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.

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