Iceland is known for its extreme contrasts and being the obvious destination for people looking for the unexpected. Here rustic beauty lies along epic landscapes. However, like all the ice in Iceland, its glaciers are rapidly sinking.
Can you pronounce Eyjafjallajokull” asked our guide John with a mischievous look in his eyes. We tried our best. He laughed and started to teach us the correct pronunciation. The volcano in question is Eyjafjallajokull, whose ashy eruptions last year famously shut down European air traffic for days, creating the worst aviation stoppage since World War II (and also a pronunciation stoppage among American newscasters; most resorted to “that vol- CANE-oh in ICE-land”)!
It all started in July 2013 when I and Dr. Jayamohan got an opportunity to visit Copenhagen to attend the European Ophthalmic Conference. I planned for a detour to Iceland for a short trip. After some amount of persuasion Dr. Jayamohan agreed reluctantly. As a serious photo enthusiast, Iceland had always been my dream destination. Copenhagen to Reykjavik is a 3 hour flight. We took the Iceland Airways and the services were impeccable. I was looking through the window, most of the time, admiring the beauty of floating clouds and Atlantic Ocean, except when the beautiful Icelandic Air Hostess walked past the aisle! Keflavic airport was covered with fog. According to legend , the first viking settler of Iceland,a Norwegian chieftain named Ingólfur Arnarson, was searching for land in the thick fog due to the geothermal steam rising from the earth. He threw two carved pillars overboard as he neared land, vowing to settle wherever they landed. He then sailed along the coast until the pillars were found in the southwestern peninsula, now known as Reykjanesskagi. There he settled with his family around 874, in a place he named Reykjavik (Cove of Smoke). Keflavic International Airport is 80 km from Reykjavik. Even though the 2008 financial crisis has made the value of Icelandic kroner tumble down, prices for tourists in this country is still high like any other Scandinavian countries and taking a private taxi would be very expensive. The best way to travel to Reykjavik and back is by a Flybus booking. You can do it on line in advance and your bus will be waiting for you 24×7.
I had booked our room in Hotel Cabin. Externally the hotel looked proportional to the money we paid but once inside the room I found out that the hotel had utilized most of the space for corridors and dining halls leaving minuscule space for the rooms. The rooms were so small that I thought the name CABIN was put with great insight!
About 315,000 people live here among eerie rock formations and shining glaciers, but the landscape is so austere and weird, you might think that you had woken in an outpost in an alien world. In “Journey to the Center of the Earth,” Jules Verne wrote that the entrance to a subterranean passage was on Iceland’s Snaefellsnes peninsula. It’s easy to see why he would have imagined this. To visit is to be enveloped in a physical landscape so extreme that visions of it invade even your sleep. Iceland is a stunningly beautiful place if you enjoy strange and desolate landscapes. Because it is so close to the Arctic Circle, the amount of daylight varies dramatically by season. The sun sets briefly each night in June, but it doesn’t get fully dark before it comes back up again. In the March and September equinoxes, days and nights are of about equal length, as elsewhere in the world. If you go in December, it’s almost 20 hours of darkness. Summer is definitely the best time to go, and even then the tourist traffic is still mild. The midnight sun is a beautiful sight and one definitely not to be missed.
Iceland tour can be done in multiple ways. The most economical is by making your base in Reykjavik, and taking day tours with the multitude of tour buses available. The disadvantage is that they go according to their plan and you are traveling with a group of people.
The second option is to hire a private vehicle with driver cum guide. Though expensive this is the best way to enjoy Icelandic landscape. For those who are adventurous, can choose the third option of hiring a vehicle and drive around. With freedom to stop and shoot pictures anywere I decided to choose the second option.
Whichever option you decide to take, you do not have to worry about crime and robbers. Iceland has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, only around 120 people were in the jail in 2012. There are people who travel Iceland by walking and hitchhiking only. Everyone is known by first name, even the president. Icelandic people have one of the highest life expectancies in the world, and one of the best state health-care systems.
There are few, if any, places where volcanoes are such a living presence. Since 2010, there have been two eruptions here. Iceland is on the Mid- Icelandic Horses with Hekla Volcano in the background Atlantic Ridge, a belt of mountains and rift valleys where periodic eruptions widen the ocean floor. One of the world’s most tectonically volatile places, it feeds more than 200 volcanoes and 600 hot springs and heats 85 per cent of Iceland’s homes. Add to this energy produced by the nation’s rivers and streams, and the country essentially gets all its electricity from nature.
To get a thermal experience, take a visit to the Blue Lagoon—40 miles from the city. This geothermal spa is built over and around what could be described as the world’s biggest Jacuzzi — a large pool with white mud that you can smear all over the body (for the health benefits and to make a joyous mess). Much of the lagoon is shallow enough to stand on the bottom, heads above water.
Next comes the grand journey — the Ring Road (aka Highway 1), 830 miles of majesty that encircles the country and skirts blacksand beaches, volcanoes, imposing fjords, crater lakes, thermal fields, and some of the world’s largest glaciers. From Reykjavik the Ring Road can be tackled either way, we decided to hit the south cost with the famous Iceland destination jekulsorlon as our night stay. Waterfalls continuously pour and scores of sheep roam free, without dogs to guard them or fences to bound them. The Icelandic horses sleep on their sides — at first glance, they look dead — as their impossibly long manes lift in the wind. The vista is still, vast, apocalyptic.
Gullfoss is the island’s most spectacular waterfall. To stand at Gullfoss and relish the beauty and the wonder of nature is an uplifting experience. One feels more energetic when leaving Gullfoss than when arriving. That’s the impact these unique nature sites such as Gullfoss and Geysir have on us.
At the national park, Thingvellir, you can touch the mounded remnants of the booths from the Vikings’ annual gatherings. It was here that the first Icelandic council originally met in 930 A.D., and where every year an elected member read the nation’s laws out loud to the people. Skogafoss probably rivals Gullfoss as Iceland’s most famous waterfall. This was a classicallyshaped rectangular waterfall that dropped 60m with a width of 25m. Adding to its allure was that it had a high volume of water making it thunder and produce multiple rainbow-yielding mist that often would make this falls a photographer’s dream under sunny skies.
In Iceland, you have the remarkable opportunity to see a beautiful waterfall from a rare perspective – you can walk behind the crashing, falling waters of Seljalandsfoss, a 130 foot high waterfall on the river Seljalandsa. Behind the powerful falls, you see the outer world through a veil of cascading water as you stand surrounded by astounding sensations: the scents of damp rock and pure water mingled with sounds of streaming cascades and your own heartbeat.
Continuing along the south coast, the drive culminates in a stretch of blue called Jokulsaron, a lagoon filled with hundreds of icebergs calved from the Vatna Glacier. A boat ride brings you to within reach of the bergs, crossing waters that have appeared in such movies as Batman Begins. Vatnajokull glacier is the largest icecap in the world outside the Arctic and it’s highest peak, Hvannadalshnjukur, is the highest peak in Iceland. In Iceland you are aware at every turn of your smallness, the irrational, slow forces at work. The glaciers seem alive, like sentient entities. To be here is to be returned to a child’s sense of precarious awe: How on earth did this come to be? Even here man’s irresponsible interference with nature is making changes. Like all the ice in Iceland, its glaciers are shrinking rapidly. It used to creep forward every winter. Then it began retreating. First 9 yards. Then 21 yards. Now, the guide estimates, it is losing up to 37 yards a year. At this rate Iceland’s Glaciers will disappear in 150 years!