I’ve made two visits to Iceland, both times with a geologist friend on collecting expeditions, and it’s a place I often think about although it’s some years since I was last there.
Driving through the centre of the country was particularly spectacular although it was often a challenge to see where the road was, given the lack of tarmac and roadside markings. I’m not sure how anyone unfamiliar with the territory would find their way if it weren’t for the tyre tracks of vehicles that had passed the same way before.
The roads through the central highlands are only open in the summer, and a 4×4 vehicle is needed to get across country. Rivers flow through this area but there are no bridges over them.
Crossing the rivers meant driving straight through the water over slippery rocks. Some of the rivers were quite deep and fast-flowing, but thanks to my friend’s expert driving we didn’t meet with any accidents.
A lot of things about Iceland surprised me, and the colours in the landscape made a big impression. At first sight there seemed to be a preponderance of black and dark grey, with obvious patches of green where vegetation was growing, but when I looked more closely there were many more colours in evidence. The palette was subtle, but the variety of shades was remarkable.
I remember standing in the middle of the country, on a high piece of ground, looking all around. Every conceivable colour was represented, in a most unusual selection of muted tones. The pictures below were taken in an area of the Icelandic highlands called Landmannalaugar, part of the Fjallabak Nature Reserve.
On my second visit to Iceland I was hunting for zircons, tiny mineral crystals often found amongst the sediments of a stream. The work involved hanging around rivers, shovelling spadefuls of sediment into a pan and swishing the contents round.
It wasn’t all hard graft though. Driving across the country between different locations meant seeing a variety of scenery, in all sorts of weather. It was August, so there was no snow falling although it was quite chilly at times, especially in the interior. Round the coasts, and in the lowlands, there was some lovely sunshine.
Very close to the guesthouse with the view pictured above, there was a small turf-roofed church with a graveyard. Before setting off on our rock-collecting expeditions one morning, we took a wander round the church.
The graveyard was set slightly apart from the building. Each grave was marked with a white wooden cross, set against an impressive backdrop of jagged volcanic rocks.
Like most places, Iceland looked beautiful in the sunshine, but I was glad to see some mistiness as well. I suppose it made me feel at home.
As well as the subtle colours, the shapes in the landscape were striking. Sharp dark peaks and severe inclines would no doubt make for some interesting hiking.
In some places, where you might expect to see white or creamy colours in other countries, in Iceland you get the polar opposite. I remember my dad telling me about beaches he’d been on in Hawaii that were too hot to stand on because of the black sand. I don’t know if it ever gets hot enough in Iceland for that to be an issue.
It’s strange sometimes, the things that become tourist attractions. As we were driving along the south-east coast, my friend pulled off the road to show me a local point of interest. In 1996, following a volcanic eruption, huge chunks of ice were washed off a glacier. As they flowed down to the coast they ripped a metal bridge apart. All that’s left of the bridge now is two massive twisted metal girders that have become a sort of monument to the awesome power of nature.
Iceland is well known for certain aspects of its natural environment, particularly its glaciers and hot springs. Vatnajökul, one of the largest glaciers in Europe, creeps slowly down the south-eastern part of the country, occupying over 8% of Iceland’s landmass.
For many visitors to Iceland a highlight is the famous Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa in the south-west of the country. When I arrived, my friend picked me up at the airport (which is near the Blue Lagoon) and we visited the spa briefly, but didn’t test the waters. We had other fish to fry, and as we drove to our first destination there were plenty of other signs of geothermal activity to be seen. Plumes of steam spouted out of the ground in unexpected places and grassy hillsides were dotted with chimneys of vapour drifting upwards. At one place we drove past a coiling snake of steam boiling up out of a heated river.
Near the river a hot pool was open to visitors, bearing a sign warning that the water temperature was 80˚F (about 27˚C). Unlike the Blue Lagoon, it was temptingly deserted but unfortunately we didn’t have time for a dip.
One evening, en route to our accommodation for the night, we stopped at a place that transported me into the realms of fantasy fiction. It seemed to me the sort of place a hobbit or wizard might make their home. To my mind, quite a bit of the country had a fantasy feel about it, with the black rocks and the lunar-type landscape.
Perhaps the strangest thing I saw in Iceland was an iceberg lake on the south coast. The edge of the Breiðamerkurjökull glacier is about a mile inland and the lake sits between it and the coast. When icebergs break off the glacier, they float into the lake, which flows into a river that discharges into the North Atlantic Ocean. As the ice travels through the lake towards the coast, the icebergs break down into smaller bits of ice you can pick up in your hand.
On leaving Iceland we had to take my friend’s truck back to the UK, so rather than flying we took a ferry, via the Faroe Islands, to the north of Scotland. The ferry left Iceland from the town of Seyðisfjörður on the east coast. It’s a remote part of the country and getting there involved a beautiful road journey. Coming round the mountain pass above it, we had a splendid view of the town and its fjord.
I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Iceland, but I would certainly welcome the opportunity. I found it a surprising and strange, but endlessly fascinating and magical, place.