Day 2 Iceland Adventure-South Coast
The Super Jeep driver met us in the dark at 8:30 in the morning in front of the hotel on Sunday morning. As we drove through the city, and then beyond the city limits I wondered how hard it would be to live in Iceland and try to function as an adult who had to get up and go to work in the dark every morning in the winter, and not see the sun rise until just before lunch. I wish I knew how to spell his name, but Icelandic is a language I’d have to spend much more time with to have the courage to attempt to spell it. It sounded like Hilke. When he picked us up we were surprised to find out we were the only ones on the tour—we scored a private tour for the price of a normal tour. The Super Jeep vehicles have only six seats, so the groups are always small anyway. The night before we rode to the Blue Lagoon in a packed coach bus with Reykjavik Excursions and lacked the intimacy that the Super Jeep tour promised.
Super Jeep did not disappoint. The first stop was a geothermal energy plant about 25 km outside of Reykjavik. I was completely blown away by this place. And that happened a lot on this tour. The first thing I noticed was that there were no security gates, no guard in a booth, not even a fence. We explained that in the US there would be guards stationed, barbed wire fences, cameras everywhere and the whole nine yards. Our guard simply responded that it wouldn’t make sense for anyone to damage a power plant in Iceland. As if it hadn’t crossed the Icelandic peoples’ minds at all.
We drove right up to the thing. There weren’t even any security lights on it. The whole of Iceland is powered by renewable energy. Whether it's hydroelectric plants powered by the glacial rivers, or the geothermal plants. This particular plant had 8 turbines that provide power from steam that is forced out of the earth. The steam is then condensed into water and piped to Reykjavik, where it provides heat for all of the radiators in all of buildings in the city. The pipe the water travels in is so well insulated, that when the water arrives in the city, it has only cooled two degrees Celsius. Let me say that again. Hot water travels in a pipeline 25 km to heat the entire city, and only loses two degrees of heat in the trip at the peak of winter when the temperature is well below zero and the snow is piled up in feet.
The next stop, just as the sun was starting to think about rising was Iceland’s most abundant waterfall Urridafoss. The rivers in the country are formed by melting glaciers. One fifth of Iceland is covered by glaciers, and the largest glacier in all of Europe is in Iceland. These glaciers melt under the weight of themselves and populate rivers. This waterfall contains an abundant supply of trout as well.
During the first few days of our trip it was unseasonably warm. It was above freezing, yet the cold still penetrated my jeans and my down coat as I stood and watched the waterfall. When the sun finally did come up in the next hour, I felt a bit warmer, the temperature was in the low 40s, but the wind howled.
As we drove toward the south coast, Hilke pointed out a steam vent blowing out the side of a mountain, as if the mountain was an enormous tea kettle waiting to be poured. We drove on toward the waterfalls on the volcanic mountain range in the south.
From the distance we could see waterfalls dotting the face of the mountains. There was a large one that seemed to be flowing uphill, as the wind blew the water back up to where it came from. We turned left and from the right window we could see all the waterfalls streaming down the mountain range. There was a large one with many buses parked in front of it. Hilke suggested we hit that one last, at the end of the day when it’s less busy.
Instead he took us to a quieter one down the road. The force of the water eventually dug itself further into the mountain, and formed a canyon of sorts. Hilke stepped out onto a rock on the stream, we followed as he hopped from rock to rock until we were up close with the massive waterfall. Soon we were wet with mist from being that close to the secret waterfall. The rest of the tourists stayed out of the canyon, and craned their necks to see around the rock wall into the fall.
He told us about the Viking horses. Iceland was discovered by the Vikings in the 900s. They brought horses. They cut down all the trees. They formed the oldest running parliament in all of Europe. The parliament now meets in Reykjavik, not in the Thingvellir National Park as it did back then. The Viking horses are descendants of the ones originally brought by the Vikings. No other horses are allowed in Iceland. And if one of the Viking horses is taken abroad to be shown, it may never return to Iceland for fear of parasites or breeding. Not only can the horse not return, the equipment used in the horse show cannot return. Saddles, leads, straps all must be disposed of in some manner and not brought back to Iceland. And thus the purity of the Viking horse lineage is preserved. The horses grow a coat like a polar bear's coat. In the winter they stay outside, because with that coat it's too hot in the barn. They know to stand still in a snow storm and let the snow cover them. Their body heat melts the inside of the snow and insulates them until the storm passes.
We passed sheep farms, Iceland is known for its lamb and its wool. In the summer the sheep farmers set the lambs free on the mountain tops. The lambs fend for themselves, forage for food and eat their way down the mountain until the fall, when the farmer rounds them up and brings them back to the farm. The lamb is free range, grass fed, never given medications or antibiotics. I don’t eat lamb, I don’t care for it, but Todd had it a few times. With each bite his eyes rolled into the back of his head in bliss.
We left the waterfalls and went to their source. Hilke pointed out a white mass beyond the mountain tops—a large glacier. A glacier, just on top of massive volcanic mountains. Fire and ice on the same mountain. We were able to walk the path to check out the sheer immensity of it, but we weren’t permitted to go onto the glacier without a specialized guide. This is one thing that Iceland demands—respect for its natural resources. There are laws about no off roading, no removal of rocks, no leaving the designated paths. As a result the countryside is unspoiled and pristine.
We went to the black sand beach at Vik. We drove to the top of the cliff where the wind nearly knocked me off my feet. We watched the 10 foot waves thrash below on the beach. Hilke told us how it is never safe to swim at Vik, as the water is never calm. Many careless people have been swept out to sea at that beach, to the point where the government closed it for a time. We walked on the sand, which was black from volcanic ash and dust. We explored the cooled lava pillars. Then we headed back to the waterfalls.
We made it to the last waterfall. The massive stream of water jutted out from the rock face to the point where we could walk behind the fall and out the other side.
And now from behind Seljalandsfoss.
And with that our window of daylight was closing, and it was time to head back to Reykjavik. On the way back we got to see the mountain with the steam shooting out the side of it. I marveled at how we can be in an area on a tectonic fault line and see steam shooting out the mountain, and then a few miles away visit a glacier.
Let me tell you a bit about the fault line. Iceland sits on the Mid Atlantic ridge. The North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet in Iceland. These plates are pulling apart and filling in with lava that eventually cools and forms more land. The plates pull apart on average an inch every year. As a result, there are active volcanos in Iceland and small earthquakes occur frequently and are not noticed.
But there have been times when the earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been more noticeable. I mentioned the eruption in 2010. On the day we arrived there was an earthquake that measured 4 on the Richter scale. Hilke told us about an island that was formed in the 1960s off the south coast. Fishermen on a nearby boat watched the landmass poke itself out from the depths of the ocean as the volcano beneath it erupted. Since then the island has grown, and only researchers from the local universities are allowed on the island to monitor its growth as well as the growth of foliage on the little island. It presents a rare opportunity to see how land masses on the earth form and life grows on them.
He told us another story, also some time during the 1960s, about a woman who had looked out her kitchen window and witnessed lava flowing in her back yard. She ran out and went door to door to alert the neighbors. They alerted more neighbors, and the town evacuated just before their homes were overtaken by the eruption. Since then the University of Iceland has developed sensors they placed all over the island to monitor seismic activity. They can tell within 12 hours or so when an eruption will occur. Some of the towns near the more active spots have mandatory evacuation drills every year in preparation for the big one.
We got back to our hotel in time for a short nap, we still weren’t fully adjusted to the time change, and then back into another Super Jeep for a northern lights tour. I’d never seen the northern lights and have always wanted to. We piled in with three other Americans and headed again out of the city. We pulled into a parking lot under the cover of night. A dozen or so other jeeps from varying tour companies also pulled in. Apparently this is what they do, the guides are friends and they convoy together to the hotspots where the lights can be seen. They gathered around their smart phones to check the weather maps. It was cloudy most of the time we were in Iceland, we all looked up at the sky hoping to see stars. Stars means a break in the clouds. A break in the clouds means an improved chance to see the northern lights.
Then the snow fell in giant clumps. The stars were covered by clouds. We all piled into our jeeps and we drove in a convoy to the next spot. We stood out in below freezing temperatures craning our necks to see a glimmer of a star. We swapped travel stories with the mother and son from New Jersey and the woman from Chicago. We paced to keep warm.
We piled back into the jeeps to go to the next spot, and then the next. The snow fell in larger clumps. Then it stopped. Then the stars came out, and then it started to snow again. That’s the thing about weather in Iceland. It changes quickly, so getting to see the northern lights is unpredictable.
Then the hot chocolate and the Icelandic vodka came out. Let me tell you about Icelandic hot chocolate. As a nation Iceland has the technology behind hot chocolate dialed in. I drank more hot chocolate in five days in Iceland than I normally do all year. Even the crappy hot chocolate from the machine in the gas station is way better than our best hot chocolate in the states. Swiss Miss can suck it. She doesn’t know jack about hot chocolate. Add some Icelandic vodka, and you’ve got yourself a treat.
We didn’t get to see the northern lights. But the boy from New Jersey saw them from the plane as they flew in that morning. I wasn’t too worried though, before we left the US I had already booked us onto another northern lights tour that included dinner and a trip to another geothermal spa, and that would happen on Monday night.
Read the next entry, about Reykjavik and Fontana here.
Read the first entry about our first day in Iceland here.
added on 01.02.17