Thursday, January 23: Reykjavik
Ţingvellir National Park
This proved to be a very busy day. In fact, I didn’t get around to writing this up until Friday. I hope I didn’t forget too many details.
We slept in slightly, as we wanted to hang around until noon to see the “earthquake simulator” (“not for the faint of heart”). But still we were the first up among the 3 or 4 groups staying at that fine establishment.
It turns out that about an inch or inch-and-a-half of snow had fallen over night. We trucked through the snow down the road to the restaurant. (We didn’t know why they stuck us in the remote building rather than the restaurant building, which had rooms in it. I’m guessing that we got the cheap rooms, and that the rooms in the restaurant building were ritzier, or perhaps more expensive to keep up, so they didn’t use them in the off season?)
The breakfast, in contrast to the dinner of the previous night, lived up the auspices of the hotel--that is to say that it was terribly mediocre at best.
After the breakfast, such as it was, we went back to our room, packed up our stuff, carried it out to the car (to avoid dragging it through the snow), and loaded up the car. Then we drove to the restaurant building / main parking lot, across from the main entrance to the geysers.
It was around 11, so we had about an hour to kill. We wandered back over to the geyser field, and I tried taking several sets of shots of the geyser erupting, trying in particular to catch the bubble at the beginning. It was brighter than the previous night (the sun was up, but it was behind clouds), but the wind had shifted, so the steam from the other vents tended to drift over the active geyser, partially obscuring it.
Amy and Mike hiked further up the hill, which was a bit easier than the previous night, as the mud was more frozen and didn’t stick to their shoes as previously.
One thing that was strange was that they had a boardwalk, and they had some roped off areas around the geysers. You could walk off the boardwalks and through the geyser run off streams, as that area was not roped off. It felt very unnatural to us, who were used to the National Parks back in the US and Yellowstone in particular. You would never be walking through that stuff back there.
Still, it amazed us to watch people stepping over the ropes and starting to walk over the active areas, past the signs saying “100 C, danger, do not walk here”. Amy called to warn one couple who were doing so. I do not know if they were clueless or just figuring that the warning didn’t apply to them.
At noon, we went over to the gift shop, paid and went in to the multimedia presentation. As seemed to be the norm there, it was totally underwhelming. There were some static displays, and some videos playing. There was a glass covered jagged line going across the floor to represent the mid-Atlantic ridge, and Iceland right on it.
The “simulator” was a metal plate maybe 2x3 feet in size. You would stand on it, and periodically it would vibrate. Big whoop! I can’t understand how the guide book could get away with labeling it “Not for the faint of heart”. I almost wonder if there was some other simulator there that was perhaps closed down for maintenance or something, but I would think that one would see signs for such a thing. Hence, I have to conclude that the guy who wrote the guide book was lying through his teeth.
I don’t know why they closed it so early. There was no staff inside. All you needed was the clerk at the checkout counter for the gift store to take your money and let you in. Since that position needed to be staffed anyway, I don’t know why they would close the thing at 4.
After we left the multimedia presentation, Michael was hungry (even though we had in theory had breakfast about an hour and a half previously--his excuse was that he didn’t like that breakfast; which in the case of this place was believable), so we got him some BBQed chicken wings.
After he finished them, we left and drove off to the Ţingvellir National Park. This was located on the mid-Atlantic ridge, and was where literally the country of Iceland was expanding. Across a relatively narrow distance, the distances were increasing by about 2cm per year. There were long gashes in the earth running essentially parallel along the divide.
The driving was different in that everything around us was white with snow (and the road was slushy, although it was above freezing, and as the day progressed the road got better).
We stopped at what we thought was a visitor’s center, but it was just a gift shop. Fortunately, it had on the wall a large map of the park, and we found that we needed to turn off the main road to get to some interesting places.
We did so, and I mostly expected that we would do a drive-through, but we ended up parking and seeing that there were some paths and small bridges, and some neat looking stuff. The biggest feature was a cliff, which was essentially one side of a very large “gash”. It varied from probably 50 to 100 feet in height.
Amy and I wanted to wander around, but Mike did not, so we left him in the car playing with his iPhone, and Amy and I set out. The land was snow covered, but we saw plenty of footprints where we were walking.
At this spot was also the “Law Rock” where the tribes or some such got together hundreds of years ago to hash out laws and stuff (roughly speaking).
We walked over to the cliff, then along the cliff. A ramp led to the top of the cliff and an overlook there. Then we went back down the ramp and came to the most dangerous part of the walk. We were essentially “inside” the gash. To get out, i.e. go over the lower wall, we had to go down and up and down a number of stairs and walkways. Some weren’t so bad, but some were covered with an irregular surface of packed snow/ice several inches thick. This was particularly dangerous on the step sections.
We got down the parking lot and level ground without mishaps, and then proceeded to work our way back to the car. On the way we passed through a small “village”. This consisted of a very old church and five houses/buildings that were joined together. Just as we were about to leave, we spotted a large white bird running into some bushes. It was a ptarmigan in its winter colors, i.e. almost all white.
We stalked it and eventually we came up to it standing sort of half behind a rock next to the path. It just stayed there. We gradually got closer and closer to it, taking pictures, and it just stood there. Eventually we were only 3-4 feet away. I have to say that it really blended in well with the snow-covered rocks. A pair of teenage girls went by on the other side of the bushes, and another couple came down the path. The bird didn’t flinch, and neither group noticed it, even though Amy and I were looking fixedly at the bird and taking numerous pictures.
We were hoping that it might come out from behind the rock and cross the trail so that we could get a clear look at it, but the bird did not cooperate. Eventually we got pictured out and left, with the bird still in the same spot.
While we had been walking, the sun came out through a hole in the clouds out on the horizon (although it was still overcast over us), lighting this area with a great glow. That is one advantage of Iceland in the winter--when the sun is out, it almost always gives you a good light.
Unfortunately Michael had gotten tired of waiting for us, and he had wandered around a bit looking for us, so he was a bit stressed when we got back. A busload of tourists arrived just as we were leaving.
We left the park and drove to Reykjavik. The sun shining low on the snowy mountains looked wonderful, and we took oodles of pictures, some from the moving car, and some after pulling over on the side of the road.
It was all snow up on the plateau. This must have been the same land form that we had crossed on our way out of Reykjavik earlier, driving through the dark and clouds/fog. But when we got back to Reykjavik, there was little to no sign of snow.
We parked by the hotel just after 4. This was good because I think the parking only costs money from 10 to 4. So overnight parking was free.
Michael really wanted to feed the birds, so the first thing we did was to stop at a grocery store next to the hotel and buy a half-loaf of bread. We then walked to the bird pond, where Michael became one of the most popular attractions around. It was funny to see him being swarmed by birds. Michael would just toss the bits of bread to the birds, but as we were leaving, a guy showed up who would hold out a big piece of bread, and the big birds (e.g. whooper swans) would grab it out of his hand and have a tug-of-war, before a piece ripped off and they got their piece.
It turns out that we essentially skipped lunch that day. Amy and I had breakfast, and Mike had the chicken wings; but then we didn’t have anything else until around 4:30 or 5. On the way back from the bird pond, we stopped at a bakery and had a snack. Amy and I got a piece of cake and a hot chocolate, while Michael (who was apparently hungrier) got some “pizza bread”.
After our snack, we got our luggage from the car and checked in to the hotel. This was the same hotel as our second night at the beginning. From the tour portion of our trip, it was the first and last night, although we had added our own hotel on either side of that to give us two extra days.
Then it was time for a real dinner. We asked at the front desk where there might be a restaurant serving authentic Icelandic cuisine. The first name they came up with was Loki, the cafe next to the church that we had eaten at the first day. There was another place, but it was more expensive and not as good.
Being surprisingly not so hungry (perhaps because we had just eaten “dessert”), we decided to go to Loki. It was not too far, maybe a half mile to a mile, so we walked over. It also gave us a chance to see a bit more of the tourist section of the city (i.e. lots of small shops, restaurants, and bars).
The previous time there, Amy had gotten an Icelandic plate that containing (among other things) Gratine Mashed Fish. She really liked that, so she and I got a straight serving of it. Michael opted for something slightly more normal. Amy and I really liked our dinners, although Michael was slightly less impressed.
After we ate, we checked out the church again, taking a few more pictures. Amy managed to inadvertently sabotage me. Before dinner, I had gone over there to take a few pictures, and on the way back had almost walked into a post that was about 3 or 4 feet high. After dinner, as we started walking away from the church, Amy said something to the effect, “Make sure you look up and see if you can see any auroras.” So I looked up and promptly walked into one of those posts, which because I had been looking up, I had not seen at all.
The night seemed to be clearer than any night so far, so we hoped we might see an aurora that night.
We went down straight to the coast, and then walked along the shore back to the hotel. This let us pass a sculpture that was a stylized viking ship. We also passed the opera house, which has lights in the windows that shimmer in various colors.
It was probably around 8 or 9 when we got back to the hotel. It looked like the sky cleared up nicely during the day, so we thought we would take a drive to try to see the northern lights. Michael wasn’t keen, and I suggested that he could stay in the hotel room if he wanted, but he decided to come with us.
There was a sign at the front desk that said that we could leave our room number with them, and if the lights appeared such that they were visible from Reykjavik, they would give us a call. As we were talking to the hotel clerk, there was a “Northern Lights Tour” that was in the process of leaving. I wondered if we should have tried to join them, but we didn’t try.
We had been planning to try the Pearl (inside Reykjavik but slightly darker) and then drive out west towards Keflavik (the airport) and try there. We mentioned our plans to the clerk, and his reaction to the Pearl was “uh...no”. Inside of Reykjavik it would be way too bright. He also wasn’t thrilled with our choice of going out to the airport. He said that talking with the Northern Lights guide, we really needed to head north, away from the city, and to go at least 45 minutes or an hour away. So we decided to do that.
We drove up Rt-1 and eventually came to a long tunnel under the mouth of a bay. It was 6km long and fairly deep. I think it would have been the longest tunnel I had ever been in, although I think the Mont Blanc tunnel might be longer.
I thought it amazing that the tunnel was not a toll road, but it just happened that the toll booths were on the north (far) side of the tunnel. It was about $8 per passage, but the alternative was a 30km drive around the bay.
We continued another 10-15 minutes beyond the tunnel. Amy said to keep an eye out for the northern lights. I saw some mountains in the dim light, and then I saw some pale clouds on the horizon. About the same time, several of us realized that those clouds were in fact the Aurora!
We quickly pulled over at the first place we found, jumped out, and started getting set to take pictures. Amy tried with her camera, but those photos didn’t come out. I got my camera set up (ISO 2000, f5.6, and 20-second exposure), but Michael needed help with his. I set up his camera and took one which turned out to be a fairly nice “test picture”. Then I returned to my camera to get some pictures.
Unfortunately, just after I started the exposure, a car came towards us, and the headlights creamed my picture. We then decided to drive off onto a side road where the traffic would be less. We jumped in the car and did so.
I had wondered how fast the lights change. The answer is that they don’t change so fast that you can see them rippling, but over the course of several minutes they can change drastically.
In the 5 minutes that it took us to drive down a side road a kilometer or so, the best of the lights had disappeared. I think it was more “ribbon like” when we had first stopped, and there was more of just a generic glow afterwards. Still, if we hadn’t stopped when we had and driven another 5 minutes further north, we would have missed that first display completely.
At the farm place, she had told us that the lights don’t necessarily appear in the north, they could appear straight overhead, but apparently they are more common towards the north. This was why we had been advised to drive north. There was still a bit of a glow in the sky to the south from Reykjavik, but the northern sky (where we saw the lights) was darker.
I got a number of different shots (unfortunately none with a neat object in the foreground, but I’ll take what I could get) including a few generic star shots. Mike tried a different approach which would have been a neat thing to do. He had the camera on the tripod fixed for a number of sequential pictures. These taken in series would show the lights varying over time.
One problem was that it was terribly cold out. It was just below freezing. I think the car said about -1.5 C, but it felt really cold. I had on my down jacket and a hat (I couldn’t manipulate the camera well with gloves on), and I was freezing. At one point my knees were shaking. At various times, we all had to take refuge in the car for a period of time to warm up (even though the car was not running, it was still warmer than outside).
Interestingly, there were a number of horses in the fields around us. I could not see them, but I could hear them. Eventually we decided that it was late enough, we were cold enough, and the lights were faint enough that we would call it a night. So we headed back. As we were leaving, the car’s headlights illuminated indirectly a collection of pale white ghostly horses across the road from where we had been.
As a result, it was very late for Michael when we got back to the hotel. I threw the camera batteries on the charger, but I didn’t have time to write things up until the next night.
I was very psyched about the day. The main motivation for the trip had been to see the northern lights. On every other day (including it turns out the following day), the sky was too cloudy to see anything. This was the only chance we had, we took it, and we succeeded! Yayyy! It wasn’t the spectacular ribbons that you see on calendars, but it was certainly the real deal, and we got some reasonable photos.