outdoor adventures on the nordic island of ice
Where: Reykjavik, Selfoss, Geysir, Þinvillir, Gullfoss, Mýrdalsjökull
Iceland, Northern Europe
When: February 2013
What: Exploding Geysir, Blue Lagoon bathing, Husky dog sledging, Glacier hiking and abseiling, Waterfalls, Icelandic horses.
How: International Flights, Coach, Walk, Hiking, Sledding.
Counter: 1 country
Mishaps or illnesses: Resorting to eating pot noodles for days on end as a way of side-stepping the exorbitant costs of a restaurant meal.
Iceland has something very special to offer to travellers tired of the repetitive nature of activities and sights available in many other European city breaks. Iceland is a place where things are different and where you can be assured of seeing and doing unusual things. Iceland has, principally, its geographical features and natural phenomena to thank for its popularity as a destination: active volcanoes, geothermal pools, exploding geysers, the Northern Lights phenomena, glaciers... It also has a capital city, Reykjavik, to satisfy those who may wish to avoid all of these things entirely or who may just want to take an afternoon off from Iceland's more active offerings. Just preparing my travel bag for Iceland made me feel I was heading into un-chartered travel territory. Unusual enough for me to be compelled to visit one of those 'outdoorsy' clothing chains for wind-proof this, and thermal that. Where Iceland's concerned, it was definitely thermal layers not sun cream, woollen gloves not sunglasses, Long Johns not shorts, chunky hiking boots not trainers. You get the idea. I have very rarely flown into Arctic conditions on a trip which required such rigorous sartorial planning. All of this difference built the excitement for me; this was going to be an unusual trip - and I was looking forward to it!
Iceland is, indeed, very special. It's a niche travel destination because it is cold and expensive - two factors which see off pretty much most holidaymakers. Iceland, an island country the size of England, has more than forty active volcanoes and there is an eruption roughly every four years from one of them. Some magma chambers are currently full meaning some volcanoes are overdue an eruption! Iceland sits on top of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, a huge mountain range under the sea, meaning that there are anything between forty and five hundred earthquakes a day, most of which measure low on the Richter scale and thus fail to register any interest. Iceland is a survivor, selling fish to Europe built its initial wealth, then its disastrous foray into international banking and now, possibly, sees its future in geothermal energy and related technologies. It is a country with less than half a million people, way over half of which are children or are retired. This limited working population may also explain why Iceland has no army. Icelandic is the purest language in Europe, so much so that English words for new inventions are re-named using old Viking phrases to ensure the language does not become diluted over time. Also, a new controversial law dictates that any new-born children must be given Icelandic names from an approved list. This stops names like 'Dave' (or brainless parents from making up crass and tacky combinations of names to be 'different' as in the UK) from entering island life. Rightly so, in my opinion. There are also no accents and no dialect words whatsoever in the Icelandic language. As a gesture of respect to this ongoing Icelandic linguistic saga, I have tried to source the actual Icelandic letters for the places I visited for use on this website (Þ = 'th' sound in English by the way). Icelanders look back romantically and enthusiastically to their Viking heritage - some men dress and grow beards accordingly. Street-level adverts for the outdoor clothing store 66 Degrees North, which are a prevalent sight across Iceland, draw heavily on this Norse aesthetic . However, recent DNA profiling has revealed a far stronger blood line to the Irish than previously thought. Why are these anomalous facts relevant? Well, I think they help capture the Icelandic essence, its mystique. The word 'unique' was surely forged with Iceland in mind? It goes without saying that Iceland is a fascinating travel destination: socially, linguistically and, of course, geographically. Indeed, as our time in Iceland drew to a close, and despite a packed four-day itinerary, there was a growing sense that we had left so much undone. We could easily have stayed longer.
So, based at the very Icelandically-named 'Hotel Björk' (I booked it because of its name), we arranged our trip out to the Blue Lagoon, Dog sledding, Golden Circle tour and Glacier hike. Regrettably for us, our hopes of seeing the Northern Lights were dashed on two separate occasions. The cloudy skies meant there was no chance of catching the stunning light show. Comparatively it is a bit like travelling to Canada and not seeing Niagara Falls, Venice and not going on a gondola ride or China and not seeing the Great Wall thereof. Still, you can't have everything and not seeing nature's greatest light show will just hasten the possibility of a trip to Greenland in the future. At least our independent tour company cancelled - larger ones run the trips sometimes regardless of the chances of seeing the Lights. Being £90 down and still not seeing the Lights would have been infinitely worse. Book with a small, independent operation to avoid being taken for a ride (pun intended). Smaller companies are more honest and personable than larger operations, which are loathe to give refunds if the weather conditions change. As you will see below, we did plenty in Iceland to make it a trip I will remember for a long time to come - even without the Northern Lights...
the icelandic capital
Bitterly cold gusts greeted us as we exited through the automatic glass doors of Keflavik airport and into my 43rd country. The landscape the airport nestles in felt like being out on the moors of Wuthering Heights - windswept, cold and desolate. In places it was almost lunar in appearance, taking on the guise of blackened scrub land with large splits and fissures. You will see black everywhere in Iceland - black boulders, paving stones, rocks and shingle used along roadsides, in planters and as general ground cover. Obviously Icelanders are resourceful in using volcanic materials to shape their country. It means that the place feels almost other-worldly, and a little austere. For the international visitor new to the country, the darkened reds, greens and greys of the landscape are a striking visual difference.
Reykjavik is the most northerly capital in the world and much of the island is inaccessible in winter - save for a road which runs around the edge of the island in M25 style. Reykjavik looks and feels very much like a fishing village. Whilst this is the country's capital, it is provincial and quaint. Most buildings stop at a few storeys high: there are very few tall buildings here. All walls and roofs of residential buildings are finished with corrugated metal panels - almost without exception. Reykjavik is unlikely to win any architectural awards any time soon but, taken together as part of a package, the brightly painted corrugated buildings look playful and fun. Reykjavik looks like a Lego city, even more so when viewed from the monolithic grey bulk of the Hallgrimskirkja church which dominates the city's skyline - if only for the fact that everything else appears so petite in comparison to it. 85% of Reykjavik has been built since the 1950s. Oh, and these toy-town corrugated roofs have a more serious function: they stay on in hurricane force winds and slate tiles do not.
The Hallgrimskirkja is impressive - especially when you consider it was built by one man and his son. For around two hundred Krona (£2), you can take the lift to the top of the spire, walking a further flight of stairs to go to an outside viewing platform above the clock tower, to see the equally impressive views over Reykjavik. The colourful roofs of Reykjavik's toy town look vulnerable in front of the huge snow-capped mountains and deep green waters which surround it. Taking photographs from this high vantage point is a somewhat tricky process as the cold winds numb your hands whilst buffeting and tugging at your camera. Being the most northerly capital city in the world, and it being February, we were glad to have arrived prepared with winter and wind proof clothing - we certainly needed it. Your options of buying gear on arrival to avoid Iceland's eye-watering cold are likely to be thwarted by Iceland's equally eye-watering prices. Bring what you need - shopping here is not an activity I would recommend to pass the time - it's just too expensive. Spend the money on tasty crepes and coffees instead - both specialities in Iceland. You will need visits to these delightful little cafes to keep out the Nordic wind chill. We did just that and had a rather amazingly tasty chocolate and peanut butter crepe.
Reykjavik, sleepy and tranquil during the week, has enough charm in itself to warrant a visit but is principally used by many as the hub from which to jump into an expensive and seemingly infinite range of day trips and tour packages to sample Iceland's unique natural wonders. Companies offer hotel collection as part of the deal - seeming like an expensive luxury at first, it doesn't take you long to realise how unforgiving the weather can be: this is not a place where you want to be waiting around at bus stops. You soon realise that hotel pick-ups are not a luxury but a necessity. The Blue Lagoon is certainly a quintessentially Icelandic activity - albeit an expensive one. For around £40 you are collected by coach and driven 50km westward to the lagoon where you hire a towel (bring the one from your hotel - save £10) get changed and head out into the biting cold open with nothing more than your trunks on. Steam rises upward from the blue waters of the lagoon giving it a mystical feel encircled, as it is, by dark mountain ranges. Thankfully the lagoon waters are hot, naturally heated by the geo-thermal vents pumped by Man underneath. There is even a floating bar from which you can buy a drink without leaving the blue waters. However, I'd recommend against a purchase of a blue soft drink called 'Krap'. You can wile away the hours bathing in the mists, sipping beer and rubbing white sludge onto your face. This stuff is supposedly good for your skin. Indeed, you can even buy bottles of it from the gift shop.
The view of downtown Reykjavik out to the snow-capped mountains as seen from Iceland's tallest building the Hallgrimskirkja.
Reykjavik's toy-town coloured roofs as seen from Iceland's tallest building the Hallgrimskirkja and, right, along the seafront at Sæbraut complete with Iceland-proof furry Russian hat. It was bitterly cold.
Reykjavik's majestic Sun Voyager sculpture of a Viking boat, made from stainless steel, looks out to sea.
Houses and alpine trees reflect on the waters of the Tjörnin ('The Pond') in central Reykjavik.
In the Blue Lagoon, a natural geothermal spa located in the Grindavik lava field.
The glorious Hallgrimskirkja church at dusk, Iceland's tallest building and built by one man and his son. For a small fee, the Lutheran church allows you to travel to the top of the tower in a lift to capture stunning views over Reykjavik.
skálafell & mýrdalsjökull
husky dog sledding & glacier hiking
A truly wonderful experience was the husky dog sled on the slopes of Skálafell, a place which lies at the foot of one of Iceland's glaciers. We left a grey and drizzly Reykjavik and, forty minutes later, were in the midst of an almost complete white-out, with howling huskies adding to the sense of isolation. Cue flashbacks from films where people get stranded and have to do everything to survive the unforgiving weather. It was a shock to go from capital city to snowblivion in such a short space of time. Even having tried to dress appropriately for the occasion, I was woefully under prepared and was thankful of an offer of an additional pair of waterproof overalls from staff. Here's a tip to make sure you are well-prepared for the ruthless Nordic chill of Iceland: wear everything you think you need - and then double it! Having acquainted ourselves with the dogs, and having donned extra winter protection in the form of a plastic onesie, we set off into the snow with Rolf, a happy-go-lucky twenty-something Dutchman with a love of huskies. We had six husky dogs pulling the three of us several kilometres on the slopes 50km above sea level. Rolf called our location 'Fog Mountain' - and with just cause. Going husky dog sledding was one of the most enjoyable things I've done abroad. I even made special friends with a female husky called Oskar who liked to lick my nose and lift her paw into my hand as if forbidding me to leave. Our lead husky was a lovely black bear-like dog called Manitock. Although pricey at around £115 each, the sledding was worth every Krona. Be warned - we booked weeks in advance over the internet. Booking on arrival in Iceland will leave you disappointed at busy periods: there are only so many huskies to go round!
The husky dog sled was a gentle warm-up for more hardcore active pursuits the following day. Travelling with Arctic Adventures, we hopped onto a minibus destined for a glacier some two hours' drive south-eastward, once again leaving the chilly but sedate weather behind in Reykjavik and heading straight into the mists and snow. During the winter months in Iceland any increase in altitude in winter goes hand in hand with an ascension into thick fog. Huge mountain tops evaporated into the clouds. Dóri, one of our guides, duly informed all thirteen of us, as we sat there in the bus blinking at him with expectant anticipation, that we were hiking on a glacier close to the active Volcano Hekla - which was "overdue" an eruption. Hekla is also Iceland's second most active volcano and in Medieval times was believed to be the actual entrance to hell. Gulp. Dóri also referred to several places whose names were tongue-twistingly crazy and equally unpronounceable (see his calling card here if you're interested in a similar experience). We drove to the edge of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier located close to Iceland's south coast: it had a distinct and intriguing blue tinge to it. Apparently the Mýrdalsjökull glacier moves 15cm a day along the valley. Kitted out with crampons (spike supports on our feet), a harness, ice pick and helmet we hit the ice (thankfully I didn't actually hit it - managing to stay on my feet throughout). However, nobody told me we'd be climbing up and abseiling down a glacier as part of the trip. Still, I did it, although coming down was harder than going up owing to my complete inability to follow simple instructions. Using two ice picks, one in either hand, and punting my spikes into the wall of ice, I managed to get to the top of what more experienced climbers would call a pathetically-sized glacier face.
The scenery was spectacular - soft undulations and peaks of ice, like ice cream, rippled along the valley sides which themselves were jet black from volcanic ash and sediment deposits. If this wasn't enough for the eyes to feast upon, there were ice caves and deep crevasses too (very dangerous). The weather was almost constant ice rain which, towards the end of the expedition, began to affect my trusty Sony camera, the lens gates beginning to stick with the moisture. We were drenched through and, after three hours hiking and climbing, we headed out of the winds and back to the minibus for a roll (remove salami first) and an Icelandic doughnut (a twisted shape). If you are physically fit enough, my recommendation is that you go for one of these tours - it's a whole day out with two witty Icelanders, you see unique landscapes, and get some great photographs to boot. Iceland is about the great outdoors, not staying indoors. Apart from a very brief stop off to see the Skolgafoss waterfall (I have seen a more impressive one in Morocco), we headed back to Rekyjavik - a journey complete with the occasional murmured conversation and frequent sounds of foreigners snoring...
Oskar the husky dog loans me her paw. She obviously loves me.
Husky dog sledding in a complete white-out.
The mesmerising shapes of the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. To get a sense of its sheer scale, check out the orange helmets of some trekkers bottom centre right.
Climbing up the sheer face of the glacier with the help of two ice-picks. I wasn't exactly an expert at it.
kerið, gullfoss, geysir & þinvellir
iceland's famous golden triangle
The Golden Circle tour is Iceland's most tourist-trodden track. Minibuses and jeeps wizz up and down predominantly empty roads through spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains, barren lumpy land and sheer rock faces complete with waterfalls. Nursing my aches from the previous day's glacier hike/climb/abseil we set off on our tour with Iceland Horizons (for which I have to thank for some of the juicy facts in this very chronicle). First port of call was the Kerið volcanic crater with a turquoise blue ice plug at the bottom: rather a stunning sight and a promising way to start. Swiftly following this Icelandic geographical marvel were the cute Selfoss waterfall and its far more impressive big brother Gulfoss around 60km further north. Next was what is undoubtedly the key golden nugget of this Golden Circle and one of Iceland's most iconic sights: Geysir. It is a place synonymous with erupting hot water pools. All geysers the world over owe their name to this place in south west Iceland. The geysir itself, called Strokkur, explodes roughly every four and a half minutes meaning you can time a perfect photograph of its thirty metre high water jet some ninety degrees hot (use your burst setting on your camera if you have one). It is a spectacular sight which is likely to elicit gasps of admiration from even the most sceptical of tourists. Before leaving Geysir we stopped off for a stroke of the Icelandic horse, a unique species of horse untainted since the Vikings came to the land of ice. They were amazingly friendly, quickly trotting over to us at the fence by the roadside. Indeed, the Icelandic horse acts as a broader metaphor for the insularity of Iceland as a whole and its modern day anxiety about retaining and protecting its Viking purity - socially and linguistically.
The tour's final destination was the rift valley of Þinvellir (this Old Norse name translates as 'assembly planes'). Geologists agree that this is the valley in which both the European and North American continental plates meet - the clash and fissure of two giant world continents collide underneath Iceland's igneous crust in this place. The bridge you see me standing on in the photograph below is the exact theoretical point at which they meet, although this point could be anywhere in the valley. The continental rift widens by around 1.5cm every year as the continental plates drift apart. This site is also at the heart of Icelandic and world history, being the place where, around 930AD, the Viking chieftains met to discuss and decide laws. In doing so they created the blueprint of western European democracy where representatives speak on behalf of the people of their regions. An innocuous and unassuming white pole marks the spot thought to be where the law speaker read out his speeches to the masses with the acoustics of the valley acting like a perfect natural amplifier - no electricity required! The landscape, with sheer black rock faces and the largest lake in Iceland, is impressive in itself - a fitting location for something of such historical importance.
Our first stop on the Golden Circle tour: the volcanic crater of Kerið.
The exploding geyser Strokkur performs again for an expectant crowd of onlookers. The size of the water jet and the size of people on the ground gives some sense of the ferocity of the explosions.
The mystical landscape of the Þinvellir - the point, geologists agree, at which two continental plates collide, the focal point for the development of an Icelandic parliament and the birthplace of western democracy. Quite an significant place, then?
travel tips, links & resources
- Make sure you book things well in advance. Don't turn up in Iceland and expect there to be places for things like Husky dog sledding - you'll be sorely disappointed.
- Take everything you need with you - Iceland is really expensive and buying any outdoor gear here will set you back a small fortune.
- Don't fall victim to the great Northern Lights swindle. Book with a local guide or small, independent company who will cancel the trip and save you money - rather than booking with a larger outfit which will run the trip regardless of your chances of seeing the phenomena.
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