Iceland summer 2012: Keflavik

Being picked up at 9.30 meant I actually had a good long slow lazy morning. I finished my packing, read for a while and dragged my suitcase outside and up the steps to find my minibus was already there.

I was delivered to the ticket office with my ticket already in my hand – I’d successfully kept it safe for ten days! – and waited for the airport bus. There was a big cruise ship in the harbour opposite. It had been there for at least a day and looked far too big and shiny to be in a place like Iceland.

The coach, when it arrived, was clearly the flagship – all wooden floors and walnut inlay and cream leather and red velour – the effect slightly spoiled by the rows of blue LEDs along the ceiling. I read and marked more Poetic Edda and tried to eat chocolate chip cookies without getting too many crumbs on the floor – it was the first morning I hadn’t had breakfast, as I’d finally run out of mini cereal packets and I was starving by ten o’clock. I successfully checked it using the machines – usually the first machine doesn’t work but the second does but this time it all worked fine first time. I just slotted my passport into it and it printed all the paperwork I needed. I dropped off my big heavy bag – 22kg, just about within Icelandair’s weight limits and went out to see the sculptures when they weren’t under snow. I hadn’t realised the dinosaur egg was in the middle of a fountain, even if the fountain wasn’t switched off. I hung around departures for a while and then decided there was very little keeping me there, whereas there was plenty to entertain me on the other side of security. I am a master of getting through security now and I think it’s been a year since I’ve been searched, although they did search me pretty thoroughly at Innsbruck.

On the other side, the first stop was the tax free counter to reclaim the tax on some of my shopping, which I immediately spent on a breakfast of bread rolls, my favourite overly-sweet Icelandic apple juice (probably not actual Iceland apples, though – it’s a matter of practicality, apple trees take up too much room in the greenhouses to really be worth farming there) and some Honey Loops and then I spent a while going through the various shops before I settled down with my netbook for an hour while all the shops closed for lunch.

Eventually I decided to wander down towards my gate. No luck – I was boarding from somewhere completely different this time which involved going through proper official passport controls which weren’t opened. I went backwards and forwards for a while, had some food sitting at a table in an abandoned café, went back to the main shopping area and then settled down with a lot of Americans and Canadians waiting for the passport gate to the American flights to open too. It seemed there were no flights either coming in or going out between about 10am and 4.30pm, at which point there was the London flight and three or four US flights all arriving and then leaving again pretty much at the same time, which explained why the airport had been such a ghost town for a few hours. I’d have arrived later but the airport buses had been a bit awkward with times and I’d had a choice of the 10am bus which would get me there a bit early or the next bus which might have been a little closer for time than I was comfortable with.

Just after 3, the passport gate was opened. I went through, had a quick look around the small shops on that side and then discovered that flights were starting to arrive and I could start collecting planes again. I collected nine in all – Askja (a volcano in the east Highlands that has a fantastic little geothermal lake in the side of the main caldera), Grímsvötn (a volcano under Vatnajökull that eruped in 2011), Hengill (the active volcano near Reykjavík where the geothermal power stations are), Oræfajökull (a volcano I don’t know of), Eldborg (the pretty crown-shaped volcano near Snæfellsnes), Skjaldbreiður (the original Shield volcano near Þingvellir), Surtsey (the newest island in the world, the second-newest volcano in the Westman Islands), Katla (the big bad one under Mýrdaljökull that’s overdue), Krafla (another volcano I don’t know) and Keilir (the perfect cone on Reykjanes).

Once I’d finished darting around trying to take photos of them all, it was time to board. We were clearly on a bigger plane this time. I was right at the back again but this time, the last six or so rows were sectioned off from the rest of the plane and it was quieter. There were enough spare seats that people were invited to find somewhere more comfortable if they wanted. I was reasonably happy where I was. There was a non-English speaking person sitting on my row but not quite next to me and he wandered the plane most of the flight.

While we waited to take off, I took photos of the in-flight magazine of the pages where all Icelandair’s planes are listed. With the nine I’ve got today, plus Eyjafjallajökull which I got last time, I only have five left to collect: Grábrók (a volcano I don’t know), Hekla (the other big bad overdue, near Landmannalaugar), Herðubreið (another one I don’t know), Magni (and another, although I do know it shares its name with one of Thor’s sons) and Snæfell (not actually Jules Verne’s one – “Snow Mountain” is a good enough name to have been used twice and this particular one is north-east of Vatnajökull).

This time I did watch the Hunger Games on the way back. I turned the sound up so I could make out what they were saying and soon realised I had a race against the plane as to whether I’d have time to make it to the end before we landed. For a while, I seemed to be in the ridiculous position of landing with less than two minutes of the film to go but then we had to do a big loop just east of Oxford (I’d turned on the maps on the screen belonging to the empty middle street so I could watch the film and the route at the same time) and that meant it finished ten minutes before we hit the tarmac. It was dark in London. That was new. I hadn’t seen dark for a while, only inside the volcano or when the curtains were closed in the common area of the guesthouse. Coaches only going every two hours, I had some time to kill before I got on mine. I got something to eat and watched something peculiar at the Olympics across the bar which later turned out to be the steeplechase.

We left Central Bus Station at 10 and it took maybe twenty minutes to get to T5 via T4. We then sat there for a very long time. For a while I entertained myself watching the light and water display of the fountains outside the main entrance but we were there so long that they got switched off. It transpired we had a problem with one of the tyres. Someone was coming out to fix it, they’d be ten or fifteen minutes and it would only take ten minutes to fix and then we’d be underway. No. Soon a lady was sticking her head in and saying we might have to change coaches later. Then the luggage came out of the hold and was put on trolleys. I watched it from my window, now starting to get properly fed up because it was eleven at night by now, I’d had a long day and I didn’t want to be in the UK at all, let alone still at Heathrow after all this time. The luggage was wheeled away and I picked up my stuff, preparing to change coaches. The luggage came back. I had no idea what was going on, whether we were coming or going or staying, starting to think about reclaiming my suitcase, finding another pod and spending the night there before making my way home in the morning.

At long last we were indeed put on another coach and an hour and a half after we’d first departed, we were finally on the road. I could see the moon – something else I hadn’t seen in quite a while.

Almost everyone got off at Bournemouth, leaving just me and one other man, who got off at Frizzell’s Roundabout, leaving me with my own private coach for the last ten minutes. Richard met me at Poole and brought me home and I finally got in at ten to two in the morning.

Iceland summer 2012: Vestmannaeyjar

January 23rd 1973 was a stormy day in the Westman Islands. Heimaey’s fishing fleet hadn’t been able to go out and all the men were home for once. The children were too excited about all their brothers being home to study for their exam at school the next day.

In the middle of the night, there was a big earthquake through the island as a fissure a mile long tore open. Fire and lava spurted up through the gap from hundreds of craters. Some of these craters only lasted a few hours. The largest got bigger and bigger and built itself a cone-shaped volcano, later called Eldfell (Fire Mountain). As the lava flow began to engulf the town, the island was evacuated using the fishing boats which wouldn’t normally have been there. 5000 people were evacuated in four hours.

The new volcano continued erupting for six months. A third of the town, five hundred houses, were buried under lava and tephra and the lava got closer and closer to the harbour. A few islanders and some rescue workers noticed that when it hit the seawater, the lava solidified so they had the idea of pumping cold seawater on it to try and hold it back, to stop it slithering across the entrance to the harbour up to the cliffs on the other side and sealing it off. It worked and by the time the eruption was over, the harbour was safe and in fact, better than before as it was now sheltered from the open sea with a narrow entrance. The island was 20% bigger – there being a volcano and a lava field where there had been sea. The Mayor of Heimaey had had to make a decision – whether to let the lava take the town or the harbour and it had been decided that the harbour was more important – fishing being the lifeline of the town. The villagers of Heimaey took on a volcano and won.

The name of the Westman Islands needs another story. Having heard tales of a vast unpopulated land, a Viking by the name of Ingólfur Arnarson and his brother (it’s not actually as simple as that with Vikings; I’m not actually entirely certain how they were related or if they were related at all) Hjörleifur Hróðmarsson set sail in 870AD for Iceland, along with the slaves they’d taken from Britain and Ireland on the way past. Coming into sight of the new land, Ingólfur declared that he would let the gods decide where he should make his new home. He threw his seat posts, a symbol of being head of a household (although Icelandics make it sound like “chief posts” so that may be it) into the sea and declared that wherever he washed ashore, there he would make his home. For three years he lived around and explored the south west coast of Iceland while his slaves searched the land for these posts. They turned up eventually on the northern side of a peninsula on the south coast, a piece of coastline covered in steam vents. Ingólfur named this place Smoky Bay – Reykjavík and there he lived as Iceland’s first permanent settler. Meanwhile, Hjörleifur’s slaves had rebelled, killed him and settled on some small islands. When news of this eventually reached Ingólfur, he tracked them down and had them all killed and they gave their name to the islands – the islands of the Westmen, ie from the British Isles, west of Norway.

Going to the Westman Islands meant a fairly early start, in a minibus with Dee Dee of the Golden Circle tour, who recognised me and asked if I was stalking her. We were a bit late leaving because some of the passengers went missing, so Dee Dee drove like a mad person. It should have taken us two hours to get to Hvolsvöllur – Dee Dee managed to get us there in an hour and a quarter and half an hour later, we were at Landseyjahöfn – the new harbour for the quick ferry from the mainland to the Westman Islands, half an hour instead of three and a half from Þorlákshöfn on the Reykjanes peninsula. Because it was the weekend of the National Festival of the Westman Islands (Þjóðhátið in Icelandic, more generally known as “The Festival”) – the Icelandic equivalent of Glastonbury – the car park was packed and eventually Dee Dee had to drop us at the terminal and go off to park the minibus.

We were given our tickets and told that if we lost the return part, we would be stuck on the islands and then Dee Dee discovered she had a couple of spare tickets and began to muse about selling them – “Do you know how much these tickets are worth this weekend?”

I am incapable of staying still on a ferry. Having befriended a French girl called Cécile on the minibus, we settled down at the back, where we could see the sea and the islands and what little of the mountains were visible under the mist on the mainland. But within minutes of getting underway I’d decided I wasn’t staying still and spent the rest of the crossing roaming around what little of the ferry was accessible to passengers. I’d always expected the Westman Islands to be quite flat but I’d seen them from the Ring Road several times during the last week and discovered that they’re actually big jagged things. That should actually have been pretty obvious. The weather had heated up a lot since we’d left Reykjavík and I was pretty comfortable even on deck in the wind in just a t-shirt. We were also accompanied by a lot of people heading to the Festival, who’d clearly started drinking about the time they left home. And alcohol is not only expensive in Iceland but also only available in state-owned shops called vinbuðin. There’s one in every town and the opening hours are usually mid-morning to evening although there’s one town I’ve come across and now can’t find where it’s only open for one hour a week. These festival-goers were already into the drinking songs at 10.30 in the morning.

We arrived on Heimaey after thirty-five minutes, coming in between the old brown high jagged cliffs and the new lava that had threatened to seal off the harbour thirty-nine years ago, disembarked, met Dee Dee on solid ground and were immediately taken off to our first excursion of the day – a boat ride round the island on a motorboat called Viking.

On the smaller boat, the waves were much more noticeable. It was still incredibly smooth and flat – I suspect beautiful calm days like that are fairly rare in the Westman Islands but we were still bouncing along like we were on a ride and I had to keep hold of the side. I am not and never have been susceptible to seasickness and sadly not everyone on the boat was like that. I kept my distance from one particular passenger.

We had a guide with a microphone pointing out various sights and giving a constant commentary on the place but it was impossible to make out much of what he was saying over the engines and the wind and the waves. Mostly I ignored him. I know he pointed out Surtsey but as there were three possible candidates, I just took photos of the group and decided to find out later. Surtsey is even more extraordinary than Heimaey. On November 14th 1963, there was a huge volcanic explosion a few kilometres south-west of Heimaey and within a week, there was a volcano sticking out of the sea. The eruption lasted three years and by the time it was over, the newest island in the world had been born and had become the second largest island in the Westman group. The sea is not kind to new lava and it soon shrank to half its birth size but within about fifty years, it will settle at its final size and stay that size for a few million years. It’s named after Surtr, ruler of the Norse world of fire called Múspell, who will fight Freyr at Ragnarok and then engulf the Earth in flames.

We also saw lots of kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs and lots of puffins swimming in the sea or flying over the surface. They’re fairly easy to see because their wings are a different shape from the other birds and they look awkward but they’re almost impossible to get photos of. We stopped off in some sea caves – going into volcanoes from the bottom, effectively – which had incredible coloured stripes and after an hour and a half we were heading back into the harbour. There was just one more stop. There was another sea cave in the big brown cliffs and this one has an echo. Our driver parked in there, came back onto the top deck and produced a saxophone.

Dee Dee had given us some mini-guides to the Westman Islands which included this line: “Accompanying you is a guide who might perhaps be in the mood to play a trumpet or a saxophone inside one of the caves” and now I understood.

Back on dry land, Dee Dee showed us to the Café Kró, right opposite the boat trips where she’d organised lunch for us – soup and bread. Cécile was concerned about it possibly being fish soup. I didn’t care what it was because I had no intention of eating it but I hoped the bread would be good. It was. Little fresh baked mini baguettes, still warm. No plates but I was quite happy to eat bread out of a bowl. We sat with the Italian man and his young son, who were from Florence. The soup turned out to be pepper (which Cécile was also not too keen on, as wasn’t the Italian boy) so we all sat and ate bread and then the Italian man and Cécile had coffee and brought back lots of sugar cubes for the boy to eat.

We were then put on a coach for our next excursion – a ride around the island to see what we couldn’t see from the boat. Stop one was just out of town, by the bay where we could see an elephant in the corner of the cliff. Not a real elephant – Iceland can be weird but not that weird. Just like a natural sculpture of an elephant. A few of us took photos but we’d already seen it from the boat, much to the driver’s disappointment. We were also right across from the Festival campsite. It seemed quite quiet but then it was still only the middle of the day and I knew a lot of the festival-goers either hadn’t arrived yet or were still in town.

Next we stopped at the opposite end of the island, at Stórhöfði, which is the windiest place in Europe. The wind stops there only four times a year – not four days, our guide made clear, four times and the last time was three weeks ago. It’s a great viewpoint.

We spent a little while there and then went down the side of the hill, parked the bus on the side of the road and climbed over another hill to spend a while puffin-watching. First we had to contend with sheep – in Iceland, sheep roam freely over the summer and then everyone helps collect them up at the end of August and the farmers reclaim their own and put them away for the winter. If you don’t want them on your land, you fence them off, rather than fencing them in anywhere and you often have to stop, even on the Ring Road (which is the Icelandic equivalent of the M25 except bigger) because there are sheep in the road. In this case, there were sheep on the hillside with an amazing island and blue sea background. I’m not used to seeing sheep with the sea in the background.

I’d had the sense to bring my binoculars so once I’d taken photos of the hillside in the hope that the puffins would be visible in them, I settled down to watching them closer up. They’re very cute. They hop around on the grass and then they stand and stare around for a while and then they hop around a bit more. It was quite idyllic, actually, sitting on a hillside in the sun, watching the puffins below us.

Next stop was a toilet stop at Vestmannaeyjar Airport. Little Bournemouth Airport is Heathrow compared to here. Compton Abbas is Bournemouth compared to here. Better view, though.

Back on the bus, we headed off to Eldfell. This is the volcano that nearly destroyed the place in 1973 and the driver told us one of my favourite Icelandic stories. I heard it from Geir on my second day as well, so I’m absolutely convinced it’s true.

Eldfell is still hot nearly forty years later. As little as 20cm down, it’s 300°. When important foreign visitors – royalty and world leaders and the like – come to Iceland, they’re always taken to Heimaey and they go up the volcano to inspect the crater. The Mayor of Heimaey has some dough buried in the volcano the day before, in a milk carton wrapped in foil, and the heat of the ground cooks it, so they dig it up and eat it as a gesture of international friendship. One day the King of Spain was due to visit and he’d heard about this volcano bread and was looking forward to tasting it and had been talking about it. Two hours before he was due to arrive, the Mayor discovered the dough hadn’t been planted – according to our Viking Tours guide, the man from Viking Tours who’d been meant to take it up there hadn’t. The Mayor panicked – the King of Spain wanted to eat this bread – they had to do something about it. So he asked a local baker to run up there with a loaf of bread. The ground would warm it and the King of Spain would never know. The baker did. Later the Kind of Spain arrived, they went up Eldfell, the bread was dug up and eaten with great ceremony. The Mayor asked the King what he thought of the volcano bread. “Very good,” the King said. “But I didn’t know it came sliced.”

We had a choice at Eldfell, whether we wanted to look at it and then go back to the bus or whether we wanted to walk up to the crater and then walk back down to meet the bus in half an hour. That’s not a choice. Of course you walk up to the crater. The ground is red and quite loose and the same ultra-light pumice I found all around Hekla and at the top of Þríhnjúkagígur. Cécile flew on up and tried to walk all the way around the top of the volcano instead of stopping at the edge of the volcano. During the eruption, the crater became so high and fragile that the north side of it collapsed and for a while, a colossal lump of rock floated in the lava, threatening to crash down onto the town. When you’re visiting the crater, you stand where that broke off and look down into the bowl and up at the high fragile side opposite although you can walk around like Cécile tried to, but there’s not much path there and it looks like you have to be very careful not to fall into the crater. Apparently if you’re not wearing hiking boots, you can feel the heat radiating off the ground. I’d decided if I was walking up a still-steaming volcano, boots were a better option than sandals. I looked at the crater, then I looked down at the town, at the grey and black lava field. Forty years ago, where I was standing just did not exist. It was sea. To put it in perspective, the rock under my house is anywhere between forty-five and two hundred million years old. The oldest part of the Westman Islands is only six thousand years old and the part I was standing on is only thirty-nine years old.

We half-walked, half-slid back down the cone to the bus, just in time to hear the guide talking about puffins. They eat puffins in Iceland. Foreigners tend to say “But how can you?! They’re so cute!” and he was explaining about exactly which ones they eat. Their beaks change colour and pattern as they get older, like rings on a tree so they only eat puffins between three and five years old, before they’ve started breeding and basically, they eat them because there are lots of them and they taste good. There are strict rules and limits on how many and where and when the puffins can be caught and when the little ones get confused and fly into town instead of into the sea, the islanders catch them in nets and send them on their way.

Now we were coming back into the other side of town. We’d passed a house with a turf roof, the workshop of an Icelandic MP and Eccentric Character. He’d caused a bit of a stir in the news recently. He’d had a car crash on Reykjanes, hit a big brown boulder. Talking to a local clairvoyant, it seemed a family of elves lived in it. He asked her to ask them if they wouldn’t mind moving to the Westman Islands. Apparently the elves were fine with this, so he had the boulder put on a lorry and ferried over to Heimaey and he went on foot, carrying a cardboard box which contained a jar of honey and the elves. He even paid the elves’ ferry fare. “Love this nation,” said the guide.

Fishing, as I said, is an important business in Heimaey. They dry fish and export it. But during the twenties or thirties, when Iceland had prohibition Spain had threatened to stop buying their dried fish unless Iceland started buying their wine again. So Iceland quickly changed its laws – so quickly that it forgot to also un-ban beer. Beer was banned in Iceland until 1989. “Love this nation…” the guide said again.

We drove through the new lava field. Our guide is a Heimaey native, born and bred, who was there the night the volcano erupted and is of course the one who told us about the school exam due the next day. He pointed out all the sights. He pointed out exactly when we driving over the swimming pool he’d learnt to swim in, where his house had been, told us about how he’d illegally sneaked back over to the island when the volcano was still going and about how when he saw fire in the sky, he was excited because he thought his school was burning and he wouldn’t have to do the exam the next day. He pointed out everything.

Our final stop was at Eldheimar, or “Pompeii of the North” – an archaeological dig in the east of the town, where they were slowly and delicately uncovering some of the streets and houses buried in tephra – the lightweight flying rock. Most of the houses were actually pretty intact. I suppose the tephra is light enough to not collapse the roof. There’s not much visible – the project hasn’t been going very long and isn’t welcomed by all locals. Just a few corners and a bit of roof here and there, along with signs showing what house is where, what it looked like, who the occupants were and a before and after photo. You can just about get into the first house – not that it’s open to tourists, but the former owner went in to see it when it was first uncovered and she said everything looks exactly as it did the night she evacuated.

Then we were taken back to the harbour, left at Café Kló for an hour. Dee Dee had told us repeatedly to be back at the ferry by five and it was just after four. Cécile wanted a cup of coffee so we went inside the café, only to find it had turned into a cinema for the afternoon. All the doors were shut and the lights were out and there was a film about the volcano – probably the one that’s on at the Volcano House in Reykjavík. It really was horrific when seen like that.

I left Cécile to her coffee and went to wander around the town. I quite fancied getting across to the big brown cliffs and I know it’s possible but I couldn’t figure out how and besides, I didn’t really have the time. Once I’d done a circuit of the nearest streets, I settled down on the pavement in the harbour to enjoy the view and watch the ferry coming in before going to board at five to five.

The ferry had been a bit late coming in and so it was late leaving. Our little group managed to gather together on the steps inside the terminal with Dee Dee and stood there and waited while Dee Dee looked at her watch every five minutes, unable to understand why we weren’t on yet. She’d spent the day at the Festival – her friends tell her she has to come every year and she always refuses because she doesn’t drink alcohol and doesn’t think the noise and crowds will be much fun if you’re not drunk. But this year, she volunteered to take the Westman Islands tour even though it was supposed to be her day off because then she could visit them without having to stay for the noisy drunken bit and could then tell them “No, I’ve been!” when they demanded in future years. All she’d really had to do was drive us to the ferry, make sure we knew when we had to be where and then take us back again so she’d had quite a relaxing day.

Eventually we were allowed on the ferry. I settled on the back with Cécile again until we started moving and then I was off again. This time I managed to spot puffins off the sides as we crossed back over to the mainland. We found the minibus, parked right at the back of the crowded car park.

Back in Reykjavík two hours later, I had lots of packing to do.

Iceland summer 2012: Reykjavik

This was my first and only day off. I woke up ridiculously early, of course, but didn’t venture out until 10. I went up Laugavegur, heading for Hallgrímskirkja and as I walked up the hill, I suddenly spotted Baldursgata (Baldr’s Street – Baldr being the son of Odin) which reminded me that I’d wanted to go and take photos of all the “God streets” around the church. I found Lokastígur (Loki, the God of Mischief), Þórsgata (Thor, the God of Thunder), Njarðargata (probably Niord, the father of the Vanir), Freyjugata (Freyja, Niord’s daughter), Bragagata (Bragi, the God of Poetry), Válastígur (Vali – there are two in Norse mythology. One is the son of Loki, whose entrails were used to bind Loki while a snake dripped venom on him until Ragnarok and the other is the son of Odin who was born to avenge Baldr, who was killed by Loki, using Hod – this was the crime Loki was bound for), Óðinsgata (Odin, the All-Father) and Týsgata (presumably Tyr, the God of War).

Once I’d found them all and taken photos of the road signs, I went up to the church. It was busy, much busier than it had been last time and there was a man practising the organ inside. Hallgrímskirkja is very simple and grey and minimalist inside, except for this massive, silver ornamental organ that dominates the back wall. I sat down to watch and listen.

I wanted to go up the tower but there was a queue for the lift. The church was open until 9 at night so I decided I’d come back later when it was quieter.

I went down to the seafront via Snorrabraut, which I can only think is named after Snorri Sturlusson, one of the most famous men in Iceland, the only saga writer known by name, the author of the Prose Edda and for a while Lawspeaker at the Alþing, Iceland’s ancient parliament (established 930AD), walked along the seafront and decided it really was about time I went into Harpa, the new conference and arts centre by the old harbour. After the town being so busy, it was weird to see Harpa so empty. The outside is all green glass and sea-like patterns but inside is dark grey concrete, stairs at weird angles. I went upstairs, right to the top. The view isn’t actually as good from up there as I’d hoped because of the window frames and the coloured glass.

I decided to go back to the Flying Viking to have something to eat and get a map but on the way, I passed the Volcano House, which has two films, one on Eldfell and one on Fimvorðuhals and Eyjafjallajökull running several times a day and also has displays and a café. I decided not to sit and watch the volcano films but I did stand and read a recipe for a volcano cake before I went home.

I didn’t mean to stay in until evening but that’s what happened. Later on, when the sun was a bit less fierce and the crowds a bit smaller I went out again, with the intention of going up the church tower. I got distracted on the way by a man sitting on Laugavegur playing some kind of Alpine-style pipe made out of drainpipe.

Then I went up the tower. The church was empty by now and there was no queue so up I went. The view was very different on a summer evening to last time I was up there. There are a couple of islands in the bay between the city and Esja and I couldn’t believe I’d managed to not notice them last time. The thing that looked like a crashed plane last time now just looked like a building in the distance and I spotted a fairly large plane coming in to land at the Domestic airport.

I wandered along to the Tjornin, which was now full of water instead of ice, walked along to the end, round the back and along back to the new Alþing building and the cathedral – Hallgrímskirkja isn’t officially Reykjavík’s cathedral but because it’s the biggest one in town, it’s the one where big events tend to happen. The cathedral itself is a small dark stone church down in the centre of town.

My plan to walk back through the town to the harbour and seafront was derailed by running into Wally, the Australian street performer. I was kept entertained for half an hour, not least because I couldn’t work out where he was from – his English was far too good to be Icelandic and yet he didn’t sound English. He dragged various volunteers out of the audience, none of whom were Icelandic either except the lady on a hen night apparently with her wife-to-be.

By the time his show was finished, I was getting cold. I went into my favourite shop, Eymundsson, the bookshop and went down into the basement where they had children’s books and came across Thor: Tales of Asgard. I’d been hoping to find a DVD of either Thor or the Avengers – probably Thor, since the Avengers isn’t out yet – because the idea of Thor and Loki actually speaking Icelandic, which is old Norse, the language of the sagas and myths of those times, was appealing, whether it was dubbed or just in subtitles.

Once again I stopped off at the seafront to see my favourite view before I went home for the night.

Iceland summer 2012: Snæfellsnes

Despite being quite a long day, Thursday felt like an easier and more relaxing day than the others. I think that was because there wasn’t really any “must-see” sight – it was just a day of seeing nice things and taking it easy.

We were heading up the west coast, round or under the fjords and I used the time to go through the Poetic Edda. I read the Prose Edda in Denmark and I’d tried to read the Poetic Edda, which is a collection of older poems about the Norse myths and legends before. It’s hard – even in translation, it’s still full of old Norse words, phrases and concepts, it uses a lot of kennings and assumes you remember a lot of details. You have to read it with a finger in the notes and a finger in the index, so went through with a pencil to make it easier to read.

Our first stop was at Borganes, about an hour north of Reykjavík. We were at a petrol station on the industrial estate with the best view in the entire world. It’s on the edge of the Borgarfjördur. We had about ten minutes there to get food, then we headed on to the Snæfellsnes peninsula, which finishes at Snæfellsjökull, the volcano that stars in Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

Other than blue sea and sky, the first major sight we saw was Eldborg, the remains of a perfectly formed crater in the middle of a field just beside the road. I think I flew out last time on Eldborg and I’d particularly wanted to see it. There’s no cone, no volcano, just this crown-shaped crater in the middle of nowhere.

Our first official stop was at Gerðuberg, a 2km long wall of basalt columns, which are perfectly hexagonal. It was freezing cold there and I began to think that for the first time, I hadn’t brought enough warm clothes with me. I took photos of the wall and sheltered behind the coach to take photos of the view, including the bright red volcano cone behind us.

We carried on, now turning left onto Snæfellsnes, past cliffs made of my new favourite rock, rhyolite, which is the pretty green and orange striped stuff, like at Landmannalaugar and followed the coast round to a small fishing village called Arnastapi. We just had time for a photo of the small harbour before our guide led us out onto the cliffs to see the kittiwakes nesting.

At first you think that all you can see is grey cliff and then you look a bit closer and realise the cliffs are almost invisible under the mass of birds nesting on them. Some are adults, some are half-grown birds and some are even fluffy little chicks. Different species nest at different heights but this cliff seemed to be nothing but kittiwakes. We went on to a spectacular natural arch, where you could see greenish-blue sea framed by a rock window, again covered in kittiwakes and the occasional gull. Then before we went back to the coach, we went to see a lake where arctic terns like to swim. There weren’t many there that day, which was just as well as apparently they dive-bomb visitors.

The next stop was only five or ten minutes further round the coast, at Hellnar. The guide had booked us a table at “the most popular restaurant in Iceland’s countryside” and ordered fish soup. Anyone who didn’t want the fish soup was quite welcome to wander around and entertain themselves for an hour.

I entertained myself. The restaurant was a tiny little hut on the side of the cliff, almost on the beach. I went down to the beach and took photos of a sheltered corner of the cliffs and planned to sit there on the rocks to eat my breadsticks. Then I looked up at the cliffs and decided it might be better to not sit underneath them – they looked a little bit fragile. I did give in to the lure of building a stack of rocks to join all the other little stacks and then I went up behind the cliffs to try to find somewhere among the rocks, out of the sun. That was hard – there’s very little shelter in Iceland, very few trees over about three feet tall. There is a saying – “If you get lost in an Icelandic forest, stand up” and because of the way the boulders were wedged into the hillside, it was impossible to find shade. I settled down in a patch of grass against a boulder and ate my breadsticks and read the summary of the Laxdæla Saga from my guidebook with Snæfellsjökull looming over me – definitely one of the more scenic picnic spots I’ve ever had.

All too soon I had to scurry back down the rocks onto the path and then up the side of the cliffs back to the coach to go to our next spot.

This turned out to be a black sand beach at a place called Djúpalónssandur, which used to be a fishing village and is now gone. The freshwater lake where they got their drinking water is still visible through a window in the cliffs and the lifting stones are still there – there are four of them and fishermen had to be able to at least lift the lightest two onto a ledge at hip height. They are called Fullsterkur (full strength, 155g), Hálfsterkur (half strength, 140kg), Hálfdrœttingur (weakling, 49kg) and Amlóðii (useless, 23kg).

On the beach itself are the remains of a trawler from Grimsby that was wrecked there years ago, scattered rusty iron all over the place, which mustn’t be disturbed and makes a bit of an obstacle course to get down to the beach. I stood and looked at the crystal clear water for a while and then decided that I had my sandals on and I didn’t care if I got black sand stuck to my feet, I was going in. So I paddled in the north Atlantic quite happily (got asked several times later on if the water was cold – yes, it was but not as cold as in the canyon at Þórsmörk).

On the way to our next stop, which was nearly an hour, our guide announced that she was going to read us some wisdom from the Vikings. The moment she said it, I knew exactly what it was going to be and I grabbed my copy of the Poetic Edda and she did indeed read out verses from the Havamal, the Sayings of the High Ones, which was one of the poems I’d spent the morning marking. I preferred my version – between the translation in her version and her difficulty with some of the English words, it was quite difficult to understand some of it, which is why it was met with blank silence from everyone else.

The next stop was on the north coast of Snæfellsnes at a small town called Ólafsvík. We only had half an hour so we couldn’t go far but I took some photos of their eccentric and very un-Icelandic church before spotting the waterfall. It was just behind the town and if I hurried I had time to visit it. On the way I came across boards all about protecting the town from avalanches coming off the mountain behind it and from the “slushfall” coming down the stream from the waterfall. They’d built a little boulder wall across the river just below the waterfall – I couldn’t see exactly how that was supposed to stand up to higher waters but it seemed to work.

The final stop at the day was in the harbour at Stykkishólmur, which also had an interesting un-Icelandic church but I didn’t get a chance to find it. I saw the harbour, lots of boats and big brown jagged cliffs protecting it from the huge open fjord beyond.

Then we had a two hour drive home. The first part of this was incredibly beautiful. We drove across fjords and fields and past mountains and then just as I was beginning to wonder where on Earth I was, I spotted the red volcano and realised we were back at Eldborg and Gerðuberg.

The sun was still out when we got back to Reykjavík so I went over to the seafront to see Esja again, interrupted as I crossed the main road by fireworks over downtown. Fireworks are very hard to see in daylight.

Iceland summer 2012: The Golden Circle

Today was the Golden Circle. I did this trip in December when the country was under three feet of snow and I wanted to see it 1) in daylight 2) not in the snow.

It was very different. Last time there were maybe ten of us and we were in the truck. This time there were fifty-odd of us and we were in a big coach and a minibus. Our guide was Dee Dee, a hyperactive red-haired Viking whose real name is six or seven syllables long and the only bit I got of it was that it began with an H.

She could talk for Iceland. I took two whole pages of notes over the day. Per capita, Iceland does/has the most of everything. The most golf courses per capita, drink the most coke, eat the most Subway, import the most ADHD medicine, have the most writers and artists. Iceland has won Miss World three times, the World’s Strongest Man eight times, there’s one car for every two people in the country, three sheep for every one person, one mobile phone for every one person.

Our first stop was Nesjavellir, a power station at Hengill. We didn’t do this one on the trip last time because it’s not always accessible in the winter. A lot of Reykjavík’s hot water gets piped in from re. If you’re in an older hotel, they get their hot water directly from the ground below the city but the newer ones get it from the pipeline and the pipeline water is cleaner and less sulphurous than the city water. Specifically, she said “old hotels like Best Western”. That’s where I stayed last time and it would explain why the shower smelled much more eggy there than it does here. Here also has amazingly cold clear pure cold water – at the Best Western, even the cold water was lukewarm and had sulphur in it.

Next was Þingvellir – we were doing the tour in the opposite direction this time, then. We were dropped off at the education centre at the top of the North American cliffs and we walked down to Parliament Rock for Dee Dee to do her Viking speech, from 1000AD, when Þorgeir, the lawspeaker at the time, declared that Iceland should become Christian. Then out came the Mjölnir necklace – Thor’s hammer – to demonstrate that to Icelanders, it was Thor’s hammer. To the Norwegians, who ran Iceland at the time, it was a cross – Þorgeir had allowed the pagans to keep their religion as long as they did it secretly without the Norwegians noticing. “Thor was the son of Odin and he had lovely red hair. Like me! And her, and her” – I was one of the Thor-like redheads pointed out, although Dee Dee’s is naturally red and mine isn’t so much. Even people who weren’t part of our group were watching the performance.

We crossed the bridge and looked down into the Wishing Well – a twenty-five metre deep crack full of crystal clear water and coins of all currencies. There are even two credit cards in there. Then, having walked through the Parliament Plains, we were back in the coach and off to the visitors centre just up the road.

Our third stop was Gullfoss. Last time I saw that it was frozen solid. Today it was flowing and the path all the way up to the top was open so you could get within a few feet of this enormous mass of fast-flowing white water. The spray was incredible. Once I’d taken a few thousand photos, I went back up to the shop and café and ran into the dentists-in-training from the glacier tour. It’s very weird to be in this strange and alien country and meet people I know up in the Highlands, because Gullfoss is in the Highlands. They had been snowmobiling on Longjökull and had stopped to see Gullfoss while the other people in their group went whitewater rafting.

In the shop I finally bought the red and black striped armwarmers I’ve been wanting for six months and then went to get bread and butter, which I remembered being available last time. It still was and it’s still free, even if you don’t have the soup or the sandwiches or anything. I ate bread and butter until I could eat no more.

The next stop was back at Haukadalur, the hot springs area where Geysir is found. We were dropped off at the top entrance again to walk down and meet the bus at the shop. I took my time with Strokkur, determined to get a video of him spouting (Dee Dee called it “him” – volcanoes are always female but Strokkur is apparently male) and a photo of the bubble that forms just before it spouts. That meant trying out the burst setting on my camera and that also meant I ended up with about a hundred photos of Strokkur’s pool bubbling away before I actually got the pictures I wanted. Actually, I got 119, of which only 11 showed him in action.

I didn’t have time to linger around the other bubbling pots. I managed three quick burst photos of Little Geysir and of the landscape across the pots and then I had to run for the bus, because I’d forgotten it was leaving at 2.15, not 2.20.

Next was Skálholt, the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops and the first place I ever saw Iceland in daylight. I hadn’t realised you could see Hekla from there. There was no man practising the organ inside but Dee Dee sang an Icelandic song to us and then we went downstairs to see the stone coffin of Páll Jónsson, one of the most beloved of Iceland’s bishops, whose death is told about in one of the sagas. When they dug up his coffin, they discovered those particular sagas were all true.

We made a special stop at Kerið, just as I hoped. It’s an explosion crater at the side of the road and it’s very pretty in daylight. It’s deeper than I remembered and has a sparkling green lake in the bottom. You can see Hekla behind it and a volcano in the other direction with a huge red iron patch on the side. I’m very glad I got to see it in the sun, although it was ridiculously hot.

The final stop was at Hellisheiði power plant, the biggest geothermal facility in the world, on the other side of Hengill. We didn’t stop at Hveragerði – that had been ok at nine in the morning on a snowy day for fifteen people but you can’t throw fifty people into a small shopping centre in the height of summer, even if there is a crack between the continents inside it. There was an optional trip to the power exhibition upstairs and that was worth it just to be able to go and look at the machinery. I didn’t watch the DVDs and I didn’t play with the world’s biggest touchscreens, although I watched other people play with them. Then I sat outside and dipped my fingers in the “moat”, just to make sure it was cold water and that they weren’t decorating the place with hot geothermal water – I suspected it would be cold because there would be far too many people like me who have to stick their hands in to be able to have boiling hot water there.

And then we were back in Reykjavík. I jumped off downtown as usual, because there’s no way the massive coach would be able to get up my street and walked back through town, with a stop-off in the bookshop on the way past because I can never resist that. And Iceland has a ridiculous number of English books.

Tonight I have written three blogs and spent the best part of an hour trying to wash the Blue Lagoon out of my hair. It felt like it had been thatched this morning and despite epic amounts of conditioner, I suspect it’s not going to feel a lot better tomorrow.

Iceland summer 2012: The Blue Lagoon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland summer 2012: Vatnajökull and Jökulsárlón

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland summer 2012: Þríhnjúkagígur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iceland summer 2012: Landmannalaugar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rate this blog entry


Iceland summer 2012: Þórsmörk

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

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

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

“Do you have any better shoes?”

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

“We have to hike.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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