Two months ago, I went on holidays to Iceland. I spent two weeks there, driving around the country, and I had a plan of writing sort of a “travel diary”, describing what I did day by day, with photos, maps etc. I would publish that, but it would also work as a “memory enhancement” (helping me remember the trip).
I think by now I should resign myself to the fact that this is not going to happen, but I still feel like I should write something about the trip. So, here goes.
From Sydney, you can either go west and fly through southern Asia and Europe, or go east and fly through the USA. The distance is essentially the same in either direction. I went east mostly because it was less expensive; I flew with Virgin Australia to Los Angeles, then with a small airline (Frontier Airlines) from there to Denver, and then with Icelandair to Reykjavík. It was a long trip, but really not that bad. The flight back was the same thing, reversed.
As I mentioned, I spent most of the time there driving around the country. I booked a “self-drive tour” with a company called Touris – you choose from a set of itineraries, they book the car and all accommodation for you; your job is to fly there and to drive yourself from one hotel to the next. They even picked me up at the airport, which is when they gave me ridiculous amounts of material for the trip: a 400-page road guide, several maps – personalised maps, with the itinerary and all hotels marked very clearly – plus all vouchers for all hotels. They were very helpful, starting way before the trip, while I was still deciding what to do – they would respond to e-mails with questions very quickly and helpfully. The whole experience went as well as it possibly could.
I should probably mention that, in preparing for the trip, one of the most useful sources of information was a blog called I heart Reykjavík, which has information not only about Reykjavík but the whole country; particularly, the girl who writes the blog did an “around the country” trip just like mine earlier this year, and her descriptions were very useful. That blog is the only reason why I visited Seljavallalaug, and it was a side road worth taking.
Iceland is a very small country, with a very small population – and, just like Australia, most of the population lives near the coast, because the interior of the country is not very hospitable. There is one main road – aptly named Ring Road, Hringvegur (sometimes also Þjóðvegur 1, National Road 1) – that encircles the country, and that’s where I spent most of my time. Reykjavík is on the west side of the country, and I drove from there in the counter-clockwise direction (starting towards the south and east).
Observant souls will have noticed that I went there in the middle of autumn (mid to late October). My intention was to “avoid the crowds”, as most people (understandably) visit Iceland in the summer; it meant fewer people around and cheaper flights and hotels, but it also meant that there was a good chance the weather would not be as good as I’d like. In the end, I was very lucky; other than some rain in the first few days (while I was driving on the south coast) and occasional snow and ice on the ground, most of the time the weather was just great. It was cold, of course, and a heavy jacket and gloves helped a lot in some areas, but at times it was nice enough that a sweatshirt was all you needed. And the days were not as short as you might expect: when I arrived, sunrise was around 8.15am and sunset was at 6.10pm (almost ten hours of daylight); on the day I left, sunrise was at 8.52am and sunset at 5.30pm (a bit over eight and a half hours of daylight). By the way, it feels like sunset and sunrise last forever; the sun never rises too far above the horizon, so the light is always very slanted and it feels like it’s always late in the afternoon. The “golden hour” loved by photographers lasts for most of the day.
“Fewer people around”, however, also meant that lots of places (and even roads) were already closed for the winter. On three stops I was the only guest at the hotel I was staying in (two of them were reasonably large hotels, the other one was a large guesthouse), and in smaller towns the choices of places to eat were quite limited. Visitor centres at some attractions were closed, and even some of the possible itineraries for the tour were not available. Also, many sea birds had already flown away – so, no puffins around. I still think I made the right choice, though; I got to have some taste of the icy side of Iceland (driving through the mountains in the north) and even the major tourist attractions were not full of people at any time. Even Reykjavík seemed like a very quiet country town. I would seriously recommend going either very early (March, April) or very late (September, October) in the season.
Icelandic is a Germanic language, so there’s some similarity with English, but you’d only notice that in writing, if at all; it sounds nothing like English (or even German). Thankfully, most people there do speak English very well (and some like to show it; a school-age girl – maybe seven or eight years old – approached me while I was trying to read a poster at a historical site and started explaining to me what the poster said), and even street and road signs are often in English. But not always, and the farther you get from Reykjavík the less English you’ll see (and the better the chance of running into someone who doesn’t speak English).
A few months before the trip I bought a book, “Beginner’s Icelandic”, that came with CDs with dialogue and pronunciation guides. I spent several hours studying that and, while I absolutely can’t speak Icelandic and I could not understand a word of what I heard on the radio or TV there, what little I learnt was very useful for understanding road signs, restaurant menus and similarly small bits of text here and there. And Google Translate helped me understand the manual that came with the SIM card I bought.
I did not try any of the most unusual Icelandic dishes (seriously, fermented shark meat is not something that attracts me). I did have skyr, their yoghurt-like cheese that is sold everywhere in much the same way yoghurt is sold here, and it is pretty good. I also had lamb, of which they eat a lot, and some types of rye bread that tasted amazing. Other than that, I can say that the burgers from the Hamburger Factory in Reykjavík are really, really good.
Roads are pretty good most of the time, but a small section of the Ring Road on the east coast is not paved; still reasonably good. I had to drive on gravel roads a few other times as well, and they’re usually ok (if a bit scary when icy). Pretty much all bridges have a single lane, so you have to give way if someone else is already on the bridge (another benefit of going late in the season: only once in the whole trip I had to wait to use a bridge). My car was a 4-wheel drive fitted with snow tyres; because it was late in the season, the tour company strongly recommended getting this kind of car, and I think it was a good idea. Fuel is kind of expensive, around A$2.30 a litre, but at least the price didn’t change all that much even in the more remote areas, and finding places to refuel was never a problem.
You can see every possible type of landscape there, from glacier-covered mountains to geologically-active mud flats (and many, many, many waterfalls). Which reminds me: that is a very geologically-active country, and the whole country smells vaguely of sulphur (I’m not exaggerating; I wish I were). Particularly, hot water is always from geothermal springs, and it definitely smells when it comes out of the shower.
But, back to the landscape, it is a very beautiful country. I stopped very often by the side of the road to take photos or just to look at the sights, and in many places I wish I could have stopped but there was nowhere to. Although, to be fair, in most places I could probably have stopped the car in the middle of the road and walked out to take photos with no problem at all (as I said before, there were not many people around).
Speaking of photos, I came home with nearly 1,400 photos and a few videos. A small selection of photos (130 or so) are in my Google+ page: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4. Many of the photos are geo-tagged, so if you click on “photo details” on the right you’ll see where they were taken. And, if anyone wants to see the other 1,300 or so photos, let me know.
And that’s it. I really, really enjoyed the trip, and I would very much like to go back again (although that probably won’t happen for a while, Iceland is a bit far from Australia). Next time I wish I can do it in a different season; I’d love to see what the country looks like in spring, when it’s waking up after winter. And, to be honest, even winter sounds like an interesting time to visit.
On the 12th of April, 1981, I was exactly nine and a half years old (half years are important when you’re that young). That was the date of the launch of the first Space Shuttle mission, STS-1, with the Shuttle Columbia spending the next two days in orbit with a small crew of only two astronauts (it was effectively a test flight). I was fairly young, but I do remember watching the news about the launch — it was a big deal at the time. I particularly remember that, differently from later flights, the external fuel tank was white, and not orange — orange is the “natural” colour of the protective foam around the tank, and painting it white added a significant amount of weight to the tank, so they stopped doing it at some point.
On the 28th of January, 1986, I was a bit over 14 years old. That afternoon I was at a friend’s place, his mother had the radio on and I heard something about a rocket exploding after launch in the US, but didn’t pay much attention to it; I didn’t know there was a Shuttle launch on that day, and assumed it had been an unmanned rocket carrying a satellite, or something similar. It wasn’t until I watched the news on TV at night that I knew what had happened to Space Shuttle Challenger, taking off for what was supposed to be mission STS-51-L. I remember being sad on that day and obsessively following the news for weeks after, and I was very happy when Discovery flew the first mission after the accident, in September 1988.
On the 1st of February, 2003, I was already an adult, and I was spending a quiet Saturday at home until I happened to look at the news online (I think it was on cnn.com) and read about what had happened to Space Shuttle Columbia, returning to Earth after mission STS-107. I very distinctly remember that my first thought was “not again!” — despite the 17 years that had passed since the previous accident. After that, I turned the TV on and just kept watching for however long they were talking about it. It was another sad day.
On the 21st of July, 2011, I will be nearly 40 years old. It will be 42 years and one day since the first Moon landing, and more than 30 years since that first Columbia flight. That is the scheduled date for the landing of Space Shuttle Atlantis, completing mission STS-135 — the final Space Shuttle mission, ever. It’s going to be, again, a sad day. I planned on writing more about it, but I don’t think I can do better than what astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (whom I had the opportunity to meet twice, and who is a great person to talk to) said on Twitter: “Many lament the shuttle era’s end. But that’s misplaced sentiment. Lament instead the absence of an era to replace it.”
He’s talking, of course, about the lack of a manned space program on the part of NASA for the immediate future (and, with the difficulties it’s been having to get its budget approved, perhaps the not-so-immediate future as well).
Still, NASA goes on, as does space exploration. Just this week, on July 16th, the spacecraft Dawn will go on orbit around asteroid Vesta — it’s the first probe ever to orbit an asteroid, and in the next few years it will become the first probe ever to orbit two different bodies, when it leaves Vesta to go after dwarf planet Ceres. New Horizons is still on the way to Pluto, which it will reach in July 2015. And many other missions are still flying around the solar system – and, with the two Voyagers, even outside it.
Here’s hoping for continued progress, and hoping that in the future we’ll be able to celebrate the Shuttles as a stepping stone, and not as the end of the road.
I was looking at my iTunes playlist with the 25 most played songs in my collection, and I was a bit surprised at how many of them only are in my playlist at all because of other media (TV, radio, movies); a random sampling:
Wow. It’s been almost six months. This is what happened to our hero since last time:
Changes: I changed jobs and moved house; I’ve been living in Sydney since early June. I haven’t actually seen much of the city yet, other than the “standard” tourist attractions because…
Travel: …I’ve been travelling. I spent seven weeks in California, from early July to late August. It was summer there, but it was the coldest Californian summer in the last several decades (I understand September was a bit different). I was there for work, but I did take the time to revisit many places in the Bay Area (I lived the in the mid 90s) and to visit a few new ones. There are many pictures in my Picasa albums, and I don’t really expect anyone to have the patience to look at them all (also, the descriptions are in Portuguese); some of the ones I think are the best are on Flickr:
Others will show up there as I get time. Also, while in California…
Election: …I voted, at the Australian Consulate in San Francisco. It was incredibly easy: no queue, no one handing out flyers, all very civilised. And I got to do it two days early because the consulate wouldn’t open on the day of the elections (good thing I called them in advance to make sure).
So, a list it will be. But it was an interesting month.
Astronomy: late in March I took leave from my job to work for three months on a research project with the Centre for Astrophysics and Supercomputing at Swinburne University. The project involves using data mining techniques to search for pulsars in radio data — the idea is to increase the level of automation and to look at large amounts of data to identify good (interesting) candidates more quickly than a person would be able to.
I will write more about this in the future.
Parkes: earlier this month, I had the chance to spend a few days at the Parkes Observatory with astronomers from Swinburne who were there to conduct observations. This was not directly related to the project I described above — I was there to help with the installation and configuration of a new set of servers that will be used to capture and process data coming from the telescope for pulsar studies.
I will write a longer article about that visit; for now, here are some of the pictures I took while there:
Jury service: a while back I received a letter saying I had been selected for jury service. It contained a questionnaire to determine whether I was excused from serving (I wasn’t) and instructions to wait for further instructions. These came early in April, telling me where to go and when. So, on Tuesday last week I went to the Melbourne County Court, together with about a hundred other people, and waited to be selected for a trial (or not – chances are heavily in favour of not being selected, apparently). On arrival you are sent straight to the pool room (and if that’s not funny to you, go watch The Castle) where you sit and wait after watching a short video.
It turns out that, after a 3-hour wait, I was indeed selected for a trial (one of the two starting on that day). A jury consists of 12 people picked a random from the pool, but the number of people selected for a trial is actually larger; some 25 of us were sent into the court room, where’s there’s another ballot to pick the final 12. During this process the lawyers for both sides can reject any juror they don’t like (bearing in mind that the only thing they know about them is their name, occupation and what they look like), and potential jurors can also ask to be excused (in case of a conflict of interest, for example, or if they know any of the parties). And, once again, I was one of the selected (and I wasn’t rejected).
I won’t talk about details of the case other than to mention that it was a criminal case (you can be selected for both criminal and civil trials) and it was very short — shorter than average, we were told. It started after lunch on that day, we were done with the witnesses by the end of the next day and the jury retired to deliberate before lunch on the third day; by the end of the third day we were done. It was an interesting experience, and I actually enjoyed the process. I don’t think I would be saying this if it had lasted for a significantly longer period, though, as it does disrupt your life and is a very intense experience. The deliberations, in particular, were stressful and discussion was heated at times. I think it’s a good experience to go through — once.
So it looks like I only manage to write something on my blog when it’s in the form of a list of disjointed items… Rather than doing that, however, I think this time I’ll write a series of shorter, separate items instead.
Gresswell Forest: early in February I participated in a guided tour of the Gresswell Forest Nature Conservation Reserve, in Watsonia; this was part of the Sustainability Festival that happened in and around Melbourne during that month; the guided tour was very interesting, and the guide made a point of stressing how much work they need to do to try to prevent invasive species (of animals and plants) from taking over; they have lots of problems with regular garden herbs (mint, oregano, rosemary etc.) coming into the reserve with the rain water, and while the fences manage to keep most dogs out, cats are much harder to control.
We also had some close encounters with the local population of kangaroos, including a mommy-kangaroo with the joey in the bag. See photos below (click for larger versions):
As most of Australia celebrates the WWDC-eve holiday, now in its final hours, I thought it would be interesting to mention that, over the last few days, my primary computer at home has been — for the first time ever — a Mac.
And, you know what? I’m very happy with it. It’s not a very powerful machine, just a lowly Mac Mini, and I don’t have one of those fancy Apple displays, but it simply works.
Granted, there are some teething pains (or “gotchas”), especially for someone who comes from the Windows world:
why, why, why can’t the Home and End keys move the cursor to the beginning or the end of the line? and, on a related note, why don’t Page Up and Page Down move the cursor at all? this is very annoying when editing text (yes, I know what key combinations to use to go to the ends of the line; my fingers still go to the “obvious” place, though)
command-tab switches between applications, but not between different windows of the same application; confusing at times, ultimately understandable
but the key combination to switch between windows of the same application is usually command-` — this is convenient because ` is just above tab on the keyboard… but it doesn’t work at all if you are using an international keyboard configuration similar to Windows’ US-International, with “mute” accent keys
But enough gripes for now. What I like:
it is so incredibly silent! not only the computer itself, but the keyboard as well (the DVD drive, though, it’s one the noisiest I know)
installing and uninstalling applications is a breeze
boots in less than 30 seconds, shuts down even faster
I haven’t seen it crash yet (but neither have I seen Windows crash in a long time)
I can’t say enough good things about Time Machine; I wish there was something similar for Windows (and Ubuntu)
iPhoto — lovely
Spaces — I can’t believe Windows still does not ship with something like this out of the box
That’s it for now. I am sure I will have many more things to comment on in the future… maybe even about Snow Leopard, hopefully coming out tomorrow (the WWDC keynote is at 3am on Tuesday, Melbourne time).
Yesterday I went to visit the Melbourne Aquarium for the first time. It was probably not the best day for this — at the end of a long weekend, and in the middle of the school holidays. And, yes, it was full of children (and parents with trolleys). It was still fun, although I expected it to be larger. Pictures follow:
One thing I did not like: they do their best to force you to follow one specific path and not turn back. There are places with escalators going only one way, and narrow corridors that make it awkward to go against the flow. That makes it very inconvenient to try to come back to something you couldn’t see (or photograph) very well on your first pass; it also makes it hard to try to be at specific places at specific times for scheduled events, such as the “snow storm” in the penguin enclosure. Sure, you can go all the way to the end and re-enter, but they don’t make that clear and you have to get a guard to let you in.
When we last saw our intrepid traveller, he was taking the northern fork of the road, following Namatjira Drive to the west, on the way to Kings Canyon via Glen Helen Gorge.
Namatjira Drive “hugs” the McDonnell Ranges, which means that it goes through a slightly less dry area of the red centre; the rain that falls on the Ranges flows onto the adjacent terrain and provides enough water for a fairly decent vegetation cover. One side effect of this is that almost everything that is built around that area has to take into account the possibility of rain and the consequent flash floods. This is very visible on the road, in fact: every few kilometres, one will see a sign saying “DIP” and the road will, well, dip. That’s where the water will go through when it rains. (One will occasionally see signs such as “So-and-so Creek” followed by a dip on the road — not a bridge, as one might expect, as the so-called creek will be dry most of the time)
The section of the road before the fork was reasonably deserted; I saw cars going the other way, but not very often — say, once every 5 to 10 minutes. Every single person who drove by me waved; I guess that’s what one does when there is limited human contact. The following section was even more deserted, if that’s possible (and, yes, people would still wave).
And this is a good thing: the view is so beautiful that one can’t help but look away from the road with an alarming frequency. The colours, the mountains, even the vegetation, everything was different from what I’m used to, and very beautiful. I stopped several times on the side of the road to take pictures, and every single time I saw many, many animal tracks on the dust. Not many tire tracks (but a disturbing number of beer cans and cartons), and almost no roadkill — I guess not many people drive through there at night (the insurance on my rental car specifically forbade driving from sunset to sunrise outside urban areas).
There are several turn-outs on the road leading to local attractions, usually towards the mountains. I didn’t have time to go to all of them, but I did stop at one: Serpentine Gorge. I have to say that I almost gave up soon after I left the road, as the track leading there was unsealed and, honestly, not very good. The gorge is some 6km away from the main road, and it’s a beautiful place, with a good parking area and wide, marked walking tracks to the gorge and to a lookout located high on the hills. When I arrived, I found two tour vans already parked there, and some 20 backpacks simply lying on the ground of the parking area — with not a soul around. I did see the tour group later, coming back from the gorge while I walked in the other direction. Very trusting people, apparently.
I tried following the track up to the lookout, but had to give up because it was quite a steep and rough climb; I stopped when I reached a sign pointing straight up where I couldn’t discern anything remotely resembling a track. I had a good view from there anyway… and then I went back down and toward the gorge, which is beautiful — it’s quite a contrast, in fact, to find what amounts to a small lake in the middle of all that dryness.
Other notes from this road:
I didn’t see any native animals other than birds, but I did see cattle crossing the road in front of me (plenty of time to stop, though — it is a very straight road)
what I didn’t have time to stop for was a big piece of rubber that detached from a truck tyre and that was on the middle of the road just after a blind dip/curve; I drove over it doing about 90 (the speed limit is 110km/h), but it wasn’t a problem for the car (I did stop to drag that off the road)
didn’t see any police cars either
but I did see many signs delimiting aboriginal areas and indicating that alcohol and pornography are prohibited there (I can understand alcohol, but pornography?)
there’s not a single petrol station between Alice Springs and Glen Helen Gorge; that’s why everyone says that, in the Northern Territory, you should refuel your car at every opportunity…
The “good” portion of the road ends in Glen Helen Gorge, which is another gorgeous (ha, ha) place about which I’ll write in the next instalment.
Isn’t it amazing how time flies? It’s been almost three months since I went on holidays, and I guess it’s time to concede that I probably won’t write much about them. Still, people have been asking for pictures and stories… well, ok then.
The short version, for those without much time (or interest): in early June I flew to Alice Springs, drove from there to Uluru and back, then flew back home; some of the pictures of this trip are here. A few days later I flew to New York, spent 10 days there just walking around and looking at cool things; a very raw set of photos is here (no descriptions, not much editing, ordered by date taken); then I flew to Las Vegas, where I spent three days having fun at the Amazing Meeting (photos here – also unedited, and frankly a bit boring), then came back home.
Now, for a bit more detail…
I still find it a bit strange that this is a town of just over 20,000 people. Still, it’s the largest human settlement in central Australia, and when you’re flying there you can see why: it’s just a big desert all around. The city is in an area that is slightly less dry than average, thanks to the McDonnell Ranges just north and west of there, but it’s still very, very dry. Even though the very green lawns all around town can make you think otherwise.
But, really, it’s just a regular city. It does seem to survive mostly on tourism, and mostly thanks to people stopping by on the way to Uluru: there is a very large industry dedicated to offering cheap accomodation, desert tours and other traveller needs (such as Internet access). Other than that, Alice’s strongest claim to fame is the Todd River (picture), which cuts right through the city. True, it’s dry most of the time, but they seem to like it (one week after this picture was taken it reportedly was flowing, due to heavy rain just outside of town).
I didn’t do much in Alice; I arrived there late in a Saturday afternoon, and the city seems to close down at four on Saturdays. So, I just picked the car up, walked a bit around the city centre, bought some supplies and rested a bit so I could wake up at dawn the next morning to take the road.
On the road – Alice to Kings Canyon
There are two roads you can follow to go from Alice Springs to Kings Canyon. To take the first one, you go south on the same road that would take you to Adelaide if you drove long enough (Stuart Highway), then after some 160km you turn west on Lasseter Highway, which will take you to Uluru if you drive long enough. After some 100km you turn north on Luritja Road and drive some 150km more, and you’re there. This is a long but easy path, sealed all the way through and with (relatively) lots of traffic (so, if you car breaks down, someone will stop to help soon enough).
The other option is to drive straight west out of Alice Springs on Larapinta Drive, and just keep going. The road forks after a while, and you can choose between staying on Larapinta Drive to go through Hermannsburg, a traditional German town, or taking Namatjira Drive to stay close to the mountains and drive through Glen Helen and other similarly scenic places. Whichever path you take, the roads rejoin and eventually turn south and lead you straight into Kings Canyon after a bit over 300km… some 200 of which are unsealed. It’s not exactly a comfortable drive, and I wouldn’t recommend doing it without a four wheel drive vehicle (or after rain), and you do need to buy a permit ($2.20) as you’ll be driving through aboriginal land, and you’re not going to see much traffic in either direction at any time. Still, when it was time to choose, “I took the one less travelled by”… but I’ll write more about it next time.
I’ve been back in Melbourne since Tuesday, and by now I’m almost fully recovered from the jet lag and the very long flights. Pictures are forthcoming.
Some quick random notes about the US:
the last time I went there was in 1999; lots of things changed since them, and they seem to have become a bit too paranoid about security (not that this is news to anyone); going through security checkpoints in airports is hell
that said, going through immigration on arrival was a breeze, and everyone was very polite
I fully expected free wi-fi to be much more prevalent than it actually is; in NY, you can find free access points in some parks (I used the one on Bryant Park, behind the public library) and in Apple stores, but in not many other places (paid wi-fi is everywhere, though)
also not news, but… Las Vegas is unbelievably hot in summer; the average summer day there is about as hot as the hottest days in Melbourne
the number of weird people per square km is much higher in the US than in Australia; the best one I’ve seen was a guy walking down the street with a cat sitting on the top of his head (and yes, I have a picture)
I’m officially on holidays; no work for the next four weeks.
And I’ll start travelling tomorrow morning; I’ll fly to Alice Springs, and from there I’ll spend the next five days driving around the red centre, to Uluru and back. I’ll be twittering my progress (mobile phone coverage allowing), and my current position will be displayed on the small map here on the right. Which is reproduced here:
for the benefit of those reading this via RSS (click the image for a larger version).
I probably won’t post much over the next few weeks, but I may have pictures in about a week or so (and certainly at the end of June, when I come back).
I’m on holidays; this means that this blog probably won’t get any posts for the next 30 days or so. For those reading this in the website, the map on the right will track my location for the next month.
… in a country far, far away, I was busy setting up my first home page and putting it online. It went “live” ten years ago yesterday (or, technically, today, as I was then in GMT-8), so I can probably say that this is my “online birthday”. On the other hand, I was active online before that, of course (e-mail, newsgroups, even some web browsing); so make that my “web birthday”.
I still have the original HTML files, but most of the external links on them do not work anymore; in fact, it was then hosted on http://www.best.com/~wilson/, which is also long gone. You can see on the right a thumbnail of what it looked like then. No, that picture on the upper left corner is not me; it is Macgyver’s (and now Stargate’s) Richard Dean Anderson. If my memory serves me right, I switched to a photo of David Duchovny after a few months, and later I changed the whole layout so that there wasn’t a photo on the front page anymore.