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29 June 2011

First Day in Iceland: Full of Things to See!

Day 30: Sunday, 19 June 2011
ICELAND. I cannot believe I'm here. It's a surreal country, and a surreal time of the year to visit - the sky is light 24 hours a day!

I awoke around 8am to the sound of my alarm. I felt instantly disoriented. The 10-bed hostel room had really warmed up overnight, and the empty beds had filled up with late night reveling travelers. I looked around for Ueli and then realized that, for the first time in a month, he wasn't there anymore. I went downstairs and checked my email to see when/how to meet Jurate and Nerijus, my travel partners, and as I was coming up the stairs, there they were! So I quickly showered and got ready, and as I checked out downstairs, there was Jared, our 4th travelmate. I panicked a bit, as I couldn't find my cell phone, but after running up and downstairs, it turned out to be wrapped up inside my sleeping bag! Doh!

Fueled by a small breakfast of a  chicken curry wrap and an orange soda, I was ready to go. We loaded our bags into the silver Suzuki Grand Vitara and hit the road. For this road trip, Jurate is navigating us with the GPS on her phone, but there's no ipod jack in the car. We headed out of Reykjavik toward Þingvellir, the first stop on the well-worn Golden Circle tourist route. Along the way, we stopped at a really nice looking stream with a field of small horses across the road. We took pictures. Then, we stopped at a big field near the lake where plenty of other people had stopped to look at hundreds of small stone structures of rocks stacked atop each other. They were like mini-pyramids, ranging in size from 6 inches to 5 feet tall. I presumed that they're related to the fact that over half of Icelanders believe in magical elf-like spirits that dwell in the hills.

Þingvellir is the historic center of Iceland, the location where Iceland as a country really began. Now it's a canyon and set of rock formations next to a small stream and some buildings set amongst verdant meadows. There's a flagpole marking the spot where the law-reader would proclaim Iceland's laws to the populace once a year. Beyond that was a cool waterfall, which I dared to get close to, defying the signs stating otherwise. There was also a large Swedish tour group that we tried to keep ahead of. We walked across the stream and saw a church building and cemetery then returned through the canyon to the car. It was a really nice place, and there are some spectacular views from the top of the canyon (there's an overlook constructed for visitors).

Our next stop was Geysir, a collection of hot springs that includes Geysir itself, a spring whose name is the source of the English word "geyser"! The road there was party unpaved gravel, and I somehow managed to fall asleep for a few minutes. There were many bubbling hot springs, with the smell of sulfur in the air, and there was the Strokkur geyser, which erupted every 3-4 minutes, sometimes a hundred feet or so into the air! I waited around for this geyser to erupt several times. Then I walked uphill to the top of a nearby mountain, climbing over a fence (there was a ladder there for visitors to pass). The view from there was simply spectacular. I could see well beyond the geysers, to the mountains in the distance, and the amazingly surreal landscape surrounded me. Simply incredible.

We then went to Gullfoss, a popularly visited waterfall just a few kilometers away. It is not the biggest waterfall in Iceland, but wow! It is really spectacular and breathtaking. It's powerful and involves two big drops of water from a wide river into a canyon. As you approach the waterfall, you don't see the lower waterfall, which makes it even more dramatic when it appears! The mist from the falls rose up the side of the canyon and created rainbows in the sunlight. We walked all the way along the path to the upper waterfalls, and it was truly a moment to behold. I can't fully describe how amazing it felt to be standing there on volcanic rocks, sitting in the sun and being surrounded by tons of water powering down around you. The brownish water swirled and cascaded onto itself in the cataracts between the two falls. It was, like so many things in Iceland, simply other-worldly.

As we drove onward, I randomly blurt out, "you know what's awesome? I've only known you guys for 5 hours." We had already done so much, and there was more out there waiting for us…

We stopped in the town of Sellfoss to stock up on food supplies at the Bonus supermarket. We bought food supplies for dinner, and some snacks for the road. The supermarket had entire rooms that were kept extra cold for the food to be fresh - interesting. We drove on, passing through more surreal landscapes colored with wide fields of purple flowers, spaced between expanses of brown/black barrenness, and punctuated by the odd set of sheep. Several times during our drive, we passed by herds of horses running along the road, being led to another location presumably.

We then made it to Seljalandsfoss, a spectacular waterfall (aren't they all) that you can actually walk behind! At the risk of sounding repetitive, this was another gorgeous and memorable experience. The water simply just shot off a ledge about 300 feet high and fell into a pool. The water was really powerful, and it thundered instead of splashed. We wore jackets to keep us dry/warm as we walked down the muddy, steep, and rocky path behind the waterfall. It was amazing. There were mosses and ferns growing up the concave walls above us, and you could see the water shooting out above your head! Truly something I will remember.

We were tired and hungry, so we trudged on. But it would be several more hours before we'd reach our hostel. Along the way we stopped at a vista point to take in the view, and we went to a black sand beach and dipped our feet into the cold, cold north Atlantic. At this point, my camera ran out of battery power. We drove on through surreal landscapes of moon-like moss covered rocks and finally arrived at the hostel around 11pm. We still had to prepare dinner, but as the pasta was boiling, I felt so tired that I took a short nap, then woke up around 12:15 to actually eat. I was absolutely exhausted and sleep deprived, but also very hungry. The food was good, pasta with meat sauce and steamed vegetables. The hostel was a very nice place too, extremely secluded, maybe 10 miles from the nearest building, but very comfortable. We all knocked out quickly after finishing our dinner and cleaning up.

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