On Thursday 23rd March, 35 students and 4 teachers from William Edwards School (Grays, Essex) left London Heathrow on what would be the school trip of a lifetime to Iceland.
The group were the winners of Halsbury’s 30th anniversary competition – which meant they would be enjoying the trip at the equivalent 1980’s price, saving them over £400pp!
Although several members of the group were slightly apprehensive, this being their first time abroad without their parents, most were incredibly excited about their Icelandic adventure!
The Blue Lagoon
On arrival at Keflavík Airport, the group collected their luggage and were met by Ian K Hardie, their expert guide, and Palli, their friendly Icelandic coach driver.
From the airport the group headed straight for their first stop – the Blue Lagoon. For many students, this was the visit that they were most looking forward to. And, having had to get up in the wee small hours of the morning, everyone was very excited about the opportunity to enjoy a relaxing dip in the warm waters!
On the way there, Ian explained to the group how the Blue Lagoon came to be. He spoke about the geothermal activity and how the water in the lagoon is actually the waste water from the nearby geothermal power plant, which generates electricity and hot water. And this background information meant that the students could really appreciate their first taste of the magic of Iceland.
The Blue Lagoon itself is quite large, with plenty of areas to explore. Located in the middle of a lava field, the lagoon is framed by black volcanic rocks. As the steam rises from the milky blue water, it’s impossible not to relax in such beautiful surroundings.
Although the dash from the changing rooms to the lagoon can be a bit on the chilly side (you can actually enter the lagoon from inside the changing area), the warmth of the water soon takes the edge off. Which the group were particularly glad about when it started to snow!
As well as exploring the lagoon and its steam rooms and saunas, several of the students (and some of the teachers!) took the opportunity to try out the free silica mud masks offered – and all who tried it said their skin felt much softer!
Hlemmur Square and Halsbury’s 30th Birthday Party
Soon it was time to hop out and climb back on the coach for the transfer to Reykjavík. The group was to stay at Hlemmur Square hostel, which is ideally located close to the famous Hallgrimskirkja, Harpa concert hall and the Sun Voyager. Here, you’re close to all the city's main sights, as well as the natural wonders of Iceland that lie beyond Reykjavík.
The hostel is very modern and clean, with spacious rooms. After being checked in by the hostel’s welcoming staff, the group dropped their bags in their rooms and headed back downstairs to the restaurant, where they tucked in to chicken nuggets, chips and salad.
After they’d eaten, they moved over to the hostel’s lounge, which the staff had decorated to celebrate Halsbury’s 30th anniversary – the very reason the group were there. Everyone was very impressed by the huge cake, which was also absolutely delicious!
Eventually, it was time for the group to head back to their rooms to settle down for the night.
The Adventure Starts
It was an early-ish start on the second day, with the students heading down to breakfast at 7.30, ready to set off on their Icelandic adventure at 8.30. Breakfast was served buffet-style, with a great choice of cereals, fruit, pastries, bread, cheese and ham, as well as that great Icelandic staple – skyr!
After they’d eaten, the group greeted Palli, their friendly coach driver, and climbed back aboard the coach. As they drove out of Reykjavík, the landscape changed, becoming more and more wild and mysterious.
Just a little way out of the city, mountains began to loom over the horizon. These were the volcanoes of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, which the group would learn more about the following day.
As they drove eastwards, Ian explained what they would be seeing that day. They could, he informed them, look forward to two spectacular waterfalls and one incredible glacier, before later heading to a beach like none they would have ever seen before.
The drive to the first stop took around two hours, but the group were far from bored. As they drove through the rugged landscape, they passed several fascinating sights.
These included a geothermal power plant and Hverargerði – a town famous for its horticulture – both of which gave Ian the opportunity to discuss Iceland’s geothermal power with the students.
Hveragerði was particularly interesting. Ian informed the group that, for 10 months of the year, the people of the town are able to grow tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers. But, for a country that experiences such harsh weather, how could this be?
The town’s secret weapon is the fact that it is built on a lava field covered in hot springs. These hot springs heat the many greenhouses here, which are visible from the road that passes by the town. It’s in these greenhouses that the town’s produce is grown.
All in all, the town is a fascinating example of how Icelanders have managed to harness the natural power of their land.
Continuing their journey, the group later passed looming volcanoes, including Hekla, the country’s most active volcano, and Eyjafjallajökull. Unfortunately, the latter was shrouded in mist, so the group were unable to see its peak – although this only served to make it seem more menacing.
Finally, we reached our first stop of the day – Seljalandsfoss. And what a spectacular sight it was. The river, which originates from the glacier that tops Eyafjallajökull, tumbles 60m over what were once sea cliffs, down to the much flatter land that once lay under the sea.
Seljalandsfoss makes an incredible addition to a school geography trip to Iceland because it offers the opportunity to see how the soft rock is eroded quicker than the layer of hard rock which is left overhanging.
In the case of Seljalandsfoss, this process has created a cave, which allows visitors to walk behind the waterfall. Unfortunately, the weather meant that that the path behind the waterfall was too dangerous, and the group were unable to do this. But they still had a great time studying the waterfall and learning more about the processes involved!
Insight into Life in Iceland
After a while, it was time to set off for the second stop of the day. Along the way, Ian told the group about what it was like to live through the Eyjafjallajökull eruption of 2010, as he himself lives in the area close to the volcano.
He described how it was actually two volcanic events, one at the end of March, and the other at the beginning of April 2010.
He explained how Icelanders have in place a system to warn them of major events, such as volcanic eruptions, and how they gather in pre-determined places in the event of an evacuation, so that they can ensure that everyone is safe and accounted for.
It was fascinating for the students to learn a bit more about how communities cope with living in such a geologically active place.
After a short drive, the group arrived at their second stop – and their second waterfall of the day, Skógafoss.
What struck the students was how two waterfalls could look so different. Again, the water here tumbles about 60m from what were once sea cliffs.
But this waterfall was much wider than the first and produced an incredible amount of spray! So much so, in fact, that as you move closer to the waterfall, you get absolutely soaked.
And if the wind happens to pick up suddenly (as it often does in Iceland), even when you think you’re at a safe distance, you could soon find yourself enjoying a fresh Icelandic shower! Everyone was very glad to have had the foresight to bring their waterproofs!
The group had lots of fun taking pictures, playing in the spray and comparing Skógafoss to Seljalandsfoss. They then decided to climb the stairs next to the falls, to reach the viewing platform above. Some of the girls counted over 500 steps!
Learning About Careers in Geography
With legs still shaking from the climb, it was time to hop aboard the coach again. As we drove past more volcanoes, including Katla, one of the largest in the country, Ian explained how scientists are working hard to monitor volcanoes and why this was such important work.
He also explained to the students that, if they were really inspired by what they were seeing and learning about, earth sciences could offer an exciting prospect for young geographers like themselves, and could be an interesting career choice for them in the future!
After less than 20 minutes, the group arrived at their next stop – Sólheimajökull. Here, the group stopped to enjoy their packed lunches – sandwiches, a piece of fruit, crisps, a cereal bar, a carton of juice and, of course, skyr!
Today happened to be the birthday of one of the students, and Palli, the group’s friendly coach driver, had somehow got wind of this. To the group’s delight, he whipped out his accordion and played ‘happy birthday’ to her over lunch!
Once everyone had eaten, the group packed away their lunch things and took the short walk (approx. 800m) to one of the most impressive sights of the whole trip – the Sólheimajökull glacier.
The glacier was much larger than the students had thought it would be, although Ian explained that it was currently retreating at a rate of about 100m per year.
As the group stood taking in the incredible scenery, Ian talked to them about glacial processes and explained how the glacier had carved out the valley that they had stood in.
He told them that he remembered when the glacier had reached as far as the car park where they’d had their lunch, and spoke about what was causing the glacier to retreat. He also talked them through the makeup of glaciers.
The students, amazed by what they were seeing, hung on to his every word, as he spoke so passionately about this awesome sight in front of them.
Everyone was reluctant to leave the glacier, but it was time to head to the next stop – Vík, the southernmost village in Iceland. After a long stop at the glacier, this was a great place to relax for a little while. With a café, shop and wool factory, the students enjoyed the chance to spend some of their króna on hot chocolate, chips and souvenirs.
Black Sand Beaches
Having had a short break from all the incredible geography around them, the students were keen to hop back on the coach for their next visit – the beach at Reynisfjara!
On the way, Ian explained to the group about coastal erosion, using examples from the landscape surrounding them, including Dyrhólaey (a promontary with an arch carved out by the sea) and Reynisdrangar (basalt sea stacks).
The black basalt sands of the beach were unlike anything the students had ever seen before. Ian challenged them to find a perfectly shaped pebble – a challenge which they readily accepted! The students spent a good while looking at the pebbles and learning about how they had been eroded into such ‘perfect’ shapes.
They also enjoyed posing in front of the beach’s iconic basalt columns, and watching the huge waves that lapped the shore. Ian had made it very clear to them that they were to go no closer to the sea than he himself did – the sheer size of the waves and the strength of the currents can make this a dangerous place to be, unless you follow the instructions of an experienced guide like Ian.
After a while, it was once again time to jump aboard the coach. The group’s South Coast adventure had come to an end, although they had some more incredible sights to look forward to the next day.
And there was still plenty to marvel at from the coach, particularly the waterfalls that were blown upwards by the strength of the wind – something the group had certainly never seen before!
In part 2, we follow the group as the explore Iceland's famous 'Golden Circle'...