With the days getting shorter and the morning commute even colder on our bikes, we decided to head somewhere where the days were even shorter and the weather quite a bit colder. Heading due north to Iceland was on the cards. Iceland was a place we had heard so many good reviews, but knew little about.
On arrival to Heathrow, Tam bought out a massive thermos for baggage check in, much to Mitch’s disgust. Her enthusiastic workmate said it was a must for Iceland…customs didn’t seem to mind much either. On arrival in Keflavik airport, an old US army base at midnight we picked up our cheapest SADcar rental, a beat up 1996 Toyota Corolla. Mitch was pretty thrilled, because he had a lot of experience driving these things and knew they wouldn’t do anything unexpected like the modern european cars. Our drive to Reykjavik was over the barren and mossy landscape, completely devoid of trees, probably due to the wind, cold and frequent volcanic eruptions. Reykjavik town was quite small, but well connected by large highways, so it was a relatively short drive to our accommodation at Hotel Leifur Eiriksson, right opposite the impressive Hallgrímskirkja church and Leifur Eiriksson statue.
On the Saturday morning we had a bit of time to kill before our sled dog tour was to depart, so had a walk through town. The temperature was a bit fresh as we walked past the Harpa Concert Hall and the Solfar sculpture with temperatures in the low single digits.
We heard that the local Kolaportið Flea Markets, open on the weekend was a good place for a bargain and to find some Icelandic cuisine. Mitch was up to the shark challenge eating a small piece of Hákarl (fermented shark) – the taste was something akin to rotten milk and bad fish. Apparently the Icelandic had to make do with what they could find before the Americans came and introduced them to hot dogs. Speaking of which, across the road was Bæjarins Beztu Pylsur hot dog stand, the most popular restaurant in Iceland and rated the best hot dogs in Europe (made with lamb). Washing down the shark with one of those made Mitch a bit less queasy.
For the sled dog tour, we drove to south coast on a small farm by the Ölfusá river. On the way saw the Eyjafjallajökull volcano that infamously cancelled 107,000 Europe flights in 2010.
At the base, we couldn’t tell who was more excited, the dogs, or us. As we arrived the din from the dogs on the sleds and the dogs in the cages was deafening. We got to meet the dogs, a mix of Siberian and Greenland Huskies with one big Alaskan Malamute named Brutus. Amid the confusion and with Tam giving one maybe too much affection, Brutus leapt forward and bit down hard on a Greendland Husky, Narlas’ mouth. It took a bit of effort from four of the handlers (one already sporting a big scrape to his face) to wrestle Brutus off Narla, who took some blood with him. Nishak, Narlas’ brother took some restraining too, wanting his revenge and going on to hold a massive grudge against Brutus, who was getting a big telling off from his mate and sled partner, Odessye. These dogs are working dogs and quite often have scraps, having to be hit and restrained. While cheerful and pleasant with people, we could see the natural wolf in them here – especially big Brutus.
Once the dogs had calmed down they were saddled up and we set off around the farm on modified sled trolleys. The dogs knew the path well, racing off at first, then stopping every now and again where a dog had gone for a pee in the last few days. Getting them starting again was like dealing with children and toilet stops, but they soon got the hang of it.
Back at the base, we put the dogs back in their cages. A few mongrel German Pointer cross pups were being saddled up for training. As we left the dogs, a bottle of champagne was smuggled into the next cart as the next group to arrive had a pending proposal on board…lets hope she said yes! On our return we stopped in Hveragerði thermal springs for a heated and relaxing swim and sauna.
With the sunlight going down in Reykjavik we had dinner across the road at Cafe Loki – some more Icelandic fare of fish pie, soup and rye bread ice-cream. The John Lennon and Yoko Ono Imagine Peace Tower monument lit up for a couple hours after sunset, a massive beacon of light shining right up into the sky. After a quick Skype call, we had to rush in order not to miss the bus leaving out towards Þingvellir National Park to see the Northern Lights.
With the temperature plummeting we managed sets both inside and outside the heated bus, waiting for the Northern Lights to show, for hours only seeing a faint glow. Suddenly, around midnight, they appeared. A dash across the sky of green light falling from the sky, miles above the earth. The lights danced around for about half an hour, a spectacular sight to see. We felt very lucky too as it was probably the only night of our stay they were actually visible, as the weather was about to take a turn.
Sunday morning started with howling strong wind from the South-East, not the best day to be outside, but we had planned a trip north to Stykkishólmur, an area famous for its whale watching and puffins in the summertime not letting much bad weather stop us. Along the way, we passed through the Hvalfjörður Tunnel, a 5,770 m long tunnel through volcanic rock and a small geothermal system (apparently it gets over 30dg in the middle). On the road we had a few stops, Mitch had a pit stop and was surprised when, despite taking care not pissing against the wind, a strong gust picked it up and made a small piss hurricane around him – not impressed. Tam managed to find a paddock full of friendly Icelandic horses who were more than happy to see her. On the mountain pass, we encountered a white out, while the road was covered in fresh snow, we still had good traction and didn’t need the snow chains. In Stykkishólmur, we didn’t see much with the weather really taking a turn. Tam made good use of the thermos, having prepared noodles for lunch.
On the way back we stopped at a few frozen lakes, testing their surfaces for ice skating with a few big rocks, but the ice was a bit too thin… Later, we were stranded in a supermarket in Borgarbyggð as the winds started moving the cars in the car park and we almost got blown flat seeking some shelter. After a good couple hours the wind died down and the road reopened for us to speed back late for our dinner in Hafnarfjordur at the Fjörukráin, Viking Restaurant. It was quite a quirky place, full of Viking and Nordic carvings and nostalgia. We tried some of the local mead and Mitch had some minke whale – it tasted a bit like beef with a fishy aftertaste (surf and turf).
On Monday the weather had died down somewhat. Not perfect for our Golden Circle trip, as our snorkeling was cancelled, but it would do. We ventured into the Þingvellir National Park to see the alien terrain and where the continental plates are being pulled apart. We were disappointed we missed seeing the lake as you can see the rift all the way deep down. Only 18,000 years ago, at the last ice age, this area was covered in a glacier 1km thick, with all the geothermal activity melting it from below.
Onwards to Geysir, the largest thermal geyser (up to 122m) where we waited patiently (only blows once a year, if at all), but settled for the more frequent Strokkur (every 10 mins). Mitch waited diligently for 3 eruptions to get the perfect photo while his fingers turned blue, meanwhile Tam ran around the thermal park quickly and was back quick in the car for warmth. In the Geysir store we walked amongst all the furs and arctic apparel. Tam was beginning to like the feel of the furs, but felt it was too mean for her fashion tastes. Mitch got dressed up like one of the models for the 66° brand advertised and had a few pictures taken by the store staff.
A few minutes away at the massive Gulfoss waterfall, recently used in filming movies Oblivion and Prometheus. We huddled out of the wind, getting a few snaps of the mist that had turned to ice on the walls of the ravine and watched a few tourists get dangerously close to the cliff edge for the best picture.
Stopping off again shortly in Hveragerð for lunch we found the Raufarhólshellir lava tube which wound deep under the road. The tube extended for 1,350 m. However, we only managed to see about 500m of it.
Mitch managed to get up close to one of his beloved geothermal power stations at Hellisheiði. 100% of Icelands’ energy is renewable, being geothermal and hydro, with the cold temperatures driving further geothermal efficiencies. Problem is, they have too much power and with only 330,000 people are looking for a way to export it south to the UK.
Back in Reykjavik we were getting ready to meet up with Pete and Liv, who were stopping by on their way to the US. Mitch succumbed to tourist pressure and got an Icelandic Lopapeysa sweater.
For our final day, we went to the Blue Lagoon, located near the airport and a popular tourist destination. The area was a milky blue, coloured by geothermal colloidal silica. Entrance wasn’t the cheapest and as Mitch said “€35 to swim in a power stations geothermal discharge? It’s not even natural!”. It was quite a nice set up though, complete with automatic doors and nice shower facilities. We got a face mask of silica mud (without all the hair we found in the pool) and had another sauna. Tam enjoyed jumping on all the bouncy moss outside.
Our credit card was having a few troubles at the pump. Luckily, SADcars didn’t have a fuel policy, so we dropped it off near the empty line for the next user and with a toll fine (much to Tams’ delight)! Our return flight went smoothly despite some turbulence and we had the fastest check-in through Heathrow. Brought home some Icelandic Moss Schnapps (Fjallagrasa) and the Black Death (Brennevin) too – our first duty free we were allowed as it was our first time out of the EU in ages!
In all, it was an amazing trip to Iceland, one of our favourite places we have visited yet. However, there was one sour note, with Tam leaving her phone on the plane!
We are off to the All Blacks this weekend at Twickenham, so looking forward to that! Christmas cheer is already in full swing, so a stop at Harrods is also in order!