Posts Tagged With: geyser

Cold Water, Hot Water

Yesterday was a watery kind of day, not in the meteorological sense — the weather was surprisingly mild — but in the sense that most of our destinations involved either looking at or being immersed in water. Our first destination was the tourist-heavy Gullfoss waterfall (that “-foss” suffix in fact means “waterfall” in Icelandic), which holds a special place in Icelanders’ hearts because of the repeated failed attempts over the decades to exploit it for hydroelectric power. But, atypically for much of the world, the preservationists have repeatedly prevailed and the site remains pristine if you don’t count the endless stream of tour buses.

The two hour drive to Gullfoss took us pass scenes like these, which in some ways are Iceland as its finest, at least when the weather cooperates.


Iceland Gullfoss 2018-001Iceland Silfra 2018-019-Edit

Gullfoss itself is beautiful, large, though not altogether eye-popping in the Niagara or Victoria Falls sense, a pleasing two-tiered cascade through a broad canyon.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-002Iceland Gullfoss 2018-029-Edit

The wind was ferocious, which seems to be Iceland’s default, and which pretty much buries any ambitions I had of getting any aerial imagery with my drone. (The signs forbidding drones didn’t help either.)

Our next stop was a geyser, and not just any old geyser, but the ur-geyser, the geyser after which all geysers are named. Ever wonder where the word “geyser” comes from?Wonder no more, because here it is:

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-054

This particular site was first noticed (and named) by a local traveler in the year 1249, then lapsed into obscurity for 400 years before being rediscovered as a must-visit destination in the 17th century. Now, if you look carefully at the above photo you may notice a certain lack of geothermal activity, in that, well, there doesn’t actually seem to be a geyser there. That is because in the early 20th century its activity started to diminish. Frustrated tourists — this is a true story — started throwing rocks and garbage into the mouth of the geyser, causing its throat to collapse and thus transmogrifying it into a non-geyser, nearly 700 years after its eponymous discovery. Bottom line: the world’s first named geyser….isn’t one anymore.

Fortunately for the tourism industry, one need only walk about 100 meters from this disappointment to the site of the Stokkur geyser, which erupts satisfyingly every 5-10 minutes.

Iceland Gullfoss 2018-047

After watching a couple of eruptions (“Was it good for you too?”) we ate lunch in the form of a private tailgate party — having visited a supermarket for lunch fixings the previous day — and headed to our final destination of the day, the Solfra volcanic fissure in Thingvellir National Park. Thinkvellir is distinguished by one very important geological feature: the boundary between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates runs through it. It is literally the boundary between continents. Here is the basaltic wall that marks the edge of the North American plate:

Iceland Silfra 2018-002-Edit

It’s tall, ominously brownish-gray, and imposing, probably 20 meters tall and looking for all it’s worth like either the entrance to Mordor or the Wall from Game of Thrones. There were no White Walkers in the vicinity (discounting Icelanders’ natural complexion), but there is a notable location, which you can see marked by the flagpole at the right of the photo. That is the original meeting place of the Althing, the Icelandic parliament that has been meeting since the year 930. The chieftains from all over the island would meet there yearly, traveling from all over the island to do so.

The corresponding wall marking the edge of the Eurasian plate is a few kilometers to the east, and the broad plain in between is a sort of geological no man’s land, belonging to neither continent. (This of course causes me to wonder what’s underneath it. Could we, like, jump up and down really hard, break through the ground, and fall all the way to the center of the Earth? Let’s try!)

There is, however, a narrow fissure running parallel to the wall, only a few meters wide in places and about 20 meters deep, fed by a spring whose source is a melting glacier a few kilometers upstream. That means two things: (1) the spring water is filtered through several kilometers of volcanic rock and is thus spectacularly pure and clear (I mean, like distilled water); and (2) the water is seriously ^%$**ing cold, i.e. just a couple of degrees above freezing.

All of which is the lead-in to our snorkeling trip through said fissure, a remarkable experience. We were clad in enormously cumbersome, airtight drysuits. These are highly constricting and basically constrain you to floating on the surface like a straitjacketed Michelin Man. But they do you keep you dry and reasonably warm: the only part of your body that is exposed is your lips, since you need to bite on the snorkel to breathe. So here I am in the channel:


The water has a vertical visibility of its full depth (~20 m) and a horizontal visibility of about 6-8 times that. You read that right: you can see about 150 meters horizontally through the water. It is like swimming through very viscous blue-green air, quite the unearthly sensation.

There is almost no fish life in the channel, but there is quite a lot of exotic multicolored strands and blobs of algae coating many of the rocks. In some places the channel looks like someone went crazy with cans of Silly String.

There is a place where the channel is narrow enough to touch both sides at once, and of course the tour operators exploit this by taking photos of everyone doing so. They advertise this quite incorrectly as touching both continents at once; our enthusiastic and voluble guide Kate explained all this to us and swore us to utter secrecy. So don’t tell anyone!

Kate herself is worth a mention. A Canadian semi-expat, she spends summers as a tour guide in Iceland. Tall, athletic, and enthusiastic, she is thus the archetype of the 20-something outdoor adventure guide. And she’s got the piece of paper to prove it: her college degree is in (wait for it) “Adventure Tourism”. That is definitely the diploma that you want to have.

After de-drysuiting and downing some hot chocolate, we returned to Reykjavik, ate diner, and went out for a final nighttime view of the Harpa. We’re about to leave for our next destination: the town of Borganes.

Iceland Reykjavik 2018-134





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

Iceward, Ho!

In less than a week we embark on an itinerary that one could fairly call “eclectic”, even by our peripatetic standards: 10 days in Iceland, followed by 4 days each in Paris in Prague. Why those choices? We’ve been to Paris many times and love it; it’s been 8 years since we were last there, and we felt it was time to go back. Prague has been on our bucket list for some time; we know many people who have visited and come back raving around it. And Iceland seems to have gotten very trendy in the past few years, with hordes of visitors descending upon the little island, so we figured it was time to do our part. Here’s our route, just south of the Arctic Circle:

2018-08-29 20_06_49-Reykjavík, Iceland to Reykjavík, Iceland - Google Maps To give you an ideal of the scale, the island is roughly 400 km across; our driving route, the aptly-named Ring Road (marked in blue) is about 900 miles (1500 km) long. You’d think that 10 days would be more than enough time to cover that distance, but it’ll be tight: a lot of the route is slow going, and of course there is a lot to see along the way. These include geysers, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, waterfalls, volcanic landscapes, glaciers, and waterfalls. And geysers.

Some fun facts about Iceland:

  • The native population is about 350,000, but the island hosts over 2 million visitors a year. In other words, if you say to a random stranger, “Þú ert með fallegt land.” (“You have a beautiful country”), the highest-probability response, spoken ver-r-r-y loudly and slowly, is, “SORRY… I… AM… FROM… OMAHA.”
  • Those entertaining-looking glyphs Þ and ð in the previous paragraph are both pronounced “th”. (Fun sub-fact: English used to have such a letter too. Its name was “thorn” — really — and it looked rather like the letter y. So on those pseudo-Olde-English signs that you see that say things like “Ye Olde Haberdashery”, the “ye” is actually the word “the“. You’re welcome.)
  • Speaking of language, modern Icelandic is essentially identical to Old Norse. This means that present-day Icelanders can easily converse with Eric the Red during seances.
  • Iceland is renowned for its impressive variety of remarkably disgusting foods, which include fermented shark and “sour ram’s testicles”. (Research topic: Are there Chinese restaurants in Iceland, and if so do they serve sweet and sour ram’s testicles?) Supposedly they also make really good ice cream and hot dogs. Guess what we’ll be eating.
  • The famous volcano whose massive eruption disrupted North Atlantic air travel in 2010 is named Eyjafjallajökull. Do not be intimidated by the word, for it is actually surprisingly easy to pronounce: just remember that it rhymes with Þeyjafjallajökull.

At an average latitude of 65° — just a hair south of the Arctic Circle — Iceland is not famed for its clement weather. And of course at that latitude, you are stuck in more or less endless night in midwinter, and get to enjoy 24-hour daylight in midsummer. But we’ll be there in September, not far off the equinox, and so neither the temperatures nor the length of the day will be particularly extreme: sunrise will be at about 6:30 AM and sunset around 8:15 PM. The daytime high temperatures will be  about 50° F (11° C), the nights several degrees cooler.

What will be cold is the water, at a cryonic 36° F (2° C). The reason this matters is that we have booked a snorkeling trip (!) at Silfra, a volcanic fissure that is essentially the boundary between the two tectonic continental plates that Iceland straddles. (Hence all the volcanoes and geysers.) It is known for its stunningly clear water, volcanic rock formations, and hypothermic tourists. I’ll report on this when it happens.

Finally, we are of course hoping to see the aurora borealis. This is definitely a crapshoot; we’re at the early end of the season for it, and as of this moment the weather forecast calls for a lot of clouds and rain, at least for the first half of the trip.. But perhaps we will get lucky.

So wish us luck, watch this space, and remember this traditional greeting: “Þjónn, ég pantaði gerjað hákarl en þetta eru hrútur“, which according to Google means, “Waiter, I ordered fermented shark but these are ram testicles.”


Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Who Is Geyser Soze?

We had an ethereal display early Wednesday morning, as we arose at 4:30 AM — an hour I was heretofore unsure even existed — to make another long drive, this time up to the El Tatio geyser field, way up at 14,000 ft into the mountains. We met up with our group at 5:00 AM and first made a short ride outside of the lights of town so that we could admire the night sky. Which was incredible. With no lights at all for many miles around, the Moon had set and the sky was crystalline: the Milky Way shone brightly enough to admire the dust lanes; the Large Magellanic Cloud (a small irregular companion galaxy to the Milky Way, for you non-astronomers) floated like a glowing cotton ball the size of the Moon; and the Southern Cross had just broken the horizon. It was breathtaking, yet another reminder of why we make trips like this.

The reason for the insanely early hour is rooted in the geophysics of these particular geysers. As Julio explained it to us, these geysers, unlike (say) Old Faithful, are in continuous rather than periodic eruption (as we would shortly see) and their strength depends on the temperature difference between the surface temperature and that of the underground superheated water. The bigger the temperature difference, the more vents are in eruption, and the better the display. Hence it is best to arrive at or before sunrise when the air is nice and cold.

Yeah, nice and cold. As in 20 @$$(#{#*ing degrees. We drove through the predawn darkness up, up, up the steep mountainside over unlit invisible unpaved roads, jarred by the washboarding and the ruts, till the sky began to lighten behind the peaks and we found ourselves on a flat plain dotted with steaming fumaroles. We stepped out of our nice comfy heated van and BAM! Welcome to lung-searing mountaintop cold. We had been forewarned, of course, and had dressed in about five layers of shed-able clothing in preparation for the later warmth of the day ahead, but for now every layer was a blessing.

There was only light wind, thankfully, but the cold on our hands and faces was bad enough, amplified by the oxygen deprivation of the 14,000 ft elevation. It was a weird sort of homecoming for me, the surroundings reminiscent of my Mauna Kea days (coincidentally the same height); I had about 5 minutes of lightheadedness, then stopped noticing it. I was lucky never to be significantly affected by the altitude at Mauna Kea, nor here, but others in our group (including Alice) felt noticeably uncomfortable and impaired. My biggest problem was my hands; my fingers were numb with cold but of course I needed them ungloved to operate the camera.

Andean geysers at dawn (blue tint courtesy of iPad camera)

We were on a flat volcanic plain a few miles across, settled in a smaller area about a half mile on a side with scores if not hundreds of steam vents, many spewing boiling water in a suitably geyser-like way. The ground was dark as basalt and smooth enough to walk around easily, crisscrossed with frozen rivulets of groundwater and dusted with salt crystals. The steam vents were everywhere, their perimeters painted with so-called thermophilic algae, primitive orange and green organisms that thrive in the boiling, mineral-laden water. The scene was lit by orange breaking dawn and the still-indigo sky, and walking among them was a stroll on some hellish planet. To my surprise there was little very smell of sulphur.

We wandered among the vents and through the clouds of steam, some merely curling wisps at our feet, others majestic swirling towers ten or fifteen feet across. There were some marked walkways — they’ve lost a few tourists to the boiling pools, invisible underfoot in some of the steam columns. But there would be no parboiled visitors today.

…and an hour later

The sky continued to lighten, saturating the surrounding peaks in orange and revealing adjacent rock-strewn fields of clumpy, straw-like grass. After an hour or so the sun had completely cleared the peaks and warmed the geyser field, and as promised the multitude of steam columns started to diminish noticeably. Our driver Mario and our local guide Camillo had by this time prepared an outdoor breakfast for us, so we made our way back to the van to enjoy warm toast (prepared on a gas grill), ham, cheese, cake, avocado, and — most welcome of all — hot drinks. I am not sure which part of me enjoyed the hot chocolate more: my mouth and stomach as I drank it, or my chilled dry hands, simply from holding the mug.

We were in full daylight as we made our way back down the mountain, and now we could see how treacherous the drive up had been in darkness, the road rutted and boulder-strewn, and serpentine with hairpin turns. Our return trip, Julio explained, would be marked by several stops to search for birds and wildlife.

This seemed unlikely to me, my view of the Martian landscape being informed by three years at the nearly-lifeless summit of Mauna Kea. But things are different here. We were not 20 minutes underway when we encountered a herd (flock? pod?) of vicuñas, sending us into a picture-snapping frenzy that a short while later would feel silly in retrospect, as the damn things were all over the place.

The vizcacha, which you do not dip in your coffee (Google photo)

Other than a herd of domesticated llamas — and I had not known this, but all llamas are domesticated — the other mammal of interest that we encountered was one that I had never heard of: the vizcacha. (Points for you if you’ve ever heard of it.) With a name like an Italian breakfast pastry (the leading V is pronounced like a B), the vizcacha looks like an oversized rabbit at the front — with pronounced long rabbity ears — and some kind of mutant lemur at the back, with a long furred tail. It is a rodent, not a lagomorph, and thus despite its appearance more rat than rabbit. It’s about 16″ long plus the tail. We encountered a group of several of them, and one ran behind the van and up the hillside, an unexpected sight in itself because when they start to move you instinctively expect them to hop, which they do not.

The bird life was also (to me) surprisingly abundant and diverse. We stopped at a small lake, covered in parts with a thin layer of ice. There we saw crested ducks, giant coots, Chilean teal ducks (bright blue bill!), and more, all greater in number and variety than I would have expected, and quite the sight against the near-frozen lake nestled in the blasted landscape.

We arrived back at the hotel a little before noon, in time for lunch and a nap before heading out on our late afternoon outing to the nearby Valley of the Moon. (You better believe that this trip takes stamina.) I think that in our travels that this is the third or fourth desolate venue that we have visited that is named after the Moon. I suppose that at some time in the historical past it became de rigeur the world over for hardy but unimaginative explorers to gaze upon their desert discovery and declare that it looked like the Moon. If I were their trusty but intolerant native guide I would have said, “Can’t you do better than that? This is the fourth frigging volcanic desert valley that we’ve named after the Moon. Doesn’t it look like anything else? Mars? Detroit? Anything?”

Apparently not, and the Moon it is despite the absence of any craters. But it is suitably alien, the rock formations and trackless grey sand dunes resembling the most remote parts of the American desert southwest. With one major exception: the salt. Smooth mica-like salt incrustations and quartzy crystal outcroppings define the surface of the rocks on every scale, anguished-looking formations and even whole cliff sides coated with patchy white grains as though dusted in powdered sugar. It’s a paradoxical sight, making some of the craggy formations look like some kind of Pastries From Hell.

Valley of the Moon. That’s salt, not snow! (Google image)

Rivulets of rare rainfall erode pencil-wide channels down the rocks as they dissolve the salt, giving many of the formations a fluted appearance as though their surface was the fusion of bundles of narrow stalactites. But the really cool part is that some of the walls talk.

Not in English or Spanish, of course: they whisper in, I dunno, Rockish I suppose. But in one canyon there were whole walls tiled in sheets of transparent salt crystals, whose thermal expansion and contraction in the cycle of the desert day is different from the underlying rock itself. And so there is mechanical stress as the sheets and incursions of crystals try to pull away from the rock to which they are fused, and you can actually hear the battle taking place: faint whispery crackles and deep hollow pops, every second or two. It’s ghostly and a little eerie, like the rocks are talking to you. We stayed for a few minutes and listened, and I would happily have stayed longer. (Not so Alice, alas; even with hearing aids her poor hearing prevented her from hearing the geological conversation.)

We drove to high ground afterwards to strategically position ourselves for the sunset display, and while we were there our driver and guide set out a charming little wine and cheese table for us. This was last night in the Atacama, and so it was a little celebration of the few days that we had.

The grand finale, of course, was the sunset, an atypically colorful one due to the presence of some unseasonal clouds. The clouds burned furious orange and pink, the rugged valley below and the distant volcanic peaks turning color in synchrony. You will have to wait till I process my photos later this month to see what it looked like — the iPad’s lousy camera could never capture it — but it put quite the exclamation point to our visit thus far.

Categories: Patagonia | Tags: , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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