Iceland – Glacial and untamed

Reykjavik - view towards harbour

Arriving at Keflavik airport after a 3 hour flight from Amsterdam we immediately boarded a bus for a 40 minute ride to Blue Lagoon spa, a spa built around geothermic waters.   We highly recommend the Private Retreat Spa option.  Although more expensive it allowed us to jump the long queue and gave us a private room where we could store our luggage.  It also allowed access to a self treatment room, the restaurant, private pool and relaxing rooms.  All in all worth the extra bucks if you can afford it.  Unfortunately you cannot take pictures there so you will just have to imagine us in this space https://www.bluelagoon.com/

We shed our clothes ate a light lunch and then dived right into the warm pool.  The  warming water and ice cold air causing steamy tendrils to rise above us.  When our fingers were pruney enough we climbed out and went to a room where attendants guided us through a process of scrubs of salt, volcanic ash, applications of silica and algae followed by a lovely soothing oil which we applied to our faces.  Feeling renewed we went to lie in one of the relaxing rooms where chairs and loungers surrounded a little fire.  Soon we were both dozing. We reluctantly roused ourselves and got ready to head to the hotel.  An amazing experience I can highly recommend, of course, try not to miss your bus back to Reykjavik as we did. Instead we caught a taxi and, since nothing is cheap in Iceland that cost us a cool 18000 Kroner, around R1800.  Arriving at The Central Hotel Midgardur on a blast of frosty air we checked in and enjoyed a lovely dinner in their restaurant before hitting the sack in preparation for an early start.

Reykjavik - church in the distance
Reykjavik – church in the distance

The next morning we were up early to walk a block to the bus stop in the dark where our tour guide was to pick us up.  Standing there, stamping our feet to keep warm we watched as bus after bus pulled in to pick up a seemingly endless queue of other tourists.  It began to snow much to our delight, yet when the bus arrived we were very happy to get inside and in some shelter from the chill.  And so we set off, with one small detour to drop off a couple of ladies who’d got on the wrong bus, for our 3 day Golden Circle Tour.

First stop after about an hour was a UNESCO heritage site –  Þingvellir National Park, the only UNESCO World Heritage Site on the Icelandic mainland.  It’s special for a couple of reasons – firstly it is the site of where the longest running parliament in the world began.  Formed in Þingvellir  in 930 AD, the Alþingi  still continues in Reykjavík today where it moved in 1843.

Most dramatic though is the fact that here you can literally see the earth being torn apart.  Here one can clearly see the divide between the Teutonic plates of Eurasia and North America. They move apart around 2 cms every year.  As you can imagine with all this rendering of the earth – earthquakes are common.  More than common, in fact they happen every day.  However they only measure 3 on the Richter scale so cannot be felt.

Þingvellir National Park
Þingvellir National Park – between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates

As we stood there, in awe of the power of the earth, the cold wind whipping around us, below us the valley lay clothed in snow like a winter wonderland, and I was aware of how puny we are.   Then it was finally back in the bus for another couple of hours drive.   Icelands colours, blue, white, black and grey make every view stark and dramatic.   We drive past vast, empty spaces filled only with snow and volcanic rock.  Spring no doubt will add some green and purple to it’s palette in the form of alpine meadows but overall it is a sheared back country – here and there you may find trees, largely birches – struggling to find the sun, to escape the cold they are small, more shrub than tree.

Valley below -Þingvellir National Park
Valley below -Þingvellir National Park

After a little drive we reach a small dairy farm where they make their own ice-cream.  It is disconcerting to be purchasing ice-cream in the little store while a glass window allows us to see the cows in their pens in a cosy barn.  (I could not order an ice-cream. But, I’ve never been crazy about ice-cream anyhow) They placidly munch their straw and remind me of nothing so much as a metaphor for people and modern consumerism.  There they are, warm, cosseted and well fed – apparently living the good life – meanwhile the corporates, ooops I mean, the farmer milks dry the nourishment meant for the young they’ll never raise.   If anything convinces me that this warm barn is more a matter protecting one’s assets than humane caring for the cows it is that every other creature, dogs and Icelandic horses are outdoors braving the weather.

I am pleased to move on.   The bus which sets out once more stopping a little way ahead where a farmer has his Icelandic horses in a field, while definitely horses they are pony sized and clearly  used to people coming to pet them. They are waiting at the fence by the time we get out nibbling hands and pockets to search for food.  The farmer has obligingly placed treats there that we can purchase to feed the horses.  They certainly expect it.  Quite interestingly Iceland as an Island has to be diligent in preventing disease and no other horses are allowed on the island. Furthermore if an Icelandic pony leaves Iceland it is not allowed to return.  So a little bit of horse love for us and then we were back in the bus yet again.

Icelandic Horses
Icelandic Horses

The next formal stop is at a  Geysir Geothermal Area where a several geysers bubble and steam – a safety valve for the immense pressure under the earth.  The largest, Geysir, can be considered the mother of all Geysers, since it is as a result of her that the others in the world are named geysir / geyser.  Geysir is barely active these days but nearby is the Strokkur geyser which obligingly erupts every 5 minutes or so blasting water as high as 30 metres and thrilling the waiting tourists.  It’s an interesting tension – the ice cold air, the boiling (up to 100 degrees Celsius) water.  We watch spout its’ boiling water and then move indoors to the cafe to get some warm soup.

Strokkur Geyser Iceland
Strokkur Geyser Iceland
Strokkur geyser ready
Strokkur geyser ready
Strokkur geyser steady
Strokkur geyser steady
Strokkur geyser blow!
Strokkur geyser blow!

The third  location on the Golden Circle is Gullfoss – The Golden Waterfall with a beautiful story of love and dedication behind it.  In the year 1907, an Englishman wanted to harness the power of Gullfoss for electricity generation.  The farmer on whose land it lay Tómas Tómasson refused and apparently said “I will not sell my friend” but did later agree to lease it to him.  His daughter, Sigriður, however realised the danger this posed for maintaining the pristine beauty of the waterfall and sought to have the contract voided.

Gullfoss - The Golden Waterfall
Gullfoss – The Golden Waterfall

Her struggle was epic –  she used her own savings to hire a lawyer and the trial lasted years. She would often travel the dangerous terrain to Reykjavik to follow up on the case and even threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if construction began.  Her attempts gained her the reputation of being called Icelands first environmentalist, but sadly her case failed in court.

Gullfoss - The Golden Waterfall
Gullfoss – The Golden Waterfall

But, before any damage was done to the waterfall the contract was cancelled due to the lack of payments of the rent!  Sigriðurs’ struggles to preserve the waterfall brought to peoples’ attention the importance of preserving nature and in 1940 the adopted son of Sigriður acquired the waterfall from Sigriður’s father and later sold it to the Icelandic government. Gullfoss and its environs was designated as a nature reserve in 1979 to permanently protect the waterfall and allow the public to enjoy this unique area. Standing here before this thundering sheets of water I was grateful to Sigriður and her family for saving this phenomenal piece of nature.

Gullfoss - The Golden Waterfall
Gullfoss – The Golden Waterfall

Roaring and tumbling down two steps into a dramatic ravine, its scale and might are mesmerising. There are several viewing platforms that you can admire it from; in good weather, one opens right beside where it’s falling.  This however was not good weather, well, maybe by Icelandic standards not too bad however while most of my clothing was holding up I was beginning to see where I needed to tweak my wardrobe.  For one thing I needed to plait my hair – loose hair with all the taking on and off of hoods and beanies was a mare and when I put them on my hair would bunch or get caught in my zipper.  My socks were too short exposing only a minuscule piece of skin but enough to put a chill through me and, which I didn’t know yet, putting a shell over my layers of pants would have helped reduce the wind chill.  My nose wouldn’t stop feeling as thought it was running.

So here’s my tips.  Leave no inch of skin uncovered. A beanie is good, sometimes the hood it too much, blocking sound as well as the wind and rain.  Tie up your hair if it’s long.  Keep tissues handy.   And wear a shell.  These factors alone changed everything for me and made the later outings perfectly pleasant even in the chilliest weather.

Just before we stopped for the night there was time for one more viewing – the waterfall Seljalandsfoss. Beautiful during the day, the sun was beginning to set as we arrived and if anything it made it all the more beautiful and dramatic.  I didn’t linger long here though, lack of an outershell and the gaps in my clothing were beginning to take their toll and I soon scuttled back to the van.

umi-hotel Iceland
umi-hotel Iceland

Our final stop was at our hotel for the night.  Umi hotel, turned out to be a lovely little hotel and we shared dinner that night with our guide Erta and a lovely French family of father, mother and two sons.  Later that night, donning multiple layers of clothing and warm shells,  we got to, kind of, see the Northern lights.  It was cloudy and so impossible to actually see the lights with our eyes, you could sense something different with the clouds though and when one used the camera to view it we captured some stunning pictures.

Northern Lights
Northern Lights UMI hotel Iceland

 

There was a sense of excitement and sounds of delight as our fellow travellers caught glimpses or managed to capture their own images of the light display. Pierre’s new Light camera got a lot of attention, I can’t blame them it’s a most unusual looking camera. Eventually we went back into the hotel and asked for a wake up call should the clouds clear but they didn’t that night.  Instead, after a great nights sleep we set off on day 2 of the tour.

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