What’s triangular, grey and beautiful? Iceland’s “Golden Circle” of course!
Gott kvöld (translation = good evening) blogaholics! Salutations from Iceland, officially one of our favourite places in the world. Who says love at first sight doesn’t exist? We’ve only been here 2 days and we’ve been half frozen the whole time, blown off our feet by 80km/hr Arctic winds and soaked by rain that was more ice than water, and yet WE LOVE IT HERE! Not saying that we could live here full-time or anything (coz if this is summer I cannot begin to imagine what winter is like), but there is something about the landscape here, about the people and about the feel of the place which is magical. Moments like this have helped us fall in love with Iceland…
Fortunately the intense wind* from yesterday actually eased off a bit today and in between clouds we even had occasional moments of sunshine, making our day trip out to the so-called “Golden Circle” far more pleasant. The “Golden Circle” is the most popular sight-seeing tour out of Reykjavik. It’s an easy 8 hour day trip that includes the Thingvellir National Park, the Gullfoss Waterfall and the geothermally active valley of Haukadalur, which contains the geysers Geysir and Strokkur (see map below).
*We’ve been informed by the locals that wind is THE defining feature of Iceland’s weather. That and changeability. They say their summers have perfect “window weather” – i.e. it’s beautiful weather, as long as you’re behind a window, sheltered from the WIND. Having a day that was virtually wind free, like we did today, is apparently exceedingly rare. How lucky are we?!
Even though this is the most well-worn of Iceland’s tourist trails, we were intrigued enough by what the tour offered to sign up, accepting that we would be sharing the views with hundreds of other Iceland fans. To try and avoid the worst of the crowds we intentionally chose a smaller tour company that only takes 16 people max (Salty Tours), and it was sooo worth it! The driver/tour guide was awesome and he took us to a couple of places with our minibus that the big coaches can’t reach, like Vatnsleysufoss Waterfall. Affectionally known as “Faxi”, Vatnsleysufoss Waterfall is as Helgi, our driver/guide put it, “a good warm-up waterfall”. That is to say, it’s small, accessible and yet still impressive. See what you think…
Faxi is the warm-up act for one of Iceland’s biggest waterfall: Gullfoss. Located on the sediment-rich Hvítá River this huge waterfall is actually 2 consecutive drops (11m then 21m), down which spills 140,000L of fresh, glacier-melt water every second. It’s an incredible amount of water and makes for a pretty spectacular spot to enjoy a cafe latte, which we did, being the stupidly spoilt tourists that we are.
Having been wet and deafened by Gulfoss Falls we then went to see the original geyser: Geysir. This hot spring was the first geyser known to modern Europeans and the word “geyser” is derived from the Icelandic name of this gushing spout of boiling hot water. Geysir has been active for thousands of years, though these days it only erupts a few times a year (he’s getting old and thinking of retiring apparently, or so we were told by Helgi). Younger and more active is the geyser Strokkur; just a few meters away, this hot spring goes off every 4-5 minutes, shooting water up 30-40m into the air. The water comes out of the ground at a temperature of 80-100C, making for loads of steam and a hot shower if you get too close. the water coming out of the ground was pretty sulphurous and every time Strokkur erupted, the stench that filled the air was rather unpleasant, to say the least. It was fascinating watching the pool bubble and churn and then build up to a giant, stinky eruption.
Around the valley there were about 40 other hot pools and geysers, all boiling hot and belching their sulphurous stenches into the air. Perfect place for lunch right? Well, we thought so and happily ate our tuna sandwiches on a grassy knoll overlooking Haukadalur Valley. Having been to Rotorua in New Zealand we knew a bit about geysers and geothermally active areas like this, but it was still very cool seeing the bubbling, steaming pools everywhere and trying to imagine the forces at work below our feet creating all that heat.
From the Haukadalur Valley we went to Thingvellir National Park, which was by far the highlight of the day. This area was designated a national park in 1928 due to its historical and geological significance (it is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site for this reason). From a geological point of view the valley marks where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates meet; or in this case, don’t meet. The plates are pulling apart in this region, and continue to do so at a rate of about 2cm per year. The movement of the tectonic plates has produced a massive rift valley called Thingvellir. The area is full of cracks and faults, with some of the cracks now filled with crystal clear glacial melt waters, forming lakes and ponds the likes of which we have never seen anywhere. The water in this lakes is so stunningly blue and clear that even on a cloudy day like today, it was breath-taking.
Thingvellir is also of great cultural value to the Icelanders as this is where their first parliament was held in the year 930. The Alpingi (translation = “all thing” or assembly) began in 930, about 30 years after Iceland was first settled by Norwegian Vikings. The settlement of Iceland began in 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingolfur Arnarson became the first permanent settler on the island. Over the next decades, people of Norse and Celtic origin settled in Iceland. Early on, district assemblies were formed, but as the population grew there was a need for a general assembly. Anyone could attend the Alpingi and present their grievances and have them addressed by the Law Council, and this was where chieftains met to make decisions that affected the whole nation. The assembly was also a social and trading event, with thousands attending it every in June. The Alpingi at Thingvellir was Iceland’s supreme legislative and judicial authority, and remained so until 1271 when Iceland was invaded by Norway. Then, in 1814, when Denmark colonised Norway, Iceland became part of the Danish Empire (Iceland only became independent again in 1944). Throughout its history, however, the Alpingi continued; effectively making Iceland’s assembly the oldest, still-running parliament in the world. It was cool to be in the Thingvellir Valley today, and thinking about the 1000 years of history that was shaped there.
Thingvellir National Park was our final stop for the day, so from there Helgi took us back to Reykjavik, past some typically Icelandic scenery. As the moss-covered lava fields, farms and mountains rolled past, Helgi fed us interesting tid-bits and facts about Iceland. Things we learnt today:
- Icelandic horses are unique in the world. They represent a genetic strain of Nordic horse that has disappeared from mainland Europe. These short, stocky, hard-working, but gentle animals are bred only in Iceland and are apparently exported all over the world. Their good temperament and strength make them popular with farmers. Interestingly Icelandic have 5 gaits, not just 4 like other horses: Icelandic horses tölt as well walk, canter, gallop and trot. The tölt involves the horse only having 1 foot on the ground at any one time and makes for smoother movement over rocky ground.
- Icelanders pay up to 45% income tax and have the highest VAT/GST in the world: 25.5%. For all their taxes however they get lots of public services, including good roads, schooling and healthcare. There are no private schools or hospitals in Iceland because the public ones are so good!
- Iceland has 130 active volcanoes, hundreds of geysers, and 13 major glaciers. The glaciers cover 11.1% of the land area of the country. A volcano erupts here every 2.3 years on average and they have earthquakes so often it’s not even news-worthy!
- Due to the harsh climate and frequent natural disasters (i.e. earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, etc), Icelanders have a deeply ingrained culture of helping each other out in the event of some misadventure or disaster. The national sense of community is palpably strong.
- Like all parents, Icelanders tell their children tall stories to amuse themselves, terrorise their kids and keep them entertained. For example, apparently kids here get told the rolled up bales of hay in farmers’ fields are giant marshmallows, left out by the farmers to attract trolls own from the mountains. This is done so thee trolls get so busy eating the marshamallows they don’t notice when the sun comes up and get turned to stone. This way the farmer gets himself a new mountains for his efforts and the world is free of one more troll.
Helgi was great – he knew heaps about the geology of the landscape around us, the history of Iceland and all sorts of other random stuff about his home country. He kept us well informed and entertained for the whole day, peppering the commentary with what we have come to recognise as the dry wit of all Icelanders (they have THE BEST sense of humour EVER). The best quote of the day from Helgi, however came towards the end of the day, as we pulling back into Reykjavik. He said: “Life is pretty good here in Iceland. We have amazing nature all around us, clean water, food to eat, clean air to breath and we are a healthy lot. We have a good life here in Iceland.” Love it.