A day in Amsterdam

Dec 01, 2013 in Taiwan 2013

A day in Amsterdam

Sunday in Holland, en route from Taiwan to Chile

Bellinzona

Nov 07, 2012 in UK and Switzerland 2012

Bellinzona

Over Switzerland

Nov 04, 2012 in UK and Switzerland 2012

Over Switzerland

A view from a flight from Paris to Zurich.

Back to London

Oct 02, 2012 in UK and Canada 2012

Back to London

City twilight

Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011

City twilight

Luxembourg

Jan 08, 2011 in Luxembourg 2011

Luxembourg

View over the valley of the Alzette river.

Observatorio del Teide

Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010

Observatorio del Teide

La Laguna

Oct 27, 2010 in Tenerife 2010

La Laguna

Terminal 3

Oct 23, 2010 in Tenerife 2010

Terminal 3

Early morning departure from Heathrow

A Coruña

Sep 13, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010

A Coruña

Río Ulla

Sep 11, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010

Río Ulla

Ready for a white water rafting adventure on the Río Ulla.

Santiago de Compostela

Sep 10, 2010 in Santiago de Compostela 2010

Santiago de Compostela

Millau

Sep 03, 2010 in France 2010

Millau

Crossing the Tarn on the way from Durban-Corbières to Calais

Durban-Corbières

Aug 24, 2010 in France 2010

Durban-Corbières

By the harbour

Aug 23, 2010 in Microstates 2010

By the harbour

Nearing the end of a lap of the circuit

Monaco

Aug 23, 2010 in Microstates 2010

Monaco

Loewes Hairpin, seen during my obligatory lap of the grand prix circuit.

Vaduz

Aug 21, 2010 in Microstates 2010

Vaduz

Looking down on Vaduz from near the castle

Liechtenstein

Aug 21, 2010 in Microstates 2010

Liechtenstein

A view towards Switzerland from near Schaan

Danube

Aug 18, 2010 in Vienna 2010

Danube

Vienna

Aug 16, 2010 in Vienna 2010

Vienna

Fløya

Jul 11, 2010 in Norway 2010

Fløya

Storsteinen

Jul 11, 2010 in Norway 2010

Storsteinen

Hurtigruten

Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010

Hurtigruten

On board the MS Nordstjernen, passing the MS Lofoten, between Skjervøy and Tromsø

New furthest north

Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010

New furthest north

70 degrees and 5 minutes of arc north of the equator at Skjervøy

Journey to Skjervøy

Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010

Journey to Skjervøy

A view from a ferry from Olderdalen to Lyngseidet, en route between Tromsø and Skjervøy

Midnight sun in Tromsø

Jul 09, 2010 in Norway 2010

Midnight sun in Tromsø

Back to Norway

Jul 08, 2010 in Norway 2010

Back to Norway

Return to Oslo, eight years after my first trip to Norway

Villette Sonique

May 31, 2010 in Paris 2010

Villette Sonique

Pompidou centre

May 31, 2010 in Paris 2010

Pompidou centre

Notre Dame

May 31, 2010 in Paris 2010

Notre Dame

Back to the mainland

Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010

Back to the mainland

Boat journey from Brodick to Ardrossan

Down the valley

Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010

Down the valley

Goat Fell

Apr 17, 2010 in Scotland 2010

Goat Fell

Bute Hall

Apr 16, 2010 in Scotland 2010

Bute Hall

Icing on the cake

Apr 12, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Icing on the cake

The orange glow receded. Árni reckoned the eruption was much smaller now than when he’d last seen it a week ago, but it had been awesome to see it nonetheless.

Our return journey was much slower than the outward leg. The trail had got icier, and the gale was getting stronger. We bounced around so much that I felt seasick, climbing back up to the heights of the Mýrdalsjökull. At one point, another car in the convoy got stuck, and Árni had to jump out to attach a towrope. The icy blast as he opened the door was breathtaking. It took a little while to extricate the other car, and I wondered if we would need to get out and push. I didn’t much fancy that.

Luckily we got going again, and pushed on. As we descended, I started to become sure that I could see the northern lights. When we reached the edge of the glacier, we stopped to reinflate the tyres, and here there was no doubt. The wind was whipping up a fog of blown snow, but through that I could see that the sky was full of dancing green lights. We carried on down, the wind began to drop and the lights got brighter.

We reached sea level at about 3am. I was beginning to get a tiny bit worried – my flight was leaving Keflavík at 8am and it was going to take a few more hours yet to reach Reykjavík. But if I missed my flight, then so be it. Right now I was just concerned with feeling awestruck. We stopped at Skógafoss, reinflated the tyres a bit more, and here the lights were stunning, flying overhead like curtains billowing in a colossal breeze.

We drove on, stopping in the middle of nowhere briefly to pick up some people whose car had broken down as they were trying to get to the volcano. The lights seemed brighter than I ever remembered them and at the end of a spectacular day of travelling, this was almost too much to take in. I was having a natural wonder overdose.

We headed on. The small hours grew larger, and I fell fast asleep. I woke as we approached Reykjavík, where we arrived at 5am. I had just enough time to brew a painfully strong coffee before heading back to the airport as the sun was rising. My weekend had been perilously close to turning into an appalling waste of time and money but we’d snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. I could not have been happier as I headed back to the UK. Later it turned out that just a few hours after I’d been there, the Fimmvörðuháls eruption stopped. After a day of calm, a new and much bigger eruption started a few miles away, causing massive disruption to European air travel as a huge ash cloud drifted over the continent. Much as I’d have loved to see that, my timing was pretty good. If I hadn’t left when I did I might still be there now.

Snæfell is still calling me. I’ll be going back to Iceland before too long.

At the volcano

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

At the volcano

From our first sighting it took us almost another hour to get to a good viewing point. The ground was so slippery it was unbelievable, but eventually we reached the crest of a hill, and there before us was the fissure. We could see three craters, one with a constantly frothing lava fountain, and two more where occasional explosions showered the ground around them with hot rocks. The seven jeeps in the convoy left their engines running, and a howling gale was blowing, and we couldn’t hear any noise from the volcano at all. It was viciously cold. I quickly trained a video camera on the volcano, and then stepped away from the jeep to take in the view.

It was incredible. Words can’t describe and photos can’t possibly capture what it is like to see a volcano erupting. We stayed there for almost an hour, watching the spraying lava. While we were there, a small lava flow at the foot of the new cone suddenly began to grow dramatically. Strange blue flames flickered over the two intermittent craters. Meanwhile, the wind whipped snow into our faces, and even though I was wearing two coats, two pairs of gloves, two scarves and a hat, I still felt freezing.

I climbed up a small hill and listened to some Sigur Rós on my mp3 player. The epic music made the epic view even more impressive. But all too soon it was time to head back down. Árni gave me a shout at about 10pm, and I headed back to the jeep. I slipped on some ice on the way, smacking my shin on a rock and giving myself a souvenir bruise to take home. With a last glance at the show, I reluctantly got back into the jeep, ready for the long journey back to Reykjavík.

Higher and higher

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Higher and higher

We climbed the road. Before too long there was snow on the ground around us. Árni’s GPS told us how high we were going, and before very long we were 700m above sea level. Rocky ground covered in snow eventually gave way to the glacier proper. We stopped to reduce the tyre pressure still further, and then drove onto the ice. The wisdom of driving in a convoy became clear here; sometimes a vehicle would get into some difficulties up the steeper slopes, and anyone driving alone would have been pretty miserable. The other convoy members were ready to help, but the odd slippery moment was not a big problem, and we all climbed up and up and up.

It was getting dark and progress was getting slow. The problem was that there had been heavy rain up here. Snow would have been fine, but the rain had frozen and the driving conditions were far more treacherous than they had been a few days earlier. The jeep rocked wildly as we reached 1000m above sea level. Árni was a policeman by trade but had also driven jeeps in Afghanistan. His skills here were impressive and we rocked and bounced our way up the glacier, eventually reaching 1400m above sea level before heading down into the pass. We’d left Reykjavík at 4pm, and we’d hoped to reach the volcano by 8pm, but the journey continued. By 9pm the daylight was fading fast, and suddenly in the distance there was a vivid orange glow. Our luck was in.

Glacier convoy

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

Glacier convoy

We passed Seljalandsfoss, and after a couple of hours we reached Hvolsvöllur. Seven vehicles were attempting the trip, and tiny Hvolsvöllur was briefly overrun by volcano tourists. I bought a coffee and weirdly spotted someone who I’d met in Greenland last year. I didn’t have time to say hello before we were back in the jeep and heading onwards. We reached a turning where a rough dirt track disappeared into the mist. Somewhere up in the clouds were the Eyjafjallajökull and Myrdalsjökull glaciers, and in between the two, a split in the Earth’s crust from which molten rock was spurting. It hardly seemed possible.

We stopped to reduce the tyre pressures and coordinate the convoy, and then we headed uphill. Our route would take us high up onto the Myrdalsjökull, and then down into the pass.

South coast journey

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

South coast journey

Sunday morning dawned wild and rainy. It was beginning to look like my frivolous blowing of several hundred pounds was going to be in vain. My distant glimpse of the volcano from the plane might be my only sighting of it. Still, I hadn’t told anyone I was coming to Iceland as I felt that it might jinx the trip, so I could just not mention it.

I had time to kill. I was waiting for the phone call that would tell me if I could go to the volcano or not, and I stomped anxiously around town. The day seemed to drag on ridiculously, but eventually my phone rang. There was a chance, they told me, that there would be a break in the weather. Just a chance, and no guarantee of anything, but would I like to take the risk? I certainly would, I told them. I headed back to the hostel, and a vehicle appeared at 4.30pm. I met the driver, Árni, and my fellow travellers Diana from Portugal and two Swedes who lived in Algeria. We headed out of Reykjavík.

We stopped at a petrol station on the outskirts, and Árni said that this was our point of no return – if we quit the tour here we’d get our money back; if we went on and saw nothing, a not inconsiderable amount of money would have been wasted. None of us took the quitting option. We headed out of town. Soon we passed Hveragerði, where giant greenhouses with powerful artificial lights make the place look like a serious cannabis factory. Rain battered down. Quitting had never been an option but I was beginning to think I’d be very lucky to see anything.

A sudden return

Apr 11, 2010 in Iceland 2010

A sudden return

Eight months ago, I’d stood outside Keflavík airport and seen the snow-capped cone of Snæfell, 70 miles away across Faxaflói. It was a clear sign, telling me that I would certainly return to Iceland. I felt that very strongly but I never expected to come back so soon. While I was in Belgrade I’d heard that a volcano had started erupting in the Fimmvörðuháls pass, close to where I’d been hiking. It was an impressive and easily accessible eruption. I couldn’t believe it had happened so soon after I was there and I felt annoyed that I wouldn’t see it. But then, the thought occurred to me that there was no reason why I shouldn’t go and see it. One Monday morning, with the eruption still going on, I decided to go back. I booked a flight for the Friday, and then spent an agonising four days hoping that the eruption wouldn’t stop, that the weather would be OK, and that I’d be able to see the eruption.

And so for the third time I got a late flight from Heathrow to Keflavík. I saw the northern lights from the plane window, the first time I’d seen them since my first trip to Iceland, and then I got a sudden, breathtaking glimpse of something red and pulsating far below. It could surely only be the volcano. By the time I’d grabbed my camera it had disappeared from view. I became furiously impatient as we slowly descended into Keflavík.

I got the usual bus into town, and felt an extreme sense of deja vu as I walked towards the city hostel. Last summer it had still been light and warm as I walked in to the city at midnight; this time the bus broke down on the way and we had to transfer to another one in a howling gale in the darkness. I got to the hostel and booked myself some transport to the volcano for the next afternoon.

The next day I walked around the city again. It was grim and rainy, and the signs didn’t look good. My trip for the afternoon was uncertain, and I couldn’t even book a trip for the Sunday. The forecast was for severe weather, and no-one was planning on making any trips. Eventually, I found one company who said they would consider doing a trip and I left them my number. I revisited a few of my favourite Reykjavík sights, and then spent the afternoon in a cafe where I ordered so many espressos that eventually they let me make my own. I was properly blazing when I heard the bad news that the trip to the volcano for the afternoon was cancelled. All my hopes were now on Sunday.

Tarragona

Apr 03, 2010 in Barcelona 2010

Tarragona

Font Màgica

Apr 02, 2010 in Barcelona 2010

Font Màgica

Parc de la Ciutadella

Apr 01, 2010 in Barcelona 2010

Parc de la Ciutadella

Rammstein

Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010

Rammstein

St. Sava

Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010

St. Sava

Novi Beograd

Mar 20, 2010 in Balkans 2010

Novi Beograd

Zagreb

Mar 18, 2010 in Balkans 2010

Zagreb

Return to Zagreb, seven years after my first visit

Leuven again

Nov 09, 2009 in Belgium 2009

Leuven again

Back in Belgium for the second time this year

Rammstein II

Nov 08, 2009 in Portugal 2009

Rammstein II

Awesome night at the Pavilhão Atlântico

Belém

Nov 08, 2009 in Portugal 2009

Belém

Lisbon

Nov 08, 2009 in Portugal 2009

Lisbon

Quizmasters

Sep 08, 2009 in Pub quizzes

This is the 18th time we’ve set a Prince of Wales quiz, but tonight we’ve made a drastic change to the arrangements. Instead of the usual mix of questions from all of us, It’s just me and Oli setting it, and Stu and Ivan are here to compete. Next time out, they’ll set it, and Oli and I will compete. I’m kind of hoping Stu and Ivan don’t win because if they do it will surely reek of a fix.

I set the first and last rounds; Oli does the middle two and the beer round. Oli’s questions are definitely harder than mine; one team who had felt pretty confident after the first round say that they “feel raped” after the second.

Even with 15 teams in the house and only two of us to mark the answers, we manage not to over-run as horrifically as we normally do, and it’s on to the Snowball. As always these days, there is more than £1000 in the pot. As Chris starts cranking up the tension, I’m suddenly accosted by someone nerdy-looking. Apparently he didn’t even take part in the quiz but has some bizarre objection to one of my questions. I explain to him why he’s wrong but he’s getting oddly excited and can’t seem to hear what I’m saying. He then starts grabbing nearby people and saying “but he just won’t admit that he’s wrong!”. A growing number of people tell him that he’s making a complete knob of himself, but he doesn’t want to shut up. His incessant jabbering eventually provokes a few sharp words from Chris, who is normally an extremely mellow person, and the idiot grudgingly leaves us alone.

The first ticket drawn belongs to someone from the team who won the quiz. I’m disgusted but luckily they don’t win. The second ticket is drawn by Annoying Dave, whose number also came up last week. I’m disgusted but luckily he doesn’t win either. The third ticket belongs to me. Everyone else is disgusted and cries of “Fix” echo around the pub. It’s a question about cricket. Once more I go home empty-handed, and the only consolation is that no-one, not even cricket statto Ivan, knew the answer.

Still calling

Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Still calling

I got the bus back to the airport at 5am. I watched the Icelandic scenery in the morning sunshine, not really wanting to leave. At the airport, I checked in, and then walked outside the airport for one last look at the country. The airport car park did not seem likely to provide me with a nostalgic memory, but to my amazement, in the far distance, there again was Snæfell. My totem for this trip had shown itself once again. It was a sign, a clear and unmistakable sign that this would not be my last trip to Iceland. I was looking forward to the next one already.

Last day

Jul 14, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Last day

As my bus rumbled in through the suburbs of the capital I spotted a sign that said the temperature was 28°C. I spent my last day in the city enjoying the incredible heat wave. I walked out to Seltjarnarnes, the tip of the peninsula that Reykjavík sits on. I wanted to go right to the end, but it’s a nesting place for thousands of very aggressive birds. I suddenly found myself in a Hitchcockian nightmare and had to beat a hasty retreat as terns and gulls started swooping at me.

I could see Snæfell across the bay again. The snowy peak rose from the waters and stood out sharply against the deep blue sky. Once I was out of range of the bird attacks I looked across the bay and wondered when I was going to go there.

There was not much left to do. I went to the Hallgrímskirkja and went up its tower, but it was covered in hoardings and the views were poor. I sat by the Tjörn for a while and looked back on another incredible trip. I watched the sun dip below the horizon at 11.30pm. And in the morning I packed up and left.

Þingvellir

Jul 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Þingvellir

I got a bus to Þingvellir. I’d wanted to go here last time but we hadn’t had time. I’d always thought it sounded like a pretty awesome place so I was looking forward to finally seeing it. It was a hot sunny day again, and Iceland was in a fantastic summery mood. We stopped in Laugarvatn and I bought an ice cream.

At Þingvellir the bus normally stops at the Hotel Valhöll, but startlingly the Hotel Valhöll had burned down the previous night. Emergency service cordons blocked the road. We took a detour and stopped at the national park service centre.

I went for a walk. The summery weather had changed a bit, and it was overcast. This was good. I’d always imagined that Þingvellir would be forbidding and atmospheric, and the hot sun didn’t really work for me. Under grey skies I liked the place a lot. I walked down huge chasms, finally reaching the site of the Alþingi. There was a sense of history. Here was where Iceland defined its nationality. Here was where the first settlers met each year to pass laws. And here was where two continents drifting apart were slowly tearing the country into two. Great chasms flanked either side of the sunken plain, across which a river flowed calmly.

The next day it was blazing sunshine again. I hiked back down the chasms but it wasn’t quite the same. I scaled a large rock face to get up onto the North American plate, and I looked across to Europe on the other side of the plains. The Öxará river fell into the gap, diverted into the plains by the early Norse to provide water for their assemblies. I relaxed in the sun until it was time to head, for the last time, back to Reykjavík.

Midnight geyser

Jul 11, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Midnight geyser

I stopped a night at Geysir. We’d stayed here ten years ago, and for some reason we’d copped out and stayed in the hotel. Not in proper rooms or anything, a cheapo dorm in the loft where we were allowed to lay our sleeping bags onto wooden boards, but still I’d have preferred to be outside. So this time I camped, and it was good to be here again.

It’s touristy here, very very touristy. Hundreds of people mill around during the day, and I found the sight of name-tagged travellers following guides with little flags very depressing. I amused myself by watching people fail to understand what geysers do. It was a breezy day, and every time Strokkur erupted, masses of hot steaming water would fall back onto the ground nearby, marking out a large wet streak stretching away from the geyser. To me it seemed obvious that standing there would make you get wet. It wasn’t obvious to a lot of people. I watched one guy standing right in the target zone. Strokkur erupted; he took lots of pictures; he realised he was about to get very wet; he turned and ran; he tripped and fell; he lay face down on the ground as tonnes of hot water fell on him.

In my malicious traveller-superiority state of mind, I chuckled inwardly. The guy got up and he was perfectly ok. He walked away, dripping but nonchalant, affecting a “that’s exactly what I expected to happen and I don’t feel stupid at all” attitude. But we all knew that he did.

Later in the evening, the place was empty. I went up to Strokkur at midnight and listened to the subterranean bumps and rumbles and watched some eruptions. I chatted to an Icelander there, who kept on predicting that the next eruption would be huge. “It always does a big one after three small eruptions”, he told me. “Um.. maybe after four small eruptions”, he claimed. The Icelander told me that his father had set up a ski-resort in the Kerlingarfjöll, a group of wild mountains near Hveravellir. We could see them in the distance from here. My guide book from 1997 mentioned the place but it had now closed down due to insufficient snow in the summer.

In the morning I walked up the hill. The views over the countryside seemed different to what I remembered ten years ago, somehow, but it was only when I compared photographs later on that I realised that the plains were now dotted with summer houses. There had not been a single one ten years before. Saplings had grown into trees, the hotel had expanded, paths had been built. I hate the changes that tourism forces on places, hypocritically imagining that somehow I’m not part of the reason for them.

Hveravellir

Jul 09, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Hveravellir

As we drove back to Reykjavík I saw the Vestmannaeyjar archipelago off the south coast. Red Eldfell and green Helgafell looked familiar and I remembered the great times I’d had on Heimaey. I was tempted to go back but I had new places to go. I spent a night in Reykjavík, limping about with a foot injury that had suddenly flared up, and then I headed out into the interior again.

I got a bus across the Kjölur route to Hveravellir. It was an Icelandic nostalgia trip at first as we passed through Hveragerði and Selfoss, and then stopped at Geysir and Gulfoss. After that, we were into new territory for me. The tarmac stopped and we were in parts of Iceland that are only accessible for three months each year. We rumbled on. It was a sunny day and it was really hot inside the bus. The landscape was desert-like. We stopped a few times on the way at points of vague interest, and every time we did I was slightly shocked to get off the bus and feel cool air.

We got to Hveravellir in the early afternoon. There was not a cloud in the sky. I spoke to the guy in the small shop as I bought a coffee, and he said it had been like this for a week and didn’t look like it would change any time soon. I almost couldn’t believe him. In my Icelandic experience, stable weather for seven hours was almost unheard of, let alone seven days.

But he was right. It stayed awesome the whole time I was at Hveravellir. After the daytime visitors had gone, there were just a handful of campers left. I went to explore the hot springs. In the strangeness of an Arctic midnight, the twilight sky never faded to darkness and the landscape looked surreal. A full moon peeked above the horizon. The geysers here were all constantly bubbling. A mud geyser spurted intermittently, and I spent ages trying to photograph it before I finally caught an eruption.

I kind of fancied doing a long hike from here. I could have spent two or three days hiking to Hvítárvatn. But the strenuous bits of my trip were behind me, I only had a few days left, and I decided to relax a little bit. So I saw what I could at Hveravellir, relaxed in the sunshine of the arctic desert, and then headed back towards Reykjavík.

Nearing Þórsmörk

Jul 07, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Nearing Þórsmörk

I didn’t go back for it. On the other side of the river was something strange and astonishing, an Icelandic forest. I’d never seen one of these before and I felt like I was in a different country as I walked through the woods. An hour or so later I reached a sign saying Þórsmörk and I was nearly done.

I walked to Langidalur. My guide book said there was a shop here. There was but it was closed, and the place was more or less deserted. A vehicle had got stuck in one of the massive glacial rivers here and was being pulled out by a tractor, but otherwise nothing much was happening. I walked to Húsadalur, home valley, and it turned out this was where everything happens at Þórsmörk. I pitched my tent and rested my weary feet. I was done.

Landmannalaugar’s hot pool is one of my favourite places on the planet, and my guide book said there was a geothermal hot pool here as well. I’d been looking forward to it. In the end, it was massively disappointing – it was hardly warm at all and far from spending hours in there recovering, I spent about five minutes in there shivering before I could take no more.

Instead, I went for a walk. In the late evening, when all was quiet, I walked to the Krossá. I sat and watched the raging glacial torrent carving its way through the Icelandic landscape. It was cloudy and gloomy and atmospheric. I’d finally made it to Þórsmörk. I’d considered pushing on over the Fimmvörðuháls pass to Skógar, another day or two’s walking, but my time was not unlimited and there were other places I wanted to see. I decided my hike was over, and in the morning I headed back to Reykjavík.

On the trail

Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

On the trail

I left Emstrur early. I had just a few hours to go to finish the job I’d started ten years before, and I was in a good mood. The trail started with a steep descent, so steep that it required a little bit of abseiling, using a handily-placed rope. A bridge crossed the Ytri-Emstruá river, and then the trail reached the point where that and the Markarfljót joined. One was dark grey and the other was light grey, and the different shades flowed side by side.

I followed the course of the Markarfljót. The trail was flat, it was warm and sunny, and I made fast progress. Then the trail turned steeply upwards for a while, and the views got more and more amazing the higher I got. I reached a ridge, and far below I could see what looked like a modest river. The path dropped down towards it, and the closer I got, the more I could see how much I’d underestimated it. By the time I got to its banks I could see it was not going to be easy.

I was glad to meet a couple of Dutch hikers who had just crossed. If I fell and was swept away to a grim death, at least someone would know. They had found a decent place to cross, and they shouted back across the raging torrent to direct me. They also threw me a pair of flip-flops – until now I’d just crossed all the rivers barefoot. I tied everything to my pack and ploughed into the waters.

The rivers until now had been ankle-deep at worst but this one was over my knees straight away. In the middle it was up to my hips and the current was pushing me downstream. A slip would have been disastrous but luckily I made it across. I thanked the Dutch couple and gave them back their flip-flops. Then I realised I’d left one of my socks on the other side of the river.

Wild parts

Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Wild parts

When I got up the next morning it was raining hard. I spoke to the warden at the hut, and he reckoned it would start to clear in a couple of hours. So I waited before setting off. I tried to write my journal but my hands were too cold, so I wandered along the lake as the drizzle eased off.

The warden was right. After a couple of hours it was no longer raining, so I set off. The going was much easier than yesterday, and I set a furious pace again. Having started late, I found there were quite a few people on the trail in front of me. After a steep climb down to a bridge over a wild river, I found a huge dusty expanse in front of me, with five or six groups of hikers strung out across it. I like targets when I’m doing things like this, and I chased them down during the day.

The trail crossed a few more rivers. They were all brutally cold but not too difficult to cross. They were quite welcome, amid the desert-like scenery. Grey dust blew about, and there was hardly any vegetation or colour to be seen. The skies matched the ground, a uniform slate grey as far as I could see.

Later on it got less forbidding. A vivid green mountain came into view, looking to me like it could be the crazy home of some Norse god. On this part of the trek I could easily see why Icelandic folk tales have it that every other rock in the highlands is home to a spirit or goblin of some sort.

Eventually I crested a rise and found the Emstrur hut beneath me. I was two thirds of the way to the end.

Over the pass

Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Over the pass

I cooked up some lunch on the veranda of the hut. As I ate, the clouds suddenly parted, revealing a couple of hikers heading out across a huge snowy expanse, ringed by mountains. A roar away to my right turned out to be coming from a huge steam plume jetting straight out of the ground. I finished my food, grabbed my pack and headed out.

Hiking across the snow was fairly tough going but I knew the hardest bit of the day was already behind me. I’d climbed 500 metres and now I would drop 500 metres to Álftavatn. The weather was beautiful here, and I was alone on the trail pretty much the whole way. I was in an Icelandic dream but I did not let up my pace for a second. I marched pretty much as fast as I could, somehow fearing that if I slowed down I might not make it to Þórsmörk.

Later the weather turned. I descended into a verdant gorge, and crossed my first river. It was only ankle-deep but bitingly cold, and I walked gingerly for a mile or so afterwards until my feet started to feel again. The cloud was thickening and eventually I could only see the trail and a few feet either side of it. Sometimes in the murk I could hear volcanic springs rumbling and bubbling but I couldn’t see anything. It began to rain.

Finally I reached a flat grassy plain where I could see that vehicles sometimes drove. A few minutes more walking brought me to the shores of Álftavatn. I set up camp and then walked along the shore in the midsummer gloom, listening to music. I was a third of the way to the end.

Better already

Jul 05, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Better already

Early the next morning I got up and left. The word yesterday had been the the wardens would try to stop anyone setting off who didn’t have a GPS system, the weather was that bad. I didn’t have a GPS; I just had a map, a compass, three days of supplies and a wild desire to trek. So I looked shiftily about, saw no wardens, and hurried onto the trail.

I set a blazing pace. The early part of the trail was extremely familiar and I felt like I remembered every footstep as I crossed an old lava flow, to a heavenly meadow on the other side where I remembered thinking it would be awesome to camp. In 40 minutes, I was at the ignominious spot. I passed the spirits of three defeated youths, reluctantly picking up their too-heavy packs to trudge back to the hut. I gave a thought to my younger self and pushed on into unknown parts.

The trail climbed. Soon I had incredible views over ancient lava fields and hills coloured red and green and all sorts of colours that rocks normally aren’t. I passed Stórihver, a hole in the rocks which belched out jets of steaming water, and soon reached places where snow lay on the ground. Higher and higher the trail went, and eventually I reached the clouds. Cairns marked the route but occasionally I had to wait for a few minutes for a break in the thick fog to show me the way ahead. I slogged across what seemed like a huge snowy plateau, cairn by cairn, and the cloud was so thick that I almost walked into the Hrafntinnusker hut before I saw it.

Unfinished business

Jul 04, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Unfinished business

I’d been here before. Ten years ago, we planned to hike the legendary Laugavegur, a three day crossing of some of Iceland’s wildest scenery. We’d given up after a matter of a couple of hours, not through any desire of mine but because my two travelling companions didn’t fancy it. In retrospect I could see we would have had a miserable time if we’d carried on but still I left with a powerful sense of unfinished business. If there was one thing I wanted to do on this trip, it was to finish the job.

So I got an early morning bus to Landmannalaugar. Even if the hike had been a failure, Landmannalaugar had been one of my favourite places in Iceland. The weather was unremittingly foul and bleak and that only made me like it more. The sombre mountains just seemed so atmospheric and wild to me then. Wallowing in nostalgia, I listened to 7:30 by the Frank and Walters as we rumbled along the Fjallabak road to the back of beyond.

It was almost like I’d just rewound ten years. Rain was battering down on Landmannalaugar, which looked as familiar as if I’d been there yesterday. I really, really didn’t fancy camping – our night here on the gravelly campground had been horrible. So I went to see if I could get into the warm dry hut. By great good fortune I happened to reach the warden’s hut at the same time as some people who had one more reservation than they needed. I gladly took it off their hands. And then I made straight for the most heavenly location on Earth, the hot pool. Bathing in hot volcanic waters in the remote hinterlands of Iceland while it rains steadily is just too awesome to describe.

Back in Reykjavík

Jul 03, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009

Back in Reykjavík

I got up the next morning to find thick fog enshrouding Kulusuk. As I packed up my tent, I heard the plane from Reykjavík approaching, but I couldn’t see it. Then suddenly it passed breathtakingly low over my campsite. I saw the dark shape and heard a huge roar, but not long afterwards, I heard it again much higher.

I packed up and walked across the tundra to the airport. The fog was still thick, the plane had still not landed, and there was an air of slight tension. It had been circling for more than an hour by the time it landed, and there was relief in the airport as it finally pulled up at the terminal. The most relieved people were a huge group of Greenlandic children, who were clearly going on a big trip to Iceland. We all boarded, the Greenlanders were waved off by their families and I looked back at the snowy landscape and bade farewell to this incredible place.

Barely two hours later, we were back in Reykjavík. Coming from London, Iceland feels pretty remote. Coming from Greenland, I had the sense that I’d crossed an enormous but invisible boundary, leaving behind a place where humans lived on the brink, where there were no towns or villages, really, but just houses on a landscape, and returning to somewhere safe, serene and blessed. Greenland is closer to Iceland than London is, in terms of distance, but on a scale of human experience, Iceland is far, far closer to London than it is to Greenland.

In the evening it was sunny and warm. I walked by the harbour. Ten years ago we’d been slapped about by a violent sea wind walking along here, but today it was calm, and people cycled, ran and walked along the bayside path. As I walked, I noticed a dim grey triangle on the horizon to the north where the sun was getting low in the sky. It could only be Snæfell, 75 miles away across the bay. Seeing it from this far away seemed to me to be a good omen for the next part of my trip: to hike the Laugavegur.

Rastro

Mar 29, 2009 in Madrid 2009

Rastro

Madrid’s Sunday morning flea market

ESAC

Mar 26, 2009 in Madrid 2009

ESAC

European Space Agency ground control centre at Villanueva de la Cañada

Plaza de España

Mar 25, 2009 in Madrid 2009

Plaza de España

Madrid

Mar 24, 2009 in Madrid 2009

Madrid

A view of the Gran Via

Grenoble

Feb 28, 2009 in Grenoble 2009

Grenoble

St. Pancras

Feb 17, 2009 in Belgium 2009

St. Pancras

London’s finest train station

Brussels

Feb 17, 2009 in Belgium 2009

Brussels

Leuven

Feb 16, 2009 in Belgium 2009

Leuven

Roques de García

Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009

Roques de García

Across the caldera

Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009

Across the caldera

Teide

Jan 25, 2009 in Tenerife 2009

Teide

Puerto de la Cruz

Jan 24, 2009 in Tenerife 2009

Puerto de la Cruz

La Orotava

Jan 24, 2009 in Tenerife 2009

La Orotava

La Laguna

Jan 22, 2009 in Tenerife 2009

La Laguna

TV Tower

Dec 07, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

TV Tower

Kutna Hora

Dec 07, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

Kutna Hora

Sedlec

Dec 07, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

Sedlec

Wenceslas Square

Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

Wenceslas Square

Escaping the crowds

Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

Escaping the crowds

Prague

Dec 06, 2008 in Czech Republic 2008

Prague

Suburbs

Oct 20, 2008 in Estonia 2008

Suburbs

Soviet architecture still obvious in parts of Tallinn

Toompea

Oct 19, 2008 in Estonia 2008

Toompea

Rainy day in Tallinn

Oct 19, 2008 in Estonia 2008

Rainy day in Tallinn

Tallinn

Oct 18, 2008 in Estonia 2008

Tallinn

Slavín

Sep 21, 2008 in Slovakia 2008

Slavín

Castle views

Sep 20, 2008 in Slovakia 2008

Castle views

Bratislava

Sep 19, 2008 in Slovakia 2008

Bratislava

Pindus National Park

Jul 23, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Pindus National Park

Ioannina

Jul 22, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Ioannina

Vikos gorge

Jul 22, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Vikos gorge

Gjirokastra

Jul 21, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Gjirokastra

Bus to Gjirokastra

Jul 21, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Bus to Gjirokastra

Somewhere in the south of Albania

Tirana

Jul 20, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Tirana

Ohrid

Jul 18, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Ohrid

Train to Skopje

Jul 17, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Train to Skopje

Coming into Skopje on the train from Priština

Prizren

Jul 16, 2008 in Balkans 2008

Prizren

More traces of conflict in Prizren