To illustrate why Iceland is my favourite place ever, this post is absolutely necessary. I loved Reykjavik already after one night of staying there, but I loved Iceland even more after immersing myself in the boundless realms of nature that it promised to offer. And it did not disappoint.
You see, when I planned my stay Iceland, I knew I wanted to see some nature. Maybe a lot of nature. A trip to such an exotic destination wouldn’t be complete without seeing its most defining features outside of the urban center – the waterfalls, the geysers, the national parks. I didn’t have a car to take me around the country, but that wasn’t an issue as there was a myriad of tour companies operating day-tours along the most popular tourist routes. One of the classic tours is the Golden Circle tour, a route that takes you around South Iceland and stops at several cultural and natural sites. The description seemed to suit me perfectly, and after signing up with one of the tours, I was on my way to see the other side of Iceland. And boy, that beauty…it was unfathomable.
We set out at around 8:30 in the morning, when the sky was still pitch black. The sun rises at around 10:30 in January, so that’d be another couple of hours before we’d see daylight 😛 On the bus, I saw some dedicated runners doing their morning runs in the dark, an interesting sight as I had never experienced a morning that was still dark at 8:30 am. The bus took us out of Reykjavik onto the “Ring Road”, beginning our tour around the Golden Circle, passing by the “greenhouse town” of Hveragerði. Yep, those rows of illuminated houses are indeed greenhouses, and they looked stunning in the dark, even from the bus, prompting a friend to say, “How can a greenhouse be this beautiful!”
First stop of the Golden Circle tour – the Skálholt medieval church, a landmark of cultural interest signifying the religious history of Iceland. This was one of the few man-made sites that we visited during the tour, as most of the other landmarks were natural sites. The sky was beginning to brighten up at this point, at around 10:30 in the morning.
We made a side stop at an unofficial visit site, Tjaldsvæðið við Faxa waterfalls. The guide told us that this is a relatively small waterfall and when I saw it I thought…what! This is small? (I guess I wouldn’t understand what he meant until later on.) The spotlight here was the little “salmon ladder” to the left of the waterfall, constructed to help salmon in the battle of their upstream navigation. Finding the current too strong to oppose? No problem! The salmon ladder can help you, little fish 😀
We continued forward along breathtaking landscapes and that one word still remained in my mind to describe the wild, untouched lands of Iceland: barren. Barren in a good way, as the eerie beauty of this country creeps past me with every step I take. Winter is a season where “barren” suits the mood, but I could just imagine the disappearance of the white peaks and the hills being covered in vast greenness during the spring and summer months. What a contrast that would be…and what a perfect reason to return to Iceland in warmer times 🙂
And from time to time, not very infrequently at all, we passed by streams and rivers that seemed to run on forever and lead into the distant nowhere. The next stop is Gullfoss, translated as “Golden Falls”, perhaps the most anticipated stop on the Golden Circle tour. I really had no idea what to expect, except for great things, and I was definitely not ready for the sight that would welcome me when I stepped off the bus to see…
…this. THIS IS INCREDIBLE. Ladies and gentlemen, this is the beautiful, stunning, unbelievably majestic Gullfoss, the Golden Falls. How could you not be awed in appreciation of the wonders of nature? With my obsession with waterfalls, this scene was at the same time unreal and too real to my eyes. The walls of the waterfalls were so frozen and still, like a real “Ice”land, while green waters almost seem to fluoresce as they rush into the dip. Sorry Niagara Fall, sorry Rhine Falls, but Gullfoss has overpowered you so easily, so effortlessly with its graceful grandiosity. I just…can’t sufficiently use words to describe my feelings at that moment, looking into the vast deep.
It was windy. Ohhhhhhhh yeah, it was hella windy, alright. Even if the temperature was a mere 0 degrees Celsius, the wind became bone-chilling at times and I was grateful for the bowls of warm lamb stew at the visitor’s center. Despite the wind, I asked my photo to be taken with the Gullfoss, fully aware that my hair would be flying all over the place. It really felt like a once-in-a-lifetime scenario, though I am making it a point to return, eventually.
Another look at the Golden Falls, which is in fact composed of two abrupt drops. The first drop was 11 metres deep and after travelling a short distance, the water drops another 21 meters into the crevice. We weren’t able to get any closer to the falls because the ice on the ground made it slippery and rather dangerous, but it seems that during the summertime, one can get as close to the falls as the edge of the water. Ahh, the experience that would be! I reluctantly said goodbye to the gorgeous falls when the tour group prepared to head to the next destination, knowing that one day I’d come back to see them again. Little did I know that the next part of the tour would turn out to be more than interesting as well…
We arrived at Geysir in the mid-afternoon. In fact, geysers obtained their name from Geysir, perhaps the most famous geyser in Iceland next to Strokkur, pictured above. Geysir itself doesn’t erupt all that often, but Strokkur is fairly active, erupting on average every 4 minutes up to a height of 40 metres. With the afternoon sun before me, I stood at a distance, stared into my camera, shutter ready, and waited for the eruption to rise. I swear it must have been more than 4 minutes between the eruptions, or perhaps time just seems to go by slower when you’re consciously waiting for something to happen. But nature could wait as it took its sweet time preparing for a spectacular show, and what I needed was the patience for such a show. And the patience was worth it. After what felt like half an hour of waiting (clearly exaggerated), this happened…
…with a BAM! I had to photograph a few eruptions before getting this photo, as either the water didn’t shoot up high enough or the timing wasn’t right, but this was IT. The water from Strokkur exploded from the ground, rose into the air like a hungry crocodile seeking prey, greedily devouring the sun. Really, Iceland hasn’t stopped stunning me with surprises. First Gullfoss, now Strokkur, the powers of nature are displayed for all to see.
After getting a few satisfactory shots, I moved closer to Strokkur to observe how the eruptions actually took place. And it was really amusing. It was like a big puddle of hot water (apparently sometimes going up to 100 degrees Celsius) waiting to reach the boiling point, bubbling as it prepares to erupt. Then the water in the centre of the round puddle swells and spurs out a little, followed by a slight drop, revealing a big hole, but…not yet, it does not erupt. It quickly fills up again and continues boiling, boiling, boiling…then when you least expect it, BOOM! (Note from my journal: “Never assume that you could guess when a geyser will erupt more than one second before it actually does.”) Water ejects from the hole and shoots up into the air like an exhilarated fountain. Sometimes the eruptions were relatively small, but some were tall and powerful. Because of its frequent activity, Strokkur wins the attention of most tourists while the many geysers scattered around Strokkur – including the original Geysir – drew relatively smaller crowds.
Looking at this photo, I imagined the sun as a jewel that had just been spit out of Strokkur, rising higher and higher as it escapes from its trap. Indeed, this is what Strokkur looked like right after an eruption, when water drops rapidly into the hole in the centre and the cycle starts over again. Seems like the geyser goes back to its calm sleep until it is awaken again, just in another few minutes.
As we prepared to leave the site of the geysers, I caught a glimpse of the little geysers, having no chance of erupting imminently. Somehow this one just seemed like a gigantic natural pot of water that is ready to be used for cooking. I could sit around with some hot pot goods, dip them straight into the pool, and out comes cooked food ready to be eaten. Of course, it wouldn’t be a very pretty hot pot session if the rarely-erupting little geyser does decide to erupt…
We still had one more destination on our Golden Circle tour but I already felt more than satisfied with the quality of the tour. The tour guide was friendly, funny, and informative, and the landscapes simply made me speechless. At one moment I was literally at a loss of words at how fortunate I was to have had the chance to experience heaven on Earth, even if it was only for one day.
The final stop of the Golden Circle tour was the Þingvellir (the “Þ” is pronounced like “th”) National Park, the site where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. According to our guide, this is the only place on Earth where you could walk from Europe to North America. Ha! The cliff-like structure in the photo are in fact the rifts representing the drifting plates that have formed a crack at Þingvellir so I guess…when you get to the top, you’re effectively in North America 😛
Other than the cracks, another defining feature of Þingvellir is the clear water hidden between the rifts. Tourists have developed a tradition of throwing coins into the water, which is so clear that you can see the abundance of coins that have drifted to the bottom. Iceland claims to have the cleanest waters in the world, and you know, I wouldn’t hesitate having a nice drink of cool water right out of that pool.
Once again, these fields would be devoid of ice and covered in endless green during the summer, a scene I intend to see in the future. For now, I leave Þingvellir and this concludes the Golden Circle tour, a stunning experience in a unique country for which I have nothing but praise and adoration. As I had mentioned in the previous post, I think that no amount of embellishing words, breathtaking photographs, or extravagant praises can ever do Iceland justice, and I hope I’ve convinced you that really, there’s nothing in the world quite like Iceland. The best thing to do is to go experience it yourself, if you have the opportunity. You won’t regret it 😉