WTF are we doing in Belarus!

We left Kiev yesterday around midday and headed back to Warsaw. Had another relatively uneventful flight with Ukraine International Airlines, where yet again, passengers clapped when the plane touched down safely – over the years I’ve seen this in Turkey, Pakistan, Argentina, Peru, now Poland and Ukraine, and it still weirds me out. We were just transiting through Warsaw this time, so didn’t spend any time there.

We picked up a rental and yale set the GPS for Vilnius and off we went. It was a bit of a long drive – but when you’re from Australia, it doesn’t seem that far.  Not like trying to get to Festival in a day or anything crazy like that.  We passed through some pretty little towns on the way of varying sizes and modernity.
Some cute churches, and everything all sweet and fabulous…  Until we encountered kilometres and kilometres of trucks all lined up in a dead stand still. For a while we thought it might be some sort of rolling blockade protest – people around here seem to be constantly protesting something.  Or perhaps they were all lined up waiting for a weighbridge station, given how politely they were all lined up on the right and letting the cars pass them.  We then came across this – the lane we had been travelling also at a dead stop of cars. Bugger, we thought – it was obviously the queue for the Polish/Lithuania border. So we pulled up behind the blue car in the photo below…  At this point, one of the truck drivers (most of whom were not in their vehicles) came over and told us to drive around.  He pointed to the licence plate of the blue car, Belarussian, and he gestured for us to go around (our vehicle obviously had Polish plates on it).  So we dutifully went around and ended up at the top of the queue: Whereupon it became obvious that we were in the middle of the military checkpoint to enter Belarus!  Which meant we were miles from where we were supposed to be, and well and truly inside the borders of Belarus! Fark! Now we knew when we set out that there were two routes to get us to Vilnius, one of which was slightly shorter and chopped through the corner of what is effectively the dictatorial presidential state of Belarus and the other which went only through the border between Poland and Lituania.  Now, guess which route yale somehow programmed into Wayz…?

The border guard came over to our car and asked us where we were going, “Vilnius,” we replied. He then asked for our passports walked away.  Then came back for the rental agreement on our vehicle walked away.  Then came back for the registration papers for the vehicle and then he walked off again for what felt like an age. While he was gone, I was Googling looking for real-time info on any known delays at the Lithuanian and coming up empty. Now because we couldn’t read any of the damn signs anywhere, it was only about this point that we realised we were at the fucking Belarus border and not the Lithuanian one!

Eek… we had no idea what was going to happen here.  We totally weren’t supposed to be in the middle of this border complex, we had no visas for Belarus (they’re difficult to acquire and expensive), and these guys obviously have complete control over what is effectively a no mans land.

Eventually, he came back.  Handed us our passports and all the paperwork and said: “You have to go back.”  Well, thank fuck for that. For all we knew there could have been serious penalties for attempting to illegally cross the Belarussian border?!  We were laughing with relief as we turned the car around and drove off… and then we got to take a bit of the scenic route through some tiny villages as we made our way back to the route we were supposed to be on in the first place if yale only weren’t ‘the reason we can’t have nice things’. The countryside was simply stunning though – there is a beautiful quality to the light here (once you get out of the cities). Honestly, I grabbed these shots out the car window as we sped past and they have not been altered or had filters added or anything. Stopped at a servo for a fortifying something something after our little run in with the Belarus Border Force guys. WWII memorial in a little town on the way. Oddly, the Polish/Lithuanian border was far more like what we had been expecting – almost non-existent.  Being both part of the Schengen Agreement, there is pretty much borderless exchange between the two countries.  We did see some guards in a jeep on the side of the road, but they weren’t doing anything at all. The delay set up back a little arriving into Vilnius, but we arrived found our B&B and got settled pretty quickly. The B&B is in an old building with massive oak beams, exposed brick and stuccoed walls and old chunky furniture, right in the middle of the city.   After our adventure just driving here today, we decided to try and find some local food for dinner.  yale scoped out this place on Trip Advisor and it had the two most desireable elements we could have asked for, 1) great reviews and 2) mega close proximity.  Because it had been a long day already. We walked in and there was a wait for a table. The restaurant didn’t appear to be very big so we were a bit disheartened and I was considering looking for other options, when it became apparent that there must be more space off to the side of the entrance and perhaps downstairs as well.  We didn’t have to wait too long for a table and were led downstairs through a veritable rabbit warren on cosy dining spaces.First things first – a drink!  This place does paddles of brandy tasting so we thought we’d give that a go. From the left, very drinkable with cherry flavours, quite sweet with honey overtones, something akin to metho, disgustingly strong liquorice shit, and slightly less strong but equally disgusting liquorice shit!  Still, most of it went down just fine.
For entrees, everything looked really good on what is an extensive menu.  We ordered a few plates to try – fried cheese with bell peppers (effectively jalapeno poppers – which seemed odd for Lithuanian cuisine, but my knowledge there is quite limited).Next we tried the ‘thick and creamy wild mushroom soup’… which I tried and exclaimed “I hate this place! Best mushroom soup I have ever had, and it’s in bloody Lithuania!”
yale also ordered a second entree of meat dumplings served with sour cream and some sort of nutty soupy broth stuff.  It was very tasty – somehow just the right amount of salty.We had finished the brandy tasting paddle and the beers etc, so yale ordered a couple of meads and a homemade vodka. On the left honey mead, the vodka (average, but we may have been spoiled of late) and some god awful herbal mead shit that was 75% alcohol! Man that stuff is strong.
Dinner consisted of venison meatballs served with spinach mashed potato, loads of beetroot and a cranberry/blueberry sauce.  Delicious. And yale had some enormous dumpling things filled with mean and drowning in a thick mushroom sauce. After dinner (and all those strong drinks) we barely managed to find our way out of the hidden tunnels of amazing foody goodness. We want to get a full day to check out Vilnius tomorrow and both of us have laundry that needed attending to so we head back to the B&B for what was supposed to be an early night but it is already getting close to midnight.  Again.

Looking forward to checking out the G-spot of Europe tomorrow.  😛

Warsaw via the Wieliczka Salt Mine

New room with new bed proved to be worth its weight in gold.  Slept much better, which is to say I feel like I had some sleep compared to last night on the ‘you people knew this stupid bed was broken and I bet it will still be broken next month’. So be it. Someone else’s problem now and a really shitty Trip Advisor review for you guys.

We are heading to Warsaw today, but first, we are planning on heading a ways in the opposite direction to the Wieliczka Salt Mine.  Located in the town of the same name, the mine has been open since the 13th century and produced table salt right up until 2007, making it one of the oldest salt mines in operation. Throughout that entire time, the royal mine was run by the Żupy krakowskie Salt Mines company.

The Wieliczka salt mine reaches a total depth of 327 meters and is over 287 kilometres long. Since the mined ceased commercial operations it has become a major tourist attraction – there are underground chapels and an enormous reception room that is used for private functions, including weddings, loads of statues and some underground brine lakes.  The tourist route goes only 135m underground (which is plenty, trust me!) and follows a 3 km guided tour.  To initially get down to the first levels of the tours, visitors need to go down 64m via a timber spiral staircase of some 380 steps – which, given the low ceilings and tight space is a bit like walking down a 40 storey building fire escape stairwell.  There are many more sets of wooden steps so that visitors end up on the third level down at 135m and a total of approximately 800 steps down to get to that level.

Thankfully, a ridiculously claustrophobic lift returns you to the surface in an elevator that has four cars and holds 36 persons (nine per car) and takes about 45 seconds to make the trip. Everywhere we look is salt. Salt walls, salt floors, salt ledges, nooks and crannies.  The rock salt naturally occurs in various shades of grey and looks more like unpolished granite. There are many pully systems and horse treadmills throughout the mine to assist miners in moving large amounts of the heavy product to the surface. Throughout the mine, there are many statues carved out of salt.  Some, more contemporary artworks have been carved by modern sculptors, but many have been carved by amateurs – gifted miners who worked on these sculptures during their own time.

Copernicus statue carved from salt:

The story of how the mine allegedly came into being…

“In the 13the century a young Polish prince, called Bolesław, of the Piast Dynasty, decided to get married and for his wife chose a beautiful Hungarian princess of the Arpad Dynasty, the daughter of King Bela IV, Kinga (or Kunegund, as she is sometimes called).

When Bolesław’s proposal was accepted, the loving father asked Kinga what she would like to get from him as a wedding present, what she would like to take to her husband and the new country. Kinga replied that she wanted no gold and jewels since they only brought unhappiness and tears. She wanted something that could serve the people she was going to live with. Her request surprised the king greatly – she asked for salt.

The king was determined to keep his promise. He offered Kinga the biggest and most prosperous salt deposits in Hungary* – the Marmaros salt mine. However, nobody knew what Kinga could do with the treasure.

On her way to Poland, the princess visited the mine. She kneeled to pray next to the entrance and – to everyone’s surprise – suddenly threw her engagement ring inside. She gathered a group of the best Hungarian salt miners and told them to follow her.

When the party arrived in Poland and was approaching Kraków, Kinga stopped and asked the miners to look for salt. They started digging and suddenly hit something very hard. It was a lump of salt. When they broke it, everyone saw what was hidden inside – Kinga’s engagement ring!

That is how the Hungarian princess brought salt to our country. Right now in Wieliczka, there is the most famous salt mine museum.”

*This area once was in Hungarian territory.
And the scene depicted is a diorama carved of salt. The St Anthony’s Chapel. Secondary crystalised salt forms on the walls and ceiling of the mine as water seeps through the rock above. One of the most dangerous things about mining salt (indeed about mining anything this far underground) is the risk of fire.  The salt mines were particularly prone to fires from gas escaping as new veins of salt were mine.  Therefore one of the most dangerous jobs down the mine was to crawl down the newly created tunnels with a long flaming torch literally burning out pockets of colourless gas, which could cause explosions if the gas deposits were large enough.  It was a very dangerous job but apparetly very well paid work. The visible patterns and designs have been hand cut into the walls and floors. There were many workhorses used in the salt mines – once down the mine, they spent their entire lives down there as it was difficult to get them in or out.  So naturally, they needed stables, with feed storage and all sorts.  Hay stocks would bring mice, which meant they eventually brought down cats and the whole place sounded like a bit of a menagerie.  An old winch system: This photo is unfortunately not very clear, but these were 14th century stairs that miners would use to descend the mine, carved into the salt. Looking down to the second level: Gnomes start to appear dotted around the place, carved out of very clear white rock salt. Where we just came from: A brine creek directed to a bowl.  Our guide kept telling us to lick the walls or taste the water – it’s so salty that no bacteria can survive on the surface, and even though the mine has over 1.2 million visitors a year, she assures us that no one ever gets sick from licking the walls.  I kinda believe her, but didn’t feel the need to try it. The water however was extremely salty.

A recreated foreman’s office off a mine tunnel: A vignette of many gnomes doing various mine jobs: Another small chapel space to the virgin Mary:
Love the salt floor ’tiles’…  Some of the chambers have been reinforced with timber, which miners kept painted white.  They had no electric lighting down here and had small tallow lamps or torches only.  The white allowed for the light to be reflected around more easily and create better lit conditions.

A chandelier made of salt rock crystals: Another small chapel.  Mining is serious business that needs a lot of praying. So then we enter the King’s Chapel – a chamber which has the world’s largest underground church.   Lit by five enormous rock salt chandeliers, a huge wooden staircase bring visitors to the salt floor which is 64m underground now.Lining the walls are carvings of various artistic execution done by miners:
I love the floor! The salt rock crystal chandeliers are over two meters in drop: The King’s Chapel. Salt rock statues, salt rock columns, salt rock candlesticks, salt rock altar, salt rock kneelers, pews, salt rock tabernacle… Even the bollards to keep the tourists in line are carved out of salt. Further down the mine there are some enormous salt water lakes. 

The largest salt rock crystal chandelier in the complex – over 3 m long, hangs in a chamber near an enormous timber structure that was used to move salt up through the mine.  Carpentry was another important job here.  Goethe: Looking down towars the third level of the tourist route: Apparently tourists used to be moved about using ferry boat rides here through some of the smaller tunnels of the mine until a tragic drowning incident occurred in the Jozef Pilsudski Chamber.A ferry boat capsized and five people were trapped underneath it. In theory it should be impossible to drown in water this salty as everyone is so bouyant, but the boat was so heavy that the people couldn’t get out from under it, so they suffocated. That is why there is now a statue of St. John Nepomuk, the patron saint of the drowning.
This is the tallest chamber in the tourist route – at 36m high.  It is also the location of the World Record Deepest Underground Bungee jump.   Reception centre for weddings etc. There are multiple gift shops mostly selling gifts made from – you guessed it – salt.  None of which would last very long in a humid tropical environment like Brisbane.  Another small chapel on the way out of the mine. All up it was a very slick tourist operation that takes you on a visit through the mine. Our guide was interesting and informative and she only made one joke about us being nice to her because she was the only person in the group who knew the way out.  It is a veritable labyrinth of tunnels and chambers and you could see how easily you could get lost.

After our mine visit, it was time to hit the road and head to Warsaw.  Thankfully we had a trusty hire car for this segment of the journey and we were not going to find ourselves standing around for two hours on a train platform in yet another shitty transit.

Polish drivers are mad bastards though – dashing in and out of traffic without indicating.  Speed limit signs appear to be ‘suggestions’ only, and the route from one major city to another kept changing from fantastically fast dual carriageway to windy little back streets through small villages.
Amazingly dodgy servo lunch:
High speed landscape photography of the Polish countryside.Beautiful though  🙂 
Again we got to experience the feeling of standing still while going 130kmph as crazy Audi and BMW drivers went flying past us weaving in and out of traffic… to be honest, I was kinda glad that out little Corolla wasn’t capable of it, or perhaps yale would have put his foot down even more. Amazingly we only saw one small car accident…

We arrived in Warsaw and went to the place that said our accommodation was booked at – only to be met in a carpark by a woman who led us to a different location about two blocks away, and to what appeared to be a private apartment.  I was seriously unimpressed to discover the apartment (while having all the amenities of what we had booked) was nothing like what we had actually booked… for a start, we could not get our luggage all the way to the apartment without taking a very dodgy old lift up 15 stories and then going up through a maze of not very well kept corridors and two flights of stairs.

After the strange woman showed us to our weird accommdations, we immediately went in search of quick food not too far away.  yale opted for massive loaded hotdogs and I had a swiss cheese and mushroom burger at a place called The Brooklyn Bar.
I was not actually sure the owner/designer had ever been to Brooklyn or to a bar in Brooklyn in the last decade – but the food was mostly edible, the loud hip-hop was totally dreadful, but the cheap shots of vodka made the whole thing bearable.Back to the apartment and yale carried everything up the flights of stairs after taking the scary antique lift to the 15ht floor.  Back in the apartment – bedroom is up a flight of narrow twisty stairs to a low ceilinged loft, that I was going to have to navigate coming down first thing in the morning when my back is at it’s absolute worst and walking is sometimes problematic let alone weird odd height staircases. I mean, it was a nice enough space, but I would not have booked it had these been the pictures on the booking website.

We laughed about most of it – especially the tiny pokey shower cubicle – the vodkas over dinner helped.  yale for scale: Oh well, we are supposed to be staying here again in a few days time – but have decided to cancel and find something that 1) has no stairs to bed and 2) has a decent chance of a shower that yale can fit it!  Another interesting review coming up for these guys too!

Reyjkavik: Museums, Penises and Puffins.

We started off the morning bright and early – well, by bright, I mean it didn’t get light until nearly 8am today, and by early, I mean we didn’t leave the house until nearly 10am!  We were heading out first to go searching for a monument… the Eve Online Monument.  Eve Online is not technically ‘huge’ in the world of MMORPGs (Did I get that right? I’m am guessing I probably didn’t and by my comment, you are probably guessing correctly that I didn’t care enough to Google it!) with roughly a million die-hard players – but it is huge in Iceland. So big that they have erected an actual physical monument to the in game plaers which is engraved with all the player names on it. We went hunting it out for a friend of ours who plays so we could take a photo of his avatar engraved on the monument… It’s not exactly easy to find – but there is an online map telling you roughly which area each name is located – and yes, we found Drakey’s avatar!  It’s something to do with spaceships and wars in space or something.  I dunno.  #computergaming #notmycupoftea After ferreting out the Eve Online Monument, I convinced yale to swing past the Sun Voyager (again) so I could see it in the morning light.  This is still such a stunning piece of art.  I love it… so evocative, you can imagine it sailing out across the fjord.  🙂   This time fewer tourists were there hogging prime spots – but there’s always one jerk.  This time a Kiwi, who stood around while his wife took his pictures and then he went wandering all around the sculpture – if it had been a car, he would have been kicking the tyres – while about 10 people are standing around shivering in the freezing cold waiting for him to fuck off out of our photographs! Urgh!We were then heading indoors for a while (thankfully!) to the National History Museum, which is quite an impressive building in its own right.

I have started doing up a full post on just the items we saw in the museum – most of them are items I have not seen published in other books and catalogues, so I have done my best to capture them (in the dodgy museum lighting conditions) and to keep their detailed descriptions accessible too.  I hope to get this done when I get on a train to Prague day after tomorrow… but we will see!  There were lots of wonderful artefacts from the dark ages and medieval periods, and the second floor contained the 17th to 21st centuries – which as per usual, I skimmed through and barely took any notes at all because, well it’s just too modern for my interests.  So here is a hint of what is to come in the full musuem post:

Around the corner from the museum is the famous Hallgrimskirkja Lutheran church which I have written about previously in my past travels.  It is said to be designed with the volcanic basalt columns as an inspiration and influence.  Having seen the columns on the beaches of Iceland now – I can see it a lot more clearly and have a new appreciation for the building.  Previously, it just looked like a stark, way too modern, design to be a comforting place of worship – but now it kinda seems like it belongs here. We did a little poke around the shops here a little – I stooped to buying a t-shirt… which in my defence was only marginally more costly than a tea towel at the end of summer sales.  🙂
So, lunchtime rolls around and we find ourselves hunting for the Bæjarins Bbeztu Pylsur stand, which quite literally means in English: ‘The Best Hot Dog in Town’.  We find the little food truck exactly where is supposed to be not far from the Reykjavik harbour and to my surprise, it is surrounded by people standing around in the cold, which is about 3°C but with the wind feels about -1°, eating hot dogs!  I’m not so sure about this al fresco dining thing in this weather, but we dutifully line up for a hot dog. In August 2006, The Guardian newspaper selected Bæjarins Beztu as the Best Hot Dog Stand in Europe – big call. Since then plenty of famous people have come along and tried the now world renown, Bæjarins Beztu hotdogs.  Among them are former US President, Bill Clinton, and even cooler, James Hetfield of Metallica fame… and now borys and yale join this illustrious companie of people who have stood around eating hot dogs in sub-zero temperatures.

It was so cold, but the hot dogs were tasty enough, I guess.

Across the road from the hot dog stand is the moorings for the Icelandic Coast Guard.  This ship has been here each time I have been in Reykjavik – either that or they have three identical ships (not out of the question).  I have kept meaning to take a photo of it – it’s pretty impressive.  The Icelandic Coast Guard is primarily responsible for Iceland’s coastal defences and maritime and aeronautical search and rescue processes, but they have also been called upon to do things like bomb disposal?

So… after lunch, we made our way to the famous Icelandic Phallological Museum, aka the Reykjavik Penis Museum or the Reykjavik Dick Museum. *titter titter*.

It was founded in1997 by a now-retired teacher named, Sigurður Hjartarson.  It is now run his son Hjörtur Gísli Sigurðsson.  Apparently, the museum grew from what was just a private collection that started when Sigurður was given a cattle whip made from a bull’s penis when he was a kid. He then started collecting penises of Icelandic animals from sources around the country and has dicks in his collection that range from the 170 cm front tip of a blue whale penis to the 2 mm (0.08 in) baculum of a hamster, which is displayed under a magnifying glass.

The museum also houses many other phallic items and artworks.  Longtime poet and environmental activist, Danish Sculptor, Pjarne P Ejass (1945 – ) created this “Viagra Phallus” in the form of a scorn pole.  The work displays the artist’s contempt for all things that deviate from the normal course of nature, and the work is intended to convey his statement, “Stop Fiddling with Nature,”  The artist donated the work to the Icelandic Phallological Museum in the summer of 2004 and it was erected in May 2005.
yale for scale. A rather painful looking toothpick holder: Dried sperm whale penis: Preserved pilot whale penis: Various penises belonging to different dolphins and porpoises: And this magnificent specimen – is a Narwhal! Narwhal! Living in the ocean…!
(Only not so much this one anymore, he’s been lopped off and preserved in formaldehyde.) African bull elephant: An eland, a dromedary and giraffe penises: Killer whale penis:  yale for scale An artwork based on the penises of the National Icelandic Handball Team that represented Iceland at the Bejing Olympics in 2008.  😮  Freyr – Viking God of Fertility:

All up the Phallological Museum was kinda interesting – it seems to be a bit of a ‘must see’ when in Reykjavik, but only because you’re literally not able to see a collection like this anywhere else in the world.  The gift shop missed some huge opportunities though – can you imagine the dick related paraphernalia they could be flogging?  Instead, there is a handful of magnets and keychains and a few bad taste aprons and knitted elephant penis socks.

While we were leaving – some of the ladies working the reception at Dick Museum were about to have some lovely looking cinnamon scrolls for afternoon tea which smelled just divine.  They told me that they were from the food hall across the street, so naturally, we decided to go find some.  Fantastic!  Cinnamon for me, and liquorice and blueberry for yale… still warm from the oven, perfect for this sort of weather.

From here we did what was probably the first bit of real touristy shopping we have done since we arrive in Iceland.  We wandered down the main shopping street which pretty much leads from the Hallgrímskirkja church down towards the waterfront esplanade.  I got to stop in the Tuilipop shop this time, which was closed when I was here last – luckily their plush Freds are not very soft or I would have found myself buying a rather expensive and unnecessary plush toy to take home! 

Icelanders have come to have a love/hate relationship with the tourists that saved them from the 2008 Global Financial Crisis.  They love the income and the jobs that are provided from the huge boost they have seen in tourism over the last decade, but they hate what it is doing to their island.  Downtown Reykjavik used to be full of useful shops for locals to go do their shopping and meet with friends, now it is full of what they derisively refer to as The Puffin Shops.  Any/all souvenir shops are known as Puffin Shops and for obvious reasons…
There is so much shit here with puffins on it – and because I have been here three times now and have yet to see a single goddamn puffin that isn’t stuffed (like the AUD$450 ones in the top left hand picture!), I flatly refuse to buy so much as a sticker with a puffin on it.  I think the puffins here are like the trolls – just some sort of myth.

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After a little wander down through the town, we decided to head towards the Perlan which is a landmark building with observation decks and gallery spaces, created from some old water tanks that were high on a hill overlooking the city.  Unfortunately, the Perlan was closed from 1 Oct to 14 Oct, so we didn’t get to go in or go up.  I guess it’s that time of year – they need to do maintenance before the winter sets in properly, but don’t want to be doing it when it is going to affect too many visitors.

Then it was sadly time to head back to our AirBnB and get packing!  Oh no… time to pack to leave Iceland.  I am feeling a bit sad about going actually.  We have had almost two weeks here and seen soooo many truly beautiful places and things, but I am left feeling like there is so much more we could see and do if we had more time and way more money.  I’ve never been in a country more expensive than this place – it really makes you weigh up your travel plans – How long have I got? How much do we think we can see? Can we afford to actually eat once we get here? If we make the trip longer to see more things, can we even afford the extra night’s car hire and accommodation?!  It is just nuts. For our last night in Iceland, we thought we’d go out for one final nice, but predictably, overpriced meal.  We ended up at the Geysir Bistro near Ingólfur Square.  It was a more relaxed environment that the last two restaurants we went to and the menu looked likewise slightly more modest. But the food – still fancy AF.  We toasted our last night with some Brennavin and congratulated ourselves on having only had one shit fight in two weeks in close quarters!  😛  It’s bound to happen – travelling with people is one way to really test the friendship/relationship!  All your best and all your worst will eventually come out.  🙂 

So here’s ‘Skål..!’ to Iceland.  I have no idea if I will ever be back.  I know there is still plenty of wonders here to discover – but there’s so many places I have never been, that doubling back here again seems highly unlikely*

*I said that last time… and look what happened!  Hoping the trick works again!  😉

Spelunking Víðgelmir and Whale Dung Beer

Heigh ho! heigh ho! A spelunking we will go!
First thing this morning we were heading inland from Borgarnes to Víðgelmir to go spelunking! Víðgelmir is a lava tube situated in the Hallmundarhraun lava field that was created in around 900 AD.  The lava tube is on a private farming property but the owners have made a few sections of it very accessible for visitors.  There are two main openings to the lava tube which were formed when the roof of the tube collapsed. Víðgelmir is 1.5kms long and the largest areas inside the cave are as big as 15.8 m high and 16.5 m wide.  It is by far the largest lava tube of its kind in Iceland – a country that is literally covered in volcanic cave action.

The cave has some wide entrance but narrows down in one area that we traversed… it could be a bit claustrophobic for some, but given I am all of 5′ tall, I was able to just duck my head a little and skooch down the passage.  At this tight point, the owners have installed an iron gate in the early 90s to preserve the of the delicate lava formations which tourists and geologist had a habit of souvenir’ing or accidentally destroying.

So TIL from our very friendly geologist-guide, Johannes, that Icelanders have a running rivalry with Hawaiians.  Who’d have thunk, right? Iceland vs Hawaii.  Why? you may ask, well as it turns out, Hawaiians think they have authority when it comes to naming lava formations. However, the Icelanders have had their own Icelandic words for most lava formations for over 1000 years.  So for every ‘traditional’ (ie: Hawaiian) term that Johannes gave us for the lava formations, he also gave us an Icelandic term.  Which made for a bloody confusing time of it. This one was quite distinct though – apparently the Hawaiians cause these piles of drip formed lava, ‘lava roses’, in Iceland, however, they are a bit blunter in their descriptions and they call them, ‘lava shits’ – and fair enough too, they look far more like a cow pat than a flower!
The colours in the rock formations were simply astounding.  Unlike the sedimentary type caves we are used to seeing back home when water filters down through the rock into the cave, it doesn’t form sparkling stalactites and stalagmites, instead, it forms ice columns.  The water drips down in the same spot each winter and given it is usually around 0° in the cave, the water freezes on top of the last drop making icicle stalagmites that can reach as high as 3m. Each year in the summer, the ice formations are diminished only to return each winter.  Normally there are no ice formations in the cave this early in the year – it’s only autumn – but this year has been a ‘really shit summer’ and rather wet, so there were ice formations that hadn’t disappeared since last year. The cave has recently had quite a bit of construction work done with walkways to protect the delicate lava formations and to make it more accessible to visitors. The lava tube caves are formed when a low-viscosity lava flow develops a continuous and hard crust as it cools, which then thickens and forms a roof above the molten lava stream. When the eruption subsides, the still-molten lava moving beneath the crust will continue to drain downhill, eventually emptying out and leaving an open lava tube cave.  The cave will usually have larger tubes with smaller tubes protruding off from the main caves – Johannes used an analogy of a human body (body metaphors, love it!).  The volcano is the heart pumping out the lava/blood, into the major arteries, which also forces the lava into smaller capillaries. As the lava is dragged along inside the tube with its cooling roof and walls, the level/height of the lava flow is evidenced in layers on the walls, leaving a texture and coloured rock that looks like chocolate cake. There is approximately 80-90 steps to traverse to get into the lava cave – and the same again on the way back out. At the end of this section of lava tube is a collapsed roof which marks the end of the ‘amateur’ spelunking tour.  For people with a bit more experience, you can go much deeper into the cavers, but apparently, that takes things like, fitness, agility and strength. There is a large platform at this point in the cave and Johannes had us all turn off our headlamps before turning off the cavern lights.  It is totally pitch black.  You can open and close your eyes and not tell any difference, you can wave a hand in front of your face and not see a thing.  Johannes said to us, ‘Now you don’t have to come to Iceland in the winter, this is what it’s like.’  Yep, he was a bit of a funny bugger.

On the way back out all the features we had passed looked completely different. The cave opening forms a bit of a love heart if you stop at the right place on the way out… awww.  Back above ground the light is way too bright, even though normally the light quality this far north has a wonderful soft feel about it (compared to the harsh Australian light, I guess everything does though!).

After leaving the caves we went for a short drive to Hraunfossar which is a cascading series of waterfalls formed from the runoff from the Langjökull glacier. The name for these falls is made up of the Icelandic words hraun, (lava) and fossar, (which no doubt everyone has now picked up is waterfall).

Literally, two minutes walk upstream from Hraunfossar, is another waterfall called Barnafoss. Its name means ‘child’s waterfall’, stems from a tragic accident which is said to have taken place here. There are several Icelandic folk tales associated with Barnafoss, the most famous being about two boys who lived at a nearby farm, Hraunsás. One day, the boys’ parents went with their ploughmen to a church. The boys were supposed to stay at home, but they grew bored they decided to follow their parents. They took the shortcut across the natural stone-bridge that used to be above the waterfall, but fell into the water and drowned. Their mother was obviously distraught and was said to have destroyed the natural arch so this could never happen again.  Depending on which story you read, you either don’t hear how she achieved this, or they say she put a spell on the bridge and it was shortly destroyed in an earthquake. The natural arch went across the rocks in the top of this image – you can see how dangersous this woud be the water volume is incredible.

After this, we made a very quick pit stop at the Háafell Icelandic Goat Farm – a very quick stop because we didn’t realise they were closed today for a funeral. Go us, way to intrude on people! We had seen some flags flying at half mast as we drove around today, and I had looked up to see if someone of importance had passed away, but Icelandic tradition is to fly flags at half-mast whenever someone from a local community has died.  However, even surprised as the owner was to see us, she didn’t mind us having a look around as they were getting ready to go to church.Icelandic goats are also known as the ‘settlement goat’.  They are an ancient breed of Norweigan domestic goat that were imported to Iceland over 1100 years ago. This breed was nearly extinct by the late 19th century, but recovered around World War II, only to then see numbers drop off again.  A census in 2003 saw only 348 goats in 48 flocks throughout the entire country.  A concerted effort to increase their numbers has seen that number improve to 849 in 2012.  Because the breed has been isolated for centuries, the Icelandic populations are highly inbred. Even though the Icelandic goat has a coat of high-quality cashmere fibre, they tend to be kept more as pets, and are currently of limited economic value – so the Icelandic government subsidizes farmers to ensure the survival of the species.Not long after we left the goat farm, we found ourselves stopping on the side of the road to take more photos of yet more stunning scenery and when we went to drive off, we heard a rather disconcerting scraping noise under the car – it sounded like something metal stuck behind the read drivers side wheel. 

We stopped to investigated and drove forwards in tiny slow increments to try and hear where it was coming from.  Ultimately there was nothing there obstructing the wheel and we think it was just dust and grit and shit on the brake pads… but once we were sure we weren’t compromising the vehicle or our safety, there was nothing we could do but move one.  The noise eventually went away.  It’s a mystery!?

By the time we got to the Deildartunguhvergeothermal hot spring that feeds the hydro system that heats most of the Borgarnes region, the brakes were quiet and forgotten.

Deildartunguhver is a natural hot spring that a very high flow rate – about 180 litres/second – and a very high natural water temperature –  97 °C. It is the highest-flow hot spring in Europe and a good deal of the water is piped 34kms to Borgarnes and up to 64kms to Akranes. So much steam and sulphur and hot water bubbling away.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

On leaving the hot springs we were headed to the Snorrastofa research centre which is dedicated to Iceland’s greatest medieval writer, poet, scholar and statesman, Snorri Sturluson (1179–1241). However, the centre is located right beside a rather large church, which today was overflowing with people attending a funeral and the research centre was closed. So we missed out on seeing the residence of the man who wrote many of the Icelandic sagas into the written record.

Instead, we decided to do a quick detour to the Stedji Craft Brewery – known for some of the most err… interesting and even controversial concoctions known to craft beer.  The brewery is in a paddock at the end of a long rather quiet dirt road.  There is not a lot of signage, but this rather uninviting looking sign told us we were in the right place.

The brewery is described on the internet thusly:

“Steðji, which translates as Anvil, named after the rock formation next to Stedji Brewery and family house. A place of folklore and magic that today is the home of one of the most innovative, exciting and exuberant family brewery in the world. Steðji beer is not just a beer, it’s an alchemy of pure genius.”

I’m here to tell you, boys and girls – it doesn’t get further from pure genius than this! We tried a tasting tray of five different beers –
Steðji Lager – described as a very easy drinking light German lager
Verdict: not bad, light, tasty and definitely inoffensive

Steðji Jarðarberjabjórr – described as a light and refreshing beer with a great taste of strawberries.
Verdict:  sweet beer, marketed literally as a ‘chick’s drink’, shame on them.

Steðji Dökkur bjór – German malty slightly dark stout beer.
Verdict:  not my thing, but yale seemed to enjoy it better than some of the other offerings.

Steðji Icelandic Northern Lights – medium dark larger with liquorice flavours
Verdict:  this shit is an abomination and if I didn’t like their puppy so much who was lurking near our table I would have spat it out all over the place.

Steðji Summer beer – an IPL with New Zealand lemon flavours. BBestseller
Verdict: This one too, was ‘not tasty’, though as yale noted, we were feeling somewhat scarred after the licquorice incident.

And finally, there was the Whale Beer…
Hvalur 2 / Whale Beer – (from their website):  2015 – 2018 Hvalur 2 Þorraöl Steðji are even more controversial , again it was an ale purposely brewed for the season of Þorri, the Icelandic midwinter festival but instead of using milled whale bones we took it a step further and used sheep dung-smoked whale testicles from a Fin-whale mixed with pure Icelandic water, malted barley and hops.
Verdict:  Yep, whale testicles smoked in sheeps dung!  Far out the winters around here must get boring!  But we tried it, and honestly, it wasn’t too bad… much better thant he licquorice incident. The nicest thing I can say about our brewery stop is they had a gorgeous little farm dog hanging around – she had the softest fur and such a sweet face.  The beers – were interesting?  Unusual?  Too bloody hipster? Trying too hard? All of the above?  Shudder. Traumatised.

We then had to put up with an hour or so over more gorgeous scenery as we made our way back to Reykiavik.  Our lap of the entire country nearly complete.
Every corner.  I swear you drive around a corner, a mountain, you cut back on the road you were on to look behind you and were greeted by an entirely different vista. We went through the Hvalfjarðargöng tunnel, which takes drivers directly under the fjord in 7 minutes saving what used to be an hour drive. And before we knew it, we were heading back into Reykjavik. Harpa Concert Hall in the afternoon sun:

So we got back to our AirBnB place and were really hoping that there would be a letter here for us – you see, I had left Brisbane in a bit of a distracted state and had forgotten to get our International Drivers Licenses out of the safe.  Iceland carhire companies don’t care – they can read your English license – but we are not going to have the same benefit of the doubt on the rest of the trip, so I had asked Mr K to mail them for us.  Between not having an address to send it to, and a public holiday last week in Australia, we were cutting it pretty fine to receive it before we leave Iceland. It should have been delivered today, but wasn’t.  So we hightailed it to the post office, 15 mins before they closed to find out what had happened to the documents.

Initially, the post office lady couldn’t find it at all – the tracking number was coming up with no info, my name was coming up with no infor, but thankfully she was able to search by intended address and ta-da!  Our letter was right her the back room of that very post office waiting for us!  OMG, all the reliefs. One less thing to worry about tomorrow.

We had an hour or so before we were supposed to be heading out to Grindavik to see the famous Blue Lagoon.  Many people recommend flying into Iceland and visiting here to recover from your long haul flight – personally, I think we have done this the right way around, and are visiting to recover from our two weeks of unusual beds, unusually cold and wet weather and the running around like tourists.

The Blue Lagoon is a huge thermal hot spring located in the middle of a lava field with warm waters are rich in minerals like silica and sulfur. It’s supposed to be good for your skin, but I have to say it did nothing but dry me out. It’s also known to trash your hair so they give you loads of conditioner to put on *before* you get in the hot springs.  Being a bit of an indoor sort of girl most of the time we had opted for a nighttime booking – I am not keen on standing around in the hot water in the full sun (not that it’s been sunny much since we got here!), but the booking was made before we left home.  So night bathing it was.

The place was a madhouse – hundreds of people everywhere, ‘conductors’ standing on stools telling people how it works and what to expect, and just people, people everywhere – even though it’s offseason, freezing cold (literally 1C) and nighttime?!   We got out towels, had our showers and head for the springs.  It was very relaxing, or at least it could have been if there were not so many young people boozing up and yelling and yahooing at each other  :/  Not my idea of a relaxing time at a hot spring.  Anyway, the lagoon is enormous so we managed to stay away from those peoples as much as possible.  Because of the water and the abrasive nature of it – I didn’t have a camera with me, so I found some quick promo pics that are similar to our experience there today.
It was lovely and steamy, and the water was just the right amount of hot. After our soak, we had a dinner reservation at the Blue Lagoon Lava Restaurant.  When looking at the place from home, we were shocked at how overpriced it was… thought it must have been tourist central prices. But now we have been here a while, we realise, it’s not really – it’s just Iceland prices.  So we made a dinner booking.  The Lava restaurant is lovely, it caters to the spa clients and you can turn up in your bathrobe at lunchtime if you so desire.

My only complaint is the lighting… the ceiling has strong pink lights in it, which makes everyone look ruddy and red-faced.  It also makes your food a little hard to look at, which seems a bit of a design flaw rather than a design element:

Cured beef w~ Brennivín, blueberries, black garlic mayonnaise, beer bread

Langoustine soup – Garlic marinated langoustine, dulse

Lamb fillet and shoulder of lamb w~ Rutabaga, carrots, rhubarb, thyme

Grilled beef tenderloin w~ Wild mushrooms, crispy potatoes, onion jam, dijon mustard

Crispy potatoes – that is what you call french fries when you are a pretentious git writing a menu.  All delicious though (well except the fries, I didn’t eat them).

The only down side of our night bathing and then dinner on site?  Having to brave the cold to get back to the car park (about 500m away) and then drive the 40 mins back to Reykjavik in a car that was just warming up nicely as we got back to our AirBnB.  🙂

Huge day, with much seen and so much done.

Transit Day – Buenos Aires to Ushuaia

We left Buenos Aires this morning – early. Too bloody early. Our flight wasn’t until 0920 and even though it was a domestic flight, we have been advised to get to the airport two hours beforehand – like you would for an international flight, on top of which it was going to take up to an hour to get to the airport… So our transfer was booked for 0630 with Jorge… Jorge was recommended to us by Ceri as a reliable driver with a vehicle large enough to take the four of us and our four largish suitcases. So yeah, we were up stupid early after being up drinking until 0130 or so. Clever, huh?

We made it to the airport in plenty of time – Jorge sped us safely through the early morning traffic while we watched the most startling pink sunrise come up over the shanty town areas of Buenos Aires. Again with the speed landscape photography, only the blurred mess I shot out the window of Jorge’s flying Mercedes minivan matched my foggy mental state perfectly on this occasion.

Have I ever mentioned how much I dislike ‘slum tourism’? By that I mean tours that take obviously financially comfortable/wealthy tourists into the favelas or shanty towns (which our tour yesterday did briefly) so they can gawk at how the people are living in poverty? I hate that shit. I can’t imagine how it would feel to be living in a run-down shack with a piece of corrugated tin for a roof and watch a $300,000+ bus roll through your neighbourhood with 50 or more wide-eyed, Sketcher wearing, fanny-pack wielding, (largely white) tourists staring at you from behind UV tinted windows. Fuck that. These people are living their lives and doing their best to get by – it’s not a spectacle, it’s survival.   🙁


But I’m off topic – we flew from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia with Aerolingus Argentina, a local airline who, unbeknownst to us had a 15kg luggage limit. Great, my bag with all its bulky warm stuff in it was nearly 20kg when we left home – the heaviest my suitcase has ever been when leaving the country (it’s routinely over 20kgs on the way home but never over about 16kgs when I leave). I got it down to 18.5kg but I still got slugged with a 590ARS (about $40) excess luggage fee anyway.  (*Ed: I just met a woman named Shirley at dinner who flew with the same provider and her baggage was 6kgs over but her husband’s was right on 15kgs and she didn’t get charged. I was the only one of the four of us who was over, but I got charged. Bastards!). Any-hoo… in for a penny in for a pound, I say. So if I’m going to get slugged on the way home, I may as well go the full hog and head home with 25kgs – they’re just going to hit me with the fee anyway!

We also had a ‘hidden stopover’ on our flight – which meant we made a scheduled stop somewhere to refuel and to dump some passengers and pick up a few extras, only 95% of us just stayed in our seat during this roughly 45min process. I still have no idea where we were stopped, as most of the in-cabin announcements were in Spanish and English versions were so thickly accented I couldn’t understand them anyway.   So a hidden stop-over and then onto Ushuaia.

Ed:  I did find out from Jorge where this ‘hidden stop’ was – a place called, El Calafate in Patagonia which is famous for its Peiro Moreno Glacier which, just a week after we were there, had an enormous ice bridge calving…

Anyway, we arrived in Ushuaia and the first thing that happened was Aunty Mary left her backpack on the plane thinking one of us had grabbed it for her – which of course we didn’t as we had our hands full with overweight hand luggage that was supposedly keeping our checked bag weight down. So she had to go back to try on to the plane to try to find it – the staff had apparently moved it on her, but thankfully she managed to reclaim it.  I was so relieved the missing backpack didn’t become a ‘thing’.

On the drive from the airport into town… I’m back in Ushuaia!  Unbelievable.

We exited the airport (funky building it is too) where we were greeted by Quark Expedition staff, they helped us with our luggage and transferred us to our hotel… only it turned out they were transferring us to our hotels – plural.

For some reason, Aunty Mary and Lyn were staying at a different hotel, we had no idea why because neither of them had brought paper copies of their booking with them, and they were (initially) none too pleased. Then Aunty Mary went around the back of the van to get her suitcase and it just wasn’t there either – whereupon a small panic ensued before it turned out they had already offloaded her bag while she was trying to ascertain why she was at a different hotel…   A misplaced backpack and now a misplaced suitcase = not fun.  Did I mention that we were all really rather tired?!  :/

The view at their hotel apparently ameliorated the inconvenience of being in a hotel somewhat out of town it seems… and we received this pic fron them shortly after they checked in.

Trish and I were ferried to a different hotel, the Canal Beagle, right in downtown Ushuaia which was decidedly older and less flash and had a view much more like this – complete with construction, smashed windows, stray dogs and all good things.

Didn’t matter we were only going to be there for one night.

At 1830 we had a Quark Expeditions briefing where we found out that we wouldn’t actually be embarking until 1600 the following day. So this pick up day in Ushuaia was officially Day 1 of our trip, and we thought we were embarking first thing the following morning, but not so – we just had to have all our luggage at reception by 1000 so it could be transferred to the ship but we wouldn’t actually be embarking until 1600.

Which meant we had zero plans for an unexpected day in Ushuaia. Lyn and Aunty Mary decided they would book a helicopter tour over the area, and Trish and I decided to go to the Tierra del Fuego National Park – I went there on my last trip and it was positively spectacular, so I was happy to journey into the park again. I figured I would decide in the morning if I wanted to do the prisoner train again, but at least we roughly had a plan.

Next things next.  Dinner.  I found us a choice of two restaurants after a bit of Googling – the Restaurant Villaggio for seafood and Italian style dishes, or the Estancia Parilla for Argentinian BBQ. Well, we thought nothing was going to top our Desnivel steaks from the night before so we opted to go to Villaggio. Chosen for the enormous king crab options on the menu – not disappointed!

It was a lovely restaurant with delicious foods – we had a beautiful meal and then headed back to our hotel/s.  King Crab Casserole with Roquefort cheese, Grilled Atlantic Salmon and fries, Tenderloin Steak (fillet) with Potatoes au Gratin and that whole crab platter photo was snapped at a nearby table.  🙂

After dinner, we went for a quick wander through town back towards our hotel, but of course, most places were closed for the evening so we will have to double back and explore more tomorrow.

Gifts made from Rhodocrosite also known as Rosa del Inca or Inca Rose stone.  It is the national stone of Argentina and is particualrly stunning for it’s beautfiul red and pink hues.

And thus endeth our uneventful transit day… all things being relative.