9-21-17 HELLA, ICELAND: We got an early start after the usual breakfast buffet. Back on the road our Icelandic guide, Haflidi, filled us with stories of Icelandic myths and folktales as we headed for the beach. Haflidi has taught us Icelandic culture, history, theology, geology, language, idioms, ecology and economy during the many bus rides. Today we are in ‘super jeeps’, backcountry vehicles for fording rivers and moving on soft sand.
Our first stop was on the black sand beach on the south shore. It was a long drive of a few miles through progressively thinning vegetation to the black, wind swept, flat shore next to a wreck of a wooden boat, half buried in the sand. Two-foot breakers rolled in blowing spume at us. The sky was partly cloudy, but there was still some scattered rain. A few miles off shore a bunch of black, rocky islands were intermittently visible though the fog and mist. These are the Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago that has a new volcanic island developing to the south, recently risen from the ocean named Surtsey. We saw the 10 AM ferry heading out from the mainland and doing a bit of rolling.
The Westermann Islands, Atlantic surf, spume and rain.
Jeep behind the wreck half buried in the black sand.
The ferry heads out in the rain.
The large island in the center of the group has an excellent harbor and the only permanent settlement. The harbor was threatened with closure by lava from an eruption in 1973, but the local folk pumped ocean water from boats onto the burgeoning lava to cool and solidify it and re-direct the flow away from the harbor, keeping it open. Even so a quarter of the town was buried in the lava.
We headed inland and passed the Skogafoss, another dramatic waterfall, where the group split in half, some going to the Skogar Museum. Judy and I went with the part of the group that explored the Thorsmork valley. The valley is between two glacier-capped mountains and composed of black basalt rocks and gravel that is being pushed around by braided streams. The road is two ruts and crisscrosses many streams. The jeeps are four wheel drive vehicles with valves that can be opened from inside to lower the tire pressure for softer spots. Our jeep actually had six wheels and held about twelve of us.
The first stop was at a glacial valley. The glacier has retreated far up the valley leaving behind freshly exposed basalt. Photos at the site show the previous extent of the glacier. The basalt is just starting to be colonized by mosses and a few grasses. A low-lying tongue of the glacier has been washed out underneath leaving an ice cave at the bottom with a stream running out of it. Deep pits, kettles, are scattered at the foot of the glacier. They were gouged out by the ice, which melted and seeped into the ground leaving a dry hole. In a nearby spot the basalt had a huge rift being drained by a small stream. The blue color of glacial ice can still be seen in parts of the glacier.
Hikers heading for the glacier.
The main glacier above and a tongue of the glacier lower down with the ice dave at the bottom.
The ice cave and some blue ice still present.
That huge fissure is tectonic, not erosional. The mosses and a bit of grass have started colonizing the recently exposed terrain.
The kettle pits dot the foreground, this one is ten feet deep.
We drove further up the valley crossing and re-crossing the streams. In places the moss and shrub growth was fairly extensive. A lot blueberry bushes were deep red in color. There were innumerable waterfalls coming off the volcano to the south, Eyjafjallajökull.
We ended up in a national park near the northern mountain, Bláfell. We were at an off-road hotel and restaurant, Húsadalur, in the center of the valley where we had an excellent lunch with choice of lamb or fish and a bar available. There was a landing strip nearby and a couple choppers landed while we were there.
From there we all did hikes after lunch that were not too difficult, about 1.5 miles over a ridge in the center of the valley. This area is in a park, and because sheep are forbidden, re-forestation is underway. There were a couple of caves in the lava formations, one about ten feet up a face with hand and footholds cut into the rock. Fall colors were on display, and as we approached the end of the hike a snowy Eyjafjallajökull appeared across the river.
The trail has much more vegetation than the glacial valley and good color.
The cave up high on the exposed face with carved pits for access.
Coming down from the first hike with river, mountain, glacier...
Waterfalls draining the glacier.
We did a second hike after everyone caught their breath, but only up a stream bed with good fall color. On the way back down the valley we had a nice rainbow that followed us for about 15 minutes. There were rainbows nearly every day in Iceland. Since there was a lot of rain, whenever the sun came out from behind a cloud there was a rainbow somewhere.
Second hike. The Icelandic flag has blue for the ocean, white for the glaciers and red for the lava.
Our jeep coming to fetch us after the second hike.
Our last stop was at the big local waterfall, Skogafoss. It drops hundreds of feet over a cliff, makes a big roar, and soaks everything nearby with mist. It’s possible to walk behind the waterfall, which I did along with dozens of others, all taking selfies except me. Then it was back to the hotel to dry off.
Skogafoss and another waterfall. There are people at the base.
Underneath the falls.
Many soggy tourists.
The topper was an aurora appearance about 11PM that lasted half an hour.