Land of damp and rain

Published December 6, 2013 by Sean

First published on http:houlihane.co.uk/blog, my trip to Iceland. Described by The Adventure Company as Land of Snow and Ice.

Day 0: Arrival

From Iceland, day 0 (Reykjavik)

I opted to book my own flights so that I’d be able to fly from Luton, and also to extend my trip by a day (so more chances to see the elusive Northern Lights and maybe catch up on any sites I’d missed). This meant quite an early start, but I was in Reykjavik and booked into my hotel by noon. It seemed that I was staying at a different hotel compared with the rest of the tour, but since it was an upmarket hotel, I wasn’t too bothered. Time to walk into town to find the main hotel, and luckily I took my camera since this was to be the only day of the week where there were clear skies over Reykjavik.

Once I reached the hotel shown on my joining instructions, it turned out that they (a) knew nothing of the tour I was looking for, and (b) did not feel they needed to pretend to be interested in my problem. Luckily, I found a tourist information centre which was open on a Sunday afternoon and they managed to contact the local tour operator and after a few calls back and forth, we located the guide who was preparing to drive to the airport and pick up the rest of the group. Luckily he was able to pick me up en-route. If the joining instructions had said ‘meet at the airport for a tour of the area before going to your hotel’, I’d have been able to save on the coach trip from the airport (although there isn’t a lot to do waiting at the airport for 4 hours). Further to this, It took me another 3 days to confirm that my extra day at the end of the trip really was in the same hotel as the rest of the trip (and the rest of the group).

Day 1: Reykjanes Peninsula & the Blue Lagoon

From Iceland, Day 1 (Reykjanes Peninsula)

This was an easy day, starting with a trip to the church which is the focal point of Reykjavik just before dawn (i.e. 9:30 am), followed by a drive over the centre of the peninsular in fairly unpleasant weather. Still, even at the highest point of the ridge there was only rain and only a little snow on the ground. We stopped at two sites with hot springs and mud pools where although it was still dark enough to make a tripod near enough essential for photography, at least the local air temperature was comfortably warm. This was also our first encounter with the rift between the two tectonic plates making up the American and European parts of Iceland, and we were introduced to some of the traditional stories about the thermal vents and their ghosts.

From Iceland, Day 1 (Reykjanes Peninsula)

Just as we were starting to feel like the rain was starting to soak through, we reached the Blue Lagoon, which is certainly not to be missed. We spent maybe 1.5 hours in the pool, searching out the hottest spots which would have maybe been even better if it had been snowing gently rather than raining. Still, this is an ideal place to visit in the winter when the weather is not too good.

Day 2: Golden Circle Tour

From Iceland day 2 (Golden circle tour)

An 8:30 start (after a late night out in town), but today we were crammed into a super-jeep with 46″ tyres ready for a glacier visit. Today we headed north (location info to be added to the photo album), and took a trip back to some of the earlier history of the settlement of Iceland. By the time we reached the first site, it was still dark but just possible to take photos. Judging from the ice on the river, the weather had warmed a little and the ice was starting to melt. However, the conditions on the glacier (driving rain/snow) ruled out that part of the trip so we had to make do with waterfalls and geysers.

From Iceland day 2 (Golden circle tour)

Since we had saved some time by missing the glacier and snowmobiling, we added in a church visit, and a tour of one of the geothermal power stations supplying electricity and hot water to Reykjavik. This way was so wet that my SLR (Nikon D80) started to play up – clearly the damp had got into the workings, and my talking boots were soaked through.

 Day 3: Reykjavik Segway tour

This was to have been our day for Whale Watching, but the sailing was cancelled due to bad weather. So, a walk round town, and a quick visit to the Settlement exhibition (an early building unearthed dating back to 871) and the aurora centre to experiment with camera settings (not worthwhile if you have an SLR, but maybe useful to play with compact camera settings).  Since there didn’t seem to be a lot else to do, I joined the rest of the group in a the city tour by Segway. This turned out to be quite a good idea, even though segways are clearly the work of the devil… We toured a good extent of the city, taking in the sun voyager, the sculpture park (que another saga) and the old hot springs in the city. All in, the tour took over 3 hours, so ended up being reasonably good value (and quite fun).

From Iceland day 3 (Reykjavik)

The slightly less event filled day was offset by going to a local milonga in the evening to catch up on the local tango scene.

Day 4: Whale watching and Northern Lights

From Iceland day 4 (Whale Watching, northern lights)

A morning of wandering around town (sadly the national museum opens quite late in the winter, so we skipped that), then back to the hotel to meet the whale watching company’s transfer back down to the docks (maybe that could have been better planned…). Although we’d already dressed up warm, we were fitted out with arctic grade waterproofs, and headed out to the top deck to get the best views. We’d been warned that the sea conditions were rough, and offered free sea sickness tablets. I didn’t think it was too rough, but it seems about half of the passengers were ill… 3 hours later, all we saw was a glimpse of a seal. Looking at the diary, about half of the recent trips have seen whales of some sort, but there were also lots of cancellations due to bad weather. We do get a free trip valid for the next 2 years, but I can’t help feel that we’d have done more for the whales by avoiding the whalemeat in the restaurants since tourism seems to be a significant driver of this industry (not native customs). After a meal at the hotel, we set out again at 9pm to try and see the northern lights (even though the cloud and solar activity forecasts were not looking promising)

Although we found a couple of clear patches of sky, we were still quite close to the town, and the best I got was photos of cloud lit by street lights. Nice, but not meeting the primary aim of the trip just as solar activity is starting to tail off for the next several years.

From Iceland day 4 (Whale Watching, northern lights)

 Day 5: South Shore

From Iceland day 5 (South shore)

All in, this was the best day of the official tour. We headed out by a more direct route across the peninsular (on the one road round the whole island), and some great views of sunrise as we headed out along the coast. Still it was almost noon by the time we reached the foot of  Eyjafjallajokull volcano. The south shore is quite dramatic with a flat coastline butting up against cliffs as a result of isostatic rebound since the polar ice-cap retreated following the last ice-age. However, this was all a sequence of short stops at sea level – nothing too adventurous. Luckily our guide managed to switch the glacier walk for a snowmobile trip up the glacier, making up for the cancellation earlier in the week. This was definitely worthwhile (thanks to Arcanium Glacier Tours) and involved a 4×4 ride up the mountain where we transferred to snowmobiles. Getting the hang of staying upright in deep powder took a while, and we probably got up to maybe 40kph – limited in part by the visibility. Several times we needed to stop as the group of about 10 pairs of riders needed help righting their machines.

From Iceland day 5 (South shore)

At the top, in near zero visibility, we were treated to a short geography lesson, including snow art of the mountains we were above.

Back down, and rapidly running out of daylight, we headed to the black sand beach – cold, dark and very dramatic. Final stop on the way back was one of the two big waterfalls on this route to practice low-light photography a little more:

From Iceland day 5 (South shore)

Just as we thought we were done for the day, we stopped off at the Sun Voyager as we were taken into town for a meal. The peace tower light is visible in the background.

From Iceland day 5 (South shore)

 Day 6: (Volcano house, self-guided northern lights)

From Iceland day 6 (Volcano house, Northern lights)

This was the free day at the end of the tour, and looked like it would be a day for ticking off the remaining museums which we’d not seen yet. The volcano house has a nice (free) display of rocks and minerals from eruptions (mostly hands-on) and a 45 minute film sequence covering two of the more recent and more disruptive eruptions. It also has a cafe with free wifi (like most of the cafes) and this was enough to check that there was probably a gap in the clouds over Vic (the end point of our south shore tour), enough (6, small) sunspots to offer a moderate amount of solar activity, and 4×4 hire for £20/person/day given a group of 5…

From Iceland day 6 (Volcano house, Northern lights)

Given that we had a couple of hours of daylight left, with some suggestions from the car-rental, we set off on the same road as we’d taken on day 1 – only this time it was not raining and we had time to stop at both the lake, and Seltun hot springs. Some time later, we ended up in Vic. This had been our goal for about as far from home as we wanted to venture, given the unpredictable weather and driving conditions. Following an excellent restaurant find (Halldorskaffi) we set out to find somewhere dark with a good skyline. It seemed that we were being followed by a band of light coloured cloud, which eventually I thought I’d check out by taking a quick hand-held long exposure… Bingo!

From Iceland day 6 (Volcano house, Northern lights)

There followed several more stops, and experiments with swapping cameras and bodies (for those of us lucky enough to have SLRs in working and not so working conditions)

From Iceland day 6 (Volcano house, Northern lights)

Including the group photo taken by the light of the sky and a flashing road sign in the distance

From Iceland day 6 (Volcano house, Northern lights)

Cold, tired, but having achieved our goal for the week, we turned back to Reykjavik, and got to bed at 4am having clocked up 520km and used a full tank of petrol.

Day 7 – Extra day (Lava Tubing)

From Iceland day 7 (lava tube caving)

This was my extra day on top of the basic 6 day trip, which had been insurance against the northern lights not making an appearance. After returning the rented car, I was picked up for a lava tube caving trip. Without any doubt, this was the wettest day of the week, even though underground might be assumed to be a fairly dry place. No, we were basically a metre or two below the surface of the lava flow, and presumably in a gap originally formed by escaping steam as the lava flowed over a damp or peaty ground. Still, it was interesting seeing the different forms of lava and the few formations caused by dripping water and it took up enough of the day. This was kind of an adventurous trip, needing a guide (the cave is just a hole in the lava field), with a short low crawl, and some fairly sharp rock chewing at gloves and clothes.

Tips for future visits:

With a total of 3 free days, and excluding gifts, I managed to spend around £400 on meals, drinks, museums, excursions etc. making this trip very expensive overall. Whilst food didn’t seem over-priced, lots of little things did add-up. However, spending on a credit card seems to have turned out cheapest and does seem to be the norm. Only one tour asked for payment in cash. Hiring a car to visit the sites seems to be good value if you can find a group of people to split the costs. It needs a little more planning, and you might miss out on some of the local information though. Essential kit should include: dry set of warm clothes for the evenings, waterproof socks or spare pair of boots, tripod, fast, wide camera lens, rain/shower hood for camera. Take a diving cert card since there are snorkelling and scuba trips on offer. Weather seems kind of similar to UK weather.

Two big points of feedback to The Adventure Company.

1) Joining instructions, and knowing which hotel I was booked at were appalling. I value the ability to be able to extend a trip but only if I can trust the arrangements to be made competently.

2) The guide was not expecting a group of people who did not know each other, and the level of activity was ‘mostly coach tour’, it does not seem that much effort had gone into customising the tour over and above selecting some standard day trip activities. This is not to say that the guide was not competent and did his best to adapt the individual days the the weather conditions, but the week did not feel all that adventurous – particularly excluding the two days when we made our own plans.

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