lovely Christmas shop. Christmas in Iceland is very different from rest of the world and not only do celebrations last many days but for the tiny population, it is the biggest social  networking time. As an excursion from here, we drove to the North town of Husavik on Arctic sea, famous as a Whale watching centre. Akureyri itself was pretty and had some good restaurants and supermarkets. After being in wilderness for last few days it was good to see some civilisation and to have some places to shop and good restaurants to have meals. 

After roaming around the whole day the hot tub in open was soothing. 

We enjoyed these barbecue dinners and had to shift in shade as it would rain each evening. 

Christmas shop. It was very sweet and interesting.

Husavik - A place for whale watchers

Husavik was a small little town ( population around 2300) and it seems that anyone who comes here does so for whale watching. They call it the Whale capital of Iceland. There is almost a guarantee of getting very close to whales. We had seen enough whales during the Alaska cruise so gave this a miss. It was also very cold and windy and the idea of being in a boat in Arctic sea for 3 hours was not very appealing. We met a few people who had been for a boat trip and they had all seen whales from close quarters during the trip. 

It had been a lovely drive and we drove through Goðafoss ( Waterfall of the gods). This was another spectacular waterfall and by now we had lost count of the number of amazing falls we had seen. 

Goofoss falls have a lot of stories associated with them.

This church is the landmark of Husavik. Don't miss the lavender coloured mountains behind the church. All over Husavik we found these lavender mountains.

The Arctic sea. Cross this and you are at Arctic circle. You can see full town of Husavik in this snap. 

End of driving

With this, we were almost done with what we had come to Iceland for. We would leave for Reykjavik the next day and would spend a day there. Blue Lagoon tickets had been bought and we planned to go there on the same day as we reached Reykjavik. It was expected to take us around 6 hours from Akureyri moving towards west Iceland and then to Reykjavik. Western Fjords and highlands are very famous in western part of the country but that is another world altogether and we had decided not to do it this time. I believe that is a tough drive.
The drive to Reykjavik was as scenic as what we had got used to. Though it rained incessantly, it was a pleasure driving on those curvy roads with mountains, rivers, lakes, sheep, horses and lush fields.
It was a relief returning the car to car rental agency as we had had no mishaps but then we were equally sad to end this 7 days of driving in the most beautiful country that we had ever visited.

From 7) above we drove to Reykjavik 8) in around 6 hours (including stoppages and lunch). 

Thursday, 14 July 2016

Driving in Iceland 4 - Moving East from the world of Icebergs to the dream fjord town of Seydisfjordur

Around midnight, this is how a mountain at Seydisfjordur looked. 

Continuing another day in Hofn

It was a sheer luxury staying 2 nights in one place. It was a pleasure to get up in the morning and not worry about packing and moving on. The morning was overcast and the overnight rain had thankfully cleaned up the cars. One could laze around with a cup of tea in hand and iPad in front. We had no agenda for the day other than go back 80 km's in the direction of Skatafell for our Zodiac boat ride at the glacier lagoon. But that was at 5.30 in the evening. A full day was ahead of us and as we were not the types to cozy in into our quilts we decided to visit the town of Hofn which was just 6 km's ahead. 

Hofn turned out to be a town of 2000 people. It is one of the rare places which has a harbour. Being surrounded by glaciers and being in the vicinity of mighty mountain Vatnajökull , it has a few glacial lakes. Fishing is predominant occupation in this area. It was a cold and windy morning and we could not find any place open which served the breakfast other than the lone supermarket's bakery. 

The Viking Cafe

There was a tourist centre open and they showed us a few places on the map that we could visit. 
One of them was a remote place which had something called the Viking Cafe. The cafe was shut when we reached there but place was pretty on the black sand sea with a fabulous view of the glacier. I understand that a farmer owns all the land and beyond a certain point you have to pay him to go to Viking Village and rest of the land. The next day as we moved towards east of Iceland, we realised this Viking cafe was on the way - just off the main highway. 

Finding the Glacier

Glacier is not something that can be hidden. This spectacle of river of Ice flowing down the mountains for several miles is exciting for anyone who loves nature. We heard a lot of stories about Icelandic glaciers retreating and we actually saw some points from where to where the glaciers had retreated in last 4 decades. We were advised to book a super jeep ride on glacier. These formidable monster jeeps take you all over the glacier. But money was restricted and this activity was expensive so we went to find an approachable glacier. I think the one we found was called Vatnajökull or maybe it was part of this glacier called something else. We turned off the beaten path on a gravel road and meandered closer to that big ice river for several km's. There was no trace of humanity here. Finally we came to a place from where a narrow bouncy bridge took us to a lagoon and we were soon touching a glacier. 
Anywhere in the world near a glacier you will find glacial sports activities, crowds, experience centre, glacial museum and a hefty fee when you reach so close to a glacier. Here we could have a private picnic on the glacier with no one around for at least 30 km's. And it was all without any entrance charges !

In the wilderness. Real wilderness. We had mountains, lakes, lagoons, suspension bridge and a glacier all to ourselves for several hours. 

Up and close a Glacier looks formidable.

 Jokulsarlon Lagoon - too good to miss

This lake is something you fall in love with at first sight. If you are driving from the side of Skatafell towards Hofn you see lovely glistening glaciers from far and then suddenly the landscape changes into something brown and undesirable. You see several sand dune type things but they hold no interest as you have got used to freshness and beauty. Suddenly you reach near this lagoon and you gasp seeing these huge icebergs in different shades of blue floating in the lake on the left side of the road. Then you look at the right side and huge expanse of Atlantic Ocean greets you with many Icebergs drifting away. Some had seals on them. Wow. Just wow.

This had been our experience yesterday while driving towards Hofn. Today we were coming back to take a ride on a speed boat in the lagoon in what is called a 'Zodiac boat tour.' This boat ride had been pre-booked ( by us more than a month back. Sure enough , those who had not pre-booked were either going back disappointed or taking another ride in what is called Amphibian boat tour. In Zodiac boat tour there were 10 of us in a speed boat which takes you very close to the Icebergs (and allows you to touch them) and takes you very close to the Glacier from which these icebergs were breaking off. Amphibian was a large boat with 40-50 people and did not look exciting.

This Glacier used to fall directly into the Atlantic Ocean but has since last few decades retreated several km's creating this deep lake. Zooming at high speed and maneuvering of speed boat between the icebergs was as exciting than anything else during this trip. The cold wind was biting but could not take the thrill away. We had been given these big waterproof outfits to wear and we could thankfully wear them over our jackets as it was around 10 deg C and very windy and cold. We saw seals jumping around ; we touched the icebergs; we saw one break ; we saw some that were as big as a ship; we broke part of one and tasted it also and then Kunaal and I wanted to take it back to apartment to put in our whisky ! It would have been fun having a drink with Ice which probably was a hundred years old.

All zipped up and ready

Cold but fun

Each Iceberg had a different colour and each Iceberg had different shades. It is all due to refraction, compression and loads of other reasons that these blue shades are attained. 
After this expedition we just rushed to the market to buy whatever we could for dinner. Only the shop at the petrol station was open so we picked up whatever we got. Tomorrow morning we would be moving on towards the North East towards the eastern Fjords.

Seydisfjordur : What a lovely town. And what a great drive. 

A dreamy sleepy town next to the Fjords. The lake adds to the charm.

Seydisfjordur turned out to be a dream town. It was a 3 hour dream drive from Hofn . We were now moving into less traveled territory. The intent was to stay somewhere near the ring road and do a car trip to the Eastern Fjords. At the time of booking hotel Aldan here I did not realise that we were literally on the Fjords. Just behind the mountains in above picture the Fjords start and you can touch the Atlantic ocean. 

I call it a dream drive as we took a right turn from the ring road from near the famous town of Egilsstadir and then the climb started. We crossed the mountains and snow and waterfalls and were enveloped by clouds for quite a distance. It was a bit scary to drive but thrilling as the temperature dropped to 5 deg C at one point. Then we descended into a valley which looked divine. It even had a small golf course with several natural waterfalls. Pictures will tell the story. This is how our drive looked like : 

Landscapes kept changing and clouds kept playing. This was soon after crossing the tunnel near Hofn
Some pretty places on the way having humans.

You want to break the journey and start picnicing
The climb started soon after  Egilsstadir
As we climbed the mountains it became so beautiful.

The mountains kept changing colors

No one around for miles

As soon as we checked in Kunaal announced that he would just relax here and not go anywhere at all till next morning. This idea at that moment appealed to me. So we chilled over some local brew some great fish. After lunch while we rested a bit, the children hired the bikes and went to explore the town. They were pretty amused to see the sparse population & hardly any shops in the entire town. They did count 10 or 12 waterfalls. 

Local Beer in perfect setting

I don't think anyone actually believed that I would let them rest for more than what was required. Soon we were off on a gravel road towards the Fjords. We hiked, sat around the river, admired the fjords and were back for some partying with newly made friends as the mountains turned golden. 

This river will go into the sea just 100 m ahead.

Had some interesting company for drinks in the evening

Day 5 drive

Today we drove just a short distance from Hofn (between 3 & 4 below) to Egilsstadir (5 on map) and turned right to Seydisfjordur. Tomorrow we will come back to Egilsstadir and go North towards Akureyri ( 7 on map) via Myvatn area and not through Husavik as is on the map.

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Driving in Iceland 3 - Skogafoss falls, Black sand beach and stunning Glacier walk in South Iceland

Skogafoss turned out to be my favourite falls of Iceland. I loved the surrounding areas as well. 

When you get up on a crispy sunny morning and walk out to the hotel garden with a cup of tea in hand, and you see a spectacular waterfall beyond the lush green fields,  you do know that it’s going to be a great day.  Day 3 was perhaps our most busy and exciting day yet.

South Iceland is a travelers paradise. Waterfalls, national parks, Glaciers, Black sand beaches, Volcanoes and lush green farms are found here and so do Lava fields. Starting the journey anti clockwise from Reykjavik makes sense as South Iceland is the most rewarding area for a traveler. Even if you have 4 days in Iceland, you can do Reykjavik (including the Blue Lagoon) , Golden Circle and South Iceland (Upto the Glacier Lagoon). 

Our group enjoying the falls

The Skogafoss waterfall is the best waterfall that we went to during this trip to Iceland. It is fortunate that we spent a night right next to it. The previous evening also we had spent some time here but in the morning after a good night’s rest it seemed divine. I quickly bathed, had breakfast and soon was on my way up from where the fall seemed to descend. Kunaal and Jyoti had beaten me to it and so had my son Kartik, who had gone for a morning run. They were now coming back. Devicka followed me but did not climb up but enjoyed the falls while sipping coffee from the café just near the falls. The atmosphere was festive as there were several campers cooking their breakfast as their tents fluttered in the wind.

I could see hotel Skogar (where we were staying)  as I climbed the mountain leading to the start of the waterfall. It was wonderful living in such surroundings.

As I reached the top I could see miles of greenery and could see the river coming from very far. I started following it and walked for an hour before turning back as it would be soon the check out time from the hotel. There were several mini waterfalls on the way and the river had cut many gorges as it gushed down with great speed.  I am told that if I had continued following the river I would have reached the pass between 2 glaciers. It was an extremely lovely walk and could be possible as we were staying next doors. On the way back I found the children (the teenagers actually) playing at the river. Kartik had been so excited about his morning run here that he had got the 2 girls along. They had come up the way I had come and then gone down to the river ! Ahhhh.... the energy of youth !

Climbing up this mountain was fun. Going beyond it was even more fun.

Walking with the river in such serene atmosphere was even more fun.

The teenagers enjoying the river

The Black Sand Beach 

Don't think these black pebbles leak black color. This is permanent. You can see those cliffs jutting out of sea - the legend is that this happened when the trolls attempted to drag 3 ships ashore but could not. 

We still had time for our glacier walk which was scheduled for 1.30 PM. No one was in a mood to walk one hour to reach the black sand area where the crashed plane was lying and on which ShahRukh had danced but we did have Black sand beach on our agenda. This actually meant going around 40 KM towards Vik and then come back for the Glacier walk. This is exactly what we did as we had time on our hands.

Gerua ( Shahrukh Khan ) moment for cousin Kunaal. Shahrukh Khan is superstar of Bollywood and song Gerua was picturised on him at this very location. 
 The black sand on this beach and in quite a few areas around Vik is due to basalt volcanic ash as there are several active Volcanoes in this area.

Rock formation inside the cave. Nature !

Will all these disappear if and when Katla erupts ?

With the beach facing out to the Atlantic Ocean, the wind was strong and cold. We actually started freezing here but it was very much on our minds that in an hours time we had to climb up a Glacier and wondered how cold it actually would be on glacier.

Talking about Volcanoes in this part of Iceland,  Vik lies directly under the Myrdalsjokull glacier, which itself sits atop the volcano Katla. Katla last erupted in 1918 and speculation is that a big eruption is brewing, which would be way more powerful than the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajokull. The eruption could melt enough of the glacier to trigger a flash flood, obliterating the village and surrounding areas. People have been told to evacuate within 15 minutes from the moment they receive a message from the Govt. The plan is in place but I wonder if any of the Sheep or horses will survive once the overdue Katla erupts. 

The Glacier Walk

Undoubtedly this was the highlight of the tour. Touching a glacier would have been great but actually climbing on it and spending an hour or so seemed unreal. We could have walked the glacier at Skftafell and maybe it would have been a better decision as Skaftafell was nearer to our destination for the night, Hofn. But we were climbing the Sólheimajökull glacier which was part of the big Myrdalsjokull glacier . The booking had been done through Arctic adventures and perhaps this decision was a good one as we had a very nice and well trained instructor. She was also a volunteer for national rescue team and totally committed to the cause. Her inputs were invaluable.
All set to go. The crampons are still in our hands which we wore over our shoes just before climbing. 
It looks odd if you get to see black/grey looking glacier. You always associate Ice with freshness. Once again this is Volcano ash which has settled inside the Ice. As we climbed up the glacier the color changed and freshness was evident. But grey or white, the glacier was mighty and was flowing from miles away. It really did overawe us. 

The glacier at the top looks quite formidable. The crevasses open up very fast so one has to be careful follow the rules of climbing.
As you reach up the glacier you can see Ice everywhere. The crevasses can be very dangerous so the instructor would ask us to follow her. She imparted knowledge about glaciers and particularly about this area. The overdue Katla story had also come from her. 

Be careful of these crevasses. They can be hundreds of feet deep. 

We all felt tired but exhilarated. We felt very close to nature. It was an overwhelming experience being atop a glacier and walking around it while inspecting the crevasses and drinking fresh water. The crampons had made walking on ice easier and all of us did well not to fall down. Each one from our group was reluctant to go for this walk when I had mooted the proposal around 6 months back. It had taken time to bring them around. Today they all feel that this was the best thing they did on the trip. 

Day 3 comes to an end but not without further excitement. 

At 5.30 PM we were still having our delayed lunch at Vik and we had to go all the way to Hofn. Though the map said it would take around 3 hours, we took more than 4 hours as one had to stop a few times to admire the beauty of several unexpected sights which kept interrupting our smooth drive. We did not even enter the Skatafell national park which happens to be a major tourist attraction. Skatafell is great for hiking and for Glacier walks and for those planning a trip, it would't be a bad idea to stay somewhere near Skatafell. In that case they need not do the glacier walk where we did it but do it here. Located at the foot of Vatnajökull glacier, the biggest glacier outside of the polar regions, Skaftafell is the gateway to the largest national park in Europe, Vatnajökull National Park. Vatnajokull itself has several smaller glaciers coming out of it so walk is organised on one of them. 

So, we reached our apartment near Hofn at around 9.45 and were told that dinner would be impossible to get at this time as even the petrol pump stores shut before 10 PM. The apartment owner 'Harpa' was a lovely lady who gave us eggs, milk, salmon and bread and we did have some cheese and Maggi instant Noodles in our luggage to have a cracking dinner. The apartments were called Hraunholl 4 Apartment and were owned by a couple who stayed in the complex itself. The apartments were comfortable and had a lovely view of the mountains and the fields. The neighbours had some horses and the children enjoyed petting them and feeding them the bread. As it doesn't get dark in Iceland during this time , I went for a midnight walk as everything looked so fresh and nice. The temperature had dropped drastically by now so I did not last long outdoors. It was time to get comfortable in the quilt.

Day 4 onwards promised to be a bit lighter and more relaxing. But no one was complaining as day 3 had been just too wonderful. 

Day 3- Traveled from Skogar just before 2 above to Hofn midway between 3 & 4 above. There are hardly and petrol pumps or eateries in most part of this route. As the saying goes, there are more active Volcanoes found here than places to eat.