Near Keflavík International Airport
The dynamic geology of Iceland is intriguing. We drive along the perimeter of this volcanic island in a semi-circle: from Keflavík to Höfn along Route 1. We hope our geological time travel will reveal some events in Earth’s history.
We are confounded. We are awed. We are humbled.
Nature has her way with us.
Off Route 1 near the village of Kirkjubæjarklauster
The mist hangs low, thick, grey casting an eerie glow over the Laki Lava fields that stretch before us. The damp moss is avocado green, soft, pillowy; we leap and bounce nimbly like the winged creatures in a fantasy movie.
On 8th June 1783, the sun had shone brightly on this very pastureland, lush with livestock and wildflowers. When the Reverend Jón Steingrímsson stepped out to deliver his Sunday sermon, he heard a loud crack and noticed a black cloud rolling towards him. The skies darkened, black ash and hydrofluoric and sulphuric acid rain fell in torrents; a thick slurry of basaltic lava crept down the plains like a black river.
Laki had erupted.
Not with the apocalyptic aplomb that the world had seen with Mt. Vesuvius, but a more insidious unzipping of the fissures in the series of the Lakigígar cones with far reaching consequences. In the following eight months, nearly half of Iceland’s livestock and a fifth of its population perished; a bluish fog descended on Europe, crops failed, poverty ensued fueling the French Revolution in 1789.
The drizzle is cold, refreshing.
We don’t stray from the well-marked trail; as far as we can see moss clings to the porous lava mounds like years of succession have tailored it to fit the rocks perfectly.
This strange barren land is inviting, haunting.
Vatnajökull and Skaftafell National Park
A few hours later
The Sandar is like a grey and black Rothko painting: a two-tone desolate landscape. The sand is as black as the asphalt on Route 1. The topography is flat, occasionally traversed by braided grey brown rivers swiftly flowing towards the shimmering Atlantic in the far horizon. The mist hangs a few feet off the ground; we can barely see the high ridges and outlet glaciers of Iceland’s largest icecap, Vatnajökull.
We dare not drive off the road in this strange, expansive black desert.
The subglacial eruption of Grímsvötn in 1996 melted a huge expanse of the ice shield; the colossal glacial flood that followed carried the gravel and silt and created this dismal glacial outwash plain, destroying bridges and parts of the main thoroughfare, Route 1.
The view from the trailhead is unmistakable, the glacial spur of Skaftafellsjökull. Of the 30 glacial spurs of Vatnajökull that extend down into the valley like tongues, this is the most impressive. It is a 40 minute hike to the terminus of the glacier, through a shrub forest with yellow and purple saxifrage adding a spot of color to the muted landscape. It has begun to drizzle and it is getting colder as we approach the mouth of the glacier.
We feel ant-like, humbled. In front of us Skaftafellsjökull looks like a brooding giant. The glacier has calved and receded over the years forming a growing lagoon with chunks of blue grey ice.
The landscape looks ominous in the misty rain; we continue our drive to Höfn aware that in this part of the world Nature is unpredictable and powerful.
The morning is crisp and a weak sun bathes Iceland’s most photographed lagoon. Enormous powder blue icebergs are calved off from the glacier and lie around as a backdrop for numerous family pictures. This is a popular setting for a number of movies including James Bond’s ice chase in Die Another Day. The massive Breiđamerkurjökull glacier that feeds into the lagoon is impressive. The glacial recession and rapid climate change models predict that in the not so distant future, Jökulsárlón will be a deep fjord.
Somewhere near Vík
The landscape is a picture perfect postcard: green hills fall gently on either side of the curvy road; red rooftops of farms and woolly sheep dot the hillsides covered with wildflowers.
We make a sharp left turn to face the open Atlantic Ocean; the scenery is a vivid contrast as the road plunges to the black beach below at Reynisfjara.
It is a pebble beach. Oval, grey black, smooth and polished river stone like pebbles crunch under our feet. Dramatic rock formations rise from the sea, just offshore like jagged swords. Legend has it that two trolls unsuccessfully dragged a three masted ship to land in total darkness. They turned into the Reynisdrangar sea stacks as the first rays of the morning sun hit the shore.
Rain clouds gather and big drops fall quickly.
The vista is at once striking, almost theatrical; the lava has crystallized at the cliff line to perfect hexagonal basaltic columns that resemble an old city fallen to ruin.
We take shelter in a vaulted cavern, the Hálsanefeshellir. The walls of the cave are carved basaltic ridges. The sea arch is visible at the end of the curved beach line at Dyrhólaey. A curtain of rain falls, blurring the horizon. The puffins do not come out to the cliffs.
We miss seeing them.
Our little log cottage sits on an idyllic farmland at the foot of the famous Eyjafjallajökull glacier.
In April of 2010, the Eyjafjallajökull erupted sending up an ash plume that rose to a
height of 30, 000ft. This volcanic cloud disrupted air travel across western and northern Europe, stranding millions of travelers.
Today the ice cap glistens in the morning sun. A few fluffy clouds dance around the top; it is a pastoral scene of breathtaking beauty. We walk along a river that skips happily over the rocks on the farmland. Cows and short Icelandic horses graze here and there. We pause to ruminate with them.
The coastline in the Mýrdallsjökull area has receded but the cliffs remain; waterfalls of incredible beauty cascade down onto the plain. Lush greenery surrounds the Seljalandsfoss as it comes down from a height of 200ft. The slippery trail is treacherous, leading to an enchanting cave behind the falls. The inside-out view is spectacular.
Somewhere over the rainbow, is where we are as we climb the steps leading to the top of Skógafoss, our faces wet with the spray. A perfect arc of a rainbow forms below us. The trail at the summit follows the tumbling Skóga River upstream; we walk by it mesmerized.
The brightly colored row buildings in the main shopping artery in downtown Reykjavík stand side by side like they are built from Lego blocks: blue, red and yellow with white trims.
The Lutheran Church, Hallgrímskirkja looms over us protectively at every street we turn into. The hexagonal columnar architecture is reflective of the basaltic lava flow that we have seen in Vík.
There is a convergence of art and literature in these narrow cobbled streets. A quaint bookshop stacks works of the Nobel Laureate Halldór Laxness and others. A hip art gallery displays local art. We see the interplay of fire and ice in the reds and whites; the mossy green in the landscapes; the braided rivers in the Skanko rugs.
The Harpa, the new glass concert hall and conference centre sits by the water’s edge. In its teal tinted hexagonal honeycomb façade, we see the setting sun.
The sun filters down the jagged ridge; we run our hands on the rocky basaltic wall. It is a place of geological significance and volcanic activity, this mid Atlantic ridge. Standing here, we are in two continents that are meeting and separating at the rate of 2cm per year. In this very canyon, the Icelandic people instituted the Althing, their first parliament in 930AD.
We are spellbound. We have seen a small treeless country where volcanoes, glaciers, lava fields, waterfalls, black sand deserts, deep green valleys and rugged coastlines form a captivating landscape; where we are more aware that the earth is warming at an alarming pace; where people live harmoniously with nature that is both volatile and forceful.