7 Sep 2011

Late Winter in Northern Iceland

A couple of years ago we spent a lovely - and cold - weekend in northern Iceland. I wanted to see not only the northern lights, but frozen waterfalls too. We'd originally booked to go the last week of January, which is no mean feat, as most touristy things in Iceland, especially in the north, are shut in that month, not re-opening until early to mid February. Anyway, after much planning I'd managed to book buses, flights, hotels, etc. to get us to Lake Myvatn, up in the north, about 60km away from Akureyri. Lake Myvatn is a volcanic lake with some interesting volcanic and geothermal features nearby, as well as some impressive waterfalls not far away.
The trip started well, leaving home early, with plenty of time for the Stansted Express to get us up to Stansted. That was unfortunate; if we'd left later we might have made it. As it was, the driver of the train thought that he'd seen someone jump in front of the train, so we stopped at a station not far from Liverpool Street, and spent an hour and a half waiting for the police to declare that there wasn't actually anyone; the driver had in fact seen someone near the track and assumed they'd jumped (so much for "person under a train" - perhaps half the time you see this excuse it's not actually the case). Anyway, we pulled in to Stansted as the plane had just left; later trains had detoured around us and made it on time. So another few hours back home and a weekend cancelled (not covered by travel insurance either, but fortunately managed to get most of our money back - tip: always ask the airline for the taxes back if you miss a flight!).

The second attempt was a success, although the waterfalls were nearly melted, and the nights were cloudy, so no decent northern lights viewing. The weather was good during the day, though, which made the trip fantastic. The first day a driver from the hotel picked us up from the airport and drove us to Goðafoss; the sun peaked out of some rogue clouds to let us see the incredible waterfall in its full glory. Some of it was still frozen too, much to my delight!
After lunch at the hotel he then drove us around the Myvatn lake area with two American women, one of whom had come to scatter some of her late husband's ashes under the northern lights (he'd wanted them scattered at Cape Cod, but she had other ideas, and so was travelling around the world with small portions of the ashes to scatter in places that she wanted to!). The area is full of strange volcanic features, including lava tubes, bubbling mud pools, hot springs, and fumaroles everywhere. In one spot the locals have built ovens into the ground, into which they put malt bread, which bakes in the heat from the geothermal earth. It is delicious!
At the end of that day we had a relaxing soak in the Myvatn Baths, a natural hot spring, like the famous one near Reykjavik airport, only nicer.
The following day we did a fantastic (but not cheap!) trip up to the Vatnajökull National Park in a massive Superjeep - the wheels were about a metre tall. Along the way we picked up another couple who were celebrating the guy's 40th birthday (they'd spent his 30th at the Iguazzu Falls and he'd asked his wife to take him to Europe's biggest falls for his 40th). They were both clowns; it was an interesting day. We visited three large waterfalls: Selfoss, Dettifoss (the largest in Europe by volume of water) and Hafragilfoss, all of which were spectacular, along the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, with massive basalt columnar cliffs. There was a lot of snow still around, although only small parts of the waterfalls themselves remained frozen.
We had lunch overlooking Hafragilfoss, my favourite of the three, and drank whisky to celebrate our companion's birthday. If only I'd had a neutral density filter back then, so I could've made the water properly blurred - this was the best I could do in bright daylight without a filter.
Shame about the northern lights too, or rather lack thereof, but the woman still scattered the ashes out over a small volcanic cone on the edge of Lake Myvatn. The evenings were still pretty, nonetheless, with great clouds. 
On our way home we spent a lovely day with friends Sigrún & Johannes in Reykjavik and then made it back to London (no issues with the Stansted Express), having had an incredible long weekend in a rather remote spot of the world, having met some rather strange, but nevertheless very interesting people.

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