08 February 2008

Visiting the “Top of the World”, aka ICELAND

I will be visiting Iceland on business for the third time soon, however in the first two trips I had the opportunity to explore some of this enchanting island and meet many of the people living there. In fact it made the trip feel more like a holiday than work.

With our busy schedule we were only able to wander around for 4 days, but those four days were enough to make me really appreciate the land of “fire and ice”. There were two outstanding trips we took while we were there, one to the Icelandic highlands and one to the Blue Lagoon, a world renowned spa.

The trip to the highlands is something of a trek, although there are buses that will take groups into the vast expanses of volcanic rock fields, but I much preferred riding in a gigantic 4x4 (the vehicle of choice of any Icelander worth his metal). As soon as you leave the asphalt you have a sense of leaving civilisation behind. The terrain becomes more and more desolate. All that was missing was some Hobbits and it would have felt like travelling to Mordor. About 10 minutes after having left the road the last of the tundra disappeared and we were surrounded by black volcanic rock, some of it glassy and some of it porous, all of it beautiful. Soon afterwards we drove into a thick mist, caused mainly by the small geysers all around us. Signs popped up in the middle of a petrified lava fields pointing to far away glaciers and shelters in the middle of nowhere, on a non existent track. After a short break to examine the rocks and the local Viking beer, we hopped back into the jeep, however these brief stops were to continue all the way to the shelter.

The first stop was for us to see a small waterfall cascading over glassy black rocks, forming a small pond with a bright red sulphuric shore, a reminder of how much energy is locked away a few hundred meters under our feet. Our next stop proved to me much more impressive. Reaching the top of a small hill our jaws dropped at the sudden burst of colour. We were in an area with many small geysers and the warm water helped plant life develop in the area. Hills climbed and dropped, covered with green, yellow and orange moss, streaked with the rusty red of the sulphur painted rock. All around us steam broke through the ground and water bubbled. Siggy, the guy who invited us on a the trip (after only having met us a couple of days before), warned us not to get too close because people have fallen into geysers and there are much better ways to go than to be scalded alive.

Our third stop was breathtaking. We were just getting used to colours reappearing around us when, upon reaching the top of another hill, we looked down to see a lake surrounded by other hills covered in soft green moss. The cleanest most serene lake I have ever seen, surrounded by the blackest rocky shore, with a small hill protruding from the middle of the lake. Such an unexpected sight in a place that feels that desolate. There was a sudden realisation that we were far from civilisation at that moment. The absolute quiet, no animals, no cars, no people, even our own voices did not carry very far. I ventured down to the lake while Siggy and the others enjoyed another cold one at the top of the hill. Looking back at the top I could see 4x4 and off road motorcycle tracks scarring the green hills. Civilisation was not as far away as I had thought. Siggy later told me that that was the sort of thing that really pissed him off as it takes years and years for the moss to grow and kids in their vehicles like to ride up and down destroying them. I also noticed sheep, solitary or in pairs dotting the hills. Apparently they are left to roam the highlands free and when the weather becomes worse the herders all get together on their horses and spend a couple of weeks drinking and rounding them up. It is beyond me how they manage to find them or catch them as there was sometimes a distance of 1-2 miles between any two animals.

Finally, after the lake we arrived at the shelter, which was located just below what I thought was another hill. After paying closer attention I noticed that this was in fact a petrified lava field. Molten lava had poured out of a volcano decades ago and you could follow its path as it washed over the land, only to solidify after cooling, like a frozen wave. The closer you got the more detail you could make out. Walking into the lava field, that rose to 4-5 meters on either side of you, was like entering a maze made of black glass. It’s an unsettling surrounding, sharp dark rocks that look as though they should reflect light, but in fact absorb it all. We climbed to the top, passing “highland chickens” (a type of grouse) and more sheep to reach the moss and mushroom covered top. We sat on the moist vegetation that felt like a quilt and looked at the ever present rainbow springing from a now silent volcano, covered in pink and red streaks, like somebody had had fun with it in Photoshop. It struck me as unbelievable that places like this, silent and beautiful, and yet so simple, could exist and that I was actually there.

There was a stream running alongside the shelter, with wooden decking leading to a small platform with steps leading into the water. It is surreal to see people in bikinis in the water when the temperature is about 6 C. But it was not time for us to join in yet. After preparing a barbeque with lamb and jacket potatoes we went to our room at the top of the shelter and had dinner, and yet more beer. It was nice and toasty in the room, very cosy in the candlelight as the electricity was being conserved and at 9pm all the light had completely disappeared. It was at 9:30pm that Siggy thought it would be the best time to jump in. We were a funny sight in swimming shorts and skiing jackets and hiking boots, walking in the dark next to a wall of steam rising from the stream. We got to the platform and quickly undressed and stepped into the stream . The water was at 35 C. It is difficult to understand at first, confusing for the body. You feel as though you are entering a gigantic bathtub.

The pebbles at the bottom are hot and round and bubbles rise from between them. As we sat in the dark, the light from jeeps arriving creating enormous shadows from rocks or wooden stakes reflected on the steam, Siggy felt compelled to share how amazing he found it that only 200 meters beneath us there is a whole sea of lava bursting to get out. In this horror film setting it did make me somewhat paranoid, but prone as I am to paranoia, it was not enough to get me to leave the warmth of the water and walk, dripping wet, onto a platform where the air’s temperature was below zero. Eventually I did get our and sat on the wooden decking, while, surprisingly, the rising heat from the water dried me off completely. I am not sure if it would have been better to have visited in the summer when at 9pm everything would have been bathed in a twilight that lasts until morning some 4-6 hours later.

Needless to say, nothing disturbed my sleep that night, not even the incredibly loud snoring from one of my travel companions. The dark, the silence and the warmth put me straight to sleep. The next morning we watched a group of elderly German and French tourists walk into the lava field maze and disappear, on a weeklong trek that would take them through the lava fields to one shelter after the other and a series of hot springs and silent volcanoes.

As we drove back to Reykjavik, through fields of moss, volcanoes, streams that came up to the jeeps doors and glassy rock, I felt nostalgic and relieved to leave it all behind. Our final stop before returning was at a massive waterfall where all the streams converged into a river that emptied into the Atlantic. The cliff side at the waterfall was bordered by rusty wires, what you might find on a WWI trench. Drops lingered from the spikes. Similar to the island itself, with its forbidding beauty, a warning of the power nature has hidden away, like a champagne bottle that’s been shaking all day.

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