Day Four – Facing my Nemesis

Our alarms went off at 6. If I have to I’m pretty good at leaping out of bed at sparrow’s fart. The requested kettle still hadn’t arrived. I longed for a wake-up mug of hot jasmine tea and to take one to Tessa … I had an apology to make.

“Sorry about my foul mood last night, and all the swearing.” Tessa is a good person, a calm quaker and not one to hold a grudge. She was gracious as ever. I hoped that getting into the bathroom first and giving her a bit of snooze time would make up for my rant.

“There’s no hot water” I yelped hopping from foot to foot on the cold tiled floor trying not to swear. After a few minutes it came through. “Maybe it has to come all the way over from the main building too?”

Drangshild Guesthouse main building at dawn.

We could see a light on in the restaurant and walked over to have a quick breakfast at 7 o’clock. Some of the Italians were already stuck in. We were impressed with what as on offer and piled up fruit, hard boiled eggs, muesli, skyr, bread and cheese slices… best to line our stomachs well for what was to come. We had a date with the famous Reynisfjora black beach, a crashed plane on another beach near Vik and a glacier to reach by noon. Getting lost, missing the assembly time for the Glacier Discovery hike was not an option.

I have mixed history with glaciers. I tumbled down a rock glacier (think frozen Mars Bar cracking if it’s bent over)on the Charity Hike from Hell through the Alaskan wilderness 20 years ago. I stepped on an unstable rock and tumbled over and over propelled by a 50lb backpack that had been promised to be no more than 30. “Where is the lightweight trail food?” I’d asked the guide as I packed a bag of flour, dried tortellini and a pack of pop tarts. “Too expensive” she said. The memory of it still haunts me. Why, I wonder now, had I said “that’s a good idea” when David at Rickshaw suggested it as an alternative to Orca watching (which was just out of season).

“My turn to drive” I held out my hand for the keys.

“Are you sure? I’m happy to drive if you prefer?” By her own admission Tessa is, shall we say, a bit of a back seat driver.

“I’ll be fine. I’m sure now we’re on the open road I’ll soon get used to doing gears again. Foot on clutch to start yes?”

And off we set to the hideous sound of gears crashing and a couple of stalls.

“Oops, sorry.”

Turns out Reynisfjara black beach has a bit of a rep. We didn’t know that at the time. We read the warning notice and laughed at the expression: ‘sneaker’ waves. In June this year a foreign tourist, a 70 year old man, had gone into the sea and been snatched by one that snuck up on him. The man and his wife were part of an organised tour. (?!?****) His wife got caught up in the same wave but bystanders were able to catch her before she got sucked into the sea. He was helicoptered out of the sea but it was too late, it only takes a matter of seconds to die in seas this rough and cold. Another near drowning had happened only the day before when a man went in in his bathers and had to be rescued putting a lot of other people at risk. They wonder, how big do we have to make the sign?

We strode along the shore at a respectful distance. Fortunately I wasn’t remotely tempted to go for a dip, was careful to not turn my back on the waves and merely basked (as much as that is possible when it’s -5 with the wind chill) in the breathtaking beauty of acres of black sand, striking rock formations in the sea, basalt pillars and golden cliffs. (Check out Game of Thrones Season 10.)

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THE WAVES LOOK INNOCENT DON’T THEY?

The beach was so captivating we ran out of time to get to the other beach to see the Sólheimasandur plane wreck. Rickshaw Travel had suggested it as an extra to do, that it is ‘quite cool and surreal’, great for photos. Crashed planes are another reminder of the Charity Hike from Hell, and though everyone survived this crash (when the US Navy DC ran out of fuel in 1973) and the pilot of the rescue plane in Alaska, I wasn’t too sorry to give it a miss. Sólheimajókull Glacier at noon awaited.

We arrived with plenty time to spare and were relieved to see a row of portaloos in the car park. This ‘no stopping except at dedicated pull ins’ (which can be occupied) rule and the wide open landscapes are challenging in the chilly weather. We got to the loos before a coach party pulled in, ate our ‘breakfast leftovers’ and went over to the container van to check in. Our guide, a tall dark and handsome Greek, or was he Spanish(?), smiled and pointed to the piles of kit.

“Oh my god Tessa, look at those…I thought we’d just need crampons. Ice axes? Hard hats?”

I’d imagined we were going on a little hike, a snoop around the edges of the glacier learning about how they are formed, are dissolving, that kind of thing. Heaven knows what gave me that idea. A glacier hike is a glacier hike.

“This is how you put on the harness” said Zan holding one out “one leg in here, the other leg here.”

“Harnesses?” I looked alarmed. “Oh, I know, in case we need to be hauled up into a rescue helicopter” I joked. He grinned. I’d forgotten the possibility of falling down a crevasse. Sensibly he didn’t respond. We struggled into our harnesses and Zan came round and hoicked them up tighter. Good that we’d had time to go for a pee before we were all trussed up. No chance of getting out of those for a quick squat behind a rock.

“This is how you put on your helmets. You can put them on top of your hats.

“Helmets?” someone said.

“Lava rocks are very light. They can blow off the mountain in these winds and hit you on the head. Haven’t you noticed all the dents in cars in Iceland? Right, off to the glacier. Sólheimajókull means ‘home of the sun’ glacier, it’s an outlet of Myrdalsjokull which is the fourth largest in Iceland.”

The first part of the hike was rather depressing.

“The Glacier used to go all the way down to the car park and beyond ” said Zan “these icebergs are all that is left.”

“When we get onto the glacier you must all walk single file behind me, no wandering around.” I was perfectly happy to comply, he’d know the safe routes avoiding crevasses. I was very impressed by the whole operation and the care he was taking with us. There was a school kid who walked the glacier I went on in Alaska who fell down one. They sent rescuers down on ropes 200ft to look for him, then a camera a further 500ft. He was never found.

The guides do this clever thing when the glacier starts its winter freeze, blocking the streams that run through the crevasses with ice. This creates a solid bottom you can safely walk on to get an experience of the blue ice.

Glaciers aren’t the pristine white you’d expect. Especially when nearby volcanoes like Eyjafjallajokul pop off thousands of tons of ash over them. If they are covered by a thin layer of ash it can speed up the melting. A thick layer can do the opposite. Although it looked pristine white when we flew over it as we arrived, the glacier was actually a bit mucky.

Once again I was to learn that ‘giving it a go’ brings rewards. Since I nearly died of malaria when I was in my early thirties my default is to say ‘why not?’ to opportunities in life. Zan, unlike our guides on the Charity Hike from Hell, who caused our rescue plane to crash and led us up the wrong mountain, was incredibly well trained, experienced in the terrain and on the case if anyone needed help. He led us to the turquoise blue crevasse and a stream where we could drink the chilled purity of glacier water. It was magnificent.

We drove for a couple of hour to the Flúðir Guesthouse in Grund. It was near the Secret Lagoon, Gamma Laugin, where we planned to wallow in thermal waters.Unlike the big fancy Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, that everyone has pictures of and that costs £70 a pop, the Secret Lagoon is a natural pool on the edge of the village costing a mere £13. It’s quieter than the Blue Lagoon, no fancy spa vibe. Before our trip I’d googled a comparison between the two. The person who wrote the piece I read was hard put to say which was best but reading between the lines he tilted in favour of the Secret Lagoon.

If I have a tiny criticism of the guesthouses, apart from the Klopp in Reykjavik, it’s that their welcome lacks, well, welcome. It’s kind of desultory and you feel a little as if your arrival is a bit annoying. If you actually find someone there to greet you that is and you don’t have to go looking. However our room at the Fludir was lovely and there were two options that looked good for a meal after a wallow.

“Is the Secret Lagoon near?” we asked at non-reception.

“You can see it. You can walk. It takes 10 minutes, or you can drive.”

We opted to drive. It had been an exhausting day.

The Lagoon steaming in the distance

Through the ages, it was a tradition to bathe in the thermal waters here in Grund. The first swimming lessons in Iceland were held at Gamla Laugin in 1909, and then every year until it fell into disuse in 1947. In the old days, people also used it for washing clothes, practical if a bit smelly I’d have thought. (Thermal waters have a sulphurous waft…it’s the sulphur that makes them so healing and good for the skin and rheumatics.)

In 2005, the pool was gradually reborn, but kept authentic. It celebrated its opening in June 2014. There are hot showers, in an open shared space, and lockers. On the walls are helpful posters informing you with big red circles the smelliest bits of your body to carefully wash and instructions that it must be done naked and with soap. It is a big no-no not to do this. Icelanders think we tourists are a bit yucky if we don’t. What I loved about this is that it meant young girls mingle with real women’s bodies, all ages and shapes. So healthy in an age where they are constantly exposed to perfect (mostly manipulated) images on TikTok.

The water was shoulder height on me, hotter at the edges. Place your ‘noodle’ right and you can float around totally relaxed looking at the sky.

We’d only just made it there in time before it closed at 7pm and wallowed about in total bliss for the recommended 20-25 minutes in water that was nudging 38-40deg I could have gone on for another hour at least.

“Have you noticed it’s getting hotter?” said Tessa. “Is that how they persuade us out?”

Tessa was happy to get out and enjoy the icy walk out of the pool and into the showers.

We staggered out of the changing rooms, drunk on heat and relaxation, to the eerie light from the greenhouses next to the lagoon. All that lovely free heat is used all over Iceland to grow the delicious salads we’d been eating since we arrived.

“I’m hungry” I said “do you fancy the Ethiopian restaurant?”

We found our way lit by our mobiles to the restaurant.

Iceland is full of surprises, and another foodie one was to find an Ethiopian restaurant in this little town miles from anywhere. What must it have been like for the lovely woman who married and Icelander to move here? How long did it take for her to adjust to the climate?

“Can I meet your wife?” I asked “may I take a photo?”

Minilik restaurant was yet again somewhere I could be vegetarian in Iceland and eat extremely well. I love Ethiopian food. For those of you unfamiliar it’s served on Injera, a soft, bubbly, fermented pancake-like flatbread made from teff flour. It has a very distinctive sourdough taste from the fermentation process and looks greyish. It could easily be mistaken for a dirty dishcloth and is an acquired taste I suppose. Dishes are laid out on the pancake in dollops and you tear bits off and scoop the food up into your mouth with it. We found it a delicious meal, our hosts were delightful, it was a perfect end to the day. Or it would have been if only Chelsea would make her mind up. We listened to the Archers latest episode as we settled down to sleep. Time was running out for her if she did decide on the abortion route. We could have done without the cliffhanger at bedtime night after night. ‘You have your whole life ahead of you Chelsea. For pity’s sake make your mind up.’ Would we even get the answer before the end of the trip?

Reykjavik Day Two – Snow on the Mountains

View down to harbour with snow capped mountains in distance.

The bad news from Elding the night before had confirmed that our whale watching boat trip for the morning was cancelled. We had new plans to make. We spread out the city map on the breakfast table. “Look at this Tessa” I showed her the weather chart on my app. The weather map for our area in UK usually maxes the wind chart at 50mph.

“Those gusts yesterday were 90mph,” I said “and last night with wind chill it was -5? Doesn’t look much better today.” Tessa looked happy. She loves cool as well as stark. (I had to watch she hadn’t surreptitiously sneaked the room thermostat down when I wasn’t watching.) Last night, while we sweated in our layers and waited to see the light in the mini-van Gunnar said “coaches and mini vans aren’t allowed by law to go out on the roads when the winds are over 50mph.” Interesting. Also interesting is that our instincts about the Jimini jeep looking like it might get blown over were spot on. I’ve since been told by a petrolhead friend Jiminis had a reputation for that when they first came out.

We weren’t surprised our whale watching trip was cancelled. Neither of us would have wanted anyone to risk taking a boat out in the weather we were experiencing, and I suspect if they had all we’d have seen was our own vomit. I’ve seen Fin whales (60ft long, the Formula Ones of the ocean) and the incredibly rare Right whale but I’ve never seen a humpback so it was still very disappointing.

“Maybe we could go and see the Whales of Iceland exhibition instead?”

“I’d like to go to at least one of the galleries in those amazing modern buildings” said Tessa.

I don’t share Tessa’s love of brutalist architecture. I wasn’t sure I could be bothered to schlep all the way over to the concrete block housing the Kjarvalsstadir art gallery which, though still a bit of a trek, was the closest.

“I thought I might make my way to the Penis Museum by the harbour while you do that,” I said.

“I think that might actually make me physically sick,” she’d said.

However, not really wanting her to have to set off on her own, I decided the Penis Museum could wait. We got lost trying to find the Kjarvalsstadir (of course we did) blown off course several times, but isn’t that how you learn about a new place? Or, in this case, come across places you’d wanted to go to anyway.

Ghost house

“Look Tessa, that’s the Sundhollin, that’s the spa we wanted to go to tonight. ” We went in to ask if we had to book. Whilst we are both ‘wild swimmers’ (how I hate that term) and happy to plunge into water of 8 degrees (ME! yes, I know!) and Tessa 12 degrees and up, the thought of lolling in an outdoor pool heated with natural thermal water to 38deg from the oozing lava beneath the entire island excited us both.

Sundhollin Spa outdoor pool

Mostly all we heard was the roaring of the wind, however in the suburbs on the way to the gallery we kept hearing birdsong. Flocks of redwings feasting on berries had moved into the city. I didn’t have my binoculars on me, but as they flew off there was the telltale rusty colour under their armpits.

Kjarvalsstadir Art Gallery

At the Kjarvalsstadir I learnt a sharp lesson in the benefit of ‘giving it a go’. I normally am a person who likes to say ‘yes’. And now I can’t think what got into me – unless it was the wind and cold – that made me hesitate to visit. Anyway, I can honestly say I enjoyed the work of Gudjon Ketilsson in his exhibition called Jaeja as much, if not more, than any in recent times. There was an actual Icelander on the desk. “Can you check my pronunciation?” I asked her. I was determined by the end of the week to get Eyjafjallajökull right – that big volcano that had all the news readers getting their tongues in a twist when it popped off in March 2010 disrupting air travel all over the world. Thought I’d start with the most difficult then everything else would be easy. “No, she said.”Not quite,” and rattled it off perfectly. “Tak,” I said (thanks) “bless,” (bye).

My attempts to remember how to say Eyjafjallajökull, hear that clucking sound?

Jaeja an untranslatable Icelandic word that means nothing on its own but can be used for almost anything…like: here we are. Or: look at this. In Gudjon’s case he means a found object, or any, put in a different context giving it a value. A man after my own heart. “Oh my god look at that” I am prone to say when I see something like discarded rubbish, plastic caught on a fence or beautifully coiled dog shit for instance, in a different way. Plus he loves hats, so what was not to like? We were first drawn to what looked like black calligraphy on the wall. A closer look revealed it was a collection of black plastic jetsam he’d come across pinned to the wall.

Here are some hats, carved in wood.

We thought this was folded linen and a pile of bones – but they were all ceramic.

He is also a very fine draftsman.

We lingered a long time in the gallery, it was warm and out of the wind, but eventually hunger sent us off to search for the vegan cafe we’d clocked by happenstance on the way.

Sky looking rather ominous at Plantan Vegan Cafe.

“My god look at those cakes.”

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But we chose the sensible option and feasted on a delicious brunch.

There was constantly a worry about how much everything might cost. We’d been warned by David at Rickshaw that a simple soup lunch might be £15 an evening meal £30…but that was before Truss and her crashing of the economy and sinking of the pound. This holiday was booked nearly a year ago in February when it came up on offer from Rickshaw Travel. Covid was still an issue. “Safest place,” said David “you won’t need to worry about Covid there.” Plus it is a relatively short haul flight so there’s less climate guilt involved. But then the £1 hit an all time worst ever low.

“That brunch looks incredible I said. Let’s have it as our main meal,” I said “and eat the sandwiches we assembled at breakfast for dinner tonight.”

I learned another lesson the Plantan. Tofu scramble can be delicious, and that it wasn’t necessarily going to be a week of Tessa eating fresh local fish (she’s a pescatarian) and me eating pizza every night. Reykjavik at least has heard of vegetarians, even vegans.

Harbour

By the time we’d walked back up to the top of the city and down to the harbour the Icelandic Phallological Museum was closed. Who knows what I might have seen? It was nominated best local attraction in 2015 and looks like it is run by a real weir…I mean eccentric, I had so many questions I’d have liked to ask.

We walked around the harbour to the extraordinary new concert hall and conference centre, the Harpa.

Harpa Concert Hall and Conference Centre
Windows that reminded me of a honeycomb
Harbour at night. We apparently just missed a showing of the Northern Lights over the sea.

By the time they, very politely, threw us out, it was dark, and time to go back to the Klopp, eat our sandwiches, grab our cozzies and make our way back up to the Sundhollim Spa. Exactly what we needed after clocking up another 22,000+ steps. It cost us next to nothing with our City Cards. Originally built in the 1920s it has been renovated recently. Lit up at night it’s a magical place. There are several pools outside, the smallest right on the roof top with rows of blasting jets. Tessa soon opted for a bit of time in the cool indoor pool but I spent most of the time cooking in the rooftop pools sky gazing. You never knew…. We reconvened in the shallow pool under a kind of mushroom thing which gradually fills with water and rains down hard on you every five minutes or so. (Best to turn on your front when it does this to protect your soft bits.) The pools were mostly filled with local folk. What a great thing to do after a hard days work rather than slump in front of the telly with a glass of wine.

Mushroom shower thingy just visible back left.

We wound our way slowly back to the Klopp drunk on relaxation and warmth. When we arrived there we saw there was an excited huddle on the steps.

“You just missed them” said a young woman pointing excitedly up at the sky “right here, we saw them right here…red and green and curtains and folds and look, here,” she showed me her phone. “Can you believe it? Right in the middle of Reykjavik. Amazing.”

“Bugger,” I said, forgetting how much Tessa hates swearing.

“Must have been while we getting dressed in the changing rooms,” she said.

“Sod’s Law,” I said.

We fell asleep listening to the Archers. For goodness sake Chelsea, make your mind up…time is running out if you do decide to have an abortion. It’s a great storyline, what with Roe versus Wade and all that, but come on….