Gorges du Verdon
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.
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.
Onward and upward
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.
A spring in my step
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.
The road to Hella
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.
Onwards and upwards
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.