Friday, April 22, 2016

Chilling in Iceland (Part 2): Surviving the Golden Circle

This was our first day away from the comforts of Reykjavik, and we had no idea how harsh it was going to be out there.  We packed the right clothes (Patagonia splurge!) and were prepared for the extreme cold, but we weren't expecting road conditions and winds to be so difficult.  Not many people were out on this day; winds were blowing at 45 mph and it was a tough call to not turn around when we drove into the thick of the white-out.  Even our trip to Big Bear during El Niño was nothing like this--obviously, this is Iceland.  But with some good luck, adrenaline, and a lot of determination on Wes’s part, we actually finished the whole darn loop in our trusty rental car.  Luckily, this was probably the worst day to be out--we had a much easier time driving around during the rest of our trip!  So, most of our pictures from this first day were taken on the Go-Pro or our phones.

Honestly, you probably have not experienced Iceland properly until your travel plans get botched by the weather.  We actually were supposed to go snorkeling and caving on this day, but the tour was rescheduled due to the weather.  That didn't keep us away from the Golden Circle, though.

The Golden Circle is a 186-mile loop including Þingvellir National Park (tectonic rift), Haukadalur (Strokkur Geyser and Geysir), and Gullfoss Waterfall. There are a few other key stopping points along the way, but time and weather only permitted the major pull-offs. We were definitely not disappointed, but rather, pleasantly surprised that we could see everything that we saw.

We quickly realized that Iceland is the land of extremes.  These cliffs are the result of volcanic activity beneath a 1,000-meter thick glacier covering the land--truly a testament to how fire and ice coexisted thousands of years ago.

The trail was coated in ice, but we followed it anyway.  The rocks to the left served as the backdrop to the formation of Iceland's first Parliament back in 930, when there were apparently enough Norwegian, Celtic, and Norse settlers to require some sort of legal system.  This site is so significant that the national park itself is named after this historic moment: "Þing" meaning Parliament, "vellir" meaning plain.

An old Icelandic proverb says "Fertile is water that runs under lava." This water is full of minerals, taken up from the lava, and flows into Lake Þingvallavatn, the largest natural lake in Iceland.  This is also where two of the earth's tectonic plates meet - the intense and constant geological activity that still occurs forms the landscape that we see here.  We were able to go snorkeling in a fissure in this rift valley as well, in order to get an even better view of nature's ever-changing work!  It's crazy, but the fissure widens by 2 centimeters per year.

I was so disappointed that our tour was getting cancelled that first day, but relieved that we were able to reschedule to the very next day.  Might as well include those snorkeling pictures now!  The water was stunningly clear, completely devoid of fish.  Floating at the surface was like flying over a blue, stained glass canyon.  It was an otherworldly sight down there.  We never expected it to look like that - such deep blue colors, hidden beneath all the white and gray.

"You're trying to kill me," was what Wes said when I first told him that I thought that we should go snorkeling in Iceland.  But I think he can agree that it was well worth the shivers!

Honestly, it wasn't that bad in all the layers that we were wearing under the suits.  We stripped down to our thermals in the tour bus and then they gave us these "teddy bear suits" that literally made us look like plush humans.  Those things were super warm.

Perhaps the hardest part of it all was having to spit into my dive mask to prevent it from fogging up.  Couldn't really get over how nasty that was!

We were also encouraged to drink the water directly from the fissure, especially if any accidentally flowed through our snorkels.  In fact, we filled our water bottles at the bathroom sink every day - the water in this country is just so naturally pure.

We were really glad that we were able to reschedule the snorkeling tour, it was an experience of a lifetime, for sure.

So, back to the first day.  Here is Öxarárfoss, our first waterfall viewing (of many)!  The fisheye Go-Pro lens makes it look smaller than it was, but it did seem shrunken due to being nearly completely frozen.  Hiking up to here was the first time we felt like we were going to die this trip.  The feeling quickly became a running theme.  Iceland is just full of drama, with very few regulations and lots of uncertainty.

Thank goodness for those 1-dollar impulse-buy ponchos from Target, they kept the water out of our clothes and enabled us to be able to make the rather treacherous hike to our first waterfall. We somehow got through it, combining crawling on all fours, grasping onto chains that were meant for marking the trail (which was slick with ice), and walking off the trail on softer snow. We definitely had the right shoes, but it would have been easier with the crampons that we left in the hotel room! By the time we made our way down, the snow was blowing against us like crazy and whatever parts of our bodies that were exposed from not being beneath the ponchos were soaked.  We made our way back to the car (after refusing to pay the 100 ISK to use the visitor center restroom) and sat there for a good 20 minutes, wondering if all of that really just happened!

After catching our breath and binging on some Icelandic paprika chips, we pressed onward.  The drive was not pretty at this point, but it didn't look very pretty going back the other way either, so we continued deeper into the country.

We ended up in Laugarvatn, a small town that was another 20 miles along the loop, smack dab in the middle of a geothermal area. There was supposedly some civilization over there, and we needed food!

Extremely breathtaking!

The town was no bigger than a handful of houses and it sat right on the edge of a lake with geothermal springs flowing under its surface.  

The town looked pretty much deserted, but there was the Fontana geothermal baths, which people like to go to for the spa experience, but what got us excited was the lunch buffet that they had. 

Smoked Arctic char, meatballs, fish gratin, assorted vegetarian dishes, spicy ginger soup, sweet potato mash, crusty hummus, hot chocolate, an awesome coconut and cacao nib whipped skyr dessert... but most importantly, this place specialized rye bread, baked in the ground, directly by their geothermal baths! 

Dough in a metal pot is buried for 24 hours underground by a natural hot spring, marked with a stack of rocks, and dug up with an ordinary shovel. We got lucky; right as we were finishing our lunch, they were showing a group of people how this ancient bread-making method worked, so we got to observe and take pictures. And eat it!

Wes got this epic shot of the burly bearded Icelandic man emerging from the fumes with his bread.

They immediately popped the bread out of the pot and cut it up for everybody to enjoy, with huge sheets of Icelandic butter to go with it.  

The bread was so fresh and soft, maybe a bit on the sweet side, but we couldn't complain about more rye bread!! We indulged in that and then judged that the weather had calmed down enough to move on.  

We never thought we'd be relieved to see weather like this.  This was like blissful paradise compared to what we were in earlier. 

On the way to our next stop, Haukadalur, the valley of geysers, we just had to pull over to meet these Icelandic horses.  They happened to be hanging out by the fence, and there was just the perfect little dirt turn-out right there.

These guys were awesome.  They're pretty much the same height as me (which means that they are midgets for horses).  Oh and by the way, I'm wearing the lopapeysa that I got from the Reykjavik flea market.  This traditional wool sweater has kept native people warm for ages, and it did just the same for me!  Wes was decidedly against getting himself one, though.  Probably for the better.

Even paused to take a horse-selfie.  (Wes's idea)

So here we are in Haukadalur!  Perfect place to get away with passing gas.

The colors were striking.

The base of the geyser was this really weird turquoise color, which you can see right before it unleashes itself into the sky.  Wes caught this on the telephoto lens!

And there is Strokkur, shooting high into the air.

Then, it looked like a storm was sneaking up on us, so we quickly got back into the car and drove to our next stop, Gullfoss.

10 more minutes and we arrived at Gullfoss, this huge Niagara-esque waterfall. It was amazing! Parts of it were frozen over, but seriously, magnificent to behold.  It's crazy how rushing water like this can actually stop in its tracks - it's stunning how extreme the temperatures get.

We were far from being that close to the waterfall, this is just thanks to Wes's zoom lens.

Gullfoss was the last stop for the day.  Right after Wes took these pictures, the rain really came down hard, so we had to pack up and haul ourselves back up to the parking lot, taking care not to slip.  We didn’t get to see Bruarfoss (too much of a hike off the road) or Crater Kerio (also, supposedly a slippery walk down), but we were really happy that we got this much done!  We got back to Reykjavik just in time to shower and make it to our 7:30 reservation for an awesome six-course Icelandic tasting menu at Apotek, an upscale but chill restaurant downtown.  Although it was a crazy day, we found that this made us so much more aware and appreciative of the mercy that nature showed us for the remainder of our trip.  Next up: fjords, waterfalls, glaciers, black sand, more weird rock formations, and northern lights!

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