SEYDISFJORDUR, Iceland – My approach to travel is to keep minimal expectations. However with Iceland I couldn’t help myself: I wanted to idyllic natural hot springs carved out of rock populated by supple valkyries. Nothing less! So after spending too much time on a work assignment at a fish festival seeking out these natural treasures became priority one.
After spending way too long in a fish processing town for a freelance radio piece, I bivouacked in a geothermal hot springs town on Myvatn Lake where a gaudy contemporary health spa complex has recently been constructed. It didn’t appeal and I instead contented to dip myself in 114°F (46°C) water in the caves of Grotagja, a fissure that runs along the great divide between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. Still, I thought there must be something better though the few locals I spoke to were tight-lipped about any better pools.
My luck broke when after a young woman picked me up hitchhiking and told me of a place where the water isn’t as scalding or populated by camera-wielding tourists who don’t go in the water but photograph those who do and then proceed to cackle in their native tongue (usually Italian or German).
She went as far as offer to show me the place herself. I’d found my valkyrie! Not surprisingly she had a change of heart and stood me up. Probably she realized the folly of showing a loud-mouth foreigner like myself the sacred pools that local people are able to keep for themselves and away from the madding crowd.
Fortunately she was careless enough to give me fairly specific directions and I set off the following day to find these forbidden springs without a guide. I went through a gate marked “PRIVATE” and found myself in the midst of a gaggle of Germans (they are always the first foreigners to plant the flag!) splayed on the grass by a camper van. They seemed lethargic as if – as if they’d been soaking in a hot springs. I approached cautiously, walking my bike, affecting a humble demeanor. I asked after the hot springs.
There was an awkward silence. They looked at each other – it was obvious they didn’t want to show me. I held my ground and returned their stare.
Finally one of them broke the stony silence: “You want us to divulge a secret?”
The staring contest continued until one of the females cried out: “Oh come on guys, tell him…”
I was shown a narrow path and a plank of wood leading down to a fissure containing the pools. The lead German asked if anyone knew I was here, presumably I thought, measuring whether he should kill me and throw the body down into one of the volcanic caves. But no – he said he was concerned about the steep climb. He had a point: there places where one could plunge to their death or at least cripple themselves and it’d be a long wait before someone found you. But I managed not to slip.
Inside was a deep narrow ravine filled with hot water. Concrete had been poured in places to facilitate lounging but in many places it was deep. The water wasn’t as hot as the cave fissure and pleasant enough to loaf.
These healing waters made me forget that I’d been spending most of the trip cycling narrow, steep roads and fighting headwinds by day on an overloaded mountain bike with studded winter tires and freezing in near-freezing temperatures in an inadequate sleeping bag atop a leaking air mattress by night.
What a place. After nearly three weeks in Iceland I can say I found all that I was looking for – and then some.