Iceland loves its circle tours: Golden Circle, Diamond Circle, Silver Circle, and of course circling the entire country. But one autumnal Saturday, we discovered a day trip which shaped up to be a great way to get to know plenty about Iceland’s lava. From its journey from the centre of the earth, to its power of geothermal energy, and what it becomes when it reaches the sea. The best part is, you can do all this in a single day, and can complete the circle either clockwise or counterclockwise.
This, however, is the journey we took.
Into the lava
We headed out of Reykjavík going east on Route 1, and taking the southbound exit to Ölfus. This took us to Raufarhólshellir, site of the famed Lava Tunnel.
For the unfamiliar, the tunnel in question is a lava tube, formed by the Leitahraun eruption, which set off just east of the Bláfjöll mountains some 5,200 years ago. As Kallia, our guide, explained, lava tunnels are formed due to the top-down cooling effect of flowing lava; the top layer cools quickly, but the lava underneath continues flowing. Once the eruption slows, so too does the lava flow, until it stops altogether, leaving a tunnel behind.
It’s difficult to put into words just how awe inspiring it is to stand within a cavity where lava once flowed around the time the pyramids were being built in Egypt. Natural “skylights” formed by parts of the roof collapsing into the tunnel let the sunlight reveal deep reds from iron oxide splashed across rippling layers of lava, swirls and spirals of currents frozen in time.
The whole effect gives a strong impression of the sheer power of the forces beneath our feet. We wanted to stay longer, but we had a schedule to keep, so off we went.
If you see a dead whale, avoid it
From Raufarhólshellir we went south, to Þorlákshöfn. As it so happened, there was an enormous beached fin whale a couple minutes east of us, and so we opted to check that out before continuing the circle. A small detour from this themed tour in order to see an entire whale up close.
I regret to report that the experience was both sad and repugnant. The carcass, surrounded by families with little kids cavorting around, was a week old at this point. Even from a dozen metres away, the smell was overpowering, and uncannily resembled the smell of a human cadaver. On closer inspection, the whale bore signs that someone had sawed off some of its baleen. We didn’t linger.
History’s march to the sea
Heading west from Þorlákshöfn along the coastal Route 427, we were treated to expanses of lava fields unseen by those who stick to the Ring Road. Much of this area is relatively “young lava,” a mere few centuries old, and still bears the contours of freshly erupted waves making their slow march to the sea. The road winds through a patchwork of sea green, silver, and ochre moss that accentuates their shapes.
This took us to Grindavík. In need of a good stretch and much needed nourishment, we paid a visit to Bryggjan, a nondescript café by the harbour. The nautical decor—fishing ropes and nets hung from the ceiling—is charmingly corny, but the real treat here is the soup. Whether you get lobster or vegetable, you serve yourself, the refills are endless, the bread is free, and the effect is both satiating and wholesome.
How Iceland keeps the lights on
There are several lookout points along this route and further west, where you can see the lava meeting the crashing waves. We pressed on to Gunnuhver, part of the same geothermal system that feeds into the Blue Lagoon and provides power to a good portion of the country.
Walking the wooden decks around the plumes of powerful steam, it’s a stark reminder of how the same forces that have wreaked so much havoc on this island over the centuries are the same ones that also provide Icelandic homes with heat and a good portion of their electricity.
Completely wiped out by this point, we got back on the road for Reykjavík—tired, sure, but also thoroughly satisfied with this newfound circle tour.
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