Tour across Iceland - 2005
I have always been fascinated by Iceland. How could anyone make a life on a lump of chilly volcanic rock in the middle of the north Atlantic? In the Autumn of 2005, accompanied by our friends Ann and Dick, we found out.
To appreciate properly the wonders of this amazing country it is first necessary to understand a little of its history and culture. Apparently the earliest settlers were Irish monks in the Sixth Century, but the first real inhabitants were Norse people who began to arrive in the Ninth Century. In 1397 Iceland was brought under Danish rule, where it remained for over five centuries until independence in 1941 after the occupation of Denmark during World War II. Its strategic position in mid Atlantic encouraged massive aid from America, and so modern Iceland was born.
With a population of under 300,000 spread over an area bigger than England, two thirds of which lives in greater Reykjavik, it is uncrowded and generally laid back. The locals are typically blond, very tall and somewhat reserved, and almost all of them speak immaculate English. Although clearly proud of their country and its achievements, most of the young people we talked to planned to emigrate for higher education and employment. Not surprisingly, the economy depends on tourism and fishing but with several other strong commercial factors like finance and aluminium smelting. Outside the capital and its tiny towns the terrain varies from desolate to breathtakingly spectacular.
We flew to a cool and windy Reykjavik, where we spent the night before flying on to Egilsstašir in the east and hiring a 4x4. During the next six days the four of us made our way back to the capital, sampling on the journey some the many delights of Iceland's awesome scenery and its remarkable cuisine.
A week is barely long enough to experience a whole new country for the first time, but such is the nature of Iceland that I believe we came away with a real feel for the place and its inhabitants.
After a short internal flight across the island to Egilsstašir our adventure really began. This airport is tiny but fully equipped, serving a local population of barely 1,600. Here we collected our Hertz car, a mighty 4 litre Toyota LandCruiser 4 wheel-drive. Although the main route 1 around the coast is mostly tarmaced, outside the towns the other roads are usually unmade dirt scattered with potholes of varying sizes. On leaving the town for a trip to the northeast coast we were quickly introduced to the delights of Iceland: awesome scenery, empty roads and rapidly changing weather.
On the way back to Egilsstašir we found the two house coastal settlement of Husey and chatted with one of its few inhabitants, a German girl. There are many immigrant workers, with a prevalence of Germans. She had been attracted by working with the Icelandic Horse, a stocky short-legged breed with a bushy mane that has remained pure bred by the ban on horse imports. How people manage to scratch a living in such a remote and desolate spot is beyond my comprehension, but they do with an evident passion despite the lack of local services, punitive taxation and the cripplingly high cost of living.
We then drove north through the snow and desolation of the Jökuldalsheiši Heath, a mountain pasture land at around 1,500 feet, and on to the Jökulsįrgljśfur Canyons National Park. The landscape is like the surface of the moon: steep mountain sides and snow plains randomly scattered with rocks of all shapes and sizes. The attraction is more than just a driving experience, for the route includes one of the most amazing waterfalls you are ever likely to see, anywhere - the Dettifoss Falls, 44 metres high and 500 cubic metres per second flow.
In Iceland there is no nanny state to provide an easy vantage point with safety barriers; you scramble down rocks to see its natural treasures and look out for yourself! On our visit it was bitterly cold as the four of us stood quite alone drinking in this truly awesome spectacle, but immensely satisfying that we had made the pilgrimage to experience one of nature's finest wonders.
As we descended from the mountains, pausing only for an unfortunate American couple's hire car to be towed from the ditch, the weather quite suddenly changed from wind, snow and rain to a brilliant blue sky and still, bright sunshine. The landscape reminded us of the Lake District as we speeded along the (now) tarmac northern coastal road on our way to the whaling port of Hśsavik.
We spent the next two nights at Lake Mżvatn (literally 'midge lake'), the site of a dormant volcano, and had two glorious sunny days enjoying the local bubbling mud pools, volcanic mounds and sulphurous vapours that litter the landscape. Walking on steaming rock is an uncanny experience, but you need to be careful as much of it is close to boiling point and can inflict a nasty burn, as our friend Dick discovered!
Anxious to learn the Test score (for non-Brits, England's biennial cricket series against Australia), I was delighted to find a broadband internet connection in our hotel (we four were the only guests!). Thus I was able to follow the progress of the final Test as well as pick up and respond to my email - in the middle of nowhere! Isn't technology grand? Apparently, Iceland's fibre optic communications ring was completed in 2000 and most of the population is computer literate.
We then headed for Akureyri on the north coast, Iceland's second city with a population of 15,000. It proved to be a delightful place, immaculately clean and tidy with flowers everywhere, full of quality shops and a fabulous coffee house. Four hot chocolates and four macaroons - £21! It also had an interesting church, but sadly it was locked. It was the first place we visited that had parking restrictions and speed camera signs on the roads in and out, but I never saw a traffic warden or a camera the whole time we were in Iceland. Every cloud has a silver lining!
Later that day we enjoyed the Gošafoss Falls, and in the evening we stayed in Varmahliš at a comfortable hotel run by a young Icelander with a Bolivian wife. He met her on a student exchange to Brazil, another indication of the international flavour of the country. In the morning I filled the petrol tank to the brim and we set off on one of the most desolate journeys of my life across the middle of Iceland. The journey took us all day and was at the same time awesome, scary, uncomfortable and sometimes alarming, but not to be missed. In the middle of the trip we found Hveravellir, a surprisingly beautiful geothermal area between the glaciers Langjökull and Hofsjökull, bubbling with activity and offering a walk and a nice warm bath. At a breezy 8 degrees C despite the sunshine, we declined the latter!
Emerging from the wilderness we were rewarded with two of Iceland's most famous sights: the Gullfoss, or Golden, waterfalls and the eponymous Geysir. The former is the jewel in the crown, a massive terraced tumble so wide (2.5 km) it is hard to see it all at once, but a majestic demonstration of the power of nature. Although the latter has been silent since the big earthquakes in 2000, its little brother Strokkur obliges by spouting up to 35 metres about every five to ten minutes, but is still fiendishly difficult to anticipate with the lag on a digital camera.
Follow that, you might think! After checking the cricket score at yet another internet equipped hotel, we spent our last full day in žingvellir National Park around Iceland's largest lake. Straddling the American and Eurasian tectonic plates it has some superb examples of faults and gorges, besides being the site of Iceland's first parliament and the Prime Minister's summer residence. I particularly enjoyed the Drekkingarhylur, or Drowning Pool, where women found guilty of adultery were once drowned. For the record, adulterous men were beheaded.
We spent our final morning in Reykjavik, determined to squeeze the last drop out of our holiday before flying home that afternoon. The weather was wet and cold, almost as if the capital resented our departure, but the mighty concrete church with its 75 metre steeple has a marvellous presence, and the colourful roofs seen from the top make it worth the climb (in a lift!). We were not tempted by a swim in the Blue Lagoon hot pool, which turned out to be the cooling pond for the local power station!
We had a very enjoyable time. Iceland's scenery is truly awesome, the cuisine divine, the weather changeable and often bitterly cold, and the prices as high as we have encountered anywhere on our travels. It is also a photographer's paradise.
If you would like to see some more photos then view our Iceland 2005 album here.