Iceland: The Land of Fire and Ice

Our second go-around at the Sandholt Bakery was just as good as the first and we were collected at 9 AM for a 2-day “Super Jeep” safari with Jon from PTI exploring the hinterlands and some of the nature for which  Iceland is so famous.  We donned down coats and extra layers and climbed up into our snazzy vehicle – an SUV that has been specially modified for Icelandic “off-road conditions” with a higher suspension, wide tundra tires and a myriad of special equipment…talk about feeling like the “King of the Road!”  We drove about 2 hours out of the city through every kind of weather imaginable and our destination was Landmannalaugar, in the uninhabited uplands.  Our first stop was a beautiful waterfall,  Hjálparfoss and funnily enough, Leigh, who was wearing a Frontiers hat, was stopped by a fishing guide on his way up from the river who‘d guided colleagues of ours earlier in the summer.  Trust me, this is the last place you‘d imagine running into someone!  Small world!

Before we left the paved roads, we pulled off and released some of the air in the tires to cushion the bumps ahead.  We climbed into the mountains and the rain and sleet turned to snow but it was still starkly beautiful.  I‘ve always heard that if you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes and sure enough, every few minutes a ray of sunshine would beam through.  We got out and hiked into a canyon whose walls were covered in a deep green moss and then over to bubbling hot springs  — nothing touristy – just a natural pool with a few folks enjoying themselves.  Shame on us for not bringing our bathing suits.  We were treated to the first of many rainbows, very dramatic with the expansiveness of the sky and vista.

Jon, our guide, was immensely good company, telling us all sorts of fun facts and great anecdotes about Iceland and the area.  For example, something like 80% of the population of Iceland believe in trolls or elves and  11% of Iceland’s surface is covered in glaciers and 30% covered by lava fields.   The traditional local alcoholic drink is “Brennivn” meaning “burnt wine.” Nicknamed “black death,” it is made from fermented potato pulp,  flavored with caraway, and comes in a coffin-shaped box!  The English word “geyser” comes from Iceland’s Great Geysir in Haukadalur.  Geothermal energy meets the heating and hot water needs of 87% of all buildings in Iceland.  Hot water is pumped into most houses straight up from the ground.  I could go on and on, but it was fascinating and with 15 active volcanoes, no wonder Iceland is called the Land of Fire and Ice.

The day concluded at the Ranga Hotel located in the southwestern corner of Iceland where we bid farewell to Jon and he turned us over to his colleagues, Sarah and Styrmir, who would host us this evening.  Sarah is English, ex-A&K, and married to a Moroccan so, thus incongruously, is based in Casablanca but handles the PR and marketing for Private Travel Iceland.  Styrmir is the CFO and it’s always good to be friends with the “numbers guy!”  We toured several rooms, including the specialty suites, each of which had an unusual theme – like Australia and the American West.  The hot tubs beckoned as did the bar and I have to admire Leigh and Anne’s  adventurous spirit in trying some of the local brews.  The Lava beer which was the color of molasses had a deep smoky flavor – almost a hint of bacon.  Dinner was delicious and highlights included carpaccio of reindeer and perhaps the best cod I’ve had in my life – so delicate and fresh.

Upon check in, there is a sign-up sheet where you tick a box if you want the wake- up call in case northern lights are spotted in the middle of the night (bless the night man whose job it is to check!).  We were all desperate to see them, even though it was early in the season and the fact that it was pouring with rain made it all very unlikely.  Nonetheless, I laid out hat, mittens, and warm layers just in case and slept lightly – just in case!  I woke at intervals to peer out the window but the rain continued to pelt down and at 4:15 AM, resigned to a deeper sleep only to be awakened by the telephone at 5 AM – “they’re there!!” so we jumped out of bed, threw down jackets over nightgowns and dashed out into the parking lot.  The pre-dawn chill forgotten, we were treated to a magnificent display.

Somehow the rain had miraculously stopped, and Iceland had one of its 5-minute weather changes, the sky cleared and voila, there was the Aurora Borealis.  Sometimes the lights are tinged with color, but these were pure white and they danced and moved across the sky for about 15 minutes and then as quickly as they appeared, they were gone and it was over.  We retreated to the warmth of Icelandic duvets, just as the first glimpse of the sun was appearing on the horizon.  I thought it very unusual to see them so close to sunrise – usually it’s closer to midnight.  I have a client who is semi-obsessed with seeing the Northern Lights and he’s made several mid-winter pilgrimages to the north of Norway, to Iceland and to Canada and has yet to see them and here we were with the odds stacked against us and we scored!! I was so happy for my girls to have had this unique experience.

I walked along the Ranga River in the morning, photographing the lodge and still enjoying the adrenalin high of our Northern Lights sighting.  Today, we were guided by Tomas who’d met us the first night and we had a lot of ground to cover.  We headed toward the coast and saw some of Iceland’s famous black sand beaches and then turned off to visit Seljalandsfoss, one of Iceland‘s most famous waterfalls because you actually hike in behind it.  Leigh leapt to the challenge in spite of the heavy wet mist coming off the falls.  We hiked around and went up a little canyon, following the creek bed, and then (mostly out of my comfort zone, by now) used knotted ropes to scale the steep face of a precipice.  The reward was another rainbow as the sun peeked out of a cloud!

We visited the Eyjafjallajokull volcano which is veiled behind a mighty glacier – this is the volcano that seriously brought trans-atlantic air travel (and the travel industry at large) to a halt (and to its knees) back in 2010.  Leigh and Anne threw caution to the wind and wet-waded across an icey stream to actually touch the glacier while Henrietta and I hiked around the rocky dunes.  We enjoyed a picnic lunch and continued the safari!

Next was the off road excursion into the region known as Thormork, a wooded valley that lies sheltered between two glaciers. We forded several streams  — the super jeep felt like a tank – and some of the scenery felt like we were entering Middle Earth: velvety moss-covered canyons, snow capped peaks and verdant valleys.  Named for the Norse god, Thor, it offers endless hiking trails and unforgettable vistas.  We stopped to re-inflate the tires as we approached paved roads and began the drive back to Reykjavik.  What an adventure we‘d had and we‘d seen and done so much in two short days!

Visit our Frontiers in Iceland website to learn more.

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