Iceland: Chasing the Northern Lights

The Vikings, with the Irish slaves they had kidnapped in tow, chose Iceland as a settlement because of it’s dense woodland for building, suitability for farming and plentiful iron to create weapons. Hannah and I chose it as our reunion country after 6 months apart for just two reasons: it was new to both of us and slap bang in the middle of the Americas and Asia, where she had been travelling herself. The fact that it is one of the most expensive countries in the world, let alone Europe (and we would be spending the dregs of our bank balances), only struck us afterwards. However we are both fairly thrifty individuals, religiously sticking to the meal plan that Hannah created for us, and managed to have an incredible week nevertheless. 

The GoPro that I picked up in San Diego to replace my one that was lost to the ocean whilst surfing in California decided to retire, timely, after my time with Manuel and Cesar in Brazil: so this post will just be accompanied by photos.

First and foremost, Iceland smells of rotten eggs. Sulfur, as well as algae and cleansing minerals, are heated by geothermal activity and brought up from the Earth’s crust almost 2km below Iceland’s surface. At the Blue Lagoon, the eggy, sulfuric smell subsides and tourists can relax in piping hot pools, however at other volcanic hot-spots around the Golden Circle, where geysers and hot springs are almost at every corner, the smell is still very pungent.  There are constant reminders of Iceland’s active volcanic nature: we went trail-running around a volcano in the lava fields to the east of the country, snorkelled in the crystal glacial waters between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates in Thingvellir National Park* and accidentally stopped for a break at the foot of Eyjafjallajokul, the volcano that infamously brought the entire northern hemisphere’s airspace to a standstill after it erupted in 2010. The Eurasian and North American plates are drifting apart at the same speed that human fingernails grow, and as a result the landscape of this country is slowly changing as cooling lava forms new molten rock.

*I’ve already been asked twice: the photos from snorkelling in between North America and Europe’s tectonic plates aren’t edited, the water is that clear and it’s as cold as it looks (a bone-chilling 2°C!)

The countless mountains and endless water running off melting glaciers creates vast waterfalls; Skogafoss, Bruarfoss and Gulfoss were our favourites as we drove around in our Nissan Note rental car. (I forgot to tell Hannah we needed her credit card to rent our original VW Up from Firefly but managed to get a refund; however ThorCars were so, so helpful and friendly in just accepting PayPal – they were even okay with cash – before letting us drive away. Thoroughly recommended for anyone wanting a car in Reykjavik, which gives you so much more freedom than booking onto a pre-planned coach tour.)

Seeing the aurora borealis is high up on basically everyone’s bucket list – I think it sits at #7 on mine – and the mountains that surround the Thingvellir National Park provided the perfect backdrop for our Northern Lights hunt. On Monday night, with the useful Aurora forecast website indicating a 70% chance of seeing them,  we were treated to a breathtaking display of green and blue horizontal lights dancing across the black sky after a short drive to escape the artificial light pollution surrounding the towns. Armed only with iPhones, we couldn’t play with long exposure photography to capture the phenomenon, but the lack of distraction meant we were completely free to marvel at the Lights, which lasted for around an hour in subzero conditions.

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Leaving our AirBnb in the eastern suburbs of Reykjavik, we walked towards the city centre marvelling at the flat-topped mountain range, Esja, flattened by a glacier, in the distance. Nature does create some incredible sights. The man-made wonders in Iceland are equally impressive; from the waterfall in Thingvellir that the Vikings created in the year 930 to supply their parliament with water, to the Sun Voyager that sits in Reykjavik’s harbour. Across from the Sun Voyager, it’s clear that the city’s architects have tried to mimic nature in their designs. Apartment blocks have features that jut out akin to mountains and volcanoes; and their palette of greys, browns and blues reflect the colours of the rocks and water as well.

Our favourite building was the bakery, Braut & Co, hidden inside a heavily doodled-on building, where we picked up a loaf of handmade bread and two of the most delicious cinnamon rolls known to man – but perhaps the most universally well-known building in the capital is Hallgrimskirkja, the huge cathedral with it’s sloping, curved sides. On a particularly cold day, we walked up the bell tower for it’s panoramic views over the city, although for 900ISK, it wasn’t just the stairs that were a bit steep.

High up on our ‘to do’ list for Iceland was a morning hike to the DC-3 plane wreck that lies on Sólheimasandur’s black sand beach, just over half way between the towns of Asolfsskali and Vik. I first saw this on one of my favourite travel blogs, Travels Untitled (well worth a follow!), showed it to Hannah and we immediately wanted to explore it for ourselves. There are enough ‘tourist traps’ in Iceland to ensure that all of them are never too crowded, and after a flat 3km walk over the black sands we were free to inspect the wreckage with less than a dozen other tourists.

Hannah’s extensive research uncovered that the plane crash-landed in 1973. All members of the crew survived, and the shell of the body has been sat on the sands ever since, attracting more and more tourists to come, climb and photograph.

Our AirBnb apartment*, owned by a friendly man named Elmar, was perfectly placed on the No.5 bus route into Reykjavik as well as sitting on the edge of two picturesque lakes: Raudavatn and Ellidavatn. We had a number of sunset, morning and general “Let’s get some fresh air,” walks around these lakes (we racked up 88km of walking in a week!) and brought a 2ft pine tree back to England to apologise to my mum for being in Panama for Christmas. 

*If you’re reading this ahead of your own trip to Iceland and haven’t got the budget for a hotel, I’d recommend Elmar’s flat – click here to view it.

Iceland is full of nice touches. Around Ellidavatn lake, there are numerous easels set up permanently, so that people can sit and admire the views properly, sketching if they see fit. On the way to Thingvellir, there is a ‘Friendship Forest’ of 5ft trees, where the Prime Minister plants a tree with every foreign political visitor. And alongside every road, there is a paved bike-path to encourage people to cycle rather than drive short distances and a gravel track so that people can ride their horses on ground that’s softer on their hooves. Speaking of horses, the fluffy Icelandic ponies that roam the countryside won over our hearts despite my fear of horses. The people were lovely too. A waitress in Sudor-Vik offered to re-plate an untouched steak sandwich, left by another table, for us after realising that our budget wasn’t quite the same as other diners; the lady from ThorCars told us how she cares more about our safety than she does about scratches on her cars; and Ivan, our guide for snorkelling in Thingvellir, mapped out the best bars for us to go to over a pack of biscuits and a very hot chocolate to warm up after taking a dip in 2°C waters.

At the end of my travels, there were many hints of deja vu. James and I hiked to a plane crash in Canada all the way back in September, Hannah and I clambered all over the DC-3 wreck. We snorkelled with nurse sharks and eagle rays in Belize as part of the G-Adventures Central American Journey in November; much warmer there than in Iceland, but snorkelling all the same. Elmar’s flat was full of Liverpool mugs and in my head I ran through my ‘Football in Spanish’ script that I always reverted to when talking to taxi-drivers, me gusta el estilo de juego de Liverpool. All little hints that took me back to different parts of the incredible 7 months I’ve had on the road.

We returned back to hunt down job opportunities in workplaces new and old, as well as celebrating Christmas with my family (and the authentic Icelandic Christmas tree decorating the table!). 

If you enjoyed reading this travelogue, please share it around on Facebook/Twitter (my post from Uruguay has been shared 33 times which has made my day); read through the other posts from my recent adventures in the Americas; and make sure to subscribe via email at the bottom of the page so you don’t miss out on the next trip! Thank you!

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