The Golden Circle

After my first failed Aurora hunt late last night, it was rather difficult to prize oneself out from under the warm duvet early this morn. However, with only a few hours of daylight available, there was little other option. I quickly donned as many layers as I had in my suitcase, battled through the ceaseless snow, and made it onto a bus that was going to take me to all of the sights within Iceland’s famous Golden Circle. I usually try to avoid organised tours at all costs, preferring the freedom of driving myself around at my own pace. Although, attempting to drive a hire-car around Iceland in mid-winter would be an enormous challenge – maybe one for the future.

Our first stop was Þingvellir National Park – the location of Iceland’s (and the world’s) first national parliament, in 930 AD. As well as being a site of huge cultural and historical significance, the park also lies in a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, essentially the meeting place of the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates. This is the only place on earth that the crest of the ridge extends above sea level, and some folks even went for a snorkel in a lake between the plates to get a better look at them. I, on the other hand, was perfectly content with taking photos from afar – snorkelling is better when you don’t have to worry about frostbite, in my opinion.

We then drove passed something I never thought I would see in Iceland: a tomato farm. Due to ever-increasing geothermal energy produced in the country, the costs of heating, lighting and running a large greenhouse (like the one below) in the middle of the Icelandic tundra, are decreasing all the time. Fruit and vegetable farms and greenhouses are popping up all over the country, saving the locals a small fortune on imports from far-flung countries. The farm we stopped at even kept its own supply of special bees, that it used to pollinate the plants inside the greenhouse. Extraordinary Icelandic ingenuity that we could most definitely learn a thing or two from.

The country of Iceland is synonymous with geysers, and the tour around the Golden Circle stops by the most famous of them: Strokkur. It has only recently taken that mantle after the nearby ‘Great Geysir’ stopped erupting as frequently as it once did. Strokkur erupts every five or ten minutes, and the boiling water it exudes usually reaches about twenty metres in the air. Whilst its eruptions are regular (I managed to watch at least four or five), trying to guess the exact point when to have the camera ready was a futile task – especially with my fingers falling off. It was an impressive sight, and one nobody can be sure will last in the years to come – come visit while you can.

With light fading, our bus just made it in time to the final destination on our whistle-stop tour of south-west Iceland. Gullfoss (or Golden Falls) is quite simply the most breathtaking geographical feature I have ever witnessed. The Grand Canyon, Niagara Falls, the granite monoliths at Yosemite – none come close to inspiring the sheer awe and wonderment that this incredibly desolate waterfall does. It is deafeningly loud, and located in a place that could easily be mistaken for the frozen gateway to the underworld – or something of that sort. I later heard that, only a week or two after my visit, Gullfoss had completely frozen over – probably making it an even more eerie place to visit.

I was still trying to catch my breath back at the hostel when it was time to head back out in search of Aurora Borealis: Round Two. We had the same optimistic tour guide as the night before (and the same angry bus driver), and very similar results ensued. With nothing of interest adorning the skies south of Reykjavik, our guide felt sorry for us and took us to a graveyard to cheer us up. It sounds more morbid than you might imagine, though, as gravestones in Iceland are lit up in a colourful display of bright lights and neon signs. However, it wasn’t what we had come to see, and now just one night remained to spot the elusive Northern Lights before my flight to the UK – in need of an Icelandic miracle!

J

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