Travel Dispatch: Iceland (Jan 08)

23 05 2008

Snow Storm - Reykjavik , Iceland

Snow Storm at the Perlan Musuem - Reykjavik , Iceland

Particles of ice and snow stung my face. Shivering, I drew the drawstring tight on my hoodie and sneered in to the cold night.

Iceland – the land of murderous Vikings, ferocious geysers and dark bleak winters. Staring out the taxi windows at the overturned cars buried under a foot of snow lining the streets, I suddenly became acutely aware of the ominous slide of our own vehicle as we drove the icy roads. From my perch in front of the hot air vent, I glared at our Kaiser-Chiefs-humming driver who seemed blissfully unaware of our loss of traction, or the concerns of his six foreign passengers holding on tightly in the back. Davíð Stefánsson, the Icelandic poet, once said, “Það er löng leið frá Íslandi til Himnaríkis” or “It is a long road from Iceland to Heaven.” I was starting to have similar thoughts of my own.

Iceland sits high upon the world, just inside the Arctic Circle to the east of Southern Greenland. The island nation was spewed forth from between the North American and European continents, high atop the Atlantic ridge. This locale proves both a blessing and a curse for Iceland’s residents. Considerable geothermic activity in the area provides cheap electricity and much needed heating in the long winters but unfortunately, like all areas with high volcanic activity, eruptions can happen with disastrous effects, such as the explosion of the volcanic fissure Laki in the eighteenth century which wiped out a quarter of the population.

Nick, Rach, Tony, Wendy, Me & Chris

The Crew (L to R): Nick, Rach, Tony, Wendy, Me & Chris

Despite Iceland’s extensive infrastructure in place to take advantage of volcanic and geothermic energy the population still emits ten tonnes of CO2 equivalent greenhouses per capita, which is higher than that of France or Spain. Personal automobiles contribute significantly to this figure so the introduction of hydrogen fuel to filling stations may have a positive impact on this figure in the future. Presently Iceland is one of only a few countries currently capable of producing hydrogen for purposes such as this in adequate quantities at reasonable cost.

Most of Iceland is uninhabited and is largely classified as wasteland; most of the 300,000 residents live in or in the immediate vicinity of the capital city Reykjavik. This lack of natural resources hindered Iceland’s growth during the industrial era, but in recent years thanks to Iceland’s rapid adoption of technology the country has rocketed from one of the poorest countries in Europe to the fourth most productive country in the world behind Qatar and ahead of Ireland in nominal gross domestic product per capita. In 1999 82.3% of Icelanders had access to a computer and they had the highest rate of connection to the internet per capita in the entire world. Mobile phone subscriptions outnumber residents 1007 to 1000.

My friends and I traveled on a £210 package deal with IcelandAir including return flights from London Heathrow, a Northern Lights Tour and accommodation at the rustic sounding Cabin Hotel. While the hotel was adequate and certainly a step up from the hostels I would usually frequent, it had more in common with an office block than the romantic wooden lodges I had envisioned – except for perhaps the diminutive size of the rooms and slight mustiness of a place that doesn’t get its windows opened very often, although perhaps this is not surprising considering the ferocity of the Arctic winds blowing on the other side of the glass.

Icy Waterfall - Reykjavik, Iceland

Leaving our hotel in the morning, within seconds of stepping out in to the blustery weather my choice of attire proved woefully inadequate. My ears stung relentlessly and my toes rapidly went from numb to excruciating. At the risk of stating the painfully obvious, Iceland is very cold – and I was drastically under prepared. After forking out over kr17,000 (US$220) for the cheapest pair of boots I could find, I learned an important lesson – no matter how much traveling experience you may think you have, don’t ever skip basic research and preparation, even if it is just for a weekend trip.

Somewhat poorer, but now at least with my feet toasty and warm, my friends and I set out for Hallgrímskirkja, Iceland’s largest church. Opened in 1986 Hallgrímskirkja is the fourth tallest building in the country and the observation deck, 80m above ground level, is an excellent vantage point to survey the city of Reykjavik sprawling out around you. Glancing up, I noticed the icicles hanging above our heads quivering threateningly in the wind. Preferring to avoid the possibility of being impaled by falling ice we took a short bus ride and arrived near The Perlan, home to four vast silver-domed warm water tanks and the Saga Museum which displays a fine exhibit with audio tour outlining Iceland’s tumultuous history.

Trudging our way through the deep snow up toward the building we were caught suddenly in a flash snow storm. Visibility dropped to just metres and we got pelted with jagged flecks of ice biting at every millimeter of exposed flesh. I tried to run, but was going nowhere fast in the thigh deep snow. I was starting to get a feel for the reality of everyday life for the inhabitants of this barren outpost.

Hallgrimskirkja - Reykjavik, Iceland

Hallgrímskirkja - Reykjavik, Iceland

The silicone characters in the Saga Museum are taken from casts of real people and look eerily realistic; you almost expect some of them to start moving much like a street performer holding a pose for tourists. The exhibit shows some of the pivotal points in Icelandic history, from Sister Katrín being burned at the stake for witchcraft, to Freydís Eiríksdóttir taking a stand against Native Americans in Vínland by menacingly holding a sword to her exposed breast.

In centuries, Icelandic language has changed little from its original Norse roots. Heavy in grammatical inflection, having three genders, and with nouns, adjectives and pronouns declined in four cases, Icelandic is a fearfully hard language to learn. Despite this a little over 30,000 or 13.5% of the Icelandic population was comprised of people born abroad, with the Poles making up the largest minority nationality. The Icelandic themselves are a mix of Nordic and Celtic origin, supposedly due to the Vikings taking women from surrounding countries and bringing them back, largely by force, to the island.

David, an Ex-Brit, now full time Icelandic citizen, collected us in a sizeable van the next morning and we set off for regional Iceland. Hampered by mountainous snow drifts and high winds we plodded along behind a grader clearing the snow from the one and only road connecting Reykjavik with the surrounding territory. As we got over the mountain range and back down in to lower altitudes the weather thankfully cleared up considerably allowing us for the first time to truly appreciate and immerse ourselves in the unique landscape. High mountain clefts and rolling white lowlands spread for as far as the eye could see. Glowing greenhouses dotted the landscape; all powered by geothermic energy, explained our guide.

Dark Water

Dark Water

During a lull in our guide’s commentary I slipped my headphones in to my ears and turned up the music of the Icelandic group Sigur Rós. Long have I been a fan of their music, but now being in their home land I could truly appreciate how their haunting, ethereal sound captures so well the natural beauty of the Icelandic landscape. (Side note: If you’ve never heard any Sigur Rós, go buy their album “A Taste Of Sigur Rós” – now.)

After a long day of touring the Golden Circle, visiting the mighty waterfall Gullfoss and the ‘Geysir’, a large geyser (and the origin of the English word), we retired back to our hotel with a new found appreciation for this frozen country. There is something strangely becoming about the miles and miles of snow, the forbidding geography and the multiple layers of outdoor clothing one must don before braving the elements. Having spent so much of my life surrounded by concrete and glass, I found the rawness of Iceland deeply invigorating.

I would love to return to Iceland during their nightless summer months and explore the island more on foot, something I was not nearly brave enough to attempt on this trip. I think it’s debatable as to what the best time of year is to visit; the winter is intense and spectacular, and also the time you are most likely to see the dancing Northern Lights. In the summer, however, the snow is gone and the temperature is at a more human-friendly level, making it a much less daunting task to those wishing to put on their hiking boots and get off the beaten track.

Alleyway - Reykjavik, Iceland

Alleyway - Reykjavik, Iceland

Alas, the weather gods were not kind to us during our brief stay in Iceland. Our Northern Lights tour was canceled every night due to dense cloud and snow storms. Our visit to the picturesque Blue Lagoon was likewise a miserable experience thanks to the gale force winds and sub-zero temperatures. Despite this, my friends and I reveled in the hostile weather conditions; it’s amazing how fast a group of supposedly ‘mature adults’ reverts back to being children when the world is covered in snow. Never in my life have I thrown, or been victim to, so many flying snowballs.

As I stared out the airport window at the snow falling from the dark sky I could understand why many of the original settlers to Iceland left again shortly after arriving; in the days before electricity and modern technology life here must have been incredibly difficult.

Contemplating this, sipping my piping hot cappuccino in the heated bliss of the airport, it seems remarkable to me just how far we have come since those rough, primitive days of humanity. Thankful I didn’t have a long and arduous journey across the seas ahead of me like the Vikings of so long ago, I ambled towards the air conditioned comfort of the airplane and for the first time in my life, I looked forward to the ‘warm’ temperatures of England.





One response

9 02 2012

As a ceiiztn of planet Earth I am amazed that any person would sanction this destruction and irretrievable mess without good cause.

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