Farewell to the north

Sunset

After the tempestuous night, the waves are still respectable, but the ship is more steady, the Phenergan is still working and there are sea day lectures to be enjoyed in the lounge. Later in the afternoon we realise that the dusty, shadowy line far off is in fact the coast of Iceland. It is a bit surprising how quickly it has come up and John explains the storm has pushed us along faster than the ship technically can travel. It means that there is a possibility of a landing on Iceland’s north shore tomorrow morning before travelling to Reykjavik, our final destination.

But before that, there is a final party to be enjoyed. The dress up theme is green / Greenland and people are encouraged to find something in their kits that they can put together. I have a number of green clothes that I can share with several people for them to dress up in green. I find my camouflage hat in one of my stuff bags and team that up with ski goggles, a green jacket and the green dishwashing gloves I have been using for kayaking. The combination is, well, interesting! The best styled person tonight and the winner of the prize on offer is Barb, who looks absolutely magnificent as the “Greenland Goddess”. There are games played, there is music and dancing and then, all of a sudden and quite miraculously, there is the aurora borealis. The bands of green light dance on the horizon and flicker on and off. It is a remarkable sight and one I wasn’t expecting to have on this trip. And yet, here it is and I am completely enchanted by it.

Dynjandi Falls

The next morning we go for a landing at the Dynjandi falls. We get in by zodiac and then have to walk along the shore to where the falls spill into the sea and where the path starts going upwards along the falls. I am glad I have taken my tripod as this is perfect territory for nice slow shutter speed photographs of the falls. I hike up the hill where the main falls come down in a pool and gradually work my way down from there, stopping at every point to take photographs. It is a gorgeous landscape, very wild. During the two hours I’m there the wind picks up and by the time I catch a zodiac back to the boat the sea is wild and big waves slap over the front of the zodiac where I am sitting, dousing my tripod. Fortunately my camera is tucked away in my dry bag, but others are struggling to keep their cameras dry.

Dynjandi Falls

Back on board there is lunch to enjoy and then we set course for Reykjavik, while looking out for marine life that we may encounter on our journey. There is also a seminar from Colin, who shares his experience working on returning Keiko the orca back into the wild. A remarkable story and one that had entirely passed my by at the time (Keiko was the orca who played the role of Willy in the movie Free Willy) and has had me exploring the whole issue of captive orcas ever since. And while we weren’t lucky seeing any orcas in the waters on our way down to Reykjavik, we did come upon a pod of dolphins who frolicked around the ship and seemed to take great delight in jumping out of the water.

I make a smart move deciding to pack all my stuff in the afternoon, even though the ship is still moving quite a bit. But had I left it to later that evening, the experience wouldn’t have been very good as the wave motion picks up again and the ship lurches through the waves again. After a last night on the ship, we arrive early in the morning in Reykjavik. There is something special arriving somewhere in a port after having spent several days at sea. It seems so much more enjoyable than being spat out of an airplane at the outskirts of a town, this slow arrival in the middle of town in the harbour.

For all its slowness, the final goodbyes come far too soon and feel decidedly hurried and abrupt as we all board two separate buses to be taken to our hotels in the city. By the time I get to my hotel I feel a bit lost and am already missing everyone. After having settled in and checked up on emails, I decide to head out for a meander through town, trying to get rid of my sea legs and aiming to get one of those famous hot dogs at the harbour for lunch.

It is strange walking through a town and seeing so many people I don’t know after spending all this time on the ship in the company of only a few. I still feel lost and then I hear my name being called from across the street. And there are my friends from the ship and it is a happy reunion as all confess to the same feeling of struggling to adapt to a city. It turns out they are all on their way to the hot dog stand as well and so we join together, standing in line for a hot dog. Once we are eating ours, we say hello to Chris and Sue who are joining the queue. We bump into a few more people as we explore the city together and eventually head out for dinner at a local Indian restaurant, which is absolutely superb.

Jokulsarlon

Late that night, in fact very early the next morning, my friend Heike arrives from Germany and the next morning we set off in a rental car towards the south coast of Iceland. It’s about 4-5 hours drive to our hotel and then we have a another hour and a half to drive before we get to Jokulsarlon, the iceberg lagoon at the bottom of a glacier, which I have been keen to visit. It is an amazing place, like a graveyard of icebergs, drifting in this lagoon, until they get crushed together before they slip out of the small opening from the lagoon into the sea and beach themselves on the black sand.

Seal

We are there very late in the afternoon and lucky enough to get some sunlight for some nice photographs. As we admire the landscape, Heike notices a dark shape in the water and we see a seal coming up every now and then. We then notice a seal closer to us and careful and quietly walk up to it for some close up photographs. No one else seems to have seen the seal. Other people seem to be more obsessed with throwing stones in the water, for whatever reason. Afterwards we drive to the black sand beach and photograph the ice lying beached like big sparkling diamonds on a dark velvet background. Eventually it is time to drive back to our hotel, indulge in an expensive dinner before having a good rest.

Ice diamond Ice washed up on the black beach

The next day we drive back (most of) the way we came, stopping at several waterfalls (Skogafoss and Gulfoss) and Geysir where we watch the boiling water spouting up. It’s a cold and windy day, so we don’t stay too long in each place, also because I want Heike still to have a chance to do some shopping in Reykjavik before the shops close. We have an early Indian dinner (again!), before we have to get up very early for our flight to Frankfurt. From there I have another leg to Sao Paulo.

And so the journey finishes, as it always must. This trip has had a profound impact on me and I feel incredibly privileged to have been able to do this and see what I have seen. I hope there will be opportunities in the future as well, provided the Arctic stays this way a bit longer. But climate change is impacting on this extraordinary place and I fear that before too long what we currently know as the Arctic will disappear and change into something less magical.

Return from the Arctic

1508_Greenland-6866

Where does one begin to describe a trip that was so wonderful that words won’t do it justice, nor pictures, because nothing can really convey the experience of being there. To use words by Barry Lopez from his book Arctic Dreams: “What one thinks of any region, while travelling through, is the result of at least three things: what one knows, what one imagines, and how one is disposed.”

I had read up a lot about the Arctic, but as always there was so much more to know. I had imagined what this trip would be like for more than a year, yet my imagination could still not match the experience itself. And I was disposed towards soaking up the adventure, leading to periods of massive FOMO when there were too many choices or my body was craving sleep.

The trip had it all: wild animals, magnificent landscapes, more kayaking than I could have hoped for, wild storms and rough crossings on the ship, and most importantly, a great group of people to travel with. Since disembarking in the harbour of Reykjavik this morning I have gradually been getting used to being in civilisation again and walking out my sea legs. The last two weeks I have lived in a microcosmos, with a small group of people you get to know better and better, and without access to telephone or internet, so even a small city like Reykjavik was a bit overwhelming at first.

Being disconnected from phone and email was absolutely wonderful and I highly recommend disconnecting when you have a chance like this. It was probably a week into the trip that I realised that I had not had one thought regarding work or anything else; I was simply in the moment and I stayed in it for the entire time.

The small part I have seen of the Arctic feels like a timeless place; or at least one where our conventional perception of time is irrelevant. In the next few days, in between sightseeing and flights back home, I will attempt to write up the experience in separate blog posts, bearing in mind these wise words of Barry Lopez that “because you have seen something doesn’t mean you can explain it”.

78 degrees north

In two weeks’ time I will be getting on a plane to fly to Longyearbyen, a small town in the archipelago of Svalbard, which occasionally gets in the news when yet another tourist is mauled by a polar bear. I will be joining an expedition cruise there, which for me is the adventure of a lifetime, one I’ve long dreamed of. The cruise will go along the coast of Svalbard, then cross to Greenland, move into Scoresby Sund and finish in Iceland. It holds the promise of seeing whales, polar bears, arctic terns, foxes, possibly some reindeer and much more wildlife that would turn into a long list if I listed them all. To make it even more exciting I have booked the kayaking activity, which means I will be going out in a small group in double kayaks with a chance to observe wildlife even closer. My spare room is filling up with cold weather gear and my biggest dilemmas at the moment are hitting the right weather to do more kayaking training down the coast and deciding between what lenses and camera bodies to take. Do I take the flash or not? Do I take this zoom lens or that one? Choices, choices. I’ve been asking some advice from friends who have done this trip before and who always have sound advice. They suggested I focus on opting for redundancies rather than more lenses and I think that’s spot on. Once I’ve made my choices I know I will be fine and constraints usually focus you more on your photography than having too many options to choose from. Apart from that it will be wonderful to be on a ship with no city noise to distract. No cars, no horns, no buses, no trucks, no deafening car stereos. And once in the kayaks, just the splash of paddles on the water. I have loaded up the kindle with books by Barry Lopez. Of course I have read his Arctic Dreams, for the fourth time at last count. I first discovered it many years ago and see it pop up in every book written about the Arctic. His writing is erudite and poetic, so it’s no surprise that it has become such a reference work. I’ve downloaded a number of his other books and look forward to some quiet moments reading those. The blog has been very quiet for a while and that has mainly been because there has been no travel, but the next few months I will make up for that. This is the first of a few upcoming trips, with a trip to the Antarctic scheduled for November, in between some shorter tropical trips. I aim to write one or two more posts before starting this trip. During the trip it will be difficult to post, due to the lack of communications, but I will write them while cruising and once I’m on terra firma again, I will upload at the first opportunity. And finally, I figured it was time for a fresh look of the blog. I may make a few more tweaks in the next two weeks, but I think it’s already looking better than it was before.