Travel: Diamonds in the black

Full set of photos

The rain had slackened overnight, and we were treated to the faintest hints of clear skies. After a quick breakfast from the hotel buffet (I heavily favoured the cheese options), we piled into our minibus and made the short drive down to the Reynisfjara beach to watch the sunrise. Part of the reason I wanted to visit Iceland was I wanted to see places unlike anything I’d seen before. This was one of those places.

Reynisfjara black sand beach
Reynisfjara black sand beach

Soaring basalt columns–symmetrical hexagonal pillars that looked like man-made sculptures–rose up from the beach, born out of basaltic lava cooling following a volcanic eruption. It definitely felt like I’d stumbled onto a scene out of Lord of the Rings, staring up at Isengard. I half-expected to see Saruman peering down at me. We were there relatively early, so there weren’t too many people, with the exception of a tour group of teenagers, who unfortunately had decided that the basalt columns made an excellent jungle gym. Nevertheless, we spent about 45 minutes admiring the sea stacks and rugged cliffs before heading out.

basalt pillars Reynisdrangar
basalt pillars Reynisdrangar

I’d spotted a beautifully-situated church on our drive to the beach, which thankfully someone else in the group (who was a bit of a photographer) had also noticed and requested to stop at. The clouds were hanging low, curling around the tops of the surrounding hills, to great eerie effect.  DSC_3648

We drove through rugged, barren hills to the nearby town of Vik, the southernmost village in Iceland for a quick pit stop, first at another church overlooking the town and the ocean and then at a gas station. François recommended checking out the Icelandic wool factory, so I took a peek. My leather gloves were still damp from my intimate encounter with a waterfall the day before, which made for cold, clammy hands, so I bought myself a waterproof pair of Icewear gloves. Warm fingers are just heavenly!

Vik
Vik

Since we were making good time, François decided to take us to a “secret” spot, not normally on the tour itinerary, about an hour away from Vik. Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon, whose name is basically unpronounceable, was a gorgeous place. There were a few other tourists, but relatively quiet compared to other places we’d visited. We hiked up the tourist path running parallel to the canyon, peering out at at look-out points at the Fjaðrá river 100 metres below. There was a feeling of stillness there, a place relatively untouched by humans. It was calming to stand on a cliff’s edge and hear nothing but the sound of rushing water. Well, occasionally interrupted by the whir of a drone. I’d watched enough travel videos on YouTube to know that drones were becoming increasingly common, but this was the first time I’d encountered one on my travels. Even someone from my own tour group broke out their drone.

DSC_3712
overlooking Fjaðrárgljúfur canyon

We continued onwards, making a brief stop in Hof to see a turf church (apparently it was a day for churches). We drove past mountains and glaciers shrouded in cloud and battered by rain, including what François referred to as the “Hollywood” glacier. The locals call it that because of all the movies that have been shot there (Batman Begins, Interstellar, etc.). It wasn’t long before we were pulling into the parking lot next to our day’s final destination, Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon. The rain had started up again, but I didn’t care because this place was magical, unlike anything I’d seen before. Ethereal blue icebergs float silently in the water, and chunks of ice were strewn on the black sand shore.

Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon
Jökulsárlón glacier lagoon

Normally, the lake overlooks the Vätnajokull glacier, but the cloud cover did an excellent job of obscuring it. Despite no glacier, I was glad to see the ice (apparently, our guide had taken tourists a couple of weeks before and there were no icebergs at all). In addition to the chunks of ice, there were also a congregation of seals floating in the water–all you could see were their adorable heads bobbing and staring at us curiously. While we were watching the seals watch us, we heard a low, rumbling. We watched in awe as icebergs not far out into the water crashed and tumbled over each other. Mother nature’s power at work!

ice diamonds on the beach
ice diamonds on the beach

Per the recommendation of our guide, I wandered away from the lake under a bridge and found another black beach scattered with chunks of ice. Despite the overcast skies and drizzle, I was amazed that some of the ice chunks seemed to glow.

It was a relatively short drive to our hotel for the evening, and we ate as a group together again (though the French contingent had their own table, as there wasn’t a table big enough for all of us). I continued my seafood trend and had some delicious arctic char and chatted more with our guide. I learned a little more about Icelandic culture. Iceland has no standing army and apparently, search and rescue services are largely voluntary (you can read an interesting New Yorker article about it here). Because the population is so small, it simply isn’t feasible to maintain a force of rescuers, so people actually volunteer their time and equipment and are highly-regarded by their countrymen. I found it cheering, particularly in this day and age, to learn that voluntary service (rescuing others in often times dangerous conditions) is such an important part of their culture.

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