The weather was a bit of a surprise because we had interpreted ‘Ice land’ rather more literally than we should have and were expecting sub zero temperatures, mountainous snow and lots of ice.
What we hadn’t taken fully into consideration was the effect of the gulf stream that delivers warm water from the Caribbean directly to the south of Iceland and thereby keeps the temperature unexpectedly mild. Reykjavik is on a line of latitude 64° north which is approximately the same as Anchorage in Alaska and Arkhangelsk in Russia but whilst the average November temperature in these two cities is about -12° centigrade in Iceland it is only about -1°.
Whilst you wouldn’t step out on the streets in Anchorage or Arkhangelsk without a warm coat and a hat it really wasn’t absolutely necessary here. Iceland it seems is a most inappropriately named country.
Being so far north and west it didn’t get light until about half past nine so after a buffet breakfast in the restaurant next door we set off on the Golden Circle tour in complete darkness. After we had driven through the town of Selfoss we turned left and followed directions to Gullfoss and the road got narrower and the volume of traffic slowed to a trickle of rugged four by fours.
Now we began to appreciate fully the landscape and as the sun began to appear through broken clouds we stopped for a while to enjoy the spaciousness of the countryside. First we found some Icelandic ponies that are unique to this country and then stopped for magnificent views of the River Sog with the sun hugging the horizon and shooting shafts of brightness through the heavy clouds.
It is rather nice to visit places where there is no one else about and there was a real sense of solitude and isolation and this was not surprising really when you consider that Iceland only has a population of slightly over three hundred thousand people and that population density is the lowest in Europe at less than three people per square kilometre. That is about a hundred times less than the United Kingdom at two hundred and forty-four people per square kilometre and a lot less crowded than the most congested country, which is Monaco at sixteen thousand four hundred people per square kilometre.
The sunshine was welcome and transformed the khaki scrub into golden meadows and a symphony of winter colours stretching across vast open fields to snow capped glaciers beyond. Along the way there were a number of viewing points and we stopped to see an old volcanic blowhole, now filled with water and an impressive waterfall with surging white water rushing over black rocks and creating a hanging spray of misty water.
Everywhere there was evidence of volcanic and geothermal activity with a strong smell of sulphur and a landscape of broken rocks and deep fissures like open earth wounds that made the place seem precarious and exciting. It was easy to see why Jules Verne decided that Iceland was the place to begin his ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’ in his novel of 1864. Iceland is a bit like Wales, but with attitude!
Finally we reached Geysir in the Haukadalur valley, which is the oldest known geyser and one of the world’s most impressive examples of the phenomenon. I had seen geysers before at Yellowstone National Park in the USA but these here were even more impressive. We followed the path past the bubbling mud pots and the belching steam vents and joined a bus tour party who had an entertaining and informative guide.
We tagged along and at least one lady in the party seemed to be showing some annoyance that we had joined the group as unpaid parasites and she kept flashing aggressive little glances our way. Mindful of how irritating this can be for people who have paid the full whack I kept an appropriate distance away from the group whilst making sure of course that I could continue to hear and enjoy the commentary.
The original great Geyser erupts only infrequently now so you could be a long time hanging around waiting for a show but luckily the nearby geyser Strokkur erupts much more regularly every five minutes or so to heights of up to twenty metres (that’s the equivalent of about five London double decker buses). Crowds of people were gathered expectantly around the glassy pool waiting for the transluscent blue water bubble to form and then dramatically break forcing many gallons of boiling water and hissing steam into the air.
There were about thirty other mud pots and water pools and it was a good job that we had the benefit of the tour guide because he was giving sound advice on temperatures and what you could comfortably touch and what you couldn’t because some of the pools contained boiling water that would strip flesh from fingers and would have involved an unplanned trip to the infirmary.
After we had watched the geysir erupt a few more times we went into the nearby shop but left again almost immediately on account of the silly prices and continued our journey towards Gullfoss and the falls.