Monday, March 31

Water and ice


Day Three in Iceland saw us make our way east towards Vatnajokull, the nation’s largest icecap. The vast frozen zone covers more than 8300sq km, almost 13% of Iceland’s total landmass. To reach its southern edge we had to drive across several desolate, flat deltas of grey, snow-flecked glacial sand. These vast plains have been created by a web of glacial rivers and the occasional Jokulhlap, or glacial flash floods. These violent floods occur when volcanic activity melts a portion of the icecap sending unfathomable volumes of water rushing towards the sea.


The last such incident occurred in 1996 when the Grimsvotn eruption swept away much of the main road and three long bridges in a matter of hours. We stopped to explore a memorial of twisted bridge girders located a few miles from Skaftafell National Park. Once again we were reminded of the humbling power of nature.


This memorial was only one of several highlights during an invigorating scenic drive. After two days of being constantly awed nature’s beauty, it was difficult to imagine the sights getting any better. How wrong we were. Our first stop was Seljalandsfoss, a delicate high fall cascading over the edge of a rocky scarp that rises from the surrounding plain. I recall this fall featured as a checkpoint for the television reality show, Race Around the World.


This was one of many falls we encountered that day. Perhaps the most dramatic of all was Skogafoss. A 62 metre curtain of water set in narrow, rocky crag. At its base the fall’s frigid spray had settled as a rugged plateau of ice across the departing gravel bed. Once again, we had much of the scene to ourselves for much of the time.


Perhaps the day’s most dramatic experience was something neither Garry or I had foreseen in all our months of planning for this vacation. A few kilometres past Skogafoss we turned off the highway onto a bumpy, gravel road that wound its way up a river valley towards Solheimajokull. This is a narrow glacier carving off the nearby Myrdalsjokull icecap. I recalled walking to the edge of Fox Glacier in New Zealand more than 15 years ago and was keen to repeat the experience.


We parked our four-wheel drive about 200 metres short of the glacier’s edge. As we retraced the path of a rivulet flowing from the ice, we came upon a icy-blue cavern that had been carved from the glacier face. We just had to explore it. Translucent blue walls led us into a larger cavern where large, smooth blocks of ice sat brooding while rays of sunlight shone down through an opening in the ice above. As was becoming the norm we had the entire scene to ourselves. Pure magic!

Read on for more private moments in Iceland.

Sunday, March 30

Jokulsarlon


Our fourth day in Iceland was scheduled to be dominated by a lengthy drive to Reykjavik. Over the previous three days we’d driven almost 400 kilometres east, a journey we now had to retrace. We’d stopped overnight at Hotel Skaftafell, a simple facility sitting in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town of any note was almost 70 kilometres away.

This desolate area is also home to many of Iceland’s most dramatic glaciers. We decided to explore at least four of these before turning back to Reykjavik. Our first destination was one we’d been anticipating since booking our Iceland vacation. Jokulsarlon is a 600-metre deep, 17 sq km lagoon at the base of Breidamerkurjokull, a broad glacier sweeping down from the Vatnajokull icecap. It’s renowned for its jostling, blue icebergs that carve off the glacier and drift silently for years before being swept out to sea through a short, narrow, fast-flowing channel.


The day had dawned drab and overcast, with regular snow flurries falling from the sky. However, as we neared Breidamerkurjokull, the clouds parted, bathing the approaching ice in dazzling sunlight. This break in the weather held the entire time we were at Jokulsarlon. Once again, nature lived up to the hype of every tour guide we’d read. The lagoon was splendid.


Unfortunately, much of it was frozen and thus it offered fewer icebergs than normal. However, several dramatic blue slabs of ice could be seen close to shore, making for a scene equal to any I’m sure one would experience in Antarctica. Garry and I stood alone at the edge of the lagoon for almost an hour soaking up the scene. We then drove down to the nearby beach where stranded icebergs framed an ocean glinting in the sunlight.


As we retraced our steps we turned off the highway several times to catch remote glimpses of more glaciers tumbling down from Vatnajokull. Perhaps the most dramatic of these was Svinafellsjokull. This glacier sits in a steep ravine and consisted of the bluest ice we saw during our entire vacation. Its edge was also fractured by deep, bold blue crevasses.

Saturday, March 29

Reykjavik


Our last 1.5 days in Iceland were spent exploring the capital city. Reykjavik is an odd place. It’s surprisingly cosmopolitan, yet still has the look and feel of a quaint, simple fishing village. We based ourselves at Hotel Reykjavik Centrum located in the heart of the city’s oldest district. From here most sights were within easy walking distance.

We dined at the Fish Market on our first night in town. The restaurant, housed in the basement of an old wooden building, offered a delicious tasting menu of local delicacies prepared in an Asian fusion style. This was one of many fine dining establishments, complimented by an equally impressive array of cosy cafes throughout the city.


On Wednesday we wandered through town and eventually stopped outside Hallgrimskirkja, an imposing concrete church that sits on a hill above the city. The church’s radical design is based on volcanic basalt, a rock formation of sharp-edged rectangular pillars that can be found throughout Iceland. Earlier in the week we’d stopped at a beach near Vik to marvel at these rock stacks stepping their way up a wind-swept cliff face. I couldn’t resist the urge to scale such an unusual formation.


Hallgrimskirkja’s profile is dominated by a central 75-metre high tower. A quick elevator ride takes you to an observation deck offering stunning, panoramic views of Reykjavik and the surrounding countryside. Permission to build the church was granted in the early-40s on condition that its design included a tower able to contain a radio mast for the nation’s new national broadcaster. However, by the time it was completed 34 years later, this requirement longer mattered.


A bleak plaza in front of the church is broken only by a statue of Leifer Eiriksson, the Viking considered the first European to discovered America. The statue itself is a gift from the USA. This is one of many statues and public artworks dotted around the city.

After lunch at the popular people-watching locale, Café Paris, we made our way to the Culture House. This building includes a display of original vellum manuscripts that represent the earliest known record of the Viking Sagas and settlement in Iceland. The Sagas are popular folklore stories of Viking life in the middle ages. Until the 20th Century they were near compulsory bedtime reading for Iceland families everywhere.


The Culture House also contained a fascinating exhibition about Surtsey island. This landmass off the south coast of Iceland was created between 1963 and 1968 by a series of continuous subsea volcanic eruptions. The exhibit included dramatic video footage of these eruptions, as well as tracing the steady spread of plant and animal life in the decades since.

Our last day in Iceland was spent ticking off a diverse range of final sights. First up, was a museum literally located in the basement of our hotel. Reykjavik 871 +/-2 contains the preserved ruins of a 10th Century Viking turf-wall constructed long house. Its remains were discovered by chance when our hotel embarked on a major restoration and expansion project. The ruins are now the earliest known building in Iceland.


Next up was a visit to City Hall, a modernist building on the edge of Tjornin, a small lake in the centre of town. It contains a detailed relief map of Iceland, painstakingly built from layers of cardboard over four years by a team of local surveyors. The island’s rugged coast, towering mountains and bold icecaps can be witnessed in all their glory.

We then stopped for coffee at Perlan, a complex wrapped around towering hot-water tanks on Oskjuhilo hill near the city’s inner boundary. It was then on to the Blue Lagoon for a final soak before heading back off to Keflavik and our flight home. Iceland had proven a memorable destination – one that met and exceeded almost every expectation we’d brought with us. This remote, quirky island had delivered on the promise of a truly unique vacation.

Friday, March 28

Iceland update


We are back from six wonderful days in Iceland. We were incredibly lucky with the weather. Our first three days were largely filled with sunshine and light cloud, while the final three were punctuated by gentle, almost atmospheric snow flurries. It seems we got lucky. The UK experienced an Easter weekend of appalling weather, including a heavy snowfall in London on Sunday.


I'll post more on our vacation over the next few weeks as time permits. You'll hear about our picnic lunch on a desolate bluff overlooking a frozen lake; our exploration of a dramatic, ice-blue glacier cave; the Northern Lights and tours of more mundane highlights like waterfalls and geysers. Consider this initial post a brief photo teaser. As I said to Garry yesterday, "If we never get to Antartica, I won't feel as if I've missed anything special."


Saturday, March 15

Time travel

The wonderful thing about this blog is that I now have a two-year history of life in London. It's fascinating to look back and recall what happening on this date in 2006 and 2007. Two years ago I'd just returned from a business tour of Scandinavia. Oslo had almost a metre of snow on the ground and my luggage had gone on tour in Copenhagen. This time last year I was off to Amsterdam for another business trip. On this occasion I was speaking on online social media at a local industry event.

This week I hosted a series of full-day meeting at our new office in London. This was the second time in a month that I've held meetings in London for international guests. Together, they are the first such meetings I'd held in London. My general practice has been to hold such events away from London. It's an odd feeling to be 'working from home' after so much business travel.

Thursday, March 13

A roof over our heads

Repairmen came in yesterday and fixed the roof. Sadly, our recently redecorated bedroom is ruined. The ceiling and walls are once again covered in ugly, brown stains. The repairman told me that the roof needed replacing and warned that the next storm would probably bring another leak. After 125 years the house is showing it age.

Tuesday, March 11

Fresh air for nothing


We renewed our resident's parking permit last weekend. Since August last year the cost of a permit has been based on our car’s estimated level of CO2 emissions. This is simplier to administer than you migh think. The first time you register a car in the UK it’s given a grams of CO2 per kilometer (g/km) rating. The council uses this universal rating to calculate your permit cost. Low emission vehicles pay less, higher emission vehicles pay more.

Our SAAB currently sits in the second highest of four tariff bands. As a result, our parking permit costs 50% more than that of a car in the lowest band. It's effectively a carbon tax on car owners residing in the council district. This year we paid £105. Ouch!

Emissons-based charging seems to be all the rage in London. The Greater London Authority recently introduced emission-based charges for large diesel vehicles using its roads. Heavy diesel-engined vehicles driven within the city’s Low Emission Zone (LEZ) must now meet specific emissions standards. Those that do not are required to pay for each day they drive within the zone. Those that do can drive in the zone for free. Who says fresh air costs nothing?

Monday, March 10

The Bucket Brigade


It's here! The season's worst storm has arrived. At 6:00am this morning we were woken by the sound of roof tiles being dislodged. Shortly afterwards water began pouring through the ceiling into our bedroom. As I type, we have four buckets and a large tub collecting water at a furious pace on the floor. It's deja vu for Swiss Cottage as our roof leaked in the same exact spot last winter.

The latest EUMETSAT image shows the storm at 6:00am well and truly centred over London. As I type this post, the wind is still howling and rain is lashing the windows. In fact I've just heard a tile fall from the roof and smash onto our front steps! I'm really looking forward to my office commute!

The waiting game


The BBC has published satellite photos of tomorrow's approaching storm. This evening severe flood warnings have been issued for the entire Devon and Cornwall coast. Winds will gust up to 81 mph (130km/h) along the English Channel. Here in London we've been told to expect storm guts of up to 56mph by dawn, and again tomorrow evening. I doubt we'll have blossoms left on the trees by Tuesday.

Saturday, March 8

Winter makes its final stand


It would appear that I've spoken too soon. This winter's worst storm is predicted to hit us on Monday morning. We've been told to expect winds gusting up to 70mph. You wouldn't believe it looking at the sky this evening. All we can see is clear blue sky marred by the occasional jet contrail.

It seems that this sort of extreme weather is entirely normal for this time of year. On March 5 1947, the country experienced the worst blizzard of the 20th century. By the time it was over, powerful winds had piled snowdrifts up to 9 metres high.

While we're being battered on the ground, trans-Atlantic flights returning to London will experience record crossing speeds. The jetstream is expected to approach 240mph (385 km/h), reducing scheduled flight times by almost an hour. Of course, landing safely is an entirely different matter. The news this week was filled with images of a plane attempting to land in high winds at Hamburg. The video is unbelievably frightening.

Friday, March 7

Death of a server


On Monday night our new home office network server died. Garry couldn't believe it. A brand new machine failed four weeks after he'd set it up. Fortunately it was under warranty, including onsite repair in the first year. Garry duly arranged for a technician to visit, while I made plans to work from home for the day. Queue lights and let the drama begin.

At 4:30pm this afternoon, a technician arrives at our door. "Hello! I'm here to repair your computer. Has the replacement part arrived?" The part had not arrived. Earlier today Garry had called the repair depot to check that everything was in order. "Oh yes. A replacement part is being flown in from the Netherlands and will arrive at your home by 17:00. No. The technician won't bring it with him. He will be arriving separately from another location. Don't worry. We do this sort of thing all the time."

Needless to say, after checking the dead server and asking me technical questions that only Garry could answer, the technician decided to call the office and track down the missing courier. "Oh? The part won't reach you until 7:00pm, not 17:00." He offered to come back tomorrow. He was very civil about it all but I certainly couldn't schedule another day out of the office.

After some debate the technician agreed to camp out at our house until the courier arrived. He asked if he could watch a DVD. Entertaining my unexpected guest seemed the simplest solution so I downed tools to set him up with our nest of remote controls and a chilled glass of water. To add to the confusion, our cleaner showed up and began furiously mopping the floor around us.

Naturally, all of this drama unfolded as I was trying to simultaneously conduct a business call with a colleague in the USA, a call I'd delayed earlier when the technician first arrived. At some point between greeting the cleaner, responding to technical questions with a blank stare and setting up our DVD player I accidentally hung up on my business call. The afternoon was rapidly descending into a farce.

Our well travelled replacement part finally arrived shortly after 6:30pm. By 7:00pm our server was up and running once again. However, the technician had just one more request. "Could a courier come by tomorrow to collect the broken part as it has to be returned under warranty?" I was dumbfounded. At what point did the message, "I cannot work from home tomorrow," fail to sink in? Surely being asked to watch a DVD for an hour had made this clear?

Garry and I continue to be astonished by the number of company's in the UK that only schedule home visits and deliveries during working hours. Even worse, none will guarantee a visit time and few will indicate if they'll visit in the morning or the afternoon. You're simply forced to take the entire day off and hope for the best.

How on earth most people cope is beyond me. Garry and I are fortunate that I have a job where I can generally work from home. In Sydney most organisations offer weekend delivery, or home visits early morning or mid-evening.

This evening we are back online. Our numerous personal and business are intact. What a day!

Thursday, March 6

Snow? We'll have to fly in for it

Spring is definitely on its way. The trees outside Swiss Cottage station have burst into blossom. It would seem we've experienced our first London winter without snow - unlike the last two years. February was officially the UK's sunniest since records began in 1929, while the mean temperature was 1.5 °C to 2.5 °C above average. Our Easter vacation in Iceland will likely be our last snow experience this season.

A trip to Iceland and weekend in Gibraltar are the only overseas excursions scheduled this month. This is the first month in more than two years I'm not overseas for business. It's a sign of my role change as I finish final duties as Regional Director. However, the lull in business travel is only temporary. I will be on the road for three weeks in April; visiting Malaysia, India and Australia. I'm then back in the USA in May, visiting both coasts. Garry and I also have a long weekend planned in Helsinki in early-May.

June looks quiet! We have friends from Australia visiting towards the end of the month. We're hoping to spend time touring a few European destinations with them in July. Berlin is one option. I've been there at least three times, while Garry has yet to see it. Before you know it, August will be here and it will be time for our annual pilgrimage Down Under.

Sunday, March 2

Shaking and moving

I arrived back from Boston yesterday morning in record time. An unseasonally strong jet-stream whisked my plane across the Atlantic in less than 5 hours, 15 minutes. At one point the inflight route map reported a tail wind of 223 km/h (138mph), while our relative ground speed topped a staggering 1102km/h. Another personal speed record.

Of course the winds play havoc with flight schedules when travelling in the opposite direction. The flight home was half an hour late departing. Apparently the opposing jetstream had dramatically extended the plane's earlier flight time from Heathrow to Boston.

As you can imagine, blustery winds have been the order of the day this weekend. I'm beginning to suspect a seasonal pattern as we experienced weeks of gales around the same period last year. However, Garry's big news story this week was London's earthquake. On Wednesday a 5.2 magnitude quake struck the city about 1:00am. Garry was preparing for bed. He simply thought that wind was shaking the house more violently than usual. This was his first earthquake.

I can recall two earthquakes over the years. The first took place when I was about eight years old. I recall a loud rumbling sound followed by the entire house shaking wildly. Within seconds, my parents had raced down the hall, plucked me from my bed and had us all standing under a door frame. The second strong quake I recall happened while I was in Tokyo. It caused my hotel room to sway noticably. A rather unnerving experience.