The Arctic Circle

Day 298 (2nd of January 2017) – Kittilä, Finland

Good morning! Another delicious breakfast prepared by our host Mum, Paula.

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Welcome back to Kittilä!

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I promise I’ll get Aim to take more photos of me in the future. Aim does like the camera though.

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It snowed overnight! Just like every night, I guess.

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Today Kimmo had promised to show us around the town of Kaukonen via the local form of transport – kicksleds.

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We made our way down the kilometre-long streets.

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They were a little more difficult to ride than I had expected. You really needed a downhill for them to be worth using, otherwise you would walk with them. It was definitely worth bringing them for the speed on the hills, though.

The best part of the tour was that we got to hear all of Kimmo’s stories from being a young child and going over to his friends’ places to play, sledding to school and helping out on the property.

This is the view of the house from behind, where Kimmo and Paula plan to build another log house in the future.

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During our tour we saw some houses in the village that weren’t painted the traditional red and white. There were some yellow and white, blue and white and even green and white ones. A few of the more flamboyant ones had horses, too. These were once used in the town for load-bearing and harvesting, but these days they’re mainly kept as a hobby.

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After the tour, we went back home to escape from the cold. In such extreme low temperatures it’s best to stay outside for only a couple of hours at a time before returning back home to recharge, even if that means wasting some valuable sunlight.

After lunch and a couple of hours’ rest, we decided that Aimee would join Paula and I would join Kimmo to do the activities which we were more interested in.

Kimmo gave me a sled and we rode off to his father’s workshop where we would collect our “fatbikes”.

The work shed even included a hydraulic press, the famed tool of Finnish Youtuber Lauri Vuohensilta who crushes anything you can imagine and posts a video of it (found here).

Here, in this shed, I was handed my weapon. She was beautiful.

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Fatbikes are a type of off-road bicycle with tires typically measuring almost 10cm wide. They’re designed to be used with low ground pressure such as in mud, sand or snow.

Let’s get a close-up of those bad boys.

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I followed Kimmo on his mountain bike for the first part of the trip. The fatbike wasn’t hard to ride at all. In fact, it was really easy and a lot of fun. It gave you a lot of confidence in your grip on the ground, and you were able to have a lot more fun with going at good speed. As soon as I mounted the bike I realised how much I had missed the sport from school. My desire to save up for a bike when I get home only grew stronger.

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It was easy, that is until we reached the deep snow. We rode along some untouched paths next to a lake to really test the bike’s limits. Kimmo quickly resorted to walking while I gave it my best shot.

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The bike would sink knee-deep into the snow if you didn’t keep on pedalling at a steady pace and gripping your handlebars with all that you had. The biggest difficulty was that when I lost speed and had to put my feet on the ground, my feet sank far lower than the bike because of the powder snow, leaving the man-parts to cop a beating.

I gradually got the hang of placing my weight over the back wheel, but the deep snow certainly slowed me down.

We did one huge loop around Kaukonen before returning to the work shed with the bikes.

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Back at the house, Aimee was deeply immersed in her activity. Paula had taught her how to use the loom which would go on to occupy a lot of the next two days for Aimee. She seemed to find it fairly meditative, and wound down hours churning out cloth.

She was only dragged away from the loom for a fabulous dinner.

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We enjoyed another Finnish sauna and only emerged to tuck ourselves into bed.

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Day 299 (3rd of January 2017) – Kittilä, Finland

Some heavy snow overnight left us with a treat for this morning. We climbed out of bed to a warm breakfast, but our eyes were fixated on the windows.

Paula and Kimmo told us that today’s snow was different to what we’d seen over the past few days. It was deeper and fluffier, and the snow crystals were the largest they’d seen them this winter. We headed straight outside to take a look.

The snow fell apart with ease. You couldn’t even pack a snowball with it.

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It reminded us of dandelion fluff.

The thing I love the most about fresh snow is the smooth curves and hills it makes on the ground and over the top of rocks. As the light changes over the course of your day, you’re ability to discern each gradient changes.

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It made us fall in love with our surroundings even more.

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Ice had crystallised all over the branches of the trees in the front yard.

We only lasted outside for about 20 minutes because it was -24℃, but I couldn’t go back indoors without at least one old fashioned roll in the snow.

Once the sun was giving us its full winter brightness, we headed off with Kimmo to the activity which we’d decided on for today: a museum. But this wasn’t any ordinary museum. It was one dedicated to Reidar Särestöniemi, often considered the greatest painter in Finnish history.

Reider was born, lived and died in Kittilä. The son of reindeer farming parents, he retained his countryside roots by living in a completely isolated lodge and being almost purely self-sustainable. This isolation meant that a road was only built to his house after his death when it became a museum. Today, the complex spans multiple buildings, displaying his house in its original state as well as the bulk of his works.

The drive down the road was as meditative as the drive to Ylläs. It’s easy to think that all of the trees and snow begins to look the same after a while, but in many ways this is their greatest beauty.

Out at the museum, the first part of the exhibition which we saw was Reidar’s old home.

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Within the home were Reidar’s rooms in their original state. He was very wealthy as his paintings had received deserved critical acclaim while he was alive. This wealth showed in the extensive and stylish heating system he had in the corner of every room, but the house maintained its old-world charm. Horse snowshoes and a collection of watches were among the more fascinating things in the rooms.

Each path between the exhibitions weaved through the complex of wooden lodges, with the paths lined by lamps and dedications to Reidar in the form of statues.

My ears seemed on the verge of freezing solid by the time we reached Reidar’s workshop and gallery.

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It was here that Reidar created his most famous works without ever touching a paintbrush. Instead, he would scrape paint, lather paint and even squeeze paint onto the canvas straight from the tube.

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The windows in his studio looked directly at a spectacular line of forest trees which he based some of his works on.

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And then, the works themselves.

One of my favourite works was the “Swimming Reindeer”, a drawing which has been reproduced countless times across Finland and the world.

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Then again, his follow-up “Reindeer Playing The Flute”, was not as impressive. I’d argue my preschool masterpieces were better, actually.

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What I most appreciated about his core work of artworks were their three-dimensional use of the paint and the moods that certain combinations of colours combine. I saw the canvases in a similar way to how I see music, appreciating how the combination of different elements can make you feel different ways.

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After the gallery, we moved back to the main building for some coffee.

It was a nice end to a surprisingly enjoyable visit. A highlight was walking amongst the buildings on the way out, thinking about how Reidar lived in the unforgiving cold on his own.

As with all of the activities with the Ojanperäs, this one was perfectly timed so that we would return home in time for a much needed dinner once the sun had set.

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The best part of the dinner was the “Finnish Squeaky Cheese” served at the end. This was the same thing which I had clumsily eaten out of a packet at the Snow Hotel, but Paula’s version was much better. She served it hot with cinnamon and sugar, making for the perfect dessert on our last night in Kittilä.

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We watched Garden State and Blades of Glory that evening and laughed the night away.

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Day 300 (4th of January 2017) – Helsinki, Finland

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Good morning. A chilly one today. Today, Kimmo was driving us to Kittilä airport for our flight to Helsinki. We were staying in Helsinki for just one night before our flight to Iceland.

Paula had prepared us a comprehensive final breakfast before we departed at 9am. It kept on getting colder.

Look at the sunrise and sunset times in that screenshot. 11:33am and 1:17pm. Not even two hours of sunlight. An incredibly alien environment to be in.

We already had our baggage prepared, and so after breakfast it was time to depart. We presented Kimmo and Paula with an Australian wine as our gift and gave our final hugs. There’s no doubt in my mind that this will not be the last time we see them. With our bags in hand, we sprinted from our log cabin to the car for the last time. The air was indescribably cold. So cold, in fact, that it wasn’t practical to do anything outside. It was therefore very well timed that we were leaving today – early enough that we weren’t inhibited by the cold weather, but late enough that we could still feel what it was like.

To make things even colder, the windchill brought the temperature well below its stated value. In this screenshot you can see that it “Feels Like: -37℃”.

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Aimee and I kept checking back over the course of the day, and the lowest it hit was “Feels Like: -41℃”… That’s dangerously low temperatures.

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Everything was iced over, even parts of the tarmac.

The sun tried desperately to heat the ground, but failed. It did produce a stunning sunrise, though.

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A good amount of blog writing later and we were in Helsinki. We jumped straight onto the airport train which we were familiar with by now. Since transiting through Helsinki on the way to Lapland, it had received a substantial amount of snowfall.

The airport train dropped us directly at the central station. We immediately knew that we were in a big city by the colour of the snow. Despite the recent snowfall, it was all brown already. Lots of pedestrian activity, I guess. It makes sense – Helsinki is often considered the gateway to the north. After all, it is the world’s northernmost metro area of over one million people and the city is the northernmost capital of an EU member state. Helsinki is also in a very central location, being remarkably close to Stockholm in Sweden, Tallinn in Estonia and Saint Petersburg in Russia.

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Although it was only -15℃ in Helsinki, it felt almost as cold as Kittilä. Being on the harbour, this city’s central streets turn into mega wind tunnels which whip snow and ice into your face. I don’t know why more people weren’t wearing balaclavas. By the time we reached our accommodation, our faces were red and numb.

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We were staying at an AirBnB in the centre of the city for the night. It was small, but it was all we needed for a place which was effectively just for transit. The building was a typical apartment block in inner-city Europe with a huge atrium and an elevator with a fridge door.

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The view of the backyard was the best part.

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We were in our apartment for no longer than ten minutes before returning outside to go deeper into the downtown area. We passed by the Natural History Museum which we were staying alongside.

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Helsinki’s streets are very nice to walk through, especially the more commercial ones. After having seen these same places back in August, I couldn’t help but think that they looked much better in winter.

One of the top restaurants on TripAdvisor happened to sell gluten-free burgers, and so Aim and I rushed there to kill the hungry stomach which flights always bring.

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Following this, we perused the streets of Helsinki looking for all the things which we realised we needed in Kittilä. For me it was ski pants and woollen socks, and for Aimee it was mittens.

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Eventually it became evident that we were using shops more as shelter from the severe weather outside rather than actually being interesting in what they were selling, and so we decided to move on to dinner. We found a restaurant with gluten-free pizza and some pasta with mussels for me.

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We watched another movie tonight – The Breakfast Club. Plenty of clumsy “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” renditions followed.

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Day 301 (5th of January 2017) – Reykjavík, Iceland

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We were off again. Our morning consisted only of eating cold pizza and calling family back home before heading out to Helsinki airport. This is my fourth time visiting Helsinki airport this year – once in August on the way to Russia, once last week on the way to Lapland, once yesterday for our short stay, and now today for the trip to Iceland.

I love morning flights.

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The flight to Iceland was longer than I had anticipated, but looking at it on a map it begins to make sense.

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We landed in Reykjavík, the capital of this small nation. It became evident that this was a very small city from the moment we landed – there was no public transport available from the airport. Only private buses. We booked our coach and headed off, briefly noticing the departures board and the surprising list of places: Greenland, northern Canada and rural Scandinavia being among them.

We really were on the other side of the world to Australia. In fact, this is the furthest the two of us had ever been from Sydney. Take a look at how the Eales family is scattered right now.

The proximity of Iceland to Greenland made me curious during the journey to Reykjavík on the coach. I began researching travel there, hypothesising how I would have visited it were I to have included it in this gap year. It turns out that its biggest city, Nuuk, only has a population of 17,000, and the population of the whole country numbers no more than 56,000. Apparently one of the best things to do there is to take a cruise up the coastline, dipping in only to spot polar bears and other arctic creatures on the broad expanses of ice.

But I was distracted – we were in Iceland. A formidable country of its own. Let me introduce you. With a population of 330,000 and an area of only 100,000 km2, Iceland manages to be the most sparsely populated country in Europe. It is a country famous for its landscape of sand, lava fields, mountains, glaciers and bipolar weather. Lonely Planet describes it as such:

“Iceland is literally a country in the making, a vast volcanic laboratory where mighty forces shape the earth: geysers gush, mudpots gloop, sulphurous clouds puff from fissures and glaciers grind great pathways through the mountains. Experience the full weirdness of Icelandic nature by bathing in milky blue pools, kayaking under the midnight sun or crunching across a dazzling-white ice cap.”

It isn’t only nature which Iceland is well known for, no. They have a killer music scene too. The country produces an unusual amount of good artists per capita. Think Björk (my favourite song here), Of Monsters And Men (my favourite song here) and Sigur Rós.

Arriving at the hotel we were greeted by an atrociously long line which continued all the way out the front door. It forced us into our first introduction to Iceland’s famous weather. And sure enough, in the ten minutes that we were standing out there, we were greeted to cloud, wind, rain and snow. In fact, at one point I could swear that it was snowing and raining at the same time. It would oscillate between the two constantly. The snow on the paths quickly accumulated and then flushed away in a confused sludge.

We made it inside just in time for the first dinner with our tour group. In our bid to take a taste test of every style of travel on this trip, Aimee and I booked a short four-day Contiki tour for Iceland. We figured that it would enable us to do more in Iceland than we could have done on our own, and we’d also be immersed in a more social atmosphere.

The first dinner was just that – we quickly became close to people from Canada and others from Australia. As with the other tour I’ve done in this part of the world, a surprising proportion of the Aussies lived in London on their two-year working visa employed as either a paramedic or a teacher.

I did try some exotic (and possibly unethical) dishes at this dinner. Namely, I had my first taste of whale.

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It’s the blackened red meat in the foreground of this photo. Eating an endangered animal was questionable, yes, but then again it is one of the national dishes. I always try a country’s national dish. I somehow morally justified eating just a little bit. I don’t know how I can say this whilst simultaneously not endorsing trying it, but it was very, very good. Like, very good. It’s like a really lean and tender beef. It is a mammal, after all.

Inside that jar is fermented shark. It’s sealed to prevent the strong smell of ammonia from polluting the kitchen. I was one of only two at my table to stomach it. I wasn’t surprised that I was one of the few who was brave enough. After all, Chef Anthony Bourdain described fermented shark as “probably the single worst thing I have ever put in my mouth”.

It was… a five out of ten. Max. It hit you with that reek of ammonia and it was difficult to recover from just that before putting it on my palette. From there, it was chewy and inconsistent in texture. I actually didn’t mind it initially, it was just the extremely salty aftertaste which made me instantly regret trying it. The salt was so pungent that it contaminated the air I breathed for the next few minutes.

Worth it for the story, though.

Following the seafood dinner, Aimee and I followed the rest of the group to an American bar (who knows why they chose to go to an American bar on their first night in Iceland) to get to know everyone better. Everyone awkwardly bought time slowly slipping their $16 beers while the chemistry of the group slowly eased in. The night ended in blackjack, and Aimee and I won our fair share of rounds. I made sure not to end the night without going for a stroll on my own through the main street of Reykjavíc, “Laugavegur”.

If you take a closer look at one of those images, you’ll notice advertising for one of the city’s more infamous museums.

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By accident, I also came across Reykjavík’s most famous building, Hallgrímskirkja.

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With it being late, I vowed to return another day and learn more about it.

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Day 302 (6th of January 2017) – Reykjavík, Iceland

We arose early for our group’s meeting time of 8:30am. We were told to dress with our swimmers underneath our clothes as we were heading to the Blue Lagoon. A photo of a friend in the Blue Lagoon was actually what first inspired me to book a trip to Iceland. After confirming with her that the mist of the water and the surrounding snow wasn’t photoshopped, I promised myself that I would find a way to get here.

The Blue Lagoon geothermal spa is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland. The spa is located in a lava field in Grindavík. The water is pumped from kilometres underground and is kept at a stable temperature of 38℃. It’s the perfect contrast to the freezing winter air.

These sorts of geothermal pools are somewhat of a sacred part of Icelandic culture. As chemical cleaners like chlorine aren’t used, it’s imperative that you wash thoroughly before getting in. To do otherwise is to cause great offence. We all moved through the cleaning stations on the way to the Lagoon and met just before going in together.

We eased ourselves into the warmth, enjoying the incredible relief and contrast of temperatures. It was considerably more pleasant than the both of us had expected. We could see ourselves swimming around for many hours.

When we entered at 10am it was still dark, and it made us realise that despite having been in Iceland for a while now, we still hadn’t seen the sun. That would change in the next one and a half hours. I managed to snap a few photos before sunrise.

It was difficult to get a clear shot of each other’s faces amidst the rolling steam clouds, but it was this very feature that made us feel like we were in another world.

The Lagoon was markedly larger than we had both expected. It took a long time to circumnavigate all of the pools, and we were constantly finding new bridges to pass under.dsc03260dsc03224

Take a look at this video of us wading through it. Please ignore my Darth Vader breathing. I’m trying my best to hold the camera still and out of the water…

The sun began rising when we reached the “Mud Bar” where we could coat our faces in silica mud. First, the “cleanser”.

And rinse…

Then, the “nourisher”.

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And rinse…

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We could feel our skin burning as we moved back into the change rooms, but we trusted that it was a good burn… It had better fix my skin up.

On the way out we witnessed what were perhaps the most impressive scenes at the Blue Lagoon. That was the contrast between the igneous rock of the lava field and the milky blue water.

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These rocks would be just the first lava field we’d see today.

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The drive back to the hotel was scenic too. You can see the patches of green which dominate the summer landscape.

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It is a well-known fact that Iceland is more green than Greenland and Greenland is more icy than Iceland. What I didn’t know, however, was that Greenland was named such to entice Icelanders to move to there in search of a more welcoming landscape.

Back at the hotel we only had a 30 minute turnaround until our next activity, so we quickly picked up a sandwich (a Subway meal costs $25… that’s how expensive Iceland is) and jumped into our van for the next leg. Aimee and I had chosen to do the optional caving activity. I can’t hide the fact that I was leaning more towards the Icelandic horses option, but being the good boyfriend I am I went with Aimee’s heart’s desire.

And I didn’t regret it.

The drive out to the cave was impressive enough.

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Then, we suited up in broken helmets and headlamps which took some time to fix. Aimee’s looked particularly funny with her beanie’s pom-pom underneath it.

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Fixing the faulty equipment didn’t really cause a fuss, though. It gave us ample opportunity to appreciate the sights around us. Plenty of Hollywood movies have been filmed here, and even one of Justin Bieber’s more recent music videos. NASA also sent Neil Armstrong and his fellow astronauts here in space suits for training.

Once we eventually got walking, we stumbled across the cave which was hidden almost seamlessly into the ground.

Instantly I realised that this would be a far more authentic caving experience than the ones I’d previously had in the Blue Mountains and in Guilin, China.

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I practically ice-skated through the entrance, completely underestimating the intensity of this excursion.

This cave was not like the limestone caves I’d visited in the past. It had a significantly lower ceiling height and was carved out by a lava stream rather than water. Evidence of that showed in the walls which all seemed like they were in the process of “dripping”. The red colour indicates a high iron content.

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You could occasionally spot streaks of silver on the walls too. This was bacteria – the only living thing within this cave.

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There was remnants of just one other living being – the skeleton of a lamb.

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I don’t know why I hadn’t expected such physically demanding ducking and weaving in this cave, but it certainly pushed me to my limits. As someone who gets quite claustrophobic, it was somewhat of a mental battle to keep on walking (or crawling, at times) knowing that I would be walking in the other direction sometime soon.

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A lot of the photos didn’t come out very high quality because of the darkness, but hopefully they convey the sorts of ridiculous ways in which we had to contort our body to get through some of the smallest crevasses.

I could see that Aimee was in her prime and embracing her shorter height. Here she is much deeper in a side path of the cave which I would not dare to match her on.

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Unfortunately there were only limited amounts of lava stalagmites left in the cave after some tourists had come and looted the rest, but there was still a prized few.

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The best experience of being in the cave was when our guide told us to find a seat on a rock and turn off all of our headlamps. This, he said, was complete darkness. Being in this environment is very eye-opening. Quite literally, actually. You can’t fight the impulse of opening your eyes as wide as you can in a desperate attempt to differentiate it from closing your eyes. Complete darkness almost feels like a substance which completely envelops you.

Our guide noticed one particular phenomenon which surprised us all.

“See that flickering light on the edge of your vision?” he asked, and we all replied with a hushed “yes”.

“Well, that’s just your mind f**kin with you,” he replied to a round of laughter. “Wave your hand in front of your face. Nothing changes.”

It took a few minutes to get used to the feeling, but eventually it became quite hypnotic. We stayed silent for a few minutes to try and experience a truly comatose state.

We slowly weaned ourselves back into the fresh air and sunlight one step at a time. The guide got lost down the wrong tunnel at one point sending us all into a bit of a scare, but luckily this is apparently “very normal” and it wasn’t too long before we found our way out the same hole that we had entered in.

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A job well done.

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On the way back to the van I spotted the most perfect car ad, worthy of pitching directly to Range Rover.

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Back in the town, we took a short rest at our hotel before venturing back out to the main street for food. After a few failed attempts at finding a decent enough restaurant, we settled on the Italian restaurant “Rossopomodoro”, which also happens to be in Balmain.

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I decided to be a top boyfriend a shout the dinner, but of course I got a very kind gift in return.

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Chippies and béarnaise sauce. How good.

Beginning from when we started walking home, we were greeted to a continuous show of fireworks until we fell asleep. It turns out that as today is the last day of the Christmas season, Icelanders have a tradition of “Elves Night” where the Elves come out to play after a busy Christmas by letting off all of the leftover fireworks.

What a day.

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Day 303 (7th of January 2017) – Reykjavík, Iceland

With our tour of Iceland being a short one, our days were flat out with activities. Almost all of them were outside of Reykjavík, making evident that this city is more of a gateway to Iceland’s incredibly diverse countryside.

Today, we were doing a Golden Circle Tour. The Golden Circle is a popular tourist route in southern Iceland, covering about 300km looping from Reykjavík into the southern uplands of Iceland and back. It was an all-day activity which revolved around three main stops: the Gullfoss Waterfall, the Haukadalur Geysers and Thingvellir National Park.

Gullfoss Waterfall was the first. We braced for the cold, stepping off the bus onto a cliff-edge. It descended directly into some river rapids, Hvítá, which in turn fed a gigantic waterfall.

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Gullfoss plunges in two stages (11 metres and 21 metres) into a crevice 32 metres deep.

The average amount of water running down the waterfall is 140 cubic metres per second in the summer and 80 cubic metres per second in the winter. The highest flood measured was 2,000 cubic metres per second.

We were in awe at the sheer scale of what was before us.

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It was only a short ride on the tour bus until we reached our next stop – the Haukadalur Geysers.

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The Haukadalur geothermal area was first mentioned in written sources going back to 1294 when the local hot springs were activated by an earthquake. Geysers occur when surface water works its way down to around two kilometres below ground where it contacts hot rocks. The resultant boiling of the pressurised water results in hot water and steam spraying out of the geyser’s surface vent.

Haukadalur has two geysers which are particularly famous – Geysir and Strokkur.

Geysir is the larger of the two, but it has been largely inactive for a number of years and is only activated by earthquakes. It can hurl boiling water up to 70 metres into the air.

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The more interesting one was Strokkur, which erupts once every five to ten minutes. Take a look at this video we took of some eruptions.

After a guilt-inducing lunch of chicken wings and chips, we boarded the bus for a longer leg of the trip to Thingvellir National Park.

The drive wasn’t without a stop, though.

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We stopped for photos of the rift between the North American and European tectonic plates. This rift, where the tectonic plates move away from each other at a few centimetres per year, slices straight through Iceland, making it quite an unstable landscape.

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On the way to the National Park, we were taught of its significance. It turns out that Thingvellir is the home of the Althing, Iceland’s National Parliament from the year 730 until 1798. The Althingi is one of the oldest extant parliamentary institutions in the world. Its establishment as an outdoor assembly held on the plains of Thingvellir laid the foundation for an independent national existence in Iceland.

Here is a picture of what the assembly chamber looked like.

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That’s right. It’s completely out in the open. Walking along the edge of the National Park we were able to admire some of the magnificent views that lawmakers would have had over their nation.

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Rarely do you see such a perfect unison of history and scenery. Also along the walk through this park was the place of a darker piece of Icelandic history – the drowning pool. It was here that eighteen women were drowned on separate occasions as a punishment for suspected adultery.

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The day trip and ride home was incredibly tiring, and as such we were given a few hours in the early evening to take it easy. Aimee and I did so with a few snacks to keep us going. I tried the famous Icelandic “Skyr”, the best flavoured yoghurt I’ve ever tasted. To be fair, it’s nothing more than a more solid version of the yoghurt you’d find in Australia, but it’s still very good.

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For dinner, Aim and I walked down Reykjavík’s main street of Laugavegur again. It was here that we found a pub serving all-day breakfast which suited Aimee.

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On the walk back to the hotel, we appreciated the nighttime view of the city’s houses for the last time.

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The most impressive view was yet to come, though. In classic Icelandic style, the weather flipped in no more than one minute. After a day of rain, it began snowing. Actually, no, it began dumping. Even on the wet ground, the snow began accumulating in just minutes.

Neither of us came prepared with the correct jackets, and we both went rushing back to the room.

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After having been postponed last night for poor weather conditions, the group’s Northern Lights tour was instead going ahead tonight. We left the hotel at 8:30pm for the almost two hour drive out to a part of the country with some clearer skies. You’d be surprised by how much of the country you can cross in such a short time.

On the way out, my attempt at sleep was made impossible by the obnoxiously loud Australian-accented gossip going on over the aisle directly in front of us. Being an Australian company, Contiki attracts a lot of quite open and confident Australian travellers.

Arriving at our spot to watch the Northern Lights, we waited in a café for the skies to clear. I guiltily chipped away at a table’s unfinished bowl of lollies while Aimee scowled at me before joining in herself.

“AURORA!” someone shouted.

We walked outside to what was probably the second most impressive display we’d seen of the Lights on this trip. It certainly didn’t compare to the show we had in Kittilä where the streams of light were directly over our heads, but the glowing horizon was nonetheless very alien.

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We watched as all the other Australians emerged ready to see exactly what they’d seen in their travel brochures, only to realise that a lot of the light is actually very hard to distinguish with your own eyes. The reality of witnessing the Northern Lights is definitely one of the more “hyped up” things I’ve experienced during travel, but I have nonetheless immensely enjoyed seeing them every time.

On the way back to the hotel, I fell into a deep sleep. Arriving at almost 1am, Aimee ended up being the one to walk my zombie-self up to the room.

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Day 304 (8th of January 2017) – London, U.K.

Happy birthday to Grandma! Such a loyal blog reader deserves a shout out. I can’t wait to get back home and see her along with everyone else.

The tour officially ended after breakfast, but many people had spilled out before then. I took the opportunity to do some morning tutoring before joining Aimee for a breakfast together. Despite it not being a great hotel, we were lucky that it offered gluten-free bread along with a number of other things which suited Aim.

Our flight to London wasn’t until the late afternoon, so we had some spare time between checking out and leaving the hotel. We decided to use this time to go and see Reykjavík’s icon, the Hallgrímskirkja.

We took a different route to the city than usual, choosing to walk along the shoreline of the Atlantic Ocean.

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The walk took much longer and was colder than usual, but it was well worth it for the morning sea breeze.

On the way we ran into Danielle, a friend from the tour. We all went to Hallgrímskirkja together.

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I find this church to be oddly eerie, but that’s exactly why I like it. It seems to suit this country and the gloomy weather so well. I also love the colours of the Icelandic flag just in front of it.

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As we went closer, we researched a bit about the building to learn some more of its history. It is the largest church in Iceland and among the tallest structures in the country. The building is designed to resemble the basalt lava flows of Iceland’s landscape.

Before returning to the hotel for our transfer to the airport, we replenished our caffeine levels and ate an on-the-go lunch.

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When my bag onto the shuttle bus, its crack expanded to all the way down the side.

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I keep that bag partly as a badge of honour from all that it’s been through, and partly because I’m reluctant to spend the money on a new one with so little time left in the gap year. The top handle has snapped off too. I just prayed that it wouldn’t fall apart on the flight.

The security check on the way out of Iceland was one of the more rigorous ones I’ve been through this year. The flight to London on Icelandair lasted for around three hours, giving me plenty of time to get through some blogging.

Landing in London was one of the most exciting arrivals I’ve had into a city this year. There’s something about this place. The aura it gives off, its worldwide fame, the music scene… I don’t know. But there’s something, and I love it. I think that like most Australians I identify far more with English culture and lifestyle than I do with that of other Western countries. In an odd way, despite being on the other side of the world, London felt a little like home. Maybe that’s why I loved flying in there so much.

Our euphoria was quickly brought to an end when we realised that there was a strike across all of the Tube network, meaning that we had to resign to spending the $40 needed to catch a private train into the city centre. On the plus side, it meant that we would get directly to our accommodation and in a much shorter time.

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We’ve been extraordinarily lucky in London to have been allowed to use the apartment of a family friend, Annie. With the place only being available from tomorrow, though, we had booked a hotel for the first night. This ended up being more convenient, because the hotel was right outside of Paddington Station.

Having already saved money on a week’s worth of accommodation in one of the most expensive cities in the world, we figured that splurging tonight was warranted. So, we got ourselves a room at the Park Grand Lancaster Gate. Then again, every hotel with an English name like that sounds pretty posh.

When booking online, we noticed that the cheapest room had the exact same pictures as one worth much, much more. So, we took a gamble and booked that room in the hope that we could upgrade on the grounds that we thought we had booked something else. Exactly as expected, we rocked up at the small and narrow Paddington boutique only to be led to a room which looked nothing like the pictures. I went up to reception and kindly explained the situation, showing them the pictures attached to the room online. After a bit of to-and-fro, I was handed the key to our new, much more lavish room for no extra cost. Booyah.

By the time everything had sorted out, it was already past 10pm. We lacked any energy to go out for dinner, and figuring that most places would be closed, we decided to order some takeaway online. I gave Deliveroo a shot for the first time. Our Chinese arrived within minutes to the joy of both of us.

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That meal gave us plenty of energy to kick off our week in London tomorrow.

Until next time,
Xavier.

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3 thoughts on “The Arctic Circle

  1. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who was conducting
    a little research on this. And he actually bought me lunch simply because I
    found it for him… lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!
    But yeah, thanks for spending the time to discuss this matter here on your website.

    Like

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