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For as long as I can remember I have wanted to visit one of those natural hot springs that shoots steaming water up into the air from deep below the earth’s surface and, while there were lots of things I was looking forward to seeing and experiencing on my trip to Iceland, seeing what is commonly and mistakenly referred to as a ‘geyser’ was at the top of my list.
Naturally most other visitors to Iceland want to see one too so it’s easy to book yourself onto a trip to see one. Usually this is part of a trip that takes in a few different sights known collectively as the ‘Golden Circle’ but there are loads of permutations so it is best to look at what the different companies are offering. If you have hired a car you can drive out to the site of the hot springs; it’s about an hour and a half from Reykjavik.
The hot springs are clustered in an area known as Haukadulur; here there are hot springs (including ‘Geysir’, the one all other such springs are named after), mud pools and other geothermal features. There’s a purpose built visitor centre and hotel and car parking area just over the road but, other than the occasional summer cottage, there’s nothing for miles.
Only one geyser, Strokkur (the name means ‘churn’), is currently active but there are little plumes of steam and teeny bubbling pools of mud here and there on the edges of the path that remind you that this area is a hotbed of geothermal activity. The all the geysers are roped off, even the non-active ones, including Geysir itself.
Geysers only exist in volcanic areas where there is lots of magma in the earth. Water seeps down through the earth's surface and comes into contact with the red hot magma. As the water boils and becomes pressurised it has to somehow escape and so it is forced upwards though vents, creating geysers. Strokkur was first spotted in the late eighteenth century and the vent was created as a result of an earthquake. However, in the early twentieth century another earthquake blocked the vent effectively suspending activity of Strokkur. In the mid 1960s it was agreed that the conduit should be re-opened to allow Strokkur to erupt again - as tourism to these sights is a major source of income you can understand why the powers that be decided to interfere with nature. (There is much more to know about geysers and how and why they do what they do - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geyser for more information).
Although a basic path has been made through the area sturdy shoes are recommended and as the weather here is changeable at any time of year you should bear in mind that the path could be wet, muddy and a little slippy. One of the great things about visiting these natural sights in Iceland is that all concessions to tourism have been done to create as little environmental impact as possible, you never have to walk a long way from the bus to see anything so the most popular locations are accessible to people who have reduced mobility and here even wheelchair users can get as close as anyone else. The ropes around the geyser can be moved by the staff according to the weather because when it is windy the hot water has a tendency to be blown quite a way from the spout; however, it is only a simple single rope barrier so those travelling with children should ensure the children don't stray under the rope as the water is fiercely hot and the spray travels some distance.
Strokkur is probably the most visited of Iceland's geysers because it is the one that you can be most certain of seeing in action. Currently it erupts every four to eight minutes; we were lucky enough to see it erupt three times in very quick succession and then waited another ten minutes to see a final eruption before we sought sanctuary from the cold winds and retreated to the visitor centre. Everyone had cameras at the ready and snapped away for all they were worth when the geysir erupted. Even in late April it was freezing and your fingers quickly become numb when clutching your camera in the hope of capturing the moment the geysir explodes. Although there were a few coaches in when we visited the area wasn't over-crowded (possibly because most people wanted to get warm after they'd seen the spring erupt a couple of times) and there was plenty of room for even shorties like me to get a good view point.
Just before the geyser explodes the little pool of pale blue, silica tinted water sputters slightly and becomes a little domed. Then comes the gush of hot water; it rises with a loud hiss, the pressure pushing it about twenty metres into the air (though it can rise as high as 40 metres). It's worth moving around to see Strokkur erupt from different angles, and also worth seeing it erupt at least a couple of times because each time it's just a little different from the last. For me the fourth time was just as much fun as the first; you just can't help but gasp and giggle as the geysir gurgles then propels this spout of water into the air before gradually retreating from whence it came, leaving no sign of the spectacle that you've just observed. Personally I'd have said it was worth the expense and the time to travel to this area just to see Strokkur go up once.
Across the road the visitors centre comprises a cafe-restaurant serving everything from a coffee to a full meal, and an expansive shopping area where you can choose from a wide choice of souvenirs, outdoor clothing and quality handmade items. Prices are high, both in the cafe and in the restaurant and it's certainly not a place you'll find cheap and tacky souvenirs - everything here screams quality. At least the toilets are free of charge!
I've heard some people describe Strokkur as a tourist trap: I can't agree with that. Certainly the visitor centre and hotel wouldn't have been built here were it not for the hot springs but there are so few places in the world to see this stunning natural phenomena that I can forgive the Icelandic government for making some money from it and, besides, the centre is located in a slight dip making very little visual impact on the landscape (and, I am told, designed to make little environmental impact generally). Yes the gift shop and restaurant are expensive even by Icelandic standards but it's completely free to enter the hot springs area - something I'd have willingly paid to see.
==Note: the original Iceland hot spring was named 'Geysir' from the Icelandic 'geysa' which means 'to gush'. This was altered to 'geyser' which is what all such hot springs are known as.==