Friday, 25 March 2016

Iceland wonder

WE'VE been busy: February 2016 saw my 50th birthday and our wedding and honeymoon - I was 'persuaded' to go to Iceland - it was a great choice and can't wait to go back some day.

The highlights were hump-backed whales, white beaked dolphins, eider and harlequin ducks, a sea eagle, snow buntings, erupting geysers, an amazing snow-bound landscape, raging seas, huge waterfalls, a chilling wind and the spectacular northern lights.

We flew into Reykjavik and drove straight to the Blue Lagoon in our 4x4 Jeep hirecar for soak in the huge, naturally heated thermal pools - very relaxing.  For the first few days we headed east and stayed in Hella - you wouldn't go there for the architecture but our hotel was excellent.  It was very Scandinavian chic with great food, and a few hot tubs to watch the stars from and a couple of mini saunas.  The temperature was low and the landscape pretty stark - however it was a great base from which to visit the attractions further to the east.

We asked for the "northern lights wake up call" and to be honest the show was quite subtle - but still worth bracing the cold for.  It almost looked like white cloud but in the photos using 30 sec time lapse you an start to see the green wisps.

The faint northern lights from Hella against the great bear
The first place that we visited was the National Park Þingvellir. Iceland is home to the world's oldest parliament, which first sat in 930 AD - they met here at the Rock of Law - Iceland declared its national independence here also during WWII.

An obvious and dramatic rift (crack in the earth) runs down though the area, as its where the north Atlantic and Eurasian tectonic plates meet. In fact being on the join of the plates defines the country in many ways, along with being on a huge volcanic hot spot (are these linked?) - oh and being so far north also seems to have quite an affect!!!

To get a sense of scale of this vast snowy landscape, there is a settlement in the top centre of this image:

the plate divide\rift can be seen bottom right

The meeting of the plates
The local landscape...

An amazing and popular site well worth visiting is the Strokkur geyser, which erupts every 5 minutes or so, making it one of the most regular geysers in the world.  We were there on a beautifully sunny day and catching the jets of water and steam with the light shining through it was quite spectacular.


Driving back we pulled over and admired the view - a number of people had parked up and taken their ski-doos out - lucky them!

Looking back at our parked jeep
Number three on the must-do sights in the huge Gulfoss waterfall.  We were so cold that day that our visit was quite short - I know that's pathetic but it really was painful! The water is, in many places, frozen at this time of year which makes it look soft and more like cake decoration - but the power of the water was obvious.

They really like their horses in Iceland - some even make it onto the menu.  We saw more horses than any other farmed animal - the conditions are very harsh but they all seem to be thriving.

There are a large number of huge and spectacular waterfalls in the area near Hella - the water pours of the volcanoes onto the plains running down to the sea...such as Skogar.

The size of the falls can seen against the fulmars that nest inland on these former sea cliffs.

Another fall, with water raining down from that famous volcano, provided the extra delight of the a double rainbow.

Yes - the volcano's name is Eyjafjallajökull...but you knew that!  We climbed up beyond the waterfall to a much quieter area where the landscape was empty of tourists and we could see smoke rising for the cone.

The farms at the foot of that volcano were covered in ash, but looking back at them now you wouldn't know.

Traveling further east we reached Myrdals Jokull, where the glacier has a tongue that reaches far to the south of the main mass of the ice. The ice is blue and stern and has a layer of soot blanketing some areas of it.

The third section of our trip was an exciting drive to Grundarfjörður on the Snaefellsnes peninsula. The area was gripped by snow and getting there over a snowy pass was hairy.  This small town is the gateway to seeing all sorts of wildlife such as cetaceans - or so they say!

We booked onto a whale watching trip hoping to see orcas in particular - it was not to be, but the scenery and the other wildlife certainly made up for it and we thought that the effort was worth it.  Just after breakfast on the first day a nose around the harbour revealed some new birds including an eagle, eider and harlequin ducks and fulmars.  Snow bunting gathered across the road from our hotel as they were being fed by a local homeowner.


Fulmars near the dock

The peak over shadowing the bay
Snow buntings

Sea eagle

Out on our whale watching trip we saw a small pod of lively beaked dolphins, which circled our boat for a short while before quickly swimming off.

We headed west but eventually the road became just too scary to drive on - it was packed snow and ice and just had not seen the level of traffic that the previous stretches had.


I had to pull over on the return journey to take a picture of the snow on the beach with the sun highlighting the mountains in the background - it was truly an amazing and beautiful sight and the walkers braving the weather added to the drama.

As we journeyed over the pass with the fresh snow we stopped for a few cold moments to look at the view.

Back in Reykjavik we decided to try again for whales out at sea and also went out on a northern lights night boat trip.  The lights were fantastic but hard to capture from a moving boat using a longish exposure.

On the trip to see whales there was a 2-3m swell and it was nearly a write off, but at the last moment a hump-backed whale showed near our boat and performed well - blowing and diving for us and making enduring the bumpy sea worth it.


We loved Iceland and want to go back to enjoy more of everything - and maybe, just maybe, see an Orca.