Two words I never would have guessed I’d say/write: I blogged. I blogged because I went to Iceland for a month of pure adventure, and had such a great time that it would be a shame to keep it all to myself. I’ll focus more on the places and experiences I had, less so on my ruminations. Without further ado…
“Why Iceland?” you may wonder. Three major reasons: there are no dangerous animals (or so I thought, except for the random lost polar bear from Greenland), it’s exceptionally beautiful, and it’s small and easy to travel solo. A fourth reason, and where the idea originated from, was I wanted to ride their Icelandic ponies really badly. And I did.
Iceland met my preconceptions in every way – it’s a land of extremes, fire & ice. It was challenging & rewarding, friendly & inhospitable, very safe and quite dangerous.
The first ten days of the tour was by car with zero planned itinerary. I had intentions (a really bad pun lies therein) of camping as much as possible, but the weather, dear lord the weather, was just so tough. The wind. The rain. The cold. No facilities, No thank you. When it is so windy that your car door can be ripped off its hinge, it’s kinda difficult to set up a tent by yourself. Icelanders are direct descendants of Norse Vikings and notoriously tough, and even THEY thought it was crazy to camp in that weather. I did meet another solo female traveler who completed a 5wk cycling/camping tour of Iceland (IS) in those weather conditions, so it was possible, I just preferred a warm hostel.
So Tip#1: don’t underestimate the weather conditions & do not plan to ever take off your 800 fill down jacket. Also buy some of their warm wool socks.
Places I visited during these ten days in fairly chrono order: Skogar, Hofn, Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Skaftafell, Jokulsarlon, Vik, Selfoss, Fluoir, Hella, Keldur, Arnarstapi, Hellnar, Hellisandur, Grundarfjordur, Stykkisholmur, Borgarnes, Reykholt, Akranes, Akureyri, Namafjall, Myvatn, Krafla. Here are pictures from those places.
Tip#2: of that list, the best were: Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, glacier hike on Skaftafell, quaint Stykkisholmur, volcanic activity in Namafjall, and the Myvatn hot pot (geothermal hot tub). Actually any hot pot anywhere makes the list.
Tip#3: Talk to people in the hot pot, including three older Icelandic men in Stykkisholmur. It’s fun and social and you learn about each other. Cultural Exchange! And you will meet a woman traveling with her husband and daughter who is originally from North Dakota and has not only heard of the tiny small town where you are from (Bowdon) but has been there. What are the chances?! I estimate one in millions.
Tip#4: it’s totally ok to pick up hitchhikers in IS and it’s fun to have “real taxi cab confessions” type of convos with them.
Then I undertook the more serious hiking part of my trip interspersed with what I called roosting days in Reykjavik, i.e. rest/refuel/regroup. First up was the most popular trek in IS – the Laugavegur trail http://fi.is/en/hiking-trails/laugavegurinn/ – and there is good reason why it reaches traffic jam status in parts. It was a spectacular range of landscapes, geology, trail variation, lush green valleys, and glacial views the entire 55 km from Landmannalaugur –> Thorsmork. Before you go thinking hmm maybe I want to do that, envision canyons filled with noxious sulfuric gases, numerous frigid (and potentially treacherous) glacial river crossings, vast jagged volcanic rock fields, a couple of snowfield crossings (which may be melted in some parts to false ledges or slushpools), potentially dense fog, and weather that changes to dangerous on a dime. But it was totally easy! And the scenery looks like your eyes are playing tricks on you and it’s actually just all green-screen TrumanShowesque wizardry. See, look at the pictures:
Tip#5: don’t take the Laugavegur trail lightly, and PLEASE DO NOT LITTER. Sorry for the caps. I picked up a lot of garbage from garbage tourists and it makes me mad as a hangry hornet. Pick up your crap – sing Aretha Franklin while you’re out in Nature.
p.s. I did the hike in three days. I would not recommend two days. I stayed in the huts. And if a German tells you to drop your pants to cross the river, just do it. It was great meeting you, Thomas, Frank, & Anke! Takk Fyrir for the Icelandic sheepdog postcard, which is now my dream dog.
Tip#6: don’t do a stupid trail run down a mountain in your stupid hiking boots thus injuring your Achilles tendon and preventing you from doing the Fimmvorduhals hike http://www.volcanohuts.com/fimmvorduhals with Thomas, Anke & Stefan.
Serious hiking trek Part II: Hornstrandir Nature Reserve http://www.westtours.is/trip-categories/hornstrandir-nature-reserve/ in the Westfjords. This was nearly my Brokeback Mountain. I couldn’t quit and it almost broke me. This is the subarctic and it feels that way; it’s been uninhabited since 1952, billed as having the most extreme and intensely beautiful terrain in IS, and one of the last few places to feel completely alone on the planet. It is also home to something like 3/5th of IS’s plant varieties and the unique Icelandic arctic fox, which is IS’s only native mammal.
If you do not know how to navigate via map/compass/general sixth sense perception and do not know how to avoid water saturated river deltas that are quick-sand’ish and are not an expert on crossing steep snowfields with serious mid-field crevasses/melted lakes/false ledges or have a fear of heights or exposure where a slip might send you tumbling over a sheer cliff or do not like everything being soaking wet all of the time to the point where your toes get shrivel-wrinkled or your feet don’t like walking over jagged rock-boulder fields with a 30lb or heavier pack on day four and it might scare you if a polar bear stranded three years ago in the same mountain pass you hiked through, or you never pack enough food and then you run out, probably reconsider undertaking this. Also if you came here to see beautiful, verdant green cliffs of some of the largest nesting bird populations on Earth and instead you see fog soup, well, you need to adjust your expectations.
Tip#7: don’t fall three times. Don’t go to Hornstandir unless you have bad-ass outdoors skills or unless you think you are very lucky and the weather or any of the elements above won’t work against your favor. That said, it was really great! But I went with a guide, Jon, who grew up hiking in the area and knew it better than the best maps. Really. Also he and his fiance Berglin, who also grew up in a tiny village in the Westfjords, taught me about the flora & fauna & foxes, showed me the plants and berries you can eat including one delicious plant that tasted rhubarb-ey, told me about the local history of the region, mythology of trolls and elves, and in general imparted a lot of knowledge that made it into a rich & rewarding experience despite the above factors. Jon may be half-hobbit though because he would walk around the campsite at night in bare feet whereas my feet took approximately 2hrs to thaw in my warm woolen socks inside my +15F sleeping bag.
But yeah most people probably should not go here. Currently only about 1,000 – 1,500 people visit/year. If you do, please respect the environment; it is highly ecologically sensitive. Check for loose polar bears.
Tip#8: Snickers for breakfast is really something to look forward to each morning. Dried fish with butter is pretty darn decent, as is lamb tuna-salad’ish on flat bread, smoked lamb, and lakkris (licorice) chocolate. Thanks for broadening my food horizons, Jon & Berglin!
I also did a one day superjeep tour from Isafjordur to Flokalundur (where Raven Floki, the Viking who gave Iceland its name, landed), over to Latravik, Patreksfjordur, Bildudalur, Dynjandi, etc. I saw puffins at Latrabjarg http://www.westfjords.is/WhattoSeeDo/AttractionView/latrabjarg , visited three outdoor natural hot pots, and climbed to the base of the most beautiful waterfall I’ve seen yet.
Time for more Reyk roosting days before flying home, but first I snagged this nice shot in Isafjordur.
Pretty much spent my last two days in Reyk going to hot pots. I also couchsurfed which was Tip#9: the MOST GENIUS THING EVER. This came about during my previous roosting days through a hot pot convo. I stayed with Bjnari and it was so what I needed. No stinky hostel room with five discordant snoring bunkmates. A comfy bed, a quiet, peaceful nice-smelling apartment, an airport pickup, a fun hike. If you are reading this Bjnari, Takk Fyrir so very much!
So then it was time for the flight back to the US, which felt like the final scene in Gravity when Sandy comes crashing back to Earth but in a reverse I don’t want to leave sort of way. Shameless dump of more pictures.
Musings on traveling solo: it was great! So many people offered me help or food or advice and on the plus side it makes you very eager to strike up a conversation with anyone that will listen. That said, it wasn’t very common especially as a solo female. Oh well, nobody puts baby in a box. Make your own adventure!
Musings on Icelanders: I thought I came from hardy stock (descended from multiple generations of northern plains farmers), and knew what hard work in challenging conditions meant, being a legit farmgirl in the non-romanticized sense of the word. Let me bottom line this, Icelanders are the shit. Seriously, just imagine a combination of all of the potentially dangerous things and awful weather that I’ve mentioned above, and their attitude is quite nonchalant, “it could be worse” and “it’s possible to die” and that would be an Icelander. Also everyone was so friendly to me.
I prefaced this trip with a Helen Keller quote and I’ll full circle it with another. “What we have once enjoyed we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
p.p.s I took over 1.3k pix so if you are someone other than my mother and would like to look through an abridged version, lmk in the comments & I’ll send you the dropbox link.
Lastly, if you do in fact go to Iceland consider donating here to their search & rescue organization which is all completely done on a volunteer basis by BAMF Icelanders: http://www.landsbjorg.is/en/icelandic-association-for-search-and-rescue/support-us