29 November 2016

Reykjavik II: Golden Circle and Northern Lights

On Sunday morning, after a quick breakfast from an excellent bakery near my apartment — Brauð & Co (look for the street-art-covered building on Frakkastígur) — I returned to Laugavegar, Reykjavik's main shopping street, to await my pick-up for my Golden Circle tour. The Golden Circle is a 200-mile loop that covers several of southern Iceland's key historical and geological attractions and there are dozens of different tours from which to choose. Ideally, you would hire a car and drive yourself (and go in the summer), but the tour was what I was doing.

Travelling in Central America and Asia has spoiled me with its inexpensive small-group tours; anything but the big coaches, right? However, as even the big coach Golden Circle tour costs about £70 and I wanted to save my pennies for a Northern Lights tour, I booked in with Gray Line. Reykjavik Excursions (among many other companies) runs similar tours covering mostly the same destinations for about the same price. Gray Line was fine but I wouldn't especially recommend them — I would just pick the company whose schedule suits you best (or, if you can afford it, book a minibus tour instead).

We left the Gray Line bus terminal at 9:30, at which point the sun was starting to think about rising. Leaving town in near-darkness does make all of these tours feel like more of an adventure, however. When I booked the tour on Saturday, I knew that the weather wasn't going to be great but as I'd had to pre-book a Blue Lagoon visit for Monday some months in advance and wouldn't have time to fit it in before my flight on Tuesday, Sunday was my only option. The heavy rain was supposed to stop by about 10:00 am, but alas, it continued until after 2:00 pm, putting a damper on things both literally and metaphorically. I still had a good time but, of course, if you have any flexibility in your schedule, I'd recommend picking a clement day for the Golden Circle; you will enjoy it much more.

The first stop on our tour was to Þingvellir (pronounced "thin-kvedli") National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site located about an hour outside Reykjavik and home to the world's first parliament (Alþingi), which convened in 930 AD. It wasn't exactly democratic — there was no voting and the 'MPs' were simply the richest, most powerful men from each district. I spent about 45 minutes walking around some of the key sites in the driving rain — there is a lot more to see, though, and plenty of great hikes and even dive sites if you have more time. I did see the Drekkingarhylur ('drowning pool'), which is where women were executed by drowning; hangings, beheadings and burnings took place at different places around Þingvellir. As such, it is a sad and eerie place to visit as well as a dramatic area of natural beauty.

 We drove on for another 45 minutes to Gullfloss ('golden waterfall'). The rain was supposed to have stopped by this point but apparently the weather didn't get the memo and it was absolutely chucking it down, making our visit less pleasant than it might have been. The waterfall didn't look very golden in the rain but it was still stunning and impressive to look at. I walked along the clifftop viewing point first and then climbed down the steps to get a closer look. I spent the remaining 45 minutes standing inside the shop drying desperately to dry off and warm up. In an effort to avoid paying for an expensive Gullfloss café lunch, I'd made a packed lunch (smoked salmon sandwiches!), but on a rainy day, there wasn't really anywhere to eat it and I had to stand in the gift shop lobby instead.

It was only a ten-minute drive on to Geysir, a rarely spouting geyser in an area bubbling with hot springs. By the time we arrived, the weather had improved dramatically: the rain had stopped and the sun had even come out. It was still cold, but my mood improved dramatically and, finally able to take out my DSLR without fear of it getting soaked, I took dozens of photos.

Although Geysir itself doesn't tend to erupt for years at a time, the smaller geyser Strokkur ('butter churn') is much more reliable, spurting boiling water 20 metres into the air every five minutes or so; it's quite the spectacle! I stood to watch (and photograph) about four eruptions before walking on to explore the rest of the site, which had an ethereal beauty with the steam rising as the sun set.

On the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped briefly at an Icelandic horse centre, before driving back to the city. I stopped to take a few photos of the Harpa centre and its Northern Lights-inspired lighting by night, before having a quick dinner at Hamborgarabúllan (their 'offer of the century' — a burger, fries and soda for 1,899 krona (about £14) — is only a bargain by Reykjavik standards but the burger was great, although the fries somewhat disappointing). The décor is very similar to the London spin-off, Tommi's Burger Joint.

By this point, I had received a message that the Northern Lights tour would be running that night. There are dozens of companies running tours but I decided to book with Superjeep, which runs small-group tours in souped-up Land Rovers. This was very expensive — around £140 — but I figured that if there was a chance of a Northern Lights sighting, being in a small, nimble, off-road vehicle would give me the best odds. Most companies tell you to book the tour for your first night in Reykjavik because if the weather is bad or conditions poor, the tour will be cancelled but they will try to rebook you for another night. If my flight had arrived an hour earlier on Friday, I could have joined the tour that night, which apparently had a great Northern Lights display, but I missed out. Then, the tour was cancelled on Saturday because of a) cloud cover and b) rain. Finally, though, on Sunday, we got the all-clear.

I was picked up from my hotel at around 8:00 pm and joined a group of four in our Superjeep. Our funny and knowledgeable guide Krissi was also the group leader — because we were joining a convoy of seven or so other Superjeeps on our hunt. This made it feel a bit like some kind of spy or military operation, particularly as I got to sit in the front seat of the front vehicle. We sped off to our first location, sticking around for about 30 minutes until several tour buses came to join us, at which point we left ("you didn't pay to stand here with big bus groups," one of the guides noted).

We drove on further, eventually settling on a woody area in the middle of nowhere north of Reykjavik and near the Hvalfjörðu ('whale fjord'). And then we waited. Although I was wearing pretty much all of the clothes I'd brought with me, it was still very cold, and yet exciting. The stars were out in full force and then...the lights began to charge up. Yes, I got to see them!

Aurora activity is measured on a scale of one to seven and on Sunday night, I think it was only about a three, which meant that although we could see the ethereal greenish shimmers, taking various forms from slivers to streaks, it wasn't a full-on 'wow' viewing. The human eye isn't very good at detecting colour in low visibility anyway and some of the lights came out better on camera. I don't have a very good lens for this kind of photography and didn't have a tripod with me, but I got some OK shots resting my camera on the roof of the Land Rover. Our guides also took some photos of each of us using their cameras with the lights in the background, which was very nice. They even captured one couple's proposal (she said yes)!

We stood for an hour or so watching the aurora charge up and then dim down, changing shape and moving. Our guides provided some hot chocolate (with a shot of Icelandic vodka) to keep spirits high ("it's filtered through mushrooms, which will *definitely* help you to see the lights better"). The display seemed to be ending so we started to head back home, but then our guide veered off road into a small field. It turned out that there was a brief — but even more impressive — sequel. Then we drove back to Reykjavik through the darkness, returning to the city centre around 00:30.

If you want to maximise your chances of seeing the lights — and have a huge amount of fun — I would definitely recommend Superjeep's tours. Yes, they are expensive, but we were in the hands of experts and I had a very memorable night. If you don't spot the lights, by the way, they will let you rebook on another tour for free, so you do at least get another chance. I would also suggest not making other evening plans in Reykjavik until after you've seen the lights; imagine how you would feel if you had the option to go on a tour one night but you'd booked a dinner or other night-time activity and then missed a great show.

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