It’s no wonder Iceland’s unique otherworldly environment is used for filming fantasy movies.
This isolated island, straddling the Arctic Circle has an allure of dramatic landscapes, abrupt headlands, massive glaciers and gigantic waterfalls that are humbling in size.
The Icelandic peoples, originally Viking (since mid 9th c.) and northern Scandinavian descent, have been influenced by Denmark since the early 1400s. Iceland’s population live mostly around the south western city of Reykjavik or northern Akureyri, with a sprinkling around the perimeter of the island. Traditional livelihoods came from harvesting the sea. Now farming, especially hydroponics, is becoming more important. Most Icelanders speak English in addition to their Icelandic tongue, making them hospitable and welcoming.
The main extreme in Iceland, named after its presence of ice that covers 11% of the island, is its ongoing volcanic activity which supplies endless hot water for heating homes and for hydroponic gardening. Getting close to one of Iceland’s many ‘semi active’ and erratic volcanoes is possible, although dangerous. The 1780s Icelandic eruptions devastated local farms and even European air quality, while ash from 2010 eruptions stopped air traffic worldwide. Many landscapes display evidence of previous geothermal activity; dry hardened magma appearing like uneven fields of black rubble, coated in green mosses and hot spot locations of surging geysers of boiling water and steaming mud pots.
Upon arriving at Keflavik airport, close to Reykjavik, it’s a perfect time to visit the Blue Lagoon which is the most popular destination for travelers in Iceland. This massive outdoor pool of geothermally heated sea water is relaxing, plus rich in silica and minerals which are good for the skin. Its light blue colour is a contrast to the dark lava rock fields surrounding it and which also make it aesthetically fascinating.
During our visit in June, daylight is constant which is ideal for full days of activities. We prepare for variable weather, packing rain suits and layers of clothes for windy and cool conditions. It’s possible to get a surprise blizzard even in the summer here so we bring along a change of apparel and survival snacks every time we venture out. We also make good use of our GPS, a valuable directional tool, since Icelandic words can be challenging to pronounce.
One day we explore shorelines around the large fjord just north west of Reykjavik, stopping at waterfalls and viewing rolling hillsides of purple Lupine flowers. We trek the Glymur trail at the end of the fjord and stroll its stony pathway, lined with summer’s short lived flowering bushes and clumps of Lupine, now in full bloom. The track takes us through a gigantic ancient rock cavern, which was created by melting ice waters, tens of thousands of years ago. Then, when we get to a swift flowing icy river and can go no further, we stop for lunch at a picturesque site.
Throughout our day we frequently see white Icelandic sheep, a hardy stock of Scandinavian ancestry, wandering freely without fences, most having at least two young lambs. Local farmers know their own flock, and easily round them up annually with little challenge of ownership.
We see plentiful numbers of stocky long mane Icelandic horses, also grazing in the wild without fencing (about 80,000 live on the island). One farmer said that they can be free as no livestock is imported to Iceland, thus keeping outside diseases off the island. The horses are an ancient breed, whose offspring are even hardier today since only a few survived near starvation after volcanic eruptions in the 1780s. That night we return to our house on the outskirts of Reykjavik via the 45 km. Hvalfjordur Tunnel, opened in 1998, which goes 165 meters below the sea.
Next day, we drive inland to several Golden Circle attractions; to the erupting Geysir which reliably sprays a 30 meter tower of hot water every fifteen minutes and to the mighty Gullfoss waterfalls, which drops 70 meters in two stages, the second being into a steep sided canyon. In the afternoon we hike up the valley from Hveragerdi to visit and lie in a warm river in the wild. Our initial enthusiasm is encouraged as we pass puffs of steam coming off of boiling hot pools, but as we continue onward and upward our energies diminish. We persevere with our hiking for three hours and through three valleys, finally arriving at our destination, for a warm soak in the river which is three meters across and 50-60 cm deep. The walk homeward and downward is a lot faster and easier as we pass travelers doing the upwards journey while we descend.
Driving the scenic south shore, east from Reykjavik towards Vik (vik means bay, inlet or harbour) we travel past farmlands situated in between the ocean’s edge and at the base of a moss covered mountain ridge of spiky peaks. The dramatic scenery here is occasionally punctuated by waterfalls which are one of Iceland’s main attractions. Whenever mighty rivers of icy waters, melting from massive glaciers spill over precipitous drops there is the glorious scene of cascading waterfalls. After climbing to the top of the viewing platform lookout at Skogafoss, an impressive 62 meter drop, we venture upriver past the summit and are surprised to discover four additional falls higher up. On the same day trip we also visit Seljalandsfoss, where you can walk in behind the falling waters, and to the Myrdalsjokull glacier. Just before arriving at Vik, The Dyrholaey headland, an island at high tide, has hundreds of seabirds on its’ craggy cliff edges, and from our perch above the rough rocks and turbulent sea below, we have a spectacular view well worth the stopover. The little town of Vik is interesting with its black volcanic sand beach and dramatic, spiky sea stacks that jut out from the ocean several hundred feet high, just off shore.
Upon reflection, if I could define ‘Experiencing a Power and Glory of the Natural World’, it would be in Iceland standing beside a waterfall. Combining this with Iceland’s summer temperatures hovering around 10-15 degrees, long daylight hours, few people and no mosquitoes to pester, it’s a delightful country to pursue outdoor activities. Even though Iceland is a world of unstable terrain and unforgiving weather, its people’s resiliency to survive in unpredictable and fluctuating conditions is commendable. I am intrigued to venture here again, perhaps in the months of serious snow storms when we can experience the Aurora Borealis in its unearthly grandeur.
Story & Photos by: Cynthia Percival, wilderness writer & photographer