A Day in Iceland: Iceland, Saturday 25th June 2022

My cruise mantra is: you get to go to loads of places you’d never go to otherwise (with minimal packing) but you never get to spend long enough wherever you go. Certainly, a day was not long enough for Iceland. Indeed, it was not long enough to do what we initially planned. Fourteen hours ashore, ostensibly at least, may sound like a long time, but it is never enough.

At least, however, we had a beautiful day. Sunny for most of the day, with just one tiny spell of light rain as were returning to the ship, although there was a cool and increasing north-easterly wind.

We were due to meet the pilot just after six in the morning and we were out on deck to see him sailing out to meet us. We knew that the previous cruise on Ambience had seen whales on the way into Reykjavík, so we were hopeful that we would repeat the experience. We did see about six Humpback Whales and, although they were in the distance, they included one which breached and another which spent at least 15 minutes tail-slapping. A single Minke Whale was also seen. Birds were the expected seabirds which we had already seen, but as we came into the harbour there were a few other species. Four Common Eiders and a couple of flyover Oystercatchers were the only ones we saw all day. Gulls included lots of Lesser Black-backed Gulls, which was the commonest gull throughout the day, and a single adult hybrid Herring Gull x Glaucous Gull.

Reykjavik cathedral
Lighthouse and volcanic cone
Hybrid
Herring Gull

We were alongside before the scheduled time of seven but there was a delay before we got off the ship as the agents had forgotten to come and lift the gangplank into place! We had a hire car arranged for the day and thought that their offices were just a short walk away, but we mis-calculated and should have got a taxi. Or perhaps we should have taken one of the electric scooters scattered around the streets, which could be hired by downloading an app on a phone.

Electric scooters

The walk was through a rambling industrial estate and, at first, there was some interest. A large mural depicting Reykjavik’s common small birds – Redwing, Wren and new arrival Goldcrest (as well as some unidentifiable white bird). Then, actual Redwings in song, including one singing from a prominent rocky outcrop. The only Common Redpoll and only Blackbird I saw in Iceland both flying over. But once we had seen these there was nothing much else to see apart from closed industrial units (it was Saturday morning) and cycling Icelanders.

Bird muriel
Cyclists

Our car was a white Dacia Duster and, apart from the gear stick being on the wrong side and the problems of finding reverse the first time, it was quite pleasant to drive. We headed out on the long road to Akureyi before taking a turn just north of the outskirts of Reykjavik and heading inland, with a vista to our north of table-top mountains and a haze of alien blue lupins.

While the tarmacked roads in Iceland are good, although with a few potholes in places, there are very few places to park and there was a steady stream of traffic heading in the same direction as us, making pulling to the side of the road an unsafe option. The few parking pull-offs never seemed to be in very interesting places. A couple of Ravens, one being mobbed by an Icelandic Redshank, were the only ones we saw all day and a couple of Black-tailed Godwits were also seen along this first stretch of road as we headed to Thingvellir.

The open road in Iceland

Thingvellir (Þingvellir) National Park, beside the largest lake in Iceland, Thingvallavatn, is famous for several reasons. The ‘Thing’ element of the name, as in Tingwall in Shetland, indicates that it was the site of the Icelandic parliament, which was at this site from 930 to 1798. It was also where Christianity was adopted in Iceland, and the site of the declaration of the Republic of Iceland in 1944.

Thingvellir church

Thingvellir is also the best place to see where the tectonic plates of Eurasia and North America are slowly pulling part. A long rocky wall marks the eastern edge of the North American plate, with a lower ridge marking the western edge of the Eurasian plate, with a shallow trench in between. At one point, a stream flows over the North American wall in a waterfall, flows along the central trench, then escapes through a gap in the Eurasian ridge. A gravel path follows the central depression and takes you up to the visitor centre, although there is now a wooden bridge over one section where a new fissure opened up a few years ago, making the original path impassable. It still amazes me that when I was at school there were still significant parts of the scientific establishment that were debating the validity of the principles of plate tectonics.

The lake from the visitor centre
Europe on the left and North America on the right
River flowing from North America to Europe
The river flowing along the trench between the two plates
A path in between two continents
The bridge over the rift that opened up along the path
The edge of the North American plate

Redwings were, unsurprisingly, one of the common birds here, often singing from open perches – such a contrast from the shy, skulking birds (of the same Icelandic race) that occasionally breed in Shetland. There were few other small birds: one Icelandic Wren glimpsed, and another heard in song, while there were a few Meadow Pipits and a White Wagtails, both species that could pass through Shetland on their way to and from Iceland.

Icelandic Redwings

A Black-tailed Godwit flew over as were parking, but it was the only one we saw, while there were also a few Whimbrels, a Snipe, some Redshanks and one Golden Plover along the river. A single female Red-necked Phalarope was on one of the pools on the edge of the lake. Three Red-breasted Mergansers were along the river, with a couple of Mallard along with some Greylag Geese, including some goslings, while there were also about four pairs of Red-throated Divers, including one sitting on a nest on the same pool as the phalarope.

Red-throated Diver

The undoubted birding highlight, though, were the 30 Harlequin Ducks on the river, beside the falls where the river crossed onto the Eurasian plate. An essentially North American species, Iceland is the only place in Europe where this species is found and, as I have only seen a female in Aberdeen before, this was the species I was most keen to see on this excursion. They were roosting on the rocks beside the falls on our walk out, but a few were feeding in the pool on our way back.

Harlequin Ducks

There were a few interesting plants to be seen, and although many were quite familiar, such as Lady’s Mantle and Water Avens, a few were more exotic, such as Dryas. A few insects included some bumblebees and a couple of species of hoverfly.

Lady’s Mantle sp.
Water Avens
Mountain Avens Dryas octopetala
to be identified
Hoverfly and plant both to be identified
Platycheirus sp. hoverfly and Tetragnatha sp. spider
Bumblebee on dandelion

After we left Thingvallir, we tried exploring along a small road that goes closer to the lake when we left, but for some reason it was closed at he far end, and it mainly passed through expanses of low birch scrub, which presumably contains huge numbers of Redwings at very low density but very little else, so we returned to the main road and continued to head towards Gullfoss.

Margaret had decided before we arrived that the one memento of Iceland she wanted to take back with her was an Icelandic jumper or cardigan. We had seen some of the commercially mass-produced stuff in the Thingvellir Visitor Centre, but she wanted something more authentic. A search of Google Maps suggested that there was a “wool shop” just before we reached Geysir, named Vinnustofan Rósin, so we programmed it into the phone and headed there. It looked an unlikely location when we arrived – three or four houses set back from the road, a sign labelled “Gallery” and an old jumper hanging from a road sign. We followed the directions up to a house with two elderly pick-ups parked outside. A hand-painted sign indicated that the “Gallery” was round the side of the house. Margaret went round and rang the bell, and the ‘shop’ was opened by the proprietor and principal knitter, the eponymous Rosa.

Sign for Rosa’s gallery
The house and Icelandic ponies
Rosa’s Gallery
The eponymous Rosa

Margaret soon chose a cardigan but, although the internet assured us that virtually all transactions in Iceland can be complete by card, I was not surprised to learn that this was cash only. Rosa informed us that there was an ATM at Geysir, which was 5-10 minutes down the road, but she would be open until ten if we wanted to collect the jumper on our way back. We decided to complete the transaction as quickly as we could, so took a trip to Geysir and back.

Now, the jumper was by no means cheap, but we could have spent just as much buying tat produced in China to be sold in the visitor centres, whereas Margaret is now the very proud owner of a genuine hand-knitted Icelandic cardigan, purchased directly from the knitter, and genuinely helping to support local industry.

Margaret also quizzed Rosa about how the jumper was made (technical stuff that would only highlight my ignorance if I attempted to explain it). When Margaret commented on how few sheep we had seen, Rosa told us: “oh, but we have sixty!”, obviously intending this to be construed as a large amount. Then she told us that they are brought indoors around the time of the first snow in October and kept there until they had lambed in May, so that they were only out on the hills for about four months of the year. Suddenly, sixty seemed like a lot of work.

Icelandic sheep
Icelandic ponies
Two Whooper Swans which were sitting in a field of sheep

Time was passing, so we decided to head for the furthest point on our journey, the waterfall of Gullfoss. This meant by-passing Geysir, to all intents and purposes. We did pass it twice, and saw the steam rising from the clays from the road and car park, but we did not venture any further. This seemed a little impertinent, as Geysir has given its names to all the geysers the world over: this is the original geyser. Just as we discovered in New Zealand, however, water extraction by humans has changed thigs even here and Geysir no longer erupts except with human intervention.

Steamy fields at Geysir

At Gullfoss, we walked down to the viewing point, and it was impressive, but we decided to brave the descent to the lower viewing point, which was swathed in swirling spray, and realised that we had only seen half of the spectacle as the Gullfoss is in two parts. The upper parts if an impressive enough but relatively low waterfall, before the river plungers into a narrow gorge. With the stiff breeze and river presumably swollen by spring snowmelt there was spray hanging in the air and it was all very atmospheric.

Gullfoss

Here, and at Thingvellir, there were also quite an interesting array of flowers, many of which await identification. I was very surprised by the absence of any Dactylorhiza orchids, but at Gullfoss there was a single Frog Orchid and plenty of Small White and Northern Green Orchids, along with a variety of other plants including Mountain Avens.

Small White Orchid
Northern Green Orchid
Frog Orchid
Alpine Bistort (?)
Lady’s Mantle and Mountain Avens
Alpine Bartsia Bartsia alpina
To be identified
Mountain Avens and Lady’s Mantle

After just our second hot beverage of the day it was now five o’clock and it was clear that we were not going to complete the Golden Circle, as it is known, the tourist route from Reykjavik that is promoted by the Icelandic tourist board. I had intended to return by a more southerly route, as most tours do, although the three main stops on the Golden Circle are Thingvellir, Geysir and Gullfoss. Instead, we returned the way we had come, meaning that we followed the Golden Line, rather the Golden Circle.

I had bought a map in the Thingvellir visitor centre and reviewing it afterwards made us realise what a tiny part of Iceland we had seen. We saw a variety of habitats and landforms though. The most agricultural area was between Thingvellir and Gullfoss. It seemed rather odd to come across this area after having passed through upland areas on the way to get there, as though we had found a fertile area in the middle of the mountains, but checking the map afterwards shows that this was the northern extension of a lowland area extending up from the south coast around Sellfoss. They were already cutting silage in these areas, and June is not even completed, and there were also extensive marshy areas, with breeding waders and scattered Whooper Swans.

Buttercup meadow west of Laugavatn
Laugavatan

Lower-lying areas which were not farmed were covered in miles and miles of birch scrub, as mentioned earlier. Shetland must have once been covered in similar low-lying woodland, barely growing taller than a human. Some friends on an earlier trip to Iceland were once given some advice on navigating Iceland’s forests – if you ever get lost, then just stand up.

Then, as you got higher up, the vegetation got sparser, until you reached lava field covered with lichen, or even areas with virtually not vegetation cover. We passed through an almost bare desert area between the coast and Thingvellir, with bare, black volcanic peaks in the distance, which, despite the snow on some of the hillsides, bore a strong resemblance to the bare, volcanic deserts of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands.

Volcanic mountains between Thingvellir and Laugavatn

In a short diversion north of Gullfoss we saw another desert – lupin desert. The alien lupins were introduced to Iceland from Alaska and found the climate to their liking. They are well-established in and around Reykjavik but have spread to other habitats as well, and north of Gullfoss there was almost bare desert-like habitat that has been colonised by lupins, creating an admittedly beautiful blue haze across the landscape. I could think of no creature that could live in the lupin desert, however, and it must be a very unproductive habitat, with no birds and no native plants. The lupin is controversial in Iceland. It is undeniably attractive, but it is an unwelcome alien which is out-competing native vegetation. I’m told that there was a recent pool to ask Icelanders what to do about the lupins – keep them or eradicate them – but the result was inconclusive. Just as many wanted to keep them as wanted to get rid of them.        

Lupin desert

All aboard for the ship was 20:30 for passengers, and I dropped Margaret off at about half-seven, but still had to refuel the car, return it to the car hire office, and walk back. At about ten past eight, Margaret began to panic when the ship phoned the cabin to ask where I was. This was, incidentally, just about the time I got back on board. We then managed to avoid each other searching the ship trying to find each other, so by the time sailaway time came around we were too tired to go on deck. In a way, this was a blessing. We cast off at almost exactly nine o’clock as advertised, but the north-east wind had freshened enough to make it extremely difficult to get the ship out from the berth and it was almost half-ten before we finally left the harbour.         

Ambience in port
View from the ship as we tried to leave the berth

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