Archive for May, 2017

The Golden Circle Tour, Iceland, March 2017.


I’ve been fascinated by Iceland for over 20 years. It began when I was house-sitting for my Gran and I looked through my late Grandad’s books and came across a thriller called Running Blind by Desmond Bagley. In it, a British intelligence officer is sent to Iceland to deliver a secret package. He has connections in the country and speaks Icelandic. As the story unfolds, he’s chased across the country by the KGB, including a trek through the Óbyggdir, the wild and dangerous interior of the country. This culminates in a gun battle at Geysir, with one KGB thug getting caught by the eruption of the most active geyser, Strokkur, with unpleasant consequences. Bagley memorably describes Iceland as suffering from “geological acne” and the harshness and epic nature of the landscape is well evoked, with its boiling pools, lava fields, glaciers and glacial meltwater rivers. The spark was lit.

Couple this with TV documentaries and books about volcanoes, and the news coverage of volcanic eruptions, especially the Icelandic volcano Eyjafjallajökull in 2010, and the spark became a flame. How great would it be to go, I thought, endlessly. Until finally I said to myself: enough of the wishing, why not just bloody do it?

I’d flown in from Manchester on Monday, landing at Keflavík airport to bright sunshine and a temperature of 5°C. The journey to my hotel in Hafnarfjörður took about 40 minutes, across the mossy lava fields, scrubby grass and jagged rocks of the Reykjanes peninsula. In the distance, snow-capped mountains and clouds of steam rising. I was in Iceland. At last.

Tuesday was spent exploring Reykjavík and for Wednesday, I’d booked a Golden Circle Tour. This covers some of the geological sites near Reykjavík, including the famous boiling pools at Geysir. After a minibus ride picking up other passengers, we all transferred to a coach on the outskirts of the city. There were only 18 of us, so there was plenty of room; I had two seats to myself for the day. Out of the city centre, most of Reykjavík is generic urban sprawl, and I was keen to escape this and see the countryside.

For the first few miles, we followed Route 1, the ring road, Hringvegur, that runs right around the island. In 2016, Icelandic TV showed a real time journey along the entire route, set to music by local band Sigur Rós. I’d watched this on YouTube and was captivated by the unfolding scene, so it was great to see the real thing. After leaving the city, it climbed through snow streaked mountains and passed a geothermal power station with large clouds of steam swirling around. The Icelanders have harnessed this ready-made power source to provide heating and hot water which even heats some of Reykjavík’s streets.

Geothermal power station

After reaching the top of a pass, the road dropped sharply round numerous hairpins into Hveragerði (pronunciation) This small town on the Varmá river is a geothermal hot spot. The tour guide – a classically Nordic blonde lady named Harpa – told us that there was a wedding reception going on in the town hall one day when people noticed the floor was getting hot, so they went outside. A new hot spring then broke through the floor, so the town hall had to be demolished and rebuilt elsewhere.

Looking down towards Hveragerði

It felt good to be out in the country I’d wanted to see for so long. This was what I came for. A few miles further on, just before Selfoss, the coach turned off Route 1 and headed north. As it turned, Harpa pointed out the snow covered mountain in the distance to the east, was none other than Eyjafjallajökull, whose 2010 eruption grounded so many aircraft. She said that foreign newscasters’ attempts to pronounce it caused some amusement to Icelanders. Distant though it was, it was impressive, and seemed so benign under its coat of snow.

The distant Eyjafjallajökull

A few miles further on, we passed another volcano, Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active. It apparently erupts every 15 years or so. This was nearer than Eyjafjallajökull, and looked as benign, just another snowy mountain. As I looked at it, I had visions of it erupting. A detonating boom and a rapidly rising cloud of thick dark ash punctuated with lightning… It would have been an awesome spectacle, but a bit too close for comfort.

I was struck that the colour of the rocks had abruptly changed. Initially, they had been black but were now a vivid red, indicating the presence of iron oxide. This was especially noticeable as we neared the first stop, the volcanic crater at Kerið. A young place in geological terms, about 6000 years; the oldest part of Iceland is only 17 million years old. It’s fascinating that only 200-300 miles away in Greenland are the oldest rocks on Earth, over four billion years.

Kerið looks just like you’d expect a volcanic crater to look: rounded with steep sides plunging down. Instead of a seething lava lake, was a real lake of frozen greenish water. I walked part way round, gazing down at the frozen lake. One of the walls is low and so can walk down to the water from it, but unfortunately, I didn’t have time to do it. Harpa said that Björk once did a concert here, performing on a floating stage. What a place to perform, in a natural amphitheatre. What an introduction to the geology of Iceland.


The next stop was Geysir. To describe it as “amazing” would be true, but inadequate. It’s a place I’d long wanted to see and I wasn’t disappointed, despite the crowds milling around. A footpath lead past several bubbling hot pools of vividly coloured water – one a sharp blue like that of a swimming pool – with the whole area wreathed in clouds of thick steam, pungent and sulphurous. The main geyser, Geysir, which has given its name to all the others in the world – only erupts occasionally and unpredictably now, but is smaller neighbour Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”) blows every 8-10 minutes. Though it can shoot up to about 40 metres, today there was a strong and very icy wind which was strong enough to blow the water almost horizontal. To get to the other side of Strokkur meant crossing this path…


The eruptions came suddenly, a bubble exploding in a great whooshing plop of steam and boiling water. Amazing indeed. I shot loads of photos, the continuous shooting mode on the camera proved very useful here. I managed to get a video but had to take my gloves off to work the camera. I don’t think my hands have ever been so cold. The temperature was about freezing, but the wind must have shaved this down to about -10°C, and boy did I feel it! What a place; boiling bubbling pools; thick clouds of steam; the stink of sulphur. The surface symptoms of some vast, inexorable process going on under my feet.

The sense of amazement and awe were slightly blunted by the crowds. I’d read that mass tourism had really exploded in Iceland in recent years, and it’s something I’m conflicted about. I can’t blame the Icelanders for trying to bring more money into the country, especially after the banking crash a few years ago, but at what cost? And of course, I was a tourist too, doing tourist things, like this tour. But how else was I to see these incredible places? I’ve never driven abroad and I was certainly not confident in driving here. It’s also got a lot to do with my dislike of crowds. The ignorance, rudeness and general pushiness. Here it seemed to be large parties of nouveau-riche Chinese, loud and vulgar with their selfie-sticks. Ticking off places. Perhaps I’m being unfair, but tourist or not, I don’t think I was there just working through a list of must sees. I find the geology fascinating and admire the hardiness of the Norse people who settled in this strange, potentially hostile place. I also admire the Icelanders for their rich literary culture and the efforts they’ve made to preserve it and their language.

Even so, I was deeply impressed by Geysir. I couldn’t fail to be.

A short drive took us to our next stop, the magnificent waterfalls at Gullfoss (pronunciation). As at Geysir, it’s easy to run out of superlatives. You can’t see them from the road, but you can hear their great roar and spray long before you do see them. There are two massive falls, where the Hvítá river plunges down about 40 metres at a rate of about 100m3 per second… The river is fed from the Langjökull glacier (“jökull” is the Icelandic word for glacier and the “icle” in the English word icicle apparently has the same root). There were various proposals during the 20th century to use the falls for electricity generation. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the owner’s daughter, even threatened to throw herself into the falls if they weren’t saved. It’s believed that this helped save the falls, though the Wikipedia entry ( disputes this. The roar was near deafening and it was hard to get a photo without the lens getting covered in spray, even from some distance away. The wind was even colder here and its vicious bite snatched my breath away; or rather, what was left of it after the rest being taken away by the stupendous sight before me. Truly wonderful.


Looking away from the falls, I could just make out part of Langjökull, a brilliant white mass with blurred edges. The first time I’d ever seen a glacier. A large part of Iceland is covered with them and they supply many rivers. Most of them are steadily shrinking with global warming.

The final place we visited was the one that made the greatest impression on me: Þingvellir (pronunciation). This World Heritage Site is on the continental divide between two tectonic plates and a site of major historical importance for the Icelanders. It was here that they held their first parliament, the althingi, in 930. (The word Þingvellir means assembly or parliament fields, the English place Thingwall has the same root).

The land suddenly changes. There are great gouges and ripples in the rock where it’s been torn apart as the two plates pull away from each other (which means Iceland is getting slowly larger). Then you’re in no man’s land for a few kilometres before seeing the same effect again as you cross onto the North American plate. The coach parked close to this, by a rocky outcrop with truly amazing (that word again!) views down into the wider valley with the vast lake of Þingvallavatn. Behind me, a pile of old lava, solidified into a strange, swirly pattern which (dredging my memory for my O Level geology) I think is called Pahoehoe. A footpath descended towards the valley floor between two cliffs of split apart rock, and all around in the distance, snow streaked mountains. I just stood there and gazed out over it all. The sun had gone behind clouds by now and it was cold, but despite this and the other people (not as crowded here thankfully), I began to feel really calm; and small amongst such vastness, but in a good way. Awesome is a much abused word these days and has become debased. My dictionary describes awe as “a feeling of reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder.” What I saw and experienced here was awesome, in the true sense: of feeling small and insignificant in the vastness of nature, of being impressed and humbled by it, with an undercurrent of fear too. Accept this, and the fear lessens and all your own worries are gently pushed into the background; for a time anyway. I wish I could have stayed there longer.




Pahoehoe lava

And so back to Reykjavík. Harpa taught us how to pronounce the names of the places we’d been (I’d already impressed her by being able to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull). She then sang us an Icelandic lullaby. She had a soft and soothing singing voice and I could easily imagine a baby falling asleep to it. It was a gentle accompaniment to further changes in the landscape. Snow blanketed mountains came close on one side of the road, while the other reminded me of the northern fells of England: treeless, empty and covered in snow. The snow began to retreat as the road fell towards Reykjavík. The road got busier, buildings reappeared and we re-joined the Hringvegur to approach the city from the north.

What a day, one I’ll never forget. As sat back in my hotel room, the sense of calm I felt at Þingvellir was still with me, as well as a natural “high” from what I’d seen. Wow and amazing and wonderful and awesome and sublime. All of that and more, if you’ll excuse the cliché. To this I added an especially enjoyable tipsiness after having a few shots of that wonderful Icelandic drink, Brennivín. I want to go back. And soon.

For more pictures, see the slideshow here:

Route One, with music by Sigur Rós:
Part One
Part Two
Part Three


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