Iceland: Fire and ice
A hike through the lava fields of the Icelandic highlands takes Tam Leach to a world she only thought existed in fantasy
Saturday 26 July 2008
Whatever people may say, the nightlife in Reykjavik, for all its connotations of cool, is not the best nightlife in the world. It can be exciting to watch, yes, because pretty much all the decent restaurants, bars and clubs are within easy stumbling distance of each other. And, in summer at least, it never gets dark. So a good proportion of the 300,000 strong populace (that's of Iceland, not just Reykjavik, mind) are out on the main street in bright-as-day light at 4am on any given Saturday morning, queuing and shouting and kissing and preening, and it all seems pretty novel and extraordinary.
But a summer weekend night on any corner of East London, while lacking the midnight sun, probably boasts the same numbers, shorter queues and (whisper it) the probability of a wider selection of music, albeit in a less pretty location.
As for the Blue Lagoon, well that photogenic pool - conveniently located between Reykjavik and the airport - must rank as the most successfully marketed body of water in the world. Taking the plunge here is like taking a warm bath in the company of the world. The Icelanders are blase; instead, pasty travellers sit submerged like hippos against a backdrop of twisted lava and pipes from the neighbouring power plant, eyes on the giant digital clock that counts down the seconds to bus departures and flight times. It's a bizarre experience, but a packaged one.
The one area in which this lump of rock in the northern Atlantic can justifiably claim pre-eminence is in its jaw-dropping natural environment. Iceland is one of the youngest countries in the world, geologically speaking. It straddles the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates and is continuously seismically active: the recent earthquake in Selfoss hit the news only due to its severity.
Mount Hekla (1,488m), the country's most active volcano, erupts so frequently that its current eight-year dormancy is interpreted as the ominous portent of a major explosion. And as recently as 1963, an entirely new island appeared in the Vestmann archipelago off the south coast. With only 1 per cent of Iceland's land cultivated, this is nature at its most dramatic.
The last thing you want to be faced with when escaping to the primordial wilderness, however, is a car park full of tourist buses. Tourism is big business in Iceland, second only to fish, and the geysers, hot springs and waterfalls close to paved roads can get as busy as an out-of-town hypermarket.
Fortunately, paved roads are scarce; unfortunately, getting off them is no easy matter. With a lack of marked walking trails, a weather system that is unpredictable at best and a landscape devoid of familiar navigational features, a trip into the Icelandic highlands isn't your average backcountry stroll.
Which is where a guide comes in. No matter how much it might rankle to pay somebody to take you for a walk, and in doing so to subject yourself to the company of strangers, there are times when it becomes blindingly obvious that to do otherwise would mean missing out.
It doesn't take long to reach this point in Iceland. "We've had a lot of snow this year and the unpaved road into the Fjallabak is still closed," says Stina, the guide for Exodus's Icelandic Volcano Hike, upon greeting us in Reykjavik. "So we'll just see how it goes."
How it went was that our drivers went straight past the closed signs, traversing snowfields and fording rivers, through mists and driving rain. Our 4x4s were of the Icelandic breed, super-modified to cope with the terrain: raised up, bulked up, and watertight.
Visitors can rent an average 4x4, but you can't rent years of off-road experience. Nor can you substitute guidebooks for local knowledge. Stina embodied the national stereotype: multilingual, very well-informed and passionate about her country, fiercely independent, at ease in the outdoors and, yes, improbably good-looking.
Logistical back-up came in the sturdy forms of Arnar and Elva, who carted our bags from mountain hut to mountain hut, and aided Stina in introducing us to such Icelandic delicacies as wild trout, lamb stew, dried fish and cold sheep's head (the last, it has to be said, was met with a mixed reception).
It only took our first short trek to disabuse me of the notion that porterage, like guiding, is a soft option. There's nothing soft about hiking in Iceland. Volcanoes are steep; lava fields sharp; tephra-rich soil as loose and calf-burning as sand. Rivers rise and fall unpredictably from one summer to the next, fed with icy glacial run-off. We covered 18 to 25km a day at altitudes topping 2,000m, Stina marching off exuberantly up the steepest hills and down into the deepest fissures.
And we were lucky with the weather - despite arriving in a rainstorm and departing in hail. Much like in Manchester, when it rains in Iceland it feels like it's been raining forever and might never stop. It's all part of Icelandic Nature with a capital N, the epic battle of man versus the elements that persists from the Viking sagas to the tourist literature.
The pay-off for all this hard work? Views that are out of this world, and I don't mean that according to cliche. Great dust spirits race across wide glacial flood plains, startling a gaggle of giant snow-white geese that recoil like bewitched princesses.
We walked along the Skafta river in a world devoid of other humans, stepping through sulphurous red lava and silica blue pools towards an improbably pointed grey peak streaked with the ubiquitous acid-green Icelandic moss; it was like a scene from a fantasy, with the only thing missing a dragon curled around the volcano's base.
Adding to the magic was the midsummer light: a constant for the entire trip, only dimming when rain brings a soft green dusk. And the silence: with no trees and little wildlife in the highlands, only the occasional cry of curlew or oystercatcher disturbed the calming quiet.
It was something of an affront when, nearing the end of our trip, we arrived in Landmannalaugar to find other people intruding upon our world. The celebrated multicoloured rhyolite peaks and natural hot springs are served by buses from Reykjavik - though these particular buses have to ford rivers and negotiate miles of unpaved roads. When I woke sometime in the middle of the night, the opportunity to grab a few more minutes of solitude before returning to the real world seemed worth the lack of sleep, particularly as the light was glowing golden.
Mist rose off the hot springs as I slipped into the crystal water; dew sparkled on the marsh marigolds and meadowgrass. In a few hours, the Blue Lagoon would be heaving. But right then, Iceland was mine alone.
Tam Leach travelled to Iceland with Exodus (0845 330 6008, www.exodus.co.uk), which uses local guides, food and services. The Volcano Hike is an eight-day trip with departures from June to August. Trekkers spend two nights in a guesthouse in Reykjavik, with five nights in basic mountain huts. Meals are prepared by the guide, but participants are expected to help with cleaning and preparation.
Spaces are still available this summer on trips departing 24 August. The trek is £1,323, including flights from Heathrow to Keflavik on Icelandair (0870 787 4020, www.icelandair. co.uk); prices for flights from other airports and for land-only packages are available on request.
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