Sunday, July 8, 2012

Xan: Iceland and England (Part 4): Snaefellsnes!

The Snaefellsnes peninsula! This was definitely our favorite tour, so today I will give you a tour of the tour.  It was a long tour, about 13 hours, but I'll try to keep this post under 13 minutes.

Let's start with the tour van itself:

There are tons of giant tour buses, but we did all our tours through a smaller company with these 12-seater vans.  It was a much more personal experience, yet somehow not more expensive.  I really don't understand the economics of it.  Why were they so cheap?

Well it could be that a steamroller driver would notice a bus.  Also, see that piece of metal hanging down from the undercarriage below the door?  I'm pretty sure that fell off at some point.  But in all seriousness, the tour guides (and tours as a whole) were fantastic, even though I normally reserve "fantastic" for fours and mr foxes.

Anyway, the tour began and ended with animal sightings.  Say hello to the harlequin ducks!

The harlequin is the jester of the duck world.  If you find regular ducks even vaguely amusing -- and really how could you not? -- then harlequins are sure to quack you up.  Just look at them!  Try to take them seriously.

We also made friends with some more horses. These two are helping each other to shed their winter coats:

Icelandic horses live happily outside year round, so they must be pretty shaggy in the winter.

For lunch we stopped by a small place which doesn't get many tourists, judging from their reaction together with the menu and the fact that there weren't any tourists there.  Authentic!  The choices were catfish and catfish soup.  I think Catherine could do with a little less authenticity, but catfish it was!  She had (some of) the fish soup and I had the fish plus the fish from her fish soup.

This is some sort of sea catfish, quite different from our usual freshwater cats.

The dark gray one.

It did not taste particularly like catfish.

After lunch the sightseeing really began.  Hey, who wants to play the Icelandic version of Where's Waldo?  It's called Where's Jón?

If you look closely, you will see that our tour guide is under the van trying to fix the piece of metal that fell off.  I hope you didn't think I was kidding about that!  We were a little worried, but apparently it wasn't a very important piece of metal.

While he did that, we took some time to soak in this absurd panorama of the Snaefellsnes peninsula:

Be sure to zoom in!

This right here is a perfect showcase of Iceland's geology.  Iceland sits atop the continental divide between the North American and Eurasian plates, and as they drift apart, lava comes up and makes Iceland bigger.  In the foreground you can see several stages of ground in the making: lava rocks, on which moss takes hold, ultimately decomposing into soil and allowing grass to grow.

In the background is a veritable mishmash of mountains that don't belong together.  At the left is a random flat-top mountain.  Next to it, with its head in the clouds, is the Snaefellsjokull mountain.  Which is actually a volcano.  With a glacier on top.  Then moving toward the middle we have a string of mountains which, while right next to each other, are completely different colors, ranging from brown to red to gray.  And then, yes, there is a cliche waterfall coming down.  Mm hmm.  Go a little farther to the right and the mountains are covered with snow, despite apparently not being any taller than the snowless mountains around them.  This is bad CGI.  If you saw this in a movie you would roll your eyes.  These things do not belong together, but here they are.

These two do not belong together either, but here they are:

Of course I mean Klettsgata and Frambudir, which, despite being two completely different places, are supposedly in the exact same direction because some bonehead decided to use a square pole.

There is actually a story behind this photo, or rather in front of it, or wherever the photographer can be found.  Here we met a...flamboyant?...American guy who had been to Iceland 11 times and was just so excited that we had made it.  He gushed for a while about how he had fallen in love with the country, and I think he imagined in us an earlier version of himself, which simply overjoyed him.  Here's a representative bit of the longer conversation:

Him: And next time you really should rent a car, which is the way to truly unlock the wonders of Iceland, and you absolutely must go to Stykkisholmur, that's my favorite place in the world.  It has the best water and do you know Bobby Fischer, the chess legend?  He wanted to live in Stykkisholmur before he died, and can you imagine, this famous chess player who can live anywhere in the world and he chooses Stykkisholmur!  It really is a beautiful place, my favorite in the world...
Me (thinking): I'm sure Stykkisholmur is amazing but wasn't Bobby Fischer, like, wanted for arrest in the United States for playing a Soviet during an embargo or something?  So he had to, like, live out his life in countries that wouldn't extradite him?  Isn't he like the world's worst example of a famous person who can live anywhere he wants?
Me (aloud): Umm could you take a picture of us in front of this sign?
Him: Oh of course.  Wait oh my god this is so emotional...

So emotional, I kid you not.  He said that.  Our photographer really was very nice, he was just very italicized, a caricature of a caricature of a character.  In any case, a bit of wiki research reveals:
In 1972, [Fischer] captured the World Championship from Boris Spassky of the USSR in a match widely publicized as a Cold War confrontation. The match, held in ReykjavíkIceland, attracted more worldwide interest than any chess match before or since...Seeking ways to evade deportation to the United States, Fischer wrote a letter to the government of Iceland in early January 2005 and asked for Icelandic citizenship...the Althing agreed unanimously to grant Fischer full citizenship in late March for humanitarian reasons, as they felt he was being unjustly treated by the U.S. and Japanese governments,[306] and also in recognition of his 1972 match, which had "put Iceland on the map".

So, yeah, slightly special circumstances.  But anyway.

Next we visited the nesting grounds of some Arctic terns, or "Arctic sterns" as our tour guide insisted on calling them, despite a couple of attempts to set the record straight.  Sterns are his favorite bird, but he is not their favorite human.  In fact here they are squawking at him quite sternly before divebombing to defend their nests.

Jon says he was pecked many times in his childhood, but it's okay so long as you hold up a fist for them to attack instead of your face.  Despite his reassurances, we watched him march well into the danger zone before following suit.  And then the moment we got to him, fists held high, he held up a big stick and asked us, "Where are your sticks?!?  It hurts to get pecked in the hand!"  Tricksy tour guide.

Here's another tern, this time coming for me:

Just a few feet away...

Fortunately I was stern with him and he swooped up at the last moment.

Okay this post is getting long so let's skip to the end.  If you want to see everything on this tour, you will have to go on it yourself!

The capstone for our Snaefellsnes tour was a visit to a cove which, according to our guide, was home to a pair of friendly seals.  I scoured the cove with my eyes and binoculars for 20 minutes, but I caught not a glimpse of them.  It was on the chilly side, so naturally Catherine had retreated to the warmth of a nearby cafe, where she ate delicious carrot cake with many of our fellow travelers.  But I was not content to give up, so I turned my gaze out to sea.  And out there, way out there, I saw...a rock.  A big, whale-shaped rock. With waves constantly moving across it, the rock appeared to be in motion, swimming.  But I could see that it was a rock, because unlike most people, I am properly calibrated on the matter of whales versus rocks.  A rock can look like a whale, and there are a lot more rocks than whales.

Halfway between me and the rock, though, I noticed a whole swarm of seagulls ("flock" is for respectable birds, please).  They were going crazy.  Mine? Mine? Mine?  Why?  What's out there?  If you don't ask that kind of question, you will never stare intently at the right place for long enough to see what I saw. And what I saw was the reason there were no seals.  I ran back to the cafe and gestured to Catherine to come out.

Catherine: I think he sees something out there!
Guide: I'm sure it's a rock.
Me: It's not a rock, come see.
Australian Tourist: I see something, look!
Me: You're pointing at the rock.  It's not that rock.  But between us and the rock there's a pod of whales.  Look where the seagulls are.  It's a feeding frenzy.
Guide: Oh I see!  Whales, everyone!  Look out there! No, not the rock!

I'm sure every time our guide takes people to this cove, someone sees a whale and it is always that same stupid rock.  But this time there were also half a dozen orca whales out there, and they were busy hunting seals.

Or fish.  Okay, probably fish.  But it's possible the seals from that cove will never be heard from again.

In case it isn't obvious, minkes have nothing on orcas.  Though we got a lot closer to the minkes on the whale-watching boat, this was a much more exciting sighting.  Unlike the minkes, which really just moseyed along poking up their backs every once in a while between dives, the orcas would cruise along the surface as they hunted, and instead of being scattered about, there were a lot of them in the same place.  Unlike the wimpy, undersized dorsal fin of the minke whale, male orcas have a dorsal fin that is tall, distinctive, perhaps even iconic.  And whereas MINKE has never once appeared in a New York Times puzzle, ORCA is everyone's favorite crossword whale! It fits right in, due to its convenient letters and black-and-white coloration.  (Just like everyone's favorite crossword cookie, the OREO).

Though it is not always the case, these particular orcas had a white patch behind the fins.  But there was something that confused me.  Some of the whales had orange instead of white.  I didn't know what to make of it.  When I got home, though, I googled "orange orca" and immediately found this.  Newborn orcas have their white areas stained orange from the womb!

I don't know how our whale sighting could have been any more epic.  Our guide said it was only the second time he had seen whales on one of those tours.  We spent half an hour watching the orcas do their thing, and then we headed back to Reykjavik.

And that, chronologically speaking, is when I ate my lamb boat.  I already posted this but I think we need to see it again.  This lamb boat is a metaphor for the whole day, for it is long and stuffed with awesome:


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