Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Iceland - Counting Sheep

Flying into Iceland from St. Petersburg was like a transition a world that we were trying to fit into to a life that was perfectly suited to us. The amazing start to our Icelandic adventure was completely unexpected. We were (somehow, because we have no status or miles) upgraded on our flight from St. Petersburg to Reykjavik. We enjoyed the Icelandic high life and although this particular plane had no in flight entertainment or any decent food, we were, if not for a second, one of the few lucky ones.
Tracking this flight on my iPhone GPS may have violated every FAA regulation, but we wanted to be sure the pilot took the most direct route.
We decided the best way to see Iceland was on our own, not with a tour, or with an organized route, just getting in a car and going. We spent some time (3 hours) researching RV or campervan rental companies and decided to settle on Snail. Our decision to use Snail rather than the multitudes of other motorhome and campervan rental companies operating out of Reykjavik was the comfort we felt in our many email and phone conversations with Sigrun (Snail owner) we had in the week leading up to the trip. The company was family run, non corporate, and just wanted to see their customers make the most of their time in Iceland.


We landed in Reykjavik and were immediately in love. From the second you step off the plane you see the baggage handlers in full jackets, gloves, and earmuffs letting you know you have arrived in Iceland. The airport is surrounded by miles of lava fields and wilderness. You could, if you were so inclined, step off the plane and start hiking. There is even a sign in the airport warning against camping, starting fires, and cooking in the airport itself.
Sigrun of Snail offered us a pickup at Reykjavik airport and we were greeted by Stephanie, the Snail summer intern from Germany, studying in Sweden who was working as part of a Scandanavian exchange program. We were immediately relaxed, realizing that not only were we back in a land were people spoke English but they spoke it well, with humor, understanding puns, and able to joke back with us.
Stephanie drove us to the home of Sigrun and her husband who not only operated a friendly campervan rental operation but gave us a great welcome to Iceland by putting us up in their home on the night before our departure for our Icelandic Adventure.
After a coffee and some of Sigrun's amazing homemade bread and jam Stephanie drove us into downtown Reykjavik. Our first stop was designed to solve 3 problems: 1) get us into the culture of Iceland 2) keep us warm on our journey around the country 3) help us fit in and not look like tourists. Stephanie took us to the Reykjavik flea market to buy an authentic wool sweater, hand stitched by an Icelandic woman and made to last a lifetime. We tried a few on and made our decision based on pure style and esthetic.
This experience was one we will remember forever and Hannah will never forget her first Icelandic encounter with this lovely seamstress who was happy to be able to keep Hannah so warm during our upcoming adventure.
After stocking up on warm weather sweaters we spent a few hours checking out Reykjavik. It turns out this city is simply amazing. It's small, easy to navigate, and only a city by the strictest definition of the word. What it really is is a tiny town with quaint streets, great cafes, great shopping, and great people. We had a delicious lunch at a cafe with all home baked soups and breads, and spent a few hours killing time, shopping and writing blogs and emails in a backpackers' hostel. It's amazing to believe that this town of around 400,000 is the home to 2/3 of Iceland's total population.
We had our first wildlife siting.

Hannah finally found her dream bike, too bad it was also a gate.

That evening Sigrun made a delicious meal of local Icelandic cod fish and introduced us to Iceland's best kept secret, the Icelandic swimming pool. We would soon learn that every town, no matter how big or small, has a swimming pool. These are no ordinary swimming pools, they are geothermal pools fed by naturally heated water from the volcanic earth beneath Iceland. These pools become a centerpiece of Icelandic social life and they became a focal point of our tour around Iceland.
Our first trip to the pools started as a family trip of Sigrun, her husband, Arni, Stephanie, Hannah, and I. We all piled in the Snail van and headed for the pool....it was 9pm, and the sun was still shining. After arriving at the Reykjavik swimming pool Arni and I, broke off from the ladies to do our pre-pool shower. Apparently the pre-pool shower is almost as important as the pool experience itself. We learned that in times past there were actually "Pool Police" who would watch you as you showered to ensure you had scrubbed thoroughly before entering the immaculate pools. Arni didn't speak much english so I was pretty much silently following his lead. I had to very quickly rid myself of the American locker room ettiquette which usually involves covering all your parts at all times possible. Not in Iceland, in Iceland you don't take your towel to the shower room, or your swimsuit....there are signs that clearly instruct you to shower fully nude. While I wasn't allowed access to the women's locker room (despite all my attempts), I assume Hannah followed similar instructions, and we were both clean when we entered the pool.
The hot pools are clearly marked by the temperature of the water. There were 5 pools, all ranging in temperature from 85-100 degrees Fahrenheit. Each one was a hot tub, although unlike the ones we were used to, the water was actually cooled before it entered the tub as it was being piped directly from the geo-thermally heated earth below. We sat, soaked, and chatted while squeezed like sardines amongst the 30 Icelanders in the tubs until 10pm. The sun was still out.
Arnie then drove us all around Reykjavik for a quick tour of the city. He drove as Sigrun narrated. It was very sweet to see them interact as she gave the verbal history of many of Reykjavik's most proud spots and he provided the route. We arrived back at their home at 11:30pm. The sun was still out.
That night we finally went to sleep in Sigrun and Arni's guest room at around 12:30am, the sun was still out.
The following morning (the sun was still out) we were treated to one final Icelandic meal for breakfast by Sigrun and we hit the road in our VW Camper. Sigrun made sure to outfit us with everything we would need for our trip including sleeping bags, extra blankets, pots, pans, dishes, silverware, cooking stove, etc, etc. We were set up for a great ride.

The Open Icelandic Road

Most of our tour around Iceland would follow highway 1, also called Ring Road. This is the main tourist route and takes you around the entire country. Venturing off Ring Road can be met with severe consequences if not in a 4x4 vehicle and you don't know where you are going. We tried, for most of our trip, to stick to the ring.
Our first stop was a small town called Hverageroi, about 45 minutes from Reykjavik. We intended to use this stop as a stockup point as this was the first supermarket on our ride. We would soon come to love Bonus, the Icelandic equivalent of Publix or Safeway. We found ourselves wandering the aisles of Bonus supermarkets all over Iceland. At this particular time Bonus wasn't open yet so we decided to make the most of the delay and hike up to a "hot river" located in this town. We had no idea how long the hike would take or how the weather would hold up but we set out...with absolutely no water, food, or warm clothes. When we hit the trail we noticed that we were the only ones who hiked up empty handed, others had big backpacks, walking sticks, and water. I told Hannah all would be fine, we'll make it....luckily she had secretly stashed a few pistachio nuts in our bag, they would come in handy. The hike was foggy, long, and uphill. We passed steamy holes in the earth, and as we climbed the cold fog and sulfur smell from the ground got stronger. At times we were in such thick steam that we couldn't see the rocky trail ahead of us.

The gold at the end of the rainbow proved to be worth the trek up the mountain. At the top of this climb was a river with water the temperature of a warm bathtub running through it. Hannah and I followed the lead of a few others and changed into our bathing suits behind our towels and dove in, actually stepped in because it was 2 feet deep. This was our first of many amazing natural experiences in Iceland.

We didn't even notice the full moon rising over Hannah's right shoulder.

On the way down the mountain we snacked on the pistachios that Hannah smartly stashed away....and then it started to rain...and didn't really fully stop for 2 days.
After stocking up on groceries and supplies at Bonus with food to last us several days we hit the road, unsure of our next destination.
We stayed that night in a very wet van in a very wet campsite in a very wet, small town called Hella. We really pushed the driving limits and managed to make it about 30 miles from Reykjavik. We were learning that every town in Iceland is a small town. It appears that if you have a campsite and a swimming pool you are a town by Icelandic standards. All towns were quaint, friendly, and easy to navigate.

This was our first Icelandic campsite and we were very impressed. The campsite had a kitchen for cooking meals, a common eating area, incredibly clean showers and bathrooms, and even a bar where we spent a few hours catching up on email and having a glass of wine or three. Our first night in the van was cozy, warm, and dry. We made a dinner in the campsite's kitchen of chicken, couscous, and peppers and tried to figure out our plan for the next day.
We didn't feel the need to rush out the next morning, it was still raining and visibility was very poor. The beautiful thing was that we had no restrictions on time because it never got dark. That became the theme of our trip, we could drive all day and arrive at campsites at 12am and cook dinner if wanted to, and never feel like we had to rush the next morning.
As we drove along Ring Road there were sites to see everywhere; volcanos, waterfalls, lava fields, and lots and lots of sheep. We didn't worry about how warm and dry the sheep were because we were both wearing one and found they kept us very warm. We stopped at a waterfall to check out the view, even though the fog was so thick we couldn't see past our noses.
It was common in Iceland to see these amazing things right off the road and it happened everywhere we went, unbelieveably stunning landscape that seemed to change every 10 miles.
That night we stayed in the town of Vik. We managed to drive about 60 miles that day, which doubled the previous day's drive, but still seems like an incredibly short distance. Iceland really isn't big, about 8 hours to drive straight through across the whole country, so we had our time, and we took it. Our campsite in Vik was also very nice, right on a beautiful beach (which we still couldn't see). We took a walk over to the gas station near the campsite and bought a few beers which we came to learn were "Lite" beers, which really means they have half the alcohol and taste of real beer. In Iceland you can only buy real beer in a store that is government licensed to sell it and these stores are open for 2 hours a day and appear to have completely random hours...looks like we'll be drying out on this journey?
We made an easy dinner of chicken wings, asparagus, and potatoes. I had the genius idea of stacking trays on top of each other on a gas stove as they cooked, but Hannah had her doubts (read fears of the van exploding) about this tactic. As much as it pains me to say this, she was right, it didn't work, but we managed to get everything cooked and enjoyed nevertheless.

Chopping in the van is easier said then done.
Cheese and cracker appetizers!

Chicken wings and Lite beer.

The finished product!
Time for bed, sun is STILL out.
The next morning we followed the familiar routine of coffee filtered into thermos mugs, some healthy cereal, and Icelandic yogurt called Skyrr which we have come to LOVE. Something was different about this morning though, there was actually a break in the clouds. It didn't last long though and it continued to rain most of the day.
We took a nice walk on the beach which was black from lava and volcanic rocks and hit the road, next destination unclear, but my navigator was carefully plotting our course. Over the course of 3 days Hannah had developed an obsession of hoarding maps and tour books on Iceland. She would accompany the maps and tour books with her iPad and notes she had taken from books she had read online. There were times when I would look over while driving and I wouldn't see her, I would just see a pile of maps with an Icelandic wool hat popping out of the top.

We drove along Ring Road headed for our next adventure at the huge national park of Skaftafell which is where one of Iceland's largest glaciers is located. The drive along Ring Road was starting to show signs of clearing up and we could see amazing scenery popping out. We stopped to make a lunch of turkey and salami sandwiches alongside a random beautiful waterfall that we just sumbled upon.

We drove along lava fields that were upwards of 30 miles long and stretched as fas as we could see. The lava was actually very soft and mushy. The lava is a fertilizer and allows for moss to grow on it. It was like walking on a sea of sponge.
At our last camp Hannah went into survival mode and boiled several eggs in case we needed them. We didn't find it at all random to enjoy one while standing on a lava field.
The campsite at Skaftafell was on a large grass field which was really nice to set up a table, have dinner, play guitar and hang out. The downside was that we weren't alone. There were what appeared to be hundreds of other cars, campers, motorhomes, tents, and any other camping/sleeping gear right in our vicinity. It was much different from the relative seclusion of the other campsites we had stayed in. We sucked it up and enjoyed.

We took an evening walk to the waterfall directly behind our camp and enjoyed some nice reading and relaxing time. The weather was actually nice, the rain had cleared up and the clouds had mostly gone away.
We finished the evening with a nice hot chocolate. Hannah convinced me that it was normal to go through that entire tin of Swiss Miss in our 8 days in Iceland. By the end of the trip the spoon stood straight up in the cup.

The next morning began with our typical cereal, coffee, and Skyrr and then we packed up a bag full of gear (nuts, snacks, water, sandwiches, and extra clothes) for our hike up to and around Skaftafell. The hike was stated to take about 5-6 hours. During the hike we were simply amazed. We saw very few people, especially when we got to the further points where others had already turned back. We did the entire loop which ended up being around 14 miles. The scenery was straight out of Game of Thrones or Lord of the Rings. The glacier was all around us, and the landscape changed drastically as we climbed and then descended. At times it was literally like being on the edge of the world.
These pictures can never do it justice, it was an amazing day.

I was very impressed at Hannah's incredible hiking skills. She really has great coordination, except for the time that she fell face first while running along the rocky trail trying to keep up with me. At least her knees and palms broke her fall.
After our hike we stopped to see the icebergs that break off the glacier, this was a really special site that we were amazed we could see directly off the main road.
That evening we stayed in a camp in a town called Hofn, about an hour or so from Skaftafell. Hofn is known for being a lobster capital of Iceland. Given our strenuous hike we felt we deserved nothing more than a nice lobster meal. A restaurant in Hofn was recommended in all our guide books so we decided to give it a shot. This will go down as one of the biggest mistakes on our trip....or so we hope. Icelandic lobster isn't anything like a huge Maine lobster. It was more like a large crayfish or shrimp. The meat was mealy, and you couldn't get any meat out of the body aside from the tail. To make it worse, even though we saw more sheep than people in Iceland, the lamb chops I got were greasy and overcooked. To make it even worse, it was a hugely expensive mistake. It was an experience, so we'll chalk it up to that.
We spent much of the rainy next day in Hofn at the campsite. We did some internet browsing on the campsite's wifi and relaxed. Actually, what we were waiting for was the town's liquor store to open from 2-6pm so we could stock up on some beer and wine for the rest of our trip. It was rare to find a liquor store here in Iceland and even rarer to find one that was open.
We motored out of town later in the afternoon and drove around the western fjords of Iceland and started heading up the west coast towards the north. We passed through several tiny towns along the coastline as we searched for a good town to stay in. We had heard from several people that in Iceland you don't need to find a campsite, you can simply pull over whereever you like and set up camp. Up to this point we had elected to stay in campsites for the amenities and because many of the parks required it, but we were in more of an adventurous mood and decided to pull off the road into a secluded hillside. We found a great place guarded by boulders and set up shop. Our location was beautiful. To the left was a high rock mountain with formations high above and to the right was the foggy coastline. We saw at most one car on the road every 20 minutes, and all we heard were the birds in the rock formations above.

As Hannah was setting up for dinner I realized that we were not alone. In the rocks directly behind our van were the remains of a sheep. The bones were picked clean by birds and other wildlife but I had to very carefully inform Hannah of our guest before she saw it herself. She took the news very well, and we were both very happy that lamb wasn't on the menu (we left that in the fridge and saved it for the next night), out of respect for our new friend.
We enjoyed a nice home cooked meal of chicken legs on the grill, I had a nice Icelandic Ale and Hannah some white wine.

The next morning when we opened the shades in the van we were once again not alone. A group of our campmates' friends had joined our party.
The sun was coming out and the view of the fjord was beautiful.
We tried for the rest of our trip in Iceland to replicate the experience of that evening. Sadly we couldn't come close to finding something as great as the spot we found to camp that night. We'll remember that experience always.
That day we headed to the town of Egilsstaaoir. The first stop was to find a gas station to "freshen up". We haven't really mentioned this yet, but it's worth noting. The most random gas station or rest area in Iceland will be so incredibly immaculate that you would eat off the floors of the bathroom. The same bathroom in the US would be so putrid that you would be afraid to step foot in it, but in Iceland you actually want to spend extra time in "the office".
At Egilsstaaoir we of course spent some time in Bonus, our favorite zen grocey store experience. We got some meat and other provisions to last us the rest of our trip. We had somehow powered through a large bag of coffee and needed another badly and I had shockingly managed to spill our milk all over the cooler.
We didn't spend the night in Egilsstaaoir but we did take a fun fieldtrip into the mountains looking for one of the fabled Icelandic natural geothermal pools. Unlike the swimming pools in each of the towns we visited, what we called the "natural pools" were ones that were fed directly by underground springs. In some cases the land owners had built guest houses or hikers huts around the springs and laid stone and made the pools hospitable. In other cases the springs could actually be a random bubbling of water in the middle of nowhere. Sigrun had given us a book on Icelandic Thermal Pools which described some of the most famous ones and how to find them. In actuality, the directions to many of these pools were so convoluted that you could find yourself on a dirt road for hours and never actually locate them.
This pool in particular was one of the more manicured pools and it was beautiful. We started doubting ourselves on the drive, meandering through the hills, over rocky roads, and finally arriving at this hikers hut and guesthouse in the middle of nowhere. We could have been on the moon the landscape was so unique. The guesthouse had showers, of course, and there was no entry fee or anyone actually watching the pool. We simply showered and hopped in. By the way, showers at pools are so clean that we started to use them as our main source of showers during our trip. On several occasions we would forego the campsites showers and head for the nearest pool. It was just us, a couple of german women, and the horse at the amazing pool. The water was like a hottub and the minerals in the water coming from the earth made your skin feel soft and smooth.

That evening we drove towards the area around Lake Myvatn. This area is known for its hot pools of lava spewing steam up from the earth, amazing craters of volcanic activity, a putrid smell of sulfur, and bugs that will eat you alive and make you completely miserable. Our first stop in the Lake Myvatn area was a pub that I just had to go to and Hannah was reluctant. This pub apparently milks cows in a window for all their patrons to watch. I didn't know at the time, as she was born and raised in rural Vermont, but Hannah has an unnatural fear of cows. She was very accomodating and went along for this stop and it turned out that she was lucky because they weren't milking when we were there. So, without the cows, this was really just a bad touristy pub.
Rainbow sighting on the drive to Myvatn.

Also saw some Icelandic horses, they have 5 legs

Waterfalls on the drive off Ring Road.
After our good luck in finding a camping spot by the side of the road the previous night we decided to keep the streak alive and try to find a spot worth of our presence on this night. We got word from the girl at the weird cow milking pub that about 2km up the road there was a side road that turned through a gate, that we could drive into and we could easily find anywhere to pull over and camp for the night. When we entered this area it didn't feel quite right, it felt as if we were driving on sacred ground and there was a massive crater directly in front of us. We decided to trust the weird cow bar girl and nestle into an area off the road. We proceeded to take our table, grill, stove, etc, and start cooking dinner. Within 20 minutes the park ranger pulled up. He said, "this is delicate volcanic land. You can't drive on this soil, it takes 10000 years to repair itself. You may as well stay here and have dinner because you've already ruined it, but please leave after". We thanked him for his understanding and as soon as he was out of sight we packed up and got the hell out of there. We pulled into the nearest pay campsite and started to cook dinner again, by this time it was 12am. Our coals wouldn't light (because we meaning I misread the instructions), the meat woudn't cook, and the potatoes were hard as rocks. We ended up having hard boiled eggs, thanks to Hannah's crisis preparation, went to sleep, and woke up early and left the campsite without paying. We really showed them.

That morning we made coffee and ate breakfast in a parking lot and used a public restroom to freshen up. We then headed out to see what the Myvatn area had to offer. There are some spectacular things to see in this area. We visited the lava field with bubbling caldrons of mud and water spewing steam into the air at 400 degrees. The smell of sulfur was so strong that it makes you wonder if its safe to breathe.
We finished the day with a visit to the Myvatn Nature Baths. The hot tub lake was nothing like either of us had ever experienced. The entry fee was high at about $30 per person, but it was an experience we were happy we didn't miss. Throughout the natural pools were different temperatures of water, some like a bathtub, other areas felt more like a hot tub. The water was heated by a geothermal spring and cooled down before filling the lake.
Before leaving the Myvatn pools we agreed that today was Hannah's day to drive. What this really meant was that it was Jonathan's day to drink. As Hannah drove through the meandering fjords and hills Jonathan filled his plastic cup with Icelandic Ale. It became apparent that there were really no places to stop that seemed worthwhile so we ended up in what appeared to be the least worthwhile town on the route. The town's name escapes us...we actually never knew it, but as all stops on our adventure go, this town still held a story.

We stayed in a small campsite in town which was really just a field behind a guesthouse. They gave us a key to the hot spring pool as they called it which was located in the next building. It was wet and raining so Hannah and I made tortellini on the stove in the van, had a nice dinner and decided to check out the hot spring, hoping it was a typical Icelandic pool. This "spring" was anything but, it was actually just a hot tub. It was 1am at this point with a misty rain falling, and as we showered and went out to the pool we heard voices. The tub was occupied by 2 Icelandic women. It was too late at this point to turn around and go back inside so we did the right thing and slid into the hot tub with the Icelanders. It ended up being a great time. One of the women was a bit weird and made a point to tell me about her social anxiety issues and problems with her father, but the other was pretty normal and had a lot of interesting stories to share about Iceland. We were also joined by Leo the dog who watched diligently in his jacket from the chair next to the hot tub.
We didn't get back to our van and to sleep until at least 3am that night and we took our time getting moving the following morning. We were on the road sometime around noon as we headed back in the direction of Reykjavik.
Today we decided was the day where we would find at least one of the famous pools listed in the Icelandic Geothermal Pools book no matter how long it took or how far we had to drive. We found ourselves following the hidden, bumpy, gravel roads in search of a pools that we had no idea if existed anymore, if they were maintained, and what we would actually do when we found one. We did find one after hours of searching. It looked like it hadn't been visited in years, there were broken down cars in the yard, there were tractors in the driveway, but the pool still steamed with fresh hot spring water even though it was behind a fence and overgrown with weeds. We didn't venture into the water given the relative decrepit scene and we hit the road again.
Not quite the pool we were hoping for.
We went left out of the area where the pool was to try to find a shortcut back to Ring Road. As we continued down this gravel it didn't seem to be getting any smoother, in fact it was getting very bumpy. The signs showed us going offroad, but the GPS was still insisting we head in this direction. After heading toward a massive mountain for almost an hour, driving less than 10mph over rocks with Hannah saying we should panic and turn around every five minutes, we decided we needed to turn back. Lucky we did, as when we realized where we were we saw we were on this road, which headed directly for a glacier. Our Snail van wouldn't be able to take on this challenge.
Not the road we had in mind.
We got back on track and headed back towards Reykjavik. That night we stayed in a town outside Reykjavik. Nothing special and it rained all night. We barbecued the last of our food in the rain and had a final night in the van.
The next morning we headed back to Sigrun and Arni's house to drop off the van and have one final day and night in Reykjavik.
Early the following morning we headed out to the airport and started the longest leg of our journey yet. We were headed to Johannesburg, South Africa by way of Munich, Frankfurt, Ethiopia, and finally South Africa.