We have arrived in the North! We are enjoying incredibly mild weather for the time of year…breezy (very breezy), intermittent sunshine and only a dusting of snow on the mountain tops. We’ve spent the last couple of days hitting some amazing Icelandic highlights such as whales, waterfalls, and lots and lots of lava. We even visited the cave where Ygritte tempted Jon Snow into breaking his vow to the Night Watch. All in all, it’s been a tip-top experience.
We decided to travel to our next destination, Akureyri, on the ring road, bypassing the many tempting gravel roads that split of and led over the mountains. We traded the unknown for an afternoon in a coffee shop catching up on blogging and booking accommodation. It was nice to just drive for 1.5 hours and even nicer to snuggle down and drink strong icelandic coffee all afternoon. We had a smashing lunch of fish and chips, guzzled caffeine and after an evening stroll, headed to bed early. Akureyri is considered the capital of the North, and is the second largest town after Reykjavík with a population of 18,000. You will have to take my word for it that it was quaint and lovely, because I didn’t take any pictures. Sorry.
Instead, here’s a picture of one of these wonderful coincidences of the language. Anyone had a good Krap recently?
As John has mentioned before, Icelanders have infinite renewable energy, therefore their houses are always toasty warm even though the wind is screaming outside. This means that every place we stay has induced a cozy sleep coma as soon as we hit the hay. Bonus coziness – their blankets are always full of down feathers, which makes getting out of bed a truly impressive accomplishment. After a restful nights sleep, we headed further North. The destination: Húsavík for whale watching. Along the way, we stopped at our first A+ waterfall: Goðafoss.
Goðafoss is translated as Waterfall of the Gods, and are important to Icelandic history. In the year 1000, at the Alþingi (National Assembly) the official religion of Iceland was on the table. After 24 hours of meditation, the chief law speaker decided that Iceland was to be a Christian nation, forgoing the Pagan Norse Gods of the past. On his way home, he passed the waterfall and chucked all his pagan carvings into the water, thus Goðafoss.
It’s not the tallest of Iceland’s falls, at only 12 meters tall, but it is nonetheless very impressive. There were several paths available to us, and we scrambled down and over all of them. John has a tendency to push the envelope when it comes to getting really close to the edge of things, and I had to call a red card on him at one point. Fortunately, he made it back, although my mood was not improved by his comical joke falls and pretend imbalancing acts.
Our next adventure was waiting for us in Húsavík: the Gentle Giants Whale watching tour. I was very, very excited about this activity. John has been on a whale watching tour before, but I have never seen a whale. I quizzed him quite thouroughly on the whales he had seen, but he said “I don’t really remember”. What is wrong with this man? How can you not remember?! Anyway, I spent most of the drive to Húsavík alternating between mentally preparing myself to not see a whale and singing “oh baby, baby it’s a wild whale’ in my head to the tune of Cat Steven’s Wide World. Eventually, John joined in the fun and we had a rousing rendition of Louis Prima’s classic: Jump, Jive and Wail – which quickly morphed into Pump, Drive and Whales. The first word referring to getting gasoline…not that other thing. Dirty birds!
First port of call when we arrived at Húsavík was to snorf down some lunch at the N1 gas station, which has surprisingly tasty meals. I opted for a simple sandwich, as we were about to get on a 3 hour boat ride and, as much as possible, I try and plan my gastric events with care. John threw caution to the wind and went with a cheeseburger slathered in what can only be termed N1 sauce – as it’s ingredients are a mystery but they put it on everything they serve there.
After lunch, we made our way down to the harbor to take in the sights before our tour.
A good deal of our time was spent making fun of the poor tourists that had booked a tour where they were forced to wear very brightly colored boiler suits. Húsavík is Iceland’s whale watching capital and multiple tours operate out of the small harbor. When it was time to board, we walked down to the docks.
Oh. We booked the same tour.
John, of course, still looked like a badass. I, however, looked overwhelmed. Also, they helpfully display the size you are wearing proudly on the front of your suit, which is great when you are on a boat with 43 tiny Asian women who are drowning in their XS suits. Gentle Giant, indeed.
About an hour into the trip, the first whale was spotted. Everyone on the boat went absolutely bat-shit crazy (myself included). We watched three Humpback whales do their thing for the next 2.5 hours and it was absolutely awesome.
I will inter-mingle some exciting Humpback facts we learned and some photos I took during the tour.
Humpback fact #1: They can grow up to 15 meters in length (just under 50ft).
HBF2: They can weigh up to 80,000lbs.
HBF3: They come to the surface to breath – blowing out carbon dioxide, and sometimes extra air from their lungs so they can dive down deeper.
HBF4: They are awesome at power naps. They can’t really sleep, but they shut down one hemisphere of their brain for a rest and let the other side take care of breathing and other whale-functions. Then, after about 15 minutes, they switch and let the other hemisphere take a break. Brilliant!
HBF5: They dive down for approximately 10 minutes at a time, although the longest recorded dive was 55 minutes. They can hold oxygen in their tissues that they use as a reserve.
HBF6: They migrate 16,000 miles a year to tropical waters to breed and give birth. They head north in the summer to feed on krill, plankton and small fish that thrive in the nutrient-rich glaciar-fed seas surrounding Iceland and Greenland.
HBF7: They can live up to 45-100 years.
HBF9: Even though their hearing is very sophisticated, they have no external ear. Their jawbone is connected to an internal ear organ which processes sound.
Final HBF: When mating, the males sing a complex 10-20 minutes in length for hours. Also, only the males sing.
We shared the waters with other tour companies, but we were friendly and shared our whale doings.
The 3.5 hours on the water passed very quickly, and we were stripping off our ridiculous whale suits far too soon. I feel very lucky to have shared the waters with these graceful animals. Much like the sea-turtles from Costa Rica, some of the whales we saw were swimming around before I was born and will still be swimming after I am gone. That’s pretty incredible to think about.
For the next couple of days we are staying on a farm called Miðhvammer (center of the valley), which John will tell you all about in the next blog. ***Spoiler Alert*** I get splattered with cow-shit.
Miðhvammer is 38km away from one of the North’s big attractions: Lake Mývatn. Mývatn sits on top of the Mid-Atlantic ridge, which is a violent geographic area to hang out in. The lake has been formed, and re-formed by many volcanic eruptions and in it’s current state sits in the middle of multiple crater, volcano calderas and steaming, stinky, thermal vents. We took a day to tour around Mývatn’s eastern shore and visit Grjótagjá (GOT sex cave), Hverfell (bloody steep volcano caldera), Dimmuborgir (lava fields) and Höfði (nature preserve).
As I’ve mentioned, the lake is surrounded by historic volcanic activity, visible above by a huge fissure that splits the landscape. Grjótagjá is a fissure cave that has been flooded, and the water is now heated by a geothermal spring. The water inside is 45 degrees centigrade, so it’s doubtful that Jon and Ygritte actually got in the water (most of the scene was filmed inside on a sound stage) but the episode was filmed in the area and Ygritte does pull Jon into an actual cave. Well, that cave was this cave:
It was a bit of a tight fit (ahem) but we crawled through the opening to the water. In the saucy GTO episode, Ygritte whispered “I wish we never had to leave this cave” which is further proof that they filmed on a sound stage as it was very stinky down there, and honestly, I couldn’t wait to get out.
After a trip back to the N1 station for more Dewey Egberts, we headed back out to the lake to explore Hverfell, a 463 meter (1519ft) tall crater that is the result of a volcanic explosion 2700 years ago.
It’s slope and caldera is made up of loose, black gravel and if you wish, you can hike to the top…which, of course we did. Amusingly, the guidebook states ‘there is a easy track’ that leads from the northwest end to the summit. The Lonely Planet definition of ‘easy’ differs greatly from my own. It’s a lot of up, made harder by the wind which whips the loose gravel up and around you and pushes you back a step on each gust.
Upon my arrival at the summit, if you had asked me whether the view was worth it, you would have had to wait about 5 minutes while I caught my breath. During that five minutes, my answer would have changed from ‘not at all’ to ‘absolutely’. What can I say? I do not like going up.
It was much windier at the summit than on the trail, which I didn’t think would be possible.
We weren’t up their long, the wind drove us down pretty quickly. But I can now say I have climbed up an extinct volcano, which I could not have honestly said yesterday.
Looking for something a bit more, well, flat, our next stop was Dimmuborgir (Dark Castles).
The lava pillars and craggy formations were formed when a lake of lava boiled the existing marsh. As the water boiled, steam jets rose through the lava and cooled it, which created hollow pillars. We opted for the most popular trail through the formations, which ended at a large exploded lava bubble called Kirkja (church) which could easily fit about 20 people inside.
There were lot’s of jabbery tourists lining the path, so when we saw a path marked ‘difficult’ that led up through the rocks, we checked it out. Surprisingly, Dimmuborgir’s definition of difficult is on the same mixed up scale an Lonely Planet’s, but in reverse. This path was very doable, and you got to climb through big lava holes and feel pretty tough about it. Most importantly, it was blissfully quiet and devoid of chattering tour groups.
We capped off our lava adventures with a couple of bowls (each) of delicious coconut curry soup at the cafe next to the viewing platform. Not a shabby view to enjoy while you slurp up your lunch.
Thanks to my trusty fitbit, we knew we had already walked a fair distance today, but we needed one last jaunt to wake us up from soup coma. Fortunately, the gentle gorgeous scenery of Höfði was the perfect end of the day.
Iceland does not have a lot of trees. It’s thought that this was not always the case; when the Viking’s settled here, there were supposedly trees all ove the damn place, but they cut them all down for firewood and such. The introduction of sheep settled the future of Icelandic trees, plus soil loss and continued erosion made it really challenging for the forest of old to return. The trees they have today are small in number, and short in height…but they really put on a show in Autumn.
The Höfði nature reserve is the closet I have seen to a ‘forest’ (per the guidebook) since we have been here, but it’s probably fairer to say it’s more of a wood. However, it’s compact and beautiful, with trails that wind through the pines and down to the lakeshore which is dotted with more lava formations in the inlets. I have never seen a pine with needles that change color and shed, but these pines are all sporting bright yellow needles, which are in the process of shedding and lining the paths. The color is so striking, especially in the land of jet black lava…it’s like an all-natural yellow brick road.
I think we were the only tourists left out, everyone else had scurried off to the hot baths, so we had the entire place to ourselves. Prime opportunity to soak up the earth and breathe the air in peace.
14,000 steps into the day and we were wiped out. We drove back over the high moors to Miðhvammer for a dinner of bread, cheese and salami. We were also lucky enough to watch the cows being milked which I will let John tell you all about, as he took better notes as I was busy trying not to be splattered with more poo.
Thanks, as always, for reading. Don’t forget…”ooh, baby, baby it’s a wild whale…”