Tour books about Iceland state that most roads outside the cities are closed September through May; furthermore, one is taking their life into their own hands if attempting to drive these roads at any time of the year! They are described as being rough gravel roads; therefore don’t consider renting anything other than a 4-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance. It also isn’t uncommon to cross a river by driving through it; it is a river only in the summertime when the snow is melting so no bridge exists. Moreover, if heading into less-traveled areas, the books suggest notifying those at your destination of the expected arrival time so that if you don’t show up, a search party can be sent out! I even saw a sign posted at a gas station convenience store: Register your travel plan at http://www.safetravel.is. Check it out!
Based on these dire warnings, we thought it prudent to take an organized tour rather than striking out on our own! 🙂 Therefore, we took a guided driving tour of the Golden Circle – sort of an “Iceland in a Nutshell” tour. We were part of a group of 14 people in a 16 passenger van. Our driver and guide, Dooley, grew up in the north part of Iceland. His father was a tour guide beginning in the 1950s and when Dooley was young, he would ask to join his father as he gave tours because he wanted to see the countryside. Dooley began as a tour guide in 1980. Throughout the day Dooley referred to Iceland as a ‘state’ and an ‘island.’
We left Reykjavík and headed east to
Hveragerði. The drive was scenic beginning with green mountains spearing out of the harbor in Reykjavík and then becoming a landscape of green fields, green hills and distant mountains broken up by spots where geothermal steam was gently wafting out of the ground. Just outside of Reykjavík we drove through a lava field comprised of large boulders covered in green moss. This lava field is 1000 years old and it has taken that long just for moss to grow on the lava.
Hveragerði has many greenhouses which grow things year round utilizing geothermal to provide the heat; in fact, the entire town is heated by geothermal. People from Reykjavík travel to Hveragerði to purchase trees, bushes, and flowers for their garden. Hveragerði has the only restaurant in Iceland that cooks all its meals by using only geothermal heat. Because of all the geothermal activity in this valley there is no cemetery in Hveragerði. We took a break at a small mall/tourist information center which had a display covering the May 2008, magnitude 6.3 earthquake. It included personal stories as well as a model of a kitchen with all the glassware lying broken on the floor.
We then drove to Faxi falls. It isn’t the largest or most powerful but it was our first waterfall in Iceland! To the immediate left of the waterfall are man-made concrete steps with water flowing down. These were created to enable the salmon to get to the top of the falls.
In this same area was a sheep pen that looked like a giant pie. In the summer, all the farmers/ranchers allow their sheep to free-range graze in the mountains. Before winter, all the sheep are brought down from the mountains and herded into this sheep pen. The sheep are then separated by owner (the sheep have ear tags) into separate sections (pieces of the pie) allowing the owner to load them up and take them home…or to slaughter.
These pens are all over the island; they are used for all animals that graze free-range, including horses.
We continued our drive going inland (northeast) to Gullfoss, an enormous two-tier waterfall seen in plenty of Iceland photographs.
After Gullfoss, we drove to Geysir, from which the word geyser is derived. There were steaming geysers throughout the area as well as one that would blow approximately every 5 minutes. It was interesting because the water in the blowhole would bubble as it became heated (as if it were beginning to boil in a pan on the stove) then it would surge over the rim of the blowhole before spewing water and steam high into the air.
Immediately, the blowhole would look empty and water surrounding the hole would pour back into it, as if refilling a bowl.
Dooley warned us about not being downwind from the geyser. Since the water is 100°C, it would burn us. He also warned us not to step off the marked paths because the ground could give way due to all the geothermal activity underground in this area and we could burn our feet. He said tourists are tempted to touch the water flowing along the side of the walking path to see if it really is hot…and then they burn their hands. He was insistent that we not touch the water. Admittedly, it was really tempting. I mean, how often is hot water running along the side of an outdoor walking path? But I followed Dooley’s words of wisdom and kept my body parts out of the water! 😀
We left Geysir and drove a little south and mostly west to Þingvellir National Park. We drove along the rift created by the shifting of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. They are separating at a rate of 1.5cm/year which doesn’t sound like much but it is a visible cliff wall on either side of a crevasse.
The first settlers in Iceland, who were from Norway and Sweden, arrived in 874 AD. This park contains the site where the national government (Parliament) was established in 930 AD and the first General Assembly was held. It remained the seat of Iceland’s national government for 800 years. Beginning in 930 AD, the chieftains of all the clans would meet here for 2 weeks every summer to read the laws aloud to all in attendance. Disputes were settled by all the chieftains in a type of court. All citizens of the country would try to attend this annual event because it provided an opportunity to gossip, trade, and generally socialize. It was at this site that Christianity was adopted as the official religion of Iceland in 1000 AD. 90% of the Icelandic population is Lutheran but today most are non-practicing, or lapsed Lutherans.