Friday, December 16, 2005


Last night, we travelled by cinema to Narnia, a fabulous place full of fauns and centaurs, ruled (at the start of the film) by a deliciously wicked witch. For once, the villainess was allowed to dispense with black, opting for a stylish and seasonable white wardrobe. Few fashionistas could match her for accessories: she even colour coordinates outfits with transport: a reindeer-drawn sled for casual every-day use, and a high-powered chariot pulled by polar bears for weekends and special occasions (brooms are so very last season - acceptable for the school age witch and wizard, but certainly not the thing for the upwardly mobile career witch with an eye to world domination).

Post Narnia, Miss C and I raced each other home from The City, two silver hulls gleaming dimly by the light of a full moon: around us, its reflected glory painted empty road and sleeping fields in shades of pale fantasy. Selene is sailing closer and rising higher than she has in twenty years.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

From the Eye to The Temple

We returned above ground to take a black cab to the London Eye. Long queues for tickets – book ahead!  Too bad the local mime artists can’t operate inside the ticket office – the riverbank is lined with acrobats and strange painted figures, as well as dare devil skateboarders.  

Tickets purchased, we got a gondola pretty quickly, and began our gentle ascent skywards.  The view really is very good indeed: Westminster was laid our before us – we could see Downing Street and Buckingham Palace.  To the east lay the Sci-Fi outlines of the strangely elegant Swiss Re gherkin and the rather ugly BT tower.  Worth doing.

We finished our walk by first heading east along the Thames, then crossing it to reach Somerset House, whose courtyard hosts a temporary skating rink and an ice climbing tower.  A very beautiful sight as the sun set, with real torches burning, but – curses! – booked solid.   We wandered off through almost empty streets, at one point finding ourselves within The Temple – a kind nature reserve for barristers.  Lucky devils.  I wonder if the gates are there to protect them from the public – or vice versa?
Thence to Liverpool Street, and home – but we’ll be back.

St. Paul's

On Sunday, nothing was pre-determined, except our early evening flight home.  We decided to set out for St. Paul’s Cathedral, which I had always wanted to see, but had never previously gotten closer to than the view from the Tate Modern end of the adjacent bridge.

Of course, I knew the exterior from film and postcard, but the interior was a revelation – clean cool curves arching overhead, without the massy sense of the Norman churches, warmer and less severe than the Gothic lines I loved in Salisbury, none of the glamour and gilding that plagues Italian churches.  Wren was a genius.

We lunched in the Crypt Café, bone-free since the clean-up that followed the Great Fire of London – the disaster which gave Wren his great chance.  We may have spotted a knight: a distinguished looking grey haired gentleman in tails, with a large medal around his neck and a slim, blonde, (very U) lady companion of similar age.

I found the monuments to fallen heroes absurdly touching.  Wellington is remembered there, and General Slim, who only has a plaque: a modest memorial, I thought, for the man who saved the subcontinent, and rolled the Axis back through Burma.

Going to Chicago

In the evening, we went to the Strand, popping out of the tub at Piccadilly Circus, only a short stroll from the Adelphi Theatre, from which I had bought two tickets for “Chicago”, which has been playing there for eight years. Catchy tunes, and some good lines, delivered by an orchestra who seemed to be playing simply for the sheer joy of the music, and first class singers who didn’t fluff a note – and danced rather well too. Even the audience was good – mostly tourists who don’t see much theatre, and were ready for a good time and generous with the applause. I love the West End.

The Biggest Toyshop. In the World.

Fresh from 8 centuries or so of machinations and blood letting, we felt ready for Regent Street. At this season, it is almost solid with humanity, and definitely a more daunting place than any medieval dungeon. One shop stood out like a beacon: the mecca of our childhood longings, fed by the tantalizing entry in the Guinness book of records: Hamleys! Definitely the closest thing to Santa’s workshop that I have ever seen. We saw:

  • A gadget that looked like a water pistol, but instead produced huge clouds of soap bubbles.

  • A strange disc-like craft with flashing lights about the size of a side plate floated up into the air – a real flying saucer, radio controlled!

  • “Model” rockets which can fly a thousand feet into the air, take a picture, and then descend by parachute.

  • A toy giraffe, with a price tag of about £4,000. This life-size stuffed toy is actually quite a bargain, at least on a pence-per-kilo basis.

Crowded, yes – but magical!

The White Tower

We began Saturday with a visit to the combination fortress / palace / prison that is the Tower of London. The tower itself, built by the Normans, turned out to be smaller than I had imagined (interesting in itself as an indication of the economic standing of the rulers of the day), but none the less impressive in its history and surprisingly beautiful in its details, particularly the small Norman chapel. A cheery Beefeater led us about the walks and greens within the walls and gave us a very entertaining (and bloody) history of the tower.

Actually, the history of the tower isn’t quite as bloody as one expect, given the times it has seen. Quite a few prisoners ended their days with a walk to the nearby execution block, but quite a few of those killings could almost be classed as “self defence” on the part of the monarch of the day (the job used to be even more dangerous). Also, they obviously didn’t like to bear grudges, since many of the executed were buried in the chapel which still stands in the grounds (included a wife or two of Henry VIII). Apparently, the dreaded dungeons were used to torture a total of 83 prisoners over their 800 year-long history – not a very glorious record, but, at only 8.3 prisoners per century, probably a much smaller total than most dungeons of that vintage can boast.

The tower itself has no more prisoners, save for the eight ravens in the grounds (six by royal tradition required, two by cautious Beefeaters for backup provided) and the jewels sequestered within massive Norman walls and immense steel doors. There are robes of state, crowns that defined bling half a millennia before the word itself was coined, and a sceptre bearing Cullinan I, the world’s largest cut diamond (530 carats in weight, or, in real people’s measurements, the size of a hen’s egg). You get a glimpse of the lighter side of royal life too – a gold punchbowl large enough to bathe children and sufficiently tasteless in its gleaming for any aspiring Mrs. Bucket. Definitely worth a visit, if one can leave with one’s head.

Off to London

Our weekend adventure began with a Ryanair flight of amazing cheapness (55 euros, return, for two) and a trip on the rather ordinary Stansted Express into Liverpool Street station (I had forgotten how very elaborate was the wrought-iron roof – fruits of the Gothic Revival?).  We stayed at the Mayflower in Earl’s Court – recommended by the AA and Conde Nast, the elegant white mid-Victorian townhouse façade and portico contain a small hotel of just 40 rooms, each individually and rather stylishly furnished.  After check-in, a late dinner in “Nandos”: Portugese cooking – chicken dishes flavoured with devilishly powerful spices from Mozambique, their former colony.  Good food, and very reasonably priced too.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Carpentry / Neighbours from Hell

It is quite possible that the family next door will never forgive us for what we inflicted on them over the weekend: two full days of auditory violence from breakfast until long past dinner. Quite simply, we are the DIY neighbours from hell. Not content with hanging a picture or assembling flat-packed furniture, we took a fancy to building a garden shed.  Not for us the kits delivered on the back of a lorry – instead, four car-loads of wood, screws, nails and roofing felt have been carried home from our local hardware supermarket.  To these materials, we applied not only hand, tenon and mitre saws and hammers, but also high-powered drills and electric screwdrivers, plus a jigsaw.  Only a lingering sense of fiscal responsibility prevented us from fetching home a circular saw to complete the “orchestra”.   Still, the “melody” our little quartet produced was enough to draw the curiosity of passers-by (all the more so because only the tallest could see us behind the high walls of our garden).

The work is nearly complete now.  Our shed has four complete walls standing squarely on a strong and level base.  A ridgepole runs the length of it, and the first rafter pair are now semi-secure, making a gable above the doorway.  Tonight, we must get the roof on, because tomorrow it will rain (can you believe our luck in having three consecutive dry days, just when they were needed?).  Oh, and all sides must be painted, to weatherproof them.  Roofing is the job we really dread, though: cutting rafters with tricky angles and “bird’s mouth” notches and screwing them together into something neat and strong, seven or eight feet above the shed floor (in the dark, because night falls so early now).

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Shed

Miss C and I spent a good part of the weekend in our new garden (a rather generous term, it being currently a waste of weeds unrelieved by dragonflies, sparkling or otherwise).  Regular readers will know it as the site for our expanding mouse cemetery.  

This time, though, we were there with constructive purpose: not content with namby-pamby shed kits, we spent Saturday afternoon buying two car loads of wood, plus an assortment of fearsome-looking nails.  The Day Of Rest we spent merrily sawing and hammering.  By the time the moon rose, we had constructed an 8 by 10 foot base, with a stiff (and hopefully sturdy) floor.  

Construction is tremendously satisfying: remarkably, we have sustained only light injuries and manageable levels of blood loss.  The only cloud on the future of the project is Miss C’s glum prophecy that we are simply “building a house for the mice” – she believes the finished structure is sure to become a kind of mousy mansion, a cosy wooden home in which to raise more furry hordes.  I am more sanguine: from dust they came, and to dust they shall swiftly be returned.  They will make excellent fertilizer - for our weeds.


They say that some people become like their pets, their manner and appearance gradually taking on something of their familiar’s. Could it be that a similar process develops in people with an antipathy towards a particular animal?

I ask, because our campaign of the last few weeks against the cunning and persistent Mus musculus seems to have begun certain changes in me: the faintest rustle or scratch will freeze my pose, even as my head swivels to triangulate the source. The eyes concentrate more and more on the world of ground level, seeking cracks and crannies, cover and clearings. Even my nose, previously deaf to all but the most violently fragranced cheeses is now sensitive to days-old mouse traces.

This might all be put to an overactive imagination, except that it is getting results – I, who had never seen a “wild” mouse have recently tracked and found several, indoors and outdoors. Newly-sharpened senses are awakening atavistic instincts are awakening. Late at night, I slip silently into a darkened kitchen, stand stock still in ambush, listening hopefully, almost hungrily: furry flight is tremendously exciting, an irresistible invitation to chase.

Am I becoming a cat?

Update: Last weekend, I found myself waiting with great anticipation beside a mouse hole

Friday, November 11, 2005

Serial, Killing the 3rd

We’ve been having trouble with midnight marauders again. We think they’ve been gaining access through a tunnel, but at first they eluded us, stripping traps of bait on three occasions. Not this morning though: a freshly re-baited and re-set trap caught our intruder with his hindquarters still in the tunnel entrance. The poor fellow took the fatal blow square in the forehead – unpleasant-looking, but at least the end must have been instantaneous. His last meal was a good one, as he had managed to eat most of the bait before the trigger wire came free. The usual pre-dawn burial followed, his little body not yet stiff, curled almost as if in sleep as he slid from my spade into the earth. Three small graves lie in a row now, but I’m still sufficiently un-hardened to my task to feel rather wicked as I looked down at the tiny form of my victim. Such a sweet-looking thing he was, with his pale underbelly and tiny pink paws that look so much like hands.

Update: My sympathies for the deceased not withstanding, I reset the trap immediately, and Miss C found another fresh little corpse an hour or two later. Burial will follow this evening: no flowers please.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

The Fall

Once a week, for no particular reason, my friends and I like to take riding lessons in an indoor arena perched on a quiet hillside which lies some miles into the green, green country beyond The City. We are usually half a dozen or so, there for social element as much as the horses.

In the summer, we were all beginners. Now, we are learning to canter: this is a much faster pace, where all four hooves may leave the ground at once. There is a lot of motion: you must keep the rhythm of the horse – or risk being bounced halfway to the rafters. For male riders, getting the rhythm wrong can be quite uncomfortable. I’ve learnt to clasp the horse very firmly with my knees.

On the evening of this story, our instructor was pleased with our progress: so pleased that he wanted to give us all as much practice as possible. Now, usually we canter singly, with the rest of the group observing, their mounts stationery in the centre of the arena, but on this occasion I was sent out to lead Miss C in a canter (or, my horse led because hers is a bone-idle, laziness incarnate).

No sense of foreboding, just excitement to be riding fast, together. We’ve been around too many times to worry much. And it goes well, until the call comes to turn in again. Something startles my “Gipsy”: instead of slowing to my “whoa” and tug, she seems to buck and jump. Adrenaline stretches seconds: time becomes glacier-slow as the next turn approaches. Awareness is a tunnel, pin-sharp, the problems of the world reduced to a single goal: stay in the saddle. I fight Gipsy for control: pull her back, firmly, not cruelly. Just as suddenly as the mischief began, it leaves her, and we fall back to a walk.

Only then do I glance in to the others: and see - no! - a white horse with an empty saddle trotting through the arena by itself. It is Miss C’s horse.

Once more, moments seem to stretch into aeons as I seek frantically back along the path of the white horse. Disbelieving, I find her up walking, with a smile on her face.

The accident reconstructed: Down went her horse, cleanly she fell, head-first, then somersaulting, tucked in, bounced, rolled, stood again, unbroken. At the time, I think I got a bigger fright than she did.

Thursday, November 03, 2005


Back to the riding school last night, and another new mount. Gipsy was taken, but I wasn’t disappointed for long: instead, I was given Andy, a five year old Connemara Pony. His owner described him as “maybe a bit too good for a riding school”. I’m no judge of that, but he is certainly a very comfortable horse to ride. Taller than the others (except Gipsy), he turned out to be even easier – I several times had to pull him up for trotting too fast – and he broke into a canter very willingly too. Already, he was my favourite of all the animals I had tried, but better was to come.

At the end of the lesson, we were given another try at the poles, two being set out on opposite sides of the arena, each in the middle of a long straight, requiring a jump of about a foot or so. Riding immediately behind Gipsy, I was able to see her take an easy line, turning a little to the left where rising ground made the pole lower and easier. Andy didn't waver, and actually made a small jump. After the second pole I was feeling very confident, and on the next lap I actually spurred him on for the last length or two of the approach, tucking myself low on his neck at the last second. I could feel his great shoulder muscles bunch below me, followed a moment later by a surge of acceleration as all four legs uncoiled and propelled us cleanly over the pole – easily the best jump yet!

The jump was followed by a smooth landing and the realization that riding is really becoming instinctive. Jumping is very exciting, but feels perfectly natural, and happens exactly as I had imagined it would. Further adventures beckon – can’t wait.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Goodbye to Sky

We rode again last night.  No jumping this time, but still some excitement, because I changed mounts.  Sky was a recalcitrant animal who’ll never canter without considerable encouragement from the crop – this time, he was given to a beginner, Miss D (the fact that he is almost completely oblivious to tugging, flogging and the heel is actually a virtue in his job, as it makes him very safe for new riders).  

My new mount was led out, taller than all the other horses, a white coat heavily flecked with gray. This was Gipsy, and straightaway even I, a novice, could feel the difference.  Gipsy is what our trainer calls “easy”. The merest hint is enough to steer her.  As for pace, a touch of the heel, and she broke into a faster trot than Sky or Flint will ever do.  Repeat this nudge, and she moves smoothly up to a canter that seems halfway to a gallop.  Stopping is just as effortless – just say the word.  The reins seemed almost superfluous.  Such a fast and easy ride I had - a completely different experience.  

The instructor had a word with me as I dismounted – “Ask for Gipsy in future. You’re able for her now.”

Moonlit Funeral

A Sequel to the Mouse Hunt

Early this morning, I checked our traps and found a very dead little mouse – even the tail board-stiff in rigor mortis.  The little creature had eaten perhaps a third of the chocolate button bait when the wire came down.  Burial was immediate in our weed-waste garden. An angry gale whipped the trees to frenzied motion, the pre-dawn interral lit by a waning moon that floated in a weirdly clear sky.  I felt like a murderer.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

The Mouse Hunters

October now, with the hunter's moon half-full and, appropriately enough, we’ve been hunting. Our new home turned out to have existing residents – mice – and we don’t feel like sharing.

The first encounter came when we heard a suspicious rustling noise from a large box full of assorted foodstuffs in the middle of the kitchen. Careful listening convinced us that we had a visitor. Miss C’s plan was to remove the rodent, box and all, to the back garden - but as we began to move, a small brown streak erupted from my end, crossed the floor and shot to safety through a tiny gap at the base of cupboard – all before I could move an inch in pursuit. Round one to the mouse.

We were agreed: the beast must die. Off we went to the local hardware superstore, which turned out to stock only one type of mouse trap – a humane trap, based on tilting and a locking door. Deployed with temping morsels of chocolate and nuts, this trap was triggered twice in an evening, bringing us running to examine our catch - but turned out to be empty on both occasions. Foiled! Score: mice two, humans nil.

Back to the shops for more traps – two spine snappers. Before we could deploy them, a familiar sound issued from the still-packed food box. Our blood was up now, and we determined to end the battle on the spot – a hunt seems much more sporting that traps and poisons.

Miss C guarded the north end of the box with a steel-tipped walking pole, while I barricaded likely exit routes. Siege! Donning disposable gloves (germ proof, but probably not bite-proof), I began to empty the box, starting at the southern end. Out came jars, bottles, bags – all examined for stowaways – as I worked my way slowly along the box. Gradually, more and more of the floor of the box was visible: the available cover for our prey was shrinking fast, and the tension built with every item removed. Miss C was all for bashing away the remaining heap, in hopes of scoring a lucky hit. I vetoed the strike, partly on humane grounds – I believe in a clean kill – and partly because of the mess – I wanted a tidy victory, not airborne mouse guts.

Suddenly, as the tension became unbearable, with only a few spice jars remaining, our victim came into view, cowering at the end of the box. It stayed very still for a few seconds, black beady eyes all agog with fright. Just for a moment, I felt very sorry, and something of a bully: then, he broke and ran right towards me, making an amazing leap for his old escape route. No luck today – I had blocked it, and anyway, with the box empty, he couldn’t quite get the height. I grabbed for him as he tried the corner, and felt him squirm upwards, still climbing for freedom – he took a surprising degree of force to restrain. With a hand full of warm and wriggly mouse, a mousy Alcatraz was urgently needed. He was promptly decanted into a small pedal bin, which was immediately bagged and double bagged – no chances with this one. At last, score one for us!

What to do with the prisoner? Miss C had been all for execution, but I asked clemency for the defendant: could we not commute the sentence to transportation? The quality of Miss C’s mercy is not strained: it droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the earth beneath – so we set out along the road to the city, to find a quiet new home for the prisoner. Some miles from home, I put the little bin down in the glare of Miss C’s headlights and opened the lid. A small whiskery face looked up at me for a moment, and then this tiny creature made an amazing standing jump, clearing the top of the bin, and ran for the verge, and freedom.

Back at the house, we set the spine-snappers anyway, just in case. This morning, neither had sprung - but our chocolate bait was gone.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

One small step - for a horse

Last night I returned to the riding school after a week off (when I did something even riskier and more exciting – but that is a story for another day).  It was nice to be back in the saddle, this time on Sky, who is usually much better behaved than my old mount, Flint.  The lesson began as usual with walking while the other students mounted up, then rising and sitting trots.  Next it was the standing trot, which I found quite awkward – we hadn’t been asked to do that for a while, and I wondered why it was being reintroduced.

On to the cantering, which didn’t go too badly - I felt very comfortable and secure in my seat.  However, although Sky did get up to a good speed, the canter never felt really smooth, and I had to be pretty stern (the crop got plenty of use – even my own leg did not escape unpunished).  When waiting for my turn to canter, I love to watch the two ponies (Pepe and Rambo). One is black and glossy all over, while the other is a very light tan, except for the mane, socks and tail which are all black.  Tiny but perfectly formed, seeing these ponies at a canter always puts me in mind of tales of fantasy and magic: they seem otherworldly, as if they had escaped from some story-book enchanted forest.

With ten minutes remaining,  our instructor did something unexpected: he pulled out a couple of plastic blocks – until now, we had only ever seen these used for mounting – and crossed them with poles (thick, smooth, wooden, painted red and white) to make two low jumps.  The ponies were let out, one at a time, to canter around and try the obstacles.  The rider must lean into the horse’s neck just before the jump is reached – this is partly to keep the rider steady as the horse leaps, and partly to control the timing – contrary to what one might expect, the rider decides when to jump, and not the horse.  At first, the ponies simply took the poles in their stride – but then, something wonderful happened, and all four of Pepe’s hooves left the ground together… the first jump!

The ponies turned in eventually, and you can imagine with what excited anticipation I waited to see if we older (but less experienced) riders would get our chance.  To our surprise, get it we did – we all turned out together, and took the jumps at a trot.  I’m afraid that my technique was not very good, and I could not seem to get the lean right.  Still, I didn’t fall, and we did clear those poles (mostly!).  

I hadn’t really expected to begin jump training so soon – in fact, I hadn’t any intention of learning to jump at all.  Now that we have begun, I’m very excited about it, and looking forward to the next lesson.  The adventure continues…

Thursday, October 06, 2005

Further Cantering

Riding again last night, and very good fun it was too. Recently, our instructor seems to have begun to take a much more active interest in us, and we are spending more and more time cantering, to the point where walking and trotting are only being used to rest the horses between times. Whereas we trot as a group, we canter singly or in pairs, so the instructor’s advice, observation and criticism are that much better for being concentrated on fewer riders – and those who are waiting for their turn get a chance to see techniques (good and bad) demonstrated.

The new pace seemed dangerously fast at first, but we are coming on so quickly, to the point where a canters seems hardly more daunting than a trot. When we first started to canter, we were a little nervous of it and didn’t feel at all secure in the saddle, bouncing and rolling with the sort poise and grace you might expect from a sack of potatoes. Now, although we won’t be winning dressage competitions any time soon, we are all pretty stable, making proper use of knees and stirrups. With better confidence and balance, we can use our crops and our knees to spur the horse on, and can hold the reins more “quietly” – we have stopped tugging on them for support (which would at best confuse the horse and at worst, hurt it).

The other difference is that we are all getting much better at controlling the animals for ourselves (when our lessons began, the horses had always to be told what to do by the instructor, who calls them by name and can control them by voice alone). Now, we can turn, start and stop, more or less at will, which is just as well, since our earlier frustration at the apparent obstinacy of the poor beasts tended to be relieved verbally and with some passion, and the animals were learning a most unsuitable vocabulary (unless they are thinking of becoming sailors or rappers, in which case they probably owe us for some very useful lessons!).

Why am I learning to ride? Apart from enjoying the lessons, I have vague intentions that Miss C and I will one day actually apply our riding skills in cowboy or gaucho country. Monument Valley, say, or the pampas, on horseback – now that would be something!

Wednesday, October 05, 2005

In darkness, spinning

So, I went back to the cove on a very overcast evening.  No camera this time, because I was sure there would be no light to photograph with.  Regretting it now though – I passed a large and very dramatic fire in a field en route.  

The cove itself was dimly lit by the skyglow of a nearby town. The phosphorence was strong, green glows appearing spontaneously on the surface of the cove. At first I thought these were triggered by fish – but, searching with my torch, I found only drifting clumps of seaweed.

A fresh southerly breeze was sending small sloppy waves to slap about the walls of the cove – not the best for visibility.  However… I decided that I had driven too far to turn tail now, and slipped in.  I found myself gasping through my snorkel at the shock of the temperature – tried to put my face down, but recoiled from the chill – the water cold enough on this autumn night to cause actual pain.

At the mouth of the cove, on the eastern side, there lies a sea cave with a very exposed entrance.  I approached very cautiously indeed, keeping to the sides (although my gloved hands found few grips – sea caves are generally worn very smooth below the high-tide mark).  Deep water mitigated the surge and backwash, however, and it was quite easy to penetrate safely (in a controlled way) to a largish round chamber with a very high roof.  A narrow neck led from this to a small and very low-roofed inner chamber, where the sea was making a terrible din. The booming might lead an imaginative sort to imagine an imprisoned monster beating at the walls of his cell - but not me, obviously!  I decided that I liked having a reliable supply of air overhead, and retreated to open water.  Advice for readers: when entering a strange sea-cave, equate loud booming with very limited airspaces.  

About this time, I decided to try my theory that swimming fish would be easy to find, on account of the phosphorence.  Switching off my torch, my own mask could be seen to make sparks, but the water beyond was abyssal-black.  Hanging in the darkness and cold of a moonless night, I became severely disorientated with frightening speed.  Although completely stationary in a cruciform face-down float and moving only slightly with the passing waves, I began to feel that I was spinning and tumbling over and over,  the sensation strengthening with each second, and (imaginary) speed increasing.   At first, I thought that I might wait a while, and see what other phantoms my senses might produce when deprived of external references – but common sense prevailed, and I switched on my torch – and the “movement” stopped.

Cold, mildly disorientated and, yes, slightly daunted by my experiences, I retreated to the slipway – where I was very pleased to find the backup torch which had slipped off my wrist at an early stage of the swim.  Total sea-life spotted: one small crab, one fish.  The new torch is very powerful, but the beam is also very narrow.  Lessons: find that hood.

Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Iceland - The End

Conclusion of the Icelandic Saga

Awoke at Lanmanalauger. These huts are in a sheltered valley with hot springs, grass, sheep and scenery galore. Unfortunately, we were a little caught for time – but we did manage a short walk, which took us to the view below (old lava fields, etc.).

Leaving the hills, we passed several lakes and rivers – this is a very scenic area, well worth visiting, and accessible (from the west) to ordinary cars. See this previous post for an extraordinary panorama over one such lake.

We were sorry to have to leave, but we had a fantastic holiday and saw as much as we could reasonably have hoped to manage in the time. Very likely we’ll do more holidays like this one (self-driving in a jeep through wilderness). Do I recommend it? Absolutely, but you’ll need fairly deep pockets to do everything that we did.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

River Crossings - Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights)

This entry continues my Icelandic adventure, taking up the story of the very best day of the trip. So far “today”: we’ve taken a private flight over the icecap, where we saw an active sub-glacial volcano, and followed this up with a boat trip on a lagoon full of icebergs.

Back on the highway, we head west over the flats – in this area, Route 1 runs arrow-straight across vast plains of gravel and old lava flows. To the north pass a succession of striking mountains and glaciers. On this day, there were two choices: stick with the highway as it bent south with the coast, down to Vik, or strike into the interior again, taking a slight detour north of Myrdalsjokul to Lanmanalauger.

Time is nearly up on our trip: we need to return the jeep in Rekajvik the next day – so the highway is left behind as we swing off onto the final grit-road of our holiday. As it turns out, the route is something of a “grand finale”, climbing through very pretty (and wild) country – smoothly rounded hills of gravel and ash, with some vegetation. Our map showed two fords, so when we reached the first river we were well prepared: I got out and waded through with rolled-up trousers, wetsuit boots and two walking sticks, to find a shallow route with a firm bottom.

The first crossing was very, very cold (for me), but completely uneventful. We followed the advice we had been given, and Miss C eased the Jimny across at a steady pace in “4 low”, with the windows rolled down “just in case”. We reached the second ford a lot sooner than the map seemed to indicate… and then a third, and a fourth…

8 or 10 fords later, with the sun now down, (most very small, it is true) our GPS receiver showed us very close to the mountain hut atLanmanalauger. To the south, a valley opened up, walled by rust-coloured clay hills, and on its floor, a huge black lava flow ending abruptly as a dark cliff face. All along the base, we could see wisps of steam rising into the cool night air. Surely it couldn’t be fresh lava?

We’ld just made a note to backtrack to this place in the morning when we reached the first crossroad for some miles: and found ourselves turning in towards the valley head and its lava wall. A few hundred metres on, the way was blocked by another ford – this one looked deep and long enough to be worth a little care, so spotting headlights approaching in our rear-view we pulled over and waited to follow the “guinea pig” through. Our “guinea pig” rolled up to the water's edge… and sat there. This mystified me: surely anyone who had come this far must be used to water? Eventually, I jumped out and strolled into the water, beckoning them to follow me. Just as well – the ford was deep enough to flood their engine, if they took the wrong line. The final ford, just a few yards on, was a very nice surprise: after an evening spent wading through melt water, you can imagine how it felt to be walking through the steaming outflow of a hot spring. As it turns out, these springs are responsible for the steam at the lava's edge (the flow itself is cool now, over two hundred years old).

The reason for the other jeep’s reticence became clear later that evening – they were a French family approaching from the west, on a fully bridged route, and this had been their first ford. As for us, we had enjoyed the very best drive of the whole trip, and now knew that our last drive would be easy (the last 70km had taken nearly two hours, I if I remember accurately).

Leaving the warmth of our hut to brush my teeth, I glanced up and saw a faint glow… could it be…? Raced back inside for Miss C, her camera and her tripod. Extracted from her sleeping bag, Miss C warned me that this had "better be good". It wasn’t good: it was sublime. The Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) blazed silently overhead, bright as the stars, gargantuan green streamers rippling all across the sky, building to a crescendo, waning, and then returning for an encore. See below, a shot Miss C took as I watched– the lights of the mountain hut, me (red jacket) and the hilly skyline are all visible below the aurora itself (green wisps among the stars).

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Flight Over Grimsvotn and the Icecap

The Icelandic saga continues: after many previous adventures, we are staying at Bolti, in Skaftafell National Park ( in the south of Iceland, at the coast). This post tells of the morning of what proved to be the most extraordinary day of an amazing holiday.

Woke up to the most spectacularly clear day imaginable – could see perhaps 50 or 60 miles across the gravel flats below. We had to make the most of this, so we drove straight to “Skaftafell Airport” (one hut, one gravel runway, one plane, one man!).
Twenty minutes later, we were bumping down the runway in our chartered Cessna (high wings, much better for photography) – just myself, Miss C and our pilot.

Up, up and away – we flew east, past craggy mountains with the shining sea on our right, back to Jokulsarlon, which we circled slowly, able at last to see the full extent of the lake and the glacier which feeds in. Then, we turned north and flew into the heart of the great icesheet, Vatnajokull. Our goal was Grimsvotn, a multi-cratered volcano which lies buried beneath hundreds of metres of ice. It did not disappoint – huge concentric circles of crevasses and wisps of escaping steam betrayed the vast heat that was devouring the ice from beneath. See below, the craters of Grimsvotn below our wingtip as we approached from the south...

The sights did not stop with Grimsvotn – having climbed to a great height to reach the centre of the icesheet, the incredibly clear air allowed us to see incredible distances – as far west as Hekla. From checking the views against a map after the flight, I believe we could see about 1/3 of the entire country. At this point, we were flying over a vast and almost featureless expanse of white, below an almost cloudless sky – at our deepest penetration into the ice field, we might as well have been in Antarctica. Not a tree, house or road or any liquid water. In fact, the land itself was almost invisible, with only a very few rocky summits piercing the surface – this must be what the ice ages were like.

Returning to the coast, we passed over a mountain which had a very unusual feature: huge icebergs marooned on a vast mud beach around its shores. Our pilot told us that just one month previously, the water level had been much higher – so much so that the pressure burst a temporary channel down to the sea, the rapid change depth leaving the icebergs stranded.

Post flight, we returned to Jokulsarlon by road for more photographs and a boat trip (not cheap, but recommended). The stunning weather made for much easier photography – see below, another of Miss C’s pictures.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Hofn – An Adventure on a Glacier - Skaftafell

The story so far: This following post, part of a continuing story, covers a single day of a journey around Iceland in a jeep with my fiancée. By this point, we have driven from the Reykjavik north across the desert highlands, east across the volcanic north of the country and south through a region of fjords. Here, the story is taken up again as we begin to movel west, back towards Reykjavik. First, the icecap beckons…

We awoke just a few metres from the north Atlantic, on this morning uncharacteristically blue and placid. Below our window, a harbour full of colourful fishing boats, and on the horizon, a wall of blinding whiteness: at last, Vatnojokull, the great icecap! A quick trip to the tourist information centre secured us two seats on a glacier excursion for the afternoon.

We spent the morning working our way east along the coast towards the pick-up point for our tour. The scenery here is extremely striking – glacier after glacier comes down almost to the sea, huge broad snouts dropping their “teeth” in vast gravelly heaps (terminal moraines) as they retreat towards the cool of the heights. The snouts are very weathered, the sun having rotted their surfaces into fantastic shape, and their surfaces are often blackened by falling scree or ash. The melt weeps from them into lakes, from which flow many short (cold!) rivers, meandering towards the nearby ocean across the vast flatness of the littoral sandurs.

Lunch was hasty mouthfuls of edam and bread, snatched in the minutes before pick-up time. When it came, transport turned out to be in the form of a monstrous 4x4, complete with automatically extending boarding steps and several rows of seats. It seemed somehow appropriate that the driver was a big man, a Viking straight from central casting with suitably strong and brutal features. He matched character to physiognomy when he eyed Miss C in just such a way as his ancestors might have used when sizing up potential slave girls on their raids (his ancestors carried off quite a few of her ancestor’s fellow country men and women).

The Viking took us up a road that threatened instant translation to Valhalla on every hair-pin bend, the rough gravel surface unbounded by even a fence, let alone a crash barrier. The drop was anything up to 700 or so feet (well over 200M), and we found that the way to happiness and serenity was not to dwell on this. An eternity of beer-quaffing and banqueting in the company of the souls of larcenous Norsemen isn’t my idea of a proper paradise.

We were delivered to a wooden chalet, high on the mountainside beside a large glacier. Here, we exchanged our own outwear for one-piece overalls and crash helmets, before boarding a smaller jeep to be taken to our snowmobiles. This was the roughest route of the entire holiday, and no mistake, bumping across the pitted and rutted surface of a melting glacier, at that point almost snow-free. The bare ice revealed many crevasses, most reassuringly small. The large ones had been stuffed at crucial points with gravel and straw to make crude bridges. We bounced around like rag dolls as the driver took us higher into the cloud that had settled on the mountains.

Eventually, the violence stopped, and we found ourselves standing on the ice itself in a couple of inches of fresh snow – with more coming down by the second. Ahead of us was a neat line of snowmobiles, seeming slightly incongruous in the empty whiteness. No buildings or people in sight except us, not even a tree or a rock: nothing, in fact, except frozen water above (snow) and below (snow and ice, for a feet hundred feet or so).

Our instructions were very clear: stray not an inch from the tracks of the snowmobile ahead, stay close – but not too close. Miss C and I shared a machine, her arms tight around my waist as we moved off, the last machine of three. I followed the fresh tracks ahead as if our lives depended on it – actually, they did. We crossed some crevasses (these were either too narrow to swallow us, or had snow bridges) and tracked steadily up the glacier to a place where an exposed ridge rises out of the ice – effectively, an island in the ice (properly called a nunatuk, I think). Here, we should have had an amazing view, but on this particular day the view was limited to the insides of the cloud all round us.

Time to switch roles: Miss C began to drive, and I began to appreciate the importance of keeping a firm grip on the driver as our route took us on a narrow (at most twice the width of our machine) path bounded by large crevasses on either side. One slip, and a yawning gap could engulf machine and riders alike. Trust is very important in a relationship, isn’t it? It was only afterwards that I found out she was driving half-blind, due to the heavy snowfall – wet and sticky flakes – plastering itself across her visor…

And so it continued, a strange and modestly perilous journey through an alien world entirely without colour and almost without contrast: only the darker shade of the cloud, the ash showing in our leader’s tracks and the dark mouths of the crevasses themselves provided contrast with the snowfields of the ice sheet.

Returning to our super jeep to leave the glacier, we were snowmelt-sodden but elated – the view was a complete washout, but the experience was thrillingly intense. We got one last taste of adventure when our jeep spent a couple of minutes trapped and listing heavily in a large hole, wheels spinning uselessly on slick ice, clinometer needles pointing at alarmingly large numbers. Our driver coaxed and talking to his machine, and eventually the three wheels still remaining on the surface scrabbled their way out.

Having descended to the coast, we took our Jimny eastward, heading now for Skaftafell. There was, however, one “must see” en route: Jokulsarlon. Literally “glacier lagoon”, this body of water about 5km wide carries tens of thousands of tons of icebergs from the glacier snout seaward – when sufficiently melted, they eventually pass beneath a suspension bridge that is part of Route 1 itself.

We didn’t arrive in ideal conditions – now at sea level, snowfall had been replaced by freezing rain, and our clothes were damp and cold – but we couldn’t help being taken with the beauty of the place, subtle blues of ancient ice, clinking of bergs as they collided in the current. Following the flow of the water, we walked under the bridge and down to the beach. This place is extraordinary: black sands receive glittering prices from the sea, clear ice rotted into fantastic “chandeliers”, glitteringly fabulously even on a murky day. Further out, boulder-size chunks of whiter ice rocked in heavy surf.

Back on the road, frozen but faintly stunned by the beauty and strangeness, we carried on across the flats to Skaftafell, where we found bunks at Bolti, on the hill. We had a small wooden hut to ourselves: from our window, we could see vast distances across the black sands below – incredibly flat and dark. To the east of our ridge lay the great white bulk of the Skaftafell glacier. Dinner we cooked in a turf-insulated kitchen hut – from the exterior, a design that hasn’t changed in centuries – and so, to bed.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Transport, Icelandic Style

Overland travel in Iceland isn’t always as easy as it is in other European countries. The Viking solution to lava plains, gravel deserts (sandurs), snows and rivers was the original 4x4 - the horse. Low-tech but effective, their short and stocky descendents are still very common – and, as you can see, they aren’t over-fussy about where they graze. These hardy beasts are still the transportation of choice for jobs like rounding up sheep in the highlands, where four feet can reach places that four wheels cannot. Riders often travel with a string of replacement mounts alongside.

On a vast gravel plain in the south of the country, we found a real mongrel: apparently the offspring of a giant off-road vehicle and a steel-hulled boat, tourists can board it as easily as a bus. Once loaded, it plunges into a lake full of icebergs – from which, being a 4x4, it can come ashore again wherever it likes.

Outside a museum in Hofn, we found this – a Canadian cross between a snow mobile and a minibus. We thought it looked very practical, and were a little surprised that we had never seen one operating.

Found a suburb of Reykjavik, this vehicle, unique in itself, says a lot about how a certain segment of the population likes to spend their free time. With its large tires, extremely high ground clearance and custom-build accommodation in the rear, this is a classic Icelandic “Super Jeep” or “Super Truck”. Not everyone drives monsters like this one – but they certainly aren’t uncommon.

We think the next one belongs to the Icelandic emergency surfaces. Distinctly tank-like (it has a hatch on the roof, a periscope, steel shutters on the windows), the people who drive this may have to face anything from sandstorms (here, they can strip the paint from car) to bridge-swallowing glacier bursts (where huge lakes suddenly drain themselves from mountains to the sea at flow rates that beat all rivers but the Amazon, tossing icebergs before them like bowling balls) to volcanic bombardment (rocks, toxic gases, lava flows, lahars, ash falls, etc.). Mere blizzards must make a nice change.

The Cove

Guided by GPS, maps and even old fashioned signposts, we made the cove around 20:30, just after sunset. Good news and bad news: the cove is just as dramatic and beautiful as we've been told, but a swell is coming up from the south and slopping around the cliffs. What'll this mean for visibility?

Time to suit up and issue equipment: one torch & one lightstick per man to me, Mr. S and Mr. T. The lightsticks are attached to the cords we use to unzip our wetsuits, so that they'll float above our backs and mark our positions - we don't want anyone getting lost. This swim was my idea, so I lead the entry, first to sink into dark waters - so cold! Moving out into the cove, I keep well clear of the rocks on either side - in shallow water, swell becomes surf, and I don't want anyone bumping heads with a cliff.

Further out into the cove, the sides open up. Two great rocks mark the eastern mouth: behind them, the moon is rising, luminous between broken clouds. Turning off my torch, I see phosphorence between my fingers - the visibility is improving with depth. Time to dive: torch on, seeking the bottom as I plunge, fins kicking against my natural buoyancy to drive me deep into the gloom. Several body lengths later, I reached the bottom of the cove - fine sand - no wonder the visibility is so poor. Torch off: I want to see the darkness at the bottom of the sea. Then time to go up, and I kick up from the bottom... nothing above me hints of surface, air or sky - am I disorientated? Doubts are dispelled by a dim blue glow above and ahead - Mr. S!

Moving into deeper waters, the swell is very noticeable - we are close to the open sea, and the swell appears ahead as black walls. The waves are just a couple of feet high, but just listen to that power as it reachs a cave in the cliffs to landward - the eerie deep-bass boom that became so familiar to Mr T and myself in the caves at Garrettstown. Floating in the mouth of a moonlit cove, watching the surf breaking white on the cliffs and covering the reefs is quite an experience.

The western wall of the cove doesn't seem so rough: a quick inspection swim reveals black walls of knife-sharp mussels as far as my torch will reach. Keeping position is quite tricky as the surge takes me several feet up, down, in, out. Staying very aware of location is vital - a swimmer cannot afford to risk letting the surf take over, especially in the dark.

Back to Mr. S and Mr. T: visibility is poor, not a single crab or fish to be seen, so we turn tail and head in. There is a "consolation prize" though: after getting out, I found that some rocks on the east wall of the cove lead onto a ledge that enters a large seacave: so, minus the fins, we convert to cavers and scramble in, looking vaguely alien, all in black wetsuits with our blue / green / yellow lights. The back of the cavern couldn't be seen or reached from the ledge, so I dropped into the black water surging below - shoulder deep! - and rode the swell to rubble - former roof - deeper in. Another short scramble, and the deepest point was reached - a crevice over a rock pool. Altogether an otherworldly experience. Exit was easy, carried out in the suck of a retreating swell, onto a convenient rock.

The verdict: an amazing spot, very beautiful in the moonlight, but really needs a calm day / night. We'll be back. Lessons? Leaving a marker at the landing place was a good idea. Keeping together isn't hard if you do it right: be constantly counting lights, because losing people is easy, even in small waves.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Packing for a Night Snorkel (in Waters Unknown)

Off to the sea again – going for a snorkel tonight, sea conditions permitting.  I should be arriving at the coast around sunset, to explore a new cove (never laid eyes on it before, tried to find it with Google Earth, not sure I’ve identified it). There’ll be three swimmers – myself, Mr. S and Mr. T.  The other two have just been shopping for equipment, so there is gear to be tested.  We’re coming prepared – apart from wetsuits, masks, snorkels and fins, we are packing:

  • 6 x light sticks (chemically powered, glow brightly for hours)

  • 3 x dive-rated torches

  • 1 x ordinary torches (to be home-sealed in a plastic bag, nice big beam but the sea might kill it)

  • 90ft strong rope that floats (bought for the Iceland trip, but never used)

  • 1 x whistle

  • Elastics (for attaching light sticks firmly to our persons)

So… should be interesting, yes?  The rope (white, gorgeous, belongs in a marina somewhere) is mainly for caves, which we’ve heard  are there for the finding – might be a useful way to be certain of the route out of the caves if we need to exit in a hurry (can’t find air).   Why the light sticks?

  • They should help us stick together (where best to attach them?)

  • If a torch goes at an awkward moment, they might suffice as an emergency light

  • A good way to mark our entry point, so we can find our way out of the water again

  • Fish lure?

  • They look really, really cool

Unanswered questions: Exactly how safe is this?  Might we find the darkness and the deep a little too exciting?  Will the lights scare the fish – or attract just a little too much attention from certain species? Adventures to be had?  Oh yes…

Leifir Ericson

The green gentleman perched on a pillar somewhere near the centre of the picture is a Mr. Ericson, who says he discovered North America several centuries before Columbus did, and without mistaking it for India or China. We came across him in Reykjavik, gazing eternally westward towards Greenland and "Vinland".

We all live in a yellow - Lighthouse?

This light sits on the end of a breakwater in the harbour at Reykjavik. Presumably, it is easy to miss.

Friday, September 16, 2005

No Free Lunch?

There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but, happily, there is such a thing as free champagne.   Last night, Miss C and myself dressed up to the nines (me in my 3-piece from Lisa’s Tailor Shop) to spend a very pleasant few hours at the opening of The City’s latest 4  Star hotel – open bars, plural, ice sculptures, canapés, sushi bar, lots of music.  At the time we left (early in the small hours) the party had definitely shifted up a notch: champagne corks going off like small-arms fire as a singer / piano player in a packed bar struggled manfully to keep in tune beneath the caresses of someone’s very drunk wife.  His audience, having had the benefit of an open bar for five hours or so at this point, didn’t mind a bit.  The guests were the usual suspects – an assortment of local business people, cheerful blodgers, and a fair sprinkling of adventuresses and politicians.    

Waterfall on Sprengisandur

Climbing into the highlands while attempted to traverse Sprengisandur from north to south, these falls took us competely by surprise.


The church of Hallgrímskirkja has a dramatic location, high on a hill in Reykjavik. Fortunately, the architect was rather good. As with all the photos on this blog todate, the credit for the image goes to Miss C, who took this from an angle no other tourist thought to investigate.

Longboat Sculpture

We found this "boat" on the waterfront in Reykjavik - we liked it. Another photo by Miss C.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Snowdrift

Up bright and early on the morning of our fifth full day in Iceland, we were anxious to get moving. Our plan for the day was to travel as far as possible to the south, along the Sprengisandur route through the central highlands. Our ultimate goal was to reach the area of south-east Iceland where the great glaciers of the vast Vatnojokull icefield reach almost to the beaches. We knew from our research that the Sprengisandur track would be rougher than the Kjolur route – we would have to ford rivers. These being glacier-fed rivers, crossing should be easiest and safest early in the day, before the surface of the icecap reaches melting point.

The weather, at least, was reassuring – fairly clear sky, not raining or snowing, at least for the time being. We backtracked west along Route 1, then turned close to Godafoss to begin the trip south. The route led us along a green river valley full of farms – although it isn’t tarred, the surface is really good here, maintained by or for the farmers. Eventually, we passed through a gate, and left the last of the farms behind. Climbing higher into the hills, we reached the snowline – the couple of inches that had fallen the previous day – and were reassured to see tire tracks ahead of us. We met one jeep traveling in the other direction, before reaching a really fine waterfall – of which Miss C took a rather nice photo.

Moving on, we turned a corner – and saw those reassuring tracks vanish. The jeep we’ld met had simply turned back. I jumped out to have a look ahead – the snow cover was think, and looking ahead with our binoculars, I could see no sign that it was any worse further (and higher) into the hills. Deciding that the snow had all fallen the previous day, we reasoned that the depth shouldn’t increase – so, feeling very venturesome, we drove on, with 4 wheel drive engaged.

We soon began to get used to breaking a fresh track. The jeep rode smoothly on the snow, and the sun was out – much nicer than some of the Kjolur route. I wasn’t able to relax for long. Higher in the hills, we seemed to be reaching more exposed points – soon, we were hitting snowdrifts. The first were small, fingers of snow six or so inches deep reaching across the track. Miss C ignored them, and plowed straight through. This seemed to work very well, and I began to think I was worrying about nothing. Gradually, the snowdrifts began to become more frequent and slightly deeper – still no problem.

Coming to a particularly exposed piece of track, where the land was flat all around while the track itself was below the level of the surrounding land, we braked, a little too late, at the start of a drift that had completely filled the sunken for 30 or 40 metres. The Jimny refused to proceed, and I got out again to examine the situation.

The drift came nearly up to my knees: tramping ahead, it was obvious that the drift was limited to a small section. Perhaps we could leave the road, and drive around it? The land on either side of the track was hard stone and gravel, and seemed to be free of drifts (I believe we had reached the northern part of the sandur or sand-gravel desert for which the route is famous).

As I returned to the Jimny, a very large jeep pulling what looked like a horse trailer arrived behind us. The big Viking farmer at the wheel pulled up beside us, and we had a very slow conversation, which began with his reason for being up there (rounding up sheep with some horsemen he’ld be meeting up ahead) and moved on to the state of the track. I showed him our planned route, gestured at the obstacle ahead, and asked his opinion. Slowly, almost Ent-like, the answer emerged – “I think… you should… go back”.

After a certain amount of wheel spinning, the Jimny was extricated from the edge of the big drift and turned around. We waved goodbye to the farmer, whose monstrous jeep moved of into the deep snow, swerving and struggling – and felt a lot better about our choice. If his beast, with its mile-high suspension was having trouble, then what chance did we have?

So back we went – now trying to make up for lost time, we raced north in our old tracks, blasting downhill through the “finger” drifts. We had a new plan: back to Route 1, east across the top of Iceland, then south, through the east fjords.

Back again we went, past Myvatn, through the lava fields to the east, and on into a vast desert region. Next petrol, 160km – in fact, next anything 160km! This is a rolling grey landscape with some sizeable hills. It is very lunar, and very empty – hardly any traffic. Some beautiful snow-capped peaks could be seen, a long way to the south. Especially considering that we were traveling on the main road, the desolation was remarkable. The area seemed to be very dry – little sign of rivers – so the area most likely lies in the “rain shadow” of Vatnojokull.

Eventually, we reached Egilsstadir, a port town on the east coast, full of tourist vehicles – this is where the ferry comes from Denmark. Some people were obviously planning quite an active holiday, with all sorts of equipment dangling from their vehicles – makes sense really, because it is a very long trip, so you would need to have a very good reason indeed not to fly, like a customized vehicle and a quarter-ton or so of luggage. Actually, “holiday” seems like a very inadequate word for the sort of trips these people must do – “expedition” might be better. Must see if I have any relevant photos I can post.
After possibly our best value meal so far (excellent burgers) we forged on, southward. Now in the East fjords, we discovered a landscape of incredible beauty – steep mountainsides descending into the sea – sheer-walled valleys with breathtaking waterfalls every few hundred metres – and almost no traffic at all. We left Route 1 to take a shortcut between two valleys over a high ridge into the Oxi valley, which was a good idea. The last of the sun was lighting the peaks with that golden glow you only gate in late evening, as the shadows climbed from the valley floor. One sharp and spiky ridge was particularly spectacular, as was one high ridge boasting a rock platform something like a ship’s bow which simply begged for someone to pose dramatically at its tip, perhaps two thousand feet above the coast below. “Epic grandeur” is the phrase that comes to mind. I can’t help wondering if Tolkien ever came here, and what he would have made of it if he did. Add some trees, and these valleys could be Rivendell: some other parts we’ve seen are dead ringers for Mordor. So much beauty, and, if not for that snowdrift, we wouldn’t have seen any of it.

Rounding the south-east corner of Iceland, the road gets more “exciting”. Malbrik Endar again, although the surface is still quite good. A huge lorry overtook us, hurtling along in a cloud of dust – how it stayed on the road still escapes me. The landscape began to change as dusk fell, from “grand” to “dramatic” to “dramatic, with strong overtones of sinister”.

Here, the mountain ridges throw huge and very steep ramparts of ash/gravel/scree down to the ocean. With the sun now sunk behind the mountains, we saw them only as silhouettes – one headland looked just like a huge hunched bat. The road here is pressed close to the sea, as the ocean has left no flat land to speak of, stopped only by the scree-ramparts, so that the highway has to be cut into these rather than into solid rock or run on a causeway. Of course, the problem with this is that it is extremely unstable – inevitably, there are constant slippages from the road into the sea, and from the cliffs and slopes above onto the road. Driving this section was one of only a handful of times that I really feared for our safety: keeping well in from the edge (the sea was a long, long way down), looking well ahead in case of gaps, and trying at the same time to keep a healthy distance from the mountain on my right, for fear of getting a boulder through the roof. We got through without incident – but a man we met later, who had drive the same road two days previously in wet weather reported driving behind a grader which was sweeping freshly-fallen debris into the sea while more rained down behind it as he followed.

As you can imagine, I was very pleased to reach the long tunnel which took us through the final headland and downhill, towards the lights of Hofn, where we were to find a snug room in a guest house overlooking the harbour, rented to us by the very friendly Aldur.

A Night Paddle

I’m going to take a detour from the Icelandic narrative with this posting to tell you about what I did last night.   After a fairly lengthy dry spell (moving house, going on holiday, and so on) I finally returned to the sea last night, on a company outing.  

12 of us had put our names down for a company-subsidized excursion in sea kayaks.  The twist was that this particular paddle would begin about sunset – and so be mostly in the dark. We met at the appointed hour a few miles to the west of The Beach, in a small cove.  After a safety briefing, we kitted up for the trip.  I wore / carried:

1 x wetsuit (brought my own – full body once piece – the kayak rental company provided sleeveless ones, cooler for the paddling)

1 x kag (provided by the rental company, this is a wind and water-proof jacket that further reduces heat loss

1 x buoyancy aid (quite large, with a very useful zip pocket on the front panel

1 x spray deck (used to provide a watertight seal around the connection between paddler and kayak)

1 x compass (my own, “just in case”)

1 x torch (a diving model, able to cope with deep water if necessary)

1 x glow stick (provided by the rental company, so they don’t lose their customers in the darkness)

Pushing off, one of the instructors used the last of the light to demonstrate turning techniques, and we moved off.  This was my first time in a true sea kayak, and I really enjoyed the sleek efficiency of it – a few good strokes and the boat knifes through water, sharply streamlined hull giving very little resistance.  The downside of the knife-like hull seemed to be poorer turning, which might explain why the boats were fitted with rudders (although we didn’t use them).  It was around the time of launching that someone (actually the man who organized the trip) tried to snatch my paddle – I was too quick for him, but I marked him down for vengeance, when the darkness should be more complete…

After mucking about in a creek (half the group ran aground with the last ebbing of that tide, a fate I only just avoided by punting rapidly seawards with both hands), we reversed our course and nosed out into the open water at the mouth of the cove.  Surf could be seen and heard breaking close by against reefs and sea cliffs.  The safe route led south west, inside a protective reef: screams from the some of the ladies (and men) as they ran themselves onto the rocks and found the water full of seaweed (which one described as feeling “like a drowned woman’s hair).  With half the group apparently on the verge of shipwreck, the lead instructor decided she would rather not lead our clumsy dozen along an exposed lee shore, so we turned back to the shelter of an island that divides and protects the inner cove.  It was about this time that the would-be paddle thief got his come-uppance.  Busy splashing (trying to capsize?) a pretty young thing, his attention was in precisely the wrong quarter as his nemesis slid silently towards him from astern… a moment later, a lap-full of sea-weed engulfed him and his co-villain (he was in a two-man boat) in a kind of algal blizzard.  By the time my slimy vengeance fell upon them, I was already back-paddling into the darkness.  A two-man boat turns even more slowly than a one-man… a perfectly anonymous victory.

Although we weren’t making much progress in terms of distance covered, we were having fun. Our paddle was timed to coincide with a fairly full moon – but heavy overcast reduced the moonlight to a diffuse glow, just strong enough to make out the shapes of the headlands and the outlines of the boats.  The glow sticks, green and red, gave just enough light to show hull colours and an outline of the kayaker.  Otherwise, the scene was very dark: except that, every time a paddle struck the sea, green “sparks” of phosphorescence appeared.  Clean strokes entered the sea almost without effect, but splashy, messy paddling produced exploding galaxies of light.  I paddled quicker, and my bow threw off a luminous green wave to either side.  Trailing my fingers in the water, sparks seemed to fall from them.  Each spark is a tiny animal – plankton.  Why do they glow?  Fear?  Hopes of romance? I paddled backwards for a while, to watch my light-wake.

We moved seaward again, this time downwind of the island, out from the flat water to where we could feel the swell lift us.  I thought my boat felt more “alive” as it began to move with the motion of vast waters and the horizon opened up before us as a lighter shade of night.

Our group was turned again. I sat where I was, paddle idle, just happy to be on open water again.  Eventually, the instructor who was back marker for our group rounded up the stragglers (a colleague and myself) and we returned to our launching beach.  It was around this time that it drizzled for a little while – and our night-adjusted eyes saw each raindrop strike a light for a moment as it hit the water.

After carrying my share of kayaks up the slipway, I decided this was a perfect chance for a dip.  I’ve been wanting to do a night-snorkel or a night dive for some time, so I dropped the lifejacket and the compass, slipped on the fins and mask that I always carry “just in case”, and slid back in.  

I swam into darkness – except that the plankton which in daylight would be invisible now sparked as they glanced off my mask.  Trailing fingers ahead, I saw the same thing – likewise, when I glanced back at my fins.  

Turning on my diver’s torch, I used it as a spotlight on the seabed beneath me, spotlighting crabs like a police helicopter chasing runaways.  I soon discovered that while the light frightened them, it also held their attention – so while they watched that sinister torch, held in my outstretched arm, they missed the dark bulk of head approaching on their flank.  If I had been hungry, it wouldn’t have been for long!

My instinct is always to head for the deeps, but this time I saw most in the shallows, maybe because I wasn’t moving so quickly, and because my torch was closer to the subjects.  I came upon two flatfish – one, I distracted so effectively with torch and glow stick that I got almost close enough to swallow it up.  A crab I found stood his ground – then decided discretion was the better part of valor, and used his broad, paddle-like legs to dig into the sand, until the only remaining protrusions were his eye stalks – amazing.

Further in, I was about to stand up and walk out, when I saw a sea shell get up and run from the light – hermit crab!  Then another, and another – there must have been 3 or 4 to every square foot, tiny legs running madly beneath their borrowed shells.  Eventually, I switched off the torch – and saw the plankton-sparks again, lighting up each sea-weed covered stone with every passing wave.  

Walking back to my car, I had one more surprise – a crab wandering along the rocks, a good three feet above the nearest water.  I’ve not seen that before, at least on these particular shores.

What was the most amazing thing about that night?  That so few people ever see what we saw.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

To Hell, and back again

We awoke a few metres from the waters of Myvatn, to a rather unpromising day – very overcast.  After a late start, we set off to ascend Hverfjall, the large cone we had seen in the distance when we arrived.  This was not a very difficult climb – a well-marked path leads to the top – but very windy, especially on the rim.  Looking inside the crater from the top of the rim, we saw that hundreds of previous visitors had descended into the crater and used the larger stones to leave messages in gigantic letters.  Some people left their own names, others left the name of their country or a short message – a kind of gigantic open-air bulletin board.

It was about this point that Catherine discovered that the dark clouds didn’t mean rain.  They meant snow.  It started off lightly enough, but soon the gale was plastering us with big wet flakes.  We carried on around the rim anyhow, and returned to the jeep covered in a mix of volcanic ash and snow.  Above us, the crater rim had already turned white.

What with the gale and the snow, we decided to go somewhere warm – nearby “solfataric” springs.  These were located on the side of a hill that would have fit right into a sci-fi film – red-orange soil, with patches of yellow or white where stem was coming out.  We didn’t even leave the jeep – the weather was miserable, and apparently it is very easy to leave the path and sink into scalding mud.  Not our idea of fun.

After our first two stops, we felt things could only improve – so we took the highway again, turning off to see “Viti” – hell.  This crater is very close to Krafla.  The road leads past what I think was a geothermal power station.  This time, the road took us right to the crater lip.  Inside, this crater has a good-sized lake.  We didn’t stop long here, because the wind was blowing as strongly as ever, and the snow was falling thick and fast, the ground and our jeep whitening noticeably after only a brief stop.  Getting back down from the crater, on a road with a steep and unprotected drop-off, driving on fresh snow (the wet and slippery kind), we switched to four-wheel drive, low range, for the first time in the trip.  Hell is an interesting place to visit, but you wouldn’t want to stay there too long.

Having been to Viti and back, we decided the weather wasn’t going to stop us seeing Dettifoss, the largest waterfall in Europe – it drains the melt from a large portion of Iceland’s largest icecap.    To get there, we drove first along Route 1, now covered with a thin layer of snow, and then nearly 30km down a track that deserves a special mention: the worst driving surface of the trip.  Although not actually dangerous (the land was flat all around, if you discount the boulders), this was an amazingly uncomfortable road, so scarred, potholed and rutted that there was more hole than actual road surface.  In fact, I think it was the surviving bits of surface that jarred us so badly – once the last bits have worn off, the track will be one long hole, and probably quite a nice smooth trip, by comparison.

Dettifoss is where the river has cut a deep canyon into a plain of bare and blasted basalt.  The mist that drifts up from the falls is probably an agent of freeze-thaw action – all the rock around the canyon (basalt) is cracked and shattered, and bare of vegetation.  It actually looks like a vast quarry whose entire surface has been drilled and blasted, without anyone bothering to take the spoil away – the power of frost.  Dettifoss is not pretty, but the power of it is awe-inspiring.

Back to Route 1, and back to Myvatn, we drove through a vast plain of lava domes, the largest of our trip.  Pure wilderness – no sign of human habitation, and no wonder – this land looks completely unfarmable.  Very little grows, and simply walking the land would be difficult – forget about tractors.  White snow on black rock deepens the contrast of the fissures as we pass through an entirely monochromatic landscape.

At the lake, the weather had improved – the wind slackened, the snowing stopped – so we used the last of the evening light to stroll through the weirdness that is the Dimmuborgir – a maze of fantastically contorted lava formations that even Dali might concede “look a bit odd”.  We used the cave “Kirkja” as a frame to photograph Hverfjall.  Even on a bad day, this place is worth seeing for its sheer strangeness.    

After a very chilly day, we gave on camping and cooking.  Instead, we had dinner in restaurant (arctic char, delicious) and moved indoors to our own room.  Ah, the luxury of radiators to dry the snows of August from our clothes…

Monday, September 12, 2005

North to the ocean, east to the craters

The story so far: This is the story of a journey through Iceland by jeep.  At this point, my fiancée and I have spent one day sightseeing in the capital, Reykjavik, and one day traveling north through the empty sub-arctic deserts of the central highlands.  At the end of the previous day’s journey, we stopped in mountain hut at Hrevavellir.

We awoke in a room full of strangers, in a top-level bunk of a mountain hostel at Hveravellir.  The view from the window was of gently undulating rock and gravel – a little like waking on the surface of the moon.  Just like astronauts on the moon, getting ready to go outside again meant slow and tedious suiting-up with layer after layer of clothing, till we waddled out the door, only eyes and noses still exposed to the wind (which is coming from a southerly direction – over a huge icecap).  During the previous day, we moved quite some distance further north, as well as gaining quite a bit of elevation, and we can certainly feel the difference.  The wind is all the stronger because almost nothing grows here – no trees or shrubs to shelter us.

Not everyone is quite so heavily dressed – two young women are out in their swimsuits, enjoying a small pool heated by some geothermal springs.  So long as they stay in the water, they can stay cosy indefinitely, it seems – some of the springs are so hot that, instead of gushing water, steam rushes out, screaming, before drifting downwind as thick, sulphurous clouds.  

In ancient times, Icelanders punished wrongdoers by sending them into the wilderness for a fixed period – survivors could come home again.  One famous outlaw and his wife lived in this place one.  It is hard to imagine what it must be like to winter here – we are visiting at the end of August, and the place is a barren wilderness – in some parts, a chaos of shattered lava, collapsed domes, in others, empty wastes of gravel where almost nothing can grow.  The only sources of food that I can see are some tiny ground-hugging plants with small black berries and some tiny brown birds.  How could they survive here, without even a proper roof?  Even to rob the nearest farms,
I’m sure they would have had to travel for days.

Eventually, we left Hvervellir behind and continued north for the coast, Miss C driving this time.  Eventually, the other-worldly wilderness fell behind, as the track began the descent to sea level.  After a while, the landscape changed to one of bleak lakes and moorland, with the occasional sheep grazing in the distance.  At one point, a very young arctic fox, with a dark brown coat quite different from what we see at home, ran ahead of us on the track.  It doesn’t seem like such a clever animal to stay in the one place we might harm him.  Eventually, he left the track and hid in the heather – a cute little fluffball, I hope he gets wiser with age.  This was an interesting encounter, because the island has very few land mammals.  Like the pacific islands, it has never been part of a larger landmass, and so until humans came was visited only by birds, seals and polar bears – I wonder who brought this youngster’s ancestors here?  Where there fox-hunting Vikings?

The uplands were, on the whole, flattish.  Nearing the cost, serrated lines of snow-covered peaks rose up along the northern horizon.  We were entering the realm of the north fjords, long valleys with comparatively rich grasslands, overshadowed by jagged peaks, their summits mostly lost in the cloud.  As in the south, the sight of grass meant farms, and farms meant horses – we met one happy bunch milling about in the road.  

Our first sight of salt water came at the top of a pass between two valleys: in the distance, ice-blue waters sat framed by the walls of the fjord.  Further out, we could see an island whose sides seemed all to be vertical cliffs.  Beyond that, nothing – no land between where we stood, and the North Pole.  Gazing out over the Arctic Ocean for the first time, I realised that I was looking towards Asia. The next land must be the far east: Siberia, and beyond that, Japan.

We turned east at the coast, and saw several more fjords, stopping briefly at Akureyri (interesting airport – the runway is a spit running out into the bay).  In this area, we also saw some small forests – nothing remarkable anywhere else, but something of a surprise to us, only 70 miles or so from the Arctic Circle.

Leaving the sea behind, our route took us inland again, traveling now on the main highway, Route 1, which circles Iceland (now boasting two lands and tarmac almost everywhere!).  The route climbed into the hills, although staying below the snowline.  We made a brief stop at Godafoss – not in the best weather, but a fine waterfall.  This is where a major figure in Icelandic history brought the statues of his household gods, after Christianity was adopted at Thingvellir as the national religion.  Having seen the falls, I tell the reader that the statues may have liked the scenery, but the tumble over the lip of the falls would be rather cold and violent.  Interestingly, in modern times a well known kayaker took his boat over the same falls, and didn’t die.  I’ll be posting a picture of this place, to show why this surprised me.

On again, to the end of our day’s journey: Lake Myvatn.  Some come for the ducks: we came for the volcanoes.  There are certainly plenty of craters, most of them termed “pseudo” by scientists.  I won’t argue with the name, but they are certainly the most perfectly round and crate-like craters that I’ve ever seen.  These are mostly tiny and grass covered, many being islands in the lake.  A proper volcanic crate sits just to east of the lake – big and grey-black, made of volcanic gravel and boulders, completely free of vegetation.  To the north, hidden from us by cloud, was the notorious Krafla, just 5 miles or so distant.  Although we could not see the mountain, we could certainly see its work – huge lava flows, with very well-defined lava domes or bubbles (all buckled and cracked) run right up the village where we camped, flanking the local church on three sides – a very near miss!

After a chilly meal in a tent “kitchen” at our campsite, we turned-to in our sleeping bags, feeling we must be slightly crackers to be lying this close to the pole with nothing between our heads and the stars except two layers of nylon.  Of course, we had some worries in the other direction too – a very informative film in Reykjavik had explained how the whole area of Myvatn rests on top of a gigantic lava chamber, and the ground is continuously rising and falling. This huge chamber is what feeds the eruptions at Krafla – which is so close that it provides the hot water at our campsite.

Friday, September 09, 2005

First of the photos...

So, we've finally started clearing off our photos from the cameras - somewhere between 2 and 3 gigabytes of them. This one is a panorama that Miss C took in the mountains in the south of Iceland. On the left of the picture, you can see grassy slopes - look just to the right of those, and you can see the rough and blackened remains of a lava flow. In the far right of the picture, you can see our jeep.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Into the Desert

This morning, while checking out of our guesthouse, we discovered the ingenious secret strategy that allows Icelanders to cope the semi-permanent darkness and freezing temperatures of winter:

They leave.

Very sensibly, the owner of the guesthouse / restaurant / bar in which we stayed spends only the tourist season in Reykjavik – about 3 months – then leaves for his other home, a fishing village in south-east Spain. His barman has a similar strategy – he moves to Thailand for the duration. Is there a lesson for us here?

After a very nice combined breakfast / lunch in the “Postinn”, we hit the road in a Suzuki Jimny – a small jeep only just large enough to hold both us and our luggage (over the course of our trip, we’ll be compelled to reject a dozen or so hitchers through sheer lack of space). Although the cabin is small, it does have two all-important elements – much better ground clearance than a car, and full four wheel drive.

Leaving the capital, we head northward and eastward, towards our first stop,
Thingvellir. Quickly, we find ourselves in open countryside. There are no walls, ditches or trees to obscure our view, so we can see for miles – lots of open land, somewhat similar to Scotland, in places like Rannoch moor, or to Connemara in Ireland. The hills in the distance don’t fit though – suspiciously cone-shaped. This area has seen very heavy volcanic activity in the past, and many of the hills are actually the cones of extinct volcanoes. Although the grazing did not look especially, good, we saw quite a few Icelandic horses – shorter than the animals we ride, and with very heavy coats and manes. This makes them look a little toy-like to us, but appearances are misleading: these tough little beasts are still used by farmers to ride into the wild interior of the country at the end of the summer (it can snow in August, so the local definition of “summer” is a little looser than ours!) to round up the sheep and bring them back to the lowlands. These little horses can cope with terrain that defeats a jeep – and these farmers drive big jeeps.

Thingvellir is unmistakable – the road passes straight over the fissure, so after crossing from the North American tectonic plate to the European, we parked the Jimny and returned to the Americas on foot. The divide is an amazing place – it is one thing to see the rift on charts and maps, another to stand with one foot on each continent. The rocks themselves look suitably impressive – they are basalt, and the tugging-apart has left sharp cleavage planes, so that the sides of the rift are impressively craggy.

In places, the rift is barely wide enough to squeeze through, but in others is very broad and open – this is where the democratic assemblies which later formed the basis for our own parliament were held, in the open air. It seems very strange that such a violent and piratical people could have been responsible for developing and spreading the democratic ideal. I can’t fault their choice of location – not only is it a very impressive place, but depth of the floor of the fissure below the surrounding landscape does a very good job of keeping out the chilly wind that is rarely absent in this country.

Moving on, we noticed that the ratio of ordinary cars to jeeps had shifted decisively in favour of the jeeps. It wasn’t long before we saw a sign “Malbrik Endar” – incomprehension shortly became understanding, as the tarmac abruptly vanished, and we found ourselves bouncing along a rough and dusty track.

Eventually, we rejoined a tarmac road, and made steady progress towards the interior. Suddenly, in front of a rocky outcrop, a huge puff of white shot out of the ground – Geysir! Actually, it wasn’t Geysir itself – the original is now defunct – but a close neighbour, Strokkur. This was our first close-up encounter with volcanic / geothermal features, and we took our time, strolling through sulphurous clouds of steam past bubbling pool – some were very clear and blue, and we could see into the underwater tunnels that fed them. Strokkur gave us the most fun – the level of water in the pool continually fluctuates, and by watching carefully it is possibly to tell when an eruption is imminent. Even though I was waiting for it, I was always surprised by the blast – first, a huge dome of blue water rises up, and then bubbles of superheated steam reach the surface and blast the liquid water into a huge white jet, which then dissolves into cloud. There are often “false alarms” – minor eruptions which fizzle out, often leaving spectators unprepared for the explosive gush of the main event. I find geysers much more entertaining than waterfalls – the element of unpredictability and surprise is the key.

Not that I don’t like a good waterfall – in fact, our next stop was to be Gulfoss. Nearing these falls, the road was rising onto a plateau through which the river which made Gulfoss has carved a canyon. Coming over a rise, an immense panorama opened up all at once – we were ambushed by an immense panorama. Langjokull, the second largest icecap in the county filled our view – a huge wall of mountain, capped by a vast snowfield, from which descend glacier after glacier. The height and width and sheer majesty of it is emphasized by the contrast of the flat and empty plain beneath. The scene is harsh and barren, but beautiful and awe inspiring too.

We descended to a level within the canyon that is below the surrounding plain, but high above the based of the second cascade. The canyon is full of mist and thunder, and the bare basalt walls reveal the tremendous cutting power of the river. This river was fed by water from the huge icefields we had just seen – even in their melting, the glaciers can wreak havoc on the hardest rock.

We stayed a long while standing in the spray of Gulfoss, before refueling and moving off into the desert, heading for the Arctic Ocean via the Kjolur route which traverses the highlands along (roughly) a north-south axis. The road here is a track of variable quality, which leads through a desert empty of human habitation. Emergency shelters are scattered along the route – Miss C recorded their positions in the GPS unit as we passed. Evening was falling, but slowly, as we crossed the first plane and climbed the first hills, passing ravines that still held the last of the winter’s snow. Ahead, the jagged peaks of Kerlingarfjoll rose up, the snows on their upper reaches catching the last of the sun. We saw huge sandstorms wandering in the distance, and a large lake fed by icebergs tumbling from a massive glacier, its huge bulk in apparent retreat from a warming climate. Neither of us had ever been to such a wild and empty place, where only the cold, cold wind breaks the silence.

As we drove, we were usually entirely alone. We did see a few vehicles, all heading south – these would appear in the distance first as a dust cloud. Closer, we would see the nucleus of the comet racing towards us – this was always a superjeep, or convoy of superjeeps – Icelandic folk returning home from a weekend “jaunt” across the icecap, or similar insanity.

Night caught up with us as we moved through an upland boulder field. We had bypassed several campsite turnoffs, holding out for a warm bunk at Hveravellir. Sure enough, just when I had begun to despair of finding the place, up ahead in the distance Miss C spotted a glimmering light. Both very tired, this was where we stopped for the night, very glad not to be pitched a tent on a stony and freezing plain (the last few miles, small banks of snow bordered the track). The last fifty miles of that drive took about 2 hours 45 minutes, which may give the reader an idea of the kind of road we were driving on.