Author: Chris Cameron and Julie Dawson
The trip was a birthday present for Julie and based on foreknowledge of Iceland our aspirations regarding what to see/do were more or less as follows:
1. Orcas - 1st for Julie, 2nd for me.
2. Aurora Borealis properly.
3. Gyr Falcon
4. Harlequin Duck
5. White-beaked Dolphin
6. Barrow's Goldeneye
7. Brunnich's Guillemot
8. A swim in the Blue Lagoon
and from research and local birders' assistance we added the following:
9 Whooper Swan
11. King Eider
12. American Wigeon (again first time for Julie, 2nd for me)
and of course we hoped to see some of the geological and scenic wonders of the country. But first we had to get there.
Tuesday, March 27, 2012
Without intending to, we had booked on the inaugural Easyjet flight to Iceland and included on the crew were Easyjet's two Icelandic employees. We were confident that the flight would be on time so set our alarms for 03:15 :(
We were in the air promptly having left the car with Airparks who were very efficient and quick and we both received commemorative boarding passes to record the historic occasion. The flight was full with a mix of Icelanders, tourists and business people. Upon arrival, instead of champagne the 'plane passed under an archway of water created by two fire engines. It's a good job they warned us or we might have thought it was the worst rain ever.
As Iceland is not in the EU we are entitled to Duty Free products and these are available on the way through the airport. We bought a bottle of local vodka (Elduris) and some sweets to keep in the car and fill-up on if food was as cripplingly expensive as some people suggest.
The pilot mentioned 11 kmph winds at Keflavik but by the time we had picked up our bags and collected the rental car it was much stronger than that but we had places to be.
White-winged Scoter and American Wigeon were first on our list because they were both very close to the airport. We had packed the car and unpacked our binoculars and telescope in the rather vicious wind and annoying drizzle and set off with rough directions to Nardvik from the rental company employee.
10 minutes later we were driving around the town which is really now an extension of Keflavik, trying to find some suitable places to look for the birds. Apart from a few anonymous seagulls flying over, the first birds that we found was a family group of Whooper Swans. These birds would have returned recently from their wintering grounds further south and who knows, they might even have been the one that we saw in Shropshire earlier in the year
We drove around the rather unprepossessing area for a while and finally found the area where the wigeon should have been. It was larger than we had expected and would require a telescope for viewing but telescopes are not much use in strong winds and the rain had also worsened considerably. We didn't hold out much hope of finding the bird. We pulled into a car parking area at the western end of the lake in order to have a good look at the map to find the harbour area, from where the White-winged Scoter had been reported, as well as a drake King Eider, both of which would have been new species for us and noticed a small group of ducks on the bank just in front of us. The first one that we looked at properly turned out to be the American Wigeon, so Julie had a 'lifer' within not much more than an hour of getting off the flight.
Having obtained good views without having to leave the car (the rain even eased off enough for us to switch the windscreen wipers off briefly) we worked out how to find the harbour and set off in that direction.
There seemed to be no particular restrictions preventing us from driving onto the pier/breakwater at the west end of the harbour, so we did just that, parking at a point from which we could see much of the quite large area enclosed by the harbour infrastructure
There were plenty of Eiders in evidence, many of them already paired up for the rapidly approaching breeding season and also gulls and fulmars. One or two unusual looking ducks were spotted but they turned out to be drake Eiders in intermediate plumages rather than the smart adult attire that is more typical.
The weather had improved to the extent that it had stopped raining, at least temporarily, though the wind was still powerful and the temperature uncomfortable, even with foul weather clothing and we didn't much fancy the idea of getting out of the car and checking the other side of the sea wall where both rare birds had also been seen when a small car drove by and stopped further down the pier. With a population of around 300.000 there aren't many birdwatchers in Iceland so we were slightly surprised to see the occupants get out and set a telescope up. We drove down to park near them and say hello.
It turned out that they were visiting from Norway and including some birding in their Icelandic holiday. They had already seen the Scoter but were after another view (this is quite an unusual species in the region which makes its home in for northern Siberia and western Canada). Like us they couldn't see it in the sheltered harbour but unlike us they had the determination to risk exposure and hypothermia by checking out the nearby sea.
I hope they saw it.
Geology beckoned so we left them to it, stopping at a point where the sea was visible from the car but not seeing much in the rather heavy seas, although there were clearly birds about.
The Reykjanes peninsular contains much evidence of the violent volcanic history of Iceland and for me at least, one of the most interesting is the Bridge Between Two Continents near Sandvik, our next port of call.
This small footbridge crosses the fissure that marks the boundary of the huge continental plates where North America and Europe sit. It is therefore possible to jump, at the mid-point, between the two continents and as we had the place completely to ourselves, that it precisely what I did. Repeatedly.
Gunnuhver is visible from the bridge – or at least it was today. There are probably many occasions when fog or low clouds obscure it from view completely but there might also be occasions when even if it can’t be seen it can be detected by scent. From a distance the most noticeable thing about Gunnuhver is the steam – lots of it issuing from the ground in this area of high geothermal activity which, legend has it is the place where the witch whose name it bears was dispatched by a local priest some 400 years ago
There are two approaches by vehicle and we took the first one. With the benefit of hindsight, the 2nd, when approaching from the Bridge Between Two Continents might have been quicker, simpler and easier with a shorter drive on unpaved tracks.
For someone used to the geological stability of the British Isles, this place is quite fascinating. It has apparently been much more active since 2006 when drawdown commenced from a nearby geothermal reservoir. Steam gushes from the earth in numerous places and clear hot water boils up but it is the bubbling mud that is of greatest interest and coupled with the strong smell of sulphides in the air the elements combine to give the place quite an eerie feel that was no doubt enhanced by the fact that, as with the bridge we had the entire location to ourselves.
We decided to admire the Reykjanes lighthouse from afar rather than to brave the elements and get a closer look, justifying our urge to move on in part by the fact that the day was advancing and we had quite big plans to realise before sunset (although we were not very clear about when sunset would be, this being only a few days after the equinox but also the time of year when the daylight hours lengthened by the greatest amount) so onwards and eastwards we went abandoning our notion to head back to Gardur near the airport to look for Gyr Falcon
The next settlement of any substance was Grindavik which is just south of the world-renowned Blue Lagoon but the waters of the lagoon would have to wait because a local birdwatcher had recommended a place to see another of our targets, Harlequin Duck. Iceland is one of the top places in the world for seeing this strikingly marked duck that enjoys cold and rough waters both on land and at sea (learn more about them here … ) and although they are relatively common and widespread here we were keen to find our first ones.
We found a parking spot near to the sea easily enough but finding somewhere to actually view the sea properly was slightly more problematic. We walked some distance up the road only to find that there were properties and fields between us and the beaches. Walking in the other direction we soon found a path down to the coast and walked down this to found shelter in the lee of a building where we could set up the 'scope.
The Atlantic Ocean was impressive as it often is, with towering waves crashing against the shore, which looked promising for Harlequins. The first birds we located were actually Long-tailed Ducks, another striking and unusual species that we are always pleased to see, but it didn’t take us long to find our first Harlequins
Viewing was pretty good but the wildness of the sea meant that they were constantly in motion and often out of sight in the troughs between waves.
With reasonable expectations that we would find more Harlequin Ducks on our travels and what looked like a downpour on its way we quickly returned to the car and were soon back on the road to the east. We were already beginning to appreciate that road travel in much of Iceland is a calming experience – there isn’t any traffic. We were on a fairly major route not far from the capital and we had it to ourselves for much of the time. Other birders will appreciate how important this can be because it means that sudden stops are more of an option if you haven’t got somebody hovering 5 metres from your rear bumpers.
One of the challenges of travelling any distance in Iceland at this time of year is getting something to eat. There just aren't that many places. We knew that petrol stations often served food and eventually we found one with a cafe and seating, where we got a couple of cheeseburgers with chips and drinks for about £15. Dining in petrol stations would become the norm for the next few days. Not exactly haute cuisine but the portions were big.
Sunshine had started to break through from time to time when we had arrived at the bridge though the strong winds persisted and the better weather was still punctuated by showers but we were going through a period of greyer weather when we noticed a couple of Red-throated Divers in a roadside pool
These birds are reasonably commen around British coasts in the autumn and winter but are seldom seen in their breeding plumage anywhere south of the Scottish Highlands so we took a while to enjoy this glamorous couple before continuing to Selfoss from where we intended to head inland to find two of Iceland's best known attractions, Geysir and Gulfoss.
Although the Whooper Swans we had seen in Nardvik were a family group, we had been seeing numerous pairs as we drove along which means that many had returned to their breeding territories. Swans often mate for life and will remain loyal to the same nest site year after year. We noted a large flock of geese in a field by the road and a quick checked showed that although most of them were Greylags a handful were the less common White-fronted Geese.
The word geysir has entered the English language to describe any feature such as Old Faithful in the Yellowstone Park that gushes boiling water into the air periodically but the word is derived directly from Geysir in Iceland. There are several geysirs at Geysir and the main one from which the name is derived erupts only infrequently and can go for years without an eruption, with periods of activity normally being prompted by earthquakes or significant volcanic activity
However nearby is Strokkur which erupts every few minutes. The magnitude of the Strokkur eruptions is nowhere near as great as those of Geysir but if you've never seen anything like it before it seems impressive enough.
On the way up from the parking area (a short walk) you pass the Litli Geysir, a small depression filled with constantly boiling water that never quite builds up enough pressure to blow its top, which is probably a good thing because it is very close to the path.
In keeping with everywhere else we'd been, Geysir was not busy with only a few dozen people on site (which has free entry) Strokkur sits in a pool of clear water which pulsates in a rather ominous way, especially as the next eruption approaches, with the water being sucked back into the pipe and then bulging out again several times before the eventual explosion. It's fascinating and we even had one blow completely to ourselves, with no other people nearby.
One thing that surprised us about driving in Iceland was the tiny amounts of livestock. We had expected to see sheep everywhere, being used to highland regions in the UK, where they are very numerous, but we hardly saw any.
Icelandic Horses are more widespread but even these are often widely separated with a small herd in one field and then miles before you see another. The horses are small and sturdy and look more like ponies than horses. Exporting them is permitted and they are apparently the only breed of horse in the country, having been bred for toughness over centuries of harsh weather and frequent periods of famine. Other types of horse cannot be imported to Iceland and nor can exported Icelandic Horses be returned for fear of importing diseases that the isolated local population has not been exposed to.
The horses certainly look the part with long manes and tails and a thick coat that is equipped to withstand much of what the local climate can throw at it, although they still look quite forlorn when they all line up to face the wind in the driving rain. The first big concentration of horses that we saw was in the Geysir area, where several companies offer trekking and riding experiences.
From Geysir, the next obvious stop is the waterfall of Gullfoss but we planning to spend the night in the area and the Hotel Gullfoss was on the way, so we stopped to check in. The hotel (http://www.hotelgullfoss.is/ ) is not difficult to find, being one of the few buildings in this part of Iceland (huge swathes of Iceland are unpopulated which means that on our 1:300,000 scale map, even single farms are listed in many areas)
It’s not exactly an attractive building, which is in keeping with architecture in the rest of the country which tends towards the functional and utilitarian, but it is well maintained and we received a warm welcome. They even kept the same room number that we’d had in the Luton Travelodge to make life easier for us.
After taking a few items out of our luggage we set off again to spend some time at Gullfoss. We’ve been quite fortunate over the years with waterfalls having seen some pretty impressive ones, including the Victoria Falls in Zambia and we had already noted that Iceland seems to have more than its fair share of cascades, a consequence of being rather wet and geologically new, I suppose, but Gullfoss is worth going out of your way for.
There is a double drop of almost 100 feet with the lower section, at right angles to the top part, being the taller and more impressive, because it is vertical. The River Hvita which flows over it is wide and in late March swollen by flood water so that clouds of spray are sent towering into the air, noticeable from some distance away. The falls could have been damaged immeasurably had some English developers had their way in the last century and exploited them for electricity but lack of investment coupled with local opposition meant that the project didn’t really get going and the falls remain for visitors to enjoy.
As with Geysir, we had the falls almost to ourselves. There was only one car in the car park when we arrived, although another pulled up just after us. There are several paths leading to viewpoints that allow for different perspectives and the need for dozens of photos
One of the paths closest to the falls was closed because it was still partly covered by snow and ice, although this didn’t put one couple off but they seemed to survive the experience with the worst of the snow being at the far end of the path where the drops were minimal.
We remained at Gullfoss for about an hour but the temperature started to drop somewhat as the afternoon turned into evening and the wind continued unrelentingly (always keep a tight grip in the handle when you open a car door from the inside in Iceland) and dinnertime at the hotel was a fairly small slot, so we drove a bit further along the northbound road but only as far as the sign that said that it was impassable, and went back to Hotel Gullfoss to get ready for our evening meal.
All our research in advance led us to believe that eating out in Iceland is expensive and we were about to find out. We ate in three different places in the evenings during our five night stay and meal prices ranged from about £36 to £60 (the latter being three courses). We had soft drinks and a couple of glasses of wine. On balance I don’t think that the problem is that the meals were expensive – in fact they seemed comparable to UK prices in terms of the quality of the food. I think the difficulty is that in smaller places there is little choice other than to eat in hotels
The situation that exists in the UK, with some places offering 2-4-1 or two for £12 alongside much more expensive restaurants just doesn’t seem to exist.
We both had starters (I forget what they were, but they were good) and we both had lamb for our main courses. The lamb was excellent as were its accompaniments and I felts that we had pretty good value for money. I didn’t have any alcohol because I still entertained the possibility that we might drive out for a bit to see if we could 'find’ the Aurora Borealis but by the time we had finished eating we could see that there was a steady drizzle and any substantial holes in the clouds would be a long way off. We were both feeling quite tired after a long day so decided to have a reasonably early night, after checking to see that the vodka we’d bought hadn’t gone off. It hadn’t.
Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Breakfast in the Hotel Gullfoss was pretty good with the highlight for both of us being little pots of cheese spread with shrimps that went very nicely on toast but we had some miles to travel to our next destination so we didn't hang around for long after settling the tab.
Barrow's Goldeneye is a North American duck that has a couple of populations in Iceland. The main centre is in the north of the country around Lake Myvatn but there is also a smaller area in south west Iceland where they can be found. Yesterday we had driven straight by one of the best known spots for seeing them without realising that we had reached it (we thought it was further north) so after a bit of debate we decided to retrace our route and spend a short while looking for them.
Strokkur erupted just before we drove past - we saw the steamy aftermath but not the eruption itself - but our first stop was a pull in off the road at Tjaldsvaedi vid Faxa
We got out of the car to look at the waterfall in the valley below and immediately started to hear song birds, the first that we had heard since arriving in Iceland. We were initially puzzled by what they were. A couple of female Blackbirds scuttled off beneath the pine trees but they weren't singing. After a little a while we located a bird on top of a tree, singing its heart out. It was a Redwing - a very familiar bird in the UK during the winter but one that we never hear sing because they don't breed there (there are some in the Scottish Highlands).
Our next stop was the volcanic explosion crater of Kerid, a little further south. This is really worth a look. Kerid is set back off the road a very short distance. It is a volcanic explosion crater with its own little lake nesting in the bottom. It's a short climb from the car and although the wind was still quite strong today it seemed to be calming down a little and we felt able to linger for a few minutes on the crater rim to enjoy the views, both down into the crater and of the surrounding landscape.
Kerid is only about 3000 years old which helps to explain its state of preservation. Don't pass by without giving it a few minutes of your time.
Returning to our southwards route we called next at the open forest of Snæfoksstaðir which contained some of the tallest trees that we saw during our entire stay in Iceland
Some of the trees were apparently even older than me. There were more Redwings singing here and a couple of birds that were probably Siskins flew past. We followed the path to the top of Kolgrafarhóll which seems to be a pile of volcanic cinders and gives another fine view over the locality. The local rocks provide an opportunity for you to show off your superhuman strength as well.
The morning was progressing and we had made virtually no progress towards our evening destination in the Snaefellsness Peninsular so we were off again and determined to have a proper look for Barrow's Goldeneye. Our informant had given us four places to try, near the bridge over the Sog River not far from Sellfoss, the "Big Bend" on the Sog River below the two dams, the water behind the top dam and if all else failed, the northern side of the Thingvallavatn lake.
Julie worked out a route that looked to be scenically interesting with a minimum of retracing of steps, although if we were to cover all the sites that would be unavoidable. We started by the bridge where there were no birds at all in evidence and then took the minor road up the western side of the river. This is scenically impressive and we stopped a couple of times to admire the towering cliffs to the west that seemed to have thousands of fulmars, presumably nesting there
We saw a couple of ducks on the river and I walked down the hill to see if I could get a better look whilst Julie stayed at the top to keep an eye on them should they swim off. The ducks turned out to be Mallards but a Goldeneye flew out from near them and sped off down the river. I didn't see it and Julie only saw it flying away so couldn't say for certain whether it was a Barrow's or a Common Goldeneye, which also occurs in the area at this time of year.
On the waters edge behind the lower dam was a single rather chilly looking Oystercatcher and then it was on to the Big Bend which was our best bet for Barrow's we thought. We pulled in to the only safe looking place at the side of the road and right in front of us was a superb Merlin on a gate post that hung around for long enough for Julie to get several decent photos despite the very poor light.
The Merlin eventually got fed up with being photographed and flew off so we got out of the car and walked down the road to where we could see a couple of ducks on the river. As we got closer we could see that these were Harlequins and then another pair of ducks swam out from a little gap in the bank. More Mallards.
A short stop in strong winds just above the main dam was enough to convince us that the lake was pretty much bird free so we decided to cut our losses and head north and west, possibly finding some lunch somewhere along the way
When we got to the northern end of Thingvallavatn we noticed a side road that ran closer to the lake and looked quite nice so we followed this. The road passed through an area of low trees and scrub and a brown bird that we didn't recognise flushed from the roadside and flew alongside us for a few seconds. We stopped the car to have a look and heard more Redwings. A few seconds later we realised what we'd seen when a Wren popped up to the top of a bush. The birds in Iceland are of the Icelandic sub-species islandicus and are noticeably bigger than the wrens that are a common garden bird in England. Incredibly the wind had died down and we were also able to hear the bird's song which had elements of the song familiar from woods in much of Europe and elements that sounded very different.
Whilst Julie was trying to get close enough to the wren to get some decent photos I was scanning the lake shore and eventually found some ducks quite a distance away. I was pretty sure they were Goldeneyes. But which kind? I got the 'scope out, found them and thought that I was seeing key features but they were still a long way off. We drove half a kilometre or more down the road and stopped again. We couldn't find them and were on the verge of giving up when we spotted them again, still quite a distance away but diving frequently suggesting that they were feeding. We moved on another few hundred metres and stopped as close as we could possibly get
At this close range we only needed binoculars and sure enough, there in front of us were two females and one male Barrow's Goldeneye - a new species for both of us.
Although we had been doing random tourism (apart from the ducks, none of the things we'd seen today had been "planned" I had sort of decided to give Thingvellir a miss because it would delay us in our urge to get to the west coast. However we continued along the minor road and it brought us out right by the car park, though at the time and until we'd parked we didn't realise exactly where we were. For lots of info about this place of geological marvels and ancient parliaments, see here ...
Thingvellir stands on part of the same system of geological faults that is home to the Bridge Between the Continents and here the gap between the two sides of the fault has filled with crystal-clear water into which countless tourists have tossed coins. A waterfall pours over the lip of the plateau to disappear into a gorge and the whole site is quite appealing. It was also pretty much the only place where we encountered mass tourism and that
coupled with the fact that it was beginning to rain was our excuse not to stay as long as the area probably deserves.
Time was being devoured and we were hardly any distance from the Hotel Gulfoss so we resolved to have a longer drive and set off west towards Reykjavik across some distinctly cold-looking landscapes
When we reached road number 1 we turned north away from the capaital which was invisible because the weather had worsened again with the wind returning and with it low cloud and rain. Akranes was our next target because 12 King Eiders had been counted there on the previous Sunday. We had a very brief stop beside one of the fjords en route because we had noticed a small group of Long-tailed Ducks on the sea which was quite calm in this protected spot and they are always nice to see well. They were just too far away for a decent photograph, though.
There are two realistic options for reaching Akranes and beyond, either the long drive around Hvallfjordur or 6 kilometres through a road tunnel uder the fjord. We chose the latter because the gloomy weather meant that there probably wouldn't be much to see amyway. The toll in March 2012 was 1000 Krone which was about £5. This seemed quite expensive but at least we were out of the rain for a few minutes.
As we arrived in Akranes we both noticed a bird flying over the shoreline. It looked like a large falcon. Iceland only has two falcon species, Merlin, which is petite, and Gyr. The bird disappeared behind a hillock but there was a pull-in and the track continued behind the hillock to a point overlooking the sea. The bird, of course, was nowhere to be seen. Continuing into town we looked for a suitable place to stop and find the rafts of thousands of Common Eiders that harboured the small number of "Kings" but the wind had developed to a new level of fierceness that meant that the use of a telescope would be impossible. Feeling quite hungry we gave up and found a petrol station where we grabbed another burger and chips based lunch.
The wind was still pulling at the car doors and threatening to tear them off if you weren't careful when we finished lunch so we decided to press on northwards as we still had some distance to go
The weather was unremittingly grim as we passed through Borganes and headed for the Snaefellsness Peninsular with visibility sometimes down to 100 metres or even less so we just kept going, there being nothing much to see had we stopped.
Grundafjordur is on the north side of the peninsular and the road climbs through the hills to get there. It is kept clear of snow so was no problem to drive, even though there was extensive snow right down to the edge of the road in many places.
With nothing to look at and no other traffic on the road (there really is very little going on on Icelandic roads away from the capital) the drive was actually as bit boring but surprisingly as we neared the high-point on the road and started down the north slope things cleared substantially and we could suddenly see the beauty of the hills and snowfields that we were passing.
The road to Grundafjordur crosses two bridges over fjords and we knew that Orcas (Killer Whales) had been seen in these fjords in the previous week, so we went across them slowly (there was nobody else to hold up). There were lots of Eiders, of course and a big group of Shags but no sign of any cetaceans
We had another stop just as we arrived at Grundafjordur when we pulled on to the pier to have a look at the harbour. A female duck caught our eye almost immediately and had us reaching for the field guide because it showed some features of the much scarcer Steller's Eider which is a species with a very northerly distribution which normally winters around southern Alaska and eastern Siberia. This would have been quite a find so we spent quite a long time looking at it, although it spent more time under the surpace than on top of it. Eventually we decided that it was definitely a Common Eider with some plumage variations that weren't described in our field guide and over the enxt few days we saw several more like it to confirm our conclusions. I don't know how many birders there are in Iceland but had we decided that this was a Stellers then they might all have been making their way to Grundarfordur the next day.
Grundafjordur is a reasonable sized village that stands on the edge of the fjord, overshadowed by the imposing bulk of Kirkjufell. There a lots of mountains around the world and some of them are very impressive, others less so. Kirkjufell is one of those that proves that you don't have to be high to be noticeable (Stac Pollaidh in north west Scotland is another). We took a lot of photos of this mountain from different angles and in different lights during our stay.
The Hotel Framnes is easy to find – just follow the hotel signs that appear shortly after you pass the small harbour. It has views of the fjord on one side and views of the mountain on the other so there's a fair chance that if you stay there you will have a room with a view. It’s a working harbour though so as well as the sea and the hills you might also get some of the paraphernalia that goes with a busy port including a couple of small gas containers, or something similar to them.
The proprietors of the hotel seemed to be expecting us and before we’d even told them who we were they were directing us to the back door telling us that Orcas were in the harbour. Now I’ve seen one before in 1982, from the ferry between Brodick on the Isle of Arran and Ardrossan in Ayrshire on a scorching hot August day, but Julie had never seen one so we dumped all our luggage except for the binoculars and went to look.
There were at least four Orcas out in the middle of the fjord including on adult male with a very tall dorsal fin. Having assured our 'tick’ we went back inside (it was cold and we were still dressed for the car journey), checked in, dropped the stuff off, and then went back to the car to get the telescope. The hotel owner suggested that we should stand behind a wall that formed the edge of the hotel car park to get shelter from the wind which is exactly what we did and we were soon enjoying superb 'scope views of the whales that had moved a bit closer whilst we were messing about.
When we were cold enough we checked the time and asked whether there was a table available in the hotel restaurant
There was and there was also time for us to get freshened up. The Orcas where visible from our bedroom window so we set the 'scope up there so we could keep an eye on them whilst we were getting ready.
The Framnes restaurant is quite large and the hotel wasn't full but by the time we got there there were already several tables taken. The soup of the day was Mushroom and the fish of the day was Monkfish but they also had a lobster special that Julie was unable to resist - in fact when it arrived we worked out that it was almost certainly less expensive than a similar dish would have been in the UK.
The soup was excellent but the main courses were better. The highlight was definitely the lobster, which was actually more likely to be what gets called langoustines in Britain. There were lots of them and their shells were partly removed for ease of access. The Monkfish was jolly good too.
The hotel provides a rather splendid service at this time of year - it should probably be called Aurora watch. Reading the reviews and aspirations of people travelling to Iceland, the Aurora Borealis or Northern Lights is probably the single thing that most people really want to see
And probably the one that causes the most disappointment. Specialist tours are offered from Reykjavik and they are no doubt run by people who know the best way to increase your chances of getting lucky, but if it's raining or there is 100% cloud cover, then you can probably forget it. However the owners keep an eye both on the websites and the weather and at about 22:20 we got the call to say that it was looking good for a display. We went out of the back door but although there was a small amount of clear sky there was nothing to be seen. Looking west it was still possible to see a line of silver on the horizon where the sun had set so it was still not fully dark, so we agreed to the recommendation to set off in the car and find somewhere without artificial lights where we might stand a better chance.
We headed east (away from the silver line, you see). There aren’t actually all that many places to pull in at the roadside but we found a couple and worked out how to put the car’s interior lights out and sat and waited. We repeated this sequence in several different locations, driving perhaps 50 kilometres in total, but everywhere we looked there was almost complete cloud cover. A promising looking glow in one area turned out, as expected, to be the moon which put in a brief appearance through a postage-stamp sized hole, but that was about it. We weren’t too disappointed because we have a realistic view of the chances of seeing any natural phenomenon and sort of expected clouds in Iceland in March – and anyway we still had three nights to go.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
The day, or that bit of it when it's daylight seems strangely uneven at this time of year in Iceland - more noticeably so then anywhere else I can remember visiting. It was only a week or so after the equinox, when there would have been 12 hours of light and 12 hours of dark and there were almost three months to go to the solstice when there would be hardly any dark at all but already the daylight hours had lengthened dramatically
The thing was there was a lot more day time after lunch than before it.
I woke at around 6 a.m. and it was beginning to get light, although the sun was yet to rise. It was a bit grey but seemed rather calmer than the day before. It would not get properly dark again until well after 9 p.m. meaning that there is was about 50% more daylight after midday than before it. This is probably quite a good thing for people who work outside and tourists alike, because few of us really enjoy being up at 4 a.m. but still being active at 8 p.m. doesn't seem so bad.
My eyes always take a bit longer than the rest of me to wake up and when they were functioning properly I had a look across the fjord. There's some kind of fish processing activity going on in Grundafjordur (no significant upsetting aromas, which is more than we could have said for Akranes the day before which was beset by what Julie described as "fish stench"!) but it attracts a lot of sea birds, many of which end up by the hotel. Yesterday there had been hundreds of birds, mainly Eiders, Fulmars and Glaucous Gulls feeding in dense flocks (rabbles might be more accurate) very close to the shore. There weren't so many this morning but as I watched the flock was growing bigger. They're probably a regular feature and there's no need for binoculars to get a good look at the attractive male Eiders in their breeding plumage and the Glaucous Gulls, some of which are almost pure white
However if you are planning to visit Iceland and hope to see wildlife, especiallly whales and dolphins I urge you to take binoculars. A reasonable pair can be had quite cheaply and you will almost certainly get better views with than without and perhaps more importantly you can search for them wherever there are views of the sea and might be surprised at what you find.
Before long I was starting to see black fins across the fjord and through the binoculars I could tell that there were at least four Orcas on view, closer to the head of the fjord than they'd been the day before. Views were even better through the 'scope although there wasn't much room for it next to the bed :)
Julie was up "soon" after me and it was time for breakfast (breakfast at the Framnes starts at 7 a.m.). It was similar fare to that at the Gulfoss Hotel but with no shrimp cheese and with pancakes and maple syrup as a welcome addition. Certainly good enough for a start to the day.
With the car loaded, we got into the car but didn't get very far. We drove down to the end of the road on which Hotel Framnes stands, which is as far as it's possible to go because there is only sea beyond and stopped to have a look over the defensive wall formed by piles of boulders in case one or more of the Grey Seals we'd noticed in the area last night was about but instead found a group of four Harlequin Ducks just offshore, much the closest that we'd seen so far so it was out with the binoculars and camera
Our observations of the Orcas suggested that they were mainly keeping to the eastern side of the fjord and we had checked the map to confirm that there was a driveable, unsurfaced road there and set off, pausing for another photo (there will be more to come) of mighty Kirkjufell and noting the spectacular double waterfall not far of the road at the very head of the fjord, called Grundarfoss which looked like a possible place for a visit later. The weather was ok and felt like it could go either way but the wind, whilst still present, was much reduced from the previous day which gave us cause for optimism.
The road on the east side of the fjord passes through several small settlements and farmsteads but, frustratingly for us at least, maintains its distance from the shoreline, usually keeping at least one and more often a couple of pastures between itself and the coast. We stopped and scanned a few times for Orcas but we didn't see much. The changing scenery on both sides of the sea inlet were plenty of compensation with some towering crags and the everpresent Kirkjufell keeping the views interesting.
A side track looked as though it would get close to the water so we followed it until it became clear that it would end up in a farmyard when we turned back
This was also our first chance to get a close look at an Icelandic Sheepdog, a large species related to the Spitz and more surprisingly the Welsh Corgi. Like the horses, these are now protected by a ban on dog imports. In one farm a dog had the freedom to roam, at least withing the property's confines, and came running over to greet us with barks and a wagging tail. It was certainly an impressive specimen.
We continued a little further but the road started to deteriorate somewhat as hinted at by the map and we weren't driving a four-wheel drive vehicle so we retreated not wanting to end up with a big bill for repairs or worse than that, stuck. The weather gradually improved and by now there was a lot more sunshine around and we were ready for a bit of a walk with the wind having dropped off a lot.
The walk to Grundarfoss waterfall from the road looked straighforward, mostbeing across flat pastures to the base of the crags. We found somewhere to park (there was space for a few cars so the place probably ever gets crowded, put our boots on and set off. The walking map at the start of the track that goes over a stile and then crosses a couple of fields where numerous Icelandic Horses were grazing says 1.5 kilometres and there are other longer options
I think the distances must be for the return journey because although we did not get right up to the falls because the river crossing looked just deep enough for us to get our feet soaked it didn't feel anything like a mile. This is definitely something you should consider doing though, if you're staying in the area because the falls are very pretty indeed and with the flow being quite high because of melt-water run-off, the second, smaller fall parallel to the main drop was easily noticeable, though this might not be the case in drier period according to some photos of the falls that I have seen.
We'd wrapped up against most meteorological eventualities before setting off because there was cleary no shelter on the walk to the falls but the weather continued to improve so we were quite releived to shed our waterproofs when we got back. Our thoughts were focused on heading west to the end of the peninsular but first we set off back east to the Hargrafar Fjord in case the whales had swum around the corner.
There were no whales to be seen from the bridges or viewpoints on the fjord but again there were lots of birds with the main bridge over the fjord being the location for the largest number of Shags that we saw anywhere in Iceland as well as an inquisitive Grey (Atlantic) Seal
Having found no whales we turned around and stopped briefly to look at the mix of large gulls, mostly Glaucous and Great Black-backed that hand about on a beach near the head of Grundafjord before moving on. We were near the pull in for Grundarfoss when Julie exclaimed "Whales! Whales! Whales!". I knew she could be talking about the principality in the United Kingdom so I stopped the car to let her get out with the camera an found somewhere safer to pull in and join her.
There were several not far off shore, perhaps seven altogether including the same large males we'd seen the afternoon before, although he was harder to see than the others, spending more time under the surface. As with the sightings before, the Orcas seemed very relaxed, spending long periods on the surface and slowly swimming back and forth providing plenty of opportunties for photographs.
We'd seen plenty of pure or near pure-white Glaucous Gulls but hadn't had many chances to get a really nice photo until I noticed a couple close to the shoreline. Julie snapped off a few shots - they were almost too white with the images being rather on the saturated side but when we looked at them we worked out what was catching their attention
One of them had caught a rather large fish. Gulls tend to be opportunist feeders and scavenger, but they will make the effort to catch their own if necessary. The bird that got this one managed to more or less swallow it whole in one gulp - you can just see the tip of its tail in the 2nd photo. It must have slowed it down a bit for the rest of the day, though. If you're wondering what's the big deal about white gulls, then go and look at some near you. If you live in a part of the world where gulls are numerous and it's not in the far north (I can't think of any all-white gulls in the far south but there might be some) then you'll see plenty of birds with lots of white on but they'll all have varying amounts of black, grey or brown as well. If you see an all white one, tell a birdwatcher :)
"Isn't it about time you had something to eat?" I hear you ask as you ponder what a busy morning we had had and it's difficult to disagree. The map showed a few villages to the west of Grundafjordur and we decide to have a look at Olafsvik because it was en route to the end of the peninsular and we liked the name. It seems obvious to us that with the incredible scenery and coastline there would be cafes in Iceland that exploit this fact and we would have liked nothing more than a cosy place with big windows from where we could admire the views over a bowl of hot soup or something more substantial
It might be because we were early in the season and nowhere much wqas open, though there were quite a few tourists about, but we didn't really see anywhere like this. After a couple of circuits around and a bit west of Olafsvik we ended up in another petrol station. Don't get me wrong, there's nothing awful about these places - in fact the fish and chips I had in this one were excellent - we would simply have been grateful for something that wasn't fast food. It's still easier to get fed in Iceland in March than it is in much of Estonia in June, though.
One other positive point arose - Julie was able to get a few photos of a lovely lenticular cloud that formed over the mountains and snowfields leading up to the glacier of Snaefellsjokull. We had a look at the road leading up to the glacier but there was a sign saying 'Impassable" that we decided to heed.
So we turned west, past another coastal village at Rif and then past Helissandur. It was somewhere around here that the weather started to worsen, with the sunshine and clouds being replaced by dense fog and winds. We decided to keep going though - who knew - it might clear up a bit.
There was a beach at Skardsdvik that looked like it might have been very pretty but was almost invisible through the fog so we kept on going, switching from paved road to dirt track
The track continued through wild and rocky terrain with a few passing places that we didn't need because no-one else was daft enough to be driving here on a day like this. At the end of the track is the western end of Snaefellsnes with two lighthouses. We took the right-hand fork and ended up at the Ondverdarnes light. There was a sign here pointing to something called "Falki". Falki is the Icelandic name for Gyr Falcon. We guessed that there wouldn't be one wating for us but the wind had dropped somewhat (it certainly wasn't sheltered here!) so we got out for a bit of a walk.
Falki turned out to be a hole in the ground with some steps leading down to it and no explanation or interpretation? Was this some Viking burial site or a smugglers' hideaway? Subsequent research has shown that it is actually an old well, from when the site was occupied by a far, but how old, other than a vague "very old" I haven't been able to establish.
There are very few song-birds (passerines) in Iceland as I have already noted. Moving on from Falki we walked towards the sea. The coast here is rocky but the lighthouse is only perhaps 10 metres above sea-level. We'd been told that there had been some kind of surge that had washed in all kinds of debris, including a Sperm Whale, along this part of the coast and there was evidence for this here in the form of thousands of small fish covering an extensive area
There were also some song-birds - Snow Buntings - a species that I had expected to see far more of in Iceland. There were at least three here and they were coming into their smart breeding plumage. Plenty of birds over the sea, at least for the short distance we could see, including more Harlequins.
Working back south towards the second lighthouse involves a bit of a climb and there are cliffs here that the road goes quite close to. Just before we reached the lighthouse I noticed a large raft of dark birds on the sea below and stopped to have a look. These were clearly auks. Iceland has five breeding species. Non-birders from al over the world hope to see Puffins but these entertaining and corourful little birds were not yet back on their breeding grounds. Birders, at least those from much of Europe, want to see Brunnich's Guillemots.
Thw wind was back and Julie and I chose to stay in the car to look at these auks. It was immediately apparent that most were Guillemots with a few Razorbills included. The differences between Common and Brunnich's Guillemots are mainly quite subtle, especially in poor light. There were definitely plenty of Commons there but what about the one we wanted to see? The sea was mobile with a strong swell meaning that getting a look at any single bird for more than a second or two was near enough impossible
Catching sight of the white strip on the bill and confirming that the bird was definitely not a Razorbill was really tricky so after 20 minutes or so we accepted the inevitable and agreed to get out of the car and set the 'scope up. Hopefully the car would provide enough protection from the wind for us to hold it steady and avoid being blown over the cliff-edge.
As I stood up having got out of the car I spotted a rock stack that had been invisible from a seated position. This stack had nesting birds on it and the first one I looked at through binoculars was a Brunnich's Guillemot! At least we didn't need to bother with the 'scope.
There was not much to see at the lighthouse itself, literally because it had begun to rain again and the fog had closed in so we retraced our route as far as Skardsdvik where the weather and visibility had improved sufficiently to make a stop worthwhile. There was an expanse of spotless sand below so we picked our way between the volcanic boulders to the beach.
This is often described as a "black sand" beach but I have to say that I've seen blacker. That's not a criticism. It's a very pretty beach and we had no expectations of black sand anyway
We weren't the only visitors that day. There was at least one set of human footprints and more interestingly evidence of a clawed mammal. There are virtually no wild mammals on Iceland so this was possibly an Arctic Fox. These are regular beach scavengers and one had been reported from further west on the peninsular a couple of days earlier.
We wondered if the weather we were getting had moved east along the peninsular so headed back towards Grundafjordur but more or less where the fog and rain had started when we originally came west, it ended.
As we progressed eastwards the weather got better and better and before long we were in bright sunshine with virtually no breeze. It was hard not to stop every few minutes for photographs (and we probably did). Kirkjufell got into a few more frames. The peninsular (and the country as a whole) has a lot of waterfalls and you can't get a photo of every single one in a short visit.
Hrauns are lava fields and we's noticed that there was a side road that crossed the marvellously named Berserkjahraun just east of Grundafjordur. Berserks or Beserkers where Norse warriors who worked themselves into a frenzy or rage, possibly aided by narcotic-laced foods and drinks who where fearless in battle and feared by their enemies
Presumably this extensive lave-field bears their name because of the many strange and contorted columns and spikes of rock it contains although Berserks are reputed to have lived in the area over 1000 years ago.
On a day like this it's a pleasant drive that our little hire car was easily up to but in a short distance there is little in view except the track to remind you of the modern world. It's probably very atmospheric on a gloomy day with mist drifting over the rocks and moss and many areas are still unblemished by even the faintest traces of vegetation, although the eruptions that created the hraun happened 3500-4000 years ago.
The sunshine remained glorious so we thought we'd spend some more time with the Orcas and after exiting the Berserkjahraun road we turned west for Grundafjordur and the hotel, where we set up the 'scope in more or less the same spot as the evening before, but without having to hide in the shelter of the wall. Looking over the sea defences we noticed a number of small birds in amongst the rocks at the water's edge - Purple Sandpipers, quite a sought after species around British coasts in the winter - 24 of them. The whales again performed to requirements.
We were quite late down to dinner following a fairly long and interest-filled day and we both had mushroom soup again, prepared differently from the day before but equally delicious followed by pan-fried chicken on a bed of risotto which was also jolly good
We lingered in the restaurant, chatting to two groups of North American tourists who had arrived at the hotel a couple of days before us and who were also enjoying their trips. We speculated a little bit about whether there might be any Aurora activity tonight, given that the sky had been completely clear when we had come in just before 8 p.m. but decided against tempting fate and actually going outside before it was properly dark. I had the feeling that if it didn't cloud over it had the potential to be a long night.
At almost the same time as last night the hotelier popped his head round the door to say that there was a small amount of activity starting up so we all filed out of the back door and sure enough there was a greenish smudge in a more or less north-westerly direction. As we watched it grew a little brighter and covered a larger area and then seemed to subside a little. Two of the Americans said that they had scoped out a spot down the road that should have little light pollution so we got into the cars and off we went, westwards to a rather good location overlooking the see to the west of Kirkjufell mountain.
I couldn’t risk looking at the Aurorae whilst driving but Julie kept an eye on them and confirmed that they were still visible and when we stopped the car and got out the difference was noticeable
Much more of the sky was affected and the display was much brighter here. Julie set up the camera on the tripod and started to take photos which looked like they might be quite promising on the camera screen. A long exposure (10 seconds or more) was required and we were a little concerned that the light breeze that was blowing might cause camera and blurring of the image.
I think we stood and watched from this spot for about an hour, during which time the display just kept on improving. I was surprised by how much visible activity there was. You could see movement in the lights, changes in shades and even with my poor colour vision, occasional bursts of orange. Curtains and sheets of light where seen along with spotlight beams and comet shapes. It was quite entrancing.
It was also quite cold and after a while the breeze began to be more than just an inconvenience. We all agreed that the car park at the Framnes would provide some shelter and a better place for continued viewing.
By the time we got back to the hotel the sky was so black that the small amount of light pollution form the village was not making too much difference and the aurorae where showing extremely well
Our trusty wall provided shelter from the breeze as hoped and made for a much more comfortable experience. The display went from good to better, much of the time filling half of the visible sky. We continued to watch until after 1 a.m. when we decided that if we didn’t go to be soon we might end up being up all night.
At about 1:40 I was just putting an update on Tripadvisor letting people know that the Orcas were still showing well at Grundafjordur (seeing Orcas is high on many visitor’s 'to do’ lists when they visit Iceland at this time of year) when Julie glanced out of the window and said "Come and look at this". I switched the light up and looked out. High above there was a huge circle of glowing green light and as we watched a wave of darker green swept slowly around it as if someone was stirring cream into a very dark cup of coffee. I think we both stood watching with our mouths open. We couldn’t see how it was going to get better than that so we called it a night (but left the curtains open).
Friday, March 30, 2012
Although we stayed another night in Grundarfjordur I'm putting the map pin in Stykkisholmur because we went there today and this represents the furthest north that either of us have ever been on the surface of the planet. I think our flight to Costa Rica via Miami in 2003 might have gone even further north but I don’t reckon it counts.
For the record, our furthest west so far was somewhere in the Pacific Ocean about 30 miles of the south-east coast of Costa Rica, our furthest south was about 20 miles south of the Cape of Good Hope in the Indian Ocean and our furthest east was in Cambodia, somewhere about 50 miles east of Siem Reap – so in a way out of all our extremes as per the compass, this is the only one we can pinpoint with accuracy.
Despite our late night with the Northern Lights we were up and about quite early again and yet again watching Orcas from our bedroom window before breakfast
We decided that we would explore a little more of the west of the Peninsular today, probably taking in some of the south side as well and we were soon on our way.
The drive west was strangely familiar, with blue skies and sunshine being replaced by low cloud and fog at pretty much the same place as yesterday. Is it always foggy here? Things seemed more promising because the strange wires that seemed to be holding the clouds up the day before were now revealed to be cables supporting a large communications mast - though it still wasn't possible to see the top of the mast.
Having passed the road to the lighthouses and noted that visibility was gradually getting better, we pulled off onto a rough track signposted for Saxholl. This small, steep-sided crater is the entrance to the centre of the earth. Well it's supposed to be, anyway. Jules Verne's intrepid adventurers entered the caverns that led to the earths core in his novel "Journey to the Centre of the Earth" somewhere near here and there is a brief shot in the trailer to the 1959 film of the book, starring James Mason that looks very much like it.
It's a jolly nice crater, though lacking the lake contained in the crater we'd visited the day before, not quite as visually pleasing
It's also more of a climb, although for most people it should only take a few minutes to scramble up. "Steps" have been thoughtfully provided in places but we weren't sure if they were a help or a hindrance. Coming down is probably trickier and needs a little more care. Worth the effort though.
From Saxholl it was a short drive to the next pull off somewhere near Beruvik from where we walked down to the coast threading between a few pools of clear water to what might have been some ruined Viking dwellings. As at the lighthouses yesterday the shoreline here was peppered with many dead fish and other items recently or long ago washed up, including what looked like the remains of a shipwreck and a large piece of wood so riddled with shipword that it was more hole than not.
From time to time we got glimpses of the upper sections of Snaefellsjokull through gaps in the cloud and we wondered if we might get a photo. We walked south along the shoreline but the terrain was rough and we stepped on a couple of wobbly boulders that almost upended us. We were hardly in the remotest place on earth here but a twisted anlkle would have meant a long and painful struggle back to the car or an uncomfortable wait for "rescue" so we turned back.
Our next stop was a few miles further on, was at Londrangar where two tall rock pillars dominate the coastal landscape
To get close to them we had to negotiate the remnants of the winter snow in a sheltered spot. It was firm and easy enough to kick steps into but we trod carefully, if only because had we slipped we'd have ended up in pools of very cold meltwater at the bottom.
We've done a fair bit of whale and dolphin watching over the last 10 years or so and might even be reasonably good at it. I'm probably fooling myself but I think there are some places that just 'look' as if they should be good for cetaceans. Obviously being on a cliff on a clear, calm day helps because it means that you can see much further and don't have the problems of swell to contend with, but looking out to sea as we walked down to the stacks I couldn't help feeling that there should be dolphins there. We hadn't brought the 'scope because it is awkward to carry, but we did have our binoculars and within a minute of starting to look I was picking up fins in the water. I thought that there were at least three and that they were two different species with my best bests being Orcas and White-beaked Dolphins. There weren't any obvious reference points (British waters tend to have many net marker buoys and more permanent structures to use) and try as I might I couldn't get Julie on to any of them and then of course they disappeared.
We continued walking to get a closer look at the pillars, enjoying the best weather of the day so far with quite a lot of sunshine which made us rather warm in our outerwear, especially when walking back to the car up the hill
After inspecting the stacks I insisted on having another scan for cetaceans and this time Julie found some as quickly as I did and much closer to the shoreline. Two or three quite large dolphins with a distictinctly silvery-grey appearance reminded us somewhat of Risso's Dolphins which never get this far north. The only thing they could have been were White-beaked Dolphins which should be no surprise as they are the commonest dolphins in these waters. These were the 18th species of cetaceans that we had seen in the wild.
After three spearate walks, two of them quite long and one quite steep we were feeling hungry so we set off in search of food. If you visit the area in March, don't bother. There are places in the nearby villages of Hellnar and Arnastapi but they weren't open yet. They looked very nice though and worth a try if you're here in the high season. We took the road across the peninsular to back to the north coast road between Olafsvik and Grundafjordur and carried on to Grundafjordur because we had an idea to see if we could get to Stykissholmur before it was time to head back for dinner.
In Grundafjordur we stopped for a bit of shopping and some stamps for our postcards and we spotted a van on the car park that seemed to be selling burgers etc
Reasoning that we didn't want anything too big because it was only a few hours until dinner time we walked over and had a chat with the chap inside who conviced us to by a couple of "Henriks" that he said we could only get in Grundarfjordur. They were hot dogs with grilled sausages, onions, mustard and other bits with the piece de resistance, broken Dorito shards. I rather liked mine and was ready to go back for another but Julie was less convinced.
From Grundafjordur we took the minor road/track across the northern part of the Berserkjahraun and then followed it along the coast eastwards. This is a beautiful section of coastline that photos seldom do justice to, with numerous islets strung out along Breidafjordur. At one point we stopped to see whether there were any whales about (I had read that Breidafjordur can be good for Blue Whales in the spring and summer) and through the binoculars spotted a shape on one of the nearby islands that could only have been a White-tailed Sea Eagle (Snaefellsnes is an Icelandic stronghold for this huge bird of prey). I wanted a better view so started to set the 'scope up, frequently checking to make sure I could find it easily. Somehow in the ten seconds or so between my last 'check' and pointing the 'scope in the right direction it completely disappeared!
We couldn't find evidence of any cetaceans in the fjord but whilst we were looking a 4x4 drove past - a rare enough event on these roads to be worth remarking on
They stopped a little further down the road and young lady got out and walked back to ask if we were looking at whales. I said we hadn't seen any but that there were good views to be had a short distance away in Grundafjordur (we'd seen them again on the drive through, twenty minutes ago). She then asked if it was me who had posted about them on tripadvisor and said that they had come this way especially because they wanted to see whales and had seen my post. They were staying at the Framnes so I wished them luck and told them that we would be back later and would try to get them some good close-up views with the telescope.
Stykissholmur beckoned for that pin in the map so we moved on and north, pausing for a while by a large pool not far from the road that held not one but three pairs of Red-throated Divers, all in pristine breeding plumage. Stykissholmur is the largest settlement on the peninsular, although still little more than a village. It has a pretty harbour which is also the boarding point for the ferry across Breidafjordur for points further north. This is probably a super journey in the right conditions.
There is a columnar lava structure near the harbour which, whilst not as spectacular as the Isle of Staffa still draws they eye. We didn't stop long, though
Just long enough to have a look around the very calm waters in this sheltered locality in case of whales or interesting birds (there was an Iceland Gull, much less common than the larger and similar Glaucous Gull, which is actually not particularly common in Iceland despite the name, which was the first we'd seen in Iceland, though we hadn't looked hard) and then we drove straight back to Grundasfjordur on main roads.
The American party that we'd met earlier had checked-in at Framnes and we found the Orcas quickly enough and were able to let them use the telescope to see them up close. As previously, the cetaceans seemed to head out into more open waters as the day drew to a close. Perhaps the risks from passing ships in the dark are too high in narrow Grundafjordur.
Dinner was excellent again with a splendid lobster soup followed by delicious lamb for both of us. I'm not a big fan of ice-cream but one of the desserts on offer was a medley of blueberry and caramel ice-creams and bluberry sorbet, all from a local producer. I really wanted to try the sorbet so we shared a bowl and I even enjoyed the ice-creams too.
A foray outside between 11 p.m. and midnight confirmed our expectations that there was 100% cloud cover and some rain in the air so it looked like there would be no aerial display tonight, but we agreed that if anything happened before 1 a.m. we would get a 'phone call.
Saturday, March 31, 2012
Our last full day in Iceland and we had chosen to try out one of the countries best known tourist attractions, the Blue Lagoon. Our flight from Keflavik was at 10:00 so we stayed at the Blue Lagoon Clinic which is about a twenty minute drive from the airport. It seemed quite pricey but the tarrif includes entry to the Blue Lagoon which is €30 per person if you just turn up at the gate and you can enter both on the day or arrival and departure, if you have the time and inclination, so it starts to sound a bit better value.
The word "clinic" has different meanings in different cultures and to Brits it has fairly negative connotations but it's really just a posh hotel that offers a few treatments. More about it later.
Although the morning wasn't quite up to the standard of the preceding two it was far from awful with the cloud mainly staying off the summits and no wind to worry about. I hadn't found Orcas from the bedroom window so we had another look after check-out from the car park but still nothing. I'm sure they'll be back, though. If you've come across this blog because Iceland appeals and Orcas and the Northern Lights are high on your agenda, then you could do much worse than come to the Framnes in March. Nothing is guaranteed, of course but there's some magnificent scenery as well that might be some compensation if it's visible and at least you needn't go hungry.
At least with the improved weather we reckoned we would get a better look at the scenery that we had missed on the drive in. Our first task was to deposit our post cards in Grundafjordur's post box and after that we set off east (checking the fjord for Orcas - still nothing) and the minor road around the head of Kolgrafafjordur.
This is a pleasant enough drive on unsurfaced roads which you can dawdle along at 15 kph. There are a few isolated farms strung out along the road but we didn't meet any other traffic, not that it would have been much of a concern. The scenery is fine but the highlights for us were two sightings (possibly of the same bird) of White-tailed Sea Eagles
The first one was on the ground and took off at our approach and the second one flew across the road in front of us a few minutes later. The birds were quite close so we got a good look at them but they were too quick for Julie to get the camera ready.
Returning to the main road we started to follow signs for Borganes and Reyjavik over the mountainous middle of the peninsular. Even though the road itself doesn't go very high the small lakes along the side of the road were mostly still frozen. Dropping down the south side we ran into worse weather with mist and drizzle and greatly reduced visibility. Thoughts of visiting the famous Eldborg crater were put aside. We could see it just about as we passed by but the fact that we had the windscreen wipers on all the time didn't tempt us much.
King Eider and Gyr Falcon continued to elude us so we diverted into Akranes, arriving there to pretty much coincide with a substantial improvement
in the weather. We stopped at several coastal places, some of the rather unlikely, until we found some big flocks of Eider. The Icelandic bird sightings had said there were 12 drake King Eiders amongst about 3000 commons, so we reasoned that we might only need to look at about 300 commons before finding the rarity. Wrong
We looked at a lot more than 300 but couldn't find a single one. We couldn't even blame the weather or sea conditions this time. We were just unlucky. A pile of rocks out in the harbour was covered with Purple Sandpipers - probably more than 200 and possibly more than we'd seen in our lifetimes up to that point. There were also a couple of Merlins overhead to distract us - in fact we saw four in total over the course of the day.
We gave up and continued toward Reykjavik and beyond, thinking of lunch. After negotiating the city without too much difficulty we returned to Njardvik for another try at the White-winged Scoter but there were very few birds to be seen here and it was last reported on the bird sightings website on 28th.
Gardur next for the Gyr Falcon but no luck here either and we were getting more interested in something to eat but couldn't see anything suitable in this village so we moved on to Sandgerdi where there was also a dearth of possibilties. Keflavik looked bigger on the map and also had something that looked like a town centre so we tried there. It has a street that passes for a high street, the first that we had seen in Iceland (Akranes makes an effort but perhaps we missed it). There were a couple of cafes that seemed to be open so we chose one and got some burgers and fries again
There seemed little point trying again for any of the birds and the weather was closing in again. Most people go to the Blue Lagoon to swim in the heated waters so it seemed churlish to delay any longer. Swimming gives you an appetite and we wanted to be hungry enough for our last Icelandic dinner.
As mentioned above we were staying at the complex but managed to miss it at the first attmpt and drove straight to the Blue Lagoon itself. The staff there explained our mistake and directed us back down the road to the "clinic". This is a rather nice place to stay, all wood and glass and spotlessly clean and comfortable rooms all on one level and looking out over the hraun. The receptionist explained how we could use the Blue Lagoon with our permit both today and tomorrow and also said that we could access the clinic's private lagoon from 20:00 until 22:00. Their restaurant was fully booked for the night but she gave us a few alternatives. We found our room, grabbed our swimming gear and walked the 600 metres back to the Blue Lagoon.
Check-in was simple enough and we were given our towels and found our way to some changing rooms (separate ones for males and females) and agreed to meet up in the water
We'd been given a useful trip by the American group who'd travelled to Framnes to see the whales, which was to leave the towels inside rather than taking them to the outside bathing area, because if left outside they would get really call. We'd also read online that finding a way to differentiate your towels was a good idea because all the towels are identical so people sometimes get 'confused' and pick up the first they find, so we left ours in a Marks & Spencer carrier bag.
People seem to have mixed feelings about the changing facilities at Blue Lagoon. For a start you are asked to leave your shoes near the entrance in a pile with other people's footwear. This provokes some add reactions. The reason is obvious – it is so dirt from outside is not trailed in to the changing area where the floor is wet, which is both unpleasant and potentially unhealthy. If this causes you some concern (although anybody who can afford the entry fee is unlikely to want to steal somebody else’s still warm shooes, then bring an old pair that you don’t care too much about or stick them in a bag in your locker. Or do what I did and leave your socks in them too. Anyone brave enough to tackle strangers used socks deserves what they get.
After shoes, the next hurdle is lockers
Some people seem to get perplexed by these as well. There are instructions on use inside the door of each locker in a lot of different languages. If you can understand any of these languages then it’s quite simple. The key is the "key" which is integrated in the wristband that you’re given at check-in.
Next, after changing in the public area there are the showers. These seem to upset some folk as well because you are requested to remove your bathing clothes and shower fully and these are open fronted. Apparently there are also some enclosed cubicles available, though I didn’t spot them.
With all these trials behind me it was just a case of follow your nose and I was soon in the small enclosed part of the pool and feeling my way down the steps. The water is almost opaque because of the high mineral content and so you can’t see much. I was quicker than Julie so had a few minutes to wait and get used to the pleasantly warm surroundings.
There is a door that you can open to get out into the main lagoon and so we went through this. It’s quite large and in some areas where the water is refreshed the temperature can get quite high but mostly it is comfortably warm
The drizzle had stopped and what little wind there was was effectively blocked by the surrounding lava. There’s a bar selling beer, soft drinks and unsurprisingly Blue Lagoon cocktails. You just swim up, put in your order and confirm it with your wristband so that you can pay on the way out. No need for a pocketful of coins.
Some people daub their faces and other parts with mineral mud from the bottom of the pool. It is no doubt very good for exfoliating and so on and probably cures all kinds of ills. I would advise caution before doing that. We scooped some up and it was full of human hair. I really didn’t much fancy putting that on my face or anywhere else.
I think we stayed in for 90 minutes or more. It’s quite good fun and fairly novel. We could have stayed longer but we did fancy trying the clinic’s pool as well so needed to have finished eating by about 9 p.m.
Invigorated by our swim the walk back to the clinic to get changed and head out for lunch was brisk and pleasant - might be different on a really cold, wet or windy day. We drove down to Grindavik where we easily found the Salthusid Restaurant
When we were seated the waitress came over and told us that the soup of the day was, delightfully, 'curly-flower' and the fish of the day was Halibut. We couldn't resist the soup and it's years since I had halibut so Julie went for the Lamb Chops. All very good indeed and the cheapest 'proper' meal that we had in Iceland. The place is rather nice too, being entirely wood and very light and airy with high ceilings. There were a number of smaller side rooms available as well that might suit groups. Recommended.
We might have lingered longer but we really wanted to try the clinic's private lagoon before closing time and we were there with 30 minutes to spare. There aren't many rooms so there's not such an issue with getting ready - we just slipped our voluminous Blue Lagoon dressing gowns provided in the rooms over our (still rather damp and clammy) costumes and walked the 50 metres to the changing rooms. No need to mess about with locker but they are provided if you want them.
Swimming outside in the dark, especially when the air is cold and there's a bit of rain about is a novel experience. We tried getting some photos but the steam in the air bounced the flash all over the place and it was too dark to get any decent results with the flash inhibited. We shared the pool with perhaps half a dozen others and it is large enough for you to have sections all to yourself.
With a reasonably early start we did most of our packing before going to bed but missed the heated towel rail which we could have used to dry our wet stuff out with had we noticed the switch. they're mostly disabled in the UK because of 'health & safety' so we hadn't even checked.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
Our flight out had been the 1st Easyjet route to Iceland and we'd been told that the outbound leg (from Luton) was going to include a number of Easyjet dignitiaries so we were confident that it too would be on time.
The drive from the Blue Lagoon to the rental car return point took just over 15 minutes without rushing. We were delayed a bit because we got there just after two other customers and had to wait whilst they were sorted out.
Keflavik airport was again a fairly laid-back experience and we were quickly checked in and yet again had our hand-luggage tagged for transportation in the hold. We used the last of our Krones in the Duty Free shop (more vodka - you never know when it will come in handy).
As predicted, the plane arrived in good time and we were soon heading back to England, where the weather was as good as it had been before we left. We dawdled on the way back, trying to find somewhere nice for lunch and saw a Short-eared Owl when we were passing through Northamptonshire.
Iceland was all-round excellent. Reviewing our 'hit list' ...
1. Orcas - we must have spent seven hours watching them at Grundafjordur
2. Aurora Borealis properly - incredible views - couldn't have asked for more
3. Gyr Falcon - thought we would see at least one but no luck. The bird on day two at Akranes might well have been one but we didn't see it well enough. An excuse to go back.
4. Harlequin Duck - very easy - present at many coastal locations.
5. White-beaked Dolphin - thought we might see more but well seen at Londrangar
6. Barrow's Goldeneye - worth the effort on day two.
7. Brunnich's Guillemot - found without too much effort and probably easier later in the season.
8. A swim in the Blue Lagoon - sort of inevitable but good.
and from research and local birders' assistance we added the following:
9. White-winged Scoter - defeated by the weather.
10. King Eider - poor observer skills or bad luck. They're still around as i write this in mid-April
11. American Wigeon - we dropped lucky on this one.
12. Ptarmigan - apparently at the bottom of their 10-year breeding cycle. I was surprised not to see any at all, though. We might have heard a couple. We'll look for them in north-east Scotland next week (see UK thread round about 19th April to see how we get on).
I strongly suspect that we will return.