Basalt columns, lava fields, old wooden houses, the Blue Lagoon and a final light show!
19.01.2013 - 19.01.2013 7 °C
The rain held off when we got to Kirkjubæjarklaustur and we all piled out of the bus in various items of waterproofs or not as the case may be. The weather was really quite bright, and we even saw some blue sky. It didn't last long though – as we were looking at the basalt columns, the heavens opened, making the walk back to the bus really quite boggy.
Kirkjugólf (“The church floor”) is the flat tops of basalt columns, eroded by glaciers and waves, making it look like a tiled church floor. They are the same phenomenon as Giant’s Causeway in Ireland for those familiar with that. There has never been a church here but the columns give the appearance that it is man made. Columnar basalt is formed when lava flows cool and contraction forces build up causing horizontal cracks and fractures that result in the six sided shape of the columns.
Even though it was really just a few hundred metres away, by the time we arrived at Systrafoss, it was dry and bright again. Systrafoss (Sister Falls) is the name of the waterfall where the river falls over the mountain edge into the gorge. Low down in the gorge there's a giant rock, Fossasteinn, that fell from the mountain during a massive thunderstorm in 1830.
Great Þjórsá Lava Field
Another lava stop today, this time in the daylight, but guess what? It was raining again... The scenery around this area is almost spooky, with rounded lava rocks almost completely covered in green moss. There is a stark and austere beauty about the place, but it also feels somewhat outer-worldly, as if a green weed has invaded the landscape and covered everything in sight. I saw a few tufts of grass around 10cm tall, other than that, the vegetation was a maximum of 5cm above the ground for miles around, except a small sunken coppice of trees. Most odd.
We stopped briefly in Vik again for lunch, at yet another fuel service station. I have eaten more fast food on this one week trip than I have in the last five years in the UK.
Stormy skies over the sea at Vik.
Eyrarbakki is an old fishing-town (until the harbour was deemed too unsafe) on the south-coast of Iceland with a population of about 570 people, not including inhabitants of the prison located there.
The oldest building in the village, Húsið ("The House"), is a Norwegian kit home dating from 1765, built for a Danish trading family, and is the oldest preserved timber dwelling house in Iceland. It now houses the regional folk museum. The town is full of old houses, many of which have corrugated iron covering the original wooden frames. They have almost all received government aid for restoration.
Driving over the highlands towards Reykjavik, we encountered freshly fallen snow on the roads as well as rain, sleet and we even saw the sun at one stage! All seasons in one day.
Bláa Lónið - “Blue Lagoon”
The steamy waters of the Blue Lagoon Geothermal Spa are part of a the Svartsenga lava formation, caused by a volcanic eruption some 800 years ago; its six million litres of warm waters rich in minerals like silica and sulphur are said to have curative powers - bathing in the Blue Lagoon is believed to help people suffering from skin diseases such as psoriasis. The water keeps a fairly steady temperature of 37-39 °C, so somewhat more comfortable than the 43 °C water in the Georgian Baths in Tbilisi last year! The temperature is variable according to where in the pool you are.
The lagoon is fed by overspill water from the nearby power plant Svartsengi. Hot geothermal seawater is extracted from 2000 metres beneath the ground and used to run turbines generating electricity as well as providing heat for a municipal water heating system. The water is then pumped into the lagoon for treatments (it is clean and replaced every two days I am assured!), therapies or just relaxing in the large expanse of powder-blue water, set amidst a jet black lavascape. The radiant blue colour is the result of light-refracting micro-organisms that thrive in the unusual ecosystem.
The artificially created Blue Lagoon has been described as 'the most supernatural looking body of water on earth' as well as 'a massive hot tub on the moon' and was voted the best Medical/Thermal spa and one of the top 10 spas in the world by Conde Nast.
The lagoon experience is totally amazing, and one you really shouldn't miss when you are in Iceland. It is huge, with lots of nooks and crannies where you can lose yourself from the rest of the world just floating about in the mineral-rich waters, standing under a powerful hot waterfall, rubbing white silica mud on your skin, or having a drink in the swim-up bar. We did all of that of course. David commented on how clear the sky was, with lots of stars in attendance, when a gust of wind seemed to change the weather instantly, bringing with it rain, sleet and hail. I had to put my hand over the glass to stop my beer getting watered down!
The Blue Lagoon was used as the pit stop for the first leg of The Amazing Race 6, as well as for the thermal spa scenes in the filming of Hostel: Part II. It was also shown in the Incubus documentary Look Alive, when the band visited Iceland and shown in the fifth cycle of Britain's Next Top Model which used it as its photoshoot location.
I had read a lot about the lagoon and how you have to shower in the nude, and was feeling a little apprehensive about it. I have no problem with a public changing room per se, but to me showering is a private matter. I made sure to wear my swimsuit under my clothes when I arrived there, so getting into the water was no problem at all. Getting out, however, was another matter. As soon as I exited the pool, I walked into the ladies' area area and showered with my swimsuit on. So far, so good. I was just about to walk in to the actual changing room with one of the Canadian ladies from our group, when we were stopped by one of the attendants, and told we had to dry off first, which is actually a very good idea, so that the changing room itself stays dry for putting your clothes on. We were then told that unless we took our bathers off we wouldn't be properly dry! I protested that we were not Icelandic and she reluctantly let us walk back into the locker area in our swimsuits. Although the room had been deserted earlier when I arrived, now it was teeming with local ladies of all ages , from toddlers to pensioners, all walking about at total ease with not a stitch on. I know it should be the most natural thing in the world (and it seemed to be to the Icelanders – there really was every imaginable shape and size there and no apparent embarrassment), so why do most of us feel uncomfortable with public nudity?
After a traditional Icelandic dinner near the Blue Lagoon consisting of fish followed by pancakes (described as “Hearty Nordic Soul Food”), we boarded the bus for our last journey together as a group back to Reykjavik. The weather was still wet and grey and Rocky-Rock lamented that we were not going to see the Northern Lights this evening. I joked that he'd said the exact same thing a few nights prior, and we saw the aurora that night before we'd even reached the hotel, but he really felt there was very little chance of that happening this evening. So it was with great surprise that he suddenly discovered a small green band in the sky, which soon developed into curtains of vivid glare shimmying across the sky. There were swathes of light moving in waves, undulating ribbons teasing us with their spellbinding performance. Although the activity tonight was said to be a level 2 only, this was even brighter than the previous display. However, it was over as soon as it started, just two or three minutes of magnificent luminous arches - and by the time we found somewhere safe to stop the bus to get out, all that was left was a pale glow in the sky.
Despite not being able to photograph it this time, I thought this was the best show yet; or perhaps exactly because I didn't take pictures I was able to concentrate and enjoy all the more. What a perfect end to the perfect holiday!