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?”
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.
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.)
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.
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?”
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?