Thursday, June 14, 2007

Iceland: Day Six (Vík to Höfn)

Today was the coolest day ever (thus far, of course, and since we basically turn around tomorrow, I don't think it could get better). We saw so many awesome things today, I almost just want to make a list before I forget:

Cows (up real close)
Hálsanefs Hellir (I'll explain)
a Puffin (I'll explain)
Waterfalls (of course)
Núpsstaður (evil flies abound, but way awesome nevertheless)
Skaftafell National Park (four mile hike and best pictures ever)
Jökulsárlón (James Bond's Die Another Day filmed here for good reason)
Seals (umhmm)

Okay. Glad to begin with an outline, because today was like three awesome days, and I can't believe I haven't dropped from exhaustion yet. We started out with breakfast at Edda, where I got my paws on whole hard boiled eggs (a miracle) and freshly sliced apples and oranges (a greater miracle still). I scarfed that with a bowl of grainy cereal that required enough chewing to give me a sore jaw afterward, a slice of a soft and crumbly local brown bread with flavors I've yet to pinpoint (it looks like it would be sweet, with the texture of zucchini bread or spice loaf, but the flavor isn't sweet at all, nor salty, nor sour, but still very particular and far from bland).

We packed up the vehicle and backtracked a few minutes to another beach, because I was huffin' to see a puffin (a sea bird special to Icelanders, pictured on postcards everywhere, and served up at dinner in the more expensive restaurants), and the puffin beach we'd tried to go to yesterday (Dyrhólaey) was closed for mating season. On the way to Hálsanefs Hellir, our backup beach, we had to stop the car for cow crossing. I rolled down the window to take pictures and, well, wow; cows smell dreadful. Onto the beach. The first thing I noticed was the extremely satisfying sound of the rounded gray and black lava stones crunching under my feet. The stones reduce in size to pebbles as you approach the shore, and there isn't really any sand. The beach backs onto a number of dramatic caves comprised of stacked, blocky rock formations, better described in a picture than with words. There are also more psychedelic, drippy rock formations out in the sea. An older couple outfitted in Safari gear was our only company on the beach; they had a small telescope set up on a tripod, and the man waved me over and pointed to it, suggesting that I take a look. I peered into the glass and sighed a girly, breathy sigh. It was a puffin, tucking its curved orange and blue beak into its black and white feathers, perhaps snuffling around for an insect, and looking extremely snuglly and cute (I know, sappy; I'm sorry). I expressed my thanks in English and Icelandic, but the couple spoke neither, so I smiled and smiled and sighed and finally walked off. Michael did not get to see the puffin because he was too busy photographing rock formations.

We drove onto our next stop, Núpsstaður, which is village of abandoned turf-roof farmhouses and a not-abandoned (tiny as always) turf-roofed church. I've yet to discover why Icelanders build their farmhouses and churches into the sides of cliffs, caves, or hills, though I have a theory that it cuts down on necessary lumber (of which Iceland has none) or stonemasoning (of which Iceland has plenty) by at least one half, although it does require a bit of digging. The site was ranging with evil flies, though, which not only tried to nest in my eyes and ears, but clung to the underside of my cap like tiny vampire bats, waiting to feed on my mucus membranes. Combined with the annoying tourists asking me stupid questions ("Are you taking a picture of him taking a picture?"/"No, I'm taking a picture of the double waterfall."/"Oh, I thought you were taking a picture of your husband taking a picture."/"He's not my husband." (curtly)), I didn't hang around long, though I did peek into the church to find that it contained a small organ (rare).

Onwards, onwards, to Skaftafell National Park, where a variety of trails lead up to the Vatnajökull ("jökull" means "glacier," and the Vatna- is the largest one in the island. And it, my friends, is bloody ginormous. Immense. Literally awesome.) The trail Michael wanted was closed, so we took another trail that eventually led us up to a lookout point called Sjónarnipa, a 6.5 km hike (mostly level three on a 10 point scale in my book; uphill, but never very dangerous, with a few level four or five digressions from the path for better photo ops) up through the park, around the Svartifoss (beautiful long, long, waterfall coming freshly down off the glacier), and eventually up to a wicked lookout point over the Skaftafellsjökull (one of the many ice-valley outpourings of the massive Vatnajökull. We'd had our eyes set on this glacier the entire hike long, as it had emerged from misty skytop into sharp focus. It seemed enticingly close (Michael wants to touch a glacier so very badly), but though it looked as though another km of tumbling and trudging could get us down onto its surface, the path led there not, and it seemed an imprudent idea. Instead, we took some conquistador-style photos and made our way backward on the same trail, down to the gift shop, where we snagged a sandwich and some Skyr. I picked up what looked like a caramel Skyr-style tub, but which turned out to be a more salty than sweet paste (nutella's texture) that was basically inedible. Michael thought it reminiscent a bit of vegemite. I might enjoy it on toast with jam tomorrow morning, though; we'll see.

Back in the car, we kept driving due East, until we came to a big bridge and Michael pointed out my window. I replied, "OhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGodOhMyGod." It was the Jökulsárlón, or the ice lake (remember in Die Another Day, there are cars skidding across a vast lake of blue ice? This is the place.) which is the best attraction in Iceland and cannot be missed under any circumstances. It is, oh I hate to use the sullied word but I haven't a choice, mystical. Not in a God way (despite my exclamations, I remain very staunchly atheistic.) If you believe in God, of course, you'll find it here; I just found musical silence, and low, empty peace. Of course, in order to find these things, one must escape tourists, so we walked along the lake's shore at least a mile away from the bustle of the parking lot, the photography, and the boat tours, to where the seals felt comfortable sunning themselves on the big blocks of ice. The ice, hunks of glacier, constantly is in a state of flux, particularly on a sunny June day like today, as melting causes movement. The music in the air is that of a giant glass of tinkling ice water, except in stereo instead of from out your hand. The icy formations—some crystalline, some opaque, some black with volcanic ash—move against each other, melt into new formations, crack and bob and tumble under the water only to immediately pop up again, changed. I got tired, and sat with the sea birds on the gravelly shore while Michael pushed ahead (still itching to touch the glacier, although I had already grabbed a chunk of ice to hold, and snapped off a smaller piece to put in my mouth. It was, to my surprise, very salty, although it was so clear and had caught the sunlight in such a way that it had looked like a piece of aluminum foil floating in the water. I fell asleep on the shore (I'd walked a long way!) and awoke alone. I waited and waited for Michael to come back. It got cold, and the area felt lonely and desolate. The groaning ice and barking seals mocked my hopes for Michael's footsteps to come around the bend, so that we could hike back to the warmth of the car. I waited and waited, but I didn't see him anywhere. Of course, I began to worry, so I climbed up a very high hilltop, and began shouting his name. I heard baa-ing, and turned around to find a ram and two lambs looking down on my from the bluff above. I continued to scan the far edges of the lake for Michael, but I wasn't wearing my glasses, the bluff was a mile away from the last pin turn of the lake, where he had said he was headed, and I saw nothing. I stood and looked and fretted. Soon, I saw what looked like a bobby pin moving very slowly across the opposite shore; two pendula swung back and forth—legs. It could be him. Ten minutes later, the figure rounded the bend. Another ten minutes later, it approached close enough that it was identifiable as him. He was so far that his brisk steps afforded slow-motion progress. Soon we found each other and hiked the mossy bluffs back to the car.

Exhausted, I chugged some water and we drove the last stretch to Höfn, the tiny seaside town we're sleeping in tonight. We checked into our hotel (Asgardur, which is kind enough to provide free wireless internet), received a second floor room with harbor and fishing-boat views, and prepared for dinner. Again, no self-catering, so we dined at Kaffi Hornið, the best-looking spot both via the Lonely Planet and simple curb appeal. Dinner was Kr3900 (nearly $70, I believe) at this restaurant, where our food took half an hour to arrive and we were responsible for getting our own water from the cooler on one side of the room. I'm not complaining, though; this seems to be typical of Iceland. I had "glaciertrout," a salmon-coloured and -tasting slender fillet that was ever so gently panfried and tasted lovely. Michael had a cream sauced rigatoni with vegetables. Both came with small salads, much appreciated in Iceland. Now, bedtime.

More pictures from day six.

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