Upon turning the point of a hill where our trail was a little elevated above the great valley, Zoega called my attention to a column of vapor that seemed to rise out of the ground about ten miles distant. For all I could judge, it was smoke from some settler's cabin situated in a hollow of the slope.
"What's that, Zoega ?" I asked.
"That's the Geysers, sir," he replied, as coolly as if it were the commonest thing in the world to see the famous Geysers of Iceland.
"The Geysers! That little thing the Geysers?"
"Dear me! Who would ever have thought it?"
I may as well confess at once that I was sadly disappointed. It was a pleasure, of course, to see what I had read of and pictured to my mind from early boyhood; but this contemptible little affair looked very much like a humbug. A vague idea had taken possession of my mind that I would see a whole district of country shooting up hot water and sulphurous vapors -- a kind of hell upon earth; but that thing ahead of us looked so peaceful that I could not but feel some resentment toward the travellers who had preceded me, and whose glowing accounts of the Geysers had deceived me...
[After eventually witnessing a not very impressive eruption of Strokkur -- to his eyes at least -- Browne retired to his tent to spend the night before moving on the next day.]
Having tossed and tumbled about for an indefinite length of time, I must have fallen into an uneasy doze. Then, in the midst of a confused dream, I heard the booming of cannon -- at first far down in the earth, but gradually growing nearer, till, with a start, I awoke. Still the guns boomed! Starting to my feet, I listened. Splashing and surging waters, and dull, heavy reports, sounded in the air. I dashed aside the lining of the tent and looked.
Never shall I forget that sight -- the Great Geyser in full eruption! A tremendous volume of water stood in bold relief against the sky, like a tall weeping willow in winter swaying before the wind, and shaking the white frost from its drooping branches. Whirling vapors and white wreaths floated off toward the valley. All was clear overhead. A spectral light, which was neither of day nor of night, shone upon the dark, lava-covered earth. The rush and splashing of the fountain and the booming of the subterranean guns fell with a startling distinctness upon the solitude. Streams of glittering white water swept the surface of the great basin on all sides, and dashed hissing and steaming into the encircling fissures. The earth trembled, and sudden gusts of wind whirled down with a moaning sound from the wild gorges of the Langarfjal.
It did not appear to me that the height of the fountain was so great as it is generally represented. So far as I could judge, the greatest altitude at any time from the commencement of the eruption was not over sixty feet. Its volume, however, greatly exceeded my expectations, and the beauty of its form surpassed all description. The magnificent display lasted, altogether, about ten minutes. I had never before seen, and never again expect to see, anything equal to it.
I think everyone who has heard of Iceland at all, has connected it with the name of the Geysir. The word geysir means "gusher," and is applied to the hot springs which erupt or throw up jets of water like a fountain, as distinct from the hver, or hot springs which merely bubble and steam. These are called laugar, which means washing-places, as they are often so used.
One of the most remarkable of these places lies about a mile and a half out of Reykjavik, and here all the town's washing is done. There is a stream – just such as is called in Scotland a burn – which flows across the wide open space beyond the town; quite an ordinary stream to look at, but at a particular point it jets first warm, and then quite scalding hot water, always steaming up, and here is the ready- made laundry! Some large iron houses or sheds have been built beside it, in which the ironing and "getting up" is done, but all the boiling and cleansing is in the natural boiler, some of which is covered by iron grating, as a poor woman once lost her life by falling in. It is quite a lively scene, when you arrive there, to see thirty or forty women, with different-coloured kerchiefs on their heads and their petticoats turned up, washing and beating and wringing, and chattering all the time, as merry as possible. There is always the unfailing coffee-pot for refreshment, for the laundry is thirsty work, and the poor bodies seem to go on all day long. They take the clothes to and from the laundry in little hand-carts, which the women draw or push. The washing is very well done, and the quality of the water and the pure air seem to make the clothes very white and fresh.
But to return to the Geysir. Iceland, being a volcanic country, is full of hot springs, which are always steaming up on mountain-sides or in the plains, looking from far away like the smoke of a distant train; but what people usually mean when they ask, "Have you seen the Geysir?" is the famous large boiling fountain in the south, about eighty or ninety miles from the capital.
The journey thither is a very pretty one; you cross plains, green with sweet-smelling birch scrub, having beautiful distant views of Hekla and other glacier mountains; then you turn the shoulder of a vast dark chain of hills, called the Calf's Peaks, on your left, and descend into a lovely green valley, where are sometimes pretty ponies - mares and foals - grazing in flocks. You cross rivers, too, in this journey, and one in particular, called the Bruara, or Bridge River. It is a pretty wide, rapid river, but very shallow, and in the middle of it is a great chasm, into which the water falls, roaring, from the level of the ford. People rode in across the rocks, and over the chasm was a little wooden bridge with a hand-rail; the ponies always made for the bridge, and so steady and surefooted are they that I never heard of an accident happening, though the slightest slip or swerve at the chasm would be certain death. I have crossed in this way many times, and felt quite sorry to have to use the new grand bridge which has been thrown across lower down the stream. It seemed to take away all the excitement and pleasure you felt in accomplishing the more perilous crossing.
As you draw near the Geysir district the character of the road changes: the ground becomes dry and flaky, and presently you are aware of little pools and streams under the ponies' feet. Many of the pools are warm. The Geysir itself - the largest - stands in a very bare piece of ground and on a slight rise. The basin is quite round, and looks exactly like a large artificial fountain, but with a very deep crater or cup. Sometimes this is quite empty, and you could stand within the rim; then, again, the water bubbles up, and it gets quite full. But if you are lucky enough to see an eruption, there is first a rumbling noise, and then - stand back! for the boiling water shoots up in a straight jet, sometimes thirty feet or more. You must be very careful not to stand on the side where the wind would blow the falling column upon you. It is all over very soon, and nothing but steam left in the basin.
Besides the great Geysir, there are various others all around; one well known, called Strokkur, or the Churn, went to sleep some years ago, after some earthquakes which took place, but has now begun to grow active again. The Little Geysir often plays; I have seen it looking like a shower of diamonds; and there are several funny pools always bubbling up mud and making noises like a sty full of pigs. There are two hot pools: one called Blesi, which means a white-faced horse, and it is said that one was drowned in it once; and another, which broke out after the aforesaid earthquakes, has been loyally named "The King's Pool."
Besides the Geysir in the south, there are some pools nearer the coast, which smoke, but do not play like the fountains, and are called Reykir. Several are of beautiful colours - blue and salmon-pink, and each one different. In the north-west route are also hot springs, and at a place called Reykholt is a very curious circular bath which was made hundreds of years ago by a famous man called Snorri. There is a channel by which the water from the hot spring can be turned into the bath or shut out, and it is quite in good order. All the hot water for the church farm is brought from these springs.
Another very wonderful thing I must tell you of before we leave the hot springs. In a river called Reykjadalsa, which means "steaming-dale's water," there is a little mound with a boiling spring in the very middle of the cold water which flows all round it. I have ridden close up to it; the pony was not afraid, though I should think that any of our English ponies would shy at such a very unnatural sight.
Akin to the hot springs are the sulphur springs at Krisuvik, near the south coast. You have to cross a very wild barren rocky region to get near them. When you have nearly reached them you smell a strong smell of sulphur, but it is rather like a savoury cooking smell, as of a giant's dinner in preparation. The sulphur stream looks very yellow and dirty, and steams up, with a strong smell, under the cliffs by which it runs. Some years ago an Englishman tried to work the sulphur- mines, but they did not pay, and the work is now given up.