Saturday, October 13, 2012

Iceland: Day 4

Day 4 of our trip was scheduled as a free day from the trip package activities. With 7am till whenever we collapsed into bed entirely open, Emily and I decided on the Golden Circle Tour through Reykjavik Excursions. A 9 hour day of some of the natural highlights of Iceland; namely the Gullfoss waterfall, the Geysir Hot Springs, and ├×inggvellir National Park.

Our first stop, however, was not to one of Mother Earth's sights, but to something entirely man made. Rather frequently off to the side of the highway, greenhouses could be seen. With the abundance of geothermal heat available to Iceland due to the tectonic activities, Icelanders have put this energy to good use; harnessing its power to run year long greenhouse compounds in order to grow those crops that cannot survive the harsh climate. 

 For our tour we visited Fridheimar, a greenhouse cultivation center where delicious, pesticide-free tomatoes and cucumbers are grown. A fascinating example of the man and nature made powers coming together. Our host, accompanied by her camera shy and yet curious daughter, explained their growing process from germination to harvest. Special lights (thus the yellow hue in the photos) were used to simulate the sun, while geothermal heat raised the temperature to a balmy high ideal for farming. 
The most interesting part of the process, to me, though, was the pollination stage. Instead of using machines or another man made device, they order boxes of live bees. Once they arrive, the bees are released into the largest greenhouse to lazily roam from plant to plant, pollinating as they go as they would have in the wild. (I will concede that while interesting, being around that many bees did resurrect a few unpleasant childhood memories so I kept my distance from these fat, floating fuzz balls.)

On the other side of the main greenhouse was, as you would expect, a concession stand that sold some truly wonderful tomato soup. Nothing fresher or more local than highlighting what they had, they playfully dressed each table with herbs and scissors for each visitor to garnish their soup to taste.

Before it had cooled though, we were back on the bus and streaking past some more beautiful scenes. My trigger finger on my camera became quickly exhausted with the amount of photos I was taking. Today's cloud cover was particularly mesmerizing.

Next stop, Gullfoss. Often called the queen of Icelandic waterfalls, it plunges into a crevice some 32m (105 ft) deep as the River Hvita (meaning "White River") rambles on. While it may not have been as tall as the other waterfalls, it more than made up for that with its incredible breadth. The footprint of this waterfall was massive. You could hear is roar from the moment you stepped off the bus and feel the spray yards before seeing the falls themselves.

From the first overlook, you could see, well, everything. The two tiered waterfall racing from the top rapids portion into the incredible drop at the end. The wind was strong and the rocks were slippery. So when all that separated you from an incredibly cold and unwanted "bath" was a thin, loose rope, it was best to take caution and keep both hands free.  

Cleverly planned, our tour took us from the frigid water of Gullfoss to the scalding water of the geothermal springs, Geysir and Strokkur. We walked past steaming streams of expelled water is if we were in something of a backwards world. 

First along the path was Geysir, a little bubbling hole in the ground about the size of a manhole cover that was practically frothing with steam. It bubbled and hissed and spat incredibly hot water into the air. Probably in an attempt to be noticed when next to such a show-off other geyser. Strokkur is one of Iceland's most famous geysers and you can easily see why. Every 4 - 8 minutes, the geyser erupts 15-20 meters into the sky, getting sometimes as high as 40 meters (though we were not lucky enough to witness that height). 

When not erupting, Strokkur looked like a pulsing, broken kiddie pool, gradually getting deeper until you reached the black hole at the center. 

A thick ring of tourists stood waiting for it to go off when Emily and I arrived. Some, you could tell, had been there for quite a while. Their clothes were covered in a thick layer spray from each eruption they had witnessed. Others, like us were new and cautiously peeking over the shoulders of the people in front of us. We didn't yet know the signs of a soon to be erupting geyser. 

I now know that Strokkur liked to gather in its water before shooting into the sky. When the water level got to a noticeably low point, that's when you braced yourself. And up the water shot, not in a single column but in a wide slice of water, like someone below the ground pushing a mountain silhouette through using only the hot springs. I'll sheepishly say it startled me every time no matter how many times I watched or how certainly I knew it was coming. 

The final stop of the tour was to ├×ingvellir National Park, Iceland's best-loved National Park known for its exceptional beauty and historical importance. The Icelandic Parliament, known as the Althingi, was founded in this valley in the year 930 AD. It is also is a rift valley that marks the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge (the separation of the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates) and one of the only places on earth where you can see such a phenomenon above the ocean. Through the slow separation (2.5 cm/year) of these two plates, the park and Iceland's largest lake have been created. 

One fact I found particularly noteworthy was that the massive cliff walls of the plates provided a acoustic advantage to this site. With the speaker close to the wall, their voice projected off of the rock face and to the crowds of people gathered. 

If you asked me what my favorite part of Iceland was, I would almost certainly say this national park. It was stunning. It was enormous. It was so shockingly colorful. I couldn't take pictures fast enough. The large cliff face reminded me of the Cliffs of Insanity from The Princess Bride, the sweeping valley and streams took me to Middle Earth, and the over-saturated color (I cannot help but repeat that part) practically tattooed its hues on my heart. 

I know people talk about feelings of awe or speechless wonder with casual flippancy, even I in this series of posts may have been guilty, but standing at the edge of the crest really was a settled, perfect, meditative peace.

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