Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Africa-Europe 2015 Day 1. Southwest Iceland

I woke up with a start as the wheels of the plane touched down, at 5:30 am, in the Keflavik airport in Iceland. The sky was overcast, and the pilot warned us that the temperature outside was 6º C (about 40º F). Since I had started from the Central Valley, where the day before the temperature had been 100º F, I was in for a bit of a temperature shock. After the necessary preliminaries of getting a pile of Icelandic krone from the ATM, and renting a car, I was ready to start. Here it was, a whole new country to discover, and no drizzle was going to stop me from being a dedicated tourist.

As I left the airport I was treated to the stark landscape so typical of Iceland: Lava flows that would appear to have erupted only yesterday, were it not for the carpet of moss that covers them, just like velvet. Not a tree anywhere, and not too many people either. Iceland has a total population of about 350,000, and a good two thirds of that population lives in Reykjavik, so although a bit of rain doesn’t seem to slow down anyone, the simple fact is that there is not that many people milling around at 7 am.

On the distance I saw big bellowing plumes of steam, so I headed that way to find a malpais of fresh basalt on which a geothermal power plant happily clanked away. The real attraction, however, was a vast pool of turquoise blue geothermal water, which is not surprisingly called the Blue Lagoon. After walking all around it I found out that it is a well developed spa, which definitely would have attracted this weary traveler, except that (a) they were not open until 8 am (the bums), and (b) it looked like the fancy kind of place that would be above my pay scale. What about the blue color? An informative sign claimed that the blue color is caused by microscopic algae that apparently thrive in the hot water.

Since I was already in the south I decided to follow the coast along what my map indicated was a scenic drive. It was mighty impressive and a true paradise for the volcanologist, but the lack of trees and people gave it a bit of an eerie feeling.

My next stop was at Geysir, another field of fumaroles and geysers that include The Geysir (the original!) and a couple of its buddies. The Geysir used to be pretty regular in the past, but now is at best moody, and on this particular day it was one of the smaller geysers that treated us to the tall spout of hot water and steam every 5 to 10 minutes.

Pushing farther east I got to “Gullfoss” which translates liberally to the Gold (Gull) Waterfall (foss). I was speechless. This enormous cataract is in the league of Niagara, Iguazu, and Victoria Falls. The water first roars down three different steps, and afterward spills sideways unto a narrow canyon, in a display of power and beauty that only unfettered water can have.

Thoroughly impressed I headed for Pingvellir (pronounced Thinkvellir), a National Park established where the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Ridge reaches the ocean. This is a shrine to plate tectonics, so I had to go there and make the ritual walk along the wall. Actually, the wall one sees is just one of the many clefts that mark the relentless separation of the American and Pacific plates, but I did find a couple of spots that I could point to and scream “Behold, Africa and Europe are moving away from each other!” After waking up from my reverie (or is it jet lag catching up with me?) I saw in the distance the lake left behind by the retreating glacier and … surely my eyes deceive me … but I could swear it is she … yes, I think it is: Surtsey, the island that grew out of the ocean in a series of cataclysmic eruptions in the 1960’s (whether it was or not it makes for a good bit of storytelling).

I am falling asleep, so I will finish this by saying that once again my uncanny sense of orientation (or plain good luck) allowed me to get to my hotel in Reykjavik without a hitch. To my good fortune the hostel has an excellent cook, who tonight treated me to a whale fillet that was absolutely delicious (needs to be pretty rare, just like liver, or it will turn hard and chewy, again just like liver). It is a very dark meat, so I wonder if the taste arises from its abundance of oxygenated blood cells, again just like liver.

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