Kerid Volcanic Crater. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Kerid Volcanic Crater. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Reykjavik’s natural attractions are other-worldly

NEVER in my wildest dreams did I think I’d ever go to Iceland. I knew little of its history, politics or language.

It seemed so far away, too remote and had way too much scenery to take in.

Little did I realise that those three things that define Iceland are exactly why more and more southern hemisphere travellers are discovering the land of volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs and geysers, and what’s considered the world’s first formal parliament.

But this country is much more than New Zealand on steroids.

We warmed to the idea of Iceland after watching The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (especially its skateboard scene that seemed like an endless, barren, downhill ride into oblivion in the glorious nothingness).

What we found was both dreamlike and other-worldly – from massive fjords reflecting tiny fishing villages and the majestic mountains encircling them as at Seydisfjordur, to desolate wastelands with rich colours such as the volcanic wonderland of Lake Mývatn.

And extremely friendly and knowledgeable locals were more than willing to share their love of this quirky nation, its cultures and traditions.

After flying into the capital of Reykjavik in the southwest, tourists need only hire a car to travel Iceland’s 1332km Ring Road – its national highway – to connect with towns around the island and myriad attractions.

But we took the more leisurely scenic route aboard Holland America Line’s MS Rotterdam as part of a Northern Isles cruise from Rotterdam in The Netherlands.

The cruise virtually circumnavigated Iceland, stopping in Seydisfjordur, Akureyri, Isafjordur and Reykjavik.

But we were most excited about Reykjavik and were determined to make the most of our 15 hours in port.

Anyone who had been to the world’s most northern capital city (at 64°08 ′N) always spoke of the Blue Lagoon.

And if we’d had another day, we probably would have taken up the opportunity to soak in the 39C geothermal spa in a lava field near Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula – considered one of the 25 wonders of the world.

Being only about 20km from Keflavík International Airport, the Blue Lagoon is a popular first port of call and one of Iceland’s most visited attractions.

But we’d already had the pleasure of Rotorua’s hot pools on New Zealand trips and wanted to see much more of the countryside so we decided to head in the other direction.

Bustravel Iceland’s Grand Golden Circle Tour is a value-for-money eight hours of pure sightseeing pleasure, covering southwest Iceland’s three major highlights – Geysir, Gullfoss Waterfall and Thingvellir National Park – as well as Kerid Crater, which is often missed on similar tours.


Viewing Kerid Volcanic Crater from above. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Viewing Kerid Volcanic Crater from above. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

EVEN in overcast and showery conditions, the stark colour contrast between the red volcanic rock and the crater lake’s metallic blue (caused by the various minerals that are abundant in the surrounding soil) is eye-catching.

It’s geological history, however, is even more fascinating.

Formed about 6500 years ago, the oval-shaped crater is about 270m long, 170m wide and 55m deep, and is found at the end of a row of craters known as Tjarnarholar.

Once thought to be an explosion crater, formed by explosive eruptions, the attraction’s information brochure says that because of the absence of ash, it is now believed Kerid Crater was probably formed by a small magma chamber beneath it being emptied towards the end of an eruption, resulting in a collapse.

The water in Kerid does not drain out but rises and falls with changes in the water table.

Sit on a seat or walk around the top and gaze from a height in the giant natural amphitheatre or take the path to the rim of the lake for a closer look.


The Strokkur geyser. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
The Strokkur geyser. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

GEYSIR is a geothermal valley of more than 50 hot springs and multi-coloured mudpots on the slopes of Laugarfjall hill.

The English word “geyser”, that generically describes a spouting hot spring, originated due to the Great Geysir that is found here and was the first of its kind to be widely known throughout Europe.

It was first recognised in 1294, after an earthquake hit the area during the devastating eruption of Mount Hekla, although the geothermal field in Haukadalur valley has been active for 10,000 years.

Our guide tells us that while that Great Geysir has been sleeping since 1915, it “goes off” about once every decade.

A hot pool in the Geysir Geothermal Area. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
A hot pool in the Geysir Geothermal Area. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

Last decade, it erupted three times.

But nearby Strokkur (meaning “the churn”) still gives visitors a thrilling experience – especially if you’re lucky enough to see and hear a double eruption.

Strokkur consistently erupts about every 4–8 minutes and shoots about 20m but has been measured at a peak of 40m.

The colour of the water before the geyser erupts is the most beautiful turquoise – like an Australian opal – within an oyster-shaped hole.

The process is mesmerising.

You can’t set your watch by it but an imminent eruption is easy to spot.

The Geysir Geothermal Area. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
The Geysir Geothermal Area. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

The water boils, creating waves and steam on the surface water as the pressure builds from below (don’t stand in the direction of the steam because that’s where the big blow heads).

Air bubbles start to pulsate up and down.

A regurgitation of mud is created in the pressurised build-up – like a sauce coming to the boil and thickening on the stove.

The pulsating steam pushes the water in the pool upwards, creating a big blue bubble above the hole.

And then this frantic activity bursts the bubble with the unmistakeable wh-oo-oo-oo-sh – sending the water (which has reached about 120C) skywards in an almighty spectacular display that is more about speed (about 60km/h) than volume of water.

No matter where you are in the park, the sound can stop you in your tracks and make you turn around and stare.

The power produces a smoke-like effect as if a bomb has just gone off. The mist lingers long after the explosive gush has abated.

Patience and a steady hand are needed for that trophy Instagram shot or video, though.

We stay for a few eruptions: some are a tease with just a fluff but we are lucky enough to see a double eruption – one after the other in quick succession.

Wildflowers in the Geysir Geothermal Area. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Wildflowers in the Geysir Geothermal Area. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

The park is the only area in Iceland with an active geyser. Beautiful wildflowers grow in spring and summer beside the thermal pools, big and small (including one called Litli Geysir) – a beautiful and delicate contrast to the grey steam of the park. Take your time and enjoy the sensory rush.

Walk in a semicircle to viewpoints around each pool and the Strokkur or walk to the top of the hill for a perspective of the whole park.


Gullfoss. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Gullfoss. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

GULLFOSS is a spectacular two-tiered waterfall with a combined height of 32m – the most visited waterfall in Iceland.

A procession of visitors makes its way down the long, winding boardwalk – the Trail of Sigridur (named after the woman regarded as Iceland’s first environmentalist Sigridur Tomasdottir, who fought to protect Gullfoss waterfalls from industrialisation) – to take in the breathtaking countryside.

But don’t despair, as many vantage points allow sightseers to grab their shot or see the falls from different perspectives.

Gullfoss. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Gullfoss. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

The water originates at Iceland’s second-largest glacier, Langjökull, and picks up sediments/minerals that are carried along the river bed that feeds it.

Exactly why it’s called Gullfoss is debatable. But generally it its thought the name – Icelandic for “golden waterfall” – comes from the golden-brown colour of the glacial water on a sunny day.

Gullfoss. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Gullfoss. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

On this rainy afternoon, there was no sunlight to create a golden veil in the air from the powerful mist.

But that didn’t take away from our delight in the ferocity of Mother Nature and the beauty of the surrounding gorge.

The waterfall is stepped, as if turning a corner on a downhill garden path, with water seemingly falling into an abyss.

The multiple layers and directions of water make this a favourite with tourists who come from all over the world to view it.


The walk in Thingvellir National Park. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
The walk in Thingvellir National Park. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

THINGVELLIR National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, has historical, political, cultural and geological significance.

But don’t expect to see a man-made monstrosity of a building at the site of the first parliament to be established in Iceland (and thought to be the world).

Thingvellir (Þingvellir), by the river Öxará, means “assembly plains”.

Thingvellir National Park. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Thingvellir National Park. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

To unite the country as one and guard the interests of the people, a general assembly or parliament was established about 930AD and continued to convene there every summer for nearly 800 years until 1798.

Major events in the history of Iceland have taken place at Thingvellir and it has long been considered by Icelanders to be a national shrine.

It was chosen because the leaders at the time realised the landscape was extraordinary and considered it sacred, although they didn’t realise just how rare in geographic and geological importance.

Thingvellir National Park. Picture: Shirley Sinclair
Thingvellir National Park. Picture: Shirley Sinclair

The park lies on the boundary of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge with the Eurasian tectonic plate in the east and the North American tectonic plate to the west.

Tectonic activity has created the dramatic landscape that is constantly changing. and a 7km rift valley separates the two plates.

Only two places in the world have these sinking valleys where the effects of two major plates drifting apart can be observed: here and the Great Rift Valley of Eastern Africa.

Nearby Lake Thingvallavatn – Iceland’s largest lake at 84sq km – has entered the valley, which has sunk more than 10cm since the first parliament was held.

Take the 1km walk – dominated by a huge craggy wall of volcanic rock – on a slight incline from the carpark and survey this unique park, which is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Iceland.


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