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Lucy Travels

After a blissful night’s sleep, we woke up in time to pack up and check out before our last tour of Iceland. With such a short trip we couldn’t go far into the country, but we wanted to see as many highlights as we could. One of the main draws of the western part of Iceland is the Golden Circle, a full-day loop of natural wonders. 

Iceland is one of the youngest countries on Earth, geologically-speaking. It thrust up from the sea floor as the North American and Eurasian plates pulled apart, and the island is dotted with volcanoes and geothermal hotspots. Iceland harnesses this geothermal energy to produce electricity and provide hot water; I love how eco-friendly it is, but our guide admitted that with no trees or coal or oil Iceland really had no other options. The only problem was that the natural hot water coming from the taps came with a price — it smelled like rotten eggs from all the sulfur! Tasted fine, though. Anyway, with all this geological activity going on there is plenty to see in Iceland.

Our guide Baldwin (yes, like Alec) pulled up in a minibus fitted with nail-studded winter tires. We were one of the last to be picked up, and all the others were too shy to sit up front. We gladly took the front two seats as they gave us a better view. We drove out of Reykjavik and onto Route 1, the main road that rings Iceland. The sky was cloudy but thankfully the rain had finally stopped and even in the darkness we could see for miles. 

An hour into the drive a few clouds began to turn red as the sun peeked through. Baldwin told us that now the days were 5 hours long, which seemed an eternity after the 3 hours and 45 minutes of daylight at the winter solstice a month ago. Baldwin was extremely knowledgeable and throughout the drive he would point out interesting features and share bits of trivia with us. His voice through the headset microphone sounded rehearsed — I thought he was going off a script until he answered spontaneous questions in the same straightforward, unhesitating way. I realized that was just the way he talked. Just like his namesake!

We had a quick pitstop along the way for coffee and to stretch our legs. Both I and my fitbit appreciated that Baldwin stopped at least every 45 minutes for a little walk. This particular cafe was in a shopping centre that was built in the town of Hveragerði. The mall was originally supposed to be 4 storeys high but the massive earthquake in 2008 put the kibosh on that plan. Four floors were revised to just one, and they decided to turn the huge crack that opened in the bedrock into a little tourist attraction. There was a little shack you could pay $2 to enter for a “quake simulator” but we decided to pass.

A few minutes down the road we passed the tiny town of Selfoss. Although only six thousand people live there, it’s still the 8th biggest city in Iceland. Baldwin told us that a very famous person is buried in the cemetery there: Bobby Fischer. I wished we’d been able to stop to see the grave but we had to beat the huge busses to the tour stops. Apparently Fischer left the US in the 1990s when the government came after him for tax evasion, and he lived in various places around the world. In 2004 he was arrested by the Japanese government for using a revoked US passport. He had made many friends in Iceland, especially because of the 1972 World Championship he played there (as it was a neutral spot during the Cold War). His friends in the Icelandic government heard about his predicament and instantly granted him citizenship and an Icelandic passport, allowing him to leave Japan and live in Iceland until his death in 2008. 
We came to our first stop a little while later, the Faxa Waterfall. It was beautiful in the sunrise, and the crampons Baldwin gave us allowed us to navigate the icy walkway to the viewing platform. Next to the waterfall was a manmade salmon ladder, something I had never seen outside of a 60s documentary. Baldwin also kindly pointed out a sheep-sorting facility nearby. Three times. He was sometimes a bit too informative.

Baldwin told us this was nothing compared to our next waterfall, so we hustled back into the minibus. He was right. Our next stop was Gullfoss, or Golden Falls. It was two falls stacked on top of one another at a right angle, and the spray from the falls filled the canyon with ice. 

I was impressed that the ever-progressive Iceland had put up a memorial to Sigridur Tomasdóttir, a woman who championed the protection of the falls and who was Iceland’s first environmentalist. You’d think they’d pick a better picture of her, though!

We stopped for lunch in Geysir. You can probably guess from the name what it’s famous for. Apparently the word “geyser” comes from this place, as it was once the only known location for this phenomenon. There were marked paths to walk on to avoid falling into boiling mud pits that could open up anywhere. At first we were disdainful of the tourists Baldwin told us about who foolishly went off the paths and ended up seriously injured. After walking around ourselves, though, we saw how unclear the walkways were and had a bit more sympathy for the people who got cooked. A light rain was falling and I was grateful for my waterproof jacket. There were little bubbling pools everywhere and plumes of sulphuric steam blew across the fields. We gingerly picked our way over streams of water flowed alongside and over the paths and walked up to the geyser.

I’d never seen a geyser in person and it was spectacular! It shoots off every 5 minutes or so, and the water can go 200 feet in the air or more! We watched a couple eruptions, had lunch, then came back to catch another one. It made me want to see Old Faithful in Yellowstone!

The advantage of such a small tour group was that we could stop (or not) whenever we wanted. Not long after we left Geysir we stopped again to pet some more friendly Icelandic horses! 

On the way to our last stop the van climbed higher and higher into the mountains. As the elevation increased the spitting rain turned to snow, and we stopped for a stretch and a few pictures. 

Our last stop of the day was Thingvellir National Park. It’s famous not only for its strange beauty, but also for being the site of the world’s oldest parliament. The Althing (Icelandic Parliament) started meeting at the lush valley where the two continental plates pulled apart in the year 930. At the time it was made up of provincial chieftains, but representatives continued to meet there every summer until 1799, when they decided to move the Althing to Reykjavik, not least because an earthquake had ripped the place apart even further. They did the usual Parliamentary things of creating laws and discussing issues, but they also conducted executions here. It was difficult to execute someone in winter as the ground was frozen too solid to bury them. 

We had an hour to wander around the wild landscape before we got in the bus and headed back to Reykjavik and then on to the airport. We were tired but felt like we’d had an excellent taste of Iceland in just a weekend. One day I’d love to go back and see it in summer, the difference between seasons is so stark that it looks like a completely different country! Plus it’s one of the few countries on Earth without any mosquitoes…

Now I’m back in Edinburgh for a week before I go down to London and then head home to sunny Melbourne!

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