Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Finland/Iceland trip diary - day 11

As everyone knows, we could be doing a completely different kind of trip in Iceland, submerging ourselves in Reykjavik’s drinking scene, which apparently gets going late and continues almost all night, at least at weekends. We picked up a copy of the English-language “Reykjavik Grapevine,” which dramatizes aspects of this life in colourful detail. Reporting on a recent “Culture Night,” the author writes: “Every successive street corner presented a new opportunity to see one or more people vomiting onto objects that didn’t normally have vomit on them.” That’s actually one of the more convivial sentences in the article. Or we could be having a less giddy, more acerbically observant kind of experience. On the following page of the paper, another writer paints the following image: “Imagine we – that is, people in Iceland – are living on a boat. We have now been travelling up the western shore of the Bullshit River for a number of years in search of answers to our problems.” And on it goes. Actually, I’m unfairly quoting these articles, in a way that misrepresents their overall wit and thoughtfulness. Just as a brief window into the Iceland trips we’re not doing.
Elsewhere in the paper, the issue’s “most awesome letter” muses on the “tourist defecation issue” - the conclusion, happily, is that Iceland’s doing no worse on this front (so to speak) than most other destinations. We would agree, although it can't match the Finnish trails for outhouse availability(and, by the way, they're surprisingly clean and odourless, given their simple composting facilities [a big supply of dirt and a little shovel]). Anyway, yesterday we drove back to the hotel from Gullfoss by a slightly different route, with only a single wrong turn which we immediately corrected (the map suggests this is the only region of Iceland where there’s any serious possibility of a wrong turn – elsewhere there’s usually just one major road so obviously you take it). Once you get away from the tourist route, there’s very little traffic, very little to see at all except layer upon layer of landscape, a vast long-written immortal story that you barely pierce. Iceland does have concerns about the environmental impact of increasing tourist numbers though (and not just the tourist defecation issue). I guess they can always limit it by raising prices further!

For the first time in the trip, we got back to our room and stayed there, eating some sandwiches we bought in Laugarvatn. It was a different kind of evening, but entirely fine – as I already mentioned, we don’t really need any more big dinners. We went to sleep pretty early, and got out of the hotel before 10 the next day. A forty minute drive took us to Hverageroi, a pleasant but unremarkable town (guide book: “You’re not here for the architecture, you’re here for Hverageroi’s highly active-geothermal field, which heats hundreds of greenhouses.”). We had breakfast in a local bakery, and then drove rather randomly to the start of a local hiking trail. Through sheer luck, this turned out to be the way to Reykjadlur, a geothermal valley where lots of people do the 7km (there and back) hike, to enjoy a warm bath up in the mountains. Our visit coincided with a group of schookids, among many others (the parking lot was overflowing) – it’s a spectacular walk, one of the most memorable of our trip (although hampered on the way out by pervasive clouds of insects, and to a lesser extent by sulphuric odours, which have been a sporadic feature of our last few days), and not overly steep or difficult. Most people stop once they reach the main gathering point, indicated by boardwalks and not particularly effective modesty-hiding partitions for changing, but we walked on, climbing up a further peak and onwards for a while. To our surprise, a signpost indicated we could have continued directly from there to the mountain near our hotel – we didn’t realize how little distance we'd covered on a crow-flies basis (I made a similar observation in Helsinki a few days ago). Anyway, we walked back to the car and then drove back into town.
We had lunch at Kjot og Kunst, where Ally had an omelette and I had vegetarian pasta. From there, our efforts today were a bit less successful. We drove south to Eyrarbakki, which was once Iceland’s main port. It has a strikingly bleak, black beach, but you can’t spend much time there – we passed through the rest of town without barely seeing a living person, let alone a point of interest (maybe score a quarter-point for the neatly painted, box-like houses). On the way out you come to a prison, Iceland’s largest – you can see a lot of it, but no one was out playing when we passed. A few kilometres on we came to Stokkseyri, another small fishing village, described as having “a fun dose of quirky sites and summer art galleries” – I suppose that’s true, but it didn’t seem like a large enough dose to stop for. We drove a bit further and tried our luck with Urridafoss waterfall, which apparently processes a greater volume of water than any other in the country. I guess that’s a function of width and constancy, because it wasn’t particularly imposing compared to Gullfoss yesterday. More unfortunately, there aren't any walking trails around it, so all you can do is take a look and return to the car.

That wasn’t too much return on a few hours of driving, but of course it was still a funny experience, often giving the feeling of traveling through utterly deserted flatness; overseen at other times by astonishing mountain formations. On the way back we stopped briefly in Selfoss, cruelly described by the guidebook as “witlessly ugly.” It’s probably the same degree of wit as you see in functional towns the world over, which admittedly isn’t much. Anyway, we didn’t see much of it beyond the inside of a supermarket, where we picked up a snack for later, having decided to follow the same meal strategy as yesterday.

We did get one pretty good walk at least, by stopping at a trail just ten minutes from the hotel – we thought it would lead down to Lake Thingvallavatn, but in the event it never ended up getting close to it. Still, it was good to have an hour or so of reliably spectacular isolation. We may have scored a notable sighting as we arrived back at the hotel – a black Arctic fox, Iceland’s only indigenous land mammal. Sightings in the wild are reportedly rare, but this one didn’t seem scared in the least, wandering leisurely around in plain sight of us and several others. I assume they’ve been lulled into complacency by the easy pickings around the hotel. Still, you know there’s nothing better than animal sightings!

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