The Golden Circle
The soft light of morning crept through the open window of our room at around 5:30am on Sunday, August 25th. The weather, looking much like it did the night before with alternating rain and mist, did little to dampen our excitement as we quickly packed and loaded our gear into the Jeep. At breakfast we gave the maps a once over and did our best to eat what we could despite our lingering hangover. Many trips were made to the juice machines and water pitcher because some food service manager thought that providing juice cups not much larger than shot glasses was a good idea – I can assure you mister or miss food service manager that I am going to stand here and fill this ketchup cup and drain its contents as many times as it takes to get the taste of strong ale and sulphur out of my mouth so keep the stink eye to yourself.
The plan for the day was to explore the Golden Circle, a 300km tourist route popular with day trippers out of Reykjavik, and then head to our next place of lodging in Hvolsvollur. Specifically, our trip was to take us first to Þingvellir National Park, to the area near Geysir, after which all geysers are named, and finally to the massive waterfall called Gullfoss. The first hiccup came when we attempted to program a word into the GPS that started with the letter Þ, or thorn, an Old Norse letter pronounced with a “th” and currently only used by those living in Iceland. Perhaps there was a trick to find it somewhere in the provided Garmin, but we were in a hurry so we navigated to the approximate waypoint by hand and hit the GO button only to be shown a blank screen with a blue car in the middle. Blondie and I glanced at each other and I am sure she could see the doubt and the anger and the I-can’t-believe-this-shit-we-could’ve-went-to-Jamaica look that was causing my cheeks to burn, but like all adventurers worth their salt we pointed our truck up the road and hoped we could use the maps to pick our way through the city. After a mile or so the detail came back onto the screen and our route was laid out ahead of us in a bold and reassuring pink. It was early Sunday morning after the biggest party of the year so there were few people on the roads, which reminded me of the roads of urban New England with numerous roundabouts and street signs pointing to locations named after people and places from the native past. It did not take us long to leave the city behind and get our first views of the rugged country.
Our first impression of the stark treeless terrain was that of a mossy moonscape and throughout our adventure the Moon came up often as a way to describe the many vistas we surveyed. We both thought that if the whole country was this beautiful and alien it would take us forever to get to our nightly destination because we had to get out every ten kilometers to take photos while wondering aloud about the forces of earth-building that created what stretched before us. Luckily the tour was designed to require being on the road for only a few hours each day, daylight lasting from 5:30 – 21:00, so we had plenty of time and light for detours and excursions on foot. Our first stop was just west of Þingvellir at a parking area that overlooked the largest lake on the island ,Þingvallavatn, and the mountains beyond. Over the years visitors have stacked hundreds of cairns on the slope leading down to the lake from the parking area, which adds an interesting feature to an already stunning view. It was funny to see that about 75% of the tourists, regardless of nationality, photographed a member of their party squatting with a grimace over the stacked rocks acting like they just shat out a pile of turd colored stones – it is good to see that toilet humor is alive and well in the travelling class.
At the parking area we also learned a crucial lesson. During the week leading up to the trip we watched the weather closely in order to gauge what sort of clothing we would need to bring along and since it looked as if it would remain in the fifties we decided that we would bring only a single pair of long underwear just in case. After photographing the cairns and the lake for maybe five minutes the cold Icelandic wind cut through our clothes and chilled us to a shiver. We rushed back to the truck and with little modesty we stripped down and donned our single pair of long-johns, which we wore every day (and washed every night) for the rest of the trip. Summer in Iceland is only summer for Icelanders. For New Englanders it would be considered a chilly Spring whereas for those living in the South it would be considered a bitterly cold wasteland only fit for crazy people – luckily we haven’t lost our New England toughness completely.
Þingvellir National Park is simply amazing. I could write ten posts on the geologic, cultural, and historic importance of the area, and I can assure you that each one of them would bore the hell out of you. The weather wasn’t on our side during our visit so we only saw a sliver of the park before we made a retreat to the truck. It does feel weird to be on the floor of a rift valley though, knowing that the mountains far off in the distance are growing apart at a rate of a few centimeters per year and that at one point they were as close together as bricks in a wall. I can get hung up on the geologic scale of things and start spouting Sagan-esque platitudes that would make even Carl’s eyes roll (may he rest in peace), so I will spare you and leave it at that. I must mention, however, that the first Icelandic parliament was established in the valley in 930 and remained there until 1798. For 868 years powerful Icelandic men from all points travelled over the rugged landscape to the valley to participate in what is now the oldest existing parliamentary institution on earth. When you read that last sentence did you imagine massive blonde men wearing furs and walking bent against the harsh wind and snow, possibly wearing helmets with or without horns, and speaking with Minnesotan accents? Just me?
After leaving the park we stopped for our first “meal” of paprika chips, Fanta, and cookies (It took Blondie a solid ten minutes to choose the right package of cookies – she is THE cookie curator). Paprika chips are just like any other potato chip but the seasoning is a magical spicy BBQ flavor except way better and far less messy. We seek them out like ravenous dogs the moment we step on European soil – they are possibly a perfect food and I wish I had some right now.
The next stop was the valley of Haukadalur and the two most popular geysers in Iceland, Geysir and its more reliable neighbor Strokkur. The rain did not give us much of a break on this stop either but we managed to have a good look around and saw Strokkur do it’s thing while Geysir remained quiet. Trying to take a good picture of a geyser in the driving rain is a skill that neither Blondie nor I posses. You can sort of tell when it is going to blow its top by the movement of the water but every time it erupted we were either too early with the shutter or so surprised by the sudden explosion of steam that the photo is just a big blur of stupid.
Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, in my mind is a world treasure and it is unbelievable that at one point there were plans to dam the river and virtually kill it. I can guarantee that the first person who walked over the bluff to figure out what all the racket was probably died of surprise on the spot or at least needed a change of furs. The torrent is hidden from passers-by and the only thing that gives away its location from the road is a fine mist hanging a few hundred feet above the floor of the fissure and once out of the vehicle an ominous angry roar can be heard over the cold wind. During preparations for the trip I saw many pictures of the falls but didn’t grasp its massive scale, however, once we were on top of the ridge and saw the tiny people on the jut of land at mid-falls it was then very clear.
With soaked clothes and nearly ruined cameras we said our farewells to one of the most beautiful scenes in the solar system. Hotel Hvolsvollur was our stopping point for the day and we were happy to take the cross-country drive required to get there. Even though we were wet to the core and fully exhausted the rolling valleys, red-roofed farmhouses, and ubiquitous Icelandic sheep kept our eyes on the move during the hour it took to get to the hotel. Hotel Hvolsvollur was similar to our first hotel and filled to the brim with blue-haired tourers (we call them Q-Tips – it’s mean but you know it’s funny) from Germany, who arrive in gigantic bus sized waves to devour their discounted buffet (while we paid full price), and hit the sack by sunset so they can presumably watch the Icelandic version of Matlock. We drank stiff drinks, eavesdropped on some English fisherman with a penchant for 90s music, and waited for the big groups to finish before we took our seat at the table. Once the mainlanders vacated the buffet I went to scope out the food and on my way I passed an older female tour guide who was on the phone in the open space between the tables and the buffet. As I passed within a few feet from her I heard her release three tremendous trumpet-like farts from her stretch-pants and then continue on with her conversation like nothing happened. It stopped both I and a passing waitress dead – partly in disbelief and partly so we could exchange that twinkle of understanding between two people who will now be going somewhere private to giggle like a grade schooler. The faint scent of old lady gas, however, did very little to keep us away from the buffet and our main meal of the day. The offerings were roasted pork, potatoes, limp roasted veg, and a great deal of salads, herrings, breads, and smoked critters. We tried a little of everything and had a decent meal despite the fact that some Icelandic food should be kept to the Icelanders.
In Driving Iceland: Part 3 we will be heading out onto our first F-Roads, climbing a small mountain that nearly crippled me for the rest of the trip, recovering from stress sweats, and paying $48 for two double tall gin and tonics (I switched to beer full-time after that one).
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