Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Iceland, Day 2 - Geysers, Waterfalls & National Parks

The weather was a bit of a surprise because we had interpreted ‘Ice Land’ rather literally and were expecting sub zero temperatures, snow and lots of ice. What we hadn’t taken fully into consideration was the effect of the gulf stream that delivers warm water from the Caribbean directly to the south of Iceland and thereby keeps the temperature unexpectedly mild. Reykjavik is on a line of latitude 64° north which is approximately the same as Anchorage in Alaska and Arkhangelsk in Russia but whilst the average November temperature in these two cities is about -12° centigrade in Iceland it is only about -1°. Whilst you wouldn’t step out on the streets in Anchorage or Arkhangelsk without a warm coat and a hat it really wasn’t absolutely necessary here. Iceland it seems is a most inappropriately named country.

Being so far north and west it didn’t get light until about half past nine so after a buffet breakfast in the restaurant next door we set off on the Golden Circle tour in complete darkness. After we had driven through the town of Selfoss we turned left and followed directions to Gullfoss and the road got narrower and the volume of traffic slowed to a trickle of four by fours.

Now we began to appreciate fully the landscape and as the sun began to appear through broken clouds we stopped for a while to enjoy the spaciousness of the countryside. First we found some Icelandic ponies that are unique to this country and then stopped for magnificent views of the River Sog with the sun hugging the horizon and shooting shafts of brightness through the heavy clouds. It is nice to visit places where there is no one else about and there was a real sense of solitude and isolation and this was not surprising really when you consider that Iceland only has a population of slightly over three hundred thousand people and that population density is the lowest in Europe at less than three people per square kilometre. That is about a hundred times less than the United Kingdom at two hundred and forty-four people per square kilometre and a lot less crowded than the most congested country, which is Monaco at sixteen thousand four hundred people per square kilometre.

The sunshine was welcome and transformed the khaki scrub to golden meadows and a symphony of winter colours stretching across vast open fields to snow capped glaciers beyond. Along the way there were a number of viewing points and we stopped to see an old volcanic blowhole, now filled with water and an impressive waterfall with surging white water rushing over black rocks and creating a hanging spray of misty water. Everywhere there was evidence of volcanic and geothermal activity with a strong smell of sulphur and a landscape of broken rocks and deep fissures like open earth wounds that made the place seem precarious and exciting. It was easy to see why Jules Verne decided that Iceland was the place to begin his ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ in his novel of 1864. Iceland is a bit like Wales, but with attitude!

Finally we reached Geysir in the Haukadalur valley, which is the oldest known geyser and one of the world's most impressive examples of the phenomenon. I had seen geysers before at Yellowstone National Park in the USA but these here were even more impressive. We followed the path past the bubbling mud pots and the steam vents and joined a bus tour party who had an entertaining and informative guide. We tagged along and at least one lady in the party seemed to be showing some annoyance that we had joined the group as unpaid parasites and she kept flashing aggressive little glances our way. This reminded me of the time that I went to Knossos on the island of Crete and having paid for a tour guide Jonathan got agitated when other non-payers joined us until his mood only improved when the guide finally asked them for the appropriate fee and he settled down again. Mindful of how irritating this can be for people who have paid the full whack I kept an appropriate distance away from the group whilst making sure of course that I could continue to hear and enjoy the commentary.

The original great Geyser erupts only infrequently now so you could be a long time hanging around waiting for a show but luckily the nearby geyser Strokkur erupts much more regularly every five minutes or so to heights of up to twenty metres (that’s the equivilent of about five London double decker busses). Crowds of people were gathered expectantly around the glassy pool waiting for the transluscent blue water bubble to form and then dramatically break forcing many gallons of boiling water and hissing steam into the air.

There were about thirty other mud pots and water pools and it was a good job that we had the benefit of the tour guide because he was giving sound advice on temperatures and what you could comfortably touch and what you couldn’t because some of the pools contained boiling water that would strip flesh from fingers and would have involved an unplanned trip to the infirmary. After we had watched the geysir erupt a few more times we went into the nearby shop but left again almost immediately on account of the silly prices and continued our journey towards Gullfoss and the falls.

The landscape was more mountainous now with deep black fissures and verdant green moss and litchen, which was a sure sign that the air was clean and free of industrial pollutants. The black mountains were capped with generous amounts of snow and below the frost line the ice was dripping down the side like gloss paint dribbling messily down the side of a pot.

Eventually we reached Gullfoss, which is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the country. The wide river Hvítá rushes southward and about a kilometer above the falls it turns sharply to the left and flows down into a wide curved three step staircase and then abruptly plunges in two stages into a crevice thirty-two metres deep. The crevice is about twenty metres wide, and is at right angles to the flow of the river which results in a dramatic water plunge and an atmosphere full of hanging water mist. As we followed the path from the car park to the falls we encountered ice for the first time where the mist had frozen and provided a treacherous surface on the path that went down to the crevice below. In the gorge there was a spectacular close up view of the wall of white water that was surging with great force into the ravine and falling with a great boiling roar into the crevice below. We were getting wet from the spray so we renegotiated the treacherous path back to the top and went into the café at the car park for soup and a roll at a very expensive £10 a bowl! Actually it was very good traditional Icelandic lamb soup that was more of a broth which we tried to use as good reason to convince ourselves that this was value for money, which of course it just wasn’t.

We didn’t stop long because there was still a lot to do and with only short daylight hours we had to keep moving to be sure of completing our planned Itinerary. Our next destination was the Þingvellir national park and there was a choice to be made on how best to get there. A paved road that was a much longer journey or a more direct route using a gravel road instead so we chose the second option. This was about a fifteen-kilometre track full of potholes and deep ruts and many times along the way I regretted the decision for fear of damaging the car but we persevered and eventually emerged back onto a paved road and we carried on with a sigh of relief. The road clung to the side of the picturesque lake Þingvallavatn that looked mean and moody under the heavy grey skies and whilst we would have preferred sunshine this greyness seemed strangely appropriate to the location.

It was getting late when we arrived Þingvellir and although the sun was poking through again the light was beginning to fade on the site of the historic Icelandic National Assembly that was set up in 930 and remains the spiritual home of Iceland. There were few visitors and the site had an eerie beauty, ringed by mountains with deep lava chasms, cobalt rocks and water falls with impatient water cascading down the black rocks and shattering into a thousand droplets of fine mist as it collided with the rocks.

On 17th June 1944 thousands of Icelanders flocked to this place for the historic foundation of the modern independent republic of Iceland. We walked past great fissures in the landscape, the famous Almannagjá is the biggest of them, and is evidence that here the tectonic plates of Europe and America meet and are in conflict here as they are drifting slowly apart.

By the time we got back to the car it was dark and we returned to Reykjavik in anticipation of being reunited with the lost luggage. I parked the car and we went into the hotel but the helpful desk clerk had some bad news for us. Holy Shit, no bag! This didn’t make Kim very happy at all and by some irrational twist of feminine logic it appeared that it is was all my fault now as well.

After sharing out the available clothes we walked out into the City again in search of a restaurant and a nice evening meal. We found a hospitable Icelandic restaurant and we ordered seafood pasta and red wine and as we were past worrying about the cost of living in Reykjavik we thoroughly enjoyed it. After dinner we walked back past the Cathedral and Leif Erikisson and there was some sleety snow falling and we became optimistic about the possibility of snowfall over night and white streets and icy conditions in the morning.

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