Monday, October 17, 2016

Iceland Day 3 (Part Two): Gullfoss and Þhingvellir

When we left off, I was on a super jeep tour of Iceland's Golden Circle and had just explored a bit of the Langjökull Glacier. Now, we drove down to Gullfoss, an impressive waterfall.  It was now brilliantly sunny (with a killer windchill) and the views of and around the waterfall were gorgeous.


It was so windy I had to keep my hair bundled in an unattractive collection of clips.

Where there's a waterfall, there will be a rainbow


In addition to showing us these sites, Arni gave us a lot of information about Iceland. It's only 16 million years old. Compare that to the Appalachian Mountain chain, which had its beginnings in the Grenville orogeny about 1 billion years ago. The Rocky Mountains, relative babies, are still 64 million years older than Iceland. The island was formed by volcanic activity that persists to this day. The geothermal areas generate electricity and hot water for most of the country, so there's no need to burn fossil fuels. The drinking water, Arni said, is filtered by glaciers. Arni and I hung out a bit when the Hong Kong couple were off doing their thing. I told him about mistaking city hall for the National Museum. "I suppose it happens all the time," I ventured and he responded in a polite, noncommittal way.

Our next stop was a brief one at Laugarvatn Fontana, a geothermal area with a spa and baths. We didn't go to the spa, but walked along the shore of a lake. The lake water itself was cold but steam was rising from the beach and in one spot, water bubbled briskly out of the sand. Arni pointed out mounds of black sand, under which was bread dough, left to bake in the geothermal heat. The only picture I took is this movie of water boiling out of the sand.

Our last stop of the day was Þhingvellir National Park, site of the world's first parliament and the rift between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Althing (parliament) was found in 930 A.D. Later, Iceland fell under the rule of Norway and then Denmark. In 1944, when Iceland once again became an independent nation, citizens gathered at Þhingvellir. 

Image from here

The two tectonic plates are drifting apart at the rate of one inch each year. That's quite fast when you consider that just within my own lifetime, the landscape has shifted four feet. If you're really adventurous, you can scuba dive between the plates here. 

Icelandic flora

North American plate

Þhingvellir was our last stop and it was only a half hour drive from there back to Reykjavik, where Arni dropped me off at my guest house. It had been a nine-hour day and it wasn't over yet, because this was my last chance to try and see the northern lights. Most people book a tour, where you're taken out into the country, but I didn't want to spend three hours on a bus, so I decided to take my chances in the city. Arni said they're only visible from Reykjavik if they're very strong, but I didn't feel discouraged. 

I finished dinner around 9:00 pm and headed out for a sculpture garden we'd visited on the walking tour on my first day. Audur had said it was a good place from which to see the northern lights. But then, while I was still downtown - right in front of Government House - I saw something in the sky. It could have been a wisp of cloud, but I knew it wasn't a cloud. It faded and then reappeared as a stripe of bright green across the sky. The green faded and came back a few more times and I knew I wasn't imagining things because other people had stopped to look too. This day had been my best-ever travel day, but for it to be finished with a northern lights sighting was almost unbelievable. 

This picture is terrible. You can barely see them, and you'll have to take my word for it that the lights were more intense than that in real life. Another word of wisdom from Arni was that all the fantastic northern lights pictures you see were taken by professional photographers with a slow exposure. This fleeting glimpse seemed to be it for the night, in the city at least. I walked up to the dark sculpture garden and waited there for a while, but didn't see anything. (Another thing about Reykjavik - I never felt unsafe, not even when walking alone at night.) 

So this was my last night, but since my flight home didn't depart until afternoon, I had time for another Icelandic experience the next day, which I'll relate in the next post.


  1. I didn't realize there was a big crack problem in Iceland. The last bit about the Northern Lights reminds me of a very funny piece by Geoff Dyer in "White Sands" about the time he and his wife went to Norway to see them.