Sunday, November 20, 2016

Chilling in Iceland (Part 5): Road Trip on the Southern Coast

Iceland is truly a legendary place to go--now. It has been eight months since our return from this faraway land of astounding landforms, happy humans, unadulterated food, and just endless stretches of solitude. It's tempting to think that the place hasn't changed since we left, but we learned--and saw--that glaciers lose 11 billion tons of ice a year, the Silfra fissure widens by 2 centimeters a year, and the ice caves can retreat 100 meters over a summer and essentially disappear in too-warm conditions. Despite feeling like the wind could knock us off our feet, that the icy roads could overturn our car, that a wave could engulf us, that a glacier could swallow us, or that our toes had disappeared into frozen oblivion, we are nostalgic of Iceland and what our experience traveling there felt like. Overall, we felt refreshingly insignificant and became very aware of our coexistence with the forces of nature. We were just talking about how we still get the chills (literally and figuratively), thinking about the stuff that we saw, especially on the day that we took a roadtrip into the Southern Coast.

Aurora Borealis in Skaftafell

Reynisdrangar, the basalt sea stacks of Reynisfjara

Gardar, cliff of basalt columns at Reynisfjara


Glacial tongue of Solheimajokull

At the top of Skogafoss
Anyway, this blog post is the second to last one in this long Iceland trip series (finally!).  We took two days out of our week-long stay there to go on a roadtrip across the scenic Southern border of the country, following the one and only freeway Southeast.  So, here are the details of that day-long road trip, and all of the feels that came with it.
It was the early, early morning of our fifth day in Iceland.  We had already seen some of the worst weather and road conditions, and we survived snorkeling in 2-degree water where even fish cannot live.  The way our trip was planned out worked very well, somehow.  The weather was so nice this day, a glorious 7 degrees Celsius.

It was going to be a full day road trip, so we got breakfast at our hotel (still really miss those amazing free Icelandic breakfasts), got gas (hmm, $150 a tank), and drove down to Selfoss, which was a small town with all the essentials. Went to the restroom twice, hit up a Hagkaup for the first time (their version of Walmart) and bought some winter socks that I needed, since all of mine (only 2) were stinky from having gotten wet from hiking and such. Also grabbed some lotion, it gets dry.  Looked through the food section, saw many spools of yarn, but didn’t buy anything.

1st Stop: Seljalandsfoss

An hour out of Selfoss: Seljalandsfoss.  It was huge, it was awesome, and you could pull right up to it.  It was exciting because before we approached it, we could see many tall, tall waterfalls draping over the cliff face right by the road, but none were as powerful and huge as Seljalandsfoss.

We got to walk behind it also and Wes got this amazing photo while trying to keep his camera as dry as possible! It was wet and cold, especially behind it. Technically we weren’t supposed to go behind it, but everyone else was doing it so we did.

As for me, I found Wes to be the main subject of my photos there.  I like to have a human in my photos, to show the sheer magnitude of nature as it was out here.

2nd Stop: Skogafoss

Skogafoss was also impressive, with a dizzying flight of stairs to climb alongside of it (got sore for the two days after!).  At the top, there is a stream of fast-flowing water that goes as far back as the eye can see.  It's fascinating to see how it picks up speed as it nears the cliff's edge, and even more mind-boggling to think that its source is a glacier somewhere far away.

On the edge.

3rd Stop: Best Fish and Chips... in the World!

Hungry from all those stairs, we were driving out of the Skogafoss tourist trap and wondered if we should eat lunch at one of the touristy cafes, but then this red-and-white polka-dotted trailer at the end of a short dirt road caught our eye.  This sign was staked into the ground... we couldn't say no.

These fish and chips were THE MOST AMAZING we've ever had.  They were sort of pricey at $20-ish, so we got one tray to share just to try it out.  It could have been totally hit-or-miss...truck food in Iceland.  But damn.  I took one bite out of a hot, crisp-edged potato wedge and demanded that we order more immediately.  That Icelandic tartar sauce that it came with was also memorable.

The couple who was working the truck was really nice and they gestured at the house behind the truck, telling us that they live right there, and they grew up and met each other in this area.  They were also intrigued that there are food trucks in LA...  Little do they know, it's all the rage these days.

Coincidentally, a British couple sat down to eat with us and we were the only ones eating here.  They said that this fish n chips was better than anything they'd ever tasted from their country, which is supposedly reputed as the homeland of fish n chips (wrongfully, according to them).

We also got a fisherman's stew from them and it was sooo good too.  Simply loaded with fresh  seafood!  Feeling very nourished and happy, we got back on the long road to Skaftafell.  This actually was our last legitimate meal of the day, as we ventured further into uncivilized good thing we ordered a lot of food.

4th Stop: Sólheimajökull

Sólheimajökull--a somber and astounding place.  This stop was a decided change of pace from our so-far touristy day. Maybe it was because of the fading sunlight, maybe because all the tour groups had left and we were the only ones wandering by this glacier.  The isolation was chilling.

It felt like we were on another planet.  We were just busy taking photos until Wes pointed out that the glacier was very much alive.  Once we were aware of the dripping water and crumbling layers of sand, we were a little freaked out.  The great glacier is retreating, melting, shrinking before our eyes.

5th Stop: Reynisfjara, the Black Sand Beach

Reynisfjara is a black pebble beach and features an amazing cliff of regular basalt columns resembling a rocky step pyramid, which is called Gardar. Out in the sea are the spectacularly shaped basalt sea stacks Reynisdrangar. According to folklore, two trolls attempted to drag a ship to land but were turned to stone as daylight broke, turning them into the Reynisdrangar stacks, clearly visible from the beach.

 The waves at this beach are fierce and unpredictable, and they have claimed the lives of unknowing tourists.  We stayed away from them - they don't look crazy in these pictures, but they were very scary even from a distance.

6th Stop: Vik, where there is nothing to eat but bad pizza

Maybe we should have cooked that fish.  We figured that Vik would be the last place where we could find anything to eat before doing the last of our long road trip to Skaftafell.  Vik is the town by Reynisfjara.  Everything seemed like it was in a house - there was minimal signage and it wasn't apparent what buildings were businesses and which were residences.  But anyway, we couldn't find anything for tourists besides pizza place after pizza place after pizza place of overpriced, boring-looking pizza.  We weren't desperate enough to partake, so we got back on the road.

Wes got a nice long exposure shot out of this stop in Vik, though.  The Reynisdrangar basalt sea stacks (those dead trolls) can be seen from this vantage point, poking straight out of the marine layer way in the background.  Quite enchanting!

7th Stop: Skaftafell, where there is still nothing to eat but skyr and trucker food

So, that is exactly what we ate for dinner in our hotel room, with day-old rye bread, crackers taken from breakfast back in Reykjavik, and tuna salad on limp sandwich bread from the truck stop across the street.  We were tired anyway, so we didn't mind the funny little mishmash of food.  If it weren't for needing to spend time blow-drying the insides of our gloves with a hair dryer, I probably would have been in bed long ago.  But... there was always that chance to see the Aurora Borealis.

When we checked in, they notified us at the front desk that they do Northern Lights room alerts, where they will phone your room even if it's 2 AM to let you know that there are lights in the sky.  We still hadn't seen any yet this whole trip, so we were really hoping that tonight would be our lucky night.  It was one of three nights left, and we were quite far out in the dark, with no possibility of city light pollution.  Now, it was up to Mother Nature and whether she wanted to bless us or not.

And we were indeed blessed.  We felt like a million bucks, in our pajamas, boots, glasses, and retainers.  We were about to lie down in our (separate) beds, when Wes took a final peek out the window blinds and thought that he saw something.  I totally wanted to slap him and say that he needed to stop getting my hopes up, but he wasn't kidding.  There was a small glimmer of an odd, white light up there, exactly where he was pointing.  It was unreal - neither of us had ever seen the Northern Lights, and it didn't really look green...But we were 99% sure.  This was too out-of-place to be just another moonlit cloud.  So, we scrambled into some clothes, he grabbed his tripod and camera, and we stomped down the wooden hall (making a huge ruckus) and tore out the back doors into the dry grass.  There were three other hotel guests out, and they confirmed our suspicions.  It was the Aurora Borealis!  We hadn't received a call from the front desk yet, so we felt extra fortunate.

Any desire to sleep had escaped us completely.  This otherworldly experience was unlike anything we've felt before - we were just so giddy, awestruck, and in general disbelief at our luck.  We spent almost two hours out there.  Towards 2:00 AM, the lights got brighter and more intense, and they seemed to move and blow across the sky.  I remember tilting my head all the way back to take it all in.  There was some cloud cover, but we could still see it quite clearly.  It is interesting to note that the green light is not visible in real life, but that the camera somehow filters light in a different way and it appears green through the lens of a 30-second exposure.  To the naked eye, it is more of a gray-ish white color.  Either way, it's beautiful.  After 2:00, we finally went back in to sleep, after another extremely long day in Iceland!

We ended up staying an extra night in Skaftafell, because we were so addicted to the Northern Lights that the prospect of getting to see them again was enough reason to stick around.  We still have some photos from the beautiful Jokusarlon glacial lagoon and of the REAL food that we ate (because we did indeed find some food) in this stay tuned for one more!

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