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Published: February 2nd 2019
Bob Walking up the path to the top of the crater
Iceland Road Trip
Today, the plan was to get in the car and drive the Golden Circle around Iceland. If you do it right the entire trip is 140 miles and should take 5.5 hours. Not for us! It took nearly 8 hours and 195 miles.
The plan was to get up at 7AM and hit the road by 8 AM. Best laid plans of mice and men… Last night we didn’t get home till well after 1 AM from the Aurora outing. We have been up nearly 24 hours, and, well, quite frankly, we were exhausted. The alarm went off as planned, but we didn’t move out of bed. At 10 AM we finally got up and prepared for the day ahead.
As you may recall, we are driving around in a 2016 diesel 4 X 4 SUV like Duster. We are outfitted with studded tires, a requirement to go on some of the icy or snow-covered roads. We felt prepared, but were we, really?
Our first stop was a tour of the geothermal power plant at Nesjavillir. The drive should have taken less than 40 minutes according to Google
In the summer the water is a dark green
Maps. As we headed out of town, we left the security of well lit, well maintained and well-traveled roads to find ourselves on wind swept snow and icy reads. Believe me, it was tough not knowing where we were going and completely unfamiliar with the roads added to the stress. Fortunately, traffic was minimal, so we really had it rather easy.
As we left the big capital city, the landscape changed all at once. It was like we were suddenly transported to the moon but, with snow. Let me explain. The area we were driving through could only be described as desolate. There were no cities, towns, settlements, log cabin, nothing that spoke of human habitation.
All around, in every direction, there were signs of volcanic activity. There were huge lava flows frozen in time. All around the area were boulders composed of lava rock that must have been thrown there by some ancient cataclysmic eruption. There were no trees, no scrub bushes, nothing could be seen growing for miles. Just Vulcanic rock covered in snow.
The roads were made from Vulcanic ash and were barely 24 feet wide, just enough
for two cars to pass safely. There was a center line, sometimes, that was either covered with ice and snow or barely visible from decades of transit by studded tires tearing up the paint. Needless to say, driving required concentration and skills as the road was sometimes covered by blowing snow and was always narrowed by a band of ice on the passenger side of the car. No guard rails to help stop a fall off the side of the road, no extra space passed the road width to act as a stop gap. Just a fall into a snow bank or off the road into the abyss or meadow. It was difficult at best. One good thing, it was light outside and not dark as we were told to expect.
On the point of daylight, may I digress a moment? We were told to expect some 6 hours or less of sunlight. Most of the day would be like twilight. So, we prepared for darkness to be a complication for the trip. Another Iceland falsehood.
It was actually light from about 8 AM till about 6PM, or, 9 hours a day, not that
much different from Toledo, Ohio. So that was a blessing. The issue was the sun never actually rose in the sky.
At sun up the sun came up from the south, not the east and stayed just a few degrees above the horizon all day. There was no High Noon, with the sun directly overhead. It just seemed to rise up, settle in, then simply set in the same spot. So, it was light, but never a full blinding sunlight. That was a blessing, as it made driving easier not to have a blinding sun hit your eyes.
Okay, so we were heading to the geothermal plant when good old Google said turn here. We followed her directions and soon found ourselves on a snow-covered side road. The plant was a few kilometers ahead, so we literally plowed through, after all we had four-wheel drive.
Half way to the plant was a sign that read “ROAD CLOSED AHEAD”. We plowed through, but, less than a kilometer past the sign it was obvious that the better part of valor was to stop and turn around. It was nearly impassable, and a geothermal
plant is not worth an accident on our first travel day. So, turn we did and headed back to the somewhat plowed roads.
With the thermal plant scrubbed, the next stop was Pingvellir National Park. One oddity, sometimes it was spelled with a P and sometimes spelled with a TH. Apparently, they both had the same sound. Oh well, it is Danish, a language near impossible to learn all the rules. We followed Ms. Google and pressed onward.
Pingvellir/Thingvellier is a protected historic site. It has some unique features geologically as well as culturally. First, it is the cultural site of the beginning of Iceland. It was here, at Althingi, or Law Rock, that the first Parliament of Iceland was convened in the year 930.
It was at this location the first settlers recited their laws, the job of the Law Giver. Since the Vikings had no written language the Law Giver would annually recite the laws so that the population knew the rules to a peaceful society. Yeah right! Vikings were not a peaceful society.
It was also on this spot that the King of Denmark announced
Tectonic Plate Collision
the formation of the country of Iceland in June 1944 after WW2. Unfortunately, the king could not make the festivities, you see he was under house arrest in Denmark, at the time.
This special site has been used for festivals and other cultural events important to Icelandic history and is now a UNESCO protected site.
The park also has geological significance, for it is here that the North American and the Asian tectonic plates clash. You can see the exact ridge line where this occurs. The location is fraught with geothermal and Vulcanic as well as seismic activity. You can walk through fissures in the ground 40 feet deep or take a path down to the river that is warm water heated by geothermal activity.
That’s what you CAN DO, but with the temperature a balmy -10 degrees C and a wind gusting in our faces at 30 MPH, we DIDN’T.
Ok, we did walk through the fissures, they protected you from the winds. We did pass the Law Rock and marvel at the ridge line, but we were out of there within the hour.
Some fun facts along the way. There are no guard rails anywhere. If you go too close to the edge, you fall. There is actually a sign that says, Don’t Fall, (as if that would prevent a fall). They make no effort to remove snow or melt the ice to prevent a fall. Something that would never be allowed at home!
Also, they built a series of wooden steps so you could get to the Law Rock. These were completely covered in solid ice. Again, a warning sign, Don’t Fall, so of course you were now properly warned. What could go wrong?
In order to get up the steps and across the very narrow bridge, you had to lean over the wooden rail with the bulk of your upper body and use your feet to negotiate the steps as you slid up the railing. Easy Peasy. Getting down, however, was a little trickier as you had gravity working with the ice to insure you fell. I slipped down the first four steps but held on as my body glided down the rail to safety.
We did successfully negotiate the treacherous pathway and crossed
the narrow ice-covered bridge. We were forced to brave the headwinds so we could see the Law Rock, to take photos. We were able to walk around a bit to marvel at the sights. After a few minutes we were appropriately frozen, so we headed back to the welcome center for warmth and to plan the next stop.
Our next stop was Kerio Crater. This is a unique location that at first, I thought was a meteor strike. It turned out this was a blast of magma and rocks from Vulcanic activity. About 3000 years ago the earth boiled and rumbled in the area. Rock liquified and water turned to high pressure steam. The pressure built and built until the catastrophic event which created the 55-meter-deep depression. Rock and debris from the blast are strewn all around the area. The crater extends down to the water table, and, in the summer, is filled with a deep green crystal-clear water. Today it was frozen solid.
Kind of interesting but nothing that would last more than a half hour especially in these subzero temperatures. Appropriate photos taken, we bundled up and headed back to the car
for the next leg of the journey.
Next stop Geysir, a location appropriately names as you will soon see. Along the winding, wind and snow swept roads, we stopped from time to time to take some amazing landscape photos.
Bob, my traveling companion, is a professional photographer, so he was always looking for that perfect photo op. There were options a plenty. Along the way we came across a pasture with horses that were all standing around in the snow, right near the fence line so we stopped to say hi.
Now, Icelandic horses are not American horses. Our horses would freeze to death in this weather. Unlike the long legged and short haired variety, we see racing on the track or jumping fences, these ponies are short legged, thick haired animals. The are only about the height of a man and have a mane that feels more like rope that horse hair.
They were, however, very friendly and came right over to be pet with the hopes of getting a treat. Unfortunately, we had nothing to offer, but we did stay around petting and taking photos, some of which
turned out really cute. It was soon time to say good bye and head out as the light would soon be fading and we wanted to make Geysir before dark.
Geysir is a unique wide spot in the road, literally. As we headed toward Geysir, Google announced “You have arrived.” We looked around and suddenly we saw a welcome center in the middle of nowhere. We hit the brakes and slid into the entry. There were just a few cars in the lot, so finding a spot to park was easy.
We bundled up again, as the temperature had fallen further, and the wind picked up. I chose to wrap my scarf around my face to try to keep warm. We left the car behind and crossed the street to follow the self-guided path to the geysers.
The entire geologic site covered less than a football field. The area was first mentioned by the Vikings in the middle ages. This has been an active site for centuries and is the origin for the word geyser.
We crossed the street and found the entrance. There was no fee, so
we headed over to the introduction placard. There was an ice-covered path that wound around and through a series of hot water streams and bubbling puddles and finally a few geyser spouts.
I read the introduction signs and learned there were several geysers in this location. Old Faithful, which erupted last 80 years ago (how is that Old Faithful?), Litl Geysir which erupts only after an earthquake and Strokkur which erupts every ten minutes. Not much activity, but since this is a big tourist site, but we just had to stop. I mean geysers, come on!
Walking along the path, there were no guard rails to protect stupid people from hurting themselves in the very hot (190 degree) water. Earlier this year a tourist was taking photos and not watching where he was going. He fell into the bubbling pot and scalded his legs up to his waist.
Bob decides to see how hot the water is, so he makes a snowball about the size of a soft ball and tosses it in the stream right down at our feet. The snow ball melted in seconds, proving the water was hotter than hot.
I followed the path along, until I come to a fork in the road. One side is ice covered while the other requires you to walk on a few bricks placed across the boiling water. What could possibly go wrong? I chose to cross the boiling water.
Safely negotiating to the other side, I head over to Strokkur and wait for the show. I did not have long to wait. As I approached, the water in the hole went from a calm pool to a rolling boil. I looked to my right to see a few Asian tourists standing down wind from the geyser. You must know what happens next right?
The water boils and bursts out of the pool shooting boiling hot water about 30 feet into the air, soaking the Asians. Can’t fix stupid, right?
First, they are covered in the boiling water spray. If that’s not bad enough the wind was whipping right at them and they soon were frozen. I shook my head and headed closer to the geyser to await the next eruption.
Right on time, ten minutes later, I was treated to a spectacular show. I shot probably 30 pictures capturing the entire eruption. It was really cool.
I happen to overhear a conversation that was taking place between a well-covered young woman and her beau.
“Why don’t they turn it on sooner? It’s too cold to wait another 10 minutes.”
Kids, right! Gotta love ‘em. I turned away and moved on. I waited exactly 10 minutes and caught the next eruption. Seems like the guy working the controls was right on time.
Again, I was appropriately frozen and headed over to the reception building to see if they had some coffee and a bite to eat. Back across the street, there were no cars at all in the road, I moseyed over to the warmth of the building.
I was pleasantly surprised to find they not only had coffee, but a complete cafeteria that served, among other things, a home-made meat soup.
I had heard that Icelandic meat soup was one to try. It is a red soup made with vegetables and free-range lamb. It is supposed to be so good because the lamb is grown in the naturally pure Icelandic air and is allowed to feed only on open range grass. It is about as pure and organic as you can get, and it is delicious.
The meat was tender, the vegetables crisp and flavorful and a cup cost only $9! Yup folks, food here is expensive. I offered a taste to Bob who also agreed it was good, until he asked what it cost.
“I’m not paying nine bucks for a cup of soup!”
“But you get a free roll and butter,” I offered failing to convince him that this was a bargain.
We warmed up a bit and Bob wanted one more shot at the Strokkur. I stayed behind in the warmth and shopped in the souvenir stand, hoping to get something for those I left behind.
I spent my time waiting for Bob looking but not buying. Food is not the only expensive item in Iceland. Souvenirs are outlandish.
Bob returned from his photo shoot and we packed up and headed back to Reykjavik as the sun had fallen and we had nearly a two-hour drive home.
We returned to the warmth of our shared apartment to be greeted by the Mexican family and two new guests from Istanbul, Turkey.
The Turkish young ladies were traveling abroad and were visiting Iceland for a few days before they headed home early next week. They were very nice, but were busy and soon they were out the door to prepare for a night of gazing at the Aurora.
Bob and I were hungry and in need of dinner. Neither of us wanted to spend a fortune on food, but we wanted something better than crap for dinner. Bob searched the internet for cheap food. He came up with Vietnamese (NO), Chinese (HELL NO) and Thai noodles (Seriously?).
Not being able to agree on anything, we headed out in hopes that something would strike our fancy. We crossed the street to read the menus of several restaurants right near the apartment. The tables were empty, never a good sign, or the price was outrageous.
Someone earlier had suggested a fish and chips English Pub just up the block, so we headed that way.
On the way we ran into a very drunk Irishman who we saw come out of a bar and fall on his ass in the middle of the street. Not wanting to see him get run over, I walked over to help him up. He first refused my help but eventually I was able to get him to stand, and with help, we negotiated the street to safety.
As my reward for helping, he tells me, “you seem like one of those self-righteous damned Americans. I am the master of my own fate I don’t need your help,” at which time he fell on his keister once again.
Since he was indeed the master of his own fate, I left him where he sat and moved on.
Bob and I walked another block to the recommended London Pub where we entered only to see about 6 people eating the mainstay, fish n chips. They had beer on tap and fries, how bad can it be? BAD.
I know from experience that English food is not very good, but my time in England taught me that pub food was at least edible. Especially with enough beer. Not so in Iceland. The fish was heavily battered and should have been called “batter and chips.” If there was fish present, you could have fooled me!
Oh well, at least the beer was cold, and the water was free. Bob and I sat down to dine, I pulled off most of the fried batter to find about 4 ounces of fish, total, among the two large pieces served. Since I am trying not to eat too much carbs, I only ate half the fries, (cold they were), and all the discovered fish. The cost for this dining experience $39. Yup, didn’t I say food in Iceland was expensive here?
We headed back to the apartment for a much-needed nap. Bob wanted to go out to see the Aurora again, I was reluctant. It was freezing cold, already after 11 PM, and we had plans for an early day tomorrow. I begged off. Bob headed out. He didn’t return until well after 3 AM. I was glad I stayed home.
Tomorrow is another day on the road. I wonder what will happen next!
Some more fun facts about Iceland:
As far as safety, you are on your own. They do not clear a path, provide safety railings or do anything we do in the states to not get sued. You are truly on your own here. If you get hurt, here’s a bandage.
Snow removal is not a priority. If you can’t drive on snow, stay home.
Fuel is outrageous at over $8 a gallon. Problem is, all we see are gas guzzling SUV’s and luxury cars. How are they paying for gas, with food and living costs so high?
Icelanders do not eat in the local restaurants in downtown. Where they eat, we don’t know, but if we find out I am sure it will be the place to go for a good meal at reasonable prices.
There is a lot of nothing here. The area we drove in today can be likened to Death Valley but with snow. There are no people living outside the city. Very few farms, we did see a few but they were small and mostly dairy or horse farms. There are no trees, wildlife or people walking anywhere except for the city and the tourist traps.
Unlike say, Italy, or Portugal or Spain, or any major country in Europe, Iceland does not have much to offer tourists. Yes, there is the Viking heritage, but we are yet to find a Viking Museum. There are some amazing natural wonders, Waterfalls, Geysers, Hot springs etc. but not much culture. We did see some unique churches, but these were few and far between. I am sure I will get kicked for these comments, but they are my personal opinion. YMMV
There seems to be a lack of winter sports. We saw no ski hills, no cross-country trails and only one snow mobile. With all this cold weather and snow, I thought this would be a winter sports wonderland.
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