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Highlands of Iceland

Iceland is about the size of Virginia, with a population of 350,000. The country is dominated by several huge glaciers that cover 11% of its area, as well as mountains, large geothermal fields, volcanoes and waterfalls. Most of the people live near the capital Reykjavik in the southwest, or in a couple of other cities near the coast.

The interior is largely uninhabited. Outside the coastal areas there is sparse vegetation due to the short growing season (~ 2 months per year.) It’s an arctic desert. That’s where we’ll go. The journey will take us east from Reykjavik, then up into the Highlands spending several days in the Fjallabak Nature Preserve, then further north through the center of the country, up to the fjords near the Arctic Ocean, then south and west again to Rejkyavik. There is a rough itinerary, but the weather is variable so each day is plotted based on that.

This is a very different trip for us. No temples or mosques. No ancient cultures or exotic dress. Not many people. It’s not even about the Iceland of pictures and guidebooks, so no Ring Road and no Blue Lagoon. It’s mostly about the geology.

Monday August 19

            The van leaves Reykjavik at 8:30 AM. This is a Jeremy Woodhouse trip, so the group is outfitted with cameras and lenses, tripods and laptops. No slouches here (well, maybe me!) Rosemary from Phillie, freshly retired from her medical career, has been traveling the world since her undergraduate days, and shooting for 20 years. Donna is back to Iceland for her third photo trip, and Dave, another doc, from western Canada, for his sixth. John from Texas passes around his iphone sharing incredible night shots he’s taken at national parks in the US (I didn’t even know you could do this!) And Andree, intrepid Aussie, is in the midst of a five-week jaunt of shooting and courses on shooting. Even our local guide and driver, Daniel Bergman, has authored four books on photography. It’s an intimidating bunch.

            Jim and I have been in Reykjavik for a couple of days to acclimatize, but it’s only a four-hour time difference, so we’ve mostly been walking and eating. Jim is a bit hampered on this tour. He’s got to get a new hip, but the chance to come to Iceland was so enticing that he’s delayed that bit until after we are home. He is armed with walking sticks!

            After a few miles we turn off the highway onto an F-road. Daniel jumps out and lets air out of the tires.

            A bit about F-roads. The Highlands of Iceland sit 400-500 m above sea level and are mostly uninhabited. They are inaccessible due to weather over most of the year but may be open in July and August. Special gravel roads are marked for driving, with 4×4 vehicles only. There are not many bridges; rivers must be forded. The softer tires grip gravel and keep the van from slipping in the water. Tire pressure, normally 30 lbs., is reduced to 14 ½ lbs. There is an air compressor to raise the pressure when needed.

            The first shoot is the Kvernufoss waterfall, a 1 ½ mile walk upriver with some tricky rock clambering. It’s pretty popular: we see a few people walking out, including a man in a long ministerial robe. Sure enough, when we get to the waterfall there are a bride and groom, freshly married. She’s got the long white lacey dress, couple with black tights and hiking boots. Their companion, an American soldier, follows them as they climb up behind the falls. The groom lifts her up, they are drenched and photographed, then walk out. Presumably they will stop at a laundromat before the reception.

            Two more hours of driving bring us to Þorsmork, a nature preserve set between the glaciers Tindfjallajokull and Eyjafjallajokull. (Note that Eyjafjallajuloll sits above the volcano caldera that erupted in 2010.) The ridge and glaciers look down over a huge bowl which is protected and among the warmest in Iceland (although it’s pretty damn cold and windy today – I have on a shirt, a wool vest, a thin down coat, a water proof jacket over that, a wool hat, a scarf, and heavy hiking boots, and am still uncomfortable.)

            And now, after a day of staring at the rocky, inhospitable, moon-like terrain, the beauty of the Highlands reveals itself. Light shifts constantly as scutting clouds blow across the sun. The glaciers gleam and strong patterns form in eroded basalt. And the colors – ochres, pale green, browns and beiges – stand out against the rock. Quite lovely.

            There’s a joke in Iceland: if you get lost in a forest, just stand up. It’s worse than that. The vegetation here is under an inch, so to really see it, I crouch and hold my iphone just above the ground. There are mosses, ferns, and lichens. A large rock-boulder will have different species on the north vs. the south side, and there are colonies in some areas that don’t appear 20 ft. away. It’s all pretty fascinating!

Tuesday August 20

            Tuesday we drive into the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.  Fjallabak (which means “Beyond the Mountains,”) is one of the most beautiful areas in the country, virtually empty, just a few sheep and horses scattered about.  We take F-208 to see the Myrdalsjokull glacier which sits above the Katla volcano. Katla erupts every 40-80 years. The last eruption was in 1918; scientists are expecting a big boom sometime soon.

Hmmm! This is my first real volcano. Turns out that Iceland is one of only three “supervolcano” regions in the northern hemisphere, Daniel tells us proudly, along with Yellowstone in the U.S. and Kamchatka in Russia. A supervolcano is one that can hold down eruptions until the pressure blows so high that it hits 8 on the VEI (volcano emission index!) I’d never heard of any of this, but I plan to listen for rumbles the rest of the trip and be ready to run.

Wednesday August 21

            Today we see Hekla, another big volcano, historically the most active in the country.

It seems pretty demure right now, that’s apparently because it has blown so many times that it is mostly empty, but, get this, 10% of Iceland’s total landmass was spewed by Hekla over the centuries. Original Viking settlers built farms here because of the rich volcanic soil. Not smart. In 1104 an eruption wiped out everything in a radius of 50 km. There have been 15 major eruptions since then. Even though consensus is that the punch has gone out of Hekla, I’m wary.

            And later, we drove to Haifoss Waterfall, a 122 m drop in a gorgeous canyon of the Fossa River.

Thursday August 22

            Today we go into the area of the Landmannalaugar area within the Fjallbak Reserve. The Laugavegurinn hike is here, so we see some backpackers. The area continues to be breathtaking, multicolored mountains, clear lakes and rivers.

            Our first site was the Stutur Volcano – a cute “baby” volcano inside a larger volcano, located next to the Frostastada Lake. Jeremy and Daniel pull out their drones for better perspectives.

            And the rest of the photographers are in awe. At least Jim is. These guys can now shoot from directly above a volcano, can capture the dead front of a waterfall. And the drones are cute as they can be, with their little whirring noises and blinking red lights.  By the time the day is done, Jim fills his basket at B&H, ready to push the button so HIS drone is on our doorstep as we return!

            Lunch is a “picnic” brought by Daniel. He brings us to a small shelter known only to locals, and spreads out:

  •             Cold meats
  •             4 kinds of Skyr
  •             2 kinds of bread
  •             Spicy chicken salad
  •             Hummus
  •             Sliced cheese
  •             Camembert wheel
  •             Preserves
  •             Coffee and cream
  •             Juices
  •             Candy and cookies.

            Out front he takes a group photo with his drone. Such fun: we line up in front of the cabin, the drone climbs in front of us, nods, blinks its light, and we’re immortalized. Like a character from one of the science fiction movies I used to watch with Brody!

            In the afternoon we visit the Braided River, a waterway that spreads itself over black volcanic sand in an intricate pattern, then Ljotipollur Crater, an explosion crater in the South Highlands (name means ugly crater, but it’s actually quite gorgeous.) But the best today was a collection of many waterfalls that line up along both sides of the Sigoldugljufur canyon, called The Valley of Tears. We got there at 6:15, back to dinner at 8:30, drop into bed.

Friday August 23

            Burfell Mountain is 480 m high and table topped, typical of mountains in Iceland, which were formed by volcanoes that have blown off their tops. Nearby is Þjofafoss, the Waterfall of Thieves (legend being that the locals used to execute thieves by throwing them in.) Trollkonuhlaup is close – a sort of waterfall only a few meters high, but 30 meters wide. It didn’t seem that impressive until I learned that the huge canyon in which it sits was created by lava flow. Those eruptions must be pretty impressive.

Really clear here is one of the most interesting geologic formations. I’ve been entranced by the fact that the walls of these canyons are made up of hundreds symmetric columns of identical size. They appear to be hexagonal. With a little internet research at night I figure out that as the lava cooled, the basalt cracked into this pattern. It’s called columnar jointing.

            At this point I begin to be a bit waterfalled-out. (Daniel explained later that the phenomenon is called JAFW syndrome, for, just another fucking waterfall.) Combine that with the fact that we began the day at 10 deg. C and sun, and by the time we got to the first waterfall, it was 4 deg, and rain. I climbed with the shooters; they had tripods set up just as the rain began. We walked back to the bottom, lunch was the picnic, but this time spread on the back of the van, no cute shelter. We stood and ate. At 3 PM the shooters set off back up the hill. I got in the van and read Jennifer Egan’s latest “Manhattan Beach.” It was the right choice. At 4:30 they returned, except for Jeremy who showed up at 5:15. The guy is dedicated! We sat and talked, then at 6:30 they climbed again.

            During the day, we see two men on horses herding ~ 40 sheep, which is unusual. All the other sheep we have seen have been in unattended, isolated and widely scattered groups of two or three – a mother and a lamb or two.

            There are 800,000 sheep in Iceland. They are set loose in early June, just after lambing, then allowed to wander and eat until September 1. Lambs are ~ 15 lbs. when they leave, and ~ 80 lbs. when they are gathered in the fall, a weight gain of almost a lb. per day. Most farmers have a good idea of where their sheep will go – the ewes tend to lead their lambs back to where they were raised. Bringing them in is a large national effort called the Rettir. As the weather gets colder in late August the sheep begin to work their way down to lower altitudes, and horsemen go up to drive the stragglers down.  The round-up begins on September first. The animals are herded into the center of huge pens that look like wagon wheels. Each ewe has a horn marked for the province, a plastic ear tag for her district, and an earmark for her farmer. As they come into the pen, they are sorted into spokes as identified.

Saturday August 24

            Today we leave the Fjallabak area to drive north.

A bit about our van. It’s a huge Mercedes. The shell, containing only the driver’s seat, was built in Germany. It then went to Poland where the interior was finished with five rows of three seats each, bolted to the floor. In Iceland its suspension was modified to withstand the Iceland F roads, and huge tires were added. It is a beast. Whenever we stop at a tourist location, or enter a town for lunch, people line up to take pictures. According to Daniel it was $220,000 before tax.

It’s mostly a driving day with one a stop at the Hofsjukoll glacier, a round ice cap in the center of the country, lunch at the edge of the National Forest, then in the afternoon a visit to the Aldeyjarfoss waterfall, largest in Iceland.

This is a photo trip, so a “stop” means at least 2 hours. There’s 10 minutes to pull on a warm coat covered by a rain jacket and rain pants, and a wool hat or a rain hat depending on weather, then strap on gear – a photo bag with lenses, filters etc., a camera, and a tripod. Since Jim is dealing with The Hip he also needs walking sticks, so I carry the tripod. We walk, or climb up or down, to the site, then the shooters set up their tripods and spend forever – peering through the camera, changing lenses, turning this, adjusting that, screwing up their mouths as they consider, then pressing the shutter, ten times since this is now all digital. Then they move the tripod two inches and start again, maybe change lenses for good luck. There are always several views, so the process is repeated over a km or so.  Back on the bus, they strip, and compare shots. Thank goodness I have several books with me.

For the next three nights we stay at the Fljotsbakki Farm Hotel. A young family has built a twelve-room hotel and serve breakfast and dinner in their house. Most of the food is home grown – the best is smoked lamb which they smoke themselves in a small shed out back. Two cats and a dog roam the farm; there are no other structures or people for miles.

Sunday August 25

            Today is geothermal activity day! We made it up to Reykjahlio; a few km. beyond, near Myvatn Lake, is a huge field with dozens of mudpots and fumaroles. These range from large, mostly aqueous pools that bubbled as if they were boiling, to large mud pools that spat yellow glop a few feet into the air, to teacup sized pots of mud spitting cutely tiny plops. Colors include bright yellow sulfur, white salts and brown dirt. The stench of hydrogen sulfide was overpowering. It was a fun place to photograph, especially short videos of the plops! Again, no one else around!

After lunch in Husavik on the Arctic Sea, we go to Dettifoss Falls, the second most powerful waterfall in Europe after the Rhine Falls. Although the name means “dirty falls,” it was quite magnificent, and one of our few sites that was loaded with tourists.

            A public toilet on the site had a picture of proper toilet etiquette: a picture of a person sitting on a toilet with a green check over it, and a person squatting over a toilet, standing on the toilet seat, with a red X. Daniel told us the origin of this prohibition.  Lots of Southeast Asians travel to Iceland now, and a big draw for the young ones is a Chinese superstition that a baby conceived under the northern lights will have great luck. So there is a bit of an issue in Iceland with broken toilet seats and X-rated nocturnal activities. The price of the tourism industry!

            Monday August 26

            The last waterfall, Godafoss, shoots through the Baroardalur lava fields. Quite lovely, and also a popular destination, so lots of other tourists.

            Godafoss means waterfall of the gods. When Christianity came to Iceland, most of the people worshiped the pagan gods they had brought with them from Norway. The tribes went to Thorakell, the leader, and asked him to pick a religion; he decided that Iceland would be Christian, but that paganism could be practiced in the home. To cement this decision, he took all of the pagan icons and tossed them in, making this the falls of the gods.

Liz Patton, John Nixon, Donna Rowell, Dan Bergmann (guide/driver), Andrée Lawrey, Rosemary Cook, Jim Patton, and Dave Easton

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