Thursday, June 6, 2019

Iceland the Top End

7 May, Airbnb, Reykjavik
An early start this morning had us tackling peak hour, end of long weekend traffic for much of the way up to Dublin to catch our flight to Reykjavik. We were fine, as we had left ourselves a couple of hours buffer to get through immigration and security formalities. The plane was packed, predominantly with Americans connecting to the US through Reykjavik. As a result, our bags were on the carousel  just as we arrived, so we were straight off to the Duty Free shop. Now, duty free shopping in our view is a mug’s game for international travellers. Prices are often not cheaper than a good bargain hunter can find elsewhere. In Iceland it is a totally different story, particularly for drinkers. With the exception of Denmark and Finland, the Scandinavian countries only sell alcohol through state monopoly outlets, called Vinbudin, (Alko in Finland, for the sale of wine and spirits). And, of course, the tax is incredible, so we loaded ourselves up with beer and wine enough for our whole stay at prices commensurate with those at home and well below the Vinbudin prices.

8 May, Reykjavik
Before we came to Iceland Paul, aka Doubting Thomas, had the impression, fuelled by friends photos, that the whole country existed in a black and white time warp. Not so. Today was partly cloudy, but when the sun broke through, the city centre, with its streets of  early 20th century gaily-painted, corrugated iron-clad houses, came to life. We had rugged up, because the forecast was for 2C – 8C, but a bit of brisk walking around town kept us more than comfortable.

Iceland has an ancient connection to the Vikings and a strong, more recent link with its Scandinavian neighbours, Norway and Denmark. The Vikings are thought to have made the first permanent settlements about 800AD. Remains of one of these settlements form the centrepiece of the Settlement Exhibition in the centre of the city. Combined with some high-tech presentations, were the foundations of an early Viking Longhouse. We were thrilled to find that old folk, ie us, had free entry to the exhibition. Other punters  had to hand over 1700 krona, AUD20, each.

On the topic of money, Iceland has lived up to its reputation as an extremely expensive destination. A beer in a bar in the city will set you back close to AUD20. Don’t even think of buying a pizza in a cafe. A small toasted sandwich in a museum cafe burned an AUD15 hole in our pocket. On the up side, parking in the city is dirt cheap by Australian standards, AUD6 for four hours. We self-cater, shopping in local supermarkets where prices for most items are close to Australian prices, so we don’t pay outrageous restaurant prices. Petrol here is close to AUD3/litre.

Cranes tower above our apartment building and all around this part of outer Reykjavik. The absence of trees, gardens and fences give the whole the feel of a large mining camp, where buildings have been dropped in on a temporary basis.

9 May, Reykjavik
This trip has taken us, literally, from one end of the Earth to the other, from the far south of Africa to the edge of the Arctic. Paul was further convinced of the wisdom of coming to Iceland by today’s weather. What a spectacular day! From the time we hit the road early this morning, the sun belted down and the clear Icelandic air provided 50-60 km visibility.

Reykjavik’s peak hour traffic was a breeze on the small city’s well laid out freeway system. We were taking the famous Golden Circle route through some of Iceland’s most popular attractions. Expecting heavy traffic, including tourist coaches, we opted to do the route in reverse, a good decision as it turned out. We did run into small crowds at a couple of points later in the day, but nothing like many reviews we had read described. Being able to enjoy the splendid desolate nothingness of large parts of the circle was one of the high points for us. The lack of trees and fences creates open vistas that take the breath away at every turn. Much of the area we travelled was covered with ancient lava flows. Less prominent, but still beautiful, were green pastures  dotted with the stocky little Icelandic ponies.  Always in the background, the distant snow-covered mountains completed the picture.

Waterfalls have featured prominently in our recent travels. Iguazu Falls in Argentina and Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe are internationally renowned and both amazing in their own way. Less well-known Gullfoss Falls in Iceland are in no way on the same scale, but their setting amid the lava fields and small canyons of southern Iceland  put them right up there for us. 

Much of the area we travelled through today is still volcanically active. Steam escaping from volcanic fissures is not an uncommon sight and there are a couple of active geysers on this route. We visited Strokkur, which blew every 5-10 minutes.   

Preparing for this trip, we read a number of books about Iceland and its sagas. In a nutshell, the Icelandic sagas are a written record of word of mouth stories that encapsulated many of the moral principles that underpinned society, rather than a record of actual historic events. Having said this, the core importance of some locations in Icelandic history has been faithfully recorded and passed down. Perhaps the most important of these sites is Thingvellir. From 930 AD, the chieftains of Iceland met here to make laws, dispense justice , settle old scores, arrange marriages and trade. Considered to be the world’s first Parliament, this meeting of the tribes, (Althingi) was where, in 1262 the chiefs agreed to come under the rule of the King of Norway and continued, becoming less and less influential and the summer meeting in 1798 became the last at Thingvellir. However its symbolic importance remained. The Danish king presented Iceland with its first constitution in 1874 and in 1994 Iceland declared its independence from Denmark here. Today there is little evidence of what transpired here, save for a few mounds that are all that are left of the booths attendees built for the few weeks they were in attendance. 

By chance, or guided by the spirits that many Icelanders still half-believe in, the ancient Icelanders chose their meeting place on a major geographic feature, the meeting of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Here it is possible to snorkel, for a price, through a narrow rift where the plates collide, where you can see 100 m in front of you. Movements of between 1mm and 18mm a year are recorded here, so we just watched braver souls than us.

10 May, Apotek Guesthouse, Hofn
Hofn is about 450 kms from Reykjavik. Sounds like a long drive, but once out of the city, every turn of the highway presented a new and spectacular vista. We had all three ‘S’s to go with the scenery - Sleet, Snow and Sunshine. There were waterfalls dropping hundreds of metres from majestic cliffs, fast running cascades, towering snow-covered mountains, rugged coastlines with black sand beaches, rocky lava fields, glaciers, an iceberg-filled lagoon and green pastures with new lambs frolicking. All this in just 450 kms! What was Paul thinking when he hesitated? Doubting Thomas is convinced!

Some of the locations we stopped at were crowded with tourists, but their buses must have been travelling just behind us as we travelled north east because the traffic was extremely light. Once we reached the small port town of Vik,  we were among fellow travellers rather than the tourist hordes, who we expect turned back to the city to complete a day trip. Motorhomes are fairly common here, some with European plates from France and Germany. There are also a lot of tiny campers that seem to be favoured by the backpacker set who must find Iceland outrageously expensive. 

The circuit road around Iceland would have taken us a couple of weeks to complete and with the cost of travelling here, that was a bit beyond our budget. Instead, we opted to do a hard day’s driving today and explore the area around Hofn over the next two days, before driving back to Reykjavik for the flight back to London and home. 

11 May, Hofn
Back-tracking over the latter part of yesterday’s long drive, we were again treated to a beautiful clear morning. However, our reading of several weather sites alerted us to some minor showers and temperatures just above zero. The sunshine held for our first stop, the iceberg lagoon where large chunks of ice that have fallen from the glacier gather, waiting for the tide to take them out to sea, a long process. A small family of seals played around the icebergs, responding to visitors claps and yells with dives and rolls, almost as though they were part of the provided entertainment. The ice cap from which the glaciers flow covers 8% of Iceland’s landmass.

Numerous glaciers flow from the ice cap and we have found ourselves pulling over on the narrow roads and hitting the hazard lights as yet another amazing vista looms. Even though there are often scores of cars and a few buses at the main attractions, the distances are fairly great and so the traffic strings itself out, making driving easy.

We took a short 4 km hike at our last stop today, to the face of one of the glaciers as a light sleet started to drift down. We haven’t had much experience with sleet, so we found it interesting stuff. It tends to flake off clothing without sticking and wetting the material. Faces of glaciers are fairly dirty looking, as the material carried along as they grind forward is exposed as they start to melt. But if the right light conditions are present there is a beautiful blue tinge to the ice on the face. Not today though.
Our stay at the glacier face was a little rushed as we had to get back to Hofn to catch the Vinbudin before it closed as we were out of beer and, as in Botswana, no alcohol is sold on a Sunday. Our guesthouse is just across the road, so an extra bonus was to be home in time to do what we hope will be our last washing for this trip.

This is the first guesthouse/hostel we have stayed in on this trip. We have used this style of digs before, particularly in South America and the more modern hostels provide the option of motel-like accommodation at a little extra cost. The big benefit is always the communal kitchen, where we have spent many a late night with fellow travellers, sharing experiences and last night was no different. It once amazed us how many Australians travel. We are no longer fazed to find that the largest proportion of our companions are compatriots, as they were last night. Our group comprised one Dutchman (you always get a Nederlander), two Germans, two Americans and five Australians. As one of the Americans commented to us, “You guys really can’t get any further from home than this.” And yes, most travelling Americans now do know the difference between Australia and Austria.   

12 May, Hofn
Our last day of sightseeing, as tomorrow we hit the road early for the 500 km return to Keflavik airport and our flight back to London.  When it comes to great drives, you can forget the Great Ocean Road (Victoria), the Pacific Coast Highway (California) and even Route 66. Nothing can touch the Iceland Ring Road (Hringvegur). We have only driven 450 km of the 1330 km circuit but we have been enthralled at every turn. And there are a lot of turns. Waterfalls, towering cliffs, glaciers, fjords set against snow-capped mountains and the bluer than blue Icelandic sea.

Sadly, Iceland is far from a bargain destination. If truth be told, it is by far the most expensive destination we have experienced and that includes at home in Australia, which we and many people we meet around the world, think is extremely expensive. We have tried to keep costs down by making our own lunches, staying in places where we can cook our own meals and hiring the smallest car we could get. Even so, what we paid for a vehicle in Ireland last week was about one third of the cost here in Iceland. Everybody we meet has expressed the same problem. “Love the place, but can’t afford to stay very long.” On a more positive note, we like to average out our travel expenses on a long trip like this, so what we have saved in Africa and even in Ireland and the UK partly offsets the cost of Iceland. Bottom line. Are we glad we came. A resounding Yes! Besides, where else can you see wild reindeer grazing beside the road?

13 May, B&B Hotel, Keflavik Airport
Most of our 500 km drive from Hofn today was a total white-out. The temperatures were much higher, up around 11C, which brought steely skies and constant rain onto the coast. Driving back through scenery that had taken our breath away just days before, was like being in a black and white movie. How lucky were we to have had the fantastic weather we have had? Seeing tour buses heading out had us wondering how different might be the impression of Iceland taken home by those punters who had missed the great weather.

The long drive was a good time to reflect on our overall impression of Iceland. Most of it has already been said. Spectacular scenery, and interesting history, fickle weather and high costs. We elected to drive ourselves here, not everybodys choice, but we find it difficult to see how Iceland could be really experienced any other way. Even though the country is quite small, just a bit bigger than Tasmania, the distances between towns and attractions can be great. There are many tours operating out of Reykjavik, but they focus on the Golden Circle, which is really only a taster. Some companies offer full island tours that complete the ring road, but you need a gold-plated credit card to afford them. We know our bias is towards independent exploration, but here in Iceland, you need to be able to poke around and spend time in areas that are interesting to you. 

Lastly, some advice on driving in Iceland. Unless you have a lot of time and want to explore the highlands, a 4x4 is not necessary. We drove a Toyota Corolla and except for scraping the sump on some rocks in an area we probably shouldn’t have entered, we had no problems. We were also travelling in late spring, when the risk of road closure is low. Nevertheless, we did have snow and sleet and with temperatures a degree or two lower, we could have had ice on the roads. Icelandic drivers are generally very good, but there will always be the exceptions and we came across a couple, so watch out for tail-gaters  and those who hug the centre line on narrow roads. Verges are generally non-existent and in many areas to run off the road would be a very serious incident indeed. Speed limits on the open road are often ignored. Realistically, 90 km/h is very difficult to keep to on open straight sections. Most drivers travel at 10 km/h above the limits. Be aware there are speed cameras. For us the most difficult part of driving here was the lack of good safety signage on sharp corners. Sharp bends are not always well-protected by crash barriers, so a small miscalculation of speed could see you upturned in a lava field or a cold mountain stream. A final bit of advice on driving. Get the smallest, most fuel efficient vehicle you can fit into. Fuel prices are mind-boggling.

14 May, Premier Inn, Heathrow
Left an overcast, dismal Reykjavik this morning. Arrived in a super sunny London this afternoon. We can’t remember ever seeing London this warm and sunny. Summer is still officially a couple of weeks off, but it is just an amazing afternoon.

We are becoming experts at Heathrow’s Terminal 5. Immigration was fairly slick, our bags were on the carousel when we got to baggage pickup and we were on the number 423 bus within 40 minutes of landing. Not too shabby, but our record is still 15 minutes at Coolangatta, from wheels down to on the bus.

Tomorrow will be a big day. We are on the direct flight, London to Perth, 17 hours, 4 hour stopover in Perth, then 4:30 min to Brisbane.

20 May, Home
Over several decades of overseas travel, we have never lost a bag on an airline. Our trip home was the first and hopefully the last experience of arriving without luggage. At least this time we knew what to expect. A power outage in Heathrow Terminal 3 meant that no baggage could be loaded on any of the aircraft waiting to depart the terminal, so our aircraft took off leaving all luggage behind. At this end of a trip the delayed arrival of our gear didn’t cause a problem. We had our bags the day after arriving home. They had taken a side trip to Singapore. At the beginning of our trip a similar episode would have been a disaster with our baggage attempting to catch us up as we moved from place to place across southern Africa.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Ireland Family Trails

1 May, Airbnb, Ennis, County Clare, Ireland
Our research trips to explore the history of the Gauld family occupied the last couple of days of our time in Scotland. In Aberdeen we were able to find the grave of Janita’s great grandparents, James and Elizabeth. Given that they were buried in a cemetery with 22,000 graves, it was a bit of a miracle that we could find the grave. All we had was a photograph of the grave from a website. The photo showed a large Celtic cross behind the grave we were searching for, so we drove around the cemetery looking for the cross. Celtic crosses are not all that common in Scottish cemeteries because they usually denote a Catholic burial. After about 10 minutes driving about, we spotted the right cross and just one row in front of it, the Gauld grave. We spent the remainder of the day in Aberdeen city tracking the movements of the family through various houses in different parts of the city.

James Gauld ran a successful construction business in the city and some of the houses that still exist were indicative of a fairly well off family. There were a couple though that were in less affluent areas, leaving us wondering if the family fortunes fluctuated with general economic conditions in Scotland.

Our accommodation for this part of the trip was an extremely well appointed little cottage about 10 km outside the small town of Alford in the Highlands. We had some fantastic weather and guided, or mis-guided by our GPS system, we explored some beautiful parts of the countryside.

To catch our flight to Ireland we drove back into Edinburgh and dropped off our hire car right beside the Moxy Hotel where we spent the night. The Moxy is a fairly new budget chain, part of the Marriot group. We normally don’t comment much on our hotel accommodation, but this place is very laid back, comfortable and reasonably priced. While we are at it, the Premier Inn where we overnighted in Dublin was good as well, with comfortable, no-frills rooms at about AUD100  a night. While on the mechanics of travel, we used RyanAir for the first time. A slick, highly mechanised check in procedure worked for most travellers, but even though we had our boarding passes on our phones, we had to do a manual bag drop because we were not EU citizens. The flight was packed and every bit of cabin luggage storage was crammed full. Our flight was only 55 minutes and so the tight seating space and almost non-existent service wasn’t a problem.

This morning we hit the new Irish motorways for our journey to Ennis. What a change from our first trip to Ireland almost 20 years ago. A network of well maintained motorways have replaced the often windy narrow major roads that we tackled in motorhomes all those years ago. Even the driveway sized local roads seem easier to drive. The fact that our hire car is a tiny Skoda about the size of a large rollerskate has probably helped on the smaller roads.

2 May, Ennis
More family explorations today. Sadly, Ireland has changed so much in the past 100 years, that all we could find of locations where the Jordan family lived in the middle of the 19th century, were the odd, more modern, church or a few farm buildings where thriving villages might have existed 150 years ago.

The Ireland we visited almost 20 years ago has changed, almost beyond recognition. Cute thatched cottages and small farmsteads have been replaced by new houses and never ending lines of B&Bs. On our first visit in 2000, Ireland was the Celtic Tiger. The economy was booming. Every town had a factory pumping out everything from socks to computer parts. That all came to an end in 2009 when a number of factors combined to bring all that prosperity to a sad end. Crippling national debt and a crazy speculative housing market all but destroyed Ireland. Once again, the well educated youth left the country in droves for the greener fields that had attracted their grandparents, the US, Canada and Australia and we noticed Irish accents everywhere at home. On one of our visits to our local supermarket, at this time, all the checkout operators were Irish.

So here we are in 2019. A modern motorway network allows us to zip around Ireland at 120 km/h. In 2000 there was one short motorway running into Dublin from the south. Any outward signs of the constraints on wages that have followed the 2009 disasters are nowhere to be seen. To us, we see no difference between living standards in Ireland and the rest of Europe. But, sadly, a lot of the old charm seems to have been lost along the way to recovery.

4 May, Airbnb, Ashford, County Wicklow
A 250 km trip today right across Ireland which would have taken a very full day just 10 years back took us less than four hours on flash motorways. Unbeknown to us, it is a long weekend in Ireland this weekend, for Labour Day, so traffic was mostly light, except for the route over the hills towards the East coast. There was a cycle race along much of our off-motorway route that kept us to a reasonable speed, but constantly on the watch for packs of cyclists who wanted to command the road.  So heavy was the traffic that we had to abandon our planned visit to the monastery complex at Glendalough.

 Along with several busloads of tourists, we made a brief stop at the Wicklow Gap. Our map showed this area as a scenic route, but we much preferred the rolling green hills of the rest of Ireland to this fairly desolate rocky pass. The stark difference may well be attractive to locals, but to us, rocky desolate scenery is no great thrill. Again today, our tiny Skoda rental proved its worth on the narrow back roads leading into Ashford. It has been a bit of a squeeze with the luggage, but the fuel efficiency and the ability to confidently deal with trucks and large SUVs on country roads have been a bonus.

5 May, Ashford
Another beautiful day. Well it didn’t rain and there was some warm sunshine which equates to near perfect in Ireland. As a result, every man and his/her Land Rover were out on the roads, dodging the thousands of crazy cyclists of all ages peddling up impossibly steep hills on the usual, narrow, hedge-hemmed roads. It seems this Bank Holiday weekend has enticed every one of the 4.6 million citizens of the Emerald Isle to take to the road in one way or another.

We had a date with family connections, this time living ones, at Powerscourt, an old country manor now transformed into a grand garden, golf course and restaurant. On our way home we had another attempt to visit Glendalough. Even worse this time. No parking and streets crammed with near stationary traffic. Just a glimmer of sunshine brings the Irish out in strength. We did however manage to visit the Old Wicklow Gaol which had a strong Australian connection. County Wicklow sent more convicts to Australia in the early years of transportation than any other Irish County. The gaol has been preserved since it closed in 1924 as a museum/tourist attraction. It does a great job of showing what prison conditions at the time were like.

6 May, Ashford
O’Neill family history day today. Armed with information researched over some years by Mary de Jabrun and others, we headed south to County Carlow, about 50 kms from Ashford, to visit villages where the O’Neills had lived and worked.  Four generations is as far back as reliable records go. 

Patrick and Ellen (nee Swaine) O’Neill were married in St Bridget’s Catholic Church in the village of Clonegal, 25 September 1841. Little is known of Patrick and Ellen except that they were most likely both born in one of the villages around Clonegal, possibly Monaughrim. Pauls great-grandfather, John, was baptised in the same church, but he was born in Shillelagh, in County Wicklow.

We were able to find the parish church in Clonegal, but were a little surprised at how modern it looked. A parishioner was able to help us out with a bit of a history of the church’s renovations, which satisfied us that what we had found was in fact the same church that Patrick and Ellen were married in, even though it had been significantly modernised over the years. We found a number of O’Neill tombstones in the church graveyard, some of which were linked to Monaughrim where our well-informed parishioner told us several O’Neill and Swaine families had lived for generations. There was also an O’Neill memorial bench at the door of the church, indicating that the family may well have been strongly supportive of the parish in more recent times.

By chance, while wandering around the village, we came across the entry to Huntington Castle, built in 1625. Never willing to walk away from a chance to visit yet another castle .... we coughed up the rather exorbitant entry fee and strolled among avenues of yew trees, planted over 500 years ago, imagining great-great-grandfather Patrick, who worked as a gardener on large estates in the area and may well have trod the same paths, tending the gardens that were in spring bloom for our visit. 

Just outside the village of Shillelagh, is the Coolattin Golf Club, a spectacular course we might add, though as reformed golfers, we probably wouldn’t know. The course is on what remains of the holdings of the FitzWilliam family, an Anglo-Irish clan that once held around one third of the land in the whole of County Wicklow. It is also highly likely that Patrick and Ellen worked on this estate. There is later evidence of the couple working as gardener and domestic on other estates, so this assumption is reasonable.

After dodging the odd golf ball and with the blessing of the course pro, we were able to walk around the original manor house which has been unoccupied for several decades. The gardens that Patrick could have tended are now growing wild and doing rather well given they have not been trimmed for 30 plus years. Pigeons now fly freely around in the once gracious rooms and while the exterior looks solid, a local walking her dog, that is, a real authority, told us that the floors are rotten and the roof needs replacing.

In Shillelagh itself, little has changed since our last visit 18 years ago. Some of the shops have closed up, but the row of workers houses built by the FitzWilliam family in 1840 to house estate workers looks as good as the day it was built. One of the occupants was able to direct us to the Catholic Church where we thought we might find some more graves to explore. No graves, but the church was interesting. It was rather Spanish Mission in design and very un-Irish. Later research informed us that it was originally built as a Workhouse for the poor of the district and consecrated as a Catholic church in the 1860s.

Our last stop was Glenealy. John O’Neill and Margaret (Peggy) Cullen, were married here at St Joseph’s in 1882. Again the church has been internally renovated, but the external features are much as they would have been in the late 19th Century. Several family researchers have postulated that Patrick and Ellen O’Neill may have been buried in the cemetery at Glenealy, and there have been a couple of searches done in the past, to no avail. Our experience in searching for family gravestones in Scotland and here in Ireland over the past few weeks has led us to the conclusion that it is highly unlikely that our great-great grandparents were buried in the current cemetery. The earliest graves we found were from the very late 19th century around 1895. The challenge of finding the final resting place of Patrick and Ellen O’Neill remains for future generations.