25 Feb 2015

Iceland Feb 2015 - Day 1: A Meander Around the Golden Circle

I knew before I set off for my eighth trip to Iceland that my plans were going to be messed up. My obsession with the Icelandic weather-forecast meant that I was aware of a couple of nasty storms due to hit on the very day that I was supposed to be doing a mammoth drive from Keflavik to Jökulsárlón. And it was Friday the 13th, so I didn't want to take any chances. So before I left I made a few rearrangements, opting instead to stay a short distance from Reykjavik, in the town of Hella, instead of risking being blown off the road along the south coast. Sadly it meant I'd lose out on visiting an ice cave, but better safe than sorry.

Otherwise my trip started off well. My flight was on time, with no cancellations and consequent horrendous hangovers to deal with like last year. On arrival I stayed at the hotel just across from the terminal building at the airport, which was perfect after landing just before midnight.

I picked up my rental Suzuki Grand Vitara the following morning and had an easy day ahead of me - meandering through the "golden circle" area, before heading down to Hella. The weather this side of the storms was lovely and I headed east as the sun rose above the stark black volcanic landscape that covers the Reykjanes Peninsula. I didn't stop until I reached a Bonus supermarket on the other side of Reykjavik, where I stocked up on packed lunch food and ingredients for 4 or 5 nights of self-catering (tuna pasta - the easiest by far). I also bought some nuts, dried fruit and chocolate-covered licorice sweets to scoff as I drove along!

My first proper stop was up on the hill overlooking the lake at Þingvellir. The roads were a bit snowy, but not too bad, and my snow tyres meant that the drive uphill was an easy, quick one. The sun was hazy, hidden behind high clouds, but the light was still beautiful, and the lake below was serene. Others stopped in the same pull-out to admire the view. It was extremely cold, so no-one stayed out for very long.

I continued down towards the centre of Þingvellir, past the four cabins, one of which I'd booked to stay in on my penultimate night. I turned into the road towards the church and had a little drive around. I could see the magnificent and mostly frozen Oxarafoss peaking out along the rift, but decided I'd visit it on my return visit. I stopped to take a couple of shots of the church and then headed back to the main road, passing some people wearing dry-suits plodding down the road towards a spot where they were about to dive in extremely clear (not to mention icy) water.

The road across to Laugarvatn was snow-covered in patches and a little slippery. As I went around a roundabout when I reached the town the car skidded slightly, which was a little hairy. A little light blinked on the dashboard telling me that I was skidding, which seemed a bit unnecessary as it was quite obvious that I was! I continued onwards, slowly, towards Geysir, not having much faith in the winter tyres after all. I'd originally planned on looking for an off-the-beaten-track waterfall called Bruarfoss, but the road to reach it was very snowy, so again I thought I'd leave it until my return when the snow might have melted. Instead I drove straight to Geysir, stopping only to photograph some beautiful horses standing around in the snow. 

I carried on to Geysir, parked at the bustling visitor centre and then watched the Strokkur geyser erupt over and over. I thought back with fondness to my first trip there in October 2002 when a Kiwi friend and I had visited; the 5 or 6 of us in that minibus were the only visitors there to the desolate geyser in the cold drizzle! It is a little busier these days... (to be fair, it was a Friday, Valentine's Day, and half term to boot, so not really surprising that it was that busy).

I still remembered the way the water in the hole moved up and down and everyone thought that the eruption was imminent, but it would just tantalisingly swish back and bubble and steam for a little while longer. Evenutally, though, the water welled up an incredible blue colour and then exploded high into the air, before resuming its bubbling and swishing. It was mesmerising waiting for it to erupt (not to mention tiring on the arms holding the camera up in a portrait position just in case it erupted at any moment)!

As well as obsessing over the main Strokkur geyser, I also wandered a little further up the hill where there are some beautiful geothermal pools, one of which was a bright blue colour, reminding me of Yellowstone.

My fingers and toes eventually got too cold, so I headed to the visitor centre for a quick coffee, before setting off on the road down towards Hella. I passed through the town of Flúðir, where I remembered from a previous trip seeing something strange, but couldn't remember what it was. As I drove through the town it became obvious - there was an Ethiopian restaurant there, which seemed incongruous in a town in the middle of nowhere with a population of 394.

The drive back towards Hella was pleasant as the roads weren't too snowy and some light cloud prevented the sun from blinding me as I drove (not something I normally complain about in Iceland!). I arrived at the Nonni Guesthouse a little before sunset, and headed straight out again, driving a little further east, hoping to find a good spot to watch the last of the light. I drove on through Hvolsvöllur, and eventually turned down a little road to the south, where I watched a few dark horses mill around. In the distance I could see the storm that I was avoiding, and blowing snow began creeping closer to me.

Before the storm reached me I headed back to Hella and took a last few shots down by the river in the last light of the blue hour. I tried out a local restaurant and ate an expensive pasta dish, alone, and ended the day with a Skype chat with hubby and a lovely Borg IPA back in my room, and the alarm set for a reasonable hour, given that sunrise was a very sociable 9.19am.

Click here for Day 2 - A Drizzly Drive to Jökulsárlón

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