There she blows: a new view of Iceland
Tourism shows green shoots of recovery, says Jackie Hunter, after the eruption that left the island looking like a Moonscape
Sunday 22 May 2011
As our Jeep climbs the boulder-strewn mountain track in muscular leaps and bounds, it occurs to me – too late – that a woman should never go off-road driving without a sports bra.
We hurtle past a yellow sign marked "Impassable" and overtake a struggling JCB digger. Up and up we go, crunching and skidding over ash and rocks, no track beneath our huge wheels now. It's hard to tell where or what we're aiming for. Then the Jeep plunges down a small ravine and up the other side. Breakfasting on pickled herrings was possibly a mistake.
Iceland's volatile terrain presents a challenge to humanity, no matter how big the tyres on your 4x4. But this is what makes it so rewarding a place to visit, because nothing blows away your everyday anxieties like the unpredictable power of nature.
When the long-dormant Eyjafjallajokull (one of Iceland's 130 volcanoes) erupted in March last year, 600 people were evacuated from this sparsely populated farming area 75 miles east of Reykjavik. When a second spate of eruptions happened in mid-April, a state of emergency was declared as black volcanic ash began to fall, resulting in the closure of roads on the island and air space throughout northern Europe.
After a week or so, most of the residents were able to return and begin the mother of all clean-ups. Some enterprising local guides started offering "volcano tours", taking residents to look at the effects on the landscape. But the impact on tourism, arguably, was worse. At a time when the country was already beaten by its banking crisis, overseas visitor numbers fell and hotels and guesthouses had to close for repairs.
But now that the dust has settled, can post-volcano tourism make Iceland a hot destination again? It looks promising. This April, traffic through its airport was up for the first time since the disruption, according to a recent report from Iceland Tourism.
My Jeep finally lurches to a stop on what might as well be the surface of the Moon, because it's certainly like nowhere I've seen on Earth. Under a grey sky, this is a monochrome landscape: barren stretches of black rock and ash, with snowy peaks above and no sign of anything green growing.
Unimaginably, the ashy ground beneath my feet was, until a year ago, the bed of a glacier lagoon called Gigjokull. Looking up at the slumbering Eyjafjallajokull, I see two huge fissures in its side where the lava and minerals burst through, pushing the lagoon water down to the lowlands and out to the harbour.
That same day, we drive across miles of treeless, wind-blasted green plains to visit another of Iceland 's natural wonders. Seljalandsfoss is an astonishingly pretty 200ft waterfall. Wooden staircases enable you to climb above the pool and walk behind the waterfall. It's a spectacular sight and sound. But if it's real drama you want, head for Skogafoss, Iceland's biggest waterfall. Walk along the rocky pathway to a high slab and suddenly you're surrounded by tonnes of crashing water.
At the southernmost tip of Iceland is Reynisfjara beach, remarkable for its volcanic black sand and pebbles. Because the sea swell is so powerful here, there's white foam constantly surging on to the shore – and on this overcast day it's like a black-and-white film of a beach, the entire vista leached of colour. Dark basalt stacks only add to the Gothic atmosphere.
Testament to the growing interest in Iceland's volcanic landscape is the fact that, two weeks after its new Volcano Visitor Centre opened last month, more than 1,500 people had visited, despite it being a two-hour drive from Reykjavik. The centre is based at Thorvaldseyri Farm, close to Eyjafjallajokull, and was set up by the family that lives there. Its exhibits comprise a film and photographs documenting daily life on the farm, with the volcano erupting in the background. The family is also doing a roaring trade in volcano souvenirs and farm produce.
But if you want to go beyond the volcano and find out more about Iceland's people and their past, I'd say a visit to the Skogar Folk Museum is essential. Many experiences from this Icelandic trip have stayed in my memory, but none are quite so vivid as the museum's 92-year-old curator, who, on learning that I live in Scotland, dashed over to his antique harmonium and played a rousing version of "Auld Lang Syne". The curator Thordur Tomasson is something of a hero in these parts. He has been gathering artefacts from local farms for the past 70 years – from hand-powered washing machines and whale-bone furniture, to ice-skates made from cattle bones – and he opened the folk museum in 1949. The place is stuffed with the history of Iceland's everyday life, and one thing that's evident is that for most it was a pretty harsh existence.
So yes, Icelanders are tough enough to weather disaster, whether it's caused by unpredictable volcanoes or greedy bankers. But while a sense of independence may be their national characteristic, they don't expect to recover on their own – which is why the likes of us should show some interest in what they have been through, and keep going back.
How to get there
Icelandair (0844 811 1190; icelandair.co.uk) flies from London Heathrow, Glasgow, and Manchester to Keflavik International Airport. Return flights start from £235 per person. Discover the World (discover-the-world.co.uk) offers a two-night package, including return flights, three days' car hire and accommodation at Hotel Ranga in Hella and at Hotel Borg in Reykjavik for £628 per person.
Visit Iceland (01737 214250; visiticeland.com). Volcano Visitor Centre (icelanderupts.is). Skogar museum (skogasafn.is).
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