Camera too small, landscape too big.
I was struggling with this problem yet again in Iceland, on the side of an enormous glacier, when an Australian approached.
We exchanged adjectives and smiled at the view.
“Still,” he said. “It must be just like home for you here.”
It hadn’t struck me until that moment that Iceland and New Zealand are a bit same-same: distant, island nations with remote, rugged landscapes, snow-capped mountains, the odd smoking volcano, geysers, mud pools, turquoise lakes, black sand beaches, lots and lots of sheep, a tradition of hardy men and adventurers, settlers, warriors, traders and boats.
Certainly, to many French people, both destinations are equally, madly, inconceivably far-flung (You should have seen the facial gymnastics in Paris a couple of weeks ago when I explained to various people that I come from New Zealand but have just returned from Iceland).
Fortunately, the two countries are so different and Iceland is so spectacular that I would suggest it’s worth coming all the way from New Zealand to experience it. It amazes me that many well-travelled Europeans are unaware of this jewel sitting right on their doorstep.
Here are some of the things I loved the most about Iceland in the nine days I spent there with the family and our friend The Photographer.
They speak Viking here
Norway and Sweden can lay claim to Viking history but no one speaks the language of the Vikings today like Icelanders because they were linguistically isolated for so long. Icelandic is a beautiful language. Listen to this recording of a couple of guys ordering a coffee and a muffin.
Icebergs on the beach
The Jökulsárlón lagoon should be on every bucket list. Here, you can see icebergs from Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap floating serenely in the glacial lagoon on their way to the North Atlantic. The eerie shades of blue, grey and white, curious ice sculptures, crashing of the icebergs in the waves on the black sand beach… if this was the only thing I had been able to see in Iceland, I would have still been happy.
Magic still exists
Don’t throw stones in Iceland – you might hit one of the Hidden People (Huldufólk). Ask anyone: Iceland is full of magical little people who hide behind rocks, dance about elvishly and “borrow” things. Iceland authorities have been known to divert roads and buildings around the places where they live.
Every Icelandic person will tell you that they know someone who sees or talks to the hidden folk – without actually letting on whether they themselves believe. Canny, that.
This Icelandic menu staple is a metaphor for the no-nonsense Icelandic psyche. Cold and hungry? You’ll be needing meat soup. You will not be needing to know which meat or how it’s cooked or what other ingredients are included. Just eat the soup.
Another example of Icelandic pragmatism is the cowshed café at Mývatn. Why not make good use of space and make a feature out of the cowshed behind your café? Those cows are seriously pampered and when I tried to feel sorry for them being stuck inside for many months of the year the year the farmer laughed. “When it’s cold or it rains they crowd around the door to try to get back in!”
Iceland is so stylish that even potentially kitsch Icelandic knitware is hot. I saw a beautiful young French woman in Reykjavik wearing her oversized Icelandic sweater with Doc Marten boots, black tights, shorts and a plain wool hat. Too chic.
Another fashionable Icelandic woman was wearing a pink one at the cowshed café. “It’s a one-off,” she said, a little snippily, when I asked where I could find one. “My mother-in-law made it.” Her husband was wearing a matching one in chocolate. Hmm. A young couple wearing jerseys knitted by his mum. In New Zealand that is not cool. In Iceland? It’s cool.
Burps and farts from Mt Ruapehu or White Island do not compare to the hellfire and brimstone spewing from Iceland’s active volcanoes.
You can’t drive near the current eruption in the east because of poisonous gases but we drove through the thin end of the gas cloud on our way to Mývatn in the north and were told it was safe enough but we should keep the windows up and breathe through a scarf if we got out of the car. Later that night the skin under Small’s eyes became very irritated. We blamed the two hours we had spent in the hot pools, but locals thought it was sensitivity to sulphurous gas. Small was fine by the next morning.
If you really want to see lava, a helicopter flight is the best way but at NZ$10,000, it was too much for us. Now that I’m back in France, I wish I had spent more time researching other possibilities such as a scenic aeroplane flight – how many times in your life do you get to see molten lava? (Check these pics out). Might have to go back…
It is the birthplace of my new favourite book
If Iceland isn’t on the menu any time soon, read Independent People to transport you there instantly. I was lucky enough to find out about it before I went.
Independent People was written by Halldór Laxness in 1934 and is the main reason he later won a Nobel Prize for Literature. I found myself trying to read it more slowly so it would last just a little longer – but that never works. So I talked to The Photographer about it while we were exploring the ruins of Pompeii (that’s another story) until she eventually admitted she was praying for Vesuvius to erupt again so she wouldn’t have to listen to any more.
Anyhow, you’re fresh meat, so… Independent People tells the story of Bjartur of Summerhouses, who confronts poverty, starvation, disease and murderous weather in his quest is shake off debt bondage and live on his tiny, harsh, cursed patch of land as an independent man, free of debts of any kind. He is a pig-headed individual who is also a poet in the great tradition of the Icelandic sagas so he does have a tender side – if his sheep are the only ones to see it.
The prose (beautifully translated in the 1940s) is beautiful and the humour as bleak and dry as Icelandic lava fields. I found myself laughing when I should have been sobbing. Each character is a pearl. The Icelandic Sagas are next on my reading list.
You’re not supposed to see the Northern Lights in October in Iceland. We were lucky. The first time was outside the art deco cathedral in Reykjavik when Sabbatical Man, Medium and The Photographer saw a celestial ribbon of green swirling and twisting through the sky. Unfortunately, I had just taken the other two boys back to the apartment because we were all freezing. Still, I will always have the memory of the three others bursting through the door later shouting: “We saw the Northern Lights!” and: “We had the best hot chocolate ever!” (My phone was on silent – they did try.)
A week later we were woken in our cabin in northern Iceland by The Photographer hissing: “Quick! Quick!” and there it was. A haze of green across the sky. I didn’t bother trying to photograph it half-asleep, shivering in the snow at -10° C. I decided to stare at it as long as I could bear the cold, and remember it forever.
These horses are the embodiment of Darwinism, each one descended from Scandinavian ponies brought to Iceland in the 9th and 10th century. Only the toughest could survive the famine, the winters and the volcanic eruptions (one in the 1780s wiped out most of the equine population). They’re so clever, they have two extra gaits unknown to horses outside Iceland, apparently.
Icelandic people love their horses for many reasons. One of them, I hope, is nothing to do with meat soup…but we did start to wonder because there are many, many, many horses in Iceland and not so much demand these days for equine transport, given the luxuries of a windscreen, seat heater and radio offered in motorised alternatives.
Eventually I started to ask what kind of meat was to be found in our meat soup.
“Lamb,” I was told firmly every time. Eye contact and everything – no shifty eyes or itchy noses. I decided to believe it.
A rift valley
Iceland is one of the few places on earth where the split between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates (the North-Atlantic Ridge) rises above sea level, providing a spectacular demonstration of what happens when those plates shift and separate.
The Þingvellir National Park (Þing means “assembly” in Old Norse) is a place where you can truly feel the age and power of the planet. We were warned to stick to the paths in case one of the children slipped down a hole and disappeared deep into the earth. That’s a warning you don’t need twice.
The Vikings knew there was something special about this place and chose it as a neutral meeting place for their first Parliament back in 950 AD (one of the world’s first, if not the first). There is an island on the lake where, back in the day, feuding Vikings were sent to sort out their problems. Two men and two swords went out, one man and one sword returned. Problem solved.
Hot pools around every corner
Some are free and rustic, most are cheap and clean and a few are expensive and fancy. The best thing is that geothermal pools are everywhere in Iceland.
Etiquette requires that you strip, shower and wash all your bits before you put your togs on. This is enforced strictly by shower police (what else would you call them?) at the big centres. This means that Icelanders are cooler about nudity than, well, me, for example, as I discovered when I found myself chatting with three women in a changing room and really wanted to say: “look, why don’t you just pop on a towel so I can stop concentrating so hard on your eyebrows,” but maybe I just need to lighten up and have conversations with naked strangers more often.
Our time in Iceland was much colder than is usual for autumn and the pools were a heavenly way to relax and warm up after a big day sight-seeing.
The boys’ favourites were the free pools in a paddock beside our guesthouse next to a glacier. The sprint from change shed to outdoor shower to pool was a challenge in an air temperature below freezing but we did it, and it was worth it to lie chin-deep in steaming pools looking up at the stars.
We also loved the pools at Mývatn where we lounged in turquoise water, felt gravel under our feet and were surrounded by snow (-6°C that day). Best of all, the rugged-up lifeguard provided bar service if you asked nicely.
Water going downhill fast
I have never seen the big deal about a river tipping over a hill but The Photographer is a big fan of waterfalls and had an excellent Photographer’s Map of Iceland to guide us to some of the best. Her must-see was Dettifoss, the enormous falls which had appeared in the magical opening sequence of the film Prometheus. There were many more – all beautiful in different ways. I kind of get it now. The boys are still not sure.
Blink and the scenery changes
We had to stop stopping. We couldn’t drive anywhere for longer than five minutes without wanting to stop and take a photo or walk up a hill or explore a weird outcrop or check out a waterfall.
Eerie moonscapes, sheep trails in snow, pyramid-shaped mountains, the wreck of a WWII bomber, expansive black sand beaches, mossy bogs, basalt cliffs forged into Cubist arrangements, bizarre lava formations, mountains reflected in lakes, reindeer, flocks of seabirds, icelandic ponies, snowy hills that resembled, in Medium’s words “burned meringues”. And always the weather was changing – in the first 48 hours we had sunshine, snow, hail, blizzard, gale, fog, drizzle and rain.
Iceland is a small country but nine days wasn’t enough to do justice to it. It would be great to go back in summer to see the puffins, find an affordable way to see molten lava, explore an ice cave, see the phenomenal fjords of the north west coast and do some longer hikes.
What’s not to love?
The price of food. Ouch. A hamburger and fries meal will set you back around $NZ30 at a cheap burger joint so lunch or dinner for a family of five was never a bargain.
When you’re travelling a lot, self-catering is challenging – especially when you have your friend The Photographer on board who takes up not just an entire seat but half the luggage space (and food storage space) with her many changes of clothing, shoes, camera bags, selfie sticks, bags of sweets and hairbrushes. But we love her so we didn’t complain. Also, someone had to carry the bags.
Car rental, organised tours and activities are also expensive.
On the other hand, most activities we wanted to do were free or cheap – all the best sights and sites, the hot pools, the snow (a free open-air playground our boys never got sick of). If you travel there outside the peak summer period, accommodation is priced reasonably and we loved the guesthouses for their quirkiness and great breakfasts.
All in all, it was expensive but well worth the money.
And the weather?
If you don’t like the weather in Iceland, wait five minutes. It says so on the tee-shirts.
You actually do have to check the weather. Not in a New Zealand way (“weather looks iffy, might check”) but in an actual check before you drive way. Even Icelanders were gobsmacked that we had snow – and lots of it – in October.
At the end of our second day the road suddenly took us from sea level, sunshine and great driving conditions into ice, snow and a fierce blizzard. We had climbed only 350m. A truck and a car were blown off the road just before we went through and a busload of tourists went off the road not long after.We crawled through and descended half an hour later into calm, clear weather in Reykjavik. We learned from that.
That’s all I have to say about Iceland – as they say in France:”Il faut y aller,” [You have to go there].
Apologies for the length of this blog. Trust me, it was a lot longer. Next few blogs will be short. Promise.