Country 5: Iceland – April 2006

13 April 2006 – Reykjavik & Keflavik Accommodation: University of Iceland residences (Couchsurfing.com)

After leaving Toronto airport at 8am I arrived in London Heathrow airport at what was actually 8am UK time but I was still on Canadian time which was 3am for me, so in waiting for my next flight some 5 hours later I was very tired and tried to catch a nap. Heathrow Terminal 2 wasn’t as inviting as I hoped it would be, and the rain seemed to be following me in most places I visited, but I managed a bit of a nap. I got on my Icelandair flight just before 1pm and I was very excited about finally getting over to Iceland and my first actual European country (not really counting the UK which was just in transit so far). I arrived at Keflavik airport a while after 3pm and had the option of going straight to Reykjavik or stopping on the way at the Blue Lagoon natural hot springs for a little extra money. Well, how could I resist? After arriving and getting changed I eased my way into the beautiful warm springs and stayed in one spot for a few minutes to soak it all in. It was such an exhilarating feeling. I moved around after a while and found that some parts were only warm, some were hot, and some were extremely hot. I didn’t stay in the latter for too long. I stayed in there for about 1½ hours but it was so amazing that it only felt like 20 to 30 minutes. There was even a warm waterfall to duck your head under, so I did for a little while which was fun.

Eventually the bus took me towards the city. Even this bus ride was nice. Either side of the road was this barren flat alpine-like land with no trees other than a few small bushes with hills and snow-capped mountains off in the distance while being close to the coastline. After dropping off every other person at a hotel, I got off at the last hotel stop and caught a taxi to the University of Iceland residences where I would be meeting a person I had met through Couchsurfing.com, a website where people offer a couch or a bed or similar place to sleep for a period of time to backpackers for free! I figured with Iceland being so expensive I’d try it out to save money, and thought it would be great to meet a local.
So first afternoon or night I got to meet the guy I was staying with, Frithjon (he said to call him Fritz), and I just got to know him and get used to my first person from a non-English speaking country and went to bed for the night.

15 April 2006 – Reykjavik, Geysir, Guilfoss
Accommodation: University of Iceland residences (Couchsurfing.com)

So today was the first day I was going on a tour in Iceland, which I booked on the internet before I left Australia. The jeep usually picks up at hotels but I gave the address and they said they’d pick me up at 8:30am. So I got out there a bit earlier and I waited and no-one showed up. About 8:45am I called the booking office to ask what the deal is and they said my tour had been cancelled, but they declined to actually contact me about it. Although at the last minute they were able to fit me onto another tour so that was alright. Luckily the jeep hadn’t left yet and they called the driver to pick me up and he arrived at 9am.
So the tour was the Golden Circle tour with snow scooter activity add-on. This basically included a tour of Iceland’s most famous and spectacular waterfall (Guilfoss), hot springs shooting up about 10 metres into the sky (Geysir), and a ride on skidoos! All up it cost me about 15000 Kroner (about AU$300) which I thought was expensive but fair for Icelandic standards.
The jeep was pretty high off the ground and was more like a minibus as it seated about 12 to 15 people. First off it took us through the outskirts of Reykjavik and we got to know the driver and passengers a little bit, all who could speak great English. Then onto our first stop which was a place called Thingvellir National Park where the driver showed us a fault line where two tectonic plates were actually separating from each other forming a big gap. It was about 10 metres wide, 10 metres high, and at least 100 metres long. It was amazing and unexpected to see that! Then it was off to the big waterfall, Guilfoss. It wasn’t a tall waterfall as such but it was very wide which made it so spectacular and unique. Being April there were still big blocks of ice around the edges in some places and huge icicles were hanging off the top of them. I couldn’t imagine how freezing that water would’ve been but it was giving off a bit of a cool spray in some parts so I had some idea. This is where the paved road stopped and the snow trail began, and why we needed the jeep. We drove onto the snow and it seemed to go on forever. Eventually there was no road, just tire tracks in the snow. It looked like a field of nothingness in all directions. There were hills and peaks full of snow all over the place, absolutely stunning. At one point the jeep stopped to pull someone out of the snow who thought they could make it with a 2-wheel-drive car. Our driver said it wasn’t the first time he’d caught this car here and pulled him out. This wasn’t something we thought we’d see and it was kind of exciting to see our driver attach a rope to the car stuck in the snow and yank it out.
Then after a little more driving we reached the skidoos, or snow scooters as the Icelandic people called them. Being able to control my own snow vehicle at speeds up to 80km/hour was pretty exciting. We spent about an hour bumping across the snow but the time went so fast. Our guide told us to follow his lead otherwise we may have come across a soft part of the ice where we could’ve got stuck or even worse fallen through a gap. We stopped at an ice glacier along the way and I wish I’d taken my camera because the ice appeared in stalactite-like formations from a small ice cliff above. It may have cost me AU$300 for the whole day including this activity but it was definitely worth it as was probably the single most fun activity I did over my whole 4½ months away.
I got back to Fritz’s place in Reykjavik and tried some dried fish snacks that he had. They were pretty much whole pieces of fish shrunk down to a fifth of its original size and tasted surprisingly good, and were full of the same nutrients a whole fish holds. I wanted to take some with me but figured I wouldn’t get them through UK customs. I also tried some ‘appelsin’ juice, which wasn’t actually apple juice but was orange juice. Who would’ve thought a word so close to apple could mean something else? Still, it tasted good.

16 April – Reykjavik
Accommodation: University of Iceland residences (Couchsurfing.com)

Today I had booked another tour with the same company but I misread the booking assuming they would pick me up at 8:30am when in reality they were supposed to pick me up at 8am. They didn’t bother to contact me when they arrived so I missed out for the day. I was disappointed but I had several days in hand, so my day was a bit more relaxing. Fritz gave me access to his university’s internet room and I spent a good 5 hours on there and it was all free! I love universities.

17 April – Reykjavik, Landmannalaugar, Mt Hekla
Accommodation: University of Iceland residences (Couchsurfing.com)

Today was another 12-seater jeep-guided activity, although unlike the previous time I actually got my times right this time and caught the jeep before it headed off into the countryside. First stop was for morning tea at a cafe literally in the middle of nowhere. The only thing I could see for miles and miles was snow and hills. After that we went past a large hydroelectric dam with pristine blue water surrounded by snow, then we ran out of roads. This is where it became really fun because the jeep basically could go wherever it wanted, and that’s exactly what it did! This was a novelty in itself and sitting in the front seat to watch it all was breathtaking. After an hour or so we came closer to a large mountain which we were told was Mt Hekla and was still a reasonably active volcano, although our guide wasn’t alive when it last erupted and he said if it does erupt we’ll see it on the world news.
On we drove passing a group of cross country skiers along the way with pack sleds dragging behind, and we arrived at Landmannalaugar, a mouthful of a placename. It the place we stopped all I could see was a group of five wooden huts, two other 4WD cars, a toilet, and an Icelandic flag on a flagpole. Then I saw the steam. It was coming from out of the ground! It was a hot spring, and we were about to jump into it. Unfortunately there was no hut open for us to get changed in so we all did it outside with the snow around us. It was weird being totally naked while it was 5 degrees Celsius outside, although jumping into warm water of around 30 to 40 degrees definitely made up for it. Our group and another jeep tour doing the same route had a lovely swim in there. I never wanted to leave. It was better than the Blue Lagoon I’d been in three days ago and the water was much clearer. There was even a Labrador having a swim in there, and I’m buggered if I know where it came from. Eventually we got out, and even though I was uncovered apart from my board shorts I didn’t feel the cold at all while getting changed.
So on we went across the snow after achieving our ultimate goal for our day. We finished up stopping at a small waterfall falling into a small lake, a steep volcanic crater that was covered by snow apart from part of the side of the crater, and then we headed back to Reykjavik with another successful day of entertainment over.
In the night I went into town with Fritz and we had a nice Chinese meal and went to a pub for a nice Icelandic beer or two. The local beer, Viking, was actually pretty smooth, although at around AU$10 a pint I didn’t have too many. I had a good chat though.

18 April – Reykjavik
Accommodation: Reykjavik inner city house (Couchsurfing.com)

This morning I moved my stuff out to another Couchsurfing member’s house which was closer to the city this time but a lot of places in Reykjavik are within walking distance to the city centre so it wasn’t much of a stretch. That’s what you get in a city of around 120,000 that is tightly packed in. This one was an actual house or unit. Well, it was basically four or five rooms facing out onto the street but it had everything a person needed. The owner was banker in her mid-20’s named Nanna (pronounced Non-na, not how I thought it would be pronounced). She was home with a cold so we had a good chat, then I set out to explore the town. I suppose I could say city centre but it really wasn’t that big. There wasn’t much to see, but the town did have a rather long street full of clothes shops and the occasional music shop, supermarket, newsagent, café, and a few other things. I also wandered past the pubs and restaurants and nightclubs. In such a low populated place there was a surprising amount of things to do, but you get that with a strong economy.
I had a look at the visitors centre for some activities to do. A day flight to Greenland looked like an opportunity I couldn’t miss but at AU$300 I was hoping to do another AU$300 trip instead which I booked on the day at another tourist office and I decided I was spending too much money already. In hindsight I probably should’ve done it and thought about the money when I got back to Australia, but I can always go back in the future.
I spent the night becoming familiar with Icelandic TV. I think I may have even found a program or two in English, although they were pretty rare. However most Icelandic people under 40 can speak both languages fluently anyway.

19 April – Reykjavik, Thorsmork, waterfalls
Accommodation: Reykjavik inner city house (Couchsurfing.com)

Another activity day today, although this time I went for a company that uses smaller 4-seater jeeps rather than a more impersonal 12-seater type. This was very much a scenic trip more than an active one, but I didn’t mind this too much as I wouldn’t have been able to get out there otherwise unless I hired my own car and knew where I was going.
First stop was just outside Reykjavik where we saw these tall and wide and round concrete containers that were spewing large amounts of white sulfuric steam into the atmosphere. Our guide told us that a tunnel reaching over 3000 metres down into the earth was tapping a geothermic energy and water source which gave free and unlimited electricity and water to the whole of Reykjavik and surrounding towns. This meant free utilities to Iceland residents and no harsh waste products, adding to the remarkably eco-friendly sustainability of this lovely island.
Further along we drove to a small service stop for lunch supplies and morning tea. The 50-year-old-or-so lady at the small supermarket couldn’t understand English and I couldn’t read the Icelandic on the packet of meat I picked up so I took it with me assuming it was ham, which I found out later that it was. This was thankfully the first and last time I came across a language barrier in Iceland though. We drove past the Westmann Islands off in the distance where a few hundred people live and had to be evacuated from only some 30 years ago when a volcanic eruption threatened to engulf the island settlements, proving that Iceland is still a very active volcanic place to be wary of. Then turning off onto a dirt road full of potholes (probably why we needed the 4WD jeep) we came across a place called Thorsmork (Icelandic for “the Woods or Thor”) which was a small lake surrounded by hills and a glacier and a small creek and was absolutely beautiful. I climbed across some rocks on the little creek and had some great photos taken. Then we drove back to the main road through a light snowstorm which looked pretty spectacular in itself. We reached the top of a hill and got out of the jeep where the snowfall had turned into a minor blizzard backed by strong icy wind. We saw a lighthouse and looked down onto the beach at a large rock cliff where erosion of the bottom of the rocks had left two large separate arches. I was fighting against the blizzard to get a photo but I eventually gave in and we piled back into the jeep. We drove down onto the beach which was covered in black volcanic sand. It was so strange to see sand of this colour. Then we briefly moved back inland to a large waterfall which was remarkably surrounded by hard packed ice on both sides and dirt around the base. There was a small track that went behind the waterfall which I just had to follow, but climbing across the ice to get to it was difficult as well as a fun challenge. The view from the back of the waterfall was impressive. After that we moved onto a different waterfall which was larger and surrounded by dirt and grass rather than ice. There was a flight of around 200 manmade steps to get to the top of the waterfall so I took the challenge, and had to stop and rest a few times. I reached the top and climbed down a small dirt area as close to the waterfall as I could get. This was pretty exciting and a bit of an adrenalin rush to get so close where once false step could mean being swept down into the rapids and over the cliff. When I climbed back up I was stretching my legs so much that I actually heard my pants rip along the way leaving my crotch exposed to the cold. Luckily it was our last stop on the tour and after that we made the trip back to Reykjavik, so I wasn’t exposed for too long.
Coming closer into the city we experienced a huge snowstorm where you could barely see the car in front of you and as a result the traffic was very close to each other to deal with the low visibility and to prevent any accidents. Just another daily Icelandic occurance which was exciting to a traveller such as myself.
I arrived back at Nanna’s place for some dinner and watching TV pictures without understanding the language being spoken, and she had some friends arrive over. They mostly spoke in Icelandic which is fair enough, but one of them spoke to me in English for a while and mentioned she had been to Australia before, so that was a good topic of conversation there. Apparently Icelandic people are big travellers because their country is so small and they can become bored easily and need to get out to experience more of the world to stop going crazy, although I’ve never come across any Icelandic people outside Iceland. I hope someday I will.

20 April – Reykjavik
Accommodation: Reykjavik inner city house (Couchsurfing.com)

On this day I walked back into town. I was on a mission to buy a pair of pants to replace the ones I destroyed climbing the side of a waterfall the day before, as apart from those I only had one other pair of warm long pants. Luckily on my previous trip into town I had spotted a second-hand clothes shop, so I went back there and scored a pair of used Wrangler jeans for only 1500 ISK (about AU$30). They fit me perfectly too. Awesome!
I spent the rest of my day walking around as much of Reykjavik as I could take in seeing as though it was my last day here. I walked up to a large tall cathedral which was probably the most distinguishable landmark in Reykjavik, saw a very nice cemetery with graves surrounded by trees and small bushes, then the highlight of my day which was visiting the National Museum of Iceland, and it was free! I may have caught the free admission because it was some sort of national holiday though, the First Day Of Summer (which was unusual as it was still spring and very cold but it was apparently a tradition from 1000 years ago so I didn’t question it). It was full of the history of Iceland over the past 1000 years and it was really interesting and exciting to find out about the history of a country from so many years ago. I saw old tools and houses and lots of uncovered artefacts from different time periods, even leading up to items from each decade of the 20th Century which were still pretty fascinating.
I finished the day surveying the nightlife, and ended up at an Irish pub. Wherever you go in the world there always seems to be one, even if it isn’t manned by Irish staff. I figured seeing I had no agenda tomorrow and a late start that I could drink as much as I wanted, so I did, without thinking of the expense. After a few pints I don’t remember much but I woke up the next day in my adopted bed with just a few Icelandic coins left. I vaguely remember talking to some people in the pub but I don’t remember what I was talking about if I had a conversation at all. Oh well.

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