Tuesday, February 21, 2012

We Come (to) the Land of the Ice and Snow – 2011 Iceland Trip, Day 2 (part 1)

(With apologies to Led Zeppelin. This post is the second in a series, which started here)

Rent Earth (B&W)

Rent Earth – Rift Valley at Thingvellir National Park

Day 2

After the long transatlantic flight we finally caught our first glimpse of Iceland coming in on approach to the airport[i]. A long slog through customs (and a quick stop at Duty Free for a litre of the famed Icelandic schnapps, Brennivin[ii]) later and we met up with our friends Seth and Nina. Despite jet lag, we immediately hit the road for a full day of sightseeing.

If the scenery flying into Keflavik airport wasn’t the most impressive, it certainly improved drastically in a hurry. We drove through massive fields of lava-formed landscapes, among unexplained monolith statues. It was an utterly alien landscape; seemingly an endless elemental competition between rock, fire, wind, and sea[iii].

Landscape with ChurchAirport Sculpture (B&W)Landscape with Statues (B&W)Icelandic landscape

Landscape with Church near Keflavik, Weird Airport Sculpture, Unexplained monolith statue, Coastal flatlands

We stopped briefly in Reykjavik, and got a glimpse of a transect of the city on our way through[iv]. I tried in vain to find some boots to replace the ones I’d forgotten, but at a $300-$400 entry point for mediocre boots, it just wasn’t worth it[v]. While we were waiting for our friends to take care of some arrangements, I wandered down a hill into the midst of the largest, most fabulous in all possible senses of the word, gay pride parade I’d ever seen[vi].

Oddly worded sign Inexplicable Graffiti

Reykjavik Gay Pride Parade Gay Pride ParadeReykjavik Gay Pride Parade

Oddly worded advertisement, Weird but awesome graffiti, Gay pride parade float, Gay pride parade crowd, Gay pride parade vista

Burning daylight at this point, having gotten in late and with the running around Reykjavik, we hurried out to get in some touristing. The first items mentioned in practically any guide to Iceland are the attractions of its “Golden Circle”[vii]. They may be lumped together, but I think it’s solely for geographic proximity, because each component of this sightseeing tour is awe-inspiring in its own right. As we drove out of the Reykjavik area, we got our first sight of the massive inland highlands, coastal cliffs and glacial features of this incredibly rugged area on our way to Thingvellir National Park[viii]. The majority of Iceland is covered by lava fields and massive ice caps, leaving thin strips of verdant land between imposing cliffs and the coast. This would be the prevailing scenery for much of our journey along the southern Ring Road[ix].

Reykjavik vistaIcelandic landscapeOn the Road to ThingvellirCoastal strip

Vista from Reykjavik, Landscape outside of Reykjavik, Sign for (P/Th)ingvellir, Ascent into interior highlands.

We had stopped prior to the park for a quick lunch in a lava field that had barely been conquered by grasses and moss, and then came over a ridge to see Thingvallavatn Lake stretching farther than we could see in one glance, amidst a foreground of cairns. Had we known that vista was literally right down the road, we probably would have waited to eat lunch[x].

Icelandic landscape (B&W) Rift Valley landscape (B&W)Icelandic landscape Cairns (B&W) Thingvillir Landscape with Cairns(B&W)

Lava field lunch spot, Rift valley landcape, Icelandic landscape, Cairns, Lake Thingvallavatn with Cairns

Thingvellir[xi] is quintessentially Icelandic in that it is both steeped in Nordic/Viking culture, and is a place of geologic shenanigans[xii] on an unbelievable scale. It encompasses both the site of the original Viking parliament, with its centerpiece the Law Rock[xiii], and a massive rift valley with Iceland’s deepest lake (114 meters at its deepest)[xiv]. Sadly, our time here was limited[xv], but we got in a hike down the path through the rift canyon, and along the end of the lake past the Law Rock. It was a windy day, and clouds skidded across the landscape like a time lapse movie, reminding me a bit of a similar day and equally impressive view at Monument Valley in the US.

Mid-Atlantic Rift Landscape

Viking Gate (B&W) Rift Path (B&W) Crosses (B&W) Church

As Above, so Below (B&W)

Thingvellir Landscape Althing and Monument Althing Rock (B&W)

Rift Canyon, Viking Gate, Path through the Rift, Crosses, Church, As above so below, Thingvellir landscape, Monument and Althing/Law Rock, The Law Rock.

As we headed out, there was a great deal of commotion near one of the minor rifts, where apparently a child had fallen in. While the staff response was rapid, they didn’t seem overly shocked. I guess if you put enough tourists in proximity to large gaping rifts in the earth, the idiot delegation of the former is likely to fall into the latter on a semi-regular basis[xvi].

With two more Golden Circle stops left before setting up camp, we reluctantly continued on our way...

To be continued in Day 2, part 2.


[i] After months of preparation and glimpses of lofty cliffs and massive glaciers, our first look at Iceland was……unimpressive. Luckily the approach to Keflavik airport over flat, boring coastal fields is probably the least scenic part of Iceland. It got a lot better.

[ii] Brennivin, which I’ll go further into later on in regard to its infernal relationship with hakarl, is the local and oft celebrated schnapps. Its local nickname is the “Black Death”. If anything, this may be understatement.

[iii] Sadly, we were on a tight schedule, so we didn’t have time to stop. My inner photographer wept the whole drive long at missed opportunities. This would come to be a theme.

[iv] In many ways it reminds me of other similar European cities like Amsterdam and Nuremberg, with a mix of history and lots of clean, modern design. However, it also seemed to have a good deal of blight on its outskirts that had an eastern European post communism feel to them.

[v] This was our first inkling of the hemorraghing our wallets would be doing on this trip. Things are expensive when you’re a tiny nation in the middle of the ocean, who mostly just grow sheep and horses. Faced with $20 hamburgers, those sheep were starting to look pretty good…heck, those horses were starting to look pretty good…

[vi] Apparently it’s a huge deal in Iceland, which I can believe as the sheer crowds seemed to indicate that an appreciable portion of the tiny nation’s tiny population was in attendance. These folks knew how to parade like nobody’s business.

[vii] This area of geographic/geologic wonders is close to Reykjavik in the west of the country, and is within easy driving distance of each other, making it a tourist haven. It is a bit of a sampler of Iceland, with a massive waterfall (Gulfoss), a huge rift valley and Viking heritage site (Thingvellir), and a series of massive geothermal geysers (Geysir, et al.) It is one sheep, one horse, a glacier, and some fermented shark short of being the complete Icelandic experience.

[viii] We drove through wooded valleys reminiscent valleys we’d seen in Austria in the passes through the Alps, and got our first look at the famed Icelandic sheep and horses. We were not excited by the trees, but were by the horses/sheep. At this point we were completely unaware how crazy this was in light of the relative scarcity of trees and the relative overabundance of sheep/horses.

[ix] “Ring Road” being yet another aspect of the Tolkein-esque feel of the place. I mean how epic does it sound to say, “We came up from the graggy lave fields of the Reykjanes, through the cairns of the rift valley of Thingvellir, past mighty Geysir, ever ascending into the desolate Highlands, traveling along the wending way of the Ring Road to Skaftafel, past the Islands of the Western Men, to follow the Skafatfelshaedi into the icy heart of Vatnajokull.”? I mean, it’s a couple orcs short of being a chapter from the Silmarillion.

[x] We have a habit of doing this…stopping to eat lunch in random fields, and then driving a mile farther and seeing spectacular scenery.

[xi] The actual spelling is not a “Th” at the start, it uses a character that looks like a celtic rune, vaguely P-like.

[xii] The rift valley is the meeting place of two massive tectonic plates, and it shows in the surrounding landscape which is, well, pretty much crazy. If geology could be personified, this is what its shenanigans would look like. Directly adjacent to the lake is a massive canyon that literally looks like the earth was split open, raw and jagged like a massive tear in the world.

[xiii] Which was, in true Viking fashion, quite literally a rock on which laws were made. A massive ridge of rock that the Vikings would hang out on and, you know, pretty much invent western respresentative democracy when they weren’t pillaging and burning the British coast. That is so unbelievably hardcore. “Our parliament is so Viking, no house can contain it. Let’s find the biggest $&^#ing rock we can. Nothing else will withstand the unfettered fury of our law-making!”

[xiv] The lake is so deep here that SCUBA divers come from around the world to explore its depths, including the two gentleman we sat next to on the plane.

[xv] Our friends had originally not wanted to stop here, but I’m glad I insisted we stop. While nothing like the rugged, sheer remoteness of some of our latter stops, it was one of my favorite Iceland moments.

[xvi] Don’t worry, the kid was fine.

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