MistyNites

My Life in Motion

West Highland Way: Glasgow to Drymen

For 96 meandering miles (154.5km), the West Highland Way (WHW) traverses a range of landscapes leaving the suburbs of Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow behind for open pastures, rolling hills, lochs, and then mountains before reaching Fort William in the north. Repeatedly lauded as Britain’s best long distance walk, and certainly Scotland’s most well known, and most popular, it was a walk that had eluded me for quite some time. The usual recommendation is to walk it in 7 days, but depending on drive and fitness, it can be walked in as long or as little time as you like. My brother had even completed the mammoth task of walking it in less than 48hrs for charity, but for me, with a slightly tight schedule at the end of my 6-wk long trip, I had 6 days to complete it. I was beyond excited, having waited many years to reach this point.

I had had immensely good luck with the weather for the initial few weeks of my trip round Scotland, and then the rain and cloud appeared before I hopped over to Iceland for 10 days. On my return, just the next day, I was packed and ready to head off, but outside the clouds were crying over Glasgow. It was a little disheartening to have to start the walk in full waterproofs but I was grateful to my brother for driving me to Milngavie, a northern suburb of the city, where the WHW officially begins. After grabbing a hot snack from the nearby Greggs, and posing for some obligatory photos at the obelisk in the town centre, I could not wait out the rain much longer and with my brother in tow, I set off in the early afternoon of day 1.

West Highland Way obelisk in Milngavie

In full waterproofs at the start of the West Highland Way

Underneath a signed archway, the track immediately leaves the city life behind, to follow the river, Allander Water, as it snakes its way through the emerging countryside. It doesn’t take long to reach Mugdock Woods, an area known to me from many a school visit here when I was younger, but a place that I had not been to for a very long time. Here, there were a myriad of local walks, and it was one of these that my brother left me for before heading home, whilst I continued to follow the distinctive sign of the WHW: a thistle. Thankfully the showers were already clearing and it wasn’t long before the layers could start to come off. I shared this section of the walk with a lot of locals out walking their dogs or out for a stroll, and it wasn’t until reaching the far end of Mugdock Woods after 2 miles (3.2km) did I start to feel like I was getting away from it all.

WHW in Mugdock Woods

Signage near Mugdock Woods

My destination for the night was Drymen, which the sign at the end of the woods told me was 10 miles (16km) away. With the sun now shining, it quickly became a very beautiful walk through grassland surrounded by trees, and then along the bank of Craigallian Loch. This was the first time I came across fellow WHW hikers in the form of two friends who appeared laden down with camping gear. Due to chronic back issues, I had long ago made the decision that I would stay in accommodation during the hike, meaning I only needed to carry about 6-8kg weight as opposed to the weight of a tent and camping gear. The weight difference meant it only took the length of the loch to catch up with them and then overtake them.

10 miles to Drymen

Walking the WHW

Craigallian Loch

The whole walk follows a mixture of old drovers roads, military roads or coaching roads, but especially on this first day, there was a regular need to cross or follow modern day roads. For the most part these are not main roads so traffic was light, and after a brief foray along a section of tarmac, I was soon back in pastureland, walking amongst cattle and heading towards the distinctive hump of Dumgoyach. Following the farm track, I was surprised to come over a ridge and be accosted by a man looking for money. Purported to be raising money for the local mountain rescue service, I was in two minds how to approach his request. With the walk itself being free, he was particularly targeting hikers on the WHW, and I wasn’t convinced he was genuine. But being as he was in the middle of nowhere, he had at least made some effort to be there, so even if he was scamming, I decided to give him some money anyway to justify his effort.

Entering farmland

Crossing pastureland

Cows next to the WHW

The WHW snaking through the lowlands

Soon though, I was back on my own, at least for a while before I was joined by some sheep as I skirted Dumgoyach. Then having by now walked 5.5 miles (nearly 9km), the WHW turned to join an old railway line which it followed for a good while, passing a turn-off to the Glengoyne Distillery. I was tempted to pop in for a wee dram, but with the afternoon wearing on, and the sky once again becoming overcast, I opted to push on. When eventually a break in the old railway line was reached, a welcoming sign for the Beech Tree, a local business, greeted me on my brief return to habitation.

Typical WHW signage

Dumgoyach

Scottish blackface sheep

Lamb walking the WHW

Distance marker

Glengoyne whisky distillery

WHW at Glengoyne

Beech Tree signage

WHW History information board at the Beech Tree

Crossing the road, the path again denoted the old railway track but this time was narrow, and as it meandered northwards, I met the odd person out walking their dog from the nearby villages. With houses peeking out of the trees at regular intervals it felt like a long time before I was leaving civilisation behind again, and even then it was only a brief respite before the path met head on with the A81 road. I could hear it before seeing it, and this was the first of a few main road crossings on the walk. Once safely across, it was only a short meander till the path petered out, and I found myself at a quiet tarmac road.

Following the old railway line

Mr Slug

Old railway line

Crossing the road

Following this road left, it crossed a weir at the hamlet of Gartness, and then it was a long tarmac trudge as a drizzle began. This quiet road links a few farms and small-holdings with Drymen to the north-west. In case I was feeling homesick for New Zealand, there were some random signs referencing Hobbits and the Shire which I found quietly amusing. Then, just as my feet were getting sick of the tarmac, Loch Lomond, the largest inland body of water in the country, popped into view for the first time. This spurred me on a little as I hate walking on roads, and only when Drymen is vaguely in sight, does the route finally veer off the tarmac.

Weir at Gartness

The never-ending tarmac trudge

Hobbit country

This way to the Shire

First sighting of Loch Lomond

In a small but muddy field, a worn path led through a herd of cattle. One of the cows was using a WHW sign to scratch an itch and I watched it, smiling as I passed by. Soon after, I found myself at the A811 road where I left the WHW behind to follow the pavement into Drymen. I was staying at Kip in the Kirk, an old church on Stirling Road that had been converted into a bunkhouse and B&B. I was welcomed with a mug of tea and a freshly baked scone which was a lovely touch, and I was very happy to get my hiking boots off my feet.

Cow with an itch

The Ten Commandments at Kip in the Kirk

After a brief respite, and on the recommendation of one of my hosts, it wasn’t far to reach the Winnock in Drymen’s square, where I parked myself up for the night. The UEFA EURO 2016 football tournament was still in full swing so with this on the television in the bar and being a Friday night, there was a decent crowd there. I got a table easily though and it was warm and cosy. I requested a dram of the most local whisky (which turned out to be Glengoyne, the distillery I had passed on the hike), and happily tore in to a steak pie. As the evening wore on, and the other drinkers grew merry, I found myself talking to a very drunk local who used to live in Glasgow. His banter brought back so many memories of nights out in the city of my birth, and he was good company whilst the match played on in the background. But tired from the fresh air, and with another day of hiking ahead of me, my bed was soon calling me, so shortly after the full-time whistle was blown, I retreated to the bunkhouse for an immensely comfortable night’s sleep.

Winnock in Drymen

A dram of Glengoyne whisky

Steak pie at Winnoch in Drymen

Iceland’s Street Art

Whilst it wasn’t something I expected to see on my trip to Iceland, I was pleased to stumble upon a lot of street art murals, especially in the capital Reykjavik. I’ve become a fan of these since my home city of Christchurch has embraced this form of art during its post-earthquake rebuild. Potentially there are more to discover in the parts of the city that I didn’t visit, but there were plenty to see on a wander round.

Seyðisfjörður

Street art in Seyðisfjörður

Akureyri

Street Art in Akureyri

Borgarnes

Mural in Borgarnes

Reykjavik

Mural in Reykjavik

Fisherman mural in Reykjavik

Reykjavik street art

Stamp mural in Reykjavik

House facade in Reykjavik

Mural in Reykjavik

Vampire mural in Reykjavik

Eagle mural in Reykjavik

Crow art in Reykjavik

Art in Reykjavik

Roving Round Reykjavik

After 9 days in Iceland, I’d seen a lot of the country’s natural beauty, but I felt I knew little of its history or its culture. It really is a country deserving of more time, but I had been so determined to pack as much in to my 10 day whirlwind circumnavigation as possible, that I was really just touching the surface. It took reaching the little town of Borgarnes, 60km north of Reykjavik, to delve a little into the history of the place. Despite its small size, it is home to the Settlement Centre, a really interesting museum detailing the settlement of Iceland as well as the tale of Egils Saga based on a transcript from the 13th century. The location of Borgarnes is pretty, being out on a peninsula, and parking up at the Settlement Centre I was greeted by a local friendly cat who was eager for some attention.

The museum is divided into two separate sections: one upstairs and one downstairs, and for each you are provided with a head set to narrate you through the numbered displays. It was a bit crowded in places with the displays in a relatively small space, but for me, it was a good introduction and overview to the surrounding area as well as the country as a whole. Nearby there were some cairns erected to remember a couple of the people depicted in Egils Saga, and behind the museum there was a beautiful sculpture on the hill overlooking the mountains across the water. At the end of the road, a little island sits across a bridge, and round from here, a short walk led round the tip of the peninsula and up behind the local school. It was another overcast day but with just me and a couple of locals around it was a very peaceful place to be. I’ve found Iceland’s churches to be very pretty so I wound my way round the streets and up the hill to the town’s kirk for a wander around the grounds. As with many of them, it was up a slight hill giving a rooftop view of the area.

Cairn for a missing lady

Sculpture at Borgarnes

Borgarnes sculpture

Bridge at Borgarnes

Borgarnes panorama

Borgarnes church

Borgarnes church

I drove across the bridge to leave Borgarnes behind and wanting to avoid the Toll tunnel, I left Route 1 and took the more scenic drive round route 47 up yet another fjord, before doubling back on the far side to rejoin the Ring Road to head south to Reykjavik. As with the day I first arrived, despite it being a relatively small city, I was grateful for the GPS on my phone to guide me to my night’s accommodation. But once in the heart of the city, I realised it was actually quite straightforward to navigate around. My first night in Iceland I stayed in the outskirts of Reykjavik but this time I was staying amidst all the action. Unfortunately this meant the reality of city life as a car driver: trying to find a place to park near my hostel and then having to pay for the privilege when I eventually found one. It was strange being back amongst hustle and bustle when I’d had peace and tranquility in rural Iceland for the past week.

I started exploring the capital city by heading down to the harbour and wandering around the port looking at the mixture of tour boats, fishing vessels, cargo ships and passenger ferries. Amongst it all there was even a dry dock, and there was movement and buzz everywhere, being in the middle of the working week as it was. I followed a painted line on the ground west past businesses and round to an area of museums and shops. I joined the crowd of people at a popular ice cream shop before retracing my steps to where I’d started then continuing east along the waterfront towards the city centre. Some statues lined this walk as I made my way to the Harpa, the city’s music and conference hall. Opened in 2011, it has a distinctive facade with a multitude of different coloured glass panels.

Ferry in Reykjavik harbour

Boat in dry dock

Sign at Reykjavik harbour

Fishermen statue

Statue outside Harpa

Harpa

Next I worked my way to Skólavörðustígur, the street that leads up to Iceland’s most iconic building Hallgrímskirkja. Completed in 1986, the 73metre tall church not only is distinctive in design but can be seen from many angles around the city, acting as a handy locator beacon. Designed by the same person who designed Akureyrarkirkja in Akureyri, it is one of the city’s top attractions. On a sunny day this building looks stunning, but even on a grey day, whilst it blended slightly into the cloudy background, it was still a distinctive sight to behold. Outside, the statue of explorer Leif Eriksson stands proudly on the forecourt and through the front doors, the long body of the church stretched forward, with the massive organ suspended above the front door.

Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja

Explorer Leif Eriksson

Inside Hallgrímskirkja

Hallgrímskirkja's organ

Statue in Hallgrímskirkja

After wandering around downstairs, I purchased my ticket and queued for the lift up to the observation deck within the tower. Up here, through a series of pane-less windows, there was a 360 degree view overlooking the city. There is a smattering of coloured roofs and walls amongst the mainly pale-coloured buildings, and the mountains to the north as well as the surrounding sea surround the fringes of the city. The city’s domestic airport is close by, and it is a handy spot to get some bearings before exploring the city further.

Reykjavik panorama west

Reykjavik panorama north

Reykjavik panorama east

Reykjavik Panorama south

Back outside, I walked round the church to appreciate it from all angles before wandering down to the foreshore to head back to Harpa in the hope of grabbing tickets for a show. Along this promenade was one of my favourite sculptures in Iceland, that of a Viking-style ship depicted in metal. Behind it on the water, some sail boats lazily moved along nearby. Unfortunately when I checked the schedule inside Harpa, there was nothing at a suitable time for me to attend so I decided to spend my evening wandering the streets, given that daylight would continue past midnight. Passing old and colourful buildings, I found myself at a large lake behind the city centre.

Hallgrímskirkja

Walking round Hallgrímskirkja

Walking around Hallgrímskirkja

Ship sculpture

Ship sculpture on the promenade

Sailing at Reykjavik

Building in Reykjavik's Old Town

Building in Reykjavik's Old Town

Tjörnin was pretty deserted by this time, and I almost had it to myself, wandering along side the water. There were more interesting sculptures along the path and crossing a road to reach its far end, there was a water fountain and a statue in the lake itself which bore a striking resemblance to Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid. I visited Copenhagen when I was a young girl but if I close my eyes I can still picture the Little Mermaid, and it felt strange looking at a similar statue in another city. Beyond the lake and across a main road was Vatnsmýri, a wetland where there were loads of Greylag geese wandering about. I was completely alone here, and it was a nice part of the city to get some peace and quiet.

Sculpture at Tjornin

Church at Tjornin

Statues by Tjornin

Reykjavik's Little Mermaid

Reykjavik wetlands

Greylag goose

I awoke to sunshine on my last morning in Iceland. Ever wary of the ticket metre kicking in on the street outside, I took my car out of the city early and headed to Perlan, a domed building atop a hill which offers a differing view over the city. The building itself had seen better days and was rather drab looking inside and out, but the outdoor viewing platform upstairs gave a 360 degree view of the city from a different perspective than had been on offer at Hallgrímskirkja, and from here in the sunshine, the famous church looked beautiful. It was also possible to see more of the southern suburbs disappearing into the distance, than had been evident elsewhere.

Hallgrímskirkja in the sunshine

Reykjavik from Perlan

South Reykjavik from Perlan

Band statue at Perlan

After driving to Laugardalur near where I’d stayed the first night, I visited the large park and the small Botanical Gardens within them. It was a popular place with joggers, and children on visits from school, but there wasn’t much to look at, and the gardens themselves proved rather underwhelming. I returned to the city centre, and parked my car up for the rest of the day, ensuring my parking ticket was correct. Now the city centre was mine to explore, and with the shops and eateries open, I made the most of city life. I was pleased to discover lots of street art around the city, something which I’ve grown to love as it has taken over my home city of Christchurch. I’ve had the joy of exploring other worldwide cities’ mural works such as Melbourne in Australia and my native Glasgow in Scotland, so I went out my way to explore side alleys to see as much of it as I could find. In between this I enjoyed not just the tourist shops, but some quirky local shops as well, and despite being a weekday, the city centre was full of people. Outside a handful of restaurants there were various signs offering both Minke whale and puffin to eat, and they seemed particularly targeted towards tourists. I’ll usually try local cuisine when I’m abroad, but not when it involves killing endangered creatures.

Building in Reykjavik

Reykjavik street art

Whale on the menu

Tourist menu

But as the afternoon came round, it was soon time for one of the highlights of my trip. I probably wouldn’t have known about it, had it not been for reading a fellow blogger’s post, and despite initially being put off by the price of it, I soon came round to the idea of it. Unfortunately there was a slight mix up with the bus pick up service that was included in the price I paid, and this led to a slightly stressful time where I was worried that I wouldn’t get there. In hindsight, I could have just driven myself, but I had somehow convinced myself it involved an unsealed road which in fact it didn’t. In the end though, all was well, and I made it with everyone else to the building up in the hills outside of Reykjavik to join my tour group to go Inside the Volcano, and we all kitted up in a waterproof jacket to make the long trek there.

Þríhnúkagígur is a dormant volcano that last erupted over 4000 years ago. Quite unique in that the magma chamber has not been filled up, it contains a large chamber that can be descended into for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see what a volcano looks like from the inside. There is a 50 minute walk across the nearby lava field to get there, a relatively barren and desolate land from which some cones stand out in various directions in the distance. Eventually we reached a small hut where we were split into groups and given our harnesses and helmets. To a lot of people’s delight there was an arctic fox pup running around, having become orphaned and being looked after by the staff there. I was excited to be put into the first group to descend, so there was little time to wait before we were marched up the side of the cone to the crater rim where the rigging and ‘elevator’ awaited us. Despite being June, there were patches of snow visible from here, and we had a nice view across the mainly black landscape towards the edge of Reykjavik which was visible in the distance.

Crossing the lava field near Þríhnúkagígur

Arctic fox cub

Crater rim of Þríhnúkagígur

Top of the crater descent

Snow amongst the lava

The descent into the volcano was incredible, harnessed into what looks like a window-cleaner’s lift bucket. It was slow and steady and as the entrance is narrow, we got very close to the colourful rock on the way down. Then as the chamber widens, we were all blown away by the glorious yellow that was the dominant colour of the rock. I really wish I had better camera skills because despite having 3 separate devices that could take photographs, I struggled to get anything that came close to the immense beauty that lay under the ground. After 120metres of descent, we were let loose to explore the nearby rocks whilst the lift returned to the surface to collect the next group. I wandered around in a bit of a daze, my excitement blurring my vision a little, as I tried desperately to absorb what I was seeing. There was just yellow everywhere, and interspersed with this were reds and blacks, and with this view there was an ever present audio of dripping water and echoing voices. I love caves, and this felt no different, and whilst I paid no attention to myself at the time, I’m pretty sure I had a giant grin on my face the whole time.

Descent into the volcano

Colours inside Þríhnúkagígur

Bright yellow wall of the magma chamber

Roof of the magma chamber

Brilliant yellow rocks

Lift descending into the chamber from above

By the time the remaining groups had descended, it was then my turn to go back up. I tried hard to take mental snapshots of the view with my eyes in a desperate attempt to burn the memory in my head. Back at the surface, there was warm soup waiting for us at the cabin, and as there was then some waiting to do, I wandered around the nearby paths before the arrival of rain sent me back to the cabin. The walk back to the waiting bus took nearly as long as the hike there had been, and then it was time to head back to Reykjavik. The bus driver forgot about me on the way back meaning I had to circle the city twice to be released near my hostel. I was too tired to eat out, so grabbed a take-away before heading back to my dorm to pack.

Þríhnúkagígur cone

Info board at the cabin

Hiking back across the lava field

I had an early rise to head to the airport, and in an attempt to be quiet and not wake my roommates, I accidentally dropped my laptop which not only broke it, but made a very loud noise. I cursed out loud before hastily exiting from the room. I reached the airport at Keflavik in good time and dropped my rental car off before reaching the terminal and being greeted by utter chaos. Clearly several flights were leaving at a similar time, and the staff there seemed unable to clearly direct people or deal with the increasingly grumbly travellers who were forced to wait in lines that seemed never to move. It was another reminder that the country’s popularity is rising faster than it can cope with, but despite getting there to discover that my flight was an hour later than my ticket said, I brushed both annoyances out of my mind to enjoy a last breakfast in the country that I had easily fallen in love with.

Northern Limits

On the shore of the beautifully serene Lake Mývatn, there is something to explore at every turn. I was disappointed to have run out of time to include a hike up the distinctive cone of Hverfjall volcano thanks to my misdemeanour with the tyre on route to Dettifoss but as much as the hours were marching on, the fact that the sun wasn’t setting till after midnight meant that there was still lots of time to explore the area before my bed called me. DimmuborgurNot far from Hverfjall was the mysterious world of Dimmuborgur, an area where a lava flow has hardened, cracked and peaked in a manner as to produce tall, spiky turrets and pillars of all sorts of shapes and sizes. Lava rocks at DimmuborgurThere are a selection of trails to follow and I chose the one that looked like it gave the best overview of the place. Lava cave at DimmuborgurUnlike the sites I’d previously visited in this area, the vegetation here was thick and widespread. Lake Myvatn from DimmuborgurThere was a cave that could be walked through on one section of the trail and on route back to the car park, a raised portion of the trail provided a good vantage point to look across to the lake and its far shore.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After collecting some takeaway pizza from a popular local eatery, I headed to the south shore, to the little settlement of Skútustaðir to enjoy it whilst looking out across the lake. Lake within a lakeFrom here, a walk leads round a small lake within the main lake that is surrounded by pseudo-craters, as well as up onto and around a few of the larger craters. Waterfowl at Lake MyvatnThe lake had quite a few water birds floating around with their young in tow, learning how to dive and feed below the surface. Panorama of the lake within a lakeIt was a lovely place to spend the evening but the flies threatened to drive me a little insane. Pseudo-craterIt was a strange landscape with circular mounds sprouting up from the ground in many directions, and from the crater rim of the taller ones I could see across to the steaming vents of the power station to the east of Reykjahlíð. Pseudo-crater behind the lake within a lakeIt was incredibly peaceful, just a slight ripple on the water, and for the most part, I had the place to myself. Ducklings at Lake MyvatnOn the northern edge of the lake within the lake, some Icelandic ponies chewed on the grass which was plentiful here, before the path skirted some wetlands on its way back to the car park.Icelandic ponies near Skútustaðir

Wetlands near Skútustaðir

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I drove round the circumference of the lake past the large wetland zones to the west that are perfect for bird watching. With more time here, I would have explored this region too, but now it was after 8pm and I had only one thing on my mind: the Mývatn Nature Baths. Myvatn Nature BathLike the Blue Lagoon to the south of Reykjavik, this is a popular tourist attraction in the area, but with the tourist numbers round this part of the country much less than in the overly popular Golden Circle, the experience here was a little different. Myvatn Nature BathsAs is commonplace at Icelandic geothermal pools, it is required to shower naked before entering. Myvatn Nature BathsUnlike at the larger Blue Lagoons, there was no privacy at these nature baths with just an open shower area before leaving the building. The pools themselves were also a mere fraction of the size, and having forgotten my GoPro camera last time, I took it out with me, only to quickly regret it, standing out from everyone else, with not a single other person having one. Once I rid myself of it, I was then able to relax and enjoy the warm water. There was a group of adolescents who were playing the fool and being told off by the guards regularly which marred the experience slightly, but otherwise it was an enjoyable experience, although I personally preferred the set-up at the Blue Lagoon.

I had an early rise to set off north and awoke to a light drizzle that got heavier the further north I went. I followed route 1 to the north west before splitting off to take route 85 north to Húsavík, the most northerly place I’d visit in Iceland, but indeed the most northern I’d ever been on the entire planet. Previously I’d only been as far as the most northern Scottish Islands, the Shetlands, so I was excited to be exploring this northern land, having previously done plenty of exploring in the lower reaches of the Southern Hemisphere. The constant drizzle made for a very overcast view of the town, and the clouds were low across the surrounding landscape. One of the main tourist draws here is whale watching, an activity that I will happily pay to do anywhere in the world. Aside from travelling, cetacean spotting is a massive love of mine. I have been immensely lucky to see many species in many seas around the globe, and this was my best chance yet of spotting a species of whale I’d never seen before such as a fin whale or blue whale.

On board, waiting to leave HusavikMy carriage for the day was a lovely old wooden frigate which could travel either under sail or with the power of an engine. Lundey islandThere are a few choices for whale watching trips here, and with a love of puffins too, I opted for the trip that combined a visit to a nearby island which was a prime puffin breeding site. PuffinSkjálfandi bay is expansive, and despite the gloomy skies, the seas were very calm. PuffinsWe sailed north to the island of Lundey and I revelled in the knowledge that with every passing moment I was going more north than I’d ever been in my life. Puffin about to take offEven before we reached Lundey, puffins began to be spotted in the air and on the surface of the water. First it was ones and twos but as we got closer to the island there were hundreds of them flying around us, and whilst it was hard to see many of them close up, it was certainly the highest concentration of puffins that I have ever seen in my life.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We sat for a while watching them before heading west in search of whales. There is always great anticipation on these trips not just for what might be seen, but also whether this will be that trip where we see nothing. I’ve been lucky to see whales or dolphins on every whale watching trip I’ve ever done, but each time I worry that it will be the first time I see nothing. Humpback whale in front of our boatBut eventually that call came out that a whale had been spotted, and in the end we ended up in view of around 3 humpback whales. Humpback whale, IcelandI love humpback whales, they are my favourite species of whale, and this was the fifth country that I had seen them from. Humpback whale fluking as it divesThere was a part of me that was disappointed it wasn’t a species I’d never seen before, but these whales still put on a good show for us, coming very close to the boat on several occasions, including swimming right underneath us at one point. One of them had a very unusual fluke colouration which I’ve never seen before, and I still felt highly satisfied at the end of the trip. As we headed back to Húsavík, the clouds on the far side of the bay began to lift revealing the glorious snow-peaked mountain tops of the far shore. It was incredible to think these behemoths had been hidden the whole time, and it was spectacular to see them poke through the wisps of cloud.

 

Husavik from the harbourHúsavík itself felt like a fishing village. Church in HusavikThe harbour sat below the main street which was nestled below a lupin-covered hillside. Bird sculpture by Husavik main streetThe rain threatened to drop for the rest of Husavik kirkmy time there. After a wander around past the iconic church, I stopped for lunch overlooking the comings and goings of the boats in the harbour. Killer whale skeletonAs a cetacean enthusiast, I was keen to explore the whale museum in town which has an impressive collection of whale skeletons. Iceland is much more famous for its whaling activities than it is for its whale watching, and there was information within about the various species that have been sighted in Icelandic waters, as well as displays on the hunting of whales. Whilst a lot of information in tourism centres discusses whaling as a thing of the past, it is still very much a thing of the present too, and I had been warned in advance to expect to see whale meat on the menu in some eateries. Despite this, I had yet to see any physical evidence of present-day whaling since I’d arrived in the country.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Female duck at the parkDespite the drizzle, I took a wander around a local park towards the back of town before leaving. House by the river in HusavikThere was a reasonable sized pond where some duck families were hanging out, and some statues and pretty houses lining the paths by the river bank. Statue in Husavik parkBut there’s not a lot more to see in Húsavík so before long, I was driving back south in the rain. GodafossOn reaching the ring road, Route 1, it was just a brief back-track to visit yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Góðafoss. The various falls of GodafossIt was raining constantly now, and I toyed with coming back the next day, but there was a good few people in rain jackets there too, and I joined them to follow the path from the car park up river to the viewing point for the falls. Mists of GodafossGetting close to the falls meant a bit of rock hopping towards the end of the path, and with the rocks wet under foot, everyone was taking extra care. Top of GodafossThis was not a place to fall over with nothing to stop you tumbling over the cliff edge. Arc of GodafossThe reward though was getting very close to the main body of the falls where the extent of the force of water could be heard and felt. Downstream from GodafossLike Dettifoss the day before, you could feel the immense power of water thundering over the lip of rock to the river below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cloud and rain kept me company as I followed Route 1 on its convoluted route west. Eventually the path swung over to a long fjord and followed the eastern bank south before descending down to the water level and crossing a causeway across to the city of Akureyri. This is the biggest settlement outside of Reykjavik, and it was strange being in a city again after days of small towns and villages. Akureyri panoramaA viewpoint across the fjord looks out over Akureyri which had a couple of large cruise ships in dock at the time. Cruise ship in AkureyriDown by the waterfront, a promenade provides a nice waterside walk, starting from the ferry terminal and heading south past a beautiful ship statue and beyond. Scultpure by the seaThe place was bustling with bus loads of people clambering about the steps up to the Akureyrarkirkja which dominates the city skyline. Akureyri skyline from the promenadeIt was strange wandering down a pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and packed full of tourists. Ship sculpture at the promenadeI shouldn’t have been surprised what with the cruise ships in port but it was a slight shock to the system after having felt away from it all for the last few days.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Akureyri ogressHaving spent the night in the city, I had a lovely breakfast in a quirky little cafe surrounded by locals and tourists alike. Climbing the steps to AkureyrarkirkjaAfter perusing round the shops and ogling at some large ogres in the middle of the street, I headed up the steps to Akureyrarkirkja, the church which was built by the same architect that built Reykjavik‘s famous Hallgrímskirkja. Akureyri from outside AkureyrarkirkjaThe style is recognisable as being the same, although the size of Akureyrarkirkja is much smaller in comparison. AngelInside there is a beautiful organ which was expertly played by an organist whilst I was there, and as often churches are, it was adorned with some beautiful and striking stained glass windows. Bull stained glass windowOutside it has a distinctive look, and from nearby there is a view down over the roofs of the town and the cruise ships below.Lion stained glass window

Organs inside Akureyrarkirkja

Akureyrarkirkja from behind

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Floral display near botanical gardensA few streets back was the city’s botanical gardens. Building near Akureyri botanical gardensThere appeared to be some sort of pilgrimage here with a steady stream of people walking from Akureyrarkirkja through the streets to the gardens. Ship sculpture viewed from near the botanical gardensThey certainly weren’t the biggest of botanical gardens, nor would I class them as particularly pretty but they were still nice enough to wander around and by the time I was leaving, the sun had started to burst through the clouds. AkureyrarkirkjaFrom the nearby road junction I could look down on the ship statue below on the promenade walk and the Akureyrarkirkja looked even better with the sun shining on it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Whilst Akureyri certainly had more to offer than a few other places I had been, I wasn’t particularly fussed about staying much longer. My stop for the night was at a hostel in the middle of nowhere, and I had to carry all food supplies with me. Every other night I had eaten out at a local restaurant but this would be the first night I’d have to prepare a self-catering meal. I stocked up on supplies in one of the many supermarkets in the city, but then, having spotted something to the west to do on a whim, I decided to leave the city behind and bolt west across the landscape. I’d spotted a boat trip to do in Hvammstangi to a nearby seal colony, and decided I’d chance my luck by turning up without a booking. I was exceptionally tight on time to make the last trip of the day, and the landscape went by in a blur as I whizzed through it, past a few settlements on route. When I got to Hvammstangi, I arrived with just 5 mins to spare and then couldn’t find the turn-off to the harbour. When I got there, I was sure I would have missed the sailing but in the end it was all good.

The wind was whipping along the fjord making for a choppy sailing and a lot of spray. We got kitted out in head to foot waterproof jackets, and despite the weather, there was quite a few of us on board. Seal at HvammstangiUnfortunately the weather conditions also meant that there weren’t a lot of seals hauled out of the water, but we still managed to see a few. Sea eagle near HvammstangiWe were even lucky enough to see a sea eagle as well, and it was so far away and so blended in to the hillside that I was as much impressed with the skipper spotting it as I was with actually seeing it. SealBack in Hvammstangi, near the pier was a pillar of wood used to hang the day’s catch out. Fish carcases dryingThis was the image I had in my head of arctic village life, having seen photos of Inuit villages to the north with their fish and seal pelts hanging out to dry. Seal pelt dryingThe ticket for the seal watching trip also included entry to the attached seal museum. Fish skeletonsLike whaling, there is a lot of regional history to do with hunting the seals and the effect this has had on populations. It was a compact museum, but there was enough to occupy me until closing time, and I was glad I’d made the effort to get there.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To the south was my hostel for the night. I arrived just as the UEFA EURO 2016 match of England vs Iceland was starting and everyone at the hostel was glued to the television to watch the match. We were a mix of nationalities, none of us Icelandic and none of us English, but every single one of us were routing for Iceland to win. Iceland as a whole is not a football nation. In fact the team’s manager is a part-time dentist, and when speaking to the locals, they joked that all the Icelanders who liked football had gone to France to watch the games live. But because Iceland started off surprisingly well, the rest of the country began to get behind their team. It was a great atmosphere at the hostel that night as Iceland won the match, and I went to bed just a sleep away from completing my circumnavigation of the island, with Reykjavik in my sights that next day.

Fjords and Fire

Heading east from Höfn, Iceland’s Route 1 hugged the coastline briefly before turning inland and heading through a tunnel below the mountains, taking you from the south coast to the east coast. Emerging out the other side was like entering another world. Although the exit was only 1 mountain’s width away from the entrance, I’d entered from Höfn under overcast skies, and exited to blue skies and sunshine. I couldn’t believe it. The views of the snow-capped mountains under the blueness of the sky were spectacular and kilometre after kilometre, the road snaked around the coastline, the sea shimmering under the sunlight. Some fjords cut into the landscape, and the road cut inland following these fjords to their head before snaking back to the coastline again, including a section where Route 1 is unsealed. I’d previously driven on an unsealed section of road that was in the process of repair, and being a well-used road, despite the lack of tarmac it was still relatively good quality under tyre aside from the dust being kicked up.

View from Route 1 on the western side of the tunnel

Looking west back towards the mountain where the tunnel passes through, below the cloud

Eastern coastline

Snow-capped mountains flank the ring road

Cliff face next to the ring road

Where Route 1 turns inland, I decided to stick to the coastal road both for the scenery as well as the fact that it was sealed road. Route 1 itself is unsealed in parts on this inland section, and being a rental vehicle, I was keen to put the car through as little hardship as possible. At Stöðvarfjörður I stopped on a whim to visit Petra’s Stone Collection. In the settlement of her birth, lies the collection of geological stones and gems collected by Ljósbjörg Petra María over 80 years. Her house and garden are crammed full of them, and I decided to pay the entrance fee for a nosy around. There was a bus load of tourists leaving when I arrived so I had been intrigued to see what all the fuss was about. It’s an impressive collection, although it borders on manic hoarding, and it broke up my long day of driving just at the right time.

A mere sample of Petra's stone collection

At the head of the next fjord, I took the road cutting inland north to Egilsstaðir. It felt strange reaching a town again, and I drove straight through it to park up on the far banks of the expansive Lagarfljót river. From here, even in June, there was plenty of snow on the nearby peaks. There wasn’t a lot to keep me here, as I still had to reach my evening’s destination, so after a short break, I took the stunning Route 93 east to Seyðisfjörður. This section of road was spectacular. Almost immediately out of Egilsstaðir, the 93 climbs and zig-zags steeply up the mountain side. Near the top, a pull-in offers a good view point back down over the town and river below before the road reaches the summit of the mountain pass which was flanked by large stale snow drifts. Even the large lake next to the road was for the most part frozen. It was like driving through an icy wonderland in the height of summer, and I found it took great concentration on the road, as this was not a place where you wanted to go off the tarmac.

Egilsstaðir

Egilsstaðir from the view point

On the other side of the pass, the greenery returned, and as the road began its dramatic descent towards the head of the fjord, Seyðisfjörður peeked into view and the beauty of the fjord itself became more apparent. After a few corners, I noticed several cars pulled in at the side, so stopped to have a look. There was a view straight down the gully towards the fjord as well as the top of a multi-staged waterfall, Gufufoss. I did a bit of rock-hopping to find some solitude and a differing view of the top of the falls, before driving down to the bottom of the falls further along the road.

The first view of Seyðisfjörður

The top section of Gufufoss

River leading the way to Seyðisfjörður

Gufufoss

Gufufoss

Mountain view from Gufufoss

Nestled at the head of the fjord of the same name, Seyðisfjörður is the arrival port for the ferry from Denmark on continental Europe which arrives once a week. On sailing days, the place is reportedly bustling, but outwith those days, although I was far from the only tourist there, it was perfectly quiet and serene for my liking. I wasted no time in checking in and getting out to explore. It isn’t hard to find waterfalls in Iceland, and opposite the marina, a path leads up through lupins to yet another waterfall. The closer to the falls the path got, the poorer quality it was underfoot but it was worth it to see it up close as well as to get a bit of a view back down over the fjord and the town.

Waterfall in Seyðisfjörður

Upper waterfall

Top of the falls

Multi-stage waterfall

Looking down on Seyðisfjörður

My favourite thing about the place was the buildings. There was very much a Scandinavian vibe here with the colourfully painted wooden-boarded buildings. I loved exploring it on foot, looking at the reflections on the water. I was lucky enough to find a place to eat in a recommended eatery, and tucked in to some local food and local beer. It was an eclectic little place and I really liked it. I had managed to secure the last available bed in all the budget accommodations here, and I was glad that I had as I was extremely glad I’d been able to include it on my trip.

Seyðisfjörður

Scandinavian building

Wood carving in Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður panorama

Office building in Seyðisfjörður

Seyðisfjörður kirk

Building in Seyðisfjörður

I’d planned a lot for the next day so set off early. I wound my way back across the scenic pass and back down the other side to Egilsstaðir where I rejoined Route 1 to head first north then west. I stopped at the Rjukani waterfall right by the side of the road which I had to myself at the early hour of the day. There is so much variety amongst the Icelandic waterfalls and all beautiful in their own way. But my first destination of the day was another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. Full of paranoia with my rental car, I researched my route each night prior to ensure I was sticking to sealed roads unless unavoidable. Satisfied that I could get there on a sealed road, I crossed the barren tundra, following route 1, eagerly looking out for wild reindeer and unfortunately seeing none.

Rjukani

When I reached the sign for the waterfall, I duly turned off and shortly after, the tarmac ended and I was a little confused. I toyed with the idea of turning back and skipping the waterfall but I was really keen to see it so opted to push on. Unlike the unsealed section of route 1 from the previous day which had been well compacted and smooth, this route was stony, rutted and exceedingly uneven. I’m used to handling a car on an unsealed road as a lot of my tramps in New Zealand involve going down these, so I drove it a lot faster than many of the other cars I came across on the day. Even so, it was about 30km of track to negotiate and I was far from enjoying it by the time I finally turned in at the waterfall.

Reportedly the most powerful waterfall in the whole of Europe, Dettifoss was a sight to behold. The canyon itself was impressive, and as I walked along the edge of the canyon towards the falls, I noticed a lot of people on the far side of the river at another lookout, and there were a lot more vehicles and people there. It confirmed my suspicion that I had taken the wrong road, but as the mist of the falls was blowing up and over to that lookout, I told myself I was in the better spot. Regardless, the waterfalls were staggering, and the noise was incredible. A perfect rainbow arced through the spray across the river. There were plenty of vantage points, and even though it was a harder route to take, there were still plenty of people on this eastern flank of the river. I took my time walking back along the canyon edge taking it all in.

Dettifoss

Canyon downstream from Dettifoss

Dettifoss

Dettifoss panorama

Rainbow below the western viewpoint

Canyon panorama

Canyon viewpoint

Canyon downstream from Dettifoss

After quite some time, I went back to my car for the monotonous drive back to the tarmac. About a third of the way however, disaster struck. Perhaps I’d been a little confident and cocky with my driving, and I certainly didn’t see what caused the damage, but all of a sudden there was a loud bang and as I slowed the car to a stop and got out, I could here a hissing sound and watched as my tyre began to deflate before my eyes. Despite being 33, I’d never changed a tyre in my life. I certainly knew how to, but had never needed to, and out here in the middle of nowhere on an uncomfortable and dirty ground, I found myself rummaging in the boot of my rental for everything I needed. But it felt like out of nowhere I was suddenly surrounded by a multitude of other cars, all tourists, and all eager to help me. Despite my feminist protestations that I would manage, several men from two separate vehicles practically fought each other to help me. In the end I didn’t need to lift a finger, and before long I was thanking the family profusely and back on my way.

Only now I was on a space saving tyre, my pet-hate of tyres, and with no further back up, I was forced to crawl at an agonisingly slow speed back to Route 1. On reaching the tarmac, I spotted another car pulled over with a space-saver on, and we nodded a knowing smile at each other on passing. Even on the tarmac, the tyre limited my speed, and it felt like so much wasted time before I limped the car into Reykjahlíð on the shore of Lake Mývatn. There was a car garage on the edge of town but it was closed. Thankfully the visitor’s centre was able to phone someone to meet me at the garage in an hour, so after filling my stomach, I retraced my steps and pulled in. The man that met me was the only unfriendly Icelandic person I met on my whole trip. Being a Saturday, he made it very clear with what little English he appeared to speak, that I had inconvenienced him. He took one look at me and my tyre, and said ‘Road to waterfall?’, and then gave me a knowing look when I agreed. Clearly I wasn’t the only fool. After fixing the tyre and knocking out a dent, he in no way wanted to help me change the tyre back, demanding his money and hastily leaving.

In all, I had wasted nearly 3 hrs as well as some money, on what was one of my most packed days planned. I was quietly annoyed with my stupidity but was eager to get on with my sightseeing. Here I was in one of the main geothermal areas of the country and in several directions I could see steam venting from the ground. Backtracking east just over the hill I took the side road past a geothermal plant to Víti, a crater lake. A path leads around the perimeter of the crater above a blue lake below, and spanning out across a nearby valley is a massive lava flow. There is little vegetation here but the landscape is scarred with the colour of algae colonies that grow on the high sulphuric soils around volcanic vents.

Víti crater lake

Geothermal zone, Víti crater

Geothermal plant behind Víti crater lake

Steaming vent

Geothermal power plant in Krafla valley

The valley nearby was like exploring another planet. The hardened remains of a lava flow from a previous eruption of Krafla volcano scars the valley near the Víti crater, and wandering across it round an eroded path, there was steam billowing up through cracks and fissures as far as the eye could see. Under the grey skies, it felt rather dramatic and a little foreboding. I was in awe however, ever in love with geothermal zones since moving to New Zealand, and amongst the darkness of the hardened lava was the occasional burst of red or white provided by mineral deposits. I’ve previously walked on a lava field in the Galapagos Islands, but it was historical and very mature and weather smoothed. Here, the lava was relatively new and still crisp and rough.

Mineral lake near lava field

Crusty lava field

Walking across the lava field

Lava mountain

Lava field behind a mineral lake

Back towards Route 1 and almost directly across from the Krafla turnoff was the steaming area of Hverir at the base of Mt Námafjall. The clay soil here was pock-marked with bubbling pools of mud, mineral deposits and steaming vents. This area reminded me of some of the geothermal parks near Rotorua in New Zealand’s north island. The smell wasn’t too overpowering here though but there was a constant hissing noise as the steam was pushed out of the ground at high speed. A path leads up over Mt Námafjall to join up with some other geothermal sights in the area as well as the settlement of Reykjahlíð, and had I not wasted so much time earlier in the day, I probably would have walked up just for an overview of Hverir, but I decided instead to keep myself down near the action and wandered around the various pools at ground level. I was particularly enamoured with the chimneys which had been pushed up from the ground and were venting at an impressive rate.

Bubbling mud pool

Hverir

Steaming ground at Hverir

Steaming chimney at Hverir

I am one of those people that has never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. I own the first book but have never actually gotten around to reading it. Back on the western side of Mt Námafjall, I took a back road to Grjótagjá, a little pool hidden within a cave formed by a lava fissure. According to my guidebook, it was the filming location for a rather saucy scene in GoT, but I just like exploring caves. There were a couple of entrances into it, and it was a matter of scrambling over some rather large rocks to get down to the thermally heated water within. Signs outside requested not swimming in the water, but historically people used to swim or bathe there as the water is a lovely warm but not hot temperature. When I returned home, I looked up the scene that was supposedly filmed there and it looks nothing like the little cave that I visited. Just above the cave off to the side is a massive fissure that cuts a large scar across the landscape. Some people walking nearby looked tiny in comparison.

Entrance to Grjótagjá

Grjótagjá

Fissure looking south

Fissure looking north

Thanks to the time wasted with my tyre misdemeanour, I sadly acknowledged that I wasn’t going to have time for a hike up a nearby volcano that I had wanted to do. Life always gets in the way of best laid plans. But even though evening was in full swing, there was still lots to see in the land of the midnight sun.

Skaftafellsheiði

Accounting for 8% of the country’s landmass, the expansive Vatnajökull glacier is Iceland’s largest ice cap, and is clearly visible from space. Its scale is impressive and its beauty staggering. The Vatnajökull National Park includes the area of Skaftafell, a popular tourist draw as it sits near Route 1, the Ring Road that circumnavigates the country. Whilst the glaciers that curve down from the ice cap are visible from the highway, this is really an area for getting out on foot and exploring.

Whilst reading up on my trip to the land of fire and ice, I came across a recommendation for a half-day hike in this national park, known as the Skaftafellsheiði loop. I had set off early from Kirkjubæjarklaustur to make the most of the morning, but had managed to find myself with little in the way of supplies. As a seasoned hiker, I know how foolish it could be to head off on such a hike having had no breakfast and with little more than water and nuts for sustenance, so I was forced to wait for the cafe at the visitor’s centre to open at 10am to get something more filling.

It’s a popular tourist destination with a large campsite next to the visitor’s centre, and a myriad of walking routes of varying intensities starting here, as well as a base for glacier hiking companies too. The visitor’s centre has information boards detailing the local geology and this is the only place in this section of the park with facilities. From here, walks either start by cutting through the campground to the west, or by cutting past the visitor’s centre to the east.

Image source: www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is THE LOOP TRACK IS HIGHLIGHTED IN BLACK

THE LOOP TRACK IS HIGHLIGHTED IN BLACK. (Image source: http://www.vatnajokulsthjodgardur.is)

I really recommend doing the hike in a clockwise fashion, as for me the views just got better and better and the best view was saved till the return leg. The Skaftafellsheiði loop begins by following the marked path through the campground that indicates the track for Svartifoss (S2). On leaving the campground, the path immediately starts picking its way up the hillside and it isn’t long before the expanse of the Skeiðarársandur ‘wasteland’ can be fully appreciated. This was an exceedingly popular section of trail as the waterfall is less than an hour to reach, so is a suitable destination for people short on time. When the path eventually reaches the summit of this section, Magnúsarfoss comes into view and from here, one of many path junctions can be found. It is possible to walk the loop track without going to Svartifoss, but it’s not much of a detour to include this on the walk, so I continued to follow the signs for S2 and head up river.

Wasteland near Vatnajökull

Magnúsarfoss

First, there is a viewpoint on the east side of the river which looks upstream to Svartifoss. Here the path splits, but keeping to S2, the path picks its way down to the river bed where you can walk up to near the base of the waterfall. As beautiful as all Icelandic waterfalls are, I was actually more drawn to the rock columns that appeared to dangle from the cliff edge like basalt stalactites. Crossing the bridge near the falls to the west bank of the river, the path climbs back up onto the plateau where the signs for Sjónarsker (S3) are to be followed.

Looking upstream towards Svartifoss

Svartifoss

Basalt columns behind Svartifoss

It felt really barren and desolate on this section of the plateau, the ground rocky underfoot, and the vegetation patchy and low. But despite the gloom of the grey skies, it was possible to see across the sandur (wasteland) to the Skeiðarárjökull glacier. There were far fewer people on this part of the trail, and those that were, were all heading on the same route that I was. From the viewpoint at the track junction, in quick succession, we all took the S3 route to head up the plateau. The path continued on its rocky way heading towards the mountain peaks with the braided river behind me, snaking its way across the plains.

Looking across to the Skeiðarárjökull glacier

The path through the stony plateau

Hikers following S3 towards the mountains

Braided river cutting across the sandur

Finally the vegetation began to change as first dense grass and then small bushes began to spring up. The track varied in its roughness, but for the most part was on the flat until finally it started on one of many inclines up the flank of Skerhóll to a short plateau prior to one of the steeper sections. To the east, the snow-tipped mountains peaked intermittently through the clouds that constantly circled them and to the west the peaks of Skaftafellsfjöll dominated the backdrop.

Vegetation becoming more prominent

Walking through the alpine bushes

Boardwalk through the alpine vegetation

The first small ascent

Wispy clouds over the neighbouring mountain range to the west

Looking ahead to the steepest section

Clouds over the mountain tops to the east

With the ongoing ascent up the steepest (though by no means challenging) section, the views to the west grew ever more impressive. The expanse of the Morsárdalur valley became visible and the Morsárjökull glacier came into view. This long plateau provided plenty of opportunity to ogle over this valley and the low clouds over the neighbouring mountains in both directions continued to provide a dramatic backdrop for what was for me, an impressive vista.

Looking across the valley to the west

Beautiful snow-capped mountain

Morsárdalur valley

Morsárjökull glacier peaking behind the nearby ridge

Another small ascent lead to the highest point of this hike, with a couple of options for a final view over the valley. The first of these was a rocky knoll, and further up, and ignored by what few other hikers there were, was a dead-end path that lead to a large rock which was the perfect spot for lunch with the most incredible view to the Morsárjökull glacier and its terminal lake at the bottom of a large cliff where waterfalls cascaded down from an immense height. I spent a long time here on my own, lapping it all up.

Looking towards the final ascent

Incredible ice cap and waterfall

Cloud shrouded mountains

Cloud shrouded mountains to the west

The path about to head east

Panorama from the rocky knoll

View from my lunch stop

Panorama from the lunch rock

Only when my solitude was disturbed did I leave there. Backtracking only a short distance, the loop track starts to head east. Banks of stale snow shrouded parts of the track and I had to crunch and slide my way across to follow the otherwise well-marked trail. Skirting the foot of Kristínartindar, a path separates to head up its summit after rounding its flank. Normally I would have taken this route to summit the 1126m peak but not only did I not have time, but the cloud base had dropped and the summit wasn’t visible. It would have spectacular views on a clear day, but I didn’t see the point that day. Surprisingly (or perhaps not, given my experience on Ben Nevis, Scotland’s highest peak), most people turned up this route despite the inevitable lack of view. Instead, I continued on S3, crossing more snow and a small stream before the path turned south to skirt another mountain base. As it turned the corner at the end of the mountain, the Hafrafell mountain peaks to the east came into view. The terrain once more was barren, although a little bird flitted around the rocks along side me. I saw in the distance a steady stream of people walking up the path that I would be heading down, and on reaching the junction with it, the view in front of me just blew me away.

Crossing a snow bank

Large bank of snow crossing the path

More snow to cross

The view down the plateau

The low cloud shrouding the trail up Kristínartindar

Looking east to the mountains of Hafrafell

Little bird accompanying me on the trail

Rocky terrain

I wasted no time in taking the left track to Gláma where the vista was one of the most incredible sights I’ve ever seen, and one of the highlights of my Iceland trip. Below me stretching for miles was the massive expanse of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier curling down from the giant ice cap. A mix of brilliant white and dirty morraine, I felt like my jaw was dragging on the ground as I looked at it, and I felt excited to be there. There was so much to take in, as even the jagged cliff edge of the surrounding mountains was dramatic.

Skaftafell glacier

The top of Skaftafell glacier

From Gláma, the S3 track heads south along the cliff top of this spit of land, with the glacier in constant sight. This whole section of the track was popular, with some people just walking to Gláma and back, and others doing the loop track anti-clockwise. For me, this section was the highlight of the hike, and I was glad to have it as the end portion of the hike. Whilst the western half of the loop was still incredible, I feel that walking it in an anti-clockwise manner might have made the west side seem less so after the incredible views on the east side. I think leaving the best till last is the way to go. There are various view points along the route, and at one particular spot where some rocks jutted out, I took the opportunity to do a little rock climbing down a path onto a promontory for a more solitary viewing spot. Here, the dramatic cliff face seemed so tall, and the people walking along the clifftop path appeared tiny in comparison.

Giant cliffs towering above the glacier

Skaftafellsjökull halfway along

Eventually, the path neared the terminal lake where a collection of icebergs floated on its surface. Here at Sjónarnípa, the S3 split into the S5 which stayed on the outer edge of the spit of land, and the S6 which cut inland. I followed the S5 which slowly began to descend towards a lookout over the terminal lake. I lingered here a while to absorb the view of the glacier a little longer, but eventually I had to push on, and I left Skaftafellsjökull behind and followed the S5 round the front of the hill. It was a long descent down Austurbrekkur where the track was undergoing maintenance making it a little uncomfortable under foot in places. This section felt like it took forever as the visitor’s centre, now within sight, slowly got nearer. Passing above the centre, then above the campsite, it emerged from the bushes to join the lower path that headed to Svartifoss. Then it was just a matter of turning left back down the hill and cutting through the campsite back to the facilities.

Terminal lake

Panorama at the terminal lake

Skaftafellsjökull terminal lake

To really make the most of this park, a minimum of 5-6 hrs needs to be dedicated to complete this loop, or better still, stay the night to enjoy several of the walks here. With more time, I would have walked to the terminal lake of Skaftafellsjökull as well as hiking up the Morsárdalur valley. Whilst I’ve read about many incredible day and multi-day hikes in Iceland, I think this is a definite must for those of average fitness to include on any Iceland tour.

Iceland’s Southern Coast

Iceland’s Ring Road, Route 1, took me east from Skógafoss where it snaked round a mountain and led me down to the coast. The little settlement of Vik rests near the black sand beach where the Atlantic waves pound the shore. The Atlantic Ocean at VikFinding my way to the car park by the beach, I took myself onto the sand and looked out at the uninviting surf and the expanse of water in front of me. Standing on the shore by Iceland’s most southern village, looking directly south there is no landmass until you hit Antarctica. Amongst the gloominess of the grey sky, and finally away from the crowds of the morning, it was easy to feel isolated and I embraced the solitude.

It’s a popular place to stay and being so small, accommodation here books out fast. I had tried to book my stay 6 months in advance of the trip, and already prime areas in Iceland were booked out and I had to change my plans a couple of times. With no affordable accommodation available here, I was forced to head east to find somewhere to sleep that night. Black sand of Vik beachBut despite this, I had a few hours to enjoy the place. Walking along the sandy beach, the calls of sea birds filled the sky as they circled around the cliffs that dominate the western end of the beach. I watched them for a while before turning and pounding the sand in the other direction.

Memorial Statue at VikThe expanse of black sand spreads east for quite some distance, but I walked it as far as the river mouth where a man made water break juts out into the sea. Lupins at VikA path lead through a beautiful patch of lupins to a memorial for those lost at sea. I absolutely adore lupins and they were in full bloom throughout my trip to Iceland. Riding Icelandic ponies at VikSome Icelandic ponies trotted by with their riders as I meandered amongst the flowers, and I looked up at the church which sat below the cloudy peaks that frame the village.Lupins in flower

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Vik from the churchThe church itself is elevated enough to give a good view over the village and out to sea where a collection of sea stacks sit close to the cliffs to the west. Yet more lupinsEven here the lupins were everywhere and I followed a path up the hill a little to admire them some more. Vik's kirkAcross at the cliffs, I had read about a walk up the cliff face and tried to make it out. On seeing where it started from, I drove across to the small area at the end of some houses and left my car behind to start the hike.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VikBy now, I was a little low on fitness, so I puffed my way up the zig-zagging path that picked its way up the slope towards the top of the cliff. Vik coastlineVik grew further and further away as I climbed until I reached the top and looked over the village directly and out to sea. Clifftop pathWith the occasional sheep and bird for company, I followed the well-trodden path along the cliff top, hoping to see puffins but spotting none. ReynisfjaraFirst approaching and then passing the sea stacks, it eventually came out at a building with an unknown purpose and here the path petered out. I kept walking west though and not far from here found myself at the top of more cliffs overlooking the expanse of another black sandy beach, Reynisfjara, which was backed by a large lake.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seabird cliffs at ReynisfjaraBelow me there were plenty of cars and tourists, but I was level with the soaring fulmars who thermalled around me, coming and going from their nests. Sea birds and sea stacksShortly after I arrived, I spotted a paraglider who was also making good use of the thermals to float with ease over the scene below. I was completely on my own and it felt great to have this view to myself after all the clamour of bus loads of tourists to the west. The sky was still so grey but it didn’t detract from the peacefulness. Retracing my steps along the cliff, I still saw no puffins, and finally made it back to the path that returned me to my car. I bade Vik farewell and continued on my journey east. The landscape turned barren as the ring road crossed a glacier flood zone and headed inland, and before long the heavens opened and a deluge came down. I discovered that my rental car was a little lacking in good windscreen wiper blades, and I had to slow right down as I struggled to see far in front of me. It remained this way for the rest of my drive.

I spent the night in the small settlement of Kirkjubæjarklaustur (or Klaustur for short), a completely unpronouncable place that was little more than a petrol station, a small shop and a couple of accommodations. The owner of the place I was staying pointed out a couple of walks in the area, but with the rain, I decided to get up early to do one of them rather than head off that night. Crater lake above 'KlausturSo duly setting my alarm, I was rather disappointed to wake up to fog. Crater lake above 'KlausturNonetheless, I decided to take the path up the cliff face behind the village that leads to a crater lake above the settlement. PtarmiganI couldn’t make out the far side of the lake through the low cloud and it was so quiet. The path down to 'KlausturI followed the path for a short distance but didn’t want to go too far when there was no view, but as I turned to head back, my attention was caught by a ptarmigan. KlausturThese birds can also be found in my native country of Scotland, but I have never seen one. I was stoked. It flew to the cliff edge as I made my way to the top of the path down, and the cloud by now had lifted a little that I could see the village below me.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once again I cursed myself for not having got food supplies as I found myself with nowhere open to get breakfast but even worse, nowhere to get supplies for the hike I had planned for the morning. Foss á SíðuI had no choice but to push on, and the ring road brought me past yet another beautiful waterfall, Foss á Síðu, and a little further to Dverghamrar, a collection of basalt columns. Foss á Síðu from DverghamrarAt this early hour, the road was quiet, and a couple of camper vans were parked up here, their curtains drawn and their occupants still. Basalt columns at DverghamrarI had the place otherwise to myself as I wandered around.Leaning tower of basalt at Dverghamrar

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But eventually the ring road reached the wasteland, an area of barren sand and stone which is a glacier run-off zone from the expansive Vatnajökull glacier, Iceland’s largest ice cap. It felt eerie crossing this, but finally I reached the turnoff to the Skaftafell/Vatnajökull National Park office and I was one of the first cars to arrive. I had read about a hike here which would take half the day, but with no supplies, I was a little annoyed to be yet again reminded of the lack of early opening at Icelandic eateries. I reached a quandary: set off on a half-day hike into the wilderness with just water and nuts for sustenance, or be sensible and hang around until the cafe opened and get better supplies. I cursed my lack of forward planning with regards to food supplies, but I knew that having adequate food was the way to go, so I bummed around the visitor’s centre for over an hour waiting for the cafe to open.

The hike turned out to be one of the best hikes I’ve ever done, and I returned to my car at the end of it, tired but satisfied. With just 10 days to circumnavigate the island, there was so much to fit into each day, so there was little time to hang around before moving onwards. The views were incredible as the road hugged the base of the glacier and the snow-capped mountains dominated on the inland side of the road. I saw a turn-off to a glacier lagoon at the last minute and missed it, wondering whether I should turn back and take it but all of a sudden I was at the world-famous

Although the main carpark is across the river on the east side of the bridge, I pulled in at a smaller car park on the west side of the river. Right in front of me, floating on the river that leads out to the sea from the lagoon were some large icebergs. Iceberg graveyardRather than head straight to the lagoon though, I followed the river to its mouth at the sea and walked onto the black sand to admire the iceberg graveyard, where lots of iceberg shards bobbed in the shallows or lay strewn across the beach. Glacier ice remains on the beachHere, I was very much amongst the crowds again, but I didn’t care when there was so much beauty to draw my attention.

Ducks on the riverBack at the river, some ducks snoozed on the banks, oblivious to the goings on around them, not caring about the giant ice bergs that bobbed on the water just behind them. Icebergs under the bridgeFollowing the river to the lagoon was a surreal experience, and whilst I had expected it to be amazing, it still blew me away. Jökulsárlón lagoonAlthough the glacier edge looked distant, there was so many icebergs close to the shore that there was no need to go on one of the boat trips out on the lake. Jökulsárlón lagoon panoramaIt is a recommended excursion here, but having done the same kind of trip in New Zealand, I had opted to save my money and not do it here, and I didn’t for a minute regret that decision. Iceberg bluesThe icebergs were so close, I didn’t feel that I missed out at all.Jökulsárlón glacier and lagoon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Crossing the bridge near the lagoonEven as I stood there, the movement of the tide pushed against the river causing the icebergs to be in constant movement, some quicker than others. Iceberg panoramaI crossed the bridge and joined the hordes of tourists on the other bank to just wander around and admire them. Massive iceberg on the lagoonThe sun glared on the water from this side but with the tidal movements of the icebergs there was a constantly changing view as I meandered along the eastern shore, and as the hours headed well into the evening, a large flock of arctic terns noisily fed on whatever shoal of fish lay hidden below the surface. Duck in front of iceberg in front of glacierBoats continued to plough across the water touring the icy behemoths whilst I remained in my reverie enjoying the sight. Arctic tern flying over icebergsI returned to the western shore and sat on the bank of the lagoon and watched the moving icebergs until an evening wind left me cold.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was a long drive with the Vatnajökull glacier for company as I made my way to Höfn, my rest stop for the night. Out on a little peninsula off the main ring road, it was a quiet little place. The tiny cafe I had dinner in was packed with locals and tourists but away from here, it felt sedate. Statue at HöfnThis next morning, the cloud was back and the glaciers just peaked out below the cloud base, the summit shrouded out of view. I headed past the small fishing harbour to the tip of the peninsula where a statue overlooked a small wetland reserve. Vatnajökull glacier viewed from HöfnFrom here, following the coast north, a walking path followed the western flank of the peninsula, and I had it almost to myself, being joined by a friendly cat for a while.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Duck at HöfnThere were oyster catchers and ducks all along the shallows, and I watched them lazily as I made my way to the golf course before turning round and heading back again. Wetland wading birdOnce back at the wetlands, I followed the narrow path round this area too which was full of bird life. Höfn wetlandOnly when I was leaving were other people starting to appear. Wading bird at the wetlandsThe small visitor’s centre was by now open so I had a wander round there which had a rustic display area with information about the fauna of the area as well as exploration and glaciation. Höfn viewed from the wetlandsI’d managed by now to kill enough time for the supermarket to open, and I was able to grab some breakfast and snacks for the road, ready to head north.

Never Far from the Madding Crowd

I had read that Iceland’s tourism numbers were fast exceeding its capacity to cope. Amongst these articles I read worrying reports about some tourists lack of respect at sites leading to erosion and flora damage by crossing barriers and straying off walkways. I’ve visited places before where natural beauty has been marred by over-commercialisation for the tourist buck (Niagara Falls in Canada being one example) or lack of crowd control affecting the experience (Macchu Picchu in Peru and parts of New Zealand being some examples), so I was intrigued to see how Iceland fared in this matter. Whilst some people like to wax lyrical about the difference between a tourist and a traveller, and what makes a person one or the other, the affect of global tourism opening up the world to more and more foot traffic, irregardless of the owner of that foot, inevitably has an impact on more and more places.

Having left the crowds of Þingvellir National Park behind, I made the drive to the second of the 3 main attractions of the Golden Circle: Haukadalur. There were people everywhere, on both sides of the road and wandering across at will when I arrived at the very large visitor’s centre. There were buses pulled up and all the car parks were full. I went round a couple of them before I was lucky enough to nab a space as someone was leaving. There were cars and people everywhere as I headed into the visitor’s centre for a look around. There were no free tables at the eateries, so I resigned myself to surviving on the cookies and hot chocolate I’d had earlier, and once again kicked myself for not taking the time the day before to visit a supermarket.

HaudakalurBut my goal was to visit one of Iceland’s (and the world’s) most famous geysers, Strokkur. Strokkur geyser at restThe ‘original’ geyser, Geysir, is in this area also, but Strokkur erupts so regularly, that its predictability has made it a large draw. A marked path leads to Strokkur past a bubbling stream and some small bubbling pools. Despite the signs warning about the risks of burns and not to cross the barrier, I saw several people stick a shoe or finger into various parts of the stream as they walked along.

 

 

 

Strokkur starting to eruptSince moving to New Zealand, I’ve discovered that I love geothermal areas. It fascinates me to see steam billowing out the ground and I enjoy watching mud bubble. I joined the large crowd round the perimeter fence of Strokkur and joyously watched as it erupted and soaked some people across from me. Averaging an eruption every 6-10 minutes, it was easy to watch this happen over and over whilst wandering around the region. It was also amusing watching people trying to pose and take selfies right at the point of eruption.

Lupins behind StrokkurBehind Strokkur was a lupin-covered hillside where a path lead up to the summit. Lupin riverI love lupins, and the purple contrasted against the Martian red landscape on one side of the hill and the lush green valley on the other side. View from the hill summitIn the distance, snow-speckled mountains donned the horizon and from my perch I watched Strokkur go through its eruption cycle as the crowds milled around. Snow-speckled mountainAfter coming back down, I had a look around a few other pools of note before retracing my steps back to my car.Looking down over Haukadalur

Mineral pool at Haukadalur

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The highlight of my day was what lay to the north-east. Following the road to the end of the tarmac, I turned in at another packed car park, and found the only place to park was at the end of the drive, right by the road. GullfossI hustled my way past a myriad of slow walkers and came out at the top of a cliff, hurried down some steps and raced over to the barrier at the top of the gorge. In front of me was the most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen: Gullfoss. The third icon of the Golden Circle, this staircase waterfall has an average summer water flow of 140 cubic metres per second and with the sun out overhead, a glorious rainbow arced over the cascade.

Rainbow over GullfossFollowing a lower walkway down towards the top of the waterfall, the roar of the water accompanies the changing vista as the river disappears into a deep crevice. Disappearing into the deepI couldn’t stop looking at it, and clearly neither could anyone else that was there. Lower Gullfoss panoramaIt was hard not to get carried away with taking photos, there was just so much to take in. Upper tier of GullfossI enjoyed wandering along side the river on the lower walkway and then headed back up the stairs to get a viewpoint from above. Gullfoss from aboveI couldn’t get enough of it, and even if I turned my back on the falls and looked across the plains, I was gobsmacked to see an expansive glacier on the horizon. Lower tier from aboveIt was surreal. Upper Gullfoss panoramaAfter doing my best to fill the memory card on my camera, I finally filled my stomach at the cafe before making a point of wandering along the lower path again, this time keeping my camera firmly hidden away.

When I returned to my car, parked as it was near the road, my vision was drawn to a hitchhiker trying to grab my attention. Normally I wouldn’t do this as a solo traveller, but I was going where he needed to get to, and it was hard to ignore him when he was right there, so I agreed to take him with me to Selfoss, my destination for the night. His English was broken, and I found it difficult to concentrate on both driving on the opposite side of the road as well as trying to interpret what he was saying. We managed to muddle through some reasonable conversation whilst I negotiated people on the road and my first experience of driving an unsealed Icelandic road until we parted ways on arriving in Selfoss.

Many of the accommodation places I stayed in in Iceland had a curfew time for checking in, and I was eager to get to Selfoss in time to get my key, so I didn’t stop anywhere on route. Kerid volcanic craterHowever, having checked in, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I backtracked to Kerið, a volcanic crater next to route 35. Curlew at KeridIt has a small entrance fee to give access to a perimeter walk around the top of the crater and then down to the lakeside within. Crater wallAlthough it was still daylight, the sun was low enough to put the lake into shadow, but it was a lovely spot to walk around. Back in Selfoss, I was lucky to get the last table at a busy little cafe for a late dinner. My body clock was confused with the long hours of daylight and eating dinner at 10pm became the norm on my trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kirk in SelfossThe next morning I again realised that Icelanders don’t really do breakfast out. River at SelfossNowhere was open to get a meal, and the cafe I had eaten at the night before only served coffee and cake when it finally opened. Route 1 crosses the river into SelfossI took a brief wander along the river bank under the bridge where highway 1 enters the town, but then, like every day of my trip, I had so much to see and it was time to continue east.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

SeljalandsfossSeljalandsfoss is a 60 metre tall waterfall not far off Route 1, and once again, it was a mission finding a place to park. Buses, camper vans and rental cars littered every spare piece of grass or gravel, and people were tripping over each other to get a selfie or a group photo. Walking behind SeljalandsfossThe sun wasn’t yet high enough to illuminate the falls so the area was in shadow. The path that goes behind the falls was muddy, and it was impossible to walk this route without getting quite wet.Seljalandsfoss from the little knoll

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Small waterfall along the cliff faceAlong from here, a path leads along the bottom of the cliff past a little stream and wildflowers to another waterfall, Gljúfrafoss which is hidden behind some rocks. GljufrafossOnly a handful of people ventured this far and although it was still impossible to get the place to yourself, it was an altogether more intimate experience here and it was beautiful. Top of GljufrafossI had noticed a couple of paths eroded into the cliff face, and assumed that this was evidence of people wandering out of bounds. Bottom of GljufrafossI was quietly annoyed about people’s disregard for the flora here, but a sign at this second waterfall stated that they were in fact recognised paths but ones to be taken at your own risk due to the steepness of them. One led up to a rickety ladder which gave a precarious view down over Gljúfrafoss. The other led up the cliff face to the top of the cliff.

 

 

 

 

Gljufrafoss from the cliff topAssuming you have no fear of heights, this is a must-do here. Seljalandsfoss from the cliff topThe whole time I was at the summit, I saw only 2 other people and a path leads along the cliff in both directions. Fulmar flying near the top of SeljalandsfossIn fact it is possible to stand right at the top of Seljalandsfoss and look down over the falls itself and the tiny people below. It felt utterly peaceful up there and I watched the bus loads of people move on for the day knowing full well they’d missed out on this gem. Some fulmars nested on the cliff edge and I watched them for a while before picking my way back down the slippery path to the bottom. By now the sun had risen high enough to cast the falls into sunshine and I admired them some more before pushing east.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I remember when I lived in Aberdeen in 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted, sending an ash cloud into the sky that disrupted flights in Europe for several days. I remember walking out my flat a few days later and smelling rotten eggs, the sulphuric smell drifting on the wind. I couldn’t believe that 6 years later I was driving across the land that had been affected by this eruption. Past here, I pulled in at Skógar, and followed the signs to Skógafoss, yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. Despite the sun having been left behind and the skies thick with grey clouds, once more I played the car park game, driving round and round in an effort to find the slightest piece of unused gravel or grass to abandon my car on.

SkogafossThis waterfall falls down over what used to be coastal cliffs, but now sits around 5km from the sea following coastal retreat. SkogafossA similar height to Seljalandsfoss, only much broader, the spray from the curtain whipped quite some distance from the falls, so anyone walking along the river bed was keeping their distance as they posed for their photos. SkogafossI decided to risk my camera by marching past them all and skirting the edge of the rocks to not only get closer to the falls but to get out the way of those hanging back whilst managing some photos without other people in them. Then I headed up the cliff to a viewpoint overlooking the falls where there was a queue for the best vantage spot. Higher still, a platform has been erected at the top of the falls and beyond that, a stile leads to the start of a long distance walk up the river.

 

At the top of SkogafossLike many people, I followed the river for a while past more waterfalls and round a few bends above the gorge. Up river from SkogafossThe further upstream I went, the more the crowds thinned out, and it was possible to again feel some peace away from the cacophany of voices. Another waterfall far upriver from SkogafossThere was the occasional drizzle and a cloud hung low over the nearby mountain top. It was a beautiful and dramatic landscape even with the grey overhead. Back at the bottom of the falls, I noticed a lot of people were staying in the local campsite. There was certainly plenty of people coming and going, but still with an afternoon of exploring to do, I was hoping to leave the crowds behind as I forged my way eastwards towards the coast.

Right to the Golden Circle

Sometimes you have a dream and it remains that way, never materialising into reality, and sometimes that dream just takes a long time to reach fruition. This was Iceland for me. Back when I lived in Scotland, long before the thought of moving to New Zealand had ever entered my head, I dreamed of visiting the land of fire and ice to the north. There seemed to be neither the time nor the money to make it work, and so it remained only a wish until finally in June of this year, it became real. In fact I booked my flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik several months before I’d even booked my flights from New Zealand to Scotland. This trip was happening, come hell or high water, and my plan was to spend the longest day of the year in the land of the midnight sun.

There was just enough time to watch a movie on the Icelandair flight, the credits rolling as the plane hit the tarmac, and as often happens, a large grin crossed my face as I stepped out and into the airport. I was excited and also rather nervous, as I had booked a hire car to allow me to circumnavigate the country, and for the first time in my life I would be driving on the opposite side of the road, and doing so from the opposite side of the car. I’ve driven in 5 countries, all ‘lefties’ and this was my first time on the right. I made the short walk to the rental office, packed up my car and prepared myself to get out on the road. Despite 11 years of driving manual, I have since spent over 4 years driving an automatic. Thankfully my rental car for my Scottish road trip had been a manual, allowing me to get used to changing gears again because now I found myself with a gear stick and an arm that wasn’t used to moving one.

After a few deep breaths, I eased out of the parking lot, set off on the road, and hit a roundabout. That was just cruel. In fact there were 3 roundabouts just to leave Keflavik, the small town where Iceland’s main airport is situated, behind but finally I was on the open road and surrounded by barrenness. I knew the island was volcanic, but I wasn’t prepared for the lumps of lava rock that sat either side of the road, and there was little vegetation to see for miles. Arriving in the evening, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I was in no hurry to get to my hostel, so when the turn-off came, I turned off the main road and followed the signs through the blackened landscape until I reached the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous geothermal spa.

I’d pre-booked a ticket which was recommended, and having done so it was an easy process to get in, receiving my wrist band and pointed in the direction of the locker room. I had to be helped to get my locker to lock as it was a little confusing, but I was eager to get into the pool. A requirement at all geothermal spas in Iceland is to shower naked prior to entering, and private cubicles were available for this. Following the signs, I headed downstairs and out the double doors, and there I found myself walking into the lagoon, a place I’d heard so much about for many years. It was absolutely packed, with GoPro toting tourists everywhere. I briefly regretted not bringing mine in purely for some water-based photos, but I quickly put that aside and got on with enjoying myself.

Blue LagoonPriority number one was finding the silica mud that is free to apply to your skin for a facial. I located the booth and lathered it on, then duly spent my time wandering around the different parts of the lagoon, testing what temperature I preferred and allowing myself to unwind after the mild stress of getting used to the car and the road. One of my favourite things about the place was the in-lagoon bar. Using the electronic wrist band as currency, food, drinks and treatments can be purchased with a swipe, and these are then paid for at the end of the visit. I had heard about Skyr, an Icelandic dairy product, so I got hold of a Skyr smoothie and sipped it whilst walking around the lagoon. It was one of those marvellously surreal experiences that you have when travelling.Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon bar

I tried the sauna and steam rooms but found them so hot it felt like my throat and nostrils were on fire, so most of my time was spent in the very large lagoon. Blue Lagoon from the balconyEventually though, I grew hungry, and headed into the cafe for some expensive food and another Skyr smoothie. Outside the Blue LagoonEver aware that I still had a bit of driving to do to reach my hostel, I finally got changed and did a bit of exploring of the facilities before leaving. Outside Blue LagoonEven the walk back to the car park takes you past silica lakes and large lava rocks, and whilst the cloudy skies detracted from it slightly, it felt other-worldly. I took my time, watching some birds flit between the rocks, but then it was time to get back on the road and retrace my route back to the highway.

 

I was exceedingly grateful for the GPS routing on my phone as although Reykjavik is deemed a small city by worldwide standards, it was big enough to feel that I would have got lost without it. I’d picked a hostel away from the city centre as I was heading east early the next morning. It was in a very residential part of the city, and whilst the route took me to the correct street, it had me pull in at a block of houses. Thankfully one of the residents was able to point me in the right direction, and I was soon to discover how the nation as a whole is exceptionally friendly and welcoming and eager to help. The hostel room numbering was a little confusing so I couldn’t find my room very easily, but then it was lights out to get some sleep, only to appreciate that it was still daylight outside until well after midnight.

I had an early rise to set off on my circumnavigation around the island. I was driving anti-clockwise, and my first port of call was the Þingvellir National Park to the north-east of Reykjavik. I discovered early on that driving in Iceland was actually really enjoyable and my previous worries about driving on the right side of the road were unfounded. Although I had my GPS navigating me, the signage on the open road was easy to follow, and although it is a stunning country, I managed to find the scenery not too much of a distraction. The traffic at that time of the day was light and I had large sections of the road to myself, despite being part of the renowned Golden Circle.

I hadn’t bothered to buy food having read that the visitor’s centre near my destination of Silfra had a cafe, but I was dismayed to find it closed when I got there, and it wasn’t opening for hours. I found throughout my whole trip that Iceland eateries are late openers, and dining out for breakfast was a very difficult thing to do. I knew I’d end up starving but there wasn’t much choice, and I silently kicked myself for not seeking out a supermarket the night before. Whilst the businesses were closed, nature was open, and I made my way to the meeting spot where my morning tour was due to start. Being part of the national park, the car park had a charge, and the machines only accepted card payments.

River leading to ThingvallavatnTo one side lay a large lake, Þingvallavatn visible down a river where geese and their young waddled about on the banks. Church in Thingvellir National ParkUp river from the car park, a pretty little church adorned the riverside, and climbing up over some lava rocks, I found a track that led me up the wall of a chasm and down into a large rift valley. Thingvellir National ParkThis whole region has been created by tectonic plate movements as the North American and Eurasian plates move apart from each other, and the whole area is riddled with fissures and valleys as a result. Tectonic fissure at SilfraI followed the path up to the top of the rock and from the viewing platform I could see out over the landscape, both dramatic and at times barren. Thingvallavatn from the viewpointI tried to guess where I’d be going for my tour, but as the clock ticked on, the crowds of people that would become a constant accompaniment to this part of Iceland started to appear, and I made my way back down into the fissure, and up over the lava wall to meet my tour guide.Silfra fissure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t remember how or where I found out about this tour, but when I read that it was possible to snorkel between the two tectonic plates, I knew I had to do it whilst I was here. The company that runs snorkelling trips also offers diving trips too, and there were regular tour times running each day. So regular in fact, that there was a constant flow of people kitting up and heading to and from the entry point, and it was a busy place to be. Whilst pick-ups are available in Reykjavik, a few of us had driven ourselves there, and in the end we had to wait quite a while for our guide to arrive from the city. Then the long process of preparation began.

Despite being the height of summer, the water temperature was just 3oC, so there was a lot of layers to get geared up in. I already had a base layer on under my clothes, but on top of this went a thermal body suit, a dry suit, a head mask and gloves. A few of us were of a build where our dry suits weren’t water tight enough around our necks, and so we had to have the indignity of a collar put on. For all intents and purposes, this was like a broad cable tie around your neck that was ratcheted up until water tightness was achieved. About half of our group needed this and it was not pleasant at all. I immediately felt lightheaded, but one of my tour companions was feeling immensely claustrophobic with his on and he was struggling to hide his agitation. Kitted up for a snorkel in 3oCWith all the checks that needed to be done, the kitting up process felt like it took forever, and even after we made our way to the entry point, the amount of tours taking place meant there was quite a queue to get in the water. My lightheadedness had eased but a couple of my tour mates pointed out that my lips and skin were turning a shade of blue, so our guide was called over and he had to loosen up my collar a notch. It still felt unpleasantly tight, but my colour was pink again within a matter of minutes, just in time to get in the frigid water.

Silfra fissure under waterIt really is the clearest water I have ever swam in. Snorkelling Silfra fissureI was a little disappointed to discover that there was no aquatic life, but the crystal clarity and the changing depths of the rocky chasm still made for an interesting snorkel, and although my face which was uncovered was freezing, I was more than content ploughing my way through the snorkel route. Silfra fissureHalf an hour passed in no time at all, and having first headed near the lake then veering off to another channel, we reached the exit point, and I didn’t want to get out. Silfra fissure snorkelWaiting till every one else had hauled themselves up, I pulled myself out about 34 minutes after getting in.Aquatic plant in Silfra fissure

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Divers crossingThere was a much needed hot chocolate and cookies waiting for us back at the van where we got out of our gear and were then left to our own devices. Silfra fissure panoramaI took a wander back down the path to where we’d come out at the end of the snorkel, and then watched some geese for a while as they nibbled at the vegetation. SilfraBy now into the early afternoon, the place was packed and the car park was full. Silfra, Thingellir National ParkAside from the snorkelling and scuba diving, there are various walks in the area to explore the geology as well as viewing one of the country’s many waterfalls. Geese in Thingvellir National ParkAn Icelandic flag flies near here to mark the location of Iceland’s first parliament in 930AD, with sessions being held there until 1798. Goose and goslingOne of the downsides about being so close to the waterway was the incessant swirling flies that flitted around your face. They never landed nor bit but their constant dancing close by became very annoying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It became clear on reaching my car that people were fighting over parking spaces, so I made somebody very happy when I signalled I was leaving and gave them my spot. I still had a lot of ground to cover in the Golden Circle and I’d really only just started.

Ben Lomond

In 2002, the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park was born, encompassing 720 square miles of mountains, lochs and forests. To the north-west of Scotland’s largest city Glasgow, it is an easily accessible playground for the outdoor enthusiast. From water sports to hiking and family activities, there are plenty of options for enjoyment, and for hikers like me, it encompasses not only the earlier sections of the West Highland Way, but 21 Munros (Scottish mountains >3000ft).

I enjoy hiking mountains, not just for the exercise and achievement in doing so, but mainly for the reward in the view at the top and the satisfaction of ticking another summit off the list. I don’t personally see the point in hiking a mountain when it is poor weather, as the view is my favourite part, but yet nearly a week after summiting Ben Nevis in low cloud, I found myself with just one chance at hiking Ben Lomond and a poor weather forecast to contend with. Without my own transport, it didn’t take much to convince my brother to drive me there and join me on the hike, and so, despite the predictions, we set off from my parent’s house on the nearly 1.5hr drive to the car park at Rowardennan.

Within the trees on the banks of Loch Lomond, the large car park (cash payment only) was nearly full despite the grey clouds that hung overhead. Aside from the munro, there are a few local walks as well, but it seemed that Ben Lomond was a common destination. On stepping out of the car, I was immediately overwhelmed by a large swarm of midges. When I used to live in Scotland, midges were a presence but rarely an annoyance for me. Perhaps my blood wasn’t that attractive, or perhaps my memories are selective, but of my 29 years of living in Scotland, and many trips to the west coast, I can only remember a couple of occasions where they were a pain. Now however, I had the allure of foreign-tasting blood, and in just a t-shirt, my arms were soon blackened with the largest concentration of midges I have ever seen. The ones that weren’t munching on my arms were swirling around my face, and my patience quickly went as I waited for my brother to get geared up.

The last time my brother had hiked Ben Lomond, the start of the track was being upgraded and there was a detour from the information centre. On this day, the track had reopened at its original location behind the information centre and we set off, hounded by the midges the whole time. Starting in the lower forest where the view was minimal, we reached a clearing where shortly after we were sent on a diversion as the next section of track was being upgraded. The track was still obvious but a little rougher under foot, and with less trees, it soon became obvious that the summit of Ben Lomond was nowhere to be seen.

Looking up at the clouds

Despite gaining altitude from the beginning, the midges continued to follow us, and through bracken we continued our gentle climb until we reached a bridge which led us onto grazing land. Below us, Loch Lomond was disappearing into the distant cloud, and now Ben Lomond stood in front of us, low cloud swirling around. Like Ben Nevis the week before, I was amazed at the number of people out hiking on such a poor weather day. Groups of kids were out doing a charity walk and they showed me up with their youthful fitness. They stopped often though, so eventually we passed them by as the path continued its steady climb.

Looking down towards the hidden Loch Lomond

The path up Ben Lomond

Looking towards the summit of Ben Lomond

A light drizzle started, and whilst my brother kitted up in his waterproofs, I decided to press on without as I was quite warm from the effort. It wasn’t particularly heavy at this stage, but by now we were in the cloud, and I had no idea how far we had to go with no point of reference. I just followed my brother and the well-trodden path, but the higher we got, the more I noticed people giving me a strange look as they came down in wet weather gear and I plodded on in capri-pants and a t-shirt. At about 850m, the path began to zig-zag, and on turning a corner at a low false-summit, it was like walking in to a wind tunnel, and I found myself suddenly cold and wet. It was a mission to put on my waterproofs in the driving wind and rain, and I was aware of plenty of soaked-looking people emerging out of the mist above us.

Duly kitted up, we pushed on for the final summit push. Unfortunately, the weather meant I spent most of the time staring at my feet, so the summit push is a bit of a blur. There was an initial steep section followed by tracing the outline of the eastern corrie, a rocky plinth that gave brief shelter before we were left exposed again for the final trail along the summit ridge until the summit emerged from the gloom. It was so busy here despite the now heavy rain, that we couldn’t even get a photo at the summit marker, having to make do with a photo on the path at the summit edge. We could have been anywhere. I couldn’t believe how many people were up there, but with the rain quickly drenching us, there was no point hanging around.

View from the summit of Ben Lomond

Obligatory summit photo at Ben Lomond in the rain

There are two options for descending: back the route you’ve just come up, or going down the Ptarmigan route. I assumed with the weather that my brother would want to do the quicker, easier route back down, but having done it before, he suggested we take the Ptarmigan route so despite not being able to see it through the clouds, I followed his lead and was amazed at the barely visible path disappearing over the cliffs. Had I been on my own, I would never have even noticed this as a path, it was so discrete in the clouds. I certainly didn’t feel unsafe, but it was a shame to miss out the views that I’m sure this route would afford on a good weather day. It reminded me somewhat of the hike I did on Little Mount Peel in New Zealand with a rapid descent over rocky drops in altitude towards the summit of the Ptarmigan.

Looking down towards the Ptarmigan Route in the driving rain

Crossing near a series of small peaks (of which one is the Ptarmigan), the path turns to descend back onto the green-covered hillside. The rain was still ongoing, and despite having not eaten and both being quite hungry, there was nowhere sheltered to stop. By now several hours into the hike, my jacket was starting to lose it’s waterproof abilities and I could feel myself getting damp within. As we continued on a now gentle descent down the front face of Ben Lomond, the grass changed to bracken, and we could just about make out Loch Lomond through the occasional break in the clouds.

Following the Ptarmigan Route down the face of Ben Lomond

Loch Lomond just about visible through the clouds

Eventually we found ourselves back in the forest above Rowardennan and we followed a burn as it made its way down towards the road. Then it was just a matter of walking along the tarmac back to the car park where we tried to warm back up in the car, eating our lunch surrounded by the midges that sneaked in with us. Whilst I’m very glad I ticked another Munro off the list, it reinforced why I don’t enjoy hiking when there isn’t a view involved. Perhaps on a sunnier occasion when I’m next in the country I might try this one again, but for now, I’m going to leave the mountains for better weather.

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