Today was always going to be one of the longest days of the entire trip – the journey from Reykjavik to Varmahlid was estimated at around 6 hours, and although there was only one main road to be concerned with, the road took us into the outskirts of the Arctic Circle, where roads are infamously sheeted with ice, concealed with snow, or outright blocked by arctic debris.
I awoke in the hotel to find a message that Martyn, our driver, was going to be two hours later than estimated. Assuming he’d sent this to others, I had a lie-in. This was not to be the case, and I went down to get breakfast at half past nine to a rather cold reception from the other half of the group who had been up bright and early, and had been sat waiting for the last hour a half whilst I’d been sleeping. I understand why they were annoyed (who wouldn’t) but I do find it odd that I seem to be the only one in contact with the CCM lecturer at any one point – I am constantly keeping him in contact with his own students from his own course. Perhaps this ‘keeping everyone connected’ role is a side-responsibility for me because I’m a third year (and thus more experienced and mature). I wouldn’t mind so much if it didn’t require me sending lots of texts to different people all the time and clocking up my mobile bill excessively on ‘roaming’ charges!
We had little time to persist with the attitudes when Martyn finally arrived with the van at just before eleven. We knew it would be a tight fit, but I know from previous experience that regardless of space, all luggage and food was going to get in one way or another. We set off for the north and left Reykjavik behind us, taking a nice coastal trail that took us the north west of the island.
Here we entered in a tunnel five kilometers long. It was so deep the pressure change in the ears was equivalent to that of scuba diving to ten meters (i.e very noticeable!). When we came out the tunnel about ten minutes later, we crossed a toll. This was effectively the boundary into the Arctic Circle. Martyn paid the fee and we crossed over. The land did not change much for many miles – we even made it to a service station, where the weather was just wet, windy, and generally cold and bleak. However, in the space of about two miles just after the service station, we hit the cold. Big time.
The huge Icelandic mountains towered over us ‘Snowdonia’ style, each one looking like it had been raked down the sides, where the arctic winds had literally scraped the dry snow off the surfaces revealing the black volcanic rock underneath. Then suddenly it was as if the wind had no bearing – snow covered almost all the mountains around us. Snow covered all the fields, all the pale water in the rivers started to become frozen, and the clouds – white with snow – started to merge into the landscape. It became very difficult to know at any great distance where the land stopped and the sky began – a total white-out in every direction. Only little dots of black boulders hinted at where the ground was. The feeling of isolation was both immediate and severe – it reminded me to text my mum to let her know I was okay. Once you realise you’re so far north, you feel that if there is anything important you want to say to anybody, now would be good time to do it!
Arctic Scenes – It was as if nature was compensating for the last five Christmases in England in one day. I’ve never seen so much snow in my LIFE, and these hopefully give an idea of how isolated and treacherous the terrain really is.
True to form, the road disappeared several times under white ice and inches of snow. Either side of the highway are yellow metal sticks about one meter high that allowed us to see where the highway continued over the snow. Several trucks going in the opposite direction created rip-winds that I could feel dragged our car off course a little from time to time. Ultimately though, after crossing a vast expanse of flat, white snow fields (complete with rivers with miniature icebergs floating down them!) we arrived at our destination in another mountainous region inland – Varmahlid. We were greeted by a happy Icelandic receptionist, who took our payment, and then told us that the Northern Lights had been all over the sky just last night. Everyone was visibly excited! We separated out into two cottages – male and female.
We got some sleep, but towards the evening the girls woke us up and told us that they’d broken their front door already – a gust of wind had blown it almost off its hinges. When I told everyone I had a screwdriver on my pen knife that may be able to fix it, Martyn told me he wanted to ‘have my babies’ (?) We decided to leave it until daylight tomorrow to attempt to fix it, so as a temporary solution, the girls wedged rocks outside the door to keep it shut.
The girls used a sling made of robe ties to keep the door closed from within.
We had stir-fry with chicken wings for dinner – a delicious start to our home-cooked menus. I was supposed to be sharing catering duties, but Cristina vowed to cook all four meals on all four nights. Since she had no use for me other than to cook five-minute noodles this night, I wasn’t one to argue and just left her to it (less work for me after all!)
After dinner, us lads were the first ones to man-up and get down to our swimwear, before running out into the arctic wind and jumping into the hot pool in the middle of our cottages. I lit up my specially-purchased Cuban cigar and lay back whilst the girls screamed and shouted their way to the pool in the chill. With everyone in, we sat around in the hot water… and waited.
For an hour, we just drank whisky, took photos, and passed the cigar round. I was the first to notice a cloud directly above us that was a straight line. It was like a vapour trail, but even straighter. This cloud was suspended high in the upper hemisphere. Soon, it started to split, branching out like needles in every direction. We first assumed it to be an average cloud, caught in the jet stream that goes along the top of Iceland. However, when it started to glow brighter with a tinge of green, we knew we were witnessing the start of the aurora. We all got really excited, but gradually the excitement evaporated as the cloud dimmed and went back to it’s original state. After a while, I figured out the angle of the sun by using the crescent moon, and realised there was a huge rain cloud that has passed us earlier that must have been blocking the sunlight from hitting the upper hemisphere. Although we waited another hour, all we saw were other tantalizingly close illuminations. I eventually called it a night, going to bed rather deflated. Technically, we have only seen the Northern ‘Clouds’ at this point!
No picture of any auroras to show, so here is a fresh-baked Icelandic baguette I had at the service station en route! Naturally very nice, and surprisingly light.
A stereotypically ‘arctic’ tune from the college years that I dumped back on my iPod specifically for this journey today! Their song ‘Warrior Soul’ specifically mentions the Northern Lights, which is why I remembered this band during this trip. Ah the memories…