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Waterfalls, Glaciers, and Life in a Shipping Container

Before I begin my report of today’s travels, I would like to backtrack by a day to point out an important fact that I left out when reporting on yesterday’s buffet breakfast, the one overlooking the cows being milked. Tim has reminded me of an important buffet offering that I forgot to tell you about, namely that among the delectable offerings that included smoked Arctic char, lamb, geyser bread, and local cheeses, there was also….cod liver oil. Yes, the legendarily foul tasting dietary supplement and laxative was proudly offered alongside a row of gaily decorated shot glasses. This raises the possibility of playing the worst drinking game in history.  And now back to our regularly scheduled blog post.

We arrived close to dark last night at our destination, the oddly steampunk town of Seydisfjordur, population 700. It is accessible — when accessible at all, which in the winter months it is not — via a truly harrowing drive over the mountain separating it from the larger town of Egilsstadir (population 2200). The drive is a 15 km collection of steep hairpin turns and switchbacks with no guardrails, through utterly impenetrable fog. At night. Kudos to Tim for getting us there safely while poor Janet alternated between fearing for her life and fending off carsickness. (In her defense, it probably didn’t help that after each curve I remarked, “Wow, we could’ve died on that one!”)

I’ll tell you about Seydisfjordur in a moment but feel obliged to first expand upon Egilsstadir, or more accurately its location. That is to say, that it sits on the shore of the Lagarfljót fjord, home of the “Lagarfljót Worm”, Iceland’s equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster. The story goes that a little girl had a gold ring that she wanted to make much bigger, thus having more gold. By same arcane logic known only to Icelanders, she attempted to do this by putting the ring in a box with a slug (the snail kind, not the fake coin kind), and throwing it into the lake. Yeah, I know. Stupid. But this is how the story goes. Anyway, instead of the slug making the gold ring bigger, the gold ring made the slug bigger. Lots bigger. So now there is a magical slug the size of Godzilla lurking at the bottom of Lagarfljót fjord. Consider yourself duly warned.

Back to Seydisfjordur. It has three important properties: (1) it is the departure port for the three-day (!) ferry ride to Norway. (2) It is the home of a well-known art school, whose steampunk-ish post-industrial sensibilities pervade the “rust chic” aesthetic of the town. And (3) after repeated failed attempts, Janet discovered that she can pronounce “Seydisfjordur” only when affecting an atrocious and culturally inappropriate fake Swedish accent, like the Swedish Chef Muppet character.

Seydisfjordur nestles at the base of the inlet from which the ferry departs, as you can see in these aerial photos.

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-008-Edit

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-013-Edit

In the lower photo, our lodging is the cluster of buildings right of center with the gymnasium-looking building. It’s a good example of the “rust chic” that I mentioned earlier. Basically, every single structure in town looks like it was constructed out of discarded ship parts, shipping containers, or industrial detritus. Here’s a closer view of our apartment complex:

Iceland Seydisfjordur Drone 2018-016

We were in the upper floor of the building on the left, which, though nicely appointed with hardwood floors and the like on the inside, looks from the outside suspiciously like it had been constructed out of shipping containers. And a little right of center in the photo you can see a structure with an orange roof. That is the rusty, discarded ship’s bridge from a long-demolished tugboat or fishing vessel.

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-005

Iceland Seydisfjordur 2018-013

All peeling paint and flaking rust, its interior has most incongruously been furnished as a child’s playhouse, complete with board games and brightly colored tables and chairs.

This is the playhouse where Stephen King’s grandchildren probably hang out. If you were to construct such a thing for children in the US, you would need to have an EMT and a lawyer stationed there at all times.

We left Seydisfjordur at about 11 AM after a leisurely morning photographing the Playhouse From Hell and flying the drone to get the aerial shots above. We spent the rest of the day making the drive to the southern part of the island, past stunning volcanic vistas — craggy mountains lining the fjords, pendulous gray clouds above — and more roadside waterfalls than we could count. Here are some samples of the terrain.

Iceland Terrain 2018-048-Edit

Iceland Terrain 2018-052

The weather was raw with an occasional drizzle, but when conditions permitted I flew the drone to get some aerial videos of the waterfalls. I’ll post these in a few weeks after we’re home and I have had the chance to edit them.

Our destination was an isolated guesthouse in the southeast corner of the island, at the edge of the enormous Vatnajökull glacier. And I do mean enormous: it is the size of Delaware and occupies 11% of the land area of Iceland. You can see it from many places in this part of the island because it has numerous “tongues” that protrude like amoebic pseudopods out from the main body of the glacier down towards the coast. Seeing such a tongue from the road at a distance of several kilometers, it looks like this.

Iceland Terrain 2018-063

Such a scene pretty much begs for an aerial view. After a few more minutes of driving brought us to within about 5 km of the face, we could get a good view with the drone, which I sent about 3/4 of the way to the face at an altitude of about 300 m (1000′) to get this photo:

Iceland Vatanjokull Glacier Drone 2018-01

The threatening clouds that you see here have been pretty typical for this trip, aside from the few sunny days we have had. But mostly the rain has held off when we needed it to, so that I could capture pictures like these.

Tomorrow we head to the town of Vik, about 200 km to our west and thus on the southern side of the island. We’ll be visiting a glacial lagoon and doing other volcanic stuff, so stay tuned.

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Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aurora, Sorta

Big news, kinda! We saw the aurora last night! And I write this with exclamation points in order to obscure the fact that in reality, it kinda sucked!

So, yes, we did in fact see the aurora. However, we saw it through a thick cloud haze that utterly obscured the majesty of the thing. What we actually saw was a vague, ever so slightly green, barely visible and poorly defined curtain of light that waxed and waned and changed shape over the course of a few minutes. It occupied a band covering a good 60° of the sky, though only sections were visible at a time, and barely visible at that. It was thrilling in concept only — box checked! — and did not remotely compare to the jaw-dropping display that I beheld in Alaska over 20 years ago. But we have another shot at it: they (the aurora mavens) are forecasting with near certainty that there will be a display tonight. (Yes, there is such a thing as an aurora forecast.) It has been cloudy and drizzly all day but the weather forecast calls for some clearing around midnight. So we will try again; this may be our last good shot at it because the aurora forecast projects the likelihood of a display to drop off significantly for the remainder of our stay.

Before I relate today’s travels I first want to revisit one of yesterday’s stops: the “pseudocraters” dotting Lake Mývatn. I didn’t have enough battery power in my controller to fly the drone yesterday, but remedied that oversight today. An aerial view conveys a much clearer picture of the collapsed cones and their setting on the lake.

Iceland Myvatn Pseudocraters Drone-02-Edit

Nice, huh? (I love my drone.)

Breakfast this morning was an excellent buffet with an, um, unusual view. Remember that this is a “farm resort”, and if we had somehow had any doubts about this, they were dispelled when we sat down at our table, adjacent to a large picture window looking into the cow pen where the cows were all hooked up to milking machines. I was thinking about this whilst pouring milk over my cereal, as I felt the urge to tap on the window and thank them. It is not a vista that one frequently encounters when eating breakfast in the Washington DC area.

Our original plan was to go whale watching today, but we jettisoned that idea when it became clear that the overcast, intermittently drizzly weather would make that an uncomfortable experience at best. Moreover, we are really past the end of the season; the whales hang out here in summer, so we’d be unlikely to see more than one or two this late in the year. We’ll wait for our return to Hawaii in February if we start jonesing for whales.

The whale tours leave from the town of Húsavík, near the very northern end of the island. Despite having abandoned the idea of whale watching, we decided to head there anyway, in part because it was said to have a somewhat quaint and scenic port, but mostly we wanted to get as far north as we could. Iceland does not quite reach the Arctic Circle, but we wanted to get as far as we could in order to garner some bragging rights. So we actually drove on for about 25 km past Húsavík, until we reached a peninsula that is close to the northernmost point in Iceland. (There is another peninsula that juts a few kilometers farther north, but it was inconveniently distant.) So here we are, intrepid explorers all, at the northernmost point of our journey after finally getting a bit of use out of our four wheel drive:

Iceland Husavik 2018-025-GPS

If you can read the GPS display in the image, you can see that we are at 66° 12.256′ latitude, about 40 km (25 miles) shy of the Arctic Circle. Guess we’re going to have to go to Scandinavia to cross that line, but this’ll do for now. Unsurprisingly, it is not an especially hospitable place, a desolate rocky coast littered with coarse pink and orange seaweed (!) washed by a low surf. This is a pretty representative view.

Iceland Husavik 2018-012-Edit

You will be unsurprised to learn that the wind was pretty strong and the weather conditions raw. We only lingered long enough to high five each other, take a bunch of photos, and clamber down the rocks to the surf so that we could dip our hands into the sea and tell our friends that we had touched the Arctic Ocean. We now consider ourselves to be officially awesome.

That mission accomplished, we headed back into Húsavík to have lunch and nose around. It doesn’t have a whole lot to offer other than the whale tours, a whaling museum (which we did not visit), and this locally well-known church that shows up in every picture of the town.

Iceland Husavik 2018-035

The church was built in 1907 with wood imported from Norway, and the interior sports a nice nautical blue ceiling as befits its locale. The ceiling beams resemble an inverted boat hull.

The harbor was of course occupied almost entirely by the whale watching boats, which ranged from oversized high-powered Zodiacs to this queen of the fleet, designed to resemble a 19th century whaling vessel.

Iceland Husavik 2018-043-Edit

We left Húsavík after a late lunch (and a very expensive one, like just about everything here) and headed back to Mývatn. The weather remained overcast with an on-and-off (mostly off) light drizzle, so we stopped at a couple of the prominent geothermal attractions on the way back to the farm. The first of these was Dimmuborgir, the so-called Dark Castle, which is basically — no, not basically, entirely — a collection of lava slag heaps threaded by a walking trail. If that sounds unromantic, look at this picture and tell me I’m wrong.

Iceland Myvatn 2018-045-Edit

It looked sufficiently unexciting that we contented ourselves with taking some obligatory photos from this viewpoint, using the bathrooms, and moving to our next stop, which was a lot more impressive.

That would be the Hverfjall cinder cone, a truly monumental formation that reminded me of a lava version of Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in Australia. Black, 150 meters (500 feet) high and a kilometer across, it’s about the most ominous-looking thing you can imagine, and it took a drone flight to do it justice. So here is what it looks like from 300 meters (1000′) in the air and 800 meters (half a mile) away.

Iceland Myvatn Cinder Cone Drone-002-Edit

There’s a trail, walkable in about 15 minutes, that follows the least-steep side from the parking lot up to the crater rim. Janet and Tim made the hike; Alice napped in the car while I flew the drone.

And that was today… so far. We ate sandwiches in our rooms for dinner as we await the predicted improvement in the weather, anticipating a much hoped-for view of the aurora after midnight. I’ve already dialed in my camera settings in a display of faux optimism, or perhaps a dose of sympathetic magic. I’ll let you know tomorrow if we got lucky.

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Waipio? Wai not?

The oldest part of the Big Island is its northwestern corner, a 15 mile (25 km) long, 10 mile (16 km) wide peninsula called Kohala. It is, in fact, a single giant extinct volcano, the first part of the island that formed. That makes it about a million years old, and it last erupted about 120,000 years ago. So it’s old; eroded and overgrown, it’s now cattle grazing country, a huge grassy hill dotted with overgrown volcanic cinder cones and commanding a view down the coast.

When the clouds are not in the way — which they are, more often than not — you can see Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa as well.  Today we had — what is for this part of the island — uncharacteristically beautiful weather; the day was clear and warm, though distant clouds kept Mauna Kea out of view most of the time.

At the southeastern end of the peninsula, on the windward side where Kohala joins the rest of the island, is one of the Big Island’s most paradisaical  locales: Waipi’o Valley. A 1000-foot deep, half-mile wide slash in the lava-stone coastline, Waipi’o’s striking appearance is matched by its comparable inaccessibility. It was the home of ancient Hawaiian chiefs and is still considered a “cultural seedbank”, dotted with taro fields and threaded by a shallow river that flows down to a black sand beach. The nearly vertical green walls are punctuated by waterfalls, giving the place a serene Edenic feel. I wrote about it a year ago in this blog post.

It’s tough to get down to the bottom: you need a good four-wheel drive or really strong thighs and cardiovascular system to tackle the intimidating 25% grade. We did it for fun when I lived here, 35 years ago; today I sent a drone in my place.

The cranky “Resource Ranger” (that’s what it said on his name tag) wouldn’t let me launch the drone from the lookout point and admonished that I must not fly into the valley at all. So I walked a few hundred yards back down the approach road and launched from there instead, being careful to stay out over the water and above the rim of the valley. Here’s what it looked like from my airborne proxy, nearly 500 meters above the beach.

If you’d like a greater sense of immediacy about the place, here’s the video from the same drone flight:

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Fujiyama

It’s hard to think of a more iconic image of Japan than snow-capped Mt. Fuji. It’s also hard to actually ever see snow-capped Mt. Fuji: the mountain is only visible 30% of the time. However, we tend to have good weather karma when on travel, so our hopes were high. It seems that, perhaps only briefly, the rain and gloom that marked our first week has lifted, and by the time our bus reached the outskirts of  Tokyo the skies were clear and sunny.

It’s an hour or two drive from downtown Tokyo to the mountain, so our tour lead Mariko used the time to (a) give us a Japanese lesson (I can now ask a variety of questions whose answers I will not understand); (b) talk about Japan’s (poor) attitude towards women, about which more in a moment; and (c) sing us a traditional song about Mt. Fuji, a.k.a. Fujiyama. (The -yama suffix means “mountain”.) More about that song in a moment as well.

Cool electronic gadgets notwithstanding, Japan is decades behind the West in things like gay rights and treatment of women. Mariko herself is a prime example of the latter. She is an attractive 40 year old (though could easily pass for 30) who is educated, has lived abroad and traveled extensively; and who is articulate, energetic, and good-humored. In any Western country she would have guys knocking down her door. In Japan, she is basically poison. An independent, educated woman with a career is more or less synonymous with “spinster” in this country: the stereotype is real that Japanese men want a subservient wife with few interests of her own who will stay home with the children. This is why Mariko is 40 and unmarried, which is practically criminal: some guy is missing out on a really good bet. But that’s the mindset here.

The excitement level among our 15-person crew ramped up as we approached the mountain: the weather had stayed clear and we got a gorgeous view of Fujiyama from the bus. (No snowcap, though. The mountain is 12,400 ft tall and can get snow at any time of year, but the odds are much higher in the winter.) Fifteen minutes later we were at the visitor center….and a layer of clouds had moved in, completely obscuring the upper half of the mountain. Here are a couple shots of the visitor center that I took to sublimate my disappointment.

fujiyama-002 fujiyama-001

Notice that in the visitor center signage the mountain is called “Fujisan”. The -san suffix is a general-purpose form of address applied to a person: you would call your friend John Doe either “John-san” or “Doe-san”. In calling the mountain Fujisan the Japanese are in effect anthropomorphizing it, which is not surprising considering that the mountain is itself a Shinto deity. It’s not a bad choice of deity, either: large, powerful, and unpredictable. Fujiyama is an active volcano whose last eruption was a little over 300 years ago and which is considered by geologists to be overdue for another one.

By the time we left the visitor center there appeared to be some optimism-inspiring motion of the clouds, and so Mariko directed the driver to take us to a vantage point at one of the five lakes that are adjacent to the mountain. (There is a lot of recreational boating on those lakes, and a fair number of condos on shore; it’s a popular resort area.) In any case it was a good move, because not long after we arrived at that venue, which had some nice gardens as a bonus, this was our view:

fujiyama-010In case you were wondering, that puff of white at the peak of the mountain is just a wisp of cloud in the background, not an impending eruption. In any case, working against a 70% probability that we would not get to see the peak at all, this was a big win and we were very excited.

We then set up the mountain. The way up is divided into 10 “stations”, and the road ends at station #5 at an elevation of a little below 8000 ft. Above that, there’s a foot trail to the summit that takes about 6 hours to complete. It’s a popular climb, as you’d suppose: during the ten week climbing season (July through mid-September), over 100,000 people trek to the summit. We were not going to be among them; most tourists stop at station 5 as we did. Very unusually, the weather at the station had stayed clear for us, allowing a view of the peak. So here we are, two-thirds of the way up Fujisan, with the peak in the background.

fujiyama-007

Don’t erupt yet, please. Thank you.

Satisfied that we had beaten the odds, we headed back the mountain and straight into one of those experiences that make Japan… um… Japan. Remember that traditional song that I mentioned? (Oh, by the way, in addition to her other virtues Mariko has a very sweet singing voice.) As we headed down the highway out of the park we reached a stretch that had a musical note painted on the road surface. A few moments later the bus started to hum.

Yes, hum. The Japanese have engineered a quarter-mile stretch of road with thousands of little ridges built into it, like micro-speed bumps, whose spacing is such that they cause your vehicle to vibrate at a pre-planned pitch. Yes, as you drive down this stretch of road your car hums the traditional song about Mt. Fuji. I mean holy crap, how Japanese can you get? We were impressed.

We drove for another hour and a half to the resort town of Hakone, where we will be spending the next two nights. Hakone is a hot springs resort — Fuji is an active volcano, remember? — meaning that its specialty is geothermal mineral baths in all the hotels. Our hotel is a typical one and caters mostly to Japanese clientele; once checked in we were each issued sandals and a yakuta, which is the traditional house robe, kind of like a simple version of a kimono. We wear the yakuta and sandals around the hotel rather than street clothes. It’s kind of like being at a grand-scale pajama party. Here’s a picture of our whole group at a traditional Japanese dinner this evening (except for me, since I took the shot).

yakuta-010

You can see Alice, third from the right in the back row. Mariko is kneeling, second from the left. My robe is the same as the ones that the two guys on the ends are wearing.

It’s a pleasant hotel, and they even have free ice cream in the lobby (woo hoo!). Alice has already had a session in the hot springs pool. (This is done au naturel, men and women separated.) Tomorrow we will be exploring the area a little more.

 

Categories: Japan | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

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