Iceland: All steamed up

1 Jun

Globalisation is a family affair. With one son and daughter-in-law in Edinburgh, the other son and daughter-in-law in Melbourne and Stuart and I somewhere in between, this late May Iceland trip was a first attempt at a family reunion holiday to suit everyone. Sounds like an odd choice no doubt, but it ticked the boxes for us. Certainly it was like nothing we’d done before, except for our British daughter-in-law Jenny, who’d been to Iceland for a university trip eight years ago.

Iceland isn’t a particularly large island when compared with say, Australia, but its geography makes land transport challenging. The high central plateau, indented coastline, a 90k/hr maximum speed limit, plus weather that chews up sealed roads made for slower than expected going in our seven-seater Town and Country. The blue dot in the satellite map below is our house.

We based ourselves twenty minutes from the southern town of Selfoss in a three-bedroom, contemporary holiday home with hip to ceiling glass windows looking on to snow, heathland, rocks and a lot of water.

Hot water geothermal underfloor heating kept us toasty warm inside, so much so we often had to open several windows to reduce the temperature. And after days out exposed to wind and cold we made good use of the terrace hot tub. The sun sets at about 10:45pm in May but we never saw it actually become dark. It was light enough to walk outside at 1am and even when I got up at 5am one morning the sun was well up.
Stuart and I were grateful to leave the sightseeing planning to the young ones who did a fantastic job. Unfortunately the one unknown, weather, was not our friend. Except for our first day together we saw atmospheric Iceland through mist, rain, grey skies and the occasional sunny spell. No matter, we’re made of hardy stuff. Tristan and Cameron also did much of the driving. This is when parents reap their just rewards.

Typical view.

En route to the holiday house we walked Rekjavik, taking in Hallgrímskirkja Lutheran church with its wonderful bell tower view over the city, the National Museum of Iceland, the busy harbour and the downtown shopping district.

The obligatory, ‘Elliotts consulting a map’ shot.​

​We caught the last few minutes of a free organ recital in the kirk. Stirring stuff.
Asian bridezillas get everywhere.

Stuart discovered Icelandic fish stew is mostly cheese. This was his birthday lunch.

Sun Voyager sculpture.

The day ended with Stuart’s birthday dinner at home and champagne in the hot tub.

Day two had us at Gulfoss (Gold Waterfall) which is like a mini-Iguazu, and the original geyser, Strokkur, in the geothermal area called Geysir. We had three different versions of the pronunciation going at once so to settle it I asked a local. The definitive pronunciation is GAYser with a soft ‘s’.

The moment Strokkur blows captured on a video still.

Our proposed third stop for the day, the grassy site of Iceland’s first parliament (903AD), was abandoned due to pouring rain.

Day three was a huge one; two glorious waterfalls inluding Skogafoss, Vik seaside village for a cosy lunch, cavorting on Reynisfjara black sand beach where a French film shoot was in progress, puffin spotting at Dyrholaey Nature Reserve, and a walk up to a viewing point.

Day three was even more ambitious, the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon where we lucky enough to spot seals and capture the collapse of an iceberg, followed by a two-hour Vatnajokul glacier walk (in crampons) from Skaftafell led by glacier guide August into what looked like a Chinese ink painting. Photographs don’t go anywhere near to capturing the beauty.

Day four we were to fly out at 4pm so I’d booked three of us us into a morning Icelandic horse ride, a particular treat for me, while the others were to walk to a hot spring. It was another rainy day but that wasn’t the problem. My copy paste of the address from the company website into google maps took us to the wrong location (no maps or directions on the company website). We ended up 50 minutes from the stables at the time we were supposed to have arrived. Expletive! Thankfully when I called and explained what happened they agreed to refund our payment, which they have since done in full.

Instead we revisited Reyknes Peninsula to show the young ones Blue Lagoon then on to Grundavik fishing port for a stroll and a bowl of Bryggjan Cafe’s delicious soup.

The consensus is that Iceland is a must visit country. The terrain is so different from anything I’d seen before and the people are intriguing – fiercely self-reliant with a dry humour. I get the sense that Icelanders are becoming a kind of national role model for how to work with natural attributes to do an economy differently. Tourism has overtaken fishing and I predict it will continue to boom.

What struck me also were the paradoxes Icelanders live with. Maybe the mental gymnastics it takes to cohabit in a place that’s so geologically unstable helps them cope. In one region residents have an hour, if they are lucky, in the event of volcanic activity, to evacuate before they’re toast.

Almost every village has a picturesque, well maintained church, but most people don’t feel compelled to attend.
Iceland had the world’s first female head of state, then first gay prime minister and women have had the vote since 1915 (restricted then to women over 40), however they are still not paid equal wages for equal work, and while a child may take the mother or father’s name (Johanson or Johansdottir), or both, the vast majority take the father’s name.

Until the 1900s dwellings in Iceland were cold, dank homes warmed by peat fires. Today cheap thermal hot water underfloor heating keeps homes warm and dry. That also means there is no need for a log fire. Something has been lost.

This is a relatively expensive country to travel in but the best of Iceland, which is mother nature in all her raw, untamed power and beauty, is free. No entry fees are charged at any of the natural sites. Donation boxes encourage tourists to contribute to the maintenance of the site but there’s no pressure. Main sites have a good quality cafe/restaurant and excellent shops. You never know when the urge to by a handknitted Icelandic wool sweater will hit.

Iceland has very few cars on the roads outside of the few towns, but driving is made dangerous by unsealed roads, narrow bridges, blind rises, deteriorating road edges, and tired drivers coming from lefthand drive countries. That’s before you factor in driving rain, ice, snow and ferocious wind gusts. We saw stationary caravans and trees tethered to stop them being blown over. The rate of fatalities due to traffic accidents is only 10 per 100,000, but non-fatal accidents must be quite commonplace for tourists. Last year the number of road deaths quadrupled from four to 16 but I couldn’t find the stats on non-fatal tourist road accidents.

I’m not sure when I’ll be able to swing it, but I’m determined to go back to Iceland for some unfinished business. I want to go horse trekking on scenic volcanic ash trails and camp out under the stars. All the better to see trolls and elves. And next time I’ll make sure I use the right map to find the stables!

2 Responses to “ Iceland: All steamed up”

  1. Linda June 1, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

    These pictures took me back to my trip there with Laura a few years ago. You have walked many of the same paths as us. We went in March and saw The Northern Lights 2 nights running so if you do go back, try and go then, it is a sight you will never forget.

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