Iceland summer 2012: The Blue Lagoon

My birthday started with me waking up far too early, opening presents and then going to the Blue Lagoon.

It’s not quite as magical in summer – it’s much busier and the air is hot, so it doesn’t feel quite so amazing sinking into the hot water. It was nice to be able to see the mountains, though, and especially to see the power station. My favourite fact about the Blue Lagoon is worth repeating: this mineral-rich blue-white natural hot water is the waste from the power station next door. I can’t believe I couldn’t see the power station last time – the fog was clearly thicker than I realised and also means that when I saw the mysterious red glow dancing around in the sky, it was not the power station because it was in completely the wrong direction. Maybe I did see the Northern Lights from the hot water after all.

No Northern Lights this time. Eternal sunshine this time. After a few minutes outside, I had to go back in to put my goggles back in my locker and get my sunglasses. The lagoon bar was open – you can swim up and buy drinks using the wristband. I had a red and blue striped slushy thing which took forever to drink.

I had a massage – that involved going to a roped off corner of the lagoon, lying on a floating mattress and being draped in a wet blanket to keep me warm and having a back massage while lying on my back. I didn’t know such a thing was even possible. What I’m fairly sure of is that the big Icelandic man doing must have done his training with the KGB – he seemed determined to break my spine. When he was finished, he left me floating in a quiet corner of the massage area until I’d come back to life. I don’t know what he did to me but I could hardly walk and could hardly think. I was just some kind of flesh-coloured goo in sunglasses. I sat in the water for a while and then decided maybe something to eat and drink would be a good idea. I went to the inside bar and had a big cup of Sprite and three Babybels in a row (the Blue Lagoon does not really cater for my eating habits) and read whatever I could get my hands on in English from the book/magazine rack. After about an hour, I began to feel like a human being again and went back out but it didn’t take long to realise my arms were stinging and to deduce I had sunburn. I hadn’t even thought about suncream. I’d gone through my little collection of bottles before I left, taking the shampoo and conditioner with me but leaving the shower gel and suncream because I wouldn’t need them (the Lagoon has magic blue algae-flavoured shower gel. It has conditioner but it’s not good enough for hair that’s been soaked in salt water and minerals for eleven hours). I suppose because last time I was at the Lagoon, it was in a snowstorm I didn’t associate sun with the place and didn’t notice it was a bright sunny day in which I’d be outside in a swimming pool for the entire day.

I retreated to the relaxing room upstairs to consider my options. I didn’t want to get any more burnt that I already was, so going back into the water was out of the question. If I wasn’t going in the water, there was little point in staying. I could go back to Reykjavík, do some shopping, write some blogs. But I didn’t want to say goodbye to the Lagoon just yet. I put on my white fluffy dressing gown, which was by now quite wet and very heavy from constant taking-off and putting-on and went outside to look at it. I thought it would be a good idea to cross one of the catbridges and go and sit on the edge and then to put my feet in the water. I sat there for nearly an hour, protected from the sun by the dressing gown before it finally dawned on me that the sun had moved across the sky enough that a part of the water was now in shadow. All I had to do was stick to the shadowed area.

So I spent the next four hours making my way around the shadowy parts. That’s not so easy – we’re far enough north here that the sun doesn’t set until late and the buildings are made of glass so the sun suddenly reappears when you’re not expecting it. But it moved enough for more and more of the lagoon to open up for me and I spent a few hours splashing around in the water avoiding the sun.

I was due back on the 9 o’clock bus – the last one, so to avoid running the risk of missing it and being stranded, I got out a bit early, smothered my hair in conditioner, paid all the extras on my bracelet and wandered the building for a while. The extent of the sunburn had soon become apparent – I’d actually had to check my t-shirt wasn’t really on fire because my skin burnt so much. They sell sun mousse in the gift shop – although it’s on the wrong side of the barrier to be able to get at once you’re in – and all sorts of algae-based lotions and potions but not a drop of aftersun stuff. I used the cold water from the drinking fountain instead – that helped briefly.

First stop in Reykjavík an hour later was the 10-11 for some aftersun cream, shampoo and Doritos. The suncream doesn’t go out of my sight for the rest of the week. I am red. If it sticks out of the water and is normally covered by a t-shirt, it’s scorched. My forearms are nicely browned, with white watch mark, and my neck is fine. My nose is a bit red and my cheeks are a bit pink and I seem to have a skier’s tan, thanks to the sunglasses but my face is mostly ok.

Iceland summer 2012: Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón

It’s now Wednesday morning and I’m finally starting to write Monday’s blog. I won’t get it finished before I have to go out so it’ll be Wednesday night before it’s done. I’m hoping to be back by six at the absolute latest tonight.

So, Monday. Pickup at seven. There was a Japanese girl from a few doors up also going on the same trip and when the minibus hadn’t arrived by 7.15, she decided it would be best to walk down to the office. A few minutes later, I decided to do the same thing. It’s actually only five or ten minutes there.

When I exchanged my piece of paper for a ticket, the nice lady looked at me in confusion and asked if I got picked up and when I said no, I’d walked, she radioed the bus driver to tell him I was at the office, so the bus hadn’t forgotten, it was just later than usual.

The bus we were getting on was the Skaftafell Express, taking four tours to the same starting point and it was a minibus. A minibus, as it happens, is not my favourite transport for travelling five hours, especially when someone is quietly and discretely sick a couple of rows back, my seatbelt isn’t working and I’m sitting in a single seat on one side with my bag under my feet. For five hours. For once there was no commentary – we had a driver, not a driver-guide, who didn’t speak very much English and looked a lot like Martin Freeman.

We drove without stopping for two and a half hours before making a ten minute stop at Vik, then we were off again and having left at 7.30, we reached Skaftafell National Park at around half past twelve. We’d come down past Hveragerði, through Selfoss, past the turning for Hekla, past Seljalandsfoss and into new uncharted territory, which followed the south coast past Mýrdalsjökull and on towards Vatnajökull, the biggest glacier in Iceland. Glaciers cover 11% of Iceland’s surface and this one is probably bigger than all the others put together. It’s apparently – like so many other big things – about the size of Wales.

We were taken to check in with Glacier Guides, who then took us over to the visitor centre for lunch – Icelandic meat soup and a sandwich. I’d brought food so I went and sat outside and ate it and was back at the meeting point half an hour later as instructed. We were fitted with crampons and given ice axes and then when everyone was kitted up we got in Glacier Guides’ yellow American schoolbus. They have three of them, bought from eBay, which they use for ferrying their customers around. We drove fifteen minutes around the bottom of the mountain to Fallsjökull – the Falling Glacier, which is a massive icefall.

First there was a surprisingly hard hike over what looked like lava and dirt but what was actually glacier ice covered in the assorted filth it had picked up on its journey down the mountain. I had put on all my warm layers and got far too hot by the time we got to the ice. The coat came off. Then we had to stop to be taught how to put the crampons on – reasonably easy but I couldn’t seem to sort out the stopper knot for tying up the foot or so of loose strap. By the time we were all standing in our crampons and posing for photos, it had gone cold again. The coat had to come out again. Then we were onto the glacier.

The crampons didn’t feel as secure as I’d been expecting and the first time I had stamp a foot into the ice and use it to drag myself up was a little bit terrifying. But it held and after that it wasn’t so steep.

Our first stop was at a cauldron, which is a hole in the glacier where the water swirls down. This was a small one but Snorri, our guide, showed us how to approach so we didn’t fall down it. Then we hiked upwards. The ice was mostly covered in a fine coating of blackish ash but in between, you could see that it was really blue and transparent for miles down. Snorri said the ice is about fifty metres thick but obviously, you can’t actually see that far.

Next stop was at a river of absolutely pure clean glacier water. Snorri dug his ice axe into the banks to use as a bar, then you had to dig your feet into the sides, hold onto the axe and lower yourself over the river to lap from the water. Or, if you weren’t that brave, he also had a collapsible cup to gather water from the spring that fed into the river. I was that brave but not strong enough and finished up with my knees in the water.

We carried on upwards once everyone had finished playing with the water, up to a super-cauldron. We were only allowed to see this one at a time, with Snorri holding onto us from a couple of feet back as we leaned over to see a very deep, very blue hole in the ice. When we’d all had a look and taken a photo, Snorri found a boulder about twice the size of my head and heaved it down the hole. First there was a pause, then a splash, then a lot of booming as it fell down this hole for further than we could imagine. No, you definitely didn’t want to fall down that cauldron. We hiked across the glacier to where the cleanish ice met the dirty ice. This didn’t look very impressive but on the other side, there was a vast bright blue ice cave carved out of it, the perfect spot for photos. We weren’t allowed to get too close in case the thin ceiling collapsed and dropped half a ton of ice on us but we got as close as we dared and took lots of pictures.

Then it was back up onto the clean ice and time to trek back down to the start point, or at least, back to the patch of dirt where we’d started. Crampons came off and we were asked to please “go crampon-fishing” before we left – hold the things by the long straps and dip them in the water a few times to get the mud and dirt off them.

The hike back over the dirty ice seemed longer. Part of the path had that very morning disappeared under a rockfall so an hour before he picked us up, Snorri was out there with his axe building a new one. He uncovered a patch of ice for us and cleaned it off with some water so we could see that under all the dirt and soil and ash, there really was crystal-clear ice underneath.

Back at the schoolbus – actually a different bus, one of the guides had swapped it while we were on the glacier (the first one had a “Body Fluid Clean-up Kit” up at the front and the second only a First Aid Kit) – we all stripped off cold wet clothes and settled down for a forty-five minute drive round to Jökulsárlón. There weren’t many of us – a Japanese couple and an Austrian woman, none of whom spoke very good English. An American and a Canadian who’d met at college and were now at dental school together, a Ukrainian girl who’d been living in Iceland for a year, Perla who works for Iceland Excursions but was doing this trip (for free!) because it was her day off and she’d never done it and a Swiss boy on his way back from a gap year. In Ukraine it’s very rude to ask how old someone is, so we didn’t get Lena’s age out of her but Perla is twenty-three and the Swiss boy twenty-two so I very suddenly began to feel like the old lady of the group.

Jökulsárlón is a stunning place. It’s a lagoon, only about fifty years old, where the glacier meets the sea and pieces of ice break off to float around. Some of them get stuck on the bottom, which is why they don’t drift past the bridge and out to sea and then the others get caught up with them. Occasionally they flip over, even the massive house-sized ones and they do it really quickly, in about a minute and a half. We were delivered to the jetty of the landboat – it looks like a boat but it has wheels and it trundles over to a plank and you walk on and put on a lifejacket – that looks ridiculous when you’re already wearing all the clothes you own and it means you can’t move very easily.

We had to stay sitting down as we trundled over to the edge of the water, then we drove in, the wheels came off the bottom and we were afloat. We spent about forty minutes sailing around the lagoon, seal-watching, looking at huge blue icebergs and massive blue, white and black striped icebergs and being entertained by lunch for one boat driver being delivered by another via the men in little black rubber boats – these were used in Vietnam and the one with stripes on apparently still has bullet holes in it. They’re not always used for food deliveries – they tow the smaller icebergs around to clear paths for the landboats. They also deliver chunks of ice. One of them delivered a chunk of crystal clear ice to our guide, a piece of ice the size of my head but much lumpier. We got a lecture on the formation of glaciers and the reason ice looks blue or clear and why this huge chunk was so much clearer than normal ice and then he broke it up with a hammer and handed out bite-sized pieces of thousand-year-old ice from the bottom of the glacier for us to eat – the oldest thing we’d ever eaten. It didn’t taste brilliant. Mostly just of ice. But I didn’t finish mine because ice is quite slippery, especially if you’re wearing gloves and mine escaped before I’d had more than a couple of nibbles. I probably wasn’t helping my grip by taking photos of it, admittedly.

Back on dry land we went for waffles, served warm and filled with an unidentifiable but tasty jam and served with a lot of cream. I didn’t eat the cream and I was also much slower than everyone else – when they all left, I had to pick up the remains of my waffle and take it with me. We had a couple of minutes for photos of the lagoon while Snorri went to fetch the schoolbus and Lena used that to go for a dip in the ice-cold water. That meant she was a bit late getting back to the bus but Snorri used the time to entertain himself and us by opening and closing the door and making the Stop sign pop in and out.

It was about an hour back to Skaftafell, into the minibus and then we were heading back. It was quicker this time – I clockwatched most of the time. An hour and a half to Vik, then I lost track a bit, ten minutes Selfoss to Hveragerði, forty-ish minutes from there to Reykjavik. A grand total of approximately exactly four hours, with a brief stop at Hvolsvöllur. Quite where the extra hour came from on the way, I have no idea. We got back at about quarter to eleven, having left at half past six. And it was still daylight. The sun was setting but it was definitely still visible and the sky was still bright – the weather improved on the way home.

Iceland summer 2012: Þríhnjúkagígur

Today I actually had a lovely relaxing day. Pickup wasn’t until 9.30 which gave me hours to get up and get packed and get ready to go, since I woke up at around 6.30.

What I actually did was follow in the footsteps of Jules Verne or various Bond villains and I descended into the magma chamber of a volcano called Þríhnjúkagígur (Three Peaks Crater). This is the only volcano known in the world to have an empty magma chamber – it seems that after its last eruption, the magma just drained away, leaving a bit funnel-shaped hollow inside the volcano. Although apparently not all the magma drained away – what was left solidified eventually and formed the floor we were going to walk on. They think the magma chamber actually goes much deeper, it’s just full of magma.

Pickup, when it happened, was by Iceland Excursions, which I’d sort of suspected it would, although I’d booked directly with Inside the Volcano. So it was the usual ritual of being taken to the ticket office to swap my paper for a real ticket and then find the correct.

I’d been expecting us to head out towards Hafnarfjorður so it was a bit of a surprise to find us going on the Hveragerði road instead. Our guide, Kristian, pointed out our volcano on the horizon and then pointed out Hengill, the one with the power plant. The usual – this is a geothermal power plant, they dig boreholes and use the steam from them to turn turbines to generate a lot of electricity but he added a bit of extra. When the steam’s done its job, they pump the water back into the volcano and this apparently has the side-effect of causing small earthquakes. They don’t mind that too much on the west side of the volcano because no one lives there but there’s a small village on the east side and they “are not so happy” to have regular earthquakes.

We turned off the road before Hengill and went up into the Blue Mountains, up a very nice smooth bendy road. I couldn’t make sense of this – they didn’t build the road for the volcano, they couldn’t and if they had, surely it would reach a bit closer. But why was there such a good road up here? And it’s a very good road – better than the bits of the Ring Road I’ve been on and better than the highway to the airport and it didn’t make sense up in these mountains.

The mystery was solved when we reached our destination. The road goes up to what passes for a ski resort in Iceland and we parked in their car park. It is of course empty this time of year – at the moment, the ski slopes are green-streaked lava heaps.

We left the minibus and started our two mile hike across the lava fields. I’d thought I’d be the one struggling along at the back but I’d looked at people’s feet as they boarded the minibus and there were a lot of trainers and even a pair of pretty little black leather heeled boots of the kind you wear for a shopping trip. It wasn’t a hugely difficult walk but it had been spitting a bit when I left so I was wearing my big purple raincoat and very quickly that got too hot. At our first stop, that came off. Our next stop was at a crack in the ground – a gap maybe three or four feet wide where the North American and European plates are moving apart. This happens all the way across Iceland, one notable location being where it’s around five miles apart at Þingvellir, which is so far that you can’t really see what’s going on. Here you could either walk across where muddy boulders filled it or leap across. Everyone took the easy step and although it was just a gap in the rocks, that was my first wow moment of the day. I have stepped from the edge of one tectonic plate to the edge of another. I’ve driven across from one side to the other many times, since Reykjavík is on the North American and everything east of about Hveragerði is on the European plate and I’ve flown over it but I’ve never crossed continents like that.

Kristian talked about the big plan for Þríhnjúkagígur – to dig a tunnel under the lava, drill into the side of the magma chamber and create a viewing platform there. The main concerns with this project are environmental – which led him onto the subject of renewable energy. They make a lot of use of geothermal and hydro-electric power here but haven’t had much luck with wind turbines. Apparently they just blow away. There was a farmer who was very pleased with his shiny new extra-tough extra-secure turbine, who generated a lot of electricity with it and who woke up one day to find it gone because the winds are too strong.

We kept on walking and after under an hour, we were at the containers that serve as Inside the Volcano’s base. Five of our ten-man group was immediately got into climbing harnesses (apparently beyond certain members of the group) and then helmets with lights and within five minutes of arrival, we were standing at the top of the crater. We stopped for a couple of quick photos and then we had to “walk the plank”, clipped onto a wire safely and climb down into the basket, or window cleaner’s lift, also clipped in. We weren’t allowed to take photos here – all cameras had to be safely around necks or wrists so they wouldn’t get dropped down the abyss. I’d had the foresight to bring the carabiner off my keys and the neck string from my waterproof case and with my camera safely tethered to my harness I was able to take as many photos as I wanted.

Standing over the hole was terrifying. I’d been Professor Lidenbrock all the way, now I suddenly became Axel. It was particularly terrifying when we unmoored and began our wobbly descent. At first the rocks were mossy and reddish and we went through a slot so narrow that we had to stop the basket and creep down, with the little rubber wheels on the side of the basket keeping us away from actually hitting the sides. Once we were through there, we could see the bottom below us, or at least, we could see the big lights.

It opened out and the colours began to appear – patches and streaks of red and yellow and green and grey and orange, We reached the bottom, disembarked and were taken beyond the rockfall danger zone so Kristian could explain what was going to happen next. We were allowed to wander freely wherever we wanted, basically. At each side, the chamber dropped down and if we wanted to scramble down the rocks, we could go down to where it narrowed so much you had to crawl, and you could get good photos from down there.

Our group went as one down one side, where we managed to get caught behind the girl who’d come in a fur coat, skinny jeans and trainers and was struggling with the loose slope. Kristian hopped down with us to show us the way until he heard the lift coming and we were left unsupervised. What was I supposed to do? Of course I was going to scramble down the heap of boulders to the bottom. Give or take the fact that some of the boulders were a bit crumbly because they’re made of lava, and that some still move, it was a pretty easy scramble. I went all the way to the bottom because you can’t turn back halfway, not in a volcano and sat on a boulder taking photos of the yellow and orange dome above me. Then I scrambled up, over the mound in the middle and down the other side. The Australians were there and as I hopped, skipped and jumped down, they said I looked like I belonged here. The bottom here wasn’t actually quite the bottom. I scrambled over another boulder and dropped down just a little further and then I could see a small narrow crawl-sized hole below me which I was half-tempted by but there didn’t seem to be any way to climb down and dropping in didn’t seem like such a sensible idea.

By the time I was climbing back up, it was already time to depart. Far too soon. That’s my one criticism of the trip – I could have done with a bit more time inside the magma chamber. But as we went up, I had a better appreciation of what I was seeing. There were people in the chamber as we ascended so I took photos of them getting smaller and smaller below us and photos of the tiny circle of light in the ceiling 120m above us which was the only way in and out.

Oddly enough, once we were back at the top with daylight on us, being in that basket was scary again and “parking” it at the top was a delicate little manoeuvre to get us docked properly with the plank.

Back at the cabins, we had our harnesses and helmets removed and the other four went to eat Icelandic meat soup. I hovered in the doorway until the nice lady ladling out soup suggested I go for a nice walk while I waited, under the lava bridge ( a collapsed lava tube) or up to the broken crater. Off I went, across lava and moss and scrambled down into the little canyon. It was absolutely silent and peaceful and even though there were a handful of people only two minutes away in the cabin and more up on top of the volcano, it was like I was the only person for miles around. I played with the timer on my camera and took a few photos of myself in the lava field, often only getting my legs or myself as a dot in the distance and then climbed out of the canyon to visit the broken crater.

When I wandered back, the others had finished their soup and were starting to venture out onto the lava field too, so I had a drink and wandered off again. We wandered happily for quite a while, waiting for the other half of our group to emerge from the mountain and eat their soup. I went back into the canyon and then went and sat on a slab of lava to stare at the view.

The walk back was easier. We stopped again at the crack in the Earth and I stood on the edge of the plate to have a photo taken as I stepped across. Only that’s quite a big step and it’s over a gap in the crust of my planet and it was too far and I chickened out and did the easy crossing over the boulders instead.

I’d been chatting with the other English people on the trip and one of them mentioned that Iceland must be brilliant for caving. I was under the impression that it wasn’t because although there are plenty of lava tubes, they haven’t found entrances to most of them. I don’t know if Kristian heard the conversation or if it was just a coincidence but at that moment, he stopped at one of the lava tubes so those of us who were “mountain goats” could hop down into the caves and go through and emerge from a different hole. I happened to have brought my caving light with me so I could have a look at the rock and into the darkness properly. We were making good time so we had plenty of time to play in those tubes. Mostly they were just bridges under the lava, going from one open pit to the next, because they’ve collapsed in so many places.

The first lava cave was “Long Hole” and the second “Deep Hole” – Icelanders are apparently as imaginative with naming their caves as with naming their volcanoes (Three Peaks Crater, Snow Mountain etc). Long Hole made its way through at least four open pits and was good fun to scramble through. Some of the bridges were long enough to be able to see where the sides were proper lava tubes but mostly they were full of the rubble that had fallen in. Deep Hole wasn’t actually much deeper than Long Hole but it needed a bit more of a scramble to get down. And it had a window, another entrance up on the ceiling with a grate over it to stop hikers falling in. It seemed to be growing a layer of bubbles on top of the lava, like you see in limestone caves, because of water action.

We were back at the car park just as the bus arrived. We left and the next group arrived and Kristian headed back across the lava field with them (he does the tour twice a day, as goes another guide) and bearing a birthday cake for Einar, the lift operator, which had been delivered by the driver. Half an hour later were back in Reykjavík. I got dropped off in the middle of town and walked back without getting lost at all, for the first time since I’ve been here. I was back by quarter to four and stayed in. Tomorrow I have a very very long day so I’ve enjoyed having an afternoon in.

Iceland summer 2012: Landmannalaugar

At four o’clock this morning, some of the other inhabitants of this apartment were getting ready to depart for the airport. This I deduce from the noise of a suitcase being dragged over a tiled floor. At five o’clock the people in room 6 left. By about 6.30 I’d given up on sleep and was starting to get stuff together for the day.

First there was the interesting discovery that my Thursday blog – the day I didn’t do anything except arrive! – was OffExploring’s Blog of the Day. Then there was breakfast and packing. I decided to take my boots, if only to make today’s guide happy so I tied the laces nicely together and went out to stand on the street.

We weren’t in the truck today. We were in its big brother, the coach version. It’s a smallish coach but it’s still a coach, a 40-seater according to Grayline’s website. We had a driver (Andreas) and a guide (Gir) instead of a driver-guide. Gir talked non-stop all the way to our first stop and I took notes. Many many notes. The mountains between Reykjavík and Hveragerði are called the Blue Mountains and they supply Reykjvakík’s drinking water. In fact, they supply enough water for 1.5 million people. The entire population of Iceland is only 320,000, of which 60-70% live in the capital. Enlarge that to within a 35 mile radius of the capital and 80-83% of the population live there. The Blue Mountains are only 10,000 years old which is very young by geological standards. The geological power plant at Hengill has the same output as your average nuclear power station and could supply power for 3 or 4 cities the size of Reykjavík. Only 10% of its energy goes to the public, the other 90% goes to industry, mostly production of aluminium. Gir thinks that the theoretical energy of Iceland – if they used every river, every waterfall, every volcano to get as much geothermal and hydro energy as physically possible, they could power the entire USA, which uses around 1.5 million megawatts per year, whereas Iceland only gets through about 2300.

We were at Hveragerði by now (I have condensed his speech quite a lot). The second biggest ice cream factory in Iceland is there and the first greenhouse was built in 1937. During the war, there was a big runway just over the fields from the town, the second biggest in Europe at the time. It’s now gone but people like Churchill used it fairly regularly. A reporter once asked him what the most unusual thing was he’d eaten on his travels and I could feel what the answer was going to be. Gir dragged it out and finally, there were the magic words “Icelandic bananas”, from the greenhouses at Hveragerði.

Next was the long tedious drive over the farmland. I had noticed that you could see Eyjafjalljökull and the Westman Islands from as far away as the hilltop before Hveragerði and yet half an hour later, Gir still hadn’t mentioned the volcano. It was coming. Eyjafjalljökull threw out 2000 tons of ash per second during its 2010 eruption. Grimsvötn, a bigger volcano which erupted in 2011 threw out 20,000 tons of ash per second but it didn’t cause air traffic chaos so hardly anyone outside Iceland noticed. Apparently the reason Eyjafjalljökull’s was so massive was “because old magma is like milk”. The theory is that magma that sits in the magma chamber for a long time goes sour and becomes more acidic. Then fresh magma rises up, meets the old stuff and the whole thing explodes. It meets the glacier on top and there’s ash and explosions and chaos.

Hekla, on the other hand, a bigger, more evil one to the north of Eyjafjallajökull, and overdue, is more like a sponge. Apparently you can tell its magma chamber is more full than it was before its last eruption (February 2000) because it’s blowing up like a balloon. It just sucks in water and soon the magma will touch that water and the whole thing will explode. It’s explosive at first, then it settles down and just spills out a lot of lava, which the Icelandics like because it’s pretty and it attracts tourists. Apparently last time Hekla went up, once it was over the ash phase, most of the population of Reykjavík went to see it erupt, only to get caught in a snowstorm on the slopes which meant a massive rescue effort to get over 1000 people off the volcano. In another eruption a man standing outside the church at Skálholt 50km away got hit by a rock from Hekla. Not killed, just maybe knocked out. Hekla is the most active volcano in Iceland. Volcanologists can just about manage a 30 minute warning before she erupts and there’s no real crater on her, the explosion can come from anywhere on the mountain. That’s pretty much the end of the speech.

By now we’d made our first “technical stop” at Árnes and were on our way towards the Interior. The road soon ran out and we were on gravel. Less bumpy than yesterday and to our first proper stop – a double waterfall called Hjálparfoss. That was spectacular. They were quite low but fairly wide and very pretty and surrounded by basalt cliffs. I’ve never seen basalt hexagons before but I was under the impression they’re usually vertical columns. These were horizontal. Beyond that, the river wound its way down to a hydro-electric power station.

After that it was just wilderness. Rocks and lava fields and rivers and lakes and nothing. It was spectacular in a moon-like way. I was confused by some columns of steam on the other side of a river for a while. I couldn’t figure out what they were or why they were there or why they seemed to be moving and after staring at them forever, I realised it was dust being sent up by a car whizzing along the gravel road.

The drive went on forever and got pretty uncomfortable. I began to wish I was off the bus and at Landmannalaugar already. We went round lakes, over small canyons on bridges that seemed much to narrow and at too high a speed. Gir talked about outlaws and Viking law and banishment and this place really was like being on the moon.

We made our second “technical stop” at Hrauneyjar – one of my favourite names because “Hraun” means the lava plains and “eyjar” means island – so this little stop was the island in the middle of the lava. I had a look at a map and decided we must be pretty close by now. I was wrong. We had another hour and a half and it was the worst bit.

The road seemed to vanish altogether and we had to go up and down slopes – scary enough in a car probably but terrifying in a coach. It was getting painfully bumpy and completely bare – there just aren’t the words to describe how utterly dead and bare and desolate the Icelandic Highlands are. Mile after mile of bumpy roadless grey nothing.

We stopped for a quick leg-stretch on the edge of a crater filled with blue-green water. Absolutely spectacular and I began to feel like maybe it was worth the effort of the journey – because sitting still on a coach that thinks it’s a kangaroo is surprisingly hard work. There was a slope up to the crater and then of course a slope back down. Partway down I realised that everyone on the entire coach was swaying side to side in exactly the same way and got the giggles, so of course I had to video that.

We still weren’t there and the roads were getting worse still. We had hairpins now and we had to reverse up a hairpin to let a car go past. I am a little bit nervous of manoeuvres like that. Then we came across some ATVs, part of the voluntary rescue services. There are 18000 people in rescue groups across Iceland, 3000 ready to go at any given time. The Landmannalaugar road – I say road! – is only open for 6-8 weeks each year and during that time, they get around 1000 requests for help. That’s around 20 every single day.

Now we really were getting close. We rounded a bend and there were those spectacular steadky rhyolite mountains that I’d wanted to see so much. There was still the ford to contend with. My guidebook says:

In good conditions skilled drivers might be able to nurse a conventional vehicle to the ford at Landmannalaugar, the passengers then hitching a ride across with something more sturdy, but you’re not advised to try.

Quite why you need to hitch a ride across the ford is beyond me as it’s all of a five minute walk from the campsite and there are footbridges over the water. But it did mean a lot of vehicles parked at a distance. We splashed straight through the ford – the coach may be bigger than the truck but it’s just as tough.

We had less than two hours at Landmannalaugar after a four hour drive to get there. I spent the first three quarters of an hour getting to and in the hot springs. Steaming hot water rises up from under the lava field and flows into a cool stream. You jump on in and paddle around until you find somewhere the right temperature. Right up by the springs can be painfully hot but even if you paddle downstream to the cooler bits, bubbles of hot water still pop up and you can suddenly find you’ve had your foot on something incredibly hot. Also no one mentions that it’s full of floating weedy algae stuff, which is revolting. Worth putting up with as a novelty but I prefer my steaming hot baths without green gunk.

It was a very nice location for a wild swim. I made a friend who took photos of me, although he was determined for me to take off my sunglasses which meant I couldn’t see anything and the sun was painfully bright, so the glassesless photos are pretty bad. I sploshed around in the unnaturally warm water for a while and then decided regretfully that I really did have to get out, get dressed and go and visit those mountains.

On the way I ran into some Icelandic horses, who were friendly enough and happy to have their noses stroked and then I made my way out onto the plain to stare at the streaky mountains for a while. By then I only had forty minutes of our precious time left so I took as many photos as I could and headed to my right to the canyon.

I wish I’d had more time to explore that canyon. We really could have done with leaving even earlier and staying overnight. It was great to see the Highlands, really other-wordly, but I came out to see Landmannalaugar. The Green Canyon is certainly greenish and it has a little river running through it. Guess who couldn’t resist a paddle? My boots, of course, stayed on the bus.

Then it was back to the site to find the coach, take a couple of last photos of the beautiful mountains and head out again. We would follow the same track back to the big lake and then go a different way. We’d come in from the north on F208, the new road built to go with the new power line. We would be going out to the west on the old F 225, the sheep-gathering route.

The mountains this way were generally a little bit greener and there were a lot more river crossings. The track was more track-like but it was also bumpier. I was aching from the hours and hours of bumpy driving and things kept falling off the seats because they got bounced off. At one point I sat up to try and stretch out the aches and realised that my boots had walked all by themselves into the aisle and managed to injure my shoulder retrieving them.

Five minutes later we stopped at the roadside to see Hekla closer up and I managed to injure my wrist jumping out of the bus. It was not a good afternoon. The ground, made up of stuff thrown from Hekla in various eruptions, was black and had a weird texture, sort of crunchy. I took photos, I borrowed a formation to use as a tripod to take a self-timing photo and then it occurred to me to have a look at what I was actually walking on. It seemed to be pumice. I liberated a few tiny bits to bring home and when we got back on the coach, it seemed everyone had brought a souvenir, mostly bigger pieces than mine.

More bumping. Everyone was falling asleep, although how they could sleep when the road conditions were like that and when there was Icelandic scenery around them I don’t know. It felt amazing to be back on paved road at last. We whizzed down the nice smooth flat road and made our final “technical stop” of the day. I looked up from my guidebook and almost squeaked out loud. We’d stopped at a small random petrol station in the middle of nowhere – and it happened to be the one we’d hunted for the Northern Lights at last year. It was nice to see it in daylight. In fact, it was nice to see it again – I’d never expected that. I’d seen a massive orange moonrise from behind it and before I’d realised what it was, I’d thought it was maybe a volcano in the distance. I now discovered that Hekla – an overdue volcano – sits more or less exactly where the moon was rising. You can also see Eyjafjalljökull and the Westman Islands from there, so it has a surprisingly good view when you’re not there in pitch blackness. I managed to finally put it down on a map – it’s on the junction of the 1 and the 26 and is described in my guidebook as “a lone petrol station”.

Then it was back along the ring road, on the now very familiar route through Selfoss, Hveragerði, Blue Mountains and down into Reykjavík. We got back about 6.45pm and I went shopping on my way home. First I stuck my head in all the tourist shops along Laugavegur and then went back along Hverfisgata to the underfloor-heated Austurstræti for some food. Just some chocolate milk and bread rolls and the nice lady in the shop helped herself to all the coins in my wallet. That doesn’t sound nice but I’ve built up a ridiculous collection of change and the coins are such small value and I’m still so bad at recognising them that they’re hard to spend. Today I opened my wallet to stare at them a little bit helplessly and the lady just picked out all the bits I needed and lightened it considerably. When a coin worth half a penny is the size of a UK 10p, it’s very helpful to get rid of a few occasionally.

And then I was done for the day. Tomorrow should be much shorter. I don’t get picked up until 9.15 or even 9.30 and the duration is only supposed to be 5-6 hours. I make up for it on Monday with a massive 16 hour trip to Vatnajökull, which is about twice the distance to Þórsmörk, when I imagine I’ll get home around midnight.

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Iceland summer 2012: Þórsmörk

Today started early when I woke up at 6.30am. By seven I was having breakfast and by 7.50 I was bored enough to go and stand outside to wait for the bus. To my surprise, the bus was actually already there, ten minutes early. I got taken to the ticket office, exchanged my piece of paper for a ticket, as usual, and waited for my bus.

When it arrived, the bus was a truck. I didn’t realise at first – I saw the truck arriving and assumed it was Landmannalaugar or somewhere equally remote and inaccessible. The booklet hadn’t mentioned Þórsmörk being a bit off-roady. I liked the look of the truck, the twin of the one I did the Golden Circle trip in last year and I was delighted when I spotted an AH30 – Þórsmörk sign in the front.

The guide, Matthias, I recognised from my caving trip last year (more precisely, I recognised that it wasn’t an Icelandic name and my brain made the leap from there) and then my mouth, without permission from my brain, decided to inform him of this. He said yes, probably it was him but he had bigger concerns.

“Do you have any better shoes?”

I was wearing my trekking sandals. I’d thought about bringing my boots just in case. I’d gone so far as to pack them and then I’d decided they were just too big and heavy and my sandals would be just fine. I assured Matthias that my sandals were tough.

“We have to hike.”

“I’ve climbed mountains in them. They’ll be fine.”

He wasn’t convinced. “We have to cross a river.”

“They’re waterproof. They’re tough. Really, they’ll be fine.”

He still didn’t seem convinced but he didn’t argue any more. The truck gradually filled up and we headed out of Reykjavík on the Ring Road, past the power station at Hengill (the name of one of the volcano planes I didn’t know yesterday) and down to Hveragerði. This is a journey I’ve made twice before but never in daylight. The volcanoes along the roadside look very different when they’re not under the snow and yet similar enough that I recognised them. They all look very green and brown and streaky and pretty and wild.

We sailed through Hveragerði which looks very ordinary when it hasn’t got those greenhouses glowing orange in the night, through Selfoss and across a vast agricultural area. Matthias talked, first in English and then repeating it in his native German and I took a few notes. I learnt that 20% of Iceland’s electricity is geothermal and the other 80% hydro power. I learnt that Hengill, the volcano running the power station (the world’s biggest geothermal power plant) is the closest active volcano to Reykjavík and erupts around every 5000 years. It only erupted 2000 years ago so Reykjavík feels safe from it for quite a while yet. The Vikings were apparently active in the ninth, tenth, twelfth and thirteenth centuries, which I wrote down because it made me giggle – it sounds like they took a century off. They liked Iceland because it was like Norway, full of fjords and glaciers “and strange exploding mountains – but they could cope with that”. I learnt Icelandics lived Viking-style, in single farmsteads dotted around for a thousand years and the first villages only really sprang up during the nineteenth century when fishing became a big industry. Icelandic cows are smaller than European cows and only produce 5000-6000 litres of milk per year, as opposed to 16000 and that sheep live all over the place in summer and live in sheds in winter and are sheared in October and March.

Then, with all the information finished, we made our first stop, at a petrol station at Hvolsvöllur. We had about twenty minutes there to buy lunch if we wanted, either at the petrol station or over the road at the supermarket. I had brought lunch with me but I did get another drink and some chocolate and then I went back into the car park to enjoy the view. There was a big pointy snowy volcano just about visible on the left and some smaller snowless pointy ones to the right. I didn’t know what any of those were at the time but I was going to find out.

Not much further on, we turned off the road. Some big pointy jagged mountains (the smaller ones I’d seen at the petrol station) were visible on the horizon. I looked over my mental map of Iceland, decided that I didn’t know of any volcanoes in that area and deduced (correctly!) that they must be the Westman Islands. They’re big. Big pointy chunks of rock. I was expecting them to be much smaller and a lot flatter. Then on our left was a big waterfall – Seljalandfoss. We weren’t stopping there just yet but we would on the way back. Five minutes later, the road ended.

We drove on a gravel track over the riverbed where glacial meltwater comes down. It’s also where the flood came down when Eyjafjallajökull erupted and melted its glacier. It’s just a huge dark grey floodplain and it looks like the surface of the moon, if the moon had shallow windy rivers all over it.

We had to drive through these rivers. It was exciting at first – we’re in a big truck and we’re driving through rivers! – but we went through so many it soon became quite normal. Some of them were little streams, some of them were quite fast, some of them were quite deep, some of them were quite wide.

Þórsmörk is a pretty little valley full of trees hidden in the space between three volcanoes. To the south is the famous Eyjafjalljökull (always prefaced with the words “this volcano has a very difficult name”). We were creeping along its very edge, because the “jökull” means the glacier on top and the whole thing isn’t just one cone, it’s a big volcanic massif. To the east, or right in front of us, was Mýrdalsjökull, which is much bigger and has a much bigger volcano hiding underneath it – the infamous and overdue Katla, whose caldera is 10km in diameter (compared to Eyjafjalljökull’s, which is only 1km – when Katla goes up, she’s going to dwarf Eyjafjalljökull’s drama) and to the north, by a dotted collection of volcanoes topped by the Tindfjallajökull.

We stopped at the foot of one of Eyjafjallajökull’s glacier tongues and I had to get Matthias to write this one down because it’s not on any of my maps and my Icelandic isn’t quite good enough to work out spellings from pronunciation. It’s called Gigjökull and he told me “gig” means “crater”, so I could add that to my vocabulary. Two and a half years ago, we’d have been standing in front of a pretty lagoon, filled with floating icebergs and with the glacier’s tongue sticking in it. Then Eyjafjallajökull erupted and dumped a lot of sand and ash in it and utterly destroyed it. That doesn’t mean it’s not a completely alien and incredible landscape.

Our next stop was quite a lot further on, at the Básar base camp. That was a surprise. To drive for over an hour across a gravel road that you can’t even see against a grey riverbed that looks like the moon, accessible only by 4x4s and then come across a campsite, with decking and manicured bits of lawn, people with caravans and even toilets. We stopped there for a quick lunch, then Matthias pointed at the mountain above us. “We have forty-five minutes to climb to the top of that mountain.”

We didn’t really take him seriously but we followed him into the trees. When the Vikings first came here, Iceland was 40% covered in trees. Now it’s under 2% and I think most of them are in Þórsmörk. We crossed a couple of streams and climbed up through the woods and suddenly we were halfway up a mountain. We stopped for Matthias to explain that Þórsmörk means “Woodland of Thor” (Þ being an ancient letter called Thorn, pronounced “th” as in Thor and mörk meaning woodlands) which I already knew because I like to do the reading and then as he was going to do the German explanation, all the non-German speakers could go on ahead. We did. Very slowly. Because every few metres you’d come across another gap in the trees and another spectacular otherworldly view.

We walked across the ridge of the mountain, taking photos down both sides – the tree-filled valley and green mountains on the left and the vast grey moon-like plain on the right and within a few minutes we’d crossed and were standing beneath the big lumpy rock that Matthias had pointed to from the ground. From a certain angle, it looks a bit like a frozen troll so we called it Troll Rock. I don’t know if that’s an official name or if it has an Icelandic equivalent but I can’t find it on any maps so I will leave it in English. Matthias pointed out that the mountains around here are mostly made of trachyte which is little more than compressed ash and is therefore vulnerable to wind and rain, which is why they all have a swept tumbledown look to them.

There were steps down from the other side of Troll Rock and that’s a long way and a lot of steps. My knees were trembling when I reached the campsite just because of the pressure on them of climbing down so many steps. That was the first stop and because we’d done so well, we’d make it a little harder.

Back in the truck we turned back and started going west again to stop off at a canyon. I didn’t manage to get the name of it. (The booklet says it’s Stakkholtsgjá) The first half was easier for me, I could wade to the mid-point and then take to the stones. Then it was a boing-boing-boing bit, where you can’t stop, you just have to jump across three or four stones as quickly as you can. I paused on one to adjust my feet and decided to step onto an underwater one on my way only. I used the stepping stones where it was easier to but equally, if it was easier to get my feet wet, then I got my feet wet. We lost two members of our group there. They didn’t want to jump across a river.

It was well worth the tricky crossing. We had a smaller and easier stream crossing and suddenly we were in a dark, narrow canyon and a few more steps (or splashes) beyond that, we’d reached the end and were standing under a tall thin waterfall falling from miles above our heads. It was pretty spectacular. The Danish woman I’d borrowed earlier to be my personal photographer took the camera out of my hands to take a photo of me crouched on a rock in front of it all.

After a splash back into the main canyon and another wade across the river, it seemed I’d won the battle of boots vs sandals. Matthias and the old man of the group were grinning and pointing at me and evidently discussing my feet in German. Matthias switched to English long enough for me to hear that I must have “skin like a seal” – I think they meant that it’s very cold water. The only downside was the sandals let in things like sand, grit and volcanic ash and by the time we got back to the truck, my feet were coated in black dust. I scraped the worst of it off and tried to sit still until we reached the next stop.

We’d done well again. Time to make it a little harder still. Another half-hour drive back through Þórsmörk and we came to a very well hidden little place just off the main track, which had a sign pointing to it and therefore I know that our next canyon was called Nauthusagil – at least, I think that’s what I’ve written down. It’s very hard to read because I was trying to write it as our big truck was trundling over volcanic rock.

This was another canyon and it was much narrower and much greener. It was also much easier to cross the river here – no need to pick my way across and make the odd flying leap – this water was crystal clear and much colder than the last one. I paddled my way along with the rest of the group, zigzagging across all the time, except that I was paddling while they were stepping carefully and then we reached an unexpected obstacle. We had to step across nice and carefully and then, holding onto a rope for balance, climb along the wall and then up a waterfall. I had no doubt that my sandals were up to it but I knew if anyone was going to fall in, it was going to be me.

I did make a slight misstep across – I was just in the process of realising that the big stepping stone everyone else was using was actually easier than trying to find a foothold under the water when I lost my balance very slightly. No, I didn’t fall in but I did have to throw one hand very quickly in to steady myself. The climb around the edge of the splash pool and up the waterfall was no problem – it was like an easier version of the Twin Pots in Swildons and it even had a rope. Beyond that was our goal – another hidden waterfall at the bottom of a tall, thin, moss-green canyon and again, very much worth the effort of getting there.

We splashed (or stepped) our way back to the truck. By now, my feet had been in the very cold water for a bit too long and they hurt a bit but they very quickly improved on being out of the water and I was silently gloating my triumph. “Have you got better shoes” indeed. This latest splash had even washed all the ash and filth off them.

Back on the track and we’d finished up behind a coach and three cars – for a gravel track across the surface of the moon, it’s amazingly busy. We very quickly lost the cars – at a river crossing they all headed upstream rather than follow us and five minutes later, we’d reached another river crossing. Matthias didn’t wait for the coach to get across. He was going across alongside it. In fact, he was overtaking it. Overtaking in a river! I suddenly had to adjust my view of Matthias.

We rumbled along at a much more satisfactory speed (Matthias overtook a car, this time on the gravel track) and reached Seljalandfoss. It’s forty metres high, the water runs off Eyjafjallajökull and you can walk behind it because it falls from an overhang. Matthias explained that this had something to do with the sea – the overhang was cut out by the sea right after the ice age and then the sea was pushed back and all the fjords became Iceland’s lowlands – isostatic rebounding was the phrase he used, I think. I’ll google it later. He told us that you could walk up behind the waterfall, easier to use the path on the left, or maybe the right. I can’t remember. I got distracted because he’d also commented “Some of you already have wet feet – you might want to take the direct route”. Without knowing what Seljalandfoss looks like, it’s hard to tell whether or not he’s joking although I suspected he was.

Seljalandfoss is quite spectacular. It’s a big white waterfall that just tumbles down off the cliffs and throws up a lot of spray and rainbows and everything is green around it. I followed the path up to the right, got soaked by the spray and hurried round as quickly as I could while taking as many photos as I could. A few more at the front and it was time to go back to the coach.

That wasn’t it. I thought that was the last of it but no. We stopped quickly at the petrol station at Hvolsvöllur and then went along the Ring Road to Selfoss. Not long after that, I spied a white snow-capped cone to my left which wasn’t on my mental map. It dawned on me that we weren’t on our way to Hveragerði and that we hadn’t crossed the suspension bridge in the middle of Selfoss. I had no idea where we were. The more I looked at the volcano, the more familiar it looked and so did the big white glacier next to it and the teeth-like ones next to that. Somehow we were looking at exactly the same view we’d seen that morning – the three boundaries of Þórsmörk. And yet surely we hadn’t turned back. I had my guidebook out, open to the south-west map, turning it over and over, trying to make sense of it and then finally I spied the next river crossing – this one a huge wide flat one (and us on a road and on a bridge) and figured out that we were on the 34, crossing the Ölfusá, which is the same river as at Selfoss but this was where it met the sea. We were stopping at a black lava beach.

That was another spectacular sight. Being in my sandals, I couldn’t resist sticking my feet in the North Atlantic and got two sandalfuls of tiny black stones for my trouble. I retreated further up the beach to tip them out and just got my feet covered in black sand. I took photos up and down the beach and out to sea and then retreated to the car park to clean my feet as best I could and take photos of the river meeting the sea and of the guardians of Þórsmörk in the distance.

Matthias seemed to have forgotten about the English translation because he talked in German all the way back to Reykjavík. I know enough German to understand that he was talking about whale-spotting mostly, that the flight to Akureyri in the north is 1hr 50 mins and that there is a type of whale 8m long. The blue whale may or may not be 80m long. He talked solidly in German for getting on for thirty miles and never translated a word of it into English until we reached the outskirts of Reykjavík.

We were all dropped off in the centre of town, since the truck isn’t really designed for Reykjavík’s narrower streets, which suited me fine as it was where I’d planned to disembark anyway. To my surprise at 7.30 at night all the shops were still open. Not just the supermarkets – all the souvenir shops, the bookshops, everything. I stuck my head in a few on the way back and in the square where the Christmas market was (I really need a proper name for this place) I stuck my feet in the fountain to wash off the remains of the beach. Maybe not the done thing but better than trailing black lava all through the guesthouse.

And then I was back and done for the day. Give or take five minutes, it had been a full twelve hours. I have taken 344 photos today. I think my estimate of 1000 photos over the entire trip is going to be a bit on the low side.

Iceland summer 2012: Reykjavik

Having been woken up by the sound of the terminal apparently crashing down around me, I adjusted my suitcase to shift as many of the books as I could find into my hand luggage and headed to the Heathrow Express to take the shuttle over to Terminal 1. Heathrow at 8.30 in the morning is very different to the deserted Heathrow of 11 at night.

I was a bit early. I checked in at the machine, which took all of thirty seconds because this time, it recognised my passport first time but I had a twenty minute wait before the bag drop opened. For the sake of not letting the queue sprawl across the entire terminal, Icelandair opened up the mazes so we could at least be contained while we waited and then took pity on us and opened five minutes early. My suitcase just made it in under the weight limit and with that deposited, I went in search of breakfast.

I had a couple of hours to kill after that. The shops in departures didn’t keep me entertained for very long so I went through security to see what I could find on the other side. I think I’ve mastered the art of getting through security without being searched.

Two hours killed and I went to my gate and got my first glimpse at the planes. My one was right outside the window so I could get a good look at it and find out which is was going to be. All Icelandair’s planes are named after volcanoes and I was delighted to find I was going on Sjkaldbreiður, because that’s not only a name I recognise but also a volcano I know. It’s Shield-broad, visible from Þingvellir, the volcano after which all shield volcanoes are named, which I’m going to see again next Wednesday. I think last time I flew out on Eldborg, which is a perfect cone-shaped volcano on the way to Snaefellsnes and back on Keilir, which is the equally perfect cone-shaped one on Reykjanes, visible from Reykjavík. I was less delighted with the toddler who wouldn’t stop crying as we waited at the gate.

Fortunately, Gate 21 was actually Gate 21A and Gate 21B. The Reykjavík flight was at 21A and all the screaming kids and half the passengers were actually going to Beirut from 21B. I got on my plane, grabbed a blanket on the way past and soon discovered that despite Icelandair’s threats of “we are operating a full plane today”, I had an empty seat next to me. I didn’t get the bliss of the entire half-row being empty but an empty one next to me is good enough. We had one of the golden Dove planes behind us in the queue – I thought at the time it was the Olympic Firefly one but Google has told me I was wrong.

Once I’d enjoyed the takeoff and we were actually in the air, I started playing with my screen. I tried watching the Hunger Games but the plane was too noisy and I was constantly playing with the volume, going between being deafened and not being able to hear it properly, which made it impossible to follow what was going on. I put on This Means War instead, because I’ve seen it before and it’s not difficult to follow anyway.

We still weren’t at Iceland when it finished so I watched an episode of the Big Bang Theory and then played with the screen, as we were only twelve minutes out, only to discover a fifty minute documentary on Þríhnjúkagígur that I should have watched. I managed about a minute and a half of it before Iceland appeared in my window. I could understand how I’d mistaken it for a cloud bank when we landed last time. It was so different this time. It wasn’t a big white cloud island. It was greyish brown and there was a steaming patch of bright baby blue – the Blue Lagoon, visible from miles away against the lava. I was expecting the famous Reykjanes lava field to be black but it was definitely brown and from above, it looked like a big muddy field.

I got off the plane, through passport control and baggage reclaim and onto the minibus in record time and once we were on the open road, I discovered how very wild Reykjanes looks from ground level. Suddenly there are mountains and volcanoes rising up which you just can’t pick out from the sky. I kept an eye out for Þríhnjúkagígur but at the moment, it’s impossible to tell which ridge of volcanic rock is the hollow one. I did spot Keilir and then our guide pointed out, to our left, you can see Snaefellsjökull – that’s the one which supposedly contains a route to the centre of the Earth. I still wasn’t entirely convinced you could see it from Reykjavík, though.

As ever, there was an adventure on the way to the hotel, despite being on a minibus that I know drops off at the door. The trouble is, the driver wasn’t entirely sure where the Flying Viking is. We stopped in the right road and he took me down to the nearest hotel to ask them. They hadn’t heard of it. He took me to the next one. They didn’t know. He radioed base and was told it’s number 9 – right across the road from where we’d stopped. I crossed the road and stopped at the door of number 9. It didn’t look right. I couldn’t remember exactly what the picture on the website looked like but this wasn’t it. And my instructions said to come round the back of the building and up the steps. I couldn’t see any way to get to the back of this building. I trundled off to the end of the road, hoping but not expecting that if I went up the road parallel to it, I’d find the back. Of course not. In that case, maybe he’d misheard the building number. Maybe it wasn’t 9 but 29 or even 39. I followed the street right the way to the end, keeping a very close eye out for Flying Viking. Nothing. In despair, starting to think I might just trundle my suitcase back to the Best Western at the other end of the city, I stopped a stranger and pleaded for help. She phoned “a phonebook company”, gave the name of the owner and talked to at least two people and finally said it’s at number 10. I trundled all the way back down, only to find number 10 was exactly where the minibus driver had left me and that all the hassle could have been avoided if there had been a Flying Viking sign anywhere on the front of the building. I went to the back door, claimed my keys and let myself into my “apartment”.

It’s the basement of the building and has a nice new-looking pine kitchen/common area, with a couple of walls which are supposed to look like they’re carved out of the rock. I would be very surprised if they actually were, but they do look good. The shower looks especially good.

I dumped the heavy suitcase, found my favourite red travelling shirt because I wanted the pockets and headed out to get my bearings in this unfamiliar part of town. I soon found all the restaurants and then most of the souvenir shops before ending up walking past Harpa and onto the seafront.

If anything, Iceland looks even more desolate and wild in summer than it did under four feet of snow in December. Esja has massive, steep sloping sides and in the distance, you can see proper volcanoes. It’s spectacular, especially today. There were some big black rainclouds coming in from the north but over Esja, it was mostly blue sky and a few scraps of white fluffy cloud. And there was a rainbow emerging from one of the patches of cloud and resting at the top of Esja’s steepest slope, a very faint rainbow that I’m still not convinced my camera really picked up but definitely a rainbow. I had my photo taken with the Viking ship again – I like compare and contrast photos and today’s blog photo is December’s Viking ship picture just to remind you how very white and Arctic it was then – and then went up to the old harbour. I got distracted by the Princess Daphne – I’m not sure whether she’s a ferry or a cruise ship. Either way, she’s registered in Madeira and quite a long way from home. I watched her leaving the harbour and went on my way.

Just past Harpa, as you head towards the harbour, there was a new exhibit of Reykjavík since the eighteenth century. I had a little look at some of them – it showed what the city used to look like and how much of it had been reclaimed from the sea and it meant I could see how it might have looked in Jules Verne’s day (not that he ever actually came here). I carried on up and found myself in the less pretty end of town, on the edge of a big industrial estate/retail park. The sea was hidden behind a big boulder wall but I scrambled up and triumphantly spied Snaefellsjökull in the distance. It was a bit hazy but definitely there, if half-hidden behind the Princess Daphne on the horizon.

I got a tiny bit lost on the way home, wandering up streets I sort of recognised but couldn’t quite put together yet. I didn’t know if I’d seen them from the minibus or from my wander, I recognised the church at the end of the street but couldn’t remember when I’d seen it or where to go from there and eventually stumbled upon the right road.

I’ve braved the sulphurous shower and it doesn’t smell as bad as I thought, although it definitely doesn’t smell like English water. I’ve eaten bread and cheese and I’ve unpacked. I think I can settle here for the next week and a bit.

Sleep may be an issue, though. It’s now gone ten at night and the sky is still as blue as day. I think the sun will technically set but I don’t think it’s really going to get properly dark until I get home.

Iceland summer 2012: Heathrow

I arrived at Heathrow at about 10.30pm with nothing more interesting happening on the way than the coach leading our convoy to Ringwood losing an ear at Hurn, requiring all three coaches to stop while the drivers retrieved it from the roadside. The pod was nice and easy to find and then because I don’t like going into the pod and staying put all night, I went to wander Terminal 4. Even at 11 at night, it was still hot and without heading for another terminal I couldn’t find any way to watch the planes. Gatwick is definitely better for entertainment.

I took to my pod again, flicked through the selection of films and music and went to bed.

Then I was woken at 7.15 by what sounded like the terminal collapsing only a few feet away. Sealed in a dark box, I had no idea what was going on but it seemed I was safe in here. I got out my netbook to see if I could get the internet working this morning and just check that Heathrow hadn’t been blown up, although I hoped that if it had, I’d know about it from being here. While I was doing that, I heard the same noise again a few times. I conclude it’s not the sound of destruction; it’s just the sound of the plumbing where toilets are being flushed in other pods.

Later I’ll have to drag myself out of the pod and get over to Terminal 1 to check in. For now, I’m going to go and find some breakfast.