Saturday, March 17, 2018

From There to Here--Return Flight Home and Concluding Impressions About Iceland

Return Flight Back Home: From Iceland to America
     We felt a bit like Leif Ericsson who had made the first historic voyage from Iceland to the New World in 999 AD as we boarded our WOW Airlines aircraft for our return flight home.              Thankfully, our flight was unaffected by whatever weather conditions were going on in the eastern United States. We went through travel formalities and I had the unique distinction, after 35 years of flying, of being the first person to enter a waiting aircraft! Another travel first for me! These simple pleasures often delight me during my travels.
         The flight was very pleasant and uneventful.  We thought the service was superb. Below us (I had a window seat), the landscape changed magically.  Two hours after leaving Iceland, the thickly snow-covered expanses of Greenland appeared before us.  We passed by mountains, rivers and lakes that appeared like a frozen moon surface below us. Just as we were leaving the coast, we saw the beautiful fjords of the country. Although we hadn’t landed in Greenland, we saw a great deal of it from a bird’s eye perspective.  Incredible! A little later, we were flying over the northern reaches of Canada—another icy Tundra region.
         At 5.25pm, we landed at Newark Airport and discovered that clocks had sprung forward in America.  We adjusted our watches and stepped out into the airport, cleared immigration in seconds (as we have Global Network clearance), found a shuttle to take us to Grand Central Station and then took the Metro-North train home.  My brother Roger was waiting to receive us in his car at Southport station from where he dropped us home in less than five minutes.

         Visiting Incredible Iceland in the winter is an experience we will contemplate for a very long time to come. In a land that is known for extreme cold, we had the distinction of driving through a blinding snowstorm and living to tell the tale.  The heavens obligingly lit up for us and we saw the Northern Lights—the very reason for our trip. We were drenched under waterfalls, including mysterious hidden ones, that offered sheer exhilaration. We left our footsteps on millennia-old glaciers during energetic hikes. We penetrated the interior of hidden caves that were composed of and draped entirely in crystal-like transparent ice. We dunked ourselves in the jade-green waters of the Blue Lagoon where the sulphur-rich vapors of a geo-thermal hot pot relaxed us completely.  We saw tall spouting geysers, blue-hued glaciers, black sand beaches, natural rock formations, frozen lakes and mile upon mile of wintry wasteland upon which no human being dwelled. We took in the feats of amazing architecture created by human hands in Modernist Scandinavian style—from towering church steeples to jewel-like concert halls, from pearl-shaped domes that disguised humble water tanks to traditional wooden houses and basalt Parliament buildings. In terms of wild life, we saw native horses, Arctic terns, plovers and seagulls. We tasted local delicacies such as grilled lamb and local hot dogs, Skyr (Icelandic yogurt), ice-cream and local chocolate bars. We chatted with Icelanders in bars, restaurants and in farms and fields when we asked for directions. We found them to be welcoming and extremely helpful.
         In all our travels, there are a few images that stand out and which we recall every time we think of that country.  Iceland offered us so many that it is impossible to choose the main one.
         Thanks, as always, for reading my journal and for following my blog posts. If I can inspire you to undertake such adventures, my main objective would have been fully vindicated.

         May the road reach out to greet you always….

Marooned in a Snowstorm and Exploring a Mysterious Hidden Cave

March 13, Tuesday:
Return Adventures En Route to Keflavik Airport—Marooned in a Snowstorm and Exploring the Hidden Cave
         At 4.30 am, our phones beeped. We sprang up, washed, put our possessions together and were in our car at 5.00 am on schedule to start our return drive to Keflavik airport for our 3. 15 pm departure.  We did check the forecast in the US and found that a nor’easter was indeed expected on the east coast—how this would affect our departure from Iceland was anyone’s guess!
         It was pitch dark on the road with not another vehicle in sight as we cruised along for the first hour past the wide barren expanses of snow-drifting wilderness. Occasionally, our car bumped along the road—an indication that snow drifts had caked into ice overnight causing slight protrusions. And then, it happened. 
         Suddenly, somewhere between the town of Vik and the waterfalls known as Skogarfoss, without any warning whatsoever, those flashes of white that we thought were slight snow drifts ballooned into a massive snowstorm. And there were we, in our Ford 4-wheel drive car, surrounded by great swaths of falling snow, winds whipping around our car at over 80 miles per hour and rendering the car a boat as it shook with the force of that gale. In seconds, we lost visibility completely and could not proceed any further as we could see only the blurred headlights of our car creating golden orbs on the road ahead but illuminating nothing. Unable to proceed because he did not know where to go, Llew stopped the car by putting the gear in Park.  He turned the defrost up to the highest level and turned the windshield wipers on to their fastest speed—still no visibility ahead. The fact that the four-foot high pylons, equipped with reflector lights that lined the road, were also swaying in the wind, did nothing for our confidence.  In a little while, there was a glow behind us, but because our rear view mirror was engulfed by snow, we could see nothing. I asked Llew if it was a car behind us and he said he thought it was.  It waited for a while behind us and then after five minutes, just swerved around us and drove away before our disbelieving eyes. As Llew said, it was probably a local driver well experienced at driving under such conditions.
         It was time for us to think about moving forward because (a) we had no idea how long the snowstorm would last and we could have been marooned there forever and (b) there was the distinct possibility that just a few miles ahead, we would have gone past the snowstorm. The question was how were to go forward if we could not see a thing in front of us? That’s when we stopped everything and started to pray. We said the prayers upon which we fall back whenever we are in a challenging situation. And then, that done, Llew began slowly inching forward (hence the title of my travelogue—Inching Along Incredible Iceland), literally one wheel rotation at a time as I kept my eyes peeled on the road looking for the slightest indication of the next pylon. When I found it, I would say, “Yes, yes, I see it. I see the light”. But Llew would not move forward until he could see it himself.  Remember, that apart from driving in total blindness, there was the wind to deal with—so while Llew was steering the car in one direction i.e. straight ahead on the road, it seemed to have a mind of its own as it veered left and right, like a drunken sailor measuring the road! If we were to get out of the situation alive, it would only have to be on the strength of a wing and a prayer. Prayers we had already resorted to.  It was time for the wing to appear.
         And appear it did. Through those excruciating twenty minutes, as we inched forward in near blindness, we almost went off the road on the right hand side at one point and came within an inch of hitting a pylon on the other.  And then the wings of an angel appeared.  Another glow of light appeared behind us. Another car? Possibly. Llew and I realized that it stopped right behind us—probably seeing our red tail lights. It waited for about five minutes for us to move forward—for we had stopped again—and then it suddenly rounded our vehicle and pushed forward.  This was the angel that the Lord had sent us in our distress.  As soon as I realized that, I urged Llew to follow the car because not only would it clear a path for us to follow but its red rear lights would guide us forward far more effectively that the reflecting pylons on the road. I know that he was nerve-wracked, but Llew did not show it as he took my advice and followed the car—slowly and keeping safe distance as he did not want to plough into it--but moving, nevertheless, far better than we had done for at least 45 minutes previously. 
         And then, just as quickly and suddenly as it had started, the snowstorm ended, the wind sobered down, visibility returned and we were out of the worst of it. Our angel in the car ahead drove on for about ten more miles and then, when we were on safe ground and cruising once again, the driver swung a right and disappeared towards a small section of structures off the highway.  Where had the angel come from? And where was the angel going? We had no idea. All we knew was that in our time of desperation, we had asked for help and were sent a beacon to direct us to safety.  If ever there was a time in my life when I felt as if I was saved by divine intervention, this was it. The experience would remain uppermost in our minds and in our memories and in the many car-driving trips we have undertaken, this would always haunt us. Llew’s entire upper body—his hands, wrists, arms and chest—were aching from the strain of controlling the steering wheel and the vehicle. Needless to say, we were deeply shaken by the experience and could hardly believe that we had survived the ordeal as we proceeded further and daylight slowly began to break behind us in the east.

Stopping off at Seljalandsfoss and Exploring the Hidden Cave of The Gljúfrabúi waterfall (or Gljúfurárfoss):

         Given the rough time we’d had, it was hard to imagine that we could consider breaking journey and stopping to see the hidden cave of which my friend Amy had spoken at Seljalandsfoss. But we talked about it and I told Llew that since he was driving, it was his call to make. We decided to wait and see what driving conditions were like when we actually reached there—which we did about a half hour later.
         Daylight was barely breaking as we turned into the parking lot. We were among the first few visitors of the day for it was about 7.45 am. We parked our car, swung out and decided to give ourselves an hour at the site. Without wasting any time or dallying, we walked towards the main falls where we found another lone young couple taking pictures with a tripod. I told the lady that we were headed to the end of the pathway ahead of us to see a hidden cave that had been recommended by our friend. Since her partner seemed like a photography-enthusiast, I recommended that they join us on the hike.  They seemed unsure at first, but then about ten minutes later, they made up their minds to follow us.
            When we arrived at the end of the path, past a number of minor waterfalls—most of which had crusted over into ice—we saw the stream and the narrow pathway running alongside and ending in what looked like a cave. We also saw the waterfall on the right, thundering over a cliff and disappearing into the cave. These were the Gljúfrabúi waterfall (or Gljúfurárfoss) at Hamragarðar.  At their base was the mysterious cave that we were meant to enter. But it did mean wading into the stream. Fortunately, both Llew and I had waterproof hiking boots on and I was wearing a waterproof coat. However, Llew decided that the excursion was not for him.  He could not tolerate the idea of getting his shoes full of icy water. I, on the other hand, was not to be daunted.  I was going in there and that was it.  However, I must admit that I did not relish the idea of getting in the hidden cave alone!
         That was when Lara (the third one we met on this trip!) appeared—the female of the couple we had suggested should follow us. Andrew, the guy, also wimped out. He would do camera duty, he said, and video me. Lara then decided that she was going in with me. And so there it was! I had a companion for my adventure! Moments later, we skirted the path alongside the rushing stream—a path punctuated by ice floes and patches of snow. But on we soldiered until we reached the mouth of the cave.  At this point, we did need to wade into the stream—it was shallow enough and water did not enter my boots. There were also stepping stones that allowed one to wend one’s way into the cave. The water flowed copiously beneath our feet and as we neared the cave, the thunderous sound of the waterfalls grew in intensity until we were inside the cave and surrounded by gushing voluminous curtains of icy water that sent up sprays of vapor that flew around us in the air.  It was simply awesome! There is no other word to describe the sensation of being in a hidden cave surrounded by waterfalls from a height of at least 30 meters. How sensational was that?
         Lara and I took picture for each other—but we had to be very careful to keep the spray off our cameras. We were drenched, needless to say, but since we both had on raincoats, we had few worries. The darkness and the flying spray did not make for great pictures but the few we did manage to get capture perfectly our sense of exhilaration at being in that incredible space for about fifteen minutes.
         Then, it was time for us to get back to our waiting guys. Once again, we found stepping stones that guided us slowly back to base. A little water from the stream did enter my boots, but my thick layers of woolen socks did not make it uncomfortable. The guys had taken video and still pictures of us in various stages of our adventure (except in the hidden cave, of course, when they were no longer able to see us). It still amazes me that the two most phenomenal experiences of our entire travels in Iceland occurred on our last day when we were en route to the airport—what are the odds of that ever happening on a trip???
         We did not waste too much time getting back to the parking lot—all the time we chatted with the Morgans, Lara and Andrew, who had become our unwitting partners in crime.  They were visiting from Australia and were at the very start of their adventures in Iceland. We exchanged contact details and swore to email photographs.

         Back in the car, we made our way very comfortably towards Keflavik airport, delighted to have survived the horrors of the snowstorm and thrilled at the sights inside the hidden cave. And so we filled gas in our car, bought food for our lunch and for our flight from Bonus supermarket and arrived at the car rental office to return our car.  Miraculously after everything we had gone through, there was not a scratch on our car—truly the hand of the Lord in evidence! Then we were in the shuttle van driving to the airport and overhearing other passengers talk about their disappointment at not having the Northern Lights despite having spent over 12 days in Iceland.  We felt truly blessed that we had seen them ourselves.
       All that was left was our flight back for which, please see my next post.