10 April 2010

A different kind of south beach.

On Saturday morning, we left to see Iceland's south coast. Rain and wind pounded the van while we crossed the mountains, and the windows were so fogged up that we couldn't see a thing. We knew we were at our first stop, Seljalandsfoss waterfall, by its the sound. Warmer temperatures here have accelerated glacial melt, producing a thundering stream of muddy water the likes of which our guide Andre (the same man who guided Steve and me through the Golden Circle in March) had never seen. You can usually walk behind the Seljalandsfoss fall; if you do a Google search, you can see lots of images of tourists walking behind the tall, gentle fall. On our visit, the volume of water made the back route inaccessible. Caroline stayed by the van with the other members of our group to keep dry. I borrowed a waterproof jacket from Andre to wear over my coat and followed him across the narrow river. Where it was shallow, we jumped from rock to rock. Then we reached a footbridge. Ironically, I stayed dry across the rocks, but the spray from the fall was so intense on the bridge that it soaked through my jeans and my base layer in seconds. I spent the rest of the day in cold, sloshy denim, but it was worth it.

The Golden Circle is the most popular tourist route in Iceland for a reason-- the sites are close to Reykjavik, and the loop is very dense with high-value stops. Every fifteen minutes, you reach something beautiful. The south coast is both more subtle and more extreme. We drove for long, boring stretches between sites, and when we reached them, they were not immediately spectacular.

Reynisfjara Beach is the southernmost point in Iceland, a stark, barren stretch of coastline. At first, the sand is not sand at all-- it's rocks. As you approach the water, the rocks get smaller and smaller, and eventually, you reach a band of fine-grained black sand. I only appreciated the view once I got close to the water, where the violent white waves against the black sand looks like a normal beach in negative exposure. The waves are notoriously unpredictable here, and I've never seen such erratic tides. One moment they'd gently roll to shore far from where we stood; a couple of minutes later, they'd race so much faster and farther in that I grabbed Caroline (who has not yet developed a healthy respect for nature's dangers) and moved to higher ground. We walked along the beach for a while, and then got back in the van to leave for or our wildest destination of the entire trip.

After driving on the highway for half an hour or so, Andre turned on to winding gravel road. The road was bouncy and uneven, and when we eventually reached our destination, the other vehicles there were all 4X4s. We parked in a gravel lot at the edge of a field of black volcanic rocks. They ranged in size from pebbles to boulders, and covered the ground over hills and under streams leading to the snout of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier.

A tangent: Mýrdalsjökull glacier is redundant; in Icelandic, most places are identified with logical toponyms. A -jökull is a glacier, a -fjörður is a fjord, a -foss is a waterfall, a -hraun is a lava field, a -fell is a mountain, a -vatn is a lake, a -vik is an inlet, and so forth. Once I figured this out, it made it a lot easier to decipher place names here.

The hike to the glacier wasn't far, but there was no obvious route. It was like one of those mazes on childrens' paper place mats: we'd set off in one direction, only to reach a stream that was too wide to cross. Andre took off ahead of us, and found a path that put us directly on the glacier's snout. I followed behind one of our tour-mates-- a spry British grand-mum who left her daughter and granddaughter behind because they were too slow. I pulled out my camera on some of the flat stretches, but the sky and glacier are both so white than my pictures all looked washed-out. We lingered at the glacier for a long time, with everyone hiking off in different directions. Andre encouraged us to stand at the edge of the glacier, but not to venture more than a few feet on to the ice. It was obvious from the edge that the ice in front of us was melting, and there was no way to tell where the weak spots might be.

Next we drove to the Skógafoss waterfall, which is usually larger than Seljalandsfoss. You would never know that from our visit! Skógafoss was impressive, but seemed gentle compared to Seljalandsfoss. I'd read that there's almost always a rainbow at Skógafoss, but the sky was a solid sheet of white while we were there.

Our final stop was Skógar, a tiny village just south of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier. If "Eyjafjallajökull" looks strangely familiar, it's because the volcano that erupted last month was under this glacier. We visited Skógasafn, an Icelandic folk museum, and toured their tiny, century-old farmhouse to get a rare glimpse of a truly old Icelandic building.

We got back to Reykjavik at about 6PM, damp and exhausted. We warmed up at Indian Mango-- a highly regarded restaurant downtown where Caroline had her first taste of local lamb and I had the "vegetarian dish". I asked the waitress what was in it, and she just shrugged and said "whatever he feels like putting in it each day, but it's always good". And it was.

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