Saturday 25 June 2016

Winter Iceland and the search for aurora - Part I

Iceland winter roads
The highway stays alive in all weather conditions

The land of Fire and Ice

Staying in close vicinity of the Arctic circle, one may think that seeing the magical northern lights will just be a walk in the park. Well, it's not. I have lived in Edinburgh for well over a decade. The stay has been regularly interrupted by escapades into the wilderness of Scottish highlands and the remote islands of the Hebrides. I have visited Norway in March, considered to be the best time of the year for the lights, that too under clear skies. But she remained elusive. Eventually, I had to accept. It will be the Aurora that will find me, doesn't matter how much I chase after her.

When I planned my trip to Iceland in January this year, my friends were convinced that I had finally hit the jackpot. But I was keeping my optimism on hold. A trip down the various travel forums and you would know that Aurora hunters have been disappointed before and I had a trail of unsuccessful attempts behind me. So being realistic, Aurora Borealis indeed is the highlight, but Iceland, the land of ice and fire has more to offer, which I was also looking forward to. With only five days with me and a large area to cover, I was not going to see everything. I needed suggestions, so on went posts to Tripadvisor. The locals suggested I book a tour. The weather will be too treacherous for self drive (of which I saw a few evidences during my visit) and public transport is non existent in winter. Extreme Iceland came recommended. I booked a two day trip to the south west Snaefellsness peninsula and a couple of days to the south coast. I would spend the last day in Reykjavik before I flew back.

When the first Viking settlers approached land, the smoke from the geothermal activities across the bay caught their attention. Reykjavik, they called it, 'Bay of Smoke' in Norse. The airport at Keflavik is a hotspot for trainee pilots to practice landing in high wind. As I was flying out, 50mph wind was battering Edinburgh. A storm was brewing further up north. But, for some unknown reason to me, the flight was surprisingly smooth and the landing uneventful. Was soon off the Easyjet flight, and walking through the glass vestibule saw the snow piled up everywhere. As I went through the wooden floored terminal building, it was difficult to imagine the important role this tiny airport plays for trans-Atlantic journeys. 

Airport transfers are provided by two companies, Airport Express by GrayLine Iceland and a Flybus service. Tickets can be booked online or at the departure lounge. The transfers will drop you at their respective bus terminals, from where a door to door shuttle service whisks you away to downtown Reykjavik. I was the last remaining passenger on my shuttle and the young driver started a conversation. He almost swerved off the road when I answered I am Indian. He dropped me at my hotel doorstep. Since was carrying only a backpack there wasn't any luggage to be helped with. Stomping through deep snow I entered my hotel. The key to my room had been left on the counter as promised. Made myself comfortable in the tiny room I had rented for five nights, though I would actually stay in Reykjavik for only three.

After a failed attempt at making a waffle, I finished breakfast with more traditional bread and eggs. The shuttle for Extreme Iceland picked me up from the hotel around 9:30am. It was still dark. Our driver and guide, Teitur was waiting with a Mercedes Sprinter, a luggage carrier in tow. I watched as the rest of the group started to take their seats. Last time I had been in a group tour was about eleven years ago. I was apprehensive.

Leaving Reykjavik for west Iceland requires crossing the  Hvalfjordur fjord, a 30 mile journey around the fjord. But, since 1998, a 6km submarine tunnel has cut down journey time from an hour to 7mins. We being tourists, were taking the old route, now much quieter as the main traffic goes through the tunnel. Past the aluminium smelting plants running on cheap Icelandic power, here is also located one of the whaling stations of Iceland, controversial but traditional. Hvalfjordur actually translates to the ford of whales. Only Icelanders are allowed to hunt whales in these territorial waters. 

The wind was strong and we could feel the van swerving under its force. The black tarmac of the road was like a life line guiding us through the snow fields. But under the snow drifts, that too was disappearing from time to time until another gust of wind again blew away the snow. 140-160kph wind is quite normal in these parts and Teitur explained how every driver checks the direction of the wind before parking their vehicles. Flying doors are not that uncommon either. 

Iceland winter roads
Enroute Snaefellsness
Iceland winter roads
Enroute Snaefellsness
Our first stop was the geothermal springs at Deildartunguhver, which has the highest flow of hot water in Europe. The hot water bubbled away ferociously, spouting steam, melting the snow around it. There is a strong smell of sulphur in the air. The rocks are stained yellow and the area is a thriving ground for moss. Barriers kept visitors at a safe distance. There have been accidents here, even in recent times.

Iceland geothermal springs
Geothermal springs 
We next stopped in Reykholt, home of the Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson, famous for his significant contribution to Old Norse language and Icelandic mythology.  A short distance away are the beautiful blue water and milky white flows of the falls of Hraunfossar and Barnafoss. 

Hraunfossar waterfalls Iceland
Barnafoss waterfalls Iceland
I was not yet ready to face the bitter chill and after a quick visit to the falls scurried back to the warmth of our van, my fingers and toes starting to go numb. The short arctic day had started to wane by now. By the time we reached the basaltic columns of Gerduberg, the sun had already set. We didn't see much. But, standing there on a white blanket reaching to infinity, bleak and cold as the last rays of the sun disappeared, it was a feeling of ultimately desolateness, but strangely exciting too. 

Church in winter Iceland
Abandoned church
Extreme Iceland
Last rays of the sun disappearing beyond the snow cover
The weather had gone for the worse by now. As Teitur drove us to our destination for the night stay, could feel the van being battered by the wind as it slid momentarily on the ice from time to time. Through the snow and snow drift, visibility was minimal. Teitur was whistling and driving. No wonder I was advised to book a tour.

The Langaholt hotel has a very good chef. I was told that when we returned to Reykjavik and could not stop talking about the food. The Icelanders believe their lamb to be the best and for good reason too. The knife went through the meat as if it was butter. The secret behind the flavoursome meat? The lambs feed on the fresh, green grass for three months of their life before they are slaughtered, the meat young, tender, flavoursome. I avoided another lamb dish after knowing that though.

The aurora forecast for the night was 3 on a scale of 10, which is a low to moderate grading. The weather forecast showed we were in the only cloudless part of Iceland. Expectations were high as we stayed up late, chatting, still at the dining table. It was an interesting bunch of people from all around the world. I had started to appreciate that with the right mix, group travel isn't entirely frustrating. 

Well, though the forecast predicted we could have been lucky with the northern lights, we weren't. Waking up next day, found a fresh pile of snow deposited outside the window. So didn't look like we had much clear skies. Unfortunately, for the next couple of days, the grading forecast had gone down to 2 in a scale of 10. Chances of seeing an aurora, almost negligible. But still, hopes remained alive.

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1 comment:

  1. Great post and this is the best place for seeing northern lights but still I always love Alaska. It is one of the best Northern lights trips.


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