My wife and I had long wanted to visit Iceland. For me, the wish began when, as a young boy, I read Jules Verne’s “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”: the story in which a German professor and his nephew, with an Icelandic guide, descend into the crater of the extinct (as they hope) volcano Snaefells and meet amazing adventures.
So after a delay of, in my case, over 60 years we at last stirred ourselves to book an advertised holiday with Langhams, through our local travel agent Hallmark Travel of East Grinstead, last July. It wasn’t a long holiday: just 3 nights in Reykjavik followed by a guided tour of 6 nights. Three of these were spent in Hella, a small town Southeast of Reykjavik and three at Husavik on the coast in the Northeast of Iceland.
The prospect of a tour naturally leads one to wonder whether the other participants will prove to be congenial company. To our surprise we discovered there were only three others, a family of Danes who spoke very little even between themselves. There was also our guide Haldor Bjornsson, very friendly and immensely knowledgable. His only fault was a strange reluctance to apply the handbrake when parking the mini-van. On one occasion, in an exceptionally remote area, it was only the strength of the youngest Dane that stopped it rolling into a deep ravine!
Iceland is known as the land of fire and ice. Recent events have brought this home to everybody if they weren’t aware of it before, and most people now know that Iceland is situated on the boundary of two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian, which are slowly moving apart. What may not be generally realised is that Iceland suffers a significant volcanic eruption or earthquake on average every four years. Hella is quite close to the notorious volcano Hekla, formerly thought to be the gateway to hell. There are said to be about 200 volcanoes altogether, the majority of them fortunately inactive.
The evidence is everywhere: huge fields of lava, consisting either of the pumice variety or small pebbles; columns of basalt; deep fissures in the ground; and clouds of steam rising in all sorts of unexpected places. Even turning on the hot tap in a hotel brings a strong smell of sulphur. The whole of Iceland’s power supplies come from geothermal sources or hydroelectricity, with no employment at all of fossil fuels or nuclear energy. As a result, given good weather, the atmosphere is exceptionally clear with distant views standing out sharply. Probably it would be an ideal place to study the stars. But because Iceland lies only just south of the Arctic circle, in July there is only a brief period of semi-darkness between sunset and sunrise.
The attractions of Iceland are the amazing scenery, surely matched by few other places on earth; huge, powerful waterfalls; the great ice-caps and glaciers of the interior, which we did not visit but could often see gleaming on the horizon; and a profusion of wild-flowers, frequently growing in what seem to be completely inhospitable environments. There are also the horses – one for about every four inhabitants. They are said to be the descendants of those brought over by the original Viking settlers, which have everywhere else been affected by inter-breeding with other types of horses but have remained pure-bred in Iceland due to its remoteness. They are certainly handsome, medium-sized in a range of colours with big shaggy manes. It seems that they have, by nature, a particular form of movement (besides walking, trotting and galloping) called the “tolt”, said to be very comfortable for the rider.
Driving in Iceland is not for the faint-hearted and I’m glad we didn’t have to do any. Roads with good surfaces are very limited. The rest are euphemistically called gravel roads, but many of them seem to consist solely of deeply ridged rock, which shakes the vehicle and its occupants severely. This applies particularly to the tracks – they can hardly be called roads – along which we travelled across the centre of the country going from Hella to Husavik. The interior of Iceland is a huge stony waste land, wholly unpopulated, 2000 to 3000 feet high with mountains rising still higher. The first US astronauts came here to practice for their moon landing. There are frequent rivers to be forded, which descend from the glaciers and can change their route from one season to the next. When several vehicles meet at one of these, there seems to be an unspoken contest as to which driver shall be the one to wade across with a stick to pick out the best route and check that it is tolerably safe.
Reykjavik is a pleasing enough city, built on a peninsula so that it has sea on each side. But most visitors use it as a base for day excursions elsewhere and I doubt it is worth any long exploration. It has a pleasant stretch of water, Lake Tjornes, close to the centre with a good population of ducks, and also quite close to Reykjavik’s small airport used for internal flights (the main airport is 30 miles away). Each time a plane flies over, the ducks stretch up their necks and object loudly. Clearly they have found from experience that this causes the particularly big bird not to land on the lake but to fly further on: it works every time!
The national museum is also interesting. Among other things it shows how the early settlers, about 800 years ago, were able to grow cereal crops – something which, even with all the technical improvements since, is quite difficult even now. The benign climate lasted for about 200 years, when the weather became a lot cooler. This should provide food for thought to those who claim we are now in a period of unprecedented global warming.
There is also, quite close by, the attractive small island of Vidney, memorable for its views, rock formations, wild flowers and solitude.
We visited, either from Reykjavik or Hella, four of the major attractions that everyone else seems to visit but can’t well be missed out. The first is the Blue Lagoon, where you can bathe – and possibly swim if you can find room – in warm steaming water which is indeed blue but also opaque from its mineral content. Second, the amazing Gullfoss waterfall, where the water pours over a reasonably wide ledge and then into a deep narrow chasm. Nearby is a memorial to a local farmer’s daughter who managed successfully to oppose a plan to divert the river for a hydro-electric scheme.
Third is the geyser area. The original Geysir, from which all other geysers in the world take their name, nowadays just sits there steaming sullenly. But next door to it is Strokkur, the most active geyser in the world, which sends up a column of steam and water every 10 to 15 minutes. It’s a good idea to check which way the wind is blowing and then view it from the opposite side. A climb up the adjacent hillside gives a good view over the whole area.
Fourth is Thingvellir, which the Icelanders revere as the place where they believe the world’s first parliament, the Althing, comprising representatives of the different Viking tribes, used to meet from the 10th century onwards to debate and pass laws. In front is a big lake and behind are dramatically tall vertical cliffs of black basalt, no doubt providing a good acoustic for speeches. It looks as if it ought to be the precise point where Iceland is splitting in two along the dividing line of the two plates, but the current scientific view is that it is not exactly there though quite close by. We did in fact see a very simple measuring device, consisting of two vertical pipes a yard or two apart, bent over horizontally at the top so they are nearly touching. The distance between them can be checked to see how quickly it widens.
We also saw sites well off the beaten track. For example the small waterfall Faxi, which has a series of little pools constructed so that salmon can travel upstream. Also a large cave, entered through a farmer’s barn, which is thought to have been abode of Irish monks in the 7th or 8th centuries, until they were driven out or enslaved by the pagan Viking settlers.
Those planning the tour wanted to ensure we were reasonably active and our guide took us on three “optional hikes” which I think he curtailed somewhat in deference to our advancing years. One was at Landmannalaugar, a valley fairly high up in the mountains, from where we clambered up steeply through rocks marked with brightly shining obsidian, to – almost inevitably! – a hot vent spouting sulphurous steam. Then we went back down even more steeply alongside a river whose further side was crusted with snow prevented from melting by a topping of black volcanic dust. There was again a chance here to bathe in a hot spring but it would involve changing one’s clothes outside, the wind was rather cool and we declined, as did our Danish companions.
Another “hike” was in the Husavik area (name too awkward to remember – Icelandic is a complex language), where basalt columns, formed from cooling lava, have been twisted into extraordinary shapes and heaped into great mounds or formed into strange caverns by later earthquakes. A good deal of scrambling was needed to get around.
Husavik, being more remote, is less visited by tourists but the surrounding scenery is no less dramatic. It is impossible to list everything but two more great waterfalls, Godafoss and Dettifoss, stand out. It is the exceptional power of the rivers, all flowing from the high glaciers, that account for much of their grandeur. Then there is Asbyrgi, a huge semi-circular canyon whose vertical walls provide a choice nesting place for birds. According to Nordic mythology, it is where Sleipnir, the 8-legged horse that carried Odin across the skies, happened to put down one of his hoofs.
Lastly there is Myvatn, which very appropriately translates as Midge Lake. It is a favourite spot for birds, and has a nearby thermal area with mud pools and jets of burning steam. Elsewhere gaseous lava, which emerged through the water of the lake, has taken on a variety of extraordinary forms, walking round which provided another dose of salutary exercise. It is a relief to be in a place where one can be trusted, as a matter of common sense, not to put one’s hand in burning steam or step into a bubbling pool. In England, “health and safety” would require massive barriers to keep everyone far away.
During our return to Reykjavik – via a well-surfaced road this time – we visited a horse farm for a closer look at the distinctive horses and to see them being ridden. We also stopped at Akureyri, the largest town in the north of Iceland. It has an attractive modern cathedral and we learnt that the architect, when visiting London , by chance saw some stained glass in an antique shop which he thought would suit the building well. After he had got it back home and installed it, it emerged that it was part of the glass from the old Coventry cathedral, presciently taken down for safe storage at the start of World War II. How it got to the London shop is an unsolved mystery.
There’s obviously far more to see and do than we had time for in this brief trip: I never even got to see Snaefells. We would thoroughly recommend a visit to this amazing place which has so much to offer, particularly perhaps to the young and active, but also to visitors of any age.
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