The Halifax and the HUGE Explosion

We were greeted by a glorious day – about 20 degrees, clear blue skies, slight breeze from the south and free wifi! Yes, that most desirable of modern travel commodities. 🙂 Travellers loitering around outside port terminals, visitors centres, libraries, and even restaurants, bludging their free wifi have overtaken the plethora of smokers that used to loiter in such places. 🙂 It’s amazing to see 30 or 40 people all standing around staring at their devices intently as they try to catch up with family or upload their latest travel pictures to Facebook. An inherently modern phenomena that I have a strong suspicion is here to stay with us for quite a while.



 Anyway, I had decided I would head down to Halifax Boardwalk towards the Maritime Museum today in search of Titanic history. Halifax was the nearest town to where the ill fated Titanic sunk in April 1914, and as such became an integral part of the story. The rescue efforts were co-ordinated from here, and victims and survivors alike, were all bought to Halifax. Many of the victims were buried in the local cemeteries and their headstones tell the more intimate stories of the disaster. 

But on gaining entrance to the museum, I became more engrossed in the Halifax Explosion of 1917, a tragedy that I had never even heard of before and which had undoubtedly had an even greater impact on Halifax than the Titanic disaster just a few years before. The Halifax Explosion was a unprecedented maritime explosion that occurred in the early morning of December 6th, 1917. The SS Mont-Blanc, a French cargo ship fully loaded with explosives intended as WWI supplies, collided with the Norwegian shhip called the SS Imo, in an area called the Narrows – which is a small strait that connects the Harbour of Halifax to the Bedford Basin. From the accounts at the museum, approximately 2,000 people were killed by the explosion, in fires, collapsed buildings and by flying debris, and another 9,000 were estimated to have been injured in the blast, the tallies for which were exacerbated by onlookers coming out to stand in the streets and watch the enormous fire.

  The SS Mont-Blanc was deployed by the French government to carry an explosive cargo from New York to Bordeaux via Halifax. At roughly 8:45am, she collided at slow speed, approximately one knot (about 1 to 1.5 miles per hour) with the empty Norweigan cargo ship, the SS Imo which was headed from Belgium to New York to pick up cargo. Both ships were navigating the harbour – one inbound, one outbound, and both attempting to avoid submarine defences – and each sounding their horns to indicate the other should give way. The SS Mont-Blanc had the right of way and so was convinced the SS Imo would divert given the SS Imo was on the wrong side of the channel, but this stand off of who should yield resulted in both ships merely slowing their engines until the Captains realised they were going to collide – at which point the SS Mont-Blanc veered hard a port, and the SS Imo blasted three times and threw their engines in reverse. But it was too late. As the steel hulls of the ships collided, barrels of benzol fell over, cracking open and sparks flew igniting a fire on the French ship which rapidly spread out of control. Given the nature of the ship’s cargo, the order to abandon ship was given immediately. Approximately 20 minutes later, at 9:04am, the Mont-Blanc exploded with an hitherto unforeseen force, with the ships hull being thrown an estimated 300 meters into the air. The blast was the largest man-made explosion prior to the development of nuclear weapons and the bombing of Hiroshima in WWII. It is estimated that the energy equivalent of roughly 2.9 kilotons of TNT was released.  

  Nearly every structures within a one kilometre radius was obliterated, including the entire district Richmond. The force of the blast demonished buildings, threw vessels aground, snapped trees like they were twigs, bent iron rails, and carried debris from the Mont-Blanc for over 4 kilometres – the twisted remains of a cannon from the Mont-Blanc was found 5.6 kilometres away! The city proper was also hit hard, with barely a single window in the entire city surviving the concussion of the air pressure wave that followed the explosion On the other side of the harbour in the district of Dartmouth, there was also widespread damage from the force of the blast and a tsunami that swept through the harbour completely wiped out a population Native American peoples, the Mi’Kmaq, that had lived in the area for generations.

  The loss of life could have been much worse, and the ability to respond with relief efforts could have been much hampered, were it not for the actions of a quick thinking Richmond railway station worker named Vincent Coleman. Coleman was only a few hundred meters from the Pier 6 where the burning Mont Blanc was drifting ashore in flames. Warned of her explosive cargo, he returned to his telegraph to stop all incoming trains. Coleman himself, was killed by the explosion but his message, “Hold up the trains. Munitions ship on fire and making for Pier 6. Goodbye boys.”, was heard by every station from Halifax to Truro which alerted the Canadian government to the disaster and very quickly enabled six relief trains with firefighters, and medical help to be dispatched from Nova Scotia and Halifax.

  Relief efforts began immediately after the explosion, and hospitals quickly became full. The same mortuary that handled the victims of the Titanic disaster just a few years before had to once again implement their system of identifying mass casualties. Rescue trains began arriving from throughout eastern Canada and the northeastern United States, but were apparently impeded by a snow storm. The immediate construction of temporary shelters also began soon after the disaster to house the many surviving people who were left homeless. Entire families were killed in an instant. 

Amazingly, all but one of the Mont-Blanc’s crew survived, with only one poor fellow being killed by flying debris in the explosion and a judicial inquiry into the disaster found that the Captain, the Pilot of the Mont-Blanc were totally responsible for the safety of it’s cargo and was therefore considered to be at fault for the disaster, even though the Imo was on the wrong side of the channel and had refused to yield. This verdict was largely put down to a general bias against the French at the time. The Captain and the pilot, along with the Royal Canadian Navy Harbour master were all put up on charges of manslaughter, but a later appeals and trials determined that both vessels were to blame and the charges against the three men were dropped.

It’s a morbidly fascinating aspect of local history, and the Maritime Museum has many artefacts and accounts of from the people who lived through this tragic event.

After such an interesting yet somewhat disturbing morning, I met up with KPeth for lunch and we opted for a meal at Murphy’s on the waterfront to try some local delicacies. The menu was somewhat overwhelming as we wanted to try a bit of everything – it all sounded so good, we felt they should have a taster platter of some sort, so in the absence of same, we had to create our own, and we tried the local crab cakes with relish, the bacon wrapped scallops with blueberries and currants, and a cheesy lobster tip served with tortilla chips, all washed down with some local cocktails. I tried a drink called the Black Sparrow (1.5 oz Jamaican rum, 0.5 oz of Jaegermeister and topped up with root beer!) which was actually really nice.

    We sat out on the Murphy’s waterfront patio, and marvelled at the gorgeous harbour before us and squealed like excited schoolgirls about the amazing places we had just been visiting. All up a very pleasant way to spend lunch in Halifax. After a little spot of shopping, it was back to the ship for me via Amos Pewter, where I picked up some pewter sand dollars that I had promised myself I would not buy!   


 As we sailed out of Halifax Harbour an errie mist seemed to be hanging around the habour entrance, and we stood on the very forward viewing area of Deck 15, which is literally above the brigde to watch us sail out.   It wasn’t long efore the fog horn was being sounded every minute or so.  I’ve never seen such fog, visibility was down to about 50m or less, which is just not far enough for such a huge ship IMHO.  We could see sailing boats occasionally emerging from the mist in front of us that would tack away very sensibly. No doubt they were having as much trouble seeing us, as we were seeing them. I eventually went indoors – driven inside by my now wet jumper and hair, while KPeth stayed out a bit longer to take some more misty photos as we sailed out of the harbour.  When she eventually came back in, she told me that at one stage, she could hear voices yelling in the fog and  she though ‘Surely not’, but suddenly emerging from the mist was a small sail boat that obviously hadn’t seen us soon enough and it was rapidly trying to tack out of our way, she snapped a shot of the sail boat which shows the ship in the bottom corner of the picture – I’m no expert, but it seems to me they had quite a close call.  The fog horns went for ages as we sailed out and I was extremely grateful that these modern ships have all the technological whizzbangs known to man, to help them navigate

Halifax is another place on my list of towns I would definitely go and visit again – seeing I have now visited Canada twice, perhaps one day I will drag that Canadian husband of mine, back to Canada to road trip across the country, starting in the west and making our way across to the east coast. What say you, Mr K?

Haunted Ghost Tour of Halifax

Our trans-Atlantic crossing was far calmer than I expected, with the exception of a very large storm cell off Newfoundland, which our Captain wisely decided to avoid. This did of course mean we missed our scheduled port day in St Johns, and we had to forgo the pleasures of Iceberg Beer and the opportunity to hear some very distinctive Newfie accents, but on seeing the radar pictures that were posted around the ship which showed 24′ swells directly in our path… most of us were happy to acquiesce to the Captain’s good judgement on this one. Though it did occur to us that with the slow pace we were making to avoid the storm, we absolutely should have detoured the mere 300 miles north to Greenland! 😀

 Missing St Johns did of course mean we effectively ended up with six sea days in a row, which is the longest stretch of sea days I’ve done on a cruise ship. Yes, I know, six days at sea is probably very paltry for real sea going types – but when you were only expecting four sea days in a row, even the crew were going a little stir crazy with many of them having missed their, much coveted, shore leave in St Johns. Had I known we would have nearly a full week of being ‘ladies of leisure’ mid-trip, I think I would have brought an embroidery with me. 🙂 Anyway, we made it safely to Halifax, Nova Scotia on Friday night, with many enthusiastic grins all around, for both crew and passengers alike.

Actually, come to think of it, I think the crew were far more excited than the passengers – it is not often they have the opportunity to hit the town after their shift as the ship spends most nights at sea, repositioning to our next port of call. Some of them went a little crazy, we found out later; hitting the bars and casinos of Halifax hard, and coming back to ship with empty pockets and sore heads. Like the junior waiter in our dining room, Mario, who was dobbed in by his workmate, Guillermo. Guillermo spilled the beans that Mario had stumbled in somewhat inebriated at 6am with his pockets several hundred dollars lighter, and barely three hours to sleep before his morning shift was due to start. The older and wiser Guillermo had advised him not to go, and apparently the suitably regretful Mario intends to listen to his older and wiser compadre from now on. 😛 Sure, Mario… you keep telling yourself that. These guys have been great at dinner each night – friendliest and most chatty waiters I have ever had the pleasure to meet. They have told us more about life below decks, and about how the galley, the staff hierarchy and the overall running of the ship than any other cruise ship waiters I’ve ever met before. They’re both really good guys, and if any of you happen to find yourself on the Caribbean Princess… say ‘hello’ for us.

Anyway, I was writing about Halifax… now I don’t want to lump south-eastern Canada in with the American north-east (though I am about to…), but I had a rough idea what to expect here – similar architecture, similar timeframe English/French/American history, similar (amazing!) lobstery-goodness cuisine, with a bit of Titanic history thrown in. And of course we found all of that, but also so much more. Seeing we were unexpectedly arriving the night before our original schedule, the ship had made arrangements for some cheap and cheerful tours to get people off the ship and help get us all orientated. So we chose to do a Haunted Halifax Ghost Walking Tour… Woooooo! Ghosts. 🙂 Naturally we weren’t expecting any actual ghosts, but rather a historical and cultural walking tour of the city with some weird and wonderful stories thrown in for good measure, which is exactly what we got.

To set the tone, our guides were dressed in black, with lace gloves, hats, kilts, spooky lanterns and basically all gothed up… picture if you will, a sweet little bespectacled granny who looked like she’d be more at home serving tea and biscuits, wearing a black dress, a black hat with veil covered in plastic spiders, complete with cobwebs, walking with a cane… and wearing her Tena hiking sandals and handing out glow-sticks to her PAX, and you have Colleen our guide for the evening. Halifax is known to be a very creepy place indeed there are reports of people being touched, doors opening and closing on their own, lights blinking on and off, feelings of being watched, of not being wanted, of being touched, of light anomalies, disembodied voices, apparitional footsteps, objects moving and disappearing, mysterious mists and all sorts of paranormal activity… so we were shuffled onto a bright pink, old fashioned double decker HOHO bus, that was only in need of a shrunken head with a thick Jamaican accent, to pass as the Night Bus from Harry Potter, and thereafter driven up to the top of town.

 We started up at the Halifax Citadel (aka Fort George), which is the highest strategic point in Halifax and boasts a beautiful pentagonal fort built starting in 1749s and finished in the mid 1800s by a bunch of British military types with big hats, led by one Lieutenant General Edward Cornwallis. There are a couple of ghost stories associated with the old Citadel. The first of which relates the tale of a poor piper who went missing during the construction – the Citadel was built in several stages. The piper was supposedly on duty when a section of the Citadel wall collapsed on him, but it was not until some weeks later when they went to repair the section of wall, that his cold dead body was found… and now for many years people have claimed they can still hear him roaming the ramparts and playing his pipes, haunting the walls where he was killed.

The second story here, tells of a soldier whose daughter would happily run up to the citadel each day to bring her Daddy his lunch. One day however, she fell into one of the dozen or so, long drop wells that serviced the fort which were normally covered, but on this occasion was not. As the local legend has it, the poor girl drowned, crying for her father as they desperately tried to get her out… apparently people have reported hearing her, crying for her Daddy as her ghost haunts the citadel, even though the wells have long since been filled in.

After this we walked down to the get a view of the Citadel’s four faced clock tour built in 1803. The clock tower was built by Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and eventual father to Queen Victoria, who apparently had a strong dislike unpunctuality… so he commissioned the clock tower to show four faces such that all soldiers, in every direction, would be able to see the time and never be late. He apparently also had a superstitious bent and a fear of the devil, that for reasons not explained by our guide Colleen, led him to dislike square rooms – so there were plenty of round and octagonal rooms in his buildings. Perhaps he thought the dust bunnies in the corners were really the detritus of the devil, who knows? The clock tower too, is believed to be haunted, I can’t remember the details of who or why… but someone is allegedly haunting the clocktower and the presence of the apparition is so strongly felt, that many workmen who were bought in to work on the clocktower to restore it barely 50 years ago were so afeared that they down tools and walked off the job! Further, there is apparently a roster take it in turns to wind the clocks now, and no one ever goes in by themselves.

 A little closer towards town, we found the famous Five Fisherman’s Restaurant, a gorgeous old building from the 1800s that, as the name implies, is now a well known restaurant, but was once the largest funeral home in the city. The mortuary has the ignominious distinction of having handled the many bodies after the Titanic disaster, as well as the victims of the Halifax explosion (more on that tomorrow). Even in death, the victims of the Titanic disaster were treated according to class – the first class were taken to the Funeral Home in quick makeshift coffins, the second class were taken to a makeshift morgue in canvas body bags, and the third class and crew were taken to the town square on open stretchers. The owners of the funeral home might have come to perhaps to regret this, as it is said, that John Jacob Astor – of Waldorf Astoria fame, and considered the wealthiest man in the world at that time – was bought to the funeral home along with the rest of the first class passengers. Apparently J.J. Astor’s body was eventually taken to New York to be buried in the family plot (where ever that may be), but people in the funeral home have been reporting sightings of him ever since… walking in his top hat through walls, knocking things over, chucking cutlery, turning sinks on and off, swinging doors open, turning on stoves, scaring the staff, tapping people on the shoulder and generally making a nuisance of himself. Glasses have even been known to apparently fly off shelves on a regular basis. As J.J. Astor was notorious in life for treating servants poorly, so he apparently continues to do so in the afterlife. In the past, these phenomena were primarily reported by staff working after hours, but now apparently have been experienced by restaurant patrons too, who also report unusually cold patches in the restaurant as well. Woooooo! 😛

 Further on down the hill from the Citadel, we came to a beautiful town square between the Anglican Church of St Paul’s (the oldest and original church in Halifax that was originally multi-denominational, but became Anglican when Halifax grew larger and built more places of worship), and the impressive City Hall building. Many years ago, this square was a drill parade, and a story has it that one particularly egomaniacal Admiral (a French guy, perhaps? I missed his name) had summarily executed a random Lieutenant to demonstrate his particular brand of cruel leadership was not to be challenged… according to the story, he literally stood everyone at parade, said ‘Hang that one.’, pointing to a random officer, and his no doubt confused soldiers, duly did. The story claims that this particular Lieutenant was immediately hung and has ever since wandered the square disturbing passers by, asking ‘Why? Why?’… As you would. As my old friend Lt Col Dazzles used to say, “Shoot one, educate a thousand”. Not sure it’s good for morale, but in a macabre and decidedly Machiavellian, ‘if you can’t be loved; be feared’ kinda way, no doubt it’s very effective. :/

 Across the square stands St Paul’s church, which has a silhouette of either a reverend or an organist (accounts vary) etched into one of the windows after the blast from the Halifax explosion of 1917, had literally vaporised the poor reverend/organist leaving the outline of his form forever stamped into the window – it probably doesn’t hurt that they outlined the silhouette in lead to protect the anomaly, and have double glazed the window so it doesn’t deteriorate, but given we were wandering through at night we couldn’t see the outline at all, as it was not lit up. Not really a ghost story per se, but an interesting little historical weirdness, nonetheless.

 Further up the street, we came to a lively row of restaurants that were once all boarding houses. Legend has it that there was once a young man who established his fiancé in the boarding house leading up to their wedding. It seems to have been quite common practice for the young men of Halifax to send to England and Ireland for brides when they were in need of them. Anyway, when she came to Halifax, she needed somewhere to live before they were to be married and he found her a place in this boarding house. However, things went pear-shaped for this young couple, when the young man’s friends decided to tell him that his fiancé was stepping out on him – as a joke. He came to the boarding house to check on her, and found her leaning out the top story window of her room, waving farewell to a young man in the street and calling out her affections to him, and the man in the street waving and returning her addresses in turn. The young man saw ‘the red mist’ and ran upstairs, accusing his beloved of being unfaithful and he refused to believe her protestations that the young man in the street was her cousin, Billy. He picked up a knife and stabbed her to death, and in his fury, hacked off her finger to retrieve his engagement ring, afterwards throwing her finger out the window into the street. Ever since, locals claim to have seen her… wandering the street in a wedding dress… searching for her missing finger.

 I have relayed only a few of the stories here – the ones that I could actually remember, because quite frankly Colleen, was talking a hundred miles an hour at every corner we stopped – but it seemed to me that this was perhaps the third of the jilted jessies or wronged fiancés to be roaming the town in their tattered wedding dresses? I could be wrong, but there’s a tragic theme here for the soon-to-be-wed-but-never-quite-made-it-to-the-alter, young women of Halifax. Even Charles Dickens resided in Halifax at one point and was connected to a house alleged to have been haunted by a woman dressed in a bedraggled grey wedding dress for some time, a la Miss Haversham perhaps? As a general rule, I think it is probably best, that one should avoid getting affianced or plan on being married in Halifax, just to be on the safe side…

 Further down towards the waterfront, we were told the story of a French Admiral – D’Anbridge I think was his name – who was tragically killed in an engagement where he was extraordinarily outnumbered at sea (apologies the salient details escape me as it was now quite late and we had walked about 8-9kms). The Admiral was buried in Halifax, but in order to assuage the grief of his family back home, apparently in a particularly grisly affair, his heart was cut out of his chest and sent back to France. The poor, and now-heartless Admiral is reported to be seen haunting the waterfront, and his apparition is identified by the sound of the wind, as it whistles through the hole in his body where his heart used to be.

We heard lots of colourful stories, most of which were probably based in fact, but had been lent a fanciful and superstitious bit of local colour over the years. The haunted walking tour of Halifax was really good fun and not a little bit spooky, so those who came expecting to see actual ghosts were (in a huge surprise to all) somewhat disappointed.

After that, it was back to the ship and we still had a whole day to explore Halifax to come. Shame we didn’t have an overnight stay in Reykjavik, I would have loved to have done the Golden Circle scenery one day and all the museums the next. Never mind, but with so many places to go back and visit again… the list is getting longer.

Icelandic Weirdnesses

I always try and keep track of things that I just found  unusual or weird in countries that I have visited and Iceland certainly has a handful of them that tickled my sense of the absurd.

The first must be the food… (I bet you thought I was going to say elves or trolls :P).  Anyway, from what we can tell, ‘Icelandic cuisine’ is a bit on the interesting side. One of the guides I was talking to mentioned a fondness for ‘singed sheep’s head’… not brains, she specifically said the head. At the time I wasn’t sure if that was a language barrier thing, but she definitely meant head and I found out later it is called ‘svid’.

Another fantastically weird local dish is the ‘hakarl’ which is truly disgusting and I can attest to this one personally as I was foolhardy enough to try some – it’s shark that has been buried in sand for up to FOUR YEARS. Things don’t rot here, so it sort of dehydrates and doesn’t really decay, then they rehydrate it and it has a delightful aroma of AMMONIA and tastes like bleached fish. I don’t know whose idea that was originally but it is truly awful and they can keep it. The other main thing is the dehydrated fish – like a fish jerky, kinda tasty and I could see would make a nice base for a soup, but I can’t imagine eating lots of it. Nearly everything else they import here.

What else? Apparently Iceland doesn’t have any standing military – not an army, navy or air force, just a coast guard service. If Icelanders want a career in the military, they go off and join the Norwegian military. So there you go – just like New Zealand, 100% perfect, 100% there for the taking. 🙂

Iceland seems to have a crazy high percentage of artists and writer, and world wide, produces more per capital than any other country.  Oh and they have a 99% literacy rate putting a high value on education. I think this one has a lot to do with there not being a lot to do during the long, cold dark winters.

Knitting is a national past time and even most men can, and will, knit. Which I think is rather cool. I can’t knit for shit, but there should be more of it, I say. 🙂

In 1625 to 1685 the West Fjord area (Isafjordur) was supposed to be riddled with witches, sorcerers and wizards… though in all fairness, a lot of Europe was kinda witch hunt crazy at the time thanks to James I of England, but there was apparently a lot of them here at that time. Something is not quite right though, because most Icelanders still totally believe in elves and elf magic… those stories are just really weird. O.o Makes you wonder if all that fermented shark meat has gone to their heads or something – or maybe it’s the Brennavin. Unsweetened schnapps strong enough to blow your hair back, enough of that and you’d see elves and pink elephants.

Only 10% of Iceland is covered by ice, and the rest of the country is really quite green – bit of a misnomer really. Greenland on the other hand, I am lead to believe is covered in ice and isn’t green at all. Go figure.

Iceland was ranked as the most peaceful country in the world in 2013 according to the Global Peace Index which is compiled by some Economics and Peace Institute, which is not hard to believe, considering that they are small and stable and miles away from anyone, just living on their island doing their own thing. 

Here’s a good one – beer was BANNED until 1989. Yep, you read that right, 1989. I have no idea when that ban came into effect, but it’s gone now and the Icelanders are no doubt extremely pleased about that.

I have truly loved everything about Iceland, the scenery is just spectacular, the people were a mix – a little aloof or very friendly depending on where you were and who you were with I guess… it’s the end of the tourist season, so I think the ones that were a bit flat could be forgiven after spending four months fielding the same stupid questions over and over from American tourists who obviously haven’t done any research on where the hell they are going. I would love to come back here and spend more time to get into the countryside a bit more – organised bus tours area a great way to see a lot in a short period of time and a fantastic way to absorb local history, but don’t really allow for taking your time to enjoy a valley with a picnic lunch or anything. So it’s high on my list to come back one day and hire a car and see the place at my own pace – it’s small (16hrs to drive around the whole place), easy to get around and while the roads are a bit crap, they’re not as bad as Alaska, so all up a fly-drive type trip would be awesome.

The only thing I did not like about Iceland is the high cost of living. Our dollar is falling, their dollar is falling – it’s just ridiculous. A souvenir tea towel would cost anywhere from AUD$18-24.00, a fridge magnet might set you back AUD$10.00 and if you wanted some traditional Icelandic knitwear – well the sky is the limit, be prepared to spend hundreds for a jumper or a shawl. Even a really ordinary lunch type food was ridiculously expensive. Oh well, their currency isn’t worth squat and they have to import nearly everything, so thems the breaks. It was a lot of fun to watch the Americans dealing with sticker shock every time they went near a cash register though. 🙂


All up I have had an amazing time in Iceland… I really hope I can come back one day. Maybe even one day when the damn puffins are actually here.

Reykjavík – The Golden Circle

I am in Reykjavík… Never thought I’d be saying that! But here we are in the capital of Iceland, which incidentally, is the northernmost capital city in the entire world. Every time you read ‘Reykjavík’, make sure you hear it with long rolled R’s in the most pretentious and exaggerated manner you can muster. We’ve discovered that it’s ever so much fun. 😀  

  Anyway, Reykjavík is a relatively new city having only gained Municipal Trading Rights (whatever those are), in 1786 (still older than any cities back home) and it is currently home to 180,000 people which is about half of Iceland’s entire population. RRReykjavík is also know as the ‘Land of Rainbows’, but that could be them trying to put a good spin on the frequently rainy weather – which happily we saw very little of today with gorgeous blue skies everywhere we went. 
Reykjavík has some incredible history behind how it came to be settled. Apparently the first settlers were Irish monks. An 6thC Irish monk named St Brendan, had a timber framed leather boat that he sailed all the way from Ireland to the Faroe Islands. He stayed there until his leather dried out, and then apparently sailed on to Iceland. When he went back to Ireland, he reported that he had found a place perfect for monastic contemplation that was plentiful with fish and had a midnight sun : “At midnight it is light enough to pick the lice from one’s shirt…” So Irish monks migrated to Iceland. The monasteries grew to be quite a colony of monks, but (depending on who is telling the story), the monks either fled from Viking raiders or they died out, because, well… they’re monks and they didn’t bring any women with them. Either way the monkish period didn’t last. 
In 874AD a Norwegian viking chieftain, Ingólfur Arnarson came across the North Sea looking for farming lands, being the first to come to Iceland. The vikings needed a place with good shelter, and plenty of grass for their sheep and horses. They found these things in Reykjavík and stayed a few years to see if they could survive the winter before bringing more people to the settlement. This fledgling society was completely independent of the Norwegian viking society they left behind, and life in the new settlement was somewhat brutal and lawless. Eventually the new settlers decided to establish a parliament. 





 The first parliament, or Althing, was established at Thingvellir, a unique place with natural shelter and fresh water where the new settlers could meet at the beginning of each summer. They gathered for two weeks of the year to exchange news, discuss and create laws, celebrate marriages and to hand out punishments etc. They never made any permanent buildings at Thingvellir, and would pretty much camp, and meet in circles in the protection of the ravine. 
None of the laws created at the Althing were written down until 1180AD – instead the Lawspeaker would stand on the Law Rock would to recite, by heart, 1/3 of all the laws of the land, every year. By 1262 the Thingvellir parliament was not so important in deciding laws etc, because Iceland had come formally under Norway. 
Thingvellir is very much considered the Heart of Iceland, and not just because of its historical significance to the first settlement, but also because it lies directly on the join between the American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This fault line has been slowly been pulling apart for the last 9000 years creating a picturesque ever widening ravines that are simply gorgeous. Between the plates, an enormous lake, called Thingvallavatn (Iceland largest natural lake), has formed in a sort of tectonic no mans land between the plates that is up to 300m deep in parts. 

  The Mid Atlantic Tectonic Ridge is comprised of 100% volcanic basalt which is exactly the same as the ocean floor where the plates meet, but it has been pushed up by volcanic movement. The basalt, bring relatively low in silicon compared to other volcanic areas, is evident in the beaches and rocky lava-like landscape and is used for road building etc. 
Thingvellir is so beautiful and I would love to come back here and go camping and exploring the place. Just gorgeous landscapes and apparently great snorkeling in the crystal clear glacial waters. 
The area still has frequent volcanic eruptions, the most notable recent eruption was the 2010 eruption of Eyjaljallajökull, the enormous ash cloud of which grounded flights all over Europe and stranded hundreds of thousands of people. Apparently at the time, the eruption provided Icelanders with loads of amusement as they watched the world’s journalists struggle to attempt to pronounce Eyjaljallajökull. Apparently the American journalists gave up pretty quickly and nicknamed the volcano, ‘E15’ – meaning “E and 15 unpronounceable letters”! For the record it’s easy – Eyjaljallajökull is pronounced ‘AY-uh-fyat-luh-YOE-kuutl-luh’. See? Simple. 😀 

Our next stop was to see the geysers, and not just any geysers, *the* original geysers. ‘Geysir’ is the Icelandic word meaning ‘to splash water around’, and all other geysers in the world are named after these original Icelandic geysers. There is the bigger but now very quiet Geysir, but he doesn’t erupt anymore, and his little brother, Strökkur that goes up about every 7-8 minutes. The Geo-thermal hot spring water builds up in pressure and he burbles and boils away until whoosh… and ‘he jumps about all the time’. I love that the Icelanders call the geysers, ‘him’ and ‘he’, it sounds really quaint and personal (even though I know it’s just a result of Icelandic being an engendered language). 

After visiting Strökkur and watching him go off several times, we head off to the Gullfoss Waterfall. Aka, The ‘Golden Waterfall’, so named for the frequently golden rainbows that show up when the sun shines through the spray from incredible amount of water cascading down the impressive three level waterfall. 




 In 1907 a foreign business interest wanted to harness the power of the Gullfoss Falls by building a hydro electric power station on the site, but a local farmer, Tómas Tómasson and his daughter, Sigrídur Tómasdóttir, who had been bring tourists to see the waterfalls by horseback since 1875. Tómas apparently claimed, “I will not sell my friend!” when offers for the land were made to him; his daughter, Sigrídur is credited with saving the waterfalls by walking on foot into Reyjavik to front the Parliament and demanding the waterfalls be saved. She even threatened to throw herself into the falls if the plan went ahead. The Parliament capitulated and built a power plant somewhere else. The falls have been leased to several foreign private interests since then, but always to people who were against ever using the falls as a power plant. The site now belongs to the govt and is a protected site. I have to say these are some of the most impressive waterfalls I have seen anywhere. Easily a match for the spectacular falls of Wells Grey National Park in Canada. Absolutely breathtaking. 
We stopped at the cafe above the falls for a lovely lunch of tomato soup and grilled salmon and then head off to the Friedheima 

Icekandic Horse show. Icelandic horses were very important for agriculture, general travel and even social infrastructure right up until the mid 20thC. In 1920-30s approximately 80% of houses were still turf houses with no insulation and no cars – only horses. There was no real roads built until the 1960s and the major linking highway – Ring Road 1, wasn’t completed until 1973. 

The Icelandic horses are unique – they are descendants of the original viking domestic horses that the Norwegian vikings brought to Iceland during the original early settlement. 

A law was made in the 11thC that absolutely no horses could be imported into Iceland and that law still stands. The reason for this was two fold – firstly to maintain the sturdiness of the breed, and secondly to reduce the chance of bringing in diseases and infections the horses might not have previously been exposed to. So the isolation of the current Icelandic horse means they are very much genetically the same as their viking predecessors. 

The laws are so strict that once a horse leaves Iceland it is never allowed back – even champion show horses competing in international competitions. So breeders will never takes their best horses to championship events internationally as they can’t bring them back. 


 The other reason the horses are so unique and genetically similar to their fore bearers is that they have never been bred for appearances. The horses are extremely low and hardy with a thick shaggy coat. All they need is a bit of hay and they can survive ok through the harsh winter outdoor conditions. So they’ve effectively been bred to survive rather than be pretty. They are known for their nice kind, easy going temperament and for being very strong – an Icelandic pony can carry 100kgs for an hour at full pace with no problem. Their only job was to transport people and survive winter no one cared what they looked like, so they are all one breed but come in up to 40 colours. 





 They do not do any dressage or jumping events with the Icelandic horses, but the horses are famous for their unusual ability to master a wide range of gait. Now this means SFA to me, but these ponies walk, trot, canter, gallop, tilt, and pace… and apparently that makes them the only horses that tilt *and* pace. It is the special gait of Icelandic horses alone. (If you want to know more about that, you’ll have to Google it because I have no idea what it’s about). 

There are over 120,000 horses in Iceland and each year about 3000-5000 horses sold and exported overseas as they are quite prized for being strong and pure seeing that the breed hasn’t really changed for over 800 years. 
On our way back to Reykjavík, we passed through fairly recent lava fields that are only 1000 years old, which are full of craggy basalt rocks and large stones. The topic of elves came up again as our guide, Alexandra was taking about the road construction. She said that Icelanders believe that elves live in big stones and they are usually quite nice and benign, but they can be mean. So when the road was under construction and the machinery broke down three times, it was obviously the work of unhappy elves, and that this sort of thing would be shown on the evening and people seriously discussed what to do about it. In 2000 they were building a road near Reykjavík that had elf stones in the road, and they started to have major mechanical problems due to elves being displeased so the built a special side road around the stones and everyone had to use the side road until 2003, when the elf representative, Erla Stefansdottir, said that the elves had moved out. So they recommended work on the road without any problem and it was eventually able to be finished. I am still finding this bizarre. 
Once we got back to Reykjavík we stopped by the Perlan, a spectacular 10 story high architectural building that houses Reykjavík’s geothermal water storage. All of Reykjavík is heated with natural geothermal water that is moved hundreds of miles from the most active areas through an extensive series of pipes and then stored at the Perlan until it is distributed to homes. The Perlan was a series of unattractive silos until the sides were built in, and the distinctive dome top added which also has a public observation deck offering beautiful panoramic views of Reykjavík and the bay Area. It’s a very distinctive building with a unique purpose. 

We then had a quick drive through Reykjavík and back to the ship. It was a long day but the Reykjavík Golden Circle is amazing. So many beautiful places to see… it definitely makes me want to come back (preferably with way fewer American tourists!).

Iceland – Ísafjörður and Puffins!

Ísafjörður is a beautiful little town nestled at the end of the Skutulsfjörður. Originally inhabited since the 9th century, when Helgi Magri Hrolfsson sailed over from Norway, many others would follow over the following century. In 1536, Denmark took possession of Iceland and imposed a trade monopoly which proved fortuitous for the little fishing village as it eventually turned into an important harbour and trading site for the area’s farmers and fishermen. Today it is a thriving town with about 3,500 people living in the four separate villages that make up Ísafjörður.


 On our way to our first visit, we took a 9km long tunnel that has been cut into the mountain so that people can avoid driving the extremely hazardous coastal road that has been in use forever. The road would take an hour each way to get from one village to another and was prone to avalanches in winter and rockslides in summer. The locals call the tunnel, The Troll’s Stomach, because ‘everyone knows that trolls avoid sunlight and that is why we never never see them – but if the do venture out they get turned into mountains when the sun shines on them.’ So the tunnels in the mountains are Troll Stomachs. 
Which would be kinda cute, but for the fact that the locals seems to take this sort of thing very seriously. I’m not exactly sure how much of this is true, but our guide tells us there is a Committee of Elves in the town, which is made of of educated people who have spent five years at university learning to communicate with the elves. Yes. People really believe in ELVES up here. Anyway, the Mayor had to approach the Committee of Elves to get permission to build the tunnel I just mentioned. Apparently it took a year and a half to get permissions from the elves to dig a major 9 km tunnel that was going to cut right through the mountain, and even then the elves wouldn’t give their permission. At some point, the Mayor must have gone ‘stuff it!’ and they went ahead with the work anyway, at which point everything everything went up shit creek… machinery was breaking down, accidents happened, finances for the tunnel became precarious and everyone blamed the Mayor for not getting the proper permission from the elves. Eventually the Mayor, a middle age white guy, apologised on NATIONAL television to the elves! The Committee of Elves eventually relayed back that the elves had accepted his apologies, and from then on, the tunnel works went smoothly. O.o
I’d say that they’re pulling our leg with this ‘we believe in Elves’ thing, but it goes much further than you’d expect. Our guide, Lisabet was telling us about how she bought her house which is called the Elf Cliff House about 20 years ago. It is a beautiful little wooden house in what looks like a nice part of town, built in 1922, and as she relayed it, when the house was being built, the original builders had come across a large inconvenient stone where the basement of the house was to be, and they had planned to blow the stone out of the way to allow for the house to be built. Anyway, the builder drilled into the stone to enable dynamite to be put into it, and before the stone could be destroyed he dreamed of the Elf Queen who told him (I’m paraphrasing here… obviously!), ‘This is my home, please keep it safe and I will keep you safe’. So the builder decided to leave the stone in place and build around it. So now, Lisabet has a two meter stone in the basement of her house with a drill hole in it, and when she purchased the house, there were a number of clauses in the purchase contract that she had to agree to abide by: 1) She has to light a candle and put it in the drilled hole three times a year (New Years and solstices or something), 2) no one can ever touch the stone without peace and harmony, and 3) the environment around the stone is supposed to remain clean and neat at all time. Yes, all this was in her LEGAL real estate purchase contract. She says she has always lighted the candles as required and treated the stone with peace and harmony… but she has four small children so she feels her house is messy and of course the stone is in the middle of her laundry so there are always clothes everywhere. She claims that in retribution for not keeping the area neat and clean, the elves steal away all their socks and no matter how hard she tries, she can not keep a pair of socks together, resulting in all her children constantly wearing mismatched socks. So, all this elf stuff was in the real estate contract of her house, and the entire village knows she lives with elves at the Elf Cliff House, and they are known as the Elf Cliff Family and kids are called the Elf Cliff Children! I can’t quite make it out – but it seems people here honestly believe in elves.
But I digress… Our first port of call was to the Ósvör Maritime Museum, which stands on the east side of the village of Bolungarvik, right down by the sea’s edge. The museum contains a 19th century fishing base, a salt hut and a fishy drying area and drying hut. There used to be many of these old fishing huts, and they would accommodate a team of fishermen, usually about seven men and one woman who would live in the huts and work the fishing boat. These fisherfolk lived in very confined conditions and would sleep all in together primarily because they didn’t have any space, but also because they needed their bedfellows for warmth. It would take six men to row the boat out to sea to catch a load of fish and they would use a 1km line set with 1000 hooks, baited with shellfish, and offal, which could bring in a haul of up to 1000 kilos of fish… that they got packed into their 8m boat for the trip back to their fishing base. These 19th century fishermen also used to catch Greenland sharks which are apparently quite docile. The sharks could be up to 12m long, and given that their fishing boats were only 8m long, the shark would be held alongside the boat and gutted for its liver. A single shark liver would yield between 300-400 liters of oil which would be used to light oil lamps all over Europe. The remainder of the shark would quite often be discarded. When the fishing was done, the boat would be pulled out of the sea on whale bones, like a slip, and according to Icelandic law, if someone is pulling up a boat to shore, by hand or using a winch system, passers by are required to stop and help them bring in their boat. Apparently one can be detained for failing to help someone bring in a boat, though this sort of thing is not so common these days, as most boats are docked in marinas and powered by engines. 

On our way to our next stop, we drove past the Bolungarvik Golf Course, a picturesque 9 hole course set in a prettyish little area on some of the only flat terrain around – which is in short supply. We were told by our guide Lizabet, that it is hilarious to see very well dressed golfers out in summer ‘lose all their dignity’ as they flailed their golf clubs madly in the air to fend off attacks by the local Arctic Terns that inhabit the area. Unfortunately being the end of summer, there was neither golfers nor Arctic Terns on the course today.

As I mentioned earlier, Ísafjörður is made up of four villages, one of which is Bolungarvik, and it is Bolungarvik Church that we were stopping to see. Bolungarvik Church was built in 1908 in the only ‘safe area’ of Bolungarvik… and by ‘safe’, they mean it is safe from the ravages of the sea and it is safe from any avalanche hazard. So it is located on a flat area of ground far enough away from the water’s edge and sufficiently far from the base of any mountains. While most of Bolungarvik’s tiny population of 900 are Lutheran, there are 12 different nationalities living here. And it sounds like this little church has a kick arse Bishop.

For a start, the Bishop is a woman named, Agnes, who is a feminist, an outspoken LGBT activist and a great advocate for multiculturalism. It sounds like she is almost single handedly changing the way the Lutheran Church operates in Iceland. She is the first female bishop, (apparently when she was born, a friend of her father’s had said, ‘What a lovely child, what a shame it isn’t a son, he could have grown up to be something useful, like a priest’ – upon hearing this story over and over in her childhood, Agnes, thought, I’ll show them!’). She does speaking tours to encourage and empower girls and women to get out and do things and be independent. She does a lot of ‘loose and weird’ stuff as a feminist pushing hard against the stuffy old ways of the Board of the church. She is forcing the church to do things better – she is fights for gay rights and also, this is very important, she is currently advocating for respect for other religions which apparently is very hard for Icelanders because (according to Lisabet), ‘we are, you know, very err, rude’. Even in this small community, small numbers of refugees from all over are coming, and the community is rejecting them. Muslims, and any other religions who have applied to build a mosque or church or other house of worship have had building applications rejected – so Agnes took the unusual step of opening the doors of the historic Bolungovik Church, which is Lutheran, and allowing any other any denomination to use the church for their own services and observances. So now the Church has a schedule of services for all types of religions and the youth centres are also having multi-denominational programs. She is slowly opening people’s minds and the children and young people are really benefitting as they stop seeing those of different religions as unusual or strange. I think Agnes the first female Bishop sounds awesome and there should be more integrating people into communities rather than segregating or retreating into our separate corners… but that’s another story.

Another side effect of being part of such a small community is a lack of space. Apparently they ran out of space for the kindergarten a few years ago, and decided to send the children to the local nursing home during the days. The children have their meals every day, and do craftwork with the elderly who live in the nursing home. It turns out to be a very mutually beneficial, extended family, sort of system. The children learn respect and patience as they help the elderly with small things and work with them on craft projects, and the elderly, some of whom have no family nearby, gain proxy grandchildren. Sounds like another win-win.

The church was very beautiful and all the decorations inside have been completely hand painted. While we were there, two local girls sang two songs to us in the beautiful acoustics of the lovely little church – the first was a lullaby from a mother to her child, that she could not keep and was surrendering into a waterfall, it was sad and beautiful, the other song was about the hardships of living in such a hostile climate. If I could figure out how to upload sound files from my iPhone to this page, I will eventually put them in here – they were melodic and ever so slightly haunting. Just lovely.

On the way to our next stop, we had a discussion about how most people in Ísafjörður have several different jobs. You might be a singer/tour guide in summer, and study and work in a bakery in the winter. Higher education is important for everyone (though Icelanders can tend to do things in a different order to us – high school/college, have children, get married, then go to university), so that all services can be covered your construction worker might also be social worker, and your bus driver might also be a council worker. Most people have numerous jobs because the services need filling, but the town of 3,500 doesn’t need a full time social worker, so people are adaptable and flexible with their employment, especially when it comes to winter work.
A local saying is that summer in the West fjord (Ísafjörður) is the closest to heaven you can get… but if you want to see what hell looks like when it freezes over, then swing by in January! Nearly 10 months of the year is spent in winter conditions, wither barely two weeks of spring and two weeks of fall. At the moment, the days getting rapidly shorter and by November it will get dark and stay dark until February, which can send people a little loopy by January. For Ísafjörður, snow avalanche alarms and evacuations are extremely common depending on where you live. Area A is the best areas, and they only end up evacuating about once every 2 years or so. Area B is the second safest areas and they end up evacuating about a few times each winter. Area C places can end up evacuating up to 10-12 times every winter, and there are some areas where it is forbidden to live in winter at all and only summer homes can be built there. The government is compulsorily acquiring some properties that are in particularly avalanche prone areas in order to relocate people somewhere safe. When an avalanche evacuation occurs, everyone up and moves to a family member or friend’s house for a few days so it can seem like a mini-holiday/sleep over. 
So the Icelanders have learned to live with the nature but also to be a little bit afraid of it. I remember writing recently about the Chinese standards for a good life, and their obsession with longevity, regardless of whether you have a good or a bad house… here the standard for a good life, is to be alive – that is their standard of happiness. It’s a simple ideology due to living with this constant danger hanging over their heads. I found out later in the day that the sense of danger is even worse than dealing with yearly avalanches – apparently there is a large section of mountain that scientists all agree is going to slide off the mountain into the fjord one day… any day… could be tomorrow, could be 1000 years from now. But when it does, it will create a huge tsunami-like wave that will wash down the fjord, hit the opposing cliffs and wash back onto sea level Ísafjörður. No doubt completely wiping the town out if they have no warning. I can’t imagine living with that vague threat over your head, and they have no idea really if it will come to pass.
After this we stopped by a small waterfall in the Skutilsfjödur to try the fresh glacial water. It’s been a long long time since I drank water from a natural stream and not been worried about the water quality. This waterfall comes from a reservoir at the top of the mountains and water filters down through the mountain and is used for the town’s drinking water. By the sounds of it, they use it completely untreated because it’s too damn cold for any bacteria to live here anyway, which is the same way they get away with dehydrating fish for months on end just in covered huts… Nothing rots. Not even shark meat that is buried for four years or so. O.o 

We had another stop after the waterfall to the Byggdasafn Vestfarda… O.o The Westfjords Heritage Museum for the rest of us. This was fun little museum with a collection of old fishing boats, the Old Blacksmithing Workshop which is still set up like it would have been in the 19thC, many maritime and nautical items on display and really weirdly, someone’s (Asgeif S. Sigurdsson’s) private piano accordion collection! 


  Yes, there were about fifty piano accordions on display upstairs and I have no idea why. While we were there, we were given an opportunity to try some dried fish, some ‘special’ Icelandic dried shark which we were heartily advised to wash down with Brennivan – the Icelandic aquavita I was hunting down yesterday. The dried fish was quite okay, just like a fish jerky. But the buried for years shark meat was kinda awful, with a lovely aroma of ammonia and a taste to match… so it was down the hatch with the Brennivan. Which, by the way, tastes like the nastiest white alcohol you can get your hands – imagine a drink that tastes like nasty tequila, sake and vodka mixed together, and you’re on the right track… just strong white alcohol of indeterminate flavour.

We had a few hours to wander around the town after this while waiting for our afternoon adventures, so wander the town centre and took in the atmosphere. Ísafjörður felt a lot more ‘open’ than Akureryi (I keep forgetting how to say that – and have to remember the, ‘It’s a long way to Akureryi, it’s a long way to go!’ ditty to get on the right track again). There were several handicrafts shops, a book store where I nearly bought some Icelandic Mr Men books, a few restaurants and cafes and bakeries and all good things. I was amazed at how expensive things are here – or at least I was on the first day, but now, am just amazed at the huge sticker shock the Americans seem to get whenever they try to pay for things in US dollars – they are not used to their dollar not going far… and Iceland is really pricey for everyone, including the Yanks. In nearly every store and restaurant, you could hear them exclaiming, ‘You’re kidding? It’s how much? Oh, that’s not right’. Suck it up princesses, it’s about time you found a place where a fiver can’t buy you your own hotel! 



 In the afternoon we went for a short boat cruise out to a small island called, Vigur Island. Vigur is barely a mile long and 450 yards wide (I’d convert that for y’all, but it reeks of math). This tiny island in the fjord has Iceland’s only windmill which was used to grind wheat that was imported from Denmark, because of course, they wouldn’t be able to grow wheat here for love or money. 

We also saw Iceland’s oldest useable fishing boat here – one of those approximately 8m long fishing boats that we saw earlier, but this one was built in the early 1800s from driftwood that had apparently come from Siberia. It takes 5 yrs for driftwood to float to Iceland from Siberia and over that time it gets soaked through and absorbs a lot of salt which hardens the wood, making it ideal for ship building compared to the local birch.

But Vigur Island isn’t really known for it’s windmill or it’s boat building, it is best known for it’s birds… this tiny, pristine and tranquil landscape is known for it’s enormous colonies of black guillemots, Arctic terns and PUFFINS! That’s right, our shore tour destination expert told us there were 80,000 puffins on Vigur, and that we had best take hats and umbrellas to wave about to keep the Arctic terns from attacking us while we went in search of puffins and eider ducks… but in a very typical twist of fate, we have arrived about two weeks too late to see even a single nesting pair of puffins and not a single Arctic tern to be seen either. So disappointed… The only puffin I saw on Vigur was stuffed! 

  I don’t know if I have mentioned in my travels before, but when I was in the UK in 1995, the only places that was on my list to see in Scotland was the Edinburgh Tattoo, and the Island of Staffa, to see the basalt cliffs and hopefully see the puffins… but alas, the one day we had to spend there, we had booked a boat trip out to see Staffa, but bad weather prevented us from making it out to the Island and instead, our boat trip turned into an all day bus trip driving around in the rain looking at stuff that wasn’t amazing rock formations or puffins. So I was foiled in my puffin seeking in 1995 by foul weather, and here I am 20 years later, foiled again in seeing the puffins by being just a bit too late in the season. Little buggers, I think they are hiding from me… I am beginning to think chasing puffins are my own personal, “Great Wave of Disappointment”.  

Next time… I swear, one of these days I’ll get to see puffins.