Thursday August 30, 2001

 

Tuesday morning we weighed in on the "watching vs whaling" struggle by plunking down our kroner  to go out on a 3 hour whale-watching tour (a three hour tour, a three hour tour...).  This part of our Iceland visit has settled into a very vacation-like pattern, and although it is very nice, I'm looking forward to some stay-put time which we won't get much  of till we get to France. It is already apparent that the amount of time spent sitting in a car subtracts directly from the time available  for schoolwork.

 

On Tuesday evening, after 1Ż weeks on our worldwide venture, the running barf totals

stood at:

                    Tom: 1

                    Anna: 1

                    Geoff: 0

                    Lynn: 1

                    Rolf:  0

                    

The  whale-watching excursion out of HŘsavik was very pleasant. The weather was very good, seas calm (although not enough so for Lynn, see above). There were about 9-10 Minke whale sightings, and one animal lolled obligingly near the boat for a few minutes, giving us very good views of it's distinctive head (white with black stripes). The  tourists gave the whale very good  views of their cameras. 

 

Out on open water during our whale watching excursion (with just a bit of a swell)

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HŘsavik harbor on a glorious late August morning.

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It was a beautiful morning on the bay north of HŘsavik, but Lynn was certainly appreciative to get back on solid ground. We ate some sandwiches and commenced driving to J÷kullsßrglj˙fur (yes that is the real name) national park. At J÷kullsßrglj˙fur there is a dry, horseshoe shaped gorge and a neighboring straight gorge with a powerful river in it. Legends say that the horseshoe shaped gorge was formed when Odin's 18 legged horse touched the earth. Geologists say that there used to be a river there that carved the gorge but they don't know what happened to it. We can't decide which is more believable.  The gorge with the still-in-place river has 3 big waterfalls. The biggest is "Dettifoss", which claims the distinction of being Europe's largest waterfall, if you can accept the strangely arbitrary assignation of continental boundaries, especially concerning large islands in the middle of the ocean. It dumps about 400 zillion hectares  of water per cubic second over a 45 meter drop. It is scary walking to the edge, or as close as you have the guts for, since the rocks and cliffs are well cracked and look ready to crumble. The signs say "Danger, the rocks might break, and if they do, you will die!". So we stayed back a few yards and did not die.  The only safety precautions are the afore-mentioned warning signs, and the fact that statistically-speaking, the small number of visitors (compared to something like Niagara or Iguazu) lead to a vary small number of accidents (if any).  Certainly not enough to warrant further effort or investment!

 

The gorge, river, and falls of Dettifoss (Europe's largest falls).

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After visiting J÷kullsßrglj˙fur we still had several hours of driving before we reached Tuesday evening's lodging, and during one long stretch we climbed and eventually descended a gradual but seemingly endless mountain pass, an eerie  process that seemed to take forever in extremely thick fog. My back and neck were quite sore by the time we reached our destination. I'm definitely going to appreciate getting to Paris and getting out of the car! Tonight we are on the third floor of a Guesthouse that is really more like an Inn; a 3 story building with about 10 rooms on the top two floors. It is a nice old building with not-so-nice narrow winding staircases which provide the over-packed or long distance traveler an opportunity for some serious weight lifting of their luggage. This is the kind of unmodified and original old facility that just doesn't exist anymore in the current American environment of equal access laws and liability concerns.  I am sharing a room with Geoff, and supposedly our windows look out over a large lake, but we can't see very much of it through the mist and fog. I think there is some sort of legend of a monster inhabiting the murky depths.  Tom slipped down the circular staircase with very narrow treads on the way to dinner and banged his back up pretty good, proving that equal access laws and liability concerns are possibly not such a bad thing.  His scratches, lumps, and bumps seem to have been fixed with tears and ice. Dinner was one of the best meals we have had so far. The hostess explained all the dishes in her Icelandic buffet, which included the local staples of lamb, baked fish, several types of potatoes, several forms of cabbage,  pickled herring, patÚs and cheeses,  pickled vegetables,  several new and slightly strange looking concoctions, and a desert table featuring cakes and rhubarb crisp. There is an Italian family with 3 children staying here. So far we have seen very few other tourist children. The Italians are from Milano which is one of our eventual destinations, and I hope to get a chance to talk to them a little at breakfast ("hey, can we stay at your house in Milano?").

 

At the end of the day I interviewed Geoff, looking for a fresh perspective:

Q: What is different about toilets in Iceland?

A: They have buttons. And some have two buttons. One for a big flush and one for a little flush.

Q: What did we do today?

A:  We saw a bunch of whales. We had cinnamon rolls and hot cocoa on the whale watching boat. We had shrimp salad sandwiches. We drove. We saw a bunch of waterfalls.

Q: What was your favorite part of the day?

A: Doing my homework at the end of the day (sarcasm, I think).

 

Yesterday we drove from the elegant old inn at Egilsstađir to a motel  under-construction at  H÷fn. It wasn't a long drive, by distance standards, but we managed to make a day of it. It was almost noon by the time we left after doing schoolwork in the morning. We were distracted for awhile along a stretch of desolate road (they all are) on a point at the end of a finger of land separating two fj÷rds, after Lynn spurted out "Oh my gosh!". I don't  always stop the car when she yells, but she had spotted a whale breaching a ways off shore. So we watched the show through binoculars for a time. It was far enough away to not be able to identify the species (like we could anyway) but we suspected humpbacks from the size of the whales and highly animated activity. Whatever it was, it was having a blast.

 

The highlight of this day  was by far visiting the old lady with the rock collection in Stodvarfordur (I'm not making up these names!). This is no ordinary old lady's rock collection. This has to be the mother of all old lady's rock collections, and if you ever come here, look for the "Wietelmann/Owens Family World Tour" patch on the visitor's sign board next to the 'fridge. Petra Sveinsdottir (fitting that someone named "Petra" decided to collect rocks, right?)  has amassed a jaw dropping collection of more gorgeous minerals and crystals than you could imagine, all collected from Iceland, and primarily the eastern fjords, the region we are now heading into. There were 3 rooms of glass cased displays featuring huge crystals of  "Amytist", "Florit", "Kalsit" and others, as well as an amazing outdoor rock garden,  featuring  polished jasper, agates, and obsidian. These weren't pretty little rocks, but boulders, 12 inches across or larger, each one looking like some sort of mineralogical Hope diamond. It was all nicely arranged into ornamental displays, sometimes featuring whale bones and reindeer antlers, or colorful swaths of seashells. Petra's rock collection receives barely a side note in the guide books, but it was a big hit with everyone in our family.

 

Lynn, Geoff, Tom, & Anna stand before 

a small fraction of Petra's Collection

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After the rock show, there was a dreary and bumpy 2.5 hour drive to the last night's accommodations near H÷fn. This place is more like a motel than a guesthouse, a disappointing change from the quaintness of old farm houses and country inns. The building containing our rooms wasn't quite completely finished and still smelled of fresh paint.  We also discovered that Anna's daypack wasn't in the car. A telephone call confirmed that we had left it sitting out in the rain in the parking lot of the inn at Egilsstađir. It might have been expendable save for her passport! After checking in we ate, worked on a little school stuff, and went to bed. The hotel staff neglected to tell us that the power went out for several hours each night because of the road construction out front, and this provided me the opportunity to bump around the room in the pitch black feeling for my flashlight in a state of increasing desperation when nature called at about 1am. I made a mental note: Sleep with flashlight in arm's reach by the side of the bed. Everywhere, every time.

 

The issue of Anna's missing daypack (and passport) was solved, and hopefully not just postponed, after the manager of the guesthouse in Egilsstađir agreed to ship it air-freight to Reykjavik. We'll just have to keep our fingers crossed and remember to send a thank you note. If we can't do a better job keeping track of our things we're going to have a long, difficult journey. Today was supposed to feature spectacular viewing of Iceland's largest glacier, Vatnsj÷kull, which is apparently Europe's largest glacier as well. It is a huge ice cap with many moving glacier fields running down like fingers around the enormous perimeter. It covers a large percentage of the southeastern part of  the island. The heat from the active volcano underneath the center of the ice cap produces a melted lake in the very middle,  a feature best viewed from the air and on days when cloud cover is higher than 10 meters above the ground. Every so often, including an event in the early 90's, the volcano erupts  through the ice and causes a catastrophic flood of iceberg and mud filled gushing water, which dumps down several primary melt-water paths and destroys everything remotely in the way. These events also provide the "Volcano Man" in Reykjavik with his livelihood. Unfortunately for us, the weather was foggy and visibility was very poor. Fortunately for us, the volcano didn't erupt and wash us out to sea. Because of the low visibility, we nixed the expensive jeep tour on the glacier. I did try to drive up a jeep track, but we chickened out after the Toyota started bottoming out on the stream crossings. We finally discovered a way to included some sort of "glacier excursion" in the day's itinerary, taking an amphibious vehicle ("boat-car" or "car-boat") tour which went around a very cool ice-berg lagoon at the base of one of the glacial fingers. It was short, inexpensive, and good fun even in the misty haze. 

 

The Vatnsj÷kull Glacier Experience ,  quite surreal in the misty fog.

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Photographic proof that we were really there!

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Our guide explains that glacial ice is very old and very hard (a slurpy lick test confirms).

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We had many views of the Vatnsj÷kull Glacier  similar to

these photos as we drove around the base of this massive ice cap.

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After lunch we put in a reasonable hike, and actually worked up a little sweat climbing,  in a national park near the glacier. This hike of course featured several  waterfalls (foss's). The destination foss was "Svartifoss", probably named for it's backdrop of large black hexagonal basalt columns. I scrambled behind the falls on the large slippery boulders for Lynn to take a picture of me and started to get a little scared when I looked up into the broken-off ends of these huge rock pillars and realized where the familiar hexagonal shaped boulders I was walking on had come from. Oh well, I made it back with just a couple of scratches, but the pictures didn't really turn out anyway (look! there's a waterfalls, with a blue blotch behind them!).  The fresh air and exercise put everyone in a pretty good mood. The drive from the park to tonight's Guesthouse was tolerably short, and there was time for the kids to run around on the lawn in the suddenly sunny evening.

 

Our pleasant hike eventually took us to Svartifoss. As with so many of our other visits to Icelandic natural wonders, we have the whole place to ourselves!

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In the very north of Iceland at Akureyri on 8/26, the sun set at about 10:30 and rose at about 2:30 the next morning. Here in the south of Iceland just a few days later, the sun set at about 9 and I'm assuming will rise at 4 or so. Since it is about a month before the equinox, this means (the way I figure it) that Akureyri will go from about 4 hours of the sun being down to only about 4 hours of the sun being up in only 2 months! Unlike Paris (and probably many other large cities on the European continent), there is no English speaking BBC or CNN news on TV. There is no USA Today, or London, LA, or New York Times to be easily found, at least in the small towns dotting the perimeter of the island. At least for a couple of weeks, this feels like the absence of a distraction that would otherwise detract from my ability to enjoy the experience of Iceland. I'm not sure whether or not I'm anxious to be returned to a state of awareness regarding things like the American stock market and baseball statistics.

 

Tom & Anna seem content with the sleeping arrangements for tonight,

or maybe Tom is just too tired out to care. 

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                                        -Rolf   8/30/01