7. Akureyri-Mývatn

Akureyri to Mývatn_travel notes 7

August 17th

Total distance covered: 290 km | 180 miles



Goðafoss (Waterfall of the Gods) is on the Skjálfandafljót River, directly off Route 1. This massive horseshoe-shaped falls drops around 40 feet and spans almost 100 feet in width. The name of the falls originates from Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði (yes, that is one name). He was the Icelandic lawspeaker who was faced with the enormous task of settling the growing disputes between Christians and Pagans at the Alþingi in the year 1000 A.D. After meditating on this issue, Þorgeir Þorkelsson Ljósvetningagoði, a pagan priest himself, declared Christianity the official religion of Iceland, although he also suggested that Pagans could still practice their religion in private. As the story goes, upon returning from Þingvellir and after making this monumental religious decision, he threw his pagan idol into this waterfall. Names of places in Iceland are often derived from story or legend.


Namafjall (the east side of the ridge) is part of Hverir, an extremely active geothermal field. Stepping out of the car, a strong sulphurous smell filled the air. We noticed this rotten-egg smell at other areas of geothermal activity, but the intensity here was unsurpassed. Looking at the horizon, it didn’t take long to figure out where this smell was coming from: clouds of steam and fumes were continuously spouting from this tumultuous land. This ground was truly alive; alive with heat, sound, movement, and smell (probably taste too, but I didn’t go that far). All of my senses were heightened in this environment. The vivid colors and textures of the ground were absolutely incredible. Respect, fascination, and curiosity for the earth resounded in fellow visitor’s faces. The mudpots made lovely, viscous gurgling sound, and fumaroles expelled hot and smelly steam that engulfed those in close proximity. Slow gurgles, fast spouts, soft blurps, hissing screams, warm dense air, and steaming hot vapors all added layers to this incredibly rich environment. At times it seemed as if everything stopped. A large spout of steam erupted and filled the void as the hissing sound boomed, reverberated, and dominated all airwaves and thought for a brief moment.

A series of pathways and hikes provide visitors the opportunity to explore this wildly active terrain from different perspectives. We hiked up, and around the ridge of the main “hotspot”. Taking this smaller path provided a high vantage point; people below appeared as small dots in a field of immense steam, color, and movement. As we climbed up above the most active part of this geothermal field, the massive context in which it sat became apparent. Surrounding this area was a vast sea of older, darker, lava. How old was that lava field? Was there lichen in the lava field which would reveal the age to someone experienced in Icelandic lichenology? Do lava fields go through succession (like our fields and forests at home)? This hour-long trek also provided us the opportunity to view and explore the landscape in relative solitude. Somehow, this separation from the masses, gave my mind more time to process the phenomena taking place around me. I noticed the wind change course. Below the steam clouds reflected this movement, yet engulfing a different group of visitors, on the other side. The colors, so prominent in this land, told me a story. I am sure I have only touched the surface, but this is what I observed: whites, yellows and greens surrounded steamy vents; greys filled more liquid areas like mudpots; reds, browns and yellows colored the surrounding sandy terrain; blacks and browns took the form of harder material, rock, often higher up on the ridge. All these colors had their own distinct place, yet at the same time they all melded together to create this landscape of wonder.


I quickly snapped back into reality upon returning from our hike. The car’s engine wouldn’t turn over. I had left the headlights on. With all this potential energy steaming up from the surrounding ground, I found it somewhat amusing that I couldn’t tap into any of it. I felt powerless. As it turns out, our car problem introduced us to some other extremely helpful and friendly tourists. With one Italian grandfather leading the way, his German grandson, and three other strong-bodied Frenchmen, who had “just done this themselves”, provided the much needed power to push-start our little manual car.

It wasn’t surprising when, a few miles down the road from the extremely activeNamafjall area, we came upon the turn to the Krafla Power Station. Due to our dead battery we decided it was best to take a spin out into the lava field and give the car battery a chance to recharge. This drive provided time for us to fill our bellies and make a small sign to stick on the steering wheel “TURN OFF LIGHTS”. Driving past Krafla Power station, we were able us to see the masses of clouds hovering over the plant. It was no secret where the energy from this ground was being tapped into. Steam clouds flapped in the wind as white flags of surrender marking these areas from miles around.

Krafla Power Station was massive. Steam, pipes, buildings, and bore hole coverings visually dominated the surrounding terrain. While I have done some research on harnessing geothermal power, the scale of this plant was completely overwhelming. Impressive. Scary. Machine-like. What planet is this? Wait, how did those sheep get there? What is actually happening? Where does this all go? Powerlines + Pipes?

We slowly rolled the car through the main vehicular artery of this complicated infrastructure. Where the pipes met the road, they rose up, creating a piped gateway. At points, I pulled off the larger road to let cars pass and to take photographs. There were plenty of smaller roads leading out into this pipe-scape, but a yellow sign “starfsmenn aðeins” cautioned us. While I wasn’t sure exactly what this signs said, it was not inviting. We later translated these words to English. We learned they mean “employees only”. It turns out I had the guessed right. While it was easy to drive along the main road and “see” this impressive plant, stopping and getting information proved to be another issue. In all of our lollygagging on this main road, we did not see one worker. Where were all the people? Before we knew it the plant had passed, the pipes were starting to run into the distance and the larger buildings were behind us. We came upon a parking area from which numerous hiking trails dispersed. We pulled off the road for a view over what we had just experienced and a moment to reflect. Before we were able to reflect, we were greeted by the same Italian grandfather and German grandson who had saved us from our ‘dead’ battery dilemma. They invited us to join them in visiting Detifoss. It was after the “most powerful waterfall in all of Europe,” exclaimed the Italian grandfather. 



Detifoss provided the chance to see yet another massive, extrodinary waterfall. When we arrived at the falls it had begun to sprinkle and grey mist saturated the air. The grandson and I walked quickly with anticipation, speaking to one another of our Icelandic travel experiences. As we approached the falls the grey mist was thick and he asked, “Do you think we’ll be able to see it?” If we couldn’t see it, we certainly would be able to feel and hear it. The roar of this powerful waterfall had called to us as soon as we stepped out of our vehicles, and its raging voice only intensified as we reached the falls. There, in the grey-brown mist, thundering torrents of brown water cascaded over a 150-foot drop. Spanning over 300 feet in width, Detifoss is said to have an average water flow of 633 ft3/s. That’s a LOT of water! The waterfall is located on the Jökulsá á Fjöllum River that flows from the Vatnajökull glacier. We were witnessing an enormous exchange of water: from glacier to sea.



Mývatn Nature Baths provided the perfect opportunity to relax after a chilly, wet and full day. Being in these warm, aqua-blue waters was as magical as these pictures appear. For the most part I didn’t speak with anyone; I just wanted to absorb this entire environment. The blue I had been drawn to around the hissing vents in the soil now colored the water that filled this enormous pool. Minerals and silicates from below the earth’s surface were working not only to rejuvenate the body, but also the mind.





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Thvottalaugar (Washing pools): a historical “hot spot” of Reykjavik

 (source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

Even before Iceland’s geothermal waters were harnessed to produce energy, geothermal water was recognized for its important contribution to a community. Iceland’s Ancient records indicate that geothermal springs were used for washing and bathing. Cleanliness was considered an important factor in Nordic life. Carrying baskets of laundry was not a light task. If the distance to hot water was far from the homestead it was a great burden. Women gathered at nearby hot springs or hot streams to use the already heated water for washing. Laundering was hard, steamy, work, but it also served as time for ladies to socialize.

Norse poetic literature emphasized the importance of grooming and cleanliness. This example is from Reginsmal (The Ballad of Regin):

“Combed and washed | shall the wise man go, And a meal at mom shall take;

For unknown it is | where at eve he may be; It is ill thy luck to lose.”

(source: Torfbæjum inn i Taækniöld, Annð Bindi)

In towns with larger populations, laundering was an even larger communal event for the ladies and their children. Because there were many homesteads in these areas, washing often required walking a further distance.Thvottalaugar (washing pools) was a busy locale set to the east in Reykjavik. The road which led from the heart of the city to Thvottalaugar was named Laugavegur (washing road). This road was well worn by women carrying baskets and workers carting loads of wash.

Contemporary Laugavegur is the “major shopping” road of downtown Reykjavik. Traveling east along this road, travelers will find Laugardalur Park where Thvottalaugar remains today (although dry). Along with the gorgeous old infrastructure a structure and signage exist to describe the history of this site.

Thvottalaugar in its Laugardalur Park environs (photographs in October 2011)One of the first trial wells for geothermal water was sunk at Thvottalaugar between 1755, and 1756 by Eggert Olafsson and Bjarni Palsson. Between 1928 and 1930, more wells were sunk in the Thvottalaugar vicinity in pursuit of hot water for space heating. In 1930 enough geothermal water was recovered from these wells to heat Austurbackjarskili, a school in Reykjavik. The school was the first building in the city to be heated by geothermal water. Shortly after the school, the hospital, public pool and approximately 60 residential houses were connected to and utilized hot water from the geothermal pipeline originating at Thvottalaugar.

Vatnavinir Friends of Water recognize the importance of Thvottalaugar and have created a very interesting proposal for the area.


“The washing springs in Laugardalur lie at the centre of the history and development of the City of Reykjavík. Here, maids washed heavy loads of clothes, people and animals bathed, boys and girls learnt their first swimming strokes, experiements were made with cheesemaking and drilling for hot water for heating and electricity.

But steam no longer soars towards the skies and there is little to remind of old times other than stone walls by the dried up stream and grass covered washing tubs now long disconnected.

Vatnavinir propose the creation of a Geothermal Centre to honour the important history of water use in a vibrant way, e.g. by bringing to life the spirit of the old springs – the white linen blowing in the wind, the outlines of people in the steam, the smell of hot water and coffee.

Hot water may again be supplied to the springs and the stream (Laugalækur), now contained within an underground pipe, allowed to flow again along a part of its old channel linking the Botanical Garden and the old washing springs.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

The baths themselves are an education centre around hot water in a historical and geological context and are underground. Guests relax in hot pools while they learn about utilisation and origin of the hot water and geothermal heat through multimedia. In the evenings silence reigns – all screens are turned off and the bath house only used for bathing – but there could be occasional events in the evenings – story and poetry evenings, film screenings, concerts or even naming of children.

A public laundromat is also to be found here where guests and passers-by can wash their clothes. The laundromat is a historical museum on washing utensils and appliances but open to public use. Guests could choose between washing clothes on a washboard in a tub or in a washing machine from 1950. Simple refreshments, reminescent of the food washing women and travellers ate in times past, will be on sale – hot spring coffee and baked bread, fish, potatoes and meat. Paddling pools for children are in old washing tubs. The largest pool is open to the sky but beneath the present surface and white linen blows in the wind on lines above it creating a play of light and shadow in the pool.

   (source: Vatnavinir)

It is also proposed that a small steam power station be erected, which would supply the area with electricity. Thus the project – once upon a time began but never finished – would be brought full circle to its conclusion and the area thereby also made self-sustainable in terms of electricity.” (source: Vatnavinir)

Daylighting the stream and allowing geothermal heat/energy to stimulate this area, as it did in the past, is an extremely exciting prospect. I also see another important aspect to this historical rejuvenation as linking this steamy location back to Laugavegur, the main shopping street. Not only is this path a historical reference, but it would draw people from the center of the city to this lesser known area. I believe Thvottalaugar has huge potential!

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