Apr 25, 2011 in Canada 2011
Jul 12, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
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.
Jul 06, 2009 in Greenland and Iceland 2009
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.
Jul 05, 2008 in Balkans 2008
Oct 24, 2005 in South America 2005
I got a bus from Cuidad del Este across the river to Foz do Iguassú in Brazil. Unfortunately, the bus didn’t stop at immigration so I found myself illegally in Brazil. I got a bus back, then walked to the immigration post on the Paraguayan side of the river, over the bridge, and into Brazil officially. If anything it was even hotter here than it had been in Paraguay, and Foz was a ghost town on a Sunday afternoon. I managed to mistakenly get off the bus in a distant suburb and walked slowly into the centre of town.
First task was getting some Brazilian money. I had a couple of worrying moments, the first of which was finding that two of my three bank cards wouldn’t work in the cash machines. The third was a Cirrus card, which the bank had told me probably wouldn’t work outside Europe, but strangely it did work here. Then, on trying to leave the bank I thought I was trapped inside. Turns out the Portuguese for ‘pull’ is dangerously similar to the Spanish for ‘push’. I was glad then that most of my trip was going to be in Spanish-speaking countries.
Next task was buy an ice cream, avoid the hotel touts in town (they were about the only people out and about), and find a taxi to get to my hostel, out of town on the road to Iguazú Falls. It took a while for me first to find a taxi driver and then to wake him from his Sunday afternoon sleep, and by the time I got to the hostel it was too late to go to the Falls. Luckily the hostel was probably the nicest I’ve stayed in anywhere in the world, with a swimming pool, bar, restaurant and internet access so I chilled out there for the evening.
In the morning I got a bus to Iguazú Falls. It’s one of the world’s most famous waterfalls, an enormously broad expanse of water falling 80 metres in hundreds of individual cascades. It’s also one of the most visited places in South America, and I really didn’t like the overwhelming weight of tourists. The crush was so great that I found myself often waiting many minutes to get close enough to a viewpoint to actually see the falls. And the overcast weather meant the falls didn’t look that great anyway.
But, as the day wore on, the clouds broke up and the falls began to look better. Despite the swarms, I began to like them a bit more, and when the sun came out properly I took a cheesy little train ride to a distant part of the falls where you walk for about half a mile over boardwalks above the river to get to a viewpoint right on the very edge of the falls, as they thunder into a semicircular gorge called the Garganta del Diablo (Devil’s Throat). Here I decided the falls actually were pretty amazing. I’d never stood on the lip of such a huge waterfall before, and the waves of soaking spray deterred some of the tourists as well. I was seriously impressed and spent a while there trying to take pictures in the scant few seconds where the spray seemed to die down a bit.
Eventually I felt that I’d seen everything I could at the falls, and headed back to the hostel. The following morning I had planned to go to the other side of the falls, but an apocalyptic thunderstorm had started during the night, and carried on until the afternoon. I probably should have gone out anyway because hanging round at the hostel was extremely boring. At 4pm I got a bus to Puerto Iguazú back in Argentina, and got an overnight bus back to Buenos Aires.
Jun 29, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
The security guard at the Red Cross woke us early the next day. He was very much the worse for wear, having clearly been drinking all night, and slurred at us that we should get out, that the place next door was much better, that we were being ripped off here, and quite a lot more that I couldn’t understand. We gathered our stuff and managed to check in at the Jolly Boys hostel next door. We spent the morning there doing washing, shopping, and relaxing, before finally working up the energy to go and see Livingstone’s raison d’etre: Victoria Falls
The Victoria Falls are Southern Africa’s greatest tourist attraction. The sluggish Zambezi, over a mile wide, thick and green, has its tranquillity interrupted by a cliff, one hundred metres high, which it plunges over. Downstream, the river is squeezed into a succession of gorges no more than fifty metres wide, churning along in a mass of white water for many miles. Touted as one of the great natural wonders of the world, it draws some 150,000 visitors each year. And it’s incredible: the vast, never-ending wall of water can’t fail to impress. But after the isolation and remoteness of the Ngonye Falls and the rest of Western Zambia, it was a bit disappointing to find little paved walkways, raincoats for hire and souvenir stands.
But even a traveller as snobbish as me could see that the falls were impressive. What impressed me most was that the river basically falls into a great crack in the earth, so you can stand on the opposite side of the crack and view the falls face-on. The river flows out through a narrow gap in the slot-like chasm, and forms the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Though you can see less than half the falls from the Zambian side it’s still an awful lot of waterfall.
In the heyday of the British Empire, Cecil Rhodes had the insane dream of building a railway from Cape Town to Cairo, passing through British territory all the way. Between 1918 and 1960 the territory was all there, but by then the dream had died. The railway got as far as Lusaka, and at Victoria Falls crosses the second of the four Zambezi bridges, built so close to the falls that the carriages get wet with the spray as they cross.
We explored all around the falls, and I felt like I owned them. After all, I’d been following this river since Zambezi town, I’d swum in it, fallen in it, seen countless amazing sunsets over it, and now been rained on by it. Who did these tourists on day trips think they were?
Sunset here was possibly the finest of the Zambezi sunsets, and as it got dark the falls took on a new appearance. The previous two weeks of travel had been pretty strenuous, and at times I’d felt like the whole trip was stalling, so it was good to be here.
Jun 27, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
We got up before sunrise the next morning, packed up all our stuff, re-stoked the fire for a quick breakfast and got on the way at 8am. Sioma was really not very far away, and the turn-off for the falls was just a little further, so by 10am we were being dropped off by the roadside and watching the truck disappear off into the dusty distance. We were about an hour’s walk from Maziba Bay, where the hitherto very reliable Bradt guide to Zambia said there was a lodge, from where you could easily walk to the falls, and also for very agreeable prices it was possible to hire boats and even microlights to see the falls. We set off eagerly through the bush, passing snakes warming themselves in the morning sun.
It was eerily quiet when we arrived at Maziba. We dropped our bags and had a look around, and there were certainly buildings, but no people to be seen. Eventually someone appeared, and we asked if we could stay. We certainly could, he said, but only to camp. And there was no hot water as the pipe had broken. We asked if he might have any cold drinks, but sadly not – no electricity for one thing, and (now the truth came out) the camp had been closed for seven months, so there were no supplies. Our dreams of boats and planes were rapidly falling apart, but we pressed on. Would it be possible to use the boat? It would, if it had any petrol. And (finally, desperately) the microlight? No fuel, it was broken anyway, and the pilot was in South Africa.
Disheartened, we set up camp, and sat for a while on the veranda of the deserted bar of the camp, looking out over to our old friend the Zambezi, over a stunning white sandy beach, relaxing after the tiring walk over deep sand to get here. At about two in the afternoon, just when the day was getting really hot, we decided it was time to set off for Ngonye Falls. Though the lodge was closed it was under new ownership and there were a few staff looking after the place. One of them offered to show us the way to the falls, and off we went. After about an hour’s walk through the bush, we got to the river at a point where a ferry crossed. Roy the ferryman came across to meet us, and took us jovially across to the other side.
Then it was more walking, to the edge of the river again, and now we had to wade across. Though no deeper than knee-high the river was flowing fast and the bottom was slippery. Our guide fairly raced across, but we moved at a slower pace, and even then I slipped half way, briefly dunking my bag, which had my camera in it – thankfully no water got inside. After the wading we had a quick walk over some mud and then some sharp rocks, and then we were at the falls. We were impressed – the river, narrower than it had been at Lukulu but still impressively broad, drops over a broad curved face about ten metres high, before racing on downstream in a turbulent mass of white water. There was no-one else in sight.
After taking in the grandeur of the falls we were about ready for a quick swim. The river was painfully cold, but refreshing after the hot walk. I asked our guide my usual questions about crocodiles but he seemed unconcerned. Curiously, though, he didn’t seem at all inclined to join us for a dip.
We walked back as the sun was setting, spectacularly as ever, arriving back at camp in darkness. We found two other travellers there, Remco and Susan from Holland, who had also been duped by the Bradt guide. We chatted to them for a while as we built a fire on the beach and cooked some dinner for the four of us – soup and beans and bread, but when cooked on a white sandy beach by the Zambezi river it became one of the great gastronomic experiences.
Jun 26, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
If we hadn’t got out of Lukulu the next day I would have snapped, but our luck returned to us in spades on Monday morning. We walked out of the resthouse at 7.30am to find two people outside who we’d spoken to briefly the previous day. They had a very comfortable-looking 4-wheel drive, and they were going to Kaoma. I almost laughed hysterically. And they left almost straight away, defying the normally very reliable ‘Zambian hour and a half’ rule of how the time people tell you you’ll leave relates to the time you actually leave.
The journey to Kaoma was long and tiring. The six hours down the sandy road to Kaoma became indistinct, the monotony interrupted only at a town called Nkulo, where the villagers had a roadblock, and extracted a toll from any Zambezi fish traders passing through. At 2pm we arrived in Kaoma, and drank Coke for the first time since Zambezi. I had become horribly addicted to the stuff – there was no coffee to be had at all in western Zambia, so coke was my only caffeine fix. After a couple of hours, the Mongu bus came along, and on we got. There were no seats, and we sat squashed into the aisle. As night fell, we headed south.
Mongu was like a dream. We checked into a hotel more expensive than usual, just because it was right next to the bus station, it was dark when we got there and we didn’t feel like wandering around Mongu in the dead of night looking for anything cheaper. So we shelled out an outlandish (or so it seemed at the time) £6.50 each for a room. In Lukulu we had been sleeping in a mud hut with a thatched roof, so we could hardly believe where we found ourselves – in a room with a carpet, sheets on the comfortable beds, and even a television. I felt like we were in a different country.
Much restored, we left Mongu the next morning. We were running several days behind schedule and we were in a hurry. We bought ourselves four loaves of bread for our coming journey, and headed for our next destination – Ngonye Falls. We got a minibus to Senanga, which restored our faith in the Zambian hour and a half rule, and was also ludicrously crowded. After a two-hour journey in the Black Hole of Calcutta we arrived in Senanga, and found ourselves a lift in a land rover heading for Sioma, the nearest town to the falls. I went to a nearby shop to buy a couple of drinks, and chatted to the two ladies behind the counter. When I told them we were leaving in about half an hour it provided the best laugh they’d had in weeks. When they’d recovered control of themselves, they told me I wasn’t likely to be leaving Senanga before the morning. Images of Lukulu drifted through my mind. But when I got back to the land rover, the engine was started, it filled with passengers and off we went. Cynics! I never doubted the truck people for a moment.
Now we were on surely the worst road in Zambia. When the potholes are much bigger than the vehicle you’re in, I can’t see how the road could be any worse. It took us a couple of hours to cover the next 20 miles, and there were several moments when I feared for my life as the land rover came within a couple of degrees of rolling over. We passed two buses which simply could not go any further, and we were glad we’d found a lift. One of our fellow passengers was carrying about thirty large plastic gerry cans on the canvas roof of the landrover, and as we bounced uncontrollably along the road, they soon began to work themselves loose of their moorings. Their owner was sat at the back of the land rover, and soon began to look extremely resigned as a bunch of gerry cans repeatedly swung into the truck and smacked him on the side of the head.
After two hours we reached the Zambezi river once again at Kalongola. We crossed on the pontoon as the sun set, and drove on the other side. Before long we stopped at a place called Nangweshi, where most of the passengers got off. We thought we’d be heading on to Sioma, but the truck owner decided he wanted to spend the night here in the hope of picking up more passengers in the morning. This was an unexpected delay, but I wasn’t too upset. The truck guys lit up a fire, and cooked the remaining passengers nshima, made us some coffee (my caffeine nerves, hitherto calm, twitched furiously once more), and were generally extremely hospitable.
As the night wore on and the fire burned lower, I had a long and fascinating conversation with one of the truck guys, about Zambian politics, the history and culture of the Lozi people (for we were in Barotseland, their homeland), and the civil war in Angola. It was now that we discovered that Nangweshi is actually an Angolan refugee camp. We were not many miles from the Angolan border, and in Nangweshi some 20,000 Angolan opposition supporters are gathered. I was wryly amused that while the truck guy insisted that there was no racial tension in Zambia (“White guys, black guys, Asian guys – all humans, aren’t we?”, he said), he and the others were not happy at the number of Angolans who escape into Zambia every year, accusing them of abusing Zambia’s hospitality. At around midnight, we turned in and went to sleep under the stars.
Jun 21, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
Eclipse day. During the night, I had a succession of horrible dreams in which I was in Cornwall again, watching the clouds cover up the crescent sun, or I was waking up in Zambia to find that it was cloudy. And when I woke some time before sunrise I thought my worst nightmares were coming true. I looked out the window to see dull grey skies casting a lifeless light over the land, and my heart leapt into my mouth. Surely this was all wrong! It took a while to realise that this was just the very early pre-dawn light making things look odd, and as the sky tinged blue with the oncoming day I relaxed, just a little bit.
We got up and went down to the river to watch the sun rise. Two years earlier I’d watched the Sun rise over pools of mist from a Cornish hilltop, and I’d listened to Mute by Porcupine Tree. I did the same here on the banks of the Zambezi as I watched the sun sliding inexorably towards its rendezvous with the moon, lurking unseen next to it in the sky. There was not even a hint of a cloud in the sky, so my paranoia began to work on other possibilities. Perhaps the calculations were wrong and we would only see a partial eclipse? Perhaps there’d be a dust storm? Perhaps I’d get food poisoning from my lunch?
In the middle of the morning, we heard a drum begin to beat outside our hotel. It turned out to be a band with dancers, playing the traditional Makishi music which is common in this part of Zambia. We watched the dancing and listened to the singing with a large audience of locals against the stunning backdrop of the river and plains.
After a quick lunch of nshima and meat, we were ready to find an eclipse spot. We headed down to the river to get a boat across to the other side. Horror! There was not a boatman or a boat in sight. This was not what we expected. The local authorities had told the people to stay indoors unless they had a safe way of viewing the eclipse, and clearly a lot of people had decided to take a day off. Eventually a boatman appeared, and found a canoe in which he ferried us across to the other side. As we waited on the east bank, the first bite was taken out of the sun by the encroaching moon, and the eclipse was underway.
We walked along the west bank for a little while until we found a good spot to set up. The sun was now about a quarter covered up, but I knew from Cornwall that things wouldn’t really look any different until the sun was at least three-quarters gone. I tried to keep from panicking as I ran through my photographic plans once again.
And as the predicted time approached, we began to notice that it was getting cooler, and the light was beginning to take on the strange quality of an unreddened sunset. Gradually at first but ever faster, the light was beginning to drain away. I felt like I was going blind. The sun was a breathtakingly slender crescent now, and getting smaller by the second. Darker still and darker, and then – the sun was gone and in its place a great black hole appeared, surrounded by the unearthly, astonishingly beautiful, glowing corona. From all up and down the river there came the sound of shouting from the villages. I uttered some urgent profanities. We could see Jupiter near the sun, and a few other stars as well. I took photo after photo after photo, and managed to find a few seconds in which to stare at this utterly startling sight.
Far too quickly it came to a rapid end. With a sudden brightening, the first rays of sunlight appeared from behind the moon, producing a brief but brilliant ‘Diamond Ring’ effect, before the corona was drowned out by the return of the day. Bands of shadow briefly rippled across the landscape. Within a few seconds it was daylight, and a few minutes later it was like it had never happened. Two small planes chartered by high-rolling eclipse chasers had flown in just before the eclipse, and within ten minutes they were off again, and Zambezi was well on its way to normality. Most of the sun was still covered, though, and we sat on the riverbanks until the moon was clear of the sun once again.
After two years of planning and expectation, the end of the eclipse was a bit of an anticlimax. A herd of oxen was driven by into the river to swim across it, and we followed them in our canoe. It was just after 5pm. We decided to pop into the Riverside bar for a ‘quick post-eclipse drink’. Feelings of anticlimax soon went away as it turned into a raucous eight-hour party, quite by accident. The locals were in the mood for celebrating, and we celebrated with them, dancing energetically and outrageously to thumping Congolese pop, causing hilarity by trying to learn the local languages, and playing pool and chess. A combination of me being a teetotaller and most of the locals emphatically being no such thing gave me a protracted run of success on the pool table, and for some time I reigned as the Zambezi Pool King, to delighted rapture from those who had decided to support me, and some grudging respect from the backers of the local heroes. I began to think of how I would tell the story of the evening when I returned home (“…and after my seventeenth straight victory, they asked me to become their chief!”), but sadly in the eighth game I came up against a more sober opponent, who ended my impudent run with a narrow victory. John, meanwhile, had been battling for the title of Zambezi Chess Prime Minister, with varying success.
The night wore on, more crazy dancing was done, much fun was had, and I really didn’t want the day to end. A magical eclipse experience in a marvellous part of the world, followed by a legendary evening in a superb bar was really beyond my best expectations.
Jun 20, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
Day 7. One day before eclipse day. We were recovered enough to contemplate travel, and we decided we would go to Chinyingi. It seemed amazing to me that between source and sea there were just four bridges across the Zambezi. Chinyingi was the uppermost of them. We headed to the bus station to see if by some miracle there was a bus heading in that direction, but there wasn’t. Instead of a bus, we found Catherine, a bank worker who we had met in Solwezi. She had thought she wouldn’t be able to get time off work to come and see the eclipse, but it turned out she had managed it, and so here she was in the path of totality. Like us, she could not believe what an experience the journey to here had been. Unlike us, poor woman, she would be returning the same way after the eclipse.
Catherine wanted to head to Chavuma, to meet up with Rune, and as Chinyingi is on the way to there, we invited her along with us. In the absence of buses, hitching is the way to head north from Zambezi, but hitching in Zambia always involves a contribution to petrol costs. Usually you pay the same as the bus fare, but sometimes negotiation is involved. We met a guy called Edwin who had a car and would drive us to Chinyingi. ‘How much will you pay me?’, he asked. ‘How much do you want?’, we asked. ‘No no, I asked first!’, he replied. We were still coming to terms with the exchange rate, and ignorant of the price of petrol, but fortunately we managed not to insult Edwin with our first offer, and then find a mutually agreeable price.
So off we drove up the rough road to Angola. There was a surprising amount of traffic on this road, and we were to learn that though the town had had problems with gun-runners in the past, nowadays the situation across the border is more stable, the epicentre of the civil war in that country having shifted. We drove up the road for a while before taking a left turn to cross the flood plain. The rainy season had ended not many weeks before, but the broad plain was now dry. Pretty much all of Zambia is flat, but the flood plain is devoid of trees, and looks even flatter than the rest of the country.
On the way we met Roger and Robert, two Dutch travellers who had got on the bus from Solwezi in the middle of the long, long night. They were walking out to a village north of Zambezi, with a local guide, and though Edwin’s car was small we offered them a lift. They crammed themselves in, somehow, and from somewhere behind their bags they said they were fine. After we dropped them off we drove on up to Chinyingi.
The bridge was built in the early seventies, after four people drowned trying to cross the river in a small boat on a stormy night. The missionaries from the nearby Chinyingi mission, undeterred by a lack of bridge-building experience, built it from materials donated by the mines of Zambia’s Copperbelt, and nearly thirty years later it was still standing. It’s a suspension footbridge, and as we bounced across to the other side, our confidence in the Brothers’ bridge-building skills grew. The river flowed gently into the distance and it was hard to believe it could ever become the raging flood that prompted the building of the bridge.
After a quick look around the grounds of the Chinyingi mission, we wandered down to the banks of the river, and here I began to feel like an explorer. Broad expanses of sand, which must have been uncovered by the dwindling river some weeks before, had not a single footprint to be seen on them. We took some photographs, left some footprints and headed back home. We dropped Catherine off by the road to Chavuma and wished her luck. After another perfect sunset and another over-enthusiastic photography session, we headed to the Riverside bar for the evening.
Jun 19, 2001 in Southern Africa 2001
I could have slept for at least a week, but we were woken early by Martin, who was keen for us to see the sights. And oh, what a sight when we pulled back the curtains to see the river winding towards us from Angola, dazzling under the bright sun. Though we were weary and battered, we managed to get up and go for a stagger around Zambezi. The town stood on thick sand, the northern fringes of the Kalahari desert, so walking around was hard work, but we managed it. Soon enough we found our way to a bar, and decided to stop for a while. It was the Riverside Club, which as we were to discover over the next few days, is one of the best places in the world to spend an evening. Still shellshocked from our overnight odyssey, we sat there for some time, drinking cold drinks and watching the river go by.
Rune, who had travelled with us from Solwezi, was intending to go on to Chavuma, right up on the border with Angola, so after a bone-soothing few hours at the Riverside, we wandered off with him to find out about transport in that direction. It turned out that the only possible way of getting there was to hitch, so we found a good hitching spot and left Rune there. Then we decided it was time to get down on the mighty Zambezi and see it close up. It was a timeless scene up there at Zambezi with little dugout canoes ferrying people back and forth between the villages on either bank. We hired one of these for a quick trip up the river.
We decided in the afternoon that some more recovery was in order, and so we did nothing. I sat in the sun, by this great river, reading H. Rider Haggard and feeling like I was lost in the middle of Africa. This happy state of affairs lasted until sunset, when we found enough energy to walk down to the riverbanks to watch the first of many Zambezi sunsets. It was the first of many occasions on which I took a large number of very similar photos.
Sep 23, 2000 in Central America 2000
We had spent enough time around Arenal, so the next day, we moved on to our next destination, Rincón de la Vieja. Situated in north western Costa Rica, this is another active volcano, which last erupted in 1998. We hoped to climb to the top and camp the night there. We made our way to Liberia, via the towns of Tilaran and Cañas. During the three-leg journey, the weather got ever hotter. As well as talking to a crazy young Costa Rican called Jorge, who would occasionally lean out the window and do tarzan whoops as we passed through the forest, we met two Austrian travellers, Andi and Eva, who also wanted to go to Rincón de la Vieja. We decided we’d all go up together, and decided to try and find a way there the next day.
There is no public transport to Parque Nacional Rincón de la Vieja, but the owner of the hotel Moh and I were staying at had a 4WD, and said he’d take us to the park and pick us up the next day for $10 each. We hired him, and after we’d bought food and fuel, we set off.
It was an awesomely bumpy but beautiful drive up to the park. We arrived at about 11am, and after paying our park fees, we decided to go hiking. We left our backpacks by the ranger station and set out for Catarata de Cangreja (Crab falls), which the park ranger told us was the best of the many waterfalls in the park. It was a marvellous walk through the tropical dry forest (it’s a technical name – it really isn’t dry at all), and after about three hours we arrived. Much like the waterfall we visited near Fortuna, it was a perfect tropical cascade plunging into a shimmering blue pool.
We gladly swam, as it had been a hot and exhausting walk. By the time we set out for the return leg, the afternoon rains were approaching. The rains turned out to be light, but there was thunder so loud it made me duck. But we made it back to the ranger station OK, only to find that disaster had struck. Before we had left for the falls, a friendly racoon had wandered right up to us. He was quite an endearing little fellow, we thought, but when we got back, we found that he had opened Eva’s backpack, eaten all her bread, and just for a laugh, thrown her dried pasta everywhere.
Fortunately, Moh and I were unusually well prepared, and our contingency stocks were more than sufficient to feed us all well. We set up camp a few hundred yards into the woods, and as it got dark we cooked a marvellous meal of dried pasta and vegetables. Simple food, but when you cook it over a tiny stove in a jungle wilderness on a volcano in Costa Rica, it seems like the best food in the world.
Sep 08, 1999 in Iceland 1999
After this brief return to Gullfoss, we headed back to Selfoss, from where we went to Hella. This small town, apart from being the inspiration behind a million bad puns, is also the nearest town to Mt. Hekla, Iceland’s most famous volcano. During the middle ages, it was, in popular legend, the entrance to hell. The skies were supposed to be filled with vultures and ravens, and the wailing souls of the fallen could apparently be heard all around.
Presumably, less people go to hell these days, as the only sound we could hear from the campsite at Hella was that of the road, and large black birds were conspicuous by their absence. We set up camp in a beautiful location by a river, and thoroughly appreciated the excellent facilities that we had only paid three hundred kroner each for. After cooking dinner in real pots and pans for the first and only time on the trip, we enjoyed a truly magnificent sunset, and a fine night’s sleep.
Early the next morning, we awoke to find a day of pleasant sunshine, and walked a mile or two out of the village to find a good view of mount Hekla. Clouds in that direction did not obscure the summit, as the usually do, and so we could see the entrance to Mediæval hell. It was impressive to look at this volcano which has caused such immense devastation over the centuries. Unbeknown to us, deep beneath the earth Hekla was stirring again. Six months after we were there, it erupted for the first time since 1991, showering ash over much of central Iceland, and sending lava flows down its flanks. A few months after that, the area around Hella was hit by two powerful earthquakes in a week, destroying 20 houses.
It was all quiet when we were there, though, so having seen the volcano, there was little else to do in Hella but pack up and wait for the bus. Sadly, another slight cock-up on the bus timetable front meant that we got to the bus station about a quarter of an hour after the bus left. We were quite keen to get back on the way, and the thought of a completely pointless night in Hella was soul-destroying. We walked to the tourist office, thinking desperately of ways out of here. Our next destination was Vestmannaeyjar, an archipelago south of the mainland. We asked about the possibilities of flying there. It was possible, said the woman in the tourist office, but you’d need a car to get to the airstrip. We asked about a taxi to Reykjavík. She said it would cost about 10,000 kroner. We asked, desperately, if there was any way of leaving Hella before the morning. “Yes,” she said, “the þórsmörk bus passes by at five”. Almost weeping with relief, we rushed back to the bus stop, just in time to catch the last bus of the day, which, mysteriously, did not appear on any timetable.
Sep 06, 1999 in Iceland 1999
We spent our second day at Geysir exploring the multitude of other mini-geysers and hot springs in the area. Several tiny geysers erupt constantly, throwing hot water about a foot into the air. A lot of springs just bubble impressively. All around, steam rises into the air. Most of the tourists just watch a Strokkur eruption or two before leaving, and so a short walk off the beaten path leaves the crowds far behind. Beyond Strokkur, a large hill rises over the valley, and we climbed this. From here, Strokkur looked very impressive, surrounded by acres of land from which steam was rising.
On the hill, hidden from the path by some bushes, is Haihver, meaning High Spring, which is probably only seen by about 30 people a year. We sat down in the sun by the spring, in a large patch of clover, appreciating the scene. Further on up, a view disc points out all the impressive sights around, including the Langjökull icecap, Iceland’s second largest, and, on a very clear day, Mt. Hekla far off to the south-east.
On our final morning at Geysir, we watched Strokkur again for a while, and then got the bus back up to Gullfoss. We stayed for two hours this time, and were once again impressed. In their favour, the veritable crowd of tourists there on a weekday did give a sense of scale to the falls. This time there was a bit more sun, but still no rainbows, sadly. Despite this, we were suitably inspired by the scene, and had much debate in the ensuing bus journey as to which was better, Dettifoss or Gullfoss.
Aug 30, 1999 in Iceland 1999
And then it was time to leave Mývatn. Unfortunately, a slight misreading of the timetable led to us arriving at the bus stop two hours early. However, this slight mishap aside, the onward journey was trouble-free. More spectacular scenery was seen, as we passed the huge lava fields east of Mývatn, and eventually came to the valley of the glacial river Jökulsá á Dal. Like most Icelandic place-names, it sounded mysterious and evocative to me, but actually means, rather prosaically, the Glacial River with the Valley.
The usual twenty or thirty beautiful waterfalls were seen, before we stopped for lunch at Egilsstaðir, in the far east of the country. From here, the ring road follows the deeply indented coastline, so that you sometimes travel for 20 miles to make half a mile’s headway. We arrived in Höfn, in the south-east, at 8.30pm, and stayed the night there. The mighty Vatnajökull icecap oozes into the sea through several valleys here, and in the evening twilight, it looked magnificent. The cool but calm weather gave the place a very Arctic atmosphere.
The next morning, day 10, we took the bus from Höfn to Skaftafell, from where we would explore the Laki fissure. This stretch of the journey included the magnificent Jökulsárlón, a large lake filled with icebergs carving off a tongue of the Vatnajökull.
We arrived at Skaftafell at 11am in glorious sunshine, again feeling fortunate with the weather. However, sadly, by the time we had set up camp and got ourselves ready to see the sights, the clouds had come in, and it was another grey day. Nonetheless, the wonderful things we had heard about Skaftafell were true.
Svartifoss, a striking waterfall, entranced for a couple of hours. Sjonársker, a large hill, provided a superb view over the flood plains south of the icecap. It was here in 1996 that a volcanic eruption deep under the icecap released a torrent of water as great as the Amazon. Finally, an hour’s walk took us to the edge of the Vatnajökull, the world’s third largest icecap (it’s about one-hundredth the size of the Greenland icecap in second place, and the Antarctic cap is seven times as big as Greenland, but it’s third nonetheless).
In the fading half-light and increasing rain, it was a very eerie place. Powerful rivers rushed out from underneath, and we were surprised to find that it was very solid. It took several heavy blows from a large rock to break any off. We had brought along our whisky in the hope of having a wee dram with a few chunks of glacial ice in it, but in fact glacial ice is rather filthy. So we knocked back some bad whisky straight, appreciated the gloomy scene around us, and headed back to the campsite.
Aug 23, 1999 in Iceland 1999
Mývatn means ‘Midge Lake’, and it’s not wrong. We arrived on a calm day, not too long after sunset, and as soon as we got off the bus, we were engulfed. During the half-mile walk between the bus stop and our campsite, we were nearly driven insane by the things. We dived into a petrol station half way there, and were horrified to see dead midges inch-thick on the window ledges. Flapping wildly, we rushed for the campsite.
We soon made the happy discovery that they don’t stay out at night. With some relief, we set up camp in the cool fresh air of northern Iceland. The sky never got completely dark at Mývatn, with a sort of late twilight glow hanging over the northern horizon throughout the night. At around midnight, as I looked at the stars overhead, I saw what I thought was a high cloud still lit by the Sun. But as I watched it changed shape rapidly, and I realised that it was the northern lights. As we watched, the lights drifted around overhead, shapeless and eerie. We were very happy to have seen the aurorae on our first clear night, and we hoped that we’d get more clear nights and see them again.
We woke up on day 3 to the sound of waves lapping on the shores of Mývatn, and what sounded like rain. We looked out of the tents, and found that it was a sunny day. The noise was in fact the noise of a thousand midge/canvas collisions. Despite this threat to our skin and sanity, we set off for our first real destination – Dettifoss.
Dettifoss is the most powerful waterfall in Europe. The bus dropped us off about a mile from the falls, and almost as soon as we got out, we could see the spray. About half a mile from it, we heard the roar. The first sight of it is awesome. A raging torrent of meltwater from the Vatnajökull icecap, far off to the south, plunges over a 44m precipice into a canyon below. All around are huge columns of rock, formed when lava cools very slowly, and almost everything – water, rock, and due to dust and wind, us as well – is grey. It felt like another planet.
We were fortunate that the sun was shining again, because when it does, a permanent double rainbow hangs in the spray above the canyon. We burned film at a considerable rate while we were there. All too soon, though, it was time to return to the bus, and once again endure the ridiculously bumpy journey through intermittent dust storms to what passes for civilization in the north of Iceland, a region where individual houses show up on a map of the entire country.
Mar 02, 1999 in OHP 1999
We didn’t spend the entire time on the observatory site – the group hired a car, and on one of our days off, three of us went to see the Gorges du Verdon, allegedly the second biggest canyon in the world. It was a long drive to get there but the scenery was increasingly impressive. We entered the canyon at its lower end, and drove slowly along, appreciating some stunning views and also occasionally experiencing some stunningly strong winds blowing down the valley.
Further up the canyon we walked a little way up to a couple of view points. It started to snow briefly but luckily not for long, and we enjoyed standing right on the edge of heart-stopping precipices to look down on the tiny Verdon river far below. After that we drove back downstream, stopping again at the windiest point because it had the best views of the turqoise river. At the end of the valley, the river broadened, the wind dropped completely, and the Verdon carried on placidly towards the Durance, then the Rhône, then the Mediterranean Sea.