July 02, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

August 2016


Day 6 map

01 2015-08-15 Map Day 0601 2015-08-15 Map Day 06

We continued our westward trek (well, bus ride) along the rugged southern coast of Iceland today.  One thing that stands out in this country is the lack of civilization.  What I mean is that there are very few towns or villages.  Hotels, as scarce as they are, are for the most part just planted in the middle of nowhere near some natural attraction and many natural attractions have no development of any kind (including outhouses) anywhere near them.  At the end of this blog I talk about Iceberg Beach.  This is one of the most visited places in Iceland and it’s totally devoid of the hand of man – which in one sense is great but if you have the urgent need for – how should  I put it – let’s just say an “urgent haircut” you’re out of luck.  The entire population of the country is only 323,000 (2013 census) and the area of the country is 39,769 square miles.  That averages out to around 8 people per square mile.  Now consider that over a third of that population (37%) lives in Reykjavik so it’s no wonder that the countryside is rather sparsely populated and that, in turn, makes this one of the most pristine places I’ve ever visited.

Before we left our hotel (Hotel Edda Vic, in Vic) I felt compelled to take a shot of one of the most unique bar stools I’ve ever seen.  I’m not clear on what prompted the designer to create this hairy thing, or what they feed them, but I must confess, it was worthy of a photograph or 10.

Hairy Bar Stools

Hairy bar stoolHairy bar stool

But, we didn’t come 4,200 miles to oogle bar stools now did we?  We came here to see nature and what would have more nature stuff than a national park so we headed off to see the sights en-route to our next hotel near Skaftafell National Park. 



After leaving Vic we crossed the Tungufljot River (among others), and entered another massive lava field.  This one is one of the older ones so has a thick layer of moss covering the lava much like a very lumpy green carpet.  In 1783, this huge lava flow streamed from the Lakagígar fissure - which happened to be under a glacier - in what became known as the “Laki eruption”. This lava flow is said to be the biggest lava flow from a single eruption in history – world wide.  The lava filled the gorges of two major rivers and then inundated the low areas closer to the coast destroying pretty much all the farms and villages in its path.   

Tungufljot River – typical of many rivers crossing this area

Tungufljot RiverTungufljot River

Green fields of moss covering the “Laki Eruption” or “Kirkjubæjarklaustur” Lava Field

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Over the years since this lava covered the area, it has grown this lush carpet of moss, many times up to a foot thick.  When you walk on it, it’s soft and spongy like walking on an angel food cake, but green. Over the decades, as older moss gives way to new moss, the older moss decays and is forming little pockets of rich soil in low spots protected from the wind.  Recently wild flowers and other plants have started to get a foot hold using these pockets of soil.

Wildflowers getting foot hold in lava field

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Wildflowers getting foot hold in lava field

Moss Covered Kirkjubæjarklaustur Lava FieldMoss Covered Kirkjubæjarklaustur Lava Field



Going back to the lava flow, in one case the lava flow kept coming down a small river valley toward the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur.  Each day it got closer and closer to the village with no sign that it wouldn’t just flow right over the town.  However, on July 20, 1783 as the lava approached the outskirts of town, the pastor of the local church, one Jon Steingrimsson, delivered a sermon now called the “Fire Sermon” asking god to stop the lava.  That night the lava stopped advancing and the village was spared.  Guess who became an immediate hero?  And, guess where our next stop was?  Right, the village of Kirkjubæjarklaustur

The old church where the reverend gave his little pep talk to god is gone but you can still see remnants of its foundation by a cemetery next to a new church building.  But, beyond that the only interesting thing to see (other than the restrooms at a convenient gas station) is the Systrafoss (Sisters) Waterfall.  

Iceland was originally Catholic but then around 1530 they started the “reformation” imposed by King Christian III of Denmark (who owned Iceland at the time).  Ok, perspective time again.  1530 is only 38 year after Columbus ‘discovered’ America but 246 years before the signing of the US Declaration of Independence.  You know all those Revolutionary War movies you’ve seen?  Well this was nearly 250 years earlier than that.  During this time the Icelanders threw over the Catholic church in favor of the Lutheran Church.  The reformation lasted until 1550 when they executed Jón Arason, the Catholic bishop of Hólar, and his two sons.  This was the last bishop in Iceland to go as they say and after his demise the country was officially Lutheran.   

However, before the reformation, Iceland had many monasteries and convents.  One such convent was in this town.  In fact it pretty much was the town.  The name of the town, Kirkjubæjarklaustur, translates to “church town cloister”.  As the t-shirt in a gift shop declared: “What part of Kirkjubæjarklaustur don’t you understand?” 

The sisters of this convent were quite liked and the split stream waterfall that cascades into the village was named Systrafoss (Sisters Waterfall) in their honor.  At the base of the waterfall is a wonderful quiet little glen with a profusion of wildflowers and a few old buildings

Systrafoss (Sisters Waterfall) in Kirkjubæjarklaustur

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Wildflowers at the base of Systrafoss falls

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Old building by Systrafoss Falls

Iceland ShackIceland Shack



Skaftafell National Park, our next stop, became part of the Vatnajökull National Park in 2008 but many people still refer to this region by its old park name  The larger Vatnajökull NP that it is now a part of is 5,251 square miles in size (for reference, Yellowstone NP is 3,486 Square Miles) and encompasses the Vatnajökull glacier which, if you recall is the largest glacier in Europe.  National parks in Iceland (or at least this one) were commissioned to preserve the land and very early on they decided that other than at the very edges of the park, the only access would be on foot for hikers and backpackers and perhaps horse.  As such, you can only drive to a small fraction of the incredible things in the park.  One such place you can get pretty close to in a vehicle is the Svinafell Glacier.

The Svinafell Glacier is a small (relatively speaking) finger of the massive Vatnajökull glacier and there is a hiking trail on the cliff along its side.  As is the case with many glaciers there is a small lake or pond at the base of the glacier with icebergs floating in it.  These lakes or ponds are formed when the front of the glacier stays in on place for a long period of time.  During that time rock and dirt get carried along in the ice to the front of the glacier where it melts and the rocks and dirt wind up on the ground forming a moraine which is a ridge of dirt along the front of the glacier.  Later when the glacier retreats this moraine acts like a dam forming a lake between it and the front of the glacier.  The ice in this particular moraine lake has zebra stripes where dirty ice alternates with clean ice.

Svinafell Glacier

Svinafell GlacierSvinafell Glacier

Icebergs in lake at foot of Svinafell Glacier

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Icebergs from Svinafell Glacier

Svniafell IcebergsSvniafell Icebergs

Just on the other side of a ridge from Svinafell Glacier is another part of the same national park with some lovely hikes and pretty waterfalls.  The average age of our tour group was, how shall I say, ‘past our sell by date’, so the bus drove us to a spot that was about half way up to the Svartifoss (Black) falls viewing spot.  The trail keeps going all the way the a bridge near the bottom of the falls, and then off into the back country, but due to time constraints we just went to the top of a hill where you can see the falls from a little distance away.  As it turns out this is one of the most popular sights in the park. I guess that makes sense as you don’t have to be a backpacker to get to it.  It got its name (Black Falls) from the dark Basalt columns that frame the falls.  These are those same hexagonal columns we saw before at Black Sand Beach near Vic and are the same type of rock you can see at Devil's Tower in Wyoming.  The base of this waterfall is noteworthy for its sharp rocks. Hexagonal column sections break off of the cliff face faster than the falling water wears them down so apparently there are a jumble of them at the bottom of the falls (we didn’t get down there).

Svartifoss (Black) falls

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Svartifoss (Black) falls

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From here we hiked back down to the where the bus had left us and about half the group chose to walk all the way down to the visitor center and the rest took the bus back down..  Both Ellen and I both walked down, which afforded us a grand view of the flood plains we had driven through earlier in the day

Flood plains

Skeioara RiverSkeioara River

On the way down, we passed yet another water fall.  This one is called Hundafoss Falls which turns out to be taller than the prior one but harder to get a good view of from our side of the river.  I can’t find much info about this falls other than the name means “dog waterfall”.  The story goes that at some time in the past high water during the “melt” season, some local farm dogs went in the water and were swept over the falls – but enough about that.

Hundafoss Falls

Hundafoss FallsHundafoss Falls



This was the one day on our trip that the group ventured out after dinner on an official part of the itinerary.  Although it had been somewhat overcast all day it hadn’t rained much so rather than chance it tomorrow our guide decided to take us out to what I call “Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach”.  I don’t think that is it’s official name and the internet is inconsistent with some sites calling it “Black Sand Beach (at Jökulsárlón)” and sometimes just “Jökulsárlón Beach”.  It’s just the beach where a lagoon (or lake) called Jokulsarton empties into the sea.  The deal here is that the Jökulsárlón lagoon is filled with icebergs that have calved off of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier (I dare you to pronounce that one) and we’ll talk more about that tomorrow.  Each day many of these icebergs floating in the lagoon make their way through a narrow outlet to the sea.  Once these icebergs hit the open sea, the tides and wind push many of them back and up onto the beach on either side of the outlet.  The beach they wash up on is black and the icebergs are white and blue (if it’s sunny) which makes for excellent photo opportunities. 

This was about a 45 minute drive from the hotel and by the time we got there it was just starting to rain and the rain got harder and harder the entire time we were there.  Even though we got there just about sunset, the thick clouds blocked most of the light you usually have right after sunset so it was pretty dark.  But, that didn’t stop many of us from photographing anyway and getting soaked in the process.  It was interesting trying to keep cameras and lenses dry in the pouring rain but most of us managed somehow.

Blue/white ice on black sand

Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #05Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #05

A duck?

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Washed up iceberg

Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #01Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #01

Flashlight behind the iceberg on black sand

Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #02Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #02

Rough Seas

Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #03Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #03

A bear climbing up the back side of the iceberg?

Climbing Bear - Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #04Climbing Bear - Iceberg on Jökulsárlón Iceberg Beach #04

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Thanks for reading -- Dan



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