The final eleven days of my trip ended up packed full of experiences. Two were essentially travel days. On the first I went from Scotland to Heathrow airport near London, then flew into Keflavik, Iceland’s international airport, and took a Flybus into Reykjavik proper. On the final day I reversed the Flybus route and then went by Icelandair from Keflavik directly to Denver. Oddly, as I arrived in Denver I realized that although I’ve done a fair amount of international travel and have frequently departed from Denver I’d never before re-entered the U.S. through that portal.
Because the nine full days I spent in Iceland were so crammed, I’m going to break down this series of posts into increments. Five of the days were dedicated to the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference; two days before and two days after were available for other explorations.
This first post involves orientation: maps and buses (which relate to terrain).
Here’s the basic map of Iceland. The white spots are glaciers.
Since August 16, a volcano named Bárðarbunga has been rumbling and earthquaking. The first question was whether I’d be able to get to Iceland if there was an ash-producing eruption, which could interrupt air traffic to the southeast—i.e., toward the U.K. and Heathrow airport. Later questions involved to what extent the conference might be affected.
Although we all monitored the geological status at least once a day, as it turned out the biggest immediate concerns were fog and rain, which kept us from seeing what I’m told was some fantastic Icelandic scenery that we drove through.
Here’s a marked-up map. Lacking refined tools and time to be precise, the markings are very approximate.
- The dark gray arrows point to the places I stayed: Reykjavik at the lower left and Blönduós on the north coast.
- The green arrows indicate our outbound travel path between the two locations.
- The light olive-green oval indicates an area within which we did a lot of shorter trips, although it’s beyond me to figure out exactly where we were: why that’s the case will become apparent later in this post with some snapshots of the roads we were on.
- The light gray arrows indicate the intended return path if the weather was bad (bad = snow, mostly).
- The light blue arrows show the return path we did take, through the highlands and between two major glaciers.
- One red arrow points to the volcano Bárðarbunga. The other red arrow points to a red square, indicating the fissure eruption that became active at Holuhraun (near the Dyngjujökull glacier) shortly before I arrived in Iceland and continues to erupt as I’m writing this.
To amplify the above, here’s the map provided with the rental car that friends obtained for the last few days in the country:
The legend on that big gray blob says “area where passenger cars are not allowed to drive (subject to fines).” It overlaps a number of the areas we traversed. But not in a passenger car.
Last year I attended the North Atlantic Native Sheep and Wool Conference in Shetland (and was one of the presenters). When this year’s event was scheduled for Iceland and it became apparent that by slightly extending my stay in the British Isles I would be able to go there, it seemed shortsighted not to take advantage of the opportunity.
It has been true at both conferences that I’ve had access to experiences and sights that would be difficult to arrange otherwise—especially within such a short time, and in the company of other people who are equally interested and bring very different perspectives to bear on what they’re seeing.
Next year’s conference will be in the Faroes around the second week in September. I will say that getting information on the conference, registering, and so forth is not as straightforward as for many events. And also that hanging in through the challenges and uncertainties has been abundantly worthwhile.
During the conference, we traveled by bus. Our driver was Jóhann, and if there were an Olympic event in bus driving, he would be a clear contender for a gold medal. Where and how he took the buses . . . well, you’ll get a few glimpses. The rides were as smooth as the roads would allow and he remained calm and confident throughout. The travel could have been white-knuckle at many times, but only reached the raised-eyebrow stage now and then, always because of the conditions and never because of the driving.
Our primary bus, and the one we used for four of the days, was comfortable and versatile. (There was also a mini-bus at times with a few extra people.)
On the first day, I grabbed a seat right at the front.
This was the basic set-up during most of the bus journeys, beginning with the drive from Reykjavik to Blönduós:
Jóhann was in the driver's seat, of course. Oláfur Dýrmundsson, whom I’d met in Shetland last fall, sat nearby and offered commentary. (This is why I know some of what we drove through but couldn’t see.) Sitting next to him was one of the Greenlanders, who translated his commentary into Greenlandic for the contingent that didn’t speak English. Basic languages of the conference were English, Icelandic, and Greenlandic. Participants came from fourteen locales: Australia, Canada, England, Faroe Islands, Germany, Greenland, Iceland, Isle of Man, Norway, Scotland, Shetland, South Africa, Sweden, United States.
We enjoyed intermittently clear weather on that first day. And a fair amount of pavement and two-lane width, neither of which was to be taken for granted.
Not all roads looked like that.
Jóhann managed not only to get the bus into some interesting locations, but also to efficiently get back out of them. From my seat near the front, I was aware that he knew not only exactly where the corners of the bus were but precisely where each wheel was. He drove through some pretty chaotic situations, too. I don't think he ever even bumped a tire.
This bridge might have been 2cm wider than the bus. If that’s an exaggeration, it isn’t much of one.
He was with us for the full five days, and at least two of those required extremely long hours of driving.
On the fifth day we got on the bus—but it wasn’t the same bus. “More rugged,” we were told.
Some of the roads were only a notch more challenging.
The next photo, however, is not in focus because it couldn’t be: too much shaking going on. That blue isn’t sky: it’s the tinting at the top of the windshield. That’s the Greenlander who translated, sitting behind Oláfur. I’m in about the third row of seats back. See the road?
Someone commented that if we’d brought raw milk with us we could have made butter in no time.
After a bunch of that, we reached a high point, and while we were taking a break (and most people were outside the bus) Jóhann quietly walked down the bus and hooked plastic bags on about every other seat. This was a sign that the roads for the rest of the day were not going to be better.
And they weren’t, although I’m not aware that anyone needed to use any of the bags.
The bus forded this stream: no bridge.
It was cold and rainy and fog obscured the mountains and we only got a hazy glimpse of one of the big glaciers we passed between, when on another day we might have clearly seen both.
(There’s a glacier in there. That’s about what we could see: just a change in the way light reflected along the horizon.)
I developed an even greater admiration for Icelandic sheep, because most of what we traveled through was common grazing land, where the sheep spend about four months of the year on their own.
There are two sheep in that picture. They're pretty easy to spot, if you can believe you're seeing 'em. Often there were threesomes: a ewe and twin lambs.
Chilly precipitation, and a lunar-bleak rocky landscape. The sheep in this area would not be rounded up for another week. By this time of year, the plant matter (such as it is) is losing its nutritional value.
Yes, that's the road along the lefthand edge of that photo.
Once in a while we got a fairly clear view of where we were.
Occasionally it got almost bright.
And during the week as a whole, we saw disproportionate numbers of rainbows.