Waterfalls, glaciers, icebergs and lava fields
Visiting Iceland has been on my wish list for a while so I was delighted when this opportunity presented itself. Naturetrek had run a trip there earlier in the year but I hadn’t then mustered the courage to risk an increased chance of catching coronavirus by travelling with others.
The itinerary was intended to show us the spectacular landscapes of Iceland but we did see some birds, flowers, fungi and insects too.
The main tour leader for this trip had to step down at the last minute which left David Phillips to take over as leader, with Mike Crewe also stepping in at the last minute. Both David and Mike did a sterling job.
Day 1 — Arrival
We arrived in Keflavik in the early evening and set off in two mini-vans with four guests plus a guide/driver in each. I was in the mini-van driven by David with Carol, Peter and Malcolm. We stayed in these two groups, when travelling, throughout the trip. Our first stop was Gullfoss where we were to stay for two nights.
The weather was rather drizzly but we could still enjoy the wonderful landscapes through the car window along the way.
After checking into our hotel, there was just time to unpack before dinner.
Day 2 — The Golden Circle
The next morning it was raining so I didn’t go out for a pre-breakfast walk. We had arranged to meet in the car park after breakfast for a quick look at some plants. Mike is a botanist and several of us were interested in plants. Near the car park, there were Northern Green Orchids and also quite a lot of the local bilberry varieties as well as Crowberries: very tasty.
The first stop of the day was at Gullfoss, the golden waterfall. This is so called because on a sunny day the water takes on a golden-brown colour. This is a two-tiered waterfall fed by the glacial river Hvítá, which means white river. There were plans to build a hydroelectric dam there but, thankfully, the landowner’s daughter campaigned successfully against it. There were many trails from the car park to various viewpoints. To avoid the spray from the waterfall, I chose to take the trail to the top and this gave me some great views. Before we moved on we looked at some flowers and a very soggy bumblebee.
The next stop was Geysir. This is a large geothermal area with hot springs, boiling mud pits, and geysers. The oldest of the geysers is believed to be one called Geysir, giving rise to the word geyser. The most active geyser in the area is Stokkur, which erupts every few minutes. After a short walk and time to admire the area, we set off again.
The last place on our itinerary for the day was Thingvellir. This was the site of Iceland’s parliament, the Althing, from the tenth to the eighteenth century. The area is a National Park and on UNESCO’s World Heritage list. It sits in a rift valley caused by the interface of the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates. It was raining more heavily by this time but that didn’t stop us from exploring the area.
On the way back to the vans, I made a short detour to walk past a church.
As we left Thingvellir, we stopped to admire an adult and juvenile Red-throated Diver and on the drive back to the hotel, we took a slight detour to a hydroelectric power station where we had great views of an adult and juvenile Northern Diver on the dam.
The weather had lifted by the time we returned to the hotel and a few of us decided to go for a walk before dinner.
Day 3 — En route to Skaftafell
It was another wet morning when we set off again but it started to clear as we got closer to the coast and Route 1. It was a long journey but we made lots of stops along the way.
Two of the stops were at waterfalls. The first was at Seljalandsfoss where you could walk behind the fall, although I didn’t. Instead, I walked to another fall nearby within a narrow canyon. The second waterfall we stopped at was Skogafos which is wider and more spectacular and where the light through the spray made rainbows. We also stopped for views of the mountains and for some birdwatching.
At Vik we went shopping for lunch provisions which we then consumed on a beach covered in black volcanic sand. Afterwards, we drove on a short distance to some pools just outside the town where we looked for birds. We then continued our journey without stopping again until just before the border between the Southern and Eastern regions of Iceland. Here we found some interesting flowers and had great views of the Vatnajökull glacier. The car park had noticeboards that indicated viewpoints for Hvannadalshnúkur, which is the highest point in Iceland.
Once we had checked into our rooms at the hotel in Skaftafell, Mike, Malcolm, David, Elaine and I went for a walk up the hill behind the hotel where we had great views of the Svínafellsjökull glacier.
We had been told that conditions for seeing the northern lights were good so after dinner, when it was dark, we walked a short way up the path behind the hotel. We were treated to a fabulous show of the Aurora Borealis.
Day 4 — Icebergs and more waterfalls
I woke early and had a lovely walk up behind the hotel. This time I took the path towards the foot of the glacier but when I reached a point where there were paths going in several directions, I thought it was a good place to turn back.
The Ice Lagoon
After breakfast, we set off for the Jökulsárlón, or ‘Glacier’s-River-Lagoon, which has been a location in several Bond movies. We had some time to walk around before joining the amphibious boat tour around the lake. I had a rather nice lobster and mango sandwich for lunch at the café and afterwards we walked along to the beach to look at the icebergs. There were lots of common seals playing around in the water.
Jökulsárlón is a glacial lagoon, bordering Vatnajökull National Park in southeastern Iceland. Its still, blue waters are dotted with icebergs from the surrounding Breiðamerkurjökull Glacier, part of larger Vatnajökull Glacier. The Glacier Lagoon flows through a short waterway into the Atlantic Ocean, leaving chunks of ice on a black sand beach. In winter, the fish-filled lagoon hosts hundreds of seals.Wikipedia
Next on the agenda was a visit to Svartifoss. We followed a trail that went up to Hundafoss and then continued on to Svartifoss which means black falls and it gets its name because the waterfall is surrounded by dark lava columns. These hexagonal basalt columns were created when lava cooled very slowly allowing the molten rock to crystallize. It’s a thin twenty-metre waterfall down the centre of a dramatic three-dimensional wall of these columns. This waterfall apparently inspired the design of the impressive Hallgrimskirkja church that dominates the Reykjavik skyline.
Day 5 — Journey through lava fields
I did my usual morning walk before breakfast but didn’t go as far as on the first morning.
We had a long day’s journey back towards Keflavik and the Blue Lagoon which was our final destination for the trip. On the way, we stopped at Eldhraun Lava Field for a very short ‘Scenic Green Lava walk’. This lava field was created by one of the most violent volcanic eruptions in history: the Lakagígar eruption in the eighteenth century. Over time, moss has grown over the lava rocks and walking on the lava field is not allowed as it is very fragile and dangerous.
We turned off Route 1 by the lake next to Hotel Katla at Hofdabrekku near Vik to look at some birds on the lake and some flowers as well. We stopped again at Vik church for some nice views over the town and then went shopping for lunch provisions. The next stop was Dyrhólaey where we had our lunch after a short walk. This is a small peninsula with picturesque views, a lighthouse, and a large arch of volcanic rock in the sea.
After lunch, we drove on for a while before making a brief stop by the main road near Eyrarbakki, where we could look out over a wetlands area which is part of the Flói Bird Reserve. I spotted a couple of small birds on the water which may have been Red-necked Phalaropes.
The final stop of the day was at a small harbour on the outskirts of Grindavik. We parked at a tractor museum and walked down to the harbour where there were some interesting plants and a lovely Black Guillemot in eclipse plumage. There were also some interesting old boats.
As we got near to our hotel, the Northern Lights Inn, it became apparent that it was right next to a geothermal power station. This was quite noisy and gave off lots of steam and a smell of sulphur. Our rooms were nice though and their walls blocked most of the smell. Elaine and I decided to walk down to the Blue Lagoon following a trail going through the lava fields. We didn’t go into the spa but there was lovely warm blue water outside it.
The Blue Lagoon is a geothermal spa in southwestern Iceland. The spa is located in a lava field near Grindavík and in front of Mount Þorbjörn on Reykjanes Peninsula, in a location favourable for geothermal power, and is supplied by water used in the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station.Wikipedia
We all had to have done a pre-flight Covid test before going home. Unfortunately, Stephanie, our American fellow traveller, was told that her test was positive. This result seemed unlikely to be correct so she then took one of our self-tests which turned out to be negative, as expected. However, until she could do an official test at the airport the next morning, she had to self-isolate and couldn’t join us for dinner.
Day 6 — Volcanos and whales
I did my early morning walk down to the Blue Lagoon area again before having breakfast. This hotel had the best breakfast: granola with lots of different fruits, nuts, and seeds topped with Skyr yoghurt. David had to take Stephanie to the airport to get an official test so we only had one vehicle for the morning’s activity. Luckily, several people opted for a leisurely morning leaving Mike with four of us (Lesley, Malcolm, Elaine and I) to go to the volcano.
The drive was quite short and we found a place to park at Geldingadalir Volcano Parking C. The weather was fine so we set off along the trail. Soon we came to a point where the paths diverged. One way was a ten-minute walk to the edge of the lava fields, the other was a one hour walk, just one way, to a viewpoint to see the volcano. Elaine and I were sorely tempted to do the long walk but, with the time available, we didn’t think it was a realistic option so we all walked up to the lava fields.
It was still early so we were the only people there. We walked up onto the lava which had amazing patterns and was still warm in places. Elaine and I decided we would try to walk up along the fields where there was a path that started to ascend the hillside. It had started to drizzle but we continued about halfway until the path became quite slippery and the drizzle heavier. This slowed us down and we had to give up and return. By the time we got back to the van, we were soaked through.
We picked up the others at the hotel. Stephanie had tested negative and so could re-join the group for a fish-and-chips lunch near the harbour in Reykjavik while standing under the eaves of some of the ticket offices as it was still raining.
A short walk took us to our boat where we joined several other people also taking the trip. After a quick introduction, we found a place to stand on the front of the top deck. It was cold, wet and quite miserable but we kept up our watch. After about forty minutes we had reached the target area. The rain had now stopped and soon things started happening. The first humpback whale came into view and was soon joined by another. For the next hour, they kept swimming under the boat from side to side. Soon other boats also joined us to watch and we reluctantly had to head back to the harbour. On the way back, we saw some harbour porpoises in the distance.
Some of the group stayed in Reykjavik for a quick walking tour of the city but I decided to go back to the hotel to pack.
Day 6 — The end
Our flight left early in the morning so we had to get going before the crack of dawn. Luckily, the hotel had put on an early breakfast for us. The journey home was uneventful but with long queues, both to check in at the airport and for passport control at Heathrow.
I had a wonderful time and I am so glad I went. David and Mike were both lovely and excellent guides, and my fellow travellers were a great friendly bunch.