The next day on our drive back to Reykjavik, we stopped in Hveragerdi, the hot spring capitol of the world. This is a highly geothermal area with pillars of steam and mudpots spewing from the earths crust. In Iceland, "The climate is harsh. Plants die quickly unless they are lovingly cared for, in which case they die slowly" (1) . This area has learned to excel in horticulture, and is known for their greenhouses, which are constantly lighted.
We drove to the end of town and parked next to a couple dozen vehicles, and started the hike up a valley to a hot river. The steam was thick at times and almost hard to breath when you walked through it. We found the river pools and a boardwalk along the banks. I choose upriver to soak, thinking it would be the cleanest, but the water was almost too hot to stand. My skin turned a brighter shade of pink. We decided to move down river thinking we were too close to the source. It was better down stream, but I laid out on the boardwalk which was still warm in the bright sunlight. Unfortunately these little flies began to bite, and we head back down.
Two guys struck up a conversation with us in perfect English, asking what there is to do in Iceland. They just met up, one from AZ and one from Phily, and only had a few days, and little to no money. I told them my opinion based upon what they wanted to see (glaciers), "Head East!". Mark whipped out the map and became their tour guide, telling them what to write down, and how to get there. Rookies no more are we, back in the saddle of leadership. This happened more as time went on, our experiences grew, and more newbies arrived. That night was spent in a studio apartment with the Aurora guesthouse. The organized part of our tour ended and the unknown part began.
After mailing a few postcards and paying the parking tickets from day 1, we drove east again, first stopping in Grindavik. A Canadian couple we met in Fludir left us their camping card and fuel discount card "in the men's washroom, on the windowsill above the urinal closest to the window. Attached is also the map." Well, the map was gone the next day, but we got the cards!
We stopped at the impossible-to-pronounce, Eyjafjallajökull volcano visitor center. This showcased the notorious 2010 erruption that caused canceled flights to Europe making headlines around the world. Intrigued by the south coast, we thought setting up tent in front of Skogafoss, below this volcano, would be a great start for a hike we found in Lonely Planet. Come to find out later that it's an optional start of the world famous Laugavergur trail. This is where we came alive. Camping and hiking is our element.
It misted rain a bit that night and we took advantage of sleeping in. Seeing that the trail shoots straight up from the start, I dressed light, but kept my rain gear on. Over 370 steps to the top of the waterfall, and that was just the start. We climbed over a fence and saw another waterfall. With a third one in the distance Mark and I looked at each other in awe. These aren't your everyday trickle-of-a-stream falls. These are massive torrent waters raging down through steep moss covered canyons. We would hear a sound echo and peak over the cliff edge at yet another massive waterfall that rivals all the others. Pretty soon our hands would just raise up in the air, signaling yet another majestic scene. Soon thereafter it was "of course" another, just "more beautiful shit" as Mark would say, and soon I followed with that phrase too.
It came to the point we would hear the raging sounds coming from the canyon and just keep walking. It was almost a joke at this point. I mean really, how much beauty can one section of trail have, and we aren't even on the main world renowned trail yet!
"It's a national joke that if you are lost in an Icelandic Forest all you need do is stand up." (2) Any tree groves you see do stand out among the lava fields, and they are few and far in-between. The shrubbery is even scarce, and the vegetation fragile. Staying on the trail is important for sustainability. I encourage any hikers to walk on the main trail even if wet because the go-arounds are branching out like spiderwebs and soon tourism will trash this delicate landscape which will take years to regrow. Also practice leave-no-trace with bathroom breaks. This is so important and such an easy step. Two zip lock bags and one small roll of toilet paper is all it takes. Even if you're on the side of the road, don't leave your TP lay on the ground! It's not going to desinegrate as fast as you think it might! For as organized as Iceland is, and structured for tourists, and very well I add, there is a real lack of public bathrooms. Iceland is remote. It's unadulterated land, pure resources, farming, and highlands. There's no trash or abandoned eye-sores, just pure beauty. Not many countries that I've been to are this pristine.
We made it up to the first hut where a German lady made hot water for us while we rested out of the weather. Before turning back down off the mountain, we played in the snowfields at the base of the volcano. Never did the temperature get colder, but the mist never stopped. The further we descended, the heavier the mist got. Iceland doesn't get thunderstorms or lightening, just a good dose of rain and wind. When we reached the tent, my thighs were shot from 17 miles (27 km) and 4,500 feet (1,371 m) in elevation gain. Icelandic lamb soup for dinner and quick to bed.
The next morning we packed up the wet rain fly, trying to keep the main tent dry, and moved back to Hveragerdi. It was raining most the day and we found a campground in the middle of town. Before settling in, we bought a pass to the local swimming pool (only 1'200 isk for the two of us, $9 USD total!). The first pool was a nice hot 40*. I think we were the only tourists since the few people there spoke Icelandic. We checked out the steam room, and even that was towards the tipping end of unbearable. After maybe 3 minutes it was time to jump out and shower off. I laid in the shallow pool which was only about 38* and could have stayed in that forever, but the rain was a neusance.
We quickly set up our tent in the rain next to a motorbike campsite. There was a handful of tents set up, but I was not excited for a third night of rain. The cost of lodging was high even if there was last minute availability. Many backpackers (all speaking different languages) were set up under the roof in the semi-outdoor kitchen, making their dinners on butain camp stoves. Some had pasta, but others were melting butter and sautéing veggies, rice, and patty cakes, which looked like veggie concoctions to me. There were about 100 gas canisters left over under the sink, and some pots and pans for shared use.
In the morning we visited a geothermal kitchen and bought some apple bread for sampling. We also went back to the pool for a second round of steam baths. One guy said these were the best pools in the country. We had prebooked a heli-bike trip today and had to be at the airport at 2. Before arriving we got message that the helicopter was canceling the flight due to rain and winds. There was a rainbow driving to the airport but we knew it was just a small break in the weather so we still planned to go ahead with the bike portion.
Ice Bike picked us up and we drove out to do a trail called The Edge, which would keep the wind at our backs. When we got to the trail head, he drove the pickup truck off the road, down a steep embankment that I would have thought would roll any vehicle that attempted its descent, but he pulled it off like it was nothing. The roads in Iceland are crowned. There's no shoulder, no bike lane, no space to even hitchhike.
He unloaded the bikes, gave us a GPS with the trail, and said he'd meet us at a road crossing. The wind was blowing the rain sideways. The first peddle stroke my foot slipped off the flat peddles and instantly gouged my right shin. I tried again and felt clumsy on this new bike in the middle of a storm on this new trail that started with an uphill rock garden. Now these aren't your normal rocks. No, these were hardened lava fields formed thousands of years ago. An endo would ensure a trip to the ER in that heli ride they said we couldn't take. The funneled ruts were mud puddles that slid your tires down to the deepest trough. The wind kept blowing me off the trail sideways. I just kept thinking, how would they let anyone out on the trails like this? I couldn't even get my wet gloves off to take a picture and the nose trick wasn't working. After the third road crossing we met the truck and called it quits. My waterproof shoes were now holding the water in and mud coated me, head to toe. This would have been a good trail in the summertime, but the off-season had officially started.
Knowing there was no way we were camping out like this, we started to look for a place to stay. Trying our luck at Aurora again, I was shot down. My kind smile was no match for this Icelandic lady. "The Icelanders do not feel themselves bound by the conventions of polite society." (3) What I consider rude, they consider the norm. Next we tried the hostel and found ourselves lucky. The Loft was my first hostel stay and a pleasant experience. First thing I did was jump into the shower with my clothes on, thouroughly spraying the mud out of my shoes and wringing out each article of clothing, washing the mud down the drain.
Our first roommate, Mateo was a young solo traveler from New York city. With his constant work in start up businesses, he just wanted to get away by himself and relax in another town. He spent his time couch-surfing and touring the city with his host, spotting famous people at the local pool and partying at the queer bar, Kiki's. Our second roommate, Mariella, was coming back from Stockholm (and Budapest), to DC area as a free layover to see the city for one night. We stayed in and cooked dinner in the guest kitchen. Before falling asleep I researched a place to stay for our last night and ended up booking a nicer place close to the airport so we could relax. It was a lucky find that i was excited about. In the morning we said our goodbyes with handshakes and hugs.
The last day of mountain biking was canceled and refunded due to weather. We leisurely drove around the Reykjanes peninsula, taking our time to really explore. We stood on the bridge of two continents laughing at the ridiculously tourist thing that is to do. We took pictures in the ship yard and toured the free maritime museum with different artist exhibits.
Tonight we stay at the 1x6 guesthouse, a truely unique B&B with custom reclaimed wood designed rooms by a local artist, and a central room overlooking the ocean where Andi, from Switzerland, will make you any kind of coffee drink you want. Luckily the Icelandic way of life hasn't sunk in all the way, as its their first year operating as owners, and they are as polite as can be! Andi worked as a travel agent in the past and has given me places to stay for future trips to other countries on my list. The attention to detail here is superb and I highly recommend a stay if ever coming to Iceland. It's a lucky treat on our last night here, and I even splurged on a seafood dinner with desert at Kaffi Duus. Now to go to bed so I can enjoy some more coffee in the morning.
Good night, Iceland.
*References from Xenophobe's guide to the Icelanders.(1) page 26
(2) page 20
(3) page 34