There are few things more annoying than my alarm. I’ve picked a happy little tune… something perky and energetic, but all I want to do is smash my phone when that alarm goes off on days like this one. Not only was I tired – a few early days on “vacation” will do that to you – but I was also still feeling pouty about my ankle injury. The first thing I did when I sat up in bed was assess the ankle. When I’d gone to bed it was a touch swollen and there was a slight hint of a bruise. I peeled off the two socks I’d worn for compression and it looked significantly more colorful than when I’d gone to sleep.
With bruising all the way down the outside and into my foot, I flirted with some range of motion only to find I didn’t really have much ability to move due to pain. While my ankle was sore, I was fairly certain it wasn’t going to stop me, but upset at myself for letting it happen to begin with, and more concerned it would slow me down. I knew the next 2 days of our tour were going to be adventurous and demanding at times. If I couldn’t participate in everything, I was going to be miserable; and my travel buddies were going to be miserable, too.
I eventually got up and around and gimped my way downstairs to meet Sarah and Taylor who were already at breakfast. Eight o’clock rolled up fairly quickly and Sarah peeked outside to find that our guide had already arrived. Thankfully, I was able to get my toast and Nutella, and Sarah was so kind to grab me a coffee for take-away.
We walked to meet our guide while Taylor hit the restroom real quick. We were greeted by an extremely cheerful man by the name of Sven. As he reached for my bag I returned the greeting with a “good morning.” He responded, “Yes! Every day is a good day.” I loved his positive attitude! Immediately I was thrilled about the 2 days we’d spend with Sven! We informed him we had another friend joining and she’d be just a minute. He said, “Did she need to make the poopy?” I couldn’t believe he’d said that! We’d just met! When Taylor came out he gave her a hard time about using the restroom before getting on the bus.
We would soon learn that Sven is known as “Crazy Sven – Princess of Extreme Iceland.” We had no idea what we were in for, but it was a blast! Sven has a bit of a potty mouth, doesn’t care what anyone thinks, speaks his mind with “no filter,” and is super goofy! He was so entertaining and made the tour so much fun. However, the best things about Sven are that he has so much passion for the nature in his country, so much knowledge to share, and safety was a huge priority. When it came to safety, Crazy Sven took a back seat for a moment and Serious Sven spoke sincerely with us. We couldn’t have been more pleased with our Arctic Adventures tour and guide.
So off we zoomed (and I mean zoomed) through the city in our Mercedes minibus with a trailer behind for all our luggage. Sven doesn’t mess around when it comes to driving. There were quick accelerations and decelerations, subsequent motion sickness, and squeezing the van and trailer between two signs and onto a sidewalk to pick up some people when he couldn’t find immediately available parking.
We finally made all the pickups, except for Pedro who wasn’t at his stop. We’d refer to Pedro missing out for the rest of the trip. Out into the countryside we drove. The landscape soon changed. As we got further from Reykjavík we saw less vegetation and fewer horses. (I sure do love those little horses with their goofy manes)!
The weather was sunny, but even as we moved into the South Coast, it was still cold and windy. Our first stop was at Seljalandsfoss. My immediate observation was the number of people. On the Snæfellness Peninsula there were sites where we were the only ones there. Seljalandsfoss was typical of every other touristic place you’ve been to.
I hopped out of the bus and carefully limped my way to what I considered the “best” spot for photos without people in them. Unfortunately, this area was also completely ice covered. I was very, very careful and I’m happy to report I was able to stay upright this time! This waterfall is unique in that you can walk behind it, but unfortunately, it was too icy for us to do it. Falling into an ice cold body of water while water pummels me from 200 ft above was not at the top of my Iceland list of things to do. Although, neither was slipping down a hill and suffering an ankle injury, but it was definitely the lesser of the two evils.
A quick 20 minutes at Seljalandsfoss and it was time to move on to the next spot. We all piled back into the bus and drove a while longer. Sven gave us so much information about volcanoes, including Eyjafjallajökull, which erupted in 2010. He said there are 4 or 5 currently expected to erupt any time. Currently, it isn’t unusual to have approximately 200 earthquakes per day in Iceland. In the few weeks before we arrived, they were reporting even more than the average number of earthquakes. Sven used to report the news in Iceland and was interviewed a number of times in 2010 when the ash from Eyjafjallajökull’s eruption disabled air travel for 2 weeks. He believes the current earthquake activity is mimicking what he experienced prior to 2010 and believes something is about to happen. Thankfully, it didn’t happen while we were there. I was hoping to at least feel a (safe) little tremor, but never did.
Sven pointed out beautiful sights along the road: waterfalls, farms, glaciers, islands. These islands are actually in the middle of land, but cannot be considered mountains as the area was once completely covered by sea. We were so glad we paid the money for a tour. The flexibility of a car can be nice, but we learned so many interesting facts about Iceland by having a tour guide.
Suddenly, I saw a huge waterfall and was excited to get out and take more photos, although it appeared the massive number of tourists was going to impede me. I noticed there was a very long staircase going up the side of the waterfall to the top. I asked Sven if it was worth it to go to the top and he informed me I must. With my ankle feeling a little better when secured in my hiking boot, I thought I’d give it a go.
As I walked up to the waterfall I saw a rainbow and remembered seeing a photo of this waterfall, Skógafoss, although I assumed the rainbow was a chance occurrence. As it turns out, it’s not! Due to the amount of spray the waterfall produces, it isn’t unusual to see a rainbow, or even a double rainbow. I didn’t realize until looking through my photos that I had actually captured a double rainbow! It’s a gorgeous view and I took alllllllll the photos.
When I thought I’d captured enough of the waterfall from below, I took on the staircase. There were 370 stairs and the wind continued to whip me about. As I neared the top, I couldn’t help but admit the cardio was more painful than the ankle!
The view from the top was fantastic. The Skógá River feeding the waterfall was fast and grand. The cascade of water over the side was both beautiful and terrifying. The rainbow was present from the top as well and seemed so unreal! I looked out over the landscape toward the ocean and it was as flat as could be – a manifestation of a long history of volcanic activity. The cliffs near the fall are the former coastline.
Once our allotted time was up, we went back to the bus. We couldn’t help but be amused when a tourist was nearly left behind. As Sven began to drive away, a guy spoke up and indicated “a guy is trying to get on.” As it turns out the two were friends traveling together. We are still baffled as to why he didn’t speak up in the first place to say his friend had not yet returned to the bus! The best we can tell, it must have been a language barrier. Needless to say, that guy wasn’t late again. Sven says he always loses at least one, but it was rather early in the tour for that…
Our third stop for the day was Reynisfjara Beach. This beach is aggressive and is known for sucking tourists off the beach and pulling them out into the ocean. Serious Sven was very sincere with us about staying away from the waves and not turning our back to take a selfie as this ocean is a “sneaky bastard,” and large waves will sneak right up on people. This was also our lunch stop. Noticing a large crowd and several tour buses, we opted to eat lunch first so none of us became hangry if we ran out of time.
The beach is beautiful and a nearby island is accessible by beach with the appropriate vehicle. This island is known for having a large number of puffins, but this time of year they have not yet migrated back.
Following lunch we only had 10 minutes to explore the beach. As I hurriedly walked around the rock corner to follow the path to the beach, I realized this was the beach with the basalt columns, similar to what my boyfriend and I saw at Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland.
There was no way I could get the entire scene without a million people, but here it is. Ahhhhh, nature. *rolling eyes*
Back into the bus, we went. All of us were accounted for. Our intermittent stops were making it less apparent that we were driving 4 hours and 220 miles out onto the South Coast. Before Sven hopped behind the wheel, he was very forthcoming about some concern with the weather ahead. It was sunny skies for us, but several of the tour guides had been referencing their forecast apps and there were extremely high winds forecasted in an area were there is only sand, thus creating the potential for a dangerous sandstorm. He wasn’t sure we would be able to make it safely through this area. Driving a tall bus with a trailer wasn’t going to make it any easier. He insisted we all put on our seatbelts, and if I’m being honest, I was a little nervous!
Several calls were received as we drove further east. All the guides were communicating with one another. Eventually we learned the winds were not quite as bad as they were expecting, so onward we went!
We pulled off the Ring Road so Sven could tell us about a lava field we’d been driving alongside. He informed us it’s the largest lava field in the world covering over 500 sq km. Furthermore, the moss growing over the lava rocks is about 30 years in the making. If an uninformed tourist so much as steps on the moss for what he/she thinks is a cool photo, they will immediately kill it.
“Get the $%&* off my bus and go take a selfie,” Sven exclaimed as he hopped out of the driver’s seat. I was sitting second row back and the people toward the back of the bus were some of the most impatient people I’ve encountered. If I didn’t know better, I’d think the back of the bus was on fire every time we stopped. In order to facilitate their urgent need to exit the bus, I grabbed my coat to put it on outside. I was having some difficulty getting my arm into the sleeve – I was already bundled up in 4 layers of clothing, so moving was a struggle. I was walking and trying to get it on. I thought Sven was being nice when he came up to help me put it on, but as he walked on, he said: “You look like a $%&*-ing idiot.” So charming, that Crazy Sven!
Sven also advised us we were not allowed to take a selfie without him. Despite my best efforts to sneak one in…
The lava field would be our last stop for a while. I could have used the drive time to work on my blog, but I was still concerned about the dust storm scenario. My seat belt was pulled tight and I was looking out of the front of the bus. Sven was still taking phone calls. As a fellow sightseer pointed out a small dust storm ahead, Sven decided to pull off again to double check that it was safe to proceed.
The landscape was getting unique and was looking more and more like what I would expect the moon to look like. I managed to grab a few quick pictures at that stop.
It’s safe to proceed! Our ten minute break was over and we piled back in and headed down the road. For over an hour we continued on. Sven told us about the horrible flooding the area had experienced in 1996 due to the eruption of the volcano, Vatnajökull, which subsequently melted the glacier and mobilized icebergs. The water and icebergs took out part of the No. 1 Ring Road, and some bridges. As this is the main road in this area, it was a complete disaster. A monument was built with the damaged scraps from the Skeidará Bridge.
As the sun was going down, we were encountering the windiest part of the drive. There is a place where the wind whips around the mountains/glaciers and comes through a flat, sandy landscape. We were met with a huge gust while crossing a bridge, and could see the haze of all the dust blowing by, but it was only a matter of seconds and we were through it.
Before taking us to our hotel for the evening, Sven had a surprise for us. He turned down a long gravel road and right before our eyes was, Svínafellsjökull, a beautiful glacier. The sign at the entrance of the area was covered with warnings. Sven made it very clear that we needed to be careful, do not stray away from the group, stay away from the edge and “stay on my ass.”
He stopped to point out a memorial for two young men who were camping and ice climbing who disappeared in the glacier and were never found. Sven used it as an opportunity to discuss all the dangers of being around glaciers and stated the memorial is a reminder to others that the area is dangerous and extreme caution is to always be used.
At the base of the glacier there was a collection of water, now frozen. We learned if a glacier was to move at all, the entire area would break. Anyone who happened to be walking there at the time would fall into the water and it would be impossible to rescue them. I couldn’t help but think how many unsuspecting tourists do things like walk on what they believe to be “safe” frozen water, not knowing they are truly putting their lives in Mother Nature’s hands. I was again reminded how beneficial it was to have a guide.
We also learned the black stripes through the ice were not the dust that was blowing around, but instead evidence of layers of ash from a volcanic eruption believed to have occurred around 900 years go. It was mind-boggling to me that I was staring at ice that was at least more than 900 years old. Somehow this is different than any ruins or artifacts I’ve ever seen. So powerful and magnificent.
We walked and walked up the rocky cliffside. The wind was especially strong and I kept having visions of blowing off the side into the glacier. I kept my distance from the edge and stayed right with Sven, as instructed. When we got to the top we were rewarded with the most beautiful view of the glacier.
We learned as the snow falls at the top of the glacier, it pushes the ice down the side, which is what we were seeing. The top of the glacier itself was camouflaged by the clouds that had rolled in overhead. Our sunny day had quickly gotten dreary, and all I could think of was how the Northern Lights wouldn’t be visible on the last opportunity to see them. I was devastated, but still remaining hopeful, more for my mood than because I truly believed all the clouds were going to disappear.
By the time we got to our hotel it was starting to snow a bit. We checked in to our rooms. As they were double occupancy I ended up with a room by myself. I always love to check my views from the room, and I was not disappointed.
I met up with the girls for dinner. The salmon was one of the cheapest local options so I had that (again).
I also tried a local beer, unique as it is made with water from the Vatnajökull glacier and arctic thyme, which is only available for a short period during the summer. I don’t typically like beer, but I was really impressed with this one. Of course it wasn’t available at any other restaurant we went to – only in the Vatnajökull region, it appears.
At dinner Sarah noticed a solo traveler from our tour group sitting at a nearby table by himself. She suggested we invite him to our table and Taylor and I both agreed it was a good idea. We enjoyed getting to know Joel, a 22 year old student from Singapore. He was on his first solo trip and had only told his parents he was riding solo on the day he left. He was ill-prepared with only a “windbreaker,” but he seemed to tolerate the cold ok. He told us about his education, language exposure, and about his experiences in Iceland up to that point. As the snow was coming down and the wind blowing it violently around the restaurant, Joel informed us he’d never seen snow before! We were so excited for him! We insisted we take a picture of it after dinner. How amazing!
We tackled the blizzard in the short walk back to the separate building with our rooms. With my Northern Lights viewing opportunity completely out the window, I decided to make the most of it. After all, it was a beautiful snowstorm, and I was hoping for a fresh blanket of snow in Iceland. The greatest benefit was the ability to use the snow to ice my ankle, which I did so for a few hours before bedtime!
I’d hoped to spend the time I would’ve been gazing into the sky to blog instead, but after several long days of touring, I couldn’t keep my eyes open!
The next morning we awoke to a beautiful (somewhat) snow-covered sight.
We grabbed breakfast and then headed to the Diamond Beach. There is a river that flows from the glacier into the ocean. Chunks of ice often break off and come down the river. As they float into the ocean, the waves wash them back onto the shore. Previous days had very few “diamonds” on the beach, but as Sven pulled into the parking lot, we could see several lining the shore. There was something Sven didn’t like about that particular side of the river and instead took us over the river to the other side. Sadly, this shore was not as decorated, but this is where he parked it. We were disappointed but decided to make the best of it.
The ice is often clear as the ocean washes over it. Over time the ice melts. You can often tell by the surrounding sand how big the ice was when it was first washed up onto shore. The ice we were able to see was still fairly opaque, and many pieces left covered in black sand and high on the shore as the tide came down.
One of the most beautiful things about the beach was not the “diamonds” strewn about, but instead the mixture of black sand and white snow. The wind had blown much of the snow off the grass at the hotel, but here the snow remained. Oddly beautiful ripples were created by the wind and water. A snow covered beach is an unusual sight for me.
I also took advantage of the opportunity to create a snow angel on the beach. It was probably the first and last time I’ll ever get the chance to make a true snow angel on a sand beach.
Disappointed to not have seen bigger diamonds with perfect clarity (most girls’ dream), we eagerly moved on to the next activity – ice caving!
Sven took us to a parking lot where we transferred into a van, built like a monster truck with huge flair sides and giant tires. If I wasn’t sure about the moon landscape beforehand, I was now. It was bumpy and desolate. In the distance was Vatnajökull glacier and lagoon. It seemed like we were in the van forever. I was at the back, so suffered some motion sickness. It was a bumpy, bumpy ride. We finally made it to the ice cave where we met Marcus. Standing atop a glacier was magnificent… ice as far as I could see. Given my recent difficulty with ice, I was thankful to have my crampons. Those puppies weren’t letting my boot go anywhere it wasn’t supposed to!
Marcus was going to be our ice cave guide. He is from Germany but is spending 3 months in Iceland, leading tours and enjoying some adventure of his own in his free time. He advised us the Crystal Cave, for which the area is so famous, was flooded and we would be unable to visit it. Instead he took us to “Anaconda,” named for the way it weaves around, much like a snake. The cave was fascinating and we learned the ice there was around 500 years old. We also were shocked to learn that 10 meters of snow will turn into 1 meter of ice. When you look at the amount of ice above, it hard to imagine how much snow had created that ice, and how heavy it must have been! Especially when you think how heavy a full snow shovel feels! No wonder the ice is creeping down so quickly. The Icelanders are also very concerned with climate change, stating there has been a quick and significant decrease in the mass of the glaciers.
Helmets and head lamps were applied and into the belly of the snake we went. The ice was beautiful, like we were surrounded by glass. Cold and wet, we wriggled through the crevasses, admiring the brilliant bluish-green, and touching 500 years of history.
There were two areas we could explore. The second area had a ceiling that looked like waves. This was a result of the high winds that blow viciously through the caves.
Before we knew it, our time of ice cave exploration was up. We returned our gear to Marcus and got back into the monster van for the long, bumpy ride back to the parking area.
We had a chatty driver from Wales and he took the time to explain what it’s like driving across the glacier. He uses 4×4 for the majority of the drive, and refers to his Garmin GPS, which shows previous vans’ paths so all the drivers know the best route.
He stopped by the lagoon for a quick photo opportunity. Sarah, Taylor and I have been really bad at taking photos of the 3 of us. Fortunately, this driver was willing to take photos for everyone.
We were returned to Sven and we started the 4 hour drive back to Reykjavík. When we got back we said a sad farewell to Sven and checked back into the Airbnb we’d stayed at previously. We then hit the town to find some dinner. We did some exploring of an area we’d only briefly been exposed to, and found the cutest little restaurant. I almost tried the $49 4-Course Tasting Menu with whale, horse, puffin and some other Icelandic delicacy. I didn’t really want to spend $49 on food I didn’t know if I’d like. Furthermore, I can’t eat an animal I cuddled two days prior. I decided on the duck confit salad. Sarah got mussels and Taylor enjoyed a burger.
When we left the restaurant, we surprisingly ran into the Swedish tourist, Erik, from our first tour whom we’d also seen on the side of the street waiting for a bus 2 days prior. We have quickly learned that Reykjavík is like small little town. We ran into 2 Canadians before and after the symphony, but in separate areas. We saw Erik three times. We also saw a couple from the second half of our tour right outside the restaurant.
Exhausted from all our adventuring, we boogied back to the apartment and wasted no time going to bed. No alarm would be needed for our next day, which would be our last in Reykjavík.