When I remember my brief time in Iceland, many things come to mind. I remember the nation’s interesting history, it’s friendly people and it’s tasty cuisine But most of all, I remember the land itself. Never before had I laid eyes on such a stark, strange and beautiful place. After two days exploring the capital, Reykjavik, I felt positively teased by it’s gorgeous skyline. The barren slopes and frothing rivers beckoned to me from my hostel window. So, on the third day, I got on a bus. My first day of exploring beyond the city would bring me volcanic vents, frozen waterfalls and one last little dose of history.
Now being that I had arrived in shoulder season, I knew much of the country wouldn’t be accessible without renting a car. And with barely a week to explore, I decided I’d like to avoid getting lost in the icy wilderness. Also death. I’d like to avoid death in a frozen ditch somewhere. My insurance just wouldn’t cover that. So I booked the Golden Circle tour through Reykjavik Excursions.
The Golden Circle is a 300 km loop that encompasses some of the most famous sights that this corner of Iceland has to offer. Postcard stuff. It’s a convenient trip for travelers that are a) Limited on time and b) don’t like driving. We’d be staying within the general area of Reykjavik, in the south west corner of the country. There were Ten hour tours available, but instead of taking the entire day in a bus I opted for the six hour option. This tour would focus on three famous sights: Þingvellir National Park, Gullfoss waterfall and the Geyser Strokkur in Haukadalur.
Did you try to say it? Right?! I told you. This language, holy crap man. I couldn’t even type the first letter in Þingvellir I had to copy and paste.
After a nice breakfast at my hostel, I was picked up by a shuttle bus which dropped me off at the ticket office down town. There I was mushed along into a small throng of tourists to the cavernous cozy coaches. As tour buses go, they were warm, well-lit and even had wi-fi.
The drive to Þingvellir took us through some awe-inspiring spaces. I went to school in Montana so I’m accustomed to “big-sky” landscape but to me, this place made Montana feel like a kiddie pool. No offence intended. The towering slopes beyond the capital opened up on wide valleys layered in lava and lichen. Spring had barely lifted her head from sleep, so there was plenty of snow lying about and not a hint of life yet. All the postcards show Iceland in the two or three month period where it’s florescent green, which I think is a shame, and a bit of false advertising. With the right coat, I find dead winter beauty to be just as nice as living spring beauty. But then I’ve been told I have strange taste in landscape.
Our fist stop, Þingvellir has a ton of natural and historical significance for the island nation. Not only is it the ancient site of viking parliament, it’s also the spot where the continental plates separate.
First the history bit: Remember how in the last blog post I talked about how the vikings who settled Iceland had the first functional parliament in Europe? Well it happened here. From about 930 A.D. to 1798. It was here that all the regional chieftains would meet to discuss law, dole out punishments and mass convert their nation to Christianity. For two weeks every year during this period, thousands of people would flock to this area, not only for official business but also for trade, entertainment, games and feasts. It was the Superbowl of ancient Iceland! The area was even used in recent times to celebrate gaining independence in the 19th and 20th century. It became Iceland’s first national park in 1928.
Looking at the landscape you can see why this place was chosen for such a meeting. There is a perfect storm of geological activity here. Natural stone amphitheaters and winding corridor-canyons were carved by retreating glaciers, volcanic eruptions and continental drift. You can literally see this land being stretched between two separating tectonic plates, little by little, year by year. Standing here, you stand not quite in Europe, not quite in America, but somewhere in-between. Here, the country is growing before your eyes.
It is a place of danger too, being in such a hot zone. Earthquakes and eruptions are common as you are literally walking through a fault line. For this particular tour we only had about twenty minutes to explore the area, but I felt like I could have used a whole day out there. I’d never seen anyplace quite like it before. Startin to think this is the theme of the trip.
Hustling back onto the bus, we took off towards our next destination, Gullfoss waterfall. On the way I got my first glimpse of the famous Icelandic horses! So small even I might be able to ride them unmolested. Apparently these little guys are one of Iceland’s most famous exports.
We followed the glacier-fed river Hvitá to reach the golden waterfall, Gullfoss. I’d seen pictures of this roaring monstrosity, but I was not prepared to see it in the flesh, er, froth.
Again, it was the combination of elements that made this sight so incredible. The deafening roar of the water as it plummeted into the 70 meter high canyon below, the sculpted walls and columns of ice, the freezing mist blasting my face, the too-blue color of the water. You could feel the incredible power, the sheer force of the water as it thundered past. It was like staring into the earth’s open veins.
Whew…well after that blast of fresh air, there was only one stop left on our Golden Circle tour. We were headed further into the Haukadalur Valley, to visit the Geysir that gave geysers their name!
So the Geysir of Iceland is the first of it’s kind to have been described in European history(first described in 1294), though it’s not the biggest of its kind. The word means “To Gush” in ancient norse. When it’s active, it spews boiling hot water over 70 meters in the air. However, this particular geyser isn’t what we would call faithful. It didn’t erupt while we were there. However it’s little brother Strokkur erupts every few minutes, so we were treated to three separate blasts of varying height and soak-age.
This was my first geyser and It was fun to sit at the edge waiting for the blast. You came to recongize the warning signs: a slow ripple, a bubble, then a bursting forth into the air. I’m really excited to check out Yellowstone Park’s offerings after this introduction. Beyond the geysers themselves it was fun to just walk around the little paths, past bubbling pools and steaming rivers filled with bright blue water. You should hold your breath while walking by though, unless you really enjoy the smell of rotten eggs.
That was it for my Golden Circle tour. We had a quick bite to eat and then were shuttled back to the capital. It was a fun little tour, I do recommend it. Though in retrospect maybe I should have taken the ten hour version just for the sake of having more time to look around. Pictures are past me face! Enjoy!
But hey! Wait! They day was over but the night had just begun. One reason I was really excited to be visiting Iceland in the off season was the chance to see the Aurora Borealis…the Northern Lights. A thing I had heard about, and seen in pictures, but never experienced. Soon after my golden circle tour ended, I booked yet another tour. A late-night excursion to chase this elusive phenomenon.
We set out at about 9 p.m., a few dozen tourists spread out across three buses. Our guide was a native elderly gentleman, a bit of a Northern Lights enthusiast. He recalled to us the first time he saw them, back in the old days before electricity was common here. He was a young child helping his father tend the cattle in the wee hours of the morning, when he was startled by a dancing green glow that filled the sky. Since then It had been a fascination for him and he had tried to wrangle up every bit of ancient lore and legend he could about the lights. Some thought they were elf sign, some thought they were the paths of Valkyries riding through the sky, some thought they were the souls of the departed flying to heaven. Our guide hadn’t been able to find much, seems like the ancient locals just accepted them as a natural part of their sky. We now know them to be the visible sign of collision between the earth’s magnetic field and solar flares emitted by the sun.
We would have to drive for a couple hours to get away from the city lights and find a break in the clouds. It was not a perfect night for the lights, but I was limited on time. It was still light out when we arrived at our site, a small restaurant and hill next to a lonely road.
I lumbered up to the top of the hill with my trusty monopod and about thirty other tourists. We set up and waited. And waited. I took many pictures hoping my camera would see something that I could not. For hours nothing beyond the stars and a deep blue sky could be seen. Then…the ghosts began to appear.
A slight green glow, barley noticeable at first. It came and went. One picture caught it, the next five had nothing. I still couldn’t see anything with my naked eye. I felt like a ghost hunter or something. The hours passed, and the light never rose above the neon presence in my camera.
I admired the dedication of my fellow tourists, but as midnight rolled around I gave up. I was tired, my battery was almost dead and it was so cold my shaking hands couldn’t hold the monopod steady enough to get a decent shot. I got back into the bus and tried to sleep. I knew I wouldn’t get another chance to see them, but as the clouds covered the sky, I knew my chances of seeing anything were about as low as my battery. Even our enthusiastic guide was shrugging and staring at his watch. At about 1:00 am, we set off back toward the city. I finally got some shut eye after thirty minutes on the road.
At 2:00 am the bus suddenly lurched and I was awakened with a start. Our guide was nearly in tears. He shoved us out the door and pointed frantically at the horizon.
Ribbons of blue and bright green light waltzed across the sky, they shimmered, they cracked like the whips of celestial horsemen. My fingers were numb, and my camera was barley squeezing past two percent battery life, but I knew I wouldn’t have to settle for a postcard anymore. It was the most eerie, strange thing I’ve ever seen grace the sky. Impossible to describe, impossible to fathom until you’ve seen it yourself.
My face hurt from smiling so much and as my camera finally died, I was content to just sit on the ground and watch. The clouds swept over again; the show was over, but as we got back into our buses no one felt like sleeping.
The Golden Circle was cool. This…was incredible. If you have to choose when to see Iceland, there is no choice. Go before April. You can’t chase these ghosts in summertime.
Click me face for the pics. Sorry there aren’t more.
My next day in Iceland was spent careening down the south shore, from Reykjavik to Vik. Glaciers, volcanoes, black beaches, and more waterfalls! And even more names you can’t pronounce!!!
Thanks for reading! Onward to Glory!