Day Five – All Hail Sigridur, Iceland’s first environmentalist

We left Fludir Guesthouse in good spirits, looking forward to driving further up the valley half an hour to Gullfoss (Golden Waterfall) and the nearby geysers. Then there would be a longish drive, 3 hours or so, to the Snaefellnes peninsular through the Dingvellir National Park, skirting around Reykjavik, wiggling up the west coast and west along the southern edge of the Snaefellses peninsular.

Gullfoss and the geysers are on the Golden Circle route, and are also within a couple of hours drive from Reykjavik. We expected crowds but so far, travelling out of season in early October we’d been lucky. Would you miss seeing the Niagara Falls because they might be heaving with tourists? Of course not.

It was overcast when we arrived at Gullfoss, people were trudging back to the car park soaked. We put on our waterproof trousers, zipped up our anoraks and headed down to the edge of the falls where all the excitement seemed to be happening. The path was slick with mud, the stones slithery from mists drifting across from thundering water powering over the edge of the falls. We landed in selfie world.

“Oh my god Tessa, look at those heels, where does she think she is?”

If it was that dramatic in October, imagine what it must be like in summer when there would be significantly more water tumbling over?

Have the sound up for this video!

We stood by the edge and stared, mesmerised by the force we were witnessing. I particularly liked that the only health and safety measure was a delightfully graphic sign and a modest rope. ‘You want to kill yourself? Off you go. Your choice. Mind how you take that selfie.’

In the early days of the last century, Gullfoss was at the centre of a controversy when foreign investors rubbed their hands and worked out how to profit from Iceland’s natural resources. Howell, an English businessman (boo, hiss), planned to utilise the waterfall’s energy to fuel a hydroelectric plant. Can you imagine how that would have destroyed the area?

Gullfoss was owned at the time by Tomas Tomasson, a farmer. He declined Howell’s offer to buy the land, famously stating “I will not sell my friend!” However, unaware of a loophole which could allow Howell to proceed with his plans, he leased him the land.

Enter Sigridur Tomasdottir, his daughter obvs, Iceland’s first environmentalist. She led the charge to halt Howell’s ambitions. The case rumbled on for years. Sigridur had to travel several times, on foot 62 miles to Reykjavik, to fight their case. At one point, she even threatened to throw herself over the falls if construction began.

Happily for us all she was successful. Howell withdrew from the lease in 1929 unable to keep up with the costs and complications of his plans. Lawyers eh? Gullfoss was saved for the Icelandic people, Sigridur hailed as Iceland’s first environmentalist. A stone memorial to her and plaque detailing her plight was erected at the top of Gullfoss.

There’s a nice little addendum to this. The lawyer who helped Sigrudur, Sveinn Bjornsson, went on to become the first president of an independent Iceland in 1944.

Climbing the steps high above the falls we went into the warm, modern designed visitors centre for a pee. But oh the clothes. There were so many temptations. As a lover of practical outdoorsy clothes I can strongly recommend going in, but only if your pockets are deep. I tried on a gorgeous grey felted wool dress with cowl neck and hoodie. Fortunately it too looked rubbish on me as it would have cost a month of gas at least. (Though as I sit now writing in my cabin with frozen hands, wondering when I’ll ever thaw out, it would have been just the ticket.)

“Postcards?” I said, and we loaded up with several to send to friends. Are we the last people standing (including my daughter) who do this?

We left for the geysers, I for one feeling smug I’d avoided a ridiculous spend. We could see the ground steaming as we approached. Several tourist coaches were parking up. One of the geysers reliably pops off every five minutes or so. We followed the trail along the concrete path past boiling springs (unnecessary signs telling us not to touch tho I expect some people are stupid enough to give it a go) and plopping mud to where we could see a circle of people ooing and ahhing in the distance. Woosh, up one went. It sounded like bonfire night.

“Oh we just missed it,” said Tessa.

Oh the anticipation…
Definitely watch with sound up.
This takes a bit of patience, or scroll to near the end if you like, or enjoy the anticipation,

The largest geyser is having a bit of a rest for the time being. However this hot pool of water it emerges from, that could decide to wake up any minute, is still worth a look. Someone has to be the person who gets the surprise. It might have been us.

Striking colours of sulphur and copper coloured mud ooze from it down the hill.

I looked at my watch. and found myself taking on the role of timekeeper.

“We’d better get a move on hadn’t we? We should try and get to the Snaefellsnes peninsular in time to find the guesthouse before dark shouldn’t we?”

My phone rang. “Who the hell is ringing me here?”

“This is the Reykjavik agent for Rickshaw” she said “I am sorry to inform you that the Kast has just told us they can’t provide dinner tonight. We have texted you a couple of alternatives on the peninsular.” Not good news for a timekeeper.

“Lets just walk up the hill” said Tessa.

We compromised on a walk halfway up the hill. That’s the way it is with us as travelling companions. It’s why it works so well.

I had to admit the view from the ‘not quite top’ were spectacular.

I’d been looking forward to the long drive through the stunning Dingvellir (thing…ve.. chicken sound.. ir) National Park. Completely different to the long, straight roads of the south coast we found ourselves ooing and ahhing at every turn. It was like driving through a National Geographic calendar. We were entranced by the golden, mossy mountains and Tessa’s favourite moss green and black. With the winding mountain road it was not easy to get photographs as we went. I did my best to steady my camera phone while Tessa navigated the bends saying “get that, get that.”

After the park the road straightened out. We spotted a lay-by and stopped. There was a minivan there already and a man was leaning on the fence explaining something to his passenger.

“Tessa this is the rift. We’ve found the rift. Look at that.”

By pure chance we’d stopped at the view point for the great continental rift. On one side Iceland, the other, the North American continent. There are places where rivers run along the rift and you can swim along the inside of it. Given more time it was something I’d have loved to do.

Iceland is in effect being slowly torn apart, by an inch each year. Sitting on top of the Atlantic ridge, the divergent band between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates which are drifting in opposite directions, makes Iceland the volcanic earthquakey place it is. Not somewhere you can just stride out and go off piste for a walk for fear of falling down a crevasse, or plunging into boiling water. I find that impossibly thrilling. I was bitterly disappointed that the volcano that fired up recently near the airport, looking like the one below, stopped a couple of months before we arrived.

Black and Gold

At one point the landscape looked like an Edmund Hopper painting.

“Petrol?” I asked Tessa, aware it was something we should start thinking about.

“Hmm, I think we should get some next time we see a garage. What was the name of the one that gives us a discount?”

That became a bit theoretical as we sped down a slick new motorway, and under a tunnel towards Borgarnes on the west coast. There were still many miles to go to the peninsular and the Kast Guesthouse. We just weren’t seeing any garages let alone the right one and it was getting late. Borganes came up with a garage with a cafe and a shop and we decided we couldn’t be fussy.

“How do you open the tank?”

“Not sure, isn’t there a key or some kind of knob inside we can pull?”

We walked round and round the car and searched in the footwells. Nothing.

“Check the Guide” said Tessa. I groaned.

“Wouldn’t you think that it would be obvious, one of the first things in the book after how to start the car? Perhaps someone inside can help?”

I did the maths on the app.

“Oh my god. £80 for 3/4 of a tank?”

“Well at least they’ve got a loo. And we can get a croissant.”

We still hadn’t had lunch and it was nudging 4 o’clock. We browsed the shelves wondering about getting skyr, or something else. Instead we picked up a couple of free maps of the peninsular and browsed them over our hot chocolate and pastries. Tessa bought a weird chocolate bar with liquorice centre which we shared.

We set out with that sense of security you get from a full tank on a long drive.

“Maybe check out those restaurants online?” said Tessa “we might need to book.”

It was dark by the time we’d got onto the 54 which hugs the south coast of the Snaefellsnes peninsular. We were ravenous by then, regretting we hadn’t bought skyr at the garage and wondering if we’d even get to one of the restaurants, and would have to be satisfied with liquorice and the fruit bars we’d brought with us from home.

“There,” I said. “Over there. That looks like a restaurant. Let’s check it out.” It was in the middle of nowhere like the Bagdad Cafe. The Dreisam, lucky for us, was yet another place where they could feed vegetarians. The food was delicious.

The Kast was not easy to find in the pitch black. Our phone app was a bit confusing. We saw lights in the distance down a track.

“Bet that’s it,” I said. My intuition had worked well before. We turned off towards them.

The track was bumpy and we narrowly missed the edge of a tight little bridge. We pulled up at a well lit fish processing plant.

“What about further down there?” We bumped on further down the track.

A warm welcome from ‘reception’ at the Kast and someone to lead us with a torch to our block down the icy path would have been nice. We got a shrug and “down there.” Another place where the outside lights weren’t working. Our room was enormous, warm, and spotless like all the rooms so far and it had a kettle. Being so far ‘out there’ meant really dark skies and another possibility of seeing the Northern Lights. I stared out of the window. Was that a big mountain behind the hotel, or was it just incredibly dark?

I kept getting up and tiptoeing past Tessa’s bed to check. Nothing. Going outside to check meant putting on layers of clothes. I did it a couple of times. Another guy was outside doing the same. Nothing. I checked the Northern Lights app again. He was doing the same. They were near, we could both see they were near. It was unbelievably tantalising, but at some point so was sleep. We had a mountain shaped like an arrowhead and a expedition deep down in the earth along a lava tube to look forward to in the morning.

Day Four – Facing my Nemesis

Our alarms went off at 6. If I have to I’m pretty good at leaping out of bed at sparrow’s fart. The requested kettle still hadn’t arrived. I longed for a wake-up mug of hot jasmine tea and to take one to Tessa … I had an apology to make.

“Sorry about my foul mood last night, and all the swearing.” Tessa is a good person, a calm quaker and not one to hold a grudge. She was gracious as ever. I hoped that getting into the bathroom first and giving her a bit of snooze time would make up for my rant.

“There’s no hot water” I yelped hopping from foot to foot on the cold tiled floor trying not to swear. After a few minutes it came through. “Maybe it has to come all the way over from the main building too?”

Drangshild Guesthouse main building at dawn.

We could see a light on in the restaurant and walked over to have a quick breakfast at 7 o’clock. Some of the Italians were already stuck in. We were impressed with what as on offer and piled up fruit, hard boiled eggs, muesli, skyr, bread and cheese slices… best to line our stomachs well for what was to come. We had a date with the famous Reynisfjora black beach, a crashed plane on another beach near Vik and a glacier to reach by noon. Getting lost, missing the assembly time for the Glacier Discovery hike was not an option.

I have mixed history with glaciers. I tumbled down a rock glacier (think frozen Mars Bar cracking if it’s bent over)on the Charity Hike from Hell through the Alaskan wilderness 20 years ago. I stepped on an unstable rock and tumbled over and over propelled by a 50lb backpack that had been promised to be no more than 30. “Where is the lightweight trail food?” I’d asked the guide as I packed a bag of flour, dried tortellini and a pack of pop tarts. “Too expensive” she said. The memory of it still haunts me. Why, I wonder now, had I said “that’s a good idea” when David at Rickshaw suggested it as an alternative to Orca watching (which was just out of season).

“My turn to drive” I held out my hand for the keys.

“Are you sure? I’m happy to drive if you prefer?” By her own admission Tessa is, shall we say, a bit of a back seat driver.

“I’ll be fine. I’m sure now we’re on the open road I’ll soon get used to doing gears again. Foot on clutch to start yes?”

And off we set to the hideous sound of gears crashing and a couple of stalls.

“Oops, sorry.”

Turns out Reynisfjara black beach has a bit of a rep. We didn’t know that at the time. We read the warning notice and laughed at the expression: ‘sneaker’ waves. In June this year a foreign tourist, a 70 year old man, had gone into the sea and been snatched by one that snuck up on him. The man and his wife were part of an organised tour. (?!?****) His wife got caught up in the same wave but bystanders were able to catch her before she got sucked into the sea. He was helicoptered out of the sea but it was too late, it only takes a matter of seconds to die in seas this rough and cold. Another near drowning had happened only the day before when a man went in in his bathers and had to be rescued putting a lot of other people at risk. They wonder, how big do we have to make the sign?

We strode along the shore at a respectful distance. Fortunately I wasn’t remotely tempted to go for a dip, was careful to not turn my back on the waves and merely basked (as much as that is possible when it’s -5 with the wind chill) in the breathtaking beauty of acres of black sand, striking rock formations in the sea, basalt pillars and golden cliffs. (Check out Game of Thrones Season 10.)



The beach was so captivating we ran out of time to get to the other beach to see the Sólheimasandur plane wreck. Rickshaw Travel had suggested it as an extra to do, that it is ‘quite cool and surreal’, great for photos. Crashed planes are another reminder of the Charity Hike from Hell, and though everyone survived this crash (when the US Navy DC ran out of fuel in 1973) and the pilot of the rescue plane in Alaska, I wasn’t too sorry to give it a miss. Sólheimajókull Glacier at noon awaited.

We arrived with plenty time to spare and were relieved to see a row of portaloos in the car park. This ‘no stopping except at dedicated pull ins’ (which can be occupied) rule and the wide open landscapes are challenging in the chilly weather. We got to the loos before a coach party pulled in, ate our ‘breakfast leftovers’ and went over to the container van to check in. Our guide, a tall dark and handsome Greek, or was he Spanish(?), smiled and pointed to the piles of kit.

“Oh my god Tessa, look at those…I thought we’d just need crampons. Ice axes? Hard hats?”

I’d imagined we were going on a little hike, a snoop around the edges of the glacier learning about how they are formed, are dissolving, that kind of thing. Heaven knows what gave me that idea. A glacier hike is a glacier hike.

“This is how you put on the harness” said Zan holding one out “one leg in here, the other leg here.”

“Harnesses?” I looked alarmed. “Oh, I know, in case we need to be hauled up into a rescue helicopter” I joked. He grinned. I’d forgotten the possibility of falling down a crevasse. Sensibly he didn’t respond. We struggled into our harnesses and Zan came round and hoicked them up tighter. Good that we’d had time to go for a pee before we were all trussed up. No chance of getting out of those for a quick squat behind a rock.

“This is how you put on your helmets. You can put them on top of your hats.

“Helmets?” someone said.

“Lava rocks are very light. They can blow off the mountain in these winds and hit you on the head. Haven’t you noticed all the dents in cars in Iceland? Right, off to the glacier. Sólheimajókull means ‘home of the sun’ glacier, it’s an outlet of Myrdalsjokull which is the fourth largest in Iceland.”

The first part of the hike was rather depressing.

“The Glacier used to go all the way down to the car park and beyond ” said Zan “these icebergs are all that is left.”

“When we get onto the glacier you must all walk single file behind me, no wandering around.” I was perfectly happy to comply, he’d know the safe routes avoiding crevasses. I was very impressed by the whole operation and the care he was taking with us. There was a school kid who walked the glacier I went on in Alaska who fell down one. They sent rescuers down on ropes 200ft to look for him, then a camera a further 500ft. He was never found.

The guides do this clever thing when the glacier starts its winter freeze, blocking the streams that run through the crevasses with ice. This creates a solid bottom you can safely walk on to get an experience of the blue ice.

Glaciers aren’t the pristine white you’d expect. Especially when nearby volcanoes like Eyjafjallajokul pop off thousands of tons of ash over them. If they are covered by a thin layer of ash it can speed up the melting. A thick layer can do the opposite. Although it looked pristine white when we flew over it as we arrived, the glacier was actually a bit mucky.

Once again I was to learn that ‘giving it a go’ brings rewards. Since I nearly died of malaria when I was in my early thirties my default is to say ‘why not?’ to opportunities in life. Zan, unlike our guides on the Charity Hike from Hell, who caused our rescue plane to crash and led us up the wrong mountain, was incredibly well trained, experienced in the terrain and on the case if anyone needed help. He led us to the turquoise blue crevasse and a stream where we could drink the chilled purity of glacier water. It was magnificent.

We drove for a couple of hour to the Flúðir Guesthouse in Grund. It was near the Secret Lagoon, Gamma Laugin, where we planned to wallow in thermal waters.Unlike the big fancy Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik, that everyone has pictures of and that costs £70 a pop, the Secret Lagoon is a natural pool on the edge of the village costing a mere £13. It’s quieter than the Blue Lagoon, no fancy spa vibe. Before our trip I’d googled a comparison between the two. The person who wrote the piece I read was hard put to say which was best but reading between the lines he tilted in favour of the Secret Lagoon.

If I have a tiny criticism of the guesthouses, apart from the Klopp in Reykjavik, it’s that their welcome lacks, well, welcome. It’s kind of desultory and you feel a little as if your arrival is a bit annoying. If you actually find someone there to greet you that is and you don’t have to go looking. However our room at the Fludir was lovely and there were two options that looked good for a meal after a wallow.

“Is the Secret Lagoon near?” we asked at non-reception.

“You can see it. You can walk. It takes 10 minutes, or you can drive.”

We opted to drive. It had been an exhausting day.

The Lagoon steaming in the distance

Through the ages, it was a tradition to bathe in the thermal waters here in Grund. The first swimming lessons in Iceland were held at Gamla Laugin in 1909, and then every year until it fell into disuse in 1947. In the old days, people also used it for washing clothes, practical if a bit smelly I’d have thought. (Thermal waters have a sulphurous waft…it’s the sulphur that makes them so healing and good for the skin and rheumatics.)

In 2005, the pool was gradually reborn, but kept authentic. It celebrated its opening in June 2014. There are hot showers, in an open shared space, and lockers. On the walls are helpful posters informing you with big red circles the smelliest bits of your body to carefully wash and instructions that it must be done naked and with soap. It is a big no-no not to do this. Icelanders think we tourists are a bit yucky if we don’t. What I loved about this is that it meant young girls mingle with real women’s bodies, all ages and shapes. So healthy in an age where they are constantly exposed to perfect (mostly manipulated) images on TikTok.

The water was shoulder height on me, hotter at the edges. Place your ‘noodle’ right and you can float around totally relaxed looking at the sky.

We’d only just made it there in time before it closed at 7pm and wallowed about in total bliss for the recommended 20-25 minutes in water that was nudging 38-40deg I could have gone on for another hour at least.

“Have you noticed it’s getting hotter?” said Tessa. “Is that how they persuade us out?”

Tessa was happy to get out and enjoy the icy walk out of the pool and into the showers.

We staggered out of the changing rooms, drunk on heat and relaxation, to the eerie light from the greenhouses next to the lagoon. All that lovely free heat is used all over Iceland to grow the delicious salads we’d been eating since we arrived.

“I’m hungry” I said “do you fancy the Ethiopian restaurant?”

We found our way lit by our mobiles to the restaurant.

Iceland is full of surprises, and another foodie one was to find an Ethiopian restaurant in this little town miles from anywhere. What must it have been like for the lovely woman who married and Icelander to move here? How long did it take for her to adjust to the climate?

“Can I meet your wife?” I asked “may I take a photo?”

Minilik restaurant was yet again somewhere I could be vegetarian in Iceland and eat extremely well. I love Ethiopian food. For those of you unfamiliar it’s served on Injera, a soft, bubbly, fermented pancake-like flatbread made from teff flour. It has a very distinctive sourdough taste from the fermentation process and looks greyish. It could easily be mistaken for a dirty dishcloth and is an acquired taste I suppose. Dishes are laid out on the pancake in dollops and you tear bits off and scoop the food up into your mouth with it. We found it a delicious meal, our hosts were delightful, it was a perfect end to the day. Or it would have been if only Chelsea would make her mind up. We listened to the Archers latest episode as we settled down to sleep. Time was running out for her if she did decide on the abortion route. We could have done without the cliffhanger at bedtime night after night. ‘You have your whole life ahead of you Chelsea. For pity’s sake make your mind up.’ Would we even get the answer before the end of the trip?