Monday, February 16, 2015

The Golden Circle

Iceland Day 1

However many minutes of crank-back sleep we could get on the Easyjet flight and its immovable seats was enough as soon as we stepped off the plane. Maybe it was my confusion between Celsius and Fahrenheit, but I imagined a warmer wind when stepping out into the airport parking lot. The Icelandic wind was knife sharp and my scarf poorly worn.

Once we got into the warm SUV and started driving on those clean smooth roads, the excitement started bubbling. The sun was just rising a lazy 10 o’clock and the flatness of the asphalt beneath our wheels was matched with the flatness of the plains, the pools, the snow, everything except for a few mild mountains covered in winter-browned grass. The whole landscape looked as if it had been ironed down, which is not far from the truth since ice used to be the blanket on this once underwater island.

We stopped near a timid lake to watch the colors rise. It’s a different sky here. A bigger, bolder, more complicated sky. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw a sunrise, being the opposite of a morning person, and I thanked the tilt of the earth for the streaks of gold and pink and bruised fire smearing the above. So happy so happy so happy rang through my head as we headed to the first stop of the famed Golden Circle of Icelandic bests.

Thingvellir National Park

It wasn’t until we neared Thingvellir that the ground began to unflatten and take hard-edged shapes. Here lies the continental drift between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. You wouldn’t think it at first from the peaceful pieces of snow encircled by a river and the dwarf pine trees dotting the Alpingi – an ancient place of assembly to decide and enforce Icelandic law since 930 A.D. Walking through the stacks of basalt columns that enclose the drift, it is easy to imagine how this gap between continents moves farther apart or closer, its little moods setting off earthquakes.

Crunching through the snow, we saw some scuba divers just finishing a dive into the fissure and we wished we had the time to join them. Our only taste of the clear water were a few coins thrown into the gap, adding to the years of wish-carrying coins that gave the brown rocks sparkling scales. We walked past the fissure to reach a small waterfall that still roared quite a bit. The white frothy water and blue snow interrupted by rigid rocks made it unlike any other waterfall I had seen, though little did I know seeing the Gullfoss later would smash this one right out of the water.

The Geysir

When we drove to the geysers which must be of a lower altitude, the snow quickly began to fade, revealing more and more of the brown hair-tufts of grass. You could smell the rotten-egg perfume of sulfur right away. There the grass regained some of its green in the fumes and constant mud. Before heading to the steaming pools, we first stopped in welcome center where an exhibit had some geological and historical tidbits. We learned that we were about to see the very first known “Geysir,” which is so famous it doesn’t need a last name like Prince, Cher and other legends. In fact the word itself comes from the Icelandic verb “to gush.” Its days of frequent outbursts and maximum height (170m) have passed. For awhile it was blocked because of tourists throwing rocks into the throat to try and trigger it. Ah tourists, wanting to order up natural wonders at the click of a button. I found though that the extreme, stark beauties of Iceland was nice reminder to enjoy nature by flowing with it, not package its pieces.

First we looked at the smaller geysers, some with blue water steaming, others where you could see down the throat that goes into the center of the earth. Here too, visitors had strewn their wish-coins. The Strokkur erupts the most frequently so we waited by that one instead of the main Geysir. Soon enough, the gray water started turning blue, swelling as if there were a pair of lungs underneath, and it formed a bubble that grew and grew until the explosion of foamy white water with the ooohs, aaahs and camera clicks.


I was expecting a waterfall but not a WATERFALL. The Gullfoss is a massive roar of water filling what looks like the aftermath of earth itself cracking open. A powdered sugar sprinkling of snow on top and this is the loudest most delicious waterfall I’ve ever seen. Walking on the many ledges separated by two ropes, gazing at different layers of the falls, it was hard not to fear we were too close, a wrong step while clicking away pictures could mean a literal fall. We met a nice woman though who froze her fingers trying to snap the perfect picture of us while she balanced her own tripod under the armpit. That was our first inkling that Iceland is heaven for photographers.


Already the air was gray when we got to the Kerid. In December the sun sets by 5pm and we were just on the cusp of darkness, but we had to go see this volcanic crater. The Kerid looked like a round black mirror at the bottom of a bowl. The snow glowed, threaded by black rocks and spidery branches. Looking more closely as we took the top path around the crater, I could see that the volcanic rocks had flecks of red too. Back near the entrance, we found a path that wound inside the crater and took us down to the lake. The darkness had become almost touchable though, and my steps had little to do with sight. They were mostly based on faith. The water was black cold. There was a lovely dark serenity that wrapped around you – only interrupted when M pretended to throw me in when taking a picture, and the other tourists taking the picture called us “so American.” It was hard to detach ourselves from the beautiful silences of Kerid, but we made our way back to the car to drive along the Southern coast to Vik for a solid night’s sleep.

Travel tips
For my complete 5-day Iceland itinerary, click here.
· Where: The Golden Circle consists of Thingvellir, Geysir, Gulfoss and other sights, is very much doable in one day and gives you a nice sampling of Iceland. Clockwise or counter, it’s up to you.
· When: If you start with Thingvellir it’s a 45min drive from Reykjavik airport.
· How to get around: There are bus tours but driving is surprisingly easy. Roads are in great condition, rental cars come equipped with snow tires in winter so no need to rent a four-wheel drive unless you’re planning on going off-road.
· Bring: Warm, windproof, waterproof clothes and boots (especially in winter!) and be sure to have a GPS when driving.