Today was the day that our Iceland road-trip was due to start! We had an appointment to collect the hire car at 9am and so we made a fairly early start, leaving the apartment at 08.30. The upside of the slightly out-of-town location of the apartment, was that we only had a couple of kilometres to walk in the opposite direction until we got to the head office of the rental company, which is located on the outskirts of Reykjavik. We could have rented a car for the whole duration of our visit and had it delivered to us at the airport, but we would then have been paying for a couple of days when we didn't really need a vehicle (plus have had the hassle of trying to drive/park in Reykjavik) so renting a car from today seemed like the best option.
We arrived at the rental offices ahead of schedule and presented Tim's replacement driving licence. I was rather nervous that the woman behind the desk was going to take one look at it and refuse to hire us a car, but she barely gave it a second glance, just confirming that we had a credit card to pay on and giving us the rental contract to sign. In less than five minutes we were standing outside the offices with a set of keys in our hands. Phew!
We inspected the car for damage and found quite a lot, so Tim took a quick video to record everything and then we were on our way! Our first destination was the apartment to pick up all our luggage, and then we set off on the main road out of Reykjavik. Although the main aim of our trip is to drive a circuit of the Ring Road, today's route involved ignoring the Ring Road for a while and driving along a series of smaller roads which make up the so called 'Golden Circle'. The Golden Circle is a name given by Icelandic tourism marketers to a series of three sights which meet the criteria both of being spectacular and of being drivable as a circular daytrip from Reykjavik. The vast majority of people who visit Iceland end up on some sort of tour or excursion which visits these locations, so we knew that today was not going to be a day when we succeeded in getting away from other people, but nevertheless we were really excited at the prospect of visiting some of Iceland's most famous sights.
The first stop on our route, about 25 miles outside Reykjavik, was the Thingvellir National Park.
The first sign we got that we were approaching the edge of the national park was when we came to a viewpoint by the side of a lake.
This is lake Thingvallavatn (Þingvallavatn in Icelandic), which is the biggest natural lake in Iceland.
A second viewpoint a few minutes further down the road gave us a clearer view of the lake.
It was really beautiful here
We were now quite close to the main Thingvellir carpark and visitor centre.
It was very busy here, both with cars and coaches, but we managed to find a space. It took us slightly longer to figure out how to pay for the parking; it turns out there are very sophisticated machines inside the visitor centre where you just input the car registration, swipe your card, and they know you've paid without having to print and display a ticket. I forgot to mention in previous blogs that Iceland is pretty much a cashless society, so you can pay for virtually everything by card. So far we've been here three days and haven't so much as caught a glimpse of an Icelandic krona!
The parking cost just over £5 which, as we began exploring the national park, soon started to feel like very good value for such amazing views.
We started out at a viewpoint overlooking the lake.
The national park is located in a rift valley, where the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates are moving apart from one another. We could already see cracks and faults in the rocks from here.
The main tourist trail runs down the middle of a huge gap in the rocks.
From here smaller tracks led off through the rocks to other viewpoints.
It was pretty amazing to be somewhere which I'd read so much about during plate tectonics in geography lessons at school
For Icelanders, Thingvellir isn't just important because of plate tectonics, but because this was the historic home of Iceland's parliament, the Althing.
The Althing was established here in 930, which makes it the oldest parliament in the world.
It was quite busy on the main path, with lots of coach parties.
As we moved further afield, we discovered some quieter spots though.
It had started to rain by this point so we were getting a bit wet, but look what we could see in the distance: a large waterfall which the guidebook hadn't even mentioned!
It turns out that this waterfall is called Öxarárfoss.
The water here was incredibly powerful.
We both agreed it was in the running for the most impressive waterfall we'd ever seen in our lives. It stayed in that position for approximately two hours.
From the waterfall we climbed back down into the countryside and began a circular walk back towards the carpark.
The views were stunning in all directions.
We found Thingvellir church, which is one of the oldest in the whole of Iceland.
Then it was time to head back up through the rocks towards the car.
Stop 1 on the Golden Circle was complete, so it was time to head towards the second destination. Around 38 miles later we arrived in Geysir.
We knew that we were in the right place when we left the carpark behind and could see steam rising from the ground in the distance. It all looked very reminiscent of Furnas in the Azores.
As we entered the area of volcanic activity, there were a few warnings to be aware of. I particularly liked the way they notified people of the distance to the nearest hospital
The closer we got, the more steam we could see.
In case you hadn't guessed, this is the site of the famous Geysir, which has been attracting tourists to Iceland since the eighteenth century.
The original Great Geysir here has become dormant and rarely erupts any more.
You can still see it bubbling away, though.
Luckily, it's next-door neighbour, Strokkur, is far more active and erupts every 5 - 10 minutes. There was a big crowd of people standing around waiting for the next eruption.
We waited and waited... trying to judge when it was about to happen...
When it finally did, it was spectacular!
We stayed and watched a couple of times
Then it was time to head off to destination number 3: the waterfall Gullfoss, which is only about 6 miles up the road from Geysir. You know how we thought the waterfall at Thingvellir was impressive earlier? It pales in comparison to Gullfoss!
Again, this is a very popular tourist attraction so there were tonnes of other people here, but with views like this it didn't really seem to matter
We followed the upper pathway first, from where we had amazing views of the falls from above.
The spray was incredible!
We could have just stood and watched the view for ages.
We wanted to get closer though and see the falls from lower down as well.
The lower pathway was rocky and a bit more slippery, because - as we soon discovered - the spray from the waterfall periodically blows over the path and soaks it (and everyone on it!).
It was worth it to see the waterfall this close though
The power of the water was unbelievable.
We have definitely had a very spectacular start to our Iceland road-trip! Once we had finished admiring the waterfall, we had a further 62 miles to drive until we reached our destination for the evening; a hotel in the small town of Hvolsvöllur.
This hotel was definitely one of the bargains of the trip, at £93 for the night (including breakfast). I'm not 100% sure why it was so cheap, though suspect it may be down to the general lack of anything happening in Hvolsvöllur. We've got a lovely room anyway, which is at least twice as big as the apartment in Reykjavik
We had a quick stroll around Hvolsvöllur to see whether there were any sights (spoiler - there weren't!) and then found a pizza place to get some much-needed food. Two pizzas and a side order of chips set us back £41, but it did turn out to be more food than we could eat, so it was value in that respect Then it was back to the hotel room to start uploading the very many photos which we had taken between us today!