Sunday, 5 August 2012

Iceland - nature at work ... or at play?

After a couple of days in Reykjavik we headed out to discover the rest of this country famous for its volcanic activity. First we hired a car and headed out to visit Iceland's Golden Circle.

on the road again

First stop was Þingvellir National Park, one of Iceland's most important historical sites as the Alþingi - the world's oldest existing Parliament - was established there around 930 AD.
Map of Þingvellir National Park, including Þingvallavatn lake

The Alþingi assembled here every summer until the end of the 13th century; after that time it functioned as a court of law until 1798.

in Þingvellir National Park

Many important events took place here such as the adoption of Christianity around 1000 AD, and the foundation of the modern Icelandic Republic in 1944.

looking over Þingvallavatn (Þingvellir lake), Iceland's largest lake

Þingvellir has been a National Park since 1930 and a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2004.


Þingvellir lies on the junction of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates on the Mid Atlantic Ridge, and this junction is more clearly visible here than anywhere else in the world.

Þingvalla church (left) and farmhouse (right; dates from 1930)

Our next stop was Geysir - the original hot-water spout which has given its name to all others.

inactive Geysir

The whole geothermal area is about 3km2 at the surface

Geysir can spout boiling water up to 70m high but it erupts infrequently, and a few metres away is Strokkur which is much more reliable (erupting every 8-10 minutes), if not quite so high.

 Strokkur erupting

Strokkur erupting

Geysir is a high temperature geothermal area with a base temperature of around 250°C.

 Little Geysir

Our next stop on the Golden circle was the Gullfoss falls (literally 'Golden falls'). It actually consists of two waterfalls, the upper one is 11 metres high, and the lower one is 21 metres, so the combined height is 31 metres.

Gullfoss falls

The whole gorge is about 2.5km long and up to 70 metres deep.

Gullfoss falls

These Icelandic horses were the perfect and literal example of "the grass is always greener on the other side". Although the vegetation on both sides of the barbed wire fence looked identical to me they insisted on bending their heads over and grazing on the 'wrong' side!

Icelandic horses

We left the Golden Circle route and headed down Route 30 to the south coast, where we stopped to look at the Seljalandsfoss falls.

Seljalandsfoss falls

We then headed eastwards along Route 1 (Iceland's ring road) as far as Skogafoss waterfall.

landscape along Route 1

landscape along Route 1

With a width of 25m and a drop of over 60m Skógafoss is one of Iceland's biggest waterfalls.


This Oystercatcher with its striking bright red beak caught our eye.


Heading back west to Reykjavik we could see the edge of the Eyjafjallajökull ice cap when looking back. Eyjafjallajökull became famous in 2010 when the consequences of its eruption disrupted air traffic over most of Europe and far beyond.

Eyjafjallajökull ice cap

hole in the rock, near Hveragerði

Our next three days we taken up with scuba-diving, (see this post). Heading to our various dive sites we got to see parts of the country we might have missed if we'd been visiting by ourselves. For example we dived in Kleifarvatn lake in the Reykjanesfolkvangur (Reykjanes wilderness reserve), where there are submerged hot springs which reminded me of the dive we did at Pulau Weh in Sumatra last year. With a surface of 10km2 Kleifarvatn is the largest lake on the Reykjanes peninsula. But only after diving did our dive guide tell us the legend about a worm-like monster the size of a whale who lurks in the lake - the local equivalent of the Loch Ness Monster!

Kleifarvatn lake, Reykjanesfolkvangur

Near the lake is a geothermal field called Seltún, with bubbling mud pots and steam vents.

this smelly mud pot is named Fúlipollur - literally 'stinking puddle'

bubbling mud

The steam vents are surrounded by sulphur deposits which in earlier times were exploited for gunpowder production.

steam vents and mud pots, Seltún

At a depth of 1000m the temperature is above 200°C.

looking towards Kleifarvatn from summit, Seltún

On our third and final day of diving we head up to Eyjafjörður, Iceland's longest fjord. Situated in the north of the country this was a 10-hour round trip, with two dives in the fjord in-between. It gave us the chance to see some fantastic scenery while on the road.

We stopped briefly at the small town of Blönduós, where this unusual church was constructed between 1982-1993. It can seat 250 people.

Blönduós church

scenery on the way to Eyjafjörður

scenery on the way to Eyjafjörður

scenery on the way to Eyjafjörður

Once at the fjord our diving boat left from a tiny fishing village called Hjalteyri

looking back at Hjalteyri

In the fjord we dived on volcanic geothermal chimneys - the only such chimneys which can be scuba-dived in the world.

in Eyjafjörður

On our way back we made a brief stop at Akureyri, Iceland's second largest urban area, with a population of 18 000.

in Akureyri

On our final day in Iceland we spent several hours at the Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa which is one of Iceland's most famous attractions.

Blue Lagoon

Consisting of 2/3 saltwater and 1/3 freshwater the water's temperature is a perfect 38°C.

Blue Lagoon

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