North Atlantic Adventure: Iceland – Part Two
by Dr Anthony D. Cliffe
Today i travel to the South Coast of Iceland walking under waterfalls, walking by glaciers and black sands and then finishing the day off under an amazing Northern Lights display.
One of my motto’s for travelling is if you don’t feel absolutely knackered coming back from a holiday then it hasn’t really been a good one. I never get why people pay hundreds or even thousands of pounds to sit on a beach all day and do nothing. Nope that ain’t me! Out of the hotel by 8 a.m at the latest and I don’t get back in until 8 pm at the earliest. Today however I was to be out of the hotel at 8 a.m and not get back until 1 a.m the next day. Today was the day I was really looking forward to, today was the day that this whole adventure really began. Being in Iceland and Reykjavik was cool but I came for the scenery, I came for the Geography, I came for the adventure. There are so many tour operators in Iceland that it’s hard to decide who to choose. Han my resident Icelandic expert uses a company called Icelandic Guided Tours and she assured me that “While they’re more expensive than most companies they’re the best, they offer great trips and it’s a lot more personal because they only take a small number of people”. Han has never failed me with her advice and she didn’t this time either. While yes, they are one of the most expensive companies on the Island for just under £100 you got a 9 hour tour which in the grand scheme of things is still an amazing price! They do a lot of tours and in Iceland I wanted to do them all but today was only my real full day so I had to decide out of the main two which one to do. South Coast tour or the Golden Circle tour. I decided that while the Golden Circle sounds great and was £30 cheaper it visited a lot of touristy places such as the Blue Lagoon whereas the South coast tour offered waterfalls and glaciers. Errm absolutely! That is so me! So that’s the one I booked and so glad I did! If you have only a full day in Iceland please choose the South Coast tour, you will not be dissapointed! For more info visit here https://www.igtours.is/en/tours/south-coast-tour-by-mini-bus
The rain was hammering against the window of my hotel room and I was very glad I brought all of my fieldwork equipment and clothing with me. It was very geography fieldwork weather that’s for sure! 3 degrees and rain. My walking boots and waterproof walking trousers certainly got fully tested on this trip!
The minibus picked me up at exactly 8.15 a.m and it turns out I was one of the last ones to be picked up from the city. The tour guide greeted me, an old rugged but cheery Icelandic chap called Oshsckah (Sounds a lot like Oscar but just imagine Sean Connery saying it) he shook my hand and welcomed me on-board. I was greeted by a family of Japanese tourists who all greeted me in Japanese while a man who was with them greeted me with a stern British accent “Good morning chap”. Not only did today already have the feeling of adventure now I had an Indiana Jones archaeologist on the trip, he wouldn’t have looked out of place with one of those white helmets on and looked an awful lot like Arthur Frooman from Eurotrip! I said hello back and saw that my go to seat on the minibus was free. Every minibus usually always has a single seat at the back over the wheel well. That’s my go to spot for fieldwork and room next to you for your bag. Always a win win. Plus it means I didn’t have to sit next to anyone which was perfectly fine by me!
We drove for another 10 minutes in silence to the edge of the city where we picked up our final two passengers, two older ladies from Canada. Oshsckah informed us that we will be driving for at least an hour until our next stop and we set off in silence. For a minute I thought it would be a weird hour sat in silence despite the views. However it turns out he was just connecting his microphone! He gave some really interesting stories and information as we drove towards the south coast of Iceland, we left the city far behind and the views changed from lava and basalt flows to steaming vents to the flat plains of the coast. You could be on another planet as far as I was concerned. This place was stunningly beautiful and desolate. Everywhere you looked just made you say wow. Having such awful weather only added to the sense of rugged adventure and exploration of such an alien world.
We drove through the first sign of civilisation in miles as we passed a service town and here is where we stopped for the toilet and some food. I hadn’t had breakfast yet or a coffee and as any explorer knows you can’t explore on an empty stomach or without a cup of Joe first! Little did I know that would be my last cup of espresso based coffee for two weeks. I love Canada but filter and drip coffee will never compare to European espresso based coffees. Drip and filter is weak! Considering Americano’s were invented by American G.I’s in world war one by adding water to espressos that the Italians served them you’d think it would translate back on the North American continent but no!
We were soon on our way again as I savoured the delights of an Icelandic Americano and before long the looming line of volcanoes appeared with their gushing waterfalls cascading along the sides, their mystical peaks surrounded by dense rain clouds, giving this place that very Icelandic feel along with the rendition of Jurassic Park in my head!
He pulled over and we were greeted with the first highlight of the day, Eyjafjallajökull. Which is so much easier to type than it is to say! Egg-ya-ful…ah I give up, I just call it the famous 2010 volcano that stopped all European flights for a week. What an unexpected surprise! This wasn’t on the itinerary so I was over the moon! This for a Geographer is like one of the Holy Grail of places to visit! Such a beautiful volcano too.
After a few snaps it was back on the road for another half an hour drive before we pulled into our next stop the Skógafoss waterfall. I’m really glad I chose to visit Iceland in September because it’s yet to freeze over (although it was fecking cold) and you get the dark nights for the Northern Lights. Seeing waterfalls in action are always breath-taking, to walk right next to one even more so. Nothing makes me happier than being in a beautiful environment with stunning views and nothing but yourself and nature. I was fortunate to be lucky to have so many moments on this trip like that. I risked getting the camera drenched for a few shots but relied mostly on my waterproof Samsung for one of many selfies!
After being drenched by the waterfall (and that wasn’t going to be the only one today!) we headed to the most Southerly tip of Iceland, a town called Vic. Here we stayed for an hour and people went to get some food and some shopping. I dashed in for a sandwich and got some trinkets for the office. Trolls are huge in Iceland it’s a religion to them and they firmly believe that trolls look after you and keep you safe. I guess our equivalent to a guardian angel. I thought who needs a protective good luck troll more than my friends who are doing a PhD? So at least H105 is protected by 4 strong Icelandic trolls! Who no offence to the trolls…are incredibly fugly! While the rest of the tour sat inside warming up I ventured out onto the beach that was a short walk away from town. Nothing but me, the crashing Atlantic waves, the stunning fallen cliffs and the deep black beach. Walking on black sand felt like another planet. The fallen arches from the cliffs and the black sand beach looked like something out of Star Wars. A first order ship floating past would not have seemed out of place at all. Simply stunning.
After plenty of pictures it was back on the bus to our next stop, Reynisfjara which is basically the most famous black beach in Iceland. It was very busy here with Tourists and it’s no surprise why but as I just explored the black beach in Vic I was happy to spend my time just taking in the view with my own eyes rather than the camera lens for once…well besides this picture anyway!
After half an hour it was back on the bus and by now the rain had stopped and it looked like it might just clear up for once! As amazing as Iceland is I was sure it would be even better in the sunshine! The drives between these places were amazing within themselves. If I paid to just be driven around I still think it would have been good value for money. I can’t stress enough how beautiful and how happy this place made me feel. My mum loved Iceland when she went, Han fell in love with it and they both warned me that I would fall for its beautiful charms. They were right and it kept on giving as the day went on! After the black beach I traversed the Sólheimajökull glacier (another stunning place) and the sun appeared as I walked behind the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.
I got utterly battered and soaked by the water but what an amazing experience to walk behind such a large waterfall. Getting wet was all part of the fun! To warm up I bought some Icelandic Soup which is basically lamb, carrot, onion and broccoli in a vegetable broth. It burnt all the way down and seriously fucked my tounge up because I ate it too quickly but damn it was good! I sat down on the bench looking out at the waterfall, miles away from home with a big smile on my face. Today had been…so me. Exploring and travelling is all about experiences and moments like today. I played over the things I’d seen and done today on the drive back to the city, still admiring the views.
It turned out a lot of people on this mini-bus were going on the Northern Lights tour tonight. I had told Oshsckah that I was going on the trip tonight and he assured me despite the weather, the forecast was a KP 6 a very strong storm so chances to see the Northern Lights were high and that having spoken to his colleagues the weather was to clear up for a few hours late tonight. It will go ahead he assured me. Sure enough an email come through to my phone confirming this. I was over joyed. I didn’t come to Iceland to specifically see the Northern Lights because I know how unpredictable they are but if I saw one of Mother Nature’s most beautiful gifts then of course I would be happy.
By time I got back to the hotel I didn’t have enough time to go out to eat so I ate my final cookie, got a quick shower to warm up and charged my camera gear ready for tonight. The rain began to fall again and despite the KP index still being 6 that excitement and hope began to slowly fade away. My weather apps said rain and overcast all night. I doubted my tour guides knowledge. On time I was picked up by a bigger minibus this time but again only holding around 20 people and again I was one of the last to be picked up due to the location of the hotel. I found a spare seat and off we went into the night. I can’t even begin to type our Northern Lights tour guides name but he was a lovely guy who gave a brilliant explanation of the Aurora Borealis and how to take pictures of them (I knew how to as I’d been practicing for weeks in my back garden on my technique so I was fully ready should they appear to capture them). He assured us all again that local knowledge it will clear and he was adamant that tonight would be a wonderful show. We drove for over 50 minutes away from the city and deep into the heart of the country, close to the airport. He pulled over and switched off the lights and told us he could see them. We all got off the bus and he pointed towards the sky.
There they were. Those charged particles racing across the sky. What a wonderful sight. I snapped away and bingo. I got an in focus shot of the lights. “Back on the bus guys”. I was like really!? But not to worry he said they’d get better and this was only a preview. We drove for a further 20 minutes away from any roads and down a dirt track. You could barely see your hand in front of your face as we stepped off the bus and I was glad I brought my torch! I looked up and stood mouth ajar. The stars were so clear and vibrant, I don’t think I’d ever seen so many stars. I was in awe as I looked towards the horizon and saw the snaking shimmering northern lights. It really does take your breath away. It’s hard to explain how it feels to see such raw natural beauty. I got to work taking pictures of them. They constantly changed, constantly giving new colours and new patterns, a dazzling free light show right over your head.
It felt amazing to be in complete silence away from any civilisation, hundreds of miles from home, looking up at the night sky speckled with diamonds and mother nature’s wonderful gift of the Northern Lights over your head. What a truly spectacular experience. Not only did I get to see them, my luck continued as the KP 6 storm meant I got to see purples and reds and as the tour guide pointed out I was very lucky to witness and photograph the Angel. I’m not a religious guy by any means but there is something spiritual about nature and the northern lights. You feel connected, you feel at home, you feel energised. I feel very privileged and very fortunate to have seen such an amazing display. I know people go to Iceland 5 times and never see them. My mum and sister have been twice but only saw them static and a dull green. I was so lucky to see such a vibrant display and the very rare angel. In life I often find the universe gives me little wins from free upgrades to luck like that. I’m so glad my photo practice worked as I snapped away getting shot after shot to capture the memories.
Not everyone can see the colours in the sky and I was one of them. To me they were a grey waving cloud it was only on the back of the camera could I truly see their bright vibrant colours so I was so glad to have my camera gear with me. After a few hours the clear sky was replaced by advancing rain and cloud and we headed back onto the bus for the drive back to the city with tales of trolls and stories of the lights. Everyone was buzzing and today ranked up there with one of the most special and most amazing experiences of my life. From walking under waterfalls, to walking on glaciers to experiencing the Northern Lights, how could you top such a day?
I got back to my room at 1 a.m and I didn’t get to sleep till gone 3ish as I was still on cloud 9, how could you not be? When I woke up at 8 a.m (I allowed myself to break my out by 8 a.m rule for once) I repacked my bag, something I’d grow tired of doing eventually on this trip and I headed back out to explore the city before my bus picked me up at 1pm to take me to the airport for my late afternoon flight to Halifax, Canada. My next stop on this wonderful adventure. I walked for 8 miles around the city taking in the sights and going up the Hallgrímskirkja church, Iceland’s most famous landmark.
Again a travel tradition of mine. Go up the tallest thing there is to go up and enjoy the views. From the top I could take one last look at the fabulous city and the views. Before long I was on the bus to the airport with a heavy heart, something I’d grow used to on this trip. Each place from here on in was amazing and it was so hard to leave each place but each place left its mark on me. I vowed I’d return to this beautiful Island one day. Han was right…I would fall in love with this place!
That sadness to leave was replaced by excitement as I checked my bag in, got immersed in the utter mental chaos of Keflavik airport and waited for my flight to my favourite country…next stop Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada!