Kárahnjúkar and the East Fjords in a whirlwind

Pictures at at the bottom...

A long weekend, Verslunmannahelgi, traditionally a day given to shopworkers at the end of summer, and in more recent tradition, a weekend to go to Vestmannæyar, get shitfaced drunk and sing campfire songs.

Which does have some appeal, but I think it helps if you know icelandic well enough to sing drunken ballads, and understand the jokes.

And the country has more of a pull anyway. Debouchery can be had any weekend in iceland. A long weekend giving you enough travel time to escape the southwest for a meaningful period of time, not as often.

Didn't get out of work as early as I'd planned, but eventually, Tanja and I were in the car and moving. Tent, stove, food, cameras, tripods and maps. Various people had assured us that we were fools for going on a trip, the roads and the country would be crowded with people headed out for the weekend. Lame innipúkinn (party poopers) There was barely any traffic, even by icelandic standards.

First stop was Seljavelirsund, the first 25m pool in iceland. It's near Skógar, about 10-15 minutes walk up the valley from the new pool. And a more idyllic swimming pool could not be imagined. Beautifully clean and white, with nice green trim, three small dressing rooms, and a pool built onto the side of the valley, with one side being natural rock. A pipe brings warm water in from a geothermal spot on the hillside, and it drains out the other end and down into the creek. You can see about seven or eight small waterfalls in the clefts of the surrounding hills. Simply divine.

Had a bit of a swim, and then as we were leaving, we even had a conversation (in icelandic) with a family from Vestmannæyar, who had escaped for the weekend to the mainland. We both felt quite proud of that.

Then it was across the sandur, stopping for dinner along the way. The fuel tin that mum left me seems to leak with my MSR fuel pump. Not real safe with a growing pool under the pump, and a fiery whisperlite 6 inches away, but what can you do?

This section of driving goes through a stretch of the biggest, and second biggest lava flows known in history. It's just like most "hraun" or lava fields, but it goes on and on and on and on and on. Science types might like to read http://volcano.und.edu/vwdocs/Gases/laki.html and http://volcano.und.nodak.edu/vwdocs/volc_images/europe_west_asia/laki.html for more background info.

Skipping from science to art, Tanja and I then spent the next few hours driving along in the dusk, stopping at all sorts of interesting sights to take pictures. It was quite a lot of fun to travel around with someone with a load of camera gear. No doubts or concerns about wasting someones time, not when you both see the same thing at the same time and the car just pulls itself over to the side of the road. However, it seems that endeavours were less rewarding than normal, given the extra effort that went into each one, I'm not particularly impressed with the results of the weekends photography really. Oh well :) It sure was fun anyway.

Pulled into Jökulsárlón around 1:30am or so. If you've never seen a glacial lagoon, like me, or been up close to ice packed sea, this is pretty eyepopping. Really really cool. We had the place completely to ourselves, and it was really really beautiful. Very still, occasional noises from seals fishing in the lagoon, and the odd bit of ice falling into the water.

The ice is all so different. I've always sort of known this, but it's amazingly stark when they're all floating around together. Some of them were the pureset, most transparent ice I'd ever seen, like molten glass, not a bubble or imperfection in sight, while others were almost like frozen dirt.

And then, while Tanja was snoozing in the car (or trying to) I happened to look up, and noticed the aurora! Pretty magical. Tanja was promptly roused, and then a few minutes later, as quick as it had come, it was gone. Beautiful.

Set up camp on a roadside nearby, and the next morning continued our adventure eastwards. Destination Kárahnjúkar.

This is the site of a huge hydroelectric project, nearing completion. It's a pretty shady dam, being built for fairly shady economic reasons. It's billed as jobs for icelanders, and good for the country and all that. Of course, most of the construction is being done by immigrants working for the foreign construction companies that won the contracts. There's definitely been a large injection of money into the area, but it's nowhere near as big as billed.

As for long term jobs, what sort of future is a factory floor worker in an aluminium smelter?

So what's the problem? I'm not going to touch on the environmental aspects. The proposed dam is in a pretty central area in a huge wilderness zone. That's enough objection on it's own really, but let's just completely ignore environmental impacts. All it tends to do is breed frothing at the mouth zealots and ecoterrorists.

Let's look at it economically instead. This is where it's meant to be an obvious winner. Foreign investment in iceland, more jobs in rural areas, what could possibly be bad?

Well, They're building a bloody MASSIVE dam. There is no demand for this much power in the icelandic domestic market. It's being built purely to provide power for an aluminium smelter. Which is now not going to be anywhere near as big as was originally promised. Falling demand sorry chaps, sorry to hear you've already got this bloody big dam I asked for.

Most of the construction contracts went to foreign firms, (bechtel et al) so although there's definitely been jobs for icelanders, a lot of the construction crews came from out of the country through the contractor.

The government's footing the construction bill! In return, alcoa promises to buy X MWh of electricity for Y years. Great, build us all this shit now, and we'll give you some money later, only it's a purchase agreement, not a loan, so it's highly unlikely that the goverment ever recoups it money.

Big dams aren't in endless supply. Hydro itself might be nice and renewable, but you can only build so many dams.

Alcoa isn't a friend of iceland. They are ONLY building here because we've promised them such cheap electricity. How is that sort of deal possibly good for anyone but Alcoa? I think we have seriously undervalued our natural resources here. Heavy industry is hardly a winning bid for the future anyway.

It's just fishy all round, and the icelandic goverment has made all sorts of handwaving promises that don't really mean anything. But for whatever reason, icelanders don't care. We had a bunch of hippies camped out in the country "protesting" but they only managed to raise attention to themselves for being childesh fringe dwellers, and have been largely ignored by the locals as "foreigners"

If they really wanted to help, they should have been in the streets of reykjavik, explaining to all passers why the dam was bad, why they should be fighting to stop it. Why they should be objecting to the various plans for more big dams and smelters.

They are NEVER going to stop a dam by spraypainting equipment, when there's not even enough objection to the project for a SINGLE protest poster in the capital. Misguided energies. My longstanding sadness with environmental activism. There's only so many people in my sphere of influence in reykjavik.

But that's too much already. When I was planning what to say in this story, I was juggling how much about the dam to talk about, and in what sort of details. It was the destination for this trip, but hardly a highlight. We had vague plans of doing some backpacking in the flood zone, but we didn't get out there till saturday afternoon, had no maps of the area, and other than random "let's walk that way for a day" there's nothing really obvious to do, other than perhaps walk up the watershed.

Took a bunch of pictures of the construction area. Went downstream to this big gorge (again, horribly lit, just like similar canyons on the Laugarvegurinn) It's going to be safe, but it won't be a wild river anymore. Landsvirkunn even makes mention of how there's going to be a cool new 90m waterfall from the spillway of the dam into this canyon.

Some nice geology in the area though, even if there's nothing of macroscopic beauty. Some really neat examples of tuff, or moberg as the icelanders call it. Some sort of proto sand stone in the road cuttings through the sediment by the current water level, and then later on, some weird soft crumbly black rock, shot through with orange cracks, that had discoloured the host rock. Interesting stuff. And of course, the ever present crazy spirals of columnar basalt.

Headed back across the highland moor, on the beautiful super highway that was built to lead out to the construction site. It will definitely improve access to the area, though I'm not sure if that is quite the point in large wilderness areas :)

Quite a lovely road though, Snæfell looms over you for most of the area (the highest mountain that's not part of a glacier, and third highest overall in iceland at 1833m) and it's a great way to be up close to the highland moors. Ponds, cotton grass, mosses, herbs and all sorts of stuff.

Then back down into Fljótsdalur for another night's camping. Found a lovely little side road, a forestry road almost, in the biggest forest in iceland. Enough wood for a fire even, and some kind soul had already cut it into nice lengths for us. Tanja cooked up some curry, and I got imaginitive with tent pegs, and resolved to buy myself a hammer and some big steel nails when we got back to reykjavik.

Phew. Exhausted? Pat yourself on the back, you've made it past halfway. Do you ever wish that I edited a bit more? Sometimes I do too. But with the amount of actual feedback I receive, it's normally hard enough to justify even the perpetual first draft status. (Don't all go emailing me now and telling me that perhaps if I edited more, people would read more, I don't want to hear it)

On with the show. After another leisurely morning, sleeping in, and enjoying the lovely weather we were having out here in the east (the forecast was for rain in the rest of the country) we realised we didn't really have any plans, so a quick scan of the lonely planet, and a similar book in german we headed off to drive around the coast roads in the east fjords themselves.

First major stop was the Iceland Spar mine at Helgustaðir. Relevant science linkage here Quite interesting. Walking up the track (only a few hundred meters from the road) you keep wondering where the special rock is going to be. Then all of a sudden, you're standing on a tailings pile, glittering with crystals. They mined here primarily in the 18th century, when such perfect calcite cyrstals were in demand in scientific circles for the generation and detection of polarised light. Iceland was basically the only source of this particular sort of calcite crystal that was pure enough and large enough to be used in scientific instruments. Pretty interesting, and really pretty to.

Then it was just the "typical" iceland sights. Idyllic pastoral scenes, coloured mountains, blue seas, green pastures, that just continually unfold before your eyes. Iceland is truly beautiful to drive around in. (though even then, driving around the fifth fjord of the afternoon makes you long for a good tunnel straight across.)

Ended up back in the same campsite again that night, after a good feed at the shop in Djúpivogur. Earlier that afternoon we had stopped to explore a side road off to a glacier, but I decided against taking the micra through a ford to get us closer. We both walked a couple of k up the road to another glacial lagoon (not nearly as pretty) and climbed up onto a ridge overlooking the area. Glaciers are neat.

Another look at Jökulsárlón by daylight, still beautiful, but now you had to contend with tourists playing games of tossing rocks onto floating bergs, and tourboats, and just generally more people. Didn't stay as long :) Saw an absolutely monstrous truck though. German plates, this thing must have cost an absolute fortune, and must be costing a pretty penny running it too. Didn't look like much would stop it, but still, fairly obscene.

Then it was back into the rain, with some patches of storm light, and rainbows around the Vík area, and back to visit Ute in her new appartment! A really wonderful weekend away. Makes me realise how much I miss camping.

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Seljavelirsund - The first 25m pool in Iceland, and divinely relaxing

Seljavelirsund - The first 25m pool in Iceland, and divinely relaxing

Tanja guarding dinner from the sunset

Tanja guarding dinner from the sunset

Flood plains (Jökulhlaup area)

Flood plains (Jökulhlaup area)

Tanja taking pictures at the far end of the bridge

Tanja taking pictures at the far end of the bridge

Patterns in the water, some fast, some slow

Patterns in the water, some fast, some slow

Photographers in the mist (Tanja near Skaftafell)

Photographers in the mist (Tanja near Skaftafell)