To the Land of Ice and Fire

From an early age I knew I had to one day visit Iceland. Ever since flying over part of the lower half of the country during a layover in Keflavik en route to America, looking down from the airplane window to see a glimpse of a landscape that looked positively unreal – volcanoes, rugged terrain, colours of water one would think completely unknown to nature – I knew I had to go. Or return. Depending on whether you’d count a layover as *technically* going to a place. I guess it also didn’t help that Bjork was playing during said plane journey en route to Iceland – in the late 90s, at the height of her commercial international fame – so their national airline is pretty good, let’s just say, at setting the scene.

Fast forward to nearly two decades later – after spending a period of time this year, ever since my trip to the TBEX conference, being mostly laid low for reasons I won’t go into right now, I gradually improved and decided that I needed to try one of my “attempts at travelling” again, in order to shift my perspective on life back onto a wider plane than it had already started to shrink to. This timing, incidentally, was right smack bang in the middle of what I’ve heard referred to as the “shoulder season” – that time when the summer crowds have largely gone, winter has not yet come laying chaos and destruction, and crucially, when prices have normally gone down.

Because I don’t drive (can’t or won’t I’m still not entirely sure) and my first choice would’ve been to rent a car either myself or with a buddy and see the entire country at my/our own pace, my second choice, in this case, was to base myself in Reykjavik for a few days and get the main touristy tours in, then embark upon an organised tour of the north of the country for a few days, returning to the capital for a couple of nights before flying back home. Sounds relatively simple. OK it turned out to be a lot more expensive than the renting a car/hostelling/camping/hitchhiking thing which many younger and more outgoing people opt to do but this was the way in which I knew I would best be able to appreciate the country the way circumstances (namely not being able to drive and probably being too much of a Goose to drive in a place such as Iceland in any case) currently were.

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After a relatively painless journey to Iceland (thanks largely to the high quality headphones I invested in not long before) I arrived at my hostel – and its rather unusual sleeping quarters. While a long time ago I swore off staying in a dorm room ever again (unless I was with friends for whatever reason) I made an exception in this case because of the special “pod” style beds this hostel had, specially imported from Hong Kong and basically like a really tiny little room in and of itself. Which happened to still be located in a dorm room but this was about as affordable a “single” room was going to get in this country so I conceded, and had a rather fun time on the first night pretending I was on some kind of futuristic space mission…

After falling asleep basically the second I got into that pod-type thing I started early the next day with a tour of the Reykjanes Peninsula, an area of the country which is seemingly often neglected due to its deemed purpose of being just the location of the airport and the Blue Lagoon. It is actually meant to be one of the most geologically active areas of the country (and certainly smelled that way) and hosts the most visible part of the continental divide between Europe and America. That is, where the tectonic plates physically meet, rather than bureaucratically speaking. There were no border checks or anything there.

Setting out early, on a very chilly and overcast (and often drizzly) Halloween morning, our first stops were actually at a gas station, then at some “fish farm” where the catches of the day left a very pungent scent in the air, which would then follow us onto the bus for the rest of the day, in addition to a rather disturbing sight of the disembodied heads of thousands of fish in rows and rows being hung out to dry. Disturbing for a vegan like me anyway – a number of those on the tour were happy to sample the local “delicacy”, which I imagine many people are, for reasons I can’t quite fathom. I guess it comes under “adventurous eating” or something. We left mercifully quickly (although unfortunately I was unable to open a window) then stopped again, shortly after, to capture this view of a rare break in the weather allowing for this scene:

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My first “proper” (samsung camera) photo

This is the sort of scene which I’d imagined long before coming here, and one which really sparks the imagination. It’s easy to imagine the “hidden people” from Icelandic folklore scurrying around the place, presumably being so skilled at building houses that they don’t mind living out somewhere the cold air can actually bite. So despite nearly losing the use of my hands from the low external temperature, I set about capturing as much of it as possible, both here and on the few stops along the way. There was a stop at a rather foreboding looking lake (because of the weather conditions mostly), some curious rock formations, hardly little Icelandic ponies bravely braving the awful weather like the little bosses they were, a random heart-shaped formation on one of the hills we passed, and of course, this all provided ample opportunity (for the few moments I could stand to be outside) to try out the macro photography settings on my camera again.

We moved onto one of the many actively geothermal areas that Iceland has to offer, and it’s one thing to know that such areas exist but quite another to actually see boiling mud and water coming out of the ground, knowing that it is *entirely* the work of nature.

Next we moved onto possibly my favourite part of the tour; the raised tectonic ridge which forms the divide between the continents of Eurasia and North America. Not only was there an abundance of that hardcore-looking black rock and sand which is unique to the country, but the idea of literally standing on the border – the true one – between two massive landmasses, and standing directly on the single longest “line” on the entire planet, was a thought worth reflecting on for a while.

(Brief digression: I got to put the panorama and macro settings on my humble yet dependable little Samsung compact digital camera to full use here. During this trip I would come to learn the limits of this camera (well actually I did on a previous trip but sometimes it takes a while for a lesson to sink in) – as reliable as it is for taking generally high quality photos for the most part, it fails quite spectacularly when it comes to low-light settings, for example. For some time before leaving I painstakingly deliberated over whether or not to invest (splurge) on a more professional camera, such as a Nikon or a Canon, especially with the possibility of seeing the northern lights so tantalisingly close. After a lot of back-and-forth-ing, mainly because I’d already parted with an eye-watering amount of money booking the trip in the first place, in the end I decided to stick with and make the most with what I already had – as it turns out, several cameras between all my devices – and to simply try to improve. In any case I much prefer to travel light wherever possible rather than drag around hulking equipment, especially when there’s no guarantee they’ll actually be put to use. I may however have to reconsider this attitude. End of digression.)

On the tectonic ridge is where I also saw a peculiarly colourful type of plant-life which simply invited a few photos at close range. It made me wonder what it was about the plant which made it hang on in this type of setting, being so seemingly inconducive to thriving life.

Stopping at another geysir (there were honestly so many of these that I won’t bombard the page with photos of every single one we saw – same with waterfalls, as spectacular and awe-inspiring as they are, posting photos of every single one of them might be a bit excessive) and at – *drum roll* – a lobster restaurant in a fishing village (where I only had a coffee and some snacks I had the foresight to take with me), we arrived at the symbolic continental divide, a place where they built a bridge between the tectonic plates so that one could actually know they were crossing from Eurasia to North America, and vice versa. I took a few selfies here but they look dumb enough for me to be too embarrassed to post them here. So instead make do with a photo of the symbolic bridge.

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“You shall not pass!”/”Papers please”

Finally, the tour ended with me, and a few other people, being dropped off at the Blue Lagoon. I don’t normally “do” lagoons, or otherwise any other communal swimming area, but it was one of those cases where it would be so definitive of the experience of visiting the place that it had to be done at least once. However, a mishap with the workings of the lockers, and no-one readily available to offer assistance – along with the unsettling possibility of having all my stuff stuck in a locker and being left all alone in nothing but my swimming costume – meant that I had to, very reluctantly, abandon the Blue Lagoon, merely settling for taking some photos of the surrounding area.

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*****

The next day there was another early rise for a tour of the classic Golden Circle and also, for shits and giggles, a snorkelling session at the Silfra fissure in Lake Thingvallavatn. In a literally freezing lake.

I surprise myself sometimes. I really do.

There was the standard coffee/photo-taking stop en route to the first official stop of the day, where I saw this oddly endearing “earthquake demo” at one particular gas station, a stark reminder of just how likely such a thing would be to happen at any time:

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The first official stop was at Gulfoss waterfall, and on this day we were rather lucky with the weather. Despite being bitterly cold it was clear and sunny, allowing for good photos to be taken with far more ease than the day before. The waterfall was unspeakably massive, and not a little bit intimidating, as was the geysir at… Geysir. The sheer force with which natural elements move is alarming. You quickly learn to respect nature – and the many warning signs and barriers – in this place.

The favourable weather conditions allowed a glimpse of a rainbow. A great photo opportunity here.

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Along the way we stopped at a farm with Icelandic horses, who were willing to come and say hello to visitors in exchange for a few treats. I did not have anything on me to give so I felt like a bit of a tease when they came sniffing up to me…

I felt a bit sorry for them, with what seemed like an endless procession of phones and cameras being pointed at them, but they were lovely to interact with however briefly. I don’t feel as though I encountered nearly as many animals as I wanted to during this trip – very surprising for a country so steeped in its own nature – so perhaps that’s one incentive to go a bit further off the beaten track next time.

 

Our penultimate stop was Thingvellir National Park, where the snorkelling session was to take place. I was already beginning to regret signing up, as I’d battled the soul-chilling cold all day, to the point where it was difficult even to continue to use the camera outside, but it was, by then, One Of Those Things I Had To Try While I Was Here. After what seemed like several hours of suiting up in completely waterproof clothing (I was prepared to take as long as possible to make sure ZERO of that near-freezing water got in), we started swimming…

I actually tried to signal that I wanted to stop snorkelling pretty much immediately, as the cold was so painful on the few areas of skin that were exposed to the water, but I decided to endure it and soon it was fine. This sight – photos here courtesy of one of the instructors – was the reward for doing so. I did take my own photos beneath the surface but feel that the professionals are best suited to portraying the sheer awesomeness of the lake on this occasion. Funnily enough there is also no animal/marine life in Thingvallavatn apart from algae, which made it all the more surreal in my view.

Our last stop was the original site of the Althingi, the first ever known parliament in the world, and it also turned out to be the site of a simultaneous sunset and moonrise, which I didn’t manage to capture properly due to leaving my camera in the van, because I thought it was getting too dark to be able to properly photograph anything by then. I did however manage to capture the sunset earlier, after finishing the snorkelling:

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It was at the end of this long day that I was informed by email that the tour I was meant to embark upon – to Akureyri in the north of Iceland, and the surrounding area – was cancelled due to lack of participants, and then I had to basically scramble to make an alternative plan. It was during this scramble that I began to whole-heartedly lament my decision to take a chance on a third party, and my never learning to drive up until then. Had I been able to hire a car it would have been a lot easier to be flexible with travel from place to place, and probably a lot cheaper too. However I decided to simply try to recreate the original plan as closely as possible, booking flights and a hotel in Akureyri, and an alternative tour of the area. Then to let off some steam I went for a wander in the neighbourhood at nighttime, trying out the night-time settings on my camera.

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The Hallgrimskirkja

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In order to see as much diversity of landscape as possible while in Iceland, I opted to try to stay at least part of the time in another corner of the country. That’s why I opted for Akureyri, in the absence of the opportunity to travel round the entire Ring Road. So I flew up and walked the hour-long journey into town. It looked like a certain quiet mountain town in Colorado I have to say, upon first impression…

The plan was to spend the following day undertaking a tour with a Game of Thrones theme – to see some of the settings of the show, along with Lake Myvatn and some more iconic scenery along the way. More photo opportunities, more opportunities to fire the old imagination back up again… until the following morning, when the tour van didn’t show. Or answer their phone. Or answer their email until nearly a week later. Ok then. No biggie.

The only thing left to do, with no other form of transportation and a flight not leaving till the following day, was to wander around the town. This proved to be quite a logistical challenge as it had been snowing heavily overnight and I couldn’t even see where the roads and pavements began, but it was either that or stay in the hostel the entire time. I was beginning to become increasingly reminded of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here Nor There, in which the author travels up to a remote Norwegian town in the arctic circle, where it is very picturesque but where one runs out of things to do very soon, which leads to a rather humourous recollection. With no chance to appreciate the surrounding natural landscape, and not even very many shops open, some of the few options off-season were, seemingly, to find the nearest bar or cafe and sit nursing a drink for a while. And take some photos of what could be seen through the snow. And have the single most expensive salad of my entire life.

Akureyri was only ever meant to be, for me, a “base” town from which to venture into the surrounding countryside. Indeed I get the sense that had it been during the summer, there would’ve been a chance to go hiking in the area, however on this occasion it was not meant to be. I was beginning to look forward to going back to Reykjavik – if only so I could have a proper meal again.

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Reykjavik is a very pleasant and accepting town (technically a city but it really doesn’t feel much like one) and incidentally, there was a music festival – Airwaves ’17 – while I was there. But being woefully out of touch with the contemporary music scene, let alone the Icelandic one, I didn’t feel justified in buying an entire season ticket. However there were plenty of off-venue gigs which were playing around the town which I got to listen in on, while sampling the local craft beers, some of which I rather liked, some of which I’d gladly never go near again. An acquired taste indeed. It was a pretty interesting time to be in town.

One thing which is starting to increase in popularity, in Iceland, and Reykjavik in particular, is veganism. As a country which is widely known as being one of the worst places in the world to try to find vegan food – where locally grown fruits and vegetables are extremely scarce and imports extremely expensive – I was not expecting to eat abundantly while here. I was fully prepared to survive on snacks purchased from supermarkets the entire time, with the very occasional meal out if there was a rare vegan option somewhere. After all, it was not the local cuisine I came here for, but rather the unique geographical setting. The sheer novelty of the place. Yet options there were, in the most unexpected of places, namely an American diner-type venue where an old-fashioned (veggie) burger, fries and guacamole ended up being one of the best things I’d tasted in what seemed like ages; perhaps that it was eaten during a raging storm taking place outside added to the enjoyment a little. This, and the only vegan bar/cafe in the entire country, was found thanks to the Happy Cow app, which sorts me out pretty much anywhere I go. Also articles like these are a big help, serving as not only a food guide but as evidence that I wasn’t such a strange creature for wanting to continue being vegan even in the kind of place which seems otherwise antithetical to that kind of lifestyle.

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Another reason to go to Iceland? The literature.

Iceland is a country obsessed with reading, having the highest number of published authors per capita (and general appreciation of reading, from casual observance) in the entire world, showing itself most notably in a very charming Christmas tradition of distributing a catalogue called “book tidings”, or “Bókatíðindin“, in order to provide ideas for books to give to people over the festive season. Oh and it’s also a UNESCO City of Literature, keeping company with other cities with a rich literary heritage such as Edinburgh. In short it is a place where it’s deeply cool to be into reading and writing, a perfect place for someone like me and my near-obsession with the subject area.

The literary tradition is, basically, as old as the country itself. The early settlers transcribed their thoughts and ideas into runic form almost literally (ha!) as soon as they made their home here and it would not be long before Norse mythology would manifest in the Icelandic sagas, producing early figures such as Snorri Sturlson – the composer of the Edda – which/who would gain prominence and notoriety over time. In addition, literacy has been a crucial skill ever since the very origins of the nation, even for the layperson, it was compulsory to be able to read scripture when Christianity took a stronghold on the elite and the common people alike. In any case, according to Alda Sigmundsdottir’s fascinating (if oftentimes surprisingly depressing) The Little Book of the Hidden People, life was often so harsh and grim for the Icelandic people that communal reading and storytelling was one of the few ways they could escape their circumstances for a short while. Read the fantastical tales themselves in order to see how far removed from reality they can be (one in particular is almost certainly the result of the inadvertent ingestion of an hallucinogenic substance) and you’ll get the idea.

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An easy way to get a quick fix on the go

As someone who was reading long before they could actually speak, whose favourite thing to do while growing up was to hide out with a pile of books somewhere, and who (eventually) got a degree in literature – harbouring a special focus/interest in mythology and folklore from the beginning of the course – and who, um, once tried to self-publish a “short story” collection on Kindle… I guess it’s kind of inevitable that I would end up coming here, and that I felt like I might fit right in. Even though lately I’ve been in a bit of a slump reading-wise, I always welcome the opportunity to dive right back in, and an entire society geared towards fuelling the habit of reading seems like the ideal environment, and one great example of this, found entirely by chance, is in the park benches in the city which allow you to listen to a sample of Icelandic literature by simply scanning a barcode, as shown in the photo above. I’ve never seen anything like it before.

Of course, I would need to bring at least one book back home with me. A real book, not a Kindle one. I ended up choosing the Elder Edda by (allegedly) Snorri Sturluson, and to be honest I was so overwhelmed by the choice of more modern literature (I’ve just never been into crime as a genre) that I decided to pass – at least for now – and rather admire the sheer legendary might of the literary canon:

 

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So I ended up downloading a short story collection. Also, picking up some token souvenirs from the local grocery store in order to bring a literal flavour of Iceland back home with me. I still don’t know what to do with any of these. Ok maybe except for the herbal tea.

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