Iceland’s Intrigue

2898km in a rusty Toyota through ice, fire and stone

We were pursuing the reindeer. We had first spotted them when we swerved our 4X4 off a dirt path that ran parallel to the black sanded beach, trying get a shot of the ice-cold surf break out at sea. I glanced over at a moving trail of shadows furtively moving along the shore, almost imperceptible against the dark earth. It was a herd of eight and they were moving east. Abandoning the car lest the sound of the engine should scare them away, we scurried down the road and tried to get closer, cursing Iceland’s barren, tree-less landscape. Nothing to hide behind. The sharp Arctic wind burned our faces and in my hurry I had forgotten my coat, hat and camera in the car. Further down the coast, a whale skeleton had been found a few days earlier. This was the nature of the land we were currently stalking across.

They began to run, having spotted us, hooves beating against the moist sand, and helplessly we watched them disappear into the empty vastness. This part of southern Iceland was close to Laki, a pistachio coloured volcano whose eruption in 1783 wreaked destruction on the island; during eight months, its lava flows coated the land and a toxic haze of sulphur dioxide caused acid rains strong enough to burn holes in leaves. The sun was obscured for weeks, famine set in and killed off most of the livestock along with a quarter of the entire population. It was an eruption that spread across the world, disrupting harvests and weather cycles of the entire globe.

You would be forgiven for thinking that the island has left this treacherous past behind. Iceland is eerily quiet, silently heaving from the tectonic forces which churn under its surface. If you get close to one of its glaciers — and perhaps by that point, you might be a little too close — you can make out the indistinct groan of the massive slabs of ice shifting form, receding and advancing.

But take a closer look and you’ll see that the opposite is true. Folk tales tell of trolls who were suddenly turned to stone in the daylight, morphing into tortuous lava formations that permeate the scenery. Most locals still strongly believe in the existence of elves and spirits that live hidden amongst the land. Piles of stones dotted throughout the countryside are rumoured to be homes of mythical creatures, and roads have even been re-routed and construction projects abandoned so as not to disturb their dormant hosts.

Such lore is testament to the fact that Iceland has managed to retain its extraordinarily peculiar and unique culture. Proudly independent and geographically secluded (until recently), Icelanders have stuck to traditions which died out centuries ago in their Scandinavian counterparts. There are no surnames here — your last name is derived from your father’s first name and a suffix (-son for “son” and -dóttir for “daughter”). Phone directories are oddly listed on a first name basis; and if on a whim you wanted to give your newborn child a name which hasn’t been used yet, it has to be approved by the Icelandic Naming Committee. As Icelandic is the closest living language related to Old Norse, people are able to read thousand-year-old Viking sagas with little to no difficulty. Bringing their love for old speech one step further, locals prefer to integrate modern concepts or objects into their language using old Viking jargon; for example, a computer, tölva, is a hybrid of the old words for “number” and “prophetess”.

Yet today, Iceland is on the rise. Its tourism industry is booming and the country is expecting half a million more tourists to land this year, up from one million in 2015. This figure vastly exceeds the actual population of the island which is just over 300,000 (of which 60% live in the capital). Icelandair, the country’s main airline, has been making vast efforts to position Iceland as a key hub and stop-off point between the US and Europe (both just a few hour’s flight away). The number of passengers going through Keflavik, Reykjavik’s international airport, has almost tripled in the past ten years and they recently launched a new “Stopover Buddy” service which gives staff a day off to act as free hosts for passengers in transit. Matching people with similar interests (such as mountain biking, heli-skiing, cross-country running, or even knitting pink jumpers), your culture/food/adventure/health “buddy” can accompany you for up to three days and immerse you in a personalised experience of local culture. A pretty innovative step by a local airline.

Once there, most people choose to travel around the country by car and the main Ring Road (or Highway 1) makes this a very easy feat. The roads are well paved and traffic free; the only things to be careful of are herds of sheep that suddenly cross the road with no warning (myself having had an unfortunate accident on this topic) and icy, impassable roads in winter. The harshness of the midwinter months is not to be underestimated as many a tourist has had to be pulled out of life-threatening situations — blankets of snow decend out of nowhere, storms set in and temperatures drop to well below freezing in a matter of minutes. Coping with the new influx of tourists and educating them about safe and environmentally sustainable travel in the country is just one of the challenges facing the government from such a flourishing tourism sector.

Going either clockwise or anticlockwise, the road weaves through most of Iceland’s iconic landmarks: gushing waterfalls, verdant plains, monochrome churches, fjords with shining pink sands, abandoned rusty ships and crashed planes, volcanoes, geysers, puffin bird colonies, lava fields and geothermal pools. You can easily veer off into any number of side roads and completely lose track of time and civilisation; nowhere in the world has made me feel as acutely mortal and humble as Iceland did.

On a side note, those who plan on staying in Iceland for more than a few days can skip the rather touristic ‘Golden Circle’ loop, a 300km popular day trip from Reykjavik which covers many landmarks in a short period of time. It passes through the national park Þingvellir, the waterfall Gullfoss (meaning “golden falls”), the Blue Lagoon spa and the geothermal valley of Haukadalur which contain two famous geysers. But if you’re planning to spend a little longer traveling around the country it’s really worth going further into the wilderness to escape the hoards of tourist buses, to sink into milky blue waters of your own and get a real feel for the island’s true, meditative essence.

Most journeys start off in Reykjavik, a small, quirky capital which is also surprisingly design and fashion savvy. Independent designers and restaurants are cropping up everywhere and Icelanders love their summer nightlife. The excuse being that the sun never sets, locals simply hop from bar to bar indulging in beers or brennivín, a distilled brand of schnapps that is considered Iceland’s signature liquor (you might not want to ask why its nickname is “Black Death”). It’s here that I realised the inhabitants of Iceland have a very peculiar humour, which suits their commonsensical approach to life and bizarre language (trying to pronounce any word in Icelandic is almost impossible). When I asked a bar owner if there were any animals I should be wary of when camping around the island, he laughed and told me, “Don’t worry, there are no wild animals on the island — only us!”. The inhabitants of the rest of Iceland affectionately refer to Reykjavik locals as “latte-drinking wool scarves” (Þú ert nú meiri lattelepjandi lopatrefillinn, in case you were wondering).

A culinary highlight in Reykjavik is the Fiskmarkaðurinn Restaurant (Fish Market) housed inside one of the city’s oldest buildings. Inside a dimly lit wooden dining room, you can sample many of the country’s most distinctive dishes prepared under the watchful eye of Michelin-trained chef Hrefna Rósa Sætran. Apart from a selection of more ‘classic’ seafood starters, you can choose to try robata grilled minke whale with horseradish and redcurrant, served with soya ginger sauce or a grilled breast of puffin with lychee glaze, baked onion and mushrooms (whale and puffin both being typically Icelandic dishes, and quite delicious). That night we ate main courses which reflected the day’s fresh catch — lightly salted cod, pan-fried flounder, and grilled blue ling served with crispy, smoked cheek of Atlantic catfish.

Right on the waterfront of Reykjavik lies the Harpa Concert Hall, an architectural gem designed by Henning Larsen Architects in co-operation with Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson (creator of the New York Harbor waterfall). As you stroll in front of its angular façade, different panels of geometric glass shift colour and pick up the tonalities of the ever-changing skies and dark waters. This was clearly a building designed to reflect Iceland’s dramatic and imposing nature. The concert hall plays host to regular classic symphonies, orchestras and music festivals such as the annual jazz festival or Reykjavik Midsummer Music festival.

Icelanders love their music, and indeed, the country has an astounding breadth of cultural life. Almost nowhere in the world publishes as many books per capita as Iceland does (they say that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetimes) and most people learn to play some sort of musical instrument — grim winters with almost no daylight make for long hours in libraries buried inside books, it seems.

We chose to travel around the ring road in mid-summer, eschewing the hypnotic northern lights of November and December for summer sunsets of pure magic. Thick, heavy mists unlike any I had ever seen before grew in the valleys and coated the mountains like cake frosting. The sun barely sets and then slowly rises again, and the clouds breathe in its pastel colours and reflect them across the golden sky. You lose all notion of time; days blend into one seamless flow, afternoon becomes morning without night falling. One night, we emerged into a valley of those midnight mists and arrived at a lakeside with no soul in sight, only a lone horse nibbling away in a field. It was land before time. The lake reflected milky pink, and in between the clouds, the bright circle of a supersized full moon glowed above the surreal scene.

Driving north from Reykjavik, a worthwhile stop for the night is the Búðir guesthouse located under the Snaefellsnes volcano (rumoured to be one of the mystical power spots in the world, and the place where they started their journey to the centre of the earth in Jules Verne’s infamous novel). After a refreshing night’s rest here you can head further north into the Westfjords, the most remote and uninhabited northern tip of Iceland. The fjords were largely abandoned in the mid 20th Century but now people are starting to live there again and some of the spots are well worth the trip. Weeks can potentially be spent solely exploring this region, where in summer small streams and waterfalls rush, birdsong tinkles everywhere, tall fjords tower over the sea and a crisp cold breeze makes you reach for a jacket despite the bright sun.

In winter, the winding circuitous roads become more difficult to manage and many small villages sprinkled around the coast (Pingeyri, Bíldudalur, Ísafjörður and Breidavik are some of the prettiest) can get cut off from the mainland for weeks on end. Travellers that choose to go the extra mile however will be rewarded by desolate coral sand beaches, nesting puffin colonies, and by one of the strangest sights I’ve seen in my life. In the remote valley of Selárdalur, at the end of tortuous winding road, lies the disused farm of a local artist called Samúel Jónsson, now deceased. The abandoned land is littered with statues of characters and animals (seals, sea horses, ducks and other more indescribable creatures) molded out of sands from a local beach, and there’s even a faux pink and white chapel there, lying in the middle of nowhere among the silent grey cliffs.

As you head out of the fjords and due east, all across the land massive stones and boulders have been liquefied and morphed into silent sculptures. The stark plains are littered with scars of past catastrophes, endless fields of lava rocks and slabs, grey-black and frozen in motion. It’s a distant memory of chaos laced with peace.

One stop that is unmissable is Lake Myvatn, a highly geothermic region in the northeast where sulphuric pools bubble at the surface and the orange ground smokes and spouts volcanic fumes. Wandering around the Dimmuborgir lava fields, the site of the Krafla eruption and the large Víti explosion crater, makes one contemplate the brute force of the earth. The largest power station of the country is also here, and most Icelanders will be proud to tell you that the country manages to harness 85% of its energy needs through renewable geothermic sources.

A little secret about Iceland which might be surprising for those accustomed to countries with stringent restrictions — the island is open to you, all year and at any time of day. This means national parks and nature areas can be accessed at will with no regards to ‘opening hours’ or fenced-off areas. You can arrive to the bubbling mud pots at Hverir, for example, at three in the morning, with the sky painted all shades of sunset colours and acidic pools emitting clouds of noxious gases into the sky. This absurd lunar landscape is perhaps the reason why the Apollo astronauts travel to rugged Iceland for their geology field training and moon landing exercises.

In southern Iceland, the Jokulsarlon glacial lake which sits right on the edge of the Vatnajökull National Park is a feat of nature. During the daytime many people book a fast paced zodiac trip into the depths of the lagoon, criss-crossing between a chess board of massive ice sculptures, marbled black and blue by volcanic fire. Try to stay awake until the early morning hours though, when the tourist buses have disappeared and the sun turns a myriad of colours over the still lagoon. Apart from a lone seal bobbing and playing in the freezing waters, we were the only ones there and the tranquillity was almost deafening; there wasn’t even a gust of wind.

Right before arriving at Jokulsarlon make a stop at the small fishing town of Höfn, a picturesque peninsula overlooking the sea. People come here to eat Norway lobster and if you’re lucky to be travelling in the first week of July you will coincide with their annual lobster festival. Pakkhus Restaurant looks out onto the port and serves up sumptuous local ingredients like langoustine, fish soup, lamb, salted cod, duck & pork, and langoustine pizza. Experienced hikers also choose to stock up here before heading out into the dozens of trekking trails and camping grounds inside the Vatnajökull National Park.

We had been heading back to Reykjavik from the national park when we spotted the reindeer. Perhaps it was because the island had slowly worked its magic into me, or perhaps it was just because I was a little too exhausted and emotional from chasing every sunrise, but I took the vanishing animals as an omen. They beckoned me. I silently promised that I would come back to this enthralling, dreamlike place, and that next time I would bring the right equipment to lose myself amongst its jagged crevasses, silver skies and empty plains.

Learning Journeys | Ecological Literacy | Author, poet, wilderness guide | Investor | Co-founder Atlas Unbound, Ground Effect (alexafirmenich.com)

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