In the land of fire and ice

Iceland, Europe's youngest country, boasts tortured volcanic shapes, geysers, and nature in the raw. The best way to see it is to take a walk

As we head from Heathrow on a gloomy July evening at 9pm, the dishcloth-grey clouds hang lifeless in the darkening sky. The further north we travel, the sky becomes tinged with pinks, which give way to oranges and yellows. And as it gets lighter and lighter, it suddenly dawns on me that I am visiting Iceland at the perfect time to witness the midnight sun.

As we head from Heathrow on a gloomy July evening at 9pm, the dishcloth-grey clouds hang lifeless in the darkening sky. The further north we travel, the sky becomes tinged with pinks, which give way to oranges and yellows. And as it gets lighter and lighter, it suddenly dawns on me that I am visiting Iceland at the perfect time to witness the midnight sun.

Growing up in the north of Scotland I was used to twilight around ten, followed by complete darkness at half-past eleven. But nothing could prepare me for the glory of seeing a blazing ball at midnight, just above the horizon, casting long spooky shadows across the lunar landscape, which greeted me, as I stepped off the plane at Reykjavik's Keflavik airport.

On our final approach I'd caught my first glimpse of Iceland, looming like a dusky fantasy isle complete with volcanic peaks and troughs, the ground steaming and spitting yellow and orange flames from the earth's core. And as we sped towards Reykjavik, across the lumpy lava fields that look like gigantic angry green acne sores, I wriggled my toes eagerly in my boots, in anticipation of the walking week ahead of me.

There's nowhere on earth quite like Iceland. Sculpted by fire and ice some 20 million years ago, it is Europe's youngest country and one of the most dramatic in the world. One of the best ways of understanding Iceland and of getting up close and personal is to walk across its ever-changing and spectacular landscape. So it was to my delight that I found a walking tour designed to combine trekking with some of the most staggering scenery that nature conjured up.

Our eight-day trip started in Reykjavik, then crossed the southern coast as far as Jokulsarlon, the glorious glacial lagoon with gigantic blue icebergs (as seen in A View to a Kill and the forthcoming Bond movie, Die Another Day), before returning back to the capital. This brought in the classic sights of Gulfoss, Geysir and Pingvellir, known locally as the "Golden Circle", along with walking across lava fields, scrambling up hills scattered with gigantic chunks of obsidian, negotiating fast-moving glacial rivers by stepping stones, picking out paths alongside melting glaciers, leaping about in pumice mounds, ambling along beside thermal springs spouting sulphur fumes, viewing miles of black pebbly beaches pounded by white surf, being sprayed by endless towering waterfalls and making our way across black volcanic sand deserts in our four-wheel-drive bus.

Every day was like having the contents of a geology box suddenly grow large and come to life in front of us. But while the geography produces amazing spiritual and physical highs, the downside is the inclement weather and the cost, both in terms of the high price (the cost of living in Iceland is very expensive) and the poor standard of accommodation available and in the main, uninspiring food. But if you are kitted out with wet-weather gear, waterproof boots and plenty of layers and changes of clothing, the predominantly rainy and overcast days will seem worth it on the days when the sun shines and the countryside sparkles like a blanket embroidered with priceless jewels.

The weather frequently changes and it is certainly appropriate to apply that tired old cliché of experiencing four seasons in any one day. Wake up to cold, misty wintery rain and by mid-morning you can be yomping up a volcanic crater in warm summer sunshine. Take shelter in a mountain hut at lunchtime from the howling autumnal gale and by early evening stroll along a deserted black sand beach in the light spring air.

Guided group walks depend on the guide and the make-up of the team; we were fortunate in that all 11 of us were skilled and experienced walkers. Within our number we also had different experts who complimented the skills of our local guide, Stephania. One couple were wild-flower experts, another couple keen ornithologists, and one man was an entomologist. It was a joy to let them be my guide and I learned a lot from them. Most were around 50 and used to mucking in when it came to sorting out the packed lunches and so on. We all worked hard to make the dynamic work, and on our last night in Reykjavik spent four happy hours reminiscing about our week-long exploits over one of the nicest meals we'd had all week.

Iceland is as much a place to drive as it is to walk. Straight flat roads frequently ribbon out to the horizon, mostly without another soul in sight, bar a few straggly sheep. With a population of only 286,000, of whom 178,000 live in Greater Reykjavik, you seldom see passing traffic in this country, which is roughly half the size of mainland Britain. Our trip covered approximately 1,300km (812 miles) by bus and only around 50km by foot, some of which involved steep climbs of up to 800m. Time spent driving significantly outweighed the walking, which was to the slight dismay of some of our group, myself included, but it is a hard balance combining significant and different parts of the countryside spread out over large areas with having enough time in which to walk. In general we walked between three and five hours each day, and our tour certainly succeeded as an excellent introduction to Iceland.

After saying goodbye to the brightly coloured corrugated iron houses that make up downtown Reykjavik 101, we were soon out into the flat and savage landscape surrounding the capital. As a warm-up we trekked across a craggy pass with snow-capped volcanic mountains soaring along the horizon. Bang on cue as we stepped off the bus, the grey drizzle subsided, giving way to warm sunshine. A bubbling geothermal stream steamed in the distance and we picked out the path cutting through carpets of colourful crowberries, bilberries, lichen, moss and mountain grasses clinging to the black lava. The smell of sulphur hung heavy in the air and after 90 minutes, when it began to pour, we decided to cut short our route by bouncing down the soft, mossy mountainside to meet the bus which came to pick us up on the instructions of our guide via her mobile phone.

Having tucked into the most delicious lunch we ate all week – wild mushroom soup with freshly baked breads and salads in a mountain restaurant miles from anywhere – we made for Pingvellir, the site of the oldest European parliament and Iceland's faultline where America and Eurasia meet. Walking down through the canyon where the American plate is being pushed away from the European plate at 2cm a year, helped me try to understand the theory of plate tectonics and is certainly a great close-up example of the turbulent history of the rocks.

From there it was a short drive to Gulfoss (pronounced ghoul-foss) where we walked for just over an hour along the edge of a vertigo-inducing ridge, which is the most dramatic approach to the mighty double falls, where thousands of tons of icy water thunder majestically down 32m into a 1.5km ravine. From a distance, the spray hovered high in the sky conjuring up multiple rainbows (by the end of the trip I'd lost count of how many stunning rainbows we encountered daily) before the final thrill and reward of seeing the magnificent falls in close-up. Next stop was nearby Geysir to walk around the bubbling mud and luminous blue pools which shoot alarmingly high jets of water every six minutes.

Our bed for the next three nights was in Hella (pronounced Head-lah), a sleepy country hamlet of around 600 residents with a hotel, pub and a shop. There was little to do in the evenings here apart from take a gentle stroll (weather permitting) along the nearby river or have another look around the "well-stocked supermarket", as described by the Lonely Planet guide. But hotels are few and far between in this area, so most tour operators have no alternative but to use it as a base. Go armed with a small library of good books and a bottle of duty-free spirits or two (much cheaper than buying alcohol locally) and you can catch up on all the reading you have been meaning to do.

Day two saw us walking in the Porsmork National Park, a wilderness area encircled by three glaciers. As we drove up its wide glacial river delta, with many fords to cross, the light in the turbulent clouds in the distance resembled an atmospheric painting by Turner. We trekked up into a verdant canyon enclosed by steep jagged edges and picked our way alongside a fast-moving crystal-clear river, negotiating the crossings gingerly on stepping stones. Our reward was to walk up into a grotto, reputed to be the home of a troll, where a tremendous waterfall cascaded down in front of us at the canyon end. On our return, the most energetic of us scrambled up the scree for a superb overview into the next valley and to see the fingers of the icy-blue glacier.

After a picnic lunch outside the refuge at the head of the delta we climbed up through a forested glen and made our way along a horseshoe-ridge path, affording fabulous views of the volcanic mountains and craters surrounding us. The high point of our return drive was to stop and walk behind the colossal Skogar waterfall, which tumbles off the edge of a cliff near the coast and is a hypnotic and deafening experience. I recommend taking several changes of dry clothes, especially socks, in your day-pack as you are likely to get soaked frequently.

The climax of the trip for me was our day spent in Landmannalaugar. This spectacular walking area is a significant drive from Hella, but the pay-off is arriving at one of the most amazing geothermal sites in Iceland. After crossing a bubbling hot stream, where it is possible to take a relaxing bathe at the end of the hike, we picked our way through a rocky lava field, which glistened in the sunlight. On the horizon mighty rhyolitic mountains soared skywards, a riot of reds, indigos and ochres. Skirting red-hot rocks and fissures from which steam spewed furiously, we climbed up discarded lava flows for a unique overview of the area and even encountered fields of snow.

Hiking up across the moorland high above the Skogafoss waterfall was our brightest day. After clambering up the side of the waterfall, we walked alongside a river gorge littered with endless smaller waterfalls (I lost count after 15) and across a heath of heathers and birds alongside a glacier, affording fabulous views of the black volcanic coastline.

My personal low was our day walking in the rain across the Skaftafell National Park, where I missed my footing and fell knee-deep into a freezing glacial stream. Despite getting close to a glacier, the visibility was poor and my spirits as cold as my toes. But I soon cheered up on the amphibious vehicle that took us on to Jokulsarlon, the mysterious lagoon with blue icebergs, and when we scaled the Hgorleifur headland in the sunshine, with its plethora of puffins and stunning coastal views, my spirits soared.

No trip is complete without taking a dip in the famous piping-hot Blue Lagoon, which can be done on the trip back to the airport from Reykjavik. But after a quick tour of the capital I thoroughly recommend trying to fit in a whale-watching trip. I encountered five humpbacks at incredibly close quarters, which was thrilling. I also went Icelandic horse riding, which is a unique experience as the diminutive horses guarantee a fairly smooth ride.

The midnight sun shone bright on my last night in the capital and before going to bed just after midnight, I took a wonderful walk along the shore, my shadow stretching out at least 40ft in front of me.

The Facts

Getting there

Ian McCurrach travelled as a guest of Headwater (01606 720199; www.headwater.com), which offers an eight-day Arctic Adventure walk from £1,399 per person, including return scheduled flights from Heathrow with Iceland Air, all meals, accommodation, guiding and transfers.

Further information

Icelandic Tourist Board ( www.icetourist.is; 020-8391 4888).

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