Iceland January 2013: Reykjavik

Having been out until 2am last night, I didn’t wake up permanently until quarter to ten this morning. Of course, it’s hard to tell. There are three beds in this room. One of them is next to an accessible plug. This is not the bed I chose. That means if I want my phone as an alarm, or just as a clock since my watch doesn’t glow in the dark, that I can’t have it charging overnight. So with the phone on the other side of the room, I have no idea what time it is when I wake up in the middle of the night, or even in the morning. It’s still pitch black at quarter to ten.

Within ten minutes, Evelyn was calling me through the door. Do I want any breakfast? I decided it was time to get up and get out.

I saw Laufasvegur (Laufey’s street) in daylight for the first time and nearly made friends with a cat, then I walked down to the Tjörnin and along the edge towards downtown. It’s treacherously slippery and although the ice can hold the weight of a paving slab, among other suspended rubbish, I don’t think it could take the weight of a human being landing suddenly on it. I meandered past the cathedral, to the new Alþing, the parliament building. I say new. Built in 1881 when the Alþing moved here from their previous premises on a rock at Þingvellir, the Parliament Plains, where they’d been since 930AD.

The next stop was on the seafront to say good morning to Esja. She’s looking interesting at the moment – snowy from about halfway up, brown and orange around the bottom. Very pretty with a pale blue morning sky and even prettier when the pink clouds reflect on the snow. I took my photos and retreated, past Harpa which is also looking pretty because at the moment, they’re lighting up the windows with a kind of blue and green wavy effect that looks a bit like a digital version of the Northern Lights. It was freezing cold. Since I was only going into town and not into the wilderness, I hadn’t put on my thermals and the cold wind was going straight into my ears and freezing my entire head.

I sheltered in the first of my Important Tourist Shop stops, the one next to IE’s offices, to get the t-shirt I’ve been looking at for over a year. It says:

Is “Eyjafjalljökull” difficult to pronounce – TRY Umferðaröngþveiti (traffic jam)

Next stop was Puffin, in hope of finding a Sympathy for the Devil t-shirt in a size anywhere between S and XL. Still no luck. I’ve been checking since July.

I stopped off across the other side of the square at the tourist information to gather leaflets, particularly one that would tell me where the Culture House was. I hadn’t brought my guidebook out with me and had suddenly remembered that was where I wanted to go.

Next stop was Eymundsson, which was closed. I was horrified! Iceland is a bookish country, bookshops are open from dawn until dusk – well, considerably beyond on either side since dawn and dusk are in the middle of the day. I looked more closely. It doesn’t until noon on Sundays but on the other hand, it stays open until 10pm.

Instead I went to the bookshop/café on the main street, where I compared sagas in individual books to the big Sagas of Icelanders and came away with Sagas of Warrior Poets and the Saga of Grettir the Strong.

Since Eymundsson still wasn’t open, I decided next stop was going to be the Culture House. It’s on Hverfisgata (Hot Fish Street, as far as I can translate) and I must have been past it hundreds of times. It was silent and empty inside and where I would have put reception is a security guard who doesn’t even look up. A receptionist found me, sold me a ticket and gave me a token for a locker downstairs for my bag. After freezing outside in a cold wind, it was nice to take off coat and bag and store them away. There’s an exhibit of mediaeval manuscripts but it appeared to be behind a closed door by the security guard so I left it for the time being and headed upstairs.

First stop was a room full of sculpted heads. There was a list on the wall saying who was who and who sculpted them but I couldn’t tell which name was which, so I left that and went for the Old Reading Room. It’s a big empty room with bookcases around three walls. But it wasn’t until I spied EDDA on the spines of several that I was interested. I picked up a leaflet and discovered that the first three bookcases were all books of Eddas and sagas, dating from anywhere between the 17th century and the 19th, and in lots of different languages. There was a case of Halldór Laxness books – I hadn’t realised he’d written so many and I hadn’t realised it was so long ago. I had his house pointed out the first time I came here and assumed he was still living in it. Apparently not. Halldór Laxness is a national treasure, he’s their only Nobel Prize winner, I think. Or certainly he’s the only Nobel Literature Prize winner.

Once I’d finished roaming the bookshelves and taking photos of anything that caught my eye – a series of books called Andvari did that – Andvari is a dwarf in the Volsung Saga, who created a cursed ring and had all his gold taken by him for Loki to pay the blood price for killing Otr, thereby starting the whole saga, really, and inspiring Lord of the Rings. He only gets a few paragraphs in the saga – I couldn’t understand how there could be a dozen or so thick books on the subject. As far as I can gather, Andvari was the title of a journal and this is a collection of it.

Next stop was the Child of Hope exhibition, on the subject of Jón Sigurðsson, the leader of the Icelandic Independence Movement in the 19th century. I’m sure he’s very interesting but most of the display was in Icelandic, with only a leaflet in English to explain him and his story. My favourite bit of this exhibition was a painting of Vikings at the Alþing in Þingvellir, gathered on and around the rock, with Vikings sitting on the edge of the cliff, dangling their feet over the crack between the continents. I’ve always wondered just what a meeting looked like on the Law Rock.

Next was up a floor. Hanging outside the entrance to the Millennium Exhibition were three fleecy woollen flags, Icelandic ones of course, in shades of black, white, grey and brown. This was a collection of modern art borrowed from the National Gallery. I did not appreciate most of it but there was a fantastic collection of cars and coaches coping or not coping with river crossings – plenty of tractors visible hauling them out, plenty stuck sideways with people on top. There’s a particularly good one of a tough 4×4 with one wheel clearly stuck in a deep hole in the river, almost on its side, while a Reykjavík Excursions tourist coach quietly drives through in the background with no trouble. My guidebook says they have a book of similar pictures at one of the huts on the way to Þórsmörk.

When I came back down, the receptionist spotted me and showed me into the Mediaeval Manuscripts exhibition, which is what I’d come for. It’s dark. The entrance is pictures and casts of paintings and carvings of scenes from the ancient stories, usually dating from before the days of writing. Then you get into the manuscripts themselves. There are large modern books full of high quality pictures of pages from ancient manuscripts, so you can read them yourself in the original form without damaging the originals – you can’t actually read the ones in the exhibition but they exist, or existed for sale. Most of them are either sold out very quickly or given as gifts to VIPs. There’s a better quality picture of the painting of the Vikings at the Law Rock and some lovely illustrations of scenes from the Elder Edda – I managed to identify most of them, ranging from Gylfa meeting Odin to Hod killing Baldur to a portrait of Loki. Then there are things inspired by the stories – a Mighty Thor comic, modern stories, modern translations, retellings, paintings. Lots.

Then you go into a smaller room where the lights only come on as you walk in. There are genuine old manuscripts in here. None of them dating back quite as far as the actual original Codices Regius but still quite elderly copies of some of the sagas, and not just the myths. There’s a huge copy of Njal’s Saga, I think there was a Flatey Book that’s about A3 size, books of settlement. The really old stuff is kept elsewhere, not on display to the public.

The next room is about the process of making these books and the work of the scribes. One particular panel made me giggle:

It is not surprising that scribes found their work tiring. It could take a long time to write a book, even several years, and the scribe’s output doubtless depended upon his mood and circumstances.

The margins of Icelandic manuscripts sometimes contain complaints by scribes such as “writing bores me” and “the writing is bad because the ink is weak”.

That’s brilliant. I’d spotted a few scribbles around the edges of some of the pages earlier in the exhibition and assumed they were added much later.

Finally, there was a film/documentary on the subject of the Vinland voyages – when Leifur Eiriksson went and discovered North American 500 years before Christopher Columbus. I walked in 37 minutes into the 50 minute film so I only saw the end but it looked sort of interesting. Bits of it were acted and in between there were interviews and the whole thing seemed to be the work of Magnus Magnusson, who I assume is the same one as the one from Mastermind, since I think I remember reading that he’s interested in all this sort of thing. But I had a look at the Icelandic phone book earlier ( – everyone’s in it, listed by first name, including the Prime Minister) and there are 17 pages of Magnus Magnussons so it’s clearly a fairly common name. The bit I saw concerned the Vikings meeting the indigenous Americans and I came in just as they were trading red cloth for grey pelts before the locals were scared off by a rampaging bull. Later on they attacked the Viking settlement and shortly afterwards, the Vikings headed off home, giving up on settling Vinland for the time being. Most of the actors looked very blatantly modern, one of them even having very obviously dyed blonde hair, but it looked pretty good.

I retrieved my stuff, did not get my token back, and went back out into the real world. I was on the corner of Ingólfsstræti – Ingolfur’s Street, named after Iceland’s first permanent settler, Ingolfur Arnasson who came here in 974 and founded Reykjavík. It happens to run perpendicular to the sea front so when I came outside, I could see Esja looking pretty. I couldn’t resist going down to see her again.

Next, back into town to Eymundsson. This time it was open. I like Eymundsson a lot. There’s a collection of Icelandic books near the door – sagas, Halldór Laxness books, more modern stuff by the likes of Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðadottir, photo books, books of fairy tales, guidebooks, poetry, all sorts. Mostly in English, quite a bit of German, I spotted some French and things like Sayings of the High Ones translated into languages I can’t even recognise. Upstairs, there’s an entire floor filled with English fiction. Downstairs is stationery and kids’ stuff. It’s a magnificent shop. Chain. There are two that I know of in Reykjavík, one at Keflavík, one in Heimaey and plenty more in other towns and cities around the country that I haven’t been to yet. This time I picked up a book on Icelandic place names and a pack of cards with pretty photos on and departed, via the 1011 across the road for some more food. I got some of that fantastic over-sweet apple juice and some pear juice too and some more bread and then headed home drinking my pear juice.

Got distracted by the Tjörnin again. I think I’d have to say that’s my favourite thing about Reykjavík, this busy little corner of the Pond which is just swamped by ducks, geese and swans and they make so much noise and there are always people feeding them which causes chaos. I also particularly enjoy that a lot of the Tjörnin is frozen (I hear that this corner is kept liquid by piping in hot water to give the birds somewhere to swim in winter) because geese slipping and sliding on the ice will never not be funny. Esja is my other favourite thing in Reykjavík. And Eymundsson.

Frozen ponds are not so funny when it’s a human being. Walking back along the edge of the Tjörnin, I’d forgotten how treacherously slippery it was, until my feet started slipping and I discovered I couldn’t go a step further without holding onto a bench. I was stranded without the bench. Then I realised that there are gaps between the slabs parallel to the water’s edge, up to three inches wide and filled with grass. Between the grass and the edges of the slabs, that makes some quite good grippy stuff.

I made it back to my room and proceeded to eat everything. I’d been half-starved for a couple of days, not having had the time to go shopping so I ate (and perhaps slightly regretted it later). Now I have one roll left that I don’t have space for. I won’t be wanting it at five o’clock tomorrow morning but maybe I’ll keep it for the airport.

I didn’t do much for the rest of the afternoon. I looked out at my view, enjoying being able to see it in sunlight. I can see something that is either a terminal at Reykjavík airport or the RE terminal. Reykjavík airport – just across the Pond from me – is not where I’m flying from. It’s the domestic airport, where smallish planes fly to and from other places around Iceland. International flights go from Keflavík, an hour away at the other end of the Reykjanes peninsula.

I wrote yesterday’s blog, packed, made use of a surprisingly well-behaved internet connection, read a book and thought about having a shower. My hair was still in the plaits I put it in yesterday morning. Having been to the spa and got it soaked in spring water (and yet my hair smells suspiciously of chlorine considering Icelandic pools don’t use the stuff) and then not washed afterwards, I knew it would just turn into poodle hair the moment I took it out of the plaits, which is why I left them in overnight and went out with them again this morning. It was proper Hermione-from-the-books hair when I finally undid them this evening. It’s now washed and conditioned and should be behaving itself again. Evelyn has called up (when the phone on my desk starting ringing, I approached it very suspiciously) to tell me that I’m being picked up by IE at 5.30 tomorrow morning. It’s very nice of her to phone them and check these things but I already knew that – I am in possession of a ticket saying I’m on a coach leaving at 6 and I know they pick up half an hour before that. I’ve kept that ticket safe ever since ten minutes after I landed here on Wednesday and I’ve been dreading the early morning ever since then as well. On the bright side, standing on the doorstep at 5.30am at least won’t be too scary, since it’ll look exactly like standing on the doorstep at 8.30am which I’ve done almost every morning since I’ve been here.

Never mind sleeping on the coaches and planes tomorrow, I’ll be asleep on the doorstep.

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.

Iceland January 2013: Mýrdalsjökull

Yesterday, on the way back from Landmannalaugar, we discussed the wind. There are two experimental windmills up – experimental since it can get windy in Iceland. The guide told us that Hurricane Sandy had winds of about 48 m/s. Shortly after that, there were storms in Iceland too, in which at one point the wind on the highland road was measured at 70 m/s but generally, their storms are around 25 m/s. Icelanders, by the way, are very precise about everything.

With this fresh in my mind, it was stormy last night. I spent a lot of the night awake and fearing for the roof or the lamp post across the road or convinced I was going to get up and find Reykjavík destroyed. At 6.30 I had to get up to stare out into the darkness and see how bad it was. Of course, strong winds are nothing here and of course they didn’t cause a problem.

I got my hot chocolate and waited on the street corner as usual for my pick-up, this time in a minibus. We did a quick pick-up tour of Reykjavík, finishing up with eight people – three British, one Londoner now living in New York, three New Yorkers and a man from New Zealand now living in Germany. I don’t know what it is bringing people from New York to Iceland at the moment – perhaps it’s because of the warmer weather here.

Because Tolkien borrowed a lot of his names – the dwarf names especially – from Norse mythology, it’s not unknown to come across someone who shares their name with someone from Middle Earth. Our guide today was Dóri, who was not a dwarf but he was armed with an axe and a spectacular beard. Dóri is an Icelandic name I can more or less manage but just to be extra helpful, he had it embroidered on his fleece. What was particularly odd, though, was that he had exactly the same accent as Kermit.

We took the Ring Road down to Hvolsvöllur. That’s about an hour and a half and I’ve done that bit of road so many times that it’s tedious. Up past the power station, down to Hveragerði, through Selfoss, keep going through the farm land until you come to the last stop before glacier world. We stopped at Hvolsvöllur to stock up and then kept following the road for another 45 minutes to the turning to Sólheimasjökull – the Home of the Sun glacier. It’s a glacial tongue coming down from Mýrdalsojökull and I visited it with Reykjavík Excursions in October, walking underneath magnificent ice caves. These are now gone. The glacier is creeping down at about 5-15 cm every day but it’s melting faster than it’s moving.

We were fitted for crampons, given ice axes and harnesses, got into our waterproofs and put on helmets and trekked over to the edge of the ice where we had to put on the crampons. They made it seem a lot harder last time. This time, while we were doing that, some tourists who’d come up on their own, presumably, decided it would be a great idea to wander around in normal boots on the ice, just metres away from what looked like a very deep crevasse. I don’t think anyone in our group agreed with this idea.

We started our climb. It’s quite awkward because the end of the glacier is just a mess of crevasses and gravel and ash from Eyjafjallajökull (or E15 as Dóri calls it, presumably because there are 15 letters after the E) and you have to keep hopping from ice back to what looks like solid ground. It isn’t solid ground. There’s ice underneath, it’s just that the layer of gravel and ash is thick enough that you can’t really tell.

Once we were up onto the glacier, we were introduced to moulins and crevasses. The moulins are the nasty ones – they’re vertical tubes in the ice where water rushes down. The biggest one in the world, in Greenland, is 2km deep and the bowl at the top of it is 50 or 60km in diameter – or deep enough to scream three or four times before you reach the bottom. The biggest one Dóri knows about in Sólheimasjökull is about 200m deep. Several of the ones we came across were deceptively small, ranging from about the size of my hand to smallish bathtub size ones. You don’t want to fall in any of them.

We kept climbing, stopping every now and then for another glaciology lesson. The glacier was striped with blue and white ice. The blue ice is about 7% air, compared to the 20% or so air in the white ice and a blue and white together represent one year. In the winter there’s lots of snow so it gets compressed and the air squeezed out and that forms a blue layer and in the summer, there’s less snow, it’s not as heavy, it’s a bit puffier, it forms a white layer. Repeat over and over again. It apparently takes about 10 metres of snow to create 1cm of blue ice and the blue ice is absolutely crystal clear. A bit weird to walk on because you can see through the ground. The glacier twists a bit because of where it’s hit the mountains on the way down, so the stripes are vertical in some places and horizontal in others. Then we discussed the local volcanoes, that is E15 and Katla. Dóri was detailing exactly what will happen when Katla erupts. The flash flood will be colossal. Easily big enough to just pick up the 8km-long glacier we were walking on and fling it into the ocean a few miles away, easily strong enough to punch a hole through the mountains, will wipe out a few farms, etc. Katla is overdue. Have I mentioned that recently? Dóri also explained glaciers as Snickers bars. The chocolate is the thin, tough layer we’re walking on. Below that is a thick layer of softer, fudge-like ice and below that – like the caramel, but on the bottom. Ooh! Or like a Snickers bar turned upside down! (as he put it, very excitedly) is the melted water that lubricates the whole thing and makes it slide down the valley. And in the middle somewhere, there are nuts, or in this case boulders and lumps of rock taken from the mountains on each side. In this analogy, I guess the volcanic ash doesn’t exist.

We kept on climbing, now walking across horizontal layers of blue and white ice, each about a foot thick, towards our ice climbing wall. It was more or less a perfect wall, stripy, about 15 feet high. Dóri scrambled up the slope to rig the wall while the rest of us made ourselves comfortable. Some of us settled down on the floor and Emily from New York managed to slide down and crash into me crampons first. It didn’t hurt too much. Then Dóri decided the best way to come back to us and simultaneously teach us the basics was to abseil down the sheer stripy wall. He was in the middle of explaining how to use the axes when Paul from New York from London fell over spectacularly, slid down the slope backwards and nearly took us all out like skittles. The instruction was paused while he was rescued from the ice.

While Dóri was rigging the thing, the rest of us had been discussing it and I’d told Emily what I’d seem in pictures. Now we discovered that I’d been pretty much right – you stab the wall with the spikes sticking out of your toes, rather than trying to grip with the sole of your feet like you normally would. I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that everything to do with ice and snow is completely counterintuitive. We had a try one at a time, borrowing each other as bagholders, axe holders and photographers.

The climbing axes are different to the walking axes. They’re shorter and curved and the blades curve down like hooks, and they have better grips on the handles. You reach up above your head and chop at the ice until you get the blade hooked in, and it’s only the very tip of it. Then you kick your toes in and use that to stand on. At first I did ok with my feet. I was struggling to chop axe-holds and kept hearing “Great footwork!” from below but once I got halfway past the wall, I started to get tired. My legs were shaking – we’d already had that with Emily, Dóri calls it Elvis and he commented that Elvis lives on in more than one person. I think for the last five steps up, my weight was on the rope more than it was on my feet or axes. The axes kept slipping, I couldn’t chop as well with my left hand as with my right, my right foot didn’t want to stay pegged into the ice and I was trembling. The top was just above me, just out of reach. I hooked an axe in again, managed to hoist myself up another step and heard Dóri say that if I reached up with my axe and touched the carabiner, I’d be at the top. I scrambled for that carabiner. I was sliding my hand further and further down the axe to make it stretch just half an inch higher.

Getting down again was easier. The others had had to have step-by-step instructions while on the wall on how to abseil but I’m very used to that and I walked myself down the wall easily enough for Dóri to observe that I’d done it before. I slightly overdid it – to give myself enough slack to undo the rope I abseiled right down to the ground and then was too exhausted and trembling to get up. The ice axes had to come back out to haul myself to my feet.

Sitting on the ice afterwards, comfortable on the ground without slipping or sliding anywhere drinking hot chocolate and waiting for my hands to stop shaking was a little bit blissful.

Once everyone had had their turn at climbing, we had to go back up out of our little bowl, onto the top of the glacier and walk down. Walking down is harder than up on crampons and two of our New Yorkers needed Dóri’s hand most of the way down.

It had been damp and windy earlier but now the sun had come out, just in time to start setting. The lagoon at the bottom is very brown but it’s also very reflective and came in handy for a lot of photos. There’s a waterfall coming down the mountain opposite and Dóri said he hadn’t seen it this powerful this time of year for a long time. We walked on before he added “Something big is coming” which is a slightly disturbing thing to hear from someone with the same name as a character from The Hobbit. All he meant was that probably the really cold weather is still to come, since 5° and no snow on the ground is not normal for an Icelandic January.

We got out of the crampons and harnesses and helmets and returned the axes and then, as we got back in the minibus, we were presented with our packed lunches. I enjoyed the apple juice but instead of the ham and salad sandwich, I made my own rolls from my bread and my indestructible cheese slices (just about the only food improved by being left on a glacier). I also left the chocolate doughnut for the time being.

The last stop before we got back was Skógarfoss, or possibly Skógafoss. The guide books and leaflets are very inconsistent on whether or not there’s an R in it. Just as I’ve decided which spelling is correct, I find it written completely differently elsewhere. Anyway, we stopped there, just for fifteen minutes which just isn’t enough for this waterfall. It’s pretty big and pretty powerful and only two of us were brave/stupid enough to try and get up close – me, obviously and Daniel from Germany from New Zealand. We borrowed each other’s cameras and got right into the spray for the pictures and in the thirty or so seconds it took, even with waterproofs on, we got drenched. Then there was a toilet stop, which I used to take photos of the waterfall with its reflection in a puddle – Dóri had talked about this puddle earlier and then paused the minibus by the puddle to point it out as we drove to the waterfall. So I obediently stopped and took photos of the waterfall and its reflection and the surrounding mountains and their reflections and the spectacular sunset behind us.

The problem with getting so close up to the waterfall was that I then had to spend two hours on a minibus driving back quite damp and quite cold. It was great fun at the time, I was grinning like a loon when I came back to the minibus but a few miles later, not so funny. Dóri estimated it was 2hrs 15mins back to Reykjavík but since people had a Northern Lights tour picking up at 7.30, he’d try to make that two hours. I know roughly the timings on that road – it’s 40 minutes to Hveragerði then 10 minutes to Selfoss, so if we made Selfoss by 6.10 we could be home by 7.

We did it a bit quicker. The whole journey in 1hr 35 mins, actually. I spent part of the journey asleep, part of the journey trying to decide whether or not to get some more bread this evening and part of the journey trying to work out how to get rid of that sandwich. I decided not to get bread – I was tired and a little bit achy and pretty cold by the time we got back, my boots were soaked yet again and I wanted to get in, get dry socks on, get changed and fall on my bed. Which is exactly what I did. First job once that was done was to download my GPS data and then I ate my chocolate doughnut. I’ve never eaten a doughnut in my life and although it was edible, I’m not entirely convinced and I probably won’t bother having another one.

Tomorrow is “Riding & Wellness” – that is, a couple of hours on an Icelandic horse, followed by a trip to Fontana Spa. This one’s different from the Blue Lagoon. It’s built on the side of a lake, directly over the coolest of three hot springs, so all the heat and the water is coming right out of the ground right there instead of coming as waste from the power station into a pool dug out of the lava. There seem to be baths of varying temperatures, a bit of geothermal beach and you can even dip in the lake if you want, although I gather the lake is not hot. Then we stop at Þingvellir, the Parliament Plains, one of my favourite places in Iceland, on the way back.

Iceland January 2013: Arrival

I successfully got on a coach just before 8 this morning, slept most of the way to Heathrow, checked in, got through security without being searched and stopped at the Tin Goose for some breakfast, while watching breaking news of the helicopter crash on the screen across the other side of the café.

My plane this time was Askja, a spectacular volcano in the Highlands out towards the east of Iceland. It’s got a massive flooded caldera and on the edge of that is a much smaller natural hotpot that you can swim in. The downside is that it’s really hard to get to. Because I keep track of these things, I know this is the first time I’ve been on Askja. Her screens work fine. I watched Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows and it was. The sun came straight in my porthole and I don’t close the blinds on planes, ever. I think mine was the only blind open on that side of the plane. It meant there was a huge patch of sunlight on the screen so I couldn’t actually see half of it, which made it a bit difficult to have a clue what was going on at times.

As we left London and headed towards Luton, the weather changed dramatically. London had been bright and clear and a bit autumnal. Within five or ten minutes of leaving, I could see white fields for miles around. By the time I reached Iceland, it had changed again. We appeared to have descended through 17000ft of cloud (I watched the My Flight page for the entire descent) and landed in an Iceland that was wet, windy and orange. Not a hint of snow anywhere. Iceland’s weather takes me by surprise every single time. I may have to put away my cold weather stuff and get out my wet weather stuff.

I got on my coach and sat and waited for a good twenty minutes for everyone else to arrive. I’d picked up a magazine called Iceland Review on the way out of the airport with the words “All Alone in Iceland?” on the cover and I started reading that while I waited. I’m clearly going to have to watch The Deep on the way home. There was an article about it in the plane magazine, an interview with the director, and now there was an interview with the star. It’s about a fishing boat that sank in 1984. One of the fishermen survived. He swam three miles in the north Atlantic in the middle of winter and then walked barefoot across a lava field for three miles. I remember hearing this story while I was on Heimaey in the summer, because that’s where it happened. Now they’ve made a film based on the story. I also switched on my GPS tracker. I now know that it’s 33 miles from the airport to my guesthouse and that it took 48 minutes.

If it hadn’t been so cloudy and rainy, I don’t think it would have been so dark as we drove over to Reykjavík. I think I remember it just being incredibly dark when I first came, in December 2011 and that was much the same time of day. This time I could see a hint of light in the sky between the clouds an hour after the sun should have set. It was dark enough to be confusing, though. I completely lost track of where we were several times, including once we’d actually reached Reykjavík. We stopped at the posh hotel by the airport where there are four Christmas trees still covered in twinkling lights and looking very pretty. Actually, there are a lot of pretty Christmas lights still around and the Pearl looks lovely in the dark. By day, it looks a bit weird. It’s six huge concrete tanks with a grey dome balanced on top but in the dark, that dome is lit up (on the inside, I think) by thousands of little fairy lights. Finally there’s a spinning green searchlight on the top. You can see it from miles away.

Because my guesthouse is down a narrow street, I had to jump off the coach downtown and get on a minibus and once I was on the minibus, I panicked that I’d left my pack of vouchers and passport on the coach. That wouldn’t actually be too much of a disaster. Iceland Excursions are very good and they would have noticed. It would have ended up in their office and they would probably have managed to phone me, if I didn’t get down to them to reclaim it first. Luckily I’d been organised and put it back in my bag so that saved me having to go out again in the rain.

Evelyn, who owns the guesthouse, was waiting for me at the door. I had to take off my shoes and then trudge up two flights of stairs with my suitcase. My room has three beds. At the moment I seem to have one for sleeping in, one for sitting on and one for unloading stuff onto. My suitcase seems to have been either put in a puddle or left out in the rain (I’m blaming Iceland for this, since it was dry at Heathrow) so one side of it is soaked so there’s a lot of stuff on the radiator at the moment. It’s a good radiator. Most of it is already dry. I’ve got a sink in my room, the bathrooms are right outside and I’ve had a peek in the kitchen. Not too much of a peek – not enough to spot any kettle, although I’m sure there is one. I actually went down for the wifi password, to be told “you can only use the wifi down here. You can sit with the students!” No. No no no. The wifi works in my room and I did not come here to sit and write this with a group of strangers. I am unsociable and remaining that way. It seems to cut out regularly but it reconnects if I give it a stern look. Hopefully that’s all she meant – that it doesn’t reach up to the second floor too well, rather than she wants internet use supervised or she wants to force me to be sociable. I’m already uncertain about this place, to be honest. I got put in my room. “These are your keys. There’s a front door key but I’m downstairs so tell me if you want to go downtown” and evidently I have to tell her what time I’m being picked up in the morning so she can make breakfast. Feeling like this, I’m not at all sure if I’m going to even want breakfast. I’ve had a handful of cereal tonight and I experimented with one roll with a slice of plastic cheese in it which seems to be going ok. I’m also just across the Pond from the domestic airport so tonight I’ve already seen three smallish planes fly across right in front of my window.

Each of my spare beds has a big blanket on it. I like this, at least. And it’s warm. My room has a name, not a number. It’s called Sóley, which is one of the Icelandic words I know. Its literal translation is Sun Island but it means buttercup and it’s a fairly common name. Must go and pack for tomorrow before I go to bed.

Iceland January 2013: Landmannalaugar

When I woke up, I was convinced my alarm was about to go off and I was about to have to crawl out of a nice cosy bed. I was delighted, therefore, to discover it was only 2.58am and I had hours still to sleep.

I woke up ten minutes before my alarm, got up, pottered around, enjoying the fact that my bag was already packed for the day and went downstairs to make hot chocolate. There was still no sign of a kettle in the kitchen so I found a pan and was in the middle of filling it with water when Evelyn appeared, demanding to know what I was doing. There was hot water in the dispenser, didn’t I know? But she would make me some hot milk. In fact, instead of making it with my little Highlights sachet, she’d use Swiss Miss powder. She whisked my little flask away and I sat down to try and eat some breakfast. I’d actually already had some cereal for breakfast up in my room but as I had breakfast waved at me downstairs, I thought I’d better eat something. A slice of bread and butter (and the in-flight magazine was right, Icelandic butter does taste different) and some orange juice (almost undrinkable) while chatting a little bit to a German girl from Stuttgart. Evelyn brought back my flask full of hot chocolate and I dived back upstairs to pull on my outer layers, throw the flask in my bag and hurry downstairs to be waiting for my pick-up at 8.

It wasn’t until about 8.28. By then I was getting a bit twitchy. Car after car went past, then jeeps of various sizes but finally one pulled in by the door – a big silver Nissan Patrol with tyres almost as big as me. I hopped in. I was first and as the other two were coming together, would I mind please sitting in the front seat? Not at all. My guide introduced himself but it was an Icelandic name, of course, and I managed to completely miss what it actually was so hereon in he will be called “the guide”. Of course, then I made an idiot of myself by forgetting that we drive on the wrong side. I got the car door open to find the guide holding open the door on the other side and telling me he’d rather be the one driving. Sheepishly, I explained “English cars” as he asked if I was Australian or English.

With our other couple (Adrian & Melissa from New York), we set off. I’d brought my GPS and I switched it on as we left the town centre. It was dark for a long time. The guide wasn’t sure we’d make it to Landmannalaugar. A friend of his went yesterday and after being stuck in wet snow for four hours had had to turn back. He told us we had the option of trying for Landmannalaugar bearing in mind there was only a 75% chance we’d make it and only a 50% chance we’d get back without help or we could go to Þórsmörk instead, have a nice drive up the river valley, drive right to the edge of Eyjafjallajökull, stop at the EFJ museum and go for a swim in Iceland’s oldest pool.

We headed up towards the Ring Road as usual, down to Hveragerði (Icelandic peppers got mentioned but not the bananas) and to the little shop and petrol station where I spent a night looking for the Northern Lights a year ago. While we waited for the guide to return, I chatted to Adrian who said he and Melissa would rather try to get to Landmannalaugar. I was in agreement and off we went, up the 28 towards the Highlands.

As we approached Hekla (now 13 years since last eruption; overdue), our guide pointed out the farm where he’d grown up. He saw Hekla erupt in 1980 while he was out making hay and recommends that if you ever get a chance to see an eruption, to go for it. Five or ten minutes later, we’d passed the last farm and the tarmac road ran out. A little further on, we came across another jeep, full of men taking photos of Hekla. We stopped alongside it and our guide talked in Icelandic for ages with one of them, finally reporting back as we set off “Not such good news”. All he meant was that the others were not going to Landmannalaugar but they’d swapped phone numbers and he appeared to have found them on the radio so it was “nice to know they’re in the neighbourhood in case of problems”.

It was beginning to look snowy – you could see the snow increasing mile by mile. Half an hour later we stopped on top of a dam that looked like it was on another planet so he could let some air out of our huge tyres, ready to head onto the snow. The three of us tourists ambled around taking photos for five minutes and then we were off, properly into the wilderness.

The first bit was driving along a narrow embankment alongside the lake created by the dam. It was narrow and I was very aware that there was a very very cold (half frozen) lake to our left. Next we were up and onto the bit that, in the summer, had looked like the surface of the moon. Now it was a big white nothingness. It was spectacular. We had to pause a couple of times to look at the road ahead – well, at the white nothingness ahead. There was no road. But the guide had a big chunky satnav and that was showing a road and we were following it very nicely. We came across a road sign, normally two metres high apparently, now with the pole invisible and nothing but the triangular sign itself sticking out of the snow. We also stopped to check that some tracks in the snow were definitely arctic fox – yes, they were.

We followed the power lines (laid in 1973/74 before the days of superjeeps and handy machinery) across a bumpy white nothingness. It had been scary at first, seeing how much the guide pulled the wheel around but you got used to it surprisingly quickly. In the summer this had been a big black lavaflow, with odd-shaped rocks sticking up all over the place. The rocks were still visible but mostly it was just snow. And once again, I kept feeling like Landmannalaugar had to be just around the next bend. I sort of half-recognised places, like the terrifying descent where we’d come across some rescue ATVs last time which I thought was five minutes away from the place. The last 50km crawled. The last 2k were slowest. In my guidebook it 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.”

In summer, this ford is no obstacle at all. If you really can’t drive through it, it’s all of about 500 yards from the centre and there’s a footbridge over it. In winter, you can’t follow the road all the way to the ford because it hugs the bottom edge of the mountain and it’s too steep to drive across in snow. We had to cross a river that just wasn’t there in the summer. Once we’d got out of the river (easier said than done, even in a superjeep) something seemed wrong. We crept along at 3km/hr (I was watching the satnav) while the guide kept sticking his head out the window and stopping and reversing and trying again. I had no idea what the problem was. I’d have just driven straight across. Probably a good thing it wasn’t me driving. Eventually, after he’d flicked two green switches several times, we gave up trying to cross the mysteriously scary snowfield and headed into the river. This was all of half a mile away. I was starting to think of saying “It’s right there, we can walk” and then thought better of it. There’s a very cold river at least a foot deep and moving at quite a speed, the snow is two feet deep and half a mile is quite a distance to run if a storm suddenly blows up.

Eventually we made it. It seemed the problem had been quicksand in the river and an unexpected swamp underneath the snow. The guide opted to stay in the car, since he’s been to Landmannalaugar and been in the pool many times. The rest of us abandoned car and fled down to the hut. It wasn’t really open but the front section was, so we could shelter inside to get changed. Remembering how slippery the boardwalk had been in summer, I put my yaktrax on my boots and decided the best thing to do was to put my thermals on over my swimming stuff, put on my coat and my boots and scurry down to the platform with my towel. Getting there was a bit tricky – the snow was thick but where people had trodden in it fairly recently it had opened up in huge deep holes. I made my way down to the waterside like a crazy person, pulled off the warm clothes, wished I’d brought a drybag down to the water, swore at my boots as I had to take them off one at a time to get the thermals off but put them back on before my feet could freeze. I left them right on the steps by the river and jumped in.

It was amazing. It was so warm and so blissful. Filthy but blissful. I drifted upriver towards the hot spring itself, which is take-your-skin-off hot. But you get used to it very quickly and you soon realise it’s only the top of the water that’s warm. If you’re sitting in the water, your feet start to get chilly so you have to float. I had no intention of getting my hair wet – it takes forever to dry and I had ridiculous visions of it getting wet, freezing and then snapping off. So I had plaited it and went in the water with my hat on and the plaits tucked up inside it. Looked ridiculous but it worked. I even had the water to myself for a few minutes before the Americans made it across and in.

The guide had told us we’d made good time and we could have an hour, an hour and a half in the water. I hadn’t brought my watch in with me so I had no idea how long I’d been in but I wanted to get out because 1) the idea of having to get out and stand in the rain (oh yes, the rain, it was raining) and get dried and/or changed was unappealing and therefore better over and done with and 2) I wanted to take some photos of Landmannalaugar in the snow.

I got out. My boots were soaked, partly from the rain and partly from the deep snow I’d run through to get to the water. With the help of my towel, I got the top of the swimsuit off and a thermal top and then coat on and then I wrapped the towel around myself while I considered the problems of the thermal trousers and the wet boots. Then I realised the towel was pretty much windproof and my bare wet legs weren’t really cold. I gathered up the trousers, hung my camera around my neck and wearing a towel-skirt, coat, fleece hat and boots, I fled, trying to follow my own footprints but the snow was going into my boots, which was unpleasant. I made it to the hut without hypothermia, slammed the door behind me and got dressed. Award for best service of the day goes to my softfibre travel towel. Warm, windproof and gets you dry. Back in my multiple layers, I was surprisingly warm and delighted to find I’d packed my waterproof trousers, so I could go and play in the snow for a while before we had to leave. The one problem was that I hadn’t brought any dry shoes or socks. The boots were soaked. For the time being, my socks were still dry so for a few minutes putting the boots back on was ok. I dug out my bottle of hot chocolate. This was about five hours later and it was still hot. Well done Evelyn. Proper bliss. A swim in a hot river in a snow field in the middle of nowhere, followed by warm dry clothes and hot chocolate.

By the time I was ready to go outside the Americans were emerging. They’d taken their bags down to the river but came back in much the same state of dress as I had for all that. I went outside and took photos and tried to ignore the jeep, still sitting there with the engine running, making me feel like we were running late (which we weren’t). To avoid the jeep, I went back down towards the river. Just past the hut but a bit off to the left of the paths I’d take through the snow I found a foot sticking out of the snow – a duck foot, by the looks of what was left, and some tracks that could well have been arctic fox. I did not take a photo. I took photos of the views and the mountains and the snow and then went back up towards the jeep. By now the Americans were coming too so we all hopped back in, damp and warm and happy.

Getting back was easier. We headed straight down the river, followed our tracks back through the wilderness and were back at the Highlands Hotel in no time, having stopped a little way before the dam to partly reinflate the tyres as snow began to give way to lava and gravel. The Highlands Hotel is the last stop before the Highlands road. It used to be a camp for people working at the hydro power station but when it closed, someone bought the camp and turned it into a combined hostel and last stop. It says Hrauneyjar over the door – I prefer that name. It means Lava Islands. The guide stopped there to fully inflate the tyres and for us to get some coffee. Not drinking any coffee, I enjoyed taking off my wet boots and then my wet socks, since they were making wet footprints everywhere and sitting down with space for my feet (a bag and a coat in the front seat of even a superjeep doesn’t leave a lot of space for feet) and then we were off again.

We were taking a slightly different route back. I have no idea at what point we deviated from our original route but suddenly we were on the other side of the river (my GPS says about 8 miles after the Highlands Hotel). We stopped off on the way back to have a quick look at Hjalparfoss, the little twin waterfalls that supply one of the six power stations on that river. It was nice to have it to myself (well, with the two Americans somewhere around) after having a full coachload in the summer but on the other hand, it was starting to get dark by now and my camera’s not a big fan of the dark. The guide thinks it’s a very small waterfall. It’s huge by UK standards and there’s a big chunk of rock in the middle at the top splitting it into two waterfalls. All around it are spectacular horizontal basalt formations before it meanders down to the power station.

From there, we followed the river back to the Ring Road and then it was an hour’s drive back to Reykjavík. I was getting sleepy by then and by the time we reached the outskirts of the city, at least one of the Americans was asleep.

I was dropped off at my door, left my boots downstairs, was permitted to take my coat upstairs since it’s dry and had a shower to wash the river filth off me. It’s a lovely river but it is full of weed and scum and bizarre orangeness today – I thought I had a big bruise on my leg but it turned out to be a patch of something sulphurous from the bottom of the river. Having realised that, I also discovered my hands were bright orange from paddling along the bottom. I vowed not to eat anything until I’d had a chance to wash my hands – not that there was much opportunity to eat until I got back. And eat I did.

Now I am fed and clean and mostly dry and I’ve been drying all the soaking wet stuff on that fantastic radiator ready to go again tomorrow. Glacier hike and ice climbing on Sólheimasjökull, followed by a stop at my favourite waterfall, Skógafoss.