Dramatic Iceland: Over the Volcano
Aug 21, 2006
David Rich 1400 Words
Dramatic Iceland: Over the Volcano
Iceland suffers mightily from its name, unserendipitously bestowed by the Viking Floki Vilgerdarson. After the 870 CE Icelandic winter killed off his cows Floki shook his fists at the sky and angrily screeched Iceland, bestowing the unshakable name before fleeing back to balmy Norway
The Iceland tourist agency should have strung Floki up by his icicles. Instead of ice, Iceland is brilliant green (while Greenland is glacier ice) and, as the geothermal capital of the planet, is approximately as temperate as New Zealand. Indeed, Iceland provides free heat and hot water to most of its cities and towns, over 90% of its 300,000 inhabitants, because it sits on top of the most active array of volcanic activity in the known galaxy. It may be difficult to imagine the equivalent of free heating oil, propane and electricity, which in light of current fuel prices could spark a wave of immigration. So go now and beat the crowds to dramatic Iceland.
Most visitors touch down at Reykjavik's international airport on the southwest tip of the country. There they top out their credit cards at the nearest ATM because, after Norway and Japan, Iceland is the third most expensive country on earth. Few stay around Reykjavik because the capital's weather is among the country's worst, though I was stunned by the roiling magnificence of its towering storm clouds scudding like planet-sized parachutes across an angry sky. The Reykjavik sunset was a pink tornado, undulating like a giant maraschino cherry on steroidal charcoal roots. Reykjavik weather is rivaled only by the winds of the Western Fjords, in the remote northwest. For unremitting sunshine, raising both the cheer and warmth level, go anywhere in north, south, or east Iceland, that isn't west.
A few miles east of Reykjavik the Pingvellir rift is splitting Iceland two centimeters (an inch) a year, widening a deep forbidding crack between the European and North American tectonic plates. Every year for almost a millennium the ancient Icelandic clans met at Pingvellir to amicably settle disputes, slowing their tendency, like volcanic Vikings, to plot murder and mayhem in cold blood.
Several miles east spouts the impressive Strokkur geyser, next to the kaput geyser named Geysir, Icelandic for to rush forth, where the word originated. The Strokkur geyser is so faithful it pops off every few minutes, making Old Faithful look lazy. The Geysir area is attended by the usual boiling mud pots and bubbling streams, which at least one tourist every year plunges his hand into, withdrawing a lobster's claw. I saw a gray-haired chap unable to resist checking the water temperature, then shaking pinkish fingers like ringing a bell.
For more geothermal excitement check out the city swimming pool in every little Icelandic berg, which are naturally overheated, encircled by hotpots in a range of temps, pocked with steam rooms, and inexpensive. At four bucks a throw, these are one of the few bargains in a mega-priced country. As a bonus the pools are packed with locals who relish regaling tourists with tales of Icelandic blarney.
The other bargains are Iceland's natural attractions, which are uniformly free. A few miles from Geysir roars Gullfoss, one of the most impressive waterfalls in Europe, outstanding in a country whose waterfalls are literally uncountable. Gullfoss is viewable from every angle, up and down stream, and amazingly, its sheets of spray stay politely away from exhibitionist tourists posing before its voluminous cascades. Gullfoss looks like the prow of a mile-long battleship, dropping onto the prow of another battleship, and thence into a nigh bottomless chasm.
Iceland's uninhabited interior harbors a legion of theoretical attractions accessible only by four wheel drive, so I skipped them. Based on accounts from disgruntled renters of expensive 4WD vehicles I saved a mint and missed almost nothing. Iceland's main sights ring the perimeter, easily accessible from the ring road. One such is the spectacular area between Skogar (hosting the usual impressive waterfall) and Vik, which encompass Dyrholaey, Iceland's southernmost point. Dyrholaey is tipped by a sea-arch high enough to accommodate an ocean-crossing yacht. Rainbow-billed puffins and a dozen other noisy flying creatures cram its cliffs, which afford views stretching for miles along black sand beaches, serpentine estuaries among flat-topped mountains, and the tentacles of the Myrdalsjokull glacier. But watch out for dive bombing Arctic Terns that would kamikaze their grandmothers, striving the utmost to fire a beak through the unsuspecting skulls of all other species.
Myrdalsjokull is dwarfed by Europe's largest (the world's third largest) glacier, the vast Vatnajokull, which at 3200 square miles (8300 sq km) is fifty percent larger than Delaware in a country the size of Kentucky, or, if you prefer, a glacier the size of Yorkshire in a country the size of England. (For Trivial Pursuit, the world's largest glacier is the continent of Antarctica, which holds 91% of the world's ice. Greenland is second with another eight percent.)
The huge Vatnajokull glacier shoots tongues off every side, including one on the southeast that juts into a glacier-melt river feeding an iceberg chocked lagoon commercialized in a couple of James Bond movies. This lagoon at Jokulsarion sits next to the ring road, making it all too convenient for tourists. The central south of Vatnajokull is incorporated into Skaltafell National Park, offering hiking trails with glacial views, a neuronic labyrinth of rivers twisting among alluvial black sand, and the Swartifoss waterfall cascading over hexagonal columns of black basalt, aped by the architecture of Reykjavik's national theater. The Vatnajokull glacier covers Iceland's highest mountain and an active volcano that periodically erupts, melting chunks of the four hundred meter (1500 feet) thick icecap, massively flooding the south coast with tons of house-sized boulders and ice, smashing bridges, roads and villages. In 1793, the world's greatest volcanic eruption exploded a few miles west of Vatnajokull, the poisonous gases and ash poisoning the soil, starving a quarter of the population to a glacially slow and chilly death.
Along the byways you'll see gaily painted farmhouses, each separately signposted with an ancient Icelandic name from the historical sagas, sitting solitary, alone and dwarfed below precipitous mountains covered with chartreuse moss, punctuated with one or more waterfalls. The farmers' sheep graze in threes, never in fours and seldom in pairs, as wide as they are long, looking like haystacks on toothpicks. I puzzled whether these trios were ménage a trois, because the occasional duo didn't seem to have nearly the fun. But I later found out the threesomes were family groups instead of the carefree bohemians I'd imagined them to be.
The east and northwest of Iceland are chinked with what seems like, when you have to drive around them, hundreds of fjords, some twenty to thirty miles (thirty to fifty kilometers) long. But they spawn great hiking trails for scooting up adjacent mountains for superlative views of the usual isolated farm houses, fishing trawlers, and gaudy orange lighthouses. The best array of sights in the northeast cluster around Lake Myvatn, a hyper-active volcanic region littered with mini-craters carpeted in green, hot-pool spas, a crater brimmed with an aquamarine lake, spouting steam vents, boiling lagoons, acres of lava sculpture, diverse duck life, and tiny buzzing flies to drive you nuts. But no matter where you go or what you stumble across in Iceland, you'll find the happenings far more dramatic than most anywhere else on the planet.
When you go: Only go where the sun is shining, because it's otherwise a tad chilly, even in summer. I was extremely lucky, starting out with nine straight days of brilliant sunshine (temperature 20-22C, 68-72F), then five days of cloud cover (tolerable), and finally two days of gale force winds straight from the North Pole, but no rain. And this was August. You can fly to Reykjavik from Northeastern American cities for a near pittance (about $600 roundtrip), and from Copenhagen for about the same. Youth hostels and guesthouses charge $50 to $100 for a double, sometimes en-suite included. Hotels doubles begin at $200 and go up from there in high season, which is late June to late August. Rent the smallest car for about $550 a week. You need a rental car because public transportation is sparse (two buses a day, one each direction along the ring road). The cheapest fast food is ten bucks a pop and up. Self catering is the best option, buying from supermarkets anywhere, no matter how small the berg, though prices may astound. Five tomatoes cost $4 at a supermarket, and these were cherry tomatoes. To enjoy free heat and hot water, save your pennies.