30 January 2015


"To get back up to the shining world from there,
My guide and I went into that hidden tunnel,

And following its path, we took no care
To rest, but climbed: he first, then I-so far,

through a round aperture I saw appear,

Some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears..."

-- Dante Alighieri, Inferno

Tucked away in the Icelandic highlands, in the Reykjanes peninsula off of route 380 lies a lava tube heralded as one of the "World's most thrilling hikes" according to National Geographic, but you could never find it in a thousand years.  Luckily for the world and speleologists, Bjorn Hroarsson did his geologic homework and found something -- literally -- between 1,000 and 9,000 years old. Bjorn (the founder of my tour company) followed a hunch in the new millennium. He poked around the Leitahraun lava fields and, eventually in 2005, decided to have a closer look at a fold in the landscape. Bjorn shoved himself through an unassuming hole in the earth, obscured by boulders and only large enough for Iceland's huldufólk, and laid claim to an underground marvel.
Extreme Iceland's yellow family van on steroids bounced up the hillside making the seven of us feel like rag dolls being tossed around. Atop the bluff, the wind whipped and the sun highlighted the ocean in the distance.  Kai (from Singapore), Lorelei (from the USA), Cristobal + Nerea (from Spain), Atli + Jön (locals), and I marched through the volcanic moss along a sheep trail toward the famous Búri lava tube.
At its inngangur a.k.a. entrance I removed my backpack, put on the complimentary wool gloves, clicked the heavy LED flashlight on, cinched the chinstrap on my helmet, then lowered myself into total darkness.  With the aid of a smattering of sunlight and the intense LED lights from my fellow hikers, I saw Búri's (pronounced "Boo-ree") frozen wonderland.  Like hundreds of tree stumps rising from the earth, a montage of ice formations covered the floor.  Cold water constantly dripped from the ceiling, creating formations and columns taller than me. Though it looked crystalline and cracked, the ice was actually sturdy. We walked across thick slabs of it that coated the rocky terrain, and wide stalagmites blocked the way so our guide, Jön, lead us up a higher path which made for pretty, panoramic views.
Not far from the grand inngangur, the ice formations ceased.  We were abandoning the surface -- the only place moisture could penetrate Búri.  The toothy terrain continued deeper and remained a vibrant ochre -- a color not commonly seen above the surface in Iceland.   Due to the acute angles of the boulders, they treacherously teetered under my weight which made each step a balancing act and time-consuming process.  At some point, every one of us slipped.  Up, down, up, down.  The way stressed my knees and ankles.  There was so much labor involved in navigating the debris I was sticky with sweat & quickly shed my wool gloves.  I placed my steaming hands on the rocks used to steady myself, to absorb their coolness, but at a price: the sharp, porous lava rock blistered my thumbs & cut my palms. 
Búri certainly was not for the claustrophobic!  After the birth through the narrow passageway at the surface, space only became tighter as my group travailed onward.  Twice, we were bottle-necked to another aperture in the boulders, and the latter obstacle was downright suffocating. I imagined Bjorn arriving at this point on his initial journey & poking his head through, to affirm that Búri persisted.  Throughout the lava tube the detritus nearly touched the ceiling. I counted my helmet as the biggest blessing (over my sturdy Columbia boots, camera & water) since I repeatedly bonked my head on a multitude of natural objects: the convex ceiling, a protruding ledge, a side wall that funneled inward. Glancing ahead it was hard to differentiate between the ground, walls and ceiling, since they blended in a monochromatic sea of chaos.
Yet, the underworld revealed unexpected gems.  Other warm colors were introduced to the florid landscape.  Bright yellows & oranges mixed with the burnt sienna and resembled a fiery rainbow. The lava tunnel also yielded unusual patterns and textures: concentric circles, veins, rippled valleys, wrinkled skin, brain, streaks and sinew.  Búri was beginning to reveal its dignified wonders.
But there are plenty of places in the world to see prettily colored rock and delve beneath the Earth.  Midway, the vivid colors faded to a charcoal and the rock bore a metallic coating, almost like Quicksilver!  Unlike the jagged rocks I traversed in the past hour, the surfaces in this section of the lava tunnel were smooth with a silver glean.  One gjá a.k.a. fissure looked precisely sliced in half by the huldufólk's knife.  Here was Búri's masterpiece: sculpted by magma eras ago, silver nipples hung from the ceiling & hardened as they dripped down the walls.  Lava once violently pushed through here, covering everything in a purplish-silver gloss.  As the force and volume subsided, the lava still flowed like a river through the tunnel & the emanated heat began to melt the cooling liquid on the upper half of it.  Thus, the magma stalactites formed.  At our feet, we saw the erosive magma's path of least resistance.
With one final pitch, my group ascended a massive pile of rubble.  Abject and drenched in sweat I wasn't sure how much longer I could trod through Búri's intestines.  Like a Godsend, the floor leveled out and most of the stones that littered it thus far simply vanished.  I felt an indescribably relief to be able to hike upright & on solid ground.  If we were suffocating in the tube the last two hours, these last 200 yards felt like pure freedom!  The ceiling rose to a staggering height and the walls quadrupled in width.  This was an underground Silfra Catherdral!
We followed the same route the lava carved, photographing the brutal marks scoured into the walls.  Clearly, something large was rakishly dragged across this plane by the powerful, moving magma.  Otherwise, the tunnel was incredibly circular and could have passed for a manmade subway line. But I never saw the lights of a subway train, only the faint LED glow of my group ahead.  The camera's flash perfectly captured the reddish-brown walls, but they looked completely different illuminated by only my flashlight.
Jön came to a final halt.  A vertical, 17 meter a.k.a. 58 foot pit blocked the way. We could go no further unless -- like Bjorn -- we carried climbing gear.  However, below us & unseen, Búri endured.  After the drop off the lava tunnel burrowed for 400 meters then abruptly stopped.  Where the lava displaced, no one knew. So, we gratefully sat down, ate lunch, and shared stories by flashlight.  Positioned at the back of the group, I left a healthy distance between myself & the abyss since my LED only highlighted what it was directly aimed at.  In fact, we turned off the lights & even with eyes open, the world was the blackest of black.
After the culmination of Búri, the group & I retraced our steps, returning hours later to the picturesque Icelandic day above the surface.  Unfortunately, "The cave is now closed until further notice,"  as stated on the tour company's website; the reasoning not supplied.  Perhaps, it imploded or Bjorn returned to properly map its branches.  Regardless, Iceland's terrific geology and landscape above ground was also mirrored underground in Búri.

12 January 2015


"The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its nets of wonder forever"
-- Jacques Cousteau

My mother wanted a beach day.  My mother always wants a beach day.  A day to unwind with no pressing plans or timetables to adhere to, her only requirement that it is spent on a beach.  In Australia, Horseshoe Bay in Bowen was our random pit-stop.  In Europe [2011] it was La Biodola on the tiny Italian island of Elba.  Coincidentally, a beach day always occurred at the end of our trips, probably for two reasons.  First, by the end of each vacation we had ticked off the majority of the bucket list's activities.  Second, by the end of three jam-packed weeks abroad our body and mind started to subconsciously desire a break from the fast-paced lifestyle we'd been living. On the 24th day of 29, we aimlessly drove through western Norway. I hoped Karmøy would sate Mom.  This day turned out to be her favorite of our week on the mainland.

We originally allocated Mom's favorite day for visiting famous Kjeragbolten, perched at the end of Lysefjord.  However, there were a few major barriers preventing us from sticking to this itinerary.  First, we were both incredibly sore from hiking -- or more accurately climbing -- Preikestolen yesterday. Second, there was only one incoming/outgoing ferry to/from Lysebotn per day so we would have to dedicate another 2-3 days for the entire excursion.  Last, Kjerag (the actual mountain) ascended more than 1,100 meters a.k.a. 3,600 feet making it sizably longer & more strenuous than Pulpit Rock which damn near killed us.

Eating Preikestolen Vandrerhjem's nasty breakfast, Mom & I scoured the guidebook.  We did not want to sell ourselves short by driving to Jæren's lakefront beaches.  We craved the wild ocean.  I suggested Haugalaundet, a peninsula in the Atlantic Ocean.  Not knowing what to expect, Mom & I left the hostel on a clear, warm day which allowed us to see much of Lysefjord and the span from Forsand to Oanes (pronounced "wah-ness") in its entirety.
After hopping on a ubiquitous ferje a.k.a. ferry, the landscape changed from forest to flat, rocky outcrops as we neared Haugalaundet one hour later.  We passed through the quaint fishing town of Haugesund (pronounced "hog-eh-sun-d") whose brightly colored flowers matched the paint on the houses.  There was nothing remarkable about the city, but historically, Haugesund was Norway's birthplace. It was here Harald Hårfagre a.k.a. Harald The Fairhaired unified the country and ascended to the throne in 872.
Stephanie was cheerful as we crossed over another bru a.k.a. bridge to the island of Karmøy and our car meandered along interlocking coves where the vivid blue water met the nourished, green land. I observed that practically every cute cottage flew a Norwegian flag in its front yard. Rightfully so, this was a proud part of the country.

I pulled the car over at an unnamed beach with only one other vehicle in the large, paved lot.  Despite the blinding sun and being 21º C, the strong winds had a puncturing chill here at 59º N (around the same latitudinal line as Greenland's southern tip or Anchorage, Alaska).  Yet, when I laid my towel on the fine sand and hunkered between two gunmetal gray boulders, it actually felt like swimsuit weather!
Mom was long gone. She threw her belongings into the niche and headed directly to the sjø a.k.a. sea.  She just had to feel the water wash over her feet, no matter how cold.  I watched a kiteboarder, ducks, a restless child and my mother play in the surf for some time as I insouciantly highlighted the day in my journal.  Like the toddler, Mom returned to our protected spot, beckoning me to come see what she discovered while roaming.  She lead me to tidepools and we pounced across the smooth rocks, peering into the puddles below.  Many contained shells and cherry red plants the size of krona.  Mom also pointed out busted crab limbs, more pretty shells and four, flowery, peach jellyfish on the shore. The transparent tide carried in oddly colored plants in greens and reds that resembled lettuce and tomatoes.

* * *
Iceland's circumference is comprised entirely of black sand, but it was still a supreme juxtaposition to see it alongside the verdant farms which dominated the region between Reykjavík & Vík.  As we drove further south, Mom & I occasionally rounded a turn and caught a glimpse of a rock arch in the distance, but had no idea it was actually our final destination.

Turning off the Ring Road onto a lane that simply had an arrow pointing right, the gravel access road stopped shy of Dyrhólaey beach's famous cliffs, near a healthy bluff.  Mom & I endured a beating from the Arctic wind, but the bluff acted as a superb útsýnispallur a.k.a. viewing platform. From here, black sand stretched so far it made the distant hoodoos look like thumbtacks.  The white, broken shells deposited from the ocean created beautiful swirls and dotted the dark sand below.  The water carved geometric shelves and creeks, belying the strong currents around a sand peninsula which doubled as a hop on/hop off station for Eider ducks and gulls.  Although Puffin were rumored to nest here by the dozens, the only other wildlife present that day were three sheep (a bleating baby separated from his mother & sibling) and a bumblebee the size of an eyeball, the plumpest I have ever seen!

On the same black sand beach, thrusting upward, was a stand-alone rock with a misshapen cornice that looked different from every angle and contrasted the smooth beach.  Mom walked ahead to the headland north of the úýnispallur and excitedly motioned for me to join her.  What we perceived to be another indent in the rock really was a gorgeous Basalt arch with waves lapping in and out of its cove.
Further north along Dyrhólaey (whose name translates to door-hole), Mom and I unintentionally slaughtered time.  In a yard the size of four city blocks we managed to snoop for over three hours!  Mom stood at the edges of the impenetrable cliffs;  we observed those once-distant sea arches up close;  I dangled my feet over the pallid sea on the farthest extending promontory; we discovered an inverted Basalt cave, but couldn't get high enough to peer inside; like on Karmøy, Mom watched tidepools fill.  Yet mostly we observed the water.  The great ocean breakers pummeled the charcoal rock walls, forcing water to explode in the air and wetting us with spray carried by the wind. With each wave, the froth temporarily bleached the onyx sand before retreating.

Back on the Ring Road and only a few kilometers south of the access road to Dyrhólaey, I turned the Chevrolet onto another pitted road that passed a darling, red-roofed church, then ended in an unmarked area that was Reynisfjara's makeshift parking lot.  Here, Mom & I could better discern the texture & shape of the hoodoos visible from Dyrhólaey, regarded in Icelandic lore as two petrified trolls hoisting a wrecked ship from the sea. Lush hills formed a wall that abruptly stopped at the shoreline. Green grass flowed down the hillside, stopping about three stories from the ground, at the main attraction: Reynisfjara's Basalt columns.
In pictures I saw beforehand, the Basalt columns were much darker -- probably because they were wet.  Today, the sun had been peeking out from the encompassing clouds and dried the rock, so it took on a soft gray.  From every angle the Basalt looked distinctly different, but stunning nonetheless.  In profile, Reynisfjara's Basalt extended skyward like long, rock noodles.  Because of the boxy way Basalt cleaves, frontally, Reynisfjara resembled an inextricable forest of Legos.  In the same fashion the Basalt columns thrust upward from the beach, so did they push downward into a grotto cut off from Reynisfjara every time a wave rolled in.  The ceiling looked as if God hammered a thousand posts into the hillside & the bottoms were poking through.
Stretching up the hills were more Basalt columns, but they were -- oddly -- rotated, giving the impression that they burst outward from a single, invisible point.  This visual vortex was more prevalent within  a nook of the hill where rock psychedelically swirled.  Upon closer inspection, the rock was layered like shingles and sliced so thin I easily broke off a flake. 
Reynisfjara's hallmark even changed depending on distance.  As soon as I exited the car, I calculated the hills to be steep.  Despite the columns' resemblance to stacked, single Lego blocks, at their base I was puny.  In fact, the shortest stumps were the height of me and the beach that I assumed consisted of black, fine sand was really a mass of stones polished by the sea.
My mother and I are innately similar in that we are both unequivocally captivated by the ocean.  Like Mom in Norway, my favorite day in Iceland occurred at a random beach.  Seeing the ever-changing swells where no wave approaches the shore the same; inhaling fresh, salty air;  hearing the tide, loudly rescind its billions of rocks only to send them crashing back onto the beach; feeling the savage wind battering all things exposed... this is the essence of a beach, where all the world's water comes to rest and simultaneously destroy.