Chris Moss travels to Iceland and discovers a small, lonely country that specialises in tiny, wonderful surprises.
I ended up wondering why I couldn’t get out of bed on my trip to Iceland. Somehow, the extreme latitude of the country had eluded me, though its highest point is just shy of the Arctic Circle. In December and January, the sun comes up after 11am and goes down before 3.30pm. And when I say ‘up’, I mean a centimetre above the horizon, so your whole pseudo-day is spent in a slanting twilight, which on the one hand makes you feel dozy – and, on the other, keeps you busy, as you feel you ought to cram a whole diurnal phase into a period that’s less than a quarter of the rotational day. But weirdly, it made my three-day trip more magical than it might have been otherwise. My first morning I went quad biking on volcanoes in the dark. The landscape woke up as I did and the bitter cold kept me alert. I zoomed over molten rock, past a lighthouse and a shipwreck that had been blown inland, and parked to take in views of the Blue Lagoon – one of the dreamiest landscapes created by man.
More coffee than drinkers
Next day, I spent the daylight hours in Reykjavík, Iceland’s capital, wandering around the old town, popping into designer woollens shops. I bought a black jumper with an eccentric seagull design that cost as much as my flight, and then café hopped: Iceland has 300,000 inhabitants, and its capital less than 120,000, but it has more indie stores and good coffee shops than most teeming cities.
As one of the world’s great unpopulated countries, what Iceland gifts the visitor above all is space. I don’t think the rest of us can quite imagine all that empty land and sky without having experienced it at least once. The sun began to wane, and at the top of the town I actually hid from its dying orange beams to take a photograph of a statue of Leif Ericson (aka Leif the Lucky), the man who discovered Vinland – probably Newfoundland in today’s Canada – at the beginning of the 11th century. The monument was a beauty: he has a head like Thor and calves, appropriately, like Captain America.
I drove at dusk, which came with sleet and snow to make things more fun, on a road that took me north of Thingvellir National Park, a legendary site for Icelanders because of its association with the first Althing – a 10th-century legal council and precursor to parliament. The light had dimmed and the temperature descended to the point where my whole world was monochrome, but I could make out the expanse of Thingvallavatn Lake and at the bottom lies the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, slowly opening a cleft in the earth’s crust at the dizzying rate of 2-3cm a year.
A right Geysir
Iceland gave us the word geyser, and while the Great Geysir – which used to blow to a height of 70m – has been largely dormant since 1916, its neighbour, Strokkur, is very much alive and kicking. I first came across it by accident as, following a hefty feast of barbecued meats at the Hotel Gesyir, I went for a walk, hoping to see the aurora borealis. A crescent moon meant conditions weren’t ideal, but I did observe a weird rippling light show on the horizon.
After straining my eyes at this for an hour in sub-zero temperatures I walked back towards the hotel, only to be startled by a whooshing sound. I realised there were fumaroles all around me, and one of the holes was blasting every few minutes. In the morning, after a swim in the volcano-heated pool at the hotel, I went back to see Strokkur in all its dawn glory, blasting water up to 30m.
Blowing hot and cold
It was a 30-minute drive to the Gullfoss waterfall. To be honest, I’d never heard of it. But on this cold afternoon, with lenticular clouds fluffing above in a baby-blue heaven, and ice on the ground, it was magnificent. About 100m wide and 32m high, its most striking feature is the many levels it crashes onto during its journey down, creating a booming noise and sending up clouds of cool spray. Hot, newborn water poured out of the geyser, but here it was a battle between cold but still-moving water and the freezing power of the world.
Along the cliff walls, the spray was turning into ice and an icicle-fall was the certain future. Looking north I could see a cluster of mountain peaks and the creamy white top of the Langjökull glacier. These were too far away to explore on this trip, but Iceland has that teasing quality. You keep thinking: if I just go a bit further north I’ll see where it all begins and fantasise that some primal spectacle lies just around the corner.