Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Iceland, The Director's Cut - Day 5

I should try and speed these up. But then again, I was hit with a solid case of apathy Monday night.

Awaking from a comfortable sleep in a comfortable bed, we started out with the standard continental breakfast before packing up to head out.

Once again, the landscape was surprisingly barren as we went. Wide, flat, wind-swept lava plains as far as you could see. This are was desolate due to the regular volcanic activity under the rather large glacier to our west. Eruptions under the ice cause rapid melting and flooding, which the subsides. One of the most recent events wiped out the bridge, the landscape, and was back to normal in 36 hours. It did make for a rather spectacular sight as we approached a bridge: The ground was slightly raised and a ribbon of sand and spraw blew across a pond and over the bridge for a solid 2-3 minutes. The 3 cars on the road, including us, all stopped to watch and take pictures.

Before long, we came across not one, but two glaciers. In fact, they were tongues of the much larger Vatnajökull - Skeiðarárjökull and Öræfajökull. We pulled into the national park Skaftafell and assessed our situation. Nobody quite felt like the multi-hour hike to some waterfalls, and we didn't have our glacier-climbing equipment. So we bought some postcards and drove about 2 minutes to Öræfajökull. An easy hike to the edge of a ravine and we got plenty of views of the glacier on the other side, as well as the valley it was slowly carving. It's amazing that something so seemingly immobile can carve entire landscapes if given enough time. It could be seen as a lesson in patience.

We moved on, passing the long black sand spit of Breiðamerkursandur and then came upon one of the most amazing spots I've ever seen - Jökulsárlón. Another tongue of Vatnajökull, Breiðamerkurjökull, comes down to a freshwater lagoon (undoubtedly created by the glacier itself), which in turn connects to the ocean and its saltwater. This creates a warm spot where the glacier starts breaking up, creating... icebergs. So here we were, in above-freezing temperatures, looking at a lagoon FULL of icebergs, slowly drifting to the open sea. It was also full of gulls, terns, skua (big brown bird), seals, and tourists.

Obviously, there was lots to stick around and see, so we did. The highlight happened just a few minutes after arriving through. While taking pictures of the lagoon, there was a VERY loud cracking and crashing sound, followed by rushing water. One of the larger bergs had broken off and begun to tilt in the water, exposing its underside. When you see and iceberg, you see the dirty white top, but seldom the bottom. As it turned, I was amazed by the incredible shade of blue the previously submerged half was. Think cyan. In fact, it almost appeared to be glowing.

We crossed the bridge to get a different perspective, and watched the seals convene. Six or so black heads constantly popping above the surface, and then diving down again. I'll assume there were also a few fish around. We also met with a skua - a large, ornery brown bird who was afraid of neither man, nor car, nor boat. They did, however, tolerate us.

Much of the day had already passed, and we'd barely covered a third of our distance for the day, so we got back on the road. To Hofn, where it was windy, cold, and empty. There is apparently good birdwatching here, but they decided to stay low today. So instead we did some groceries, had some dinner, and moved on.

To the fjörðurs! Yes, fjords. This means coastal roads that wind and have wind. In this case, underpaved curvy roads with lots of wind, blind turns, and blind hills. We came on option A. The Öxi road, road 939. This option carves out a large chunk of driving, so we turned to it. We got 10 meters when we saw the sign - 17-degree grade, narrow, unpaved road, 35km. Right, we're going to do that in a Skoda. We debated, turned around, and stuck to the main road.

A while later, the main road turned off towards our destination. This was option B. Option C was to continue on the winding and windy coast for twice the distance, and it was getting dark. So we took the main road. We kept taking the main road, and 20 minutes later, we came upon the sign. 12 degree grade, curves, unpaved, 30-some-odd km over the mountain. In the rain. And the dark. It hadn't been dark all trip, today it was overcast and going to be pitch black, and we were going over a mountain.

So we continued over the mountain, and it got dark, and it rained more. Before we made it up, it was pouring and black. Before that, we had a few spectacular views of the valley, but it was too dark to get a picture, besides, we just wanted to keep going. Then we met the curves that were almost literally 180 degrees, and somehow didn't go over the edge. You need to be hitting the gas to make it up the hill, and not hitting the gas to make the turn. I'd call them hairpin turns, except the radius of the curve was tighter than that. Then we made the next one... and the next one. It was harrowing for all of us.

Now, before you think I'm exaggerating. Years ago we traversed the Alps via car. Heading TO the Swiss side, you're going 8000ft up on a road that constantly curves back on itself, with rotting 2x4 s and a thin wire being the closest thing to a guardrail. You're constantly looking down on the tiers of roadway below you and shear cliffs that you can see yourself tumbling down. Motorhomes and trailers are regularly coming past you the other way on a road that is BARELY wide enough for 2 cars, and mirrors get bent back constantly from meeting other cars. I was fine for that trip. This one ended in a rather large sigh of relief. Maybe it was the horrible road, rain, and pitch blackness.

We crested the mountain, and started down. We pulled over to let one large 4x4 pass us on its way up, and eventually got to some flatter ground. This is where we met our first cat, when it ran in front of the car, got totally freaked out and escaped... everyone lived. Eventually, we found our way into Egilsstaðir, and got directions to our hotel. We pulled in after 11, and gladly found our beds.

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