During my years in England I'd always wondered about that little blob on the map to the north-west. Before finally heading back home to Australia in 2002 I decided to go and take a look and so spent a few days in Iceland. The following was a diary I kept and then originally put up on a thread on the BBS. However, (almost) all the Palace references have been removed from this version.
Day 1 (Thursday)
Good omens were not present when discovering the train ticket I bought at New Cross Gate station was valid only for the tube and not the overground. This would have been OK had I not been just pulling into London Bridge station and was faced with the ticket barriers and a load of ticket inspectors who looked as if they'd been culled from the less mentally qualified of the inhabitants of the New Den. So it was either bluff it - never underestimate the power of an Aussie accent while hauling a backpack - or return to New X Gate and try again. Flight times were against me so I prepared the look of innocence/ignorance that was required for when the ticket barriers rejected my ticket. It went straight through. Woo hoo, a strike against the capitalist train companies.
Get on the Jubilee line before discovering that they don't stop at Baker Street. Realise that I need to stop at Baker Street to change for Paddington. D'oh! End up using the Circle line from Westminster and think I can check in at Paddington. I've done it before. Turns out Icelandair doesn't have check-in facilities there. Get to Heathrow and discover every airline except one has a very short queue. Go on, guess.
The ticket says it's only a two hour flight though. Don't realise until the end that Iceland is an hour behind and so begins a third hour of trying to ensure the idiot next to me doesn't keep sticking his elbow across the arm rest. Arrive in a wasteland, a barren view of rocks and grass and no intelligent life is on view as far as the eye can see. Feels like I'm in Melbourne. Try to find my bus to the hotel (a mere 48km away). Have a fun conversation with the driver - the only guy in Iceland who can't speak English. The hotel is called 'Reykjavik' (as is the city in which it is located). "Where are you going" he asks. "Hotel Reykjavik" I reply. "Which hotel" he queries in an aggrieved voice, obviously failing to note that there was no full stop separating the two words I used. Oh how hilarious you can imagine the conversation became after that. It'll probably appear in the next series of 'Too Much Sun' as the comedic high point.
Get to the hotel and nip out for a look around. The hotel appears to be on the edge of the original part of town which looks relatively run- down in a fishing village style. Get to the harbour which is filled with fishing boats (well, duh) and a couple of naval ships. One of the fishing boats is called 'The Posieden'. Insert your own joke here. Despite walking through the centre of the main city (more than half of the country's 280,000 population live here) it smells so clean. No fume-belching cars (despite the presence of a Ford Country Sedan!) and no brown haze smothering the place. An almost continual strong breeze does help - probably blows all the pollution straight into Glasgow. Decide I'm hungry and in need of a beer. Wander round before realising it's getting very cold and very windy and I've forgotton to pack gloves. I have packed a Palace beanie and three Palace shirts, though. God, that last sentence makes me feel quite sad. Find a place that sells some nice woollen mittens. To my disappointment there are none in red and blue).
After a bit more wandering decide to consult the Lonely Planet guide and it recommends a place I've already walked past three times. So I order a beer, one of the local ones. It comes to 650 kr for a pint. Now for those of you unaware of the exchange rate that comes to just over £5. For those of you in Australia don't even bother trying to convert that into pacific pesos because it comes out to a week's wages. Despite this I try the restaurant upstairs. It has been mentioned that the fish is the cheapest dish on the menu and since I love fish it makes sense to have that. The word 'cheapest' can be used in the same way as pointing out that Ferrari have a cheapest model of car. I decide to start with the scallops. They were large and they were delicious - probably the best I've ever had. What did spoil it was that there were three of them. On a square plate and the chef put one in each corner. He had to work overtime with sauces to ensure the last corner didn't look so empty. I had monkfish for the main and it was superb (second only to Dad's cooking - have to say that in case he reads this). A single glass of Chilean red went with those two dishes and the total came out just over £40. And this isn't anywhere near the most expensive eating place in town. I don't think I'll ever grumble about London prices again.
Day 2 (Friday)
Didn't sleep too well, mainly because the place was so quiet. Where I live in London has the A2 outside the front window and a bus garage outside my bedroom. I think the lack of noise during the night was disturbing my sleep patterns. Also, the usual paranoia I have about sleeping through the alarm (or both of them in this case) meant I was always waking up to ensure that it wasn't yet time to wake up. Sometimes I hate my brain.
Finally awake at the proper time I jumped onto the tour I'd booked. Rather than just wander around Reykjavik or try to hire a car (didn't fancy driving on the other side of the road as they do here) I'd lined up a few day trips. It's usually a chance to see more of the place although that comes at the expense of a superficially brief visit. The small bus had a couple over a baker's dozen in terms of passengers, most from Europe with a few Americans thrown in. Fortunately everyone understood some form of English and the guide spoke it well so that made things a bit easier.
It was a tour around the south-east and started with a drive over the lava mountains that surround the part of the country on which Reykjavik is situated. This is the newest part of the country, formed only within the last 20 million years. Eruptions were recorded in the area in the recent past, evidenced by the lack of vegetation on the terrain. The black rock and sand gave the impression of being in an open-cut coal mine. Some areas had a green-grey moss covering them. The moss is the first thing that grows on lava fields but it takes a few decades before it starts doing so. The phrase "built on solid rock" doesn't seem quite as authoritative after seeing this landscape. Once over the hills the land drops sharply to the lowlands. This is the farming heart of Iceland - and one of the richest. Farms are built where the glacial waters do not flow (they pollute the soil) and the effect it produces is a patchwork of green fields, black lava and sea bound rivers.
The first stop was at Eyrarbakki which is a small coastal village that used to be the main trading port of Iceland. It is now almost deserted, populated mainly at weekends by people getting away from the city. An early and rather pathetic looking wall inside the town was originally intended to keep out the raging excesses of the Atlantic. It's still there so it must have been effective although it is more for decoration now as a much more impressive structure has been built in recent years - and was completed just before everyone left town. D'oh!
Next up was Skógafoss. This is a waterfall which merrily dumps kilolitres per second into a pool below. It's certainly not the biggest in the world (or even Iceland) but the power evident in one so small gives some realisation why people tend to die when going over them. I managed to get halfway up a path at the side of it. I was going to try to get to the top but there was limited time and I was a bit knackered after getting halfway up. Stopping the gym and seemingly spending more time in the pub pre and post-game has not helped.
Glaciers are fun. They are also very big. The one we went to was called Myrdalsjökull. The bit of it we went to was called Sólheimajökull which is the south-western tongue of it. Unlike in all those National Geographic documentaries this glacier wasn't pristine white. It was pretty much black, coloured by the volcanic rock and sand it had picked up on its travels. A river ran out of the bottom (which is where all glacial rivers come from) and disappeared down to the sea. The sheer scale of what was just a fragment of the entire glacier gave some indication of the forces behind it and made it possible to understand how such things can gouge huge tracks into the rock. With this massive piece of ice sitting in the middle of monochromatic rock formations it looked like the setting for every other episode of Doctor Who (or the moon landing for all you conspiracy theorists).
What Croydon is to London Vik is to Iceland. The southern-most town. But there the similarity ends. Vik, being coastal, has a beach. Like all beaches in this country (bar a few in the north-west) this one is black due to the lava being ground down and washed ashore. To the west of the village is a lighthouse on a high cliff. This allows views of the area. All I can say is if travelling to Iceland pray for a clear sunny day (which I got) and buy, borrow, rent, beg or steal the best available camera you can. I've seen some scenery in my time (and the Swiss Alps were among the best) but this blows them all away. Sadly, no matter how good your photographic equipment it will never do justice to the views from there.
On the way back we stopped in at Seljalandfoss which is another waterfall. This one is fed by rainwater (those fed by glacier water are dirty because glacial rivers run under the ice and pick up all the rubbish). It is possible (and recommended) to drink directly from streams that run off these waterfalls. Some people refused to believe this despite having seen the guide do so. One woman was adamant she wouldn't touch stuff like that because it wasn't healthy. Instead, she said, she would wait until she could buy a bottle of water at the next stop. The guide gently pointed out that the bottle the woman held was 'Icelandic Mineral Water' and that it was filled directly from streams such as this. With a couple of unscheduled photo stops the ten hour trip went over by 30 minutes but no-one was worried. It was still light when we arrived back in Reykjavik and there was time to purchase some food before falling into bed and sleeping about as well as I had the previous night.
The tour was the South Shore Adventure by Reykjavik Excursions and is recommended.
Day 3 (Saturday)
Another trip. Same sized bus and the same guide. This was to the Reykjanes peninsula and the Blue Lagoon (insert all Brooke Shields references here). The Blue Lagoon is a purpose built open bath fed by waste water from the nearby geothermal plant. The water is full of silica and other minerals and a blue-green algae that gives the water its distinctive colour. Despite that unattractive proposition it is wonderful to relax in and surprisingly beneficial to the skin. It must be good because they had over 200,000 visitors last year. After two minutes in there I wanted one at home. It was like being in a bath that is the right temperature and it never gets cold. A bath with the requirement that you have to get showered before you can go in there. Very big on hygiene are the Icelanders. After a criminally short hour in there we had to get out. I exited with a set of glasses I'd discovered on the black sandy floor of the pool. Someone had obviously dropped them and the visibility of the water was so low that they couldn't have seen them six inches away let alone the five feet away at the bottom of the pool. I handed them in so I hope whoever owned them got them back.
A small fishing village called Grindavik was next. Despite a total of only seventy boats it manages to be one of the most prosperous towns. Perhaps because there was a burial on that day (all the flags were at half-mast) or whether the place is the Icelandic equivalent of Somerset just about every person who passed me on the street or in a car gave me a "we don't like strangers round here" stare. Given that I had my Palace shirt on I wonder if they've twinned themselves with Brighton. I've felt less nervous walking through Deptford alone at 3am on Saturday night than I did walking around Grindavik in the middle of the day.
Post-lunch (which I skipped as the guide's lead-in to the restaurtant smacked of a desperation to ensure everyone ate there) was a trip around the peninsula. The stark coastline was impressive, reached after passing through lava fields. If it had been an overcast day with a turbulent sea it would have produced spectacular photos. Unfortunately (?!) it was the second day of bright sunshine and it gave the area a more tranquil appearance when it was really crying out for tumult and turmoil. On the way afterwards the Snaefells volcano could be seen in the far distance. This was made famous by Jules Verne as the starting point for 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'.
The Icelanders aren't overly keen on the U.S. As the guide detailed with a touch of joyous maliciousness in her voice it started during WWII when they set up a base in the country. Then NATO came in and helped build an international airport (for which the locals are very grateful) but then they never seemed to leave. We then drove past the American compound containing 4,000 military personnel and their families. They tend to stay in there with their own radio, newspapers and TV channels and rarely mix with the locals. It's their loss.
If I was doing this again I wouldn't do the full trip. Instead, get a bus to the Blue Lagoon (pick-ups from most hotels) and spend a few hours there.
Day 4 (Sunday)
A bloody awful day that was only saved at the end from being a complete disaster. It was meant to be the tour of the 'Golden Circle'. The golden shower would be more appropriate as it felt like being pissed on the whole time. Warning bells were ringing when the coach turned out to be a full-sized one instead of the smaller ones of the previous two days. Even more went off when I realised most of the people on the coach were 'that type' of American tourist. I wonder if this explained why the first stop for 'refreshment' was after 45 minutes. That this was at a big souvenir place must surely have been a co-incidence. It was at a place called Eden in Hveragerdi and was savaged in Lonely Planet. I later found out the owner of the place is trying to sue them for a review that was (allegedly) planted by a competitor. Having been there I can say the review lets it off lightly - it's a pile of shameless tat attempting to masquerade as something ethnically credible in order to pull in gullible tourists. The Americans loved it.
After that it was to view a volcanic crater that had become a lake over the years. In the ten alloted minutes you were allowed to explore I managed to get a few pictures but not from the angle that would have been best. That would have taken a few extra minutes to get around the other side and that just wasn't allowed. Gullfoss was next. It was a waterfall (the suffix foss gives it away). This was impressive as it's a two stage drop that changes direction. The powers that be did allow enough time for marvelling at the majesty of it. I was very impressed with the lack of warning signs and marked off areas. There were a couple of the latter but it seems as if the Icelanders assume people are generally sensible and therefore won't do mindlessly stupid things (such as sticking arms down regularly exploding geysers to feel what's there). Courteous and friendly, but reserved, I warmed to the Icelanders. Pity there weren't any of them on the bus.
After that picturesque stop it was off to Geysir - the place of volcanos. No, actually, it's geysers - oh, I kill myself sometimes... The one advantage of this place was that I learned how to use the multiple-shot facility of the camera when trying to capture a geyser going off. After a couple of missed attempts (including putting the camera down after a ten minute wait and having the geyser immediately explode in spectacular fashion I did capture some nice pictures. This took up 20 minutes of the almost two hour stay at the place. The majority of this time was obviously meant to be taken up in the restaurant which was endlessly plugged on the way there. A buffet for a mere 1,700kr. That's about £14. I don't think so. Thankfully I'd taken the iPod (a new-fangled device which probably won't catch on) so a diet of Jamie Wednesday, Jim's Super Stereoworld and Abdoujaparov got me through that time. A free tour of the Geocentre proved almost entertaining as it was one of the most laughably inept things I've seen. How anyone could make an exhibition of volcanos, earthquakes and geysers seem dull is beyond me but these managed it with flying colours. By this time I just wanted the tour to end ASAP. The guide seemed to be of the same opinion as the disinterest in her voice was obvious. Most people didn't notice. However, there was one of them I did notice. Although everyone noticed him. They didn't want to but, like a traffic accident, it was impossible to tear your eyes from it. The guy with the video camera.
He started at Eden by loudly proclaiming on the bus that he needed a new battery for the camera and was taking the entire thing into the shop so they could see exactly what he needed. I thought he was yelling this to someone he was travelling with. I quickly discovered he was travelling alone (gee, wonder why) and was merely deciding to impart all his conscious thoughts on to the rest of the world. Lucky us. The iPod was immediately given the task of playing the Sex Pistols to ensure I heard as little of him as possible. As a result I only caught scant pearls of his wisdom such as "Wow. It's a volcano!!!" when we arrived at a volcano and "look at that waterfall!!!" when we reached Gullfoss. At Geysir he bought an 'Iceland' t- shirt and made sure someone videoed him wearing it in front of a geyser. Being someone who tries to give the benefit of the doubt I couldn't be sure whether he was being incredibly ironic against the stereotype of his nation-folk or just a pillock. Pingvellir national park gave the answer when an exposed cliff showing a cross section of hundreds of years of layered lava flows allowed the now terminally bored guide to ask how many eruptions there had been since one layer represented a single one. He started to count. Out loud. Using his fingers. I plugged in the iPod before he reached twelve and ran out of fingers.
The national park is in the area defined by the mid-Atlantic ridge. This is in between the American and European tectonic plates, the edges of which can be seen on the tour. This helps explain why Iceland gets an average of 250 earthquakes per day. Most are very low on the Richter scale which is why I haven't felt any during my stay. Despite the place being the converging point between two plates, the former centre of Icelandic government and having some impressive scenery it was made totally dull by the now terminally bored guide (although given the number of inane question she had to answer I was finding it hard to blame her). Then came to crowning moment. The guy with the video camera had left it on the bus. He leapt past me on the viewing platform, held up his forefinger and thumb on each hand at right angles and swept them across the panorama. It obviously met with his approval as with a cry of "yes" he ran off to get his camera. With a whimper of declining faith in the deservedness of the human species to continue existing I plugged in the iPod again and hoped for something cheerful. It randomly selected Radiohead. I can't win.
Back at the hotel I decided I had to do something else because that day had wound me up so much. So I found the nearest thermal pool and went there. Two minutes in and the stress of the day was gone. There were three other people there. Sod's law dictated they were tourists as well. One American (aaaarrrrgggghhhhh - no, he was OK, really) and two Poms. The meant that in the space of five years I got to meet a second Manchester United fan with a Mancunian accent who lived in Manchester. The pool was very hot but it soon left my mind in a chilled state. Even most of the shops being closed forcing me to settle for that most traditional of Icelandic foods - the pizza - refused to spoil the calm and relaxed state I was now in. In the lift at the hotel one of the other guests said something to me. I thought it was in the local tongue and was about to mention I didn't speak it but my brain finally caught up and I realised it was English but with a heavy accent. A quick glance at the large badge he had pinned to his chest showed he was a member of "Tom's Christian Tour" and he came from Wisconsin. An American tourist. And Christian. Jesus sodding Christ why do I always attract them? I settled for saying nothing and, smiling beatifically, got out of the lift.
The tour was 'The Golden Circle' run by Reykjavik Excursions. Avoid this one at all costs. Iceland is expensive at the best of times but this trip was the only time where I felt I was being deliberately ripped off.
Day 5 (Monday)
The Christians were still around and seemed to have begat many others during the night. They all turned out to be around the same age and the same volume - mid 50's and loud. They filled the breakfast tables but I still found an empty one. I plugged in the iPod to ensure none of them got any idea about speaking to me. One did sit opposite wearing his name tag - the improbably named Virgil Bender. I was tempted to ask him if he had been a difficult birth for his mother.
After that it was another trip. Originally I'd booked a trip for this day similar to the previous day's but hadn't been aware of it because they were run by different companies and the brochure wasn't too clear back in London. When I'd checked in to the hotel the manager had suggested I change one of them and made all the arrangements when I acquiesced. What a wonderful decision. No buses today - it was a jeep. On steroids. One driver / guide and two other passengers. A Canadian and a Pom - no Americans (I don't usually have a problem with them but the previous day had tainted my views somewhat). Roger, the driver, was originally from Dorset and had been in Iceland for 18 years. He knew his stuff and he could drive - on the road and off it.
Out east we went, saw a few sights including the house where an earthquake opened up a crevasse in the earth which rent apart the ground (20 feet deep in places) before passing under the bedroom of the house. The owner had been asleep and awoke to find his head on one side and his feet on the other side of the crack. Some pictures of wild horses (very placid and friendly - they also sleep while lying down on their side and tourists frequently mistake them for being dead) followed before we had lunch and then went off road. I can't remember the names of where we went because most of them don't appear on the main map. However, there was one valley that contained a dozen waterfalls cascading in unison that was probably the most beautiful things I'd seen in a country that appears made of postcard images.
More waterfalls, a desert where we could see mini-twisters forming in the volcanic dust, spooky shapes carved by the elements into the lava fields and the hot springs and colourful mountains of Landmannalauger. Then came a drive most of the way up the 1,400m Mt Hekla. This is an active volcano that has recently erupted in 1973, 1992 and 2000 leaving many lava flows around it as proof of its explosive nature. This time it was quiet as the jeep clambered its way up to the snowline. The weather was still clear late afternoon (I can't believe I got four perfect weather days as I'm usually the rain god's messenger) so the views were nothing short of stunning. The 80km Long Glacier could be seen - it's the second largest one in Europe. The largest one is a few kilometres east of it. The size of the lava fields were obvious from this height as were the other mountains, active or otherwise, dotted around. The wind rose and made it very apparent why people die quickly from exposure which is why it was time to go. Twelve hours after being picked up from the hotel I was deposited back there.
The trip was run by Iceland Excursions and cannot be recommended highly enough. Brilliant sights, no hard sell and an excellent guide. If you do one trip in Iceland this should be it. Make sure you ask for Roger as your guide.
Day 6 (Tuesday)
A slow morning whose pace was dictated by it raining. So I went souvenir shopping and bought a couple of books of photos and one on the history of the country. I also picked up a few recommended CDs of Icelandic bands. As long as they're nothing like Bjork I'll be happy. After a spell in an internet cafe I went to pay. I got out the money for the 90 minutes I'd spent but the guy only charged me for an hour. When I queried him he pointed to my Palace shirt and said that I already had more than enough problems. Back to the hotel to catch the airport bus and then back to London. Would I suggest that people go to Iceland? Oh yes. It is a truly stunning place and one that has not yet fallen under the weight of too many tourists. It is a heady mixture of nature and technology, a peaceful yet violent landscape. Go there while this jewel of Europe is still unspoiled by the masses.