William Holt gets back to nature and explores the Golden Circle.
For years I’d wondered what the word ‘sublime’ truly meant; all those lectures on the Romantics and their adoration of natural landscapes, inspiring their poetry and lust for adventure got me wondering – but now I had found it. Standing above a secluded pond at the end of Ásbyrgi, a vast horseshoe shaped canyon said to be the product of Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir, I was in utter awe of what nature could accomplish. The sun had barely dipped to the horizon before it was to rise again in the early hours of the morning. Everything was utterly silent and soaked in a dark red glow. This is Iceland: the true land of ice and fire.
Iceland is for some a stopover while hopping from the UK to the US or vice versa. The bustling and homely capital Reykjavík and the famous natural wonders of the Golden Circle are every tourist’s dream and can be swiftly explored within a couple of days. But this island holds so much more. Iceland is a wild, breathtaking and living, breathing island with adventure and splendour waiting for you around every winding bend.
With a 4×4 rented on our arrival to Reykjavík, our group planned to traverse the full island in an anti-clockwise direction, using the Ring Road as our path and taking detours into the interior and to the coast where required.
The Golden Circle
We were quick and eager to explore the Golden Circle following a taste of the country’s capital. Reykjavík, with its impressive Hallgrímskirkja church, bustling harbour and quirky, creative atmosphere and history, treated us well. But we were here for nature; for a touch of the sublime. Iceland’s celebrated tourist route was waiting.
The Golden Circle is Iceland’s principal tourist route. You can make the drive in under 24 hours if you’re so inclined or take your time to take in the vast array of natural phenomena that make up the 100km trail. Take a dive into Iceland’s political past with Þingvellir, the location of an ancient Viking parliament that straddles two tectonic plates; visit the almighty Geysir, the very original geyser gazing location; experience the awe of Gullfoss, the two tiered waterfall that will inevitably get you soaked.
But that wasn’t enough. We desired to escape the buzz of the tourist trails and get out into the true wild. Diverting from the circle, we wanted to venture out and camp in the mountains for our first night outside of Reykjavík. We made for Þakgil, a campsite nestled in strange rock formations, deep into the ash plains and crags of southern Iceland. Hikes from here were incredible, traversing ashy ravines and gazing across to the many active volcanoes that are continually forming Iceland anew.
Iceland, like Scotland, has its own version of the freedom to roam law. You can camp on any uncultivated ground, with limitations of course and respecting the beautiful environment. We didn’t get a chance to do this, but it’s often a popular choice for adventurers. To soak in the culture and meet fellow travellers, we instead favoured further campsites, cabins, hostels and handy Airbnbs scattered across the island.
Hallgrímskirkja church in Reykjavik. The statue of Leif Erikson in the foreground
William at Hverfjall
The view from Hverfjall
The waterfall at Seljalandsfoss
Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon
The two-tiered waterfall at Gullfoss
After many days of further exploring, heading east along the coast and taking in the majestic, glassy sights of the Vatnajökull glacier and Jökulsárlón glacial lagoon, we settled up in a friendly farm on the Berufjörður fjord before heading to the north. Did you know Iceland has its own Loch Ness monster? The Lagarfljót lake was our next stop and despite gazing into the murky depths, no mysteries were solved that day. The Lagarfljót worm remains at large.
Northern Iceland was another beast entirely. Where the south was rugged but peppered with small villages here and there, the north-west in particular was desolate. It is here that the great Dettifoss roars: Europe’s most powerful waterfall, its waters flow down into the Ásbyrgi canyon. The night of our canyon walk, it being mid-August, I was told there was no chance of seeing the northern lights. Yet, as we pitched our tent at one end of the horseshoe formation, we gazed out into the hazy midnight sky and caught flashes and curves of a great green wave, twisting across the sky.
Game of Thrones fans will rejoice. Not only is Iceland home to most of the filming of ‘beyond the Wall’ but other locations such as Jon Snow and Ygritte’s romantic cave are still free to visit. The cave is one of the many impressive sights of the Mývatn region. Supremely volcanic, sulphurous pools, alien rock formations and the great lake dominate the landscape here and were more astounding sights to add to our memories as we looked out from the rim of the massive, ancient crater of Hverfell.
After a brief hostel stop in the second largest settlement, Akureyri, the Westfjords peninsula was our final destination before returning to Reykjavík. If you’re looking for a spook, Hólmavik is for you. With a dark past, Hólmavik is home to the captivating Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft, exhibiting a large concentration of trials, rune discoveries and monstrous tales from the area. And to complete the atmosphere, as we approached the town, a dense layer of fog rolled in and remained for the majority of our time there.
The following day we had completed our circle. We were back in Reykjavík with hearty meal of lobster soup; I had learnt so much and seen so much in such a small space of time and was in utter awe of the country’s wild beauty. And getting to Iceland is certainly no hassle. I flew with WOW air, an airline that flies direct from Edinburgh, to Keflavík airport, just a short journey to Reykjavík where you’re able to cosy up in no time. But don’t wait around too long – make sure to rent yourself a vehicle and set off on your trip of a lifetime. Skál!
Note: Wow air has ceased trading since this article was written. You can now fly to Iceland directly from Edinburgh Airport with Easyjet.