Nordicaa: Travels In The Nordic Lands Everything Is In Order Here

Organised day trips were never really our thing. The problem was that it was Iceland, and we didn’t know yet if we could get around under our own steam. What follow are five trips in the south west.

  1. The South Coast

We wanted to cover as much distance as we could around the Icelandic coastline. Although we had been to the country before, we had only made it as far as the capital and its surrounding areas. The pull of the coast was strong, so we booked on a tour to take us as far as Vik and its black beaches.

To cram as much in to the day the bus picked us up early – very early – outside of the Salvation Army building behind the town hall. We were equipped with sandwiches, bottles of water and a pair of hangovers. The small bus took us to the bus station to change on to a much larger vehicle for the clearly popular trip. We positioned ourselves near the back, ready to absorb the magnificent views.

We started with a high point: setting foot on a glacier. We barrelled down a gravel road to a steep drop, which we descended in a terrifying corkscrew. The parking area led straight on to the moraine of the glacier: dark and shrinking. We stepped on it, took pictures, knowing it would soon be gone.

The rest of the day would be spent finding two waterfalls: the spindly Seljlandsfoss and the crushing curtain of Skogarfoss. The latter came with a folk museum, its ancient buildings offering respite from the heat of the day. The waterfalls drew us in, cooling and awesome. Rainbows formed around us.

Suitably soaked, and carrying a bottle of black sand, we boarded the bus and returned to the capital.

  1. Krysuvik Geothermal Area

Travelling to Iceland and not experiencing the raw power of its geological foundations would have been a mistake. We knew that we would need to get in to the Reykjanes peninsular in order to find what we were looking for. We just didn’t know what else we would find on the way out there.

The bus was tiny: it was a small group, with only a half day trip. We headed out of Reykjavik towards the airport, leaving the road towards the Blue Lagoon. When we stopped there were a few puzzled faces: we were in a fish gutting facility, being shown around buckets of guts. We were in Grindavik.

Leaving Grindavik seemed like a great plan. We headed down the 427, although we didn’t know it at the time. We were surrounded by lava fields, in various shades of green; moss had eventually begun to cover the craggy Aa lava, forming a soft blanket over the moon-like landscape. We pulled off the road and lava gave way to dirt. A bright green lake shone in the distance, next to plumes of steam.

The stink of Krysuvik defies explanation: great wafts of eggy steam fill the air, puffing out of yellow rocks, painted with the colours of exotic chemistry. Mud bubbled and boiled, threatening exposed ankles with serious burns. At our next stop, the black lake of Kleifarvatn, we would be accosted by a landscape of pure blackness; as if pulled from a poetic depiction of the Nordic land of Svartalfheim.

  1. Snæfellsness

The trip to Snæfellsness was to be our bird-watching day, along with a chance to spot some seals. I am not a fan of wildlife, but the day would convince me of my own folly, albeit in a round about way.

The weather was not good; we knew that from the start. That meant that the tour guide, a lovely old man who had named himself “Hussey” had to think on his toes somewhat. We wouldn’t be able to see much, but we would see things, we were assured. He took us to a black beach, Djúpalónssandur, last resting place of a British fishing trawler and home to a set of ancient Icelandic lifting stones.

We were making our way between two more impossibly beautiful stops, but rain was impeding our progress. Lost in a housing estate, we pulled in to the drive of a house. Puzzled once more, we heard Hussey declare “Everything is in order here” before turning the bus around and heading out of town.

We had lunch on a pile of rocks in front of a bird coated cliff at Hellnar, the waves gently lapping at the rocky shore. We had spent much of the morning looking at birds on cliffs, spotted through the fog and the driving rain. This time the sky was clear and we were looking forward to the rest of the things we would see. By the time we reached the thoroughly jaw-dropping Kirkjufell, said to be the most photographed mountain in all of Iceland, it was wreathed in a blanket of cloud: rain had set in.

  1. The Golden Circle (at night)

One of the perks of Iceland in the height of summer is the fact that it never gets dark. The long days we had spent on tours were all followed by drinking through the darkest hours on the balcony of the flat we had rented. All except one. One night we chose to book the most touristy of tours possible.

The Golden Circle is the well-worn tourist path: from Reykjavik one heads to the national park of Þingvellir, and its views across the mid-atlantic rift, thence to Geysir and Gullfoss. It must be done.

I had been to Iceland before and had done this trip before. The problem was that it was always full of people. I hate people. At night, however, it was empty, except for one tour bus with a dozen excitable tourists and a part-time tour guide. The shops at the sights were invariably closed, but we were far from bothered by that. We had uninterrupted views across some of the most spectacular landscapes, bathed in the golden sunlight of an Icelandic night. It was the most relaxing experience.

At Geysir, while the water erupted behind us every few minutes, we watched a group of Canadian men attempt to boil an egg in the red hot waters, pouring from the ground. At Gullfoss, one of the widest waterfalls in southern Iceland, a Swiss man took a picture of us as we stood on an outcrop over the falls themselves. On the way back the tour guide asked us why we loved Iceland so much.

  1. Blue Lagoon

I tend to take the view that a visit to Iceland without getting in some geothermally heated water is pretty much a waste. Hence the Blue Lagoon complex is one of my favourite places on the planet.

A bus to the airport from Reykjavik will always pass the Blue Lagoon. It’s off the main drag, on the Grindavik road, but it is easily found. Having a few hours bask in warm waters before boarding a plane is one of the best ways to get yourself in the mood for a flight. Especially when there is a bar in the lagoon itself. We were limited to three beers each, but we had ample time to enjoy them.

Entry to the complex is through a path surrounded by lava walls. Then the whiteness of the water hits, and the place takes on an other-worldly hue. It is possible to walk around and above the lagoon area as much as one likes without ever going in; from above one is afforded a reminder of the scale of the site: white waters, steam and rocks spread out in all directions, surrounded by lava fields.

Getting in to the waters, through ice cold air, is a shock, but gently bobbing about in the milky water is a luxury. Milky clay surrounds the feet and works its way through one’s toes. This isn’t always the most pleasant experience, but it hardly matters: The pummelling of the waterfall and the heat of the hot rooms (one wet; one dry) more than make up for it. And then, back on the bus to the airport.