Saturday, February 18, 2012

Iceland, land of ice (obviously), fire, rain, snow and rain, sleet, ice and some more sleet, and some rain...

Last week, Mrs Stuffy and I took off for our long awaited trip to Iceland, our intention? to tick off three things from the bucket list in one fell swoop.

  1. since a Top Gear episode a few years ago  I'd always fancied driving a big 4x4 across a glacier, 
  2. it's long been a desire of mine to catch the Northern lights, I never have despite a few trips into the Arctic circle and 
  3. there's a famous dive site in Iceland called Sifra which consists of a dry suit dive in freezing, crystal clear ice water touching, at the same time both the the American and Eurasian tectonic plates,whilst (for me at least) trying to manage the novel dry-suit buoyancy and hoping that the continental drift doesn't suddenly reverse.

Despite the best efforts of Heathrow to pretend that a light sprinkling of snow was sufficient to screw up the travel plans of thousand we were soon aloft with IcelandAir (whose motto should be incidentally "we serve edible and quite pleasant food").

On arrival we caught a bus into Reykjavik and found our hotel for the first night, the Centrum, pleasantly appointed but a little soulless. After a freezing stroll aroumd the harbour we enjoyed a really nice meal in a restaurant nearby, including my first taste of carpaccio of Minke Whale, not unpleasant but I don't think I could eat a whole one.

Monday morning bright and early and we were (after an acceptable breakfast and a charmless check-out) collected by young Danni our mountain guide in his Land Rover mounted on enormous balloon tyres. He stuck me in the drivers seat and  we hit the roads from Reykjavik to the highlands with a couple of stops. Firstly at some explosive hot springs in Geysir, (where apparently (and I guess obviously) the word geyser comes from) we also checked out an absolutely stunning waterfall at Gullfoss.

The off-road experience, driving for 50km up the mountain to a mountain hut was, for me, exhilarating, very challenging, very technical and great fun, catching the slides, avoiding the occasional ice filled ditch, and failing to avoid one (which was a good exercise in getting out of trouble).  Eventually, we spotted our sumptuous accommodation for the night. It was at this point that we discovered that Mrs Stuffy was expecting a quaint rustic retreat with a roaring open fire rather than an, admittedly, well insulated shed, bunk beds,sleeping bags, a couple of gas heaters and some plastic tables and chairs. In view of the storm that blew up that night I found it hard to criticise anything that kept us warm and safe. Mrs Stuffy would probably have preferred it if the toilet had not been a small wooden box over a bucket in the snow, and if the last occupants had re-stocked the toilet roll. And if I hadn't snored all night, there's just no pleasing some people, you'd think she'd be reassured that I was happy sleeping in a box in a blizzard.

Our mountain guide, the aforementioned Danni prepared an excellent meal, melting snow (no shortage on a mountain in a blizzard) to make coffee and for washing, then digging a pit in the snow, he lined it with rock (no shortage of volcanic outfall) and roasting a lump of foil-wrapped lamb on a bed of charcoal. He also knocked up a very pleasant salad and boiled some potatoes, obviously everything had been bought with us but weirdly, he'd failed to pack anything with an alcohol content, excluding the lighter fluid which he wouldn't let me near.

The hut warmed up, the gas heaters did their best to defeat the conditions and we settled in our sleeping bags for a well earned rest. Up next morning bright and breezy we found ourselves beneath a glorious Arctic sun, in an unblemished plain of white, no sign of our tracks from the day before, a well-snowed Landy and Danni making magical things involving eggs, ham, butter and onion.

We loaded the Jeep, cleaned the hut and as a good follower of mountain hut etiquette I left a discovered book of Icelandic poetry in the loo for the benefit of the next visitors.

The drive down the mountain was much like the drive up but exhilaratingly down, rather than enthusiastically up, a new set of challenges, tons of virgin snow and Danni and I warmed up nicely digging the jeep out of the vast wet hole in which I managed to park us. Danni was very stoical about it, but then he was very stoical about everything.

Four hours or so later we hit the highway and after a coffee stop it was off to the Thingvellir national park and our rendezvous with the dIvemaster  for our drysuit excursion into the ravine between the continents. Again, Danni's expression as we headed toward the dive site was a joy when Mrs Stuffy asked whether there would be showers in the changing rooms. His phlegmatic Icelandic "no" was amply illustrated and reinforced when we arrived to find a large rubber-clad gent (Vallie) standing at the back of his van with a couple of air tanks, (for him and me), a couple more suits, (for the Mrs and I) and a snorkel for her ladyship who was to follow us on the surface. She later confessed that she was so intimidated by his barked " you will snorkel? Yes?" that the prepared "No, I'll sit in the nice warm jeep and dream of hot water" died stillborn on her quivering lips.

Getting into the thermal romper suit (liner) and the heavy neoprene drysuits is easy for slim, healthy, flexible youngsters, apparently, but eventually I'd squeezed 95 kilos into an 80 kilo container and we were trudging to the ravine. Initially very,very bracing, the body soon adapts to 2 degree glacial melt water and both the temperature and the underwater scenery took my breath away. The visibility was amazing, there was no vegetation, no fish, nothing but us, water, rocks and bubbles, it was a very different dive from the tropical stuff I'm used to and I really enjoyed the challenge of balancing suit and bcd buoyancy on this multi-level freshwater dive. We ended the dive in a shallow lagoon after thirty minutes and then trudged back to the van, in the snow, with a tank, and a weight belt. I decided that for me enough was enough and I declined the kind offer to do the same thing all over again.
Instead we towelled, warmed and hurried to our final port of call for the day the luxurious hotel Ragna for a hot bath, cold beer and some serious pampering.

We were less than delighted to hear that we'd only missed seeing the northern lights by 24 hours and that the outlook was not promising and indeed, thus it proved to be. No amount of standing outside in the storm, in my bathrobe, a little the worse for imbibing, staring forlornly at the clouded, rain filled skies could summon the slightest hint of aurora and inevitably and sadly we failed to tick off the Northern Lights box on our personal to-do lists.

We'd arranged a hire car and next day used it to explore some of the stunning scenery of the south coast, there seemed to be very few folk around, that might be what it's like all the time or it might have been the rain, wind, snow and sleet, it's a country that rewards looking at a waterfall by simultaneously simulating what it is like to be in it.
And if you're ever in Iceland I do urge you to visit the tiny grey hamlet of Vik, home to, I'm assured by my lady wife, "the worst ham and cheese sandwich in the world".
I suspect that the Icelandic word "Reykja" must mean "nowhere near as cold, miserable and wet as"

On the subject of food, the Hotel Ragna has some serious culinary pretensions and did enable me to try puffin, (a meaty bird with fishy undertones) but the joy of dining on minute portions of fish-flavoured foams, gels and airs soon wears thin. After a day of rambling through horizontal rain and sleet the soul cries out for rustic and hearty.

Our last day was a gentle coastal drive to the airport exploring some simply stunning and largely uninhabited  scenery with one stop at the Blue Lagoon, pools of mineral-rich water heated by geothermal activity and reducing the tensions and stresses of the spirit, the toxins and poisons of the skin and the balance of the credit card in very short order.

The flight back was fine and we agreed (occasionally we do) that Iceland was indeed a once in a lifetime trip, (and probably just the once).

Click on the puffin for the youtube experience...

  See the youtube video of the trip ...



At 3:37 am, Anonymous Crystal Clear Headlights said...

This is just one thing I haven't tried yet. Thank you for sharing your experiences.

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