Iceland: The Journey Begins
Australia to Iceland. A long way, a very long way. We flew across Asia and Europe to get there with a total flying time of 24 hours and almost equally as long in transit. In London, we very briefly popped out of Heathrow to spend 2 of our 7 hours there in central London. Having to make decisions on the back of severe jet lag meant that we didn’t organise ourselves to make the most of the two hours, but at least we got out at the right tube station of Westminster along the green line.
The flight to Iceland was a relatively short 3 hours compared to the 7 hours to Singapore and 13.5 hours to London. By the time we arrived in mid-afternoon, our bodies’ circadian rhythms were thoroughly confused save that we knew one thing – we were exhausted. Keflavik airport was a good 50km from Reykjavik and so, like 90% of the arrivals there, we took the flybus into the city which would then ferry us to our hostel. So far so good, paying was a matter of showing a visa card. The bus ride was a complete haze but two things stuck ; the landscape is not of this earth , and the wind and cold necessitates layer upon layer to enjoy the outdoors.
We finally arrived at the Reykjavik youth hostel at about 6pm and found no difficulty picking up our voucher accommodation for the entire trip at other HI hostels. Everyone so far spoke English with better grammar than what I am capable of. Our car however was delayed for pick up until the next morning. That evening, we would settle into the routine of our entire trip. Unload, unpack, get clean, resolve the hunger pangs – in that same order. The hostel itself was busy and we shared a room with 4 other occupants but this was a rare evening of company for the rest of the trip would often be spent alone in a dormitory. Evening meals were some form of noodle or rice premade dish we had brought over from Australia. Something easy to prepare and calorie packed! Sleep came despite the constant light even at 10pm that night.
Sleep left me at dawn. Reykjavik at dawn in late April is really a bit of a misnomer – its still the middle of the night for many other places in the world. Despite severe fatigue, my body decided to wake me at 3am on our second day so I decided to go walking along the coast. It certainly takes a while for the body to acclimatise to the extreme cold (by Australian standards anyway) and so , for the first 2 minutes of my walk, I was freezing. Whenever I stopped, I would have to get moving within a minute or two or freeze. In the murky blue dawn light, I visited the solar ship along the coast and Hallgrimskirkja which was sadly undergoing major restoration works. On the way back, I walked past Laugevegur , the main shopping street in Reykjavik and was accompanied by many late night goers heading home after a long night. Most of them actually seemed in good shape for this hour – no doubt plenty of practice over the years have helped. I did notice how most of the houses were neatly box shaped with sloping rooves of bright colours.
Driving in Iceland is no mean feat when one has been driving on the left hand side of the road for the last 15 years. It’s a good thing that my first road experience on Icelandic roads was on a quiet Sunday morning. The routine of potentially dangerous actions included – forgetting to remove the handbrake, reaching for the clutch with my left hand , indicating by using the windscreen wipers, then potentially and sometimes heading on to oncoming traffic at roundabouts in particular. The other adjustment that I found hard was trying to keep the car in the middle of the lane – my body still feels as though it should be keeping the car towards the right hand side of the road which meant a few scrapes along the loose sides of the roads! Once we hit the country road however, it was all good and smooth driving with fewer and fewer cars encountered the farther we ventured from Reykjavik.
Thingvellir National Park was our first destination for the day. Along the way we were astounded by the harsh Icelandic scenery. So much so that we stopped to take pictures of a scene that has since been put to shame many a time at the sights we have visited. Thingvellir’s calls to fame are its almalangar or continental divide, and its place in Iceland history as the first site of Icelandic parliament. Along the divide, one can literally place one foot in Europe and the other in America. The scenery along this divide is breathtaking, including several waterfalls , the most beautiful of which was Oxarafoss. Other falls and a small lake were drained into a pool in which death penalties were carried out – charming thought. It was here that we had our first experience with rural Icelandic churches – they are almost all of the same box design with a sloped steeple and set in a lonely countryside picture. The only variation seems to be their location and colour of roof. After an absorbing two hours there, we finally hit the road again after experiencing our first run in with the variable weather of Iceland.
Geysir was next on the itinerary. Along the way however, we took a shortcut along the rough dirt route 365 to Laugarvatn, a lovely town near Geysir and Gullfoss with a quaint hostel run by a very pleasant keeper. He kindly contacted the people at Arnes hostel who we were not able to contact for the whole morning and confirmed that we would be able to arrive there after 8pm that night for accommodation. I was initially fearful that Geysir was a tourist trap that would disappoint. I was so glad to be far from disappointed as this scene was like something out of a Jules Verne novel , a Dali painting – just very alien scenery that one would have thought, could only dream up in a vivid imagination. Strokkur was firing off every 5 minutes, sometimes twice in a row. The spout varied in height but with water up to 250 degrees, most people were sensible enough to stay upwind from the hole. Not one particular Japanese tourist however – we wanted to warn her but we were just didn’t know how to without sounding condescending. Geysir lay dormant and there were a few other great areas around there including the every bubbling little geysir and the deep blue blesi. We were satisfied with our images and movie and moved on to Gullfoss.
Gullfoss was the first large waterfall we saw in Iceland and as we would learn, the spray is enough to soak one right through 4 layers of clothing! These falls are in two magnificent sections, both of which are accessible to the keen viewer. The sheer power of it and the canyon into which it falls is indescribable without being there. Icelandic attractions rarely seem to have any boundaries which is both blessing and potential danger for the future. Blessing for the rare visitor but if the sights become more popular, the inevitable human abuse may well necessitate boardwalks and fences.
Kerid Crater was next on the itinerary. It was already quite late by our usual touring standards, however, the extended daylight in the Icelandic summer meant that we actually had plenty of time on our hands. We had been told that our accommodation at Arnes that night would not be available until after 8 anyway. The crater itself is only a short distance from Selfoss , backtracking along route 35. It’s a strangely colourful crater with turquoise water at its base and after more happy snapping , we made the long trip to Arnes. This had been a very long day considering the very little rest we had had before embarking on this ambitious day.
A brief word about hostels and Icelandic hospitality is in order. First things first, they have a great deal of trust and with a crime rate of nearly zero – why not! At Arnes for instance, the hostel and all of its rooms were open yet the keeper was nowhere in sight. We eventually found him in a restaurant (far too big for the number of potential occupants) where he gave us some forms and left us to our own devices. The general trend on this trip has been that we have been alone or sharing with only a few other occupants at the hostel meaning that our dorm accommodation vouchers are more or less paying for self contained apartment style accommodation. Heating has also been magnificent in all of the hostels. In colder climate countries, the buildings are simply built to retain heat and so 5 degrees outside is no deterrent to the level of comfort inside. 5 degrees in Australia however, usually means some level of unpleasantness. The main variability has been in the host. The fella at Arnes seemed to have no interest in talking to us which we found appropriate given that we were probably grumpy and just looking to sleep. Others however have been more than welcoming and informative. The routine I described of unload, unpack, get clean, resolve hunger would be added to ; back up the precious photos!. In my case but not in Marianne’s, I knew that I would be waking up at 3am at least for the first few days of the trip – eyepatch or no!
Stay tuned for day 2!