Tuesday, 31 December 2013

Gusty Golden circle!

We arrived at our apartment in Laugarvatn after dark, driving en route through Thingvellir National Park and were pleasantly surprised at how nice and large it was, with a great location overlooking a large frozen lake. Similar to Grundarfjordur the village of Laugarvatn is small with less than 1000 inhabitants. Nestled at the base of a small mountain and close to many of the main 'attractions' of the 'Golden Circle'

That night we kept a check on the skies above but again the sky was cloaked in heavy cloud. In the morning we woke to crazy winds, in excess of 50mph and decided to head back to Geysir and Gulfoss waterfall. Both places that we had visited in warmer climes back in 2012.

The sun barely managed to cast light through the thick and with such high winds on occasions as the Geysir spouted it blew the hot steam in many directions and to some unsuspecting tourists provided a shower of hot sulpher scented water! As the winds peaked to a point that it practically knocked you off your feet and so we decided it was time to head off to Gulfoss waterfall, just another 20 minute drive away.

Unlike our visit in September 2012 there was no spray visible from this mighty waterfall as we approached, and fortunately unlike 2012 no rain!

We were met with perilous icy steps that guided us down to the falls. Turning the corner for our first view we were met with a huge wall of frozen water, with just a minimal waterflow in some parts of the waterfall.

What an incredible sight, to see such an immense area frozen, with huge icicles sculptured into beautiful works of natural art. Even though it was mostly frozen it by no means comprimised its beauty, and a great contrast to see how the huge glacial flow changed through the Icelandic seasons.

Before we all turned ourselves to icicles from the bracing cold icy wind we headed back to our apartment and wandered what the evening may bring. The outlook did not look good for aurora as the heavy clouds started to bring snow and so Angela and I consoled ourselves with a couple of glasses of Amarula, while Andy decided to abstain. It turned out this was a good decision..........




So close yet so far!!!

On our last evening at Hotel Framnes we were again hindered by thick cloud and sadly no aurora activity, indeed disappointing but as there is little you can do to affect either we all remained bouyant and in good spirits. The next morning we were due to leave Grundarfjordur early to make our way to the small village of Laugarvatn in the 'Golden Circle'. However, as we came down to breakfast the hotel staff advised us that they were going to run an Orca watching trip at 11am. Needless to say after our trip the day before was cancelled it didn't take long before we made a rapid change of plan and decided to abandon an early departure and booked ourselves on the trip. We suited up with thick heavy overalls provided by Laki tours and waddled our way to the boat. It was still bitterly cold, but the wind had dropped and the skies for the first time crisp and clear as we boarded the small vessel that took only 30 passengers, on this tour just 18 others joined us making a total of 21 passengers on board.

As we started making our way out to sea the captain advised that we were headed to a nearby fjord, where orcas had been spotted already that morning by local fisherman. A ripple of excitment came from all on board as we headed out of the harbour. This was our first opportunity to get a really good view of the mountains that surrounded this lovely little village. The tops of the jagged peaks were revealed and the sight was quite something against the blue sky, where the sun just about poked high enough to cast a beautiful light over the stunning white giants that towered over Grundarfjordur.

It was only around 20 minutes into the voyage that we started to notice the seas becoming far more choppy, the swell seemed to be increasing. As we had left the harbour it was inevitable that we would enter less sheltered waters. However, the boat seemed to list rather precariously as it cut through a swell that seemed to grow minute by minute. Already one or two on board had fallen victim to the undulating waves and were turning green and sadly already seeing their breakfast again!

Despite this we were distracted by the prospect of orcas and our slight concern over the increasing rough waters was well averted when suddenly Angela spotted a fin, shrieking with excitement in the meantime!!! Although not an Orca we soon saw that one fin became several, then a small pod of dolphins appeared and came hurtling toward the boat. We could see they were white beaked dolphins and for a very short time they swam alongside the boat, riding the bow wave with speed and agility that was a sight to behold. Their movement too fast to capture any images (added to the fact that it was near on impossible to hold the camera steady in such rough seas!) but a fantastic sight even so.

As the dolphins left us after a few minutes we suddenly realised our course had changed, no longer did we appear to be heading in the direction of where the orcas had been sighted earlier. Our fears were confirmed when a crew member advised that the seas were just too rough to continue any further and that we were heading back into more sheltered waters. This was disappointing, we had come so close to seeing orcas in Iceland but no sighting is ever worth putting 21 passengers in jeopardy. Despite this once we had ventured back in calmer seas we continued to search for more marine mammals and took in the beautiful scenery. We were not lucky to see any cetaceans but it had been a enjoyable boat ride and we were pleased to have seen the dolphins.

After a short time we were back on dry land, we quickly checked out of the hotel and jumped in the car, as it was time for us to leave Grundarfjordur. Just a few miles out of the village we stopped the car along the fjord where the orcas had been seen. The captain had recommended this could be a good plan in the hope that maybe they had tracked close to the land. We did see a few seals pop their heads up but no sign of the orcas. One day we will return again to Grundarfjordur and perhaps next time lady luck may be on our side.

The wind had certainly whipped up on land, driving snow blew horizontally across the icy roads as we drove through more stunning scenery and headed on the 4 hour journey to Laugarvatn. Here we would spend our last three nights before heading back to a wet and windy UK!

Well insulated in thermal (and ill-fitting) suits!

Our boat

Looking back on the mountains

Partially frozen fjords leaving Grundarfjordur
Beautiful scenery en route to Laugarvatn
Hardy Icelandic ponies


Sunday, 29 December 2013

Velkomin aftur til Íslands (welcome back to Iceland!)

Our latest travel blog brings us back to Iceland. In contrast to our visit in September 2012 this time we have chosen to come back in the winter. Iceland in the winter certainly provides a different kind of experience but our main aim this time is to capture the Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) and hopefully a chance to see Orca whales.

Arriving late on the 26th December with an overnight in Keflavik first we then travelled up to the western part of the island, to a place called Grundarfjordur. With just 930 inhabitants and around 250km from the capital Reykjavik this was our base for two nights. Here we had hoped to have a chance of viewing the lights as well as being one of the best places to view Orcas in the wild, who from late November to spring feed on the plentiful herring in the surrounding waters.

The journey up was certainly an interesting one! firstly it was a rather strange experience driving at 1030am in the dark, with the sun rising at around 1130am. At this time of the year just 4 hours of daylight occur and so careful planning to time our activities during light hours will be needed! We navigated intense icy roads and in some areas met harsh snow storms that created an almost complete 'white out'! It was certainly a marked contrast the the fairly mild and wet weather we had just left behind in the UK.

As we arrived into Grundarfjordur, we were greeted with a quaint little fishing village, surrounded by beautiful mountains and fjords, some of which were partially iced over. Snow covered fields housing the hardy Icelandic ponies and a multitude of frozen waterfalls dominated the landscape. Our base in here in the town was a small hotel called Hotel Framnes, a friendly establishment that although basic carried with it a certain charm with very friendly staff and everything that we needed for our short stay.

Sadly thus far during our stay here we have been rather unsuccessful in seeing the Northern Lights. The weather has been extremely cold and windy on both days and marked with heavy cloud and occasional snow falls. Last night we had hoped we were in luck when around 9pm the skies finally cleared so Andy, Angela (our good friend who also joined us) and I doned our thermals and headed out in the car, driving just 20 mins from town and where there was no light pollution. Here we sat cosy in our hire car watching the skies for 3.5 hours hoping for a glimpse of the Aurora. The predictions for activity have been low in the past few days. However, we hoped we would be lucky as the predications for activity are not always accurate. However, sadly we were not and at 1230am we decided to retreat back to the comfort of our beds!

Hourly we continue to check the space weather centre websites for updates on Aurora conditions. This site measures the particle flux from the Sun and how it is interacting with the Earth's magnetic field, a phenomena that causes the Aurora spectacle. The Aurora are measured by a 'KP' index with ideally a grade of '2' plus needed. The predictions sadly look poor, with a KP index hovering around 0-1 and with very cloudy conditions continung for at least the next few days across most of Iceland the outlook is not looking too promising! However, we will continue to remain optimistic!!

Today in daylight hours our attentions turned to whales, and we booked a boat trip to hopefully view the Orcas. However, just 15 minutes before we were due to depart the trip was cancelled due to the adverse weather conditions! A disappointment but when it is for reasons of safety we are not one to argue with the captain of the boat! It seemed thus far luck was not on our side and Iceland was certainly giving us a show if its infamous unpredictable and fast changing weather conditions!

Instead we took a really lovely scenic drive further west and into the Snaefellsjokull National Park. Continuing on roads literally blanketed with ice we were pleased to be driving in a robust 4X4. We drove through immense lave fields covered in snow, with imposing mountains cloaked in cloud looming ominously above. Here where the lava fields meet the sea we watched a beautiful sunset. However, just getting out of the vehicle to photograph this even provided a challenge! The wind chill is quite something, not only icy cold but on some occasions almost knocking you off your feet!!

Tomorrow we head to our next destination, an area known as the 'Golden Circle' and where we will spend the last three nights of our trip. Here we will once again return the the famous spouting Geyser and of course every night (after the sunsets at 4pm!) will be avidly watching the skies hoping for a show of the Aurora!

En route to Grundarfjordur

Kirkjufell mountain in Grundarfjordur (463m)

Frozen waterfall

Fjords 10 minutes from Grundarfjordur

Snaefellsjokull National Park