Posts Tagged With: waterfall

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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Volcanic Vistas

First off, I am obliged to report the more or less total failure of our second attempt at aurora viewing. The skies indeed cleared somewhat late last night, but not enough. We did see an auroral glow on the horizon, but it was nothing to write home about. (So I am writing to 500 strangers about it instead. Oh well.)

Today was a long day of driving today, with a couple of stops along the way. I’m too tired to exude my usual effervescent narrative, so I’ll let the pictures do the talking in this short post.

First stop: the Myvatn thermal baths. You may have heard of Reykjavik’s famous Blue Lagoon, and this is that, minus the “Blue” part and about half the admission fee. It’s a natural thermal spring with a large wading pool architected around it; its temperature varies somewhat from place to place within the pool but averages about 39 C (102 F). Here’s the scene, plus Alice, Tim, Janet, and a complete stranger in the background enjoying it.

Iceland Myvatn 2018-050-Edit

Iceland Myvatn 2018-071

We were still in Geothermal Mode for our next stop, the Hverir mud pots, basically a scale model of Yellowstone. There’s a short walking path around the area, lined with boiling mud, fumaroles, cracked mud fields, brightly colored mud, and, well, mud. It’s a fun place to visit for perhaps a half hour unless you are ambitious enough to hike up to the top of adjacent Namafjall mountain. We weren’t.

Iceland Myvatn 2018-074-Edit

Further down the road — much further — was the Dettifoss waterfall, accessible by a 30 km long unpaved road, which made for some bone-jarring driving. Dettifoss is situated on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum river, which flows from the Vatnajökull glacier. But of course, you knew that. More interestingly, it is about 45 meters (150′) high and, at about 193 cubic meters per second (over 50,000 gallons per second) is one of the most voluminous falls in Europe. (Tim asked huffily why Europe claimed it, but there’s a real answer: it lives on the east, i.e. European, side of the rift separating the two continental plates.)

Iceland Dettifoss 2018-006-Edit

Iceland Dettifoss 2018-017

What I found even more striking than the falls themselves is the canyon downstream from them, which looks a little like a pint-sized Grand Canyon. See for yourself:

Iceland Dettifoss 2018-004-Edit

See what I mean?

About a mile upstream from Dettifoss is Selfoss, one of the most famous falls in Iceland. But the path to it is rocky and uneven, and by late afternoon we were not feeling that ambitious. Janet and Tim started out for it for turned around about halfway there; Alice and I wimped out altogether. (Anyway, I was busy taking pictures. Pictures, yeah, that’s the ticket.)

We had about a 2 1/2 drive ahead of us after Dettifoss, past remarkable terrain, sometimes an arid volcanic rockscape, sometimes a flowered tundra. There were eroded cinder cones everywhere, rounded by the ages, that made the area oddly resemble the northern parts of the Big Island of Hawaii. That’s not as unlikely a pairing as it sounds: both islands are essentially giant volcanoes, both roughly a million years old. So here’s a panorama of that tectonic terrain:

Iceland Terrain 2018-017-Edit

This particular area has a lot of ground cover; when it is absent the land is a featureless gray desert that goes on for miles, limned by distant mountains. But some areas are wild with ground cover: yellow and orange grasses and tiny wildflowers that give the otherwise bleak terrain an oddly benign prairie-like appearance, like this:

Iceland Terrain 2018-013

Rising above it via drone gives an even more majestic perspective: the color goes on for miles, with nary a car in sight. I’ll post a video of the drone flight later, but for now, to end today’s post, here’s a striking drone’s-eye view from about 100 meters up. You can see that the road is not so great, but the vista makes up for the bumps.

Iceland Terrain Drone 2018-001

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

Another Roadside Waterfall

Driving around in northern Iceland is a head-turning exercise in trying to take in first this volcanic feature, than that unnamed waterfall. The countryside is pretty isolated in the north, where the largest town, Akureyri, has a population of less than 19,000 which, amazingly, makes it the second largest city in Iceland after Reykjavik.

That Alaska-like low population density means that we needed to be mindful of our fuel tank, so we started the day by backtracking into Saudarkrokur for gas. While Tim and Alice coped with the one-pump street corner filling station, Janet and I walked down the block in search of a restroom, ultimately finding ourselves in the local bakery/tea room. It was there that we discovered that Icelanders are really excellent bakers with an inordinate fondness for pink icing. Seriously, everything they sold looked criminally mouth-watering, and half of it had pink icing. Wanting to blend in with the locals, I bought and ate a fresh doughnut with pink icing. It was as light as air and I’m sure contained at most zero calories. That’s how I know that they are excellent bakers.

The landscape in northern Iceland is oddly like Hawaii except for the large temperature difference and presence of sheep. It’s volcanic terrain dotted with cinder cones and the occasional serendipitous waterfall within a few hundred meters of the road. Here’s the first one we encountered, photographed by drone:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-003

This is a pretty typical sight. In this case, we were still close to a fjord flowing northwestward, which at this time of year and this far inland was at a very low water level, creating this abstract scene as viewed from some 200 meters directly above.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-008

I’m rather proud of this photo, but if you are having trouble visually parsing the scene, here it is again looking more upward towards the sea.

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-009

Swiveling the drone to look upstream towards the mountains (and the sun), the same river looks like this:

Iceland Roadside Waterfall Drone 2018-011

Such are the rewards of driving in northern Iceland. While I was flying the drone, Alice walked a quarter mile or so up the road, where we had passed a gravel lot packed with cars and trucks. Turns out that it was also packed with sheep: this was the venue where the various livestock owners identified their particular sheep via ear tags. The sheep all graze together, you see, and are herded together en masse and sorted by owner later.

We continued on our way and spotted a gravel spur and small parking lot at the head of a path leading down to a valley. A short walk down the path took us to a precipice overlooking a river with an oxbow bend around a steep basaltic hillside. Here are Alice and I defying death, about 15 meters above the valley floor on a somewhat precarious lookout point. We look a lot cheerier than we felt; the path was loose dirt and rock, slipperier than we’d like, and it was a long way down.

Iceland Alice & Rich Precipice

Our next destination was one of Iceland’s better-known waterfalls, the Goðafoss, which means “Waterfall of the Gods”. Like every stationary object in Iceland, this one has a legend associated with it. As the story goes, in the year 1000 a local chieftain named Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði — his friends called him Bob — was taking a lot of political heat from the Norse, who had recently converted to Christianity from Paganism and wanted Iceland to do the same. Chief Bob had to make the big decision about which way to go, and since I am not typing this by candlelight you probably know the outcome. Deciding that Icelanders should become Christian, he demonstrated his commitment by throwing all of his statues of Pagan gods into this waterfall. Hence the name. (What history conceals from us is that that Bob went home and got an earful from Mrs. Ljósvetningagoði, who went out and bought a new set of idols at Pier One the next day.)

Anyway, here’s Goðafoss. The main cascade (there’s a smaller one a short way downstream) is about 12 meters (40′) high. The river above it is the Skjálfandafljót (pronounced “Snuffleupaguss”), which is the fourth longest river in Iceland.

Iceland Godafoss 2018-036

Our next stop — and our destination for the day — was Lake Mývatn, which means “Midge Lake” due to the ubiquitous dense swarms of the goddamn things. (They even got into our noses and mouths, and I can only imagine what it must be like in the summer. Thank God they don’t bite.) Mývatn is a popular tourist area because of all the geothermal activity: there are natural hot spring baths, nature trails through volcanic formations, and “resort farms” for lodging, including the one we are staying at. The lake itself is dotted with what appear to be mini-volcanoes, and sort of are. Here is the scene:

Iceland Myvatn 2018-023-Edit

What they actually are, are “pseudocraters” (that’s their real name), essentially burst lava bubbles that formed when the original lava flow overran a marshy area. They’re also called “rootless cones” because despite their appearance they are not actually lava vents. Rather, the moisture in the swampy land under the then-hot lava flow boiled away and emitted steam from underneath the lava, swelling it into a bubble that hardened and later collapsed. It’s an odd, unearthly sight. Or at least I think it is, since the midges kept swarming around my head.

We finally came to rest at the Vogafjós Farm Resort. In case you are wondering what that means, it means that we have a very comfortable motel-like room, all wood paneled and with a super-comfy geothermally heated floor (!), and that there are cows outside. There is also an excellent farm-to-table restaurant, in this case the farm-to-table distance being zero. Their specialty is lamb — quite the best I have ever had — and “Geyser Bread”, which is a very moist dark rye bread baked by burying it in the hot ground near a geothermal vent. Yes, really. It’s great!

Categories: Europe, Iceland | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

No, NOT the One With the Green Handle

OK, I want to be clear here. In the United States, the petrol pump with the green handle is always diesel. Always! Am I right, or am I right? I thought so. And so my error was not only forgivable, but unavoidable. Unavoidable, I say! But I am getting ahead of myself.

We left Reykjavik at about 10 AM today, en route to the north, to the area around Borganes, a small town on one of the western fjords of the country. Our specific destinations were a lava cave and a couple of well-known waterfalls in the vicinity. But first we needed to fill the tank of our thirsty 4WD behemoth, a double-cab Isuzu pickup truck with an enclosed bed for our luggage.

There was a gas station just around the corner from the flat, a brand called Olío. (Notice the accent over the letter i, which gives it a long i sound.) Our vehicle requires diesel fuel, which I noticed that all the pumps offered. So I drove up to the first pump, inserted my credit card, and engaged the pump with the green handle since that is OBVIOUSLY DIESEL FUEL. I pumped about 40 liters — costing approximately 12 million dollars US — as Tim and I congratulated each other on our manly ability to pump gas in a foreign country. (By the way, for the record, petrol actually costs roughly US $9 per gallon here.) But as I hung the pump back in its cradle, my eye was drawn to an adjacent pump handle — stealthy black in color — with a tag on it that, in ominous Icelandic, read “Díesl”. By virtue of my highly advanced linguistic skills, I immediately realized that, in NASA parlance, I had screwed the proverbial pooch. In particular, I had just put about 40 liters of 95-octane petrol into a diesel vehicle. The only saving grace of the situation was that I had noticed this before we had set out on our drive and inevitably broken down in the middle of some godforsaken windswept glacial tundra, which is where it surely would have happened.

But since we were still at the petrol station, the potential catastrophe had been reduced to what Alice and I refer to in our travels as an “MSP”, which stands for “Money-Solvable Problem.” I went to the counter of the service station, where the friendly attendant called a local guy who handles this sort of thing. Said local guy, a creased, windburnt, businesslike 60-something in coveralls, showed up about 20 minutes later, siphoned out the contaminated fuel, and — because we had called him from home on a weekend — somewhat apologetically charged me an amount of money that was shockingly much even by Icelandic standards. Like I said, an MSP.

We refueled the vehicle — another 18 million dollars of “Díesl” this time — and, this particular misadventure behind us, set out on our away again. Our route to the lava cave first brought us past Borganes and its adjacent fjord, bordering a scrubby green and yellow steppe at the foot of a line of steep volcanic mountains. Despite the bleakness — it was an overcast, windy day with a smattering of rain — there was a certain stark idyllic quality to the setting, as you can see from scenes like this.

Iceland Borganes 2018-004-Edit

The fjord itself is broad and still, and at the time we were there the tide was out, revealing a maze of low muddy shoals. Fortunately both the wind and rain died down for long enough to allow a drone flight, during which I captured these panoramas from the air:

Iceland Borganes Drone 2018-030-EditIceland Borganes Drone 2018-017-Edit

The bridge at lower left leads directly into Borganes. But although we are sleeping there tonight, our lava cave of interest lay about a 45 minute drive beyond it. The cave — actually a lava tube — is called Víðgelmir, which like many Icelandic place names is best pronounced whilst eating a marshmallow. It sits in the middle of a lava field at the foot of the Langjökull  glacier, which you can see here.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-010

The cave is more than 30 meters underground with assorted ledges and overhangs, so we were first equipped with helmets with mounted flashlights. As you can see from this photo we were ready for some volcanic spelunking.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-009

The entrance to the cave is suitably maw-like, and we picked our way along the, um, unadventurous wooden stairs and boardwalk, following our guide and listening to his lecture about the geology of the place.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-019Iceland Lava Cave 2018-023

We are not unfamiliar with lava tubes because of our time in Hawaii, but Víðgelmir is particularly impressive. It’s nearly a mile long and sports a variety of lava formations much more typical of a “conventional” limestone cave, e.g., stalactites and stalagmites, albeit very small ones. But its most (to me) unexpected feature is a consequence of its temperature, which hovers at just about freezing. Consequently there are a large number of crystalline stalagmite-like ice formations like these.

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-037

Iceland Lava Cave 2018-033

I found them particularly otherwordly. And indeed, if you get too close they break open and this thing that looks like a horseshoe crab jumps out and grabs your face, and you just know what’s gonna happen after that.

The cave tour lasted about an hour and a half, and we set out to our next destination, the Barnafoss and Hraunfossar waterfalls, adjacent to each other along a short looping walking path. They’re beautiful and would have made a great venue for a drone flight except that by this time the rain had started in earnest.  Hraunfossar — the name means “lava falls” — has an unusual property: its water seems to come out of nowhere. What actually happens is that the glacial melt percolates through the surrounding lava field and emerges as a line of cataracts along the river; indeed, you can actually see the water coming out of the rock. Take a look:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-006

Barnafoss, only about 200 meters away, means “Child Falls”, named after a rather dreary local legend about them. The story goes that one day two boys, home alone while their parents went to church, got bored and decide to follow.  (The assertion that two young boys spontaneously decided to go to church on their own tells you immediately that this is a myth.)  Anyway, the legend tells that they tried to take a shortcut over a natural stone bridge that crossed the falls, but fell off the bridge and drowned. The mother of the boys then cursed the bridge, and shortly afterward it was destroyed by an earthquake. This is about as cheerful as Icelandic legends get. It must be the weather. In any case, here’s Barnafoss:

Iceland Barnafoss 2018-013

You can tell from the photos how gray the sky had gotten, and in fact it was pretty much pouring by this time. So we gawked until satisfied, then retreated to the car and returned to Borganes. Our lodgings are an AirBnb, a very pleasant two-bedroom cottage overlooking the fjord. Borganes has a population of only about 3,000 but I am happy to report that we were able to satisfy Janet’s craving for pizza: there are at least two pizzerias in town, and the one we chose was excellent.

Tomorrow: further into the frozen north!











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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





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Gorging on Waterfalls

I mentioned yesterday that the Finger Lakes were formed during the last ice age and are thus quite young: a few tens of thousands of years. But they have company, in the form of a number of spectacular narrow gorges. The best known of these is Watkins Glen at the foot of Seneca Lake. It’s an insanely photogenic canyon, 400 ft (120 m) deep and about a mile and a half (2.5 km) long. If you walk the whole length — we did about half — you’ll go up and down something like 890 steps, and you’l see 19 waterfalls.

The geology of the gorges is interesting. They are sedimentary rock, a mix of shale, limestone, and sandstone. These differ a great deal in their hardness and thus their rates of erosion, resulting in a number of natural staircase-like rock formations.

That’s today’s geology lesson, so here are some photos from today’s hike:

Watkins Glen NY-045

Watkins Glen NY-030-Edit

Watkins Glen NY-012

Pretty cool, huh?

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Whales, Kayaking, a Lighthouse, and Stuff

Kind of a grab bag of topics since I haven’t posted in a few days, in part because I’ve been tired in the evenings: there is a haze of “vog” (volcanic fog) on the island — it having made its way 500 km to Kauai all the way from the Big Island — which has given me a minor but enervating cough. But there is nonetheless lots to tell, and I want to get it down before we leave tomorrow for the penultimate leg of this trip, three days in Honolulu with our old friends Laura and Brian. (That will be followed by four days in Scottsdale, Arizona on our way home.)

At home we are avid if not particularly ambitious kayakers, and since Kauai is the only one of the Hawaiian islands with navigable rivers — six of them, supposedly — it seemed reasonable to find a riverside kayak rental outfit. Such a place existed, quite close to us in fact, and so we spent a pleasant three hours kayaking on the Hanalei River, beginning about a mile from Hanalei Bay and working our way upstream to a nature reserve a few miles away.


The experience was, as I remarked in a Facebook post, just like kayaking at home except for the palm trees, the hibiscus blossoms floating on the water, and the whole laid-back tropical gestalt of it all. We did not see a lot of animal life in the nature reserve — a few fish, some turtles, a few egrets — but gliding among the palms and pandanus trees and spotting modest mini-waterfalls along the banks gave the whole experience a pleasantly dreamy ambience.

A few miles down the road from our house, east of Hanalei Bay, Kilauea Lighthouse perches on a dramatic promontory, overseeing a violent surf and a hillside heavily dotted with red-footed boobies. Here’s the scene:


If the lighting looks a little unusual in this picture it is because it is actually a nighttime scene, a twelve-minute time exposure taken by moonlight… hence the creamy, blurred-looking surf. But back to the birds. The red-footed boobies, thousands of them, look like white confetti on the far hillside, but close up resemble ungainly seagulls with enormous red feet and blue bills. You can see them as white dots at upper right in the shot below. (You can also see that you would not want to swim here.) We have seen their more famous cousins, the blue-footed boobies, in the Galapagos.


The lighthouse’s location is quite the quite the focus for local wildlife. There were some nenes (Hawaii’s state bird) walking around the parking lot, a pod of whales cavorting offshore, and the occasional Laysan albatross — an endangered species — gliding by on what could be a several thousand mile journey. They breed in Hawaii but may travel as far as Japan or the west coast of North America to feed. Here’s one that we saw:


When we returned from the lighthouse our AirBnB hosts invited us to attend a bonfire and barbecue on the beach at Hanalei Bay at sunset that evening, a practice they happily indulge in every Friday night. We went, enjoying the sunset over the waves and silhouetted mountains along with about four other couples, all with interesting backgrounds. (You kind of have to have an interesting background if you’re living here.)

The next day (yesterday, Saturday Feb 4) was our opportunity to complete the geographical trifecta, as the day dawned clear and we got to see the Na Pali coast from the sea. (We had already seen it from the hiking trail lookout and via helicopter.) Our tour operator, Na Pali Riders, were quite the cowboys, leading about 20 of us into what was essentially a large Zodiac, a rubberized pontoon boat right at the water level, powered by twin 250 HP motors. That thing could move, and with the trade winds coming up and the surf high, the ride was anything but smooth. How bone-shatteringly bumpy was it? Well, in addition to a rope handhold running along the edge — and you sit on the edge — there was a rope foothold around the perimeter of the floor. You keep one foot slid underneath it to keep you from bouncing backwards into your own personal whale-watching adventure.

Speaking of which, en route to Na Pali we first encountered a large pod of spinner dolphins, maybe 100 in number all told, to set the stage for the excitement that would follow. Here are a few of them:


(My photos from this boat trip, by the way, were taken with our “backup camera”, a nice waterproof point-and-shoot, since I did want to risk my nice SLR and expensive lenses ending up photographing the cetaceans from underneath. Picture quality is not as high, but the thing is indestructible, which is a big plus in this environment.)

Anyway, whales. We got lucky: we encountered a number of them, most thrillingly a mother and a juvenile. The latter was only a few weeks or a month old, “only” 10 ft long or so and just learning to breach:

na-pali-whales-kauai-021That’s Mom’s pectoral fin on the right, the baby breaching on the left. Notice that baby is flopping over on his back: that’s how whales actually do it. So here are two more shots, ’cause you can never have too many whales.



The whales were clustered near the southwest corner of the island, a little south of Na Pali itself. So we motored up the coast to catch these striking scenes, which I promise will be the last ones I show you of Na Pali.





We’ve already had the Jurassic Park discussion, but if it all looks a little “Skull Island”-ish to you, there’s a good reason for that too: the 1979 remake of King Kong was filmed here.

In addition to these A-list destinations, Kauai has its share of minor touristic oddities as well. We hit a couple of them on the way back from our Na Pali expedition. They include salt evaporation ponds, which are basically very shallow artificial lake beds next to the sea. Just add water and wait, and voila! Sea salt! (Add pink food coloring and you can pretend it’s from the Himalayas, a designation about which I have always been deeply suspicious.)

But probably the surrealistic best of the B-list sights is the “Russian Fort”, which we visited briefly. Very briefly. Still, its history is so weird that it is worth relating.

Kamehameha I unified the islands under his monarchy in 1810, but unsurprisingly not everybody got with the program immediately. Chief among these (hah! get it?) was Kaumuali’i, who ruled Kauai and much preferred doing his own thing. This included seizing a cargo ship belonging to the  Russian-American Trading Company in 1815. The Russians were none too pleased at this and dispatched an agent, a German physician named Georg Schäffer, to free the goods.

Schäffer figured his best play was to befriend Kamehameha and then convince the latter to pressure Kaumuali’i. The befriending part worked OK… the pressuring part, not so much; Kamehameha didn’t see much upside to antagonizing his disgruntled underling on behalf of a guy who looked like the Wizard of Oz. So Schäffer went straight to Kaumuali’i, who promptly conned him. Kaumuali’i convinced Schäffer that if the Russians would build a fort, they could seize the entire island chain from Kamehameha. Schäffer promised the Tsar’s support, and had the fort built.  Then things went predictably sideways: (1) upon learning of all this the Tsar said, “WTF?”; and (2) what Kaumuali’i was really planning, of course, was to take the islands for himself (“We don’ need no steenkin’ Russians!”). So the whole endeavor collapsed, Kamehameha’s supporters took over the fort, and after a halfhearted attempt to retake it several years later, Kaumuali’i’s guys threw in the towel. The place was abandoned in 1853 after decades of proudly defending Kauai against, well, nothing. Today it’s a rock wall about shoulder-high (about 1/4 of its original height), tracing out a rough octagon a few hundred feet across. We were positively rapt for about 3 seconds.

I never did learn what was on those cargo ships, but in the interest of adding some irony to the whole bizarre tale I like to imagine that it turned out to be something of absolutely no use to the Hawaiians. Fur-lined mittens and frostbite ointment, say. You can think of your own.

Today was our last day on Kauai. The weather was beautiful, and so we made the precarious hike down to Queen’s Bath on the coast. I’ll post some photos of that in a few days. But for now, on to Honolulu.

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Kauai from the Skai…er…Sky

Yesterday was Helicopter Day for us, that means of transportation being far and away the best way to get a real sense of the geography and vegetation of Kauai.

We woke up with the chickens. I do not mean by this that we woke up early; I mean we literally woke up with the chickens. There are *&%^$# chickens — that is pronounced “frickin’ chickens” — absolutely everywhere on Kauai: on the roads, on the sidewalks, on the golf courses, underfoot. Today we had lunch at an outdoor food court where, for very good reason, there was a sign posted that said “Please Do Not Feed The Chickens”. I have no idea why, but the island is plain crawling with chickens. (Hmm. Somehow “crawling” doesn’t seem like the right word when discussing chickens. But “scratching with chickens” doesn’t sound right.) The consequence of all this is that there are three constant sounds that form the backdrop of life on Kauai: the surf crashing (dramatic!), the suserration of the wind in the palm trees (soothing!), and the ubiquitous roosters crowing (um…).

We made the 50 minute drive to Lihue airport, received a safety briefing, and entered a helo with four other passengers. The bird had bulbous windows in order to accommodate photography and a more panoramic view, at the expense of all sorts of inconvenient reflections and glare. (Fifteen years ago we took a similar helo tour in a ‘copter with no doors, which affords a spectacularly ideal view for the non-nervous.)

We made a clockwise circuit of the island, passing over the coastal plains; hovering next to stratospherically-high thread-thin waterfalls; banking through green valleys and Waimea Canyon (about which more shortly); and surveying the dramatic Na Pali coast. (Na Pali simply means “the cliffs”, by the way.) Here are some shots:


Eastern coastal plain, looking west towards the interior



One of six zillion waterfalls


Na Pali, Kauai’s signature vista


Looking east towards fabled Hanalei Bay. Our B&B is on the north shore (leftmost point) of the peninsula.

The flight took a little under an hour. The sights along the way included some of the venues where “Jurassic Park” was filmed.

After leaving the airport we continued on our own clockwise tour of the island, the first stop being Waimea Canyon, Kauai’s second most well-known geological feature. It is in the interior, accessible by a very winding 18 mile (30 km) road to a lookout point. The canyon itself is about 10 miles (16 km) long and 3000 ft (900 m) deep, strikingly reminiscent of a scale model of the Grand Canyon, thus:


Though very much younger than the Grand Canyon, it was formed by a similar erosive process. In the Grand Canyon’s case, that would be the Colorado River; Waimea Canyon was formed by rain runoff from 5000′ Mt. Waialeale, the second-highest peak on the island and purportedly the rainiest spot on the planet. Mt. Waialeale averages roughly 14″ (35 cm) of rain per day. You do not want to plan a picnic on Mt. Waialeale.

For our demographic there is little to do here except gawk at the declivity from the lookout point and take a bunch of pictures. It is true that there are bicycle tours that zoom down the side of the canyon, which is also threaded by hiking trails. I could plausibly claim that 35 years ago these are activities that we might have ambitiously undertaken. But I visited here 35 years ago and didn’t want to do it then either, so just enjoy the view. (Which, by the way, nicely illustrates the characteristic colors of Kauai: the iron-rich orange soil and red sedimentary stripes on the formations, dotted with emerald green vegetation.)

We snaked back down the mountain and continued our clockwise course until the road petered out altogether near Polihale State Park, at the westernmost point of the island. The beach there is spectacular: an endlessly long, broad, and flat expanse of coarse pale orange sand, terminating at the Na Pali cliffs a few miles to the north. On calm days, the water is so clear that you can see the sand being sucked up off the bottom by gentle waves as the rollers come close to shore. But that is not a sight for winter, when the surf is ceaselessly punishing.

The main problem with Polihale is getting there, since the last 4 miles of the road isn’t a road at all, but rather a spine-jangling washboard surface of packed dirt and small craters. You are not allowed to take rental cars there, and certainly not our rented Nissan Versa, which appears to be made out of aluminum foil. So I would like to state for the record that we were transported by a giant eagle, like Gandalf in “The Hobbit”.

Since this is the westernmost point of Kauai, it affords the best vantage point to glimpse the last major island in the Hawaiian chain: the “forbidden island” of Niihau, 17 miles (28 km) away. If the nickname sounds a tad melodramatic to you, here is what it looked like yesterday:


Yep, looks forbidden to me all right.

But the reason Niihau is called “forbidden” is not because the ancient gods will smite you if you land there, the above photo notwithstanding. No, you will be smitten by the lawyers from the Robinson family, a venerable clan of major Kauai landowners who own Niihau outright and maintain it as a preserve of Hawaiian culture. The residents are of native Hawaiian blood — among the very few left — and the primary language of the island is Hawaiian. Tourism is by and large forbidden, though there are a small number of special permits issued. The Robinsons also have an arrangement with the Navy, which maintains a small unmanned facility there which they occasionally use for training exercises.

How did this come about? The answer, simply enough, is that in 1864 a wealthy woman named Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair flat-out bought the island from Kamehameha V for $10,000 in gold. It passed down through the family and in 1915 her grandson Aubrey Robinson closed it off to visitors. Aubrey’s grandsons own the island today, along with significant swaths of Kauai itself.

I’ve mentioned Na Pali a number of times on this leg of the trip, not unreasonably because it is a genuinely extraordinary sight. We have so far seen it on foot during our hike two days ago, and yesterday by air. We were supposed to have completed the trifecta by taking a boat trip to it earlier this afternoon, but the excursion was canceled because we were the only people who signed up. We have rebooked it for Saturday, so stay tuned for yet more pictures of the place.


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Zipline-y Doo Dah….

Ziplines have become quite the fad in the last 15 years or so, which postdates the era that I lived on the Big Island. But the local tourism industry has caught up, of course, so Hawaii ziplining is now a thing. Which I suppose is good, since (a) it’s relatively eco-friendly and (b) heaven knows there are enough scenic venues here that are worth looking at whilst suspended on a steel cable. We became zipline aficionados a number of years ago in Costa Rica — which is where the whole thing started — and so of course we were not about to miss out here.

Our choice of zipline operator was Skyline Eco-Adventures, whom I can highly recommend. (Just click on their name to get their website.) Their big selling point was the fact that they operate near Akaka Falls, a tremendously scenic venue that I wrote about in an earlier post. Their outing takes you down seven ziplines of increasing length and height. You know the drill. First you get all suited up in a harness and helmet and pulleys and such, like Alice here:

Zipline Akaka-010

…and then they have you run off a ramp into the waiting jungle canopy. Here’s Alice again, sliding off into the distance, and waving cheerily to avoid looking down.

Zipline Akaka-011

This all leads up to the grand finale, which is a 3350 ft (1 km) cable that crosses the Kolekole river over Akaka Iki Falls — Akaka Falls’ little brother, a 250 ft (76 m) cataract — at a height of 250 ft (still 76 m) above the top of the cascade. For those of you keeping score, that’s 500 ft (152 m) above the riverbed. And here is what that looks like:

Zipline Akaka-014

The yellow-clad optimist at upper left is our friend Cindi, who with her husband John visited us for five days last week as our sojourn here began to wind down. What you cannot tell from the above photo is that she is moving at close to 40 mph (55 kph). You can also not hear her screaming. I promise you that this particular experience was every bit the adrenaline rush that you would expect it to be.

At the end of the line (literally) our refreshments consisted of apple bananas — the little tiny super-flavorful ones that grow here — plus fresh cut sugar cane. You can’t eat raw cane (it’s got the consistency of wet bamboo), so you chew it. This is a surprisingly refreshing thing to do: crushing the cane stalk with your molars releases the sugar-laden liquid, sweet and wonderful in your mouth.

We drove away from the experience chattering like lunatics as our adrenaline levels slowly retreated to normal, then drove back to Akaka Falls itself, which Cindi and John had not yet seen. The path was a lot more crowded than the last time we were here, a week or so ago. One reason for that is that weather was better this time; another was the presence of a bus full of schoolkids visiting from Oahu.

Akaka Falls-009

They were all wearing the blue teeshirts that you see in the photo, which show a silhouette of the battleship Arizona and the words “Always Remember the 7th of December 1941”. I have no idea what the children actually know about that particular event, nor why they were wearing those teeshirts in March; more interestingly, I also have no idea what the many Japanese tourists on the footpath thought about it.

It was still early enough in the afternoon for us to make one more stop on the Hamakua coastline as we headed back to Kona, so went to Laupahoehoe Beach Park. Laupahoehoe is known for one important thing besides being difficult to pronounce by tourists, and that is a particularly tragic tsunami.

The town sat right on the coast, and the wave hit on April 1, 1946. Many buildings were destroyed, but the one that was hit hardest and suffered the largest loss of life was, of all things, a schoolhouse. 24 people were killed, most of them children, and this sad memorial marks the spot. As you can see from the list of names, whole families of siblings were obliterated.


People still come and decorate it with flowers, seashells, and memorabilia.


The town itself is no longer on the coast, having relocated to higher ground up the steep hillside above the highway. The coastal area is now a popular beach park where people come to camp, fish, and goggle at the wild surf. Even without a tsunami, the waves and lava rocks at this place are violent and stunning to behold.

Laupahoehoe-003 Laupahoehoe-006

Hmmm. Seems like a bit of a downer to end this post on, especially as it is likely to be the last on this trip until we get home and post a link to the collected photos and videos in a couple of weeks; we overnight in Honolulu tomorrow, then head back to the mainland and home the day after. We’ve been gone for 5 1/2 weeks, our longest trip yet, and this stay has been such a success that we are planning on returning next year to the same house. As motivation to do so, the Big Island continues to taunt us with spectacular sunsets that we can watch every night from our lanai, the open patio at the back of our rented house. I’ll close with one from ten miles up the coast, taken a few days ago.

Kohala sunset-001

Aloha! Next stop: Japan in seven months!

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Petroglyphs, Rain Forests, and Waterfalls

The first humans to reach Hawaii originated in the Marquesas Islands in about 300 AD, though the major wave of settlement didn’t happen until about a thousand years later, in 1200-1300 with settlers from Tahiti. Both of those groups of extreme canoeists paddled here across more than 2500 miles (4000 km) of open water, navigating via the stars, winds, and patterns of seabird flights, not only without stopping at a 7-11 to ask directions, but with the additional handicap of having only inferred that their destination even existed. It is a virtually incomprehensible feat.

It is said — and the evidence is indirect at best — that the original settlers first made landfall at South Point here on the Big Island. They then got down to the serious business of not dying, and taking an occasional break to carve drawings into the unforgiving lava rock. Which brings us to the petroglyphs. The Big Island is dotted with fields of carvings that look like this.

Puako Petroglyph Preserve-001 Puako Petroglyph Preserve-008

Now, this would normally be my cue to launch into a discourse about the history and meaning of the carvings, but I will spare you this for the simple reason that these things are an utter mystery: nobody knows what they mean nor even when they were carved. The particular petroglyph field that we visited yesterday — the Puako Petroglyph Archaeological Preserve on the western coast of Kohala — is one of the larger and better studied groups, but even there the official signage is reduced to saying things like “We don’t know what these things are. What do you think?”  It is believed — for what it’s worth — that the carvings were made some time between the years 1000 and 1800, which is about as unhelpful a range of dates as you can imagine. (Imagine how well it would go over on a high school history test when you pointed out that a particular event took place somewhere between the Norman Conquest and the French Revolution.)

One of the few things that one can state with confidence is that most — but not all — of the drawings are human figures. (And no, they do not look like aliens.) It’s all a little bit spooky.

At the Puako petroglyph preserve, the spookiness is amplified by the setting, which is on a lava flow that one emerges onto after a short hike through what feels like some kind of haunted forest, along a rough path through groves of stunted and twisted trees.

Puako Petroglyph Preserve-003 Puako Petroglyph Preserve-005

At the end of the wooded path is the petroglyph field, a lava flow about the size of a couple of tennis courts, limned with burnt-looking trees. Virtually every square foot of it has a carving. You can see a couple of them clearly in the photo below, but in fact there are hundreds if not thousands.

Puako Petroglyph Preserve-007

It makes for an interesting if head-scratching outing. It’s hard not to wonder what these things are all about.

We had had a more conventional sightseeing experience a couple of days earlier on an outing to the Hamakua coast, the northeastern coast of the island that stretches between Hilo and the Kohala peninsula. It was a rainy day on that part of the island but we made the best of it, starting with a pilgrimage to the deservedly best-known purveyor of malasadas on the island, the Tex Drive In. Simply put, if you have not eaten malasadas from Tex, you have not truly visited the Big Island.

Tex Drive In-001 Tex Drive In-002

When I lived here in the early 1980’s, Tex Drive In was a little shack by the side of the road in the town of Honokaa. They sold malasadas and nothing else, and it is trite but true to say that people came from miles around to buy them. They prospered, and I was simultaneously pleased and disconcerted on this trip to discover that they are no longer in a little shack, though they are still by the side of the road in Honokaa. But the little shack has morphed into a grown-up building complete with a lunch menu and a gift shop. It feels a little like lost innocence but the good news is that the malasadas are still absolutely killer and cost only $1.10 each. So it’s hard to begrudge then their success.

Our touring ambitions were tempered by the downpour but we did make it to Akaka Falls, a 442 ft (135 m) cataract that is one of the highest and most beautiful on the island.

Akaka Falls-007

You reach it after traversing an easy paved walk along a rainforest trail — and on this particular day the emphasis was on the “rain” — whose ferns and banyans set the stage for your eventual view of the falls.

Akaka Falls-002 Akaka Falls-005 Akaka Falls-003

It’s always been one of my favorite sights on the island; back when I lived here, one of my favorite things to do was rent a small plane and fly out to the falls, just flying tight circles above it so I could admire them from above. Now you can do that at really close range: there’s some kind of zipline tour that takes you quite close to them, and Alice is agitating to do exactly that some time in the next week or so if we can find a day when it is not raining there.

Akaka Falls-008

Alice vows to return to Akaka Falls via zipline

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