By Nigel Wright [email protected]
Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.
Where are the trees? This was the first question we asked on the journey from Keflavik Airport to Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital.
We were traveling through an area of tormented lava flows, backed by a sparkling blue sea and sweeping vistas of distant mountains. Only one per cent of the country has forest and as there is so little soil cover, rainwater drains away quickly and the result is an amazingly alien, barren but very beautiful landscape, unlike anywhere else in the world.
Just south of the Arctic Circle, Iceland sits astride the mid-Atlantic tectonic plate boundary (like the Azores) and this accounts for the almost entirely volcanic origin of its rocks. However, it is an infant on the geological time scale, its oldest surface rocks dating back just 14 million years. There are many active volcanoes, hot geysers, boiling mud pools, Europe’s largest ice cap and magnificent waterfalls. Iceland is packed with geological wonders.
In recent years, Reykjavik has earned a reputation as a great city destination, with stylish shops, restaurants and a vibrant nightlife. It is a clean, tidy, modern city of over 100,000 inhabitants, but exudes the charm of a provincial town rather than the bustle of a metropolis.
The old town is clustered around a pretty lake, close to the port and here you can find the traditional wooden homes, clad with brightly painted corrugated iron sheets.
Icelanders are passionate about the arts and there are sculptures on almost every street corner. Our visit was in August and we dined out in the city’s main square on a surprisingly balmy evening. The islanders have developed some unusual local delicacies, such as ram’s testicles pickled in sour whey, sheep’s head jelly and the infamous hákarl – rotten shark! Our choices were less ambitious but very tasty – fresh haddock and succulent smoked lamb.
Volcanic splendours of the north
Our Icelandic tour had been booked through the specialist agent Arctic Experience, who had organised our hire car and pre-booked our hotels and guesthouses. On the next day, we flew over the ice caps of the completely deserted centre of the island to Akureyri in the far north.
This pretty town did not look at its best in driving rain and an icy cold wind! We collected our car at the tiny airport and on empty roads drove through a desolate wilderness of fjords and wide river valleys before the sun came out just as we reached our first giant waterfall – the splendid horse-shoe shaped Godafoss. An hour later and we had reached Lake Mývatn. The name Mývatn means ‘midge’ and we soon discovered why. They swarm in billions, akin to a biblical plague, but happily we didn’t suffer any bites.
The water is very shallow, giving perfect conditions for midge larvae to thrive – a key food source for trout and wildfowl. It is an area of enormous natural beauty with abundant bird life and an incredible variety of volcanic and geothermal features.
The geological attractions are easily reached on foot from the main road and it was like wandering through a Star Wars film set with spooky lava pillars and groups of pseudocraters formed by steam blasting lava in explosive bursts. We climbed the impressive one kilometer diameter Hverfjall volcano crater for a superb view over the lake before visiting hot mud pools and finally, in a heavy rainstorm, the very active Krafla mountain crater lake, scene of many recent eruptions.
The isolated north east
The road north to the small coastal town of Husavik crosses a barren ‘moonscape’ that has suffered soil erosion from overgrazing sheep. Husavik is an attractive old whaling town with excellent folk museums and specialises in whale watching trips.
The coastline around the nearby Tojornes peninsula is like Cornwall but without the people. After admiring the empty seascape, we drove inland to the Jokulsá Canyon National Park, an untamed wilderness popular with campers and hikers. Its star attraction is Dettifoss, the greatest and most majestic of Iceland’s many waterfalls, 45m high and a volume of over 200 tons per second. It is an awesome sight and richly deserves the title as Europe’s most powerful waterfall.
Our comfortable guesthouse for the night was at Eglisstadir, the tiny capital of east Iceland, attractively situated on a lake. It was here that we discovered that it is best to avoid expensive wine or the country’s tasteless weak beer with your dinner and concentrate on the jugs of ice-cold water – quite the best and purest water we have tasted anywhere.
Round the eastern fjords to the glaciers
Driving is a pleasure in Iceland. On a glorious sunny day, on empty roads, we meandered around the eastern fjords, surrounded by stark mountains, whose terraces of ancient lava flows were smoothed by glacial action.
There are a number of small fishing villages and we were surprised to discover the area has a ‘French’ connection. A small museum describes the history of the French fishermen who used East Iceland as a base for their fishing fleet.
Nearby is the old tuberculosis hospital, whose remains still forlornly stand by one of the fjords. The area was chosen because the climate here is surprisingly dry by Icelandic standards.
On leaving the spectacular fjords, the coastal road starts to cross the wide alluvial plains of the south of the country, dotted with moraines, huge scree slopes and abandoned farms, with distant glimpses of glaciers. Picturesque Hofn, which draws its livelihood from herring and lobster fishing, is the only sizeable town in this area and has an informative geological exhibition.
Our comfortable motel room overlooked two mighty glaciers, backed by brooding black clouds whipped up over Iceland’s largest ice cap. During the next two days, we would learn a lot more about these slow moving rivers of ice.
In part 2, we visit the iceberg lagoon, learn what happens when volcanoes erupt under an ice cap, stand with one foot in Europe and one in America, admire geysers and swim in the famous blue lagoon.