13 December 2010

Iceland - November 2007

My brother Adrian and I spent four days running about south west Iceland searching for a handful of localised western palearctic birds as well as the local scenery. We managed this rather successfully albeit not without error and near death.

21/11/2007 Heathrow, London to Keflavik, Reykjavik

Flew to Iceland on Iceland Air, an easy flight over Britain, Northern Ireland and the north Atlantic to Iceland. Food a little dodgy however. Minor delays at customs, perhaps customs officials had never seen a South African passport? By the time we had picked up the rental car it was already midnight. Tonight/this mornings accommodation (Alex Guesthouse) was only a mile from the airport though. Pity this trip could not have been recorded on video camera. Steering wheel on the wrong side, direction on the road incorrect etc. Even though the drive was only two minutes, it took myself to drive and Adrian to remind where I was supposed to be aiming the bonnet. Wrong way on the roundabouts and gear stick definitely an issue… Decamped and got a few hours sleep. Set alarm for 08:30.

22/11/2007 Keflavik, Reykjanes peninsula, Nesjavellir

Up ‘early’ for Iceland, car completely frozen over. Could not get ice off and jets would spray bugger all. Tried to obtain supplies from the local supermarket – did not open until 11:00am. Finally got going, drove down the coast road to Hafnir to start our leg of the Reykjanes Peninsula drive. Excellent birding from the get go. Totally deserted landscape except for ourselves. Sun was thinking about getting up, but not certain. Adrian got us started with a Harlequin Duck. Exquisite species with massive tick factor – only place in Europe that one will find this bird. I managed to weigh in with a Common Loon. Just a little further down, Adrian pulled another trick out of the bag with a low flying Gyr Falcon – another massive tick for us. Continued on to the Continental Divide where the North American and European plate are pulling apart at around 2cm a year. Double-backed to the Hafnarberg peninsula in order to search the bird cliffs, being winter there was nothing much about except for extensive lava fields. Drove past a large saltpan with a few Whooper Swans that had not yet left for Britain. Then came the Gunnahver geothermal site. Both made note of not introducing dad to this place, he’d never leave – way too much technology and automation. Walked along an outlet where the high temperature water runs into the sea. Adi tested the water – hotter than a bath.

Drove on to the Blue Lagoon and had a swim. Fantastic experience although not very good on the hair. Got changed into trunks (Adrian had the foresight to realise that I would not bring a costume – so bought a spare – well done Adi), then made very swift dash from safety of building to warmer water conditions. Things went from 25°C to -2°C back to 35°C in a few seconds. Continued on from the Blue Lagoon to Reykjavik where we proceeded to get extremely lost trying to get back out. After screwing about for over an hour (had to have been driving in circles – only so many roads in such a small city) we hit a road and stuck with it for a while and amazingly bumped into the right area. The maps we had and the names and numbers of the roads didn’t seem to match all to well as we would appreciate yet further in times to come. Now that we had bumped into the right road, we both felt a lot better as it was starting to get dark. Fortunately there had been no snow or ice about and the roads are in very good condition. Just prior to reaching our destination, we suddenly climbed up a steep pass before descending said pass just as quickly. Two part of the pass had gradients of 15% which I understand to be about 1:6, bloody steep regardless. Difficult to describe the feeling of coming down such a steep pass with the cold wind in our hair, a beautiful full moon and snow capped peaks all around us with such clarity of visibility, as I’ve never seen before.

Welcome to Nesjavellir, the immediate stench of sulphur hit us as we climbed out of the car. There is another geothermal plant situated at the base of the mountain. We are not far from the plant, and smell becomes unnoticeable after a few minutes. Mind, it is about -5°C outside and there is little reason to be running about outdoors. At 17:00 it is properly dark with only the moon to cast light on us. Now we wait for the aurora borealis, not that either of us has a clue as to what we are looking for exactly. We sit in the lounge with a coffee comparing notes. The bloke in charge, much like a guide rather than a hotelier (this was a backpackers after all) is Guðmundur Halldórsson. Guðmundur waltzes into the lounge and asks if we have seen the lights. Of course we haven’t otherwise we would not have been sitting inside. By the time we got outside they had gone though, we didn’t realise at this stage that this was as close as we were going to get. Clouds have started to cover the moon and there will be no more chance of further astronomical displays. There is a tempting hot tub outside, but this is a little longer of a sprint and perhaps it can wait for another day. Overnight at Fosshotel Nesbud.

23/11/2007 Nesjavellir, Pingvallvatn, Pingvellir, Reykholt, Selfoss

Snowed heavily last night covering everything in a wash of white. Left the hotel for Pingvellir. Road was driveable as snow hadn’t formed into ice, more of a slush. Scenery absolutely amazing, stopped periodically to photograph landscape. Road ran along Pingvallavatn, sometimes within yards of the lake. 
Drove up to Pingvellir and stopped to walk about the seat of the Icelandic parliament. Historically all the major decisions about the country and its governance occurred here. Even today, parliament begins its sessions here. The countries sovereignty from Denmark occurred here in the 1940’s. It is also a more dramatic depiction of the plate tectonics than shown at Hafnarberg. Leaving Pingvellir we ambled about in the wrong direction before turning back and heading down the side of the Sog River searching for White-tailed Eagle. 
We turned north after this and headed for our overnight accommodation at Reykholt. Stopped along the way at Kerio, the remains of a volcano that has collapsed in on itself and subsequently filled with rain water/underground water. The water was certainly not liquid; being boys we couldn’t help but throw some rocks in. They didn’t so much bounce as go splat. So the water was in a gel transition state prior to becoming ice. After more photos we moved further up the road to Reykholt. 

After driving about for a few minutes it became obvious that the hotel we were looking for was not there. We headed down to the local bank to enquire after directions. The very helpful teller says that the chain of hotels that we were looking for did not occur in ‘this’ Reykholt. There are two Reykholt’s in Iceland he says helpfully. Out comes the map and he shows me where the other one is. ‘In these weather conditions, it should only take two hours to get there.’ It looked a hell of a lot further and it was starting to get dark to I though this was a daft idea to make an attempt on it. We turned around and headed toward Selfoss where I had planned on staying the following night. I had by this stage worked out that we were actually staying at the same place we had been that night. I am still pissed at the on-line agencies that I booked the accommodation through. They completely miss-sold the places to me using different names for the same places.

Anyhow, we drove down the road and checked into the first place that looked like it had accommodation. Which unfortunately for my credit card happened to be Iceland’s version of the Hilton (Hotel Selfoss). Place cost ISK13800 (£110), even drinks that we knew were expensive came in at ISK700 each (£5.60). Adi didn’t sleep well, so he isn’t posh at all. Dinner was a rushed KFC (yes they have them in Iceland and only in English funnily enough) – and they are a lot healthier than anywhere else in the world I dare say. Iceland has an embargo on all steroid or chemically modified feeds to any of it’s animals or imports – hence they are not only the most expensive country in Europe but also the healthiest and happiest apparently. Beer was only legal in the mid 1980’s. Watched some CNN in order to get back into the real world. Had enough of the ‘serious’ Icelandic news of shock and horror at the first murder in the country for two years. Even then it was understandable in some aspects, bloke shot the man sleeping with his wife.

A quick aside : By my mathematics – 1 person is killed every two years per 300 000 people, therefore, your chances of being murdered are 1:600 000 per year. Compared with our favourite country at government figures of 65 gun related deaths per day (23 725 per year) gives you death by gun ratio of 1:2000. In other words, your chances of being killed in South Africa are 300 times that of Iceland… Statistics can be manipulated to suit your argument in almost all situations – but even the most powerful spin-doctor is going to battle with this 

24/11/2007 Selfoss, Gullfoss, Geysir, Nesjavellir

Left Selfoss for Gullfoss (The Golden Waterfall) around 10:00am. Moon still very much in evidence. Not much happened on the drive as we drove north towards the mountains. About 5km short of Gullfoss we suddenly had a little car trouble. Felt just like a flat tire, so pulled over to have a look. Tyres were all inflated and pointing in the right direction. Road we had come on was a little bumpy, so I thought I may have broken a shaft, but no such luck there. Reversed and got back onto the road only to start slipping about. The road was covered in at least an inch of ice. Decided to continue onwards to Gullfoss as there didn’t seem to be any major inclines on the way. Only disappointment of the trip was the two busloads of tourists that rocked up with us. Bleeding Japanese get around. It was absolutely freezing, tried to smoke a fag but couldn’t have my glove off for more than a minute at a time. The waterfall as big as it is freezes over in harsh winters and it is already starting to go even at this time of year.

Next we travelled just down the road to Geysir, the famed origin of the word and site of one of the largest of the lot until 1960 when it suddenly stopped. The roads were still extremely icy and had to negotiate them at about 30kmph in 2
nd and 3rd for a total of 120km. Geysir fortunately was only a few kilometres away. Next to the now dormant Geysir is currently the 3rd largest in the world, Strokkur. After leaving here, it was more sapping concentration at 40kmph on the iced up roads. While we had seen a couple of natural wonders, the birding had become quite depressing with only a few Snow Bunting to talk of.

Stopping at a small plantation of trees (there aren’t many on Iceland), we hoped to find something with feathers on it. I heard the unmistakeable call of the Redpoll. (There aren’t any other arboreal seedeaters – so this was identity by exclusion rather than call recognition). We saw them periodically flying over but never a good binocular shot of them  – elusive buggers. Coming around a bend in the path, I found a Ptarmigan in resplendent winter plumage. Quite obvious since it is white in a brown background. Sure as hell beats the flash of feathers I had recorded in Scotland two years earlier. Travelled down the Sog River again, but still no White-tailed Eagle’s to be seen. We returned to Nesjavellir for the evening, conditions being perfect for Aurora borealis. Overnight at Fosshotel Nesbud.

25/11/2007 Nesjavellir, Reykjanes Peninsula

No bleeding northern lights! Clouds moved in eventually and the scientists went to bed, so we did as well. Left early again (09:00) after getting an invite from Guðmundur to visit his farm in the west country. The drive out of Nesjavellir is back up through the steep mountain that we came down initially a few days before. The initial steep climb found me in 2nd gear and slowing before the inevitable happened. The higher I went the more I realised I was going to be in big trouble on the ice. One must bear in mind that at this time of the morning it is still pitch-black outdoors and ice is difficult to judge in such conditions. However, when the wheel slippage started, I can’t say it was particularly unexpected – bollocks or language to that effect, only the sheep if any would know any different. The incline steered to the right when I started to slip, so the reverse was back down and off the mountain. At this particular moment, I had one of three choices:

1. Reverse back down the hill
2. Put the car into the ditch on the mountainside to avert the fall.
3. Continue sliding in the current direction straight off the mountain and die…

So in reality two options, although at this current stage, the car was taking Option 3 and there wasn’t much I could do about it. The initial panic and breaking, which wasn’t going to work, was now over, Adrian fortunately wasn’t panicking and advised gearing backwards. I lumped it into first after having been in neutral for some reason. Plenty of smoke and disagreement form the engine but I finally got some grip. Three metres away from the edge of the road and with Adrian looking out the back for me, we somehow managed to descend to a more level area. At some stage in this process the car must have stalled as I had to restart at the bottom. Turned the car around, lit and fag and drove in the opposite direction as if nothing had happened. It was only once I was jumping out of the cab at my house that I apologised to Adrian for almost killing him, quite nonchalantly said it wasn’t  problem, made him feel alive. Positive bugger.

The reverse route had been driven a few times as it was, so I knew the route. Still the ice was about and we had to drive carefully. Once I got onto the main circular route I was much happier, for about 5 minutes. The road disappeared up another bloody mountain that was now in the midst of a slight snowstorm. Back into 2
nd gear for 10 miles to negotiate this section. Finally getting out of such terrible conditions, we headed south of Reykjavik to the Reykjanes Peninsula for one last shot at a few birds we still needed to mop up on. No sooner got out of the city and we were confronted by a blizzard of horizontal snow. Bird we were going to do, no matter what. Arrived at a lake that featured an American Black Duck, a very rare tick anywhere in Europe, but thanks to the Internet, we knew exactly where the lonesome chap was. Sitting on the only bit of open water surrounded by ice – silly thing. 

Off we went in search of the two Gull species that we had left to tick. But with such bad snow flying about, birding was almost impossible, especially when the difference between the species was minute and needed very close accurate observation. Driving around the peninsula, I decided to head down from Grindavik on the north section of the peninsula to Sandgeroi further southwest. This provided us the opportunity to see the gulls from a sheltered vantage point, namely the car perched on a pier above the harbour. We quickly identified the gull species we were after, the Glaucous and Icelandic (another name anomaly as it only occurs in Iceland during the winter, non-breeding season). It was getting time to move on and barring another flutter for more species on the mudflats, we headed back to Keflavik to get ready to fly back to London.

In conclusion a thoroughly enjoyable experience which has enhanced our worldly enjoyment a little more. Personally learnt a little more about how to drive under ‘interesting’ conditions. Won’t be forgetting my ice driving anytime soon.


Alex Guesthouse
Aoalgata 60
ISL 00230

+354 421 2800

Fosshotel Nesbud
ISL 00801
+354 482 3415

[I never could find a direct website for this hotel and it’s name is very problematic in that ‘Fosshotel’ is a completely different hotel chain, nor is it in the town of Selfoss!!!]

Hotel Selfoss
Eyrarvegi 2
ISL 00800

+354 480 2500

Fosshotel Reykholt
320 Reykholt
ISL 00320
+354 871 226 0808

[We didn’t stay here as it was not the intended destination in the first place. Different Reykholt!!]


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