Iceland: The Golden Circle

The Golden Circle is a route covering the most popular tourist attractions in Iceland, including the must-see Gullfoss, Geysir and Thingvellir. As it was just the two of us, we opted for a day tour by GeoIceland, a tour company which specialises in small group tours.

As usual, we waited at the entrance of our hostel for the tour bus to pick us up. As we had no idea how our transportation for the day would look like, we stood and gazed out intently at every vehicle that turned into the carpark serving the block where our hostel was located, trying to decide if that was the right vehicle.

Finally, a large van pulled up in front of us and the driver got out and asked for our names. We told him and my friend handed over the confirmation slip as well. However, he simply shrugged and informed us that it wasn’t needed. “Correct place, correct name, that’s all I need,” he said.

With that, we climbed into the van, only to discover that it was almost full and the last two seats were the single seats at the side of the van. It was a fully-booked tour, which I guess was unsurprising given the popularity of the route.

During the journey, the tour guide introduced himself to us as Javier. Spanish by origin, he studied at the University of Iceland for his masters degree in glaciology (the study of glaciers) and stayed on after graduation to work in Iceland. He was inspired to further his studies in Iceland after participating in a student exchange programme during his undergraduate years in Spain. Due to his background in geography, he was naturally very knowledgeable about plate tectonics and during the hour-long trip to our first attraction, he lectured us on the origins of Iceland and the various lava flows that are commonly seen in Iceland.

Raufarholshellir lava tube cave

Our first stop was to visit a lava tube cave in Leitahraun lava field.

Leitahraun lava field

It was approximately an hour’s drive from Reykjavik and the entrance of the cave was highly accessible as it was just a few steps away from the highway. The cave itself is rather huge (I read online that it would take 4 hours to explore the cave fully) and not safe for caving during winter, but the entrance of the cave, which was what we would be seeing, is accessible all year round. There are caving tours for adventurous people but the Raufarholshellir lava tube cave is extra perilous, especially during winter, and definitely not for the average tourist.

As we carefully navigated the icy steps down the lava tube cave, it grew darker, but not as dark as I thought it would be.Javier warned us that the pathway leading to and in the cave could be icy and therefore we had to be extra careful. He stood at the entrance and helped us down the steps to the cave.

As we carefully navigated the icy steps down the lava tube cave, it grew darker, but not as dark as I thought it would be. I soon realised why.

Raufarholshellir lava tube cave

Right in the middle of the cave was a gaping hole revealing the sky. Beneath the collapsed section was a pile of rocks. It was easier to navigate the steps deeper in the cave, but as we were not going on a caving tour, the guide made us turn back and climb out the way we came in.

Faxi (or Vatnsleysufoss)

We proceeded to this waterfall called Faxi (or Vatnsleysufoss). I have no idea why this waterfall has two names, but I’m taking a wild guess that part of the reason is because the second (and probably native Icelandic) name is hard to pronounce and even harder to spell.

Faxi is not as well-known as other waterfalls in Iceland, but as it lies on the Golden Circle, many tourists would visit it anyway. There are two viewing points of the waterfall, one from the top (bird’s eye view) and one from the side.

From the side

From the top

Icelandic Horses

We next made a random stop to view the pretty Icelandic horses up close. They are the size of ponies but the locals call them horses. The horses were surprisingly friendly and they came up to us, probably curious at the bunch of people cooing at them.

Friendly Icelandic horse which almost looked like it was smiling!

Their beautiful, flowing manes were swaying softly in the wind. They appeared to be very well groomed. As I watched some of the horses toss their heads, I wondered if there was a beauty pageant for horses. Icelandic horses would certainly win hands down!

This horse looked especially photogenic with that pose that it was striking

Gullfoss

Next stop was the majestic Gullfoss (meaning Golden Falls), one of the most recognisable icons of Iceland. It was a surreal experience standing at the edge of the viewing platform, surrounded in the deafening roar of the waterfall and feeling the chilly wind and the fine mist of water spraying out into my face. The bitterly cold wind blew incessantly that day, numbing the faces of tourists who were viewing Gullfoss. We had difficulty taking photos of each other with Gullfoss as a backdrop, as the photographer had to face the wind directly. Even when we were being the one photographed, with our back facing the wind, the wind would whip our flailing hair into our faces, making for a very ‘unglam’ shot.

Although the weather that day wasn’t very cooperative, the scale and beauty of Gullfoss wasn’t lost on us. I can see why many would consider Gullfoss to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Iceland.

Geysir and Strokkur

A must-see on the Golden Circle route are the two geysers. Geysir is the first geyser described in print and the English word “geyser” was derived from it. It erupts infrequently (said to around 3 times a day), so it isn’t very possible to hang around all day waiting for Geysir to erupt.

Fortunately, its neighbouring geyser, Strokkur, erupts predictably every 4 -8 minutes, giving tourists the opportunity to catch the eruption at any time of the day, albeit on a smaller scale than Geysir.

There is a permanent crowd gathered around the perimeter of the cordoned off Strokkur. While I was there, excited tourists would provide a running commentary of the status of the eruption. Exclamations of “It’s gonna blow!” or “Any time now!” were often heard.

I hung at the fringes of the crowd, gripping my camera with bated breath. My finger hovered over the trigger button, ever ready to start firing a series of continuous shooting when the eruption happened, so as to maximise my chances of capturing a good shot. The pool of water remained calm. Suddenly, the water started moving, starting from a gradual bubbling to more violent churning. When the eruption happened, it still took me by surprise. And it also took my breath away.

I was too close and was unable to capture the full jet of boiling water which spurted out. However, I was able to appreciate the strength of the eruption up close.

Still reeling from excitement at witnessing my first geysir eruption, I headed farther away and camped at a spot which I hoped would give me a good view of the next eruption. This time, I was able to capture the full scale of the eruption. I positioned my camera such that Strokkur was right at the left side of the photo, having realised from the first eruption that the spout of water tended to lean towards one side.

Below is a couple of GIFs I made from the series of continuous shots I photographed. I stayed for three eruptions in total before deciding to move on to the other sights in the area.

Strokkur Eruption 2

Apart from the geysers, there are numerous small pools of boiling hot water, with various shades of colours. There was one pool with its waters a startling milky blue, which captured my attention.

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir (pronounced ‘Thingvellir’) National Park is site of both historical and geological significance. It lies in a rift valley which marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It is a geography student’s dream come true to see such geological wonders with one’s own eyes, rather than through a textbook or the Internet.

Þingvellir National Park – the rift valley

Þingvellir National Park

Þingvellir was also the site of the very first parliamentary proceedings, which was held in 903 and was pivotal in the founding of the nation of Iceland.

Area in Þingvellir where the first parliament was held

Þingvellir National Park occupies a considerable size within Iceland and I wished that we had more time to fully explore the area. But alas, the day tour had a schedule to stick to and the sun was already starting to set (it was in late October).

Þingvellir National Park – path leading to a steep incline

Wooden bridge separating the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates

We had dinner back in our hostel (Kex Hostel). Although the facilities there were simple, the environment was really cosy and the kitchen was well-equipped with food that was left behind by previous occupants.

The kitchen and eating area in Kex Hostel

We did not go for any Northern Lights tour that night, due to the cloudy weather all day long and the fact that we had stayed up late the previous night for the lights and had very little sleep. We also had to get up early for our South Coast day tour, which will be continued in my next post.