Iceland Day 2 & 3 – Glacier Hiking & Ice Caves

Ooops guys, I almost forgot to include the final stop we had before spending the night at UMI hotel – it was at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall which has it’s origin in the volcano glacier Eyjafjallajökull. It roars and splutters, icy cold spray stinging the face as we shuffle carefully closer to it over icy and wet stones.   The light was fading fast and I was beginning to really feel the cold so we didn’t linger long – nor was it easy to get a decent pic however this probably accurately reflects how I was feeling at the time.

Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss
Seljalandsfoss

The following morning we set off at a reasonable 8:30 am to further explore the South Coast – Skógafoss, a waterfall 15 metres (49 feet) across situated on the river of Skógá which runs through the Skógárgil canyon until descending dramatically from the edge of the moor for a 60 m (200 ft) drop as the Skógafoss waterfall.  The waterfall and the river above were declared a protected natural monument in 1987.  Now ensconced in my Mitchelin man outershell pants and thicker socks it was easier to appreciate the beauty without feeling the cold.

Skógafoss
Skógafoss

The cliffs are ancient coastal cliffs,  formed by marine erosion at the end of the last ice age. Then the sea level was much higher than it is now, as the weight of the ice age glacier had pushed the land downwards. As the glacier melted and the weight was lifted, the land rose and the sea level lowered.

Skógafoss
Skógafoss

It was pitch black as we walked towards the waterfall.  I had taken in that we’d see the waterfall, something about steps up to the top of the mountain and meeting our guides for the glacier hike.  I especially noted that there’d be no toilets once we started glacier hiking (obvious enough) so, after admiring the beauty of the waterfall, the moon lighting it enough to make it a sheet of grey silver against the dark sky and mountain, I let Pierre and our guide know I was heading to the loo.

Skógafoss surrounds
Skógafoss surrounds

Gosh it seemed a walk back past where we’d parked, but I walked swiftly confident they’d wait for me.  Silly me.  All done – I headed back the same walk.  It was still to dark to clearly make out faces, especially given everyone is huddled in parka’s, hoodies, scarfs and beanies.

Everyone looks the same in a parka in the dark
Everyone looks the same in a parka in the dark

Surreptitiously I’d sidle up to a couple of people and use my phone to shed some light, nope, no-one looked familiar.  Dang it all….there’d been another building with lights beyond the loo, perhaps it  was a curio store?  I headed back – shloompf, shloompf went my big outershell pants, crunch, crunch went the snow and ground beneath my shoes…past the toilets, now I could see the building and…it was a restaurant, furthermore I could see from here that none of my group was there.  Now what?  I headed back once more to where I’d left the group, nope, definitely none of my guys here.  The car was still there though so I ambled back to it and looked up towards the mountain.  I thought I saw a light moving up there, or was it moving ?  So hard to tell in this dark.  Assuming this mountain to be like Table Mountain I thought it unwise to try and climb an unfamiliar mountain in the dark, I couldn’t at this point even see where the trail would begin.  I waited a while longer – I really wanted an opportunity to climb so as the sun began to shed more light and I could see the stairs, and they were stairs not rocks – I thought bugger this I’m going to climb.  Left a text that I knew Pierre would get once he had wifi so at least they’d know where I was and started in that direction – that was when I finally bumped into Pierre and Erta…not that I would have recognised them if they had not called out my name.  “if you run quickly there is still time to do the stairs ” they said as they hurried back to the van..so I did …I jogged then walked rapidly up the 572 steps as cold air rushed in and out of my lungs in contrast to my rapidly warming body. I did a quick turn at the viewing deck and boy…was it worth the beating pulse and burning lungs- how beautiful and majestic it looked from up here.  Then as quick a descent as I could manage on the icy stairs..and back in the van where I promptly started taking layers off so that I could cool down.  For the next couple of days my tender calves bore testimony to just how swiftly I’d ascended those stairs.

Skógafoss from viewing deck
Skógafoss from the viewing deck – just 572 steps to the top!

Then it was onwards towards the south coast and Sólheimajökull an outlet glacier of the great Mýrdalsjökull situated between the volcanoes Katla and Eijafjallajökkull for a spot of glacier hiking. The Glacier is retreating at about a kilometer a decade.  Many different glacier tongues stretch out from potent mother glacier Mýrdalsjökull including Kötlujökull (also known as Höfðabrekkujökull), Öldufellsjökull, Sandfellsjökull and last but not least the one we are covering, Sólheimajökull which translate to home of the sun glacier.  Yup now try saying those sober never mind drunk.

Glacier tongue
Glacier tongue – retreating by 1km a decade!

Nico our guide was fantastic.  Born in Firenzi (Florence, Italy) he had qualified as a geologist and for the past …I think 5 years had been living and working in Iceland as a guide.  He also does trips in Greenland and made it sound so intriguing it is now on the ever expanding “places to visit” list.  He was able to share so much knowledge about the glaciers and the surrounding area while still keeping a bunch of inexperienced, sometimes silly, tourists together and safe all while retaining his humour. We spent about 3 1/2 hours on the glacier hike although some of that was learning to put on our crampons and to walk in them without coming a cropper.

There is no way you can stand on a glacier and not be awed by the wonder and power of nature, to stand above a gaping sinkhole and imagine it as once a gushing river, to see the ripples carved into the sides from the icy winds, the volcanic ash that covers the peaks – in fact those peaks only being peaks because of the volcanic ash covering it and protecting it from melting as fast as it’s sides.

Crack in the glacier
Crack in the glacier
Start of the glacier
Almost there
Top of the hike

Feeling quite pro with our crampons and ice axes we followed Nico down and, I have to admit, reluctantly removed all our cool gear.  Back to the van and onwards to the black sand beach Reynisfjara.

black sand beach Reynisfjara
black sand beach Reynisfjara

This is not a beach for tanning on, we shivered in the chilly winds but were mesmerised the lava formations, towering cliffs, and caves.  Basalt sand crunched beneath our feet as powerful waves pounded in.  The black sand of this beach was made by lava flowing into the ocean which cooling almost instantly as it touched the water.  Above us birds perched in the towering vertical columns of basalt. “Don’t get caught by the water” warned our guide “careful, wet feet are no fun, and the waves can be dangerous, people drown here” .  We nodded sagely then wandered down to get some good pics.  I hovered nervously near Pierre as he focused on the images he wanted to capture…then…I saw it coming but it was faster than us and soon we had sloshy socks and shoes.  Bugger.  Luckily for us we both had a spare set of dry socks back in the car, and our shoes were hardy and outdoorsy enough to shake off most of the moisture, some of our poor companions had less luck and had to sit with bare feet in the van.  Let me tell you in cold conditions bare feet are no fun!

Basalt columns on black sand beach Reynisfjara
Basalt columns on black sand beach Reynisfjara
cliffs above black sand beach Reynisfjara
cliffs above black sand beach Reynisfjara
Black sand beach Reynisfjara
Black sand beach Reynisfjara

We changed our socks in the back of the van while Erta drove us onto our next destination for the evening – a little place in the middle of nowhere – nothing special but clean and serviceable (and warm).  That night we went out for a lovely dinner at a very homely restaurant.  It literally looked like someones house and the hostess seemed to serve all the meals.  Once again Erla and the lovely French family joined us, and this time so did a well traveled lass and her brother who both haled from Singapore.  She was treating her brother and her mom and aunt on this trip.  I’d been really impressed with her mom on the glacier hike – no fear and pretty much game for anything even though she spoke no English.  The food was delicious and the company interesting so it was a delightful evening.  As we paid and left the restaurant we stepped out to see an amazing sight – an electric storm in a clear sky – there above us visible to the eye were shifting shades of violet and green.  It was freezing so we literally popped out for as long as we could bear and then back into the restaurant again until we’d all paid and could board the van.  We rushed back put on our mitchelin man pants, grabbed cameras and were back outside to try and capture the lights – this time while the display we could see was fantastic and, for me gave off a definite feeling, it was not possible to get great photo’s – too much ambient light.  Either way I feel blessed to have both seen it with my own eyes and to have photos that remind me of it.

Northern Lights
Northern Lights
Northern Lights
Northern Lights

The next morning we huddled in the foyer waiting for Ertla before we all headed off to do some Ice Cave exploring.  It was still dark when we transferred from the van to a super jeep that could ride onto the glacier to get us to the cave.  A character whose full name I can’t recall but told us to call him Kalli would be our guide to see these ice caves of the Vatnajökull glacier.We once again donned crampons, though these were less extensive, no major hiking involved but just to keep us safe on the ice, and hard hats.  It was not hard to imagine the compact, bearded Kalli with his thick accent as a viking from way back.

Standing on a glacier, lit up by Kalli's lamp
Standing on a glacier, lit up by Kalli’s lamp

The ice caves form during winter, and in fact during Summer it is unsafe to do this tour. The structure of the caves can vary greatly from year to year and the guides go out and search out caves to visit after Summer ends and the water has begun to freeze again.  Ice caves are rare phenomena that form naturally as streams find their way through the bottom of the glacier.  It’s difficult to describe the beauty of the caves, their sides curved and shaped by the wind and snow, the tops almost translucent as the sun bounces off them, deeper down they are blue as the ice gets thicker the shorter waves of blue light are “trapped” in there.

Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Ice Caves of Vatnajökull
Ice Caves of Vatnajökull

We entered a beautiful cave carefully holding onto the guide ropes – for all the fun and awe of the experience there is a real potential for danger – one does not mess around. Later Kulli showed us where we could actually  go down into a sinkhole as well which is pretty scary when you imagine you could be driving / walking above and then drop all the way down to this.  The experience was rounded off with the Viking like Kulli driving us back off the Glacier, Rammstein blaring from his cd player.  French mom was seated next to me and clearly was also a fan, the two of us grinning like loons and doing little headbanging in our seats.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

After this experience it was on again to the Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon which borders Vatnajökull National Park in southeastern Iceland. Its still, blue waters are dotted with icebergs from the surrounding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of larger Vatnajökull Glacier.  It’s quite something to see.  Apparently they have put large iron bars beneath the water to break up the larger parts of the iceberg so that it doesn’t take out the bridge that runs across the lagoon. 

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
Small underwater pylons break the icebergs into small pieces, so they don’t destroy the bridge on the circular highway.

When these bergs eventually make it out of the lagoon, they wash up on the nearby shore, lending it its name, the Diamond Beach and that was our next stop.

Diamond Beach
Diamond Beach
Diamond Beach
Diamond Beach

I have never seen anything like this – a strip of fine black sand literally littered with hundreds of diamond like bits of ice from the glacier lagoon.  Here they glitter and shimmer, melting slowly into the most beautiful shapes sculpted by the elements.  It was beautiful and surreal.  With those images lingering in our minds we headed back on a long, very long trip (5 hours) back to Reykjavik with the occasional stop for a bite to eat.  I have to say that I did not have a single bad meal in Iceland and every place had a least a couple of vegetarian (occasionally vegan) options.  Even the fast food was good.

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