Iceland 2016: Bump, Crawl, Squeeze, Climb, and Slide

24 07 2016

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Yesterday we were left behind, but this time we are ready.  By 7:30 we are in front of the ranger station, ready for the van to transport us to the Lofthellir lava cave.  Nancy has made the wise decision to sit this one out, as her claustrophobia would not make this a pleasant experience.  The van arrives, and we head out for the drive to the cave.  At first, the ride is smooth, but soon we turn off onto a dirt road that is more holes than whole.  Luckily, this is a four-wheel drive vehicle, and our guide expertly drives in, around, up, and down, through mud holes, across a creek, and over the lava field.  Jouncing like popcorn, we bump our way toward the cave.

After an hour in which I feel that every muscle in my body has been pulverized, we come to a stop and get out.

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Lava flowed through this valley

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Rope lava

We walk another half an hour over a lava field to a trailer where we are given rubber boots and a helmet with a lamp.  Another ten minute walk puts us at a giant hole in the ground, which even in June is still 90% filled with snow and ice.

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With a nod toward civilization, there is a metal staircase to the bottom of the hole, although without a handrail. We all make it to the bottom of the hole without incident and find ourselves standing in about four inches of ice water which is on top of what we are to find out is about a ten-foot layer of ice, a layer of ice that is throughout the cave.

6-2-16 Lofthellir Cave tour (11)Our boots have tiny metal cleats on them, so our footing is secure.  A good thing, too, since our first obstacle is to step over a large, very deep hole immediately in front of the entrance way.  Inside the cave, we come to our next challenge: a hill of ice some six feet high, topped with an opening maybe 18 inches high and a yard wide.  Our guide unrolls a tarp with boards sewn in like steps, and we climb up and slither through the tiny opening on our bellies.  I am starting to wonder if maybe this time I have bitten off more of an adventure than I can chew.  But there’s no going back now, not without some serious loss of face, so I swallow the bile collecting in the back of my throat and go on. The temperature is right at freezing down here but we are warm with exertion and are wearing rain pants and waterproof coats so we stay dry as we slip and slide up and around more ice slopes.

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It’s worth it.  Instead of limestone stalagmites and stalactites, these are made of pure ice.  Our guide places several flashlights behind some stalactites, and the light is reflected through them for a gorgeous light display like no other.  At one point, he has us all turn off our lights and get quiet, and we stand in inky darkness with only the drip drip of water in our ears.  Then we hear Ping! Ping!: bell-like notes of different pitches.  A melody of ice, an icicle symphony!  Our guide is tapping the sides of various sizes of stalactites with a metal object.  An underground concert, played on ice formations, in a lava cave some 3,000 years old!

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Ice crystals sparkle like diamonds

After almost an hour, it is time to turn around.  Getting back is so much more fun: we slide on our backs down the ice hills, holding on to a rope for control.  I’m ten years old again!  (Some would say, still.)

6-2-16 Lofthellir Cave tour (1)Outside, we take off our gear and hike back to the van where we bumpity-bump our way back to civilization.  A mechanic can make a good living in Iceland; these vehicles take a beating.  And a savvy masseuse could make some good pocket change with an office near the drop-off point!

We meet Nancy back at the hotel.  After ten days of almost non-stop travel, Nancy has enjoyed her own style of adventure this morning: a long soak in the tub followed by some re-organizing and catching up with the outside world.  She’s earned it!

Not too far down the road, we stop at, you guessed it, a waterfall.  Not just any waterfall:  this one is Dettifoss, one of the most powerful waterfalls in all of Europe and the largest waterfall in Iceland, as measured by water volume.  Move over, Niagara!6-2-16 Dettifoss (46)

Although there is lots of snow still on the ground, the air is warm and Annalise makes the most of it by changing into her shorts.6-2-16 Dettifoss (38)

6-2-16 Dettifoss (30)The hike to the falls takes about half an hour as we climb over rocks and across snowmelt.

Before going on to Dettifoss, we view Selfoss, the eleven-meter high, horse-shoe shaped falls just upriver.  The volume of water is amazing, as is the columnar basalt on the opposite bank.6-2-16 Dettifoss (34)


From there, we head downstream where strong winds blow waterfall spray over us.  At this point, I was glad to not be wearing shorts.  Although a rainbow did make its appearance, Dettifoss is not on my short list of beautiful waterfalls.  It draws its fame from the sheer power of the water.  Mesmerizing!

6-2-16 Dettifoss (39)The rest of our trip today is uneventful.  I am unable to see one of the sights I had marked as a Must See: the boyhood home of Halldór Laxness, my new favorite author.  Laxness wrote the epic Independent People, which won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1955.  I’ve read the book twice now, and am completely enthralled with his portrayal of life in a turf house during the early 1900s.  We find the road that leads to his house, but it is a gravel road marked as an “F” road, which means it is off-limits for our sweet little Peugeot.  Our last adventure getting stuck on the side of the road has us even more wary of the dangers of travel, so I reluctantly have to give up on my dream of seeing this author’s house.  Deep sigh.

We enter the fishing village of Faskrudsfjordur, on the east coast of Iceland on a beautiful fjord.

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Fjord Reflections

When we go in the hotel lobby, a sign says go across the street and around the building, so we do and find someone in the hotel restaurant who takes us underground through a tunnel and a museum back across the street to the lobby where we started.  It is idiosyncracies like this that make Iceland so fun!

Dave and Nancy enjoy a dinner in the restaurant, while we snack on the crackers, cheese, peanut butter, and other food we have bought at a grocery store.  And when we are done, Brian and I set off on a walk to get a flavor of the town.  This town of a little more than 600 used to be a main fishing hub for the French, and even now the street signs are in French as well as Icelandic.

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The old hospital, remade into a hotel/museum with a tunnel under the street to the doctor’s house/hotel.  Note the sign showing how many kilometers to France.


Our hotel, we discover, used to be the home of the town doctor and site of the French hospital, purported to be haunted.

6-2-16 Fosshotel Austfirdir (4)It is the beauty of this village, though, that enchants us. 6-2-16 Faskrudsfjordur (4) At the end of the town, we find a campground, above which we spot a series of waterfalls.  Adventure enough for tomorrow!

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Iceland 2016: Prepositions Abound

8 07 2016

Sunday, May 29, 2016

In and out. Up and down.  Under and through.  Around.  This is our day as we head out of the West Fjords and into northern Iceland.

But first, the glove.  Before leaving the hotel, David discovers that his glove is missing, somewhere on the path up to the waterfall from last night’s hike.  So Annalise and I decide to scamper up the hill and rescue it.  She scampers.  I trudge, stopping often to take in the view while surreptitiously taking a breather.  She is not fooled but graciously appears to take no notice.  Although we scan the ground carefully, we fail in our task and head back down.  It was worth a try.  At least we got in one more hike.

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I guess a fox got the glove…

Hólmavík is not far away, but due to our late start, it is almost noon.

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So this is where the Smurfs live!

The Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft is open, even on a Sunday morning.  The building looks sketchy, but there is little else to do in this town, so we pay the entrance fee (2850 ISK…about $25 for the three of us) and go in.

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A small museum, but interesting in its history of ancient lore, potions, and runes.  Looking back with our modern-day glasses, it’s laughable to think of the superstitions that people believed in, but understandable only in the context of the isolation, extreme geology and climate, and lack of education that the inhabitants of this area endured, even up through the 19th century.  Before leaving on this trip, I read a book by Halldór Laxness, the only Icelandic Nobel laureate, called Independent People, which gave me insight into life during these times.  Not for the faint of heart, mind, or strength.

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The harbor




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After the museum, we pull out our food bags on a picnic table in a small park by the harbor.  I daresay I will not long remember a meal taken in a fast food restaurant, but I will never forget eating outside by a harbor, sitting on a grassy knoll on a small hill.

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Back in the car, we wind in and out of fjords, hugging the edge of the coast for the most part.  I never bore of the scenery and the road, though gravel at times, seems safe enough.

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Typical driving conditions

We stop in Hvammsstangi to go through the Icelandic Seal Center.  We have some fun by the fish-drying racks outside.5-29-16 Hvammstangi (1)

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Dried fish, anyone?


The wool factory we went to three years ago was closed on this Sunday afternoon, so our entertainment options are limited.  We decide to take the long way around the Vatnsnes peninsula to see if we can spot some seals.

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Again, the scenery is spectacular, but the seals do not cooperate.  We round the peninsula without spotting a one.  We do spy a pretty awesome sheep-sorting pen.5-29-16 Vatnsnes peninsula sheep pen (3)


And Annalise gets to practice her  pseudo-yoga poses, so it isn’t a total wash.

We travel cautiously through one lane tunnels, watching for on-coming traffic and looking ahead for a pull-out.  Nothing like a one lane tunnel to raise your alertness level.

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We end our day at the Guesthouse Hofsstaðir, where tomorrow’s breakfast will be one to remember.

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This is not our room.  But I wish it was.