Iceland January 2013: Riding, Wellness & Northern Lights

This morning started with another 8.30 pickup. I crept downstairs and attempted to make my hot chocolate until Evelyn appeared from the laundry room and took over – probably for the best as I was attempting to add the chocolate powder to the milk before I’d heated it and it wasn’t dissolving at all.

Today’s trip was with Reykjavík Excursions but the pickup was with Íshestar, in a minibus. I was the second pickup and was requested to sit in the front, presumably because I was the first one to turn up on my own in a fairly busy minibus. I’ve looked up the driver on the Íshestar website and he has the gloriously Icelandic name of Sigurður Örn Einarsson. We did several more pickups around the city and sat for a good ten minutes outside Hotel Cabin until the two from there finally turned up. Then we listened to Sigurður’s favourite CD on the way – it was an information CD about Íshestar and the horses and the riding, from “don’t call them ponies!” to “don’t wear anything that’s been worn to ride horses in other countries” to “Íshestar was founded in 1982 and in 1992 started to offer day trips instead of multi-day trips.”.

Once we’d sat through Sigurður’s favourite movie – on how to approach and ride an Icelandic horse – we left our stuff behind and got changed into riding stuff. I decided their winter overalls were less bulky and more comfortable than my coat, so I left that behind. The overalls are fantastic, although the first set I tried on completely drowned me. The second one was about perfect, lined with thick fluffy fleece and then I added the dayglo orange rainstuff over the top. Finished off with a helmet, a pair of wellies, disposable self-adhesive footwarmers stuck to each foot and a pair of gloves. Then we went off to be paired with our horses. I said tentatively that I’d done this tour before but that was my only experience of horseriding and the nice lady (who isn’t on the website!) looked delighted and took me off to give me “the crazy horse”. She was only joking. I had Lysingur – at least, that’s the closest I can get to the spelling. It means “bringer of light” because he’s got a light brown face and then turns almost completely white beyond his ears. He’s a very good horse and apparently very soft to ride.

He was noisy and not at all keen to be taken out of the stables. I pulled him along by the reins and he stopped wherever he wanted to nibble hay and nose the other horses. Outside, he decided to be noisy – the occasional neigh (echoed by the horses still inside) but mostly distressed squeaks. Lena (from Denmark; speaks Danish & English) adjusted the saddle and stirrups and kept asking him “What are you saying?” and then I had to scramble up. Between the multiple layers I was wearing, my knees just wouldn’t bend and for a moment I thought I was going to need to be lifted onto Lysingur. I tried from the other side – that worked a bit better.

It was a big group, so it took forever to get everyone dressed, paired and onto the horse. Lysingur mostly stood still and good as gold and went quiet, just looking around every now and then while I tried to take photos of him. Then it started to hail hugely. The horses all turned their backs on it and just stood there, trying to huddle up together but otherwise ignoring it while most of the riders probably began to wonder why they were doing this.

When we finally departed, I discovered I was fairly happy sitting on Lysingur. Last time everything had felt very unstable the moment Socrates started to move and a tiny bit terrifying but this time it felt fairly natural. We followed the road back down where we’d driven to where the riding area of Hafnarfjorður begins, stopping a couple of times for whatever reason. Lysingur spied a tree just off the path, turned round and began to munch the scenery. Once he was doing it, all the horses nearby started to as well and the one in front of us wandered off the path onto the moorland to get at better grass.

We pulled our horses away from their snacks and back into their single line and began walking up the hill. The fast group split off to the right, leaving the rest of us to go nice and slowly. One of the group leaders, who’d been going up and down the line asking everyone how we were getting on with our horses asked if I’d done lots of riding before. I assured her I had not and I’d just done this trip once before. Could I remember the horse? Of course I could, it was Socrates. He’s out in the meadows at the moment, having his holiday. But Lysingur is a lovely horse, follows along where he’s supposed to go and doesn’t make a fuss about anything. All the horses are lovely horses and nice and easy for beginners, since the vast majority of Íshestar’s visitors are absolute beginners. I get the impression that Lysingur has often been one of the leaders’ horses, since at first he seemed to be trying to trot along at the side of the group rather than follow meekly along the line but he very quickly got used to that.

Not long after we’d split from the faster group, it started to hail again, really heavily. My fingers were freezing because my gloves were wet, my foot heater pads weren’t doing anything at all and my hood kept blowing down and I didn’t dare to let go of the reins for too long – Lysingur was good as gold but I was still reliant on the reins to not fall off. At last the hail stopped and the sky began to turn blue. Still cold though. We did a big circle of the lavafield nearby, did a tiny bit of trotting, which felt just a little bit scary and then made our way back to the stables.

I just had time to get out of the riding stuff and sit down at a table and drink one mouthful of hot chocolate before I was shepherded out. We’d all been given certificates and those of us who had something else in the afternoon were given vouchers for that, along with a token for a packed lunch, to be claimed from the bar. I dealt with this second unwanted packed lunch by conveniently not going to collect it. I hastily retrieved my phone from the safe boxes behind reception and jumped into the minibus to head back to Reykjavík for the next part of the day.

I spent half an hour at Reykjavík Excursions’ main station, twitching and not sure at all when or how I was supposed to get on the bus. I picked up a couple of magazines and leaflets, wandered into the café in hope of finding bread rolls with no success and finally heard the announcement for the Fontana bus. There was no bus with Fontana on the front so I asked one of the staff and was directed to the small bus.

At one o’clock we finally left, via a pickup at the Hilton and headed out on the Ring Road. By now I’d remembered that RE have free wifi on their buses, so I had a look at the route. I’d been expecting us to head north then east but instead we were taking the route to Hveragerði and then turning left and heading north, which made sense. However, as we were driving through the Blue Mountains, the minibus started to rattle like crazy, like the blind was badly attached somewhere. The driver poked at it, then stopped the bus at the side of the road and phoned someone, then we drove on, with it still rattling like crazy, to the little café stop five minutes up the road where we were told “We have a short stop to change bus. Something is wrong with the bus, I don’t know what.” It was irritating because it was cutting into my spa time but on the other hand, there was a huge appeal in finally getting to stop on that section of Ring Road and take photos, especially as it was finally snowing and the Blue Mountains were turning white. I checked in the little café stop (that’s its name! Litla Kaffistofan) to check for bread rolls – still none – and went to take photos. I wanted to get the mountains on the other side of the road but that’s a difficult job when it’s snowy and icy and slippery and you’ve got the Icelandic equivalent of the M25 right in front of your with no barriers. Photos were taken and then I retreated. My hands were freezing. Gleefully, I produced my reusable handwarmers, clicked them and then slid them inside my mittens. They don’t last long and they’ve never felt particularly warm before but they’re fantastic when your hands are so cold. I then remembered the wifi again. I got my phone out and went round the back of the little café stop to take photos of myself and the snow so I could use the wifi in the bus to put them straight on Facebook. At that point, the new bus arrived so we abandoned bus, got in the new one and were on our way.

Ten minutes later, we were over Hvergerði. The snow had already vanished and autumn had returned by the time we reached the greenhouse village. Here, the driver decided to do a little detour. I thought perhaps there was a new road north that just wasn’t on Google Maps yet but no, we wasted a couple more precious minutes doing a little loop through Hveragerði before heading off again.

When we reached the spa, the driver decided to add some time to our schedule. We were supposed to be getting back at 6 but if we left the spa at 5.15, then it would take an hour and a half to get home, including our stop at Þingvellir, and that would get us back in plenty of time for the 80% of us who were going Northern Lights hunting. I instantly forgave him the rattling bus and the detour. We went inside, the driver argued with the receptionist in Icelandic before wandering off, the receptionist then kept us waiting a little longer because she wasn’t sure if we were supposed to be baking bread in the hot sand or not. We weren’t.

Something that should have been obvious but I’d forgotten about was the open plan changing rooms and the compulsory naked showers. Not as terrifying as I’d expected. This was mostly because when I’d taken a locker key at reception, I’d picked one to a locker that didn’t lock. I spent forever slamming in and trying to force the key and repack the locker and throw everything on the floor in a temper before I ventured out, wrapped in my towel, to change it. By the time I’d doen that, the changing room was empty and I could have my shower all on my own. What was terrifying was having to go outside in the cold to get to the water.

There were three pools. The first and biggest in a long rectangular pool, maybe six to eight feet wide, just deep enough to sit in and stretching the full length of the place. This is Lauga, about 34°, I think. It has big lumps of black rock in it, some for sitting in or on, some with fountains coming out, some for decoration. There is a shallower, raised section about three quarters of the way long, like an unnatural bit of beach that you have to crawl across. The second pool is Sæla. It’s a bit deeper, deep enough to stand in, 32°, with a view over the lake. Quite weird to be in an outside pool at a comfortable temperature looking out at a lake which is mostly frozen and has massive clouds of steam emerging all around the shore. The third pool is Viska, which is the hot pot, 38-40°, which is almost uncomfortably hot. It’s raised, so you have to climb out of Lauga and up about six steps before you can dive back into the hot water. This also has a view over the lake, and it’s roundish with seating around the edges. It feels amazing to jump into but after a while, you realise you’re just too hot and have to go back to Lauga.

There are also the steam baths. Three of them, called Gufan. They’re built right over the hot spring (one of three at Laugarvatn) and as well as being crazy hot (the doors are propped open with specially carved pieces of wood and the windows are open) they also stink like the pits of hell. The sauna (Ylur) is better. It smells chocolately, it’s hot and it has a tall window so you can look at the lake.

Then there’s the lake itself. You can go down onto the geothermal beach if you want hypothermia but you’re not allowed to go into the lake because of unpredictable boiling hot spots. I wanted to go in the lake, right up until the moment when I climbed out of Sæla to investigate the possibility and realised how cold it is when you’re not in the water. I stuck a foot on the black sand, didn’t find it hot and retreated to Lauga, having washed the sand off my feet in the mercifully hot showers next to the pool.

It was nice, hopping between the three pools depending on how hot or cold I was feeling, looking out at the lake and the snow-capped mountains. The spa was fairly quiet, at least compared to how I imagine it can be in the summer, but just about everyone was English and it wasn’t just the people on my tour bus, because there were only five of us. There was a posh English lady is Viska telling everyone proudly just what exotic things she’d eaten “Oh yes, puffin and guillemot and of course, mink whale”.

Once it was time to get out, I realised I’d made a small mistake in the planning of this. You have to dry off in the drying area before you’re allowed in the changing area. I’d left my shampoo and conditioner in my locker. I wasn’t going to get dry to go and retrieve it just to have to get dry all over again. Once again, the travel towel was brilliant – dries like magic, folds up to the size of a shoe and then seems to dry my swimming costume while it’s in the bag being taken home.

The sky had been blue at the spa although starting to cloud over and get cold after a while. When we got back on the minibus and started heading west to Þingvellir, we found that it had been snowing fairly heavily and the roads were white. We arrived at Þingvellir in the dark, I tried rather pointlessly to take photos of it in the dark, failed and spent the twenty minutes staring out towards the Law Rock, trying to imagine Gizur the White preaching to the Viking chiefs 1012 years ago. He was the one who got them all to convert to Christianity in 1000AD at the command of the Norwegian king Olafur Tryggvason (founder of Trondheim, Christianiser of the Orkneys and therefore old friend of mine) and they chose to be baptised in the warm lake at Laugarvatn rather than the glacial river at Þingvellir. Icelanders: getting the best use out of their naturally hot water since 1000AD.

We got back into Reykjavík a bit after 6.30. I’d been watching the sky all day, watching clear blue alternate with massive snow clouds and I decided my first stop was at Iceland Excursions’ office to see what was happening in the evening. The Northern Lights tour was still happening. I ran around the corner to the 1011, got some food and ran back to my guesthouse, the choice being “get back asap to be picked up at 7.30 and taken back to where you’ve just been” or “hang around the city centre in the cold for over an hour”.

Back in my room, I ate two cheese rolls faster than anyone has ever eaten anything, a handful of huge sour cream flavour star-shaped crisps (huge, quite difficult to actually eat) and then emptied out my bag, as I had no intention of carrying around sunglasses or wet swimming stuff or food. I was outside at 7.30 on the dot, picked up fifteen minutes later (much better than Arctic Adventures and Íshestar, who both kept me waiting in the cold for twenty-five minutes, starting to wonder if I’d been forgotten three days in a row) and we went down to the offices.

I’d been expecting it to be quiet. I tend to assume very few tourists come to Iceland in January. They do! Last time we’d had a whole coach on the Northern Lights trip. This time I could see three. Ours was the oldest, 66 seats – assuming they were all much the same size, that’s about 200 tourists!

Ours was full pretty quickly – it was already almost full and they pulled me on board as I was a single person who could fill one of their last few single seats and once it was full, we set off. Lovisa, our guide, talked all the way. Her English is much better than my Icelandic (or even my French) but it’s still nowhere near fluent and it was painful to listen for over an hour to someone talk non-stop struggling with every other word. She told us legends associated with the lights, told us how to take photos, the story of how Hvalfjorður got its name (something to do with a witch and a man who had a baby, I don’t know where the whales come into it), about the Yule Lads, rocks, waterfalls and so on all the way. About ten minutes out of Reykjavík, the lights showed up, just a faint glow in front of us which she said was slightly green. We were out of the city, why couldn’t we just stop and take photos right there? We drove forever, with these lights glowing slightly around us, tourists leaning every way to try and see them and still not stopping. We were heading north, to the Westlands, to Borgarnes (cue tale of Egil’s Saga in broken English) to a campsite because it was supposed to be clear north of Reykjavík. At least, it’s a campsite in summer. In the winter, it’s a big deserted fields with toilet and hot drinks facilities for Northern Light spotting.

We were told to be careful because there’s a gorge and a waterfall (which the farmer will light up for us) and it’s dark and slippery so don’t fall over. And we’re Bus 2, so don’t get on the wrong bus because there are going to be 8 coaches. 8 coaches at 66 tourists each equals over five hundred tourists descending on this spot. That’s an unbelievable amount.

We were the first there, despite not being the first to leave Reykjavík – we had a crazy Polish driver called Marek who overtook absolutely everything. There were two lots of Lights by the time we arrived, with a faint arc connecting them. Most people scrambled up onto the hill. I went onto the campsite to try on the other set of Lights. It was ok. I got used to using the patches of grass as a tripod, experimented with different exposures, got some ok pictures. Dropped my camera and broke a few pixels. This was because I’d attached a length of parachute cord to it on the glacier so I could hang it around my neck and not worry about dropping it into a crevasse. In the dark, I kept stepping on it and smashing the camera on the ground, so that came off pretty quickly. Seven more coaches accordingly turned up and despite 500+ people being there, it stayed quiet. At least, I had a good patch of ground to myself because the majority of them either stayed inside drinking the hot chocolate dry (after a couple of hours, I went in hoping to get some and found it had run out) or stayed near the buses. After a while, I decided to give up on the ground and climb a hump – not the hill but a semi-circular windbreak about 10 feet high around a picnic ground, covered in bone-dry frozen grass – the perfect tripod. I could sit or lie on it without getting wet and I could mould it to hold the camera perfectly while it took its pictures. At one point, I found myself giving a photography lesson to a couple of Englishmen who’d brought their small cameras instead of their big ones and didn’t know how to work them.

Then I heard everyone around the buses screaming. When that happens, it’s because the Lights are doing something impressive. I looked up and cancelled the photo I was in the middle of taking. The Lights had turned into a huge, incredibly bright green streaks in the sky. Amazing. More photos, a hint of red that’s not visible to the naked eye. And then more screams, louder ones.

When you see pictures of the Northern Lights, they’re always very bright, very vivid and very pretty. When you see them in reality, they tend to be a whitish glow that could be a cloud. Maybe you can see a hint of green but your camera has better eyes than you and the pictures look better than the reality. Not this time. There was a huge streak of green and purple going right across the sky from horizon to horizon, as bright as day, twinkling, pencilling, swirling, twinkling some more, flickering green and purple. It was incredible. I lay on the floor beside my camera, which was busy taking photos by itself, staring and squeaking and unable to believe this was real. It’s just not supposed to be so bright and clear and colourful and dramatic. Everyone was screaming, everyone clapped when it finally stopped, it was just amazing.

After that, the Lights died down a bit. Still present but nothing was going to beat that display. Half an hour later, the buses put on their lights, we all got back on and Lovisa told us it was the best display of the entire winter and weren’t we glad Iceland Excursions had switched them on specially for us? They’ve been a bit dim or non-existent recently, despite this being high solar activity time – I keep reading about how this winter is supposed to be one of the best for the Lights in a long time. Even Evelyn told me this morning that even on clear nights, the Lights aren’t really coming out to play. Well, they did and they put on an incredible show.

I found myself next to a chatty German on the coach on the way back. He does astronomy stuff as a hobby and goes somewhere in search of them every winter, usually Norway or Finland. This time he came to Iceland on his own as it had been overcast and boring in Finland for a week last year and he didn’t want to go back. It was his third night Lights hunting this week and definitely the best. He also goes off in search of various kinds of eclipse and carries around a camera the size of my suitcase and a tripod. I’m sure these are all very well but I got pretty good pictures from my tiny little compact (they do look better on the camera’s screen than they do on my netbook though).

Lovisa walked through the coach collecting our drop-off points, nearly missed me out because she thought I was with the chatty German and would be getting off at the Marina. We had to stop at the Hotel Laxnes which is in Mossfellsbær and Marek had a bit of fun and games reversing out of there. When we got to Reykjavík twenty minutes later, I was the second stop and that meant we had to come down from Odin’s Hotel through Asgard to the roundabout just down from my guesthouse. Marek couldn’t make the right turn in a coach that size so he squeaked it all the way round and got it from a different angle the second time, earning a round of applause. I was dropped off at the bottom of the road, walked up the hill, which was lethally slippery and found my way in. Walking around Iceland at quarter to one in the morning is no problem because it’s no darker than five in the evening or nine in the morning. It’s just dark a lot of the time.

I got in, got angry at the wifi here for refusing to let me upload my pictures to Facebook and went to sleep.

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