Queen Ann High School - Iceland School Trip

Iceland Study Trip
October 14, 2013

The following Iceland school trip blog was written by Queen Ann High School on their school trip to Iceland with Adaptable Travel.

Iceland 3rd - 7th October 2013

Day 1: Where’s my passport?

With a journey time of a little over 2 hours, Scotland should consider itself Iceland’s nearest neighbour. Our intrepid group of 36 used school Geography as an excuse to travel to the land of fire and ice. Although it had always been a destination on my ‘to do’ list, when I realised that the Alien prequel ‘Prometheus’ was filmed there, I decided it was time to go. I did a heap of online research and Adaptable Travel won the day, with flexible itineraries and crystal clear pricing.

So, we gathered at Edinburgh airport; flew swiftly, arrived as darkness fell, and were taken away to Reykjavik by a smiling bus driver who was waiting for us on arrival. No-one remembers his barely pronounceable name, but we called him Sven. The Hotel Cabin seemed modern and entirely appropriate for our school group. Some kids moaned about having only 2 single beds for 3 people in rooms, so the reception staff were kept busy re-allocating rooms, while I gazed at the ultra-cool, Geographer’s-dream giant Iceland map on the wall at reception. This I repeated daily over the next 5 days to prove my map geekiness.

Day 2: Elves, Trolls and waterfalls

Breakfast is continental buffet style and I encouraged the group to stock up hamster-style as we had still to negotiate lunch material for later. This turned out to be fine, with a small supermarket stop half an hour into the South Shore tour, where we dashed around trying out our Icelandic Kroner for the first time. In exchange for a 1000 or 5000 IKR note you are handed a large handful of coinage. Basically the silver coloured coins are useless but the bronze ones are quite valuable, and there are cool sea-themed images on each that is reason enough why Iceland should never join the EU.

Our tour guide was the lovely Guðbjörg Eiríksdóttir, but thankfully she appreciated that we’d struggle to pronounce this, so she has adopted an easier When-At-Work name of Gugga. I thought it best to not mention that in Scotland this name refers to the annual clubbing to death of baby Gannets in the Outer Hebrides. I was keen to build bridges between Scotland and Iceland, and made a special effort not to ask why Iceland are overfishing mackerel, especially when she blamed the decline in Puffin numbers to EU overfishing of mackerel.

Gugga told us stories about Icelandic history, how isolation as an island had led to a wealth of storytelling and pagan beliefs. Big rocks, it turns out, aren’t big rocks at all. Elves and trolls shape-change into all sorts of rocky lumps in day-time, and it pays to be nice to all of these lumps in case you want to be victimised by the elves / trolls when they awaken at night. Trolls hate two things in particular, Christianity and humans, so it is recommended to be nice to all things natural. Gugga pointed out the wee doors painted onto large boulders to allow elves out at night time. I now believe.

The main destinations today were Strokkar waterfall (with a reclined Troll watching over us intently) which had a gorgeous rainbow as the sea fog lifted. We were to be rewarded with fantastic blue skies for the next 4 days, due to the courtesy we showed to the rock elves. In the afternoon we visited the 2nd waterfall Seljalandfoss, which offers the Geography ideal Get-To Walk-Behind-It opportunity. This was a wet but memorable experience.

Sandwiched in between these waterfalls we drove up the gravelly track to Solheimajokull glacier for our crampon and ice axe wielding experience, i.e. glacier walk. I still don’t quite know why we had the ice axes, as they were never used, but the guides were very quick to tell us off when we carried them the wrong way, put them down for a millisecond in order to take photos, etc. Perhaps it was just in case of a troll attack. The glacial hike was great fun and I ticked off moulins, crevasses, moraines (made of volcanic ash from the unpronounceable volcano). Gugga looked after my wee son who was not quite old enough to take part in the hike. We saw volcanoes Hekla and Eyjafjallajokull (the unpronounceable one), the mega-glacier Myrdalsjokull and the next major eruptor Katla which will cause an even bigger ash cloud than the 2010 eruption of The Unpronounceable One, as well as a jokullhaup (glacial flood) that could blow away our nice wee lunch-stop village of Vik within seconds.

Another short stop after lunch was to see the mesmerising basaltic columns near Vik and text-book coastal formations (cliffs, caves, arches, stacks). This was to be the longest day in all, arriving back in Reykjavik for 7.30 and our buffet dinner. The staff deserved the Gull beers that were flowing from the small bar. It would be rude to not try the local brew, and I didn’t want any trolls upset so early into the trip.

Day 3: The Underworld

Gugga had  a day off as we went caving today with local cave guides to Buri Cave, a huge lave tube only discovered in 2005 but with its claim to be the biggest cave in Iceland, with the deepest lava pit in the world, I felt we had to pay a visit. Another bus trip and short snack stop as we drove past the geothermal power station again. Lava fields all around, we were really going into the unknown today. A trek of around 30 minutes brought us to the entrance and a fair bit of trepidation. Some were concerned about the narrow, feet-first entrance, but once inside the cave expanded to a vast chamber. In winter there are icicles spiking down from the ceiling and very slippery footing but In October we would have an easy time clambering over the rocks for about 1 km. The lava features were superb, especially as this was a rarely visited cave and we felt like pioneering explorers. I lost count how many times I dunted my hard hat on the cave roof, but mostly it was a vast lava cave easily navigated. The kids loved it.

On return to Reykjavik, we went into town for dinner. Shops were still open for browsing and we began to plot our souvenir shopping options for later in the week. I was in the market for an Iceland football top, while son no. 2 was keen on a furry hat. The school kids hunted pizza mainly, with some getting crepes and a few sought out restaurants serving Minke Whale and Puffin. They tell me that the whale was delicious, but I’d wager the Iceland lamb that the staff sampled in a lovely restaurant in the centre of town was ethically and flavoursomely better.

Day 4: Where Continents Collide

The sulphurous smell near the geothermal power plant that we seem to pass daily on our way out of the city is becoming familiar. Virtually all of the country’s electricity and hot water comes from geothermal and hydro-power, harnessing the great natural energy that Iceland possesses.

Today Gugga gives us more information on the country, its Viking past and historic parliament. It seems that when Vikings weren’t murdering, pillaging and enslaving poor Brits, they loved a good poem. They were far more cuddly and lovely than the image of them that we hold today. Eric the Red (first tour rep of Greenland) and his son Leif (discoverer of America) both hailed from Iceland. The first Viking settlers in Iceland came from Norway, with nice shiny longships. The trouble was that these were the only ships in Iceland, as it was devoid of trees, so when the longships were away, there was no sea transport at all in Iceland. Similarly, Gugga told me, in the Middle Ages when Witchcraft was all the rage, the only witches that were actually burnt were in the west of Iceland. Why? Because it is the only place with sufficient trees to build a pyre.

We visited Gullfoss first – the Golden Falls – and it is fantastic panoramic location. The 3-tiered falls are majestic, with the frost and ice of an October morning adding to the magic of the place. Distant jaggy mountains and views of the white glacier of Langjokull made things quite surreal. We slid down the path to the viewpoint and photos before journeying down to see the original and best Geysir that has named all other geysers world-wide. Sadly it only steams away rather than erupting now, but it could rejuvenate in future. For now, Strokkur is the main attraction, as it gushes reliably every 7 minutes or so. Other bubbling pools nearby show how volatile the whole are is.

In the afternoon we walked around the historic parliament Þingvellir, the place with the strange first letter that is pronounced ‘th’. This is deservedly a national park and World Heritage Site, being the World’s first recognised parliament site. The outline of the original buildings can still be seen, and it seems appropriately Icelandic that they have been left in a natural state rather than manicured as a historic building. The grass and moss perfectly safeguard the structures that are treated rather like the stone elves: respect them and no harm will come. We also spotted huge trout in the river below.

The Geography aspect of Þingvellir is the meeting (or parting) of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Here the rift caused by seismic forces pulling apart the two plate boundaries is clear to see. This is the youngest country in the World and it’s growing at around 2cm a year.

Day 5: It’s The Last Day So Do as Much Stuff as Possible

Yesterday I had asked Gugga if she knew where we could play football in Reykjavik. The bulk of our group were boys and a foreign game of football is always a big hit. She showed me on the map that our hotel was very close to a football club. She reckoned that if I asked they would give us the use of their pitch and a ball, given the nice Icelandic nature / fear of upsetting elves. So, early in the day I explored the area she described, clutching the wee touristy map she had drawn on. It soon dawned on me that she was referring to the national stadium, a lovely wee stadium not far from the hotel. Behind this was a club astro pitch, but with no-one in sight. I really couldn’t see a bunch of Scottish kids getting to use an Icelandic club pitch, for free, and using their ball, so it was time for Plan B. I had already asked in hotel reception where a sports shop could be found, so then I took a small bunch of our kids up the road on a mission to find the main shopping mall at Kringlan. Once located we bought a ball, managed to lose two of our group for about 40 minutes (they had returned to the hotel thinking we were meeting back there) then set off for the city centre. My contact at reception reckoned we’d get to use small astro pitches near the cathedral. This is a very grandly designed building, with an imposing statue of Leif Eriksson outside. He gazumped Christopher Columbus as the discoverer of America, with Viking trips to ‘Vinland’. Although it appeared to be a school’s pitch, we had about an hour of great fun – 3 teams (mine victorious) – until some adult appeared asking us to move on. I explained that we had been told it was ok to use this pitch and remembering not to mention the Mackeral Wars, I think I avoided any international incident.

A sprint around the shops one final time, including buying a furry hat but not the football top, then we all gathered back at the Hotel Cabin to say our goodbyes and catch the bus to the Blue Lagoon, en route to our airport departure. It makes complete sense to visit this well-known attraction in conjunction with the airport, being only 10 minutes away, and I’m glad we left it ‘til last, as it was a great way to chill out and reflect on a brilliant 5 days.

The drive to the Blue Lagoon involved passing some of the best lava field s seen all week. The sun brought out the bright green of the moss covering the jagged, crumpled lava which is like a whole elf army frozen in time.The Blue Lagoon experience is excellent. It does things to your hair that you’ll regret, but the water is very warm, strange muds can be plastered to the face, drinks can be ordered and drank in the pool, and photos need to be taken to capture the moment.

Sven then drove us to the airport for our final Iceland moments. The flight was delayed so we invented a new game, playing Trumps with the 36 pass port photocopies that I had with me. This filled the time nicely.

Reasons to visit Iceland:

1. Outstanding physical Geography, particularly coastal erosion, volcanic features, glacial erosion / deposition

2. Plenty human issues too: rural depopulation, sustainable energy, farming, city comparison

3. Active tourism: glacial trek, lava caves, waterfalls

4. Cheap flights from UK

Reasons to not visit Iceland:

1. They don’t stamp your passport.

To organise your school trip to Iceland, contact Adaptable Travel today to speak to one of our friendly team.