I’ve been waiting for this day for many years; it’s the day of the Golden Circle (and Green Energy) tour in Iceland. The Golden Circle is basically the tour that everyone does when they visit Reykjavik and you’d be mad not to do it. I once saw a photo of the famous geysers and became obsessed with the desire to photograph them myself.
In the Tourist Information Office we asked whether they could recommend any particular tour companies for the trip, and they said that a company called Sterna were a little less known than the others so the tour group would be smaller and more intimate. We trusted their opinions and booked the trip, and were picked up in the dark morning at about 9am along with just 4 others. At this time of the year sunrise isn’t until 9.30am so at 9 on a rainy day it’s still black as night outside.
We were greeted by our cheerful guide Yonna (I’m not sure how to spell it, but it sounded like YO-NA) who would be our driver and general fountain of knowledge, her particular favourite subject being ghost and elf stories. My favourite Icelandic facts were that 30% of Icelanders believe in elves and they have 13 Santa Clauses, one of which is called Bjugnakraekir meaning ‘sausage grabber’. All of the Santas sound a bit scary and mean so I’m glad we only have one friendly one.
First stop was a geothermal power plant based at the foot of a volcano range. It was deserted; we were the only ones there, and we watched some interesting videos about how the natural power is harnessed to heat all the homes and buildings on the island, and listened to simulations of recent earthquakes which brought back scary memories of my first ever earthquake in around 2002 (in England no less, 5 on the richter scale, beginning with a sickeningly loud bang which this multimedia demo was reminding me of). We saw that a huge strip going right across Iceland was full of active volcanoes and that the gap between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates increases by 2cm per year – we’d see evidence of this later in the day.
After that we went to a small waterfall called Faxi where again, no-one else was around. It was pissing it down with rain all day so we got pretty wet, but as a photographer I was delighted – fog and rain is far more interesting in photos than blue sky, thought it did mean that we missed out on what we were assured were spectacular views of mountains and glaciers.
We also stopped at a volcanic crater Kerið where Bjork once performed a concert, with the audience sitting on the banks of the crater. I can imagine how surreal this must have been.
As we approached the mighty Gullfoss waterfall our guide started to get a little worried. “Uh, it’s very foggy, I really hope you’ll be able to see the waterfall….. I’m not sure, it’s really really foggy.” The fog had closed in rapidly and we couldn’t see much of the road ahead. Yonna’s fears were put to rest when we arrived. The fog was hanging over the waterfall but we could still see it; it was majestic, and beautiful in the mist. I think Yonna breathed a sigh of relief. The Gullfoss cafe was a welcome bubble of warmth and we had lamb soup to heat us up.
The next stop was to Geysir to see the hot sprint Srokkur shoot water into the air every few minutes… the thing I’d seen in a photo and been in awe of. The landscape was otherworldly; it truly felt like we were standing on another planet. Hot springs were bubbling all around, belching sulphuric steam out across the red rocks, while deep vivid blues could be seen far below the surface tempting us to get closer. The rain didn’t deter us and we stood and watched for a while.
The final stop of the day was Þingvellir National Park; a spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site that often finds itself as the backdrop for films and TV – Season 2 of Game of Thrones was filmed there amongst others. It’s of cultural and natural significance; one of the world’s first parliaments was established here, and through it runs a valley between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It was really weird to walk between the tectonic plates knowing that they’re moving apart at a distance of 2cm per year. The park was vast and beautiful.
During lunch Yonna had sat with us knitting a dress she’d been working on. We told her we really loved the traditional Icelandic jumpers that everyone was wearing, and that I had only ever knitted a scarf and would love to some day knit one of those jumpers. She said she knew of a great wool shop and would take us there if there was time. She asked the other group members if they didn’t mind going to this wool shop on the way back, and nobody objected so off we went. Well, this wool shop was bloody fantastic. It was actually the Alafoss factory outlet – the traditional Icelandic wool that all the famous jumpers were made from, full of treasures. She helped me find some patterns, measuring me so I knew what size to knit, and showed me how many balls of wool I would need for my jumper. “Maybe get one extra, just in case…” she suggested. I laughed. “Yeah I’ll definitely need extra” I replied, knowing how shit my scarf looked (seriously, holes and weird loops everywhere).
I really appreciated this little detour, but it was clearly no trouble and she enjoyed going there herself. This is why I love Iceland, it’s been like this the whole trip. I’m not counting the first hostel fiasco because the owners weren’t Icelandic. Everyone else has been really lovely.