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Iceland in Winter

January 10, 2016

Happy New Year from Science, Sightseeing and Sustenance! First blog post of 2016 will be a sightseeing one – something I’ve not written about for a while.

Travel has been interwoven in to my life and work for the last five years. I’ve travelled a lot for conferences etc but with bursary funding, the demands of a PhD, the vastness of southern Africa, and the need to visit faraway family, travel for pure pleasure has not been much of a feature. Moving back to Europe was meant to be an opportunity to change this, however buying a house does tend to suck dry your finances a little! Still, those who follow my Instagram will know we managed a lovely weekend in Brussels to catch up with some South African friends in the early part of 2015 and have recently returned from a fantastic week with another two South African friends, in Iceland.

I’ll freely admit, Iceland had not been on my radar as a holiday destination at all. I think growing up in a relatively cold, wet place, and now missing the sun of Cape Town, I’d never thought much of holidays to cold places. But when two of our very best wine drinking friends suggested meeting up over New Years, we could have been going anywhere and I’d have said yes.

In fact that’s precisely what happened, only after saying yes did I start looking at the array of awesome things Iceland has to offer the keen traveller. Even in winter, which many friends balked at the idea of. We booked an airb&b (highly recommended), rented a 4×4 and embarked on an epic journey through snow covered mountains, past volcanoes and glaciers, in to glacial water filled tectonic rifts, under firework and aurora filled skies, by dog-sled and superjeep, fuelled by Icelandic vodka, and the best seafood soup in the world.

I won’t give a blow by blow account of our trip, but here’s some of the coolest things we did and would recommend.

Rent a car, but only if you are confident/sensible/borrow our friend Johan

Having a car was fantastic, we got to explore everything at our own pace and it saved us a tonne of cash on what could have been a very expensive trip. Saying this, driving in Iceland winter is not for the faint hearted. Our friend Johan arranged the car for us – 4×4, studded tires, with all the necessary insurance – including volcanic eruption cover – I am not joking. He also did all the driving, and thoroughly enjoyed it, likening the snow/ice conditions to the sand/gravel road driving he has done around southern Africa. We saw many smaller cars getting stuck, and tourists driving ridiculously, which I’m sure must annoy the locals. I’m not sure I would have been confident enough to do the driving by myself, and for anyone like me there’s an array of fantastic companies who will take care of transfers/drive tours for you.

Snorkel/dive on the mid-Atlantic ridge

I hate cold water, but even this wasn’t enough to put me off taking the opportunity to snorkel over the mid-Atlantic ridge. Iceland is the only place this massive oceanographic feature can be seen on land, and it is truly spectacular. If it’s any consolation, the water is 2-4 degrees even in summer, and tastes fantastic!

We snorkelled, though Ben and I are both divers, our friends who we travelled with aren’t, and neither of us have any dry suit experience. I’m not a diver to take risks, so the cold, plus not diving for a while, plus no dry suit experience was one risk factor too many for me. I’d definitely consider the diving if we go back again though.

Wear lots of warm socks, and brace yourself for the hand pain taking off the dry suit! Pay the extra to get some awesome photos. We went with Dive.is.

Thingvellir – the national park where this takes place – is the historic setting of the first democratic parliament. Definitely worth visiting, we drove through it several times during the week, although on many days the visibility was awful. One for more exploration in summer.

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The south coast – Reykjavik to Jokulsarlon

We took a decision on the first evening we arrived to try and drive the southern ring road to take in some of the amazing sights on offer. It’s a long drive, even longer in snowy conditions, so we split it over two days. First day we drove to Vik. It was New Year’s Day so the roads were pretty quiet, except for the relentless graders who keep the roads as clear as possible. Not many places were open, but luckily most of the things we wanted to see were always open sights of beauty, just next to the road. We stopped at Seljalandsfoss and Skoggafoss waterfalls, both incredible and worth a good walk around. We also stopped at Dyrholaey – an incredible area with a beautiful view point of the black beaches and fantastic rock formations.
We spent the night at Nordur hostel in Vik where we had a private dorm for the four of us. It as very reasonably priced, with a well equipped kitchen, wifi and lots of friendly advice for travellers.

We left Vik at around 6am to drive to Jokulsarlon. This was probably the toughest morning of driving for Johan and we basically didn’t see anything from the car until we got to our destination. Of course the sun only really comes up around 1030 this time of year, so not surprising! We had been intending to go on an ice cave tour from Jokulsarlon, but as the cave was totally full of water (it had been unseasonably warm), we were offered a discounted glacier walk, or a full refund. With the dodgy weather we opted for a refund and decided to spend the morning exploring Jokulsarlon and slowly drive back to Reykjavik. This turned out to be a fantastic decision as sunrise on the beach next to the calving glacier was one of the highlights of our holiday. The light was amazing as the clouds slowly cleared and gave way to the sun – Iceland really is the most photogenic place, and the low winter sun leaves you in photo-perfect golden hour sunlight almost perpetually.

We had some fab seafood soup and coffee and then began our trip back. The clear sunny day revealed all the things that we had missed under the blanket of darkness. Including some amazing glaciers which we stopped to spend some time at.

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The Northern Lights

I’m sure this incredible, natural phenomena is the reason a large percent of people visit Iceland, particularly in winter when the dark nights make it much easier to see. Unfortunately the winter also brings cloud, and every satellite remote sensing scientist knows how much these things interrupt the view from space, or in this case, of space.

With this in mind I hadn’t gotten my hopes up for seeing the lights, and figured if we came across them, great, if not, no worries. Megan however had her heart set on tracking them down. We first saw the lights in a complete fluke of luck. We were still up at 2am on news years day morning. New Year’s Eve had been cloudy and snowy and the sky was full of the aftermath of Reykjavik’s firework enthusiasm. Not ideal conditions for spotting the lights by any means. Johan happened to step out on to the balcony, just as a gap in the clouds opened and weak tendrils of green waved ephemerally across the sky. We were chilling out on the sofa when he said “uhh, guys, they’re here!”. We all knew what he meant, as we’d been eyes up every night since we arrived. It was over as soon as it begun and so we booked a superjeep tour to try and find the lights on the next clear night. Despite a beautifully clear night (the stars were incredible), there were no lights to be seen, and we felt deflated. The company who we booked with, offers a free second trip if you don’t find the lights, and despite the cloudy conditions we decided to try again the following night. The leader of our convoy spotted the lights in the distance, using the long exposure on his camera to pick up the faint green glow, obscured by the city lights of Reykjavik. We raced up on to a snow covered mountain top – some epic 4×4 driving in these hugely powerful trucks, and there they were. For about an hour we watched several patches of green and purple morph from glowing strips to dancing waves and eventually disappear behind clouds. Some more off road frivolity and some vodka spiked hot chocolate, ended a magical evening. Book your trip with superjeep here.

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Dog Sledding

When we first spoke about going to Iceland, this was the only activity that popped in to my head. I love dogs, and the idea of going sledding had always been something I was keen to try. Ben found a company in Iceland who run tours, both winter in summer, on snow and on dry land using wheeled carts, and we booked a half day experience.

This was definitely one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. The day began with meeting the young puppies of the kennel and then working our way through all the other dogs individually. Learning about their breeds, lineage, personality and their places in the sledding teams. We then learnt how to harness them up, and prepare them to be attached to the sled in their designated spot. Out on the sled we learnt all about the terms used to make them go, stop, turn left and right and how these are an international standard used in competitions of various sorts. It was a fantastically informative, brilliantly fun and thoroughly adorable day and I can’t recommend it highly enough. Link here for more information:

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Hot springs

Probably one of the things Iceland is most famous for, and you’re barely off the plane before you see adverts to the famous Blue Lagoon. Unfortunately Blue Lagoon was fully booked during our trip, so we made our way out to a hot spring at Laugavatn, just on the other side of Thingvellir, towards Gulfoss (big beautiful waterfall) and Geysir (the place they are all named after). It was cheap, quiet and really relaxing, and they have a geothermal bakery onsite where they bake rye bread.

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Reykjavik

A very cool city. Sufficiently small to wander around happily and never be too far from anything, but sufficiently bustling and exciting to compete with other famous city’s. I particularly loved the excellent art and design shops, the quirky museums (yep, a whole one dedicated to penis’) and the array of interesting food to eat in restaurants and take away. We particularly loved the Ostubudin deli restaurant, where we had delicious reindeer amongst other delicacies. The hotdogs all around the country are spectacular – never pass up a chance to get one!

It’s also worth wandering around Reykjavik just for the street art – there’s lots of it and it’s really awesome! And if you’re there for New Years – prepare for hours of firework chaos!

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I could write loads more about Iceland, and I feel we aren’t yet done with this beautiful country, stay tuned for a summer return trip!

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