Simon Calder: A journey to Iceland's scene of the grime
Saturday 22 May 2010
Schadenfreude: that was the one-word text I received on Monday from a journalist on duty on the grassy knoll at Heathrow overlooking the northern runway. This is the "media garden" of the Renaissance Hotel, where television crews have semi-permanent residence: either the on/off/on British Airways cabin-crew strike or the volcanic ash "cloud" obliges many a satellite-truck driver to tap TW6 AQ into the GPS.
My pal sent the remark after he had bumped into an Icelandair crew whose jet had been grounded by Monday's wholesale closure of airspace. How appropriate, he implied, that the national airline for the island that had despatched so much volcanic dust and disruption was now suffering the same fate as other carriers.
By Tuesday, the people who scout the skies theorised that the volatile volcano's vortex had moved on. The indisposed Icelanders were able to take off for home on one of the airline's Boeing 757s. (Incidentally, I wonder if the management now regrets the decision to name each after a notable Icelandic volcano?)
I joined them on board, because I wanted to see for myself the geological work-in-progress on the edge of the Arctic.
Some say Iceland's landscapes are lunar, but they are far more interesting than that. Heading south-east from Reykjavik on Highway One, you quickly shrug off the suburbs and enter a wilderness sculpted from the Earth's raw ingredients by nature's brute force.
Man has been granted only grudging access. Even the steeples of the churches that preside over every tiny village seem intimidated by their surroundings. The terrain – grassland pocked with lakes and infiltrated by volcanoes whose muscular shoulders show off ripples of lava – looks as though it was cooked up only recently and has simmered angrily ever since .
The restless earth provides a source of natural energy. Pipes that look wide enough to swallow a Tube train wriggle across the landscape: here, they drill for hot water, not oil, and the plumes that belch from geo-thermal installations are formed of steam rather than anything more sinister.
About 140km from Reykjavik, you reach a point 10km from the volcano that is currently acting as one of the planet's pressure valves. Eyjafjallajokull may well be shrouded in cloud (it was on Wednesday, and I saw little more than the foundations), but the location is an ideal place to put the volcano into perspective.
From the media saga of the past few weeks, you might imagine the eruption had placed the south of Iceland into something like a permanent eclipse, casting gloom across the land and smothering anything that moved. You would be wrong. Indeed, the extraordinary thing about the environs of the volcano is: how ordinary it is.
True, a road sign is coated in what appears to be dark, wet cement. And nearby, a posse of horses grazes in a field: such are the effects of exposure to the innards of the earth that anyone naming a blended whisky after one of these creatures would call it Grey Horse. But a small lake was alive with birds, who have some leeway about where they feed and presumably were not deterred by Eyjafjallajokull's proximity. Between the road and our fiery friend stands an airstrip, which appears to be open for business. The mathematical modellers whose calculations have spread so much stress across Europe might wish to fly in here for a closer look at the scene of the grime.
An Icelandic medium this week predicted that the volcano would stop erupting tomorrow, 23 May. If she proves correct, she should get a job at Eurocontrol.
Spreading wings around the world
Icelandair has had a tough couple of years, due to its home country's economic meltdown and the recent geological upsurge. But instead of parking surplus jets in the desert, Icelandair has deployed the excess capacity elsewhere, leasing to airlines in more profitable parts of the world.
Icelandic mechanics are currently maintaining the fleet in the Siberian wastes of Yakutia – one of the coldest places on the planet – and in one of the sweatiest, Papua New Guinea. Only those inspired by our lead story in today's Independent Explorer supplement are likely to step aboard one of those services. But you could be tempted by Santa Barbara Airlines' links from the volcanic islands of Tenerife and Madeira to Venezuela. These cut-price connections to Caracas are powered by Icelandair – except when, as happened earlier this month, the Atlantic islands are afflicted by airspace closure.
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