Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Iceland 10: Bird Baths

After an exciting morning at the power station we decided to drive around the lake before lunch; and, since the rain eased up for a while, we went for a walk through some woods by the lake shore.  Woods?  Very unusual, since there are virtually no trees in Iceland.  We found a few conifers by the power station, but we suspect they were planted as a public relations exercise.  The walk was very beautiful, although rather dark and midgy.  I was also very pleased to see that there was a "no pooping" policy in place, although this does beg the question as to why it should be necessary...

By the time we'd got back to the car park is was full of Dutch camper vans, so we headed on to another location for a walk around some pseudo-craters.  These are not true volcanic craters, in the sense that no lava ever came from them; instead they are caused by steam explosions in a wet or swampy environment, resulting in almost perfectly circular depressions in the landscape.

The highlight of the walk was seeing some red-necked phalarope which decided to come very close to the path for us.  Beautiful birds, and I fell in love with them (a bit like the whimbrel yesterday).  We left as about half a million tourists poured off some coaches and followed their flag-carrying leaders like a flock of miserable sheep up the hillside. There was the inevitable overweight American lady too who needed to be helped up the (slight) incline.  Time to cut and run.

We then went to the Myvatn bird museum, and because it was raining we decided to have a warm drink (and a stonking piece of chocolate cake for Harriet) before looking around.  I had to do some translation from German into English for a couple who couldn't make themselves understood to the lady on the till.  The museum itself was exactly what it said on the tin: a load of stuffed birds in a darkened room.  Interesting to look at, though, and eye opening for a couple of things (size of Great Northern Diver and positive identification of the Arctic Skua which I kept seeing and Harriet didn't believe).

Guess what?  It was still raining after we left the bird museum!  It did start to clear up a bit, though, so we decided to brave the Myvatn Nature Baths before dinner.  On the way we saw an astonishing pale blue lake, presumably caused by run-off from from the geothermal hot water extraction plant.

Well, the baths were an interesting experience.  Quite expensive to get in (3600 kroner each, or about £20) but it would have been impossible to come to Iceland and not go to a natural geothermal pool.  The water is a pale blue in colour because of the chalk, and fairly alkaline.  More importantly, it's not possible to get into the pool until one has showered naked and cleaned every orifice before putting on one's swimming costume.  Then it's a matter of finding a pool (or a bit of a pool) which is the right temperature. The main pools are nominally at 38 degrees, but the temperature varies wildly depending on the location and the depth.  A couple of areas were much warmer than the others, and there were also underwater benches to allow bathers to sit in a circle and be sociable.  One area, possibly an inlet, had water which was so hot that it felt scalding.  There was also a hot tub, which was very pleasant; and a sauna, which was very steamy.  Not meant for people wearing glasses.  We stayed in the water a couple of hours, and managed to leave just in time as a huge coach load of tourists (German) were queuing outside and waiting to get in.  Close call.  The only other point of note was that we saw Jabba the Hut at the baths, sitting in obese splendour on a chair before getting into the water and raising the level by a couple of inches...

For the entomologists among you, these are the "midges" after whom Myvatn is named.  As a fly fisherman they looked very much like large black buzzers (Chironomids) to me.  Despite not being of the biting ilk, it was impossible to avoid the wretched things.  For scale, the close-up shows an insect  which is about 12mm in length.

Beware for a shock tomorrow because - horror of horrors - the rain stopped and the sun came out!

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Iceland 9: Krafla

The wind had dropped overnight, but the day dawned grey and overcast.  The lack of wind also resulted in an increase in midge numbers (Myvatn means "Midge Lake") and they were pretty well everywhere we went today.  The day started with a bang, as we observed a Happy Camper (male), just across the field, walk into the lake stark naked and proceed to have a pee.  Harriet got her binoculars trained on him just in time...

We drove past the thermal vents we'd visited last night (now full of coaches) and headed for Krafla, where the most recent eruptions had happened between 1975 and 1984.  On the way we went past a geothermal power station in the middle of what looked like an industrial wasteland.  It's difficult to believe that the wasteland is completely natural, and the power station is simply taking steam from bore holes and using it to power turbines.  As green as it gets in fact.  

We stopped by the side of a steaming stream, and then again at the top of the hill to look back on the power station area.

We then went up to the edge of the Krafla caldera and walked up to the rim.  It was very muddy, and our shoes soon weighed three times more than normal.  As yesterday, everyone was ignoring the "Danger, Keep Out" notices and walking all around the rim of the crater, which was full of water and a certain amount of snow.

The group of tiny people in the top right of the image below gives some sense of scale to the caldera.

I wonder how much Sir Tim Berners-Lee would pay for the following number plate?

By this time the rain was quite heavy, so we decided to move on.  We'd spotted that the power station had a visitors' centre, so we went there to have a look. A very interesting display, looked after by a very bored looking girl.  So bored in fact that we decided to talk to her for a while.  As an engineer I was fascinated by how simple and elegant the system was, using both high and low pressure steam to drive different sized turbines, plus cold water to help with condensing the steam.  Although it's difficult to see in the pictures, the exterior wall of the main turbine hall is actually a set of man-made waterfalls.  All very efficient, and not a smoke stack in sight.

Sunday, 27 April 2014

Iceland 8: Boiling Mud and Fumaroles

After dinner we went for a short drive, essentially doing reconnaissance for the following day.  This resulted in us going past the Krafla geothermal power station and ending up in Namafjall Hverir, an area of fumaroles, boiling mud and sulphurous gas.  Pity it was raining, but it was still pretty impressive.  It turned out to be a good call visit the hot springs area in the evening as there wasn't a coach to be seen; just us and a few other hardy souls.  When we went past the same area during the day, the car park was full of coaches (enough said).

Not much evidence of Health & Safety at work, I was pleased to see.  Some of the more vicious boiling mud pools had a rudimentary cord around them, but otherwise we could walk pretty well where we wanted.