Foss! Icelands curiously fascinating geology

The people and culture of Iceland are distinctive. With strong Viking traditions, Legend and folklore, and a population sparsely already outside of Reykjavik of around 330,000, the personalities are unique. It's unique environment coupled with it's socially progressive atmosphere emphasise independence of mind and spirit. It's little wonder that tourists come here in their droves and leave with a totally changed perspective on life.

The Westfjords

Iceland is a country like no other. Boasting the youngest landscape on the planet, it's a baby compared to the other more mature chunks of land out there, but in comparison its youthfulness is hardly reflected in what you see. The country is in a constant state of evolution, being set with a fault line dissecting right through it from corner to corner. Where the North American and European tectonic plates meet in the North Atlantic a whole array of geology lessons are taught. The country itself is the result of such furious activity that the sea floor rose higher and higher until it emerged from the sea to create the land, exclusively by way of spilling lava from deep within the earths core which piled up and up and up. The fault lines can be seen and there's no mistaking what they are. Dotting the landscape of the Reykjanes peninsular are rising chunks of rock forced up through volcanic activity. To be there and see it first hand is incredible - it really shows you the truths behind your geography class. This movement on the earth has been going on for millennia and is still going on right now. In fact, on the Reykjanes peninsular there are around 3 earthquakes every week, albeit very small ones! One day a very, very long time ago the Vikings set out to the North and stumbled across Ísland, and whatever was going through their minds must've been magical to see. A harsh, unforgiving land where fire and ice meet, lights dance overhead, and a winters day lasts but a few hours. A land where the largest native land mammal is the Arctic fox, where there are howling Arctic gales, shadows and caves for naughty elves to hide in. It's little wonder that so much folklore came from these times and survives in legend to this date.

A crater on the Reykjanes Peninsula

Since then the Icelanders have introduced some farm animals much larger than the Arctic fox - namely cattle, sheep and horses, and it's the horses that astound me the most. These are the toughest horses around, no word of a lie. They withstand all the conditions the harsh winters can throw at them. And they still seem to smile. The extreme conditions have been ingeniously harnessed to make it worth having these horses here for recreation. Every last bit of extreme weather and natural phenomenon that can be exploited to create energy for the people of Iceland has been cunningly done and it's this which minimises the footprint, both human and carbon. In Reykjavik, for example, are hot water tanks which are used to store the geothermically heated water pulled from deep underground. This water is already between 80-100 Celsius and is pumped straight into the homes of the surrounding suburbs, so no energy is required to heat the hot water. I'll point out that the water from the hot tap is the hottest I've found, and a shower with water packed full of sulphur, silica and other such nutrients leaves you feeling great!

Blue Lagoon

The stream of water in Iceland is endless and this too is used for power, churning through hydroelectric plants and lighting the entire country with something that's there anyway and leaves zero emissions. But this water supply is fascinating in itself. The word foss is Icelandic for waterfall, and they're everywhere! With 4 permanent glaciers encasing vast mountain ranges on an island with an Arctic maritime climate the source is virtually endless. Just as often as it leaves the glaciers the water is replaced from the sky, even coming from inside the earth as steam rising from geothermal pools. The hunt for waterfalls in Iceland is one of the most popular tourist activities and their sheer power and variety is mesmerising and beautiful. Skógafoss is perhaps one of the most famous, being readily accessible and just a few hours from Reykjavik, it rises 60 metres from the bottom of the falls and flows away as a river with a plain to it's one side and mountainous foothills to the other. Seljalandafoss is the one we've all seen photographed from the rear, soaking anyone brave (or stupid) enough to venture too far forwards. This waterfall is treacherous in the winter owing to the slipperiest ice I've ever come across, but in the summer months a stroll around the back of it is worth getting a bit wet for. But if you really, and I mean REALLY, want to get wet then take a walk along to Gljufrafoss which is a two waterfalls inland, just a couple of hundred metres away. From afar you see the top of the falls cascading over the top of the mountain's edge, which abruptly disappears behind a rock. This rock hides an awesome secret which many don't brace, and this secret is a gorge a couple of metres wide with a flowing floor which, upon entering through a cold mist, opens out into a cavern with a perfectly placed rock and just enough space to get a decent view all the way to the top. In stark contrast there's the sheer might of Gulfoss, flushing millions of gallons of the purest glacial water over two diagonal tiers dissecting a canyon which defies belief. Living just up the road from Strokkur, the younger and still active little brother of the now dormant Geysir, these falls pull in crowds from around the world provoking jaw drops and awe. Svartifoss, also in the south, is a walk from the nearest place to park but a walk that's absolutely worth it. Set among a basalt rock formation, the cascade drops down the dark lava columns which create it.

The view behind Seljalandsfoss

Further north in the Westfjords, a stones throw as the crow flies but hours of twisting roads in reality, the sharp, rugged landscape hosts falls just as impressive as the south. Kirkjufellsfoss is one place undoubtedly familiar if you've cast an eye over a guide to Iceland, sitting right beside a pointy mountain and flowing straight into the fjord at the town of Grundafjordur. This, like many of the waterfalls dotting the Westfjord region, is worth the hours of driving through ever evolving landscapes which, for obvious reasons, are the sets for Hollywood blockbusters masquerading as other worldly planets, fantasias of the likes of J. R. Tolkien, and the ice palaces and hideouts of Bond villains.









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David Williams


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