Iceland summer 2012: The Golden Circle

Today was the Golden Circle. I did this trip in December when the country was under three feet of snow and I wanted to see it 1) in daylight 2) not in the snow.

It was very different. Last time there were maybe ten of us and we were in the truck. This time there were fifty-odd of us and we were in a big coach and a minibus. Our guide was Dee Dee, a hyperactive red-haired Viking whose real name is six or seven syllables long and the only bit I got of it was that it began with an H.

She could talk for Iceland. I took two whole pages of notes over the day. Per capita, Iceland does/has the most of everything. The most golf courses per capita, drink the most coke, eat the most Subway, import the most ADHD medicine, have the most writers and artists. Iceland has won Miss World three times, the World’s Strongest Man eight times, there’s one car for every two people in the country, three sheep for every one person, one mobile phone for every one person.

Our first stop was Nesjavellir, a power station at Hengill. We didn’t do this one on the trip last time because it’s not always accessible in the winter. A lot of Reykjavík’s hot water gets piped in from re. If you’re in an older hotel, they get their hot water directly from the ground below the city but the newer ones get it from the pipeline and the pipeline water is cleaner and less sulphurous than the city water. Specifically, she said “old hotels like Best Western”. That’s where I stayed last time and it would explain why the shower smelled much more eggy there than it does here. Here also has amazingly cold clear pure cold water – at the Best Western, even the cold water was lukewarm and had sulphur in it.

Next was Þingvellir – we were doing the tour in the opposite direction this time, then. We were dropped off at the education centre at the top of the North American cliffs and we walked down to Parliament Rock for Dee Dee to do her Viking speech, from 1000AD, when Þorgeir, the lawspeaker at the time, declared that Iceland should become Christian. Then out came the Mjölnir necklace – Thor’s hammer – to demonstrate that to Icelanders, it was Thor’s hammer. To the Norwegians, who ran Iceland at the time, it was a cross – Þorgeir had allowed the pagans to keep their religion as long as they did it secretly without the Norwegians noticing. “Thor was the son of Odin and he had lovely red hair. Like me! And her, and her” – I was one of the Thor-like redheads pointed out, although Dee Dee’s is naturally red and mine isn’t so much. Even people who weren’t part of our group were watching the performance.

We crossed the bridge and looked down into the Wishing Well – a twenty-five metre deep crack full of crystal clear water and coins of all currencies. There are even two credit cards in there. Then, having walked through the Parliament Plains, we were back in the coach and off to the visitors centre just up the road.

Our third stop was Gullfoss. Last time I saw that it was frozen solid. Today it was flowing and the path all the way up to the top was open so you could get within a few feet of this enormous mass of fast-flowing white water. The spray was incredible. Once I’d taken a few thousand photos, I went back up to the shop and café and ran into the dentists-in-training from the glacier tour. It’s very weird to be in this strange and alien country and meet people I know up in the Highlands, because Gullfoss is in the Highlands. They had been snowmobiling on Longjökull and had stopped to see Gullfoss while the other people in their group went whitewater rafting.

In the shop I finally bought the red and black striped armwarmers I’ve been wanting for six months and then went to get bread and butter, which I remembered being available last time. It still was and it’s still free, even if you don’t have the soup or the sandwiches or anything. I ate bread and butter until I could eat no more.

The next stop was back at Haukadalur, the hot springs area where Geysir is found. We were dropped off at the top entrance again to walk down and meet the bus at the shop. I took my time with Strokkur, determined to get a video of him spouting (Dee Dee called it “him” – volcanoes are always female but Strokkur is apparently male) and a photo of the bubble that forms just before it spouts. That meant trying out the burst setting on my camera and that also meant I ended up with about a hundred photos of Strokkur’s pool bubbling away before I actually got the pictures I wanted. Actually, I got 119, of which only 11 showed him in action.

I didn’t have time to linger around the other bubbling pots. I managed three quick burst photos of Little Geysir and of the landscape across the pots and then I had to run for the bus, because I’d forgotten it was leaving at 2.15, not 2.20.

Next was Skálholt, the ancient seat of the Icelandic bishops and the first place I ever saw Iceland in daylight. I hadn’t realised you could see Hekla from there. There was no man practising the organ inside but Dee Dee sang an Icelandic song to us and then we went downstairs to see the stone coffin of Páll Jónsson, one of the most beloved of Iceland’s bishops, whose death is told about in one of the sagas. When they dug up his coffin, they discovered those particular sagas were all true.

We made a special stop at Kerið, just as I hoped. It’s an explosion crater at the side of the road and it’s very pretty in daylight. It’s deeper than I remembered and has a sparkling green lake in the bottom. You can see Hekla behind it and a volcano in the other direction with a huge red iron patch on the side. I’m very glad I got to see it in the sun, although it was ridiculously hot.

The final stop was at Hellisheiði power plant, the biggest geothermal facility in the world, on the other side of Hengill. We didn’t stop at Hveragerði – that had been ok at nine in the morning on a snowy day for fifteen people but you can’t throw fifty people into a small shopping centre in the height of summer, even if there is a crack between the continents inside it. There was an optional trip to the power exhibition upstairs and that was worth it just to be able to go and look at the machinery. I didn’t watch the DVDs and I didn’t play with the world’s biggest touchscreens, although I watched other people play with them. Then I sat outside and dipped my fingers in the “moat”, just to make sure it was cold water and that they weren’t decorating the place with hot geothermal water – I suspected it would be cold because there would be far too many people like me who have to stick their hands in to be able to have boiling hot water there.

And then we were back in Reykjavík. I jumped off downtown as usual, because there’s no way the massive coach would be able to get up my street and walked back through town, with a stop-off in the bookshop on the way past because I can never resist that. And Iceland has a ridiculous number of English books.

Tonight I have written three blogs and spent the best part of an hour trying to wash the Blue Lagoon out of my hair. It felt like it had been thatched this morning and despite epic amounts of conditioner, I suspect it’s not going to feel a lot better tomorrow.

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