Day 32 (15 July): The Golden Circle

Gulfoss - the Golden Falls

Gulfoss - the Golden Falls

Today we drove Iceland's Golden Circle and took in three of the headline sites.

With no expectations we were amazed by the wide open landscape. Once out of town the scenery changes to grassy meadows spreading over rolling dales, hemmed in by rugged volcanic hills on either side.  Never before have we seen a landscape so  open and uninhabited as this.  There are not even power poles or mobile phone towers to spoil the view.  The occasional wild sheep or lone bird are the only signs of life.

First stop was Þingvellir (pronounced "Thingvellir"), a historic site and national park. It is known for the Alþing (Althing), the site of Iceland's parliament from the 10th to 18th centuries. In fact, Þingvellir translates directly to "fields of parliament".  It was created here because it was a convenient central location for most settlers to meet.  Each year all the tribe leaders would gather here to discuss law, exchange news where  criminals tried.  The lögmaður (translation "Lawspeaker") was elected for a three year term but the role was purely ceremonial, much like the Speaker of the House.  Accordingly the man with the loudest voice was usually elected but decisions were made collectively.  The Parliament operated here until 1799 when Iceland came under Danish colonial rule.

Almannagjá gorge at Þingvellir. Fans of Game of Thrones may recognise this view.

Almannagjá gorge at Þingvellir. Fans of Game of Thrones may recognise this view.

Þingvellirvatn (Lake Þingvellir). This view is also used in GOT (apparently they digitally removed the hills).

Þingvellirvatn (Lake Þingvellir). This view is also used in GOT (apparently they digitally removed the hills).

Þingvellir Church sits on the site of the earliest church in Iceland, built in approximately 1000 AD when Iceland converted to Christianity.  The church is alongside the summer residence of the President of Iceland.  The original residence burnt down in 1930, killing the then President and his family.

Þingvellir Church

Þingvellir Church

The (rebuilt) Summer Residence of the President. Hardly salubrious!

The (rebuilt) Summer Residence of the President. Hardly salubrious!

Another view of the church

Another view of the church

Oxararfoss

Oxararfoss

Alþingi - the site of the ancient parliament

Alþingi - the site of the ancient parliament

The park sits in a rift valley caused by the separation of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.  The plates are separating at roughly 2 centimetres per year and apparently earthquakes occur every day, although they are too minor to feel.  All throughout the park one can see fissures and cracks where the earth is pulling apart and at Silfra it is possible to snorkel in crystal clear waters with 100 metre visibility directly between the two tectonic plates.

A fissure near Silfra. On the left is North America, on the right is Eurasia.

A fissure near Silfra. On the left is North America, on the right is Eurasia.

At this point we were dreading the little dog would turn into the oncoming traffic 

At this point we were dreading the little dog would turn into the oncoming traffic 

Back in the car to drive further into this amazing landscape. It is cold (approximately 12 degrees) and the occasional shower floats in but otherwise the weather is pleasant.  Once over the hill into Laugarvatn the showers clear and there is more signs of life with farms, horses and even a few golf courses.  

What's that on the road ahead? A hare? No, it's a fox.  Hang on... it's a little dog!  The poor thing had escaped its owners and was running terrified down the road into oncoming traffic.  We stopped and tried to coax the animal closer but without success.  The car behind us stopped as well and fortunately the dog jumped in.  The driver said they would find somewhere appropriate to hand in the dog.

Onto Geysir - an Icelandic word which has made its way into English.  The ground literally steams, with gas escaping from fissures all around.  The air does not smell of sulphur as much as we expected, unlike Roturua in New Zealand.  We stood beside Strokkur (you can get to within about five meters of the geysir itself) and waited. A small eruption occurred after a few minutes.  Is that it? "No there will be another one.  Much bigger," said a man beside us.  Sure enough there was.  Super heated water shot 25 meters into the air and almost all of it vapourises away.  We stood beside some smaller pools - in one the water is so clear you can see into the depths, whilst the adjacent pool is a milky blue.

Every 8 - 10 minutes it bubbles up...

Every 8 - 10 minutes it bubbles up...

... and then boom!

... and then boom!

Perfectly clear water...

Perfectly clear water...

... and then milky blue!

... and then milky blue!

We headed further along the road to Gulfoss, a very spectacular waterfall.  Gulfoss translates to Golden Waterfall, which according to one source is where the Golden Circle gets its name.  On the road, it is almost blink and you miss it. Apart from the car park, the only other indication is the spray rising up from the gully.  The water falls through two cascades for a total of 32 meters and makes a tremendous noise.  The spray from the bottom cascade goes straight up, much like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe.  When the sun peeks out from behind the clouds a full rainbow is visible.  Gulfoss is a better waterfall than Rheinfall and even Niagara Falls as there are no tourist boats pushing up through the foam, nor the commercial developments.  If it were not for the gift shop up by the car park there would be nothing - a good thing!

Unfortunately it looks like we have broken our SLR camera as it got very wet. It is currently drying out in a bag with silica gel. Fingers crossed it recovers.  On the other hand we were perfectly dry with the rain gear we bought in Sweden.

We retraced our route back to the hotel and made it just before happy hour finished in the Member's Lounge.  We are making full use of the lounge.  Much like being on a cruise we have a buffet breakfast, then go out on a day trip and return for buffet food and drinks for dinner.  Otherwise eating out is a lot of money - for example AUD25.00 for a fish soup.  

We went back to our room with the stunning harbour view.

The time is 23:20 and the temperature is 7.8 degrees

The time is 23:20 and the temperature is 7.8 degrees