Searching for the Vikings

Tuesday, August 29 - Day 28: Akureyri, Iceland

It’s 6:30 AM. Why are we up so early? We have an excursion scheduled to meet at 8:00 AM. I won’t bother to describe the weather. You must know. If I took a picture from our balcony you would say “Why did you take a picture of a completely featureless piece of grey cardboard?”

All right, I will describe it. Ultra-overcast. Fog. Rain. We are supposed to take a six and a half hour excursion to see a number of spectacular geological features of Northern Iceland. I think it will be a six and a half hour excursion to hear about a number of spectacular geological features of Northern Iceland. Or, perhaps, the Norse god of Fog and Rain, Soggi, will grow weary and go rest in his wet cave, letting out the Sun goddess, Hotti. We’ll let you know with up-to-the-minute, or, more truthfully, up-to-the-half-day, updates.

We went down to the theater to meet up for the excursion. The lower floor of the theater was almost full, over 200 people there. They weren’t ready to call the excursions just yet, so we sat for a few minutes, as more people showed up. Then, the young lady announced that the “Jewels of the North” excursion, “Group A” could proceed to the gangway. About 200 people stood up and made a mad dash for the exit. We, of course, were part of “Group A”.  Glancing around, we saw the remaining people in all the other groups and excursions, all five of them. Why they had groups, when everybody was in Group A, I don’t know.

We left the ship and walked a short distance to the buses. We had received stickers sending us to Bus 4. That, of course, was the only bus in the parking lot with a long line. Anyway, we made it onto Bus 4. The fog had lifted and you could see buildings and stuff. It was still very overcast, and to be honest, it was drizzling a little bit. In Scottish terms, a light to medium mist. Our guide introduced herself and the driver. Her name was completely incomprehensible to anyone not from Iceland, so she gave us a short version of her name, which was also incomprehensible. So was the name of the driver, and his short name. I will therefore call them Guide and Driver.

We drove out of Akureyri into the countryside. The countryside is hard to describe, barren yet beautiful in some inexplicable way. There are rolling hills, all green with grass and moss. There are extremely few trees. They supposedly were all cut down in the Viking days and are only now being replanted, slowly. There are areas of lava flows, covered in lichens and moss. There are creeks and rivers and gullies in the lava fields with mountains in the distance. It’s all very unusual and memorable. While we were driving, Guide explained some things about Akureyri, like it is a town of about 80,000 people, the second largest in Iceland. Our first stop after a while was at the Godafoss Waterfall. The name Godafoss means “Waterfall of the Gods”. The story of how the falls got its name, which we had heard once before, goes like this…

Back around the year 1000, which is a fairly long time ago, many of the people of Iceland were Pagans, which is the Christian derogatory word for people who weren’t Christians, but, much of Europe at the time was Christian, and many Icelanders were converting. Iceland had already, in their intelligent, non-belligerent and therefore unique way, decided not to kill each other off all the time and had formed a sort of Parliament to resolve issues. So, one day, when Parliament met, they decided that, in order to continue not killing each other off, the country should either be all Pagan or all Christian.

So, again, the totally reasonable, and therefore abnormal Icelanders decided that one man should decide which religion was the winner, and a Christian leader picked a Pagan leader to make the decision. (Are these people nuts, or what?). Anyway, the Pagan guy went into his hut, covered his head with an animal skin, and stayed there for three days, thinking. During this time, all the others at the Parliamentary meeting were eating, drinking, singing, drinking, dancing, drinking, drinking and drinking. When Pagan guy came out of his hut, he had decided that the country should be all Christian. Strangely, nobody killed him. Then, after he rode home on his horse, he went into his house and got his statues of all the Pagan gods and threw them into the waterfall. Thus, finally, the reason for “Waterfall of the Gods”. No, I did not make this up. This story was told to us on two different excursions by two different guides.

It’s a nice story, though. It’s probably bullcrap. My suspicion is that some Christian guys got together and threw the Pagan leader and his statues into the waterfall. I’m a sort of a student of human nature you see.

Anyway, there we were at the Godafoss. Here’s a late-breaking update on the weather: It wasn’t raining. However it was overcast. Really overcast. Incredibly overcast. Remember that several times I have told you that I took really bad pictures because of the poor, boring, unattractive grey light. That was nothing. That was just grey. I have invented a new term for the grey we experienced today, Photographer’s Curse Grey. These pictures are gonna be so bad that when I look at them I’m going to say to myself, “Why did I take that picture?”, and even worse “What the hell is that a picture of?” Anyway, enough of the weather. Suffice it to say that during our six and one half hour excursion, the sky was Photographer’s Curse Grey, and I won’t bother to mention it again. You are probably relieved to hear that. Oh, one last thing, it was cold. Quite cold. We were wearing our Norwegian heavy sweaters, outer jackets, hats, and gloves, and we were still cold. Oh,yeah, about Godafoss: another very impressive waterfall. Sorry, but it’s getting harder and harder for me to writing glowing descriptions of waterfalls. How about “Nice”.

Our next few stops were in an area around Lake Myvatn, which is loaded with volcanic stuff: hot springs, lava fields, craters, mud pools. Miami beach it isn’t, although this whole area is a big vacation spot for Icelanders. The first stop was an area of mud pools and hot springs with steam  coming out of the ground violently everywhere, called Namaskard. It smelled really strongly of sulfur here. Guide told us that we would get some red mud on our shoes when walking here, and that we should try to clean them off before we got back on the bus, both to protect the floor of the bus, and to save our shoes. While we were outside, the driver had covered the central walkway of the bus with pieces of corrugated cardboard cartons. The one near our seat said “Cheerios”. That’s good. Donnie likes Cheerios. Guide mentioned that some of the tourists had told her that Namaskard reminded them of “Yellowstones”. These people compare everything to what they know about back home. Maybe that’s human nature. Maybe I’m not human.

The next stop was called the Dimmuborgir lava labyrinth. That really describes it. There were extremely unusual and impressive lava formations that you walked among. There would have been some really great pictures there except… oops, sorry. I said I won’t mention it again. It was still something magnificent to see. Other worldly. Since we were in a volcanic area, Guide told us about the volcanic activity in Iceland. There are several active volcanos, although none are erupting at the moment. She said some are long overdue. She also told us that there are between 450 and 500 earthquakes per week. They are used to them. With 450-500 a week, I guess you would have to be.

Next we stopped for lunch at a local hotel. As I said, this is big vacation spot for the Icelanders so there are hotels, campsites, RV parks, etc. around, except the area is so hilly and big you mostly don’t see them. Lunch was, as you may have guessed, tomato soup, fish, and water. Only this time there was a little slice of bread for each of us, with a pat of butter, and the fish was trout instead of salmon, and there was a little boiled potato and a small amount of cabbage salad. Sumptuous. I have a suspicion that Holland America supplies the tomato soup.

Across the highway from the hotel was another wondrous geological sight: the Skutustadagigar Craters. These were called pseudo-craters by Guide, because they aren’t craters formed by a volcano cone, but instead are formed when lava flows over a wet area and the resulting steam causes a big bubble to form in the lava which then bursts and hardens. They are very big, tens of feet in diameter and height. She told us that there are some others near Reykjavik and the only other place to see them is on Mars. I wonder if Holland America has a cruise planned.

Then we got back in the bus for the hour-and-a-half ride back to Akureyri. When the bus was about ten minutes away from the city, the sky cleared and the sun came out.  “Hooray,” I thought, “at least I’ll be able to get some good pictures in town.” Hah! By the time we got to town, even darker, heavier clouds had moved in.

We walked around Akureyri for a while, taking pictures anyway. It’s a city, but a small one. Mostly involved in fishing and not much touristy stuff, but some. One fun fact is about the stoplights. The red lens of the stoplights is heart-shaped. Cute. We still had 5000 Icelandic Kroner (about $50) to use up, and so we bought, yes, you got it, T-shirts! It was now almost time for the ship to leave, so we headed back on board, for a snack. Just about this time, the sun came out in all it’s glory, the sky cleared, and there wasn’t a cloud anywhere. It figures.

The excursion, like our other experiences in Iceland, was very interesting and an unforgettable experience. Even though I tried to describe it, Iceland is indescribable.

(… time.. oh, hell, you already know that it’s later. You knew as soon as you saw the “(…”. Why do I bother wracking my brain to come up with these things? …)

We’re in the Crow’s Nest enjoying the view as the ship sails back out to sea through the Eyjafjordur, which is the fjord we came through to get to Akureyri. Interestingly, and not related to photography in any way, it’s a magnificent evening. There isn’t a cloud in the sky and the sun on the fjord is magnificent. Captain Eric had said earlier that we might see whales when going out through the fjord, and by gosh we did. We must have seen at least a couple of dozen of them. People in the Crow’s Nest were getting up and pointing and yelling “there’s one!” for quite a while. Sounds exciting, doesn’t it? Well, maybe not so much. When I say we “saw” whales, we didn’t actually “see” any whales. What we all saw looked like a little puff of smoke coming up quickly from the sea and then vanishing. The sea was relatively calm, not really any motion of the ship, but all over there were little whitecaps popping up all over the place, so noticing a little white puff of smoke was very hard (yes, I know it’s not smoke, but that’s what it looks like.)

Now, in almost every place that is next to the sea, there is somebody selling tours, boat excursions, expeditions, what have you, that are supposed to be all about Whale Watching. They are not cheap. Is this all they see? A little puff of smoke? Donnie mentioned those scenes during wildlife documentaries where a huge whale jumps out of the water at least ten feet high and turns over and falls back with a huge splash. I said that yes, that does happen, but the wildlife photographer who took that footage spent seven and a half years capturing that five seconds of film, and by the time he got back to the National Geographic or wherever, they told him that they generate those scenes using computer graphics now, and thanks, but they don’t need his film. In case you haven’t already guessed, I’m a cynic. What? You had already guessed?