Sunday, February 23, 2014

Exploring the South Shore of Iceland

With one more free day left for us in Iceland, we weren't sure what to do.  Most of the options were too advanced for the kids like diving, exploring volcanos and climbing glaciers.  And I poo pooed Josh's idea of a helicopter ride over the island - if I can barely handle a plane ride, you can most definitely count me out for a helicopter as well!!

In the end we went with the option of another bus tour.  The first one we took thru the Golden Circle showed us some really amazing sights in Iceland.  While we don't usually go with big group tours like this, preferring to do our own thing, it really made sense on this trip and was well worth it for the education alone on the history of Iceland.  It continues to blow my mind how far this country has come in a mere 70 years or so.  For an island inhabited since the 900s, they were essentially living in the Middle Ages up until around the mid 20th century.  To look at this country today, at least within the city limits, you would never know it.  

In fact, we were told during the tour that you would be hard pressed to find a home more than a hundred years old.  This was surprising given how long Iceland has been inhabited - 1100 years.  Not to mention, we've gotten so used to everything in Europe being... old.  But once the changeover from turf houses (more on that later in this entry), everything changed at once. The homes are primarily built of reinforced concrete which withstand the frequent earthquakes (thankfully we were not witness to any) as well as the harsh weather conditions.  

But once you get outside the city, you are taken back to a land of another time.  Houses are rare and wide open spaces abound as far as the eye can see.   There is only one main highway, route 1, that encircles the entire country - this highway was put in during the 1970s.  Yes, it's only about 40 years old and connected the entire country.  Smaller side roads are infrequent and often times have road maps at the start of them so you know where you will end up.

As we headed south for our tour we had to head into the highlands which meant, you guessed it, driving at a higher elevation.  Almost immediately we were surrounded by snow covered lava fields and low visibility as it was windy and flurrying.  There is no doubt these people know how to drive in adverse weather conditions and given we were in a giant bus, I will say, I felt relatively safe.  The control freak in me was not in total freak out mode, though will admit, wasn't entirely comfortable either.  Not knowing what was ahead of us, all I could think of was that we still had 8 1/2 hours of driving ahead and please please let it not be like this!!

Liam is ready to go for day 2 of bus touring

Some of the snowy landscape as we drove thru the highlands

Shadows at the top are reflections from the bus

It's like a moonscape!

Thankfully that part of the drive only lasted about 40 minutes and like the snap of a finger, we were in the lowlands and it was instant change to the scenery.  While not green (after all it's February), there wasn't any snow in sight.  It was like a line drawn in the landscape.  I didn't get a ton of pictures from this part of the journey as the windows of the bus were pretty wet and dirty from the snow and slush we drove thru and didn't exactly make for great picture taking.  

The changeover from snow to grass... or at least lava fields in some cases

Random farmhouse in the middle of no where

Another farmhouse

Seljalandsfoss Waterfall

But we eased our way into the lowlands and like with the highlands, it was just land and mountains as far as the eye can see with the rare home / farm that we would pass by.  We drove for close to an hour and a half before we came to the Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, one of the most famous waterfalls in Iceland.  While they had seen the falls at Gullfoss just a few days earlier, this was a waterfall that looked more "traditional" to them rather than one with the near intensity of Niagara Falls.  Even Aidan was impressed with it's beauty asking me to make it his home screen on his ipad.

Picture of Seljalandsfoss from the road as we were getting closer

Apparently in better weather you are able to actually walk behind this waterfall.  It falls about 60 meters (200 feet) from the cliffs above.  It would have been very cool to walk behind it for sure - but the path leading up towards the falls was a complete sheet of ice.  While the temps that day (at least at that time of day) were actually pretty mild in the upper 30s, I think the ice is a permanent resident as a result of the water spray during this time of year.  

You can see how large the waterfall is against the tiny little people!

No, I wasn't nervous about Liam sitting on the railing or anything (yes, I was terrified he was going to fall right in!!)

Close up of the top of the falls - you can see some of the icicles that have formed below the falls

We checked out a few of the smaller waterfalls but none were as impressive as Seljalandsfoss.  

After we finished with Seljalandsfoss, we worked our way towards the glacier area.  We passed along many more smaller waterfalls along the way - a few of which were in farmers' backyards - how cool would that be??  As we were on our way, the tour guide gave us some of the history of the volcanic areas of Iceland, in which we were driving!!  Yes, the world famous Eyjafjallajökull volcano (the one that disrupted air traffic a few years back) is one of the most dangerous volcanos in Iceland and was right nearby - in fact we were able to see it - unfortunately I didn't get a very good angle to take a photo.  There are actually about 130 volcanos in Iceland though many (not all) are dormant.  With frequent earthquakes, they are constantly tracking the volcanic activity of those volcanos and assured us that Iceland is equipped with some of the best alert systems.  Whew!!  

You can just barely make out the small home on the left and then the mountain on the right - just stunning pure beauty of this landscape

Waterfall as we were driving towards the glacier

Another small waterfall

Myrdalsjökull Glacier

We made our way to Myrdalsjökull - the glacier area.  The bus, this large tour bus, took us down a very narrow, very windy, dirt road full of potholes to get to the glacier area.  As we drove, our tour guide gave us some history on the area.  Like many areas of the world, Iceland is a victim of global warming. Yes, the Icelandic people are very eco friendly...but that doesn't mean they don't suffer the repercussions of the rest of the world's actions.  And these glaciers are melting and melting rapidly.  We were able to see markers from 2002, 2003 and so on - these were not inches of melting here.  It was meters and meters.  And in the course of about 15 years, the glacier had probably lost at least 1/4 mile, if not more, of ice.  For something that is supposed to be ice 365 days a year and not ever melt, this is significant.  

We also learned that the icecap of the glacier covers an active volcano, Katla which erupts every 40-80 years with it's last eruption in 1918 (yes that means it's about due now!).  

These next several pictures are of the area immediately preceding the glacier which you can see is covered in volcanic ash.  

Walking out to see the edge of the glacier

Our tour guide explaining to us how the boulder became so smooth (years and years of the ice moving it around)

You can kind of see a lagoon to the middle right of the picture - it wasn't frozen solid, another sign of the warming of this area

As you can see from the pictures, everything is covered in dark ash from previous eruptions of Katla.
We were able to walk right up to the edge of the glacier and the weather was great for the walk - not too cold and not windy at all (this will change significantly later). Though we should have worn better footwear, especially Aidan who, against my wishes, was wearing sneakers. The area before we approached the glacier was made up volcanic ash, making for a wet, dark contrast against the stark white and blue of the glacier in front of us. As with the difference between the lowlands and the highlands, it was amazing to see such a definitive marker of the start of the glacier and the end of the "mountain". 
A better shot of the lagoon

See that little bit of blue in the middle on the right?  That's the start of the glacier...

Blue glacial ice

The glacier!!

The boys think it's pretty cool too...

To give you an idea of the size, take a look at the people walking along the edge (these people were with a glacier walking group and had crampons and other hiking gear with them - we were not able to get any further than the edge).

Awesome panoramic that Josh took - this website doesn't do it justice.

We have conquered this glacier!

Close up of the edge of the glacier

Aidan by the edge of the glacier

Josh trying to get them to pose next to the edge of the glacier

I can't say that I've ever touched a glacier before so it was a pretty cool (literally) experience.  This trip has been nothing short of surprises when it comes to once in a lifetime things to see.  From the glacier we continued our journey south towards the seaside town of Vík.  And of course, similar to New England, if you wait 5 minutes the weather will change.  And our weather went from cloudy but "warm" to windy and snowy.  Great, we were well over 2 1/2 hours from Reykjavik and now we've got snow again... awesome.
Cute church and farm before the bad weather started

Vík and the Black Sand Beach

Anyways, the tour guide decided to wait on the black sand beach for the return ride since he was hoping the weather would change for the better.  WRONG!  We got to Vík which wasn't anything to write home about except it, too, had a black sand beach.  And a restaurant.  So we grabbed a bite to eat and then Josh and Aidan headed down to the beach to take a few pictures.  By now the weather was quite bad - very windy with freezing rain / snow.  Not pretty.  And definitely not clear for much as far as picture taking.  But Josh did his best.  Liam and I, wisely, stayed inside during this time.  When they got back, both Josh and Aidan were soaked to the bone.  Not fun when you are in sub 30s temps with wind chills much lower.  You can imagine the tantrum that ensued from Aidan.

The bus tour started it's return back towards Reykjavik from here.  We still had stops at the actual black sand beach (the one above wasn't the actual tour stop), another waterfall and a museum before getting back to the city.

By the time we made our way to the black sand beach, it was really coming down outside and the winds were gusting.  With no trees to protect against the wind, it was hitting the bus directly and hard. Not sure if I mentioned the tree thing or not before, but Iceland is a "victim" of deforestation.  They are working on replanting but for the most part only about 2% of the country is covered in trees.  They actually rely on driftwood from Siberia and from other countries thru the ocean currents for their wood supply.  

Back to the black sand beach.  Since Josh took one for the team in Vík, it was my turn now.  And I think I was outside for less than 5 minutes which is too bad because the sights were amazing.  But with significant winds and freezing rain, it was like needles pounding my face.  And the walk back to the bus I was walking against the wind and rain which took more strength than I ever imagined.  But I did get a few decent shots. 

Cave in the middle - don't let the picture deceive you - the entrance was probably about 30 feet tall.  And notice the huge phallic rock out in the water!!

Slightly clearer shot of the cave

Skógafoss Waterfall

We finished up at the beach pretty quickly.  There were some that actually spent the full 20 minutes out in the elements.  No thank you!!!  From here we headed to Skógafoss waterfall, yet another popular and impressive waterfall.  This one had much more volcanic ash around it than the one from earlier in the day.  From what the tour guide said, both falls are fed from the same river.  Thankfully the weather let up a bit - it was still sprinkling out but not too badly and the wind calmed down as well!  I did read after the fact that on a sunny day you can often see rainbows here due to all the spray - what a bummer that we missed that!!  

The river flowing from the waterfall

Skogar Folk Museum

From the waterfall we headed to the nearby Skogar Folk Museum.  The curator, now in his 90s, began his collection back in the 1950s and has amassed about 12,000 pieces.  Amongst those pieces is a part of a "treasure" chest related to the Skógafoss waterfall.  According to legend, one of the first settlers in the area, a Viking, buried a treasure in a cave behind the waterfall.  Many have tried to find it and one, many years ago, was able to grasp the ring to the chest.  But the chest was too heavy and sunk back into the cave but the ring fell off.  The ring eventually was on an old church door but now has it's home in the museum.

This was our last stop on the grand south shore tour.  And after a long day on a bus, I wasn't super hot to go into the museum but in the end, I was impressed.  We were given an introduction but one of the museum employees.  She was engaging and had us all fascinated with the history that was inside this tiny museum.  We were even graced with the aging curator who showed us how to take wool from a sheep and turn it into yard using old tools that again, were used until not that long ago as the industrial age took some time making it's way to Iceland.

The centerpiece was a decent sized boat - at first I thought it might be a Viking ship - but alas it was a fishing boat.  Back in the early 20th century, the primary source of food was fish from the Atlantic.  It's still a big source of food but not the only source.  There are very few indigenous animals in Iceland and those that aren't were only introduced in recent years.

Anyways, this fishing boat was an open boat - no protection from the elements.  And the best time to fish was this time of year - February.  Given what we had just experienced down at the black sand beach, I cannot imagine being out on a boat like this with relatively no protection from the elements on a daily basis.  These are tough people.

Aidan standing next to a Bible from the 1500s

Some old fashioned spindles.  

Aidan is very into chess lately so this set fascinated him

This boat would hold I think 17 sailors

Two headed goat - it was not a trick of the camera.  Totally freaked me out!!

Liam explaining to me what he was seeing

And speaking of tough people.  I promised more on the turf houses.  These houses were tiny, and I mean we're talking the size of a studio apartment, and had no indoor plumbing, no heating and up til the 1700s, no windows.  These are people that braved all kinds of weather and made do with the things they had and used what nature provided them with.  When the fishing boat brought in the occasional small minke whale (and the minke is not all that small), they would use every single part of it including the vertebrae.  We actually saw in the museum pots made of the vertebrae.  And looking at the rough tools and cookware they had, you would think these items were from the Middle Ages and not from the early 20th century.  It was not until the mid 1900s that homes of reinforced concrete started to be built and turf houses were no longer needed.   

Everyone shared a bed to keep warm.  I cannot imagine that this was only 70 years ago.  How far this country has come in such a short period of time.  Can you imagine living thru all these changes??  Some of our parents and definitely grandparents are old enough that they would have experienced this type of harsh life during their lifetime if they grew up here.  Sure, our parents and grandparents have seen huge advances in technology and other areas in their lifetimes (as have we) but to live like this and then to live in a society like today, it's complete night and day.  Rural doesn't come close. Über rural perhaps. 
These turf houses are actually originals that were taken apart and moved to this location but had actually been lived in at one point.

The main room of the turf house - as you can see Josh and the boys barely fit and the ceiling is low, even for Josh!

And so we made our way back (slowly, oh so slowly) to Reykjavik.  The tour was around 9 hours and totally worth it - just made for a very long day.  But it was a great way to end our time in Iceland.  This is definitely a place to visit if you love nature or just want to see things that likely very few people have ever seen.  

Still one more entry to come on our time in the city as well as our trip to the Blue Lagoon (kind of ended up doing this out of order).  


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