The Land of Fire and Ice is isolated, wild, rugged. Located just south of the Arctic Circle, in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, Iceland welcomes us with ice on the roads and drizzling rain as we pull into Reykjavik. The darkness is velvet, the air is crisply cold in late December.
The next morning we are awake well before sunrise – at this time of year, the sun rises at 11am, and we troop over to the main hotel for breakfast. The hulk of Hallgrimskirkja, literally “Hallgrim’s Church” sit across from our hotel. Completed in the 1940s, the structure is supposed to represent the basalt volcanic rock that forms the foundation of Iceland. The choir is practising for Christmas and we sit for awhile inside the stark grey hall. The sound reflects beautifully off the tall gothic arches and the austerity of the church suits Iceland to a T.
Our first stop is the viewpoint at Mount Esja, looming across the harbour. Later, as the sun sets and the clouds are blown away, the mountain is brushed in liquid gold and we revisit the view point in a different light. We spend awhile by the water, getting colder by the minute, then walk along the foreshore to “Sun Craft” a sculpture that evokes a Viking ship, or whale bones, both appropriate symbols of Reykjavik. The light is perfect, soft golds reflecting off the greyness of the water.
We are off to the Golden Circle tour the next day, and our first stop is at a geothermal plant. Clouds of steam billow out between the buildings and in the pre-dawn light the futuristic buildings and industrial fixtures look like they come from another planet. All of Iceland uses clean energy – everything is powered by the geothermal energy lying underneath the surface of the country. The entire place is, for all intents and purposes, a giant volcano.
There are three major attractions on the Golden Circle – Gulfoss waterfalls, Geysir and Thingvellir National Park. The waterfalls are smaller in winter, the edges are locked in ice, but standing far above on the viewing ledge, the powerful falls still send clouds of spray in our direction. It is freezing out in the wind and wet, and we feel the cold. The landscape is wide open. As the sun rises a strip of gold light lies on the horizon, illuminating a white-blue glacier far off in the distance. Even in winter, yellow sedge grasses dot the black lava fields.
We stop by Geysir, the geyser that gave its name to all other geysers around the world – the first real hot spring, as it were. Geysir is old now, and less active, so we are entertained instead by Strokkur, which reliably spits up hot steam and water every ten to fifteen minutes or so. The water bubbles just before it shoots up, giving us ample time to ready cameras and poses.
As the sun sets, we explore Thingvellir, where the Icelandic parliament, the oldest continuing democracy in the world, used to meet in the early 11th century. The rivers cut across this broad plain, its paths locked in ice. Fir trees dot the ridges and a line of blue mountains mark the horizon. The light is purple and pink and soft blues as the sun goes down. The snow crowned moutains flare into gold for a brief moment and we watch as tiny human silhouettes are dwarfed by the age and scale of the landscape.
That night we embark on our Northern Lights tour on the hunt for aurora borealis. The lights are named after the goddess of the dawn and the north wind, a natural phenomenon that occurs as a result of solar magnetic particles brushing against the Earth’s electromagnetic fields. They occur year long, and are more common when there has been high solar activity, like sun spots.
The last day in Iceland dawned with clear skies as we were speeding down the roads to the Blue Lagoon, another highlight of our trip. Born from the byproduct of the steam powered energy plants that dot Iceland, the warm waters of the lagoon are filled with silica and are algae rich, perfect for soaking and relaxing. The white mud at the bottom of the lagoon gives the waters their milky blue colour, and are perfect to use as a facial mask. We spend a few wonderful hours here, running around in 2 degree Celsius air taking photographs then plunging back into the warm, 40 degree pools, steam rising from our skin.
The surreal beauty of Iceland is everything that I was expecting, the relatively young age of this country, and the facts of its sheer existence are relentlessly fascinating, even to the non geologist. Iceland is a completely different and unique place to any I’ve ever been to, a fascinating, lose-yourself-in kind of place, filled with rugged beauty and the kind of soul-testing wildness that separates the men from the boys. The sky is tall here, and the mountains snow covered, the sea filled with steel. Hot steam billow out of fissures in the lava fields, pennants of clouds issuing from an underground of heat, fire and volcano hearts. Ice, snow, sky, sea, and fire come together to form a land of extraordinary beauty and spirit.