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Aurora Borealis, Iceland 2013

Aurora Borealis! A fascinating phenomenon which can only be seen around the arctic circle. More commonly known as Northern Lights, this wind of solar particules or something like th…, actually who cares??? All I know is that I am intrigued by the northern lights, I’ve seen lots of pictures on the internet, it seems beautiful and I want to see them myself. So 2013 is the year for that, the decision is made. I’m going to Iceland!

But when? As you probably know, the particularity of countries closest to the poles is that the days are extremely long in the summer (I mean that nights are as short as 1 hour, which is not even very dark) and extremely short in the winter (like 1 hour day light). And the best time of the year to see the Northern Lights is … winter! Hum! Well, the best compromise between daylight and Aurora season seems to be October. Days and nights are about the same and Northern Lights just start to make their appearance.

So, the 11th of October has come and I take off from London Heathrow late after work, direction Reykjavik! This time, I am doing this trip on my own. I have only planned my activities for the first day, the rest is completely indecise. I will have a car so I can be free to go wherever I want whether it’s on snow or across rivers. But now it’s about midnight and I arrive in my hostel Reykjavik backpackers. No time to lose, tomorrow is going to be a big day so I need to go some rest because…

Day 1 – Silfra

I’M GOING DIVING!!!

What? In Iceland? YES!

In October? SURE!

Is the water not cold? IT IS! (about 1 degree celsius)

But it’s got one of the best visibility in the world. It happens inside Þingvellir national park. The north american plaque and the eurasian plaque are moving away from each other, creating a massive Fault across Iceland (with volcanoes and earthquakes of course). So here, there is a crack in the ground called Silfra. The glacier melt and the water travels through the rocks for thousands of years, gets filtered of all it’s impurities and reach this crack absolutely pure. Once, we’ve arrived at the site (we as the group, there is 4 of us but I forgot the names of the others… oups), I can witness the clarity of the water. I can’t wait to get in!

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But like I said, the water is near freezing temperature so we need to wear dry suits. As its name, the suit isolates the diver from water maintaing a pocket of air, allowing him to stay dry. The only difficulty is that there is a larger volume of air getting affected by depth and pressure changes which make it more difficult to control buoyancy. There is normally a diving course for it but, well, it can’t be that hard! Now that we’re well equipped to fight the cold, we’re entering the water… I’ve been in there for 30 seconds and already can’t feel my lips. But the rest of my body is surprinsingly warm. We can descend a bit deeper and begin our progress inside the crack. And once we come out of the little entry pool, the spectacle starts! Cristal clear water, endless visibility, I feel like I’m flying!

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Don’t look for me in the foreground, I’m down the bottom.

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There isn’t a lot of wildlife, but lots of volcanic rock formations. But actually, controlling the dry suit is very difficult. I spend most of the first dive trying to adjust my buoyancy so I didn’t get to enjoy it as much as I could have. Now we’re low on air so we need to come out. And it’s hard. Now I’m really cold and I need to walk for 500m back to the van to get another bottle. On the way back, the others report that their dry suit has leaked so they’re all wet of cold water… Haha, mine didn’t! I feel sorry for them. But well, there is not much that can be done so we swap tanks and go back in the water for the second dive. I enjoyed this one a lot more. We could a few pictures, touching Europe with one hand and America with the other. I noticed that the bottom seemed really fluffy so I approached, extended my hand expecting it to touch a hard surface. Instead, it went straight through without any resistance, creating a big cloud of dust. Well, volcanic ash actually, from the various eruptions of Icelandic volcanoes which has settled in a light and deep bed. Beurk, out of here! We continued using the same path as we did for the first dive to reach the same exit. These dives are very particular, the sensation is exceptional and I will surely never forget this experience… nor taking the suits off in the cold wind.

I feel like my bones are shivering. I urgently put some warm clothes back on, jump in the van and turn the heating up. But even after the drive back to town, I’m not warmed up. So I go straight for a very hot shower. Ohhhhh, that feels so goooood! … Hang on a second… I smell something… Wow, IT STINKS!!! No I haven’t farted, it’s actually the water. It probably comes from natural sources, is full of sulfur which (for those who don’t know) smells like rotten egg… But well, it’s really warm and that’s what I need right now so I’m definitely staying for another hour.

Now that my body has recovered is normally operating temperature, I head out in the cold for the emblematic monument of Reykjavik, Hallgrímskirkja church (have you tried to pronounce it yet?).

When I get there, the sky i burning orange so I quickly set the tripod and start shooting.

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I actually stayed there for a few hours. The light conditions changed so fast that every 30 minutes, I could get a different picture. But then I captured one I was really happy about.

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And when you are in Reykjavik, what else to terminate a first very exciting day than some fish for dinner?

Day 2 – Rekjavik

Today I am exploring the northernmost capital of the world. And that excludes going to see whales. So I head straight to the port to book my ticket for an afternoon tour. But before the boat ropes off, I have plenty of time to walk around the city centre. Just so you know, there are slighly more than 300,000 people living in Iceland and about 120,000 in Reykjavik. But the city has a lot of history linked to the vikings, the discovery of the island and the expansion of the settlement. But more importantly, it’s very charming.

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I think there is something specific in the atmosphere very unique to polar cities (I don’t know if the terms exist but if it didn’t, now it does). I can easily imagine the streets full of snow but with with a sense of warmth. Also, the icelandic people seem very helpful. When asking for directions, advice for tourist destinations or some food, I have always had a great contact with them, which is very pleasant. But now it’s 1pm and I’m embarking on the boat to go whale watching. Let’s hope that I will see more than the deep blue of the sea.

After an hour into the cold watching around, the first minke whale shows up at the surface. It is the second smallest species of whale, its average length being around 7 meters. But you know what? The brain of a minke whale has 12.8 million neocortical neurons and 98.2 billion neocortical glia! … Anyway, what it doesn’t do is jump out of the water as I was hoping for, humback whales do that. Damn it! All we get to see is the whale’s back and dorsal fin.

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When the whales are diving back deep into the ocean, the white beaked dolphins remain to keep us company. I’m sure you really want to know how many neocortical neurons and glia they have, no? Sorry, I don’t know and Wikipedia doesn’t say.

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And the last mammal in the area is the harbour porpoise, smallest marine mammal. It reaches a maximum length of less than 2 meters and weight of about 75 kg.

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It’s now 5pm, I’m back at the hostel waiting for my car to be delivered (nice service). I’ve asked for the smallest 4WD and I get a Suzuki Grand Vitara. Nice 🙂 Without losing a second, I turn the ignition on to get out of town and drive east towards the Golden Circle: Gulfoss, Geysir and Þingvellir. I drive across the Fault where I dived yesterday so I take the chance to capture the impressive cracks in the area, evidence of the terrible forces in action under the Earth’s crust.

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Once I’ve crossed the Fault, the road goes slighlty uphill. From there, it’s difficult to watch the road given the breathtaking views over Þingvellir national park.

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At this point I started to think about where to stay tonight. I have three options. The first is to stay here and sleep in my car (I’ve got a really nice view after all). The second is to find somewhere to pitch my tent (but it’s pretty cold outside). And the third one is to open my travel guide to find a hostel (comfy option). Guess which one I went for? Yeahhh, the comfy one! I drove for another dozen kilometers to a town called Laugarvatn. To be honest with you, I was more attracted by the food than anything else. My amazing travel guide says that there is a very good restaurant a few hundred meters away from the hostel which serve a deliciously juicy raindeer burger. Baldur, the chef here is quite famous, having managed number of renoun restaurants in New York, Paris and other capitals. Well, let’s got and try this burger then! And effectively, it is juicy and it is delicious.

Now do you remember what I came to Iceland for? That’s right, Aurora Borealis. So I discuss with the world-known chef of the restaurant in the 10-inhabitant village. He shows me his app which indicates the forecasted strength and likeliness of northern lights. It seems unlikely tonight. Also, I need a clear sky to see them and no light pollution. But anyway, I’ve got nothing to lose so I drive back where I came from to get away from the town’s light. after a while, I look to my right and I can see some dancing green lights, YOUHOU! You can’t imagine how excited I am. I pull over and get out of the car to watch that. It’s beautiful! They’re a bit far and not like I’ve seen in pictures of movies but it doesn’t matter. I. AM. WATCHING. NORTHERN. LIGHTS.

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I drive a bit more to see if I can get a better spot and by the time I stop again, it seems they got a little bit stronger.

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I can’t believe my eyes… MAAAN! I see the Aurora Borealis I was looking for on the first night!

I stayed out for a couple of hours that night. Never got tired of the spectacle. Staying in my car for the night seemed even more attractive now. But they started to weaken and slowly disappear, which I took as a sign telling me that I had to go to bed!

Day 3 – Golden Circle

The second stop is only a few kilometers away from the small town of Laugarvatn. It’s an area where water comes out of the Earth in powerful and steamy vertical streams. It’s called Geysir. This is where the word geyser comes from.

I enter the park and discover a field full of steamy pools. And it doesn’t take long before I hear a recognizable “Pssssssshhhhhhh” (the noise of the geyser 🙂 ). Ladies and Gentlemen, let me present to you STROKKUR!

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Strokkur is the most active geyser in the world. It erupts on average every 4 minutes to a height of 20m. It’s really impressive to watch the flat surface of the water, the bubble of pressured gas rising rapidly and breaking into the air and up into the sky. But what about Geysir? The father of all geysers? Well, it can erupt up to 70m high, just not very often. This is because some tourists took it for some sort of animal, thinking that throwing stones into it would wake him up… Well done, the result is the opposite. The stones have obstructed the chimney and stopped its activity.

Now, I need to find a good spot to have a view over the entire geothermal area. And just behind me is a small rocky peak. That will do. A short half an hour of climbing and here I am.

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Strokkur is the big one in the middle, which has just erupted, Geysir is at the left end of the picture and there are a number of others which I haven’t seen in action. But shortly after I took this picture, it started to snow. I’m not actually that cold as long as I keep moving. And finding the warmth of the car is always quite enjoyable.

Then I stop at Gulfoss, the weather is really not great. It’s windy, it’s cold and because it’s is a waterfall, it’s very humid. It falls into a crevice of 32 m in two stages.

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And the mist freezes over the grass next to the fall.

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Now I need to see where to go this afternoon, let’s sit and do that over a cup of coffee. I am planning on going to Landmannalaugar, higher up next to the volcanoe Hekla. There is a famous and beautiful hike that starts there and finish in Þórsmörk. But the staff in the coffee shop informs me that the road is closed at this time of year because of the snow. Arf! Anyway, let’s see how far I can go, I haven’t rented a 4×4 not to enjoy what it can do. I get back on the road, in an area not frequented by anyone really. In the horizon, the glacier and underneath Hekla can be seen.

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But soon I need to leave the road to enter a gigantic field of volcanic rock and dust. That’s really fun!

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The car is really good, it’s got less grip so it slides a little bit but in a very controlled manner. I drive for about an hour in the direction of Hekla. But the landscape doesn’t change much and I have no certainty to get where I want because of the snow. I’ve had some fund but now it’s time to return towards civilisation. Furthermore, I would like to keep some time to go hiking around Hekla if possible. And to do that, I have seen on the map a hostel in the area that I need to get to. But at my arrival, I feel like entering a ghost town, no one and no cars around. Anyway, I stop and try to see if the main building is open. I walk in and discover a man inside who is very surprised to see me. Because actually, the site is closed. He’s happy to open a room for me but there is no possibility to have anything to eat anywhere around. :s Doesn’t sound like too much fun! Change of plans then, direction the ferry terminal to go on a small island at the south of Iceland called Vestmannaeyjar.

On the way, I drive past the Seljalandsfoss waterfall.

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I’m leaving the car on land and hop on the ferry. I have no certainty that I will find somewhere to stay. But there is a town, with real people living there so, fingers crossed, there will be something open.

By the time, I step out of the ferry, it’s night time… and raining. I need to walk for about 20 minutes to a hotel I’ve seen on the map 🙁 .Oh, and did I already mention that people are extremely nice in Iceland? I must have but I’m doing it again. Just outside the port, a car pulls over in front of me and drop the passenger window. The lady of a certain age with her husband offer to take me where I need to go. They’ve never heard of the hotel but they know the street and are more than happy to help me find it. This is very much appreciated and I welcome the proposal. We find the place after a short search, which is open. Excellent. I thank the locals for their help, leave my bags in the room and terminate the day by an excellent fish for dinner.

Day 4 – Vestmannaeyjar

When I get up, the rain hasn’t stopped and the sky is still very depressing. Arrrgh! But anyway, I’ll have some breakfast and be ready for when the sun appears. As I imagined, I am alone in the hotel restaurant, there definitely isn’t many tourists here at this time of year. Some local (and quite unusual products) are offered, like shrimp or fish jam… I didn’t know that even existed! Looking through the window, I drink one coffee… two… three… And as I almost lost hope for the day, I see the sun piercing through the clouds. By the time I’m out, it’s a clear sky.

I’m heading to the volcano Eldfell, one of the youngest in the world. A fissure opened about 1km from the town centre on the 23rd of January 1973, creating a torrential flow of lava. It has been estimated at around 100 cubic meter per second, which, in a couple of days, created a 100m tall cone. Of course, the people are evacuated in emergency. The lava covered a part of the town and was threatening to close the harbour, which would have made any return to the island pointless. A large lava-cooling operation was carried out to slow down and deviate the flow. They successfully saved the harbour by stopping the lava far enough to leave a 10-m passage. The eruption stopped in early July. The cone is 220m high and the surface of the island has increased by 20%.

The path to the summit takes me through large fields of volcanic rocks. Shortly I reach a ridge, marking more or less where the fissure opened 40 years ago. And at that point I noticed something strange. Steam was rising from the volcano slopes. I touch the ground and… it’s warm! Heat is still generated by the volcano and that evaporates the rain water.

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Then I walk along the ridge to the end and there, some chimneys reject extremely hot air. I notice them because of the visual deformation it causes. You know like looking at something through the back of a formula one car, or a plane engine, it’s sort of blurry. The good thing is, the ambient temperature is not very far from zero, so warming my hands up in a volcanic chimney is nice. But the rock itself is burning, I don’t know the temperature but maybe 70 or 80 degrees. Handy as I actually spend about two hours looking at the 360 view. On one side, there is the glacier Eyjafjallajökul in the background.

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Looking west, there is the town of Heimaey.

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In the foreground, the reddish rock is what remains of the fissure. Then if you look right above it, you can see the lava that flowed and destroyed many houses, it’s that greenish patch which seem to penetrate into the town centre. And in the background, the rocky with vertical cliffs, that’s where I’m going now. Apparently, it’s possible to see some puffins there, even in October.

One thing that I’ve noticed is that weather is chaning fast in Iceland. By the time I have crossed the town reached the bottom of the cliffs, sun is no more and it’s raining. Not too much for now so I’m definitely attempting to climb up. It is very steep. The small rocky cliffs are passed with ladders whih you can see on the image below.

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The rain is getting more intense but so are the views over the island. The rocks are very slippery so I am really careful not to break my neck. Now I reach the bottom of a ladder, quite difficult to reach. Anyway, it’s impossible from right below.

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And it really isn’t easy from the side either.

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There is no way I can reach the ladder and grab it, I will have to jump. With the risk of falling down, breaking both my legs and my camera. So I take the sign, it’s time to go back down. The rain is very heavy and I’m glad to reach the ferry terminal so I can wait in the dry.

From the boat, on the way back to mainland, the views over the island is amazing. The storm blocks the light so it feels like it’s night.

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I am heading east now to find a place for the night. I stop in Vik, southernmost town of Iceland. So far, the places I’ve stayed at (apart from Reykjavik) were empty and I was the only customer. But this time, the hostel is full. This is because it is situated on the Ring Road which goes all around Iceland and tourists usually stay on it. But lucky enough, I get one of the last beds.

After dinner, I look up to the sky but can’t really see any trace of Aurora. There is also a freezing wind blowing which doesn’t really motivate me to stay outside. Hum… Well I need to go and have a look anyway. I stop at the hostel, grab my tripod and start looking for a good spot around without too much light pollution. I can see a church slighly outside the town on the top of a hill. it should be good from there. And as walk up, I start to see some dancing shapes in the sky. They’re here! I run to the top of the hill so I don’t lose a single second of this magic moment. They’re a lot more active than two days ago. It’s beautiful! The green lights cross the sky like curtains gently touched by a breeze. And when they go quiet in one part of the sky, it’s to better explode in the other end.

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The temperature is very cold but the wind is freezing. I don’t have extreme weather clothes and I can tell you that even my bones are cold. But the spectacle is so amazing, no way I’m going to bed now.

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Three hours that I’ve been standing here contemplating the sky, completely alone.

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Now it is time to go to bed or I won’t have enough energy tomorrow. The image of the Aurora Borealis from that night will always stay engraved in my mind.

Day 5 – Skaftafell National Park

In the morning of day 5, I share the morning coffee with Guy, a professional photographer from Guernsey. He’s also travelling a lot and we’re heading to the same direction today, Skaftafell National Park. Vatnajökull is a huge glacier, the largest of Iceland. It covers 8% of the country’s surface. And like any other, it moves. The snow accumalated during the winter turns into ice which pushes the glacier to slide down through a corridor between mountain, creating outlet glaciers. Skaftafellsjökull is one of them.

The roads takes me through an amazing landscape.

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Which can change radically from a minute to another.

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(If you ever go to Iceland, please don’t drive off road. I know it’s tempting but the tyre prints will remain and ruin the land).

There are a number of hikes possible to do in the area. The one I chose is about 7km long and will take me to a ridge above the Skaftafellsjökull glacier tongue. But all the way, the landscapte is truly amazing. From peaceful water streams…

 

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…to beautiful waterfalls…

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… and through lots of snow. There aren’t many people taking this trail so it’s still very fresh. I’ve always loved snow. It’s pure, elegant, simple and make any landscape beautiful. I reach the ridge after a couple of hours and the view is great. But the sun is behind clouds. It’s cold, my feet are wet and the landscape isn’t as great as it could be. There is no point staying here too long, let’s head down to the warmth of my Grand Vitara.

I make an encounter on the way with a local bird wandering on the trail. We play hide and seek for a few minutes: I get closer, he runs further on the path but he’s still on the way so I get closer and he runs again… until he realises that the bushes are nicer place to be.

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The hike down still provides its share of breathtaking scenery.

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By the time I reach the bottom, something like 400m lower and one and a half hour later, I realise that the clouds are gone and the sun is quickly descending in an orange glow. “The light must be amazing up there!” No hesitation, I begin the hike back up… the run actually. I need to be there now or the light will be gone… I get up there, sun is still enlighting the glacier but for not very long… A few seconds to install my tripod, take a few shots and BOOM, it’s in the box…

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Only a couple of minutes after I took the shot the entire scene became shadow as the sun disappears behing the mountains. Pfiou, I almost missed it. Now I can look at my phone, it took me 45 minutes to ascend what took me 1 hour and 30 minutes to descend!

By the time I reach my car, it’s completely dark. I re-join the ring road, heading to a city called Hofn at the very east of Iceland. I find the hostel, get the key to my room and usually my day ends at this point. I get my bed ready, find something to eat and go to sleep. But not today. When I enter the room, I notice that all beds are already taken. Bugger! But a guy shows me a door saying there is another room just behind it. I walk in and discover only 2 beds and 1 free. Great, I’m going to have a very peaceful night, far from the crowd of the bigger room. Well, I couldn’t be more wrong… My roommate was closer to a bear with an awful cold with a amplifier instead of a mouth. Turn the volume up and listen to this!

This is driving me crazy!!! Even my ear plugs won’t stop my noise going to my ears… I’m going to have a great night…

Day 6 – Jökulsárlón

I am not going further east today. I am beginning the journey back towards the West. The first stop is the lagoon of Jökulsárlón. It’s essentially a lake formed by the molten ice from the Vatnajökull glacier. But before they melt, the blocks of ice will break from the glacier and into the lake. The lagoon is full of icebergs.

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And apparently, a group of seals live in the lagoon.

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All visitors stay next to the road, where the lagoon join with the sea. But I’m thinking of walking on its shore until the glacier itself. Hopefully, I’ll see the ice break off and fall into the water. Should be amazing. And it’s only late morning so I have a lot of time ahead of me. So let’s go. After an hour, I can hear the spectacle I’m hoping to see. Loud cracking sound followed by a big “splash“. That’s encouraging, let’s keep walking… But after a while, I notice that I don’t seem to get any closer. The glacier still looks as small as from the road. Humm, I’m in the right direction anyway, I’ll get there at some point. But after another couple of hours, I still haven’t reached it. I look at the map, see what’s the topography of this side of the lagoon.

Stupid idiot!!!

The side I’m on is made of a number of small bays which, first, make the distance so much longer and, second, open to a river… I’ll never reach the glacier!!! The other side, however, seems almost straight with no obstacles on the way. I should have looked at the map before… lesson learned.

On my 3-hour walk back to the road, I find some nicely shaped icebergs.

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There is a lot to choose from.

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I have took a small one from the water and took it to my mouth. I thought it’d be cool to drink million-years old water. After all, who’s ever had the chance of ever licking something this old?

Are you wondering what these black layers of dirt are doing in the ice? Well, they’re layers of ash from the countless volcanic eruptions of icelandic history.

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On the way I even find the skeleton of what I think to be a seahorse (because of the shape). Quite cool, huh? (So cool that I even took it back home to London as I thought it was very rare… only to find out it was the skeleton of just a random fish, only it was bended in a unusual way…)

When I reach the road, the tide is low which means the lagoon is flowing into the sea, carrying big pieces of ice.

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After all, there’s quite a lot of them.

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They’ll then stop on the black sand to create a scenery out of this world…

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I thought I’d try to hike on the other side but it’s getting late, the sun is coming down and I have to drive back to Vik where I stayed two nights ago.

Day 7 – Þórsmörk

This morning I’m heading to Þórsmörk, which guides and reviews describe as a little paradise. But the sun is hidden by thick grey clouds, I’m no sure it’s going to clear today. But on the road, the weather creates fascinating phenomenons. First, clouds seem to overflow over the edge of the mountain, a little bit like liquid nitrogen.

 

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Then the waterfall of which water doesn’t fall but rises. Strong wind is pushing it as soon as it goes over the edge.

 

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I park my car at Seljalandsfoss waterfall where I’m going to take a bus. This is because we need to cross large rivers which could be too deep for my car, even though it’s a 4×4. We’re only 3 in the bus including the driver. This destination seems to be popular in the summer but abandoned in the autumn when tourists don’t deviate from the ring road. At my arrival, I grab a map of the surrounding trails and head toward the hills. The weather is horrible, despite the rainbow.

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If the horizon was clear, I’m sure the landscape would be beautiful.

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A number of rivers flow from the several glaciers of the area.

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At the end of my short walk (feels like I’m walking into a water saturated air, horrible), I see the sign to Landmannalaugar; start of a famour and apparently incredible 3-day hike. I wanted to try bnut at this time of year, there is a meter of snow there and it’s unaccessible.

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The plan for the afternoon is very chilled out. Coffee in the living room area, reading travel books. But then I remember than there is a natural spring and a sauna next to it. I’ve got time to kill, let’s give it a go. While I’m in the sauna, Magnus comes and tell me that he needs to go somewhere and will be back in an hour. Great, I’m alone. 🙂 And what’s best than swimming naked in a natural hot spring without anybody to watch? I enter the water (it must be about 30°C while the aire temparature is not far from 0°C), sit down and let myself slide down to the middle of the pool. This is good…

But there is a slight problem: warm water + sun shine = algae. The surfaces of the pool are covered and extremely slippery. So slippery that I can’t move from where I am, in the middle of the pool. The edges are too far for me to grab them and pull myself out. Shit! I am naked in the middle of a natural hot spring and I can’t get out… Now I’m going to have to wait for Magnus to come back and get me out… naked… what a shame!!!

No there is no way I’m letting this happen, I must get out. After 10 minutes of efforts, I finally reach the edge of the pool with the tip of my finger and pull myself out. Ouf! Soon Magnus is back (I’ve got clothes on héhé) and he’s getting dinner ready. The Iceland football national team is playing tonight for the 2014 world cup qualifying. The occasion to share a beer for my last evening in Iceland

Tomorrow all I’ve got to do is get back to my car and drive to the airport. I’ve spent a week on the edge of wilderness and I’m heading back to civilisation. The population density country is only 3.1 inhabitant per km², more than 30 times less than the Europe average. And that leaves plenty of untouched land for nature to show its beauty. From ice to lava, glacier to volcanoe, waterfall to hot springs, Iceland is shaped by the constant battle of elements. By day, the landscape is as breathtaking as it is wild. At night? Well, one of the most unique and extraordinary phenomenon on Earth called Aurora Borealis liven up the sky for a truly unforgettable experience. I’ve only discovered the south coast of the country, I will definitely plan soon to explore the rest.