Wednesday, 11 June 2014

28th May - The Golden Circle, Iceland

the black out blinds in the hotel room did the job, and we slept quite well.  It wasn't an early start but we were away in good time after breakfast, with overcast conditions that as we passed through Pingvellir National Park turned to a quite heavy drizzle (if there is such a thing).

On the road from the hotel we stopped to look at the views and to listen to the bird song, at this stage we were still confused by the singing Redwing.  

The road wound away down in front of us like a scene from a Looney Tunes cartoon.

Away in front of us across the lake the mountains were still covered with snow.

The road led us between the lake and the sheer cliffs, and on the cliff faces we saw white spots, and were amazed to see these were nesting Fulmar.  You don't normally expect to see them so far inland from the Sea, but I suppose here there are so many and any ledge will do, which was what we were about to find out as we travelled the island.

Ultimately we were heading through the park towards Gullfoss a large and impressive waterfall, along the way we would stop at Geyser, where there are, not surprisingly geysers.  This is a tourist route that leads from Reykjavik and circles around ending or starting at the Blue Lagoon east of the capital.  The road takes in the northern shore of the lake, and in the mist and drizzle we could just make out the steam from the plant next to our hotel on the other side of the lake.

In places the low cloud enveloped the tops of the surrounding hills, but as it receded it left a landscape that was totally different to that we have encountered before.  The rock is covered with Lichen, while if there are any trees they are very small and low willows.

Snow capped tips and ridges slowly began to pear from the cloud and mist as the sun tried to come out.

We stopped by a river where I had seen Black-tailed Godwits chasing a Skua.  The Skua did not re-appear, and scanning across the land you could see the line of another warm water stream supplied by the hot water being pumped by a small local geothermal plant.

We arrived in Geyser just ahead of the tourist coaches so decided to go and have alook before it got too busy.  As we walked to the geysers a Redwing sang from the low bushes and Snipe drummed above us.  Geyser hot springs comprises a dozen or more hot water blowholes, including Geysir, the spout that gave it's name to all other geysers worldwide.  This area became active about 1000 years ago.

As you walk along the path you pass Litli Geysir, an area you may dismiss, but this was a spout that probably blew itself apart and is now just a violently muddy pool belching steam and bubbles.

We headed for Geysir, which is recorded as the largest geysir ever reaching heights of 70 metres, but it hasn't erupted since the 1950's.  Now you are lucky if you get a few bubbles.

An exploding sound behind us turned our attention to Strokkur, or the "Churn".  This Geysir regularly erupts every few minutes sending steam 15 - 30 metres high.  You can sense the next eruption by the water bubbling and sinking in the hole.

Up the slope from Geysir is Blesi, this is a set of two holes with one clear with scalding water, and the other an opaque blue colour caused by many dissolved minerals.

Further up is Konungshver, or the "King's Spring" with stunning blue water

By now the coaches were rolling in, and the place was full of American Tourists all taking pictures with their iPads.  Opting not to stop for coffee we headed on down the road for Gullfoss.

As you approach the waterfall the road divides, right takes you to the lower car park, and right takes you to the visitor centre.  We went right and pulled into the car park.  looking across the road we could see a range of mountains, and above them was the ghostly outline of the Langjokull Glacier.

Gullfoss gets its name in many ways, the rainbows caused by the spray produce a golden light, the literal translation being "Golden Falls", there are also legends that farmer through gold intot he falls to prevent anyone else having it.  In 1907 the landowner signed away Gullfoss to be submerged in a Hydro-electric dam, however a daughter of one of the scheme's partners was so incensed she took legal action against the developers, and although she lost the public opinion was so high in her favour that the construction never started and Gullfoss was later donated to the nation of Iceland as a special reserve.

The waterfalls were very impressive, our first view being from above.

Steps take you down to the lower falls level of this two tier waterfall.  Their setting deep in a canyon adds to the fantastic spectacle.  All around is a lush green vegetation fed by the continual spray.

The area's volcanic history can be seen in the cliffs with distinct layers of ash from separate volcanic eruptions overlaid with the granite coming from the forced uprising of the granite.

The canyon continues down stream from the falls for one mile though hexagonal basalt columns.  During heavy water flow this whole area can be completely flooded.

We walked through the spray and it felt just like a heavy rain storm, but the view from below was amazing.  The river drops 10 metres and then turns a right angle into the canyon.

We walked around the trails taking in the stunning views from all angles possible.  A panoramic view

looking down again

and then further back to take in the tiers and the size.

We climbed the steps back up to the top and walked along the trail to get further views down on the falls.

And the river from the top before it cascades down over the ridge.

I did see a Harlequin Duck fly upstream past us, Iceland is one of the only places to see them in Europe, and I couldn't find it again, so I hope there will be more chances.

As we made our way for a coffee at the visitor centre Meadow Pipits were everywhere, and cruising around the open ground was a Raven on the look out for nests.

At the Visitor Centre a male White Wagtail sang from a little mound, quite a striking sound in the open and sparse landscape.

After Coffee in the impressive visitor centre we headed back along the 360 towards Pingvellir, another stop on the Golden Circle.  

When we had passed through the village of Laugavatn this morning there had been a Snipe perched on the top of street lamp.  I thought it strange to see it there, a bird normally associated with wild moors and marshes sitting on an urban street light.  As we came through the village on the way back I was pleased to see it still there to capture it.

The village also has some quite stunning views across the lake of the same name.

Pingvellir has two visitor centres one for the national park, and one at Almannagja, the cliff lined gully we had come to see.  We went to the wrong visitor centre but were given directions to the right place, and it wasn't far away.

Pingvellir means assembly plains, and this was the location in AD 930 for the island's chieftains to gather the 60,000 population to hear the laws  and to settle disputes.  Iceland lies on the Mid-Atlantic ridge, and this is obvious at Pingvellir where the land has fallen in a deep scar as the North American and European continental plates drift apart at the mind blowing speed of one inch every year.  This was seen back a thousand years ago as the place where Iceland was created by the assemblies, and how fitting that was.

In this view you can see the ridge to the right and the water from the river Oxara flowing out to the Lake Pingvallavatn.

Here the river runs over the rocks at Oxarafoss, and between the plates.  The legend has it the falls were created when the river was diverted for drinking water in 930 AD, the site was also used for the Icelandic method of execution, drowning, during the medieval times.

 The area has been used for many film sets, and most recently the site has been seen in Game of Thrones as the entrance to Winterfell, and the Eyrie in Westeros.

 The tall Granite walls also being inspiration for the north wall, and Castle Black

Wild life was still around us, a sight we do not see that often with our Redwings is them carrying food like a Blackbird to feed young.

There were also White Wagtails and Meadow Pipits calling from the walls, and Lesser Black-backed Gulls cruising the cliff face always on the look out for an opportunity.

At the top of the ridge there was a wonderful view south out across the lake.  The waters running from the volcano Skjaldbreiour, through the plates an out on to the glacial plain, which has become the lake.

You can see the snow lined slopes of the volcano as well to the north.

We came down from the ridge, and walked towards the river that was spreading out on it's journey to the lake.  The path took us over the bridge towards the church, and close in under the bridge a pair of Red-breasted Mergansers swam past, the male staying quite close to the path.

We turned to follow the path towards Peningagja.  Greylag geese pairs were to be seen all over the plains, their calls crying out as they flew over heading for open water.  I can't but dismiss them as they are part domestic in the UK but up close they are quite an impressive goose.

As well as the geese calling and flying over the bubbling call of the Curlew can also be heard, and pairs are also dotted around the grasslands.  There are also Whimbrel about too, their calls being more of a whistle.  This Curlew was hiding on one of the small islands in the river.

A Golden Plover appeared on the bank above us as we walked by.

By the side of the river a Black-tailed Godwit crept through the grasses.  We have seen pairs flying around, and they are breeding in the marshes all around the rivers.  They look splendid in the brick-red summer plumage, although this one is still getting there, or it is beginning to lose the colour.

We ended up disturbing it as we walked by, and it flew off onto the bed of the river, showing the tail that gives it it's name as it landed.

Peningagja is a deep and narrow lava fissure filled with clear blue water.  A site for scuba diving, it also seenas a wishing wella sthe bottom is covered in places with coins.  The rocks are covered in lichen and moss and the colours are reflected in the mirror like water.

The deeper the water the more blue the colour seems.

The fissure stretches along the same line as the plate ridge

Leaving Peningagja, you get a lovely view of the plate ridge and the river plain.

After a break for a very nice ice cream we made our way to the larger falls that comes off the ridge.  This is more of a waterfall, and the water appears blue from the glacial silt carried in the water.

The river then runs between the two plates and then out to the calmer, flatetr stream and ultimately the lake.

Away to the west the skies were becoming much clearer, the cloud dispersing to patches of blue sky.

We wanted to spend some time in Reykjavik, to see the city.  On the way the skies cleared completely to cast he landscape in a completely different light.

The walk around the city was pleasant enough, standing high above the city is the cathedral, and the statue of Leifur Eiriksson, who is said to have discovered "Vinland", or North America, and then as we were told by a local, promptly forgot about it!

With beautiful blue skies, and the promise of this until midnight we decided to leave the city and get out into the countryside again.  We headed back to the hotel, but rather than stop carried on along the gravel road we had travelled the night before.  The lake this evening had taken on a completely different colour.

The hills surrounding the lake and alongside the road were also looking spectacular as the evening sun flooded light across them.

Where the day before the scenery had been grey and dark brown, but still spectacular, today, in the sunshine, it was greens, oranges and yellows and equally spectacular.

A pair of Golden Plover sat on the moss and lichen by the side of the road creating a lovely scene.

Away to the north the snow covered mountains took on a completely different look, the snow contrasting with the deep blue of the sky and lake.

yesterday we had passed a little church overlooking the lake that was rather nondescript, today it stood out as we passed by.

We reached the dam where yesterday there had been the Scaup.  They were still there, but today were joined by several male Goldeneyes all vying for a couple of females attention.  The display involves throwing back the head and pointing the bill up to the sky, and then bobbing the head to attract the females attention

Two males steamed in to one of the females intent on each convincing her, both bobbing and sky pointing.

the female though did not seem to have any interest and slowly swam away.  Whether in frustration at this, or down to the fact that she was already his girl, the left hand male swam quickly at the other male, raising the head again.

then chasing it off.

The Arctic Tern was calling away as all this was going on from its regular perch on the armco, and above us the Snipe were again drumming, the vibrating sound cutting through the calls of the terns and the ducks.

We decided to head back to the hotel for dinner, but Helen asked me to stop to check a rock in the lake.  There was nothing on the rock Helen had seen but I noticed something on another rock close by.  Looking with binoculars I could make out a deep blue, a white stripe followed by red.  No doubt about it a drake Harlequin Duck.

Unfortunately it was a fair way off and the shot is not brilliant, but it is a record of the the duck I most wanted to find.  Iceland is it's only European breeding ground and in the spring and summer is found on fast flowing spring fed waters.  In the winter it can usually be found at sea in rough conditions, it is very rarely found on calm water.  Although not possible to see here there was a female with the drake, the female being a grey brown, with a white spot behind the eye.

Happy, we continued on, but stopped again when we came across another Great Northern Diver on the water close to the road.  The shots are getting better.

On the stream by the road on the turn to the hotel the Whooper Swan looked lovely in the evening sunshine.

The marking on the bill are unique for every swan, so maybe we would be able to identify this one should it turn up in Welney or Slimbridge in the winter.

Back at the hotel, we had a drink in the bar and sat and enjoyed the evening sunshine through the panoramic windows before dinner.

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