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Published 22nd September 2017 by

The very name conjures up an image of a land of imposing ice formations, shining glaciers and arctic temperatures. Sparkling fjords, dramatic volcanic peaks, sheer sea cliffs, sweeping golden beaches and crunchy lava flows make up this amazing land of fire and ice.

For as long as I can remember I've wanted to visit Iceland. I've just been drawn to the island. The first time I tried to visit I was in a car crash. The second time, Iceland was hit by the economic crash. The third, Eyjafjallajökull erupted halting air traffic across Europe. Fourth time I was lucky and had the holiday of a lifetime!

Day 1 - Arrival in Reykjavík

Flying into Keflavik International airport was quite amazing, the plane flying low over lava fields and between volcanoes. The weather was perfect, clear blue skies and bright sunshine. During the flight, I saw Northern Scotland from the air, a circular rainbow in the clouds and the magnificent Icelandic coastline. I was picked up from the airport and driven a short distance to the hotel in downtown Reykjavík, ideally located for the main shopping centres, old harbour, bars and the main sights. Luckily the hotel was just across the road from the largest church in Iceland, the Hallgrimskirkja, which is visible for miles around. If I get lost, all I have to do is walk towards the church!

Upon arrival in Reykjavík, it was time for the first selfie with the church in the background, just to prove I was actually made it here and ticked off my first bucket list item! After that, I checked into my hotel and dropped my luggage off before heading out to explore.

Reykjavik Selfie by Hallgrimskirkja

Reykjavik Selfie by Hallgrimskirkja

That night was my first time on an aurora hunting tour. We met at the church where a small group was taken out to the Heiðmörk national park. Not far outside Reykjavík, still, on the dual carriageway, we caught our first sighting. It only lasted a few minutes, but the thrill of seeing them for the first time was incredible. The second item ticked off my bucket list!

First ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, so bright with Full Moon

First ever glimpse of the Aurora Borealis, so bright with Full Moon

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Day 2 - Reykjanes Peninsula

The second day was a wet and windy start, but undeterred I headed south from Reykjavík to the volcanic Reykjanes Peninsula. There is a nice circular route around the coat taking in some great lakes, geothermal areas, steaming mud pools, lighthouses and lots of black sand beaches.

One of the highlights of the tour was the bridge between the continents, a small bridge between the European and North American content. Although the rift zone runs across Iceland, this particular spot features a mini canyon which the bridge spans. It's quite novel to walk across the bridge, and also to walk along the rift zone where the two continents are moving apart at a rate of 1 inch per year. Because of this tectonic activity, the Reykjanes Peninsula is highly active and experiences about 450 earthquakes per week.

Standing in the rift zone between North America and Europe

Standing in the rift zone between North America and Europe

Despite the rain, it was still great to see the steaming mud pools, the geothermal areas and experience the sulphurous air. A lot of the time in Reykjavík and the surrounding area you can smell sulphur from the geothermal vents which can be found everywhere.

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Day 3 - Jokulkarlson Glacier

This was by far the longest day, leaving Reykjavík at 7.30am and getting back to the hotel about 11.30pm. It was totally worth it. The weather cleared up and was perfect, cloudless blue skies and warm sun. The journey would take us 230 miles along the southern coastal route as far as Jokulkarlson Glacier Lagoon. Here I was to board a speedboat and sail through the lagoon and amongst the glaciers. That, however, was later in the afternoon. The first stop was the town of Selfoss for a rest and much-needed coffee. Selfoss is the next largest town after Reykjavík and is a popular stop for tourists and locals alike. After fuelling up we continued along Route 1 we headed off to see the Eyjafjallajokull volcano and a few minutes down the road the amazing Skógafoss Waterfalls.

Shortly after walking around the waterfall we headed to the fishing village of Vik for a short lunch break before crossing the massive floodplains from the Vatnajökull glacier, through the village of Hof and up to the Glacier lagoon. All I can say about the lagoon is WOW!

The clearest waters I've seen, with large and small icebergs drifting around. Smaller chunks of ice have washed up on the shores and glisten in the sun like huge diamonds. Maybe that's why it is called the diamond beach.

After about an hour and a half on the lagoon getting up close to the icebergs, we headed back towards Reykjavík, stopping off at Hof to see the turf church of Hofskirkja, the Svínafellsjökull glacier tongue and the Seljalandsfoss waterfall at night.

After that, it was a late dinner in Selfoss before heading back to Reykjavík for a well-earned sleep  :) 

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Day 4 - The "Day Off"

Today was supposed to be a rest day, but not being the type to sit around relaxing I spent the day exploring Reykjavík. I started by booking myself onto the walking guided tour. On this tour, a local guide took us around the sights and hidden places in downtown Reykjavík, including the discount supermarket which is a LOT cheaper than the ones in the more touristy part of town. The tour included some of the historic churches, the old harbour, flea market, the best hot dog stand in Reykjavík (and I can vouch for that!) and after two hours it ended in the city hall. Having memorised the route, I was then able to retrace my steps and photograph the sights without all the other tourists, and also make another stop for hot dogs!

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Day 5 - Thorsmork

Today's tour involves traversing some of Iceland's f-roads. These roads are suitable only by 4x4 vehicles and can be challenging for the average drivers as they are gravel tracks which often involve river crossings and negotiating broken roads. Luckily we had the perfect vehicle for the job and an experienced tour guide!

After a brief stop in Selfoss for supplies, we headed out into the wilderness. The first stop was Nauthúsagil the well-hidden waterfall. It lives up to its name, if you didn't know it was there you'd never have found it. Accessibility is through a small canyon via rock climbing and hopping on rocks up the river. At the end is a small waterfall which once climbed opens up into a cavern with a spectacular 20m waterfall. The valley was amazingly beautiful in its compact size. Our guide kept saying that this was nothing, I should save my film for later!

The next stop was a little further down the road where we parked in front of the Gígjökull Glacier Tongue of Eyjafjallajokull. A short hike across the old river bed and up the side of the volcano and we were at the edge of the glacier. It's amazing how much the temperature drops as you approach such an immense block of ice, and the sheer scale of this ice cube is mind boggling and to think that it's now a tiny fraction of what it was before the eruption.

While exploring the geology of the volcano I collected a few samples of lava in four of its states - and obsidian. I also found a few pieces of lava with gold flakes and a very nice chunk of rock with loads more flakes. Again my guide advised me to save my film, as this was nothing compared with what was coming up!

A little way up the road we headed to the Básar Hut. This was a campsite with a nice set of wood cabins and facilities, absolutely ideal for camping on my next trip. After lunch, we took as short hike around the Fimmvörðuháls park observing some local wildlife before heading down to the Stakkholtsgjá canyon.

Words cannot describe the beauty of this canyon, its scale and wonder. My guide was correct, the other sights of the day pale in comparison. This place is incredible. As we walk down the canyon, it's easy to see how the original settlers believed that they were being watched from above, the top of the canyon is lined with lava splatters which look like large trolls looking down.

After several hours exploring the canyon, the glacier river and waterfalls, we started to head back to Reykjavík, but not without stopping off at the Seljalandsfoss waterfall and walking through the mist and behind the immense flow of water.

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Day 6 - Thuinukigigor

Today I had my first experience of Iceland's public transport system, catching the bus to a nearby volcano. Luckily the main BSI Bus Terminal was only a short walk from my hotel, once there I presented my ticket I'd purchased online and boarded the bus to Thuinukigigor where I was to descend into the magma chamber of a volcano.

Thuinukigigor is a dormant volcano near Reykjavík. Covering a 3,270 square metres area and a depth of 213 meters, it has not erupted since the second century BC.

Once at the visitor centre, we were given a safety briefing and kitted out with waterproof suits, since it was absolutely chucking it down with rain and blowing a gale. After about 50 minutes hiking across lava fields and stopping along the rift zone between Europe and North America, we arrived at the base camp. Here we were kitted out with safety harnesses and helmets ready to climb to the top of the volcano and descend through the vent. Once all 6 of us were safely harnessed into the open lift, we began the 5-minute descent into the volcano.

I've been in many caves over the years, but this one feels completely different somehow. Rather than being carved out by underground rivers, this immense cavern witnessed a massive explosion about 2000 years ago which thrust hundreds of tonnes of molten rock and lava for tens of kilometres around. The eruption was so powerful that another fissure formed lower down which allowed the lava to drain from the main chamber when it cooled down. This resulted in an empty magma chamber and the main vent was not sealed up. and That we know of, this is the only place in the world where you can enter a volcanos magma chamber without highly specialised equipment.

I also had my first taste of the traditional Icelandic meat soup, a warming broth of vegetables, lamb and herbs. Just what was needed after that hike! How many people can say they are their lunch in the magma chamber of a volcano?

After about an hour in the magma chamber, we headed back to base camp to get out of the safety gear and back into the storm coats ready for the hike back.

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Day 7 - Exploring Reykjavík

Today was my second day off, and with clear skies and warm sun I set off for a walk along the coast to the lighthouse. The walk itself ended up being longer than I expected, but I got to see a lot of Reykjavík and Seltjarnarnes which is not on any of the tourist routes.

From the hotel, I headed directly down to the Sun Voyager sculpture and then west past Harpa, through the old harbour past the offices of CCP Games (who develop EVE Online) and saw the monument to the players. My name is on there somewhere, but It'd take years to find it there is about 35,000 names etched into the tiles. From there I headed out along to Seltjarnarnes to the nature reserve and lighthouse then around the peninsula towards Miðborg airport. After walking around the perimeter I headed back to Perlan, the giant hot water storage tanks and glass viewing platform, for a coffee and lunch before taking in the panoramic views over the city. From there it was a short walk back to the hotel.

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Day 8 - Snaefellsnes

Today promises amazing vistas looking out over the bird cliffs, fishing villages, waterfalls and mountains, however, the weather was not so kind. Rain and mist persisted throughout the day however it did add atmosphere to the landscape.

We headed North from Reykjavík to Borgarnes where we fuelled up and took onboard supplies since the areas we are visiting are fairly remote.

First on the list was the volcano Borgarbyggd is named after to stretch legs, before proceeding on to the Ytri Tunga beach where we saw seals playing. From then it was on to Búðir where we were going to look around a traditional church, however, there was a wedding taking place when we arrived.

The next stop was a much longer rest for a spot of lunch and a walk around the bird cliffs at Arnarstapi and the preserved ruins of a farm at Laugarbrekka which dates back to the settlement. There is a monument to Gudidur who was at the time the most widely travelled woman, having travelled from Rome to America. She was the first white woman to give birth in North America.

As the day progresses we made several more stops to see the beach at Djúpalónssandur and the basalt columns of Gerðuberg before heading back to Reykjavík.

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Day 9 - Solheimjokull

Today was going to be a cold day so I was glad the weather was much better. The first part of this tour involved me sitting on a bus with 50 American tourists, but it was a free ride so not complaining. We took the usual route out through Selfoss and stopped at the Lava Center in Hvolsvöllur which I had a quick look around. The next stop was the Solheimjokull glacier, where the tourists would take a few photos and get back on the bus. Luckily, they left me there in the capable hands of the Mountaineers of Iceland. A few others people soon arrived and in total there was 12 of us. We had a safety briefing, got fitted out with harnesses, helmets and ice axes then proceeded to hike the 2.5km to the face of the glacier which we would then climb.

The section we climbed wasn't particularly tall, maybe 30m but it was hard work, kicking in the crampons and using the ice picks. Finally, at the top, we could get out of most the safety gear and the lines were made ready for the next person. While we wait for the rest of the group, time for a few photos!

Once the group had recombined on the glacier we had about a 2-hour hike across the tongue.

About halfway into the hike, a beautiful bright rainbow came out across the ice. Everybody was quick to start taking photos. Me being me, I like to look around, and turning back to admire the view I noticed something in the clouds. Something didn't look right and I didn't like it. I resumed photographing the rainbow with the others and turned back again to look at the clouds. I definitely did not like what I saw. Our guide also saw what I saw and was straight on the radio. "Basecamp, we have two tornados headed our way, can you check the stations?" Luckily the forecasts and weather stations showed that the two tornados were small and would not make ground contact, and after a few minutes they had fizzled out. Phew!

We continued our hike over the glacier, sampling the fresh water from melting ice and comparing the differences in volcanic ash from the fine clay-like substance to the more gravelly ejecta.

We finally came back off the ice using some steps cut into the face of the glacier, removed and washed our crampons and headed back to the base. Shortly after, like clockwork, the tour bus came to pick me up having done whatever the tourists were doing. We made an additional stop at Seljalandsfoss waterfall on the way back. Now the fourth time I'd visited, but each time in a different light and it was still amazing.

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Day 10 + 11 Whale Watching

The final few days of my holiday were spent relaxing in Reykjavík. On Wednesday afternoon I went out on a boat trip out to Atlantic with the hope of seeing whales. The weather was wet and windy and the sign on the ticket office notified us that the conditions were very rough, persons suffering motion sickness should rebook. Undeterred I got my boarding pass and proceeded onboard.

Aside from the rain, it wasn't actually that bad at sea, although quite a few other people were suffering. Unfortunately, there were no sighting of whales, so I was able to rebook for the following day.

Luckily the weather was much better on Thursday, and I optimistically boarded the ship and set about photographing anything that looked out the ordinary. After another two hours at sea keeping a beady eye out, there were still no sightings. At least the company has a fantastic policy on allowing rebookings if no sightings so next time I'm in Iceland I can let them know and rebook another trip.

Whale watching from Reykjavik

Whale watching from Reykjavik

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Day 12 - The Return

Day 11 was a sad day, not only was I up at 3am, I had to catch the bus to the airport and fly back home to Glasgow. My flight departed on time at 07:35 and two hours later we landed back home tired and exhausted but feeling very satisfied with my amazing holiday and some amazing memories to treasure.

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