We woke up early and got our things together. We’d be camping that night and many more to follow so we enjoyed long, hot showers. A quick breakfast in our room before we left the hotel and walked to the station. Train arrived at the airport in plenty of time and we had a smooth self-check in. At security I had to empty my bag for the agent. I thought it was because of my protein bars which had melted into one big blob of goo. I could only imagine this looked suspicious. I showed the agent my bag of goop. “That’s not what the scan picked up”, she told me. “Are you transporting liquid?”.
Oops! I had forgotten to remove a small bottle of hand sanitizer. After that, all went well.
We boarded on time. The mood was good and the sun was shining. The plane was full of older Norwegians. I had the feeling they were taking a day trip to Reykjavik, possibly to go to the famous Blue Lagoon for a day of soaking in the warm water. It’s only about a two-hour flight, so I imagined it possible. We planned to kick off our trip with a warm and relaxing soak there as well, if we could get in without a reservation.
Shortly into the flight, the skies turned cloudy. I had been keeping up on the weather reports in Iceland. Summer was holding back and temperatures were only supposed to be in the 5 to 9 degree Celsius range. Mostly cloudy with some sun mixed in. Long range forecast showed much of the same. Oh, well! Adventure, right?
The clouds had started to break up just as the captain announced we were passing the Faroe Islands. This was very exciting for us because in three week’s time we’d be sailing to them from Iceland. They were in the middle of nowhere. We got a good look at them through the partially covered sky. The sun and clouds casted shadows on the islands. They looked deserted from above.
Not much happened till we reached the shores of Iceland. We sighted the southern coast from the sky above. It looked very ominous. Black sand beaches, large patches of ice-covered land, and desolate. “Uh, oh!” I said to Miriam. “What have we gotten ourselves into?” We continued over the coast before flying out over the sea to turn, descend and land at Keflavik airport. We disembarked, got our bags, and discovered our camping stove made it! (Hell, yeah!) After that we went to the rental car desk.
I had read that Icelanders were considered the happiest people on Earth. The man from Budget Rental was very friendly and nice. He smiled and assigned us a car, handed us keys, a driver’s safety pamphlet, and told us the location of our car. We paid for full insurance protection. Against ash, windshield, and undercarriage damage too. It was easier not to have to worry about any of this.
It was another “uh-oh!” moment as soon as we stepped outside the airport. We had expected cold and wind, but this was strong wind and it was really cold. Miriam read aloud from the pamphlet as we walked towards the parking lot. She held on to it tightly so it wouldn’t blow away. “Number 1 damage to rentals is to the vehicle doors caused by wind. Always park in consideration of wind direction.” We got to the car and she hit the unlock button and I opened the door and “BAM!!!” the wind damn near blew the door off. Uh-oh! They weren’t kidding.
We immediately ripped open our backpacks and put on all our warm clothing. The wind was biting but the sun was shining. I looked at the rental agency employees in the parking lot. They were bundled up with heavy coats and hats, but since they were working outside the whole day, that was no surprise. Properly dressed, we got in the car.
I tried to program the navigation unit we had borrowed from a friend. Unfortunately it didn’t appear to have maps for Iceland although it was supposed to. I looked for the charger but I had forgotten it. Good thing we had a paper map.
It was helpful that outside of the few cities in Iceland, there are not many roads. First stop was to get some fruit, and fuel for our camping stove. We exited the airport parking lot and hit the highway. Two lanes each direction. The landscape was lunar. Everything was weird and different. The light, the air, the sky, and stone. Miriam drove and I spied a supermarket off the highway. We went in. We were prepared for the exorbitant prices. We bought bananas and skyr. Skyr is a dairy product. Kind of like a mix between yogurt and sour cream without the sour. It is supposed to be really healthy. Low in fat and high in protein. I’ve read it described as yogurt-like but made from skim milk. This would go well with our oatmeal breakfasts. We also bought bags of dried fish. Fish jerky. There were many different types available and we couldn’t read the Icelandic print on the packages. I took a bag and approached a store employee. “Excuse me, do you speak English?”, I sheepishly asked. I’d heard that nearly everyone speaks English. Fortunately this was true.
“Yes” he answered.
“Is this any good?”, I asked while holding up the bag.
“Yes, very good. The best!”, he answered with gusto.
I really meant if the brand itself was good as there were a different ones but we went for it. Miriam said she’d read that they eat dried fish with butter. So we bought the smallest container of butter available which was actually pretty big. We had heard Icelanders love butter! For good reason, the butter is great and with living in a cold climate it’s probably necessary to add fat to the diet. We’d have to rely on outside temperatures for refrigeration. With the chill, we didn’t see any issue. It was cool seeing Icelanders in a natural setting such as a grocery store.
I opened the door and BAM! the wind helped me with violent force. I wondered if it was going to be this windy for our whole stay. I also wondered how many times would I open the door without thinking. The grocery store didn’t carry camping gas so I walked across the parking lot to a small home improvement center. I asked a female employee for fuel. She said, “Follow me, I’ll show you.” Finally I thought we’d get what we needed and be on our way. I was anxious to explore this new country. I followed her towards the front of the store. She walked out the exit. She pointed down the road and told me that if we went that way we’d find a gas station which carried camping fuel so down the road we went.
At the gas station we found what we’d been looking for. On the nearly empty shelf was a large container of stove fuel and a smaller one. They were actually very close in price and both very expensive so it made more economic sense to get the larger one. I wanted this to be a one-time thing so I asked the man behind the counter if he had another. His answer took me by surprise.
“I could just say no and I wouldn’t have to get off this stool and walk to the back and look”, he answered with a sly smile, then added, “for you, (dramatic pause) I’ll do it!” Icelanders have a really nice sense of humor. I also admired his command of a foreign language. Gas and black licorice thrown in for good measure and we were ready to roll–again!
Back to the highway and still bedazzled by the landscape on the right and the sea to our left, we drove. We exited the highway after a few kilometers and followed signs for Grindavík and Bláa lónið–The Blue Lagoon.
I had mixed feeling about going to the Blue Lagoon. It is known to be very expensive, packed with tourists, and badly organized. We had a choice. To book reservations online prior to our arrival or to wing it. We decided to wing it as we had no idea what time we’d get there. As we pulled into the parking lot we saw many tour buses. One was just pulling in and people were pouring out of it and into a building that functions as a luggage hold. We ran for the entrance of the main building hoping to get ahead of these people. Inside there were two lines. The one for reservations stretched almost out the door. The second line was empty. “Great!” we thought. We walked right up to the counter and asked about getting in.
“Do you have reservations?”, the girl behind the counter asked.
“No”, we answered.
“Hmm. Well, we are very full today. I can give you a wrist band and you can wait until called if you’d like.” she told us. I felt hopeful.
“How long do you think it will be?”, I asked. My hope was crushed as she pointed to a very large room with at least 120 people waiting.
“They are all ahead of you”. After a second of silence and a little look around with her eyes to make sure no one was close by she whispered, barely moving her lips “or you can go online with our free wifi and make a reservation now”. And that’s what we did. We even bypassed the reservation line and returned to her and she let us in immediately. All this bad press about the employees had me worried, but this definitely put them into favor with me.
The showers, locker-, and changing rooms are very well organized. We had a wonderful soak in the warm, healing waters of the Blue Lagoon. It was expensive–as is everything in Iceland–but really relaxing. The outside temperature was about 5 degrees Celsius. The water temperature about 38 I think. An in-water bar provided drinks and people were hanging out and drinking and relaxing and having a fun. We met an employee who was on life-guard duty and I tried to pry as much info about Iceland out of him as I could.
There was quite an international crowd there. Many different languages could be heard. Jumping out at me though was a voice that embarrassed me and acted as a reminder of how very forward I was looking to get away from tourists. I caught part of a conversation and heard a twenty-something American male in a loud and boisterous voice with strong defiance declare, “TONIGHT WHALE’S ON THE MENU! I’M GONNA EAT ME SOME WHALE!”
Mostly what I get out of my daily meditations is: Don’t be a dick! At this moment it was hard not to be one. Ok, people eat whale but from what I understand, the only reason whale is on the menu in Icelandic restaurants is for tourists like that guy. Sorry, I like whales and believe they are special, intelligent beings. Some restaurants even post signs outside saying they don’t serve whale or other lovable critters. I know this is a topic of political and ethical matters, but I find it hard to refrain from voicing my opinion at times. Especially when it comes to animals such as whales. Puffins too! Look at them, take pictures of them, teach one to fly properly, but DO NOT EAT THE PUFFIN! DON’T EAT THE WHALE! Ok, I’m finished. I know my daily meditation sometimes doesn’t work and I can be a dick.
After mellowing out in the warmth of the water we took the second long, hot showers of the day and hit the road. We drove right on past the capital, Reykjavik, without a thought of stopping as we’d had our fill of people. Iceland’s main city is home to two-thirds of Iceland’s overall population. I was to discover that many people live and work there and most kids who reside in other parts of the country will definitely live there for part of the year for work and/or educational purposes.
We continued through and out of the populated area on Highway 41 and turned onto Route 36. Our direction was northwest. Our next destination was Þingvellir (Thingvellir). Þingvellir was the home to Alþingi (Althing in English) or the Parliment which was active from 930 to 1789. In 1930 to celebrate the 1000th anniversary, the area was designated a national park. The Althing was located on the northern banks of Þingvallavatn which is the largest natural lake in Iceland. Geographically, the area lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.
We continued to be wowed by the landscapes. Snow on the hills. Verdant green moss tinted yellow in the sun. The weather changed minute by minute. One second snowing, then the sun would blast out, then the clouds would come in quickly and the air would chill. A wind would come and blow the clouds away and then what felt like intense warmth replaced the chill. We found out that clothing was often going to be put on and taken off.
We stopped to take photographs every now and then. The road was empty and all ours. We found a view point and stopped to take pictures. The ground was littered with mounds of stone a.k.a.–cairns. I was to find out that cairns serve a distinct purpose in Iceland. They are built to guide. Building one for “fun” or for “good luck” is seen as wrong. It is considered bad luck and rude to build them as they may misguide people. In some cultures, building a cairn does mean “good luck” but not in Iceland or not in the Faroes where cairns are used to guide, particularly in inclement weather. The issue with tourists building them is actually being discussed with lawmakers and may end up becoming a punishable offense.
We arrived at Þingvellir. The area looked like something out of Game of Thrones. Not a big surprise considering they do film parts of the popular series in Iceland. At any moment I could imagine a dragon flying over the rock formations or a Viking marching up the trail. Lord of the Rings also came to mind. Always expecting some kind of wacky creature to crawl or jump about. So easily understandable why legends of trolls and such came from this country. We were mesmerized as we walked the main trail in the park. Signs gave info of the area. We found the “Drowning Pool”. A pool of water in the river that runs through the area and in days of yore, punishable sentences were carried out by tying a rope around an offender and pulling them through the water. Maybe one day it will come back into fashion for tourists who build cairns. I suppose many didn’t make it across hence the name. Surely ghosts of the dead haunt the high walls of rock that surrounded us.
It was time to move on but first we were to learn another lesson about life in Iceland. Needing to go to the bathroom I discovered the public toilet was 100 ISK (75 cents) to enter. We didn’t have any Icelandic money. But…we could use a credit card. I guess this is so common around the world these days but it still amazes me that for such small amounts cards are used. In Oslo, we only used cards; for ice cream, for everything. We never once needed Norwegian currency. Same was to be in Iceland. Only on rare occasions would we need cash.
There was quite some distance in front of us to reach our final destination of the day, an area known as Geysir. We stopped at a roadside turnout which offered a picnic table and a very beautiful view overlooking the lake. We cooked up our first meal, dehydrated Chili con Carne. We were hungry and it tasted good. The weather continued changing even as we ate. Cold and windy one minute, then warmer and sunny, the next. Fast moving clouds always presented a show in the sky to be seen. A very famous saying in Iceland is: If you don’t like the weather, wait five minutes. The sun, when it appeared showed no intention of setting anytime soon even though it was already around 7 or 7:30 p.m.
Driving was easy and we really just took our time and Miriam and I alternated the newly popular phrase, “Wow! Look at that!” with every twist and turn of the road. Cool rock formations. Snow covered mountains. Big endless sky. Sheep running across the road. Felt really trippy. Looked surreal and wonderful.
We missed the road we wanted to take, a kind of short cut, but it didn’t matter. We were in no hurry. We arrived at the campground in Geysir a couple minutes before 10:00 p.m. The old man at the campground was just about to leave for the night. There was only one other couple camping. We basically had the whole place to ourselves. We pitched our tent. I was very excited cause it would be the first night in our Hilleberg Nammatj2. I handled the tent pitching and Miriam went to work inflating the air mattresses and unpacking the sleeping bags. Around 10:20 the sun started to set. Although the sun was no longer high in the sky, it was still as light as a typical late afternoon back home. We expected it was the darkest it would get and we weren’t wrong.
As soon as camp was set we walked a few meters to a place where many active geysers are. The place was ours alone with bubbling mud pots, hot springs and– WHOOOOOOOOSH!–geysers like the one named Strokkur. It was so dreamlike. Nearly 11:00 p.m., the light and landscape were completely psychedelic. We oohed and aahed over and over again.
The original plan was to sleep and in the morning drive a little further up the road to Gulfoss, a well-known and visited waterfall in the area. Miriam and I both were too excited to sleep so we decided to go right away instead of waiting till morning. We drove north and we also had this next magical location all to ourselves.. It was awesome. The air was full of mist and rain-like spray but we had perfect clothing for this. Such a massive canyon and so much water pounding over the falls causing a loud and steady roar. Beautiful. A great history attached to Gulfoss as well. According to Wikipedia it goes something like this…
“During the first half of the 20th century and some years into the late 20th century, there was much speculation about using Gullfoss to generate electricity. During this period, the waterfall was rented indirectly by its owners, Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson, to foreign investors. However, the investors’ attempts were unsuccessful, partly due to lack of money. The waterfall was later sold to the state of Iceland, and now the waterfall is protected.
Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson was determined to preserve the waterfall’s condition and even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall. Although it is widely believed, the very popular story that Sigríður did save the waterfall from use is not true. A stone memorial to Sigriður, located above the falls, depicts her profile.”
Additionally is the tale that Sigríður walked kilometers barefoot to the capital, Reykjavik, to protest it’s destruction.
We would come to learn that many falls, mountains, and even certain rocks had legends attached to them. I found this all very charming and enchanting. Yes, I wanted to believe.
We returned to our tent after a very long day. I wish I could say crawling into the tent to drift off to a restful sleep was what happened next, but it wasn’t. After settling into our sleeping bags we covered our eyes with makeshift eye masks to block out the light. The sun started rising shortly after 2:00 a.m. But then Miriam got cold. Really, really cold. She put on all the clothing she had and even in the -20 degree Celsius rated sleeping bag, she couldn’t get warm. I was warm and tired but I felt like I had let her down as it was my job to put together the gear for this trip. Even with all the clothing she had, she still felt cold. The cold was creeping in from under her. I covered her with my sleeping bag and hoped that a solution would be found otherwise it was going to be a long–very long–three weeks of camping in Iceland!
I lay beside her and listened for her breathing and when I was sure she had drifted off to sleep, I shivered and shivered and shivered throughout the night.