Travel: Iceland: the land that's never still: Geysers gush from its crust, waterfalls roar down every valley. Moira Paterson visits the volcano of the north

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The Independent Culture
PUFFS of steam hiss from the ground and there is an all-pervasive whiff of sulphur. Even in the trim, modern capital, where tiny trees are cossetted like rare tropical plants, steam breaks through everywhere and rises straight in the cool air - the reyk, or reek, that gives the city its name. The town is surrounded by brown cinder hills, striped with lichens in chevrons of green and gold. In the early morning, as the massed clouds roll over these distant hummocks - nature's slag heaps - the sun streaks like the eye of god through the leaden sky and silvers the ruffling waters of the lake.

There is nowhere in the world quite like Iceland. Way out in the middle of the North Atlantic, its nearest neighbours are Greenland, which is 190 miles away, and Scotland, 500 miles distant. Covering an area four-fifths the size of England, it houses about 250,000 people. Along with the world's oldest Norse language, they have retained the old system of nomenclature. There are no surnames; you are either someone's son or somebody's daughter - as with Magnus Magnusson or Bjork Gudmundsdottir. Iceland itself is a misnomer, since the place is not particularly snow-girt and Greenland is much icier. But locally it is called Is-land - which means as it looks, simply 'island' - and the way it is pronounced brought 'ice' to our minds and there it has stuck.

Legend has it that the first settlers arrived in Iceland from Norway AD 874. About 30 years later they held their first open-air parliament at Thingvellir, a huge grassy bowl by a river near the present capital, Reykjavik. Cut off from much of the rest of the world - though Irish monks are supposed to have brought Christianity in their coracles around the millennium - the Icelanders built themselves houses half underground, which they roofed with turf for good measure, and whiled away the endless winter nights embellishing their heroic sagas. And because the pounding seas that surrounded them were a perpetual challenge, they became some of the most courageous fishermen in the world. They were especially bold whalers, and their continuing reluctance to give up this particular chase has not endeared them to the Green world.

A country so far north, dark for much of the day in the winter months, should be quietly bleak, immobile as the rocks it stands on. But Iceland is a volcanic island, a thin slice of the earth's crust, the sibilant jets of steam a constant reminder of the fierce activity rolling just below the surface. Beneath the moss-covered spent cinders that constitute the ground, the earth bubbles, sucks and heaves.

Everywhere there are geysers, huge springs that slurp and chunter then hurl great jets of boiling water straight up into the sky. Geysers are guaranteed to turn the most sophisticated travellers into screeching children, as they creep through the brown mud, as close as possible to the watery monster mumbling in its clay pot, then leap back shrieking as it gathers strength to shoot up into the air, scattering scalding spray for yards around. Other geysers lie quiet, beautiful blue upturned saucers curving placidly over the ground.

One of the strangest places to visit is the Blue Lagoon, less palm-fringed paradise than medieval mouth of hell where steam billows from a sulphur-laden pit. This is a health spa, I was assured, whose waters were beneficial for all skins but especially recommended for sufferers from psoriasis. Recalling that the once- punitive salt mines in Romania are now a clinic for bronchitis patients, I decided to give this sullen cauldron a try. Soon the tepid water at the edge of the pool became comfortably warm, the bottom soft, spongy and green, like cheap bath salts. I basked happily but have to report that I suspect the subsequent smoothness of my skin owed much to the scouring wind that scraped my whole body when I left the healing waters.

Perhaps the greatest glory of Iceland is its waterfalls, roaring and pounding down every valley. Among the loveliest are the Gullfoss, or Golden Falls, which leap over the rocks and hang suspended in lacy sprays from huge boulders, sparkling with golden points in the sunshine. In 1908 the Gullfoss were to be desecrated by a hydroelectric scheme, but a splendid woman called Sigrithur saved them. Icelandic history is full of excellent women, from the Viking goddesses of the sagas to the present president.

If all this aquatic energy inspires you to more than just marvelling, many of the rivers provide satisfactory white-water rafting. At least, I'm told it is good. The only time I set out to try, our raft shot from the shoulders of its bearers as we clambered down a steep gully and sped down the river at a spanking pace on its own.

I first meant to go to Iceland when I was a student, travelling on the boat of a friend's fisherman father, but one of the intermittent cod wars intervened. Decades passed and like the majority of Britons I headed south for relaxation and adventure. But when I finally did make it to this strange, crust-covered volcano in the steely northern seas I wondered what had kept me so long.

Aside from the pampered little specimens in the capital, Iceland is above the tree line. River banks are clothed with scrubby bushes, but the great elevated plain inland is covered with spiky grass that feeds sheep with fleece so thick that it is rivalled only by the shag pile of the little horses and dense pelt of the dogs. Wrapped in wonderful Icelandic woollies that were as warm as if they had grown on me, I ventured on to this high plateau. Waterfalls rang in my ears as I stepped over the springy moss. Alone under the curve of the wide northern sky I walked on the top of the world.

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: British Airways (0345 222111) offers Apex flights to Reykjavik booking 14 days ahead for pounds 291 return; BA can also offer Superapex flights for pounds 320 return. Both are non-direct and must include a Saturday night. Trailfinders (071-937 5400) offers a direct Apex flight for pounds 291 return.

FURTHER INFORMATION: Iceland Tourist Information Bureau, 3rd floor, 172 Tottenham Court Road, London W1P 9LG (071-388 5346).

(Photograph omitted)

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