***  ICELAND  2017   -  WEEKS 13~14  ***

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CAMPING IN ICELAND 2017 - Iceland's capital city Reykjavík including visit to the Alţing Parliament, Hveragerđi and Hengill geothermal area, Nesjavellir, south coast at Stokkseyri, Eyrarbakki and Ţorlákshöfn, Ţingvellir, Geysir spouting hot springs, Gullfoss waterfalls, and Selfoss:

Approaching the Reykjavík conurbation:  traffic on the Ring Road was intense as we approached the outer suburb of Mosfellsbćr where we encountered the first speed cameras seen in the whole of Iceland. Thankful for the sat-nav's reassuring guidance, we threaded a way through Reykjavík's eastern suburbs on the first stretch of dual carriageway seen so far in the country. Our recollections of Reykjavík from 1972 were of a small town of wooden houses. Inevitably things had changed in 45 years, and the capital city now seemed no different from any other major conurbation: an anonymous sprawl of concrete with commercial parks lining the highway, aggressively speeding traffic, and a bewildering series of roundabouts and intersections.

Click on 3 highlighted areas of map
for details
of Reykjavík,
Ţingvellir,
Geysir and Gullfoss

We branched off from Route 1 Ring Road onto the Route 41 dual-carriageway (Click on Map 1 right) still amid busy city traffic, and passed around the city towards the southern suburbs. The main Reykjavík campsite, although close to the city centre, was notoriously overcrowded and expensive, and instead we had chosen the better value and hopefully more peaceful hostel-campsite in the southern suburb of Hafnarfjörđur. Our sat-nav guided us off the main Route 41 highway, which led out to Keflavík, turning into a narrow residential street and eventually to the gates of Hafnarfjörđur Hostel-Camping.

Hafnarfjörđur Hostel-Camping:  still dazed from the city traffic, we were greeted at reception with a friendly and helpful welcome; the lad even recalled our earlier phone enquiry. He gave us city maps and details of bus times into Reykjavík, and the 10 minute walking route to the bus stop. The hostel-campsite was run by the Scout Association, and reception was well set up with all the information that visitors might require. The charge was an all-inclusive 1,000kr/person, a worthwhile seniors' reduction from the full price of 1,700kr. Electricity was a further 1,000kr, but the small camping area fitted with power supplies was already full; the adjoining open parkland (no power) was at this stage still almost empty. We found a space down at the far end and settled in beneath a lava embankment, looking across the public parkland towards a modern church up on a hill to where the path to the bus stop led. The forecast still showed Monday and Wednesday as the least wet days for visiting Reykjavík, although tomorrow was the Labour Day public holiday Monday with a reduced bus service. The parkland camping area gradually filled up during the evening with hire-cars/tents, and yet again we were woken by late arrivals thoughtlessly slamming car doors.

Bus into Reykjavík:  a bright, sunny start with the forecast now showing no rain during the day. We were away early for our first day in the capital city, and followed the path from the camping area up past the modern church, through a school grounds and residential area to a main road, to wait at the Hraunbrún bus stop (Photo 1 - Bus into Reykjavík) (see above left). Even with Sunday/holiday reduced service, the #1 buses into the city ran every 30 minutes, and the 10-50am bus came along promptly. We had the 210kr coins ready for our seniors' tickets, and followed the stops into the city centre on our Strćtó (Icelandic bus network) map-print to get off at Lćkjargata bus stop. At this time of day on a public holiday, the city was still remarkably quiet.

Tjörnin (City Lake), Reykjavík Ráđhúsiđ (City Hall), and the Icelandic topographical model-map Íslandslíkan:  we walked around the northern side of Tjörnin (City Lake) to find the Reykjavík Ráđhúsiđ (City Hall), a classic steel and glass rectangular piece of Nordic showpiece architecture set astride the city lake and opened in 1992 (see above left) (Photo 2 - Reykjavík Ráđhúsiđ). The main hall of the building overlooking the lake contained a magnificent topographical display of Iceland, the Íslandslíkan: a 4 man team had taken 5 years to construct this detailed relief model-map of the country to a horizontal scale of 1:50k and vertical scale doubled for emphasis. We spent a good half hour studying this impressive model (see right) (Photo 3 - Topographical relief model), following our route around the county and trying to identify places and features. Five aspects were of immediate notice:

  • the immense mountainous scale of the East and West Fjords areas
  • the huge areas still covered by ice-sheets and glaciers, particularly Vatnajökull in the east
  • the comparatively flat and barren volcanic central plateau areas of the country
  • the evident transverse line of the tectonic boundary ridge running SW~NE across the width of the country, dotted with isolated volcanic peaks and craters such as Askja
  • the vast extent of sandurs (glacial outwash plains) along the indented southern coastline

The startling impression which the model gave of Iceland's severe terrain was a cautious alert to those considering driving around Iceland; even the south coast where we were to travel next looked fearsome (see above right).

We walked along the lake-side path of Tjörnin taking photos in the pleasant morning sunshine, as local families fed the ducks (see left) (Photo 4 - Feeding the ducks on Reykjavík's Tjörnin), and sat on a bench to eat our lunch sandwiches looking out across the lake towards the Hallgrímskirkja church on the opposite city hillside (see right). At the far end of the lake, the attractive old house of Rađherrabústađurinn (Minister's House) (see below right), once wooden and now faced with more weather-resistant corrugated material, provided further photographic opportunity as did the view looking down the length of Tjörnin towards the Ráđhúsiđ (see below left).

Reykjavík Old Town:  back along past the Ráđhúsiđ, we walked through to the small-sized dark basalt building of the Alţingishúsiđ, Parliament House. The imposing front façade, inscribed with the date of construction 1881, was in deep shade at this time of day, but around on the sunny south side, we entered the peaceful flower gardens of the Alţing to photograph the building's rear façade (Photo 5 - Alţing gardens). As part of the trip's planning, we had exchanged emails with a member of the Alţing Secretariat in an attempt to arrange a visit, and had been advised to make contact when we arrived at Reykjavík; we were still hoping to arrange the visit for our second day in the city on Wednesday.

Round to Austurvöllur at the front of the Alţing, this rather unassuming grassy parkland square has played an important part in Reykjavík's historic past and in recent years of political and economic turmoil. The square is said to be the site of the farm founded by Iceland's first settler, Ingólfur Arnasson. Exiled from Norway for murdering the son of a local earl in a blood feud, he sailed with his household and possessions for Iceland around 870 AD, planning to settle there. In site of land, Ingólfur observed the Viking tradition of throwing overboard his wooden high seat pillars, symbols of his chieftain's authority, vowing to settle wherever the gods brought them ashore. It took 3 years for his slaves to find them, while Ingólfur wintered along Iceland's south coast. According to the Icelandic Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), the pillars were located in a SW bay, and in 874 AD Ingólfur settled there, naming the place Reykjavík (meaning Smokey Bay) after the steaming hot springs, and becoming Iceland's first permanent settler. Austurvöllur is traditionally viewed as the site of Ingólfur's farmstead, and now in the centre of the square a statue of Jón Sigurđsson, the 19th century political agitator for Icelandic independence, entitled Pride of Iceland, its Sword and Shields, stands facing the Alţing.

Along Kirkjustrćti, we reached Ađalstrćti, Reykjavík's oldest street said to be the route taken by Ingólfur from his farmstead down to the sea. It is now a rather nondescript street of restaurants occupying the old buildings; the oldest of these at number 10, a wooden structure, was once a weaving shed and also the home of Skúli Magnússon (1711~94) (see left), the 18th century High Sheriff of Iceland who began Reykjavík's rise to become in time the capital by importing foreign machinery to establish craft industries, opening mills and tanneries. The broad-shouldered statue of Skúli Magnússon, the man regarded as the city's founding father, stood at the end of Ađalstrćti (see right). At the far end, we reached the corner of Hafnartrćti (Harbour Street), so called since this land once bordered the sea, giving access to the harbour. During the time of the 1602~1855 Trade Monopoly, wealthy Danish merchants established their warehouses here, making it the centre of the city's commercial life. Today Hafnartrćti is several blocks inland from the modern harbour which has been extended outwards on reclaimed land, and along with neighbouring Austurstrćti and Tryggvagata, is now coining in the tourist income, filled with grubby-looking bars and restaurants.

Reykjavík's Old Harbour and Harpa Opera House:  Geirsgata led us along to Reykjavík's Old Harbour area, which had been extended out on reclaimed land in 1913~15; before this, larger vessels had to be moored out in the bay and goods ferried in and out on smaller boats. Today there were still shipyards repairing vessels up on stocks (see left), with piers now filled with small fishing boats along with whale- and puffin-watching boats aimed at the tourist trade. Ironically at a pier opposite the whale-watching boats, 2 whaling ships named Hvalur 8 and 9 were moored (see right), identified by the H (for Hval) on their funnels (Photo 6 - Whaling ships), although it did not look as if they had been to sea for a while. Just along the quay however, a monstrous Danish cruise-ship polluted both the visual skyline of the port and the clean sea air with its diesel fumes. We ambled around to the far of the quays where behind securely locked security gates, a large Icelandic coast-guard vessel was moored (see below left) (Photo 7 - Reykjavík Old Harbour); we wondered if this had played any part in the Cod Wars, harassing British trawlers and severing trawl lines! The quay-side path led around to the controversial Harpa Concert Hall and Opera House. This huge, angular glass building was half-constructed in 2008 at the time of Iceland's economic crash, and at such a time of financial hardship, politicians had demanded the scheme should be scrapped. The building however went ahead, producing much derision and contention, and now dominates the harbour sky-line (Photo 8 - Harpa Concert Hall). Now home to the Icelandic Symphony Orchestra and National Opera, Harpa should (according to our guide books) have been free entry for visitors to amble around the spacious interior. But of course, in today's greed-driven, tourist orientated Reykjavík, nothing comes for nothing any more: with everyone on the make, the answer from an attendant was yes we could walk around, but only if we paid an arm and a leg to join a guided tour. We wouldn't and we didn't! And contented ourselves with photographs of the hexagonal pains of glass and the reflective interior (see right).

Hallgrímskirkja hill-top church:  from here we edged a way through and around an enormous construction site for a new underpass, which sullied this area of the city, and climbed the grassy hillock topped by the statue of Ingólfur Arnasson. Strolling on, across to Lćkjartorg, we waded through the tourist hordes now filling unimpressive Austurtrćti (see below left) and back along the equally uninteresting Hafnartrćti. With the old part of Reykjavík being so bijou, we had covered our planned ground, and with it still being only 3-30pm, we set off up Bankatrćti and Skólavörđustígur to visit the Hallgrímskirkja church (see below right), whose white concrete 73m high tower dominates the city sky-line from its commanding hill-top position (Photo 9 - Hallgrímskirkja Church). The Hallgrímskirkja is the most renowned work of the Icelandic State Architect Guđjón Samúelsson, who also designed Akureyri Church and Ísafjörđur Culture House. The design was finalised in 1937 but work only got underway after WW2 in 1945. Constructed from reinforced concrete, the church was only completed and consecrated in 1986, as part of the City's bicentennial celebrations. The slow rate of progress was due to the work being carried out by a small family firm of one man and his son! Hallgrímskirkja is dedicated to the 17th century Icelandic writer of passion hymns, Hallgrímur Pétursson. The forecourt fronting the church is guarded over by an almost comical statue of Leifur Eiríksson (see below left), donated by the USA in 1930 on the occasion of the Icelandic Parliament's millennium celebrations. The bare white lines of the church's interior emphasised its peaceful Gothic height. Closer examination of the finish suggested that the rough faced concrete lining was sprayed onto the structural support elements. The west end was dominated by the church's huge concert organ 15m in height. Tourist numbers had been tolerable during earlier part of the day, but as we had climbed the hill, hordes of the most gormless tourist specimens milled everywhere, and now Hallgrímskirkja's plain chancel's solemnity was sullied by crowd's of mindless tourists abusing the peaceful setting for their ludicrous selfies.

Return to camp at Hafnarfjörđur:  leaving the hordes behind, we ambled down Njarđargata and Laufásvegur to Tjörnin, and headed back towards the Alţing, hoping that the sun might have worked its way around to light the front façade. But no, and with the time now gone 5-00pm we found a bus stop in Vonarstrćti by the Ráđhúsiđ for our return #1 bus to the campsite at Hafnarfjörđur (see left). It had been a highly successful first day. Reykjavík is certainly not a startling capital city: it had mushroomed in size from the scattering of wooden buildings recalled from 1972, but the old centre was still sufficiently compact that you could walk from one side to the other in 20 minutes. But like the country as a whole, the capital city was in danger of being utterly overwhelmed by the mindless hordes of tourists now flooding here the whole year round. But just looking around at these folk, you really are left wondering why them come, so evidently incurious and indifferent to all they are seeing, and so readily relieved of their money! Reykjavík could never be described as an attractive city, and there is only so far that the contrived image of the Vikings can be exploited by their modern day equivalents now universally on the make to milk the tourist boom for a quick buck before the bubble bursts.

A cold, wet day in camp at Hafnarfjörđur:  with rain forecast for the following day (our 47th wedding anniversary as it happened), we should spend the day in camp and make full use of the campsite's free washing machine. Before beginning a day's work this morning, we telephoned the Alţing in an attempt to arrange a visit. The official we had exchanged pre-trip emails with was on holiday, but to our amazement, a colleague agreed to show us the Alţing at 12 noon tomorrow. Our visit to the Icelandic Parliament was on. Today's rain was forecast to begin at 12-00, so late morning we worked out a walking route to a Netto supermarket said to be in the nearby housing estate. Sure enough the path led from the campsite up into the residential area of apartment blocks and ticky-tacky pre-fabs, but this path had a uniquely Icelandic tone to it, passing through a lava field which conveniently had spread among the houses and a children's playground! We completed our provisions shopping and returned for lunch in camp, and an afternoon of work. The rain began as forecast at lunchtime, drizzle at first then more determined rain, with a bitterly chill northern wind blowing. With no power for heating, George's inside temperature dropped lower and lower reaching 12şC. As the rain intensified and continued all afternoon, we piled on multi-layered Arctic gear for warmth, and that night with heavy cloud cover, it was unaccustomedly dark.

Our visit to the Alţing, the Icelandic Parliament:  the rain had stopped overnight, but this morning the sky was still heavily overcast and air chill. We again walked up for the 10-50am bus from Hraunbrun, and followed the now familiar stops into the city centre. We had a half hour before our appointment at the Alţing, time to admire the statue of Iceland's early 20th century Home Rule Prime Minister Hannes Hafstein outside Government House in Lćkjargata (see above right), which now houses the current Prime Minister's offices. We walked through to Austurvöllur for photos of Jón Sigurđsson's statue, before reporting to the Alţing for our visit (see left) (Photo 10 - Alţing - Icelandic Parliament).

The Alţing, claimed by Icelanders as one of the world's oldest extant parliamentary institutions, first met in 930 AD as a general assembly (thing) of the Icelandic Commonwealth, when the country's most powerful clan chieftains (Gođar), along with all Icelandic free men, gathered on the plains at Ţingvellir once a year to discuss issues, decide on legislation, dispense justice, and resolve disputes. The centre of the gathering was the Lögberg (Law Rock) from which the Lawspeaker recited the Laws and presided over the Assembly. When the Icelanders submitted to the authority of the Norwegian monarchy in 1262 under the terms of the Old Covenant, the supremacy of the Alţing was diminished, as executive power was now vested with the King and his officials. The role of the Alţing became more judicial as a national court after the crowns of Norway and Denmark merged and the Danish king's rule became absolute. The Alţing was disbanded in 1800, but a royal decree re-established it as a consultative body for the crown in 1843; from then it became increasingly a forum for the Icelanders' long struggle for independence from Danish rule, led by the independence reformer Jón Sigurđsson until his death in 1879. The Constitution granted to Iceland by Danish King Christian IX in 1874 granted the Alţing legislative powers in domestic matters. Iceland achieved Home Rule in 1904 with Hannes Hafstein as the first Prime Minister, and became a sovereign state in a monarchical union with Denmark in 1918. Iceland finally became a fully independent republic on 17 June 1944 (Jón Sigurđsson's birthday and now Icelandic Independent Day), with the Alţing assuming full legislative powers along with the Icelandic President.

The lady official we had spoken with on the telephone yesterday greeted us at the Alţing reception, and we began our tour of the Parliament, discussing constitutional issues as we went. The modern day Alţing is composed of 63 Members, elected by proportional representation from the country's 6 constituencies for a period of 4 years. Turnout in general elections is usually around 80%. In the October 2016 election 7 parties took seats, but with no party having an overall majority a period of political wrangling followed; this resulted in a new coalition government being formed in January 2017, led by the Independence Party (21 seats) with Reform Party (7 seats) and Bright Future Party (4 seats), controlling in total 32 seats. The Opposition parties were: Left-Green Movement (10 seats), Pirate Party (10 seats), Progressive Party (8 seats) and Social Democratic Alliance (3 seats), totalling 31 seats. The Independence Party leader Bjarni Benediktsson was appointed Prime Minister. Of the 63 then serving MPs, 30 were women and 33 men. At its first meeting of the new Parliament, the Alţing elects its Speaker from among its members, and the lady-Speaker at the time of our visit was Unnur Brá Konráđsdóttir. [Since our visit to Iceland, and following collapse of the coalition government in September 2017, a further parliamentary snap election in October resulted in a new coalition government being formed in October 2017 led by Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir of the Left-Green Movement who is still in office.]

From the public gallery of the Alţing, we could look down into the traditionally laid out Parliamentary chamber (Photo 11 - Alţing plenary chamber) (see above right). Members are seated, not in party groupings, but places are assigned randomly at the first session of the year by drawing of lots. Ministers sit along the front of the chamber, and members address the Parliament from the podium. The only concession to modernity is the electronic voting system from each seat with results displayed on monitors The Alţing changed from bicameral to unicameral only in 1991. As we walked around, we discussed current issues such as attitude to accession to EU membership; a national referendum is still to be called, but public concerns are about protection of fishing rights around Iceland from continental competition and agricultural imports. We had been very fortunate to have been able to arrange the visit despite most of the staff being on holiday during the summer recess, and we had secured our photos of the Alţing Parliamentary chamber.

Reykjavík's Cathedral, the Domkirkjan:  we walked round to Reykjavík's Cathedral, the Neoclassical Domkirkjan (see above left) which was now open for us to see the galleried plain Lutheran interior (see right). The church was built in 1796 after Danish King Christian VII abolished the 2 former Catholic bishoprics of Hólar and Skálholt and established the Lutheran bishopric of Reykjavík. The small cathedral is the venue for the pre-Parliamentary new session's service followed by procession along to the Alţing, although larger state ceremonial services are held up at the larger Hallgrímskirkja. We tried lunching again on the bench looking across Tjörnin, but today with the heavily overcast sky and drizzly rain beginning, it was less memorable than in Monday's sunshine.

National Museum of Iceland, Ţóđminjasafn Íslands:  Tjarnargata took us alongside Tjörnin and up to the Icelandic National Museum of Iceland (Ţóđminjasafn Íslands), where a seniors' reduction combined ticket of 1000kr gave entry here and the Culture House. The Museum's displays of archaeological finds, artefacts, memorabilia and documents give a comprehensive history of Iceland's development from its earliest settlement through to the declaration of the Republic in 1944 and the present day.

The displays from the period of Settlement, the Commonwealth and Medieval period (800~1600 AD) were for us the most interesting: a tiny bronze figurine of the pagan god Ţor (see left), artefacts from the earliest farming, the spinning and weaving of woollen homespun, and the conversion to Christianity; the devastating eruption of Hekla in the 12th century, and arrival of the Black Death plague in the 14th century, the union with the Norwegian crown under the 1262 Old Covenant, the rise of foreign trade exports as farm and fish production increased; the advent of writing of the Sagas illustrated by a 1681 manuscript of the Íslendingabók (see right), recording the lineage of the founding Icelandic settlers, compiled originally by Ari the Wise in 1130 AD; displays illustrated the power, influence and art of the Catholic Church, exemplified by the wonderfully ornate carved wooden church doors from Valţjófsstađir in Ţórsmörk dating from ca 1200AD (see right) depicting the Medieval tale of Le Chevalier au Lion, which had been whisked off to Copenhagen by the Danes and only returned along with Medieval manuscripts in 1930; exhibits illustrating society under Danish rule and the Reformation, with a copy of Guđbrandur Ţorláksson's 1584 translation of the Bible into Icelandic (Photo 12 - Guđbrandur's Bible) displayed along with portraits of the literary Bishop of Hólar (see left) (See log of our visit to Hólar).

The second set of displays on the 3rd floor traced the history of Danish absolute rule from 1600~1800, the emerging sense of Icelandic identity and demands for independence during the 19th century, the development of industry and urbanisation during the 20th century leading to the 1944 independent Republic; the concluding display on a circular conveyer belt showed familiar consumer items from the 1970~80s, including a 'luggable' PC similar to the one we had once used. The National Museum certainly showed a worthwhile set of exhibits, the only criticism being the over-protective, over-subdued lighting which made it almost impossible to see many of the items or read the commentaries.

The Culture House (Safnahúsiđ) and disappointing lack of Saga manuscript displays:  it was by now gone 3-30pm, and we wanted to see the displays of Medieval Saga manuscripts at the Culture House on the opposite side of the centre which closed at 5-00pm. We therefore hot-footed it back past Tjörnin and along Lćkjargata to reach the Culture House. Our guide book described this as having the country's largest exhibition of Medieval manuscripts, including the Flateyjarbók which was only returned by the Danish in 1971. When we presented our combined tickets and asked about the Saga manuscripts, we were met with blank looks: no Flateyjarbók with its Saga of the Greenlanders, which relates Leifur Eiríksson's settlement in Vinland, and no Íslendingabók recording the history of the Settlement. Most of the museum was given over to displays of trivial contemporary ephemera passing as artwork, with just one dimly lit room displaying 6 copies of the Jónsbók legal code but total absence of labelling or commentaries; interesting, but not what we had been expecting. We took a cursory look, and departed, making clear our evident irritation and disappointment. The next door building in Hverfisgata was said to be Reykjavík's National Theatre, another of State Architect Guđjón Samúelsson's designs, but it looked more like a rather care-worn 1950s version of a Gaumont Cinema and equally unimpressive!

Höfđi, venue of Regan and Gorbachev summit meeting in 1986:  it was by now 4-30pm, and we had time to walk along the sweeping waterfront passing with scornful indifference a bunch of tourists busily snapping their selfies by the Sólfar so-called 'attraction', meant to represent the skeletal outline of a Viking ship; it was in truth more like a heap of twisted scrap metal, but it served to detain the bevy of easily entertained tourists. With late afternoon traffic on Sćbraut very busy, we continued around the shore-side path, eventually finding the lone white house built in 1909 in Art Nouveau Jugenstil, standing in a lawned area looking out across the bay towards the city (see above left). This was Höfđi, built originally for the French consul, but now most noted as the venue for the summit meeting of Regan and Gorbachev in 1986 (see right) which led to the concluding of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty signed in 1991, and resulted ultimately in the ending of the Cold War; a notable achievement in world history now in process of being unravelled by their utterly unworthy successors Trump and Putin. We just had time to take our photos of the house before a gaggle of Japanese tourists overran the lawns.

Reykjavík University and the Nordic House (Norrćna húsiđ):  we walked through the back streets to find Hlemmur bus station, the terminus for our #1 bus; it was still only 5-30pm, and if we could break our journey back to Hafnarfjörđur to stop off en route at the National Museum, we could see Reykjavík University and the Nordic House. The bus driver duly issued us with new tickets stamped valid until 7-00pm, and we took the bus back through the centre to the Háskóli Íslands stop. Just around the corner, we reached the grandiose main building of Reykjavík University (see left), yet another of State Architect Guđjón Samúelsson's designs, opened in 1940 and fronted by large semi-circular lawns with views across the city of the distant hill-top Hallgrímskirkja church dominating Reykjavík's sky-line (Photo 13 - Hallgrímskirkja church). The University had opened originally in 1911 with just 45 students; today this number has increased to 14,000.

From the front of the University we could also see a low and insignificant single storey building rather over-dominated by its large slopping roof; this was the Norrćna húsiđ (Nordic House), one of the modernist Finnish Architect Alvar Aalto's later designs from 1968 (see right) (Photo 14 - Nordic House), and as uninspiring as the rest of his work which we had seen all around Finland (Alvar Aalto's architectural designs). The Norrćna húsiđ is a centre for Nordic culture in Reykjavík operated by the Nordic Council of Ministers, to promote the art and literature of the Nordic group of countries, and we walked over to talk a look around. Back through the University grounds, we caught our #1 bus back out to Hafnarfjörđur, and it was gone 7-30 by the time we were back at the campsite. We had enjoyed 2 fulsome and rewarding days in the capital, and tomorrow we begin the next phase of the trip along Iceland's south coast beginning at Hveragerđi.

Bessastađir, the Icelandic Presidential official residence:  for a city campsite, Hafnarfjörđur had served us well. Although lacking in power supplies, the campsite was not unduly crowded; with well-equipped facilities, it was reasonable value and we rated it at +4. Having re-stocked with provisions at the nearby Netto, we set course for Bessastađir just 5kms away on the Álftanes peninsula. This peaceful former farmstead with its neighbouring church, set on an isolated, wind-swept hillock surrounded by lava fields and water, is now the official residence of the Icelandic President. Reflecting Iceland's egalitarian political lack of pomp and ceremony, the lone house, white-painted with red roof, although stately showed not a trace of ostentation (see left) (Photo 15 - Bessastađir). Apart from the house's immediate surrounds being off-limits, the only evidence of security was a lone, empty police car parked alongside. There had been a farm and church here at Bessastađir since the time of Settlement (see right). Snorri Sturlesson, when Lawspeaker, purchased the farm in addition to his other land-holdings at Rekholt. After his assassination, the Norwegian crown claimed the property, and the house became the residence of the Royal Governor. The present house was completed in 1766, and was bought by a Reykjavík businessman in 1941 and donated to the State to be used as the new Republic's Presidential residence. Rather hesitantly, we walked across the lawns past the church for photos of Bessastađir, and for the very first time in the whole of Iceland, we were able to enjoy the peace of the setting with not a soul in sight other than a lone man mowing the lawns.

Hellisheiđi geothermal power plant, and dubious claims about 'clean' geothermal power:  we now set course for the exhibition centre at Hellisheiđi geothermal generating plant just off Route 1 on the way towards Hveragerđi (click here for detailed map of route), and drove back across the lava field towards the Reykjavík conurbation. Traffic was reasonably light as we circled the city to re-join Route 1 eastwards. Paul happened to notice that George's temperature gauge was not rising, and uncertain what was wrong, we drove on for now; the raised temperature warning light was not showing which suggested it was either a failed gauge or more likely a faulty sensor. We made steady progress on the Route 1 dual-carriageway across the moss-covered lava fields of Svinahraun with its backdrop of volcanic mountains, to turn off to the Hellisheiđi geothermal power plant (see left). At the parking area, we checked that George's coolant level was up to the full mark, and managed to locate a VW agent in Reykjavík; an appointment was made for Friday afternoon to check the temperature sensor.

Hellisheiđi is Iceland's largest geothermal electricity generating plant, and as a by-product it supplies all the domestic hot water for Reykjavík whose storage tanks we had seen on the hill-top above the city. Rain and ground water percolates down into surface rocks and is heated by magma intrusions in the earth's crust to produce reservoirs of high pressure geothermal steam at temperatures of up to 300şC; the steam is tapped from 36 boreholes in the Hengilll volcanic area, and fed via insulated pipelines to the steam separation plant to extract water, clay and corrosive gases and deliver dry steam to the power plant for driving high pressure turbine~generators (see left and right). At a second stage, the steam is re-used to drive low-pressure turbine~generators, and then via heat-exchangers to heat ground water for distribution to domestic consumers for space heating and hot water. Waste water and steam from the turbines is condensed and cooled in cooling towers for return to ground level streams (Workings of Hellisheiđi geothermal power plant). Hellisheiđi power plant became operational in 2006 and has a maximum electrical generating capacity of 303 MW and 133 MW of thermal energy. In the exhibition centre, a combination of videos, information panels and glazed viewing galleries looking down into the turbine~generator halls explained the station's working and the nature of the Hengill volcanic zone. Here magma intrusions rise closer to the surface crust, creating reservoirs of high pressure geothermal steam for exploitation in electricity generation and urban hot water supply. Iceland's proud boast is that all of its domestic and industrial power requirements are now geothermally or hydro-generated. Despite however all of the power companies' disingenuous claims about geothermal energy being clean and sustainable, there is still a residual pollutant effect: dissolved gases travel to the surface with geothermal steam, mainly carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide with small amounts of hydrogen, nitrogen and methane, and emissions of these non-condensable green-house and toxic gases to the atmosphere are still an unavoidable consequence of geothermal energy production which has yet to be solved. Clearly the biggest consumers of geothermally generated power are the large scale aluminium smelters around Iceland: bulk bauxite ore is shipped around the world to Iceland for smelting, taking advantage of the country's cheap geothermal power, not exactly the greenest of processes, but a source of enormous profits for the mining companies.

Hveragerđi Camping:  in now heavy late afternoon traffic from the capital, we drove on towards Hveragerđi, with Route 1 losing much height in two sweeping curves down from the high lava plateau down to the southern coastal plain (click here for detailed map of route). We recalled Hveragerđi from 1972 as a small town, full of geothermally heated greenhouses growing fruit and vegetables. Today the town had grown in size, and we turned off the Ring Road past the greenhouses to find the campsite in the side streets. The site seemed large in size, scattered over several camping areas, and already quite full. We selected a pitch close to the facilities and went to book in. The owner was unpleasantly officious, and reacted to our request for the customary seniors' discount with an emphatic No! The price was expensive at 1,500kr/person plus 800kr for power; he had a monopoly and clearly, with the endless tourist demand, was making a tidy profit. Facilities were modern but very limited given the size of the site, and it was another of those over-busy, over-noisy and un-relaxing sites, with vehicles driving around until late in the evening.

A modern garage in Reykjavík with poor service:  since our appointment with the Reykjavík VW garage, Hekla, was not until 3-00pm, we could take a relaxed morning. Before leaving, we again checked that George's coolant level was up to normal, and set off back up the spectacular sweeping bends onto the high lava plateau, with the temperature gauge still behaving erratically. The sat-nav guided us by a circuitous route into the city, finishing up in the main Laugarvegur shopping street to park at Hekla garage among all the brand new VW Golfs. It was one of those glitzy 'modern' garages with a multitude of be-suited 'desk-jockeys' doing little more than playing at their computers, and just one hard pressed mechanic actually repairing vehicles. We explained to one of the desk-jockeys George's symptoms and our assumed diagnosis of failed temperature sensor. Despite however our booking today's appointment 2 days ago, all that could be done today was to test and report; if a failed sensor was confirmed, we should have to return again on Monday for replacement fitting, if they had one in stock. We felt like saying that if the garage employed more mechanics rather than parasitical desk-jockeys, then more real work could be done! After a long wait, the faulty sensor diagnosis was confirmed; they had one in stock which we paid for, and fitting was arranged with a smaller VW garage in Selfoss for Monday. And for all this, we were charged 10,000kr (Ł72)!! But at least we had a confirmed diagnosis, and George had the replacement part (or so we thought!) in his glove compartment ready for fitting on Monday.

Solfatara at Hellisheiđi:  extricating ourselves from the city in busy Friday afternoon traffic, we returned along Route 1 and turned off at Hellisheiđi onto a new section of tarmaced lane running parallel with the main road, which we hoped would lead to a geothermal solfatara seen earlier. The lane ended at what seemed the remains of an erstwhile spa, with a fumarole gushing clouds of high pressure steam from a pipe-end, and highly active pools of viciously steaming, surging muddy water surrounded by sulphurous, corrosive sandy mud. Running up behind was a narrow solfatara valley lined with sulphurous yellow-ochre mud, and a violently active boiling pool surging into a basin topped by clouds of steam (Photo 16 - Hellisheiđi solfatara) (see above left and right). Alongside was a perfectly formed mud pot with raised conical sides and boiling mud plopping in the bottom (see left). And we had this impressive solfatara almost to ourselves, to clamber carefully alongside for photos as the traffic passed by along the nearby Ring Road. Back to Route 1 in busy traffic, we paused at the edge of the Svinahraun plateau to look out from the highpoint across the broad coastal plain, with the grid of Hveragerđi's streets spread across the valley floor below, the distant outline of Ingólfsfjall table mountain, and the silhouette of the Westman Islands on the southern horizon (see right) (Photo 17 - Southern coastal plain). Down the sweeping bends into Hveragerđi, we returned to the town's campsite and settled in at our reserved spot. The barbecue was lit for supper, and despite the noise from all the camping-cars lined up in rows, our corner remained quiet this evening.

Reykjadalur solfataras in the Hengill geothermal zone a dull start but fine weather was forecast for today's walk up to the Reykjadalur solfataras. Reserving our space again, we drove out beyond Hveragerđi to the road's end in lower Reykjadalur, where the parking area was already full and over-spilling onto the approach road. The route crossed the Verma river to ascend the slope on a broad, gravelly path worn by the 1000s of visitors who daily trudge up into the valley. On the far hill-side, the path followed a warm stream issuing from hot-springs and steaming solfataras. It then passed a more vigorously belching mud-pool, constantly bursting and filling the air with steam reeking of hydrogen sulphide (see left). Now began an unremitting slog up the gravelly path, winding around from the main valley and gaining 200m of height, followed by another series of grinding ascents, dipping to cross a side beck, then up again with startling views down into the depths of the Djúpagil gorge with the spectacular cascade of a side torrent tumbling down to meet the main Reykjadalsá river (see right). The mountain scenery surrounding the steep-sided gorge was truly magnificent, but most of the tourists rushed on by in their haste to reach the warm bathing pools higher upstream.

The path now dropped down into a wider valley, where Icelandic horses which had ferried tourists up from the lower valley were tethered (see left), and crossed the Reykjadalsá on a wooden footbridge for the final section of ascent into upper Reykjadalur. Erosion damage to the path had been repaired with loose stone chippings, making for uncomfortable walking. Before the warm water bathing pools of the main upper valley, the path passed a series of violently active boiling springs and mud pools, with the emergent boiling water and gases bubbling up and bursting forth surrounded by clouds of evil-smelling steam (see right). The springs were now all safely fenced off to prevent silly tourists scalding themselves. Beyond here, an even more unpleasant sight sullied this marvellously strange natural landscape, with obese tourists sprawled along the banks of the warm river-pools like Blackpool beach. We dropped down to the river for a discrete ritual toe-dip to test the water temperature: a comfortably warm 40şC. Resuming the path, we continued further into the upper valley of Klambragil, leaving behind the tourists wallowing in the warm pools. The surrounding mountain-scape was severe with the scree-draped craggy slopes of Molddalahnúkar rising sheer above us, and the valley head enclosed by the cliff-face of Ölkelduhnúkur. The path continued ahead with an utterly unforgiving grinding ascent up towards Nesjavellir. We branched off at the foot of the steepest part of the ascent into the uppermost head of Reykjadalur and the over-towering cliffs of Ölkelduhnúkur, heading over to another large area of solfataras with its steaming fumaroles (see left) (Photo 18 - Steaming fumaroles in upper Reykjadalur). At last today we could enjoy this wonderfully strange unnatural landscape in peace, sharing the solitude with a few sheep which clearly had no objection to grazing sulphur-tasting grass around the steam-vents. The warm, steamy air attracted midges which swarmed around our heads and cameras, but despite this we spent a happy hour photographing the boiling, steaming springs and mud-pools, treading carefully over the sulphur-encrusted hot ground. We recalled similar boiling pools in the nearby Nesjavellir valley, passed during our 1972 climb of Hengill and recorded on our rather grainy photograph taken 45 years ago, which is paired as a nostalgic time-lapse with its 2017 equivalent taken today (Photo 19 - Reykjadalur boiling pool). We followed the flow of the infant Reykjadalsá stream, past further hot springs and mud-pots, into the enclosed gorge at the innermost recess of the valley head (see below left). Here the very beginnings of the Reykjadalsá trickled down the rocky chasm, draining from marshes higher on Ölkelduháls mountain towering above (see right). This wonderfully lonely spot, in such awe-inspiring mountainous surroundings, away from the noise and banality of the tourist hordes wallowing in the warm river-pools, marked today's highlight.

Beginning our return route, we followed the course of the infant Reykjadalsá stream, as hot water from boiling springs and mud-pools along its higher banks flowed in, heating the river water. This led us across marshy ground to re-join the main path which circled around the left-hand side of the now widening river. On the far side, steaming hot springs flowed into the river warming it further, their mineral-rich water depositing and encrusting the rocks with iron-red staining. At a path junction, we returned along the far bank of the bathing pools, wading through tourist hordes as they wallowed in the warm water. Re-crossing the river at the foot-bridge, we re-joined the outward path for the return walk down-valley. With even greater numbers of ill-clad, ill-shod tourists coming up the route, treading carelessly causing further erosion to the ever-widening track, we returned along the main path. The descent seemed even longer than the seemingly unending ascent, and on the final lower section, we paused for further photos at the boiling mud-pools hot-spot before completing the descent to the parking area.

Down into Hveragerđi, we drove past the site of the former spouting geyser Gryla, recalled from a gloomy day in 1972; it had been blocked by the 2008 earthquake which hit Hveragerđi and had since then stopped spouting. On the way through the town, we paused to photograph ripening strawberries in Hveragerđi's geothermally heated greenhouses (see right). Even in 1972, the town had been a noted fruit and vegetable growing place, full of greenhouses heated from Hengill geothermal sources. Back to Hveragerđi Camping, we settled in for our final night here, as the evening grew chill with a northerly wind.

Nesjavellir mountain walk from Dyrafjöll Pass:  overnight, George's interior temperature had been down to 10şC, and this morning despite being bright, it was still chill. Traffic was heavy on Route 1 as we headed east across the broad, flat coastal plain with the bulky mass of the Ingólfsfjall table mountain rising clear ahead. As the road skirted this mountainous plateau on the approach to Selfoss, the morning sun highlighted all the details of lava crags on its southern cliff faces. Before the Selfoss bridge over the broad and turbulent Ölfusá glacial river, we turned off northwards onto Route 35 along the lower Ölfusá valley, running alongside the eastern cliff-face of Ingólfsfjall (click here for detailed map of route). Massive boulders and rock-fall debris littered the fields at the foot of the cliffs. Just beyond the bridge crossing the Sog River flowing from Ţingvallavatn to its confluence with the Ölfusá, we entered a vast area of birch scrubland around the shores of Álftavatn, riddled with the summer houses of Reykjavík's nouveaux-riches. Every driveway had security gates and cameras; even in Iceland, privacy and security came with a price tag! We turned off onto Route 36 through the heart of this birch-scrub summer houses estate, and along the lower Sog valley past the distinctive volcanic peak of Burfell. At Ljósafossstöđ, where the Sog flowing from Úlfljótsvatn is dammed for an HEP generating station, we turned off again onto Route 360. The road passed Iceland's main Scouting campsite at Úlfljótsvatn, which is open to public usage but at astronomically unreal prices. The road now became unsurfaced for some 12kms across farmland and lava fields, passing Hagavík Bay, an inlet of the huge 84 square kilometres lake of Ţingvallavatn. The bumpy, corrugated gravel road crossed the Nesjahraun lava field, an ancient northward outflowing of the Hengill and Nesjavellir volcanoes, to reach the evil-looking, evil-smelling geothermal watercourse emerging from the Nesjavellir geothermal power station just along the valley, whose clouds of steam filled the air. Just beyond, we turned off onto the Route 435 mountain road which zigzagged its way, climbing at a 15% gradient over Dyrafjöll's high volcanic ridges running northwards from Hengill. As we climbed the steep hair-pins, high pressure steam pipes snaked downhill from bore-hole well-heads feeding the Nesjavellir geothermal power plant down in the valley bottom. The Rother Guide to Iceland (Route 60) described a way-marked 5kms circular walking route around the volcanic hills of Nesjavellir which we planned to follow today. Rounding the last of the series of hair-pins, passing side-turnings leading down to bore-hole well-heads, and climbing further alongside steam feeder-pipelines (see above left), we pulled into the walk's start-point at a parking area by huge hot water storage-tanks at the summit of the Dyrafjöll Pass.

Despite the forecast for clear weather, here in these high volcanic hills it had now turned overcast with squally showers. As these blew over, we kitted up and had just started up the way-marked turf path, when a car stopped on the road just below us. A lady called out from the car: Hello, she said, we met you recently at Núpur Guest-house. Not recognising the couple at first, we must have looked blankly vacant, but she insisted that we had spoken with them while cooking supper in the kitchen at Núpur. We suddenly recalled the meeting over 4 weeks and many adventures ago when we had camped at Núpur in the West Fjords (See log of our camp at Núpur). The couple had a summer house at Ţingvallavatn, and were just returning home to Reykjavík; they must have recognised George at the head of pass parking area and turned back to greet us. This was yet another of those remarkably serendipitous coincidences that add lustre to our travels.

The path sloped up the fell-side of Kýrdalshryggur ridge, passing alongside wonderful, jagged slatey lava formations, and emerging onto the side-crest of the ridge. By now the sky had cleared and sun was shining, lighting the moss-covered lava hills on the far side of Nesjavellir valley. In the northern distance, Ţingvallavatn showed up clear blue in the sunlight, the lake dotted with islands (Photo 20 - Ţingvallavatn from Nesjavellir) (see above right). Way down below us along the length of Nesjavellir valley, dome-covered well-heads were dotted along Kýradalur valley floor, connected by pipe-lines feeding the high pressure geothermal steam to Nesjavellir power station whose columns of exhaust steam billowed in the air. We gained more height along the crest of the ridge-line, reaching a paths junction where one route dropped down leftwards into Nesjavellir valley (see above left); our path continued upwards along the crest of Kýrdalshryggur ridge to reach this route's high-point at 460m. Ahead the ridge became impassably craggy on the heights of Vörđuskeggi, part of the outlying northern peaks of Hengill. Our on-going path, clearly way-marked with green-topped pegs, crossed the ridge-line of Kýrdalshryggur and began a sloping descent into the lushly green, deserted valley of Skeggjadalur (Photo 21 - Peaceful Skeggjadalur) (see left and above right). For only the second time in 3 months, we had the privilege of enjoying the peace of these wonderfully wild mountains without the intrusion of milling hordes of tourists; we shared this secret hidden high valley into which we now descended with just a couple of grazing sheep, arguably more intelligent company than the gormless tourists! Crossing the valley floor, we dropped down into a further hidden valley, enclosed on 3 sides by lava hills. A track-way into the valley-head suggested the area was used for upland grazing. Thankful for the way-markings, we crossed this subsidiary valley and descended the craggy side of Sponhelldalir into a rough watercourse, dry at this time of year. The route dropped down a steep, rough slope amid craggy lava, and ahead the road over Dyrafjöll Pass was visible. Negotiating another rough slope brought alongside a sheer wall of lava across black volcanic gravel up to the road.

By now cloud had gathered again and rain was beginning. Our on-going route crossed the road to mount a grassy slope, as a mini-bus pulled into the lay-by, dropping off a bevy of walkers who followed us up the slope. Emerging into another world of lava-encrusted crests, ridges and northward-facing valleys (see left), we waited for the group to pass, their rowdy noise an unwelcome intrusion into the peace of the hills. The peg-markers now led across the jagged red lava which enclosed the high head of the valley and up the slope on the far side. As we gained height, the squall passed and sky began to brighten. The path passed further slabs of lava, and in the better light, the views looking south across the lava ridges over towards the Hengill massif were totally thrilling (see above right); again we were able to appreciate this mountainous beauty in peaceful solitude. The path rounded another crumbly lava valley-head, and sloped up and over a spur to descend to a further hollow. Here at a trail junction we turned off eastwards to mount a steep, black scoria slope onto the final high-point to reach a radio mast. From here we could look down into Nesjavellir valley again, with steam rising from the power plant and its effluent stream running down towards Ţingvallavatn. From here a stony track-way led back to the water-tanks parking area

Selfoss Camping:  we now had the return drive back down to Selfoss where we planned to camp tonight in readiness for George's appointment on Monday to have the replacement temperature sensor fitted. Returning down the Dyrafjöll Pass hair-pins showed just how steep the road was, passing the turns down to the geothermal steam well-heads. Back round past the power plant's steaming effluent ponds, we returned around the section of unsurfaced road with the sky gloomy and rain beginning again. Beyond Ljósafossstöđ, Route 36 brought us back along the lower Ölfusá valley to the Ring Road which was now busy with Reykjavík holiday weekenders returning home. Crossing the Ölfusá on the Selfoss suspension bridge showed what a wide and furious river this was, turquoise-grey with all the glacial sediment. Route 1 passed through the heart of Selfoss, and part-way through we turned off to find the campsite by the Selfoss sports ground in the midst of a residential area but overlooking birch-wooded lava fields. We had not planned to use this campsite since its website suggested it was unduly expensive, but we needed to be local for tomorrow's temperature sensor fitting. A phone call earlier had in fact confirmed a significant seniors' discount: 1,250kr/person plus 500kr for power making a total of 3,000kr seemed far more reasonable compared with Hveragerđi's unduly expensive pricing. The camping area was large, grassy and flat, but almost empty on a Sunday evening after all the weekenders had left. We pitched over on the far side looking onto the birch-wood covered lava field, and the evening grew dark, gloomy and miserably chill.

A more typical good VW service at Selfoss:  we were up early ready to depart at 9-30am to drive around to the industrial area on the town's outskirts to find the Klettur ehf VW garage. Before leaving Selfoss Camping, we had phoned to confirm the arrangement for fitting George's sensor; the man answering assured us the part would be fitted as soon as we arrived to avoid a wait. In contrast with the glitzy but utterly dysfunctional Hekla showroom-garage in Reykjavík, Klettur the Selfoss VW agent was a small but genuine garage-workshop. Here was a working garage, staffed by mechanics (not a suit in sight!); the senior mechanic knew all about what was needed, greeted us by name and summoned a mechanic to fit the replacement sensor. He laughed as he realised that George's steering wheel was 'on the wrong side'!  But potential disaster: Hekla had not only supplied the wrong part, but over-charged us. Fortunately Klettur had the correct part for a VW T4 in stock, and 5 minutes later this was duly fitted; not only that, but the kindly man volunteered to recompense us and recover the over-charge from Hekla. This was more like the genuine VW standard of service we had customarily enjoyed all across Europe. So by 10-15am, with his new temperature sensor fitted and gauge now duly working, George drove us back into Selfoss, all thanks to such excellent service from the staff at Klettur ehf who fully deserve our thanks and praise; this in stark contrast with the total absence of service at the glitzy but utterly incompetent Helka garage in Reykjavík, who deserve to lose their VW accreditation.

Selfoss, a graceless service centre town:  Selfoss, the largest town in Southern Iceland with 4,000 inhabitants, is described not inaccurately as an unremittingly graceless service centre town. It grew up around the original British-engineered suspension bridge built in 1891 to span the wild Ölfusá river. Before that, all traffic through the region had to cross this treacherous glacial river by ferry further south towards the river's estuary where the rough water made crossings hazardous. The bridge was an immediate success, and became the focus for Selfoss' development as a trading centre. The current bridge dates from 1945, after the original one collapsed when 2 milk takers tried to cross simultaneously! Our only reason for coming into such a functional service centre as Selfoss, had been to have the new sensor fitted at Klettur and to re-stock with provisions. We had completed the first of these, now turned our attention to the second. Between the town's 3 supermarkets along the Ring Road through Selfoss, we re-stocked with 3 days' supply of provisions.

Ţorlákshöfn, Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri on Iceland's south coast:  today and tomorrow were both forecast for grim, wet weather, so that we had re-scheduled our programme to spend these days down at the south coast at Ţorlákshöfn, Eyrarbakki and Stokkseyri, with a rest day tomorrow before picking up our programme at Ţingvellir on Wednesday. By the time we had completed our shopping in Selfoss, not only was it pouring with rain, but grey, very wet misty rain cloud totally enveloped the town, Ingólfsfjall and the entire southern coastal plain. It was now a thoroughly wet and miserable day, with nothing of the flat coastal plain visible in the enveloping misty rain cloud, as we drove the 12 kms on Route 34 down to the south coast (click here for detailed map of route). We had hoped to spend a couple of hours at the Flói Wetlands Bird Reserve on the shore of the Ölfusá estuary, but in such wretched weather, this was hopeless. Passing Eyrarbakki, we crossed the Ölfusá estuary bridge and sandspit causeway westwards along to the modern industrial fishing port of Ţorlákshöfn. The gloomy weather made this functional little port-town seem even more dreary. Sheltering from the rain, we sat in George to eat our lunch sandwiches by the frozen fish factory, looking out through the mist across the docks, then drove along past the port where new vehicles imported from Europe stood in compounds. The ferry out to the Westman Islands used to sail from Ţorlákshöfn, but now takes the shorter crossing from Landeyjahöfn further east unless winter weather is too rough. Before leaving, we investigated the Ţorlákshöfn campsite, another of those municipal sites with showers at extra cost in the next door swimming pool, but well sheltered behind embankments from the wind.

With the weather still misty and wet, we returned along to Eyrarbakki; this once busy fishing and trading port is now a quiet backwater. Until the early 20th century, it was a thriving commercial centre and port, with boats dragged up on the beach from the surging Atlantic surf which batters the coast. But as motorised boats became too big for this, trade moved westwards to the newer industrial port of Ţorlákshöfn, leaving neighbouring Eyrarbakki as a rather has-been place. It was from Eyrarbakki that in 985 AD Bjarni Herjölfsson sailed west aiming for Greenland. But he was blown off course in a storm and became truly the first European to sight the North American continent. But displaying a misguided lack of vision, he failed to land and returned to Greenland. Here he told his tale of sighting new lands and sold his boat to Leifur Eiríksson, who re-traced the route, made landfall and named the place Vinland, so earning his place in history instead of the now unknown Bjarni Herjölfsson of Eyrarbakki. Today, Eyrarbakki's main employer is Iceland's largest prison which stands in the village outskirts surrounded by double security fencing. We stopped off at Eyrarbakki's TIC, where the feckless girl was scarcely capable of giving out brochures; she had clearly never even heard of the Flói Bird Reserve, despite it being in the village outskirts and Eyrarbakki's virtually only worthwhile feature. We did manage to find a map of the coastal villages, and climbed up onto the coastal defence-embankment to look out over the dreary beach from where boats were once launched by dragging them down through the Atlantic surf to be rowed out into deeper waters

We continued eastwards to the similarly has-been former fishing village of Stokkseyri. Both villages have tried to resurrect their livelihoods from tourism by using once functional, now redundant buildings to house a range of quirky museums and over-priced restaurants, with mixed degree of success. One genuine local industry still surviving is Björgvin Tómasson, Iceland's only organ builder, based in part of Stokkseyri's old fish processing factory. We stopped by to investigate but regrettably the premises were closed.

A wet day in camp at Stokkseyri Camping:  all three villages had campsites, but Stokkseyri's seemed best value with seniors' reduction of 700kr/person and 700kr for power; at 2,100kr total, it was one of the best campsite prices in Iceland, and also accepted the camping card. The open, wind-swept camping area without shelter was set on the dull, flat coastal plain, with distant misty views of the inland mountains, and we settled in for an afternoon's work. The rain eased but the sky remained sullen grey and air moist, with Ingólfsfjall scarcely visible. Early evening, the cheery lady called round for payment, and we used the 23rd of the 28 slots on our camping card; considering the remaining sites, it looked as if we should manage to use all our card's capacity after all. With a thoroughly wet day forecast for tomorrow, we should take a day in camp here at Stokkseyri. It rained most of the night, and the following morning the sky was still heavily overcast with gusty wind blowing rain into the sliding door. After breakfast, we moved George round 180ş, but the forecast continuous rain failed to materialise, and although inland the sky remained gloomily dark, at least along the coast it brightened during the afternoon. Stokkseyri was a good value, well-equipped municipal site with newly upgraded facilities, and being off the main tourist route, not unduly busy; it had served us well and we rated it at +4.

Flói Wetlands Bird Reserve:  the following morning was bright and sunny with early sunlight picking out all the details of the southern face of distant Ingólfsfjall (see above left). But as in the other Nordic countries, mid-August marked the beginnings of autumn, although in Iceland there were no trees to turn golden; after a chill night, George's windows were streaming this morning with condensation. We were away early, and having re-filled George's fresh water tank, we turned off beyond Eyrarbakki along a gravel drive-way to the Flói Bird Reserve out in the wetlands of the Ölfusá estuary. 3kms along past farmsteads, we reached the parking area and bird-hide. The Flói Bird Reserve was set up in 1997 from former drained meadowland which had been allowed to revert to its natural state of flooded wetlands. The Flói area is part of the Great Ţjórsá lava field, one of world's largest post-Glacial lava flows, 26m deep and covering ca 970 square kms, originating from an inland eruption some 8,500 years ago which covered Southern Iceland. Depressions in the ancient lava filled with water from the local high water table to form shallow pools covering the wetlands which are now home to many bird species, particularly waders and Red Throated Divers, all of which breed widely at Flói. As we parked at the hide, a chubby, speckled Meadow Pipit (Photo 22 - Meadow Pipit) (see left) and a Wheatear (Photo 23 - Wheatear) (see right) perched on the fence in front of a pool, but that was about all we could see. We set off to walk the circuit around the meadowland reserve which would normally need wellies for access; today however the pools and peat were quite dry, and as a result there was no bird-life to be seen at this time of year, other than hearing the distant call of a Diver. The irony was that during the June breeding season, when many birds would be seen on the ponds, access would have been far more difficult because of the wetlands; today in much drier conditions making walking access easy, there was nothing to be seen.

Ljóssafoss hydro-power station exhibition centre:  back up the lane to Selfoss, we shopped for 3 further days' supplies before driving north again along the lower Ölfusá valley under the shadow of Ingólfsfjall's mighty eastern cliffs and rock-fall debris (click here for detailed map of route). Across the birch-scrub summer houses estate, past Burfell, we reached the hydro-electric generating station at Ljóssafoss which exploits the dammed outflow of Úlfljótsvatn (see left). We parked and walked across the Sog River bridge in search of water birds, said to include Barrow's Goldeneye; but today nothing. The Ljóssafoss hydro-electric generating station just below the dam is the oldest of the 3 HEP stations on the Sog, and opened in 1937 to provide domestic electricity for Reykjavík (see right). The national power company, Landsvirkjun, provides an educational exhibition at Ljóssafossstöđ; although aimed primarily at children, the interactive displays proved to be thoroughly interesting, showing Iceland's power consumption usage, both domestic and industrial, generated totally from renewable sources, 30% geothermal and 70% hydro-generated. We also learned from the staff manning the exhibition how to pronounce the Icelandic double-ll, as in Ţingvellir, pronounced as Thing-vedd-lir, almost like the Welsh double-ll.

Passing the Ljóssafoss dam (see below left), we began the 12kms gravel road around the shores of Úlfljótsvatn and southern Ţingvallavatn, to reach the steaming outflow of Nesjavellir geothermal power station and the solfataras higher up the valley on the northern slopes of Hengill (see below right). We later concluded that in 1972 we had wild-camped somewhere just along the western shore of Ţingvallavatn, as the base from which to climb Hengill up through the solfataras, long before the power station was built. Passing the turning where Route 435 climbed over the Dyrafjöll Pass, today we continued ahead on Route 360 with the narrow road winding a way along the western shore of Ţingvallavatn which now looked grey from the cloud which had replaced the sun of earlier. We passed several spots just off the road where we might have wild-camped in 1972, although the number of summer houses along the lake shores had inevitably increased over the years. The road shelved above the lake, finally meeting the junction with Route 36 from Reykjavík to Ţingvellir, and turned north-east to reach the Ţingvellir Visitor Centre.

The historical significance of Ţingvellir:  as expected, depressing numbers of tourist cars and tour-buses filled the Ţingvellir car park which now charged 500kr/day. The so-called Visitor Centre was little more than a glorified tourist souvenir shop, its only pretence at information provision about the National Park being the showing of a video on the historical, cultural and geological significance of the Ţingvellir rift-valley.

From the late 9th~beginning of 10th century Settlement, Iceland's 36 regional chieftains (gođar) were meeting at local assemblies (things) to settle disputes and determine laws. But as the new country became more established, the need was recognised for some form of national assembly. Having fled a tyrannical kingdom in Norway, the Icelandic settlers were resolved on a system of governance based not on monarchy but rather a Commonwealth (Ţjóđveldiđ). From 930 AD, the plain of the Ţingvellir rift-valley was chosen as a convenient central meeting point of overland routes from around the country for a General Assembly (Alţing), to be held for 2 weeks each summer, where the chieftains accompanied by their retainers gathered, setting up their tents (buđs), to decide national laws and dispense justice as a central court. The clan chieftains together formed the legislative and judicial body, the Law Council (Lögrétta). Proceedings of the Alţing and the Council were regulated by the Lawspeaker (Lögsögumađur), selected from among the chieftains for a term of 3 years; before the days of general literacy, it was his responsibility to know and to recite the laws. This sophisticated system of government encouraged lively political debate and allowed for total transparency, as all free men attending the Alţing were able to listen openly to proceedings and to put arguments to the assembly from the Law Rock (Lög Berg), the raised rocky podium overlooking the Ţingvellir amphitheatre. In a new country, divided by distance and harsh weather, the annual summer gathering at Ţingvellir enabled the scattered communities to meet and to interact: marriages were arranged, alliances forged, trade was conducted; the settlers became a nation at Ţingvellir.

On the advice of Lawspeaker Ţorgeir Ţorkelsson, the Alţing agreed to adopt Christianity in 1000 AD as the new nation's universal religion to resolve the civil strife between pagan and Christian factions. But as time went on, the Alţing's authority was undermined by its lack of power to enforce court decisions and penalties. After the 13th century period of civil strife between rival clan chieftains, the Icelanders had no other choice but to accept the sovereignty of the Norwegian and later Danish monarchy, with the signing of the Old Covenant in 1262; the country was forced to adopt the Norwegian Járnsiđa law code, and although the Alţing survived, its authority declined. It lost its legislative powers, became little more than a national court, and was abolished in 1798. Ţingvellir became a focus of the Icelandic nationalist movement during the 19th century, and the celebrations of Iceland's millennium were held at Ţingvellir in 1874 when Danish King Christian IX delivered a constitution for the country. The place remained a symbol of national identity during the 20th century, culminating in the declaration of the Republic of Iceland's independence on 17 June 1944 at Ţingvellir. And today, 1000s of tourists daily mill around the site at Ţingvellir, most of them totally oblivious to its historical and cultural significance for Icelanders.

The geological significance of Ţingvellir:  just beyond the Visitor Centre, a huge wooden platform set at the highest point of the Almannagjá Gorge forms a lookout point showing the wonder and stark beauty of Ţingvellir's geology and topography: panoramic views open out along the length of this huge fissure, and across the 5km wide lava field plain of rift valley depression, flanked by the volcanic peaks of Ármannsfell and Hrafnabörg at the northern end, and southwards towards Ţingvallavatn (see above left). Ţingvellir is set directly on the line of the divergent American and European tectonic plates boundary, the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which is widening at the rate of 2cms/year. The rifting zone at Ţingvellir forms the northern part of the Hengill volcanic system which reaches from the sea in the SW 130kms long and up to 20kms wide, inland up to Skaldbreiđur shield volcano (see right). Tension in the earth's crust along the line of the tectonic plates, pulling apart in opposite directions, has resulted in the widening rift valley (graben) at Ţingvellir, causing faults, fissures or more violent earthquakes ripping through the bed rock, like stretch-marks in the landscape. More than 100 faults and open fissures can be seen across the 5km width of Ţingvellir's depression. Over the past 10,000 years, the diverging Ţingvellir valley floor rift between the huge fault-fissures of Almannagjá on the western (American) side and Hrafnagjá on the eastern (European) side has subsided by some 40m. The extent of the depression can be judged by comparing the height of the Kerlingarhraun lava field to the west of Almannagjá's top edge above the Öxarárfoss waterfall, with the valley floor below. 10,000 years ago, high volumes of fluid lava in steady, continuous rather than violent explosive eruptions, flowed down the rift valley from the massive shield volcano of Skaldbreiđur. 9,000 years ago, further lava flows blocked off the outflow of springs, back-filling to form the 14kms long Ţingvallavatn and its sole outflow, the River Sog.

A contrast in conditions at Ţingvellir in the 45 years between 1972 and 2017:  with the weather becoming increasingly overcast and rain threatening, we contented ourselves today with getting the lie of the land in readiness for a more thorough exploration in the better weather forecast for tomorrow. As we stood at the viewpoint atop the Almannagjá Gorge looking out across the rift valley to the equivalent fissure of Hrafnagjá on the far side of the Ţingvallahraun lava fields spread out below, it was clear that Ţingvellir showed the starkest contrast in the last 45 years between our first visit in 1972 and the conditions today in 2017. We stood there desperately trying to reconcile all the formalised tourist infrastructure of today with the undisturbed natural setting which we had witnessed in 1972. It was impossible; so much had changed, except of course the stark natural beauty of the landscape. Again we have paired our photo taken today at Ţingvellir with its equivalent photo taken 45 years ago (Photo 24- Ţingvellir 2017 and 1972) (see left).

45 years ago in 1972, we could recall seeing few other visitors; there were no restrictions on access, no formally laid out paths, and we were free to walk at will across the lava field, along the Almannagjá fault-fissure, and along the top rim among the Kerlingarhraun lava field; we had even been able to wild-camp down in the valley close to the church. In total contrast today, the entire area was so utterly overrun with endless hordes of tourists that everything was completely sanitised and restricted, with formally laid out paths restricting access, rope barriers confining the hordes to prevent them clambering thoughtlessly over the lava outcrops or falling into fissures. Access to the valley floor was confined to roadways with huge car parks to contain the 1000s of cars and buses daily polluting the area. It was horrid, beyond anything we could have imagined. The constant (and rhetorical) question on our lips was why do the tourists come? They clearly had no interest in or understanding of the historical significance for Icelanders of Ţingvellir, or appreciation of the natural beauty of the titanic forces that had shaped the natural wonder of this extraordinary landscape. The behaviour of so many of the tourists was nauseating, and the lack of any evident appreciation of what was before their eyes was beyond our comprehension.

As we stood at the viewpoint, we were approached by 2 German girls who, having come to Ţingvellir, were bemused at what they were supposed to be looking at. We pointed out the width of the rift valley, and tried to explain its formation by the moving apart of the divergent tectonic plates. We also managed to convince them that there were better ways to use their limited time in Iceland than visiting the Blue Lagoon and bathing at enormous expense along with 1000s of other tourists in the effluent of a geothermal power station! Having heard this, they agreed that their time and money would be better spent in other more interesting parts of Iceland! We followed a wide pathway which now sloped down into the Almannagjá Gorge, and up onto the next side of an intervening section of fissure wall, with a startlingly beautiful piece of Pahoe-hoe lava flow uplifted by earth movement. As if to restore our dwindling faith in the human species, a French visitor was teaching his son about the origins of this lava; in contrast however, a bevy of Japanese tourists shrieked and howled as they took their selfies, scrambling all over the lava with ignorant oblivion!

Ţingvellir National Park Nyrđri-Leirar campsite:  enough was enough for today, and with rain now starting and sky even darker, we drove around to find the Nyrđri-Leirar campsite. Contrary to expectations, prices were quite reasonable for a National Park site: 650kr/person (half price seniors' discount plus 900kr for power). The large, grassy open camping area had plentiful power supplies, and we pitched over on the far edge sheltered by a birch-scrub covered lava field (Photo 25 - Ţingvellir Camping) (see above left). Facilities were basic but functional with WCs, showers and cold-water wash-up. After a flaringly red sunset, which looked alarmingly like a volcanic eruption (Photo 26- Dramatic sunset) (see above right), the dull and overcast evening grew darker than we had been accustomed to.

Our day of exploration at Ţingvellir:  before leaving the campsite this morning for our day of exploration at Ţingvellir, we called in at the information centre to enquire about the Ţingvellir site, particularly whether we could still gain footpath access to the top rim of Kerlingarhraun lava field for 1972~2017 time-lapse comparison photos along the Öxará River where it spilled over the edge of the Öxarárfoss waterfall into the plain below to flow along the Almannagjá Gorge. Somehow (we could not recall the exact details of the route) in the tourist-free days of 1972, we had followed tracks along the top rim of the gorge for such photos. Unlike last evening when on booking in at the information centre we had received a totally officious non-welcome from a surly lad, in contrast today a jovial lady had almost apologetically told us, as expected, that this entire upper lava field was now off-limits to prevent erosion damage to the fragile lava field moss; otherwise, she added with a laugh, the tourists would only fall into the gorge! She helpfully recommended tourist-free routes for access to other major fissures across the rift valley; in describing the phenomenon of the widening rift-valley depression due to diverging tectonic plates creating the swarms of fissures, faults and earthquakes, it was she who introduced us to the aptly descriptive expression 'geological stretch-marks'.

We had decided to use the P2 parking area in the centre of the valley as the base from which to explore the Almannagjá Gorge. But even by mid-morning, the main car-parking was full and the 2nd one overflowing. We managed to find a space, but this morning showed why it was now necessary to have formalised the pathways with the 1000s of daily tourists, and to confine access to these structured routes to protect the basalt and prevent erosion. We followed the walking route up into Stekkjatgjá, the northward extension of the main Almannagjá chasm (Photo 27 - Almannagjá rift gorge) (see above left and right), to where Stekkjatgjá sloped up on a well-reinforced path to the brim of the upper Kerlingarhraun lava field (Photo 28 - Stekkjatgjá Gorge). As expected, the once open pathway along the lava field's upper rim was now closed off to protect the fragile lava-scape. Dropping back down into Almannagjá, we followed the pathway back along the gorge, pausing frequently to marvel at the stratified basalt upper wall of the fissure, each stratum representing one of a series of lava flows piled on top of the last (see right) (Photo 29 - Almannagjá basalt walls). There was also marked contrast between the sunlit basalt wall, and the opposite fully shaded face where ledges were covered with dense layers of moss. Equally to be marvelled at, as we looked down along the bed of the chasm, were the titanic forces of nature that had torn apart this 30m wide rift in the basalt (Photo 30 - Almannagjá chasm scale) (see above left), by tectonic plates movement reinforced by earthquakes, to create this 7kms long north~south mega-stretch-mark gorge across the terrain. But even sadder was the apparent indifference of the tourist hordes whose unwelcome company we were compelled to share: shouting, behaving like silly children with their toy drones, wandering with ill-mannered unconcern in front of us we tried to take photos. It was a sickening illustration of why we travel, to escape from the horrors of modern uncouth humanity. Yet here we were in the midst of the very worst of it: they had no interest in or curiosity about these unbelievable natural surroundings. Why do they come? we yet again asked.

The pathway led along the bed of Almannagjá to Öxarárfoss waterfalls (see left) (Photo 31- Öxarárfoss falls), where the Öxará River spills over the 30m high basalt brink from the Kerlingarhraun lava field above, dropping into Almannagjá to flow south along the length of the gorge (Photo 32 - Öxará River). Saga legend has it that the river's course was diverted to provide fresh drinking water for those who gathered in their buđs for the summer meeting of the Alţing. Today the sun shone giving the falling water a sparkle, unlike our last visit on a dull day in 1972. The other difference was that 45 years ago, we had the privilege of enjoying this wonderful natural setting alone; today the board-walk at foot of the falls was crowded with tourists who indifferently clambered over the rocks simply to take their selfies.

With the onward chasm now filled with the Öxará River, the on-going pathway dropped down below Almannagjá's lower wall, and led along to where the river emerged from the canyon to flow across the plain below towards its outflow into Ţingvallavatn (Photo 33 - Öxará emerging from gorge) (see above right). This was the view which in 1972 we had been able to photograph from high above on the upper brink of Almannagjá at the edge of the Kerlingarhraun lava field. Looking along the gorge now was the nearest 2017 equivalent photo, with access today being understandably restricted from walking the upper brink of the ravine. As we descended to the lower path, we found a couple of Field Gentians to be photographed, as tourists swarmed past evidently puzzled at why we were photographing flowers!

From here we continued along the now dry ravine to the notional position of the Lög Berg (Law Rock), the rocky outcrop from where speakers had addressed the Alţing, today marked by Iceland's national flag blowing in the increasing wind (see above left) (Photo 34 - Lög Berg - Law Rock). Looking eastwards from the Law Rock, one could imagine those attending the Alţing assembled on the plain below (see below right); to the south, the Öxará River meandered towards its outflow into Ţingvallavatn (see above right). But the Law Rock was again swarming with tourists, many simply taking selfies or behaving with childish antics, not one of them however showing any interest or understanding of the landmark so symbolically significant for Icelanders. We continued along the upper part of the Almannagjá cleft line under the shadow of the western tectonic plate boundary cliff, where the ravine was now fragmented into a subsidiary fissure fracturing (see left). The path sloped up through the gap to the top of the cleft leading to the look-out point at Hakiđ for further photos looking eastwards across the plain and Ţingvallahraun lava field (see right), and southwards towards Lake Ţingvallavatn (Photo 35 - Öxará outflow into Ţingvallavatn). Back down through the cleft gap, we crossed the lava ridge of Sluttistigur, again marvelling at the magnificent slab of Pahoe-hoe lava flow, tilted upwards by the tectonic forces that had created the fissure (Photo 36 - Pahoe-hoe lava flow) (see below left). Again the tourists surged past with supreme indifference, to gather at the viewpoint for more selfies and silly behaviour. Today we found an exit path sloping down on the far side to the lower Öxará River. The Hotel Valhöll once stood here, close to where quite amazingly we had wild-camped in 1972. Along the far bank of the river, we reached Ţingvellir church, built in the 19th century on the same spot as the first church built at the adoption of Christianity in 1000 AD (Photo 37 - Ţingvellir Church).

Exploring the Ţingvallahraun lava field fissures:  but time was moving on if we were to explore other major fissures in the Ţingvallahraun lava field. With the increasing wind now blowing in our faces, we walked back northwards across the lava field to the car parks, passing the Flossagjá fissure flooded by spring water (see right) (Photo 38 - Flossagjá flooded fissure). We drove back to the campsite, and turned eastwards on Route 36, finding road-side parking at the start of the Leirastigur path, recommended at the Information Centre. From here we followed way-marks along the brink of the Sleđaásgjá fissure (see below left) (Photo 39 - Sleđaásgjá fissure-fault), another of the 'stretch-mark' faults ripped across the line of the rift-valley by the separating tectonic plate movement and by earthquakes. The entire lava field north of Route 36 was rent apart by a swarm of such dramatically deep faults and fissures, and was covered with birch scrub, Tea-leaved Willow (Salix phylicifolia) and delicate moss (see below right). It was rough terrain along the brink of the deep fissures, and with the wind now gusting furiously, we contented ourselves with taking a series of photos and returned to the road.

We drove further northwards on the minor Route 550 across the Sleđaáshraun lava field, alongside Leiragjá fissure and the northernmost section of Almannagjá, around under the foot of the over-towering Ármannsfell volcanic peak. This southern end of Route 550 in fact continued for some 40kms across the remote volcanic highlands of Bláskógaheiđí past the foot of the Skaldbreiđur shield volcano, to emerge at its northern end in Upper Borgarfjörđur where we had wild-camped 2 weeks ago (see our log). The mountain road passed through an area of sandur (sand and gravel deposits) and crossed the heads of fissures to rise over the crest of the northern end of Sleđaásgjá fissure. We parked and walked back above the head of the 20m deep fissure opening (see below left) (Photo 40 - Sleđaásgjá fissure), to look out across the broad Ţingvallahraun lava field stretching away into the distance across the Ţingvellir rift-valley. This was indeed formidably wild country, showing the scale of this dramatic volcanic terrain ripped apart over aeons by tectonic movement (see right).

A wild day in camp at Ţingvellir National Park Nyrđri-Leirar campsite:  with the wind now becoming more forceful, we returned to Ţingvellir National Park Nyrđri-Leirar campsite. Today had been another that could rank among the most exciting of a unique trip. It had been like standing in the midst of a living geology text book: there was simply so much to get your head around, and the questions just kept on coming. Later as we looked at our photos, we were still trying to puzzle out some answers. And the comically tragic fact was that the majority of the 1000s of tourists who visit Ţingvellir simply milled around with utterly indifferent oblivion to what the titanic forces of nature had created around them, as well as to the historic and cultural significance of Ţingvellir for Icelanders.

We settled back in snugly against the shelter of the birch-scrub vegetation for shelter from the wind (see right), and hunkered down for a rough night. With George buffeted overnight by gale-force winds, there was no need for an earthquake simulator in this weather! With the wind forecast to be even stronger today, it was an easy decision to take a day in camp here and sit out the gales. The wind eased a little during the afternoon, but was still gusting strongly by the time tent campers began arriving early evening. We had seen many examples of ill-preparedness for Icelandic weather conditions and inexperience in erecting tents during the 4 months of this trip so far, but tonight's display capped it all: a group of 4 spent over 1˝ hours struggling to erect their marquee-sized tent in the gusting wind, declining offers of help! The wind was still blowing when we turned in, but the forecast was for a full day of sun tomorrow.

Laugarvatn and Haukadalur:  the following morning dawned sunny but still the wind was fresh. Finally leaving Ţingvellir, we headed east on Route 36 across the full 5kms width of the scrub-covered Ţingvallahraun lava field, criss-crossed by its lines of stretch-mark fissures (click here for detailed map of route). On the far side, the road rose up through the Hrafnagjá line of fissures which mark the European plate boundary on the eastern side of the rift-valley depression. Here we pulled into a lay-by to look out across the magnificent spectacle of the rift-valley's full width, bounded at the northern end by the bulky massif of Ármannsfell, at the southern end by the shimmering waters of Ţingvallavatn, and behind us to the east by the craggy heights of Hrafnabörg. Somewhere, lost in the centre of the scrub-covered valley depression, was the abandoned farm of Skógarkot. The line of the Almannagjá gorge, marking the American plate boundary was just visible on the western side of the scrub-covered valley. The road finally rose up through the line of Gildruholtsgjá and Bćjargjá fissure cliffs which mark the boundary of the rift-depression on its eastern side. Beyond the abandoned farm of Gjábakki, with the southward view towards Ţingvallavatn now blocked by the lakeside crater of Arnarfell, we reached the junction with the Selfoss road, and turned eastwards on Route 365 across the open moorland of Lyngdalsheiđi. To the south, the flat, conical shield volcano of Ţrasaborgir rose as a low bulge, and a line of craggy volcanic peaks marked the northern skyline. The road continued eastwards across the moorland, finally dropping down to Laugarvatn by its volcanically warm lake which gives the town its name. Further to the SE, the larger lake of Apavatn was visible. We turned into the little town and inspected its municipal campsite which seemed straightforwardly acceptable as an option for tonight. Having topped up our provisions at the well-stocked Samkaut mini-market by the filling station, we continued eastwards around Laugardalur towards Geysir. This clearly was green, fertile farming country with many horses, and contrasted sharply with the volcanic wild-lands we had recently travelled through. Ahead rose the prominent peak of Bjarnarfell (which we had climbed in 1972) on the approach to Geysir.

Haukadalur and the spouting hot springs at Geysir:  despite the numbers of tourist hire-cars and tour-buses at Geysir parking area, we just about managed to find a space to sit and eat our lunch sandwiches, putting off facing the inevitable hordes which we feared would sully our memories of camping here at Geysir in the happy tourist-free days of 1972. The Great Geysir, named from the Old Norse/Icelandic verb geysa meaning to gush, and set in the small geothermal area of Haukadalur, has given its name to hot spouting springs (geysers) the world over. Geysir had been one of the first volcanic phenomena, ejecting a column of boiling water and steam at regular intervals to a height of 70m, that attracted visitors during the 19th century. But in 1916, Geysir became dormant, unless provoked into spouting activity by throwing soap into the vent. Seismic activity in the area has occasionally re-awakened Geysir's spouting. There are a number of other boiling pools nearby, but the only one currently erupting on a regular basis is Strokkur (meaning Churn).

Geysers erupt because the particular layout of underground channels, chambers and pipes allows thermal water ascending through the channels to boil at some depth below the surface. At around 23m depth in the geyser vent-pipe, the water is superheated to 120şC by underlying magma intrusions, in equilibrium with the pressure of water above; the weight of water above sustains the super-boiling rate like the lid of a kettle. The turbulence of the increasingly boiling water can be seen on the surface of the vent pool. As the boiling turbulence increases, a chain reaction begins: a huge convex bubble or blister forms on the surface water at the vent, causing increasing amounts of boiling water lower down to flash into high pressure steam; this occupies a much greater volume of space in the narrow channel than water, forcing the water above upwards in the vent-pipe to be erupted high into the air as a column of boiling water followed by high pressure steam. After all the water/steam volume in the pipe has been ejected into the air, the water falls refilling the vent-pipe, and draining back down into channels deep in the earth's crust, for the eruptive cycle to begin anew. For regular, vertically erupting geysers to occur, the depth and temperature of the magma heat source, the size of the water chamber, and the diameters of the entry and exit vents, all need to be precisely synchronised, which makes geysers a rare phenomenon. Seismic and volcanic activity may create new geysers or cause existing ones to become dormant, as happened with Great Geysir. Robert Bunsen, the German chemist, who visited Geysir in 1846, was one of the first to point to an accurate explanation of the hydrothermal-mechanics of geyser eruptions caused by the pressure of superheated steam in the depths of the vent pipe.

Our 2017 visit to Geysir:  with misgivings about the swarms of tourists and the inevitable restrictions on access compared with the privileged peace and freedom we had enjoyed on our 1972 visit, we walked over to the geothermal area. Posters proudly boasted of the further changes to be made to convert this natural space into even more of an horrendous 'tourist attraction'! We walked up past other now dormant hot springs and boiling pools which simmered away quietly (see above left); one of these we recognised as the boiling pool where Paul had boiled breakfast eggs suspended on strings in the naturally boiling water (see above right) (Photo 41 - Boiling pool at Geysir); our 1972~2017 time-lapse comparison photos show the contrast in freedom of access at Geysir. These days, access to the pools was inevitably constrained by rope barriers, and the tourist industry had assigned each of the springs twee names; in the glory days of 1972, this whole area was almost entirely free of tourists, with unrestricted access to the natural pools and their steaming drainage channels and sinter-lined basins. It was then our responsibility to take ultra care on the crusty, sulphur-stained ground to avoid damaging the fragile surface.

Ahead up the slope, tourists in droves gathered around the rope barriers now restricting close access to the sinter-lined vent of Strokkur, the one remaining spouting geyser. In contrast in 1972, with not a tourist in sight, we were able to stand close by while waiting for the tell-tale huge aquamarine convex bubble to form at the vent's surface, prefacing the start of another eruption as the column of boiling water and steam burst high into the air with a whoosh. Again it was our responsibility to avoid the scalding shower of falling water following the eruption. Imagine the untold erosion damage to the fragile sinter surround to the basin, and the number of screaming, scalded tourists if that freedom of access were allowed now! We managed to secure spaces by the outer-side rope barrier, at a high point from where we could see the vent-pool to get some fore-warning of an impending eruption. On this side, the tourists crowds were not as bad as feared, and in fact, such was the tourists' brief span of attention or the tight schedule of their tour-buses, that immediately following an eruption of the geyser, they all disappeared to be replaced by the next arriving crowd! Between eruptions, the sense of excited anticipation caused general quietness, and the next whooshing eruption was greeted with oohs and cheers. Eruptions happened with fairly predictable regularity every 8~10 minutes, and between times with the geyser quiescent there was some minor gurgling around the sinter-lined vent (Photo 42 - Strokkur basin between eruptions); again we have paired all our 2017 photos with their now rather grainy1972 equivalents. We set our cameras for continuous shoot and poised ready, pending the warning signs of impending activity: the formation of an initial 2m wide swelling surface-bubble (see above left) (Photo 43 - Bubble pre-empting eruption), followed by the bubble's bursting as the next eruption whooshed into the air (see above right) (Photo 44 - Eruption bubble bursting). In a matter of seconds, the bubble burst upwards with the column of scalding water being ejected between 30 to 40m into the air (see left) (Photo 45 - Strokkur erupting), then collapsing in a shower of boiling spray (see right) (Photo 46 - Collapsing shower of boiling spray), and the residual steam hovering and drifting for several further seconds in the air before dissipating (Photo 47 - Dissipating steam); and finally, the fallen water drained back re-filling the vent channel (Photo 48 - Post-eruption drainage). We were able to take both continuous shoot sequences and videos, showing the whole sequence of eruption from initial swelling and bursting of the bubble, ejection of boiling water and steam, and the post-eruption re-filling of the basin:

We spent an hour taking and both photos and videos of successive eruptions, then moved around to the far side for closer shots. Boiling water streamed down the hill-side, over-spilling from Strokkur's basin. Access restrictions now kept the crowds back from the danger zone around the sinter-lined basin, which in 1972 we had been able to approach for close-up shots as the initial bubble welled up, and as post-eruption falling waters drained back into the vent.

We spent a further half hour photographing further eruptions, then followed the roped-off walk-ways uphill to the now dormant twin boiling pools of Blesi (Blazer): one was at boiling point and totally clear, the other was just below boiling temperature and murky with dissolved silica. Both pools were lined with a delicate rim of beautiful sinter, and made a tranquil foreground for distant photos of erupting Strokkur (Photo 49 - Blesi's twin boiling pools) (see left). At the brow of the hill, the boiling pool of Konungshver stood with its clear aquamarine water, and further over on its own high, sinter-formed brow, we reached the now dormant original Great Geysir (see right) (Photo 50 - Great Geysir). We returned down hill, across the streams of boiling water over-spilling from Strokkur's basin, recalling our 5 days of peaceful wild-camping here at Geysir in 1972 when we had grown accustomed to the point of almost indifference to Strokkur's regular eruptions; we savoured the memories of such privileged freedom (see left) (Photo 51 - 1972 camp at Geysir).

Gullfoss waterfalls and the Hvíta river gorge:  we continued up-valley, crossing the Tungufljót river which drains down from Sandvatn and Langjökull in the highlands beyond Haukadalur. The terrain became wilder as we approached Gullfoss. If we had thought Geysir had been tourist-ridden, here at Gullfoss the hordes were simply horrendous, with the huge car parks overflowing. In contrast in 1972, there had been just a few tourists, but 45 years later these natural surroundings in the wild lands of the upper Hvíta gorges were totally overwhelmed by the crowds. The Hvíta (meaning White River) glacial river, draining southwards from Langjökull in the remote highland interior, thunders into a wide, curved 3-step staircase at Gullfoss (meaning Golden Falls), plunging abruptly over 2 sets of falls, the first 11m deep then the second set of falls 21m high twisting right angles into a crevice 32m deep and 20m wide, followed by a basalt-lined canyon 2.5kms in length. On a sunny day rainbows form in the spray hovering above the falls, and looking up-river into the highlands interior, the ice-cap of Langjökull glacier is clearly visible on the sky-line.

We followed the walk-way along to the higher view-point which gave an overview of Gullfoss' upper double falls with rainbow created by the spray (see right) (Photo 52 - Gullfoss upper falls). To take photos meant having to jostle in the crowds for a position, and risk being poked in the face by tourists' selfie-sticks. As the Hvíta dropped from its upper course over the falls, the river water was an opaque grey from all the sediment washed down from its glacial source (see below right) (Photo 53 - Glacial River Hvíta). Having taken photos looking across the foaming breadth of the upper falls, we descended to the lower walk-way. Spray ballooned upwards from where the lower falls turned at right angles to plunge into the narrow chasm (see left) (Photo 54 - Gullfoss basalt gorge), forming rainbows above the gorge. In 1972, the rocky platform projecting outwards immediately above the upper falls was entirely unprotected, needing ultra-care; today rope-barriers kept the swarming tourists from falling headlong into the torrent. We clambered up onto the rocky outcrop which gave a view over the spray billowing up above where the lower falls plunged into the tightly confined, dark chasm, to continue flowing on down the length of the lower canyon with its walls of columnar basalt. Back along to a grassy knoll gave the classic view looking up-river to the full sweep of the double set of falls with its rainbow arching above (see below left) (Photo 55 - Rainbow over Gullfoss). Spray billowing up from the gorge covered our camera lens as we stood to take photos (see below left and right) to match those taken from this same spot in 1972.

Skjól Camping in Upper Haukadalur, and our first sighting of the Aurora Borealis:  we drove sadly away from Gullfoss; of all the natural sites visited in Iceland, this had without doubt been the most sullied by overwhelming volume of tourist hordes, even more so than Gođafoss in the north. Returning down-valley from the wild moorland around the upper Hvíta to the gentler farmland of the lower valley, we reached Skjól Camping at the Kjóastađir horse rearing farmstead. This was an expensive site at 1,200kr/person (800kr seniors' reduction), plus 900kr for power, and showers charged extra at 400kr each; but it accepted the camping-card, and we used the 24th slot on our card. Facilities were modern but limited in the extreme with just one set of unisex WCs, tiny hand basins unusable for washing, and cold water outside wash-up sinks. Its good position partway between Gullfoss and Geysir had suited our route well, but with its high price and limited facilities, we rated it at +2. The camping area was a large, open grassy field sloping uphill, and we pitched towards the top. From the camper's doorway, we could look northwards with clear views of the Langjökull glacier, and 3kms down-valley we could just see the column of steam rising from Strokkur's regular eruptions every 10 minutes. So both in 1972 and in 2017, we had camped within sight of the erupting Strokkur at Geysir (see below right).

Weary after a long day, we settled in early on a dark, chill evening, but waking at 3-00am Paul noticed that what he initially thought were lines of cloud in the otherwise clear sky, were in fact wavering, misty grey-green streaks of pale light shimmering across the sky; we were witnessing for the very first time the Aurora Borealis. We were both too befuddled with sleep to focus cameras, so no Aurora photos tonight despite unimpeded views on this open farmland. But with this run of fine weather forecast to continue, we hoped for a repeat performance to secure photos of the Aurora.

Skálholt ecclesiastical centre:  it was time now finally to leave Haukadalur and to head for more peaceful areas away from the tourist throngs. Back along this green and fertile farming valley where horses grazed the lush fields, we turned off onto the quiet Route 35 following the middle course of the Tungufljót river to reach the rural town of Reykholt, a small horticultural and farming settlement with geothermally heated greenhouses growing fruit and vegetables (click here for detailed map of route). None of these were open on a Sunday for us to buy fresh vegetables, and we continued down the valley, turning off onto Route 31 to Skálholt.

Skálholt developed as the most important ecclesiastical and cultural centre in Iceland after Christianity became the country's official religion by decree of the Alţing in 1000 AD. The clan chieftain Gissur the White had introduced Christianity at the behest of the fiery evangelising Norwegian King Ólafur Tryggvason. Gissur's son, Ísleifur Gissurarson, ordained in 1056 AD as Iceland's first bishop, made his farmstead at Skálholt his episcopal seat and established a school there, with a second episcopal centre established at Hólar in the north in 1106 AD. The new religion increased its power, wealth and landholdings with the introduction of tithes (property taxes); as its wealth grew, the Church founded monasteries and schools, bringing education and the beginning of literature to Iceland. This resulted in the compilation of the Íslendingabók recording the lineage of the founding settlers, the first book written not in Latin the language of the Church but in native Icelandic. During the time of Ţorlákur Ţórhallsson, Bishop of Skálholt 1178~11198, who was later canonised as Iceland's patron saint, a huge wooden cathedral was built at Skálholt which developed as an ecclesiastical school and powerful centre of learning. The Catholic bishopric at Skálholt lasted until the Reformation in 1550, which resulted in the execution at Skálholt of Jón Arason the last Catholic Bishop of Hólar for his resistance to the Danish monarchy's enforced conversion to Lutheranism. Skálholt continued as a Lutheran centre of religion and education until the wooden cathedral was destroyed by an earthquake in 1797 and the bishopric was moved to Reykjavík. Skálholt was largely abandoned until the modern cathedral and theological centre was restored in 1963.

Today as you approach Skálholt, the modern cathedral is visible from a distance standing in isolation on a green hillock. We parked and walked over to the elegantly plain church (see above left), and inside, sunlight streaming in through the abstract design stained glass windows cast a beautiful coloured light across the vertical lines of the nave, and the tapestry-like mosaic of Christ filling the east-end wall (see right) (Photo 56 - Skalholt Cathedral) (see right). Reconstruction work and subsequent archaeological excavations revealed the foundations of the medieval ecclesiastical settlement which had developed around Skálholt, and uncovered a 13th century stone sarcophagus containing the remains of the 7th Bishop of Skálholt, Páll Jónsson, now displayed in the cathedral crypt (see left). A reconstruction of an early turf-built church stands alongside the modern cathedral.

Keriđ Crater:  from Skálholt, we drove on to Laugarás, another horticultural and farming community, where we managed to buy locally grown tomatoes from the geothermally heated greenhouses. Route 35 brought us SW-wards, initially through farming countryside then across the Grímnes lava field, now dotted with estates of summer houses. From a distance the distinctive outline of the scoria crater row of Seyđishólar and Kerhólar stood out on the sky-line. Passing these, we reached the lower crater of Keriđ, but so also had hordes of hire-car tourists! We had so far enjoyed a wonderfully peaceful tourist-free afternoon, but suddenly, as we approached the Ring Road, we had caught up with them again. The car park was full and overflowing, and tourists swarmed like ants all around the crater brim. Keriđ was on private land, and the owners were charging 400kr admission. With essential provisions shopping still to do in Selfoss and a distance to drive to reach tonight's campsite in Ţórsárdalur, we were in two minds about whether to stop. But we gave it half an hour, paid our admission, and set off to walk the crater rim.

Keriđ is one of several calderas in the Grímnes lava field; 55m deep, 170m wide and 270m in length, it is around 3,000 years old and half the age of the other neighbouring volcanic features. Most of the inside of the crater is steep-sided bare volcanic rock, but one wall slopes gently inwards with a pathway down to the water-filled crater bottom. The lake depth varies between 7 and 14m depending on the water table, and is a vivid opaque aquamarine in colour. The deep red, frothy light pumice lava forming the scoria cone gave every appearance of the crater having been caused by a classic explosion eruption. But further studies in the Grímnes region failed to establish any evidence of ash deposits that could be traced to an explosion eruption forming the Keriđ Crater. It is now believed that as much as half the Tjanarhólarhraun lava flowed from the Keriđ cone volcano, and that its present form originates from an eruption which emptied the magma chamber beneath the scoria crater. Once the magma reserve was depleted towards the end of the eruption, the weight of the cone resulted in the crater collapsing into the empty magma chamber. The site owners had certainly constructed a worthwhile infrastructure, with a clear pathway around the crater rim, and stepped walkway down into the water-filled basin of the crater. Although we had no time to descend into the inner crater, we completed the walk around the brim, taking our photos (see above left and right).

Final call at Selfoss:  it was by now 5-15pm, and time to head back to Selfoss. As we approached the junction with Route 36, ahead loomed the now familiar bulky outline of Ingólfsfjall table mountain silhouetted against the late afternoon western sun. We had passed this way a number of times in the last week, to return to Route 1 Ring Road which was now very busy with weekenders hastening back to Reykjavík. We turned eastwards into Selfoss, rushing along to the supermarkets before they closed for the day. This service centre town had served us well over the last week and had become a familiar place. Having completed our shopping, we now had a 30kms drive to reach tonight's campsite in Ţórsárdalur.

Coming next:  we shall now continue our journey along Iceland's southern coast, firstly with a circuit of the volcanic valley of Ţórsárdalur, and is still a fertile farming valley. But brooding over Ţórsárdalur is the evil presence of Hekla, one of the country's most destructive volcanoes. The higher reaches of the Ţórsá River are also exploited by a sequence of hydro-electric schemes, controversial because of their environmental impact. We shall then pass through the region around Hella, historically significant as the area associated with Njál's Saga, before crossing to Heimaey to camp on the Westman Islands off the south coast, site of the destructive 1973 eruption of Eldfell which necessitated evacuation of the town's citizens. The Westman Islands archipelago are also famous as home to one of Iceland's largest colonies of Puffins, and the 1963 undersea eruption which created the new island of Surtsey. On returning to the mainland, we shall camp under the Eyjafjallajökull volcano whose sub-glacial eruption in 2010 brought a week-long disruption to air traffic across Europe caused by the plume of volcanic ash. We shall continue our travel along the southern coast to Vík, which nestles under the deadly Katla volcano and Mýrdalsjökull glacier. But all of that is for our next Icelandic edition, to be published in the autumn.


Next Icelandic edition to be published in the autumn

Sheila and Paul

Published:  5 July 2019

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