Day four was a highlight for me, as it took me to some fresh locations. The theme for the day was ‘ice’, and having moved accommodation to the hostel at Selfoss, we left straight after breakfast to head for the wonderful Hvalfjordur.
Hvalfjordur is a huge fiord on the west coast north of Reykjavik. The views we enjoyed as we approached allowed us to understand how a glacier running westwards was able to carve out this major landmark, before it eventually became flooded by the sea. A quick look at a map of Iceland’s west coast revealed the scale of this natural wonder, as well as showing how this part of the island is full of similar fiord landscapes.
To speed our journey, we took the tunnel that runs for nearly 6 kilometres below the fiord to access the north side, marvelling at the amount of water above us. As we headed inland towards the Langjokull glacier, we soon passed the large aluminium plant at Grundartangi, located here to take advantage of the sheltered deep water harbour provided by the fiord. Aluminium is smelted here – despite the fact that Iceland has no aluminium ore to exploit, all of it being a bulky import brought in by sea. This industry requires huge amounts of power to keep it running 24 hours a day, and the availability of cheap renewable electricity sources from water or geothermal fields make it economically viable in Iceland.
After around two hours of travel, we arrived at our picnic lunch spot at the waterfalls of Hraunafoss and Barnafoss. Nature has placed these two waterfalls right next to each other, and they are conveniently connected by a network of paths. However, they are so different in character. Hraunafoss translates as ‘lava falls’, and consists of a series of trickling cascades spanning around a kilometre in total length, that spring from the different layers of lava. Barnafoss translates as ‘children’s falls’, and is very different – a run of short, savage rapids squeezing through a narrow cauldron-like gorge. The powerful water has crafted a number of bridges and arches here, and the name comes from the fact that years ago, some children were swept from one of these arches into the river and drowned.
From our picnic site by the waterfalls, it was just a 10 minute drive to Husafell, where we checked in to the ‘Into the Glacier Experience’ office. A shuttle bus takes visitors from here to the Klaki base close to the Langjokull glacier, but we were able to take our small coach along the unmetalled road to make the journey ourselves.
Arriving at Klaki base, we had a few minutes to photograph the Langjokull glacier that loomed above us in the near distance. Langjokull translates as ‘long glacier’, and at 50 kilometres in length (and between 15 to 20 kilometres wide), it is the second largest area of ice cover in Iceland. A few of our party opted to put on warm suits provided free of charge before we boarded ‘Ice Two’ – our monster truck that would transport us onto and across the glacier ice. It took us 30 minutes to reach the tunnel entrance that would take us into the ice, pausing for a moment at the edge of the glacier to deflate the tyres to assist our progress. On the way to the tunnel, we passed lines of snow mobiles available for hire, wooden stakes to tether dog sled teams, and a group of engineers from Pirelli who were testing new tyre models on the ice.
The tunnel entrance stands at 1260 metres, and after walking for 50 metres or so down a gentle slope lit by strings of fairy lights, we sat on some ice benches to fit our crampon-style overshoes for the rest of our journey. The tunnels were one year old this month, and follow a circular route below tens of metres of ice. Our guide gathered us together at various points to feed us information about the excavation process, the dynamics of the glacier above and below us, and some of the features we were able to see. He pointed out a clear dark horizontal line along the side of one part of the tunnel that was formed from the huge quantities of ash that fell (even here on the west coast) during the eruption of Eyjafyallajokull volcano in 2010. We sat for a while in the old chapel carved into the ice face, and enjoyed sections of the glacier lit by blue LED lighting installed just below the surface. The tunnels also cut a number of times across a giant crevasse that demonstrated how the glacier shifts and moves in response to changing environmental conditions. Throughout our journey under the ice, water was constantly dripping from the roof of the tunnel – not the ice itself melting, but snow melt from above gradually working its way through the ice and into the tunnel. In some places, large underground lakes had formed, and needed to be drained with pumps in the summer months in order to maintain access for visitors.
It was all too soon to climb back on board our monster truck for the return journey to Klaki, where we could reunite with our coach for the return journey to Selfoss. On our way back we passed the Deildartunga hot springs area – the largest of its kind in Iceland – where hot water for space heating is piped to the nearby towns of Akranes and Borgarnes. We also enjoyed views of Skorradalsvtn, a giant ribbon lake in a classic u shaped glacial valley, surrounded by summer holiday homes that provide relief for Icelanders following the long dark winters. Returning to Hvalfjordur, we called in at the Little Whale Museum service stop for an unbelievable choice of ice cream, and passed the still functioning whaling station as we took the long route around the fjord as an alternative to the tunnel. Back in Selfoss, we made use of the excellent public swimming pool just up the road from our hostel before turning in for some well-deserved rest.