Iceland: Land of Fire and Ice

Iceland looks like it is part of a different planet. Depending on where you are on the island, you can see wildly different terrains. There are extensive lava fields, conical volcanoes, black sand beaches, towering basalt columns, endless flatlands, and creeping glaciers. These are just several examples within a few hours of Reykjavik, and the landscape becomes even wilder beyond that. The country is called the Land of Fire and Ice for good reason. It may be one of the safest places in the world in terms of crime, but here, nature is an untamed beast. Winter is the most dangerous of all, with icy roads, freezing temperatures, and unbearable winds. Rather than attempt to drive on our own and take out all sorts of winter season insurance on a rental car, we instead opted to take small group tours to see some of the main sites during our short visit.

On my October 2017 visit to Iceland, I took one big bus tour and vowed to never do it again. I didn’t appreciate being shepherded about, and it felt very impersonal. It was hard to hear the tour guide a lot of the time, and each stop felt incredibly rushed simply with the logistics of getting sixty people back on a bus. It’s a valid way to travel and see a lot of sites, but it’s just not for me. However, I did take a small group tour with an Icelandic company called Your Day Tours, and really enjoyed it. It’s a small, family owned tour company that pulls out all the stops for their customers. Our tour guide, Kevin, was extremely personable with a dry sense of humor. His droll way of speaking and personal anecdotes about life on the island made the tour for me. As a bonus, there were only about fifteen people in a much smaller bus – much more manageable. Having such a good experience, I decided we might as well book the popular Golden Circle and South Coast tours with them for this visit in December of 2018.

The Golden Circle is named as such simply because it is a popular tourist route that can be done in a day outside Reykjavik. The 300km loop passes waterfalls, geysers, and even a continental divide. Our AirBNB was outside the normal pickup zone, but Your Day Tours was incredibly accommodating. When we emailed them our address, we were assured by a customer agent that his “dad would pick us up” and bring us to meet them, and indeed he did! Soon we were packed in a van headed out of Reykjavik in the early morning.

Being winter, it was still pitch dark as we trundled along the road over the mountain outside the city. The sun wouldn’t rise for hours yet, and out first stop would only have a little light. As we got farther away from the city, however, I began to despair of ever seeing anything again, light or not. Our tour van wobbled violently as it was buffeted by the crosswinds. Several times, we swayed across the divide on the two-lane road. After some time, our driver pointed out a sign on the side of the road illustrating the wind speeds. It was currently 30mph, and he said that they only canceled tours when it got up to 50mph. I couldn’t imagine what 50mph would feel like, and wondered what it would be like to have to drive that route every day to commute into the city for work. Luckily, our driver was experienced, and soon we were nestled in the safety of the mountains themselves. Almost as soon as we reached the mountain range, we were on the other side of it, and it seemed like we were at the ends of the earth. The landscape yawned open and we were on the edge of a cliff with nothing but flatness in front of us. Millions of years ago, this was where the sea met the land. It was an ancient sea bed, long since exposed to air. In the far distance, cone-shaped mountains stood sentinel against time in complete solitude from one another. It was otherworldly.

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Straddling the “continental divide”…

Down at the bottom of the cliff face was a small town where we stopped for coffee and a peek in a small earthquake museum. A 3-D map of Iceland showed where major earthquakes had occurred in the last hundred or so years, and there was an earthquake simulator that for a fee would shake you around a bit. We were content to look at the “tectonic rift” in the floor that said Northern America on one side, and Europe on the other. Down at the bottom were glowing red lights. Pretty kitschy, and clearly not an actual continental divide, but for a coffee shop, it was above and beyond.

Our first official stop was Faxi, a waterfall in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. The waterfall was impressive, though was far wider than it was tall. There was a salmon ladder up one side of it, there to aid spawning salmon during the appropriate season. We were in what surmounted to a forest, or as close as Iceland can get. The Icelandic people are working on regrowing vast amounts of forest on the island, as that was what used to be there before everyone chopped it down for firewood hundreds of years ago. Off to one side of the waterfall was a bizarre looking sheep pen. Icelandic sheep roam free in the warmer months, and when it’s time to bring them all in for winter, all the shepherds go out and collect whatever sheep they can find and use these pinwheel-like pens to sort them back to their owners. Goodness knows how they work out whose is whose, but hey, an age-old tradition is an age-old tradition.

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The waterfall Faxi

We hopped back onto the tour van and graduated to Gullfoss, or the “Golden Waterfall”. Fed by a glacier, this waterfall is tucked into the rocky landscape of a canyon so that you’d have no idea it was there until you fell in it. Luckily there is now a large tourist center with restaurants and gift shops to mark its location. The water plummets 32 meters over two stages down into the rocky depths. On my first visit, I was able to walk right up to the falls and get covered in the cold spray. This visit, however, given the extremely high winds, we could only admire from a distance. Fine with us – it was freezing enough without getting sprayed with glacial water. It’s incredible to watch these waterfalls. This was only one of many we’d see during our visit, and the sheer amount and force of the water never gets old. It’s so much, and so constant. Thinking about the glacier-source while watching all the water tumbling down can make you feel rather small and insignificant. Even in the dead of winter, the falls are a force to be reckoned with.

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Giving some Icelandic horses a snack

After Gullfoss, we had an extra stop at an Icelandic horse stable to meet some of the horses and attempt to feed them hay. I was much happier not having to ride them this trip, and was content to offer hay to some shaggy grey ones instead. As we drove on to our next stop, we were finally able to admire the landscape now that the sun was officially up. The land was incredibly flat, being the ancient sea bed, but the road hugged the mountain range I mentioned earlier so while it was mostly flat on one side, the mountains on the other side rose suddenly and steeply into the sky. It was impossible to build anything on the slopes – no homes, roads, or paths. Tiny farmsteads at the base of the mountains looked like pebbles compared to the verdant giants towering over them. Tucked amidst this landscape was our next stop, Geysir, a collection of geysers and hot pools that has been milked for all its tourist worth. Luckily, the parking lot and visitor’s center is set apart from the geysers by a road, so it’s relatively unspoiled, if you don’t count the crowds with cameras. Of all the landscapes in Iceland that made me feel that it was otherworldly, this was the most alien to me. The earth is burnt orange and rocky, with streaks of red, brown, and green. Steam rises from pools of water seen and unseen, and signs everywhere warn to not touch the boiling water. The largest geyser is no longer active, but another geyser shoots rather reliably every five or so minutes. It’s easy to find – it’s the one with the giant ring of tourists all holding their collective breath and looking through their phones to snap a picture when it blows. It’s quite a sight to behold. 

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An erupting geyser – over in seconds!

The geyser, that is. The steaming pool looks rather nondescript, then suddenly, it becomes a perfect, turquoise blue dome as the pressure in the earth from the super-heated water becomes too great. Within milliseconds, a hot column of steam and water bursts up into the air. It’s over in a flash. There is much appreciative chattering from the audience, and a few damp grumbles from those who weren’t clever enough to check the wind direction. After witnessing several eruptions, Clayton and I ate prepacked sandwiches in the parking lot, ever wary of the absurdly high prices of eating out in Iceland, especially in visitor center cafeterias.

Our final stop on the Golden Circle tour was Þingvellir (Thingvellir). This national park is most famous for being the meeting of two tectonic plates: North America and Europe. The entire area is known as a rift valley, often characterized by earthquakes and volcanic activity. The main visitor’s center and most popular path is located in one of the larger canyons. As you walk down the path in between the two cliff faces, it’s easy to imagine the cliffs as continental plates. In reality, the continental divide is quite large, and you are technically standing on North America. Europe didn’t start until the mountains in the distance, across the valley. The canyon is also famous for Althing, the national parliament of Iceland that first met in 930 CE. It’s considered by many to be the oldest parliament in the world. I can’t imagine traversing the fierce landscape that is Iceland to meet at Thingvellir all those centuries ago. That is perhaps one of the kinder events that happened in the canyon – there is also an icy pool at the base of a waterfall where they would try witches (aka drown helpless women). It doesn’t matter where or when you are in human existence, it seems that women that went against the norm were violently persecuted. Clayton and I walked the path through the canyon walls and enjoyed some views from the top of the cliffs. Some plants were braving impossible odds to grow on the rocky surfaces, permanently bowed due to the constant wind. Some boulders were perched precariously at the cliff tops, perhaps gently placed there by melting glaciers eons ago. There was a semi-new ramp leading up to the visitor’s center, placed there after part of the ground collapsed during an earthquake. This land is very much still alive and kicking.

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The landscape of Þingvellir

That concluded our Golden Circle tour. Windswept and exhausted, we headed home to experience the rare Reykjavik lightening storm of 2018. All too soon, we were out in the cold morning waiting for our tour pickup for the South Coast tour, the second most popular collection of sights in Iceland so far. To my utter delight, our tour guide was none other than Kevin, the dry humourist that led my Golden Circle Tour in 2017. Kevin is an Icelandic native who filled the time in between stops with personal but educational anecdotes about Icelandic culture and history. For example, his own mother ran for President and although she didn’t win, endeared herself with the nation and was given rides to the airport by the candidate who did win. He told us about how someone created a popular Icelandic dating site to allow singles to double check they weren’t related to their dates, as there are no family names in Iceland. Everyone is “son of” or “daughter of”, and it can lead to some uncomfortable conversations. He told us about how the jail in Reykjavik had to be closed down because there weren’t enough people to fill it (I wasn’t kidding when I said I felt safe in Iceland). Kevin was easy to listen to and added a healthy dose of personality to the tour. Since there are long drives between each stop, this is appreciated.

Our first stop on the South Coast tour was, surprise, a waterfall. Iceland does have thousands of the things, and they’re worth seeing. I suspect Skógafoss is popular because of the sheer size and height, though an easy landscape for tour bus parking doesn’t hurt. We walked right up to the base of the falls, or at least as close as we felt comfortable doing before the icy spray turned us back. We then took an eternity of stairs up to the top of the cliff to see the waterfall from above. By the time we reached the top, I’d stripped down three layers from the exertion, but the chill wind soon rendered them necessary again. A brief interlude of warmth, gone too soon.

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Heading up to Skógafoss

Next was the infamous black sand beach on the South Coast. As we drove south, the landscape was impossibly flat out towards the ocean. Ancient volcano cores sporadically shot up out of the plains. Soon we were winding through a more familiar looking terrain of hills and snow-capped peaks in the distance. This led right up to the coastline and the black sand beaches themselves. Black sand is typically found in areas with high volcanic activity, Iceland being no exception. We were to visit Reynisfjara, the most popular tourist spot on the black sand beach due to the towering basalt columns that reach right out to the sea. Between the black beach, silver waves, and grey sky, it felt like we were in some monochromatic parallel universe. The ocean is violent here – powerful waves crash together and into the beach without any rhyme or reason. As we walked closer to the beach, we were incredibly wary of all the signs posted warning visitors of “sneaker waves”. These are incredibly dangerous geological phenomena wherein a disproportionately large wave appears without warning amidst a pattern of predictable waves. These have powerful currents that can easily suck anything it touches back out to sea with it. Tragically, these very waves have claimed the lives of several tourists at Reynisfjara, some of them recently. Reading all the warnings, we were dutifully cautious, but were incensed to watch crowds of tourists disregarding all the warnings and running right up to the waves to touch them. I couldn’t believe the idiocy of these tourists. The warnings are impossible to miss, and every tour guide warns their group of the danger of these waves. Kevin, our tour guide, told us later that some tour guides refuse to take groups to this beach anymore because they cannot stand to watch them take such stupid risks. Most tour guides who do come end up staying on their buses rather than try to fruitlessly fight the tourists to stay back (like Kevin was doing). It boggles my mind how so many visitors can be so uncaring about the danger. A sneaker wave will come out of nowhere and will drag you out to sea and absolutely no one can save you due to the fierce currents and cold. As we watched, one group of young men kept chasing waves in and out, guffawing heartily when they had to run particularly fast to escape a wave. I was immeasurably gratified when a particularly large wave took them by surprise and they all got soaked to their waist. I hope it taught them a lesson, and thank goodness that it wasn’t anything worse than a lesson. It was sad that in a place of such natural beauty and majesty, we spent most of our time worried and frustrated with other tourists. Even back at Thingvellir, we watched as a touring family ignored all the signs to keep to the path and climbed dangerous rock formations to take some pictures. I think that’s a severe danger of treating all tourist destinations like theme parks – these places are beautiful, but dangerous, and the threat of injury and death is very real. They are perfectly safe if you stick to the rules, but those rules are there for a reason.

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The black sand beach at Reynisfjara, with some basalt columns in the background

Leaving the gorgeous yet frustrating beach behind, Kevin took us up a nearby mountain for some great views over Vík, a small town on the coastline where my Icelandic sweater was originally made. We looked out over miles of black sand beaches and some bizarre basalt column formations out to sea that Game of Thrones fans would recognize.

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Approaching the glacier Sólheimajökull

We continued on to Sólheimajökull, a glacier nestled in between two volcanoes, one of which being the infamous Eyjafjallajökull that severely disrupted European airspace in 2010. As he parked the van, Kevin told us about how far up the glacier used to be when he was a kid. Although it melts each summer and grows each winter, recently it has been melting more than it has grown each year, resulting in significant shrinkage. He pointed out from the van where the glacier used to be, and once we parked we had to walk about fifteen minutes to get to it. That cast a somber tone to the visit, but we still couldn’t help but be awestruck. The path up the glacier is in a valley, created by the creeping glacier over centuries. It also parallels the glacial melt stream headed out towards the ocean. Closer to the glacier, the stream becomes a deep blue pool with floating chunks of turquoise ice. Then there is the glacier itself. The path dead ends into the glacier, and we walked right up to it. Down by the shore of the pool, the sand was fine and black, sediment left over from the melting ice. The glacier was huge, and admittedly reminded me of cookies and cream ice cream since it was mostly covered in snow with some black sediment peeking through. Up close, however, we were able to see ice not covered in snow. It was translucent and reflected the sunlight, turning a deep blue. The surface was pockmarked, almost like a shallow egg carton, perhaps due to the melting physics. We could see tiny pebbles suspended in the ice, crushed with the force of thousands of pounds. These would one day be the fine sand we were walking upon. Of all the sights that we saw in Iceland over the few days we were there, the glacier was the most awe-inspiring. The behemoth somehow felt alive under our fingertips, shifting and groaning, and we felt impossibly small.

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Standing behind Seljalandsfoss

Our final stop on the South Coast tour was Seljalandsfoss, yet another waterfall. This one was definitely my favorite. Sixty meters tall, the waterfall plunges from a cliff into the flatlands. Behind the deluge, there is a large cave where you can walk and circle the waterfall on foot. As the sun set, looking out across the Icelandic plains through the lens of the falls was the perfect conclusion to our whirlwind two days of touring.

 

Back in the van, Kevin poured us some Icelandic non-alcoholic beer, known as Malt. Beer prohibition lasted until 1989 in Iceland, and this was their substitute. Clayton and I both liked it very much, enjoying the smooth, malty flavor. Kevin gave us some flatbread topped with butter and lamb, another traditional Icelandic snack. Those flavors lingering on our tongues, we dozed during the long drive back to Reykjavik, the music of Icelandic bands lulling us to sleep. The tour company Your Day Tours certainly knew how to provide an atmosphere.

For all that it is a small island nation, there is nothing like Iceland for making you feel small. The sheer amount of power evident in the waterfalls, glaciers, volcanoes, and geysers is a stark reminder that in a hand-to-hand fight between nature and man, it’s no question who will come out on top. Iceland is also a country that can make astonishing vistas commonplace. Each stop on our two tours was an incredible sight, yet as there were so many of them, it started becoming normal. And each site was crowded with tourists snapping pictures and disregarding rules. I hope that Icelanders are keeping most of their best sites secret, and that’s why both the Golden Circle and South Coast tours all go to the same places. I suspect the best way to tour Iceland is in a rental car, with nothing but you, the open road, and a wild country. Still, given time constraints and a general apprehension of wintry catastrophes on foreign highways, sometimes tours are the best way to go.

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