Friday 6 July 2018

Iceland 2 - Today's theme: water

Thank you to Intrepid Travel for the discount on this Iceland Express trip 
That was a whole night of rare clear sky I wasted by sleeping, because it was still sunny this morning. But at least I woke early enough to have time to nip out before our tour departure at 9am, to have another wander around the city. It was lovely, with the streets quiet, to just mosey around, taking random turnings and discovering street art and cats in windows and more pretty painted houses with gables and window features. Eventually I ended up down on the waterfront where there was a striking modern aluminium sculpture of a Viking ship, just the bones of it, with a shiny silvery sea behind it and a snow-streaked range beyond that.

Unfortunately, in front was a large group of tourists speaking American-accented English and also something that might have been Indonesian or similar and boy! Were they focused on the photos. Not of the sculpture, you understand, but of themselves draped over it, in innumerable poses, all adopted under the loud instruction of the mother-figure. It went on and on and on, honestly, while a handful of other tourists including me just stood there, holding our cameras and waiting with ostentatious patience for them to finish and vacate the site.

That turned out to be the running theme of today: other tourists swarming over the places we visited. And yes, of course we’re tourists too, and it’s July, and that’s life, and also the big problem of modern Iceland that I knew all about before coming: population 350,000 and over 2 million visitors annually. But that doesn’t stop it from being dismaying.
We started with a drive around the city and up to The Pearl for coffee (a very decent flat white!) and views. It's a dome built on top of huge water tanks where water is heated geo-thermally to 100 degrees-plus and then piped to everybody’s houses for heating, hot tubs and even warming the pavement outside so there’s no ice-scraping required in winter. Clever, and so environmental!
We learned about the great rift valley, and drove across it from the North American to the Eurasian plate, while Páll told us about geology and hotspots and such. We went to ᚦingvellir, a culturally and historically important site that was also pretty spectacular with basalt cliffs, super-clear blue river pools and lovely views past a pretty church to the huge lake. There were purple lupins, yellow buttercups and dandelions, white yarrow, and larks and geese; and also lots of assorted tourists.
Then we left the National Park to enter Iceland’s farming centre: flat, green, fertile and populated by woolly sheep and cute shaggy ponies. Our next stop was at Geysír which, despite giving its name to the whole phenomenon, just steamed sulkily and these days scarcely performs at all. A nearby geyser, Sokkur, was much more active, spouting up about 20 metres every 10 minutes or so – but only for a minute. Burping, really. There were a few steaming pools nearby but the whole thing wasn’t a patch on Rotorua, truly. The thing that impressed me most about the whole shebang was how fast the queue for the women’s loos moved back at the visitor centre. Now that was remarkable.
I had my first Icelandic horse encounter, with four bored but long-suffering small horses in an enclosure patiently putting up with people patting them and posing for photos. Later on, we saw a herd being moved along beside the road, cantering past, which was fun – and also several groups of others being ridden. It was lovely to see they have such a presence here.
The most spectacular bit of today was the Goldfoss waterfall, which is the best water action I’ve seen since Iguassu: millions of litres of glacier water every second thundering non-stop over two high steps totalling 30 metres, with spray drifting above it. Well worth visiting and viewing from multiple angles. Also, it was quietly inspiring that the falls weren’t turned into a hydro-electricity project, mostly thanks to Sigridúr Tómasdottír, who fought the idea in 1907 and is recognised now as Iceland’s first environmentalist.
Mountains – volcanoes, actually – were the literal backdrop to today’s drive, never quite clear of cloud but sometimes brightly lit in the distance, streaked with snow. One of them, Hekla, is so big that the whole of Reykjavik would fit in its crater, and another is the famous one with the unpronounceable name that caused so much trouble with its ash in 2010. Since we’re tucked underneath it for tonight, in a guesthouse way out in the country surrounded by fields where lapwings scolded us for having the temerity to walk along its drive, it would be pleasing if it stayed quiet. Which is more than I can say for the half-dozen 20-something Aussies of our Intrepid group who loudly braved the luke-warm spa out on the deck in the spitty rain and then spent the rest of the long, long evening busily bonding. Yeah, I know. Grinch.

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