We boarded a 19 seat propeller plane at the Reykjavík airport, a tiny airport where the desk clerk is also the baggage handler and grounds crew! There was absolutely no security screening and no one even asked to see our ticket/boarding pass as we boarded. Apparently seat assignments were merely suggestions. Those seasoned travelers who routinely fly in this manner simply sat in an available seat.
We flew from Reykjavík, which is in the southwest part of the country to Húsavík, which is on the northeast coast, only 60 km from the Arctic Circle. We were met by Matthias, a German who came to Iceland 30 years ago and never left; he has given up his German citizenship and now carries an Iceland passport. It wasn’t until our first stop that I realized Matthias was our guide for the day and we were getting a private tour!
Our first stop was the waterfall Dettifoss. While not the highest one we’ve seen in Iceland, it is Europe’s most powerful waterfall. There were cliffs where one could walk right off the edge if not careful. (Those little dots in the right-hand photo are people.)
It is fascinating to tour Europe as an American. In the United States, there are safety fences around everything in an effort to prevent someone from becoming gravely injured or falling to their death. In Europe, it doesn’t seem to be a concern. Most sites are lacking any sort of safety structure and tourists are expected to use good judgment (!) when near a dangerous area. I believe European countries operate this way because the threat of lawsuits isn’t hanging over them.
From Dettifoss we drove to a place called Viti (Hell in English), a crater formed when the Krafla volcano erupted in 1724. It is filled with turquoise colored water – really quite beautiful. A series of earthquakes between 1975 and 1984 opened up volcanic fissures around Krafla and some of the lava rubble is still steaming today!
We stopped for lunch at a thermal bath; it was no more than a wide spot in the road but it was the only structure for miles and miles. I had a cheese sandwich made with Rye bread that had been baked in the ground for 22-24 hours using only the geothermal steam.
There was a power plant near our lunch stop, the thermal bath/restaurant/souvenir shop. Iceland is very proud of their ‘green’ power plants; the power is generated from the geothermal steam. The pipes that carry the steam from various places in the ground to the power plant are all above ground; this appears to be consistent throughout Iceland. It seems like this wouldn’t work because of the cold winter; but because it is hot steam in the pipes, I guess the pipes don’t freeze. Matthias told us that other countries have sent delegations to Iceland to learn how the power plants work so they could create that technology in their own country, even though not many countries have the advantage of natural geothermal areas.
Our next stop was where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are causing a fissure, something we also saw in Þingvellir National Park. Here we could stand with one foot in North America and one foot in Europe.
At this same spot is a cave housing a thermal pool. It was used for bathing until the 1975-1984 eruption of Krafla when the water became dangerously hot due to the magma stream running beneath it. Although the pool isn’t open to tourists, again there aren’t fences erected to keep people out. 🙂
We drove around Lake Mývatn, a picturesque lake with large bright green mounds emerging from the lake in various spots. The lake is frozen in the winter and years ago the school bus would drive across using it as a short cut, but recently it hasn’t frozen as solidly so the school bus must remain on the road.
We stopped at a pseudocrater, developed when burning lava came in contact with water (a lake in this case) causing a steam explosion. There was a hotel/snack bar/gas station/souvenir shop at this pseudocrater with 2 other hotels nearby. Other than that, there was no civilization.
We continued on to Dimmuborgir, a former lava lake that now has all sorts of strange lava formations: piles, towers, even some arches. There is a trail that meanders through these formations and it was interesting to wander around. Matthias said according to folklore, Icelandic outlaws lived in the lava desert.
We left the main road for a gravel road and then turned off onto a bumpy two-track (for the wheels of a jeep) path to visit a lava cave located on a farmer’s land. The farmer broke through the side of this hollow mound of lava allowing tourists to see the sizeable cave within.
We visited a sheep gathering pen. It is the same idea as the one we had seen on the Golden Circle tour, but this one had fences built from lava stones piled on top of each other with a wooden gate every few meters to allow the livestock to be loaded onto the truck. It was very rustic and very cool! In September all the ranchers, as well as volunteers, head into the high country with their dogs and spend about a week rounding up the sheep that have been free-range grazing all summer. Once they are brought down to this pen, the locals gather and the sorting of the sheep becomes a festive atmosphere with picnicking, singing and drinking. It is a time for the ranching families to gather to share news and exchange gossip.
In all of our driving today, we didn’t see more than a total of 30 houses…and we drove through 3 ‘towns’! We would drive for miles and miles without seeing a house or farm and there was very little traffic on the road. It is extremely remote. Apparently, many of the farmers have created a side income supporting the tourist industry. They have built guest houses on their property and offer opportunities for the tourists to participate in the working of the farm, similar to a Dude Ranch in the United States. The farms in this part of the country have cows and lots of sheep. We saw very few horses; they seem to be more prevalent in the south and southwest. The farmers in this part of Iceland have machinery and crops, mostly hay and potatoes. Throughout Iceland we have seen big bales (usually round) of hay wrapped in plastic and sitting in the field. As we drove along, we saw a baler in the process of wrapping a bale. An arm of the baler picked up the bale from the field and placed the bale on a slightly curved stand. There was a roll of plastic sitting vertically on a spindle. The stand on which the bale was sitting rotated repeatedly so that the plastic completely covered the bale. It was then gently placed back on the field and the process repeated. (I realize this technology exists the world over, I just had never seen it in action before!) Global warming has been good for Iceland’s farmers; they can now grow enough hay to feed their livestock through the winter.
We saw a few hitchhikers; they are tourists – most likely students. According to Matthias, Icelanders wouldn’t pick up the hitchhikers because their car would already be full of people or provisions. It is the tourists (with rental cars) who pick up the hitchhikers.
Near Húsavík, along the road but set back from the road at regular intervals were stones piled in the shape of pyramids and standing about 1 meter high. These were road markers (guideposts, if you will) used by settlers In early times. They are still standing because a private party with an interest in history is preserving them.
The terrain and climate in the northeast was dramatically different from Reykjavík. Clearly it doesn’t rain as much on this end of the island. The lava fields, as well as everything else, were dry; the lava wasn’t covered with bright green moss but remained black. It was also quite a bit warmer and much of the time it was sunny; we wandered around without a jacket – the only time we did so on our mid-July Iceland trip!