Thursday, February 27, 2014

Iceland Day 1 ~ 27 hours of plane+airport and a first glimpse aurora...

Travellogue: Day 1 Iceland

Changi Airport

It was the 26th February, the year of 2014. 
Like trickles of glacial water, the team members slowly made their way to Terminal 1 at Changi Airport, some looking fresh while others appearing tired from a full day of work.  It was characteristic of a Singapore Trekker Photography trip, this red-eye flight arrangement.  Seasoned members would be almost unfailingly found gathered at the kopi tiam up on the second floor, patiently waiting for the arrival of the tour leader while sipping a kopi-O.
"Haiyah.. the taxi driver got lost," quietly complained Norman.  The drone of the conversation around me faded into the background as I stared at my cup of kopi.  My drifting mind was lost in a day some months ago…

Norman & Carren relating their taxi story to Michelle.

I couldn't remember precisely what happened.  I couldn't recollect when and where we agreed to go on a photography trip to Iceland.  I never knew I would one day step foot on the famed Land of Ice., even less so for the main purpose of chasing the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights). Life was unpredictable, the way it dished you surprises.  Somehow when it came to cycling and sporting events and photography trips, I had always been
Leng Zhai strutted in...
the passive one.  But I was positive that our participation for this trip was initiated by Alex and Kai Sing, and for some strange reason there was almost no resistance met..  and Serene and I signed on the dotted line (figuratively).

"We will need high ISO for the aurora borealis," reminded Kai Sing.
Shit.  How I wished I could just bring one lens one rangefinder.  Reluctantly out from the dry boxes came our Canon DSLRs'. 
"Ok, Dar.  Each of us will have one DSLR body and a Ultra Wide Ange 16-35mm, and a 70-200mm.  We will also bring our extenders. In addition, you will have a point and shoot, and I will bring the Leica with the old Canon 50mm f/1.2."
So it had been decided thus.  We needed to bring a minimal of equipment.
We were very lucky to have gotten the extra legroom seats.
Eddy took this shot of us.

Fate has been such that Serene and I hadn't touched our trusty DSLR's for the longest time due to our indulgence in sporting activities.  Excitement mounted and old fond memories came back as only weeks before the trip, Serene and I ran through the checklist of photographic equipment to bring, and refreshed ourselves on how to shoot with our DSLR's.  A week before, Adrian managed to herd the whole gang down to Orient Photo where I bought my Kenko 9-stop screw-on filter and an extra 1DsMkIII battery.  We were set for the trip.

Weather & Everything else Icelandic
"It's so HOT!" exclaimed Carol
and she started stripping.
Helsinki Airport.
I have followed SgTrekkers for many trips. But I must admit this trip to Iceland was the toughest because it was almost impossible to pronounce, let alone remember the very odd names of many an Icelandic destination.  Even up till a few days before the trip, I remembered telling the teammates that I still hadn't dare try to read the notes.  Adrian reassured that the weather wouldn't be too cold, ranging from -2 to about 2 degrees Ceisius.  I took me a lot of convincing to prevent Serene from bringing the whole wardrobe.  In retrospect, I was glad Serene took Adrian's weather forecast with a pinch of salt.
And acted like a very
pretty Korean baby...
"Iceland food is going to be expensive," advised Adrian during our pre-departure briefing.  "But no worries.  I will bring some foodstuff and preparation for cooking and when we arrived at Reykjavik, we will hit the local supermarket to buy fresh food and along the way I will cook.  So by having half of our meals cooked, we will save a lot.  As much as we can, we will be buying hot dogs at Iceland to fill our tummies. These aren't that expensive, about S$5."
This is one of the kindest men around.
"Bring Euro to change to Icelandic Krona in Rekjavic," reminded the tour leader. "We will be flying a three-sector flight from Singapore-Helsinki, and Helsinki to Oslo after a long 7 hour transit, and then finally from Oslo to Reykjavik. So remember to bring your cold wear on board."

OOF. But heck lah. It is the moment that counts.
Naught. Got out of Helsinki airport.
 This three sector flight was really quite fun for me at least, being a non-frequent-flyer. In one fell swoop I got to be in Helsinki (Finland), Oslo (Norway) and finally Reykjavic (Iceland). And the 5.90 Euro (S$10.25) all you can eat buffet breakfast in Helsinki airport was also unforgettable. 
Acting cool in Oslo.
But that 7 hours of transit in Helsinki was really quite hard to pass. We all literally had to keep ourselves occupied. Some were practising shooting, while others were roaming the airport.  On the last leg, most of us were pretty zombified already.


Adrian struggling to the bus  with his
big bag of groceries from Singapore.
Twenty-six hours after our departure at 2355Hrs on 26th Feb 2014 Singapore time, we found ourselves walking out of the Reykjavic-Keflavik International Airpot, right around 4pm Iceland time.  We managed to change our Euros to Icelandic Krona at rate of S$1 to 86 ISK.  It was quite a good deal.  Walking out of the airport, I got hit by w whiff of salty and fishy cold air.  It was a sunny afternoon with clear sky that
welcomed us.
"Hey, it's not that cold let!" I declared, a tad prematurely.
"Yah, it's actually quite alright ah," announced Adrian.
As we walked along the partially covered walkway, the wind began to blow at us.
"Brrrrrrrrr… it's cold!" cried Serene, hastily pulling out her scarf and wrapping it around her face.  Here in Iceland, one does everything oneself.  We all pushed out own luggage to the tour bus not far in the carpark, and Adrian lifted a huge bag of possibly groceries that will be sustaining us for the next few days.  The bus moved off and naturally everyone's attention was drawn to the scene outside.

What I saw upon arriving in the city of Reykjavik was both exciting and disappointing. The former was because I found frozen ice everywhere, in the grasses, on the plains, telling me that there was recent snow.  Disappointing was, the buildings were almost all low buildings, all drab and grey.  And there was really not much colours.  What more, it struck me that there was very few pedestrians walking on the streets of Reykjavic.  As I looked towards the distance, all I could see was plains, plains and more plains, dotted afar by snow-covered mountains, which I presumed were mostly volcanoes.  There was hardly any trees.  The only vegetations that I could find were stunted shrubs to typical of the tundra climate.  "My goodness," I secretly thought to myself. "What the hell are we to see here? There is literally nothing."

Our reverie was broken by Adrian's announcement.
"Ok, we will head off to the Blue Lagoon first to shoot it in the late afternoon light.  But we won't be going into the Blue Lagoon because firstly we don't have time, and secondly we will need to pay.  No point.  We will have more scenery to photo over the next few days."
We literally hit the ground running.  The Blue Lagoon was indeed blue. From the minerals in the water.  But as always, the first day presented most with no lingam.  And I believed a few of us just shot blanks.  I knew I did.  And I took away nothing here, not even a decent photo.

Here was a shot by Eddy Chung of that moment there.
Serene, Lai Peng and Michelle.  Photo: Courtesy of Eddy Chung

Hannah, Carren, Yilin, Teck Siang & Carol
runing round & round the tall man.
It was 5:30pm.  "Ok guys, let's go! We need to hit the local supermarket Bonus before they close at 6pm to
grab all the food  and ingredients we will be needing to cook for the next few days." called out Adrian. Yupe, the usual sense of urgency in his voice.
This Bonus was quite huge.  And the cashiers were manned by a few blond-haired young Icelanders.  Adrian very quickly delegated the group members to get all the stuffs he had on the list. Before long we all came back to the counter with pasta, sauces, meat, milk, and many more in our trolleys.
We managed to clear the cashiers in time.

A nice wintry evening view, from the window
of our room in Arctic Comfort Hotel
Taken with my iPhone.
It was already turning dark outside and our bus finally stopped along a quiet street lined on each side by rows of shops, one of which turned out to be our hotel. 'Arctic Comfort Hotel', its sign board announced.  I looked around and saw everyone dragging his/her tired, 27-hour-flight-worn body onto the pavement, each pulling his/her luggage into the tiny lobby.  And the ten odd bags of groceries were distributed among the members.  I looked up at the flight of steps grit my teeth and lugged our heavy Samsonites up, and was thankful that Serene and mine room was on the second floor.  The room was a pleasant surprise, for we found more than our two beds inside.  It was well-heated, and was spacious and clean. It took me a while to figure out how to turn on the water heater but it was really great to have heat. 
"Can I sleep for a while?" plead Serene.
"Yah, you can, while I take a shower.  Then after that we gotta meet downstairs.  Adrian said we will all take a five minutes walk to a nearby restaurant for dinner."

The five minutes walk turned out to be a slightly
Acrux pointing to the restaurant in Reykjavic.
longer stroll down a gentle sloping road to a row of eateries, during which Adrian remarked in jest that an Icelander's five minutes walk is certainly longer by Singaporean's standard.  Again, the streets and pavements were conspicuously devoid of human traffic. The occasional car drove past as we walked.  But the road was all to ourselves. What a strange place, I caught myself thinking again.  It took us some time before the whole group chose a Mexican restaurant and walked in.  The prices of a tortilla and other similar dishes ranged from 1400 ISK (S$16) to 1900 ISK (S$22). 
"Wow. S$20 for crepes!" I thought to myself.
Kai Sing & Alex enjoying a cosy Icelandic meal.
Interesting expressions on everyone's faces as I looked around me. And then slowly I saw Alex, Kai Sing and Lai Peng walked out and checked out the next door restaurant.  Serene and I followed.
"Hey this one not bad! Lamb steak and salad buffet with free flow of soup!" said Kai Sing.  I calculated.  About S$40+ per person.  Ok lah. Might as well try Icelandic steak and lamb for a welcome meal.  And was it a meal! One of the nicest lamb rack, and the softest and tastiest sesame wheat bread I had.  The soup was also nice. And almost everything was free-flow.
Lai Peng & Serene couldn't finish their portions.
Serene and Lai Peng ordered ribs and their eyes opened wide when they saw the huge portions.  Of course, Kai Sing, Alex and I ended up with extra ribs on our platter.  We really enjoyed the warm cosy atmosphere, with huge size Icelanders seated at most tables in this full-house restaurant.  The only diners who seemed to be in a rush to gulp down their food was us.  The Ang Mohs were all leisurely chatting away, enjoying a slow dinner.  The Icelandic waitresses were really a sight to behold. Slim waist, ample-bosomed, long-legged… really made our dinner that much more delicious.  I remember myself remarking about them to Kai Sing and Alex.

First glimpse of the Aurora Borealis
Suddenly a shadow zoomed past and sat down on the table beside us.  It was Adrian.  "Hey guys! There is an aurora going on right outside the restaurant!" he announced. "The guys are setting up their tripods and shooting it now."
"Really ah?" we replied.  And we stepped out, to see faint green lights dancing in the sky, slowly changing from second to second.
Somehow, the northern lights were of lesser an interest than our dinner, and we chose to continue our meal.
The aurora found us again when we emerged from the restaurant.
"Wah, see that!" shouted Lai Peng. "Wow it's really changing. See there, see there.. another one!"
"Yah, there there.. wah this one very nice!" echoed Alex.
We just walked & enjoyed the aurora on our
way back to the hotel after a nice hearty dinner.
Five of us just walked and pointed, and walked and enjoyed the display in the sky.  As we neared our hotel, we saw the other members tucked in a small dar car park by the side of the hotel, tripods all set, cameras all aiming skywards, cable releases in hands. My goodness, these boys and girls were truly hardcore.  At this point in time, I was too tired.  And no amount of aurora could distract me from my sleep.  Serene and I trudged up the stairs and sleep came easy.

Iceland Day 2 ~ The tour of the Golden Circle