Saturday, 29 September 2012

Continental plates and spouting geysers

Leaving Hotel Anna we were back off on our travels again, this time for the 2 hour journey to Geysir and Gullfoss waterfall via Thingvellir National Park.

As we arrived at Thingvellir we could see why the area was a UNESCO site, steeped in geological and historical interest the park was surrounded by volcanoes, most extinct or dormant. However, the most striking geological aspect of this location is that this area represents a divergent rift valley where the North American plate and the Eurasian plate are pulling apart in opposite directions. Other than the Great Rift Valley in East Africa (an area we have also been lucky enough to have visited) this is the only other place in the world where the spreading of the sea floor is visible. In the past 10,000 years the valley has moved by 70m and subsided by 40m. So in non technical terms its possible to stand in Europe and North America on the same day whilst in Thingvellir National Park!

Not only is the area a significant site in terms of geology it is also steeped in history as the site of the oldest parliament in the world, founded in AD930 and where settlers from all over Iceland would converge to discuss events and pass new laws.

We strolled around the main area of the park absorbing its natural and historical aspects, old lava flows could still be seen and the two plates highly visible either side of the valley, it was utterly fascinating. Its violent past also evident through fault lines where earthquakes had severed the rocks revealing deep crevasses.

After spending a few hours here it was off toward Gullfoss waterfall, passing many old lava fields, farming settlements and small towns along the way.

Approaching Gullfoss we could see a deep canyon, followed by mist rising into the air and as we got out of the car we could hear the roar of the water, a sound louder than anything we had heard from any other falls during the trip. Climbing down the wooden steps we then got our first glimpse of Gullfoss, no words other than 'wow' could describe the awesomeness of this waterfall! It was a mighty wall of water, gushing down in two tiers. It really was Iceland's answer to Niagra Falls and it was just spectacular.

We spent sometime here snapping away happily with our cameras, although to be honest no photo was going to do this place justice! You really had to be there to absorb the sound and power of the water as it spewed into the deep canyon below, carved out by thousands of years of water cascading through.

Damp from the spray we then moved onto our last location and where we would stay overnight. We had done waterfalls and volcanoes and now it was time for geysers!

We checked into our hotel, aptly named as Hotel Geysir, which was quite literally right opposite the geothermal area. Not wasting any time we were off to see our first ever Geyser. The smell of sulphur was quite putrid as the steam from at least ten geysers filled the air. However, as we walked around the area we were 'rudely interrupted' and practically stopped in our tracks by a huge whoosh of water that shot into the air like a rocket. Although the 'Geysir' (one of the most famous geysers in the area) is no longer active the second highest geyser called 'Strokker' quite evidently is. No more than 5 minutes passed and It was off again and it was a sight to behold. Watching in between 'eruptions' the water at the base bubbled and boiled at 80-100 degrees C as we watched and waited in anticipation for its next show. On average it spouted every 3-5 minutes. Sometimes the water reaching 20-30 metres high and other times much lower and on one occasion covering me with its watery sulphuric matter as the wind blew in my direction right at the moment that Strokker fired out her watery fountain (much to the amusement of other onlookers!)

It became almost addictive waiting for the next fountain of water to spout, and as a dome of water grew at the base it was followed by less than a second or two with the release of air and water giving us the opportunity for some great shots.

It had been another packed day of history and geology and by now we were ready to call it a day. However, what better way to end the day after dinner with a dip in the hotels outdoor 'pool' heated by an underneath geyser. Lying in the warm waters under the cold dark sky, staring at the stars was really quite a surreal experience. The only thing missing was the Northern lights that due to the heavy cloud on the last 3 nights was not visible and even though our last night in Iceland was a clear night the lights were not out for us that night, what a great excuse to have to return to Iceland!

And so the next morning we left the hotel and began the journey back toward Keflavik airport. It was a glorious morning, crisp air with nothing but blue sky and a huge contrast to the previous days! Given the amazing weather we abandoned our planned visit to the Blue Lagoon spa and instead took a detour back toward Mt Hekla, passing Kerio Crater along the way. We knew that it was not every day that you could view Mt Hekla without clouds brimming around the top and so our detour paid off with the most incredible views of the volcano and the glaciers.

Our brief trip to Iceland had been amazing in every way, the scenery had been spectacular and had whet our appetite to one day return again and explore more of Iceland. It was certainly evident why this amazing place is nick-named 'the land of ice and fire'.

So it is here that our blog concludes of our Icelandic adventures and in the next coming weeks we are fortunate and very excited to be once again returning the Kenya and hope you will join us as we will be back blogging from amongst the wilds of the African bush.

Thingvellir National Park

Gullfoss Waterfall

Geothermal area at Geysir
Kerio Crater
Mt Hekla

Sunday, 23 September 2012

Up close and personal to Eyjafjallajökull

Up until April 2010 Eyjafjallajökull was 'just another' one of Iceland's many volcanoes that are scattered over the entire island. However, that was all to change when Eyjafjallajökull awoke from her slumber from beneath an icy glacial blanket and became a house hold name (assuming you can pronounce it of course!). Soon Eyjafjallajökull became a news headline across the globe. However, her notoriety was not because of her explosive eruption deep in the middle of a cold April night, as indeed her eruption was not the most powerful on record. Her infamy was because this very eruption caused mayhem and widespread disruption across Western Europe, bringing airspace to its knees for days.

This was certainly not the first volcano in Iceland to have deposited ash on continental Europe. However, this eruption was very different and its consequences were far reaching due to a catalogue of circumstances that linked together. Leaving air traffic controllers, pilots and frustrated travellers totally helpless against the forces of nature as Eyjafjallajökull unleashed her mighty power. The jet stream that sat lower than normal carried the millions of tonnes of ash, mixed with particles of glacial ice and rock from the glacier across the main belt of European airspace, paralysing air travel for days for fear of serious damage to aircraft engines and flight safety.

Our plan for the day had been to take a guided hike with 'South Iceland Adventures' to the eruption site at Eyjafjallajökull. On the evening prior we had become a little concerned that the raging winds and incessant rains that had come back with a vengeance on Saturday evening would put a stop to our plans but fortunately a text from the adventure company confirmed we were all set to continue the next morning.

Our guide for the day, a really nice chap called Stefnir greeted us at our hotel in the morning in a Nissan Patrol. However, this was no ordinary Nissan, for it was kitted out to cater for the harsh Icelandic volcanic terrain with tyres so big you could barely get in it, making our Land Rover in Kenya look like a dinky toy! The tyres large enough to deal with the variety of conditions, much of it soft ash that these huge tyres were able to straddle without sinking.

Stefnir confirmed we would still be able to take a hike to Eyjafjallajökull, yet due to the high winds we would need to make a slight change of plan and approach from the west to the foot of the glacier and a few hundred feet below the site of the eruption and not right up to the crater as we had initially hoped. Given the weather was out of anyones control we were not going to let this be a disappointment.

We drove off road for around an hour or so through spectacular text book U-shaped valleys, carved out by glaciers over thousands of years. Tiny waterfalls streamed down the steep slopes of the valleys as we crossed mountain rivers and through soft layers of ash deposited by Eyjafjallajökull two years ago. The landscape started to resemble that of the moon and that of a desolate and hostile, yet utterly fascinating place. In some areas the land was recovering with a display of autumnal colours from small plants and flowers covering the harsh landscape.

Sure we had seen images and videos of the Eyjafjallajökull glacier before and the aftermath of the eruption but nothing really prepared us for our first sight of Eyjafjallajökull in real life. There she sat, majestically dominating the landscape and partially shrouded by grey clouds, which seemed to add to its mystery and power, The grey and black ash contrasted to the icy white and blue of the glacier. The size of the glacier was immense and it was not until we started to draw closer that we saw another vehicle not to far from the glacier which dwarfed in comparison, with many boulders larger than the 4wd.

In the distance we could just make out through the cloud another of Iceland's huge glaciers, called Myrdallsjokull. at least 5x the size of Eyjafjallajökull and underneath which sits the volcano known as Katla, whose next eruption could cause even more devastation when she to decides to unleash her immense power.

It was time to get out and explore, crossing icy cold glacial waters that flowed from above. Stefnir was both passionate and knowledgeable about the area and as we hiked he talked of how the ground we walked on used to be the site of a beautiful and large lake that had been swallowed up by the eruption, leaving behind a sea of ash and exposing large boulders and the lake bed. Large depressions were left where huge ice blocks once sat, but had been melted by the heat and power of the eruption. It was fascinating to hear how the eruption had changed this landscape forever.

The power of the glacier was revealed as massive rocks had been split in two under the force of pressure, revealing the power and sheer force of glacial movement.

It was a fascinating hike and as we stood at the base of the glacier and looked up with awe onto where the crater was, (just out of site). Here we really were 'up close and personal' with Eyjafjallajökull. Stefnir, Andy and I talked of what the initial blast must have been like, a force that would most likely be compared to an atomic blast! One thing was for sure that if she decided to blow again at this moment it would be 'vertu sæll' from all of us! Fortunately for now she once again sleeps until the next eruption. In which she will no doubt show her true force again to the world. Despite the fact that this area is closely monitored for activity by geologists only nature knows when it will unleash its powers once again, perhaps hours, days, weeks, months or maybe years away.

We spent at least 2 hours 'with Eyjafjallajökull and not before quenching our thirst from the pure glacial waters we moved onto another site that Stefnir was also keen to share with us.

Located not too far from Eyjafjallajökull we visited a spectacular canyon near Porsmork, where birds circled along the high ridges of the canyon sides. Here we hiked into a smaller and almost secret canyon where a high waterfall cascaded through a narrow gap and onto large boulders that we criss-crossed order to get deep into the canyon. Providing a perfect location for a short rest and also where we concluded our days activities in this area.

We had just one last stop to make and whilst Stefnir pumped air back into the tyres for road travel we took a stroll to another nearby waterfall, next to the one we had seen the day prior. Partially hidden and already a bit wet from the rain that had just started again we ventured close and took a real proper drenching! At this stage it really did not matter for now we were close to our hotel and within reach of dry clothes and a hairdryer!

It had been a fabulous hike and even though the weather had changed our plans slightly it had not dampened our enjoyment. A big thank you Stefnir and of course Eyjafjallajökull!

Although we had been dropped back off at our hotel the day was not quite over and with a couple of hours to spare we decided to jump in our car and made the 20 minute drive trip to yet another waterfall! (Its fair to say if you like waterfalls go to Iceland!!)

Although a similar height to Selanjlandfoss the waterfall at Skogar was twice as wide and once again an impressive site to behold for sure. The spray of the waterfall hitting you from quite some way back! Taking a few snaps we then had just enough time to get a better view of the Myrdallsjokull glacier and of course the obligatory 'been there shots' with the self timer!

We drove a little further and onto the tiny town of Vik until darkness began to fall, signalling to us that it was time to retreat back to our hotel. It had been long but great day in this part of Iceland before we moved onto our next port of call.

Our 'chariot' awaits

Scenery along the way
A 4wd vehicle (bottom right) is dwarfed by Eyjafjallajökull

The former site of a large ice boulder

Huge Rock face split by the force of the glacier

Freezing cold glacial water!

At the foot of the glacier

Exploring the area
The nearby canyon
Another stunning waterfall
Skogar waterfall

Myrdallsjokull glacier/Katla

The wardrobe match was entirely coincidental!
Our cute little hotel nestled under the south east side of Eyjafjallajökull


Saturday, 22 September 2012

Westman Islands and Spectacular waterfalls

We started off early on the morning of the 22nd Sept from our hotel in Keflavik, having arrived late the evening prior. The plan for the day was a 2 hour drive to the South of the island to the tiny ferry port of landeyjahofn and from where we would board a car ferry for the short 30 minute journey to Heimaey, one of the only populated islands that form the group known as the Westman Islands.

With a population of around only 5000 the islands Heimaey found its notoriety after the famous eruption of 1973 in which Mt Eldfell spewed millions of tonnes of lava onto the town, burying many houses in its wake. Many documentaries have been shown that show how villagers and fireman defiantly battled for months pumping water from the sea in an effort to stop the lava shutting off the harbour entrance. Despite many people laughing at the attempts of man vs. nature and after spraying 6.2 million tonnes of sea water the harbour was saved and now as well as being a holiday destination for many Icelanders it is also a site of interest to see the evidence of the eruption and the new land which the eruption created. Increasing the size of the island by around 15%.

On the way to the port we passed so many points of interest, especially for 'closet' geology geeks such as Andy and I! Seeing Mt Hekla, although shrouded in dark and gloomy cloud was most definately one of the highlights.. Hekla is considered Icelands most active volcano and classified as a 'stratovolcano' (so defined by the shape and the type of eruption). Having last erupted in 2000 and on average erupting around every ten years she is well 'overdue' for her next famously explosive eruptions. With increased seismic activity of late and her mass growing it may not be much longer until she lets the world know that she is not ready to sleep yet!

During much of the journey the air was filled by the stench of sulpher, as a result of the many sulpher fumeroles that dotted the often barren but still fascinating landscape. As we neared the ferry the rain that we had so hoped would not come did and it came with force and by the looks of things it was here to stay. For a while we considered whether to even embark on the trip to the islands, but given there was a glimmer of light in that direction we decided that our chances of escaping the rain were probably better offshore!

The island did not disappoint, passing on the way many of the outlying islands, huge monoliths of volcanic rock jutting from the sea bed. With many birds nesting on the high cliffs and the only creatures now to call the surrounding islands home.

Thankfully there was only a smattering of rain on the island as we looked back at ghe dark clouds over the mainland. So with just a few hours to explore we visited all the sites we had wanted to, including Mt Eldfell and the trail of destruction that she left behind. As well as circumnavigating this small island in our hire car. The island was surrounded by icy cold waves crashing against the shoreline and a few seals who popped up every now and then. The only missing piece being the Puffins that the island is also famed for, but thats just another excuse to one day come back!

As we arrived back on the mainland in the early evening after a great day on Heimaey we were delighted to see the rain was looking to abate as the curtain of grey cloud was lifting. So we had some time and a window of dry weather to visit Seljalandsfoss waterfall. Located just 10 minutes from our hotel where we would be staying at for the next two nights and that sits right under the Eyjafjallajökull glacier (the site of the famous 2010 volcanic eruption)

The waterfall was spectacular! The glacial meltwater gushed with force from high upon the massive volcanic cliffs and the noise as it fell into shallow waters was quite something. Not only did these falls look impressive they are one of the only falls that you can walk behind, so braving the wetness we had to oblige! It was certainly worth getting wet as we walked carefully through the wet pathway and over the slippery stones, it was more impressive and exciting than I could have imagined and had it not been for the fact that by now the sun was setting we would have done it again!

So our first day in Iceland ended on a great note and so far the land of ice and fire had delivered everything we had hoped for (except rain!) and more......

Driving past one of the many fumeroles in Iceland

Mt Hekla

One of the islands that make up the Westman Islands
Geological folding
Mt Eldfell
Lava bomb from the 1973 Eruption
One of the many houses in the town destroyed by the 1973 lava flow
A clever use of the earths natural resources
Mt Eldfell and Mt Helgafell
Leaving Heimaey
The sun finally comes out on the mainland, Seljalandsfoss waterfall
Walking behind the waterfall
Amazing experience behind the waterfall