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Dodgy geysers

Sunday, September 5th 1999

At Selfoss, we were harassed into staying at a guest house. We went to ask about the price, ready to compare it with the other place in town, but the owner rather fiercely said that hers was the cheapest, and the best. She dragged us inside. We now discovered that it was, in fact, an incredibly nice place. She showed us to our rooms, made us coffee, did our washing for us, put on the TV, and let us use the cooker to do dinner. After two weeks of camping and isolation, this was almost more than we could take. We relaxed completely for the evening, and slept as well as anyone ever has. The next day, we went to Geysir.

Unbeknown to us, the bus timetables had radically changed in early September, and we arrived at the bus station to find that we were three hours early. It was a Sunday, and so all there was to do was sit and play cards until the bus came. Just before we all went completely insane, the bus arrived, and we left for Geysir and Gullfoss.

We were going to stop off at Geysir, and go to Gullfoss later, but the friendly bus driver took us to Gullfoss free of charge. Gullfoss, the Golden Falls, are a hugely impressive double waterfall only 10 minutes down the road from Geysir, which makes this small corner of Iceland a tourist haven. Indeed, this was the busiest place we had yet been to. At least 40 people were wandering about at the falls. Golden Falls seems a bit of a misnomer, given that the water is a mucky brown from all the glacial silt it carries, but it actually refers to the rainbows that can be seen in the spray on a sunny day. Unfortunately, the day we went was not sunny enough, but it was impressive nonetheless. It lacked the utter isolation of Dettifoss, but was every bit as noisy and wet (see the curtains of spray in the photo). After an hour at Gullfoss, we went back to Geysir.

Geysir is the original geyser, of course. Earlier this century, it used to throw boiling water up to 60m in the air, but only every three or four days. Impatient tourists would customarily throw a rock or two in there to try and encourage it, but sadly, by 1916, this had altered the plumbing deep down to such an extent that it stopped erupting entirely. The local tourist industry, such as it was in those days, didn’t like this state of affairs, and so they drilled holes in the ground to artificially lower the water level. This set it off again for a few years, but it soon began to slow down again as the holes filled with mineral deposits. Unwilling to damage the delicate underground structures any further, people began instead to throw soap flakes into the water. This lowered the surface tension enough to cause an eruption. Eventually, though, even this was deemed environmentally unsound, and after a final Independence Day eruption party in 1996, Geysir was left alone.

Fortunately, there is another active geyser nearby. Strokkur (the churn) erupts every 10 minutes or so to heights of up to 20m. This keeps the nearby hotel in business, although clearly they are not so popular that they can bleed the tourists dry, because we managed to get a bed there for only £7. We booked in for two nights, and then went up to the action. It didn’t take long to find. As we walked up the path to Strokkur, a sudden rush of water burst from the ground, dwarfing the tourists standing around. "Gee WHIZZ! DID you see that? That was suure something!" shouted one of them. Yes, this was tourist country all right.

Nonetheless, snobbish traveller attitudes were quickly forgotten when we saw an eruption from close up. What you see at Strokkur is basically a pool of water with the top of a deep hole visible in the middle. The water in the hole is constantly moving and churning about as, deep down, it begins to boil. For what seems like an age between eruptions, the surface undulates eerily, and if it’s quiet, mysterious bumps and belches can be heard from beneath the ground.

Eventually, suddenly, one of the undulations will grow rapidly into a huge dome of water, which bursts, lofting the boiling water high into the air. After the water falls down again, it rushes back down the now empty hole, ready for another eruption.

Occasionally, another eruption will happen within a few seconds of the first. Very occasionally, more will happen after this. We were very lucky, while we were there, to witness one memorable thirty seconds during which six large eruptions occurred. Not even the tourist hordes could detract from that.

Much later in the day, when all the tourists had gone, I went back up to Strokkur. It was long after the sunset, and a heavy rain shower had left the sky looking moody. In the quiet and near-darkness, Strokkur took on a much more spectacular appearance. The muffled thumps from below seemed much louder now, and when an eruption occurred, it was much less expected, and much more breathtaking. Part of the reason I went up was to get rid of the vague feeling that it was all put on for the tourists. Happily, it proved not to be, and I was left much more impressed.

Later still, when it was completely dark, I went up again, and found that it really was still going, and now, when I could only see it by the light of my torch, it was truly awe-inspiring. The sudden mighty rush of boiling water and spray was breathtaking. It seemed all the more unique and amazing to realise that almost no-one ever sees this side of Strokkur. I went up three times after dark while we were there, and didn’t see anyone else.

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