I was sitting out in front of the hostel and saw a car drive into a parking lot as my phone peeped that an SMS came in. Stefán let me know he was there in a red Toyota. Since we'd never seen each other before and since he knew he was meeting a Yank, he never bothered coming up to me. He was expecting someone about three times my size.
ATTENTION ICELANDIC INFIDELS
Not all Yanks weigh 22+ stone (about 5188 zeptoParsec-Volts/sec in Soviet Metric). Some of you lot are are getting up there, too. I know it's a horrible thought, but maybe it has something to do with the Pylsa. Just trying to help out here.
Stefán asked me where I wanted to go and I told him he knows the place better than I do. I wanted to see anything he thought worthwhile. Hell, he could've just driven around all day and I'd've been happy. The differing landscapes had me drooling on the window. It was incredible.
Our first stop was for petrol. In Iceland, regular unleaded is 95 octane and super is 98. I have no idea why, but in a pinch you could probably drop this stuff into an airplane without any trouble. At the station I had my first Pylsa með ölli and they put the mayonnaise-y potato salad on it. It looked disgusting but tasted pretty damned good.
Icelanders drive like shit
Icelandic drivers make Italian, French and Vietnamese motorists look like German driving school instructors.
There's just not that much traffic here, and very few traffic lights. If you're a pedestrian, walk defensively. Look every possible way and run like hell when all's clear. Most roads are two unmarked lanes, paved or unpaved with gravel. They're almost always empty and the Icelandic mind thinks that since there's all that road there, it should be used. They generally drive down the middle even when there are markings. If you see oncoming traffic, slow down and pull over as far as you can -- the further off the road the better. They tend to pass with micrometers between the cars. Or trucks/lorries.
Stop 1: Sellfoss Beautiful. During the entire drive I sat, as one might infer from my nickname, with my face pressed up against the window, my eyes bulging, and I was probably drooling, too. It's like nothing you've ever seen unless you're from there.
On the way to Sellfoss, we stopped at the river which separates Reykjavik's county from Þorlákshöfn's. The water was fast-running and crystal-clear, but I was too chickenshit to try it, not that Stefán showed any great signs of thirst.
Stop 2: Þingvellir
A great big dish of geology served up with a side of history
Alþing ("ahll-thing"), the first parliamentary meeting place, sits at the head of a huge lake. The general assembly was established around 930AD and continued to convene there until 1798. On June 17, 1944, Iceland was proclaimed an independent Republic here. It's a big area and you have to do a bit of climbing and hiking. Did I mention my legs still burnt furiously from the past two days' abuse? But not willing to miss out (and with the ridicule that would follow Stefán's telling everyone in the channel what a wimp I am), I sucked it up and went climbing. A bunch of
old senior Yank tourists were coming down the hill. The ridicule would be merciless.
If you go to Þingvellir ("Thing-vetlear"), go up to the lookout point first; the view is incredible. If you're speed sight-seeing because you're taking advantage of Icelandair's no-additional-cost, up-to-seven-day stay-over in Iceland, this stop is a must.
I would've liked to have gone to the meeting circle itself, but it wasn't as important to me. It would also have been another couple klicks of walking. At the lookout point, some Japanese tourists were posing their cute little girl balanced precariously on the handrail, but before I could say anything, someone else offered to take their pictures.
"What do you want to see next?" asked Stefán. This became the recurring dumb question of the day. "More!" Off we headed to the geysers.
Stop 3: Laugarhellir
On the way to the geysers at Geysír, we turned off onto some barely marked gravel road (all secondary and tertiary roads are gravel) and came to some unmarked point where the road ended. At first glance, I wondered what the point was.
It's a natural cave of sorts. Under a ledge there's a hole about 8m wide, 2m high and it goes back a good 12m or more (multiply these numbers by 3 for feet). It's out in the middle of nowhere, but walking around outside behind it, I saw signs that the place is not unknown to kids, though I have no idea how the hell they get there.
Traveller's TipWe got back in the car and drove on, stopping at Laugarvatn for my second hot dog of the day. Sadly, it was notable for it's utter and abject lack of potato salad. At the service station -- more than 100km away from where we started -- we ran into a few of Stefán's friends. It's a very small country on a very big chunk of land.
Don't speed in Iceland
You can do it, but not for long
The legal speed limit on gravel roads is 80km/h (50mph). However, you can't brake very well, there's often dust clouds from some other car having driven on the road in the past hour, foul weather really makes things horrible, and as I've written already, Icelanders aren't the best drivers in the world. Keep it around 60 or make sure you have really good insurance... and a survival kit with a week's supplies.
Stop 4: Geysir
Faster than Old Faithful
We drove on. As we got near Geysír, I could see Langjökull (a glacier) in the distance. After a bit more driving and my endless commentary (which consisted primarily of "Wow!"), we reached Geysír ("Gay-sear"). I've been to similar places, such as New Zealand's Craters of the Moon, but this was still worth the trip. The "smoking" field is roped off by a few little stakes and a piece of twine. Icelanders are pretty pragmatic; if some tourist insists on crossing the line and injuring himself, he'll find a way, so just put up a marker and be done with it.
As you make your way up the path, you walk by Litli-Geysír, which is pretty much a bubbling hole that doesn't ess-plode. Everyone takes a picture of it and it's ubiquitous in domestic pictures. I've seen it on album covers and in fashion ads. And yes, they have fashion in Iceland, even if it is mostly big, wooly sweaters.
The Japanese family we'd seen at Þingvellir walked right by us, papa-san snapping away furiously as little Something-ko posed and smiled. Cute kid.
We walked on to where the ring of babbling tourists were standing and I had a bit of trouble with my camera as the geyser blew. No worries though, because it blows every seven minutes or so. I was able to watch the thing fill up with water, a little from above from the last eruption but mostly from below. Then an instant before it shot up, I could see basically a large steam bubble appear at the surface, then, Whoosh! The plume went up a good 25m. Better still, there's a secondary eruption about 15 seconds after the first which goes up about 10m. It was pretty breezy but I somehow managed to stay upwind of the plume. Not everyone there was so incredibly clever.
I didn't quite get the pictures I wanted and Stefán offered to stick around longer. "Nah," I said, "I'll only screw up the next photos as well and we'll be here all day. Let's motorvate."
Stop 5: Gullfoss
What's all the hoopla about?
Gullfoss was almost next to Geysir. I don't think we were in the car for 10 minutes. We got out and walked over to hear a lot of noice and see a lot of mist, but the fall itself looked pretty meek.
I'm an idiot.
What I was seeing was only the first part of the drop. The rest of it was hidden by the land formation and runs along a good length parallel to the road. It's pretty wet and slippery, so I didn't do any daring photos, but someone with a lot more money than me was flying around in low, steep figure-8s over the area in what looked like a Warrior. Still, I'm happy with some of the pix I did manage.
With the bright, shining sun, the breeze and the mist, I got some great double-rainbow shots. Then I gave Stefán the camera and ran down the path, climbed up onto the rock at the head of the falls and saw it was probably not the best place to be careless. Stefán got a couple shots of me and the originals (3.2Mpix) are clear enough that you can make out it's me through the clothes in conjunction with the other pictures from the day. It would probably stand up in court.
I wasn't thinking enough about the breeze and the mist. More to the point, I wasn't thinking about that wet section on the path I took to the rock and didn't think anything of the breeze kicking back up. Until I went back. By the time I got to Stefán my entire front was soaked. It certainly helped cool me down.
Stop 6: Kerið
There's gonna be a concert where?
On the way back to Rezkjavík we stopped at Kerið. About 6500 years ago, you really didn't want to be around these parts. And whoever was at the time, pretty quickly wasn't. Since then, things cooled down and a volcanic lake remains. It has a rather steep slope except for about 30° of arc, where a slide left a more manageable slope for those who want to get down there.
I was reminded again of the massive party I'll be missing next Saturday after I go home. Among other things will be a band playing from down there in the lake. On rubber boats. It's Iceland. They do stuff here that's almost normal, but not quite. It's not Twilight Zone, but it makes you cock your head and make a slightly bewildered face.
One neat thing about Kerið is that it breaks through the ground at the water table, so the level of the water inside the caldera matches. Very convenient for ecologists.
Stop 7: Eyrarbakki
The old docks at Eyrarbakki are hardly a tourist attraction, but the area was still interesting. Some of the bits have rusted through and the concrete is slowly giving way to the elements. The place fell out of use because the water is too shallow and from what I saw, even a skiff or fanboat would beach.
Granted I saw the place at low tide, but you can't really have a successful dock if the cargo ships will beach and tip. There was a lot of seaweed washed up, some of it (insisted Stefán) edible. Which bits? "I don't know." For some odd reason, I have the tune Stand By Me stuck in my head.
Stop 8: Selfoss (again)
Stefán: "Best. Pylsa. EVAR."
We left the docks and got to talking about food. It was going on 6:00 p.m. and I'd had two hot dogs and a bunch of carbonated water to carry me through my trek. When I told him I intended to find Icelandic food tonight. "Well, the best pylsa in Iceland is at this stand in Selfoss that we have to drive by. Fine. Another hot dog. The best one in Iceland. He then had the idea that I could come over to his parent's house and have dinner with them.
OK, here's the point where the Twilight Zone theme kicked in. I'm almost 40. Buddy-guy here is 22. It's a pretty safe bet that I'm closer to his parent's ages than to his. Plus, I don't want to intrude and this is last-minute and and and...
"It's not a problem." He dialed his parents, spoke some stuff I didn't understand and announced it's fine and that we're going. Umm, okay...
Of course, we stopped at the hot dog stand first. Pylsa number three was et and it was indeded very good, but I was starting to miss the potato salad (the mayo kind, not mustardy). It wasn't my most brilliant move but it would ensure I didn't make a pig of myself at the table. Of course, there was always the chance he had a Jewish mother ("Eat! Eat! You'll starve to death! Have some more! Look at you, all skinn og bein. Just have one more helping!"), but I risked it.
Stop 9: Þorlákshöfn
Hey! Look what followed me home!
In order to get to his house (or any of those of his neighbours) in Þorlákshöfn (Thore-louks-heufn), you have to drive by his workplace, which is among a group of fish processors. Even with the windows up and the vents closed, the smell of that damned fish-drying factory filled the car in seconds. I'd told him earlier that I was interested in seeing the place (how often do you get to see a fishhead-drying factory?), but then he told me I'd need a change of clothes because 10 minutes in there would leave me covered in a stench that required strong soap and industrial laundry detergent. I passed. It was late and not in operation, anyway.
Why dry the fish heads? Seems the Nigerians are big on them for soup. I'll pass on this little tip: don't. Just... don't. Iceland is getting revenge for 419ers on behalf of us all. <shudder>
Stop 10: Stefán's home
Dinner is served
We arrived at the house, went inside, took off our shoes and said hi to mum who was in the kitchen dropping some salt on the bread dough for home-grilled flatbread. Mum is very close to my age. Stefán is reading this dairy. I ain't writing another word.
A few minutes later we all sat down to eat and I met Dad, teen Bro, and subteens Bro and Sis. Older (!) Sis wasn't there. I mainly talked with Mum; Dad was rather quiet but so was I. I didn't really know what to say and although their English was very good, I'm sure they didn't catch everything I said, not that I said much.
What a spread they'd laid out: lobster and steak (and gravy). There were some potatoes and carrots and the homemade bread and toast and something else I'm sure. Now, I have to explain Icelandic "lobster". What I put on my plate was a lobster tail that had been grilled, then split. The meat in the split lobster tail was about the size of a jumbo shrimp (about 25-count size), but harder to get out of its shell. Think along the lines of "crawdad". But it did taste like lobster. Chewed like it, too. I'd never thought to dropping a (cooked) lobster on the grill, but it was very nice, as nice as the steaks were rare, and rare they were. This was also a good thing.
We ate and then pretty much ran. I thanked them again as we left. It wasn't that I was in any hurry to leave, but didn't know what to do by staying. I was a little weirded out and still surprised about dinner and I was both overwhelmed and exhausted by the traveling and stuff.
While driving back to Reykjavik we heard them talking about the record heat today: 27.7°C, right where we were. It felt a lot warmer due to the cloudless sky and the sun always shining at you from the side. Here's the route we took:
I got back to the hostel and asked if they had anything yet for Friday. Yes, they did, so Friday was settled. How about Saturday? "Two beds, but only for girls." No amount of reasoning ("I'll be drunk, never see anything and pass out in 12 seconds.") or attempts to swish and be ofay worked. Still, there's time. I got the key to yet another room and headed upstairs, worn out from one hell of a day.
A day which wasn't quite yet over...
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