Is that Brad Pitt in Iceland?

Trip Start Jan 22, 2009
Trip End Jan 26, 2009

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

With just a few hours of sleep, we decided to grab a quick breakfast before Michael picked us up for our Golden Circle Tour.  Michael came highly recommended from the trip advisor message boards, so we decided to send him an email a few months prior to departure.  He certainly did not disappoint, and his rates were quite competitive (for a private tour guide).  Michael is from St. Louis, but married an Icelandic woman and moved here 30 some years ago.  He has gone through tourism school and really knows his new country well.  Not to mention he knows everyone, everywhere we go. Our tour started out similar to yesterdays, except Michael has a microphone he wears on his head that blasts his voice through the car speakers to the back seat.  As we left the hotel, Michael showed us the hot dog stand where Bill Clinton ate and the house that ended the Cold War.  Not sure whether we felt bad for Michael or were just too tired to stop him, but nevertheless we let him tell us the same stories we heard the day before.  I got the front seat this day, but you could hear the peanut gallery in the back seats trying to beat Michael to the punch by pointing out the landmarks.

As we left the city, Michael explained that he has two vices: fishing and photography.  This is great because I can have someone telling me what to take pictures of, and he can take them for us (properly) when Amy and I have to be in the pics.  He was also a biology and geology major in college which worked out well for Jon since he has an interest in geology (and Iceland is a good place to learn about geology).  A lot of Michael's stories involved the rivers below where he has gone fishing and what types of fish you can find in each.  He certainly knows his stuff.  

We first stopped at a Skálholt Cathedral, which is one of the largest churches in Iceland.  Michael talked about how Iceland switched from Catholicism to Lutheranism overnight back in the 1500's.  Inside there were signs with the names of the bishops dating all the way back.  He then explained how Icelandic names were decided.  Your last name comes from your father's first name with son or dottir at the end (depending if you are the son or daughter).  So following this theme, my name would be David Robertson as my dad's name is Robert.  

The next stop on our golden circle tour was the hot springs area of Geysir, the original namesake of all spouting hot spring.  Geysir only erupts a few times a year (which Michael happened to catch on a tour last month, lucky dog).  But right next to it is the little brother named Stokkur.  Strokkur errupts every few minutes.  While we were there we saw it erupt 4 or 5 times (there is a video of this above, just click 'show all photos and videos', the videographer did not know how to use her equipment, so you will have to tilt your head or laptop sideways).  Sometimes it is just a little spew, but others it is a full blast many feet in the air.  The smell of sulfur was quite prominent here as well.  "It isn't from last night's bean soup" as Michael jokes.

Back in the car we head to Gullfoss, The Golden Falls.  Gulfoss is a 100 foot drop waterfall that cuts through a volcanic canyon.  It was cool to see even in the winter as the sides of the canyon are completely frozen.  Michael tells us that he has seen ice climbers a few times, and here I thought the kids doing handstands on the side of the cliff were crazy.  The path from the parking lot leading to the waterfall is a thick layer of ice.  People are falling all over the place, but we walk on the sides where it is just snow.  We take a few pictures, then head further down to get another view.  The path leads all the way down to the river, but you can see from up above that it is also completely iced over, and one small slip means you are gonna be very wet.  So we head back inside to have some lunch.  There are various sandwiches and soups.  Ken and Jon went with the vegetable soup, which on this day was tomato.  Michael, Amy, and I tried the lamb soup.  I guess Michael didn't really "try" it as he goes there a few times a week and gets to eat for free (no charge for tour leaders).  The soup comes with free refills, but I found one bowl was more than enough.  Amy and Jon did a little shopping in the shop as Michael tells Ken and I more stories.  We are thoroughly entertained even on 5 hours of sleep combined.  

The road to Thingvellir National Park, the next stop on the tour, is blocked due to poor road conditions.  So Michael has to take the long way.  This is a bad idea with a bunch of tired Americans.  At one point all 4 of us are sleeping while Michael's soothing voice tells us more facts about Iceland (this is where I learned that men in Iceland live a long time because of all the fish they eat, women don't live as long because they smoke more).  But then you can hear him scream "Is that Brad Pitt in Iceland?"  We all jumped up (especially Amy) and were sure not to fall asleep anymore. We continue on and finally arrive at "Thingvellir National Park, Iceland's only UNESCO World Heritage Site. Starting in 930 AD the Vikings held their outdoor parliament, the Althing, here. But it is more than a culturally significant site, it is a unique opportunity to witness the geological forces of plate tectonics, which separate about 2.5 cm or 1 inch per year. Over the eons, a rift valley formed where the Alţing gathered. Lake Thingvallavatn is Iceland's largest natural freshwater lake with four unique species of Arctic char."  This blurb came from Michael's website.  You can tell he is a fisherman with the closing line talking about Arctic char.  Thingvellir is pretty much where the North America and European-Asia plates meet.  

Once again there is a pathway that is completely iced over.  Although this time, there is no where on the sides to walk on the snow.  As we are getting out of the car we saw a car spinning in circles trying to exit the parking lot.  After making fun of them we start to walk down the path and Michael takes a terrible fall.  Apparently that happens once a year for him.  We head back to his car and he pulls out rubber cleats that you put over your shoes.  This could be one of the greatest inventions ever (besides tivo, slap bracelets, and reeses peanut butter cups). We were running over the ice like it wasn't even there anymore.  We walk around on the European/Asian side for a bit before getting back in the car and driving to the North American side (Michael makes some jokes about European/Asian people as we cross over).  The main tourist center is on this side and we go in to watch a video about the fish in the river below.  Michael narrates for us explaining how these fish nest, are born, then come back to the identical spot they were born after each year.  We continue to a model of Iceland.  Michael points out all the locations we have been to today.  Finally we watch a video on the volcanoes in the area.

Michael takes us back to the hotel and we wave goodbye to the sounds of beating drums again.  As we go inside we decide to stop at the front desk to see if the northern lights tour is going on tonight.  Due to low solar activity or poor visibility, this tour is canceled more often than not.  Only a few times a month (and only in the winter) are you able to go out and hunt for the northern lights.  We found out that tonight was on, so we booked.  This was quite exciting as we figured there wasn't a chance we would see the northern lights on our trip.  And even if we go out, we might not see anything.  The tour refunds 70% of the bill if you dont see anything though, so I liked our chances.  We had to quickly get ready and eat dinner.  We had planned to go to a nice dinner this evening as it would be our last, but the northern lights trumped this idea.  The front desk pointed us in the direction of a hamburger place that Ken and I had read about online, sounded perfect.  The place is called Hamborgarabúlla Tómasar and it was located right next to the Sea Barron.  There was a picture of Che Guevara out front, so we knew this was the place (what does Che Guevara have to do with burgers?).  This was another shack that looked like a bar inside.  There wasn't a menu, but instead pieces of paper with drawings and Icelandic words on it.  The guy at the counter tells me they have the deal of the century, a cheeseburger, fries, and soda for 1150 ISK.  Not a bad deal (although not sure if it is the deal of the century), so we got a round of them.  The burgers were quite juicy and actually made out of lamb patties (we think...hope).  We finished up quickly and went back to the hotel.

The tour group picked us up at the hotel and transported us to the main bus terminal where we boarded a bigger bus.  There were 4 large bus loads of people going out to see the northern lights.  Reykjavik Excursions (the name of the tour company) certainly made out tonight.  We head out at 9pm back to Thingvellir National Park.  The tour guide on our bus tries to explain to us why the northern lights appear (aurora borealis is the scientific name for the solar particles coming in contact with the earth's atmosphere to form curtains of light shows).  I believe he is one of those fellas whose biggest fear is public speaking.  After stumbling all over his words, he keeps saying "We hope to see them tonight."  I think he is preparing us for a let down.  He also explains that they don't come out until midnight (then why are we leaving at 9pm?).  We get to Thingvellir at 10, the buses turn off all of the lights (it has to be pitch black for the best viewing) and everyone sits in the cold for an hour.  Still, no sightings, we are about to board the bus to try a different location when one of the other guides tells us to look out in the distance.  You can barely make out what looks like a white discoloration in the sky.  Half the people didnt notice anything.  We stood there for another half an hour when they told us to board the bus as we were heading home.  Everyone was pissed off as our tour guide said "Although very faint, clearly we saw the northern lights tonight."  Methinks this was their way of getting out of refunding four bus loads of people 70% of their money.  But as we are heading back, and  midnight approaches, the right side of the bus could see the northern lights. The bus pulls over in the middle of nowhere and everyone gets out in the street.  We saw the dancing white light in the air, and it was actually pretty cool.  We got to see it for about 30 mins.  Then we drove a little more and hopped out of the bus again.  I was able to take a few pics, but unfortunately I am not able to hold a camera still for 10 seconds without a tripod, so they are a tad blurry (you can get the idea).  Interestingly enough, the lights are green in the pictures, instead of white.  At about 1 am we head back to the city.  The buses drop off everyone at their hotel.  With 4 bus loads you would think they would tell people to board the buses based on the locale of your hotel.  But instead, all 4 buses drove around Reykjavik at 1 in the morning dropping people off.  Of course we were one of the last ones off.  We finally went to bed and called it a night, very tired but very happy to have witnessed this natural phenomenon.
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