Iceland 2011: The Golden Circle

I was picked up at the crack of dawn today by an Iceland Excursions minibus from right outside my hotel door. Well, not the crack of dawn exactly – dawn doesn’t crack around here until the middle of the morning. I was picked up at 8am, taken to the IE office and told to exchange my printed confirmation for a ticket and then be back in half an hour. Half an hour later, the minibus had transformed into some sort of all-wheel-drive truck thing.

The driver kept up a commentary all the way through Reykjavik – we saw the oldest prison in the country, now only has one prisoner, it’s the Prime Minister’s office and then suddenly four or five police cars appeared, blocked off the junction and three black cars whizzed through and stopped outside that very building -presumably the Prime Minister arriving at work. We were also told that some streets in the city are geothermically heated so they don’t freeze in winter and become slippery.

As we headed out on the Ring Road, it was still very dark and snow began to blow across the road, then it got thicker until we were in a snowstorm so heavy you couldn’t see six feet in front (although I was delighted to discover the truck had triple windscreen wipers).

We made our way down the hill in the dark to Hveragerthi (the th is a letter we don’t have in English. It looks like a d with a line through the top) which is a greenhouse village, where the Earth’s crust is very thin. They use the heat to grow flowers and fruit and vegetables – even bananas. The crust is so thin you have to be careful digging in the garden in case you accidentally dig up a hot spring and thirty years ago, some people were sitting watching TV one evening when a hot spring sprouted right there in their house. It’s a weird town because as we descended, we could see the lights of the town but we could also see massive orange glows, like something out of the Simpsons, which turned out to be the greenhouses.

We stopped at a little shopping centre where there was a crack in the ground – the crack between the North American and European tectonic plates. There’s also a bakery which cooks its bread by leaving it in the ground overnight so the heat of the Earth bakes it. Mostly we just stopped there though to give the sun a chance to catch up with us. It was 9.40am by the time we left and only just beginning to hint at daylight.

Our next stop was Kerith (also spelt with that Icelandic letter) although on the way we saw Eyjafjallajokull in the distance and the driver took great pleasure in being able to say it. We’re not allowed to leave Iceland until we can pronounce it, so I’ll be fine on Monday, I’ve been practising. Kerith is a 6000 year old extinct volcanic crater with very steep sides. It was freezing cold there – colder than anything I’ve experienced or even imagined. It was windy, it was freezing, it wasn’t quite as dark as it looks in the photos but I was very glad to jump back on the bus.

Next stop was Skarholt, formerly the centre of Icelandic religion until their bishops got moved to Reykjavik. It was cold there too but now fairly light so everyone took photos of the bare white landscape and we went into the church where a man was playing the organ, presumably just for the tourists, and there were three bus loads following each other around – ours in our truck, one lot in a minibus and one lot in a coach but no more than eight or ten to a group.

Next stop was a waterfall called Flaxa, I think, which has stairs carved up one side for the salmon. That was quite spectacular viewed from above.

Next, another waterfall, Gullfoss. This is a huge two-step waterfall where the water makes a sharp 90 degree turn before the second fall. It’s spectacular in summer and today it was almost completely frozen. It looked like it had frozen instantly in mid-fall, all still white froth and ripples. But it was incredibly cold down by the falls so we didn’t stay too long – we went up to the cafe for food (rolls and butter are free, whether or not you have the soup with them) and I wandered the shop and didn’t buy massive scarfs or handwarmers or traditional woollen blankets, although I did buy a felt Christmas tree, a rune necklace and an Iceland flag blanket badge to add to my collection.

We went on to the geothermal area at Geysir. Geysir itself has stopped erupting, although the pool is still hot and bubbly. It’s weird and otherworldly to see the ground all white and grey and brown streaked and steaming constantly. Strokkur does erupt, very regularly and that’s quite a sight to see – a jet of boiling water sprayed thirty feet into the air every five minutes. The first time I saw it up close – and it was a double eruption as well – I just stood staring and giggling, then I picked my way round to the other side. The ground is frozen and the compacted snow is fine to walk on but the hot steam has turned the paths around Geysir into lethally slippery sheet ice.

Our driver got some bread from the cafe at Geysir and stopped at the first pack of Iceland ponies he spotted and we all jumped out to feed them and stroke them. They’re really fluffy and very friendly and gentle although they were certain we had more bread and we all got headbutted as they searched for it. I like Iceland ponies.

Our last stop was Thingvellir (the th is another letter we don’t have in English, called a thorn. It looks like a trombonist hiding behind a tree). Thingvellir starts at the foot of a textbook shield volcano – the one which all shield volcanoes are named after, actually – Skjsldbreithur (th being the th that looks like a d), Shield-broad – all the way down to a lake called Thingvallavatn. This is where the split between the two continental plates is most obvious – it’s a huge rift valley where the American plate ends with a big black sheer cliff and the European plate starts somewhere the other side of the river among the gorse and in the middle is a kind of continental no man’s land where the two plates are pulling apart and creating new land at the rate of an inch per year (which will make Iceland the biggest country in the world in 6 million years, according to our driver). It’s where the Icelandic parliament began in 930AD before moving to Reykjavik in 1800 – Thingvellir means parliament field. The river that comes out of Thingvallavatn is nine times bigger than the river that flows into it – because the glacier that feeds it flows under the lava and so the lake effectively fills from underwater. We were shown an amazing bit of gorge where the water is bright blue and absolutely crystal clear – it’s called the Wishing Well and people throw coins in and lots of people dive in there. We made our way around the end of the lake and stopped at the view point on the edge of the American plate, warned up in the visitor centre and then it was time to head back to Reykjavik via Esja, Reykjavik’s mountain – according to my city guide the locals “have an unitchable scratch to climb it” and if your house or flat has a view of it, then it’s more expensive than a house or flat without the Esja view. We didn’t stop there or attempt to climb it (and I won’t attempt it tomorrow either, that would be stupid…)

The Northern Lights are on for tonight – at least, the tour is. They can’t guarantee the lights will appear but if they don’t, we get to come along for free another night to give it another go. So tonight will be a late night but fortunately tomorrow I’m wandering Reykjavik and don’t need to be up early, although it would be nice to see what the hotel has in the way of breakfast.

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