Adventure Travel on the Nordic Island of Ice
Where: Reykjavik, Selfoss, Geysir, Þinvillir, Gullfoss, Mýrdalsjökull. Iceland, Europe.
When: February 2013
What: Exploding Geysir, Blue Lagoon bathing, Husky dog sledging, Glacier hiking and abseiling, Gulfoss and Selfoss waterfalls, Icelandic horses, Sun Voyager sculpture, the Hallgrimskirkja Chruch, volcanic crater, the most northerly capital city in the world.
How: International Flights, multiple coach tours, walking.
Country counter: Country No.43
Mishaps or illnesses: Resorting to eating pot noodles for days on end as a way of side-stepping the exorbitant cost of meals in Icelandic restaurants.
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... 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. A number of magma chambers are currently full, meaning some volcanoes are well overdue for an eruption. Iceland sits on top of the Mid Atlantic Ridge, a giant mountain range under the sea, meaning that there are anything between forty and five hundred small earthquakes per day. 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 unchartered travel territory. Unusual enough for me to be compelled to visit one of those outdoor clothing stores 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 conditions on a trip which required such rigorous sartorial planning. All of this difference served merely to build 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 mightily cold and supremely expensive - two of the realities of travel here which are likely to put off most holidaymakers after their cheap sun, sand and Sangria.
Iceland is a survivor, initially selling its fish to Europe to build its wealth, then followed its disastrous foray into international banking and now, possibly, espies 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. Indeed, a new controversial law dictates that any new-born child must be given Icelandic names from an approved list. This stops non-native names from entering island life. 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 script for those places I visited ("Þ" for example). Icelanders look back romantically and enthusiastically to their Viking heritage: some men dress and grow beards accordingly. Indeed, advertising on the island seeks to 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. It goes without saying that Iceland is a fascinating travel destination: socially, linguistically and, of course, geographically. As our time in Iceland drew to a close, and despite a packed 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" (booking it simply because of the name), we arranged our obligatory trips out to the Blue Lagoon, went dog sledding, undertook the Golden Circle tour and went on a hair-raising 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 nature's stunning light show. 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. 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...
Bitterly cold gusts greeted us as we exited through the automatic glass doors of Keflavik airport and into my 43rd country. The landscape in which the airport is nestled was windswept, desolate, bleak. Among the first things you will notice about the Icelandic landscape is its blackened appearance: black boulders, black paving stones, black rocks and black shingle. Obviously Icelanders are resourceful in using the plentiful volcanic material around them to build their country. This does result in a strange and unsettling aesthetic; an austere-looking landscape which is otherworldly and lunar in appearance. For the international visitor new to the country, the darkened colour palate is a striking visual reminder, if any were needed, that you have just entered a very special land.
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. Reykjavik looks and feels very much like a fishing village. Whilst this is the country's capital, it is provincial, quaint and on a human scale. You'll find no skyscrapers here. Most buildings stop at a few storeys high. Notably, and almost without exception, all walls and roofs of residential buildings are finished in corrugated metal panelling. 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 like a Lego city a child may build. The best location from which to survey this most toy-like of toy towns is 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.
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 seem 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 quickly numbed my hands whilst buffeting and tugging at my 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.
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 array of day trips and tour packages to sample Iceland's unique natural wonders. Companies frequently offer hotel pick-up 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 complete necessity. The Blue Lagoon is certainly a quintessentially Icelandic activity. We were collected by coach and driven 50 kilometres westward to the lagoon where we hired a towel, got changed and headed out into the biting outdoor cold with nothing more than our shorts on. Steam rose upward from the blue waters of the lagoon giving it a mystical feel encircled, as it was, by darkened hills. Thankfully the lagoon waters were hot, naturally heated by the geothermal vents pumped underneath. There was even a floating bar from which we bought a drink without leaving the warmth of the water (I'd recommend against a purchase of the 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 this stuff 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 awesome colours of Iceland at the Blue Lagoon.
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
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 snowy white-out, with howling huskies adding to the sense of isolation and white wilderness. Cue flashbacks from films where people get stranded and have to do everything to survive in 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 hugely thankful of an offer of an additional pair of waterproof overalls from our guide. Here's a tip to make sure you are well-prepared for the ruthless Nordic chill of Iceland: wear everything you think you need - 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 50 kilometres above sea level. Rolf called our location "Fog Mountain" - and with just cause. Going husky dog sledding was simply awesome. 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 (best to ensure you book such experiences early - there are only so many huskies to go around).
Unbeknown to me, 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. 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 15 centimetres a day along the valley. Kitted out with crampons, a harness, ice pick and helmet we soon hit the ice. 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 myself to the top.
The scenery was spectacular - soft undulations and peaks of ice, like bluey ice cream with strips of black sauce, rippled along the valley sides which themselves were jet black from volcanic ash and sediment deposits. If this wasn't enough for the eyes, there were ice caves and deep crevasses too. 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 icy 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 - vegetarian) and an Icelandic doughnut (a twisted shape). If you are physically fit enough, my recommendation is that you go for at least one of these tours - it's a whole day out with two witty Icelanders, you see unique landscapes, and get to take some of the most incredible photographs which you will look back on for years to come. Iceland is about the great outdoors, not staying indoors. Apart from a very brief stop off to see the Skolgafoss Waterfall, we headed back to the relative banality of toy town Rekyjavik - a journey complete with the occasional murmured conversation and frequent sounds of foreigners snoring, exhausted, as we were, from a crazy day which firmly put the "ice" in Iceland.
Oskar the husky dog loans me her paw. She obviously loves me.
Husky dog sledding in a complete white-out.
Putting on the krampons on a day when I put the "ice" in Iceland.
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
The Golden Circle tour is Iceland's most popular. Minibuses and jeeps whizz up and down the island's empty roads through spectacular scenery of snow-capped mountains, barren lumpy ground and sheer rock faces complete with waterfalls. Nursing my aches from the previous day's glacier hike-cum-climb-cum-abseil we set off on our tour with Iceland Horizons. First port of call was the Kerið volcanic crater with a turquoise blue ice plug at the bottom: a rather stunning sight and a promising way to start. Swiftly following this Icelandic geographical marvel were the cute Selfoss waterfall and its far more impressive Gulfoss around 60 kilometres further north. Next was what is undoubtedly 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. It is a spectacular sight which is likely to elicit gasps of admiration from even the most unappreciative of visitors. Before leaving Geysir we paused briefly to stroke a friendly Icelandic horse, a pure and unique species untainted since the Vikings came to this, the land of ice. Indeed, the Icelandic horse acts as a broader metaphor for the insularity of Iceland as a whole and its modern day anxiety about maintaining its Viking purity.
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 very place. The continental rift widens by around 1.5 centimetres 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 as perfect natural amplifier. The landscape, with sheer black rock faces and the largest lake in Iceland, is lunar and mystical - 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 tours and trips well in advance. Don't turn up in Iceland and expect there to be places for things like Husky dog sledding.
- 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.
- Be sure to visit the Hallgrimskirkja Church. For around two hundred Krona, 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.
- Your options of buying outdoor 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.
- Know that hotel pick-ups are not a luxury in Iceland but, rather, a necessity. Ensure that any tour package you arrange comes with this included.
- When going to the Blue Lagoon don't forget to take your own towel. Doing so will save you from having to pay more on entry to hire one.
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