A different kind of heaven on Earth
Iceland is not a big country. It is about 500 km wide coast to coast and harbors a population downwards of 350,000. It is not a world power or a major influencer of global geopolitics. But the beauty of Iceland is not in its size or inhabitancy or clout; it lies in sheer natural landscape and terrain.
A car and a road is the way to explore the island. Public transportation is minimal and the infrastructure is built for vehicles to ply on empty, smooth roads at high speeds though the law limits the speed to 90 km/hr. Straight paths covered with tar stretch for scores of kilometers without obstruction, occasionally ornamented by narrow bridges over shallow streams. When in the city, roundabouts ensure that one possibly cannot accelerate to one’s heart’s content, and for good measure. Wind speeds easily touching 35 km/hr make cars drift. The danger of doors getting blown away is real. Dense fogs reduce visibility to a few meters. It is a norm to drive with your headlights on. Halting without blinking parking lights is a sin. In the outskirts, the darkness makes the driver grateful for the one vehicle in front of him that he can follow.
Iceland has the power to charm you without effort. You’ll be driving down a lane and will suddenly come upon a vast, blue ocean stretching far and wide that will take your breath away. No sooner than you pause to take the scene in than you will see mountains and hills on the other side, marked with black streaks of old lava, cradling white clouds among their peaks. The land will never cease to surprise you. You will see sheep and horses abound the grasslands. You will see a quaint house distanced from civilization with a waterfall in its backyard. Stop your car anywhere and you will end up looking at a postcard-worthy picture.
Pick up the map and you will see “Tourist Spots” marked close to each other alongside the highway. Each one of them will be different: a waterfall inside a cave with rocks to climb (Raudfeldsgja); an empty space on the side of the road dedicated to a serial killer who murdered innocent passers-by visiting his farm; a raised piece of land overlooking the waterbody; a cliff edge with winds that will powerfully resist your movement in the opposite direction and will succeed (Londrangar); a picnic spot with barren land spread below; a cave on the coast with a wooden pier going all the way to the edge of the water (Hellnar); placid lakes like Hengill that shine a brilliant blue and reflect the sunlight into your eyes – direct rays that warm you in the freezing air and make you grateful for the existence of the ultimate power source in the galaxy.
When you exit the capital city of Reykjavik, there is a 6 km long tunnel that takes you under the water. The walls are stone; you come out the other side to witness a similar yet different vista. The shade of the grass transitions from yellow and green to red and orange to purple.
The lava caves at Vatnshellir take you 35 meters underground to a dark, enclosed region where the only light comes from your torch and the only sound you hear is dripping water. The tour guide shows you multicolored rocks and minerals, shares the history of the collapsed volcano and the river cutting through it to make spaces and describes the formation stalagmites and stalactites – sprinkling his narration with tales of Vikings and Trolls.
If volcanic eruptions aren’t your thing, Iceland has glaciers to suit your needs. The Jokulsarlon glacial lake is a manifestation of serenity, natural beauty and exquisiteness. Layers of frozen ice on mountains behind a pristine lake full of icebergs, the water leisurely flowing to join the ocean. Pebbles along the long coast, transparent pieces of ice in the water just out of reach and a rainbow to complete the picture. You can just sit and watch this ecosystem in its natural state for hours. Fish will swim in ice-cold water, a seal will occasionally pop its head above the surface and vanish soon as it appeared and the icebergs will move at a non-detectable speed.
Icebergs! Sigh. They deserve a description of their own. Formed over thousands of years, they can look white, blue or black – depending on the physical conditions they have endured. Appealing structures that hide their potential to harm a passing boat very gracefully, they only expose a tenth of themselves to us mortals. Their appearance keeps changing as they survive the sunlight and dirt; misbalance may cause them to upturn. The surface of the lake freezes in the winter. If you manage not to, walk on it. It’ll be one to remember.
The Solheimasandur plane wreck is on a black sand beach 4 km away from the highway, literally in the middle of nowhere. Trust me when I say this: attempting to visit the place after sundown is a really, really, really bad idea.
The Golden Circle route takes you to picturesque locations one after the other in a seamless manner. From the Pingvellir and Gulfoss waterfalls that you can’t stop admiring to the Sulphur Geysirs (Icelanders claim this to be the origin of the word ‘geyser’), it ends at Kerio crater – formed by a collapsed volcano, with a lake at the bottom that is representative of the actual groundwater level.
About a 40-minute drive from Reykjavik is a town called Hverageroi. Near it, is a divine place called Reykjadalur or the ‘Smokey Valley’. A 3.5 km uphill trek seems worth it when you reach the top and hot springs await you. Baths or pools are formed naturally by rocks interrupting a narrow stream flowing downwards. The pleasure you derive by immersing yourself into the warmth of the lightly flowing liquid is hard to match. An entire day can pass by before you feel like getting up from the perfect spot among the stones and water. The walk back down seems refreshing after such a relaxing rejuvenation.
A mention of Iceland is incomplete without the mention of Northern Lights. A common phenomenon for the locals, tourists desperately wish for a clear sky and drive away from the city lights in the hope of catching this beauty, having looked at forecasts and weather predictions to maximize their chances.
The Aurora Borealis are wisps of green light sprawling across the sky. They are intangible ribbons moving in the air, forming nexuses one minute and breaking them the next. They are curtains falling down towards the ground with pink and white hems. They form spirals, lines, planes – illuminating the dark ground when bright, hiding behind clouds from searching eyes when dim. This is one sight the gorgeousness of which cannot be captured by a lens.
Iceland offers a geological contrast rarely seen anywhere. With souvenirs ranging from a can of sealed Icelandic Mountain Air, fridge magnets truthfully proclaiming Reykjavik as the northernmost capital in the world and another displaying the correct pronunciation of Eyjafjallajokull, a “Been There Done That” pin on Iceland on the map is definitely a matter of pride.
Try it once, if you get the chance.
This Land of Ice and Fire is sure to leave you mesmerized.
Arika is a second year student at IIMA and a member of LSD. She wrote this piece on an impulse during a 3-hour train journey a few weeks after having visited Iceland.