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Raiding the Icebox a visit to countries in which I've often thought about living

glaciers, geysirs, gullfoss - the last leg

ICELAND | Wednesday, 18 June 2008 | Views [1590]

Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. The black basalt behind the waterfall is gorgeous in person.

Svartifoss in Skaftafell National Park. The black basalt behind the waterfall is gorgeous in person.

I believe I left off in Akureyri, the "cosmopolitan capital of the North." It certainly was the largest town we'd seen since leaving Reykjavik, and we'd wanted to spend some quality time there, but unfortunately our time constraints required us to rush out of town the next morning.

We gave the Quebecoises a ride to Dettifoss, and said our goodbyes over Digestive cookies (have I mentioned these things? Cookies meant to be eaten with coffee named Digestives - a brilliant marketing idea - 'They're great for you! Cookies that help you digest your meal! Eat them and be healthy!') Hearing stories from these two girls (who have hitched everywhere) I would definitely come back to Iceland and try to hitch around. If you've got a tent you can always pitch it basically anywhere if it gets too late to catch a ride (too late meaning nobody is driving around, not that it's too dark, of course).

Anyway, from there we drove to Egilsstadir and stopped by Eymundur's farm for lunch. The Canadians thought he might be especially glad to see us because he'd be alone, but not so. Well, he was happy to see me and meet Nathan, but there were also 5 other WWOOFers there. Lunch was crowded, but delicious. I hadn't realized how much I'd grown to love daily soups, the daily-baked bread, and the *intensely* garlic-y guacamole.

It was also amazing to see how much everything had grown in 10 days. They were getting ready to plant the beets I'd transplanted; the barley fields were booming; in general, everything had exploded into full bloom. The whole farm had been spray painted green.

It was a nice feeling, too, of returning to a familiar place. As I  mentioned, not knowing my surroundings, in a city in particular, really drives me crazy. Related to that is the very positive feeling I get when I return to an area I know. I took special pleasure in pointing things out to Nathan.

We could only stay for a couple hours, our final destination being much further south and west. We hit the road for a couple hours, passing the by-now-typical breath-taking scenery: roadside waterfalls, fjords, mountains, and a general glowing greenness. Way back when I first arrived in Egilsstadir and met Eymundur at the airport, I asked why he liked east Iceland so much. He said its appeal was largely that it was the greenest area, had the most trees (it'd be a stretch to call those tree patches "forrest," however). That was abundantly clear during our drive through the southeast.

Particularly striking were the ruin-esque glaciated mountains. I don't know if they look the way they do because they are so old (east Iceland is the oldest part of the landmass) or so new (there is a huge, and still receding glacier in the area) but they look like massive temple steps. Mayan ruins come to mind (not actual Mayan ruins, which I haven't seen, but pop-culture/Hollywood Mayan ruins, to be sure). A towering, mossy, overgrown temple. The striations came from glaciation, but it certainly looks man-made.

After our long drive we rounded a bend, and there it was: Jökulsárlón. It is a lagoon at the base of a glacier. Every so often a piece of the glacier breaks off and slowly (very slowly) floats through (or around) the lagoon for some time before finally being carried out to the ocean. Somehow, some of the icebergs are the most incredible shades of blue - a sparkling light-blue. Icebergs line the shore as well, making for a ridiculous coastline: black sands, and iridescent blue icebergs. It was really one of the most incomprehensible sights  of nature. The sort that requires you to just sit and stare at it for hours - hours. We didn't have that kind of time, sadly (the theme of the day, it seems), and left for Skaftafell National Park after not-quite-an-hour.

Skaftafell is Iceland's largest national park and home to (many, but mainly) two fantastic attractions: Svartifoss, and glaciers. We camped the night in the park and the next morning hit the trails.

Svartifoss is a beautiful, thin waterfall that spills forth over a backdrop of black basalt. It wasn't impressive in the way waterfalls usually are - by their size, shape, volume, power - but the surroundings made it far and away the most memorable waterfall I've seen. After sitting at the base of the falls for a bit we hiked over to the foot (or head, I don't remember which body part they use) of Skaftafellsjökull, one of the many "fingers" of the glacial mass that sits atop and throughout the mountains in the region. It was another one of those pieces of nature that are near-impossible to get your mind around. The glacier just looks like thick, dirty snow, yet its movements (and it is receding at a measurable pace: 1km in the past 50 years) form the land around it. And to think these guys used to cover sections of the glove we now comfortably inhabit... and that in the future this glacier may completely disappear. Well, again, to really get it requires more than that hour and a half we spent walking around it.

After hurrying around so much the previous day we were surprised to find that we had more time than we expected on our hands. We decided on an extra day in Reykjavik and drove west to hit our last major destination - The Golden Circle - before arriving back in the city by night time.

The Golden Circle refers to three large attractions: Gullfoss, Geysir, and Thingvellir (unfortunately I can't make the 'th' symbol on this keyboard).  Gullfoss is a double-cascading waterfall that was (I need a thesaurus) beautiful and impressive.  It was surprising to find that paths were roped off, as nothing in Iceland is roped off - if you recklessly hang over the edge of a cliff, that's your business as far as Icelanders are concerned. Probably, this one had ropes because it (and the Golden Circle in general) is the main tourist attraction for people staying in Reykjavik for only a few days.

Geysir (GAY-zeer) is the original geysir, the namesake. It used to spurt an astonishing 80 meter stream of water, but got clogged up in the 50s because tourists threw so many rocks in, trying to set it off. An earthquake in 2000 freed it up again, but now it doesn't erupt as high and only goes off two or three times a day. Right next to Geysir, thankfully, is Strokkur, which goes off every five minutes though at a more modest 15-30 meters.

The last stop, Thingvellir, is a national park that surrounds the Althing, the original meeting place of Iceland's thousand year old governing body - the world's first democratic parliament, in fact. Maybe if we hadn't seen so much already (that day, and that week) we would have thought more of it, but as it was, we were ready to head back to the city after a quick walk through Almanngjá fissure, a crack between the North American and European tectonic plates that is growing by 2mm per year.

We spent the night and next day in Reykjavik, seeing some final sights, enjoying the night life, and recouping after our haul (the mundane things like laundry need to get done sometime). One thought on nightlife, though: there is a thriving cafe/bar/club scene in Reykjavik, especially on the weekends, but the fact that it never gets dark at night during the summer takes something away from it. Nathan said it's just not as exciting when it's not dark. I completely agreed. Our first night in Copenhagen a day later confirmed this. Nightlife is just more fun when it's distinctively night.

Our last stop in Iceland before getting on our plane to Denmark was the Blue Lagoon. It is surreally set in the middle of a barren lava field. Nothing for miles, then this space-age complex housing the Blue Lagoon facilities  (they really play up the restorative properties of the silica rich mud-water). It's really just a geothermal pool that they've turned into a spa. By far the most touristy and commercial place we'd been, and a crazy juxtaposition with, say, the Latrabjarg cliffs in the Westfjords. But also a necessary stop (like the Eiffel Tower, some say).

And that warps up Iceland. Hard to believe that trip is over after being in the works for two years. The subtitle of this journal is "a visit to countries in which I've often thought of living," so the question: could I live here, in Iceland, in Reykjavik? No. No. Bad weather, grey skies, weird sunlight (I can't imagine how people handle the winter months), everyone looks the same (especially 20something women, who all share the same bleach-blonde hair and facial structure). Yet... Icelanders rank as some of the world's happiest people.

The Grapevine, that English-language culture/arts newspaper I've mentioned, had an article on this seeming paradox. It turns out that three features of Icelandic life correlate highly with happiness: strong communities, extensive civil liberties, and sufficient leisure time. Icelandic communities are very strong, likely since so many Icelanders are related to one another (and interestingly related to the fact that there are high divorce rates, and many unmarried couples with children, yet a strong "familial" structure in which kids grow up). Iceland is extremely progressive with its civil liberties (couples enjoy generous-by-US-standards benefits when they have children, gay couples enjoy the same rights as heterosexual couples). And Icelanders enjoy their free time in their pristine outdoors. Still, I'd rather find those things elsewhere... somewhere warmer.

This probably isn't the last time I'll mention Iceland. I think other places will bring my thoughts about Iceland into relief. There'll also be many points of comparison in the coming weeks.

Tags: geysir, glaciers, gulfoss, iceland, lagoon, reykjavik, skaftafell, south, svartifoss

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