Saturday, February 25, 2012

On to Vik - Iceland trip, Day 3

(This is part of a series of posts about our 2011 trip to Iceland. Here are the first, second, and third posts.)

Boulder Field

Boulder Field - Pakgil

Day 3

I'm not much for sleeping in, especially on vacation. I'm usually up before dawn, watching the sun rise.i So, when I fumbled my way out of the tent at 7 AM, and the sun was already well above the horizon, it took me a minute to remember we were near the domain of the Arctic's endless days. Sunrises would be a bit of a challenge this trip. While the others slept in from the previous day’s long slog, I took a quick morning walk down by the river that ran past our campgroundii. When everyone roused themselves, we made a quick stop at the small grocery for some breakfast makings, and had a simple breakfast at the campground (which included our first iconic Icelandic food experience, skyriii.)

Unidentified plant (Angelica?)Great Black-backed GullMeadow PipitSkyr, -ella, -ella...

Angelica sp., Great Black-backed Gull, Meadow Pipit, Skyr!(photo by Flickr userTristanF), Leaving Hella (-ella, ella)

From Hella we continued our drive along the remarkable southern coast. The scenery was unrelentingly amazing, with the lushly green fields of the coast rising abruptly into towering cliffs of the highlands that dwarfed everything in sight. The ubiquitous little white farmhouses were tiny specks in a sprawling landscape, lost in a backdrop of uber-green cliffs and cascading waterfalls. For somewhere that is so dominated by rock and ice, the coastal strip does its very best to be reminiscent of New Zealand or Ireland in its overpowering greenness.

Massive Coastal Formation

Coastal formation

Our first stop on the way to Vik was the waterfalls of Seljalandsfoss. This was a typical tourist stop/take pictures/get back on bus locationiv, but as such go, it was pretty impressive. The cliffs spanned the near horizon and waterfalls gushed over them in multiple locations, with Icelandic ravens circling and calling over a summer landscape of flowers and vegetation in vibrant bloomv.

Waterfall cliffside? waterfall area (B&W)? waterfall area (B&W)Waterfall with wildflowersKate and Nina at (?)Waterfall with Tourists (B&W)Waterfall landscape at (?) (B&W)

Seljalandfoss cliffscape, Waterfall, Waterfall landscape, Waterfalls with wildflower, Kate and Nina, Waterfall with Tourists, Seljalandfoss landscape.

Since it was nearing lunch time, we stopped at a grassy field on the far end of the site, and had a makeshift lunch. While there I had a chance to explore a “hidden waterfall” on foot, despite the bone-chilling water one had to ford to get into its recessesvi. It took me a few tries, but when I got inside the fold in the cliff that housed the waterfall, the sun lit up the walls around me from above, and it was a near-spiritual sort of setting. It really did feel like a natural cathedral, and my private moments there are one of my favorite experiences from the tripvii.

Hidden WaterfallHidden WaterfallHidden Waterfall (B&W)

Sacred Place

Hidden Waterfall entrance, Hidden waterfall, Hidden Waterfall (B&W), Sacred Place

Vik and points eastward awaited, so we reluctantly extracted ourselves from the pastoral reverie, and continued down the Ring Road. We stopped at several locations to take in the amazing scenery of the lush coastal stripviii, and had our first close-encounter with the famed Icelandic horsesix.

IMGP7064Immensity of the LandIcelandic Horse with landscape (B&W)Icelandic Horses with landscape

Icelandic Coastal Landscape

Coastal landscape, Immensity of the land, Icelandic horse with landscape, Icelandic horses with Landscape, Coastal landscape

The coastal town of Vik is as close to picturesque as towns got in Icelandx, nestled between the highlands and black sand beaches on the rugged coast, with a bright white church towering above the town on the cliffs.

Church and Cliffs, Vik

Church and cliffs - Vik

We’d see more of Vik later, but our lodging for the night was an isolated campground in the highlands, so we started our ascent into the mountainsxi. The drive was long, but the scenery was outstanding. When we got into the plateau of the highlands, the nearby ice cap of Myrdallsjokull filled the western horizon. Its massive outwash channels carved filled the rolling landscape, coursing down to indescribably large coastal plains. At a crest, we stopped in a high meadow, and engaged in a bit of sillinessxii before continuing on along a glacial river to our campsite.

Icelandic Sheep and Ice Cap

Traditional Structure (B&W)Me with Glacial LandscapeGlacier Jump! (B&W)Forrester and Ice Cap (B&W)Glacial landscapeGlacial outwash

Icelandic sheep and Myrdallsjokull, Traditional structure, Me with glacial landscape, Glacier jump!, Our Forrester and the ice cap, Glacial landscape, Glacial outwash

The Pakgil campsite was deep in the mountains at the base of the Myrdallsjokull ice cap, nestled in a bowl of cliffs. It was another long day and we were excited to get out and hike before the light faded, so we opted for one of the surprisingly well-appointed little cabinsxiii and made a quick dinner.

Pakgil camping groundsRoad to PakgilPakgil cabinsHillside waterfallCabin 2 at Pakgil

Pakgil camping grounds, Pakgil sign, Pakgil cabins, Hillside waterfall, Making dinner at Cabin 2

Our evening hike was a short but rewarding jaunt along one of the outwash channels toward the ice cap. The light was fantastic, and lit up the river valley with evening colors. We would have liked to go further, but the light was going quick, so we turned around after reaching a crazy field of massive boulders.

Glacial Valley hike landscape

Sunset river flowGlacial Valley Hike

Glacial valley hike landscape, Sunset river flow, Boulder and valley

Before we turned in, we headed for the camp cavexiv for a little dessert and Brennivin nightcap. I think I was the only one who enjoyedxv the Brennivin. Another long day behind us, we nestled into our bunk beds, with the sound of the nearby waterfall behind us as we fell to sleep.

To Be Continued....


i Or, as likely, hiking in to get that perfect morning light on something we saw the day before.

ii While Seth is usually my enabler when it comes to early morning photography, none of them is really into beating the bush for wildlife, so it was nice to have a little time by myself to check out the local flora and fauna I managed to turn up a few bird species, but not much else. I haven’t mentioned new species thus far in the posts because, well, it’s interminably boring to most people. But for those counting, the new species for this trip thus far are: Common Eider (Keflavik coast), Meadow Pipit (Hella), White Wagtail (Geysir). I ended up with 27 new species, sadly only one of them was non-avian. I guess I’ll add new species as endnotes as we progress.

iii Which was pretty tasty, with some muesli mixed in. Or, was pretty tasty the first couple times. It got pretty old pretty quick.

iv At which we saw some of the same tourists we’d seen on the plane/at other locations.

v New species noted – Northern Fulmar.

vi It took me several tries to make it all the way. A German family was frolicking in the small stream that exited the cleft in the cliffs, behind which the waterfall lay. I can only imagine what they must have though of me, fully decked out in rain gear, with massive camer equipment underneath, going in and out and in and out of the waterfall entrance.

vii Needless to say, between the icy cold, waist-deep wading, and photograph-deterring spray, I was alone in this endeavor. Sadly the pictures didn’t come out well, even with me frantically wiping spray form the lens and all the effort it took to portage the camera into the enclave, holding it above the water as I maneuvered over slippery rocks with feet that had long since lost any feeling in the icy water. The mental images are still more than worth it, though. Which is fine by me, I like having some private accomplishments on trips like this…some moments that are just mine.

viii It was amazing to see large sprawling farmhouses and outbuildings get completely lost in the background, and to realize that the vast majority of the population lived in this mile or so deep strip of green between the highlands and the glacial outwashes of the coast. A lot of the outbuildings (probably root cellars/etc) and even some of the houses were building directly into the turf or rock.

ix Horses are pretty serious business in Iceland. They outnumber the people there by a fairly large ratio, and are fairly strictly controlled. Non-Icelandic horses can’t be imported, and Icelandic stock is carefully maintained. The horses are in high demand in many parts of the world, so horses make up an appreciable part of their domestic output.

x While the scenery was astounding, the towns/buildings tended to be much more utilitarian, even in heavily touristed spots, to the point of being almost unattractive in a lot of places. It was apparent that this was an economy still in recovery, even accounting for the warped sense of expectations of the American eye.

xi New species noted - Whooper Swans.

xii I think it started with something like “take my picture while I’m jumping up, so it looks like I’m floating over the coastal plain” and devolved into a lot of jumping. A lot. Vacations: serious business.

xiii Surprising in that they had mini-kitchens, nice new furniture, etc. even though the site is probably one of the more remote locations I’ve ever driven in to.

xiv One of the draws for this site was the “dining hall in a cave!” part of their advertisement. Unfortunately, the cave turned out to be a somewhat small affair, and, as caves are wont to be, somewhat damp.

xv And I’m using “enjoy” in a very, very general sense.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Finishing the Golden Circle - Day 2 (part 2)

(This is part of a series of posts about our 2011 trip to Iceland. The first is here, and the second is here.)

Strokkur landscape

Geothermal landscape near Geysir

Day 2 (continued)

Compared to the epic[i] scenery of Thingvellir, in all its raw and ragged glory, our next stop on the Golden Circle felt a little more subdued. Geysir is a massive, well, geyser. Or, more correctly, Geysir is THE geyser…the source of the English word, and the general European concept of geysers stems from this great grandfather of all geysers. It’s located northeast of Thingvellir in an active geothermal area[ii] and the site contains several other smaller geysers and mineral pools/fields of hot water springs. On our way there we got our first good shot of Icelandic sheep, and saw the hulking mass of the volcano Hekla[iii] in the far distance.

Icelandic Sheep Icelandic Farmhouse (B&W)

Hekla landscape

Icelandic sheep, Icelandic farmhouse, Brooding Hekla

As we were driving up the valley to Geysir, we saw a massive head of steam coming from the distance. I assume this was Geysir erupting. Unfortunately, this means we didn’t get to see it erupt ourselves, due to the infrequency of its eruptions[iv]. When we arrived and made our way through the tourist throngs, Geysir was just a steaming, sulpherous pool of water[v].

Geysir. Sort of.Geysir landscape (B&W)


This is where Geysir should be, Geysir landscape, Geysir’s pool

However, the nearby Strokkur geyser was a frequent erupter, so we still got a good show[vi] (and an unending source of innuendo[vii]). While the fading light was a concern for our itinerary, it made for some fantastic photographic opportunities. There was even a wedding party braving the scalding water to take pictures while we were there.

Strokkur LandscapeStrokkur landscapeStrokkur eruptionStrokkur ExplosionLast light on Geothermal PoolsEpic wedding photos

Azure colored Pool

Strokkur landscape, Strokkur erupting, Strokkur erupting again, Strokkur exploding, Last light on geothermal pools, Epic wedding photos, Azure geothermal pool,

The third and final stop of the Golden Circle is the massive Gullfoss waterfall. As with much of what we’d see in Iceland, its scale is hard to hold a mental picture of. On the drive to the waterfall, we had our first good view of one of the many ice caps of the highlands in the distance[viii]. Even with the ridiculously long day near the Arctic Circle, we were racing against the light, and by the time we got to Gullfoss, its valley had already passed into shadow. We still got a brief time at its rim to contemplate its immensity[ix]. The sheer ferocity of its spray in the wind negated most of our attempts at photography.

Ice Cap Dominating the Landscape

Gullfoss WaterfallGullfoss waterfall (B&W)

Langjokull ice cap dominates the landscape, Gullfoss Waterfall, Gullfoss detail

After a brief stop at the tourist cafĂ© for “traditional Icelandic soup”[x] , we set out for Hella, our camping destination for the night[xi]. The light on the drive to Hella[xii] was crazy…even late into the night, light suffused through a dense and low cloud cover/fog mixture, providing a surreal landscape of shifting colors. The campground in Hella[xiii] was pretty nice, though no one was there when we pulled in to pay. Given the hour, we just found a nice grassy spot down by the river, and settled in to try to get some sleep in the wee hours of the morning[xiv].

Sunset (HDR-ish)

Epic light

Sunset (finally), Suffused twilight

To be continued…


[i] I will try not to use “epic” too much during these Iceland posts. But in terms of the Viking culture and awe-inpsiring landscape, “epic” is probably more fitting in this context than most others I can think of.

[ii] Well, all of Iceland is an active geothermal area. This area is just ESPECIALLY active.

[iii] Hekla is one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes and had been threatening to erupt before and during the time we were there.

[iv] Apparently the frequency changes based on earthquake activity, and currently only happens a few times a day. When it was younger, it could erupt more often. Let the jokes commence.

[v] In all fairness, as steaming sulphurous pools of water go, it was fairly impressive.

[vi] Public blog..must resist…crude humor…

[vii] Four thirtysomethings of mostly intellectual leanings spent the better part of 30 minutes watching Strokkur, and making immature jokes fairly non-stop. I was proud of us. Our Lonely Planet guidebook was hip to the joke too, with a tongue in cheek description of Strokkur “building and building to a climax and then erupting…”, etc.

[viii] The massive ice caps don’t just fill the horizon…they ARE the horizon. Literally the only way to photograph them is in extreme wide angle/panorama style.

[ix] It was one of those situations in which perspective plays tricks with your sense of scale. I was not as impressed until I looked at what I thought was a small, person-sized outcrop of rock near the base of the falls, and realized that that the very small specks on that outcrop were people. I was literally knocked back on my heels by the abrupt adjustment of perspective. This was a frequent problem for me in Iceland, especially when trying to gauge distances for photographic settings. Everything was on such a massive scale, that no one element seemed as large as it actually was until you had something familiar (like other people) to judge it against. An immense waterfall in an even more immense landscape is hard for my brain to accurately combobulate.

[x] This was commonly advertised fare in Iceland…it usually consisted of watery vegetable soup with a few forlorn pieces of lamb in it…for about $20 a person. This is one of the few times that Lonely Planet has lead us astray, since they recommended it.

[xi] To give a sense of the small population, and tourist heavy focus of the economy: We had met/been subjected to a gaggle of asian-american teenage girls at JFK airport who were on our same flight. We saw them multiple times throughout the trip. Usually, we heard them far in advance.

[xii] At the time, the silly Rhianna “Umbrella” song was popular, so every time we said Hella, passed a sign for Hella, etc., my brain immediately supplied an “ella…ella” afterwards.

[xiii] Ella…ella…..see? I told you.

[xiv] Between the cold of that night (it stayed quite warm the rest of the trip, but my ultralight sleeping back wasn’t made for the chill) and some nearby teenager doing his best death metal growl impression in a nearby field, sleep didn’t come incredibly easy.