In July 2010, for three weeks, Nathanael, his girlfriend Ashleigh and his brother Jonathan flew to the land of hot springs, sagas, and expensive beer…Iceland!
Immediately after landing in Keflavik airport (letter “A” on the map), we caught the Flybus shuttle to Iceland’s capital of Reykjavik (“B”). With our tent and hiking packs strapped to our backs, we walked through the city to find the Reykjavik City Hostel. The hostel provides camping in an enormous field for only $10 a day. Campers are allowed to use the hostel’s kitchen, toilet, shower, and laundry services so you can be pretty comfortable for a decent price. There’s also a large geothermal swimming pool only a stones throw away, fantastic for those cold mornings.
One thing we wish we had discovered sooner and fully recommend for anyone visiting Reykjavik is to buy the Reykjavik Welcome Card. This tourism pass is incredibly helpful and can save you a lot of hassle and money. You can by a 24, 48, or 72 hour pass. This pass allows you to ride the buses within city limits for free, gives you free admission to most of the zoos, parks, geothermal swimming pools, museums, basically all the tourist attractions, in Reykjavik (some of them it only gives a discount). These attractions are fascinating and the city is beautiful, so the cards are well worth the price!
After setting up our tent and dropping off our gear, we sped off to use our Reykjavik Welcome Cards, and bused through the city with ease, seeing and visiting all we could. The museums displaying Iceland’s history were all fascinating, but I think our favourite was the Saga Museum, which displayed wax figures of ancient Icelandic life and characters from the old sagas.
The prices of food and alcohol are high in Iceland. $20 for a margaritas in the bar! When it comes to buying groceries, we shopped at the cheapest store in Iceland: Bonus. It’s hard to miss, it’s got a giant pink pig on the front of the store. This supermarket’s got pretty much anything you’ll need.
Mount Esjan was our next destination (“C” on the map). Hopping on a bus we rode the dusty trail a few kilometers out of the city. Our route was bus number 15 from Hlemmur bus station, and then transfer at Haholt in Mosfellsbaer to bus number 57, which will bring you to the foot of Esjan at Esjuskáli. Mount Esjan overlooks Reykjavik; it’s a beautiful hike and at the top is a stunning view of the city! One distinctive feature is the strange what almost looks like an enormous pile of loose rocks and boulders on the summit of the mountain that you actually have to climb over to get to the top.
Viðey Island was one of our next stops. The island is a short ferry ride from Reykjavik in Kollafjord Bay. After leaping off the tiny boat and kissing dry land (the waves were rough) we went and had a small meal at the Videyjarstofa house restaurant. The old homestead was built in 1755 for the Treasurer of Iceland and it was the first house in the country to be constructed with stone and cement (all Icelandic homes used to be made out of earth). Right next to the Videyjarstofa house is the oldest church in Iceland. Viðey is hilly, flourishing with birds and plant life, and has pathways that take you to all corners of the island. They had free bike rentals at the house, so we each grabbed one and rode around for hours. We also climbed on top of the Imagine Peace Tower that Yoko Ono inaugurated for John Lennon. It’s not really a tower, but it shoots lasers, which you’ve got to admit is pretty cool.
When finally we saw all we could see in Reykjavik (due to time constraints) we felt it was time to move on to bigger and better things. There are a few different bus lines in Iceland offering the same things, and I cannot remember which one we chose after shopping around for prices, but in any case we bought a bus passport that took us on a route called “The Golden Circle”. The Golden Circle are points “D”, “E”, and “F” on the map–Thingvellir, Geysir and Gulfoss respectively, and then back to Reykjavik. The bus pass we bought allowed us to get off at these stops, stay as long as we wish, and catch any bus on any day to our next stop. This was a great deal because it gave us lots of leisure time to look around at these landmarks, instead of being prodded along like cattle on a guided tour.
At Thingvellir, our first stop, we decided to stay and camp for a few days. There are $10 camping spots right next to the tourism centre near the Althing. The Althing is where Iceland’s first parliamentary assembly occurred. Also just within a short walk from the campsite is where you’ll find the great rift between the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates, which looks pretty much like a canyon overgrown with moss. There are a lot of boulders in there too that together create tiny caves; perfect hiding places for elves and trolls!
We camped for the night, and the next day we took a long, 2 hour hike to where we were told there would be lava tubes to explore. We found Gjábakkahellir cave, a lava tube with 3 meter high ceilings and about 360 metres long!
The next morning we packed up and caught the earliest bus on to our next destination: Geysir! Geysir is a 10,000 year old, monster of a gusher, from which all other geysers get their name. Geysir doesn’t erupt too frequently any more, but there is a slightly smaller geyser named Strokkur 50 meters to the south that erupts every 4-5 minutes 15 to 40 meters high! It’s wonderful feeling the heat from all the hot springs and geysers surrounding the Great Geysir, as long as one doesn’t mind the smell of sulphur. We set up camp and boiled food and tea over one of the geothermal vents. It worked rather nicely! Some of the pools amongst Geysir’s hot springs were merely steaming, while others were boiling and bubbling with extreme heat.
Our final destination in ‘The Golden Circle’ was the enormous and beautiful waterfall ‘Gullfoss‘. ‘Gullfoss’ is an excellent name for such a powerful force of water, don’t you think?
The Golden Circle was complete, but the journey was far from over!
Upon returning to Reykjavik, we unexpectedly met Peter and Saedi, an Icelandic couple who owned a jewellery store on the harbour. They were extremely kind and offered to drive us around and show us some places. We were tired of walking, hiking, camping and busing everywhere, so it was nice to go along for a ride with this nice couple.
Peter and Saedi took us to the governor of Iceland’s house. They then took us to Midlina, which is basically a bridge where you can literally stand on two continents at once. We also drove to a beautiful black beach and a lighthouse near the small town of Grindavik. The scenery was incredibly beautiful just as the sun was setting, and it cast a red glow over the ancient volcanic rock. At the end of the day they let us stay at their home for a night, which was comfortable beyond belief after sleeping outside in the cold on the hard ground.
The next morning we woke up to an fantastic pancake breakfast. Full, dumb, and happy, we said thank you and good bye to our friends and left for our next, relaxing destination: The Blue Lagoon Spa, letter “H” on the map. The ads for this place makes it seem wonderful, but honestly after going there, it seemed like a big money trap to me. As for the hot spring mineral pool itself, it was kind of disgusting. There were so many people there, and the bottom of the pool was covered with hair and gross things that come off of people, which is to be expected, I guess. When we were leaving this place, I noticed a lot of other blue hot spring pools outside of the spa itself. We should have just gone swimming in those. Oh, and they wouldn’t let us eat our own food at there tables, we had to buy food from them. Hrmph!
The last and longest leg of our journey was before us. We wanted to get to Skaftafell, an amazing park with mountain ranges and a great glacier named Skaftafellsjökull. From Reykjavik we would have to travel more than 300 km, and we were running very low on money. Just as it looked like hitch hiking was going to be our only option, we discovered a handy ride-share website for Iceland. For those who don’t know what ride share is, it’s basically where people post a road-trip they’re taking on the internet to try to find some people to carpool with to save money on gas. We ended up catching a lift with a student archaeologist named Bjorgvin Gunnarsson. We had many interesting conversations on the ride to Skaftafell; he told us a lot about Icelandic music, movies, and sagas. We stopped at a gas station and he bought us some Icelandic candy bars, which are basically black licorice covered in chocolate. The Icelanders love their black licorice. He was an amazing person to ride with because he loved telling us foreigners about his country. Bjorgvin stopped at many spots along the way, places that we just had to see. Skogafoss (letter “I” on the map) was a picturesque waterfall that spilled into a crystal clear pool, around which hung an eerie mist. Along the way we saw one lone rider leading a string of stubby legged Icelandic horses on the side of the road.
At last at Skaftafell (letter “J” on the map) we were sorry to say goodbye, but we parted ways and started towards our camp site at the base of the mountains. We had a perfect view of the Skaftafellsjökull glacier as it loomed over us. The next day we hiked a 17 kilometre trail around the mountain range and the scenery was absolutely incredible. The first 6 or 7 kilometres we were following the edge of the glacier, and then we followed the trail along the U-shaped mountain range for the rest of the way all the back down to the camp site where we originated. Near the end of our route we came across a waterfall named Svartifoss with hexagonal columns all around it.
And so, our tumultuous, yet marvelous, journey was coming to a close, and all that was left was the long ride home. I will miss the Icelanders. Their world is filled with art, music and literature, and the chaotic landscapes of their homeland influence their works. It’s indeed a magical place.
I feel like this poem, written by William Morris, can do Iceland justice in a way my words never could… enjoy!
Iceland First Seen
Lo from our loitering ship a new land at last to be seen;
Toothed rocks down the side of the firth on the east guard a weary wide lea,
And black slope the hillsides above, striped adown with their desolate green:
And a peak rises up on the west from the meeting of cloud and of sea,
Foursquare from base unto point like the building of Gods that have been,
The last of that waste of the mountains all cloud-wreathed and snow-flecked and grey,
And bright with the dawn that began just now at the ending of day.
Ah! what came we forth for to see that our hearts are so hot with desire?
Is it enough for our rest, the sight of this desolate strand,
And the mountain-waste voiceless as death but for winds that may sleep not nor tire?
Why do we long to wend forth through the length and breadth of a land,
Dreadful with grinding of ice, and record of scarce hidden fire,
But that there ‘mid the grey grassy dales sore scarred by the ruining streams
Lives the tale of the Northland of old and the undying glory of dreams?
O land, as some cave by the sea where the treasures of old have been laid,
The sword it may be of a king whose name was the turning of fight;
Or the staff of some wise of the world that many things made and unmade,
Or the ring of a woman maybe whose woe is grown wealth and delight.
No wheat and no wine grows above it, no orchard for blossom and shade;
The few ships that sail by its blackness but deem it the mouth of a grave;
Yet sure when the world shall awaken, this too shall be mighty to save.
Or rather, O land, if a marvel it seemeth that men ever sought
Thy wastes for a field and a garden fulfilled of all wonder and doubt,
And feasted amidst of the winter when the fight of the year had been fought,
Whose plunder all gathered together was little to babble about;
Cry aloud from thy wastes, O thou land, “Not for this nor for that was I wrought.
Amid waning of realms and of riches and death of things worshipped and sure,
I abide here the spouse of a God, and I made and I make and endure.”
O Queen of the grief without knowledge, of the courage that may not avail,
Of the longing that may not attain, of the love that shall never forget,
More joy than the gladness of laughter thy voice hath amidst of its wail:
More hope than of pleasure fulfilled amidst of thy blindness is set;
More glorious than gaining of all thine unfaltering hand that shall fail:
For what is the mark on thy brow but the brand that thy Brynhild doth bear?
Love once, and loved and undone by a love that no ages outwear.
Ah! when thy Balder comes back, and bears from the heart of the Sun
Peace and the healing of pain, and the wisdom that waiteth no more;
And the lilies are laid on thy brow ‘mid the crown of the deeds thou hast done;
And the roses spring up by thy feet that the rocks of the wilderness wore:
Ah! when thy Balder comes back and we gather the gains he hath won,
Shall we not linger a little to talk of thy sweetness of old,
Yea, turn back awhile to thy travail whence the Gods stood aloof to behold?