Right to the Golden Circle
Sometimes you have a dream and it remains that way, never materialising into reality, and sometimes that dream just takes a long time to reach fruition. This was Iceland for me. Back when I lived in Scotland, long before the thought of moving to New Zealand had ever entered my head, I dreamed of visiting the land of fire and ice to the north. There seemed to be neither the time nor the money to make it work, and so it remained only a wish until finally in June of this year, it became real. In fact I booked my flights from Glasgow to Reykjavik several months before I’d even booked my flights from New Zealand to Scotland. This trip was happening, come hell or high water, and my plan was to spend the longest day of the year in the land of the midnight sun.
There was just enough time to watch a movie on the Icelandair flight, the credits rolling as the plane hit the tarmac, and as often happens, a large grin crossed my face as I stepped out and into the airport. I was excited and also rather nervous, as I had booked a hire car to allow me to circumnavigate the country, and for the first time in my life I would be driving on the opposite side of the road, and doing so from the opposite side of the car. I’ve driven in 5 countries, all ‘lefties’ and this was my first time on the right. I made the short walk to the rental office, packed up my car and prepared myself to get out on the road. Despite 11 years of driving manual, I have since spent over 4 years driving an automatic. Thankfully my rental car for my Scottish road trip had been a manual, allowing me to get used to changing gears again because now I found myself with a gear stick and an arm that wasn’t used to moving one.
After a few deep breaths, I eased out of the parking lot, set off on the road, and hit a roundabout. That was just cruel. In fact there were 3 roundabouts just to leave Keflavik, the small town where Iceland’s main airport is situated, behind but finally I was on the open road and surrounded by barrenness. I knew the island was volcanic, but I wasn’t prepared for the lumps of lava rock that sat either side of the road, and there was little vegetation to see for miles. Arriving in the evening, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I was in no hurry to get to my hostel, so when the turn-off came, I turned off the main road and followed the signs through the blackened landscape until I reached the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s famous geothermal spa.
I’d pre-booked a ticket which was recommended, and having done so it was an easy process to get in, receiving my wrist band and pointed in the direction of the locker room. I had to be helped to get my locker to lock as it was a little confusing, but I was eager to get into the pool. A requirement at all geothermal spas in Iceland is to shower naked prior to entering, and private cubicles were available for this. Following the signs, I headed downstairs and out the double doors, and there I found myself walking into the lagoon, a place I’d heard so much about for many years. It was absolutely packed, with GoPro toting tourists everywhere. I briefly regretted not bringing mine in purely for some water-based photos, but I quickly put that aside and got on with enjoying myself.
Priority number one was finding the silica mud that is free to apply to your skin for a facial. I located the booth and lathered it on, then duly spent my time wandering around the different parts of the lagoon, testing what temperature I preferred and allowing myself to unwind after the mild stress of getting used to the car and the road. One of my favourite things about the place was the in-lagoon bar. Using the electronic wrist band as currency, food, drinks and treatments can be purchased with a swipe, and these are then paid for at the end of the visit. I had heard about Skyr, an Icelandic dairy product, so I got hold of a Skyr smoothie and sipped it whilst walking around the lagoon. It was one of those marvellously surreal experiences that you have when travelling.
I tried the sauna and steam rooms but found them so hot it felt like my throat and nostrils were on fire, so most of my time was spent in the very large lagoon. Eventually though, I grew hungry, and headed into the cafe for some expensive food and another Skyr smoothie. Ever aware that I still had a bit of driving to do to reach my hostel, I finally got changed and did a bit of exploring of the facilities before leaving. Even the walk back to the car park takes you past silica lakes and large lava rocks, and whilst the cloudy skies detracted from it slightly, it felt other-worldly. I took my time, watching some birds flit between the rocks, but then it was time to get back on the road and retrace my route back to the highway.
I was exceedingly grateful for the GPS routing on my phone as although Reykjavik is deemed a small city by worldwide standards, it was big enough to feel that I would have got lost without it. I’d picked a hostel away from the city centre as I was heading east early the next morning. It was in a very residential part of the city, and whilst the route took me to the correct street, it had me pull in at a block of houses. Thankfully one of the residents was able to point me in the right direction, and I was soon to discover how the nation as a whole is exceptionally friendly and welcoming and eager to help. The hostel room numbering was a little confusing so I couldn’t find my room very easily, but then it was lights out to get some sleep, only to appreciate that it was still daylight outside until well after midnight.
I had an early rise to set off on my circumnavigation around the island. I was driving anti-clockwise, and my first port of call was the Þingvellir National Park to the north-east of Reykjavik. I discovered early on that driving in Iceland was actually really enjoyable and my previous worries about driving on the right side of the road were unfounded. Although I had my GPS navigating me, the signage on the open road was easy to follow, and although it is a stunning country, I managed to find the scenery not too much of a distraction. The traffic at that time of the day was light and I had large sections of the road to myself, despite being part of the renowned Golden Circle.
I hadn’t bothered to buy food having read that the visitor’s centre near my destination of Silfra had a cafe, but I was dismayed to find it closed when I got there, and it wasn’t opening for hours. I found throughout my whole trip that Iceland eateries are late openers, and dining out for breakfast was a very difficult thing to do. I knew I’d end up starving but there wasn’t much choice, and I silently kicked myself for not seeking out a supermarket the night before. Whilst the businesses were closed, nature was open, and I made my way to the meeting spot where my morning tour was due to start. Being part of the national park, the car park had a charge, and the machines only accepted card payments.
To one side lay a large lake, Þingvallavatn visible down a river where geese and their young waddled about on the banks. Up river from the car park, a pretty little church adorned the riverside, and climbing up over some lava rocks, I found a track that led me up the wall of a chasm and down into a large rift valley. This whole region has been created by tectonic plate movements as the North American and Eurasian plates move apart from each other, and the whole area is riddled with fissures and valleys as a result. I followed the path up to the top of the rock and from the viewing platform I could see out over the landscape, both dramatic and at times barren. I tried to guess where I’d be going for my tour, but as the clock ticked on, the crowds of people that would become a constant accompaniment to this part of Iceland started to appear, and I made my way back down into the fissure, and up over the lava wall to meet my tour guide.
I don’t remember how or where I found out about this tour, but when I read that it was possible to snorkel between the two tectonic plates, I knew I had to do it whilst I was here. The company that runs snorkelling trips also offers diving trips too, and there were regular tour times running each day. So regular in fact, that there was a constant flow of people kitting up and heading to and from the entry point, and it was a busy place to be. Whilst pick-ups are available in Reykjavik, a few of us had driven ourselves there, and in the end we had to wait quite a while for our guide to arrive from the city. Then the long process of preparation began.
Despite being the height of summer, the water temperature was just 3oC, so there was a lot of layers to get geared up in. I already had a base layer on under my clothes, but on top of this went a thermal body suit, a dry suit, a head mask and gloves. A few of us were of a build where our dry suits weren’t water tight enough around our necks, and so we had to have the indignity of a collar put on. For all intents and purposes, this was like a broad cable tie around your neck that was ratcheted up until water tightness was achieved. About half of our group needed this and it was not pleasant at all. I immediately felt lightheaded, but one of my tour companions was feeling immensely claustrophobic with his on and he was struggling to hide his agitation. With all the checks that needed to be done, the kitting up process felt like it took forever, and even after we made our way to the entry point, the amount of tours taking place meant there was quite a queue to get in the water. My lightheadedness had eased but a couple of my tour mates pointed out that my lips and skin were turning a shade of blue, so our guide was called over and he had to loosen up my collar a notch. It still felt unpleasantly tight, but my colour was pink again within a matter of minutes, just in time to get in the frigid water.
It really is the clearest water I have ever swam in. I was a little disappointed to discover that there was no aquatic life, but the crystal clarity and the changing depths of the rocky chasm still made for an interesting snorkel, and although my face which was uncovered was freezing, I was more than content ploughing my way through the snorkel route. Half an hour passed in no time at all, and having first headed near the lake then veering off to another channel, we reached the exit point, and I didn’t want to get out. Waiting till every one else had hauled themselves up, I pulled myself out about 34 minutes after getting in.
There was a much needed hot chocolate and cookies waiting for us back at the van where we got out of our gear and were then left to our own devices. I took a wander back down the path to where we’d come out at the end of the snorkel, and then watched some geese for a while as they nibbled at the vegetation. By now into the early afternoon, the place was packed and the car park was full. Aside from the snorkelling and scuba diving, there are various walks in the area to explore the geology as well as viewing one of the country’s many waterfalls. An Icelandic flag flies near here to mark the location of Iceland’s first parliament in 930AD, with sessions being held there until 1798. One of the downsides about being so close to the waterway was the incessant swirling flies that flitted around your face. They never landed nor bit but their constant dancing close by became very annoying.
It became clear on reaching my car that people were fighting over parking spaces, so I made somebody very happy when I signalled I was leaving and gave them my spot. I still had a lot of ground to cover in the Golden Circle and I’d really only just started.