2008 - Iceland

Driving from the airport at around midnight, we were conscious of two things immediately.  One was the barren nature of the landscape and the other was the fact that we could see it!  We had arrived in the Land of the Midnight Sun immediately before the longest day and were crossing lava fields where just a little lichen was growing on the rocks.  We later learned that this was the start of a process of the creation of soil and of more advanced plant life.

We arrived at our small guest house at around 1 a.m.  The sun had set but as it would rise again by three o'clock, it was still day light and colours could clearly be seen.


Saturday 21st June

Our Jules Verne tour started at around 10 o'clock and six of us set off in a minibus to Pingvellir National Park.  This is one of the most important historical places of Iceland - the old parliament met there in the year 930 when a National Assembly was founded to rule the country.  The site was dramatic, being part of a very long fault line where the North American continental plate joins the European. It is marked by a 5 km wide valley and along the North American edge by a cleft in the rock about 70 feet wide and 60 or 70 feet deep.  This passage led to a rocky outcrop with a natural platform from which speeches had been made to the assemblies of long ago. To one side lies a large lake and straight ahead a small and attractive gabled house, now owned by the Prime Minister, together with a small white church.

Much of the food that we chose to have on this holiday was of a fairly basic standard, similar to what one might get in a seafront restaurant.  This was because we were seeking to keep costs down and Iceland is notoriously expensive! Lunch, therefore, was an adequate sandwich!  Following this we moved on to an area reminiscent of parts of Rotorua, with steam vents and geysers.  The largest geyser had ceased to function since the year 2000 but a nearby one was quite spectacular.  Every five minutes a large bubble of water appeared as a prelude to the ejection of hot water to a height of probably 30 m.  After a second eruption or the release of a large quantity of steam, the geyser would be quiet until the next "show".  We watched probably half a dozen of these to try and get the best possible camera shots.

The scenery was quite spectacular with the large lake, mountains and the distant view of patches of snow or even glaciers.  A number of the hills and mountains had the typical profile of a volcano.  Iceland certainly has the most spectacular scenery.  There must be relatively few places where one can see volcanoes, glaciers, mountains and sea all at the same time.

We next stopped at a large volcanic crater having a width of perhaps 218 m and within it a large lake.  We found this slightly reminiscent of one that we had seen in Australia on the Great Coast Road.  Then, on the way back to Reykjavik, we stopped at what our driver termed “The Greenhouse Community” where heat from thermal springs is used to provide ideal growing conditions for plants.  We enjoyed some chocolate-covered ice-cream cornets there.

That evening, following a recommendation from our driver, we walked to a small restaurant perhaps three quarters of a mile away and enjoyed the best meal of the holiday.  Jill had less success with her vegetarian dish, but Adrian's haddock coated in cheese was very good.  Iceland is noted for its lack of vegetables and therefore meals come with a surprisingly small quantity of these, if any.  On the whole it tended to be iceberg (lettuce to us).


Sunday 22nd June

As with the previous day, we awoke to bright sunshine.  We had been quite nervous about the weather as the forecast indicated temperatures of 10 to 12°C with showers.  In practice, throughout our stay in Iceland, the sun shone most of the time when we were near the coast.  It was accompanied by a very cool wind but when we were able to shelter from this, the sun in fact proved extremely hot.  Most of the time the majority of people would have some form of jacket although one also saw a selection of more summery wear.  Inland there were periodic showers typical of mountain weather.  It did not affect us and scarcely made us wet.

We took a round journey of about 250 miles to visit the south shore.  We passed through farmlands, which are relatively rare in Iceland.  This is probably due to the short growing season but also to the lack of soil.  About 25% of the country has vegetation of one sort or another and only 1% has forest.  There were more trees previously, but it is thought the use of timber combined with overgrazing especially by sheep led to the present position.  There is now a vigorous tree planting programme with 16 trees per head of the population being planted each year.  This unusual lack of building materials is reflected in the buildings themselves.  Traditionally these were made of driftwood and covered with turf.  At the turn of the last century corrugated iron came to be used as it offered much more protection from the lateral wind-driven rain.  Roofing is also generally of metal.  Obviously concrete has now come into great use.  Some houses are brightly painted and are somewhat reminiscent of styles in Denmark, (which used to govern Iceland).  On the whole, housing styles are not particularly attractive but the general impression is of a neat and orderly country with low rise buildings and without great density.  We noted that there was the beginning of some high rise building in Reykjavik. Parkland and streets are kept tidy with very little evidence of litter although some graffiti on a few buildings.  We saw young people working on gardening projects in the parks and also on the litter patrol.  Apparently this is normal and they are paid for their work.  What a brilliant idea!  Perhaps our own young people would be less prone to throwing litter if they had to pick it up.

We soon came to mountains which run along close to the coast.  Indeed, there had been some uplift of the land leading to raised beaches some distance inland and a wide coastal plain that was exceptionally flat.

Although we had not seen much in the way of rainfall and it seems that the coastal area has only about 32 inches a year, there were a number of waterfalls to be seen.  We stopped at Seljalandsfoss where Jill and I were able to walk behind the waterfall and take some more unusual photographs.  Only on a short section of the track did we get wet from the spray despite the considerable height and volume of the waterfall.  We then stopped at another fall named Skogafoss which was most impressive.  From the latter we moved on a short distance to a rural museum containing some traditional buildings including turf covered houses, and corrugated iron school and chapel etc.  The curator of the museum was a man in his late 80s (we imagine) who proved to have a good sense of humour as well as skill in spinning wool on a drop spindle, playing a 2 stringed musical instrument and playing the foot pump organ in the chapel.  He gave orders that we must all sing certain hymns (in Icelandic!) from the hymn books as he played "What a friend we have in Jesus" etc.  Before we left the chapel, he had strategically placed himself in the doorway so that he might give us a short homily upon the need for all Christians to show their love for one another. 

Apparently he had started collecting items when he was 14 and much of the museum exhibits come from these collections.  They certainly revealed a fairly harsh life where ingenuity and skill enabled people to provide the tools and equipment that they needed.  He told us that a mediaeval way of life had continued until the 1950s and certainly the artefacts and photos showed that this could well be the case.

We moved on to the town of Vik, a small settlement perched between mountain and sea and having little of architectural beauty except for an exquisite chapel perched on a hill.  The lunch proved similarly disappointing. 

Rain had begun to fall over the mountains and this part of the coast but we travelled back towards Reykjavik only a couple of miles and there the weather was much kinder.  A short walk took us to the sea shore and a large headland of nesting birds.  One of our party, Jim, had been saying throughout the holiday that he was most anxious to see a puffin.  This had been his goal for five years and previous attempts had failed.  His dream was to come true as, alongside the more numerous fulmar and gannets, we could see a number of young puffins perched on the grassy ledges.  Busy parents kept flying in with food for the youngsters.  This was the first time that Adrian had seen a puffin and Jill managed to secure some wonderful photos by virtue of the telescopic lens on our camera (not to mention her photographic skills!).

The beach contained a drop of about 10 feet before shelving fairly steeply to the sea.  Apparently a couple of years ago that drop had not existed.  It had been created by the scouring action of the sea in that time. It had been a very active period over the past few decades with the volcanic island of Surtsey having been formed a short distance offshore in 1963.  We were to learn more about this the next day

Adrian was particularly delighted to see some basalt columns such as found at the Giant's Causeway.  These are formed when magma emerges under ice and therefore cools at a different rate.  No doubt there is a reason why this is in the form of a hexagonal sided column, but we do not know it!  Higher up the cliff were ripples in the rock that we did not then understand, but again we were to learn more about the following day when we understood that they resemble the ripples in the flow of lava.  Instead of flowing as milk, it is more like a sticky dough being pumped out one ripple after another.

In complete contrast, our next stop was the Solheimajokull glacier.  This was reached by a cinder track across a lava field towards great moraines.   Beyond these was the dirt-covered glacier.  We realised this could not be pollution because Reykjavik is apparently noted for its clear atmosphere.  Apparently it is volcanic material that has been scoured out by the glacier and is deposited in black heaps on the surface of the ice. Where it exists, the black reflects the sunlight with the result that the ice beneath does not melt so rapidly and it forms small cones of ice on the surface of the glacier.


Monday 23rd June

Today was designated by Jules Verne as “a day at leisure”.  There was an optional Jeep tour, but at £106 per person we felt this too expensive.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed a very good day in the city.  We walked along the seafront for about a mile to a modern sculpture in metal representing a Viking longboat.  This was one of many modern sculptures in stone or metal throughout both the city and other parts of Iceland. 

We then headed into the city centre and walked along the main shopping street.  It was a great treat to find small shops and a very country town feel rather than the inevitable large chain shops.  Apparently these have moved now to a mall outside of town.

On a high point overlooking the town it is Hallgrimskirkja , a modern church completed in 1986.  It is described as being in a “modern Gothic style” and is certainly attractive, light and spacious.  We took advantage of a lift to the top of the tower in order to see an all-round view of the city.  Works on the front of the tower obscured the view from one aspect and also showered us with water on one of the other four faces of the tower.  However, the other two views were well worth seeing.  It is certainly a spectacularly placed city with mountains in all directions and a wide bay.  Some modern offices enjoy the most advantaged positions overlooking the bay towards the distant mountains.  Only in rare cases such as Perth and Hobart have we seen such views from a city centre.  It seemed strange to look down a street and see a volcano (hopefully extinct) at the end.

Part of the town is centred around a lake (Tjornin) and parkland.  At one end is a modern concrete City Hall and across a road at the far end are a Museum and National Library.  However, of greater interest to us was seeking to get good photos of the ducks and other birds on the pond.  We were particularly taken with some Arctic Terns who were hovering before diving into the Lake.  The battle was to get a good photo of them in their hovering position.  Since we each had a camera, the competition was fierce.

Following a stop for a Danish pastry (again a throwback to the days of Danish control) we visited what has to be one of the quirkiest cinemas in the world.  It is run by a photographer, now aged 63 who prides himself on having photographed all volcanic eruptions in Iceland for many years.  Before that his father started the tradition by filming an eruption in 1947.  This cinema is in a small concrete building next to his film cutting studio and is run single-handedly by the proprietor who sells the tickets, gives an introductory talk and generally sets the tone.  The films showed how volcanoes were at the very centre of life in Iceland.  Indeed, two other films, not by the photographer, showed how a town on the small island of Heimaey was engulfed by a volcano in 1973.  Dramatic footage showed lava advancing and causing buildings to collapse.  The 5000 population evacuated the town during the course of the night as fortunately the fishing fleet was in the harbour that night due to bad weather.  Ever the optimists, they set to and shovelled away the ash that had fallen and also rebuilt part of the town.  The population is now nearing its original figure.  Nearby is the newly formed island of Surtsey.  A separate film chronicled its creation in 1963.

We walked back home and spent the evening sitting in the hot sunshine while Adrian read and Jill edited photos on the computer.


Tuesday 24th June 

Really the only scheduled event today was the trip to the airport.  However, being Iceland, it was possible to combine it with something much more exciting.  All of the hot water for Reykjavik is supplied by a geothermal power station not many miles away. (Incidentally, the cold water supply is spring water.)  As part of the process of making use of the hot water there is waste water, largely sea water, to be disposed of.  This was pumped out of the power station on to the volcanic rock nearby.  Due to its high silica content, it formed an impermeable layer on the rock and so created a large pool. Again due to the silica, the water is cloudy and reflective so that it has a light blue appearance hence giving it the name of “The Blue Lagoon”.  By building changing rooms and a restaurant, a ready-made mineral hot-bath complex was created.  We enjoyed a couple of hours there including having a light lunch.  Poor Jill had suffered a severe nosebleed earlier that day and felt too light-headed to be able to do anything other than sit in the restaurant and take advantage of the free WiFi access.  I rather suspect that this was not so much of a hardship for her!

Concluding thoughts

Iceland is a beautiful and unusual country with many exciting natural features.  Its people seem somewhat morose.  We cannot say that we found any of them friendly, with the exception of our guide.  Even the aircrew seemed sullen and unsmiling.  Our return flight was delayed by half an hour whilst the boarding process was under way and we were left standing in a glass corridor in hot sunshine.  No explanation or apology was given.  Whilst not unique, it did reinforce our general impression that there is not an innate desire to please visitors.  Possibly this is a natural characteristic of the people arising from centuries of hardship and struggle combined with a very isolated existence.

The country is obviously prosperous despite a lack of natural resources other than power but it is currently suffering from inflation and high interest rates.  Apparently 25% is not unusual for short-term loans.

Would we recommend other people to go?  Most certainly!  It was a great trip, despite being so short.  Whilst there, we met a small party of people travelling with “Explore”.  This is an organisation that we had thought provided a rough trekking experience for 20 and 30-year-olds.  Since probably two-thirds of the party were our age, or older - this clearly is not the case!  They were at the beginning of a 10-day tour of the whole of Iceland at a price that was about twice what we had paid for our four days.  We shall look out for future trips with them.