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. 

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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.

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 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.

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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!

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About devongeography

Head of Geography and Assistant Vice Principal at South Molton Community College, North Devon. Exeter Chiefs supporter!
This entry was posted in Fieldwork, General Geo, Iceland, Physical World, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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