Our Icelandic Saga – pt 3

Itinerary:

Dates: December 26 – January 2

Our Odyssey:

All I can say to begin describing the rest of our trip is “Wow.” And that’s not an homage to the mediocre budget airline we flew to/from Reykjavik.

When I last left off, we were waiting for our tour guide to come back for us after leaving us to go find a mechanic for our broken bus.

Thankfully, he came back for us with news that we were going to be transferred to a different bus, but that we would need to drive about 40 minutes back to the main road to get to where the bus would meet us. It was snowing pretty hard by this point, and knowing we were going to be riding in bad conditions in a bus with questionable reliability and no heat to get to our new bus was a little nerve-racking.

Once we changed buses, even though we were all pretty tired and I’m sure our guide was rattled from the mishap, he ambitiously drove us to Seljalandsfoss, another waterfall that is artificially lit at night. It was nice being there without the crowds, even if it was cold, wet and dark. Plus, being there at night was a unique experience that not most tourists have.

We got to our hotel under Katla Volcano in just enough time to partake in the dinner buffet (at the convenience store we bought a hot dog and a rubber duck for good luck, and we were definitely hungry). The buffet was mediocre, but the variety was good. For dessert I got a bowl of Icelandic skyr, which is a yogurt-like milk curd substance, topped with homemade caramel sauce. It was interesting- a little bitter, but not bad.

Over dinner we chatted with a couple from our group- two women, Virginie from Paris and Kate from Perth. It was nice after the rough day to get to know some folks in our group. Unfortunately, however, (for the family of 4 anyway) it was becoming apparent that our group as a whole was very frustrated with their behavior on the trip so far. So it wasn’t just me and Tim being grumpy.

After dinner we got straight to bed. The weather was too overcast to try to look for northern lights and we were tired anyway.

The next morning we were up at 8 for breakfast and then heading back out on the road. Our first stop was to the viewing point of a lava field we would be driving through- Eldhraun, which formed from one of the greatest eruptions of all time and created this field spanning 565 km2.

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Snow-covered lava rocks

Since we were outside the normal tourist path at this point, there were no crowds, so we had the small path to ourselves to observe the lava rocks. They looked like black and dark red bubbles, with green and orange moss and a light dusting of snow blanketing the landscape.

Back on the road, with the sun beginning to show itself for the first time since we’d arrived in Iceland, the views of the surrounding mountains were increasingly beautiful. Rob told us about an interesting process that takes place when there is a volcano beneath a glacier. Basically, when the volcano erupts and emits hot lava, it immediately cools when it touches the freezing glacial ice, while simultaneously melting it. Over time, this creates lava pockets inside the glacier that fill up with the melted water. Once enough water and pressure builds up, it erupts from the glacier and the momentum can shift the glacier’s position. The term for this in Icelandic is translated to “leaping glacier”.

We drove by a few such volcanos, and countless beautiful glaciers. I’d never seen so many in such a small space, not even in Antarctica. Rob told us that scientists estimate there will be no glaciers remaining on Iceland within 200 years. It made me think of what Glacier National Park in Montana must have looked like long ago. All the glaciers in Glacier National Park will have melted by 2030, scientists expect. To witness something so large and seemingly permanent near the relative end of its life makes me feel both grateful as well as immensely sad.

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A collapsed road as a result of an earthquake/eruption

Interspersed along the way were farms, and we were also able to see some of the famous Icelandic horses. While smaller than horses from other parts of the world, they are fully horses and not ponies. Apparently calling them such is a bit offensive, even though they were bred from ponies in the 9th and 10th centuries and specifically developed over centuries into what they are now.

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On the road

Eventually we reached our destination, Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, famed for the large icebergs that break of the glacier behind it and float in the waters. This is where the ice caving guides would meet us.

We were told we didn’t have time to take pictures here before our ice caving tour but that we would afterwards when we returned. Everyone got into the rugged jeeps that would take us to the caves. Everyone except for the two adult sisters in the chronically late family.

We waited 15 minutes before the guides finally had to go look for them. Even though we had been told explicitly not to, they had gone to the lakeshore to take photos, delaying the rest of the group and robbing everyone of precious daylight. Everyone was so angry, and when the women got on board the jeep after a nearly 30 minute delay, Tim finally said something to them.

He was stern but nice, and asked them to please be on time from here on out since it was really rude and selfish to rob the group of time. We didn’t talk with them much the rest of the trip (though there was an interesting and awkward bus-wide conversation the next day that I’ll get into later), and they were on time at every stop after.

The drive to the ice caves was exciting- we rode over rugged moraine, jostling all over the place up and down steep hills. After about a half hour, we arrived at the foot of a glacier surrounded by several patches of ice that, we later saw for ourselves, held mysterious ice caves.

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Glimpse of the sky from within an ice cave

With helmets on top and crampons on bottom we walked toward our first stop- an arch of ice that was strikingly similar to the arches of Arches National Park in Utah. Our guide explained that this arch used to be an ice cave but had melted and eroded down to only an arch. Even so, the ice was so thick and blue, yet still perfectly transparent.

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The arch of a former ice cave.

Our next stop was to go inside an actual ice cave. It was fairly shallow (maybe 100 meters), but still deep enough to walk in and be fully surrounded by blue ice. Tim and I sat down on the ground with the low ceiling glistening above us and leaned against the icy wall, just taking in the moment of being in such a place.

Our guides then took us to a deeper cave, but we unfortunately couldn’t go in due to flooding. The water level in this particular cave varies greatly day to day. Sometimes it’s dry, sometimes it fills the whole trench, and sometimes, like the day we visited, it’s shallow enough to peek inside but too deep to enter.

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Inside an ice cave

After this last cave we got back on the jeep to bounce our way back to Jokulsarlon. Even though it was dusk by the time we got there, we were able to see well enough. Tim and I took some photos and as we stood there we got to witness something pretty incredible.

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Outside of the flooded cave.

One of the larger icebergs broke into two, cracking apart. As it did so, one piece lifted up while the other drifted forward and then, with a boom the raised piece crashed back onto the water, creating waves that caused all the neighboring icebergs to bobb. It was a beautiful moment to see and hear.

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At Jokulsarlon

After a few more minutes here our guide suggested we go across the Ring Road to the coast, where you can see chunks of ice on the black sand. This is the same ice from the lagoon. As they float down the river leading to the ocean, some pieces of ice break off and get left behind on the shore.

It was dark when we got there, but what little bit of light we had was enough to see their shapes glistening. Rob showed us a neat trick- with just a small light, like a headlamp, placed in the right spot under a piece of ice, you can illuminate the entire thing due to the way the light gets reflected into itself. The effect is like creating a glowing crystal lamp.

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Tim is such a model

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Illuminated ice! 

After this we headed to our hotel not too far away. We had some downtime to rest and wash up before dinner. I was tired, so I laid on the bed by the window to watch for northern lights (the forecast for this evening was favorable) and rest. I ended up napping right until dinner time.

Rather than a buffet thus evening, we had a plated dinner of lobster bisque, lamb carpaccio and a main of lamb shank. After dinner Rob showed us a dark spot behind the hotel where we could watch for northern lights. Gradually, we were able to see a very faint green band hovering on the northern horizon. It was very faint, but still detectable! I tired to capture some pictures, but the best I could get was a small green blur among an otherwise black frame. While I was excited to officially see the northern lights, I had been hoping for something a little bit…more. I was undoubtedly seeing the northern lights, but this faint blur fell short of what most people have in mind when they say they want to see them. Perhaps these are selfish thoughts, but even though I could mentally tick of the check box next to this bucket list item, it didn’t really feel like this one “counted”.

Tim and I headed back inside the hotel to warm up but continued to check outside to see if anything more would come of it.

At the end of our hallway, we heard the chronically late family telling our guide they needed to be back in Reykjavik by 8pm the next night to make a dinner reservation. Ok, hold up- our itinerary said we’d be going on a more formal hunt for northern lights on the last day of the trip before returning to Reykjavik, and the forecast for the night was very promising- a 5 out of 9 on the scale of activity (activity is between 0 and 4 90% of the time) with perfectly clear skies. After running the whole group late all trip and missing the opportunity to see some sights in daylight, they then wanted the whole group to return early on the last day?! Tim and I approached and asked Rob about the plan for viewing the northern lights the next night.

He replied that he thought that portion of the tour was cancelled (!!) due to it being New Year’s Eve. Yet, this is not the information the tour company gave us when we booked. He said he would check with his boss the next day to confirm the plan, but that he would still have to get the family to Reykjavik by 8 (way too early to actually have a good shot at seeing the lights). Obviously this had me feeling a bit anxious and sad- would I really be in Iceland on a night with an amazing aurora forecast, yet be fated to miss it because of a mix of one rude family’s dinner reservation and our tour company’s poor communication?

Not wanting to rely completely on Rob, I also emailed the company, since it didn’t seem like consistent messages were being delivered (everyone else on our tour had been told we’d be doing a northern lights tour the last night, too).

Back in our room, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t in a slightly depressed mood. While we were seeing and doing some cool things, our trip wasn’t shaking out the way I wanted and expected it to (lesson learned there about the power of expectations…). The weather hadn’t been good, we had one tour canceled and one never show up, nearly blew off a cliff into Gullfoss, spent hours at a convenience store waiting on a broke down bus, missed seeing things because of the rude family, and didn’t get to go into the main ice cave because it was flooded. Now, with one day left, my chances of having an opportunity to see the northern lights were diminishing. And in case you haven’t caught on, seeing the aurora was what I wanted most out of this trip and was why we planned it for winter to begin with. And I felt bad for dragging Tim across the Atlantic up to the near arctic in the dead of winter, only to be disappointed.

As I write this, I worry I sound entitled, or spoiled, and maybe there’s a little bit of that at play here. But frankly I felt like a kid whose ice-cream scoop had fallen off the cone.

Of course, Tim, in his ever-positive way, empathized with me, but wasn’t personally bothered at all. He assured me he was perfectly happy with our trip and time together regardless of what happens. He’s sweet like that.

The next day was off to a good start. I’d adjusted my attitude and addressed my feeling of being unable to control the situation by finding something I could control. I looked into options for how we could get ourselves away from the city lights to have a shot at seeing the aurora- rental car, taxi, private guide? It gave me reassurance that if we needed to we could take matters into our own hands.

The first activity on deck for the day was glacier hiking, and I was very excited! We met up with a second guide, Ash, to get sized for crampons and helmets, and we also got ice axes. It all felt very badass.

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Ready to hike! 

We were hiking in Svinafellsjokull, and it was even more gorgeous than I imagined a glacier hike to be. The sun was out, casting beautiful light across the glacier and surrounding mountains. We saw other groups hiking the glacier in the distance, giving me a true sense of the scale of this place. We hiked about 3 miles in total on very easy and safe parts of the glacier, and we had a lot of fun. Tim used his axe to chip off chucks of glacial ice to eat (yum!!), we leapt over small crevices, and learned about the ice. Crunching around in our crampons with the group with the sun shining strong, Tim and I loved our glacial playtime. Of all the activities and sights up to this point, being on this stunning blue glacier was my favorite.

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Hikers on the glacier

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I loved spending the afternoon in this breathtaking place!! 

After our hike Rob have the group an update on plans for that night. He said he would be happy to take the group out later to some dark places outside the city, getting back to Reykjavik around 10pm, but that he also knew the family wanted to be back earlier. The oldest daughter in the family spoke up and said that the company had promised them they could be back in town by 8, while Tim and I pointed out that the company had also promised everyone else a northern lights that evening. She went on a rant about how Tim shouldn’t be bullying her family and that they refused to be held captive on the bus just because Tim and I wanted to see the lights. Now, it’s worth noting that outside of me and Tim and the faculty of 4,there were 12 other guests on the bus. Tim told her that it wasn’t just us, but others in the group too. When asked for a show of hands, everyone on the bus except for that family indicated they wanted to stay out and try to see the aurora. Finally a compromise was reached- we’d go into the city to drop them off (good riddance) and then Rob would take the rest of the group back out, and we’d all be back in Reykjavik in time to celebrate new years. Yay! (Although Tim and I maintain that the tour company should have never put their guests or their employee in this kind of position, we were really happy with this outcome).

Before heading back into town, though, we still had a few more stops to make. Since we missed a few things the first day, Rob was going to take us to them on our way back into town. The first stop was the Black Sand beach near the city of Vik. This place is awesome- the black sand is a result of the surrounding volcanos, and the beach is very large and there are unique rock pillars standing just offshore in the waves. It reminded me of the southern coast of Australia near Melbourne (minus the black sand, of course!). Other really cool aspects of this spot- a wall of basalt columns and several small caves. I would have loved to spend a day exploring all the nooks and crannies!!

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Tim at the black sand beach

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Sunset over the beach

Before we left the beach, the sun began to set and this sunset followed us for over an hour as we continued our drive west. It was truly beautiful (and I’m not typically a sunrise/sunset enthusiast).

We did make one last stop before dropping off the family in the city, to see a last famous waterfall. Unfortunately it was so dark we couldn’t see anything and this waterfall wasn’t illuminated. But part of me wonders if Rob, annoyed by having to do extra driving to accommodate them, was intentionally not in a hurry to get the grumpy family back into the city for their dinner reservation.

From there we headed back into Reykjavik, dropped off the family and then headed back to a darker area to hopefully observe the northern lights.

Our experience could not have been more perfect. We pulled into a parking area off a back road, with only one other small group in the area. As soon as we got there a green hazy steak began to form directly over our heads across the sky from one end of the horizon to the other. Over the course of a few moments the green color intensified, and a stair step pattern emerged.

While Tim had seen the northern lights once previously a few years ago, this was a first for me. After the week we’d had with all the weather and tour issues and being worried we wouldn’t have the opportunity to come out and find the lights this evening, I was exuberant over our good luck. I started crying. Tim hugged me. “I’m so happy for you that you’re getting to see this!”

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Northern lights

Before long a pink hue emerged in the central part of the line and the strands began to dance and intermingle. It was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before and something that my words and even the best photos I’ve seen don’t capture. Even Rob said this was one of the best auroras he’d seen.

Our whole group was so ecstatic and you could feel the joy everyone had to have this dream come true. I was so happy for me and Tim but also all the others in our group who had traveled to Iceland in the dead of winter from places like Australia and China in hopes of getting to see this. I’m actually tearing up again remembering the experience.

Our “show” lasted about a half hour in total before dissipating, though I think based on the number and variety of northern lights photos tagged on Instagram the next morning that it was a very active night overall! As for our group, Rob had already stayed out later than he had been planning to with us and we all agreed that Reykjavik’s famous new year’s celebration was something we wanted to experience. So we headed back into the city.

Tim and I were at our hotel (we redeemed Hilton points for the night to stay at the Hilton Canopy) by 10pm, giving us plenty of time to settle in before midnight. Our hotel was one of the best we’ve ever stayed in. For a chain, the place was overflowing with style and local flare- our room even had a troll on one of the shelves, and a claw foot bathtub. We also had a private balcony which was perfect for watching some of the random fireworks going off.

Tim and I didn’t even bother to shower or dress up- to make the most of our time we ventured out for the festivities in the same clothes we’d hiked in earlier. It was definitely the most “au naturel” I’ve been for a new years night out, but I didn’t care. Reykjavik is very chill and unpretentious, and there’s no shame in looking like you just came back from an epic outdoor adventure.

You could feel the energy of the city as soon as we started our walk. There were people of all ages on the streets, laughing and talking and eating and drinking. Knowing we didn’t have time to go to a sit-down restaurant, and craving one of those famous hotdogs anyway, we got in line at a small convenience store and had a very satisfying hot dog, dorito and soda dinner. We ran into two of our friends from the tour there as well- guess we weren’t the only ones with that idea!

Tim and I finished our meal outside on the sidewalk and headed towards the Hallgrimskirkja, where many folks were gathered to watch the fireworks. Every few blocks or so someone would be setting off fireworks on side streets. Unlike in the states, there is no official fireworks show for celebrations. Instead, everyone who wants to buys and sets off their own.

Even though it was 11:45, we had no issues getting a spot with a fantastic view of the church. Though the area was very crowded, no one was pushing or jostling or fighting. It was the happiest, calmest crowd I’ve ever been in. And from the time we got there until after we left well past midnight, there was a constant stream of beautiful fireworks. It was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

We stayed out at one of the bars for a little bit, meeting some other travelers and having a few drinks. We were asleep hours before the new year arrived to the US.

The next morning we checked out of our hotel, enjoyed the decadent complimentary breakfast, and made our way to the airport for our flight back to Baltimore.

People have asked us how our trip to Iceland was and the words that always come to mind are “wild”, “amazing” and “hard-fought”. Much about our experience was unexpected, and that seems fitting for this strange little island in the North Atlantic.

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