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Whale watching day again, this time from Husavik. Husavik is even weenier than Akureyri, just a few streets of houses, a harbour, and two thriving whale watching concerns.  The Reykjavik/Grindavik trip had been on a fairly ordinary-looking boat, rather like a smallish ferry - but all these boats were much older, smaller, wooden and very lovely.  I'm not sure if they were converted whaling boats or old fishing boats, but they were  things of real beauty, and worth the ride in themselves.

Mark had taken warning from his bus-sickness in Reykjavik, and accepted a seasickness pill.  He'd been worried about it making him drowsy, but it was spiked with caffeine, and if anything had the opposite effect.

It was drizzling and rather grey and miserable as we set off, and everyone wrapped up in big padded trouser suits and long waterproofs over their ordinary clothes. But once we got out onto the water things started to clear: it was much less choppy than at Grindavik, with a lot less spray and the visability was great.   Once we'd got out along the coast a way, there was even blue sky peeping through.  Then we saw a whale!  It was a humpback, and to start with we saw it at a fair distance, just a cloud of blow-spray and the odd fluke showing It dived and we got a good but distant view of it going under.  Then it was fairly predictable – it came up roughly every 10 minutes, had a good blow, then hung about for a few minutes, helpfully letting us have a bit of a look before waving its tail and disappearing.

During one of the 10 minute disappearances a very loud and opinionated guillemot came and sat in front of the boat and shouted loudly at us for not looking at him.  I took some photos of him, as he seemed keen to be paid attention to, though they haven't come out terribly well: this is probably the best one.

The last appearance was the best, and the guide thought that was actually a different whale – I thought it was too, my photos show a slightly different fin shape on the last set of pics, and also I think the underside of the first whale was whiter than the second, which had quite a lot of grey on it.   Anyway, Whale 2 was very cooperative and I even got some good photos of her.  It was fabulous.

Then they served hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls, which by that time were very welcome, specially the hot chocolate.  Despite being wrapped in 3 layers of fleece under my padded overall thing with 2 lots of socks and insulated boots, I was rather chilly by that stage.

We ate in a restaurant that was the most wooden restaurant I've ever been in.  Everything was wooden: walls, floor, roof, furniture...  I was a bit worried the food would be made of wood too, but no, the arctic char (which seems to be very like salmon) was delicious, and came with VEGETABLES!  Hurray! I'd been feeling a bit lacking in that department as nowhere we ate in Reykjavik seemed to believe in veg at all, and I was starting to feel it!   The Blueberry Jam skyr cheesecake was pretty good too. 

Blueberry jam seems to be a big thing in iceland, all breakfasts so far have come with it.  This is a Very Good Thing.  Skyr is like a greek yoghurt sort of thing, and is also a Very Good Thing.

We drove back via a road that we were a bit cautious of  as it was marked as 'gravel road' on the map.  It was a bit less solid than the tarmac, but not bad really, and in some ways I found it easier than the tarmac because it was so very empty. We stopped on a mountain top on our way for a brief look at the view, and it was *so quiet*!  Not a car or a voice anywhere for miles and miles and miles.   

Then we stopped at an area notable for its bubbling pools of mud and heaps of steaming sulpherous rocks.  A very weird place, like a cross between Mordor and an alien world, with a right royal pong to it.  The smell was truely remarkable – depending on where you stood, ranging all the way from 'icelandic hotel bathroom eggy smell' right up to 'Small town French public lavatory circa 1978'.

The plants in the foreground are the dead skeletons of equisetums like the horsetails at the Botanical Gardens in Akureyri

In the morning we wandered round Lake Myvatn looking at ducks.  Lake Myvatn seems rather touristy, and the locals have responded by putting up signs that say 'private' and fences, which means that although the lake is very lovely, we didn't entirely fall for its charms.  Still, we did see some Barrow's Goldeneye ducks, and I got a very nice shot of a redwing.  

Myvatn translates, more or less as 'Midgewater' but strangely, there didn't seem to be many midges about.  It turns out that midges are late risers.   On the outbound section of our walk there were practically none, but the last  2 minutes were horrible! I'm glad the midges only turned out right at the end.  My trousers were stiff with them, I had to brush myself free before getting into the car, and even then some of them got in with us and had to be squished. Still, it is a pretty place, and just look at all the berries!  Mmmmmm.

A brief pause to look at geothermal bubbling again – it was interesting to notice that some of the vents that had been barely steaming the day before were now puffing out steam for all they were worth, and the steam which had been distinctly cold yesterday, was noticeably warm to the touch.  These geothermal things seem to change by the hour!

Then we set off into the desert – a real cold desert too, there were some times when you really could not see a growing thing for miles.  I read somewhere that the moon mission people trained in this area, and I can see why.  

We both really wanted to see the great waterfall at Dettifoss, so we turned off Route 1 (the ringroad that goes right round iceland) onto a gravel road.  And what a gravel road it was!  It was rutted with thousands of small ruts, like the wind-waves you get on sand, only iron hard, so we were bouncing along in a hair raising manner. And it was pitted with pot-holes, and occasionally, flooded with a great grey puddle.  We had to drive up onto the volcanic ash to get round the puddles – this seemed more sensible than going through them with no idea how deep they were, or what was at the bottom.  It went on for kilometer after kilometer, first through icelandic forest (about 8 inches tall, willow) then sort of marram grass dunes, then finally, moonscape with nothing but rocks and the odd bit of lichen.

I think we'd have given up if we hadn't kept (well, every 10-20 minutes) meeting people in similarly-inappropriate looking cars for the terrain, going the other way.  In Britain I don't think any hire company would have considered that suitable use for a hire car, but in Iceland this was a real road with a proper number: the kinds of roads that our trusty steed was not allowed to try are listed on a sticker on the dashboard, and it wasnt' one of them.  This brought us to the horrifying conclusion that there are at least 3 grades of Icelandic 'road' worse than this one!  Icelanders must have very tough bottoms.  And very supportive bras!

After an incredibly long time, we got to Dettifoss, which was a very angry-looking waterfall.   It roared a lot, and was generally extremely scary.  More scary than beautiful, actually – the fury of the water carried a lot of ash, so the water was a sort of furious grey.  

I was impressed that despite being a very very long way from anywhere along a road of appalling nature, it not only had a carpark, but the car park had a public loo – AND the loo had paper!  Back along the gravel road, and Mark (who was driving) had gained a bit of confidence, but it was still pretty hair raising.  I've never been so glad to see tarmac with all tires intact...

Then it was on to Egilsstadir.  We'd been sort of concentrating on Myvatn and Dettifoss, and not really looked at the East Fjords area other than to note that our route took us round in that sort of direction, so as the hills rose and the valleys deepened and everything became green and riven with waterfalls and fast blue rivers,  it was a bit of a revelation.  Perhaps it wouldn't have looked quite so stunningly beautiful if we hadn't  just emerged from a desert, but it was still a gorgeous drive, and again the roads were almost entirely empty.

Egilsstadir is terribly, terribly modern, for such a very small place.  The hotel could have been almost anywhere in Europe – though a little bizarrely, it had a branch of Deloitte's concealed in the bottom floor underneath the reception.  It had shiny, neat houses, some neat shops surrounded by neat car parks of generous size, and around these,  neat green fields filled with lush green grass, edged with very regularly planted poplar trees. There were a number of cows, all looking rather thankful that they were in Egilsstadir not somewhere with a lot less grass and more midges.  Around the outside of this neat and pleasant, if generic, tiny town, monstrous, madly shaped Icelandic hills soared majestically.   Egilsstadir supposedly has a monster in its large (neat) lake, but we didn't meet him.  I'm guessing he's quite neat for a monster though.   

While we were walking to visit the lake we saw a very shiny jet come in to land at the local airport.


( 8 comments — Leave a comment )
10th Sep, 2009 07:37 (UTC)
"dead skeletons of equisetums" is an excellent phrase, worthy of a fantasy novel. Um... are you sure you hadn't wandered into a fantasy novel? It looks very like one.

Imagine having the job of official loo-paper deliverer to the middle of nowhere, bearing the paper as a sort of sacred talisman, braving ash and desert and hardships many - passing the dead skeletons of the failed equisetums who had gone before, the ash-stained loo-paper fluttering limply from their claw-like hands - and finally, on the point of collapse, delivering it to your goal, the last homely toilet east of the sea.

I like the mighty forests all of 8 inches high, too...
10th Sep, 2009 11:41 (UTC)
It did feel like there was a fantasy novel going on in a universe very very close: lots of hills that looked like fantastical buildings out of the corner of your eye. I hope that universe is one of the ones with lots of magic though, as I would not care to try to live in Iceland without lots and lots of technology, or equivalent. Not what you'd call an easy land...

Although delivering the loo paper is something that I suspect no English council would even contemplate, I bet in Iceland it's done by some steely-eyed madman who doesn't even think of it as difficult. They seem a very tough people!
10th Sep, 2009 16:27 (UTC)
Well, the clue's in the title there, isn't it: Iceland. Not a lovely lush and warm place full of flowers and green fertile valleys, like Greenland. ;-)

I'm now wondering if the loo-paper might be delivered by air. The Andrex Corps (popularly called The Two-Plying Corps) was the derided and overlooked branch of the Icelandic Air Force, until a popular series of boys' adventure stories in the mid-80s turned them into heroes - the elite of the elite. Running to 24 books, the series depicted dire situations in remote locations, in which pretty teenage girls, exiled foreign princes and spies on errands of great import were facing certain doom for want of toilet paper - said paper daringly delivered in the nick of time by the heroic Plyboys.
11th Sep, 2009 15:08 (UTC)
What do you do if you get lost on an Icelandic forest? Stand up.

Icelandic child going upstairs for a bath. Her mum says, "Don't use all the cold water".

When is a fjord not a fjord? When Isafjordhur.

I'm sorry, those are all the Icelandic jokes I know.

ETA: I've got a book about an American military trip to Greenland in WWII. they had to take everything they needed for the next year, including Christmas trees and decorations.

Edited at 2009-09-11 15:29 (UTC)
11th Sep, 2009 15:41 (UTC)
We were told a rude one by our steely-eyed skidoo instructor about the Mýrdalsjökull glacier, but it needs snow to make the shapes!

The icelandic forest one I reckon in 20 years or so will be quite out of date, they are doing a lot of reforestation work in the richer and more sheltered areas, aiming to take it back to pre-settlement areas of woodland. We went past a centre for the work, and it was interesting to see how they had created a wind barrier with tough shrubs around the taller trees in the middle.
14th Sep, 2009 13:51 (UTC)
Newcomers to Orkney keep planting trees round their houses to shelter them from the wind. They end up with one line of trees on the leeward side, which have been sheltered from the wind by the house.

There's also a story that some organisation planted X,000 conifers on Flotta (little island in the middle of Scapa Flow). They were all swiped by the locals, as perfect Christmas trees - because of the wind, they only had branches on one side, making them perfect for putting up against a wall.
15th Sep, 2009 07:41 (UTC)
Most of the trees I saw in Iceland's woods were broadleaves, birches, willows, and I think some sort of poplar. Rowans seemed to be popular in the towns. A few conifers in more sheltered spots by volcanic ridges and so on, but I believe conifers generally need more wind protection getting started: perhaps those will come later.

Although in general, the Icelandic gardens I saw were not well established, the number of them that were ringed with well-established and productive hedges of redcurrant and gooseberry suggests that in many areas wind may be less of an issue than in the Orkneys. At any rate, we saw several healthy-looking young woodlands that appeared to be a few years old and not noticeably blighted by wind, presumably because of the technique of starting with 'windbreak' species. I would guess that sheep damage is more of an issue: most of them were fenced.
15th Sep, 2009 17:20 (UTC)
Putting two and two together from half-remembered bits of reading and making about eighteen, I think that Orkney and Shetland were never as well-wooded as Iceland was before the Vikings arrived. And bits of Iceland are reasonably sheltered, whereas practically all of Orkney and Shetland is on the coast.
( 8 comments — Leave a comment )

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