ICELAND - August 1999
My first exposure to Iceland was the half hour drive from the International Airport to Reykjavik. The landscape is treeless, and for mile after mile, all you see is the old lava beds from ancient volcanoes. There are two types of lava. One is smooth. This kind was rough, broken, impossible to walk on, called "a-a", and is now moss covered. It is fascinating to look at because of the different shapes it takes, and, in a strange way, quite beautiful. In a nutshell, our tour group, 44 in all, saw spectacular waterfalls, hot springs, geysers, black lava beaches, mountains, cliffs, glaciers, iceberg-filled lakes, a reconstructed sod-roofed Viking house, museums, a geothermal energy power plant, and stayed two nights at a horse-breeding farm while we toured the area. On our trip into the interior, our guide got quite excited to see the top of Mt. Hekla. She said it had always been covered with clouds when she had previously been in the area.
Not too far from the airport, they had dug down to bring up hot water for heating one of their cities only to discover it was so loaded with minerals it was impossible to use it for heating homes. Furthermore, it smelled of rotten eggs and was actually TOO hot. So they used it anyway by bringing icy, cold stream water in from the local mountain, piping that water through tanks of the too-hot mineral water, and running the good water through huge, insulated pipes and into homes. As the mountain water cools off the mineral water, they release the mineral water into the "Blue Lagoon", and we stopped there one day for a swim in the warm mineral water. Just wonderful!
Another day, we were loaded into two amphibian boats (called ducks) and we spent half an hour sailing around another lagoon, taking close-up pictures of icebergs.
But, for me, the most exciting part of the whole trip came at Thingvellir National Park. I did not know that Iceland sits directly on top of the Euro-Asian plate AND the North American plate, and that they are pulling apart, in opposite directions, at the rate of two centimeters a year. Obviously, this expands the island four centimeters a year, creating a caldera's effect on the landscape, and over a period of time, has made the earth's crust thin at that point of the island. At Thingvellir, an expanding lake has filled in the calderas. You can actually see a high cliff on one side extending for miles, and, on the lower side, long parallel cracks in the earth's surface. We viewed this split from both sides, placing us first on the Euro-Asian plate. Then we drove over to the North American plate and stood on the cliffs. I have never been in a more interesting and exciting place in my life. I didn't want to leave. I could have spent several weeks there just exploring this beautiful area. I wish I had the words to describe it.
A few days later, we were at the most northern part of the split where it comes to an end and is just a small crack. We were able to stand with one foot on the Euro-Asian plate and the other foot on the North American plate. What an experience! One of the great spots on the planet!
The people here are of Viking descent. Yes, you do see more blondes here than in other European countries except, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. The cities are very modern and clean. The homes, sidewalks, and streets (the hilly ones), and public swimming pools are heated by hot water pipes from the geothermal energy power plants. No one need shovel their sidewalks in the winter. Public swimming pools are open all year long and everyone is encouraged to take advantage of them. Swimming is taught in elementary school and senior citizens are seen doing their laps. The language is Icelandic, the second language is English, and German is also required before graduation.
In the winter, there are only a few hours of daylight, but the ski slopes are well lit, I understand. When houses are being built, the building codes require that the roofs be able to withstand 65 mph winds and the houses must be able to handle a 6.0 earthquake. One gets the impression that these people with their modern cities are an intelligent group, with vision and a sensible approach to the well-being of all their citizens, including the very young, the very old and the very vulnerable.
In a land filled with awesome wonder, one of the most phenomenal moments for me came one afternoon when our bus stopped and our tour group was given a few moments to go up to a particular waterfall to take pictures. The waterfall itself was spectacular, but, as we approached it, we began to see a brilliant rainbow. Now rainbows in waterfalls are truly a delight and not all that unusual. However, the closer I got, the more the rainbow arched until it completely wrapped itself around two girls who had run ahead and were standing so close they were almost merged with the spray. In all my years, I have never seen a rainbow make a complete circle, and our tour buddies were standing in the middle of it. This Iceland is truly a nature-lover's paradise and the best-kept travel secret of Europe.
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