Back in the autumn, I travelled to Iceland to complete my training as a Field Studies Tutor (FST) with Rayburn Travel. Accompanying a group of sixth form students from The Campion School in Hornchurch, I shadowed Ian Geddes, a very experienced Rayburn FST, in order to learn the ropes and re-acquaint myself with different locations I had visited on previous trips.
All of Rayburn’s geography trips are thoroughly planned and custom built for each individual group. They are designed to work as independently operated tours, but when a little extra guidance is needed (for example, when a school or teacher is visiting for the first time), groups can be accompanied by a field studies tutor.
Having previously visited Iceland a number of times, I was familiar with the locations we visited. However, I could not fail to be impressed by the exciting and varied programme offered by Rayburn – making really good use of limited time to provide a memorable experience for the students, as well as their teachers.
It is difficult to get to travel far around Iceland on a short trip, but there are so many locations to explore in the south west part of the island. My trip covered the main sites, and began with a Wow Air flight on Monday morning from Gatwick Airport. Less than three hours later we had landed in Iceland – it is easy to forget that this is such an easily accessible location. In fact, it took twice as long for me to get to Gatwick from good old rural Devon!
After leaving Keflavik airport, the students got their first look at the flat, barren volcanic landscape of the Reykjanes peninsula of south west Iceland, created from some of the youngest rocks on the island. After just 30 minutes travel time from the airport, it was time to get started with the first major highlight of the trip – a visit to the Blue Lagoon. The geothermal power station of Svartsengi is clearly visible on the approach, and it was from here that surplus brine was pumped out onto the surface in order to let it percolate back into the ground. But instead of working its way through the lava rock, it pooled into a hot lake which locals soon discovered to be beneficial for skin care. Later, a commercial operation grew here to afford a unique bathing opportunity for visiting tourists.
Suitably refreshed and scrubbed-up, we headed for our base for the next few days – Hotel Ork in Hveragerdi. This was a great location for our planned travel, and also had the advantage of available local services should they be needed. The large swimming pool and thermal baths in the grounds of the hotel also proved popular with the students after a busy day of adventure. One very special bonus for us was the wonderful Northern Lights displays we were able to enjoy – just by stepping out at night into the hotel grounds.
The next morning, the skies were heavy with rain showers – but in Iceland the weather is so changeable that accurate forecasting is a rare art. It is a common saying that Iceland experiences at least three seasons most days. Although we started in heavy drizzle, we were soon blessed with blue skies for our visit to Thingvellir National Park, the first stop of the day on the classic ‘Golden Circle’ tourist route. After passing Thingvallavatn Lake, the largest in Iceland, we took time to walk through the Almannagja rift – the surface expression of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which marks the meeting point of the European and North American plates. Thingvellir is one of the most important sites in Iceland, both historically as well as geographically. It was here that the world’s first parliament was put together in 930.
It was only a short hop on the coach to Geysir, for our next taste of awe and wonder. Here, we were able to watch Strokkur geysir erupt every 6-8 minutes, it’s boiling water emerging from the ground and shooting a spout skyward to a height of 15 metres. A little more patience was required to see Great Geysir erupt, but it still puts on its own show two or three times a day. Around this thermal area there were a number of steam vents, boiling springs and turquoise pools to enjoy before spending some time in the exhibition area, where several video displays and even a vibrating floor plate simulating a earthquake help to explain the natural events that make Iceland such a special place to visit.
Gulfoss – the ‘Golden waterfall’ – was our next stop. It is located on the mighty glacial river Hvita, or ‘White river’ which is fed by the Langjokull glacier, the second largest glacier in Iceland. Here, water cascades in several stages from a height of over 30 metres into a narrow canyon below, which is 70 metres deep and 2.5 km long. The impressive scenery was made all the more special as it was framed by a bright rainbow which formed in the fine drizzle spray thrown up by the tumbling water.
Kerio (pronounced ‘Kerith’) provided the last location to complete our first day. This is an easily accessible explosion crater, which along with the surrounding lava field, dates back some 6000 years. A gentle 20 minute stroll around the crater rim provides superb views of the inside of the crater and the lake that occupies, and gave the students a real feel for a volcano – all be it in miniature scale.
We set off for our second full day to the Solheimajokull glacier, where we were to experience the ice first-hand. After views of Hekla volcano on the way, we called at the Eyjafialljokull Visitors Centre to discover about a more recent eruption (2010) and the air traffic mayhem it caused across Europe. On arrival at Solheimajokull, we met up with our glacier guides, and were knitted out with crampons and ice axes, ready to ascend the glacier itself. When I last came here, I was able to get onto the ice straight from the car park – but the rate of shrinkage has been so severe that a large melt lagoon and several unstable morainic ridges now block the way to the glacier’s snout, making it no longer accessible in this way. We had to walk into the neighbouring valley which runs parallel to the glacier, before locating a safe place to access the ice, which is a tongue of the giant Myrdalsjokull glacier, the country’s fourth largest.
By starting our day early, we had plenty of time to continue eastwards along the south coast road to Reynishverfi. Here, we took the opportunity to walk on the black basalt sand beach and explore the columnar basalt cliff columns and giant caves, as well as take in excellent close-up views of the needle stacks, which according to legend, were formed when two trolls were trying to drag a three-mast ship to land. When daylight broke, they turned to stone – leaving the view we are able to enjoy today. We could also look back to Dyrholaey, a promontory jutting into the sea and punctured by a spectacular arch.
After a brief refreshment stop in the village of Vik, we began to head back westwards to visit the dramatic Skogafoss waterfall. This impressive 60 metre high ‘curtain waterfall’ has been used for many a TV advert, and is a wonderous sight when framed by a rainbow.
Seljalandfoss provided our next waterfall attraction. Here, the river Seljalandsa spills from 40 metre high basalt cliffs of the former coastline. It was possible for students to take a path that led them behind the tumbling water for a unique view and photo opportunity.
The light was beginning to fade as we paused for our final stop at Stora Dimon, a small volcano that rises dramatically above the enormous flat sandur outwash plain. We were just about able to pick out the hanging glaciers of the Mordalsjokkul ice cap in the distance beyond the braided Markarfljot river. Looking south, we could pick out the outlines of the Westmann Islands – a trip for another day, perhaps.
The weather was kind to us for our third day, as we made the short coach journey to Reykjadalur. Here, in a geothermally active area close to the village of Hveragerdi, we hiked for an hour into the hills to some hot springs and a stretch of river suitable for some warm ‘wild water’ bathing
For the afternoon, we moved on to explore Reykjavik, the most northerly capital city in the world. Although only a small city by international standards, it is home to around 60% of Iceland’s population. There are some really interesting sites to enjoy here, including the port area – where whale catching vessels moor up alongside whale watching boats for tourists. We bumped into Yoko Ono by the City Hall (here to switch on the ‘John Lennon Peace Light’) – but she didn’t stop to speak.
Architectural interest is led by the Perlan, a futuristic landmark constructed around giant water storage tanks for the city, the Hallgrimskirkja Church, and the recently constructed Harpa concert hall. Despite the drama of these modern buildings, my favourite place remains the Volcano House near the harbour, where films of the Eyjafialljokull and Heimeay eruptions are shown on a loop throughout the day.
For our final day, we explored a couple of geothermal sites on route to the airport. First call was the Krysuvik area in the middle of the fissure zone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge which transverse a Iceland diagonally from the south west to the north east of the island. We stretched our legs with a stroll in the Seltun field, which abounds with fumaroles (steam vents), hot springs and mud pots.
We then moved on to Gunnuhver, where super-heated water rises and condenses and mixes with surface water to produce impressive steam vents. Accompanying gases such as carbon dioxide and hydrogen sulphide make the water here acid (as well as providing a distinctive smell), causing alteration of the fresh lava rock to clay. The soil here is coloured with bright yellow, red and green hues, indicating where minerals have been dissolved from the bedrock.
Our final experience in Iceland was a visit to the ‘Bridge between the continents’, where it is possible to walk in the chasm that marks the separating boundary between the Eurasian and North American plates (the Mid-Atlantic Ridge). This site provided a great photo opportunity before boarding the coach for the final time, and heading to the airport. Before setting off on the final leg of our journey, we said our farewells to our genial driver Thomas, who sent us home with a rap rendition of a traditional Icelandic folk song – a quirky end to a fantastic sense-bombarding tour of some of the sites that make Iceland such a special place to visit.
This was a pretty standard programme that made the very best use of the limited time that was available. However, all of Rayburn’s tours are bespoke – customised the meet the requirements of each individual party. Longer trips have more time to seek out more distant sites, and new attractions are being offered as they become available. For instance, it is now possible if visiting the western coast landscapes to visit the ice cave in Langjokull for an exciting ‘into the glacier’ experience. Also, new accommodation has been sourced which makes the Vatnajokull National Park more easily accessible for groups. Groups might also like to consider visits to geothermal or hydro power stations, and possibly a trip to Heimaey to explore the magic of this volcanic island. Other future plans include the possibility of lava caving and zip wiring, to add even more adventure to your trip.
This could truly be described as a trip of a lifetime for your students, so if You think you might be interested in embarking on such an adventure, why not give Rayburn a call and see what they can put together for you?