Sunday, January 26, 2014

Sign says "Impassable"? We'll take that as a challenge.

It turns out that if you take the effects of a long afternoon nap and combine it with being 8 hours ahead of your normal time and an outdoor hot tub, you have the perfect recipe for staying up super late waiting for the northern lights. It also ends up being the perfect recipe for a very hard morning the next day. But alas, we managed trek back to the main house for breakfast the next morning. The walk alternated between leisurely walk in the countryside and unexpected ice skating.

We had booked a "Super Jeep Tour" to see some of the natural sights out in the southern part of Iceland, but we weren't really sure what made a jeep "super", or what you would use it for. The streets seemed to be pretty paved and well maintained. We hadn't really even seen a car that would qualify as a truck so far. But it sounded like a good time, right?

Our driver picked us up and we went out to the....crazy big? let's call it "out of a jeep commercial, very large" jeep. To be fair, our driver Steinir was also crazy big... living proof that Icelanders are direct descendants from Vikings and Celts. With our authentic guide and our giant steed, we were ready for whatever the day had in mind.
On our way out to Thorsmork we took a little detour out to the beach. It was about this time that we started to recognize some of the differences between driving in the states and Iceland. In the states, you drive to the beach, find a parking spot, climb out of the car and walk along the beach. Oh, and there are probably a least a few other people around. Here, you drive to the beach, then you just keep driving, right onto the beach. It was surprising to me how forbidden it felt. I guess it wouldn't really have mattered if it was against the rules, there was no one, absolutely no one to see us.
The beach sand is black volcanic sand and offshore in the distance we could see the Westman Islands.
A shipwreck from the 1950s
Our own personal Jeep commercial
The Westman Islands are famous because in 1963 the fisherman that work out there noticed a volcanic eruption starting under the ocean surface, south from the islands. It lasted for a couple years and made a completely new island. People aren't allowed on the island because scientists are using it to study ecology and evolution. On the main island (the only one inhabited) here was also a huge eruption in the 1970s which caused the whole island to be evacuated by fishing boats in a matter of hours. So you know, just your usual quiet island life out there.

Our next stop was the caldera of the Eyjafjallajokull volcano. Can't pronounce that name? Welcome to the Icelandic lauguage. My best description of the language is someone doing an imitation of the Swedish Chef with a scottish accent. It's entertaining to listen to, but filled with a lot of sounds that english doesn't use. For example the double l at the end of that name doesn't sound like an l at all.. it's pronounced like something between a k and a th sound. So good luck trying to pronounce it, you know you're just going to sit here for like 5 minutes trying to get it. Go ahead.
Anyways, on the way to the volcano we should have known something was up when we had to stop to let most of the air out of the tires before attempting to drive up. And I literally mean driving up the giant ice covered mountain without any roads. The volcano is 5500ft high, and I definitely didn't think we were going to make it over parts of the climb. We made it about 2/3 before the weather came in and we had to turn around. But the view was great!

Another jeep commercial?
That pic kinda makes it look like the climb was pretty flat and just snow. This was a small flat plane that we stopped on, but the rest was more like stacking 3 ft lava rocks on top of each other and then covering them in ice and a dusting of snow. Let's just say that Steinor is a very, very good driver and was able to make it more fun and less white knuckle than it could have been.

The weather interuppting trips up the volcano is a pretty common thing, so Steinir had a "plan B", which was going to the glacier on the other side of the volcano. We would have cross an ice plane, which was way less flat and way more exciting than it sounds.
First circled back to see a couple of waterfalls that we had passed before.

Now, you might be thinking "That doesn't look very cold, there is barely any snow". You would be right about there not always being snow. But a closer look at the ground is telling.

Yep, all that stuff that looks like brown grass is brown grass encased in ice.
Some farm buildings near the waterfalls
Our guide Steinor walking through the passageway to the waterfall
We made it to!
The waterfall right next door!

Dad and I had different responses to having a little walking time to ourselves.
Me: Enjoying the quiet
Dad: Probably pretending that
he is Conan.

While we were checking out the waterfalls, Steinir called one of the other guides who came and switched us Jeeps. We got a bigger one. I wish I had taken pics of it, it was sooo big. Every time we got in I would have to climb up on my hands and knees, then stand on the ledge, then open the door and get in. The wheels were 48" wide...
Which brings me to crossing the ice the entrance to the this valley we passed a sign. Steinir told us that the sign said that the valley was impassable, as he proceeded to drive right past it. He told us that when Icelanders see signs like that they pretty much just take it as a challenge.
It's hard to capture in pictures, but the height difference between the top of the ice bumps and the water flowing between them is about four feet. That is why you need a "Super Jeep".

Crossing some small streams.
While driving across the valley, we actually had to rescue another vehicle! A van carrying some Australians had tried to get over one of the ice banks we were so easily (and slowly!) climbing over, and had fallen back in. Good thing Steinir had packed that 2 inch thick rope for pulling other cars out.

This is the only pic I have that shows how big our jeep was.
That is my 6' dad with his hand on the wheel well of the jeep.
This was after we pulled the van out, but before it fell in the second stream minutes later. 

We finally made it to the glacier and where (surprisingly to me..) totally alone again. It's weird to me to be at a well known landmark in the middle of a pleasant day and still be alone. Like standing in front of Half Dome with no one in sight.
Driving up to the glacier
The wall to the right of the glacier
We ate our lunch and coffee in the car. Steinir shared some "twisted doughnuts" - a coffee cake flavored twisted piece of sweet bread that is an icelandic staple. With the food and the view it reminded me lot of a drive in movie.... a drive in glacier? Eventually we got the nerve to get out and walk around. We didn't last long, it was very windy and pretty cold.

On the way back we had to cross a river. I took a video....

We also got to stop at one more waterfall, the one Steinir said was his favorite. It's called the "Window Waterfall"

We didn't arrive home until well after dark. We had such a great time and we gave Steinir one of the bottles of wine we had brought with us to say thanks. He seemed genuinely excited about it. It's easy to forget how coveted California wines are everywhere else!
After a long day seeing the natural beauty we ate dinner and then settled down into the hot tub. We learned our lesson the night before though. This time we brought the slippers, pot of hot tea, cookies, and bottle of wine out with us the first time. There is nothing quite as mood breaking as having to step out of the hot tub and into snow to get yourself more wine. Geez! First world problems - even if the first world is Iceland.

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