See the Northern Lights, go whale watching – numbers 5 and 18

Well we’ve been to Iceland and I can’t tick either of those two off! I had been very hopeful that we would see the Northern Lights and if I’m honest it was a big driver for booking the Iceland trip. However, the weather made sure it wasn’t to be. I thought I would be disappointed, but I’m really not. We had such a fantastic time in Iceland where the land is so amazing and the people truly lovely that it didn’t seem to matter. I guess it helps that we are already planning to return! It also turns out that the whales are very elusive in the winter, it’s much better to see them in the summer. So I can’t write about either of those things, but I can write about what we did see in Iceland.

We arrived on Sunday morning just after sunrise, at this time of year that’s just before 11am! I had seen the sunrise times and was intrigued to know what it would be like, all I can say is I really admire how the Icelandic people (and all those in other similar countries) deal with all that darkness. More on that later. 20150118_112524Snow covered the country, the sun was beaming across the whiteness and despite the temperature of -5 degrees Celsius felt very welcoming. We boarded the bus to take us to Reykjavik. The landscape was breathtaking, the white of the snow contrasted by the dark rocks jutting out at all angles. I was won over immediately and this is my first picture, taken from the bus across the airport.

Our accommodation was basic but clean and most importantly very warm! We oriented ourselves and headed to the supermarket where we discovered that in Iceland, you can’t buy alcohol in the supermarket and, horror of horrors, the wine shop is closed on a Sunday! We put that right by heading to a local bar in the evening. However, we were not late back for bed having started the day at 4.45am and we were booked on an all day tour for the following day.

The following day arrived with the rain, driving icy rain. All tours were cancelled so we headed back to our accommodation for a much needed top up of tea. Then we went out to explore, dipping in and out of quirky shops and drinking in the atmosphere. The rain and wind did not let up and when we headed slightly out of town to visit an Icelandic sculdomed houseptor’s house we felt the full force of the wind and icy rain. By the time we arrived we were soaked through and freezing. The lady in charge kindly made us coffee and helped us drape our wet outer clothes on the hot radiator. It was a rather chilly visit but interesting to learn about Ásmundur Sveinsson whose work was inspired by people as well as Icelandic tales and traditions. He also built the house, considered to be one of his finest works.

Tuesday, my birthday, saw us rise early again and this time join the tour. Not being used to such short days, it was most odd sitting on the bus in complete darkness at 9 o’clock in the morning. It felt quite disorientating, my head knew it was 9am but all my senses were telling me it was much earlier. Watching the arrival of day from the coach over the next 90 minutes felt like a very slow and hard start. I find it hard enough having the sun rise after 8am, but just before 11am is a real killer. However, our day had only just begun and was set to get better and better.

Our first stop was at a tomato farm. No auto correction gone wrong here, I did mean to write tomato farm. I certainly had not expected that but not surprisingly the whole thing is under glass, no double glazing, mind, just standard 4mm glass. Importing goods is an expensive business, 20150120_105815so the ingenious Icelandic farmers have harnessed their natural resources to enable them to grow tomatoes and other vegetables (cucumbers, peppers etc) and distribute them to the supermarkets directly so that tomatoes picked today will be on the shelves tomorrow. The heat and power are generated from the geothermal stations using the heat of the water underground, it comes to the surface at about 200 degrees Celsius. The owner told us with great pride how they make it work. They even import special flies and bees to keep down the pests and pollinate the plants so no pesticides are needed. Everything is controlled by computer and the owner is able to track and operate every part of the farm on his phone, wherever he may be in the world! A cup of fresh tomato soup was a fine end to this visit.

20150120_114841The next stop was the geyser. The snowy landscape belies the heat below, but here the waters bubble to the surface, steam pouring off them. The original spouting geyser is called Geysir, but due to earthquake activity, now no longer spouts. The new spouting king is Strokkur, about 50 metres from Geysir and is most impressive. The water is a flat puddle which becomes agitated like sea hit by a fierce wind, then bubbles push up until whoosh! the whole thing blows. The jet of water varied in height each time it blew (every 3 minutes or so) the most impressive being about 50 metres high. It really is impossible to watch and not let out a woooooo!

Moving on, we arrived at the Gullfoss, or Gold Falls. We heard its deep rumble before we set eyes on it and wh20150120_132338en we did it was another wow moment. The falls are huge, about 20 metres wide and in two steps a fall of 32 metres. I have never been to Niagara and Iguassu so cannot compare to either of those, but I was totally bowled over. The sun chose this moment to come out too adding to the beauty. The snowy mountains in the background framed these falls so beautifully. The power of the water (80 cubic metres per second) was matched by the cold as part of the falls were frozen. Without a doubt, this was my favourite part of Iceland we saw, I was utterly mesmerised.

We had to move on, and for a not very big island (just under half the area of the UK), it goes for things in a big way. We drove off the European tectonic plate, into the Mid Atlantic Ridge and across to the American tectonic plate. The wall of the American continent towered above us and these tectonic plates are moving apart at about 3 cm per year. 20150120_154743No wonder there are so many earthquakes and volcanos on their little island! We walked along part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge alongside the wall of the American plate past the site of the first Icelandic parliament. They met here in 939, the oldest parliament in the world. When we reached the end of our walk, the sun, low in the sky, dipped behind some clouds giving a fitting and beautiful finish to the day.

Our final day we decided on a lie in! In the afternoon we headed out on a boat. We had learnt that whales are much more plentiful in the region in summer so our expectations were suitably capped. What we did get was a different perspective on the landscape of and ar20150121_131155ound Reykjavik. We were given all in one suits to wear and were mighty grateful for them, it was very cold and when the wind caught it was brutal. Still, we were out on the sea off the coast of Iceland in January… We were lucky and a pod of 6 or 7 white beaked dolphins were swimming around and graced us with their company for a good 20 minutes or so. I don’t mind admitting I got a little emotional when we first spotted them. To see such beautiful, peaceful creatures in their natural habitat and to share time with them is the greatest of privileges. We did not take pictures for two main reasons. It was far more important to experience the moment for real rather than through the screen of a camera and it was far to cold to take our gloves off! A truly fitting end to our trip to Iceland. Now all we need to do is plan the return visit…

And that brings me back to the list, number 24 is to visit Iceland in the summer. I want to see the Gullfoss in the different season, from the postcards I can see how different it will be. There is so much we did not have time to explore, glaciers, the northern parts of the island and many more we have yet to discover. So our plan is a trip for late August (maybe 2015 or more likely 2016) where we plan to go whale watching (94% chance of seeing the humpback whale from the north in summer) and maybe even the Northern Lights. We are planning and keeping fingers crossed at the same time…

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