Semester 1 is officially over

I’ve worked hard. I have studied hard. Now, it’s time to play harder. Much, much harder. One more week to my epic solo trip to Canada!

My itinerary has been finalised, my tickets bought. Now it’s left to print those and bring it for my trip.

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Pains me to ditch my camera for my upcoming trip

Early on while planning my trip to Vancouver, I made a firm decision to ditch my Olympus camera and all the lenses that I own. I wanted to pack light. I am doing a number of hikes around Vancouver, some of which are pretty challenging. So it is a no-brainer that lugging your entire camera gear while hiking in those magnificent but challenging trails will be unfeasible.

Everything was fine and dandy when I recently volunteered to cover a 3-day conference as a photographer. I gladly accepted it, since firstly, I have never covered such an event as a photographer before. Secondly, it has been quite a while since I used my camera that extensively. I must admit though, my interest in photography has waned a little bit ever since I got the camera a couple of years ago.

As I completed covering the event, I uploaded all the photos I shot to Lightroom and started reviewing them one by one. I had to select the best to submit to the organiser of the event. At the same time, my annual account subscription for Smugmug was due, and it started prompting me via email to renew my account or risk having all the photos I have taken and showcased on the website deleted. Begrudgingly, I renewed, despite the fact that the website has become inactive for quite a while and I rarely uploaded new photos to showcase my works nowadays. As I renewed my account and checked the website that everything was running the way it was, I looked back at some of the photos I took and I was suddenly hit by a pang of nostalgia. It made me realise the true purpose of why I took up photography. And the true purpose was that I just love to travel, and what better way to chronicle my adventures through pictures.

All of a sudden, my interest in photography was reignited. As I reviewed the photos that I took during the conference, it also made me realise something else; those photos look pretty good. Not award-winning, but pretty good considering the camera and lenses that I have. I made me realise also that I have some pretty good camera gear and those were meant to last. I spent a significant amount of money buying those gear years ago and now it’s been largely unused.

So now that my interest in photography have been rekindled, I am facing a dilemma. To bring or not to bring my camera? The answer is pretty straightforward actually. I simply cannot bring my gear, since I have firmly made my decision to pack light. On a practical side of things, it would simply be too cumbersome to bring my camera along for the hike. Now that makes me sad. I have to rely on my iphone 7 Plus, now that it is the only device that could take photos. And the trails that I am hiking in Vancouver will no doubt offer exquisite views of the surrounding landscape, views that I will be unable capture in all its glory. That makes me really sad. The iphone 7 plus camera would no doubt take good photos, but it will be a little trickier and I will always have that nagging feeling that somehow I will miss something along the way.

 

Itinerary almost done

Took me weeks to come up with the itinerary but the research definitely helps. I am looking forward to my trip to Vancouver in a little over a month’s time. As I was doing my research, I discovered some pretty interesting hiking trails that I want to explore. This itinerary is more outdoors that I previously imagined, due to the discovery of new day hikes and trails around Vancouver. There is actually a lot more to discover, but I don’t think I have the time, considering that I would only be spending about a week there. Besides, it would be unrealistic for me to do them every single day I am there; my legs will go jelly! And Vancouver isn’t all about hiking. There’s quite a bit to see in and around Vancouver downtown itself.

My itinerary is almost 30 pages long. Packed full of info from my flight details to my Visa application, insurance information. It’s just so that I can placate my parent’s worry about this trip since I am doing solo. Seriously, I am approaching 30 and they are still worried.

Seattle is a bit thin. I only managed to come up an itinerary that I just mostly sightseeing in Seattle downtown. Maybe some cafe hopping and visiting touristy areas like the Seattle Space Needle. It’s a little bit more relaxed in Seattle.

So recently I have been thinking about this question lately; why do I want to do this solo trip? I guess there are a number of reasons for doing so. Perhaps it’s because I am approaching 30 and I want to do this and tell myself that I can do this? Or maybe I just want to get away from it all back at home; away from work, school, family, friends and just be myself. Doing the things I want to do, how I want to do and when I want to do. The thought of it is quite liberating.

Going to Vancouver and Seattle all by myself will accomplish a great number of firsts for me. This trip will definitely check a few things off my bucket list.

Iceland Adventure Day 3

It was time to drive.

After collecting our white Ford Edge AWD car from Thrifty, a car rental company, we checked out from our hotel, loaded all our stuff, got ourselves comfortable and drove on Route 1, Iceland’s Ring Road. The car was just nice for a group of four and the boot could easily accommodate four large luggage. Everything in the car can be adjusted electronically using the touchscreen interface and the car even adopts a keyless system to start the engine. It has heated seats, which were godsend especially in Iceland. Overall, a pretty solid car for road trips. We drove in a counter-clockwise direction. heading east and south. In the beginning it was challenging navigating the streets of Reykjavik. The locals drive on the opposite side of the road, so everything you knew about driving back home had to be reversed, something that takes time getting used to. But thanks to Google maps and the timely prompts, we managed to navigate our way out safely. I was the driver of the day and I drove with a sense of both trepidation and excitement. We have officially started our road trip. We needed to cover about 200km today.

Introducing the Ford Edge.

Today’s route.
We headed east to the famous Golden Circle route covering locations such as Thingvellir National Park, Geyser, Gullfoss and Kerio. It was a pretty easy drive for the first couple of hours. But soon gale force winds started whipping up along certain parts of the route that we were driving. The windy weather were the remnants of last night’s storm and it continued around Reykjavik and south of Iceland the next morning. On certain sections of the road along Route 1, soft snow and ice crystals from the surrounding landscape got whipped up, carried by the strong wind, blanketing the entire area, making visibility very poor. Driving soon became difficult as snow and ice started accumulating on the road, becoming really thick in some areas. Patches of ice on the road made manoeuvring and controlling the car challenging. It was my first time driving on such road conditions and none of us knew what to expect or how to react to the difficult drive. At one point, visibility became so poor that we completely lost sight of a car just ahead of us. The entire view in front of us became totally white. We could barely see the road itself, everywhere else was just thick snow. That was when we got our car stuck for the first time.

Weather was unpredictable.
As we drove in whiteout conditions, the car ahead of us came back into view. It was still a good 50 meters ahead of us. The car slowed considerably and then all of a sudden for no apparent reason, jam on the brakes. Instinctually, I hit the brakes as well. But because the road was extremely slippery, our car continued to skid along the road. As the car skidded along, I suddenly realised we were fast approaching the car that stopped in the middle of the road, closing the gap at an alarming rate . I made a split second decision to prevent crashing onto to the car ahead and swerved to the right onto the road shoulder filled with thick, soft snow. When our car came to a complete stop, I then realise that our car had gotten stuck in snow. I tried moving forward, but the car simply wouldn’t budge. I tried reversing. It was the same outcome. We were officially stuck.
Getting out of the car itself was difficult, due to the storm and the strong wind. We stepped out and assessed the severity of the situation. The car that stopped in the middle of road, started moving again, and drove on, disappearing into the storm, not knowing that our car had gotten stuck just behind him. For a short moment we were all alone. We traced back our steps to find the actual road that we were driving on and realised why the car stopped all of a sudden. There was a huge patch of snow that recently settled on the road. As the storm continued, the strong wind carried tiny ice crystals and soft snow from the surrounding landscapes and deposited them on the road. Like sand dunes ever shifting in the desert during a sandstorm, we were witnessing ‘snow dunes’ forming during a snowstorm. The car probably braked and stopped to find out if he could drive through that section of the road buried in snow. Thinking that he could, he continued on his journey.
Our moment of complete isolation was short lived however. Eventually a few cars arrived and discovered that we had gotten our car stuck. A number of them got out of their cars to see if they could assist us. Soon, we could see more people from the other direction heading towards us to see what the commotion was all about and to check if the road condition was good to drive. Traffic was held up for a brief period from both directions. They were sharing information on the road conditions ahead from both directions. After 15 to 20 minutes of deliberation under the raging storm, a woman approached us and asked if any of us driven on such icy conditions before. We replied that we have not. She then asked if we had a shovel. We replied with an embarrassing no. Fortunately she had one in her car and went back to get it. Two other guys approached us as she returned with the shovel and took turns shovelling snow from underneath our car. After much shovelling in strategic areas around the wheels, one of them gave the orders for everyone to push the car, while I put the car on reverse. After much pushing and heaving, the car had enough traction on the ground and start moving back onto the main road. We were all relieved.
We thanked the men and the rest who ‘rescued’ us profusely and continued on our journey. Slowly but surely, we drove past the patch of road with thick snow without much difficulty and traffic resumed. By then, all of us had one thing in our minds; get a friggin’ shovel. We drove to the nearest petrol station and bought one immediately.
After the ordeal, as we continued on our way to Kerio. The storm had largely abated by then. Strong wind still persists every now and then. There is a famous saying in Iceland; “If you don’t like the weather, wait 15 minutes.” True enough, the weather can change drastically and without warning in Iceland. Kerio is a volcanic crater with a shallow lake at the bottom. But it was frozen during this period. It is a popular tourist spot because it is one of few calderas that is very recognisable visually and mostly intact, being a young caldera. On one side of the caldera, the slope is gentle enough to walk down and reach the lake.

Kerio.
Gullfoss is an impressive waterfall. It consists of three ‘steps’ that water flows down before plunging in a deep crevice. Because the crevice is obstructed from view, it seemed as if the water plunges down into the crevice and disappears from the face of the Earth.

Gullfoss

Gullfoss
Our final stop was Geyser, home to the famous Strokkur Geysir, known to erupt boiling water high into the air, up to 15 to 20 meters, every 10 minutes or so. It is one of the very few natural geysers to erupt frequently and reliably. In the surrounding land, there are other smaller geysers that heats up pools of water to boiling temperatures, emitting steam and gasses, that rises from the ground to create an out of this world, alien look to the surrounding landscape. The foul smelling gas and hot steam permeate the land, giving off a distinctive sulphurous odour, akin to the smell of rotten eggs. The odour can be so strong, that we tried to avoid the clouds of steam as it get carried away from the prevailing winds.

Strokkur Geysir erupting.

Erupting very violently!

Very smelly location
By the time we reached Geyser, it was approaching dusk, and when we arrived at our accommodation, Efsti-Dalur farm guesthouse, we were famished. The farm guesthouse is also a full fledge farm, with a cowshed just beside the restaurant dining area, where we can admire the cows chomping grass and the cows can admire us feasting on a 3-course meal through a glass window. And no, I did not eat their kind in a form of steak right in front of them, I chose horse steak instead as my main meal in addition to a starter soup and Skyr yogurt as dessert. The entire meal was terrific. Horse steak tasted just like beef, but has a rather fibrous texture. We also tried their homemade ice-cream, straight from the milk of the cows in the cowshed and they were equally terrific despite the cold.
Soon afterwards, we drove for about 30 seconds to a log house where our rooms await (The guesthouse has only 10 rooms in total). The log house is in another part of the property and we began unloading the car to call it a day.

Iceland Adventure Day 2

Today, the real adventure begins.

Our flight to Iceland was not until 1.20pm in the afternoon. We got up early and had a fulfilling American style breakfast at Mad Restaurant. We needed to have a heavy breakfast because we decided to skip lunch and have a nice dinner instead upon arrival in Reykjavik, Iceland. As we ate, we planned on what we had to do upon arrival in the capital, before actually starting our road trip. Since we won’t be collecting our car till the following morning, we would have time to explore the city of Reykjavik and do some grocery shopping, stocking up on food for our road trip.
We headed back to our hostel, packed our luggage and prepared to check out of our hostel just before noon. My only regret was not being able to spend more time there, especially using that time to mingle with the other visitors and backpackers in the hostel, chilling in the lounge area, and finding out what other people were cooking up in the kitchens. The hostel fondly reminded me of the old days during my backpacking trip. Gosh I am getting old. Who knew, we could make a friend or two there if we stayed there for a couple more days.
As we arrived at the airport, we immediately checked in. Checked luggage weight restriction imposed by Iceland Air is 23kg per checked luggage. This is less generous than Singapore Airlines’s 30kg. But it wasn’t a problem for us. All of our huge luggage barely eked out 20kg each. Check-in was swift, as we did it ourselves using the self check-in terminal. All we simply had to do was loop our luggage tags around our luggage handles and hand over the luggage to the staff manning the conveyor belts. Once we were relieved of the burden, we calmly went through security and took our time to explore the transit area of Copenhagen Airport.
The transit area of Copenhagen Airport is quite nice. It’s not that big, but big enough to ensure that you are well occupied in terms of shopping and dining instead of being bored with nothing to do. They have a great selection of dining options, and had some interesting boutique shops selling interesting things from local brand names. Dark parquet furnishings covered the entire floorspace of the airport that softens the harsh concrete and steel facade. After exploring the airport to our heart’s content, we headed to our gate, where our plane awaited. This is the first time that all of us would board the plane of Iceland’s flagship carrier, Iceland Air.

Copenhagen Airport
It was a fairly short hop. Three hours from Copenhagen to Reykjavik. We knew that meals were not served onboard and comes at a premium, so we didn’t order any. I did not expect that there would be personal in-flight entertainment onboard the plane. Iceland Air exceeded all expectations. The screens behind each seat were large and in high resolution. Interacting with the entertainment system was done by touch. The screen itself is a touchscreen interface. The plane is fairly new, very clean. The seats, flushed leather, was wide. However, the legroom leaves something to be desired. It was not a big deal, as it was just a three hour journey. The cabin crews were polite and professional, which I appreciated very much. I realised much later that each and every Iceland Air plane had a name. The plane that we boarded was Hengill, named after a volcano on the southwest of Iceland. Neat.

3 hour flight to Iceland.

Didn’t take long before we see land.
Once we landed, we collected our luggage and headed out. We were informed earlier that someone would be there to pick us up. Someone with my name on a placard. I scanned the throng of people waiting just outside the doors, past the immigration checkpoint and managed to spot a man with my name on it. I approached him and he welcomed us to Iceland. As we exited the airport, and to his car (a Mercedes taxi to be precise, very posh), the first thing I realised was the immediate landscape. It was white! Everything was white! Snow everywhere. Packed snow grounded noisily beneath my shoes as I walked. It was truly the first time travelling to a country that has snow everywhere. I initially had a hard time walking, but I trudge my way forward nonetheless and soon found solid footing. I realised that I made the right decision in switching my pair of leather shoes to a pair of waterproof hiking boots. It made walking on slick ice and snow much easier.
The drive to our hotel took 45 minutes. We soon realized that it is conveniently located close to Laugavegur, a popular shopping street with lots of souvenir shops, fancy restaurants, clothing boutique stores, grocery stores, bars and pubs. Nordic Visitor certainly has chosen a very good location for our first night’s stay. Upon arrival, the taxi driver gave us a welcome package from Nordic Visitor, containing a folio. The folio is printed with the company logo, and in it contained a personal welcome letter, signed by our tour agent who arranged everything for us, our reservation vouchers for all our accommodation and outdoor activities, customized itinerary, a huge foldable travel map, meticulously annotated by hand by the man himself, a road trip guide book, and an emergency phone with credit and emergency numbers on speed dial. Colour me impressed. They not only value you as a tourist and a customer, but also value your safety while you are out there driving. That is how you treat your customers, with care and respect.

Our welcome package complete with personal letter signed by the travel agent himself. That’s him with his business card on the bottom left.

Our map, handwritten annotations by the man himself. Such effort!
We got ourselves settled, admiring the cosy rooms that the hotel allocated to us. We headed out to the main street of Laugavegur, did a little bit of grocery shopping, and finally, finding a fancy little restaurant where can splurge for dinner, celebrating the momentous occasion of arriving in Iceland safely.

Our first accommodation.
To view more photos, click here.

Iceland Adventure Day 1

Thirty minutes into our flight, the captain of the aircraft spoke through the intercom.

Singapore Airlines flight SQ352, bound for Copenhagen, Denmark was being diverted back to Changi Airport. The left engine of the Boeing 777-200ER began powering down due to a technical fault. We were now flying on only one engine. As we approached the airport, the pilots began circling the aircraft in the air just off the coast of Singapore and began dumping excess fuel. Because of the long, direct flight to Copenhagen (13 hours, 10,000 km in total), the aircraft was carrying too much fuel to safely land the aircraft. Hundreds of thousands of litres of fuel were needed to be dumped before landing. As we look out of the window of the plane, we could see a thick stream of fuel rapidly evaporating into bands of contrails from the tip of the wings. The fuel dumping process took almost 45 minutes before the plane could safely land. We returned to Changi Airport safely and were glad to hear that while we were heading back, the ground crew at Changi Airport were making preparations readying a spare plane for us to board and continue our journey. We were very fortunate. We originally departed at 11.55pm. Our entire journey was delayed by 3 hours. The ground crews were kind enough to set up refreshment stations, handling out sandwiches, water, juice, coffee and tea for the passengers waiting in the gate holding area. Not a single passenger made a fuss. There were no flared tempers, no sighs of frustration. Everyone was just glad to board our replacement aircraft. 13 hours later in addition to the 3-hour delay, we arrived safely in Copenhagen, Denmark at 9am the next morning.

First of many selfies taken during the trip.
When this minor incident happened, we were relieved that the flight delay did not affect our travel itinerary one bit. We made a decision early on to stay in Copenhagen for the night upon arrival, before continuing our journey to Reykjavik the next day. These delays were anticipated during our planning process and we were lucky that we had enough buffer time so that subsequent connecting flights were not affected.

Sixteen hours later, we arrived.

The excitement that we all felt was electric. We got off the plane and briskly walked into the long arrival corridors of Copenhagen Airport towards the luggage belt. The long flight made me groggy. I have difficulty sleeping when I’m flying. The long flight and huge time difference exacerbated my jet lag. Once we collected our luggage we made our way out and began looking for the train ticket counters to purchase our train tickets and make our way to Copenhagen Central Station. It was a short, 20-minute ride to Copenhagen Central Station from the airport. Our hostel, called Urban House was just beside Central Station, which was highly convenient given the fact that we had 4 hulking luggage with us (not including our individual backpacks, and camera bags) We booked a 4-bed private room with a private bathroom to stay for the night. A little luxury wouldn’t hurt after a long flight.

On our way to Urban House, just up ahead.
We were extremely impressed with Urban House Hostel. It is close to the Central Station which is a bonus and has nice chic decor, homely decorated lounges, with comfortable sofas, bean bags to chill, various bookshelves, a pool table, and warm interior lighting to give the space a homely ambience. The communal kitchen, which we did not get a chance to use, is really spacious with fully furnished dining tables for guests to have their meals together and houses top-notch kitchen appliances for them to cook their meals. The bar area has a cosy stage where live bands can perform during the night. The staff were extremely friendly and the private room that they gave us has 2 bunk beds with a surprisingly large bathroom for a hostel.
Weeks before our adventure we decided to go on a free walking tour of Copenhagen organized by Sandeman. We reserved our slots online for the walking tour scheduled at 2pm on the day of our arrival. Since we arrive early in the morning, we had plenty of time to leave our luggage in the hostel and explore the city on our own. We had lunch comprising of sandwiches from Copenhagen’s biggest bakery chain Lagkagehuset before making our way to central Copenhagen, passing by City Hall and to the shopping lanes of Vestegade. The meeting place for the walking tour was just upon the steps of City Hall itself.

City Hall
By noon, we traced our steps back to City Hall and met with out tour guide from Sandeman who was waiting for other tourists who also signed up for the walking tour. The walk lasted almost 3 hours. As we walked the tour guide covered the length and breadth of Denmarks’s history and pointed out important landmarks dotted across Copenhagen’s city center. It was a good walk as it allowed us to orientate and familiarize ourselves layout of the city, recognizing key landmarks so that we won’t get lost when we explore the city on our own. I admit that I didn’t really pay much attention to the tour guide. I was pretty much jet lagged and groggy from the long flight. I did enjoy the walk, taking in the sights, observing people, appreciating old architectural buildings and generally admiring the wonderful city.

Nyhavn
When the tour was over, it was nearing nightfall. The temperature started to plummet, and we headed back to our hostel. We made a short stop to an authentic Italian restaurant on our way back, where we had a hearty meal of pizzas. We decided to hit the sack early, for tomorrow, comes the real adventure.
To view the rest of the pictures, click here.

Iceland Adventure Day 0

Planning for this Grand Adventure began more than 6 months ago.

Back then, we were throwing around ideas on our next big holiday. The Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, and Greenland) often came up during our almost weekly discussions over dinner meet ups. At that point of time, we weren’t very keen due to the costs involved, but after exploring other viable options and seeing them as neither attractive nor interesting, it started to become clear that we might eventually end up there for our next adventure. One of the main reasons why we chose that region of the world was the chance to see the Northern Lights. We all agreed that seeing the Northern Lights has always been in our bucket list. Sweden, Norway, and Finland were prime candidates to see such a magical event. We also decided to do a road trip in one of those countries, renting a car and just driving from town to town, soaking in the beautiful sights and natural wonders that these nordic countries had to offer. But to drive during winter can be a little bit of a challenge in those countries. Short daylight hours in the northernmost part of those countries weren’t ideal for a road trip. Plummeting freezing temperatures were another issue. And simply chasing Northern Lights alone at the expense of everything else would not make our trip enjoyable in the long run. Furthermore, these countries are huge. It is simply too vast of a distance to cover thoroughly by car, especially when travelling a circuitous route to end up where you began.

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Signalling all those concerns, Iceland quickly fell into our sight. And so, in the subsequent weeks, we began researching more about Iceland and what it had to offer. The more we researched, the more we were satisfied that Iceland might meet our holiday “objectives”. And those objectives were to see the Northern Lights, go on a road trip during winter, and experience the Nordic climate during our stay without much logistical challenges. The primary goal however, was to experience something out of this world. To come back with memories worth sharing, and cherishing it for years to come.

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Going on a road trip means renting a car, planning our route and staying at guesthouses, hotels, or farmstays at different parts of country. We decided to make our lives a little simpler. We approached Nordic Visitor, a very reputable tour agency to help us plan our adventure based on what we want to do and where we want to go. We chose a simple 10-day self-drive tour package with some customisations on our own. In the package, they would provide the rented car, help us book all the accommodations, issue a printed itinerary, a comprehensive travel map, an emergency phone, a 24-hour hotline and even include personal pickup and drop-off at the airport and our first accommodation. Everything would be arranged for us in the most professional way. What really drew us to Nordic Visitor was the ability to truly customise the itinerary to fit us. We planned to travel around Iceland for 13 days and do a couple of outdoor activities. Nordic visitor was generous enough to modify the original itinerary to suit us and they did it all without fuss, adding a couple of days stay here and there during our stay, helping us book our glacier and ice-cave tours with the outdoor tour companies well in advance. Everything was sorted through email and they were professional and prompt in their responses to any queries we had prior to committing to the tour.

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And soon we realise it was just a month before our grand adventure would begin. Four weeks became three. Three became two. Packing lists were created, insurances bought, flights finalised, camera gear checked and ready to shoot. Passports ready. All of a sudden, in a blink of an eye, in the midst of all the preparation and the anticipation, it was time for us to go.