Iceland December 2013: Blue Ice

I spent about an hour writing a blog, then OffExploring signed me out and it all got lost. Angry. Not writing it all again.

We went to Sólheimajökull and walked on a glacier. I climbed an ice wall with two axes and my crampons. It was incredibly hard work. I saw Skogarfoss again. It’s cold.

Iceland December 2013: Black Lava & Blue Lagoon

First job of the day is now to fetch the bag from the door handle. Today I was visited by Askaleikir, Bowl-licker, who had also brought gingerbread. Let’s have no more of “the characters”, by the way. This is an Icelandic Christmas tradition dating back centuries (far longer than Father Christmas, I’m told) and these are the thirteen Yule Lads, who are trolls from the mountain. Their mother is Grýla, a witch and she owns the Christmas Cat, who eats children who don’t receive new clothes for Christmas. The Yule Lads come to town each night up until Christmas Eve and they each stay for thirteen nights, I think. One more arrives each night, so Askaleikir arrived from the mountains for two weeks last night. You leave a shoe on the windowsill for the Yule Lads – in this hotel they provide a little bag on the door handle – and the Yule Lads put something in – a treat if you’ve been good or a potato if you haven’t.

Despite today’s tour starting at 10, the pickup was an hour and a quarter beforehand – fair enough, because Íshestar are out at Hafnarfjorður, which is a bit of a drive out of central Reykjavik. So pickup was 8.45, almost as early as yesterday. Except that I was still pottering around my room at 8.37 when my phone rang. “Have you booked a tour? The pickup is here…” Fortunately I’d already packed – I put on my coat, stepped into my boots without doing them up and ran down the stairs, straight out the door and into the Eldhestar bus who looked at me like I was crazy. Then I heard my name being called behind me. Íshestar, not Eldhestar, the Ice Horses, not the Fire Horses. Íshestar were at the back door. I had an excuse for being late – the pickup was early. But at the next stop, the people were still having breakfast and I have no idea what took so long at the last hotel.

At Íshestar, wearing two pairs of socks, some wellies and a fuzzy fleece-lined warm oversuit, I was paired with a horse called Gleitur. I can’t find that name anywhere on the internet, and the spelling is only a guess and I have no idea what it means. Might have to get in touch with Íshestar. Anyway, she’s about eight, grey at the front but quite dark at the back, with dark legs. She will get lighter as she gets older. I instantly discovered that she likes to eat snow and once I was up and we were waiting in the paddock for everyone else to be ready, she wandered up and down clearing the snow off the railings. She’s also quite impatient – she really wanted to overtake the horse in front but that’s not allowed. We have to walk sedately in a row, one behind the other. The scenery was amazing but I had to keep both hands on the reins, not enough free hands to take photos. The area around Hafnarfjorður is blanketed in snow and when we went through the trees, it was like the entire world was in black and white. We went a bit faster a few times – I don’t know enough about horses to know if it was actually trotting but it was certainly faster and a lot bumpier. The first time, when I rode Socrates, I really enjoyed it but this time, even though I was much more comfortable on a horse, I felt like I was going to fall off and hung onto the saddle. At one point, Gleitur actually tried to overtake and I was very proud of myself for managing to pull her back, steer her back to the right into the line and hang on and not fall off while going “a bit faster” all at the same time. She’s a good horse. She made me and the rider behind me laugh by stopping to snatch a handful of hay from under the snow as we crossed a road. The weather was mostly ok but for a while it hailed, for a while it snowed and it got cold. My hands were fine in my gloves but my feet, even in two pairs of socks, were freezing. We took the horses back to the paddock, I got Gleitur harnessed to the railings with no problems, took photos of her and then went back inside to take off the riding stuff and try to get the feeling back in my feet. They hurt so much! The outsides had got so cold I began to wonder if they’d have to be amputated. I could hardly walk, I wasn’t sure whether they were numb or tingly but they hurt a lot.

I was transferring to the Blue Lagoon, so I had a transfer pass and also a ticket for a picnic lunch. I’ve had one before. It mysteriously vanished before I got to the bar to pick it up and equally mysteriously, it happened again today.

Anyone going back to Reykjavik left around 12.15 but those of us going to the Blue Lagoon had to wait another half an hour. Me and the family who were having breakfast. They were odd. I think they were Danish but the kids – two boys no older than ten – switched from Danish to American-accented English as if they were born speaking both and yet their dad seemed to speak to them in Spanish.

We pootled down into Hafnarfjorður and stopped on the harbour front. There we had another twenty minute wait to change buses. It would have been quicker to just go back to Reykjavik and get on the Blue Lagoon bus in the first place. Reykjavik Excursions, sort that out. Fifty minutes hanging around. I didn’t even book with RE, it was only much later that I wondered how I’d ended up on an RE bus. I booked directly with Íshestar.

At the Blue Lagoon, they’d closed the A changing rooms and sent us upstairs to B and C. I’ve never seen A closed before, I have no idea why they did that. B and C are much smaller – there’s no space to change in because it’s occupied by the table and mirrors for sorting out your hair before you leave.

It was cold. The weather had already turned and only the very brave or very stupid took the outdoor route to the water. And it got worse. You could only move around facing the building unless you wanted your face scoured off by the wind and rain/hail/snow/whatever was falling at the time. And by “falling”, I mean being blown almost horizontally at high speed. I don’t know what they’d done to the water but the hot patches were painfully hot – the sort of painfully hot where you paddle as fast as you can away into cooler waters shrieking “Ow, hot, ow, hot, ow, hot!!!!!!” or just plain whimpering. It was an entertaining game – finding water warm enough to not die of the storm raging above your head but cool enough to not remove your skin. It seemed bigger than last time and for a while I genuinely wondered if they’d enlarged it since August. They haven’t. It just feels a lot bigger when there’s a fraction of the number of people in it, the weather is trying to remove your head and swimming across is hampered by hundred foot high waves.

Since they no longer have the extra sweet apple juice, I settled for a blue raspberry slushie which is properly wet and sweet but also a terrible choice on such a freezing day. You have to keep under the water but keep the drink above it unless you want it instantly melting which means you’re drinking at a very odd and uncomfortable angle. Then I got cold and went in for a hot chocolate.

I planned to stick it out until the 9.15 pickup in the hope of seeing the Northern Lights from the water but the weather got worse. You couldn’t see across the pool, the mountains had vanished and it was a battle between shivering and burning. It had kind of stopped being fun so I gave in and came home, stopping at the indoor dry cafe for the Traditional Babybel.

It was pouring with rain by the time I came out. There is a path through the lava from the door to the car park, presumably so you can enjoy the spa bliss without the sound of traffic. It’s not very long, maybe fifty yards, maybe a hundred but by the time I’d scurried up there and into the bus, I was soaked. As we went out onto the road, I realised my legs were wet. I hadn’t got dressed before getting dry – it was just that my winter trousers are not quite as waterproof as I’d believed and the rain was heavier and wetter than I’d realised. I hope it gets really cold tonight and snows again – all the snow is being washed away or turned into slush and it’s not so pretty. I also really hope the weather improves tomorrow because ice climbing is not going to be fun in conditions like this.

Iceland December 2013: Snowmobiling

I felt like a zombie when my alarm went off this morning – all red eyes. Last night, my face had been red and yellow where the cold had got it but the damage wasn’t permanent. I checked my door – hanging from it was a red and gold bag. This time Pottaskefill, Pot-Licker, had visited and left me a gingerbread troll and tree. At least, I assume it’s gingerbread. I haven’t eaten it yet.

I put on my warmest clothes and brought more with me, made some rolls (I bought rolls yesterday and brought cheese with me) and went to await my pickup. For some lunatic reason, they came to the back door. No time at the terminal to go to the cashpoint, I was straight on the bus which then took forever to depart and sat for five minutes halfway out of the bus park.

We drove an hour and quarter south east along the Ringroad before our first stop at Hvolsvollur. I am still the only member of the group who’s realised it doesn’t take twenty minutes to cross the road to get real food at the supermarket rather than buy one of the small selection of sandwiches and a cup of coffee at the petrol station. Three people had burgers and chips, actually. How do you eat that in twenty minutes? I also waded through the snow to Landsbankinn for some cash at long last and then didn’t get a basket at the supermarket and finished up dropping biscuits everywhere.

We drove onwards. The six of us snowmobiling were dropped off at the Solheimsjökull to be put in a new truck and taken to the glacier while everyone else went off for an ice hike.

At the Arcanium hut we were given fat fluffy boilersuit things, balaclavas (it touched my neck. I really didn’t want to wear the balaclava) and helmets. My gloves were deemed satisfactory. Now there were twelve of us – the other six having arrived independently – we squeezed into the truck and drove up the mountain. I had no idea such a thing was possible.

We all remember my old friend Eyjafjalljökull (hereon in called E16, my favourite nickname for it), the volcano that erupted in 2010 and caused air traffic chaos. E16 is next door to Mýrdalsjökull where we were snowboarding and Mýrdalsjökull hides another volcano, Katla. Katla is ten times as big as E16, ten times as powerful and she’s overdue an eruption. Last blew in 1918 and goes off every 70-100 years. Air traffic will be closed for months when Katla erupts. I was snowmobiling right on the edge of her 10km wide caldera.

At the top station, we were given our snowmobiles. I was sharing with a French girl called Laura and she volunteered me to drive first. They’re easy enough to control – squeeze the trigger with your right hand to move, squeeze the brake with your left to stop. Don’t do both at the same time. But they’re scary – very noisy, very smelly and they feel like they’re going to tip over. I nearly did tip it over. We all went along in a line, following Þórr, our guide. There was fresh snow and potentially crevasses invisible underneath it. At one point I went off the tracks and the thing tilted alarmingly. It took a lot of effort to pull it right and get it back on the tracks. My arms were aching from the effort of steering it and holding the throttle but gradually I learnt not to hang onto it but just to ride it and use the handlebars to control it. We picked up speed. I was still nervous taking bends and going downhill but straight uphill and in a straight line was starting to be fun. Cold but fun. As we got higher and higher, something seemed to be wrong with the visibility. I could hardly see the snowmobile in front of me but I couldn’t work out why. It wasn’t until we stopped at the top that I discovered I was breathing and steaming up my sunglasses. It was cold and windy at the top. The wind was blowing lots of fine powder onto us, the only way I could survive was by pulling my balaclava right up over my nose which just steamed my glasses up more. Þórr built a model of the glacier and Katla in the snow and explained what will happen when it erupts and then we took photos, swapped drivers and went back down.

I thought driving a snowmobile is scary. It’s even scarier being a passenger. I didn’t whimper much but I did think we were going over and I thought we were too close to the one in front a few times. It didn’t help that even though I’d cleaned my glasses, they still kept steaming up and I was flying along on an overgrown lawnmower almost completely blind and with the right side of my face being frozen off. As we went lower, the wind dropped. I managed to get my glasses clear in time to enjoy the fun and games of riding an unstable snowmobile through a snowfield covering pointy lava rocks which we kept hitting. And then the snowmobile in front of us capsized. It didn’t seem to do any harm – I guess the skis, the boards and the handlebars hold its weight up and stop any of it actually landing on the passengers. Þórr got it upright and we carried on – less than five minutes from home. We could see E16 now the cloud had gone and as far out at the Westman Islands, which were covered in snow too. The snowmobiles were packed away into their containers and then we went back down the mountain to take off the warm clothes, eat our lunch and be taken back to meet the main group at Skogar.

We had nearly an hour at Skogar Folk Museum. It’s interesting in places but mostly it’s just a collection of stuff. Old chairs from people’s houses, old farming tools, some very old books, fishing stuff – some gems but largely old junk. The whale vertebrae carved into buckets and stools etc are interesting, and the brass ring from a mythical chest of treasure hidden under the waterfall. There’s a collection of stuffed birds downstairs which is starting to look a bit old and moth-eaten. I’m not a huge fan of Skogasafn.

Skogafoss, on the other hand, looks amazing in the snow. I’ve seen it in summer when it’s green and autumn when it’s orange and winter when it’s cold and grey but today it was glorious sunshine and blue sky at Skogafoss and it looked lovely. The Nicaraguan boys offered to take a photo of me with it and I agreed, even though I have plenty of photos of me at this waterfall.

Our last stop was Seljalandsfoss, which is lovely but it was dark and the floodlights weren’t doing enough to make it show up on camera. It was also freezing cold and I was tired and just wanted to go home.

An hour and a half back to Reykjavik, not stopping at Hvolsvollur this time. Another half an hour dropping off. I was last because my hotel is closest to the BSI terminal. I had a shower – my hair has been in plaits for two days and was still slightly damp from the two spas yesterday and was properly poodly when I undid the plaits. And I ate just about everything I have. A trip to Reykjavik might be in order on the way home tomorrow.

Iceland December 2013: Reykjavik & Spas

My flight was delayed yesterday, so I didn’t arrive until around midnight – didn’t get to my hotel until 1.30/2am. I saw the Northern Lights from the plane – not very bright at first, so I wasn’t sure whether I was seeing the last of the sunset or the reflection of the plane’s lights off the cloud below us but eventually they brightened and the cloud faded and it became very obvious that this great arc of pale light in the sky was definitely the Northern Lights. It wasn’t doing much and it wasn’t very bright but it was definitely there.

We must have landed around midnight. It was snowy – proper cold bite in the air, deep crispy snow winter wonderland. No problems with the bus. I was delivered to my hotel, checked in, caused some confusion by having booked two nights, then three nights rather than five nights in one go. At 1.30am, trying to explain this was impossible. “It’s two bookings” got me two room cards rather than the dates changed on my sign in sheet. But that could be sorted out later. For now, it was long past time for bed. And it was snowing outside – big fat fluffy snowflakes.

I got up late in the morning and had breakfast. But when I left my room, there was a bag hanging on the door. The Yule Lads had been! I flung the bag on my bed for later investigation and went for breakfast. The orange juice was running low so I had a bit of whatever said appelsin next to it – ended up with a cocktail of something vaguely orange-flavoured but very watery. I don’t know how I missed the apple juice sitting right next to it. Since apparently I get laughed at for describing the food, I’m going to carry on. There were cakes and biscuits of all kinds, presumably because it’s Christmas, as well as the more traditional breakfast – cereal, bread, dried fruits and nuts and things for the muesli, fish, eggs, chunks of orange, coffee, tea, milk and so on. I had cereal – giant Coco Pops because it just wouldn’t be Iceland without giant Coco Pops and some bread and butter and apple juice and then my ability to eat ran out and I went back upstairs to get ready.

Job one was to open my mysterious bag. I had been visited by Þvörusleikir, Spoon-Licker, one of the Yule Lads and he’d brought me food – two little nut and seed sticks coated in chocolate.

I planned to go into Reykjavik and the city centre is a mile and a half away. First I entertained myself watching a digger clearing the car park while I tried to get a brush through my hair – two days in London had killed it – and then I put on all the warm clothes I had and packed any others and went to investigate the claims of free bus use.

I was given a bus pass to borrow until I depart. I just show it to the drive and I can use the entire Reykjavik bus network. My bus would be the 19 to Hlemmur, the main bus station at the eastern end of Laugavegur, just down from the first hotel I stayed in here. But it didn’t go until 12.07 and it was only quarter to eleven so I walked in after all. I was doing fine until I got to the footbridge over the Ringroad. In the snow, I completely lost my bearings and only got to Tjornin more by luck than judgement. It was amazing – frozen solid and so snow-covered that you can’t tell where the pavement ends and the lake begins. I daresay it’s fine to walk on but I’m not going to be stupid enough to try it. Obviously I stopped to enjoy my favourite part of Reykjavik – the abundance of ducks, geese, swans and gulls in the corner of the Tjornin. They’re so noisy! I was taking photos and I turned round to walk up to the other bit of platform when I realised I was standing on someone’s foot. No one there. I looked down. There was a pink-footed goose struggling to escape me. I thought I was dead. I thought the goose would attack me and break my legs but it just wandered off once its foot was free. Now, the fact that I managed to stand on its foot without even noticing means it had crept up behind me and come very close – I wonder what it had been planning?

I did my usual round of tourist shops in Ingolfstorg, then I spied Esja through the streets and ran across to the old harbour, round Harpa and to the seafront to greet my favourite volcano. I’m very much in love with Esja and she’s very pretty when she’s covered in snow. Yes, I talk to this extinct volcano.

Next stop was back to Austurstraeti to get some cash. My card was declined so I went to ask at the tourist information where there was another machine. They said there was one right opposite the one I’d been at but there have been problems with the machines. Yes, there certainly have. It got rejected at that one too. I used my last 500kr note to buy my favourite Hals lemon sweets and then did some food shopping before walking up Laugavegur. Some shops have changed since the summer – the old record shop, which was something else over the summer is something else again – I forget what, but it was very obvious it had changed. The photo shop has moved.

I’ve never been to Hlemmur before – and I now understand when the guidebook says pronounce both if it’s a double letter. I thought the lady at reception was saying Hlemnur when she was telling me where to go but she’s just saying the M twice. It’s the main bus station and it’s been thoroughly yarnbombed inside. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’ve also never been on a Straeto before. I showed my card and sat down and it rumbled along Snorrabraut, past the BSI long distance bus station and across to my hotel. Now it was properly light, I could see my view properly. I overlook the Perlan – the Pearl. Every time I look at it, I hear Jack Sparrow’s voice saying “It’s the Pearl…”. I can also see snowy mountains and pointy church I don’t recognise. Only the Pearl is visible in the dark, which is what my view more usually is. I ate and then ran downstairs to the spa.

It’s very purple and there’s a sign on the wall recommending floating. To float really well and relaxingly, put on a flotation cap and put a noodle under your knees. The flotation cap is a kind of foam padded neoprene helmet and the noodle is one of those long thin foam noodles you play with in the pool. I felt very special dressed up in that lot in a spa hotel but you can float very well in it. I was also the only person there. There was someone in the sauna while I was in the steam room and then she was in the steam room while I was in the pool but then she vanished, so I could swim and paddle and float in my flotation cap all by myself. It was cold, though. The water was ok but the air was freezing so any part out of the water got very cold, including knees when you were floating so after a while, I tried floating in a more vertical way to keep warm.

After the spa, I packed for my evening trip – Warm Bath & Cool Lights. There were three of us and we took the Thingvellir road up to Laugavatn. The other two haven’t yet done the Golden Circle so we went slowly, telling them and showing them almost everything they would see tomorrow. Here is an Icelandic forest, do you know the joke? Here is the rift. This is how it’s moving, this is when it collapsed one and a half metres in two minutes. All about Laki – I scored points by saying “Laki!” gleefully when the guide said there was a catastrophe in 1783 – I know my Icelandic history! It took forever to get to Laugavatn.

I think they’ve expanded it since I was there. There were the three pools and the steam baths and the lake but now there’s a new pool, a long thin one cut out of the lava between the old pools and the lake. It’s black and full of rocks and a glorious temperature. The old pools are a bit chilly – amazingly warm when you run from the changing rooms in the winter (why don’t they either put the door closer to the water or make some kind of swimming exit?) but a bit chilly after a while. The hot tub is take-your-skin-off hot, I can’t stay in there long and anyway, at night the amazing view of lake and mountains is invisible. But the new pool is wonderful. It’s pleasantly hot and slightly creepy because there are no lights in it and full of lava rocks. I stole one but I must have left it in the changing rooms because it’s just occurred to me that I don’t remember packing it. Getting from pool to pool is a bit of a mission. The three old pools are all joined, you just slither from one bit to the next. The swimming pool shaped one I didn’t go in because that’s even colder. The hot tub is raised and you have to climb out and up the stairs – don’t touch the railings, your hands will stick to it. And the new pool is across, which means walking on wet ground which is now frozen and extremely slippery. I only once tried getting from the new pool to the hot tub.

Next there was a Christmas buffet. I managed to avoid that one by making excuses about “I didn’t know food was provided, I’ve already eaten today”. I could have killed for some apple juice but they only had water. There was a very good looking chocolate cake but the slices were so enormous I’d still have been eating it on the plane on the way home on Thursday, so I stayed away from that too.

The third part of the evening was the Northern Lights. We headed towards the mountains, looked north expectantly and saw nothing. We frozen taking long exposure photos of the stars and then just drove around south western Iceland all night. The moon was full and reflecting off the snowy landscape and it wasn’t nearly as dark as you would expect, considering sunset was about 4pm and it was now gone 10pm. We stopped at the farmer’s borehole at Reykholt – a long exposure photo of that looks great. But it was cold, really cold. The car thermometer at one point said -18C, my hair actually froze, my face nearly froze and at last, all I could do was sit in the car and shiver and be glad the Lights hadn’t come out. We stopped to talk to some horses who were curious enough to come and visit but didn’t want to come too close and be stroked much. We stopped to see the church at Skalholt and then came back via Hveragerði. Got home at around 1.30am.