Sunshine Nights and Frozen Fires

“There , tough spirits ruled

that realm in ages past;

cold, stiffened trolls stand, their bodies turned to stone.  

Few gods live upon the land but no one I know watches still

the ocean wide and blue. “

 

Snæfellsjökull

Sunshine Nights and Frozen Fire

A Saudi Saga

 

Into the heart of slumbering giants 

Stepping over the threshold into a steel cage wasn’t the easiest decision to make. With nothing to prevent me from plummeting but a cable strapped to my harness, I walked across the little bridge that hovered over the open mouth of the volcano and tried not to think about the 120 meter (400 foot) drop below me.  Once inside the little ‘basket’ that would take us deep into the slumbering heart of Thrihnukagigur (meaning the Three Peaks Crater), I peered down through the grid flooring below my feet and saw only abyss staring back. And so, with the whining and humming of metal gears, we began to slowly sink into darkness, stone and ash, leaving the light of day behind.  

It was a tight fit, you had only to stretch your hand out to touch the raw and open-faced earth of Thrihnukagigur, the volcano that erupted some 4,000 years ago and now stands in hollowed silence.  

As we dropped, I examined the rough walls around us, noticing the volcanic stone which was much more colorful and expressive than I had expected it to be, and this was mainly due to the collection of minerals found in the lava that once spewed in maddening outbursts of molten earth that fought its way up from deep within Thrihnukagigur.  Reds, purples, greys, blues, oranges, browns and black were all melted together in an earthly masterpiece of kaleidoscopic swirls and stories of a once violent portrayal of Earth’s incredible explosive power.  

Deeper and deeper, meter by meter, color by color we sank with nothing around us but rainbow stone and passing darkness.  However as we drew closer to the end of our descent, I peered down over the railing and saw a tiny constellation of wandering stars in the distance; it turned out to be people with headlamps exploring the crater (only a certain number of people are permitted into the volcano at a time to prevent crowding and damage to the natural site).  

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It was cold and deep in the belly of the Earth, and our lamps and lights placed to illuminate the dark corners of Thrihnukagigur cast shapes and faces upon the canvas of earth, creating eerie facades and shifting shadows.  Released from our little elevator basket, it was our turn to explore the deep cavernous crater Thrihnukagigur.   

I looped around the area, following the ropes that marked the territories to which we could inspect and photograph, stepping gingerly over the slippery rocky terrain of the volcano when it suddenly hit me, I was inside a volcano that had belted fire and molten rock over 4,000 years ago! Spell-bound by this realization and the rainbow rock lining of Thrihnukagigur, I didn’t realize how cold or damp the site was until I felt the pitter patter of water droplets upon my helmet.  Looking up I saw drops of persistent precipitation revealed in my lamp’s light raining down from the top of the crater, and in the echoing silence, their drops reign supreme.  

How is it possible we are even able to travel down into a beautifully preserved  extinguished crater? A magma chamber is located at the very heart of a volcano, and it is here where molten rock waits and sits, until it angrily surges to the surface and causes a volcanic eruption.  After an explosion, the crater usually closes, and the colder temperatures outside causes it to solidify as hardened lava. Thrihnukagigur however, is a rarity.  

Her magma chamber seems to have disappeared, making her an exception to any other volcano in the world.  It is believed that the magma might have metastasised to the walls, or was simply swallowed back into the depths of the Earth. Whatever the case, we should be grateful, for where else in the world could you travel into the rainbow catacombs of Iceland?

 

 

After exploring the inside of the volcano and marvelling at nature’s mysterious wonder, we squeezed back into the ‘basket’ and rose towards the open blue dot of sky (the ascension through esophagus of Earth wasn’t nearly as daunting as our descent)

IMG_7541 We returned to base camp where we had initially geared up (helmet and harness) and sat down to a mouth-watering bowl of homemade lamb stew, coffee and local stories of the property told by the many guides who run the national park.  

 

 

After warming ourselves in the cozy confines of base camp, we hiked back to our bus.  Layers of clouds had started to move across Iceland’s sunny blue sky, and as we walked along the trail of the moss covered lava-fields, we noticed volcanic ghosts of ancient open-mouthed craters as if frozen in silent screams thousands of years ago.  

Cold Child in the City

Our bus took us back from the park of three craters to the city of Reykjavik.  We walked along the busying Sunday streets of the city, alive with joyous cries of children who were tobogganing down a giant slip and slide right in the middle of the city. How they were not cold was beyond me! I was wearing multiple layers and was still not warm enough (must be my Saudi blood). Reykjavik doesn’t get much warmer than 11 degrees celsius in the summer time.

IMG_6714 Fortunately we had done our homework and packed plenty of winter clothing.

Walking along the electric city awash in eternal sunshine was a wonderful way to get to know a little more of Reykjavik.  Graffiti murals, little carved statues, poems and prose placed for those to find them, these breadcrumbs of culture were a delight to discover, one had only to keep an sharp eye for hidden morsels to be led to more urban delights and hidden messages.

We ate, drank coffee and shopped and explored the many shops that boasted the best lava infused salts, reindeer pelts, pottery, and of course my all time favorite, coffee!  Bellies full and exceptionally caffeinated, we vibrated our way towards the historic Hofdi House that once belonged to one of Iceland’s most celebrated poets, Einar Benediktsson.  

Within the whitewashed walls of this acclaimed establishment, another historical event had taken place.  In 1986, two political titans met, President Ronald Reagan 

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and President Mikhail Gorbachev, to begin the end of the Cold War and to discuss global disarmament. And just beyond the house, another piece of history stood.

A swatch taken from the Iron Curtain herself;  a caricature is painted upon the shred of Curtain,  its eyes filled with painted grief, its thin mouth slightly frowning, standing in haunting silence upon the beautiful blue backdrop of the peaceful blue bay.

Circles of Gold and Glaciers

The next day we woke up early for our long awaited day trip with Super Jeeps to explore the Golden Circle of Iceland (a great way to visit popular sites in Iceland in a single day).  We were  picked up from our hotel in two Defenders with monstrous offroading tires ready to tackle any terrain that Iceland had to offer.  

Anxious and excited, we climbed into our great tanks of adventure and headed towards our first destination, Þingvellir (Thingvellir) National Park.  The very name of the park fittingly translates to Parliament Plains, for that is what you shall see before you; high cliffs, a rift valley, and plains upon which the Althing, an open-air assembly which was  established in 930 that represented all of Iceland, and continued until 1798.  

Inscribed as a UNESCO World Site, Þingvellir holds great historical meaning for the people of Iceland, it also holds many wonderful natural treasures such as the Lake of Thingvallavatn, the iconic Birch Woodlands of Bláskógar (Blue Woods), and local flora and fauna only found in Iceland.  This park is also unique since it straddles the Mid-Atlantic Rift (North American and Eurasian plates).  

After having walked along the rising cliffs and crossing from North America to Europe, we  clambered back into the jeeps and continued our Golden Circle tour.  Next up? The belting geysers of Haukalur.

Amid the geothermal territory of Haukalur, the Earth boils and churns to the surface, trumpeting impressive blasts of boiling water towards the sky.  There are two infamous geysers, Geysir and Strokkur, in fact, the term geyser was named after Geysir (it no longer erupts following an earthquake that put it out of commission).  However it’s much more active companion shoots water up about 100 ft roughly every ten minutes.  

The smell of sulphur is one of the most noticeable things about Iceland, and I am not just talking about the active geothermal areas.  The water you wash your hands in, the water you drink, the hot springs and gurgling geysers are all from the same source.  Underground waters heated from the many active volcanoes.  

The very word Reykjavik means “smoky bay”, alluding to the nearby geothermal activity.  If you were to drive around the city limits, you would notice rising steam and smoke from several areas, including the Orkuveita Reykjavík, Reykjavík’s hot water utility, which is the largest geothermal heating facility in the world.

Not a single drop of this mineral rich water is wasted. The country harnesses the hydropower of Iceland’s high geothermal activity and is used for many things such as heating houses and buildings, geothermal public pools, produces a clean source of  electricity for over half the population of Iceland and much more.   

This renewable power source and ingenious method of harnessing the 

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power of the Earth accounts for over 70% of the country’s total energy consumption.   The smell of sulphur is a reminder of this use (it isn’t was bad as you think).

Geyser gazing done, we ventured on and took detour from the  typical Golden Circle route to go visit Langjökull, Icelandic of “long glacier, and the second largest glacier found in Iceland.  Blackened volcanic roads soon gave way to snow-covered routes, and all around us stood mountains capped in ice and mighty stillness.   

 

How odd it was to be standing upon a glacier, when only several days ago I was baking in the hot sun of Bahrain! We played in the snow, taking pictures and videos of ourselves to send to our sweltering loved ones back home of our wintry escape.  Soon however the Iceland called with more promises of adventure, and with one last glance back across the frozen field of white, we left the summer snows behind.

Back on track with the wonders of the Golden Circle, it was time for our final destinations of our tour: Gullfloss Waterfall, Bruarfoss Waterfall and Grimsnes Volcano. The mighty force of the thundering Gullfoss Waterfall was a humbling sight to behold and there is an area in which you can to stand near the rushing torrents of Gullfloss. I suggest you have a raincoat on since you will quickly be soaked in the rising mist and cold splashes of water as it barrels onward down the river.

Blue Mist and Silica Shores

The next day was dedicated to the famous Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa.  I will admit I was slightly sceptical about this location, it just sounded like a typical tourist trap, and a part of me wondered if it was as breathtakingly blue and beautiful as people claim it to be.

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We arrived, showered (mandatory before swimming in the Lagoon) and I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it truly was as enchanting as people say, and an absolute must if you are visiting Iceland! Eagerly, we waded into the milky blue waters of the Lagoon.  Mist swirled across the top of the mineral-rich waters, which are reputed for healing many with skin condition and irritations thanks to silica and sulphur as cold water began to fall from the grey skies above us.  

Warm, soothing and salty, we swam around the hot waters with white silica shores.  There were different areas in the pool you could enjoy; one section offered free silica masks that you could apply to your skin, and depending on which package you purchase, you can also try their algae mask.  

Having soaked our troubles away (and skin exceptionally soft and glowing) we finally returned to Reykjavik around midnight with the sun following us all the way home to rest for the next day’s adventures.  

Southern Comfort

With only two days left in Iceland we had much to cover. Our fourth day was dedicated to exploring the south, which I was soon delighted to discover, held my most beloved spots I have ever visited and experienced in my life.

The scenery shifted as we drove on.  The grey skies began to lighten to brilliant brush strokes  of blue.  The mountain ranges rose and fell in greens and black of volcanic stone and mosses, with some crowned in ice. Wild Icelandic horses lazily grazed in open fields of sunshine as we sailed past en route to our first destination of black.

The black sand lava beach was as dark as coal with swelling waves of indigo seawater that lapped the mirror shores.  I climbed out of the jeep and walked eagerly towards the beach of black and blue, picking up the unusual colored blackened sand in disbelief and let it run through my fingers to prove itself.  

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Enthralled, I scanned the rest of my surroundings. Weathered remains of a shipwreck lay on its side as if captured forever in its final moments of sinking stupor half-hidden within the black lava sands of the south.

 

We were taken to other sensational sites, including a second beach called the Black Sands of  Reynisfjara Beach, one of the most famous beaches in Iceland.  Upon its seaside sits Reynisfjell, a 340 meter mountain with sharpened hexagonal basalt blades frequented by albatross, fulmars puffins that caw and cry as they glide upon the rising winds.  

 

Past the waves there also lies two basalt formations that rise from the ocean in stony defiance.  One resembles a pyramid while the other, a sharpened spear. Icelandic legends say that there were once two trolls who had attempted to pull a three-mast ship to shore, however they were caught in sunlight and turned to stone. Their failure frozen for eager spectators and tourists to admire and capture with their cameras.

Yet, one must also be cautious when visiting this beach, for although beautiful, it can be formidable and unforgiving.  

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They are called ‘Sneaker’ waves, and they have claimed the lives of several unsuspecting tourists who sadly ventured too close to the shore.  The waves of Reynisfjara have a way of suddenly rising, turning violent as they grasp and grope for unsuspecting tourists unfortunate enough to be in the wave’s deadly reach, pulling them out to sea to meet their watery end.  

With one call from our guide it was time to go, and we left one of the most memorable sites I have ever had the privilege to visit.  

Chasing Waterfalls

Before continuing on to more incredible sites, it was time to eat and warm up from the powerful cold winds of the beaches. We sat down for a quick lunch of fresh Arctic Char, tender lamb (best lamb I have ever tasted) and coffee as we gazed upon our next site that awaited us: Skogafoss Waterfall. At 60 meters high with a width of 25 meters, it is one of the largest and most monumental waterfalls in Iceland.  

Eyes to its flowing apex, we approached in awe and walked along the stream into the hazy bottom of the waterfall (make sure you wear a shell over your clothes when visiting this site, because you practically shower in the waterfall).  As we stood and captured pictures of the waterfall and of ourselves, a collection of rainbows appeared and disappeared as the sunshine sporadically broke through the waterfall’s mist.   

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We visited several more waterfalls during our tour, and one that particularly struck me was the final waterfall, Seljalandsfoss Waterfall, considered to be an iconic natural wonder of Iceland.  Born from the Seljalands River which is fed from volcanic glacier, Eyjafjallajökull, this waterfall is especially worth visiting since you can walk behind it into a small cave and peer through its roaring falls upon the world.

The sunshine night brought our final adventures of southern Iceland to a close, and there was nothing left to do but fill our empty bellies with a delicious meal of lamb stew and reindeer and laugh and reminisce about all that which we saw, tasted and felt.

Summer Thaw

I ventured its streets and descended into its belly of frozen fire. I laughed in the thundering presence of its waterfalls that showered me in mist and cold. I walked across a glacier of snow and ice. I bathed in its Blue healing waters, and forgot the dark of nighttime sky.  And upon its churning blackened shores of sea and ash, I left my footprints which turned into little pools upon Iceland.  I was there, if only for a moment.

 

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Dazzles and Roars

“From here we leave the path,” said our guide.  We had embarked on a 28 kilometer hike towards Waterfall Bluff located just south of the Mkambahti Nature Reserve, and had been walking for over four hours across the many changing faces of the Wild Coast terrain, climbing steep rocky hills, treading across shifting sands and beaches, and walking through oceans of grass fields freckled with yellow flowers.

The ‘path’ that our guide mentioned was not much of a path to begin with. It was simply a cluster of narrow, winding, dirt footways carved by years of treading shepherds and their cows.  Yet we carried on, silently falling in line behind one another in silence towards the Falls. As we grew closer to our goal, our guide led us to Cathedral Rock, a breathtaking geological formation rising from the ocean in stony defiance. It had been molded by wind and water into a pyramid shaped sculpture created by nature herself. And so with renewed anticipation, we carried on, our bodies heavy with exhaustion.

Following another hour of hiking and climbing, we had finally made it. The wind was becoming stronger and coming up fast and hard.  All I could hear was the whaling gusts blasting past my ears, drowning out my racing heartbeat as we crawled down the sheer side of the rocky cliff, and I was sure that I was going to be blown off trying to get to Waterfall Bluff.  Don’t look down, was all I could think.

Once we scaled down > the side of the jagged cliff (I pretty much clung on for dear life!), and ducked down past the final rocky hurdle, you can hear it; the crashing symphony of waves and the rising crescendo of water and rock! Then you turn the corner of the protruding ragged rock face jutting out and there it is, awaiting you, Waterfall Bluff.

On this particularly cloudy and windy day, the waterfall, trapped in a torrent of updrafts and gusts, struggled to find home as it cast itself down into the Indian Ocean (it is only one of eight waterfalls in the world to meet an ocean or sea).  Our long trek was definitely worth seeing this incredible display of nature, and we sat in entranced silence, drinking the scene of majesty with thirsty eyes and hearts until we were ready to march on back towards our lodge for another 14 kilometres.

Located at the mouth of the Mboyti River on the Eastern Coast of South Africa, sits a charming resort, Mboyti River Lodge. Surrounding it is the sea and a lagoon where you can kayak in the mirror-like waters of the estuary (where the lake meets the ocean) that hugs the property. The beaches are nestled between rolling green hills, and on some days, cow herders come down with their slow moving beasts of burden to walk across the shores as the blue waters lap away their hoof prints.

When visiting South Africa, one must of course undertake a great adventure and book a safari tour! We chose Springbok Lodge located on Nambiti Game Reserve in Ladysmith. Every morning, we awoke at 4.30 AM with the wild African sun newly spilling out in golds and roses  across the jet black night sky.  Eyes heavy with sleep, we would climb into the open game viewing Land Cruiser and tour the acres of forest and open plaines, holding within their grassy folds vast treasures of wild African animals; dazzles of zebras, prides of lions and countless herds of elephants.  The first ride out was probably the most terrifying and exciting, for you do not know what to expect! The safari vehicle had no windows or protection whatsoever, and we were basically exposed to the animals should they have chosen to attack!

Four days spent on safari had to be one of the most eye opening, and impactful experiences of my life. As we drove down winding dirt roads, thrown around inside our car, we would come across incredible scenes of wildlife.  Once we stopped to take photographs of a huge bull elephant, when suddenly the African sky opened up and it began to rain heavily down upon us. Whips and flashes of lightning began to descend, and was joined by its booming brother.  Our guide and driver, Promise, told us to hold on as we sped towards the safety of the Springbok Lodge as the waters began to rise and the lightning grew nearer.  All around us animals stood still in the rain like living statues, watching the strange metallic creature slide through mud and rubble.

Our last morning was possibly the most eventful part of our safari visit.  Coffee in hand at 5 am, we went out for the final time to look for herds and prides of whatever animal chose to reveal itself to us.  Ten minutes into our excursion, a large male lion was spotted near our location in the park.  Promise hurriedly drove towards the apparent spotting of the lion and  once we arrived, he turned off the engine and told us to keep quiet and stay alert for the big cat. Suddenly, from the covering of tall grasses and shrubs, he emerged. Formidable, fierce and on the prowl for breakfast.

The largest animal I had ever seen up close was walking straight towards us, and all I could think was that he is about to jump in and rip us to shreds. The king of the jungle was so close that I could see every color of his stunning mane of dancing browns and golds, glinting to the dazzling sunshine.

Left in the wake of shock and awe, we continued on for our final drive.  Soon enough, we stumbled upon another incredible scene, two male giraffes ‘necking’ for mating rites.  At first the two males were simply circling each other silently, when suddenly one of them violently threw his head towards his opponent’s long exposed neck and delivered the first brutal blow. This dangerous display continued for ten minutes and the older male began to falter, due to the ongoing ruthless hits by the younger male.  As the older and darker fighter (as giraffes age their coloring gets darker) began to realize that he was going to lose this fight, he attempted to run away, only to be chased by the stronger, younger male.

It was here that I fell in love with South Africa. I fell for the sky during our safari drives when we ventured out for early morning and evening rides. Each time we drove out to the reserve, there it was waiting for us in a brilliant parade of clouds, awash in gold and rose. I fell in love with walking barefoot on the cool grass outside our lodge, dewy and cool against my feet. I fell for the smiles of the people, always welcoming and open-hearted to any new adventurer.

But what really stole my heart was being around nature and watching wild animals roam the South African planes. In a way it saddened me that a number of the animals we saw were greatly endangered, and were under constant threat from poachers.

Our travels through South Africa restored my love and respect for Mother Nature.  While most of us are forever imprisoned within urban jungles of concrete and steel, we often forget the importance of escaping these trappings.  Being back home makes me realize how much I miss walking out into the cool morning air as we set out for safari, and how alive our earth is with music, music composed by birds and animals, by the wind and waves. We are deaf to these songs, and it is time to listen.