MistyNites

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Archive for the tag “waterfall”

Aquatic Adventures in Upolu

I simply couldn’t come to somewhere as tropical as Samoa and not go snorkelling. After previously having to replace a mask and then a snorkel, I splashed out on a brand new snorkelling set in the run up to my trip to Samoa, and I had grand plans to make use of them on my last full day on Upolu. The breakfasts at the Aga Reef Resort were the best start to my day, and I was able to sit out by the pool this day to enjoy it. Then I loaded up my car with my swimming gear and change of clothes and set off on the short drive west to one of Samoa’s most famous attractions, To-Sua Ocean Trench. By the village of Lotofaga, I pulled into the car park to discover I was the first one there. Another car arrived just as I was paying to enter, so I knew I wouldn’t have it to myself for long, but this was a great start nonetheless. It is a short walk through a tropical garden to view a sink hole, then beyond to the ocean trench itself. At 30m deep, the walls of the trench are green with vegetation hanging over the edge and down the side. Even with the impending arrival of other people I still took my time to walk the long way round to the access track, taking in the sight of the glistening blue water below.

 

Getting down into the hole involved a climb down a long wooden ladder onto a platform. From there you can either jump in or go down the ladder into the pleasant water. Despite a connection to the sea, the water was still and calm and a lovely temperature. I was quick to go for an exploratory swim before the voices grew louder and I was joined by a group of friends on holiday. For a long time it was just us though, and there was more than enough room for us to have some space. There were a couple of shoals of fish hanging around by the rocks on the edge, and the odd other fish munching away on the floor of the trench. I tried and failed to find the gap in the rocks that leads to the ocean. At the opposite end of the pool was a cave that led through to the bottom of the sinkhole I’d passed on route to the ocean trench. The bottom was littered with rock debris and again the walls were green with vegetation. I passed quite a bit of time simply enjoying the swim and watching the sunlight on the water sparkle in reflection onto the overhangs of the trench. I even took a few dives off the platform into the water, something I’m not normally keen on.

 

After a while, a few more people arrived. A trio of people who I assumed were Instagrammers or Influencers proceeded to pose a hundred ways at the top of the ladder, and half-way down the ladder. By this point, I was just treading water casually, leaning on one of the ballast ropes for the platform, day dreaming whilst idly watching them with amusement. I’ve often looked at some people’s Instagram photos and wondered how they actually enjoy a place when they have to set up the right pose at every famous spot they visit. I’ve also wondered how they looked to other people around them, but this was surprisingly my first experience of witnessing the behaviour that goes into getting ‘that’ photo. And suddenly my reverie was broken and I was left gobsmacked when one of them asked me to move because I was in the background of their photo. I obliged them but I was fuming. I was simply minding my own business, enjoying my dip in the ocean but yet I had ruined the aesthetic of a posed photograph. Although I stayed a little longer after that, when the next group of people arrived, it was starting to feel crowded and my mood had been tainted. I got out the warm water and climbed back up the ladder.

Back up top, it had become cloudy. A few steps across the grass led to a lookout area above the coast and the cliffs in either direction. Below me the waves crashed onto the rocks at the bottom. It was a beautifully maintained tropical garden with lots of places to sit and enjoy the view, and a path led down the seaward side of the cliffs to the rocks right by the sea. The waves had eroded some rock pools and rock arches, and as I stood listening to the noise of the waves, I was joined by a brilliant red bird that sat on a nearby tree. Hibiscus flowers always remind me of holidays on tropical shores, and here it was no different with an unusual bi-coloured hibiscus in full bloom in the garden. I meandered back round the edge of the ocean trench, taking my time to enjoy the view before leaving. By now late morning, there were more and more people arriving and the platform was getting busy with others in the water. I was immensely glad I’d arrived as early as I had.

 

The Main South Road cuts inland for a while before splitting to head west with a separate road cutting north. On this inward diversion I pulled in at the signs for one of the island’s many waterfalls, Sopo’aga. The access, like so many places on Samoa is on private land, in this case someone’s front garden, so I paid the entry tax, and after the lady spoke to me in broken English briefly, she left me to it. Her house stood off to the side, and her garden was divided into sections for growing edibles and those simply growing beautiful flowers. Wandering about were her chickens. As I followed the path across her garden, I was suddenly presented with a large gorge just beyond her property, from the edge of which I was looking directly across to the Sopo’aga Falls. And like all of Samoa’s waterfalls, it was gorgeous. Upolu is so incredibly green, and being slightly elevated and inland, it was especially lush here. As I stood there for some time, a light drizzle started which I was able to shelter from in the little hut that had been conveniently erected at the lookout. I amused myself by watching the chickens eat some coconut before finally pushing onwards.

 

Cutting north, the road climbed steeply and as it did so, it really started to rain. Every time I’d crossed the breadth of the island, I’d left the dry coastal climate behind for this humid and damp interior. It had rained every time I’d crossed over but this was the heaviest yet. But there was another waterfall to see so despite the rain I pulled into yet another person’s garden and parked up. With the rain rolling through, I sat in my car to let it ease, aware that the landowners were watching me from their house. Eventually it eased enough to get out and brave it, and I greeted the large family who welcomed me onto their land. Fuipisia falls had the highest entry tax of all the sights I stopped at in Samoa. It seemed relatively steep but I didn’t have the heart to barter, given that I was relatively rich to them. They pointed me down a muddy path and I set off in the remaining drizzle through puddles, to eventually find myself at a bit of a quagmire. The field was saturated in water and mud was everywhere. I carefully picked my way across to the edge of another gorge, and on hearing the sound of water falling, I spotted a waterfall that was barely visible through the vegetation either side. I felt cheated given the price I’d paid, so decided to follow the gorge edge to make the most of it. Luckily I did, because it turned out I’d spotted the wrong waterfall, and round a corner in the gorge edge, I found myself looking down into an expansive river valley with Fuipisia falls dropping down to my right.

 

The ground was very muddy and it looked like there had been a bit of land slip in one spot. The area that had an unobstructed view of the waterfall was in the process of being upgraded and it was just a giant block of mud. I noticed some shoes sitting a little way off and realised they marked a path leading into the trees. It was unbelievably muddy and it became obvious why other people had chosen to go barefoot here. I passed a group of people heading out as I headed in, and after a good bit of mud hopping, I found myself at the top of the waterfall with a face-on view of the valley spanning out below. Large rocks in the river meant it was possible to walk right up to the edge of the falls and almost look down. It was still raining but that didn’t make me want to leave any quicker as I stood enjoying the roar of the falling river. After a while though, I had to pick my way carefully back through the muddy path and across the quagmire field to return to my car and continue north.

 

I’d already been on this road before, but I was keen to have a swim at a local swimming spot on the north coast that had been closed the few days prior when I’d passed before. The Piula Cave Pools were inside the grounds of a school and as I pulled in and headed up the driveway, someone came chasing after me to collect the entry tax. It was such a random process at each place, often with no idea what or where you were going to get charged. There was an extra charge to park at the bottom of the hill, but I was fine to just walk down the steps. I headed off with my snorkelling gear, admiring the college buildings as I descended, and popping out at the bottom to a hive of activity. There were loads of locals enjoying some down time here, and almost as many tourists. I found a spot to leave my towel and shoes and headed to the steps into the pool only to slip and fall, stubbing my toe and breaking my brand new snorkelling set. I couldn’t believe it. I’d paid extra for a decent quality set after having two previous ones break and leak on me, so I was gutted to break them on their first day of use. My toe was throbbing as well and it was quick to swell up and turn an angry red colour. I wasted more time than I would have liked, trying to patch together the broken mask in a manner that would still allow me to use it, albeit with a bit of leaking and the need to hold onto the snorkel separately. Finally I was able to get in the water which was an amazing blue colour.

The pool was nowhere near as big as To Sua Ocean Trench but it felt like there was a lot more fish activity, even with the plethora of legs and bodies moving around them. The water was also an unusual blue colour, and on swimming into the cave at the back of the pool, the blueness became increasingly strong as the external light faded. I dodged kids on pool noodles and watched bubbles billow up from secret places on the sandy floor as I followed fish swimming erratically in search of food. Outside of the pool, many people were having picnics, and I hobbled along the breakwater watching the Pacific Ocean lapping the shore, as I contemplated whether my toe was broken. It was an uncomfortable climb back up the steps to the car, but the speed allowed me to ogle the buildings and surrounding landscape once more.

 

It was nearly an hour’s drive to my final swimming spot, heading west to the capital Apia, and skirting round the back of it. After a flurry of urban activity and traffic, I eventually found myself climbing up an unassuming road to Papaseea Sliding Rocks. It was mid-afternoon, and after paying yet another entry tax, I climbed the long flight of steps down into a gorge where tiered waterfalls spilled down the hillside. The novelty of these waterfalls was that the rockfaces were smooth enough to slide down the waterfalls, but signs and warnings at the top and in my guidebook implied of dangers if not careful. When the river level is too low, it’s not safe to slide here, and when the river level is too high, it can equally be dangerous. The upper tiers were low and thin with only shallow pools below them, but as I rounded the corner I found a family who were successfully sliding down one of the lower tiers. I watched the bravest of them a few times, and then they kindly gave me pointers on where to aim to stay safe. Another of the group was kind enough to film my first attempt, and with a bit of encouragement from them, I went sliding down the first slope into a narrow pool that I could stand up in. I was exceedingly wary of stubbing my already painful toe again, but once in the first pool, the only way out was to climb over the next ledge and slide down the next rockface.

 

As the family readied to leave, a few more people arrived and it became a very communal affair, with the new arrivals watching the rest of us to see where we slid, and us all sharing pointers on where to aim. Several people needed a lot of encouragement and it was a fun atmosphere. In the end I went down three times, worried about my toe every time, but thankfully doing it no more harm. Soaked through and tired, and with the closing time approaching, I started the long trek home to the south-eastern corner of Upolu. Rather than have dinner at my resort though, I decided to eat in a restaurant I’d spotted the signs for time and time again. Belonging to Seabreeze resort which was in between To Sua Ocean Trench and my cabin, it was a gorgeous spot overlooking a peaceful bay, and nestled among the trees of the coast. It was already getting dark when I arrived so I missed the full extent of the vista, but it was nice to get a change of scene and menu for dinner and their cocktails were just as good as the Aga Reef Resort. With another action packed day, I’d missed yet another opportunity to enjoy a swim in the lagoon outside of my cabin. This was to be my last night in Upolu, as the following day I was switching islands, so I vowed to get up and go for a snorkel in the morning, a plan that would ultimately be thwarted.

Washpen Falls

About an hour outside of Christchurch, on the back road that leads to Rakaia Gorge, there is an unassuming turnoff that leads to a farm where you can join the crowds that park up at the unassuming Woolshed. The track to Washpen Falls that leads from here is on private property and as such there is a $10 fee per adult to walk it. This had put me off exploring this for many years but finally, last May, I decided to see what the fuss was about. I’ve seen photos and heard that this waterfall was pretty and worth visiting, so I duly turned up to find the parking area packed, and it took a bit of maneuvering to find a spot to pull in out the way. The day I visited, the Woolshed was manned, and it is important to pop in here first to pay your fee. I have to admit I was surprised at the number of people there considering the charge.

Following the marked track past the Woolshed, the track was quite muddy as it headed into the forest and started climbing. The track effectively follows an anti-clockwise route round the valley formed by Washpen Creek. Breaks in the treeline allowed a view across to the thick bush on the opposite side, and being well into autumn, the lower sun meant the side I was walking on was in shadow. Cutting back into the trees again, a natural shallow cave is passed before a flight of stairs passes by the side of a small waterfall trickling down the rock face.

 

From there the path climbs up and into the sunshine as it reaches the top of the hillside that surrounds the creek. The path effectively arcs round in a horse-shoe shape and as it does so, the expanse of the Canterbury Plains becomes evident. It was a gorgeous day and the many visitors were littered all over the track, several of them stopping here to admire the view and have a snack. As it was though, the wind started to whip across the hillside as the track continued over it, and at the main viewpoint up here, several of us were buffeted whilst a couple of children had to work hard to walk against it.

 

To reach the waterfall, the track cuts down from the hillside to reach another branch of the valley, most of which was in shade. This was another busy stretch of track but I paused here in a couple of places to listen to the bird sounds. The track starts off winding down the valley side before reaching a steep staircase that leads down to Washpen Falls. The downside of hiking the track at this time of the year was that the waterfall was completely in shadow making it difficult to photograph. There is a good viewpoint of it from the staircase as well as at the base of the falls itself. There isn’t a lot of space to accommodate the amount of people that were on the trail that day, so once I’d taken some photographs, I moved on to allow others the chance to get some shots too.

 

The track continued down the far side of the creek below a tall rock face. At one point, drips of water fell from the cliff above and a small side-track led to the bank of the stream. Beyond this, the track climbed a little again into the forest where a side-track led to a small cave, then beyond here it cut down through the forest, until eventually it reached a green pond with a shelter nearby. Several families had stopped here for a picnic and it was a pretty little spot. I left them to it, following the far side of the pond and rejoining the main track at the far end.

 

Aside from a small ruined waterwheel, the rest of the walk was just a meander through the forest. I was surprised to come across a sign in the middle of nowhere reminding passers by to enjoy the sounds of nature. I had a bit more solitude here as I made my way back to the car by the Woolshed. There were still plenty of cars parked here, and I returned glad to have finally done this walk. The whole loop track took me 1hr and 45mins, and although a muddy and rough track (which may put off those with very young children), it was a very easy to follow hillside walk that would suit families.

Southland Roadie – In To The Catlins

I was really hungry but I couldn’t help but hover at the various pull-ins overlooking the bays on Riverton’s margins. Southland was already proving to be a wild coastline, but here, on the edge of the sweeping bay that cuts round to Invercargill to the east, the calm waters lapping on the beaches gave an altogether more idyllic feel to the place. It was a little overcast but I was really liking Riverton’s vibe and I put the hunger aside whilst I meandered.

 

Eventually I took the bridge to the far shore and parked up outside the Te Hikoi Southern Journey museum. This small museum turned out to be quite well done and even though it was compact, it was full of displays about the area’s early settlers and the regional fauna. By the time I’d had a wander round the museum, the shoreline and eaten, the day was really getting on, and I was realising that I wasn’t going to have time to do everything around Invercargill that I had wanted.

 

I took the road just before Invercargill to cut down to Oreti beach, the long stretch of sand at the opposite end of the bay to Riverton, made famous by the Fastest Indian Burt Munro who practiced his land speed record attempts here before heading to the US where he got his World Record. The beach is a recognised road in New Zealand with a speed limit, but I first walked on to it and up onto the dunes before deciding that I’d take my non-4×4 car out onto it. I could see in the distance patches of sand that weren’t so suitable but near the entrance to the beach, the sand was pretty compacted making for a very smooth drive and I smiled at the simple pleasure of it.

 

I had really wanted to do a riverside walk in Invercargill but just didn’t have the time anymore. My night’s accommodation was still a few hours away and I didn’t want to turn up in darkness. It was time to keep pushing east and I skirted the city, taking the road to Fortrose followed by back roads to reach the southern coast at Waipapa Point Lighthouse. The lighthouse wasn’t open to the public and the wind was picking up but there were plenty of people that had taken the unsealed road to get here. Most people stayed up on the track, but I went down to the rocks below and was away in a reverie when I realised that there were some creatures sleeping there. A couple of New Zealand sea lions were completely unperturbed by my presence but as their reputation precedes them, I gave them a wide birth. I’ve seen plenty of New Zealand fur seals on my travels round the country, but this was my first time seeing native sea lions. I hadn’t even known that such a species existed until that trip but I had read about their aggressive tendencies. As most of the visitors only went as far as the lighthouse and back, I was one of only a couple of people who spied them.

 

Continuing on the Southern Scenic Route east, I pulled up at a small car park next to farmland and again found myself one of several people picking my way across the private land to reach Slope Point, the Southernmost Point of the South Island. It was exposed and blowing a strong gale by this point and apart from the sign, it was effectively just a worn piece of headland taking the full brunt of the southern weather system. But the steady stream of people visiting meant it was difficult to get a photo of the sign without others in the photograph. This part of the coastline east of Invercargill was notably busier than that west of the city, but being in February, still in the height of summer, this was still not as busy as New Zealand’s more famous landmarks and for that I was glad.

 

It was an unsealed road (albeit in the process of being sealed), that brought me from Slope Point to Curio Bay, my stopover for the night. The lodge I was staying in had its own access down onto the beach but the evening light was drawing in and I was quick to head down the road to the car park near the campground. From here, a path lead to a lookout over the rocks below which was so busy I couldn’t get a good vantage point. Heading through some bushes, I found myself at the top of a flight of stairs down to the rocks below and in the reducing light, a crowd was gathered at a makeshift rope fence. Finding a spot among them, I trained my eyes into the distance to see what everyone was there to get a look at: hoiho, or yellow-eyed penguins, one of New Zealand’s endemic but endangered flightless birds. There were 3 of them in the far distance which I did my best to get a photograph of, but after a while, when no others appeared, I turned round to meander around the petrified forest that was embedded into the rock below my feet. On my way back to the car once back up on the clifftop, I happened upon a penguin in the bushes, relatively close up.

 

The next morning I loaded up the car before taking the track down to the beach. The clouds were grey and the beach seemed abandoned. This place is known for spotting Hector’s dolphins, one of the smallest dolphin species in the World, in the surf off the shore, but there were none to see the day I was there. I headed north for a bit, past a resting cormorant and across a couple of streams that crisscrossed the sand. As I often do on coastal walks, I was in a bit of a reverie, eating my Cookie Time cookie for breakfast when I was suddenly hit on the back of my head. At the same moment as I recoiled in shock, I saw a seagull grab my cookie and try to make off with it. I thwarted its attempt, regaining control of my now contaminated cookie, and although I wasn’t going to eat it once it had been in a seagull’s mouth, I sure as hell wasn’t going to let the bullying seagull have it either! I couldn’t believe the force of its wing as it had hit me on the head swooping in, but chuckled to myself a little, wondering how it must have looked from a distance. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was to be the first of 3 bird wallops in the space of 12 months.

 

Shortly after getting hit on the head, I turned around and headed south, past my lodge and to the far end of the beach where the campsite sat above. Heading up onto the headland, I meandered around the coast on the margins of the popular campsite, ever hopeful of seeing dolphins, cutting round from Curio Bay proper back to the coastline where the penguins had come ashore the night before. This time I was able to get a spot at the lookout over the rocks below, but by now mid-morning, there was not a penguin in sight. The rope was gone from the rocks, and the petrified forest was fully open for exploring, the penguins having long headed out to sea to forage. Behind the cliffs, I took a walk through a small forested area before leaving Curio Bay behind to continue my drive east.

 

Before long I was leaving Southland behind and crossing into Southern Otago. I was now deep within the Catlins Conservation Park, a part of the country I’d wanted to visit for some time. There were plenty of places of interest on the Chaslands Highway, but my first stop involved a detour off the main highway to McLean Falls. Receiving a lot of rainfall, Southland has plenty of waterfalls to visit, and this is one of the most famous in the region. It was a perfectly manageable walk from the car park but it was also a very busy place. Unfortunately it also started to rain which meant dressing up in full waterproofs to make the journey into the forest. I might have stayed here a little longer if it wasn’t for the rain and the crowd of people trying to get the same photos from the same two places, but after marvelling at the gushing water for a while, I decided to head back, deciding to grab lunch at the eccentric eatery by the junction with the main road.

 

It wasn’t far from here to the turnoff to the road down to Waipati beach. The access road is only open according to the tides, so although I was planning on going here, I was a few hours early till access would be allowed. Even though it was raining, the Catlins is all about getting outside, so a little along the road I parked up at the Lake Wilkie track and headed into the bush. I pretty much had the place to myself, and it was very quiet, just the sound of the raindrops on the leaves and water to keep me company. A nature walk led me round a boardwalk that hugged the southern edge of the tannin-coloured lake. Perhaps on a nice day there would be some wildlife to spot here, but I saw none, returning to my car to dry off as I pushed on to the next stopping place.

 

The road from here climbed up and over a steep hillside. A couple of lookouts were in the clouds as the rain continued to move through and from here the main highway cut inland quite a bit, winding up and down in altitude through rolling green hills thick with vegetation. Eventually a pull-in marked the start of a short forest walk to the duo of Matai Falls and Horseshoe Falls. It was a very easy and short walk with some weather protection from the thick foliage. There were much less people here than at McLean falls meaning I almost had these to myself.

 

With multiple waterfalls in the region, I’d picked the most accessible ones to visit due to time, and from here I headed off the main highway to a busy car park for Purakaunui Falls, another well known waterfall in the area. The amount of people in the car park far outweighed the people at the falls themselves thankfully, and despite how busy it looked when I first parked, I managed to get the falls to myself for a good few minutes before a group of people piled in. Of the three falls I’d visited that day, this was by far my favourite, a broad cascade with a close-up viewing platform. The rain had eased to a drizzle although there was a bit of shade from the foliage, but I was pleased to see the weather was thinking about improving as from here, it was time to back track to the tidal-access road and one of the region’s best spots…

Spring Roadie – From the Lakes to the Coast

With so much choice, it’s hard to pick the best drive in New Zealand. I love so many of the South Island’s roads and mountain passes, we’re really spoilt for choice here. From Wanaka, the road to the west coast via Haast Pass is one of these great drives with so many places to stop at on route. I’d previously driven as far west as the Blue Pools, but beyond that was a small part of the country that I’d never been to before. At the time, nearly 6 years since arriving in the country, I’d already crossed off a large percentage of it, and this was another little section to finally cross off the list.

A short drive from Wanaka, the views start almost immediately with the arrival at the neighbouring Lake Hawea with its small and quiet little settlement of the same name. There was a haze in the air, meaning the view wasn’t as sharp as I’ve previously seen but the lake was still a brilliant blue and by the lake side the water was crystal clear. Flanked by mountains, it is a beautiful vista, and my brother and I took a short walk along the lake side before stopping at the dam at the entrance to the village. It was so peaceful, with few people here compared to Wanaka and with little development here either. Only a handful of people were milling around, so our view of the blue lake under the blue sky was one of tranquility.

 

Continuing along the highway that flanks the lake side, there are a few places to pull in to appreciate the view. The main one is about two thirds of the way along, but it can get quite busy, especially when a coach turns up. From several of these, it is possible to appreciate the length of the lake. These are the trips where I wish I lived nearer as I know there are so many hikes that could be done in the area. Passing a couple on the way, we stopped at the first of two lookouts at the Neck, the narrow isthmus that splits Lake Hawea from Lake Wanaka.

 

Crossing to the other side, we said goodbye to Lake Hawea and welcomed the equally beautiful sight of Lake Wanaka again which the road follows for some distance. Again there are some great view points along this road, and we stopped first at a boat ramp and then at the Boundary Creek campsite which was very busy. At this point, we were oblivious to the time pressures of this drive. We hadn’t hurried ourselves to leave, and with the beautiful sunny sky above us, I was stopping left right and centre so we could take lots of photographs. Although my brother had planned the route, he’d given me plenty of leeway with where to stop each day, and determined as I was to show off the country I now call home, I was taking every opportunity to do so. This meant a very leisurely morning and a slightly rushed afternoon as the enormity of the distance to cover became more apparent.

 

Eventually though, we left Lake Wanaka behind us and started across the valley that would wind us towards Haast Pass. We were able to get a bit of distance behind us, pushing on to Blue Pools before stopping. This place is very popular, not just with tourists but with sand flies, the bane of South Island waterways. I grew up with midges in Scotland, and they never bothered me half as much as the sand flies do here in New Zealand. No matter what repellent I use, their swarms have ruined many an outdoor experience for me, and here was to be no different. They gave my brother with his foreign smell a wide birth, and pestered me like crazy once we emerged from the short bush walk to the river. Like the last time I was here, I thought I’d risk taking a paddle in the glacier water, and like last time it was so frigid it hurt my feet, and I wondered about the foolhardiness (or bravery) of the people who jump from the bridge or go for a swim.

 

From here to the west was all new territory for me and I was excited. Emerging from the trees, we reached Cameron Flat where we stopped first at the campsite and then a short distance further where we trudged up to a lookout over the river. We ate lunch here overlooking the valley below, about half-way between Wanaka and the west coast. Our destination for the night was still some distance away, and from this point onwards I unintentionally took over my brother’s road trip and kept stopping, even after my brother voiced his want to skip some places.

 

One of these stops was Haast Pass where a walk trudges up the hillside to a lookout. It was a sticky walk in the heat, steeper than I’d anticipated, longer than I’d thought it would be and the view a little less spectacular than I’d expected (although still pretty enough). In hindsight, we could have skipped this, as with Fantail Falls which we also stopped at further along the road. A short bush walk brought us out to a pebbly river bank which was littered in stone stacks. The waterfall was on the far bank of the river and as before, the sand flies descended on me.

 

Beyond the Gates of Haast, a road bridge that spans the Haast River, and down the hill was the prettier Thunder Creek waterfall. Feeling guilty now about taking over my brother’s trip, I quickly offered to back-track to the bridge when my brother voiced an interest in seeing it up close. So back up the hill we parked either side of it then walked down to watch the water gush through the chasm. It was exceptionally noisy but we were the only ones there and deep as it was within a canyon in the mountains, we could look up at the peaks that flanked us undisturbed.

 

Eventually the road cut once more across the Haast river, and here at Pleasant Flat campsite, there was a stunning view across a plain to a snow and cloud capped mountain peak. Following the river downstream, State Highway 6 eventually takes a near 90 degree turn where the Haast river and Landsborough river unite. As we headed west, the clouds built up more and more on the mountain tops around us and the sunshine disappeared from view. We stopped at the Roaring Billy waterfall, another stop which with hindsight we could have skipped, and wandered along the river bank a little before the final push to the west coast.

 

Finally we cut through Haast and found ourselves back in sunshine as we reached the western flank of the Southern Alps. I had pre-warned my brother about the pebbly nature of west coast beaches, so found myself eating my words as we got out the car at Haast beach and walked out onto a beautiful stretch of sand. Behind us the clouds shrouded the mountain tops but in front of us the Tasman Sea glistened under the golden orb. The west coast is notorious for its wild weather so it was nice to arrive there in sunshine. Unfortunately we were still about 120km away from our night’s stay and the afternoon was wearing on towards evening. The drive was proving why New Zealand’s distances don’t look much on paper, but can easily take a lot more time than anticipated.

 

We pulled in at Ship Creek which I would have loved to have just relaxed at for a while. There were several people overnighting here and I was a little jealous. We explored the immediate vicinity before getting back on the road. At Knight’s Point the sun was getting low causing a glare to the west, but it still seemed sunny ahead of us. But the road cut inland and as it did so, it plunged us back under the cloud that had been shrouding the Southern Alps.

 

My brother had been keen to do a walk to Monro Beach where it is possible to go penguin watching. But due to me taking over his trip and stopping at so many places on the Haast Pass road, my brother didn’t feel we had the time to do the hike and I felt guilty when he requested we keep going when we passed the start of it at Lake Moeraki. If I was to do the drive again, I’d skip the Haast Pass lookout and Roaring Billy falls if not the Fantail falls also, which probably would have given us a bit of time to do the Monro beach walk. From here onwards though, we drove through light rain, the weather that I’m more accustomed to on this coast. I was so over driving by this point too, so although we stopped briefly at Lake Puringa, the rain hadn’t dulled the sand flies, and I wasn’t keen to hang around long. In the ever darkening skies, we pushed through the remaining 70km to finally pull in at our stop for the night in Fox Glacier, at the southern end of the Glacier Country. I could but hope for the rain to have cleared by the next day, ready for us to explore another unique part of New Zealand.

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. Not 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. There are a selection of trails to follow and I chose the one that looked like it gave the best overview of the place. Unlike the sites I’d previously visited in this area, the vegetation here was thick and widespread. There 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. From 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. The lake had quite a few water birds floating around with their young in tow, learning how to dive and feed below the surface. It was a lovely place to spend the evening but the flies threatened to drive me a little insane. It 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. It was incredibly peaceful, just a slight ripple on the water, and for the most part, I had the place to myself. On 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.

 

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. Like 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. As is commonplace at Icelandic geothermal pools, it is required to shower naked before entering. Unlike 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.

My carriage for the day was a lovely old wooden frigate which could travel either under sail or with the power of an engine. There 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. Skjálfandi bay is expansive, and despite the gloomy skies, the seas were very calm. We 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. Even 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. But 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. I love humpback whales, they are my favourite species of whale, and this was the fifth country that I had seen them from. There 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.

 

Húsavík itself felt like a fishing village. The harbour sat below the main street which was nestled below a lupin-covered hillside. The rain threatened to drop for the rest of my 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. As 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.

 

Despite the drizzle, I took a wander around a local park towards the back of town before leaving. There 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. But there’s not a lot more to see in Húsavík so before long, I was driving back south in the rain. On reaching the ring road, Route 1, it was just a brief back-track to visit yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls, Góðafoss. It 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. Getting 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. This was not a place to fall over with nothing to stop you tumbling over the cliff edge. The 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. Like 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. A viewpoint across the fjord looks out over Akureyri which had a couple of large cruise ships in dock at the time. Down 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. The place was bustling with bus loads of people clambering about the steps up to the Akureyrarkirkja which dominates the city skyline. It was strange wandering down a pedestrian street filled with tourist shops and packed full of tourists. I 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.

 

Having spent the night in the city, I had a lovely breakfast in a quirky little cafe surrounded by locals and tourists alike. After 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. The style is recognisable as being the same, although the size of Akureyrarkirkja is much smaller in comparison. Inside 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. Outside it has a distinctive look, and from nearby there is a view down over the roofs of the town and the cruise ships below.

 

A few streets back was the city’s botanical gardens. There appeared to be some sort of pilgrimage here with a steady stream of people walking from Akureyrarkirkja through the streets to the gardens. They 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. From 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. Unfortunately 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. We 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. Back in Hvammstangi, near the pier was a pillar of wood used to hang the day’s catch out. This 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. The ticket for the seal watching trip also included entry to the attached seal museum. Like 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

Top of the falls

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

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

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

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 (3694ft) 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.

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.

But my goal was to visit one of Iceland’s (and the world’s) most famous geysers, Strokkur. The ‘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.

 

Since 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.

 

Behind Strokkur was a lupin-covered hillside where a path lead up to the summit. I 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. In 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. After coming back down, I had a look around a few other pools of note before retracing my steps back to my car.

 

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. I 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.

 

Following 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. I couldn’t stop looking at it, and clearly neither could anyone else that was there. It was hard not to get carried away with taking photos, there was just so much to take in. I enjoyed wandering along side the river on the lower walkway and then headed back up the stairs to get a viewpoint from above. I 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. It was surreal. After 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. However, having checked in, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I backtracked to Kerið, a volcanic crater next to route 35. It 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. Although 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.

 

The next morning I again realised that Icelanders don’t really do breakfast out. Nowhere 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. I 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.

 

Seljalandsfoss 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. The 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.

 

Along 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. Only 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. I had noticed a couple of paths eroded into the cliff face, and assumed that this was evidence of people wandering out of bounds. I 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.

 

Assuming you have no fear of heights, this is a must-do here. The whole time I was at the summit, I saw only 2 other people and a path leads along the cliff in both directions. In 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.

This waterfall falls down over what used to be coastal cliffs, but now sits around 5km from the sea following coastal retreat. A 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. I 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.

 

Like many people, I followed the river for a while past more waterfalls and round a few bends above the gorge. The 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. There 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.

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