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).

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