Part 1 – Iceland the Incredible

There’s just so much that’s fantastic about this little heard about island in the middle of the Atlantic. This is going to be a long post so I’ve split it into two parts. Get your reading glasses out.

Just sitting here thinking about the landscapes I’ve been lucky enough to hike through over the last week blows my mind. Unbelievable is not an overstatement. The landscapes on the Laugavegur trail are phenomenal….

.............yep............
………….yep…………your mind is not playing tricks. Ash mixed with snow causes a myriad of swirls.

But not getting ahead of myself let’s get back to basics.

Why Iceland you ask? Two reasons. Number one to explore the wild side of a wild unknown country – to uncover the land of fire and ice, volcanos, geysers, hot springs, glaciers, mountains, waterfalls and lava fields. Number two because I knew no one else who had been here, so I wanted to make my trip unique.

I booked an 8 day trekking tour way back in November and with hindsight it was the best decision. But before I get to that I want to expand on Iceland as most people just have no point of reference of what this place is all about.

Iceland is right here…..

Pretty much in the middle of no where
Pretty much in the middle of no where

Iceland was settled at the end of the 9th century by Norwegian vikings in search of new farmland. The first parliament in history was founded way back in 930 at the sacred site of Thingvellir, now part of the tourist golden circle drive.

Reykjavik is the capital and is in fact the northernmost capital city in the world. For a city of 200 000 it feels like a large town more so than a city. Everywhere is within walking distance and there’s barely any traffic…just lots of stray cats. Total population is around 320 000.

To Iceland’s credit 99% of their energy is renewable. Primarily through hydro and geothermal.

Prices are on the expensive side and it seems ridiculous when they say that’ll be 2000! (Icelandic Krona of course…) Icelandic is the local language but English is well spoken by everyone.

The tourism industry is on the rise, 750 000 last year mostly from Europe and America, a sign of things to come I think.

The country also sits smack bang on the divide between the North American tectonic plate and the Eurasian plate which are pulling apart at 2cm a year. I even went snorkelling in the crack known as Silfra with crystal clear 100m visibility and dry suit worthy 2 degree water.

North America continent is on the right. Eurasian on the left.
North America continent is on the right. Eurasian on the left.

Upon arrival I made the most out of my body clock being out of sync and stayed up 8pm to 4am taking a photo every hour of the sun from the same spot…eventually I’ll make a t-shirt out of the images! Sunset was at midnight and sunrise around 3am and in between just a steady sunset glow.

Midnight sun on 20 June 2013
Midnight sun on 20 June 2013. One day before summer solstice (longest sunlight day of the year).

I met up with my trekking group and we hit up the famous golden circle sites. Historic Thingvellir, geyser hot springs, and Gullfoss waterfall.

Our trekking group for the next week
Our group anticipating the unknown adventures in store.
Gullfoss waterfall. Foss means waterfall in Icelandic.
Gullfoss waterfall. Foss means waterfall in Icelandic.

Following the day of sightseeing we hit the highlands in search of the much fabled elves and trolls hiding in the cliffs and ideally to find our Landmannalaugar campsite. I remember catching my first glimpses of these “watercolour painting-like” mountains, heart beats faster and shaking my head thinking “this can’t be possible”. Again with hindsight in my back pocket this would become the hike of my life – and it equally would for others in the group who have hiked all over the world.

First glimpse
First glimpse

When we started the day’s trek from Landmannalaugar to Swan Lake I couldn’t believe how fast the landscapes changed. One moment we were on a vast desert like lava field then in literally an hour we were pounding through snow fields then along mountain ridges…wow. It was jaw dropping stuff. 24 km, 10 hours and lots of photo breaks.

Day 3 - start of official trail. Landmannalaugar to Swan Lake, 24km.
A lava field and hot springs just to kick things off
Up the ridges.....
Up the ridges…..
Along the snowy plateaus.....
Along the snowy plateaus…..
My favourite landscape in the world to date. It's like a portal to a new world of elves and trolls. Wild mountains with 3 glaciers visible behind.
And to my favourite landscape in the world to date. It’s like a portal to a new world of elves and trolls. The most beautiful mountains I’ve seen with not one but three glaciers visible behind.

The following days held plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Buffeting winds, swirling rains and sideways snowfall. This 4 day trek is just getting started. To be continued in Part 2….

Where I went in New York City

I write this post in a strange situation. I’m sitting at JFK airport in New York waiting in line to rebook a flight to Iceland – I was supposed to fly out 22 hours ago but it’s likely to be at least another 8, maybe another overnight.

I find it slightly amusing to see how everyone reacts when things go astray like they have. I’ve seen tears, and as expected much disgruntled grumbling. The golden light though is that when things take a turn from the ordinary they also become memorable and a good story. You don’t listen to anyone talk about how on time their flight was do you?

But getting back to New York, this was my first visit and I stayed for 6 nights (now 7). The first two nights I couchsurfed with a local New Yorker who has been in the same Upper East side Manhattan apartment for 25 years.

He wrote me out a bit of a whirlwind tour for my first day which included visiting Wall Street, taking the free Staten Island ferry to see the Statue of Liberty, the 9/11 memorial, and walking along the endless Broadway to Times Square. All the touristy stuff.

Wall Street was really cool, the big statue of George Washington, the first US president being the centrepiece. The free ferry was also well worth the couple of hour round trip. Fantastic views of the Manhattan skyline was a bonus to the statue views.

Wall Street
Wall Street. You can see the statue of George Washington and the sharp pointed church at the end is Trinity church. Once the tallest building in New York.
There's a free way to see this icon, just take the Staten Island ferry
There’s a free way to see this icon, just take the Staten Island ferry.

The 9/11 memorial along with the Empire State Building observation deck, which I visited later, are security crazy. At the moment both sites are like a security check at an airport. At least for the memorial site it’s only temporary while the new world trade centre building is completed. I even took a photo here and the security guy came over and told me to delete it.

Both sites are quite special, so if you can deal with a crowd (and a whole lot of waiting for the ESB elevators) they are worth it. The views from the 86th floor are awesome in all directions but at sunset the crowd was bordering on ridiculous.

The south view of Manhattan from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building
The south view of Manhattan from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building

Times Square in addition to the Empire State draw the biggest crowds. Makes you feel like you’re a bug in “A Bug’s World” with the tall buildings representing the tall grass.

Times Square always super busy
Times Square is always super busy

Rounding out the “tourist hotspots” I visited is Central Park and the Brooklyn Bridge. I’d say my two favourite of the tourist attractions. Central Park is just gigantic and there’s countless paths winding in every direction. A four-lane roadway runs the perimeter and is popular with cyclists and runners.

Central Park in New York
Central Park in New York

Since I’m becoming a bit of a photographic nut the evening I spent strolling Brooklyn Bridge on sunset was the highlight of my New York sightseeing experience. The lighting was perfect and I was continually amazed every time I took another photo and it just looked like yet another gem. I couldn’t believe it.

Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge
Brooklyn Bridge at sunset - beautiful
Brooklyn Bridge with Manhattan on the left

Some other less known but brilliant locations for me was the site of the US Open tennis championship at Flushing Meadows and taking a stroll on the Coney Island boardwalk at the very southern end of Brooklyn. I’m a big tennis fan and I play quite a bit so being at the Arthur Ashe stadium was a mini dream come true.

Arthur Ashe stadium at Flushing Meadows in New York - centre court at the US open tennis tournament.
Arthur Ashe stadium at Flushing Meadows in New York – centre court at the US open tennis tournament.
The massive 140 foot tall Unisphere at Flushing Meadows. It was built for the 1964 world fair to represent world peace.
The massive 140 foot tall Unisphere at Flushing Meadows. It was built for the 1964 world fair to represent world peace.

The Coney Island waterfront seems like it hasn’t changed since the 70’s. The Luna theme-park has got some real dodgy looking rides, but that’s whats great about it.

Coney Island boardwalk and Luna amusement park in Queens.
Coney Island boardwalk and Luna amusement park in Brooklyn.

Last but not least – the famous subway system. The most important piece of infrastructure in the city and the most extensive public transportation system in the world (by station number) at 468 stations. It literally drives the city with 5.4 million rides every weekday. I heard a stat that 75% of New Yorker’s don’t own a car and they can do that because of the subway. It’s fast, regular and goes everywhere. Only thing is it’s getting old!

New York has the most extensive subway system in the world. It's the backbone of NYC.
A typical subway station in New York

Congratulations for making it to the end of my longest post ever. I’m nearly at the front of the line now!

The F1 weekend in Montreal

WahhhhhhhhHHH SHOOOOMMM pop pop pop pop pop rrrrrrrrrrrrrrr wahhhhh wahhhhhhhHHH mmmmmmmmmm

The insanely loud noise of an F1 car is impossible to recreate in words but that’s my best attempt at imitating what it sounds like being passed by a 300km/h moving object and braking down to 70km/h in just 100 metres, rounding the hairpin and accelerating back up to 240km/h before it’s whining disappears behind me again.

This was my view of the race. Here's Vettel streaking away to a win on lap 2.
This was my sight and sound position. Here’s Vettel streaking away to a win on lap 2.

I’ve watched F1 for the last couple of seasons so it was fantastic to actually be here and experience the sights and sounds for real this time. The sounds are so loud in fact that even if you’re 10 km away you can still hear when the F1 cars are on track!

These so called “cars” have more similarities to a fighter jet than a road car. Some numbers just blow your mind…like 0-160km/h and back to 0 in less than 5 seconds and 0-300km/h in 9 seconds.

Rosberg's Mecedes
Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes
Look at me, I'm on TV
Look at me, I’m on TV
At the podium after the race
At the podium after the race

Coming to Montreal was also my first venture into a city where English is not the first language. It was strange catching a bus and seeing every ad in French, and listening to everyone around speaking French, but also fun to pick up more and more French words at time goes on.

Bonjour – hello, Merci – thankyou, Seel vu play – please, Oui – yes, Non – no, Bon appetite – enjoy your meal, Ouvert – open, Ferme – closed.

I stayed with a local Montreal couple, Marie and Charles, and they took me on a really awesome tour of the historical Old Port area. Charles is a history teacher and his knowledge is amazing.

Montreal was founded in 1642, a few decades after Toronto. I saw the first bank in Canada, the first building in Montreal, and Victorian, French and British styles of buildings side by side.

The amazing Notre Dame Cathedral in Old Port Montreal. Celine Dion got married here.
The amazing Notre Dame Cathedral in Old Port Montreal. Celine Dion got married here.
This is the first bank in Canada!
This is the first bank in Canada!
Me with my couch surfing hosts Charles and Marie
Me with my couchsurfing hosts Charles and Marie in front of City Hall

Rugged beauty of Gros Morne, Newfoundland

How did I decide on Gros Morne National Park of all places?

Well it started with meeting a fellow traveller back in Jasper a few months ago. He has been travelling the world for 47 years and he shared some of his wisdom with me…

“There’s three gems in Canada. Those are Tofino, Jasper and the west coast of Newfoundland.”

I’d been to Tofino and Jasper and love both places so I was keen to make the hat-trick.

I watched a documentary about Gros Morne and saw a few pictures on the net and I was pretty much sold. It’s the only place in Canada where you can find breathtaking Scandinavian-like fjords and glacier carved valleys.

I spent four full days here and got a solid dose of what the locals call “caplin weather” which is just like you see in the pictures below – cold, foggy, low clouds and some rain.

It’s interesting though. Caplin are a fish and every year in June the caplin come into Bonne Bay by the thousands to spawn. A week or so before they arrive the weather changes so it’s like a signal for everyone in town.

I did some muddy miles through some awesome trails in the few days I had. The Green Gardens showcased just why Newfoundland’s west coast is so eye catching. I had fun chasing some random sheep along this trail and also finding a big sea cave. Sounds like the setting for a “Famous Five” novel doesn’t it? It’s also the day I walked 40km!

Being here without a car I also had my first experiences hitch hiking. All my experiences were positive. It’s funny the day I hitched my way to western brook pond I took rides on a ferry, bus then a hummer.

The longer I was there the better the weather got and my last couple of days were actually pretty nice. Was great to feel the sun again, but regardless of the weather – rain, hail or shine this place is a sight to behold.

The Woody Point lighthouse built in 1959.
The Woody Point lighthouse built in 1959.
This sums up Newfoundland in one shot. Fishing boat, nets, crab pots, an old sea shack, a natural inlet and of course the unpredictable weather.
This sums up Newfoundland in one shot. Fishing boat, nets, crab pots, an old sea shack, a natural inlet and of course the unpredictable weather.
Inge and I take a seat with a view. The red mountains on the left are the "tablelands" which is the earth's oceanic crust (mantle) that has been pushed to the surface.
Inge from Belgium gave my a ride and we did this trail (Trout River pond) together. The red mountains on the left are the “tablelands” which is the earth’s oceanic crust (mantle) that has been pushed to the surface. A really rare occurrence.
One hellava big entry to this sea cave on the green gardens trail
One hellava big entry to this sea cave on the green gardens trail
The green gardens coastal walk showed up the rugged beauty Newfoundland is famous for.
The green gardens coastal walk showed up the rugged beauty Newfoundland is famous for.
Baa baa black sheep...oh you do have some wool
Baa baa black sheep…oh you do have some wool. Lots of wool.
Happy to have made it on time for the boat tour thanks to my trusty sign
Happy to have made it to the boat tour in time thanks to my trusty sign
Western brook pond boat tour
Western brook pond boat tour
The wind really got going in western brook
The wind really got going in western brook