Three years ago, I passed briefly through Iceland. It was a compelling world of volcanoes and waterfalls, surprisingly abundant after the months spent at much higher latitudes. It even had trees: the first I had seen for months. As I boarded my flight back to London, I promised myself I would be back soon to explore this captivating island in full.
The road north: my favourite
I have failed on that front, having last week managed just a few days, as the island toppled from autumn to winter. But what a bewitching few days they were. It was one of the last places on earth to be settled by human beings, and felt at times extraplanetary, as though we were in some less hospitable part of the solar system.
The seas are heavy mercury.
The rivers boil and smoke.
There are endless moonscapes of jagged lava.
And after dark, the aurora whirls overhead.
We were incredibly fortunate in this regard. A solar storm ejected the mass of particles which power the aurora just before our departure from the UK. We saw them within an hour of arriving at our cabin, and they were a ghostly companion in the dark thereafter.
Thoroughly spoiled by aurora displays, among the best I have seen
Iceland brims with significance and perspective, not least due to its volcanic activity. Recent examples such as the eruption of Eyjafjallajokull, which resulted in the grounding of most European air traffic in 2010, are dwarfed by past events. In 1783, an eruption known as the Skaftá Fires sprayed a jet of lava more than a kilometer high, producing the world’s largest recorded lava flow. Worse, much worse, was to follow. The scene was described by an eye-witness:
This past week… more poison fell from the sky than words can describe: ash, volcanic hairs, rain full of sulfur and saltpeter, all of it mixed with sand. The snouts, nostrils, and feet of livestock… turned bright yellow and raw. All water went tepid and light blue in color and gravel slides turned gray. All the earth’s plants burned, withered and turned gray, one after another, as the fire increased and neared the settlements.
The eruption released vast quantities of hydrogen fluoride gas which flooded across Iceland, triggering the “Mist Hardships”. Within a few months, up to 80% of Iceland’s livestock had been killed by chronic fluorine exposure, causing the skin and flesh to rot off living animals as they grazed in the fields. A volcanic winter of unusual cold followed, ravaging crops. Over the next 3 years, nearly a quarter of Iceland’s population died from cold, malnutrition and scurvy.
It is a precarious world, and evidence of this volcanic activity abounds, even invading the home. Each use of the water-supply is accompanied by a waft of sulphur, testament to its volcanic heat-source. This lends even a shower a sense of magnitude (though it also makes it like being imprisoned inside a steamy egg). Outside, all this activity makes the landscape the most dynamic I have encountered. We visited springs where the very ground boils and spits, admired distant smoking peaks, and crossed black beaches of volcanic sand, studded with monstrous bones.
Glymurfoss, Iceland’s 2nd highest waterfall with a vertical drop of near 200m
The distinctive shape of Kirkjufell mountain, seen in a recent series of Game of Thrones
We climbed tympanic waterfalls; bathed in steaming rivers, and seldom encountered anything other than raw wilderness. Given that near everyone I know seems to have been here, it was also surprisingly empty. Perhaps the atmospheric landscape explains why Icelanders are so creative. It boasts the highest per capita number of authors of any country in the world (10% of the population will publish a book at some point during their lives). It is also reported that a majority of the population still believes in huldufolk: ‘hidden-people’ – what we might call elves. As recently as 2014, road-building projects have been altered to preserve a rock believed to be an elf-church. To destroy one for anything less than an essential project would be to invite disaster.
November is a month of near-permanent sunset in Iceland
The curtain of the aurora
Iceland has a splendid attitude to health and safety. In the UK I am so used to inflated warnings (and equally used to ignoring them) that when a sign on the trail up to one of Iceland’s highest waterfalls, Glymurfoss, warned me to “Take Care”, I barely noticed it. The trek which followed was like a military assault course. We waded rivers, slipped dramatically down trails akin to a bob-sleigh run, and tried to ignore the hundred-yard drop which dogged our path. Experiences such as this abound. On our final night, we were forced inside our cabin by one of the most severe storms I have ever witnessed. The walls around us trembled and groaned, appearing ready to submit. I looked up the forecast to see how long this would last, only to find conditions described as “mild”. On a walk the day before, we had to wind around pools of unapologetically scalding mud. It is refreshing, to have responsibility for your own actions, and also fitting. This is the land of Vikings, sagas, fire and ice. It would not do if we had arrived to find it domesticated.
A boiling mud pool at the Reykdalur hot river
The icy trail up to Glymur waterfall
And the drop next to it
The view from our cabin
The landward side of Kirkjufell
I don’t have much else to say in this post. I find that much of this landscape is beyond my ability to describe, and spent a large portion of this trip lost for words. I hope the pictures will provide some illustration of this dynamic, lunar corner of my beloved Arctic. It will smoulder in the memory for a long time. Go and see for yourself, if you are lucky enough to get the chance. I have a lot more of it to explore, and besides, was quite taken with the culture. I’ll be back one day.
Till next time folks.