Iceland in June (4 of 4) – Hidden Shangri-La

The highlight of day seven was our visit Solheimajokull, where we were able to strap on crampons and walk on the surface of the glacier. When I first visited this location around 10 years ago,  the glacier – an extension of the giant Myrdalsjokull glacier  – reached right up to the car park. Now, it is a twenty minute walk from there to reach the front end or snout of the ice. In front of the glacier is a giant melt lake – evidence of the rapid retreat of this ice mass, disappearing before our very eyes. Once on the glacier, we picked our way around dark dirt cones, formed from ash that fell following the eruption of the nearby  Eyjafyallajokull volcano back in 2010, and peered down a number of deep moulins – deep, vertical shafts where melt water disappeared into the ice.


We eventually continued on to the wonderful Skogafoss waterfall, and then to Seljalandfoss, where we were able to follow the path that runs behind the tumbling water. The last time I was in Iceland, I could only view this waterfall from afar as the path was thick with ice and dangerous giant icicles threatened to fall like spears from the cliff ledges above.

 IMG_1730Day eight began in bright sunshine – perfect conditions for climbing Stora Dimon.  This mini-volcano stands at only 178 metres in height, but offers an amazing 360 degree view across a wide outwash plain (sandur), recently affected by flooding resulting from the eruption of nearby Eyjafjallajokull in 2010.

IMG_1739The braiding, meanders and embankments of the Markarflost river were impressive sights, and the Westmann Islands were clearly visible in the distance.

After a short visit to the Thorvaldseyri visitor centre to watch the excellent film of the 2010 eruption, we travelled on to the black sand beach of Reynishverfi. We also called at Dyrholaey, although a short shower of driving rain restricted us to views of the rock arch and blowhole from the lower path only. 


Day nine was to be our final full day, and it was the intention to use it to visit Landmannalaugur. However, even though we were approached the end of the month of June, the road into Landmannalaugur remained closed. So, an emergency replacement programme was put together that took us first of all to Thjofafoss, or ‘Waterfall of Thieves’ on the Thjorsa river. Legend has it that thieves were drowned here, below the looming purple lava of Mount Burfell.

We passed Trollkonuhlaup rapids and waterfall, hoping to move on to Haifoss waterfall on the River Fossa – at 122m, Iceland’s  second highest waterfall. However, after chatting with a lorry driver at a service station, we were informed that the road was not suitable for our coach. So we pushed on to eventually turn onto a bumpy dirt road that took us to Gjain Gorge. This was not part of our original programme, and having never visited it before, I knew very little about this spot. What a surprise was in store for me and the group!

 After passing through a desert of featureless grey lava, we arrived at a small car park. Once we had followed a path down some steep steps cut into the rock, a completely different landscape opened up in front of us. The Gjain Gorge – part of the Thjorsodalur valley – was a lush green Shangri La fairy tale world, a real hidden treasure that had the feel of a film set that had been dropped in from above.


 As we descended the steps into the rift, we could see waterfalls, streams, lava caves, and curiously shaped rock structures, all clothed in lush green vegetation. There were basalt columns clearly evident in the cliffs, and some of the rock formations took on the forms of troll figures and faces. There was no one else around, so we had the place to ourselves, and crossed the Rauda (‘Red’) River to explore the caves, rocks and grottos. The only distraction was the presence of summer flies – often gathering in mini insect clouds around our heads when we stopped moving.

 IMG_1816Just a short distance from our little piece of paradise was Stong – an area that provided a home for some of the very first settlers in Iceland. Their world literally fell in on them when nearby Hekla erupted in 1104, devastating the entire area. At Stong, a farmstead was excavated in 1939, showing us how these early settlers would have lived. This significant archaeological site was covered with a roof in the 1950s, but remains open to the general public. A reconstructed  replica has been built at  Skeljastavir, just a few kilometres down valley, but we failed to locate it as we drove on to the Burfell hydro-electricity station. Unfortunately, the station is closed to visitors while it undergoes refurbishment, but should be open again next summer.


Our last site was a visit to yet another waterfall. There are so many wonderful waterfall sites in Iceland – but they are all so different, and each has a real character of its own. Hjalparfoss is a double-branching waterfall on the river Fossa, and the rock face that forms one side of the cataract presents the profile of a bear’s head, or dinosaur’s face. The name translates as ‘Helping Falls’, probably coming from the fact that this site provided good grazing and water for travellers crossing the surrounding barren highlands.

We completed our day with a return visit to the Secret Lagoon – although we found it somewhat busier than usual as it had been booked by a group of Summer Solstice party goers, filling in time before the evening music concert in Reykjavik. We joined in with the fun, and enjoyed their music for a few hours before returning to the peace and tranquility of our hostel at Husio.

It was time to go home on day ten, and before travelling back  to Keflavik airport for our return flights, we said a quick goodbye to the natural beauty of the island with visits to Krysuvik mud pools, Gunnuhver steam vents, and the Bridge between the Continents.

 Although I look forward to my next trips to Iceland in the autumn, visiting the country in June gave a whole new perspective on this wonderful island. Not to be missed!

Posted in Fieldwork, General Geo, Iceland, Physical World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iceland in June (3 of 4) – Heimaey

On day five, we spent the morning of day four exploring Reykjavik. The clear weather rewarded us with some excellent views of the city from the observation deck of the Perlan, and we also admired the stunning architecture of  Halsgrimkirkja.

The afternoon was devoted to a whale watching trip, and we enjoyed fantastic views of both Minke whales and Bottle-nosed dolphins. The thermal pool at Laugardalslaug provided some relaxation for the group before we returned to our hostel.

IMG_2103For day six, we took the 35 minute ferry from Landeyjahofn to the volcanic island of Heimaey, the only inhabited Westmann island. This archipelago of 15 islands and 30 islets and skerries is located either side of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, and is fed from a magma chamber between 15 and 30 kilometres below the surface. Heimaey itself began life as two separate volcanic islands formed from a sea bed eruption that took place around 10 to 12 thousand years ago. A third island was then formed around 6 thousand years ago, and the lava shield that poured out from this giant crater linked all three islands together around 5 thousand years ago.

IMG_2102But it was a more recent eruptive event that has made a name for Heimaey. On January 23rd 1973, a 1.6 kilometre fissure opened up on the island, throwing fountains of lava, volcanic bombs and tephra (ash and dust) into the air. After two days, the eruption localised at one central vent, and by February 15th, Eldfell (‘fire mountain’) had grown to a height of 220 metres. Much of Westmannaejar town below the volcano was buried in tephra – in some places up to six metres deep – but the biggest worry for the island was that the lava flows from Eldfell would block the harbour that is so important to the local economy. Around 250 residents stayed on the island (while the rest of the population was evacuated), and they helped to slow the progress of the lava by spraying it with cold seawater. The eruption ended on June 25th, with the harbour still open – and now protected by a natural breakwater courtesy of the newly created nearby lava fields.

After arriving at the harbour, it was just a short walk to the old lava flows, where a multitude of paths led towards the slopes of  Eldfell volcano. Yellow-topped marker posts led us through stands of lavender-blue lupins, and we passed an old pump that was used to douse the lava in cold sea water as we slowly gained in height. It was a steep and steady slog to the top of the volcano, where we were rewarded with views of Surtsey island to the south west – forming the outline of a crouching cat in the blue-green ocean. Also to the south, it was clear to see the old fissure line where the 1973 eruption began.  IMG_1649The last stretch of the path ran along a short knife- edge, taking us to a sheltered spot where we could look down on the harbour and the town. Parts of the ground here are still quite hot, and provided a warm, comfortable seat to enjoy lunch. It was easy to see how close the lava flow came to blocking off the harbour entrance, and we could also pick out the remains of the north rim of the crater – known as the ‘wanderer’ – that was carried northwards towards the harbour by the flowing lava. After enjoying the scenery for a while, we retraced our steps back towards the town, taking in some great views of the extinct neighbouring volcano of Helgafell in the near distance.

IMG_1652We navigated our way through the outer streets of the town to find the  Eldheimar Museum, and really enjoyed the modern exhibition housed inside that told the full story of Heimaey’s 1973 eruption. An audio tour guided us around buildings excavated from metres of deposited tephra, and introduced us to interactive models, photographs and rock samples. The first floor of the museum was given over to an exhibition of Surtsey – the volcanic island we saw from the top of Eldfell. Surtsey is a recent arrival on the Icelandic landscape, appearing above the surface of the sea following a submarine eruption in 1962.

 We finished the day with our customary dip in the local swimming pool before strolling back to the harbour for our return ferry to the mainland.

Posted in Fieldwork, General Geo, Iceland, Physical World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iceland In June (2 of 4) – Into The Glacier At Langjokull

Day four was a highlight for me, as it took me to some fresh locations. The theme for the day was ‘ice’, and having moved accommodation to the hostel at Selfoss, we left straight after breakfast to head for the wonderful Hvalfjordur.

 ScreenHunter_01 Jul. 23 12.45Hvalfjordur is a huge fiord on the west coast north of Reykjavik. The views we enjoyed as we approached allowed us to understand how a glacier running westwards was able to carve out this major landmark, before it eventually  became flooded by the sea. A quick look at a map of Iceland’s west coast revealed the scale of this natural wonder, as well as showing how this part of the island is full of similar fiord landscapes.

To speed our journey, we took the tunnel that runs for nearly 6 kilometres below the fiord to access the north side,  marvelling at the amount of water above us. As we headed inland towards the Langjokull glacier, we soon passed the large aluminium plant at Grundartangi, located here to take advantage of the sheltered deep water harbour provided by the fiord. Aluminium is smelted here – despite the fact that Iceland has no aluminium ore to exploit, all of it being a bulky import brought in by sea. This industry requires huge amounts of power to keep it running 24 hours a day, and the availability of cheap renewable electricity sources from water or geothermal fields make it economically viable in Iceland.


Hraunafoss – ‘Lava Falls’

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

After  around two hours of travel, we arrived at our picnic lunch spot at the waterfalls of Hraunafoss and Barnafoss. Nature has placed these two waterfalls right next to each other, and they are conveniently connected by a network of paths. However, they are so different in character. Hraunafoss  translates as ‘lava falls’, and consists of a series of trickling cascades spanning around a kilometre in total length, that spring from the different layers of  lava. Barnafoss translates as ‘children’s falls’, and is very different – a run of short, savage rapids  squeezing through a narrow cauldron-like gorge. The powerful water has crafted a number of bridges and arches here, and the name comes from the fact that years ago, some children were swept from one of these arches into the river and drowned.


Barnafoss – ‘Children’s Falls’

From our picnic site by the waterfalls, it was just a 10 minute drive to Husafell, where we checked in to the ‘Into the Glacier Experience’ office. A shuttle bus takes visitors from here to the Klaki base close to the Langjokull glacier, but we were able to take our small coach along the unmetalled road to make the journey ourselves.


DSCN1688Arriving at Klaki base, we had a few minutes to photograph the Langjokull glacier that loomed above us in the near distance. Langjokull translates as ‘long glacier’, and at 50 kilometres in length (and between 15 to 20 kilometres wide), it is the second largest area of ice cover in Iceland.  A few of our party opted to put on warm suits provided free of charge before we boarded ‘Ice Two’ – our monster truck that would transport us onto and across the glacier ice.  It took us 30 minutes to reach the tunnel entrance that would take us into the ice, pausing for a moment at the edge of the glacier to deflate the tyres to assist our progress. On the way to the tunnel, we passed lines of snow mobiles available for hire, wooden stakes to tether dog sled teams, and a group of engineers from Pirelli who were testing new tyre models on the ice.


The tunnel entrance stands at 1260 metres, and after walking for 50 metres or so down a gentle slope lit by strings of fairy lights, we sat on some ice benches to fit our crampon-style overshoes for the rest of our journey. The tunnels were one year old this month, and follow a circular route below tens of metres of ice. Our guide gathered us together at various points to feed us information about the excavation process, the dynamics of the glacier above and below us, and some of the features we were able to see. He pointed out a clear dark horizontal line along the side of one part of the tunnel that was formed from the huge quantities of ash that fell (even here on the west coast) during the eruption of Eyjafyallajokull volcano in 2010. We sat for a while in the old chapel carved into the ice face, and enjoyed sections of the glacier lit by blue LED lighting installed just below the surface. The tunnels also cut a number of times across a giant crevasse  that demonstrated how the glacier shifts and moves in response to changing environmental conditions. Throughout our journey under the ice, water was constantly dripping from the roof of the tunnel  – not the ice itself melting, but snow melt from above gradually working its way through the ice and into the tunnel. In some places, large underground lakes had formed, and needed to be drained with pumps in the summer months in order to maintain access for visitors.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 It was all too soon to  climb back on board our monster truck for the return journey to Klaki, where we could  reunite with our coach for the return journey to Selfoss. On our way back we passed the Deildartunga hot springs area – the largest of its kind in Iceland – where hot water for space heating is piped to the nearby towns of Akranes and Borgarnes. We also enjoyed views of Skorradalsvtn, a giant ribbon lake in a classic  u shaped glacial valley, surrounded by summer holiday homes that provide relief for Icelanders following the  long dark winters. Returning to Hvalfjordur, we called in at the Little Whale Museum service stop for an unbelievable choice of ice cream, and passed the still functioning whaling station as we took the long route around the fjord as an alternative to the tunnel. Back in Selfoss, we made use of the excellent public swimming pool just up the road from our hostel before turning in for some well-deserved rest.

Posted in Fieldwork, General Geo, Iceland, Physical World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Iceland In June (1 of 4) – Tomatoes For Christmas

DSCN2008A lot of things were different about my most recent trip to Iceland as a Field Studies Tutor for Rayburn Travel. First of all, this was a different time of year for me to be visiting the country. Most of my trips for Rayburn have taken place in the autumn or spring, with snow still covering the lowlands – so I was able this time to see Iceland in a completely different colour, dominated by the lavender blues of the wild lupins that had taken over the roadsides. It was also strange to experience the extended daylight hours, being so close to the summer solstice.

 Secondly, there was a completely different group dynamic to this trip. I was working with an unusually small group made up of young students, teachers and parents from  an American school near Boston. This made for a really relaxed and friendly family atmosphere which really added to the enjoyment of the trip. Thirdly, this was a longer trip than I had been used to. Most trips I had been involved with in the past have lasted only four or five days – but this was a full ten days, which provided the opportunity for the group to see a huge amount of the island. It also meant that I had the chance to visit some new locations, and broaden my own knowledge of Iceland.

DSCN1441 I flew out the night before the group arrived, so that I could be at Keflavik to meet them on their arrival. Then it was off to the Blue Lagoon for our first experience together, followed by a pizza blow-out meal at Grindavik before heading east to our hostel at Husio.

When we awoke for the next morning, a beautifully clear day afforded excellent views of the famous Eyjafyallajokull volcano, which loomed over the hostel from only a few kilometres away. The theme for the day was geothermal energy, and the morning was spent hiking to the Reykjadalur hot river to bathe in the thermal springs.


 After a visit to the geothermal park at Hveragerdi, where we boiled eggs in the hot stream, we called in to try the earthquake simulator in the local shopping centre that represented the Richter 6.3 earthquake that shook this town in 2008.

DSCN1525We then moved on to visit a tomato greenhouse operation at Frioheimar, near Reykholt. This family business had been built up over 20 years from a virtually derelict farm, producing on average a ton of tomatoes each day throughout the year. Not a bad effort for a farm close to the Arctic Circle and hampered by long, dark winters! The tomatoes thrived in a computer-controlled environment where cheap geothermal power provides both heat and light.

DSCN1526I was particularly interested in the boxes of bees (needed for pollination) dotted around the greenhouses,  imported every six weeks from Holland.




DSCN1522The packaged tomatoes are sent to supermarkets all over Iceland, and carry a photograph of the farmer and his family, making a great point about the local provenance of this product.



Apart from fruit production, the farm has added a shop (with a surprisingly wide range of tomato-based products, including tomato jams, salsas and various drinks), a very popular restaurant (with – surprise, surprise – excellent tomato soup), and also a large stable offering riding lessons and Icelandic horse demonstrations. During our visit we took the opportunity to learn about the unique extra ‘tolt’ gait of Icelandic horses, that provides a fast, smooth ride over long distances. It is said that a rider should be able to hold a glass of wine in one hand and the reigns in the other – while not spilling a drop of the treasured liquid! After receiving 900 visitors during the first year of trading, this thriving business has proved such a success that last year no fewer than 100,000 people came to the farm.

 DSCN1552We finished off the day with a visit to the Hellisheidi power station, to see how geothermal energy is converted into electricity and home heating for Reykjavik.




The theme for day three was tourism, and we called at the three classic sites of the ‘Golden Circle’ route – Thingvellir National Park, Geysir, and Gullfoss. All three sites were as busy as I have ever seen them, and this made it easy to focus on pressures exerted at tourist honey pots, and the management solutions that can be employed to alleviate them. Visitor numbers have recently gone through the roof in Iceland, and the country is currently struggling to keep pace in terms of the infrastructure needed to meet the needs of the growing number of tourists.  A recent report has revealed that in the first half of 2016, Iceland received 66% more tourists than for the same period last year, and more than the total for  all of year  2012.

 DSCN1660We finished the day by winding down at the Secret Lagoon in Fluour, the less commercial alternative to the famous Blue Lagoon near the airport.

Posted in General Geo, Human World, Iceland, Physical World, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Socrative App Gets Update

untitledTablet technology always played a major role in my classroom, and one of my favourite (free) apps to use with students was Socrative, a formative assessment tool that includes polls, live voting and quiz games.

If you too are a Socrative user, you should be aware that a premium version of the app – ‘Socrative Pro’ – has now been launched. The upgrade is available from the Socrative web site for $30 annual subscription, and contains a number of new features to offer to help personalise learning and ramp up classroom engagement, including:

  • multiple rooms – allowing you manage 10 unique activity rooms to run quizzes polls, exit tickets or space races at the same time. Rooms can be created for each of your classes, or students can be divided into smaller groups for Ho eWorld tasks, differentiated tasks etc
  • higher student capacity – up to 150 participants, allowing you to use Socrative with combined classes, whole year groups, professional development meetings and conferences etc
  • rostering – allowing you to upload class lists for a CSV or Excel file.
  • space race timer – means you can have your quizzes end automatically, leaving you free to circulate and interact

teacherSpaceraceFurther developments are planned for Socrative Pro users in the autumn, including quiz sharing, a searchable quiz community, and a silent hand raise feature. Why not check it out now?

Posted in Curriculum, General Geo, School, Teachers | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Relevance Of Geography In The Modern World

These letters – penned by Nick Crane and Michael Palin – are a useful resource for teachers intending to stress the relevance of their subject in our modern world. They may be helpful for parents’ evenings, displays, or a tool to support recruitment drives.

They are available from the web site of the Royal Geographical Society, along with other support materials.

Letter from Nick Crane:

ScreenHunter_01 Jul. 17 13.03

Letter from Michael Palin:

ScreenHunter_02 Jul. 17 13.10

Posted in Curriculum, General Geo, Students, Teachers | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

GCSE Geography Grade Descriptors Update

GCSE Geography Grade Descriptors (updated July 15th, 2016) – from:

1. Grade 8

1.1 To achieve Grade 8 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate relevant and comprehensive knowledge, understanding and application of geographical information and issues
  • demonstrate perceptive understanding of complex interactions and interrelationships between people and the environment and between geographical phenomena
  • construct sustained and convincing arguments to draw well-evidenced conclusions
  • use and evaluate a wide range of geographical skills and techniques effectively

2. Grade 5

2.1 To achieve Grade 5 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate mostly accurate and appropriate knowledge, understanding and application of geographical information and issues
  • demonstrate clear understanding of interactions and interrelationships between people and the environment and between geographical phenomena
  • construct coherent arguments to draw conclusions supported by evidence
  • use a range of geographical skills and techniques accurately, showing understanding of their purpose

3. Grade 2

3.1 To achieve Grade 2 candidates will be able to:

  • demonstrate limited knowledge, understanding and application of geographical information and issues
  • demonstrate basic understanding of aspects of interactions and interrelationships between people and the environment and between geographical phenomena
  • make straightforward comments with some reference to evidence
  • use some basic geographical skills and techniques with limited accuracy
Posted in Curriculum, General Geo, Teachers | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment