Iceland autumn 2012: South Shore Adventure

Another early morning, another early breakfast, another early start. I was picked up by a huge coach and delivered to the BSI terminal under a spectacular pink and orange sky, only to discover the ground was very icy when I tried to get away from the buses enough to get a photo of it.

Today we were off on a South Shore Adventure. First stop was Hvolsvöllur, which is a very small town about an hour and a half from Reykjavík. There is a petrol station with shop and café, a small supermarket and not a lot else. It exists to provide supplies and fuel for tourists who are heading east and hikers who are heading Þórsmörk/Landmannalaugar direction. There’s a good view of Eyjafjallajökull from there.

Next stop was Þorvaldseyri farm. Well, not the farm itself, just the layby outside. This was where Eyjafjalljökull erupted and it’s where you see all the pictures of it. The whole place was black with ash two years ago but apparently after it stopped, grass began to sprout out of the ash within two weeks and now you can’t tell anything happened.

Third stop was Sólheimajökull, a tongue of Mýrdalsjökull, which is Eyjafjalljökull’s larger neighbour. We dropped off one passenger right at the turning to go on a superjeep tour, left half the group behind to do a walk on the ice and the rest of us proceeded right down to the glacier itself. We walked down past the glacial river – as brown and opaque as most glacial rivers and yet incredibly reflective – and then down to the ice. A lot of it was covered in filth – partly the filth and ground-up rock the glacier has picked up on its long slide down the mountain but a lot of it ash from Eyjafjallajökull. I hadn’t realised how close to Sólheimajökull we were actually going to get. We walked underneath it! The underneath, protected from the dirt and the ash, was absolutely crystal clear glacial blue. When I walked on Falljökull over the summer, we were told to stay away from the ice caves because they could collapse and that’s a lot of very heavy ice to fall on your head but apparently this time it was ok. We all posed for photos in a blue ice tunnel and then went under a tongue of the glacier and emerged the other side before slowly making our way back to the coach. I’d heard our guide talking about volcanoes while we were on the ice. Katla is a huge volcano under the next glacier to the east. She’s ten times the size of Ejyafjalljökull and overdue. The phrase that particularly stuck in my head was “If Katla starts today, you’re all becoming Icelanders”. Because if Katla blows, the disruption to air traffic caused by Eyjafjalljökull will look like the blink of an eye. Katla is huge and under a huge glacier and will send up monumental amounts of ash. This isn’t “if” Katla erupts. This is when. When she erupts, European flights will stop for a long time. Hekla, on the other hand, I’m really hoping goes soon. She’s also overdue. She’s erupted 35 times since Viking times and this century has gone on a pattern of every ten years. 1970, 1980, 1991, 2000. Last time she erupted, half of Reykjavík went to watch. I think I said this in my blog over the summer. It was a pretty eruption, all red lava and very little ash and people wanted to see it. Problem was, while they were watching it from the mountainside, a big snowstorm came up, causing Iceland’s biggest ever mountain rescue operation, while the lava cheerfully went on bubbling away elsewhere, not actually being a problem. Hekla tends to start with no warning whatsoever and scientists say she could start any day. If Hekla starts while I’m here, I’m moving my flight back a day or two and going out to watch. She’ll become a big tourist attraction within minutes, there’ll be hundreds of tour buses, I can get out there easily enough and I’m not missing an eruption. Of course, chances are it won’t actually happen. But keep an eye on the news.

We drove along the south shore for a bit, past Dyrhólaey, which is the big bit of rock with a hole in it (said to be tall enough to sail a ship under – the way this is phrased makes me think no one’s actually tried it. Apparently this part of the coast is hard to get around by boat because of the lava) and down the west side of Reynisfjall, which is a big ridge of rock separating fairly green countryside from the volcanic desert on the other side. We stopped at Reynisfjara, a beach of black lava sand. There are magnificent basalt cliffs, with the six sided columns that really shouldn’t form naturally and yet do, shallow caves with hexagonal ceilings, three big stacks off shore called the Reynisdrangar (supposedly three trolls who were caught by the sunlight trying to grab ships) and big unpredictable waves.

Our lunch stop was on t other side of Reynisfjall, at the last town before civilisation runs out for a while, at Vík-í-Mýrdal, more commonly known as plain Vík. It’s a pleasant little town that I stopped briefly at on the way to the glacier over the summer. Now I got an hour there. Most people went for the café at the petrol station (which serves typical Icelandic stuff as well as eggburgers, hot dogs and apparently “toast with cheese and marmalade”. I didn’t try it out. I went into the wool shop, which is the factory shop and therefore cheaper than the shops in Reykjavík, if you’re after lopi jumpers (the traditional Icelandic woolly jumper with the elaborate ring pattern around the neck) or blankets. Still upwards of £80 though.

Once I was done with the wool shop, I went down to the beach, through bright yellow reeds to just wander and enjoy a bit of peace and quiet. I took photos of the Reynisdrangar from the other side and the snow-dusted mountain that overlooks the town and sat on the rocks and generally appreciated being on an alien beach.

I ate lunch on the coach on the way back to our next stop, Vík being the furthest east point of the day. I’d brought bread rolls and cheese slices and these are easy to eat on the go but on the other hand, you have to hold on to them very tightly when the bus driver takes downhill hairpins a little quick – trying to keep hold of two halves of bread rolls balanced on one leg with one hand and cheese slices balanced on the other leg with the other and not fall out of my seat at the same time.

Next stop was Skógar Folk Museum. A man called Þórður Tómasson started collecting stuff in the forties when he was fourteen and eventually turned it into a museum. He’s ninety-one now but he still comes to the museum every day and plays the organ and has unexpected singsongs with the visitors. When I say he collected “stuff”, I mean “stuff”. There’s a copy of the first ever printed Icelandic bible, there are spoons made of cow horn (you cut out a spoon shape from a horn, soak it in boiling water to make it hot and use a spoon-press to make the spoon rounded. Trouble is, if you eat hot food with it, your spoon goes floppy again. Still, not much else to do on cold Icelandic nights except repress your spoon every day), bits of rope and driftwood, buckets made of whale bones, the handle from a treasure chest hidden behind the waterfall in the Viking age (they still haven’t found the treasure but the existence of the handle more or less proves that the treasure isn’t just a myth), a fishing boat, stuffed birds, bird skeletons, paintings, musical instruments, furniture, ice skates made out of cow bones (this particular pair was still used until the 1970s), an Icelandic washing machine and mangle (used until the 1960s), ladles, plates handpainted with such exotic plantlife as poppies, chestnuts, hazelnuts, blackberries etc (exotic to Icelanders, who have no such things) and a collection of turf and wooden houses which were relocated here as part of the museum.

This was all very nice and our guide was great and hilarious and I’m very glad we weren’t just let loose to wander but it wasn’t as interesting as the waterfall across the field.

Skógarfoss is 62m high, straight down. Possibly not the highest I’ve seen or the widest but the two combined I think make it the biggest and most powerful and you get soaked if you get anywhere near it. You can see the spray coming off it from all the way over in the village, where you can’t actually see the waterfall because it’s hidden in its own short but deep little valley. It just plunges down off the cliff in this vast white cascade and you can get so close to it, if you don’t mind getting drenched. Actually, it’s quite good fun, especially if you’ve had the sense to wear waterproof stuff. I could have done with less time at Vík and more time at Skógarfoss, especially as it was the reason I chose this tour in the first place.

Next stop was another waterfall, one I already knew, Seljalandsfoss. Our guide seemed to think the waterfall itself isn’t very interesting and only worth the stop because of the unique path that means you can walk behind it. I disagree. I like Seljalandsfoss. It’s high and thin and heavy and it looks great. And yes, you can follow the path up and walk right up behind it. Today it wasn’t looking as good as it did over the summer. In the summer, it was set among bright green grass and fields and it caught the sun and sparkled and gave me lots of photos of rainbows. Autumn in Iceland is a dead-grass-brownish colour. Pretty and exotic but very different from summer.

By the time I was finished with Seljalandsfoss, I was soaked. I hadn’t put on my big coat, instead I’d put on my fleece and raincoat and that seemed good – I’d stayed pretty dry although my mittens were soaked through. It had started to rain although not so much that it really makes a difference when you’ve been waterfalled twice within a few minutes. In the coach, out of the wet stuff and settled in for a long drive back to Reykjavík, I tried taking photos from the window, as I’d been doing all day because we’d come to a great bit of snow-covered floodplain but the window was too speckled to get pictures. It was raining, in a slightly odd way. And since when had the landscape been so white? And why was the cloud suddenly so low that we were driving through it and couldn’t see the mountains anymore? Because it was snowing, that was why!

We stopped at Hvolsvöllur for “ten or twelve minutes” (oh yes, our guides are quite precise with their stops) and I hopped down to take photos of the snow that had definitely not been there when we’d stopped this morning – not been there half an hour ago, come to that. I hadn’t bothered with either of my coats, just pulled on my thin green fleece over a t-shirt and went out to prance in the snow and proclaim to anyone who came near that “This wasn’t here this morning! This is amazing!” and take a photo to match the one I’d taken in the morning, of the road and the warehouse and Eyjafjallajökull, only with the volcano missing because of the fog and what was left coated in snow. I took a photo of the socks on the pipes that I’d forgotten about in the morning and then decided I really had to take a photo of myself in the snow for Facebook. I did and then used Reykjavík Excursions’ free onboard wifi to upload it, only to discover that I was accidentally wearing my Love Winter t-shirt and it was very visible in the photo of me in “the first snow of the winter”.

It had stopped snowing by the time we reached Reykjavík a bit after 7pm. Having had fun playing with the camcorder, I decided I really couldn’t spend tomorrow wandering the city. I also couldn’t face another early start and long day so I decided what I would do was start lazily, go and have a hot chocolate and get my petrol station photo (we went past it again on the way home!) and do the afternoon Golden Circle trip. It’s a mere two hours shorter, which I deduce must be caused by not spending an hour and a half at Gullfoss for lunch and skipping Skálholt – I still get Þingvellir and Geysir and a look at Gullfoss but I also get a morning off. I tend to come to Iceland and spend every day wearing myself out seeing things and doing things and waking up far too early. Still, things to see, places to go. I think I’m now reaching the point where I could do with hiring a car so I can get to all the places I want to and spend as much time as I want to there. Half a day at Þingvellir, at least. As much time as I want at Skógarfoss. Stopping at the roadside to take photos of all the things I keep seeing but can’t get pictures of. An hour or two in Selfoss, which I’ve driven through so many times. Who wants to volunteer to come with me and do the bit of driving that involves navigating Reykjavík? I’ll drive once we’re out of town and I’ll do a tour guide-style commentary of everything I know about this place (quite a lot now although I have come across one question I can’t answer – where in Reykjavík can you find a pool table?) and I’ll even make sure you can pronounce Eyjafjalljökull by the time you go home.

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