First, you ask the locals. And Thingvellir National Park, the place decreed in 1928 as a “national shrine for all Icelanders” is held up above all the rest as a crowning example of the unique appeal of the country’s extraordinary landscape.
Þingvellir, as it’s written in Icelandic, means “assembly field”, and it takes its name from the national parliament of Iceland, the oldest in the world, which was founded there in the 10th century. Thingvellir National Park lies northeast of the capital Reykjavík, and stretches out for nearly 36 square miles, containing glassy lakes and fast-flowing rivers, crashing white waterfalls and awe-inspiring canyons. So significant is the park to the people of Iceland that it has been likened to a church, “a pilgrimage destination.”
Hire a car in Reykjavík to drive there in under an hour, and you’ll struggle to disagree
Thingvellir has always stood at the heart of Icelandic culture. Early Norse and Celtic settlers found the region convenient for accessing the populous regions of the north, south and west. And during the Commonwealth period between the 10th and 13th centuries, people would flock from miles around to establish temporary dwellings and stalls. Merchants would sell their wares, entertainers would perform and ale would be brewed. The language and literature now universal to the island was developed and established, it is said, in Thingvellir National Park.
Things are different in the modern day. The stalls are gone and, tragically, no more ale is made. Today, Thingvellir is famous for lying squarely in a rift valley marking the crest of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge and the boundary dividing the North American tectonic plate from its Eurasian counterpart. In the fissures and cracks of the park, visitors can see the continental drift between the two plates. Some of them, like Almannagjá, have split so dramatically as to form an enormous gorge, along which visitors can walk.
But to touch the continents of North America and Europe simultaneously—an impressive anecdote in the making—visitors must first dive down into the Silfra fissure. During a series of earthquakes which struck in 1789, a number of fissures opened up in Thingvellir National Park, and the Silfra fissure penetrated an underground spring filled with meltwater from the Langjökull glacier. For as long as 100 years, this water has filtered through porous underground lava. As a result, by the time it reaches the spring that feeds Silfra, it is extremely pure: snorkelers and scuba-divers report perfect, crystalline vision for more than 100m under the water. It’s even said that Silfra contains the clearest and purest water in the world, so thirsty visitors are more than welcome to take a sip.
Diving in Silfra is a relatively recent thing, however. It was in 1966 that Þröstur Sigtryggsson, a teacher at the Seafaring School in Reykjavík, returned from the United States, where he had learned to dive. He advertised a beginner’s scuba diving course, and after the completion of this course, a group of interested individuals went straight to Silfra. Who could blame them? Then, as now, it’s a place with magnetic appeal.
And as if it wasn’t remarkable already, Silfra is a diving site that is often described as “living”, due to the changing nature of the surroundings. The fissure widens each year, and earthquakes large and small send rocks and boulders down into the cracks. What this means is that divers will never have the same experience twice. And it’s here, in the purest waters on the planet, that divers can reach out and touch two continents simultaneously. It’s safe to say that those early divers in the late 1960s didn’t realise the significance of what they were doing, but it wouldn’t take them long to find out. Just a year after the first Icelandic dives, a paper was published on plate tectonics, dramatically improving our understanding of continental drift.
There are few experiences so powerful as finding yourself between two giant landmasses, each of them representing the literal foundations of world cultures and civilisations. But it’s humbling, too, for any person, in all their smallness, to be in Silfra: a spectator to the deep rumblings and movements of our planet, the place we call home.