Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Continental plates 2, Northern Lights 0

Following in-depth research last night, it had been decided that I would get up at 6am to check for the Northern Lights. My enthusiasm was somewhat diminished by the time the alarm went off, but I pulled on my warm clothes over pyjamas and ventured outside. So glad I did! Not that the Aurora appeared but it was beautiful nonetheless; still and silent, the snowy mountains glowing in the moonlight and a million twinkling stars. Just our luck that perfect weather conditions coincide with a period of very low auroral activity.

Back to bed for a couple more hours before proper waking time, still well before dawn. We sit down to breakfast at 9; not such an impressive spread as yesterday but as it's new year's day we're not sure where our next meal will come from so we eat well and I pack a sandwich for Alex.

When we set off for the Golden Circle the moon is still high in the sky. We drive for half an hour before seeing another car, then find a petrol station open and stop for drinks and a coach party arrives - the first we've seen.

Our first stop today is the crater of a small volcano at Kerið. We take a brief look from the rim, then found a path leading right down to the frozen pool at the bottom; there was even a bench down there! Alex enjoyed skimming stones across the ice.

We continue on to Þhingvellir national park and drive around the plain between the Eurasian and North American continental plates. The scenery is dramatic, with deep rifts, rocky escarpments and corrugated rocks made when oozing lava solidified. We stop briefly at the information centre for lunch and the woman who serves us advises us where to go - there is a path through the rift valley to the place where Iceland's ancient parliament first sat, and a bonus - another waterfall.

 The sun has already set when we set off for Geysir but at this latitude twilight lasts a couple of hours, giving the illusion that time has stood still. We can tell when we're nearing our destination as the plumes of steam are visible in the distance. The original Geysir no longer blows unless there is an earthquake but Strokkur lets rip every 8-10 minutes. There are a number of steaming pools of various sizes and they cast a pall of steam that looks pretty atmospheric in the gathering gloom.

We still have Gullfoss waterfall to see today but it's almost dark when we set off and although it's only 10km down the road it's impossible to see it when we arrive, although we can hear it rumbling. Our hotel is only 30km away so we can return in the morning.

The route to Flúðir starts off as an unmade road but it's well maintained and clearly marked. There are points on the horizon where an eerie orange glow lights the sky; we think it's the sodium lamps in greenhouses. We find our hotel easily, it's larger and more modern than the others we have stayed in, but there's only one car in the car park - although a coach arrives as we bring in our bags. Apart from this, the sizeable town seems deserted - there's nobody about and the silence is slightly surreal.

Our room is rather like a beach hut, and the bathroom has a door opening onto a central garden where the beach hut effect is even more pronounced. We turn on the tv and find that Celebrity Mastermind (formerly compered by Icelander Magnus Magnusson) was about to start, followed by Up. Having postponed an earlier trip to Iceland in search of the Northern Lights, Simon had insisted we shouldn't let the trip become an "Up" moment - if I was superstitious. I would definitely consider this A SIGN.

We check the forecast again and see that we have total cloud cover and low auroral activity, meaning no chance to see the Northern Lights tonight. But we all agree that it's not too much of a disappointment because of everything else we've seen. After dinner in the hotel we discover that it's snowing: a definite bonus for Alex. We end our day with a snowball fight and build a snowman.

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