Friday, October 5, 2018

Africa Blog Posts

Africa: Day 1
Nairobi, Kenya: Day 2
Journeys through rural Kenya: Day 3
Tanzania: Day 4
The Serengeti: Day 5
The Serengeti and a hot air balloon ride: Day 6
Leaving the Serengeti: Day 7
Ngorongoro Crater: Day 8
Back to Nairobi & Flying to Zambia: Days 9 & 10
Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe: Day 11
Devil's Pool & a Sunset Cruise on the Zambezi, Zambia: Day 12
Botswana - Chobe National Park: Day 13
Leaving Africa, acclimatizing in London, and bringing it all home: Days 14-17

Choir Tour Posts 2012 & 2014: Austria, Germany, Italy, Netherlands

2012:
The sounds of Salzburg
Singing Bruckner in Austria
Last Day in Austria

2014:
Reflections from the plane: Choir Tour Day 1
Wandering Venice: Choir Tour Day 2
Singing in Basilica di San Marco: Choir Tour Day 3
Last day in Venice and concert at San Palo church: Choir Tour Day 4
The Thomaskirche (Leipzig Germany): Choir Tour Day 6
Singing in Leipzig: Choir Tour Day 7
Bachfest Leipzig 2014: Choir Tour Day 8
Goodbye Bach, Hello Buxtehude...: Choir Tour Day 9
Performing Sunday service in the Marienkirche - Choir Tour Day 10
Striving for Perfection: Choir Tour Day 11
Performing in Martinikerk in Groningen, Netherlands : Choir Tour Day 12
Last concert in Amsterdam: Choir Tour Day 13

Portugal Blog Posts


On the way to Portugal: Introduction
Day 1 - Quinta da Regaleira
Day 2 - Cabo da Roca & Praia da Ursa
Day 3 - Moorish Castle and Palace of Pena
Day 4 - Batalha & Tojal
Day 5 - Nazaré
Day 6 - Coimbra & Conímbriga
Day 7 - Peneda-Gerês
Day 8: Porto
Day 9 - Serra da Estrela
Day 10 - Évora & the Cromlech of the Almendres
Days 11 - 13: The Algarve (Benagil & Marinha beaches, Sagres, Cape St. Vincent, and Odeceixe)
Day 14: Lisboa de mil amores (Lisbon of a thousand loves)
Day 15: Last Day in Lisbon, & Saying Goodbye to Portugal
Route map - coming soon!

Links to all Iceland blog entries


Day 1: Reykjavik 
Day 2: The Golden Circle
Day 3: South Iceland
Day 4: Skaftafell / Vatnajökull National Park
Day 5: Ice & Mountains: East Iceland
Day 6: Djupivogur & East Fjords
Day 7: Northeast Iceland & Myvatn
Day 8: Trolls, Caves, & Craters: North Iceland
Day 9: Siglufjordur & Hofsos
Day 9 Addendum: Campervan Living & Aurora Borealis
Day 10: North Iceland
Day 11: West Iceland
Day 12: Snaefellsness Peninsula
Day 13: The real magic of Iceland
How much does it cost to go to Iceland?
Route maps - Coming Soon!

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Backcountry trip log: North Tea Lake (August 5 - 7 2018)



Solitude is not lonely.  It is rich, teeming.  The wind rushing through the tops of the evergreens.  The small splashing laps on the granite shores.  The warmth of a rock underneath me . The haunt of a loon's cry from across the lake.

These sounds are not only company in this otherwise human-less place, but they are souvenirs.  I tuck them into my mind, one at a time, until I am sure they are fully secured for the long journey home.

***

Ready to set out on
Kawawaymog Lake
After a long drive from Toronto and a night spent in North Bay, we were on the water, canoe fully packed, by 10:30am.  The paddle across Kawawaymog Lake started off quietly; the lake was mostly still.  However, as we got farther into the open water, the winds picked up and soon we had some white-capping waves hitting parallel to the boat.  Instead of continuing in a straight line towards the river mouth we were heading to (Amable du Fond), I steered us in a zig-zag fashion across the lake instead, in order to avoid the dreaded waves hitting parallel to the boat.  It took us roughly an hour to paddle the 2km of Kawawaymog in this fashion.

We were rewarded by a long, leisurely paddle of almost 4km in the Amable du Fond River.  This narrow river twists and turns almost constantly, meandering through tall grasses, lily pads, the occasional duck family, and a backdrop of tall evergreens.  The paddle is almost completely silent.  Despite it being a long weekend, there is a surprising lack of people, for which are are grateful.  We especially enjoy the sight of frogs resting with their eyes just above the water.  The pairs of round yellow watching us curiously as we paddled through their home keep us company.





Finally, we reached our first portage.  It was a short one (65m), but the very first one we had ever done.  We managed to flip the canoe over our heads and I held it stable while Jen arranged herself under the yoke.  Then I walked over to the front to keep it steady, and up the hill we went, carefully stepping around tree roots, rocks, and steep sections.  At the top, it was a very short walk back down to the water.  It took us a couple more trips to retrieve all our gear and re-load it into the canoe.  In total, it took us 25 minutes - a little slow, but not bad for our first one - and highly satisfying!
Paddling on Amable du Fond River


Some of the stairs at the second portage
After another section of river paddling, we soon approached the second portage.  This one had a pretty little waterfall rushing over the rocks and boulders.  We balked a little at the sight of the long wooden staircase - we were supposed to carry a canoe up that?! - but got to work and somehow (with some stops, bangs, and hastily shouted instructions to each other) managed to get the canoe up the stairs, through the short hike in the woods, and down the stairs on the other side of the falls.  The gear was next, and after all was said and done it took us 25 minutes to do this longer portage of 255m.  I'm hoping this means we're getting the hang of it!

Paddling North Tea Lake
The end of this portage brought us to North Tea Lake.  We had reserved 2 nights on the West Arm of this lake, so we set about paddling and looking for a free campsite (you don't reserve a specific site, you just get access to whatever site is available on the lake you've reserved).  We decided to check out the first small island we saw, but unfortunately there was already a canoe there, so we continued our paddle in search of another site, probably one of the ones on each of the shores.

As we were wondering whether to go to the north or south shore, the winds picked up considerably, and soon we were paddling through white-capping waves that were lifting us up and down like a toy boat on a raging sea.  When you're in the back country, you're on your own.  If you get into trouble or the dreaded flip happens, there's no one around to rescue you, or even notice.  So I made a beeline for the nearest land we could safely get to, a large island with several campsites marked on the map.  I managed to steer through the waves and winds enough to get us onto shore in one piece, but it wasn't a great landing spot and in order to minimize the risk of damaging the boat we didn't pull it all the way up onto the rocks.  We sat on the rocks and held onto the canoe that was being pushed and pulled by the waves, trying to angle it so not too much water would get inside, while we looked at the map and tried to get our bearings.

Walking on uneven rocky shorelines is a recipe for me spraining my very weak ankles, so Jen walked carefully on the rocks and around the corner of the island while I stayed with the boat, hoping to find a vacant campsite somewhere on the other side.

She eventually returned.  No campsite, but she did think it might be possible for her to walk the canoe through knee deep water around this side of the island and bring it to the calmer waters she had seen around the corner.

I carefully followed along on the rocky shore (hiking boots firmly on my feet), occasionally orienting the end of the boat for her as she persistently walked the boat through the disorienting waves, while also walking on uneven rocks she couldn't see under the water.  Somehow, she made it around the corner.

We found a campsite!

The other side of the island was like a different world - a flat still lake with barely any wind.  Relieved, we hopped back into the boat and continued our search for a campsite.  Thankfully, we didn't have to go too far.  We soon approached another small island - one of the only two in the West Arm of Tea Lake that had a single campsite on it.  Miraculously, it was unoccupied - we'd gotten our own private island after all.  It was 4:30pm - we'd been paddling for 6 hours and were exhausted.  We quickly pulled ashore, got the gear out of the boat, and rummaged around for our tiny campstove, a pot, and the coffee grinds.  Priorities!
Making coffee

After the day's exhaustion, sitting on our own little island, surrounded by pine trees and silence, looking out at the pale blue water, it was probably the best cup of coffee I'd ever had.

Camp didn't take us very long to set up, and soon after I was in the water for a swim.  I took our empty water container with me and swam out to the middle of the lake for some clean water, and then brought it back to camp so we could put our water treatment tablets in it.


It's incredible that so much wild, natural beauty still exists in Ontario.  This is worlds away from car camping, where you are packed into small spaces of green alongside so many other people, and the wildness is only an illusion due to the presence of park rangers and your own vehicle right beside you.  Car camping of course has its place, but it isn't this.  This utter aloneness, freedom, and just a touch of anxiety and thrill at knowing you're completely dependent upon your self for survival.

After preparing dinner, we carried it over to a nice lookout rock on the tip of the island.  There is a short path that cuts through the trees and involves a climb over a large fallen tree (which is awkward at best when you're just going for a walk over there, and considerably moreso when you're carrying your dinner and a camp chair.
Enjoying dinner on the tip of the island

Camp dinner

We set up for dinner on the rock, and looked out at the sunset while enjoying our meal of egg noodles, alfredo sauce, re-hydrated vegetables, fresh yellow bell pepper, and diced pepperoni sticks (I always try and make sure we have a fresh veggie and a protein source in all our meals).  We couldn't see or hear anyone else.  It was just us, the now calm lake, the island's lone resident red squirrel, and the Song Sparrows flitting in the trees.

Doing dishes, backcountry style
After doing the dishes and packing up any loose ends for the night, we head into our tiny tent by 9:30pm.  Partly because we were so tired and partly because we heard the rumble of thunder in the distance.  A few minutes later, the storm starts.

We huddle in the dark as the wind whips around us.  I clutch onto the fly through the mesh of our dome tent, perhaps irrationally worried it isn't attached securely enough and that the wind will rip it away.  The thin tent material flaps wildly in the strong winds, and then the rain starts - pellets of intense water hitting us from all sides.  Somehow, my little $30 tent doesn't have a single leak.  The thunder and lightning are happening simultaneously, so we know the storm is directly above us. 

It makes one feel very fragile, sitting in a pitch-black tent, while all that protects you from the wild winds, the flashes of light in the sky, the cracks of loud thunder, and the endless rain, is a thin piece of grey and blue fabric.  Nevertheless, there's also a thrill in it, sitting and waiting out a wild storm, completely alone on an island, at least a 6 hour's paddle from any sort of civilization.

When there's a pause in the rain and wind, I can hear the piercing call of the loon echoing across the lake.

After about an hour the storm passes, and we sleep, only to be woken a few hours later by another, even more intense storm.

***

After tossing and turning most of the night, we eventually end up in some sort of sleep, and make our way out of the tent around 10am.  Breakfast is instant pancake mix with dried blueberries mixed in, and a little container of maple syrup. And, of course, coffee. "What's the plan for today?" Jen asks.  "Nothing!" I reply back cheerfully. 

Morning sunrise

The resident red squirrel

And that's exactly what we did.  Every muscle in our bodies was sore due to the previous day's hard paddling and portaging, so we enjoy just sitting and looking at the lake.  I sit on a rock and write in my journal, Jen dozes in the sun.  Later I go for another swim in the cool water.  The day is cloudy but humid, and the lake feels incredibly refreshing.  I try and memorize this moment - the stillness of the lake punctuated by the ripples from my breaststroke, the surrounding forests of green, the reflections of the clouds on the water, the sight of Jen sitting in a navy blue campchair perched on the pink and moss-green coloured rocks at the tip of our island.  And the silence.  Always the silence.

Later in the afternoon, we put up a tarp because we could see it might rain again.  It did, but no storm this time.  It was relaxing to just sit under our makeshift shelter, look out at the lake, listening to the pitter-patter of raindrops, watch our resident little squirrel run around, and just be.

Going for a swim
Our rain shelter


Even though there was a fire ban, who says we can't
practice using our new fold-able saw,
even if we can't actually burn the wood?

Blogging, back country style

***

Writing, especially publicly, is difficult.  I often wonder who I am writing for - who is the "reader", or the "listener"?  I think here, in this virtual space, I am mostly writing for myself.  I am trying to capture certain moments in detail, so I can preserve the feelings associated with them.  But I think there is simultaneously another listener I write for - you, whoever you are.  A person who either can relate to these experiences and wants to read about them from a fresh perspective, or someone who will never have these particular experiences simply because of a different, no less meaningful life journey, and reads these posts in order to be brought to different places and experiences.

I know there are plenty of other reasons people stumble upon these virtual pages and read these words, but I cannot possibly write for all.  The meaning I make of my experiences is entirely my own, and that is the difficult part of being a writer.  Writing carries with it a certain level of power; an almost pre-supposition from the Reader that what the Writer is saying is "right" or "true".  I make none of these claims - I only try and capture what I feel I need to, in the way I that I feel is the most meaningful for me at the time.  Why do it in a public space, then?  I'm not sure.  Perhaps because we all need some form of social sharing, and I've never been much good at speaking.  Or perhaps because it keeps me accountable; forces me to put coherent frames around my experiences which is not only a benefit to the reader but also to myself.

But, I digress...

***

After our wonderful day of doing nothing on our private island, we again went to bed early, this time sleeping a little better.  We woke the next morning at 6:30am, had breakfast, and packed up camp while drinking our coffee.  By 8:30am we were on the water.  We had looked at the map the night before and decided on the best route back, depending on the wind.  Thankfully, the early morning start meant very little wind, and we paddled easily across North Tea Lake back to the first portage, with only a little headwind slowing us down in the middle.

It didn't take us much less time to complete either portage, but at least we felt like we were getting more fluent at the whole process.  We even managed to take all our gear in one trip this time, rather than going back and forth.
Leaving our campsite

Our campsite, all packed up

The day had started off cloudy and a little cool, but soon the sun was out and keeping us warm, while the occasional breeze made it very comfortable.  Unlike our first day, the humidity was gone, so that was a relief as well.  We paddled back along the Amable du Fond River, enjoying the solitude (that was occasionally interspersed by a canoe or two passing by this time).  We didn't speak much, just paddled, looked for frogs, and enjoyed how far we still were from noisy city life.

We reached the mouth of the Kawawaymog Lake and rather than stopping for a rest, decided to just paddle through for the home stretch.  There was a strong headwind but at least we were paddling directly at the small waves, so no need to zig zag across the lake this time.  We paddled almost perfectly in a straight line until we finally reached the dock at Access Point #1, where our car was.  The whole trip was just over 4 hours - we'd shaved off 2 hours from the way there.  What a difference the wind and weather can make!

As we pulled the boat onto the dock and unloaded the gear, Jen and I high-fived each other.  "We did it!"  Backcountry trip #2 is under our belt.  Slowly we're gaining experience.
Using a Life Straw to drink
directly from the river

I already can't wait to go back.  There's something about the demanding physicality of it that is incredibly meditative.  When all you have to focus on is getting through the basics of the day - food, water, shelter, transportation, warmth, safety - there isn't much space for anything else.  My mind, having such functional and vital necessities to focus on, has little room for function-less anxiety or wandering. 

Amable du Fond River
Simultaneously sensing both how strong and how fragile you really are is somehow not frightening but a kind of joy.  This sort of mindfulness presence to every moment is something I've been trying to learn for years, and have been focused on even more intently as of late.  I sat on our rock at the tip of our island one evening at dusk, and tried to focus on the sound of waves lapping the shore - there were three patterns I could hear simultaneously.  Every once in a while random thoughts would float through my head, but I'd try to just notice them and then let go of them.  Immerse myself in the sounds of the water.

For I knew that, once I was back home, sitting in front of this computer screen, that I'd need to be able to close my eyes and remember it again - not only the sounds, the sights, or the feelings - but the stillness.

The best kind of souvenir.




Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Daughter











I baked myself a cake
the way you would have.

I didn't realize what I was doing at first,
as I grated the beets,
purple juices staining my hands.

I remember the first time you made it;
we were both amazed by the pink batter,
and equally as surprised when it came out of the oven
a different colour, no pink remaining.

I thought of that as I pulled my own cake out,
chocolate brown and steaming.

As I shook the rainbow sprinkles over top,
I realized I was mothering myself;
replacing your absence with an unconscious recreation of
birthdays past.

***

Who am I to you now -

A cake you painstakingly baked,
only to pull it out of the oven and see it didn't come out
as you expected;
all the pink gone?


Saturday, April 14, 2018

How much does it cost to go to Iceland?

I've seen this question asked many times, and obviously the answer differs wildly depending on where you are coming from, what you want to do in Iceland, how long you're there for, what sorts of accommodations or tours you select, and what you plan on eating. 

However, I thought it might be useful to provide a real-life costs breakdown of what we spent on our 2 week trip around the full Ring Road in a campervan (we went March 28 - April 10), so that others who are planning a similar campervan-style trip can get an idea of what you would be spending. 

We debated for a long time on doing the campervan versus a regular car and booking accommodations along the way.  We eventually decided on the campervan because we were concerned the very unpredictable winter weather in Iceland and frequent road closures would cause us to miss our booked accommodations.  We also wanted more freedom to explore, especially know the weather could very well keep us from many of the things on our itinerary, so we wanted the luxury of being as free as possible to counteract that, should it happen.

Campervan life is not for everyone, but it worked for us at this time in our lives.  Always consider how much winter driving experience you have before driving in Iceland, regardless of the vehicle.  White-outs, icy roads, blowing snow, and gail-force winds are common.  You can check the road conditions on road.is and safetravel.is, which are both updated very frequently, and plan your day accordingly.  We would check every hour, or even more frequently!  The weather in Iceland changes every five minutes.

Anyway, back to costs.  All amounts below are in Canadian Dollars.

Campervan: $2855 for 13 days.  (Includes gravel insurance + 5 fuel canisters for cooking)
We chose to go with the company CampEasy.  Our main deciding factor was that they have many great resources on their website for winter camping, which showed us that they really equip their vehicles properly for winter camping in Iceland.  They also had very good reviews on their heating system, which they've equipped with extra batteries so that it can run all night.  We were NEVER cold - in fact, some mornings we would wake up hot!  We booked their "Easy Auto" as it was the cheapest vehicle that had automatic, but were pleasantly surprised when they upgraded us to the Easy Clever, which has 4x4.  It drove beautifully through anything Iceland's winter threw at us (which was quite a lot at times!)


Camping Fees: $188 per person, for 12 nights in campgrounds
Freedom camping is illegal in Iceland, so you must find a campground to stay in for the night, and register your vehicle and pay the associated fees.  Campgrounds typically give you access to indoor bathrooms, showers (sometimes for an extra fee and sometimes free), indoor cooking facilities in case you're tired of cooking in the campervan and/or want to save your fuel.  An extra perk of these campground facilities is that campers who are at the end of their trip leave spare food in the "free food" shelves - a great way to stock up on pasta, rice, salt, pepper, coffee, tea, sugar, cooking oil, and sometimes more exciting things like cookies or soup or oatmeal.  Some of the camping facilities also have laundry machines which you can access for an extra fee - a great way to make sure you pack light!

Gas: $701 for 2000 kilometres of driving
Gas stations in Iceland can be few and far between, so we always kept the gas tank full as much as possible.  The heating system burns a little bit of fuel during the night, so that accounts for some of the gas usage as well.  We also had an N1 discount fuel card which helped saved a bit of money.

Flights: $551 per round-trip flight from Toronto-Reykjavik with WOW Air.  
This includes the baggage fees to add on a carry-on as well as a checked bag for each leg of our trip.  Even though most airlines don't charge you these fees for bags, the total cost still ended up being less than with any other airline we could find.  Of course this cost will vary wildly for the time of year you go as well as where you are travelling from.

Bragdavellir Cottages
Accommodations: $410 for 3 nights in different places
We booked a private room in a hostel for our first and last night in Reykjavik, as well as splurged on one night in the beautiful Bragdavellir Cottages in the middle of our trip to have a little break from the campervan.  Obviously this cost would vary considerably as well, depending on your preferences.  One of the nights in Rekyjavik had a free breakfast included which was great and saved on costs.  We preferred to have a private room but if you wanted to do it even more cheaply you could always book in a 4-bed or 8-bed hostel dorm room.
Myvatn Nature Baths

Activities: $394 per person, for 6 activities
Much of Iceland's beauty is free!  However, if you want to have some guided experiences or access to particular places, they come at a cost.  We spent $5.40 to see Kerid crater, $10.72 to access Vestrahorn mountain, $56.30 for Myvatn Nature Baths, $49.83 for the tour of the Vatnshellir Lava Tube, $11.94 entrance fee to Hofsos swimming pool, and $260 for a guided glacier hike and ice cave experience.  If you aren't renting a car or campervan, there are plenty of tour companies that offer bus tours to many of the major attractions, especially in the Golden Circle.  There are even "Northern Lights" tour companies that will take you out at night and search for the aurora with you.  We didn't do any of these so we don't know the costs, but worth looking into if you aren't comfortable driving in Iceland's winters.

Groceries: $183 for 2 people over 2 weeks
We were actually surprised by how little we managed to spend on groceries in such an expensive country as Iceland.  In a land where everything is imported and a red bell pepper can cost you $8, it takes a lot of planning and creativity to eat cheaply and healthily while living in a campervan!  We made sure to bring instant soup, oatmeal, granola bars, granola, mac & cheese, pepperoni sticks, beef jerky, flavoured tuna, hot chocolate, coffee, and trail mix from home.  These items stretched us a LONG way and complemented many of our meals, while saving us a ton of money.  What we ended up buying at the grocery store was mostly perishables - the famous Skyr, eggs, bacon, a couple of vegetables, hamburgers, cooked chicken, hummus, cheese, milk, bread, and fruit (yes, the campervan even comes with a little fridge!)  One of the meals I'm most proud of is turning a simple mac and cheese into a "campervan gourmet" meal with sauteed carrots, diced pepperoni sticks, spicy chili oil someone had left in a "free food" shelf, and roasted garlic, with some cucumber slices and hummus on the side.

Eating out: $146 between two people for three bakery visits, one nice dinner in Reykjavik, and hot dogs & ice cream in Rekyjavik
Fish & Chips in Reykjavik
Campervan meals
We spent a lot of money in bakeries because they are amazing in Iceland and worth every penny.  The fish and chips meal we had our first night in Reykjavik, as well as the famous hot dogs and ice cream in Reykjavik were also worth it.  I definitely recommend splurging on a nice meal at least once when you are campervan living - life isn't just about the scenery!
Miscellaneous costs: $95
Included in these costs are two SIM cards for our phones, fees to access some of the public toilets, and shower/laundry fees.

Souvenirs: Variable! 
Everything, and I mean everything, in Iceland is incredibly expensive, so we limited the souvenirs we bought.  One notable mention was our purchases from JFS Handcrafts.  We felt very good about supporting the local community by buying from this wonderful artist who collects fallen reindeer antlers and beautiful stones up in the mountains on his hikes, and then crafts them into different pieces of art.  One of the highlights of our trip was a visit to his awesome little shop and stone garden.

If I did the math right, two people travelling together in a campervan and splitting costs would spend about $3328 CAD per person if they did the same kind of trip we did.  These are of course very rough estimates as everyone has a different situation and preferences!  Hope it was helpful to anyone currently planning their Iceland trip.

Monday, April 9, 2018

The real magic of Iceland: Day 13

I was woken at 5am by the wind rattling our van from side to side.  Heart pounding, I checked road.is and safetravel.is for any wind or weather warnings, but even the websites were asleep, little question marks where the information on road conditions usually is.  Jen slept through it all, while I lay awake for at least an hour, hearing the howling winds outside, sensing the rocking of the van from side to side, and feeling utterly alone and fragile in this big, vast country.  Somehow, eventually, I fell back to sleep.

***

When we woke in the morning, the sun was shining, the air was warm, and the winds were gone.  We made ourselves one last breakfast and then cleaned up and organized the campervan in preparation for our return to Reykjavik.

The only target we had for today was a hidden hot spring.  We drove on a dirt and gravel road for a few minutes. There was an open space to park in, and then we headed down a little trail, wondering where the "hot pot" was.  We could see some stones in the distance; that must be it.
The path to the hidden hot spring

The path to get to the hot spring led us to a creek crossing, that had some stones strategically placed to assist with the crossing.  We made it across without too much trouble, and as we approached we saw the small circle of stones surrounding a hole in the ground, and two young girls bathing in it.  They told us we could feel the water, and when we dipped our hands in, it was hot!

After heading back to the campervan to wait for the girls to be done, we changed into our bathing suits and then headed down the path again.  We took our outer clothes off until we were just in our bathing suits.  The air was cool against our bare skin, and we wasted no time in hopping into the little pool.

The heat was incredible on our tired, cold, wind-worn bodies.  We soaked and relaxed in this snug little pool that's only big enough for two.  We were completely alone for the first little while.  We looked out at the mountains in the distance and the fields of moss, lichen, and shrubs that surrounded us.  The hot water, naturally heated from an underground spring, soothed away all the leftover emotional and physical scars left by the ice, the snow, the cold, bitter winds, and left us feeling utterly relaxed.
Hidden hot spring in the mountains

It was hard to pull ourselves away from this special place; our last immersion in Iceland's elements, but eventually we managed.

As we drove back to Reykjavik via the longer, scenic mountain pass, rather than the route that goes through the Toll tunnel, I still felt the warmth and heat in all of my muscles.  The soothing feeling stayed with me.

The road we took was almost completely empty of other people the entire way, and the solitude on these windy mountain roads gave me time to let my experiences of Iceland sink into me.  Everything about Iceland's nature was a physical experience for me - not just beautiful sights for the eyes, as is often the case when traveling.
The scenic route back to Reykjavik

From the snowstorm that blinded us while driving through the fjords, to the freezing mist from waterfalls drenching us, to the wind that threatened to knock us over as we hiked, to the swirling snow that we trudged through, to the slippery ice that made us hold on tightly to handrails or put our crampons on, to the strong smell of sulfur in the geothermal areas, to the utter darkness of the lava tube, to the deafening sounds of crashing waterfalls or waves against the shore, to the startling-to-the-eye black sand beaches or shining blue glaciers, everything we experienced was not only a beautiful experience, but a visceral one. 

In a very real way, our bodies became part of the landscape as we moved through it.  The elements are to be respected here; weather rules above all.  The locals know this, and the advice we got from everywhere was constant - always check the weather, always check the roads, and be prepared to change your plans.  Or better yet, have no plans at all.

To be at the complete mercy of the landscape and elements around you is a humbling learning experience.  This is part of the real beauty and magic of Iceland, that I think some of those buses full of tourists snapping selfies and moving on, miss.  You cannot truly know Iceland without giving yourself to Iceland, without letting go of any preconceived notion of what you want to see or do, just let it happen to you, and have the tools and skills to overcome whatever the weather throws at you.

If you do this, then you will fall deeply in love with this strange land of contrasts.  Ice and fire.  Snow and water.  Wind and stillness.  Mountains, and barren landscapes.  Exhaustion and deep relaxation.  Even, grief and joy.

Thank you, Iceland.  We will return.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Snaefellsness Peninsula: Day 12

Today, Iceland was a sensory experience.  Every part of my body felt it, in every way possible.
We climbed a small crater in blustering winds, sometimes so strong I would loose my footing on the staircase leading up the side of the crater.

Staircase on the crater






We drove to one of the westernmost tips of the peninsula, and looked for sea birds atop black basalt cliffs, as the raging sea crashed blue and white below us.  To get there we drove through a lava field, dirt road barely etched out amidst the ancient magma.  The van bumped and rumbled through the potholes until we felt it in every part of our bodies, but the views from those basalt cliffs was worth it.
Fulmars

Sleeping Fulmars

We saw a yellow sand beach, startling to the eyes after all these weeks of black sand.  It seemed out of place, as if we'd been transported to another place, far from Iceland.  I blinked, making sure it was really yellow.  We walked along the small patch of beach, marveling at the beauty of the band on the beach where the black sand and the yellow sand met.  We had been in search of puffins, after a report that one was seen yesterday in this area.  No luck on the puffins, but it didn't matter.

Then, a lava tube.  Deep underground we went with a tour guide, via a spiral staircase.  Helmets strapped on and flashlight at the ready, I tentatively stepped forward and explored the cave, taking care with the uneven ground.  It was cool in the cave, but not windy like it had been outside.  The eerie shapes of ancient melted and hardened lava surrounded us.  Our guide told stories of old trolls that used to live down here and hold assemblies; I could believe it.

Further into the tube we went, crouching down at one point to get from one tunnel to another.  Nothing lives in these lava caves except for tiny bacteria on the ceilings, sparkling like stars when we shone our flashlights upwards.  Then, he had us all turn our flashlights off.
Staircase into the lava tube

Inside the lava tube

We all stood still and quiet as we were plunged into pitch blackness.  I closed my eyes.  I opened them.  It was the same.  Nothingness.  I held on to Jen, irrationally feeling as if I was going to loose my balance simply because I couldn't see anything.  Everyone in the group was utterly silent, as we all stood motionless, listening to the sounds of glacial water dripping from the roof of of lava cave.  It was disorienting, but also strangely comforting and meditative.  There was nothing to see, and no way to see it.  For someone who is used to seeing, it forced my other senses to temporarily become more acute.  I could hear the delicate music of the individual drops of water falling on the cave floor; I could feel my body in space, almost as if I were disconnected from the ground.  It was a strange feeling.

Back in the light of day (and the intense wind that wouldn't let up), we headed to Djúpalónssandur.  This is easily one of my favourite places in Iceland.  The moss-covered lava fields, the basalt and lava cliffs, the crashing of the sea on the sandy black beach full of round black pebbles - it was all like something out of a dream.  I was drawn to one particular opening in a rock that reminded me of the rock opening in Dummiborgir, the land of trolls and a few elves; I felt as if this was another Elven portal.  Through it, I could see a shining blue pool framed by the greens and reds of the mosses on the orange and brown tinged lava rocks.



I went slowly down the trail to the beach, where I could see the pool from the other side.  I spent a lot of time here, looking out at the impassable blue pool and the feathery lichens and mosses that coated the rocky formations.  Everywhere seemed to house the magic of elves, and I again felt as if I were in another time or place.  Even the black pebbles, some perfectly round and smooth, almost tingled when I touched them, as if they held powerful magic.

I did eventually manage to tear myself away, though it was hard.  The mysterious, rugged beauty of this place seemed to pull me further and further in (or inwards), and I had trouble leaving.  It will be a place I return to, for sure.
Londrangar

The Lóndrangar basalt cliffs were our next visit.  We could see the cliffs from afar, but wanted to take the hike to see them up close.  I led the way, carefully following a barely-marked trail through a rocky lava field covered in snow.  The wind was relentless; we didn't have the energy to speak, or look around, just walk forward, one step in front of the other.  After what seemed like ages, we finally reach the sides of the cliffs.  These towering, impressive rock formations, standing in the wild sea, as we stood beside each other with not a single soul around, seemed to make it really hit home how isolated and raw Iceland's beauty really is.

I stood on the edge of the cliff we had been hiking on, staring out at the white surf crashing against the ancient solidified lava, and I spread my arms out and just let the wind thrust itself against me.  I felt like a kite, simultaneously blown back against my own will, but also suspended, as if I could take flight at any moment.  It was a wild feeling, and I let all my senses just dissolve and feel it.  There's no room for anxiety or sadness or confusion when one is living perfectly in the moment.  And in that moment, there was only wind and surf, moving through me.
One of Iceland's oldest wooden churches

A few last stops were made before we headed to our campsite for night.  Arnstapi, the picturesque arch in the sea, as well as a walk further down the trail where there was a similar one that could be walked on.  We took turns walking carefully across the stone bridge (it's much wider than the photos make it look, and not as terrifying as you would initially think).  Standing there with the wind blowing all around me, hundreds of fulmars flying in all directions, and the crashing of the waves in a cove right in front of me, was exhilarating.  I don't usually go for these sorts of experiences, but when I'm with Jen I'm always along for the ride.  This time, as most times, it was definitely worth it.

 ***

Last night, we drove around the small town we were camping in, looking for a place to watch for the aurora borealis.  The lights of the town were obscuring the sky, so Jen took the campervan on the road in the dark, as we searched for a good spot.  Our first choice was a romantic, if a little frightening in the dark, spot very close to the shore.  Unfortunately there were still a few lights on the horizon that were affecting our ability to focus properly on the night sky, so we decided to drive the 25 minutes down the road to the viewpoint for Kirkjufell.

As soon as we got out of the van, we could see a faint tinge of green lighting up the sky behind and above the mountain.  Excitedly, we stood watch as the sky changed; mostly faint green and white/grey, but the intensity and patched would constantly change and move around.  It was magical.  So much more different than our first aurora experience, but just as incredible.  We stood watch in the dark, staring at this incredible mountain, the thousands of stars, and the softly changing lights.



This is life.  Nothing but this moment.  This is Iceland's lesson for me.

I hope I'm learning it.