Saturday, September 27, 2014

THE SPLENDOUR OF SOUTHERN ICELAND

 Today brought a major tour with a highly recommended small tour company. They use only small Mercedes vans and wash their windows everyday.

GeoIceland operates out of Reykjavik and offers most of the popular tours. However, our guide Baldvin added a few extras on the Golden Circle tour for us. This meant we detoured through craggy mountains east of Reykjavik to Lake Pingvellir along a small road that was built to service the new hot water pipeline supplying Reykjavik. No traffic, no tourists here.

Hot water pipeline at lower left



Iceland's geothermal geology provides unlimited hot water for everyone and heats 90% of the homes using radiators. It also supplies every settlement with 29C water for their outdoor swimming pools, which are social centres rather like pubs and are open all year. Everyone swims here.


I took the chance to examine some of the flora that grows on the lava rock in the south. Moss, reindeer lichen, and the low-growing wild blueberry bush. The patches of lava that looks like coal are eventually covered with moss, mosi in Iclandic. The moss is everywhere and very thick. It's just like a cushion to sit on, and when you stand up, it springs back into shape. The reindeer lichen are light coloured plants that are about two inches high and branch out like twigs. No reindeer here, but there are imported herds in the east of Iceland.


The road meandered around Lake Pingvellir on the way to Pingvellir, Iceland's national shrine and UNESCO World Heritage site. This is also a national park and is a must-visit, despite being over-run with tourists in the summer. I saw the area with only a handful.

Pingvellir is in a wide rift valley between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which are pulling apart a few millimetres each year; it has grown wider by 70m in the past 10,000years. The valley is fractured by fissures in the rock. This is an area of high volcanic activity.

However, the main significance for Icelanders is this is the place where Iceland was born. Settlers arrived in growing numbers after 870CE and soon needed a form of government. A general assembly met here for the first time in 930CE, and later its highest court was established. An important decision was made – the Icelanders converted to Christianity in 1000CE. The fields where the Icelanders met can be seen at the far end of the rock split (right). Close by to the south is a river delta which opens into Lake Pingvellir (below).





Driving further east, we came to one of Iceland's most visited geothermal spots at Geysir. Here the sun came out and I watched Strokkur, the biggest geyser erupt repeatedly. There are also smaller, less dramatic geysers, hot pools and streams. The water temp is about 90C and signs warn visitors that the nearest hospital is 62 kms away. Still, I saw many dipping their fingers into the water to see if it was true; also a few were walking outside the marked paths – they were lucky not to disappear in a deep crack or a hidden pool. Along the way on this eight-hour tour there were stops for bathroom breaks, photo ops, and I ate a delicious lunch at Geysir. There are two restos here: one fast food place, and one with a sumptuous buffet serving Icelandic specialties and has a superb view.


After lunch were more waterfalls. Gullfoss is a huge favourite. It's actually two waterfalls that thunder down a gorge at right angles to each other. Between the two parts a cliff juts out where tourists stand and get drenched with spray (left of centre). There are two other viewpoints – one high above and one lower down that looks upstream.

Faxi is smaller and has a salmon ladder. Unfortunately Iceland's efforts to introduce Atlantic salmon failed, so the ladder works but has never seen a salmon leap upstream.

I spied Langjokul, Iceland's second largest glacier (and 600m thick) between mountain peaks and hundreds of sheep corralled for shearing as we turned for home. We stopped at a small town near the southern coast where a recent earthquake ripped apart several houses. Underneath the small shopping centre is a huge crack that can be seen under glass. There is also an exhibit of the damage, but to someone from western Canada, it was a bit tame. Driving through the mountains, dozens of steam vents could be seen as well as the largest power plant supplying all Reykjavik's hot water nestling below the peaks.

I am very grateful to GeoIceland and Promote Iceland for making this exploration of the geology and landscapes east of Reykjavik possible.

IMAGES: © Photos by Pharos 2014. All rights reserved