I’m not a massive fan of Iceland after a previous winter trip around the Golden Circle although I promised myself to go back in the summer for some hiking in the more remote regions. And so, at the beginning of August I found myself heading out of Reykjavik in a hire car to speed around the Golden Circle yet again (as it was Rut’s first visit to the country), and not do any hiking anywhere remote. We had a lot to pack into what was essentially a 48-hour layover and we started strongly leaving the cute and tiny capital by 6am and arriving at the carpark for Reykjadalur before 7am when it was still empty. A darkening sky loomed but a feeling of preparedness prevailed for the 3km hike to the river which runs nice and warm due to the local volcanic activity. The hike featured scenery not unlike that of Wales, complete with sheep but also the added bonus that the land was very much alive with bubbling pools of mud and vents of steam and gas pouring from the earth. On arrival to the river, the bathing area was clearly marked by a fancy boardwalk lining the bank and the relics of busier times remained including towels and items of clothing that people had forgotten or simply not bothered to take home. Remarkably we were the only ones in the river and spent a good half hour enjoying the warmth of the water until the rain began and we were forced into a judgement call; wait for the rain to pass or get out and get changed before the weather worsened? The decision was made for us as the rain started to intensify and then went horizontal for good measure. Getting changed into our hiking gear we then turned for home, straight into the wind. We arrived back at the carpark, the rain still hammering it down, our top half warm and dry but our legs and feet wet through thanks to the decision not to pack waterproof trousers for the hike. With a full day still ahead of us this wasn’t the best of starts.
We turned up to Gulfoss 90 minutes later in a car that now resembled a mobile tropical rain forest. Blessed with heated seats we had turned them on full, along with the car heating directed at our feet and legs at full blast, thus sufficiently drying us out to lift the spirits ready for the next drenching. Gulfoss is an impressive waterfall but I was happier to be sat in the café with coffee and apple pie while people watching. Iceland must be the capital of outdoor clothing for I have never seen so many people kitted out in so much gear, nearly all of it brand new. It may have been because of the persistent rain but almost everyone looked to be wearing a brand-new pair of expensive hike boots or shoes which seemed excessive for walking around Reykjavik or the well paved paths of Gulfoss and many other of the main sights of the Golden Circle. ‘All the gear and no idea’ sprang to mind but as I sat and reflected on my start to the day, leaving my waterproof trousers in the car when rain was forecast, I decided I may not be in the best position to comment. We drove 10 minutes down the road to the geysers which were crowded and far less impressive than I remember although the continual torrential rain didn’t help the experience. Our reward was a hot lunch, but I threw a stubborn paddy-fit refusing to pay a heap of money to queue for a bit of soup on the gamble that we could get something at our next stop which would be a bit quieter. A little further down the road we arrived at the Secret Lagoon which was indeed a little quieter but had nothing more than a pot noodle for lunch. The Secret Lagoon is Iceland’s oldest swimming bath and we visited partly because it was on our route and largely because I refused point-blank to go to the Blue Lagoon, Iceland’s premier tourist trap. The Secret Lagoon was far from secret, sexy or rubbish, it was just alright. A place to enjoy a warm bath in the naturally hot waters with a heap of strangers, the greatest excitement came from the changing rooms where custom dictates that everyone showers naked before entering the pool. Changing rooms are split male and female and the reason for a naked shower is all down to hygiene and although getting naked in public isn’t my usual thing, I understood its necessity and also not wanting to cause offence I whipped off my shorts and lathered up while laughing at the men who left their shorts on. A big deal is written about showering naked before entering thermal pools in Iceland in online blogs including the level of offence it causes the locals if you don’t, and that there are people employed in the changing rooms to make sure you get naked and shower. Now this surprises and confuses me a little as I have also read nothing other than how liberal Iceland is, a country that celebrates Pride with extreme vigour and has banned strip clubs in support of feminism. Playing devil’s advocate, the scene of angry Icelanders forcing people to strip naked and shower communally doesn’t quite fit with my logic regardless of the logic of the custom.
With the day chugging on we made the drive east to Skogafoss which is yet another one of Iceland’s top-rated waterfalls and rightly so. We had the pleasure of staying in a hotel close to the falls and rocking up at 6pm it took every ounce of energy to drop the bags in our room and head straight out to view the falls. Climbing the stairs to the top would have finished me off had it not been for the rain finally stopping and some rays of sunlight attempting to penetrate the clouds. The top provided delightful views down to the coast and the added bonus of watching some chump throw a rock over the edge of the viewing platform which would have very much likely landed in or around a group of tourists admiring the power of the waterfall from below. We continued on, away from a potential crime scene, and explored further upriver which offered something new and beautiful at every turn but ultimately, I was spent and ready for a hot shower and meal back at the hotel. After a busy day it’s wonderful to finally have an excuse for making the toilet stink, not because of the obvious, but because of the egg smelling hot water that pours from the taps of Iceland. The hot dinner promptly followed in the dining room that offered a fine view of the waterfall and was serviced with pleasant and welcoming staff that is considered normal in Iceland and has made a refreshing change from the horrors of Italy. In fact, finding incredible food in Iceland is easy enough – even for a muppet like myself – with fish and chips, a colossal burger, and fish stew memorable highlights.
Our second and final full day was spent making a three-hour round trip further east to what can only be described as the world’s smallest advertised canyon and with a name that I won’t even attempt to write here. The rain had already begun for the day and although small, the canyon was beautiful and just about worth the drive. The rest of the day was spent driving back to Reykjavik with stops at a couple of waterfalls, a delicious lunch, and a drive through fog with zero visibility. With the hire car safely returned (my first time hiring in a foreign land!) I relaxed in a traditional Icelandic café with a renewed enthusiasm for Iceland and eager for the next stage of our journey that would see us head over the pond to the world’s largest island.