May 29, 2004

The Golden Circle

Waking up this morning around 7:30, we had another quick breakfast of muesli, toast and scrambled eggs at the hotel before getting ready for our tour of southwest Iceland. The tour bus was supposed to pick us up at 8:30, but it didn’t show up, even though we were outside several minutes early. I asked the hotel desk attendant to call the tour agency, which he did, but they spoke in Icelandic so I didn’t know exactly what the problem was.

“They are coming,” he said tersely.

We waited another 15 minutes and still no bus. The tour was supposed to depart from the bus terminal at 9am, and I was getting nervous; this was our only other day in Iceland, and if we missed the tour, we were pretty much out of luck. I went back inside and asked the attendant if he could call them again. Instead he rolled his eyes and said, “They are coming.” Frustrated with his unwillingness to explain what was going on, I grabbed my cell phone and called them myself. The agent I spoke with apologized for the mix-up and said they would pick us up immediately, which they did two minutes later.

Over at the bus terminal, we were directed to go on a large bus that appeared to be almost completely full. Inside, the tour guide first said we’d have to sit separately because there weren’t any empty seats next to each other, but then quickly backtracked and said we should get on the next bus, which was pulling up momentarily. As we stepped out, a small minibus with about a quarter the seating capacity of the large bus arrived in the next parking space. Within a few minutes, there were nine of us comfortably seated inside, far from the sardine-like conditions on the big bus.

Our tour guide for the day, Magnus, was a middle-aged man with white hair and impeccable English. He gave us a quick overview of the day ahead of us: We’d drive for about 30 minutes and stop briefly at a hydrothermal farm before continuing to Kerith, an extinct volcano crater. Heading further west, we’d visit the Gulfoss waterfall and Geyser, the geothermal waterspout that gave its name to all others. Finally, we’d visit the site of the world’s first parliament, Thingvellir, located in the heart of the Atlantic rift valley that crosses the corner of Iceland.

We headed east out of Reykjavik, soon reaching the countryside after 15 minutes of driving. The minibus drove up and down a series of volcanic hillsides before sloping down into a valley to the town of Hveragerthi, with its famous tourist trap of a farm called Eden. Part geothermal greenhouse farm, part roadside attraction, Eden was apparently the first stop on every tour of the Golden Circle, the area of southwest Iceland most commonly visited by tourists. While Eden did have some impressive collections of tropical plants that grew as if by magic due to the geothermal heat piped from underground, the majority of it was filled with cheap souvenirs: Viking helmets, overpriced sweaters, geysir keyrings, reindeer pelts, fisherman hand creams. Fortunately we only had to spend about 20 minutes in this godforsaken place, so we returned to the bus to visit our next stop: Kerith.

An enormous volcano crater that had collapsed upon itself, Kerith was now a desolate hole in the ground 55 meters deep and over 200 meters across. A shimmering dark green lake sat at the bottom of the crater, while ravens could be heard from a nest somewhere not too far in the distance. We had just enough time to make a long walk counterclockwise around the entire crater. From the far end of Kerith we could see another famous volcano, Hekla, half-shrouded in a layer of puffy white clouds. Hekla was one of the most active volcanoes on the island, with almost two dozen major eruptions in the last thousand years.

The other tour bus that we’d almost boarded earlier was at the crater as well, its horde of tourists spreading like leaf cutter ants along the edge of the precipice. At first I was annoyed that the beautiful sight was being spoilt with so many people around, but I soon took solace in the fact that I was at least with a much smaller group and wouldn’t have to wait forever trying to herd everyone back into the bus.

Leaving Kerith behind us, we started heading northeast towards the Gulfoss waterfall. Off in the distance we could just make out the bald white dome of the Langjokull Glacier, the second-largest ice cap on the island. At first I couldn’t see where the glacier ended and the clouds began, but as the clouds burnt off you could make out the enormity of the frozen mass, probably 50 or 60 kilometers away.

We’d been trailing the larger tour bus for some time, but now pulled over onto a side road, as if we were trying to lose the others. Magnus said there was another waterfall near by: the Laxi, or Horse’s Mane, waterfall. We parked near a steep hillside and walked down, soon finding the wide, beautiful waterfall before us. A fine mist of water was in the air, coating my glasses.

“It is not as impressive as Gulfoss, so I apologize,” Magnus said as we admired the water fall. If this incredible sight required an apology, I could only imagine what Gulfoss was going to look like.

Back in the minibus, we drove another 15 or 20 minutes before reaching the entrance to the Gulfoss park. Exiting the bus, we couldn’t see the waterfall yet, but we could certainly hear it – an explosive, crackling hum emanating from somewhere up ahead.

We walked downhill and the crackling got louder, more intense. Huge plumes of water vapor could be see rising hundreds of feet in the air. We then arrived at the edge of a gorge: down below, water was churning so violently it appeared to be rising up as fast as it was flowing from left to right. Further up the gorge, we could see the lower half of Gulfoss falls, plummeting 75 meters at a point where the gorge made a 90-degree turn to the right. Just beyond the lower falls, the water could be seen screaming down the upper falls, another 75 meter drop. The gorge made another hair-pin turn between the two falls, creating what seemed like a horse shoe path for the water to follow as it made its way down.

There were probably several hundred people admiring the falls, but the gorge was so enormous, they were spread out so thin it never felt crowded except at a promontory point between the upper and lower falls. The water spray was continuous at this point; I’d wished I’d brought a rain coat to keep my camera dry. I’d given up on my glasses entirely; they were coated with so many water droplets I just decided to pretend I always wore them in the shower.

Susanne and I slowly made our way to the promontory, where we had excellent views of both the upper and lower falls. The lower falls were most dramatic, because the water crashed down into the gorge at a right angle, creating an enormous upward churn of vapor a thousand feet into the air. There was so much water vapor everywhere you could actually see miniature waterfalls cascading down the far side of the gorge; these waterfalls had no other source but the upward churn of vapor.

Carefully we took pictures from various points along the path where the vapor seemed less intense; otherwise it might as well have been like we were taking our cameras for a bath. Despite the chatter of all the people around us, you could easily ignore them all due to the incredible roar of the rapids in stereo, the upper falls to the left and the lower falls to the right.

Eventually it was time to return to the bus, so we had to leave this amazing place behind us. “I wish I’d been to Niagara Falls more recently so I could compare the two,” I said to Susanne as we walked back. “I think this one is more breathtakingly violent, even though it’s smaller than Niagara.”

On the bus, we began to return southwest towards the hot springs of Geysir. (Gulfoss, as it turns out, was the furthest north either of us had ever been.) The great geothermanl waterspout of Geysir had first been documented in the 14th century, Magnus explained to us while driving. Over the centuries it’s gone through various active periods and dry spells, and unfortunately, it was now in a bit of a dry spell, blowing its hole only once a day. Fortunately for us, right next to the Geysir geyser was the Strokkur geyser; a little smaller than its more famous big brother, Strokker erupted quite regularly every seven to 10 minutes, sometimes in rapid double bursts.

As we drove through the valley towards Geysir, you could actually see the Strokkur geyser going off from several kilometers away. At that distance it looked like Thor himself had just release a steam valve , creating a lofty vapor trail that rose into nothingness. The geyser went off yet again just as we exited the bus, about a five-minute walk from the foot of the blowhole. This meant we wouldn’t have to wait long to see it go off up close. We walked up a small hill and joined a group of tourists, their cameras firmly planted to their faces. I wanted to use the video setting on my digital camera to get a moving picture of the geyser, but before I could get organized, the bubbling pool at the base of the geyser suddenly lurched, like a frat boy after a long night partying, and sprayed a huge plume of boiling water and steam about 25 meters upward. By the time I was able to press the record button the plume had already reached its zenith, so all I was able to capture was the final violent throes of eruption.

We’d have two hours at Geysir, including lunch, so we decided to leave the geyser and head to a small horse ranch we’d seen near the entrance of the park. Susanne was very eager to take pictures of some Icelandic ponies, and three of them had been lounging near a charming old farmhouse below the mountainside. We walked down towards the far, turning our heads back as we heard the geyser blow its spout one more time, then spotted the three ponies. Two of them were munching on grass and dandelions on the near side of a creek; the third had crossed to the far side of the creek for some privacy. Susanne and I took pictures of the first two horses, before she split off and jumped over the creek to see the other horse. I stayed behind and quietly observed the horses as they selected the finest cuts of grass available. (Geyser goes off.) One of the horses seemed a little skittish at my presence, but the other one didn’t seem to care one way or another. It was an idyllic scene, apart from the fact that my bladder was about to burst. The clockwork-like explosions of the geyser in the background certainly didn’t help matters.

Susanne eventually had her fill of the pony on the other side of the creek, and returned to take a few more pictures of the other horses, who were still hanging out with me. (Geyser goes off.) At this point I was having to cross my legs in agony, so Susanne took mercy on me and stopped taking pictures so we could head back to the coffee shop across the road from the hot springs. Once inside, after a run to the men’s room we got in line at the cafeteria for a quick lunch. Most of the menu looked pretty unsatisfying, so I had a curried chicken sandwich while Susanne stuck with a raisin scone.

Following lunch we made a brief visit to the park’s gift shop, but got a little uneasy by the enormous display of taxidermied animals, including what appeared to be someone’s pet dog. (Thankfully the stuffed dog appeared to have died of old age, given the amount of gray in its coat.) We returned outside for two more bursts of the geyser. The first one we did our best to prep for, and had our cameras glued to our faces in anticipation of the vapor climax. The second time we put our cameras away and simply enjoyed the sight of several tons of water exploding upward in a fraction of a second. It was impressive to watch, but it made me wonder what we were missing by not being able to see Old Geysir go off as well.

By now it was just after 2pm, and we met the rest of the group back at the bus for the long drive to Thingvellir. “Thingvellir is a place of much history, but I will tell you about that later,” Magnus spoke into his headset microphone while driving up a gravel road. “First, we must learn about the Atlantic ridge…” Magnus clearly enjoyed his job, but since he had to talk while driving, we weren’t able to make eye contact with him while he told his stories, so it was like a disembodied spirit was speaking to us through the PA system. And with the rattle of our bones due to the jarring gravel road, it was amazing that Magnus was able to give a science lecture without flinching. I hope he talks about plate tectonics, I thought to myself.

“And so now I must explain to you the science of plate tectonics,” Magnus continued. He proceeded to explain that the Atlantic ocean was separated by two giant tectonic plates: the Eurasian plate and the North American plate. The two of them came together along the Atlantic Ridge, which ran underwater for thousands of miles, only to come above the surface in southwest Iceland. Because the Eurasian plate is moving east and the Atlantic plate is moving west, the two shift apart by around two centimeters a year, causing Iceland to pull apart slowly, causing more volcanic eruptions and leading to more landmass being formed by lava.

Thingvellir, as it turns out, is one of the most dramatic places in the world to see the science of plate tectonics in action. As we drove downhill along the side of Iceland’s largest lake, we could see a vast plain below us. To the right, ruddy cracks formed along the surface of the earth, moving in jagged lines northeastward. To the left of the plain, what appeared to be a long brown patch of paint drawn along the hillside turned out to be an enormous volcanic cliff, extending far to the northeast like a great Viking wall. But the wall was totally natural, the result of the earth tearing in two along the tectonic rift.

Along with its important geologic significance, Thingvellir was the most important historical site in Iceland. It was here that the Vikings set up the world’s first parliament, an annual gathering of 48 clan leaders, each with two advisors. Here each June, they would meet to hear to discuss the law and revise it as necessary. A logsogumathur, or Law Speaker, would be tasked to recite the law by heart and memorize any changes voted upon by the assembly. (The Speaker of the House in Congress probably gets his title from that job, I imagine.) From 930 to 1271, the assembly would gather in the plain below the western crags – Thingvellir means Assembly Plain in Icelandic – until the country lost its independence to Norway and later Denmark. The parliamentary gatherings continued, but they lacked the legitimacy they had at the height of the Viking period.

Magnus dropped us off in the middle of the park and told us he would meet us in a little while on top of the western crags, which we could apparently reach easily on foot. We crossed a small bridge over a river; on one side the water shimmered like turquoise from the thousands of coins that had been thrown in while making a wish. We followed a wooden footpath across the plain; to our left we could see an old church, while ahead to our right, a small waterfall ran down the crags. It was a beautiful location, the kind of place that would be ideal for walking a dog or having an afternoon picnic. It was fascinating that a place with such geologic history had such significant social history for Iceland as well.

Reaching the foot of the crags, Susanne and I came to an enormous grassy hill made up of boulders, a flagpole sitting on top. This was the Logberg, or Law Rock, where the logsogumathur would stand and recite the law, taking advantage of the excellent acoustics so all the assemblymen and their advisors could hear him. We followed a set of wooden steps up the logberg, which afforded us a fine view of the valley. From there, we hugged the lower edge of the crags and slowly walked uphill. The crags, a giant wall of lava and boulders, were quite dramatic; the sight reminded me of the entrance to the ruins of Petra in Jordan, made famous in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

We ambled up the path until reaching the top of the crags, giving us one last view of the plain and the lake beyond it. Magnus then appeared, having driven the van some way around to this side of the rift as our group had walked from the Eurasian tectonic plate to the North American plate in a matter of minutes.

Back on the bus, we returned to Reykjavik, satisfied but exhausted by the day’s events. Everyone else in the group got dropped off at their hotels, but we returned to the bus terminal so I could inquire about the shuttle bus to the airport for tomorrow. We then walked back to the hotel, which was across the road from the terminal, and relaxed for a couple of hours before walking into Old Town for dinner. We walked towards the eastern shore of the Tjorn, first cutting through a park where Susanne discovered an enormous rope pyramid used by kids for climbing, while I played with a friendly cat that had come over to introduce herself. Along the Tjorn, the ducks and geese were generally napping, but the Arctic tern were very active, swooping through the sky eating bugs over the pond.

Reaching Old Town, we returned to Café Paris for a light dinner of broccoli quiche, followed by apple pie and carrot cake – quiche and pie were about the only things we could afford in this town. Before returning to the hotel, we took one last walk through the old town, briefly stopping at an unusual block party in which a crowd of locals had gathered around a stage while a lounge singer performed “My Way” and “New York, New York.” We couldn’t tell if it was a private reception for a wedding, or some kind of celebration for Whitsunday, but the music was just embarrassingly awful, so we had to leave before losing face from laughing out loud in front of anyone.

Returning to the Tjorn, we slowly ambled along the shore, stopping to observe the first ducklings of the season go out for a swim. The sun was shining brightly now, mid-way through the sky, even though it was around 9pm. Several swans floated near the shore while the terns danced in mid-flight, performing aerial jousts with each other while scooping up mouthfuls of tasty gnats. Susanne, meanwhile, wanted to climb to the top of that rope pyramid she’d found before, so she convinced me to go up as well. As much as I wanted to stay out much later, we had to wake up at 4:30am to get to the airport for our flight to Stockholm. We’d need to return to the hotel soon. But for now, we hung up there on the ropes, listening to the terns chirping in the distance, wondering when the sun would ever go down.

Posted by acarvin at May 29, 2004 04:42 PM | TrackBack

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