Hopping to Iceland


Right now we’re taking a short stop in Stockholm before heading into the cold north in Finland and with a little extra time it’s time for a catch up post.

Back on the 26th of December we headed to the Innsbruk hbf at the early time of 7am, ready for a 15hour train trip to Copenhagen. The pain of the long transits are softened by three things. Firstly having a eurail pass it feels like you’re getting a bargain the more you travel by train (even if you are shattered from travel at least you felt like you made some money out of the trip). Secondly wifi access just makes passing time so easy. Thirdly seeing the countryside roll past and change.

One of the most impressive rail lines to see is supposed to be between Innsbruck and Munich. I say ‘supposed to be’ because when we left Innsbruck it was still very dark. And as we approached Munich a fog had descended. So we didn’t see much of this famous view at all. We travelled on, a little disheartened, but transit excitement was returned to us when we left Hamburg to Copenhagen. We hopped on a diesel train at Hamburg and started watching the King’s Speech just to pass the time on our last leg. About an hour in an announcement came on “In half an hour all passengers must disembark the carriage when the ferry crosses the channel”. We were tired, engrossed in the movie and just didn’t want to pay the notice any mind. So after 15 mins we heard a heavy *THUD*. We threw our eyes outside and saw that our train was getting on a BOAT! I don’t know why it was so exciting then, or now even, maybe it’s just having your ideas challenged of how trains stay on rails and do NOT board boats. I think if I was in a car getting on a Hercules aircraft or getting airlifted by a Chinook I’d have a seizure.  

Anna heading back to the train inside of the ferry

The boat ride was a short 40 minutes and we arrived soon after in Copenhagen. In our three days of Copenhagen the best thing was meeting the people. Not to say that people aren’t friendly in other countries but the Danes take it one step further. We were approached multiple times for strangers making sure we weren’t lost or just wanting to share a bit of Danish history with us.

One time we were just staring at a small building in the middle of a plaza and a store keeper started walking towards us. I thought he was going to start trying to sell us something we didn’t need and wanted to get away but he opened up by asking “Do you know what that building is?” while pointing to the small building we were looking at. “No” we replied. After hearing that he started explaining that it was an old telephone booth setup by a King in the past so the people had access to communication. Then after that brief history lesson he wished us a good day and for us to enjoy our stay in Copenhagen. We were left surprised but pleased by the encounter and I could see how this was the happiest country on earth if everyone was so nice to each other.

We left Copenhagen happy and full from the delicious food (the Danish pasty comes from here for a reason).

Prettiest graveyard you’ll ever see. Also home to Hans Christian Anderson.
Anna waves goodbye to Ariel.
Its alright big guy. I know everyone goes to see the mermaid but that doesn’t mean you’re not special.
Nothin’ like some brain couches for the living room.
Groed. Porridge so good we went there…thrice.

After Copenhagen we hopped onto an afternoon flight to London for a whirlwind of being tourists, festivities, and a jam session with our host. We spent new years eve with a mass of people from Perth which for me was strangely comforting. I’ve never met these people before in my life but after a while it was nice to listen to a familiar accent and having a break in conversation about differences in culture. 

NYE Orphans From Perth on the way from dinner to the countdown.
We had to see a show!
Anna and our Airbnb host Kelvin jamming under a bridge in Camden. The less musically talented stand around and take pictures.

We stepped through London and Copenhagen quickly as our main goal was the get to Iceland and see the Aurora Borealis or the Northern lights. cue *oooooooo* noises. I first heard about Aurora Borealis as an eight year old when we visited relatives in America. My uncle explained to me that it was a group of lights that show up in the sky when sun flares collide with the magnetic field.I don’t remember how I responded but I remembered those words and the eagerness of wanting to see them then. Fast forward 20 years and now I have the opportunity to see them for myself 🙂

We scheduled arriving in Iceland around new year because that’s during the new moon, during the peak of the 27 day solar activity cycle and it was forecast for clear skies. When these 3 conditions occur you should have a good opportunity to see the lights. So when we arrived we immediately booked a tour for the following night. We would ride a four wheeler which would take us out of the light pollution of the city and into the dark cold and clear skies of the countryside.

The following night we were picked up from our hotel and met our guide Mike who took us and our fellow aurora hunters out of the city. On our drive out Mike enlightened us on some Icelandic landmarks, culture (they actually have 12 days of Christmas here! They start on Christmas day and then go crazy with fireworks on the 12th day) and some background on the auroras (from what I understand fast moving particles ejected out of the sun that get caught in Earth’s magnetic field and the slow down of these particles creates the soft glowy lights we know as auroras). Then he tasked us with our job for the next four hours. Sit and stare out the window and shout out if you see green stuff. I looked back at Anna and told her ‘This is just like spotting sharks again’ and memories of how fun that was made the anticipation of lights all the more greater.

We were going to spend the night travelling ahead of the clouds going from dark spot to dark spot to hope to see some lights. At our first stop we saw no lights but I did get some nice pictures of the night sky.

Nothing like snow capped mountains and night skies.

After 15 minutes of watching and waiting in the cold wind the group grew tired of this location and we hopped back into the car to warm up. Then after a 20 minute drive we caught up with another group and our guide decided to go off road to where they were. Unfortunately after getting 2 meters off the road we got bogged. Then our guide tried to accelerate out of the ditch which just dug us further in.

Anna demonstrating how under we are

We spent the next 15 minutes waiting around as our driver and the other car discussed how to get us  . The plan ended up being the other car dragging us back onto the road while two “volunteers” stand in the middle of the dark highway with small flashing lights to warn on coming traffic. And for the large part this worked. Unfortunately in the process of getting us out the other car went down the other side of the road embankment which was then too steep to drive up. There was a lot of face palming. Normally I wouldn’t been as calm about the wasted time but it was an amusing sort of calamity and also we had a guarantee that if we didn’t see it on our tour out we could book another tour again for free.

The other car trying to accelerate up the snowy slope to get back on the road. In the end the car had to be emptied to get out.

The misfortune turned out to be the highlight of the night because we didn’t see any auroras that night. We spent the rest of the time driving to several spots and just shots of the night sky. Which I had a lot of fun doing despite the numbing cold.

A ghostly me and the car
Black volcanic sand beach with chunks of ice debris

Although I was a little sad that we didn’t get to see the lights I still enjoyed the eventful night. After getting back we rebooked our free tour and two days later we were out again. We followed the same routine and we were out on the road. Although I was still enjoying it I could see myself getting tired of the hunt should we fail again.

But it was a different night and we had a different guide, Gilly. After leaving the city, it wasn’t long till he excitedly shouted “Hey I think I see a lttle green over there” he pulled over into a brightly lit carpark and pulled out a tripod and camera for a long exposure shot over the mountains. The rest of us muttered quietly wondering why were taken to a bright car park when we could drive further out. But in just 20 seconds a shot was taken and our concerns were dashed. There faintly in the image of gilly’s camera was the faint green haze of an aurora! The first time I saw an aurora since my uncle mentioned it to me 20 years ago. But it wasn’t enough. I wanted more. Gilly said that it was a 0.2 on a scale of 0-9 so it was very weak. Then he ushered us into the car and drove off determinedly. We drove on roads for half an hour and then spent another half and hour off road. On the way he told us we were going to his “favourite viewing spot because nobody else will be there, getting in the way of your shot and having pointless flashes going off”.

So when we stopped Anna pulled out her camera and took a shot. There it was. Excited I set my own camera and took my own shots. We were at that site for maybe over an hour braving the cold but for such a rare experience on the other side of the world we were going to make the most of it. So that’s it for the aurora hunt for now. I’m ecstatic that I finally got to see one and now I’m hoping I can get a few more glimpses of them before I return home. I’ll leave you with picture and a time lapse I put together.

Double aurorabow!
Double aurorabow!

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4b2Qj0UE9ow

Advertisements

Delving into the playground of Vikings – Reykjavik, Iceland


One of Kev’s dreams was to see the northern lights. He looked into when was the best time to see them, and with the new moon after New Year’s eve, we decided to head up to Reykjavik in Iceland, the cheaper alternative to Tromso, Norway.

My first impressions

My limited knowledge of Iceland stemmed from years of re-watching the Mighty Ducks – D2. In the Disney classic, I remember first hearing about Iceland when someone said ‘Iceland is actually green, and Greenland is full of ice.’ Since then, it has just stuck. So this was the ample opportunity to put that statement to the test!

When we arrived, both Kev and I didn’t have a clue what to expect. So when we walked out of the airport and were hit with strong, icy winds bellowing across a vast and untouched volcanic black and snow white land spanning across the horizon with peaks jutting out and very little trees, I was very wide-eyed, awed and curious. This was nothing like any other place I’ve seen in my life. I’ve seen the dry, dusty, red Australian dirt in the outback, seen the humid, luscious greens in the tropics, the magical winter wonderland of the Austrian Alps. But this, this was completely foreign. Similarly to visiting Exmouth in Western Australia, there was a feeling that we were out in the wild, with only the small town-like-capital-city of Reykjavik as ‘civilisation’.

We intended to stay for 7 days. We ended up staying for 11. Iceland is just amazing. It also helped that we have been lucky to find cheap accommodation on Airbnb.

Within the first day, it was clear that Kev and I needed more appropriate clothes. A local mentioned to me that ‘in Iceland, there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.’ I really liked that piece of intimate Icelandic thinking. When I looked around, I saw that everyone had top quality wool beanies, scarves, sweaters, gloves, top quality snow jackets, pants and shoes, and the men had stunning, healthy, full beards which looked both wild and refined at the same time.

Nothing like a good beard to keep you warm and looking worldly.
Nothing like a good beard to keep you warm and looking worldly.

So our new purchases included a ‘snood’ as Kev calls it. This is worth a mention as it has been one of the most useful purchases we have made. It’s a merino wool tube which can be made into a scarf, beanie, headband, balaclava, hood, mask and other awesome head-face-warming-wear.

Our snoods. Me donning a balaclava and Kev, a beanie.
Our snoods. Me donning a balaclava and Kev, a beanie.

The things that Vikings do

Being in Iceland, Kev and I wanted to take advantage of all the things that the Icelanders do here that we could not possibly do back home. After reading through all the pamphlets and websites we decided on doing a northern lights tour, glacier hike with ice climbing, the golden circle tour (this the most popular tour in Iceland) with snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure, visit the Blue Lagoon and then a tour around the lava fields on the Icelandic horse!

Seeing the northern lights

Kev is drafting a detailed post on our northern lights experience so I’ll keep this one really short.

We went out on a super jeep, and our tour guide, ‘Gilly’ pulled over and took his camera out. I followed suit and took a 15 second shot in the same direction that he pointed his camera to see what my little Canon s95 could do, and to my surprise, my first shot was this:

First shot of the night!
First shot of the night!

was so surprised and squirmed in excitement! I didn’t care that it was blurry, I was just so ecstatic that there was a real aurora there, and that my camera could capture it! Kev who was busy setting up his tripod and camera next to me, grabbed my camera to have a look got instantly excited, and then went back to setting up his beastly camera (but a lot faster) to take the beautiful photos and time lapse that he will include in his post later!

Glacier hiking on Sólheimajöku and ice climbing

One of the incredible highlights of our trip was to go hiking on a glacier and go ice climbing on the glacier wall! It sounded so ‘cool’ and it was something I know I needed as a physical challenge!

The glacier hiking experience was so much fun! We learnt how to walk up an incline and down an incline, and transverse parallel on an incline too. From what I could see, I just had to stomp my feet a little harder than how I usually would when walking so that the crampons could cut into the ice and grip. After that, hiking was a breeze. I enjoyed hearing the crunch of the ice with each step while watching the ice change from a milky, to misty, to glass coloured. The formations of this frozen body reminded me of rolling waves that were frozen in action.

Our gear for the hike and for climbing - harness, helmet, pick and crampons.
Our gear for the hike and for climbing – harness, helmet, pick and crampons.
On the tongue of Sólheimajökull.
On the tongue of Sólheimajökull.
Kev in his hiking gear on Sólheimajökull
Kev in his hiking gear on Sólheimajökull

When we reached the ice wall that we were to climb up, both Kev and I were eager to give it a try. An American couple volunteered first, and so Kev and I watched in excitement to see them go. As you can imagine, as soon as they were near the bottom of the wall, Kev and I prepared ourselves to jump on right after them! As the day progressed, it appeared that the climbing wasn’t for everyone who took the tour, but luckily for us, both Kev and I enjoyed the challenge and the thrill of the height as we trusted our ice picks, harness and crampons to be free enough to climb to the top without fear. I say that if you have done rock climbing, bouldering or abseiling before and enjoyed it, it is very similar to that!

I quickly learnt from watching the American couple that the trick to climbing up the wall was to ‘abuse the ice’ as I whispered to Kev. What I meant was, you needed to assertively hack into the ice to create your holding point deep enough. If you were too gentle, you wouldn’t even make a mark into the wall.

Kev climbing up the ice wall
Kev climbing up the ice wall
Near the top of the glacier wall
Near the top of the glacier wall
Boo yea! Ladies represent!
Boo yea! Ladies represent!

After we finished our climb, Kev and I had a while to wait for the other tourists to do their climb. So we played around with Kev’s new mobile phone which has this cool animated photo setting.

Teee hee heee heeeeeeee!
Teee hee heee heeeeeeee!
Kev training up for his ice climb!
Kev training up for his ice climb!

Once everyone had their turn to climb, we started the last part of our hike. This allowed us to appreciate the beautiful sun which only shines from 10.30am till 3:50pm and to see more formations on the glacier.

On the glacier looking out to the ocean.
On the glacier looking out to the ocean.
Kev going through an ice tunnel!
Kev going through an ice tunnel!
Frozen ripples. It just reminded me of the ocean.
Frozen ripples. It just reminded me of the ocean.

Bathing outdoors in the Blue Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon was the one thing that we heard about Iceland before we arrived. It was everywhere on the internet and everywhere in the airports. So we made a trip to this natural spa telling ourselves that it was for the purposes of ‘experiencing what the locals do’, but knowing that we both craved a bit of pampering after the hike and climb on the previous day.

We decided to try night time so just in case the northern lights decided to make an appearance. Unfortunately, they did not, but that did not spoil the night. Bathing in the 30 degree waters at 0 to – 3 degrees celsius in Iceland at night was magical! It felt so surreal and relaxing at the same time.

IMG_3612
Kev relaxing in the 30 degree blue waters of the Blue Lagoon.
Warming up after jumping in with a bikini from a 0 degree (but felt like -2 degrees) Iceland.
IMG_3631
Enjoying a fruity drink at the bar while waiting for our geo thermal masks to dry.

Snorkeling in the Silfra Fissure and the Golden Circle

I’ve been lugging around my underwater housing for my Canon for this moment. For the snorkel in glacier waters between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates in the National Park of Thingvellir. This was an experience that both Kev and I were keen to give a go, but also we were unsure how this would work. We never experienced extreme cold diving (2 degrees celsius), and never had worn a try suit before. Luckily for us, the tour that we went on and Ian, our snorkel guide, had everything prepared for us.

Ian told us that the waters were from the glacier, and that they have spent over 30 years trickling through the underground volcanic soil system to reach this silfra fissure. This process has created the purest water that we would ever swim in and taste! Let me tell you, it was such a refreshing sensation when I pulled out my snorkel to taste the lightest, cleanest water ever! Because the water is so pure, visibility is up to 100 metres. I kid you not, there were numerous of times when I put my face under the water, and I almost forgot to put my snorkel back in. Ian mentioned that those who go scuba diving sometimes experience vertigo when looking down below them!

Silfra fissure in Iceland
Silfra fissure in Iceland
Kev with his full teddy suit on.
Kev getting comfortable with his full teddy suit on.
Kev with his teddy, dry suit, wet suit hood and snorkel gear.
Kev with his teddy, dry suit, wet suit hood and snorkel gear.
Ian, our guide, fixing up my mask so that it's tucked into my hood.
Ian, our guide, fixing up my mask so that it’s tucked into my hood.
Incredible visability!!!!
Incredible visability!!!!
Sunrise over the mountains.
Sunrise over the mountains.
This is glacier waters, the purest waters we would ever swim in and taste! Up to 100m visibility!
This is glacier waters, the purest waters we would ever swim in and taste! Up to 100m visibility.
IMG_3717
Kev exploring.
Our faces were so numb that we lost the feeling of how to smile for the camera. Kev's doing a great job though!
Our faces were so numb that we lost the feeling of how to smile for the camera. Kev’s doing a great job though!
Swim in 2 degree glacier waters - MISSION accomplished!
Swim in 2 degree glacier waters – MISSION accomplished!

Snorkeling in the teddy and dry suit made us extremely buoyant. We all clumsily bobbed like apples in a bucket of water. I tried to dive down to Ian’s amusement, only to find myself bouncing up back to the surface. The gear given to use kept us really warm but our faces, fingers and toes suffered a bit.

After our snorkel, I embarked on being like my childhood hero, James Bond. Have a look see in the video below.

Ok, so perhaps I need more practice.

After snorkeling we visited the geysers and the Gullfoss Waterfall. These were all part of the golden circle tour, and were very beautiful and interesting to see.

Getting ready to burst!
Getting ready to burst!
Whoosh!
Whoosh!
At Gullfoss Waterfall
At Gullfoss Waterfall

Surprise Snowfall!

On Friday night (10 January 2014), Kev and I finally experienced our first snow fall! I was soooooo excited! It was so beautiful to see the snow flakes float in the wind and whirl around the light poles. After cooking dinner, I asked Kev if he would mind to come on an after dinner stroll. He didn’t hesitate. We ended up walking the streets for hours enjoying the moment, and playing in the dark unashamedly.

Snowfall!!!
Snowfall!!!
Snowball fights! I accidentally got Kev in the groin and in the face a few times. He snuck up on me as pay back.
Snowball fights! I accidentally got Kev in the groin and in the face a few times. He snuck up on me as pay back.
The snowball fight eventuated into giving life to Little Mr Snowman and his little snow dog.
The snowball fight eventuated into giving life to Little Mr Snowman and his little snow dog.

Riding Icelandic horses

You can’t get any more Icelandic than riding the Icelandic horse. The Icelandic horse, which you can see, smell, touch and experience, is a unique specimen of the horses that the Vikings brought over from Ireland and Scotland and used during their reign. Apparently, these horses have changed very little since then!

When I was younger I always loved horses, so horse riding was always a must for me. Kev however, had (and I emphasise the had) a preconception that horses were, and I quote ‘death traps’. His opinion changed as soon as he walked up to the cute and cuddly Icelandic horse. We met Blondie and Fakyir, our two horses for the tour. Blondie was so sweet natured and had these large loving eyes that connected with you when you approached, and she met you half way. She was gentle and I loved her! She definitely warmed Kev’s feelings too! Fakyir was a character. He was licking my hand and nibbling at my fingers immediately. He was a little stocky and pudgy looking, but I liked him. We were told that out of the two, Blondie was the easy going one. So eventually Kev took Blondie who was very nice to Kev, and I took the mischievous Fakyir who I had to pull back into line a few times.

Due to the snowfall from the previous night, our ride on Blondie and Fakyir at sunrise was exquisite. No words can describe it. Just these photos taken by our guide Andreas.

We were the first in Reykjavik to walk through this trail after a night of snow fall!
We were the first in Reykjavik to walk through this trail after a night of snow fall!
IMG_3784
Snow porn!
The Iceland that we hoped to see.
The Iceland that we hoped to see.
The Christmas I wished for!
The Christmas I wished for!
Kev and Blondie enjoying the morning rays
Kev and Blondie enjoying the morning rays
Winter wonderland at sunrise
Winter wonderland at sunrise
Cheeky Fakyir!
Cheeky Fakyir!

Andreas was amazed at our luck. He could not believe how beautiful the trail was. He kept saying ‘This is amazing,’ ‘you guys are so lucky,’ and ‘this is the best, and I mean the best tour this in the past year!’ As we explored on horseback, I could not help but grin the whole time. We were doing what the Vikings did!

The Icelandic horses were happier and more playful than the horses I have ridden back home. When we finished the trail, as soon as the saddles were taken off them, Blondie and Fakyir could not wait to roll around in the snow! They neighed and grunted in happiness while doing so. Kev and I just stood there amused at such large animals enjoying the pleasures of what my little dog Coco would do on my lawn in the backyard.

Last impressions

Iceland has been an adventure.

Iceland does have some green on it (Disney is correct on that point). However, Iceland is more than that. It is that magical place where fire meets ice. Where wild wilderness is less than a 10 minute drive outside of the city.

Iceland is expensive. We have spent a lot of money here on tours, clothing and food, but we have not regretted one thing.

I’ve gotten used to the egg smell in the hot water (from the sulphur), and I’ve become accustomed to expect glacier water from my tap from now on (big expectations now!).

I’ve given up on trying to speak Icelandic. To be honest, I didn’t really start as the sounds are too foreign for our tongues. The command of English here is outstanding.

I have become intrigued by some of the locals’ strong belief in elves and the hidden folk who live in rocks and caves around the area. I kid you not. It is a thing here. Check out this link : http://worldnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/12/22/22009310-icelands-hidden-elves-delay-road-projects?lite

The seafood here is excellent. They love their hotdogs here (What?) Yup, they do. Hotdogs too, are a thing here.

We had a hotdog almost once a day.
We had a hotdog almost once a day.

After being here for 11 days and doing the things that Vikings do, it is hard to avoid becoming just like the locals. As such, I sign off with our last photo taken in Reykjavik before leaving Iceland.

Complete Viking transformation guaranteed after 12 days in Iceland.
Complete Viking transformation guaranteed after 11 days in Iceland.

 

Our footprints: http://spiked.it/aziM6AW , http://spiked.it/RbLj9pJ , http://spiked.it/NSoEV5V , http://spiked.it/HJtuCn1 , http://spiked.it/S5QBPFM