Thursday, 9 April 2015

The land of ice and fire - Part 1

Thursday 19 March 2015
I stuffed my dirty clothes from Ireland into my laundry basket and repacked my suitcase with warm woollens and my tripod. It was going to be cold where I was headed. 

Later that afternoon, I made sure I arrived nice and early to the airport to save any undue stress, croaked my way through customs with my non-existent St Paddy's Day voice and wandered leisurely through duty free. 

Checking my emails, I saw the others had arrived and went to meet them. We were soon going to boarding the plane, and little did I know what beauty would be awaiting me on the other side.

***

I am part of a Meetup called Australian Expats in London and had been receiving their event emails since before arriving in London. I hadn't attended any, but when I saw the flights to Iceland for £99 return, I thought, why not? This was back in August 2014, and I ummed and ahhed because I am a commitment-phobe and was scared to purchase flights that far in advance. In the end, I bit the bullet. 

It just so happened that the trip to Dublin fit in perfectly the few days before and so in one crazy, polar opposite week, I travelled 5320 miles, 8562 kilometres, from drunken debauchery to boundless beauty between the two I-lands: Ireland and Iceland.

***

The week prior to Iceland, most of us met at a local pub to say hello and begin to get to know one another. Over the course of the four days, we would fall into a comfortable pattern with each other but we also were afforded the opportunity to spend time alone, too. Cindy and Russell were tour organisers and helped keep us in check, Neoma was a fellow Radeladian with her husband John. Also on the trip was Mary and Yelda, and in total we made a troupe of 7 split across two apartment suites.

We landed late Thursday evening and arrived at our apartment after midnight. We quickly sorted rooms and tucked ourselves away into bed - we had an early start in the morning as we were all going on the Golden Circle tour of Iceland.

****

Friday 20 March 2015
Up bright and early, we waited outside the apartment to be picked up for our tour. I thought I had forgotten to grab my voucher, so I made a mad dash back inside to realise it had been in my bag the whole time. I was more organised than I gave myself credit for. Soon, a mini bus arrived and deposited us at the main bus depot, where we were to get on a bigger bus run by Reykjavik Excursions. The bus was mostly full already and so I sat down the front in an empty seat next to a young English gentleman so that I wouldn't run the risk of motion sickness being a naughty kid up the back.

The whole bus was trying desperately to look at the sun and not look at the sun at the same time. This is because, on Friday 20 March 2015, there was a 98% solar eclipse in the Northern Hemisphere and with clear blue skies over Iceland, we were to have the perfect view. The tour had taken into account the eclipse and, after we had set off, stopped a short way down the road so we could watch and photograph in awe.

Dusky hues

The sky slowly turned a dusky shade of yellow. While the light did not fade to complete darkness, an eerie twilight fell over the landscape. The bright yellow sun (that I was not looking at) with the mustard sky was set against a backdrop of snowcapped mountains and icy grassy fields. It was truly spectacular. A lady lent me her lens so I could see the eclipse and I have decided that I will buy a pair of eclipse glasses on the off chance I will one day see another (and being prepared prevents piss poor performance, you see). My camera could not pick up any of the changes in the sun; the light spewing forth on both sides of the moon were too great, however my iPhone did manage to cast a strange crescent shape elsewhere in the frame.

Of course I selfied with an eclipse. It was the easiest way to look at it,
and you couldn't look through a camera lense. 

With misty eyes - not from looking at the sun but in wonder -  I boarded the bus, knowing today was going to be an amazing day.

Our first stop was the FriĆ°heimar greenhouse cultivation centre, which felt a bit of a weird inclusion but was actually a lovely way to begin the tour (after the solar eclipse, of course). Still giddy from the experience, I quickly jumped in the queue to grab some kind of tomato based liquid. Tomato soup, or a Bloody Mary? I think we all know which one I chose.

Delicious deliciousness.

Generously splashing tabasco into my breakfast Bloody Mary, I looked around the warm and bright greenhouse. The owner was standing atop an overturned box to explain how it runs; the tomatoes are grown from the fresh and clear Icelandic water, the bees are imported from Norway, and heating was provided from the geothermal heat that Iceland is known for.

After a coughing and spluttering fit thanks to too much tabasco, I was able to enjoy one of the most delicious Bloody Mary's I think I've had. Good morning sunshine! it cried, and gave me a happy glow. I left the greenhouse for a quick visit to the Icelandic “definitely-not-a-pony” horses, where I gave them a pat and took a few selfies. Of course.

Hello pretty pony! I mean, horsie.

I almost went arse up on the run back to the bus. The ground in Iceland was icy as it was still very cold even though Spring was underway, with large white patches dotting the horizon. The clear blue sky beamed down and we set off for our next stop with a happy little drunken glow.

Next, we were off to meet Strokkur, a little show-off of a geyser that shoots a column of water up to 30m into the air every 4-6 minutes at roughly 81-100C. I jumped off the bus and joined Yelda, and together we made our way across the path towards Strokkur. We didn’t have to wait long. The hole in the ground was bubbling..swirling..twirling..steaming before WHOOOOOOOSH! It shot up high into the air, blocking out the sun before the column of water collapsed and the hole, now empty, slowly began to fill with water once more.

Splurt.

At over 80C, one wouldn’t want to stand up-wind of the geyser and the constantly bubbling and steaming water was testament to that. One does kinda wanna stick a finger in just to see….but curiosity did not kill the cat this time.

The landscape, again, was magical. Here, the white capped mountains provided the perfect backdrop to the steaming foreground with barren grass fields and spindly trees. Yelda and I saw Strokkur explode a few times, and then decided we would grab some food. We made the best possible choice - we went with the buffet.

Amazing cake-like bread that had been cooked in the heat of the geysers themselves, countless different types of fresh delicious fish, and incredible Icelandic pastries were scoffed before we had to return to the bus, ready for the next wonder this country could throw at us.

With the blue sky above and the sun pouring down, our next stop was the magnificent Gullfoss, the Golden Falls waterfall which plunges over 32m. Gullfoss, in 1907, was set to be sold to be harnessed for electricity generation. A local Icelandic farmer declined to sell the land, famously saying “I will not sell my friend.”

Gullfoss, my friend.

The beautiful waterfall creates a rainbow; I was sad that I hadn’t seen it but then realised that my camera had picked up the pretty colours the water spray creates. Walking around Gullfoss, I continuously made little squeaking noises. It was so beautiful. The sound of the crashing water was so peaceful. Again, and I will continue to mention it, the landscape was breathtaking. We stayed here a little over an hour and I walked around to view the waterfall from different angles, all equally as beautiful as the last.

So happy to be here! Squeaking!

At this point, the sky started to turn grey. Our tour guide quipped, “We have a saying here in Iceland. If you don’t like the weather, wait 5 minutes!” This erratic weather would continue to follow us for the remainder of the trip. Our final stop on the tour was the geological wonder of the Thingvellir National Park. Why is this cool? Because I literally walked along the edge of a tectonic plate. The American and Eurasian plates are pulling apart from each other by a few centimetres a year (“Iceland, unlike other countries, is growing bigger each year!”) and the rock formations were beautiful.

Yeah, just casually walked along a tectonic plate. No biggie.

By now, we were all tired, and soon after returning to the bus the rains started. We looked at each other. Did this mean that our Northern Lights tour tonight was cancelled? Unfortunately, yes, but we were able to rebook for the following evening. Our ticket allowed us to rebook for up to a year, it turns out. 

Slightly disappointed that we weren’t going to the lights, but content from a fantastic day, we made our way back to the apartments. We went to a local grocery store to buy some strange Icelandic fare (mostly chocolate covered liquorice, it seems…) before crashing out on the couch. After a short break, we decided we would in fact go out and grab a beverage and some food, and so we called a taxi (a harder task than it sounds) and made our way to Micro, a bar in the heart of Reykjavik. Granted, we could have walked there but the rains were still pouring strong and it would have made for a miserable walk.

Here, Yelda, Mary and I sampled the locally brewed beer before we all decided to find some food. Now, the next bit is a bit embarrassing, but it proved to be rather beneficial in the end.

We went to a local restaurant - choices were rather slim pickings - and went about our order, including a very nice bottle of wine. As some of you may know, my belly struggles with some ingredient and so I decided to order my meal sans said ingredients because I didn’t feel like suffering that night. Everyone’s meal was served when I noticed that mine still contained what it should not. I decided to mention it to the waitress, and she took it away apologetically. Everyone continued on with their meal. Everyone soon finished their meal. At this point, the waitress returned and said,

“I’m very sorry, but they’ve made it the same way again. We can offer you the salad bar for free if you like!”
To which Sasha lost her temper, with a “Really? I don’t want your shitty salad bar.” (It was a pretty ordinary salad bar..)
The waitress, flustered, asked if there was anything else they could do instead.
Waving my hand towards the table, I said “The wine. Can we have the wine for free.”

And so I walked out of there without having paid a cent (or a krona), and the whole table got their wine for free. I was  ashamed at losing my temper, but hey, got free wine out of it.

And thus concluded our first full day in Iceland, where we learnt that the coffee is amazing, the service is not, the landscape abounds with beauty and the weather is temperamental. We went to bed, hopeful tomorrow night the sky would dance for us.

xx

One...

...eye-boner...

...after another.