Iceland 2005 (Day 8)
On 19 August 2005 Catherine and myself flew out to Iceland for a ten night touring holiday round Iceland. We drove round the country and saw many an exciting and interesting thing. This is one of many blog posts about that holiday – it’s now day 8, and we’re in the tourist zone. Geysirs, ancient parliament sites and more waterfalls.
We were in tourist country. The Golden Circle is the most popular, most famouts tourist day trips in Iceland. After days of quiet roads, deserted tourist attractions, we were going to have to share.
Our first stop was Geysir – Iceland’s star attraction, and one where you may be sharing the experience with over a thousand people. It was a far cry from driving up to some remote, desolate spot where you enter a building courtesy of a large key left outside. Thankfully on our visit, the area was reasonably quiet – around 100 people.
Geysir – they one which all other geysirs are named after – itself no longer errupts, but Strokkur does, and it’s this geysir that entertains the crowd, errupting every few minutes. The push of hot water in the air can be seen for miles away.
After being entertained by Strokkur, it was time to see the master itself. Unfortunately it does have to be said, that when not errupting, all a geysir is, is a large pool of water with some steam coming off it. Not exactly the best sight in the world, which might be why we didn’t loiter, and went back to look at Strokkur instead.
Before we left, we had to pay homage to the mighty ‘Little Geysir’ – a small pool which bubbles away merrily to itself. Most people overlook it, but it didn’t seem to mind. It just kept on doing its stuff, in the hope that someone would take a photograph of it. Well naturally, I did.
After wandering into the Geysir ‘Experience’ (or whatever their gift shop was called) we headed up the road to Gullfoss – a 31m high two tiered waterfall.
Maybe we were waterfalled out – especially having seen some lovely ones earlier, but we had a wander round the area – it’s got a few footpaths which offer good views. It did however give us a chance to watch coach tours in action. Gullfoss has two carparks, and hoardes of people got off one coach, dutifully walked down the path, looked at the waterfall, and went back onto the coach in the other car park. That said, such is the speed some of the coach tours cram things in, that one tour gives people five minutes at Geysir, but 45 minutes in the gift shop!
Back on the road, we drove on towards Þingvellir. We were supposed to stop at Laugarvantshellir – a seires of caves which were inhabited until the 1920s – but whilst we saw a sign (after driving past) there didn’t seem to be anywhere to park the car, nor anywhere to turn round, which meant we plodded on driving up a steep hill road that was made out of gravel.
To stress me out more, a large 4×4 was quite close to us, and was clearly finding it easier to drive up the road, which was rather stressing me out. Then a beep as it zoomed past us, making me more stressed, and ready to shout "alright, alright!" at them. It was only later that I realised the beep wasn’t an annoyed/angry beep, but an informative ‘look out, we’re coming!’ beep.
My mood wasn’t helped when at the end of the road we took the wrong direction, and ended up having to do a 3 point turn on a piece of road that was barely a cars width wide, and raised up off the ground. I say a three point – it was more like a 30 point.
All of which was good enough reason to pull over and relax for a few minutes alongside the beautiful Þingvallavatn lake. Much of the scenary in this part of Iceland wasn’t exactly outstanding, but this lake really was lovely.
We drove up the road to Þingvellir, stopping off at the service centre to buy (and eat) some sandwiches, before wandering around the site of the ancient ‘Alþing’.
When you remember that þ is pronounced ‘th’, ‘Althing’ sounds a strangely appropiate name for the ancient parliament that was founded in 930 and held there until the end of the 18th century. As it was an open air parliament, there aren’t any buildings to see, but there’s lots of gaping tectonic rifts and other nice things to look at.
Whilst some of it was beautiful, it didn’t exactly sparkle as a place to visit – perhaps too many paved walkways spoiling the view. There was however an excellent visitors centre, with multimedia displays – complete with English translations – telling the story of the area, featuring filmed re-enactments of battles and so on. Although quite why the produces had added an ‘old film’ effect, I couldn’t really say. Were we supposed to believe that the distressed, sepia footage we were watching was actually taken by some thousand year old cinecamera and lovingly restored? Hmm. I think not.
Our next stop was Nesjavellir Geothermal Power Station – you can look round the station, but we didn’t fancy it. There was however a nature walk in the area, so we wandered around streams of heated water, trying to follow the pathway.
To be honest, it was a little dull, and all the signposts marking out the local wildlife were all in Icelandic so we had no idea what we were looking at, or looking for. Half way round, we gave up and walked back to the car through the power plant.
It was whilst driving back to our guesthouse that perhaps one of the scariest things happened. Like many of the minor roads in Iceland, road 360 is surfaced not with tarmac, but with gravel. Lots and lots of gravel.
It’s not particularly easy to drive on at the best of times, especially when you only have limited experience of it. We were in a light car and it was hard going – you needed to drive slowly and carefully. But once you get going, it isn’t too bad. You get a feel for the road – some aren’t too bad, and you can go a little faster.
Or in theory you can.
To this day I am not sure quite what happened. On gravel roads, you tend to drive in the middle, but another car was approaching from the opposite direction. I went to slow down and moved towards the right hand side of the road.
Or at least that’s what I planned to happen. What actually happened was that the car skidded. And I mean major skidding – we were going round in circles as I desperately tried to keep the car on the road and not hit anything.
Somehow the car came to a stop. Ironically facing in the right direction. After a few seconds sitting in shock, I got out of the car.
An Icelandic woman came over from her car and said something in Icelandic. Some part of my brain was obviously still working as I remember muttering that I was English.
She asked us if we were alright – was friendly, sympathetic and helpful – and with the help of her, and her sister, we pushed the car back on the road.
I don’t actually have a clue how we didn’t hit the other car. Nor do I have any idea how the car managed to stay mostly on the road. But that said, I don’t really remember what happened. All I remember was going round in circles scared out of my life.
She told us it happens a lot in the area – usually with tourists who presumably, like I probably did, misjudged the state of the road. When we were finally driving off again (this time very slowly) I couldn’t help but notice that we were on a bit of gravel road riddled with potholes. I came close to skidding several more times until we hit the tarmac again. Thankfully the speed I was now driving meant that I had the car under control.
Somehow I managed to drive back – although given that Catherine doesn’t drive, there wasn’t really an option. But I was very thankful to get out of the car when we got back to our room.
Food, Glorious Food
Unfortunately we couldn’t stay out of the car for long – we were 6km away from anywhere that sold food, which meant driving again. I can’t say I really wanted to do this, but there wasn’t exactly much of an option.
After a rest, we went back to Selfoss. We’d heard that there was a nice Thai restaurant, and indeed there was.
The night before we’d scoured the town for somewhere to eat, and in a way, it wasn’t that surprising that we missed this place. We only actually found out about it thanks to a leaflet at the guesthouse. For some reason, there were no signs on the outside of the building. We’d litterally walked right past it the night before.
And it was clearly a popular place – although given the lack of local food competition, this may not be surprising. We got a table for two and ate well. Service was slightly slow, but the food was well worth the wait.
After the day I’d had, I really fancied a drink, but Iceland is very strict about drink driving, so it wasn’t until we got back to the guesthouse when I could have something.
Alas, there was no proper bar, just cans to Egils Gull – 2.25% and about £1 a pop. Ingrediants – icelandic water, malt, hops, yeast and anti-toxidant. You could really taste the anti-toxidant. Well I presume it was that, cos I couldn’t taste much else.
Somehow I managed to polish off two cans of the stuff, and completely sober, went to bed. It had been sadly too an eventful a day for this holiday. And not particularly relaxing either – especially given that we were now approaching the end. Tomorrow we’d drive to Reykjavik, and the day after, we’d be back in Britain.