The Day in the life of Tony Cliffe

The blog that's full of discussion, advice, travel and ramblings!

Tag: Nature

100+ Days of my Lockdown Journey

100+ Days of Lockdown

We in the UK have been in Lockdown for well over 100 days now. I look back at the emotional rollercoaster of my personal journey through Lockdown, from riding the busiest time in work to struggling with work-life balance to where I am right now. I’m sure we’ve all had our own unique journeys through this historical period, here are my musings of mine.

A prelude to lockdown

“Yep! Go ahead book them, we need to get this sorted ASAP” I muse to Hannah, our Admin for the department. It had been an incredibly pressured and busy week, somehow the task of finding flights and booking them had fallen onto my young academic shoulders. It had been hurried and less than ideal preparation for an international field trip for many reasons outside of our control. Still, we had managed to get things in place. We were excited, if not a little stressed about having our first international field course to the Netherlands with our MSc Students. When I gave the go-ahead to spend a substantial amount of money on flights, Covid-19 wasn’t even named. Back then in early February, it was a new virus in China. Oh, another one of those viruses I thought to myself.

We’d been here before, SARS, Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Ebola, we know the drill.

Somewhere else gets a virus, everyone panics about imminent doom, it barely reaches our shores and eventually they get on top of it, and it all goes away. Nievity. Nievity on a vast global scale. I guess that outdated view of the world was our downfall, we, at least in the UK have had so many false dawns of pandemics that in our collective minds it became something that really did not concern us.

I distinctly remember being in A-Level Biology during the Bird Flu crisis, I remember our teacher talking about social distancing, football matches being cancelled and restaurants closing. It was scary as she mentioned if it got out of hand, that’s precisely what would happen to us. We talked about it at length one lesson about disaster management, nothing more back then in my mind as a perfect hypothetical scenario. Of course, it never came to much in the UK and we moved on.

As the weeks went by I noticed news coverage dedicated to this new virus was growing, Wuhan was in Lockdown, conspiracy theories of biological weapons and labs were rife, governments on the sly blaming other governments. The wet food market was closed, racist undertones in tweets emerged along the lines of “serves them right for eating bats”. But again, as the death count rose in China, it was still the same story as the others, it’s over there not here. As our field trip got closer, the cases started to rapidly spread and eventually the sit up and take notice, was the Lockdown in Lombardy, Italy. I had travelled to that stunning location only a few months before for the Italian Grand Prix, spending many days on Lake Como marvelling at the view and sipping intense, authentic Italian Espresso as immaculate Ferrari’s darted in and out of traffic and everyone was dressed to impress.

The images of such a location were transformed into a ghost town, a town that from my memory was so full of life was nothing more than an empty shell, the images of flash cars and people replaced with the horror images of ventilators and people dying alone in corridors. This was serious.

Part of my original blasé attitude was down to my Father, a senior paramedic of close to 40 years, trained in triage and to deal with the worst possible cases when he was a bronze commander. “Don’t worry, it’s blown out of proportion, it’s just awful flu” was what he was told at the start of the pandemic. Then they had another meeting as soon as Italy went into full Lockdown. My Father is someone who doesn’t show his emotions much, but this was now gravely serious, sitting down in the living room after the latest meeting things had rapidly changed. “This is going to be a disaster” are the words I most remember. The virus was no longer just flu, it was deadly. The NHS was woefully underprepared due to poor management and procurement of PPE. We still had some stores of PPE from the Ebola outbreak, so we were good for now, but that wouldn’t last. Hearing the worst from someone in the know is terrifying, especially as I watch the UK walk blindly into this pandemic. This was no longer a distant virus on someone else’s shores, it was rolling in, rapidly and taking as many as it could with it.

“Okay, we desperately need a Plan B guys” I let our team know that while we can still travel in the UK, the situation in Italy was dire, the information coming from my Dad was even worse, talk of lockdowns being official, death tolls skyrocketing. Under 48 hours to departure time a blanket email comes from the Vice-Chancellor,

all travel on University business is cancelled with immediate effect.

We were one of the first universities in the UK to make such a landmark call. I was due to fly to Canada in a few months to lead a workshop and meet up with my family in Canada, people I desperately miss was now taken away from me. A field trip I had planned so much for and to be cancelled with less than 48 hours notice. As the UK had not banned travel yet, we lost a lot of money, something I felt a lot of responsibility for, but who would have known that this would happen?

Within 48 hours the team had developed from scratch a fantastic virtual online trip to replace what would have happened, an accurate measure of the dedication we as academics go through to make sure our students get the best experience. If you were to look at it, you’d be mistaken for thinking it had taken months to make. It was beyond amazing and a true testament to the skill of those I feel so very honoured to call my colleagues.

As the weeks progressed, it became clear that Lockdown was inevitable, that university would close. We would be shifting to online learning. Fortunately, as a department, we were in the best place possible. Part of my PhD was on online learning, and it was a significant player in me getting this position for the new MSc FRAME course, which was mostly delivered entirely online since October. As a department, we had months of experience of delivering lectures and pastoral care remotely through Microsoft Teams. At the time, an odd things to do, outsiders. Little did we know how vital those few months were as a department learning and adapting to online learning.

It shouldn’t have come as a shock to us when the notification of needing to be out by a specific time and no one knew when we would go back, but it did. A University without students in it, unprecedented. I was nervous, my job is temporary, contract due for renewal in the summer I surely felt this would be the last time I would be in my office. I was scared about job security, afraid about my family working in the NHS on the frontlines, scared myself for catching it and ending up as a statistic.

I had spent over 18 hours working on a document, along with my closest FRAME colleagues documenting everything we’ve learned about online delivery, I made Youtube tutorials, a comprehensive report. A day later, our department had everything they had to know, I ran MS Teams tutorials with others in the department. Within 24 hours of notification of Lockdown, we were the only department to complete a full day of teaching online, not one single lesson was cancelled. Something that apparently by some, wasn’t a possible feat until Easter. Again, the absolute testimony to the professionalism, adaptability and student-focused mindset that all in Team GID have.

All of my office in one box.

We had a final meeting, we said our goodbyes to one another, the weight of my box of all of my office things in my arms. I didn’t know if and when I’ll be back, or if I’ll see these people in person again. I loaded my things up in the car on a grey, dull day and drove home.

Lockdown

That’s it, Lockdown officially enforced in the UK. Never in my generation or many generations before me had this ever occurred before. That hypothetical scenario we played out at A-Level was now a reality. Enforced staying at home, only essential shops open, air travel stopped, football cancelled. A new world had dawned.

At first, I was too preoccupied with getting into a rhythm of working from home. Something I absolutely detested the thought of. Home and Work-life are two separate things, and I always believed the two should rarely mix. I am an over-thinker, always thinking of things to improve and therefore work is never too far from my mind. However, on a less than ideal day in the office, I can physically leave that space, jump in my car for my drive home music blasting, and then I’m home, 37 miles away from the office, I can switch off.

Now, my commute was two steps from my bed to my desk. No escape. This very laptop which was once a symbol of expression and leisure where I would write my novels and my blogs and edit my pictures was now a symbol of work and stress.

In the first few weeks of Lockdown, it was scary but peaceful. Shops were quiet although wearing gloves and a mask was a new thing. Roads were blissfully traffic-free on my bike rides, the weather was glorious as I would spend my days off on 5-mile hikes to the local nature reserve making the most of my one pass a day to leave the house. You can read my musing about the start of lockdown here: Covid-19: We are living in the pages of future history books

Then it all went south, rapidly. My mental health and physical health took a nosedive, really struggling to cope with working from home, all while the pressure increased as the workload which started off small exploded into full overdrive.

Working from home had gone from a leisurely pace to a full-on mad dash within a few days.

Lockdown came at the worst possible time for me, as my first year in the role, becoming assessment officer it is your job to ensure all the marks are correct for the end of module boards so students can get their degrees. A job that takes numerous people weeks of looking over computer screens and print outs to get right. Now, it was to be done remotely, with 500 checks and procedures to do, all the while delivering online learning to your students, answering 50 emails a day, being asked to do impossible things in unimaginable time scales, we know you’re busy but get this done asap became the new norm, and having meeting after meeting. On the worst day of Lockdown, I worked 21 hours. If I didn’t, things that needed to get done would not have happened. For close to two months, I worked 6 days a week (I get paid in my contract for 3!).

I don’t think any of us had ever worked as hard as this before. By the time it came to MAB I was borking in the shower every morning from stress, I felt exhausted, Ill, I still feel dodgy to this day, stress does some bad things to the body which takes a while to recover from. Not to mention the added stress of my mum being rushed into hospital, desperately ill and being told to expect the worst (thankfully after nearly a week in hospital she survived and is well on the mend!). I found new levels of stress that week!

After the worst of days i took myself off to the beach and had a complete mindset change

Then just like that, the academic year was over. My first academic year had gone in the blink of an eye and what a crazy year it had been. All of a sudden, the email chatter died down, the MABs were done, we as a Team had worked to new levels. I know I am not the only one who worked stupid hours to ensure our students got the best experiences and that we delivered on our requirements. I had grown so much closer to my colleagues in those few months than I had in any of the months before. So much support and guidance from them. I looked forward to that 30 mins to an hour lunch club Teams call between us all.

I cannot stress enough how much I cherished the support and those moments as a team, some light relief in a soup of chaos.

I could not be more proud of the effort, dedication and support the whole of GID has put into lectures from Lockdown. We have worked as a fantastic and united team, every single one of us going above and beyond. People won’t see that, SMT won’t see it, Students don’t see it, but we know what we’ve done. During Lockdown, I managed to complete my first year, complete the MABs successfully, been apart of the FRAME team to get CiWEM Accreditation for many years to come, became Chair of the Ethics Committee and was nominated by my students for the Most Inspiring Lecturer of the year award. I am truly blessed. These experiences have made me more robust, and I know with this team behind me next year will be a breeze!

More time for walks and hikes

“Sometimes to reset your brain and recharge your soul, you need to climb up a mountain and be in nature”

Negatives and Benefits of lockdown life

In Lockdown I’ve missed birthdays of friends, I had my own quiet lockdown birthday turning 28. I’m used to spending my birthdays abroad but instead at home, although my family did everything to make it as unique as they could. I missed the birth of my best friends first child, I missed graduations and dear friends getting new jobs, all those moments missed. As stressful as it has been at times, there have been some real benefits to lockdown life, not least, the fantastic weather we’ve had! For the first time, I have a Tan! Even on the busiest and stressful of days, I made sure to spend some moments outside in the garden, admiring the blue sky, marvelling at the birds. Before life got crazy and since the term has ended, I’ve been on walks in nature, drinking it into my soul. From climbing mountains on my first day of leave to twitching owls in the evening to riding my bike and getting back into that again to recently taking up Yoga to get in shape and to shift the stress and crisp fuelled lockdown body.

Iron Men
Garden Squirrel
Evening Barn Owl

Who knows when we’ll be back in the office? It changes weekly, August, September, January, Never? I’ve gotten into a good routine now of working set hours again, I no longer hate working from home (perhaps that’s Stockholm syndrome) in fact, I quite enjoy it. No longer the need for 5.30 a.m alarm calls and hour-long drive commutes. I’m saving a fortune on petrol which is helping me save for a deposit on a house. Walking downstairs, my Nespresso machine is right there, perfect coffee on tap, every time. When the workday is done, I don’t have to wait an hour to have food or to do something after the drive. I can close the laptop and head out on the bike or drive the 15 minutes to the beach to destress.

I’ve gotten into a pattern, a routine, a working life balance now that I appreciate, that works for me but by god has it taken a long time to get to this place.

We’ve all had our challenges in Lockdown, some at the start, some in the middle, some at the end. What I’ve come to appreciate is that there is a lot of support from others during this time. Those who haven’t bothered with you, you now know who you can rely on when the going gets tough. There is a collective we’re all in this together, we all share in each others pain and suffering as well as the little highs and wins along the way. It’s also okay to be productive one day and procrastinate the next. We’re not working from home, we’re living at work during a global pandemic.

Perhaps at the start of Lockdown, I was too harsh on myself, too much of that overachiever mentality of having to do everything perfectly and to standard. It’s a global pandemic, perhaps doing just enough is the new perfect?

While Lockdown slowly lifts, it will still be on for a while. I won’t venture to pubs or restaurants anytime soon. There will be a second wave, especially in winter, as the drum beats of that get louder just like they did before Lockdown. I won’t be ignoring those signs this time! I still hope that Emma and I can get to Iceland after our numerous cancelled trips this year, I hope we can in November. As a year without travel for me is unprecedented, but I guess it has helped my carbon footprint.

Hope for a brighter future

I expect to be in Lockdown again and working from home to be the new normal. I’ve gone to the edge and back, and now I know the limits. I’m confident that I can survive this new normal, I hope you can too. I had two weeks off to recharge, and I’ve been back at it for a few weeks now, preparing for the new term and year ahead, both in-person and virtually.

To all my readers, I wish you safety and the best of health, and hopefully, soon my blogs will be filled with travel and adventures again. Until then, stay safe.

Tony

My visit to Split, Croatia

One of the reasons I wanted to do a PhD was for the opportunity to go travelling, all expenses paid to different parts of the world. I was fortunate to go on two such trips this year, the first one, to an international conference in Split, Croatia. Not bad that as part of your proving to become a Dr that you’re expected to present your work at an international conference. I’ve been fortunate to present at two internationals this year, but this was to be my first one. First one as a PhD student anyway. Ironically it was the very last week in my old job before I became a PhD student that I was in Amsterdam presenting RA work at my first ever international conference!

Weirdly enough last year Croatia was on my list as I attempted 12 different holidays in 12 months. I had planned out a possible trip to Dubrovnik but in the end, shelved that idea when I went on the North Atlantic adventure to Iceland and Canada. Croatia, however, I’ve always wanted to visit, in brochures it looked stunning and anyone who’s been who I’ve talked to have always had high praise for it.

My supervisors forwarded a conference to me about UAVs in the environment, and as my PhD is in that realm, I submitted my abstract, got selected and I headed out to Split for a fantastic 3-day conference presenting my work. You’ll be thankful that this blog won’t go into the technical details of the conference (it’s heavy going!), but all you need to know is my first international conference as a PhD student went great! However, this blog will instead talk about my fantastic time in this beautiful part of the world.

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Conference time!

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Flying out from Manchester on one of the first flights in the morning is never fun. While I did plan on sleeping on the plane, I decided to sip coffee while listening to Matt Monroe’s ‘On days like these’ as I flew over the Alps a much better use of my time. I did, however, have that horrible moment as a window seat passenger when you really need a wee (coffee goddammit, why do you always do this!), but your fellow two passengers are asleep. I tried at first to say excuse me and got progressively louder, but no, the two of them were not waking up. I gently tapped her on the shoulder as to not come across as a creep and I asked if I could get out to go the loo, what would have happened if they said no I’ll never know! Sorry. I must have apologised about 30 times for waking them up and being that window seat guy.

Before long the azure blue waters came into view of the Dalmatian coast, I could have been landing in the Caribbean for all I knew looking out of the window. After a spectacular landing (I’d hate to land in fog in this airport with the mountains so close!), I grabbed my bags and headed on the local coach to Split’s main bus terminal. There was a music festival on one of the islands from Split that was starting the day after I arrived and so the arrivals area outside the airport was full of the typical festival goers along with the walking stereotypical; ‘gap year’ or should I say gap yeeeahr people. Never have I sympathised more with Will from the inbetweeners!

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Time to relax!

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Unlike the gap year people who were probably sharing beds in a hostel and some other bodily fluids, I was staying in a 5* apartment in Split harbour, so I phoned Mia, my host with an ETA. After a 30-minute coach ride, I arrived into the cacophony of sound and people. When I entered into the heat of Split, I clattered my case through the busy palm tree-lined streets, dodging tourists and locals as I went. It struck me instantly how beautiful this place was. The water was unlike any colour I’d ever seen, luxury yachts and passenger cruises moored up, lapping against the waves all surrounded by old styled terracotta roofs. Brightly coloured stalls popped out onto the street next to packed bars with locals sipping coffee while waiters busily rushed around between the maze of people.

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Paradise

I was always a fan of the Alex Rider novels, and it felt like this was the perfect setting for one. Walking across the hustle of the main harbour with locals selling fresh fruit and vegetables with the scent filling the hot air, various accents lingering in the mid-afternoon sun, the vibe was exciting and adventurous as I walked towards my destination. Across the harbour I noticed two huge yachts, Silver and white protruding from the other side of the harbour like mini skyscrapers, glinting in the strong sunlight. As I followed the marbled path around the harbour, the ever-present clatter of my case behind me I neared my apartment. It became apparent quite quickly that this place certainly was the playground of the wealthy Russian and Eastern Europeans. Those two boats had armed guards patrolling their decks! (maybe this was an Alex Rider novel after all!).

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One of the many superyachts

After a quick haul up the ancient steps, I arrived to be greeted by a tall young attractive Croatian woman, Mia. She showed me around this fabulous apartment and then left, leaving me with 4 full days in this amazing place. The apartment was huge with two bathrooms, a living room, a kitchen but best of all, my very own balcony looking out onto the harbour. Oh wow, I thought. If only all conferences were like this! I spent plenty of mornings and evenings out on that balcony I can tell you!

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My home for the next few days!

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After a quick nap, as always it’s my aim in new places to climb mountains or the tallest thing in the city. For me, there was a mountain that loomed over Split, its giant Croatian flag visible from the summit. By now it was late afternoon, and it was 31c. Was it a wise decision to head straight up to hike a mountain? Nope. Was the hike and the views worth it? Hell yes, it was! The views were stunning, and I’d fallen in love with this place already. The heat, the colours, the wildlife and the greenery, it felt a long way from home, but my god was it good to be on my travels again!

After my hike up the mountain, I took a stroll around the port and the harbour as sunset started to fall, the temperature seemed to only get hotter as the humidity rose as the sun set into the sea. The streets had only quietened down a little which gave me a bit more space to explore this ancient harbour and the stunning and unique setting. I could see why this place was so appealing to so many people. As night faded and the street lights reflected off the sand coloured paving, the clink of glasses and conversation floated in the now still sultry air of summer night on the Dalmatian coast.

After plenty of pictures I stopped into a local supermarket, no one spoke English so trying to understand the woman who was asking if I needed a bag was a distinct and lengthy challenge of charades! I cooked myself some food, turned the air con on thankful for it as it cooled the beads of sweat that were ever present in the humidity, took a shower and went to bed, I was out like a light.

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The next day was the first full day of the conference, and it was late evening by the time I got back to the apartment, and so I went and had some grapefruit radlers on the balcony and practised my presentation for the next day. It felt fun to practice into the night and in the direction of the harbour. Waking up the next day I was nervous as always. I always get nervous presenting but even more so for my first international PhD conference! I had some toast, it’s all I could stomach, and I headed off in 28c heat for the just under 2-mile walk to the University. Thankfully, it went fantastically well, and I was super pleased with it! Now that my job was done I was free for the next few days to explore this city. By the time I got back to my apartment, it was mid-afternoon again, and I decided that after a stressful but successful day I wanted nothing more than to go exploring, find a beach and just relax, so it’s exactly what I did!

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Just one of the many stunning beaches

There are plenty of beaches in Split although they’re mostly made up of fine pebbles. However, what was the biggest surprise was the many naked and topless women that seemed to populate the beaches of Split. For once, it wasn’t the old heifers who were topless but stunning 10’s! After a three mile walk, I came across a beach that was tucked away in an alcove. I stripped down to my shorts, got comfy and just relaxed as the waves washed up against the rocks and distant music blasted from two small yachts anchored in the bay. This is the life. Especially when a topless woman decided that the rock that was in front of me was a perfect spot to do a topless photoshoot with her friend, hey no complaints from me!

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Epic clear water

Alas, those that know me well know that even with factor 100 on I still burn and after 2 hours I had had my relaxing time, and I headed back towards the city but not before being buzzed by a low flying Hind helicopter! (Avgeek win!). On the way back I walked around some abandoned buildings and explored some more beaches on my way, the colour of that water was something else!

After some food, I decided I wasn’t done with walking today, so I headed up the mountain (again) this time in the hopes of catching a sunset. Clouds had started to bubble up throughout the day and often that means some great colours in the sky for sunset, I thought what better way than a 5-mile hike onto of the 7 so far today than to grab a summit sunset. It did not disappoint at all.

I love my solo hikes in different countries because you barely see anyone and it’s just you and nature. That hike that evening and into the night was probably my favourite one yet. Every corner the forest gave way to spectacular views or old churches carved into the mountainside.

It was unlike anywhere I’ve ever been before and probably ever go again. The heat had eased, but the humidity had skyrocketed as night fell and the clouds covered the sky (so much for star pictures tonight I thought!).

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Sunset on the summit

Walking back down the mountain to the views of the city at night was just stunning. The horns of the ships leaving, to the hum of traffic drifted across the landscape. I sat on a bench for a while just listening and taking in the sights before heading back for a well-earned drink on the balcony and a shower, a total of 18 miles walked and a conference presentation given…not bad for one day is it?

The next day, my last day in this beautiful place I headed out of the city on a tour which worked out at about £20 for a couple of hours. I visited the city of Meereen (for you Game of Thrones fans), an ancient ruined settlement and coliseum and then I arrived in the stunning town of Trogir.

Trogir is a beautiful town a few miles from Split, and it had charm in abundance. From the turquoise waters to the ancient terracotta roofs, I enjoyed my few hours in the city. It was also a place where Doctor Who filmed their Vampires of Venice episode which was really cool to see. If you’re ever in Split, I highly recommend a visit to Trogir.

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Another beautiful town here!

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When I got back to Split, I took a good walk around this stunning city. Through the old fortress, through the marble streets, passed vendors selling shiny trinkets to walking in the underground bazaar where smells of food and music hit your senses from every angle. I must have taken over 500 pictures because everywhere you went you just wanted to capture it on camera. It surely has to rank up there with being one of the most ancient architecturally stunning places I’ve ever visited.

After food, I took one last walk around the harbour as people crammed themselves into the many bars and restaurants that spilt out onto the harbour to watch Croatia play in the Euros. It was quite something walking past all the bars when their national anthem was playing, everyone was singing it as loud as they could into the warm night’s sky. For me, I retired to my balcony, sipping on coffee and looking out onto the dark sea, listening to the cheers of the fans and gentle clinking of the yachts masts in the harbour.

My first international conference had been a success, and it had brought me so many memories and stunning pictures of this truly wonderful location. While it was my last night here, it was not the end of my adventure. The next day I headed off to Switzerland!

 

North Atlantic Adventure: Iceland – Part Two

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!

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Ready for 9 hours out in the Icelandic wilderness

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!

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Breakfast of champions

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!

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Doo do doo doo DO Doo do doo doo DO doo dedo doo doo do dooo DE doo

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.

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Eyjafjallajökull in all her beauty

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!

Skógafoss waterfall

Skógafoss waterfall

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.

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A planet i mean a village called Vic

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!

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Standard i’m trying to look like a Geographer photo

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.

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Sólheimajökull Glacier

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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.

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My first glimpse of the Northern Lights

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.

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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.

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The Angel

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.

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Hallgrímskirkja

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!

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Bye bye Iceland! You are beautiful!

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!