Reykjanes Peninsula and Reykjavik
Friday, July 6th
We began our descent through clouds to a mostly-cloudy day. Below us, I could see a few offshore islands, teeming with seabirds (Iceland is well-known for its huge seabird populations), and then a coastline came into view - mostly flat, treeless, barren-looking. Several plumes of steam issuing forth from the ground were visible on the peninsula of land below us, immediately giving us a taste of the active landscape that we'd soon be exploring.
The Reykjanes Peninsula
Icelandair seems to organize its international flights such that they all arrive and depart from the Keflavik airport at the same times during the day. While this is somehow likely operationally efficient, this meant a huge lineup as we departed the plane and headed through the customs and immigration checkpoints.
During the trip planning, we had debated for some time over what sort of arrangements to make for a rental vehicle. With seven travellers, we had the option to rent two smaller vehicles, or something that could fit all of us. Compounding the decision making was the fact that some of Iceland's more remote destinations are at the end of rather rugged roads, often requiring fording deep, fast-running rivers. Such routes require the use of some sort of four-wheel-drive vehicle. Also, renting cars in Iceland is *expensive*.
After a lot of research and a lot of work understanding our desired destinations, we settled upon a single vehicle, big enough to carry all of us and still with some semblance of rough-road capability: a four-wheel-drive, nine-passenger Toyota Hiace minivan. It wouldn't get us through the most difficult of terrain, but would be fine for everything else. It had a huge amount of luggage space, always nice when you have to deal with the explosion of stuff that inevitably occurs while travelling.
I arranged for the rental of the minivan from a local rental company called 'SS Car Rental
', based out of Keflavik. As part of the rental, the Hiace would be delivered right to the arrivals door of the airport, and an employee would be waiting for us at the arrivals stairs with our name on a sign. Sure enough, by the time we exited the arrivals area shortly after 6 a.m., a man was waiting for us with an 'Andrew Lavigne' sign.
In a lane immediately outside the arrival doors sat our vehicle - and quite a long vehicle, at that. The configuration was 3x3x3, with a bench seat up front and two rows of three individual seats behind. And behind that was a very generous 4-foot by 4-foot cargo area. We'd have no problem fitting seven people into this. As a side note, the Toyota Hiace is not sold in North America. I'm not sure why. Are GMC Astro and Ford Econoline vans that big of a competitive pressure?
It was now time to familiarize and adjust: already feeling some jetlag, we had to adjust to the feel of this place. A flat and barren landscape, completely bereft (at least here) of trees. Much more European-style signage. The subtly different way in which the Icelanders paint traffic markings on the roadways. And, of course, much more cryptic (to English eyes, in any case)-looking place names.
We were both excited and interested to start our exploration of Iceland. Indeed, I had a fairly specific itinerary in mind for our first day here. First, though, we had to make a decision about where we were going to stay for the night - even though it was still only 6:30 am in the morning. We needed to ensure that we would be able to smoothly pick up Roland, who was arriving in Iceland 18 hours later, nearly at midnight. We had planned to stay in a campground somewhere within a 50 minute drive of the airport, but with the fatigue of jetlag already upon us, driving 50 minutes after the end of a long day to pick up Roland in the middle of the night, then all the way back, then getting a decent sleep - all of that seemed incredibly tiring. So, after some debate, we decided that it would be best to pick a campground very close to the airport, so that at the very least, it would require only a few minutes to pop over and pick Roland up when his flight landed.
I had scouted out most of the major campgrounds of the immediate vicinity in advance of the trip, and I knew there was a campground called "Camping Alex" only a short distance away. After brief false start direction-wise, we pulled into the campground. It was quite European in style: a large facilities building that included rentable rooms, an array of 'camping huts', and two flat open grassy areas where all of the tents got pitched.
After securing spots for seven people and five tents (anticipating Roland's arrival), we decided to take an hour and a half or so for a power-nap - especially for myself, since I'd gotten only an hour's worth of sleep on the plane. Our plan was for a full day of exploring and, to tell you the truth, I was feeling a little cotton-headed. So, even though it was only 7 in the morning, we retired to our tents for a little beauty sleep.
As I said earlier, Roland's flight was arriving eighteen hours after ours had arrived. That's nearly an entire day - an entire day that could be spent exploring interesting things. However, we need to stay close by. Fortunately, the immediate area of southwestern Iceland offers a fair bit to see. More than enough to occupy ourselves while Roland winged his way towards us.
The tip of southwestern Iceland is known as the Reykjanes Peninsula. Reyka in Icelandic means 'smoke', and for good reason: there is a substantial amount of volcanic activity present on the Reykjanes peninsula. The peninsula is easily driven in a few hours - perfect for an introduction to Iceland.
To the 'mid-line' Bridge
We first drove about twenty minutes towards the south, past the airport, along the western coast of the peninsula. All around stretched a mostly desolate landscape, mostly comprised of weathered lava flows. Vegetation was exclusively of the ground-hugging variety - mosses, a few patches of sedges, grasses, mosses, and flowers.
We stopped at a nondescript parking lot on the left side of the road, where a paved pathway led up to a steel foot-bridge not far away. The bridge spanned a small square-sided gorge, perhaps 20 feet deep, filled with black sand. This was the "mid-line" bridge near Hafnir. Mid-line, in the sense of mid-way between two continents, for we were over a very important feature of planet Earth's crust - a tectonic plate spreading zone.
A small rift
Iceland is fairly unique in that sits atop the boundary between a tectonic plate spreading boundary. More specifically, between the North American and European tectonic plates. Like two colossal back-to-back conveyor belts, they are carrying North America and Europe in opposite directions, with new land being continuously formed in the middle. This is the primary reason why Iceland is so volcanically active.
In any case, the forces involved in this spreading cause rifting and tearing of the Earth's crust, and here, at the mid-line bridge near Hafnir, was a small example of that tearing - the 20-foot deep rip in the ground beneath us.
Explaining the rift
There are other places in Iceland with much bigger rifts, and the landscape in the immediate vicinity, while interesting, was not overly spectacular. There is also no single rift that defines the center of the ridge, so the positioning of a "mid-line" bridge right at this particular little gorge was more symbolic than anything else. Still, given the close proximity to the international airport and the ease of access, it is a worth a brief stop, if for nothing else than to start one's contemplation of "elemental" Iceland. After all, the creation of new ground is indeed elemental.
After exploring the mid-line bridge area for a few more minutes, we piled back into the Hiace and continued south, along Iceland's regional highway 425. Our next stop was something also geology-related, but much more active!
Five minutes' drive further south brought us to views of billowing white clouds. Steam, to be more precise, for we had arrived at one of Iceland's geothermal areas.
Road to Gunnuhver
This particular geothermal area, known as 'Gunnuhver', also sported a geothermal power plant, which we could now see off to our right. As the prevailing winds blew the billowing clouds across our path, we immediately smelled the rotten egg odor of Hydrogen Sulfide and Sulfur Dioxide, some of the common gases released into the atmosphere at these geothermal areas.
We turned off the main road onto a signposted gravel sideroad, which led to a parking area directly adjacent to the geothermal field. A set of paths and boardwalks marked what were (or are) considered safe places to walk; Some of the ground is quite hot and in places, can collapse under one's weight.
Gunnuhver geothermal field
We spent about half an hour exploring the fascinating sight of the earth bubbling and frothing at our feet. The ground all around us was stained all sorts of bright colors - yellows and oranges primarily, and the geothermal features ranged from bubbling grey mud to roiling water and to vents issuing forth clouds of steam, sometimes with quite loud hissing noises.
Reykjanes geothermal plant
After enjoying our inspection of the Gunnuhver geothermal field, we decided to visit the Icelandic coastline, which at Gunnuhver is only a short walk away, and where there are some scenic rugged outcrops of lava cliffs.
As we neared the coastline, we began to encounter a large number of seabirds, wheeling overhead. Iceland is well-known for its extensive array of seabird life, including the Puffins, Kittiwakes, and Arctic Terns.
What the terns think of Ewart
Arctic Terns in particular are known for their feisty attitude towards humans. They aren't afraid to go on the offense, frequently dive-bombing and pecking at people if they get too close. Ewart apparently managed to offend the sensibility of one or more Terns simply by approaching the coast, for he was the lucky recipient of an actual "bombing" from an Arctic Tern, right on the noggin!
Rugged Reykjanes Coast
The rest of us made it to the coastline unscathed, where we observed a set of craggy promontories, sea stacks, and jagged needles.
The sounds of screeching birds filled the air here. At first I thought these birds were the common sort of gulls we find back home, but it turns out this was not the case. This was a colony of Kittiwakes - three-toed gulls.
Commemorating the Great Auk
In addition to the live birds flying about, there was also a very conspicuous bronze bird statue at the coastline here. The statue stood about five feet tall, and was clearly a flightless bird, because it had small, chicken-like wings. It was positioned such that it was looking out over the sea.
Great Auk and Eldey
I knew what this statue represented, based on some research that I'd done prior to the trip. This was a statue of the Great Auk, a flightless bird - now extinct. The fact that the statue faced out to sea was no accident. If you followed the statue's gaze, you could see that it pointed to a large sea stack far out to sea. This sea stack - called Eldey - was where the last family of Great Auks were killed by trappers in 1844. Sad.