Sunday, 12 March 2017

Sabbatical Part 3: Arriving in Reykjavík and Hot Rivers.

On the flight to Iceland I was giddy with excitement. I seriously began seeing things as I looked out of the window from the plane. Steely blue ocean waves became whale tails splashing out of the water, moody clouds hid mysterious ships which disappeared when I looked again and as we came over the coast line of Iceland I was blown away by the otherworldliness of the land. Huge mountains topped with white, deep crags and lines scored through black rock, the baron nothingness of the lava fields and it's extreme remoteness.

The bus from Keflavík airport to Reykjavík took me through more of the desolate lava fields and it dawned on me that there were no trees on the landscape as far as the eye could see. This was such an alien concept to me and I'd never thought of a land without trees before. I imagined how bad the weather must get on the island and how there was almost no shelter from harsh winds, rain and snow. The words inhospitable came to mind, but then you hit the city and see the buildings clad in their corrugated iron armour, painted in bright colours, defying the weather and ready for anything.

On the first night we were booked into a lovely guest house called Sunna Guesthouse. When I arrived my roommate was not in and so I left her a note saying that I'd be back late and would try not to wake her. I dumped my huge bag and headed in to the town centre to have a look around. I saw the imposing Hallgrímskirkja church which is a very beautiful as well as being a useful land mark that you can see it from most parts of the city to orientate yourself. I walked down one of the main shopping streets and happened upon The Icelandic Handknitting association which is the only remaining knitting shop in Reykjavík. I later learned that similarly to London the rise in city rents is pricing out these important pillars of the community and the city's heritage. The shop was stuffed with hand knit sweaters of every size and colour. A small yarn section in the back of the shop was my first introduction to plutulopi, the signature unspun yarn of Iceland. The 'plates' of yarn were stacked up in a myriad of colours and a weighing scale sat by waiting to determine the cost of your yarn.

I happen to know someone who lives and works in Reykjavík and he and his boyfriend, both dressed in their handknit Lopi sweaters kindly met me for dinner and a drink. We ate excellent lobster soup and fish kebabs in a small cafe on the harbour. Then they took me for a little walk through the town where they showed me an elf rock. These are big boulders which folklore says that Elves live inside and therefore they should not be moved.  Houses are built around them, even today to preserve the elvish dwellings. The magical realism of this kind of thing kept cropping up throughout my trip and I swear I saw things move in my peripheral vision which could not be explained. Elves and trolls where everywhere.

The next morning I woke up to be greeted by my room mate. Thankfully she was also a member of the tour and so we instantly had common ground to explore, mostly knitting! After breakfast we congregated in the hallway of the guesthouse waiting for our tour bus and guide to arrive. As more and more of the group arrived we became animated; excited at the adventure to come. Among us there were two Americans, two Canadians, one Australian (hailing from New York) and six British, one of whom was the husband of one of the American ladies. And what a superb man he was to come on a knitting holiday with his wife and spend the week as the only man.

Our tour guide Hélène Magnússon eventually arrived as the sun was just getting up around 9.30am. She quickly informed us that the itinerary had changed and we would be exploring the hot pools today rather than the glacier. This meant that suit cases and backpacks were quickly flung open to find towels and swimming costumes shoved at the bottom before we got onto the bus. Finally we were off on our adventure.

As we had an hour's drive ahead of us people got out their knitting projects and we started to ask what each other were working on. I had chosen my knitting project for the trip based on ease, so that I wasn't too distracted and was still able to take everything in. Therefore I went for my tried and tested vanilla sock pattern. I knit them in The Wool Kitchen Sock yarn in the colourway Ground Control. The name seemed apt as I'd heard so much about the surface of Iceland being that of another planet/ moon/ something from a sci-fi movie and as we drove along looking out of the window with this yarn in my hands I knew I had made a good choice.

In Iceland there is one big ring road around the outer rim of the island which connects everything. From what I understand there is very little in the middle except mountains and ice. We were driving along the ring road when suddenly we slowed down and came off directly onto a lava field with no proper 'road' but a sort of path of crushed lava rock serving as a road. I now understood why the bus was so elevated by huge bouncy wheels, were were pretty much on a giant quad bike bouncing across moon rocks. The Knitting got put away at this point as someone was about to loose an eye.

When we reached our hike departure point we were handed a packed lunch and some crampons just in case we needed them, Crampons are little spiked bits of metal that you lash to your boots to help to get a grip on ice and snow. The air was crisp and I was glad of all my layers. But I suddenly realised that I'd totally forgotten a scarf! This was fine as I had enough layers to keep me warm, but I was disappointed at missing the opportunity to show off another hand knit.

It's hard to describe how I felt hiking through such an impressive landscape. It constantly reminded me of Scotland but without the heather, scrub land and trees. I was so trigger happy with the camera but looking back the photos don't do a scrap of justice to how everything looked to the naked eye. Throught the trip I could almost feel my heart swelling. I was filled up with joy, wonder and happiness at being in such a wonderful place and being so lucky to be there.

As we began to walk down the side of a steep hill we saw our first puffs of smoke rising out of the ground as if a dragon were resting there. Our fist sighting of bubbling mud and water was amazing. Everyone stopped to take a thousand pictures and I constantly said over and over in my head "look first, take it in and THEN take a photo. Don't look at this through a lens". The mantra was a good one but I still took a thousand pictures. The ground was pink and blue and purple and green and yellow, like an oil slick where the heat under the ground was ready to break the surface. Hélène warned us not to step on ground like this incase it were to give way to a pocket of steam or hot mud. The liquid mud was hot enough to melt the flesh off your hand if you were to touch it. Hélène became impatient to move on, she knew that this was small fry compared to what we would see later on.

There is to much to describe what we saw on the rest of our walk but waterfalls, steam rolling off the river, tiny puff of smoke popping out from under stones, huge bowls of mud on a rolling boil were everywhere. As we walked along a winding, steaming hot river Hélène stopped to test the water every now and again. Then she stopped and announced that this would be the place to take a dip and have lunch. We all looked at each other and then the surroundings. There was no changing place, no grassy knoll to hid behind. Hélène looked at us like were were crazy for just standing there and quickly whipped off her clothes, popped on her costume and hopped into the steaming river. We all took one look at each other, shrugged and got on with it. The British reserve was well and truly shattered!

The hot steaming water was unlike anything I'd ever experienced before. As your body became acclimatised to the heat of the water the chill of the air didn't bother you. In fact there were pockets of water that were too hot if you sat for too long and so you moved about to find your perfect spot. As it was lunch time Hélène suggested we eat our lunch in the water. This made the experience even more surreal!

Getting out of our perfect natural bath was the tricky part. The grass on the bank side was icy and everyone did strange hopping dances trying to get dry, take their swimming costumes off withough completely exposing themselves, keep their clothes off the damp freezing grass and get dressed as quickly as possible. Your reward for completing this task was a hot drink of coffee or tea from Kristina, our mountain guide and cook for the week. She was a constant ray of Icelandic sunshine on us for the whole tour.

The remaining hike ahead of us too us through more extraordinary sights. I couldn't believe how full of happiness it was possible to feel when with a group of strangers in a foreign land. We ended up at large wooden sheep pen when Hélène demonstrated, using us as the sheep, how the farmers would gather the wild sheep back up at the start of every winter and sort them into the different pens indicating which farm they came from. She pretended to grab us by the horns and wrestle us to our gates. It was a lot of fun and a great way to end the hike.

Back on the bus the sun we were all exhausted but invigorated by the experience. Then Hélène declared that our next stop would be some yarn shops! I was completely overwhelmed by the idea of buying yarn at this moment in time. The first yarn shop was came to was Hannyrðabúðin in Selfoss, which had all the colours of the landscape laid out in plutulopi. Most of the group were in a frenzy of buying sweater quantities of the stuff but I just couldn't wrap my head around what I wanted to get and so hung back. I asked Hélène if we would be visiting more yarn shops and she advised me that the best was yet to come, so I felt secure in my decision not to splurge at the first sight of yarn.

The second shop we visited was exactly what I was looking for. Þingborg is a beautifully presented yarn shop in an old school house as well as a co-op who harvest, spin and dye their own yarn. Almost everything in there was hand picked, hand spun, hand made, natural shade or simply stuff I'd never seen before. This was my kind of place and I wasn't going to let it pass me by without purchasing my sweaters worth of yarn. I pointed to some undyed black plutulopi behind the counter. The lady took a look at me and weighed out the amount she estimated for my size of sweater, to be knit one with the plutulopi held double. What a skill! Then I added in a skein of hand spun and hand dyed lopi in My Little Pony type multi-colours. It spoke to me, ok! In my head theses two were to become the lopi sweater of my dreams.

We finally headed towards the place we were to call home for the next few days. It was now dark and the the crunch lava roads we went down seemed to get smaller and smaller. At one point we came to a road comically blocked with sheep but we eventually stopped at a wooden building with a turf roof and an excited puppy bounding around outside. I knew I was going to like it here.