It wasn’t exactly bucket and spade weather. As for paddling – who in their right mind would go paddling in the far North Atlantic in waves that drenched the unwary and jostled large chunks of ice against their legs?
My feet were freezing and I was slowly beginning to realise that my brand new waders leaked… I was in heaven. I was in Iceland. I was on Jökulsárlón beach: a beach of black volcanic sand with crashing waves and flying spray; a beach strewn with ice boulders, variously blue, crystal clear or milky, some flecked and streaked with black from by-gone ages. Some were like huge fantasy sculptures and there were scatterings of smaller ones along the waterline and in the foam. An occasional seal lounged on an ice floe or rode the current to the river mouth. Seabirds wheeled and screamed, feasting as the tide turned. And several layers of thermals, extra socks, silk glove liners, down jackets and thinsulate hats kept us acceptably warm … most of the time. It had been wall to wall grey leaden cloud with cold blustery winds when we landed at Reykjavik. But at least it wasn’t raining. Not then …
We headed east. We drove through an ever-changing landscape, through a muted colour palette; we drove through moss-covered lava fields that looked like giant grey-green worm-casts; we drove past volcanoes, past waterfalls, huddles of sturdy Icelandic horses, turf-covered farm outbuildings tucked into the base of cliffs that rose vertically but with skirts at 45 ̊, streaked green and warm tan. On our left there were sometimes blue-white glaciers streaked black. We crossed over black rivers that meandered in intertwining rivulets through black sand and marram grass to the coast.
We stopped at Þingvellir where the tectonic plates divide the continents – and walked between America and Europe.
At Reynisfjara beach near Vik we saw sea stacks, basalt columns, black sand and powerful, thundering surf.
On our one sunny afternoon we sank to our ankles in sodden scree as we walked near Svínafellsjökull glacier.
Another morning, we drove across a barren moonscape in the rain to clamber down roughly hewn steps into an ice cave – a cavern in shades of sparkling blue with a torrent of grey-brown river running though it.
Beautiful as all this scenery was – and it was staggeringly beautiful, despite the awful weather – what we really wanted to see, of course, were the Northern Lights. Fingers crossed, that was to be our highlight …
To see the Lights the sky has to be clear. Whereas there might well be auroral activity, on a cloudy night you just can’t see it. On our second night in Iceland, the sky was cold, clear and diamonded with stars – but we were told the aurora forecast was zero. We were also told the forecast is highly accurate. And we slept soundly through a magnificent display – as we discovered the next day when we were shown someone else’s photos.
The following night we all took turns on Aurora Watch, an hour at a time. The forecast was promising … but it was cloudy. Worse than that, it was raining … and needless to say, our Aurora Watch was an exercise in futility.
The following nights were also rainy – but by then we’d admitted defeat/accepted the reality of the situation … and stayed tucked up in bed.
On our last night in Iceland the forecast was looking good. Our tour was technically over but the tour company very generously paid for our group of nine to join an Aurora bus trip out of Reykjavik. Five busloads of hopefuls set off. Hopeful – but perhaps with no great expectancy and with a fair amount of scepticism thrown in. It was the second outing for some people. (If you don’t see the Lights on your first trip, you get a second one for free.) However, it wasn’t long before the guide reckoned she could see the beginnings of something … Excitement grew … We all peered out of the bus windows for that first glimpse …
We drove to a disused helipad and five busloads of hopefuls piled out, set up their tripods/waved their i-phones and stood around shivering, all the while gazing intently into the night sky. Was that a faint green haze over there? Was it? Or was it wispy cloud coloured by wishful thinking? We weren’t sure … Our cameras on a long exposure showed a streak of green … but to the naked eye – nothing. Gradually the colour intensified and we became convinced. Yes! Yes! Yes! We could definitely see gently moving curtains of palest green … and our cameras could pick out shades of red as well.
We watched the display for about an hour before the call came to get back on the bus. On the way back into Reykjavik the display got stronger and stronger – but there was no possibility of stopping again before light pollution from the city put paid to the show. Five busloads of people standing at the side of a busy highway? Get real! So we had to content ourselves with watching it through the windows – huge arcs of green that looped from one side of the bus to the other and shimmered tantalisingly.
It was Tony’s birthday. The day had started with Happy Birthday sung to him in Icelandic and English at breakfast; the day ended with the dancing lights of the Aurora Borealis.