Never Far from the Madding Crowd
I had read that Iceland’s tourism numbers were fast exceeding its capacity to cope. Amongst these articles I read worrying reports about some tourists lack of respect at sites leading to erosion and flora damage by crossing barriers and straying off walkways. I’ve visited places before where natural beauty has been marred by over-commercialisation for the tourist buck (Niagara Falls in Canada being one example) or lack of crowd control affecting the experience (Macchu Picchu in Peru and parts of New Zealand being some examples), so I was intrigued to see how Iceland fared in this matter. Whilst some people like to wax lyrical about the difference between a tourist and a traveller, and what makes a person one or the other, the affect of global tourism opening up the world to more and more foot traffic, irregardless of the owner of that foot, inevitably has an impact on more and more places.
Having left the crowds of Þingvellir National Park behind, I made the drive to the second of the 3 main attractions of the Golden Circle: Haukadalur. There were people everywhere, on both sides of the road and wandering across at will when I arrived at the very large visitor’s centre. There were buses pulled up and all the car parks were full. I went round a couple of them before I was lucky enough to nab a space as someone was leaving. There were cars and people everywhere as I headed into the visitor’s centre for a look around. There were no free tables at the eateries, so I resigned myself to surviving on the cookies and hot chocolate I’d had earlier, and once again kicked myself for not taking the time the day before to visit a supermarket.
But my goal was to visit one of Iceland’s (and the world’s) most famous geysers, Strokkur. The ‘original’ geyser, Geysir, is in this area also, but Strokkur erupts so regularly, that its predictability has made it a large draw. A marked path leads to Strokkur past a bubbling stream and some small bubbling pools. Despite the signs warning about the risks of burns and not to cross the barrier, I saw several people stick a shoe or finger into various parts of the stream as they walked along.
Since moving to New Zealand, I’ve discovered that I love geothermal areas. It fascinates me to see steam billowing out the ground and I enjoy watching mud bubble. I joined the large crowd round the perimeter fence of Strokkur and joyously watched as it erupted and soaked some people across from me. Averaging an eruption every 6-10 minutes, it was easy to watch this happen over and over whilst wandering around the region. It was also amusing watching people trying to pose and take selfies right at the point of eruption.
Behind Strokkur was a lupin-covered hillside where a path lead up to the summit. I love lupins, and the purple contrasted against the Martian red landscape on one side of the hill and the lush green valley on the other side. In the distance, snow-speckled mountains donned the horizon and from my perch I watched Strokkur go through its eruption cycle as the crowds milled around. After coming back down, I had a look around a few other pools of note before retracing my steps back to my car.
The highlight of my day was what lay to the north-east. Following the road to the end of the tarmac, I turned in at another packed car park, and found the only place to park was at the end of the drive, right by the road. I hustled my way past a myriad of slow walkers and came out at the top of a cliff, hurried down some steps and raced over to the barrier at the top of the gorge. In front of me was the most beautiful waterfall I have ever seen: Gullfoss. The third icon of the Golden Circle, this staircase waterfall has an average summer water flow of 140 cubic metres per second and with the sun out overhead, a glorious rainbow arced over the cascade.
Following a lower walkway down towards the top of the waterfall, the roar of the water accompanies the changing vista as the river disappears into a deep crevice. I couldn’t stop looking at it, and clearly neither could anyone else that was there. It was hard not to get carried away with taking photos, there was just so much to take in. I enjoyed wandering along side the river on the lower walkway and then headed back up the stairs to get a viewpoint from above. I couldn’t get enough of it, and even if I turned my back on the falls and looked across the plains, I was gobsmacked to see an expansive glacier on the horizon. It was surreal. After doing my best to fill the memory card on my camera, I finally filled my stomach at the cafe before making a point of wandering along the lower path again, this time keeping my camera firmly hidden away.
When I returned to my car, parked as it was near the road, my vision was drawn to a hitchhiker trying to grab my attention. Normally I wouldn’t do this as a solo traveller, but I was going where he needed to get to, and it was hard to ignore him when he was right there, so I agreed to take him with me to Selfoss, my destination for the night. His English was broken, and I found it difficult to concentrate on both driving on the opposite side of the road as well as trying to interpret what he was saying. We managed to muddle through some reasonable conversation whilst I negotiated people on the road and my first experience of driving an unsealed Icelandic road until we parted ways on arriving in Selfoss.
Many of the accommodation places I stayed in in Iceland had a curfew time for checking in, and I was eager to get to Selfoss in time to get my key, so I didn’t stop anywhere on route. However, having checked in, and with hours of daylight still ahead, I backtracked to Kerið, a volcanic crater next to route 35. It has a small entrance fee to give access to a perimeter walk around the top of the crater and then down to the lakeside within. Although it was still daylight, the sun was low enough to put the lake into shadow, but it was a lovely spot to walk around. Back in Selfoss, I was lucky to get the last table at a busy little cafe for a late dinner. My body clock was confused with the long hours of daylight and eating dinner at 10pm became the norm on my trip.
The next morning I again realised that Icelanders don’t really do breakfast out. Nowhere was open to get a meal, and the cafe I had eaten at the night before only served coffee and cake when it finally opened. I took a brief wander along the river bank under the bridge where highway 1 enters the town, but then, like every day of my trip, I had so much to see and it was time to continue east.
Seljalandsfoss is a 60 metre tall waterfall not far off Route 1, and once again, it was a mission finding a place to park. Buses, camper vans and rental cars littered every spare piece of grass or gravel, and people were tripping over each other to get a selfie or a group photo. The sun wasn’t yet high enough to illuminate the falls so the area was in shadow. The path that goes behind the falls was muddy, and it was impossible to walk this route without getting quite wet.
Along from here, a path leads along the bottom of the cliff past a little stream and wildflowers to another waterfall, Gljúfrafoss which is hidden behind some rocks. Only a handful of people ventured this far and although it was still impossible to get the place to yourself, it was an altogether more intimate experience here and it was beautiful. I had noticed a couple of paths eroded into the cliff face, and assumed that this was evidence of people wandering out of bounds. I was quietly annoyed about people’s disregard for the flora here, but a sign at this second waterfall stated that they were in fact recognised paths but ones to be taken at your own risk due to the steepness of them. One led up to a rickety ladder which gave a precarious view down over Gljúfrafoss. The other led up the cliff face to the top of the cliff.
Assuming you have no fear of heights, this is a must-do here. The whole time I was at the summit, I saw only 2 other people and a path leads along the cliff in both directions. In fact it is possible to stand right at the top of Seljalandsfoss and look down over the falls itself and the tiny people below. It felt utterly peaceful up there and I watched the bus loads of people move on for the day knowing full well they’d missed out on this gem. Some fulmars nested on the cliff edge and I watched them for a while before picking my way back down the slippery path to the bottom. By now the sun had risen high enough to cast the falls into sunshine and I admired them some more before pushing east.
I remember when I lived in Aberdeen in 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland erupted, sending an ash cloud into the sky that disrupted flights in Europe for several days. I remember walking out my flat a few days later and smelling rotten eggs, the sulphuric smell drifting on the wind. I couldn’t believe that 6 years later I was driving across the land that had been affected by this eruption. Past here, I pulled in at Skógar, and followed the signs to Skógafoss, yet another of Iceland’s famous waterfalls. Despite the sun having been left behind and the skies thick with grey clouds, once more I played the car park game, driving round and round in an effort to find the slightest piece of unused gravel or grass to abandon my car on.
This waterfall falls down over what used to be coastal cliffs, but now sits around 5km from the sea following coastal retreat. A similar height to Seljalandsfoss, only much broader, the spray from the curtain whipped quite some distance from the falls, so anyone walking along the river bed was keeping their distance as they posed for their photos. I decided to risk my camera by marching past them all and skirting the edge of the rocks to not only get closer to the falls but to get out the way of those hanging back whilst managing some photos without other people in them. Then I headed up the cliff to a viewpoint overlooking the falls where there was a queue for the best vantage spot. Higher still, a platform has been erected at the top of the falls and beyond that, a stile leads to the start of a long distance walk up the river.
Like many people, I followed the river for a while past more waterfalls and round a few bends above the gorge. The further upstream I went, the more the crowds thinned out, and it was possible to again feel some peace away from the cacophany of voices. There was the occasional drizzle and a cloud hung low over the nearby mountain top. It was a beautiful and dramatic landscape even with the grey overhead. Back at the bottom of the falls, I noticed a lot of people were staying in the local campsite. There was certainly plenty of people coming and going, but still with an afternoon of exploring to do, I was hoping to leave the crowds behind as I forged my way eastwards towards the coast.