Land of Fire and Ice


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Site of World’s First Parliament

According to the Book of Settlements (Landnámabók), the settlement of Iceland began in AD 874 when the Norwegian chieftain Ingólfr Arnarson became the first permanent Norwegian settler on the island. Over the next centuries, people of Norse and Celtic origin settled in Iceland. Early on, district assemblies were formed, but as the population grew, there was a need for a general assembly. The descendants of Ingólfur who dominated the region of southwest Iceland had become the most powerful family in the country, and other chieftains felt a need for a general assembly to limit their power.


Grímur Geitskör was allotted the role of rallying support and finding a suitable location for the assembly. At about the same time, the owner of Bláskógar (the contemporary name for the Thingvellir region) was found guilty of murder. His land was declared public, and then obligated to be used for assembly proceedings, and the building of temporary dwellings, and the forest to be used for kindling and the grazing of horses. The Thingvellir area was chosen for this reason and for its accessibility to the most populous regions of the north, south and west. The longest journey a goði (chieftain) had to travel was 17 days, from the easternmost part of the country where mountains and glacial rivers proved bothersome obstacles.

The foundation of the Icelandic parliament is said to be the founding of the nation of Iceland, and the first parliamentary proceedings in the summer of 930 laid the ground for a common cultural heritage and national identity. Thingvellir played a central role in the history of the country, and its history runs almost parallel with the history of the Icelandic Commonwealth.

A newly developing fault

Thingvellir is notable for its unusual tectonic and volcanic environment in a rift valley.

The continental drift between the North American and Eurasian Plates can be clearly seen in the cracks or faults which traverse the region, the largest one, Almannagjá, being a veritable canyon. This also causes the often measurable earthquakes in the area.

The Western Wall

Some of the rifts are full of clear water. One, Nikulásargjá, was bridged

for the occasion of the visit of King Frederick VIII of Denmark in 1907. On this occasion, visitors began to throw coins from the bridge into the fissure, a tradition based on European legends. The bottom has become littered with sparkling coins, and the rift is now better known as Peningagjá,

Site of the drowning of females who committed incest (men were beheaded)

or “coin fissure”.


Thingvellir is situated on the northern shore of Thingvallavatn, the largest natural lake of Iceland. The river Öxará traverses the national park and forms a waterfall at the Almannagjá, called Öxarárfoss. On the lake’s northern shore the Silfra fissure is a popular diving and snorkelling tour location.

Thingvellir was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site based on cultural criteria. It may also qualify on geological criteria in the future, as there has been ongoing discussion of a possible “serial trans-boundary nomination” for the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which would include other sites in the Atlantic such as Pico Island.

Geyser Stokkur

Strokkur (Icelandic for “churn”) is a very reliable fountain geyser located in a geothermal area beside


the Hvítá River in Iceland in the southwest part of the country, east of Reykjavík. It is one of Iceland’s most famous geysers, erupting once every 6–10 minutes on average. We waited for 14. Its usual height is 15–20 metres (49–66 ft), although it can sometimes erupt up to 40 metres (130 ft) high. Sometimes there is a single eruption. On others there is a series, close together.

Strokkur was first mentioned in 1789, after an earthquake helped to unblocked the conduit of the geyser. Its activity fluctuated throughout the 19th

Thermal Pool

century; in 1815 its height was estimated to have been as much as 60 metres (200 ft). It continued to erupt until the turn of the 20th century, until another earthquake blocked the conduit again. In 1963, upon the advice of the Geyser Committee, locals cleaned out the blocked conduit through the bottom of the basin, and the geyser has been regularly erupting ever since.


Strokkur and its surrounding areas regularly attract tourists hoping to see the geyser erupt, as it is one of a very few natural geysers to erupt frequently and reliably. Our guide told us that the father of the current owner hated the geysers as they took away from the productive land he had available. Today the son has made a fortune through tourism. He built a series of restaurants, cafes and souvenir shops, not to mention toilets, which are buried deep at the back of the commercial area. While access to the geysers is free, our guess would be that every tourist passes through the shops and spends some money.

Gullfoss Falls

Gulfoss – the Golden Waterfall

The wide Hvítá river flows southward, and about a kilometre above the falls it turns sharply to the right and flows down into a wide curved three-step “staircase” and then abruptly plunges in two stages (11 metres or 36 feet, and 21 metres or 69 feet) into a crevice 32 metres (105 ft) deep. The crevice, about 20 metres (66 ft) wide and 2.5 kilometres (1.6 mi) in length, extends perpendicular to the flow of the river. The average amount of water running down the waterfall is 140 cubic metres (4,900 cu ft) per second in the summer and 80 cubic metres (2,800 cu ft) per second in the winter. The highest flood measured was 2,000 cubic metres (71,000 cu ft) per second.

During the first half of the 20th century and some years into the late 20th century, there was much speculation about using Gullfoss to generate electricity. During this period, the waterfall was rented indirectly by its owners, Tómas Tómasson and Halldór Halldórsson, to foreign investors. However, the investors’ attempts were unsuccessful, partly due to lack of money. The waterfall was later sold to the state of Iceland, and is now protected.

Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of Tómas Tómasson, was determined to preserve the waterfall’s condition and even threatened to throw herself down. Although it is widely believed, the very popular story that Sigríður saved the waterfall from exploitation is untrue, but it is repeated in a highly visible stone memorial to Sigriður, located above the falls as you approach the falls.

Crater Kerid


Kerid is a volcanic crater lake located in the Grímsnes area in south Iceland, along the Golden Circle. It is one of several crater lakes in the area, known as Iceland’s Western Volcanic Zone, which includes the Reykjanes peninsula and the Langjökull Glacier, created as the land moved over a localized hotspot, but it is the one that has the most visually recognizable caldera still intact. The caldera, like the other volcanic rock in the area, is composed of a red, rather than the usual black, volcanic rock. The caldera itself is approximately 55 m (180 ft) deep, 170 m (560 ft) wide, and 270 m (890 ft) across. Kerid’s caldera is one of the three most recognizable volcanic craters because at approximately 3,000 years old, it is only half the age of most of the surrounding volcanic features. The other two are Seydishólar and Kerhóll.

While most of the crater is steep-walled with little vegetation, one wall is sloped more gently and blanketed with a deep moss, and can be descended fairly easily. The lake itself is fairly shallow (7–14 metres, depending on rainfall and other factors), but due to minerals from the soil, is an opaque and strikingly vivid aquamarine.

Land owners charge an entrance fee to see the crater of 400 ISK (about $A5), as of March 2019.

Although volcanologists originally believed Kerid was formed by a huge volcanic explosion, as is the accepted norm with volcanic craters, more thorough studies of the Grímsnes region failed to find any evidence of such an explosion in Kerid. It is now believed that Kerid was a cone volcano which erupted and emptied its magma reserve. Once the magma was depleted, the weight of the cone collapsed into the empty magma chamber. The current pool of water at the bottom of the crater is at the same level as the water table and is not caused by rainfall.

Blue Lagoon

Blue Lagoon outside the swimming area

The Blue Lagoon[a] is a geothermal spa in southwestern Iceland. The spa is located in a lava field near Grindavík on the Reykjanes Peninsula, in a location favourable for geothermal power, and is supplied by water used in the nearby Svartsengi geothermal power station. The Blue Lagoon is approximately 20 km (12 mi) from Keflavík International Airport, and is one of the most visited attractions in Iceland.

The water’s milky blue shade is due to its high silica content. The silica forms soft white mud on the bottom of the lake which bathers rub on themselves. Alternatively, you can accept a free handful and rub it on with less effort. It takes about 12 minutes to dry. The water is also rich in salts and algae.

The water temperature in the bathing and swimming area of the lagoon averages 37–39 °C (99–102 °F). Guests are required to shower prior to using the geothermal spa. The communal showers are split up by gender. Children age 8 and under are only allowed entry with the use of arm floaters, provided free of charge. The lagoon is not suitable for children under the age of 2 years. The lagoon is accessible for wheelchair users with a ramp that extends into the water and a shower chair. There is also a private changing room available for those with special needs.

The lagoon is man-made. The water is a byproduct from the nearby geothermal power plant

The Swimming Area from the Cafe

Svartsengi where superheated water is vented from the ground near a lava flow and used to run turbines that generate electricity. After going through the turbines, the steam and hot water passes through a heat exchanger to provide heat for a municipal water heating system. Then the water is fed into the lagoon.

The rich mineral content is provided by the underground geological layers and pushed up to the surface by the hot water (at about 1.2 MPa (170 psi) pressure and 240 °C (464 °F) temperature) used by the plant. Because of its mineral concentration, water cannot be recycled and must be disposed of in the nearby landscape, a permeable lava field that varies in thickness from 50 cm (20 in) to 1 m (3.3 ft). After the minerals have formed a deposit, the water reinfiltrates the ground, but the deposits render the ground impermeable over time, so the plant needs to continuously dig new ponds in the nearby lava field.

The water renews every 2 days. The average pH is 7.5 and the salt content is 2.5%. Very few organisms live in the water apart from some blue-green algae, despite the water not being artificially disinfected it contains no faecal bacteria, environmental bacteria, fungi, or plants.

Shortly after the opening of the Svartsengi power plant in 1976, the runoff water had made pools. In 1981, a psoriasis patient bathed in the water and noted that the water alleviated his symptoms and the lagoon subsequently became popular. Bathing facilities opened in 1987 and in 1992 the Blue Lagoon company was established.

Studies made in the ’90s confirmed that the lagoon had a beneficial effect on the skin disease psoriasis. A psoriasis clinic was opened in 1994 and in 1995, the Blue Lagoon company began marketing skin products containing silica, algae, and salt.

Entry is highly controlled. Bookings need to be made in advance. We arrived at the airport early in the morning with our connecting flight leaving in the afternoon. Our intention was to have a second visit. We could not get in before 6pm which was too late.

Entry is quite expensive but it does include towels, a drink (I had a beer. Anna had a white wine.) which you consume in the water, and a facial mud mask. In 2017 the lagoon had 1.3 million visitors. The company had a revenue of €102 million and a profit of €31 million in 2017. It has over 600 employees.

If you would like to see more photographs