A Final Tour
A final tour - In search of Birds and Parliaments
Saturday, July 14th
Our morning rise-time was dictated by Roland. His flight left at 10:30 a.m. in the morning, so the rest of the group slept in and made a late breakfast while I dropped Roland off about twenty minutes before 9 a.m.
The remaining six of us had pretty much a full day to do some more exploring; we only needed to be back to the airport for around 5pm, in order to catch our 7pm flight back to Canada. Thinking over the things we had not yet managed to see, we arrived upon the fact that although Iceland is quite famous for its interesting and large seabird population, we had not yet had a really good birdwatching session. And in particular, we had not managed to see the star attraction of birds in Iceland - the puffin. Well, at least not up close and personal, for we HAD seen a blurry glimpse of a few puffins at the rainy coastline stop at Vik, but that could hardly be considered satisfying.
A bit of internet and guidebook consulting as to what might be the best locations for birdwatching in the Reykjanes region revealed that a spit of land not far from downtown Reykjavik was a major bird area, so we decided to head there first, detouring through quiet Saturday streets to a windswept peninsula called Seltjarnarnes. We did encounter some birds at the first beachside spot that we stopped at, near a golf course, but not many, and no puffins (though I did get a picture of a black-headed gull). So, we drove around to the north side of the peninsula, only to find the path to it closed with a "closed until July 15th" sign. Two days hence. So much for bird-watching at Seltjarnarnes.
Putting bird-watching on the shelf for a bit, we decided to move on to another major Icelandic attraction that we had thus far skipped: the Þingvellir region. The region, home to Þingvellir National Park, is notable for its historical significance to Iceland (original location of the alþing, the world's oldest parliament) and also for its geological significance, being one of the best places to observe the rifting caused by the mid-atlantic ridge. Several of us had expressed an interest in visiting Þingvellir, but the tight logistics during our week meant we had had to skip it. Now, with a bit of extra time on our hands and with it being fairly close to Reykjavik, we decided to go and visit it.
Being only 50 kilometers outside of Reykjavik, it did not take long to drive to the Þingvellir area. Approaching from the west across windswept rolling hills, the area occupies a basin in which sits a large lake - Þingvallavatn (Iceland's largest lake) - with low mountains providing a distant backdrop. The boundaries of the national park encompass the northern end of the lake, and that is also where most of the interesting geology is located.
We stopped at a few roadside pullouts as we neared the basin, getting a good view of the broad lake and the wide lands around it. After crossing into the national park itself, we stopped at the main visitor center. It is from here that you get your first look down into the areas of major rifting and to the site of the historical area of the park, where the historical alþing - the Icelandic Parliament - was located.
Þingvellir interpretive plaque
Entrance, Þingvellir National Park
After getting the general overview from (where else?) the main overlook near the visitor center, we drove around and down into the basin, stopping in several places to explore several obvious smaller cracks in the earth, all caused by the spreading forces generated by the mid-atlantic ridge.
Boardwalk, Almannagjá canyon
From down below at one of the parking areas near the alþing, we started a circular loop to visit both the biggest rift and the historical sites.
Öxarárfoss and Almannagjá
The biggest rift is called the Almannagjá, and we hopped onto a nice, boardwalked path that ran along its trench, which was beautifully filled in with grass. Apparently, the rift is widening by a centimeter per year - not insubstantial, especially when you see first-hand the masses of land and rock that are affected by such movements.
The drowning pool
Presently, we came to a spot where the flow of the Öxará is "captured" by the rift, falling over a small waterfall to then follow the bottom of the rift. Some historical records indicate that the flow into the rift was the result of a man-made diversion in roughly the year 1000 A.D.
Center of Icelandic Pride
Continuing on, we came to the spot of the alþing - the General Assembly of the early Icelandic parliament. Today there are a few remnants of the camps that used to be set up here, and the law rock where the lawspeaker would dispense court judgements. There was also a nearby "drowning pool", where in some cases capital punishment was carried out. It was all a very scenic place to be judged, at the very least.
The parliament lasted in this location for nearly 900 years, before it was finally moved to the modern parliament in downtown Reykjavik. That's quite a massive span of history for a single continuous government entity.
At around the time that we were viewing these historic sites, the weather took a turn for the worse, with clouds, mist, drizzle and then rain. Having not brought my rain jacket, I picked up the pace, soon outdistancing the rest of the group. We described a walking circuit that crossed over a bridge on the Öxará, then headed back to some of the more recent historical sites at Þingvellir, the church and manor house.
Þingvellir church, interior
The rain effectively put the kaibosh on any further exploration at Þingvellir, so we headed back to the van and started our journey away from the area.
It was probably a good idea to generally start heading in the direction of the airport, seeing as it was now early afternoon. We decided to take a slightly longer route, one that followed the south coast of the Reykjanes peninsula. We still entertained some ideas about finding the perfect seabird cliffs with happy, nesting puffins, and if we noticed an interesting-looking side road over to a sea-cliff, we would check it out. It was that or go to the airport early and twiddle our thumbs.