I am an art historian and have a Master's degree in English literature. My interests include popular science, language and folklore.
The Flying Volcanoes
Apart from enjoying extra leg room on the Icelandair jet, one of the first things that I learned on boarding was that all of the company aeroplanes are named after the many volcanoes that populate the country. We travelled out on the Eldborg, or “Firecastle,” and we returned home on the very active Grimsvottn, which erupted as recently as 2011. Other plane names are Hekla—“the Gateway to Hell”—and also, Torfajökull. This volcano is named after Torfi, who saved himself and his family from the plague in 1493 by retreating to the land surrounding the volcano in South Iceland. The most infamous volcano is perhaps Eyjafjallajökull, the one that held up European air traffic for weeks in 2010. It has erupted twice since then, but because it did not cause any disturbance outside of Iceland, it did not get in the news. Also present in the air fleet is Laki, the volcano that erupted between 1783 and 1784. The resulting atmospheric haze caused a famine and fluoride poisoning that killed between 20 and 25% of the population. Luckily, the name of the planes did not make any difference to our flight; we landed safely in Keflavik airport.
A Kettle About to Boil?
The very next day, we travelled to the town of Vik on the south coast of the country. High on a cliff overlooking it is a very pretty cathedral, with a red roof and white walls. Our tour guide told us the shocking and scary account of the nearby Katla volcano. Its name is derived from ketil or kettle, and is one of Iceland’s largest volcanoes—and yes, there is an Icelandair plane named after it! Katla erupts every 13 to 95 years, and it has not erupted for 100 years, which means an eruption is due soon. The guide pointed out the radio mast on the cliff opposite the cathedral. This mast is part of a security system set in place to warn the town’s inhabitants of the tidal flood that will most likely result from the eventual eruption. When this happens, each inhabitant will receive a text, a warning to move quickly to the town’s highest point, the lovely cathedral that sits on a hill. The sad thing about this system is that the people will be able to watch the tidal wave destroying their beloved town.
The Black Sand Beach
Not far from the town of Vik is the black sand beach or Reynisfjara, a stretch of coast made of fine grains of lava. It is amazing to walk along the beach and watch the house-high waves rolling in from the sea. But our guide had warned us of their danger, and of how the retreating water can grab an unwary visitor from dry land, in seconds. We walked at a safe distance but I did manage to make this mini-movie of the phenomenon. Another natural occurrence is the black and stony stuff on the beach that clings to your footwear; in fact, it is everywhere in Iceland. The reason that the sand is black is that it is made of fragments of the same rock as the inner core of the earth. Essentially, a volcano consists of a magma or molten rock chamber underneath the earth’s crust, but close enough to the surface for heat to vent out. Every so often, an increase of heat swells the magma so much that it finds a volcanic outlet and blasts out in the form of a lava flow. Seen on the cliff alongside the black sand beach are columns of basalt, with birds' nests at their summits. These columns were formed when volcanic lava hardened very quickly.
Belief in the Supernatural
The first thing I noticed on leaving Keflavik airport was a railed-off area of ground upon which stood a large stone surrounded by smaller stones. It seemed to have landed there by accident but is apparently being preserved. The stone is no doubt sacred to the “huldfolk” or hidden people. 54% of Icelandic people actually believe in alfar or elves. In downtown Reykjavik, you can do a course at the Elf School. Open all the year round, visitors come to the school to learn about the dvergar (dwarves) and jarovergar (gnomes), and other supernatural creatures. The guide on the South Iceland tour pointed out rock formations jutting out of the sea, reputedly trolls that got caught in the sun and turned to stone—trolls are not supposed to emerge from their mountain hideouts in daylight.
Iceland Is a Dinosaur-Free Zone
On the journey from Keflavik to Reykjavik, I noticed the almost lunar appearance of the landscape. The Icelandic landmass is only about 60 million years old, younger than the projected age of dinosaur extinction. The Icelandic Lowlands, where most of the farming is carried out, was formerly an ocean bed. Gradually, land emerged from the flow of lava resulting from underwater volcanoes and eventually became covered in moss. The volcanic activity is the result of the tectonic plates of North America and Eurasia colliding with one another. We saw evidence of this at Pingvellir, north-east of Reykjavik. If we had neglected to hang on to the safety railing overlooking the ancient lava field, the Icelandic wind would have blown us off of the high walkway. It was much more comfortable to walk in the shelter of the fissures formed between the landmasses. Incidentally, these masses are moving two centimetres apart every year. The Viking settlers used this area for their Althing or parliament, because of its centrality on the landmass.
The Mystery of the Missing Trees
Another thing I noticed on the Keflavik-Reykjavik route was the almost total absence of trees. Yet, referring once again to Icelandic folklore, the tivor were spirits that lived in mountains and trees. With a tradition like this, trees must have thrived in Iceland and in fact, much of the land was covered with forests of native birch. However, the Viking settlers brought their sheep with them; the animals munched on the leaves and destroyed much of the vegetation. In addition, the settlers cut down many of the trees to provide fuel, essential for cooking and heating during fierce Icelandic winters. Eventually, this led to soil erosion and further decimation of the tree population. Today, replanting efforts ensure that 2% of Iceland is covered with trees, the majority of them in urban areas and about country houses. These trees are arranged curiously, one common sight being row upon row of alternate evergreen and deciduous varieties.
The Non-Importable Horse
When travelling through the countryside, I delighted in seeing the groups of Icelandic horses, standing in the fields. What with their short and sturdy bodies, and the fluffy manes falling into their eyes, the animals are endearing. Because of the winter weather, we could see them standing in a line, their noses in the same direction as they staved off the very considerable breezes by standing with their backs to the wind. Aside from the younger animals, the adult horses live out of doors during winter and summer months. The Icelandic horse arrived with Viking settlers, about 1,100 years ago and the horse population is 100,000 or about one for every three Icelandic people. The horses are not “wild” but owned by individual farmers who must provide them with hay and water. The owners breed the horses both for tourist trekking and for export. Alas, we did not get a chance to go trekking this visit. Once an Icelandic horse has been exported from the country, it is never allowed return because it is a rarefied species and may have been exposed to disease.
The Upside-Down Waterfall
One of the more amazing – and wetter – experiences is to get up close to one of Iceland’s many waterfalls. One example is the spectacular Seiljalandfoss in South Iceland, a fall that runs into a series of pools. Not far from it is the “vape mountain”, a mountainside that appears to be giving off plumes of steam. What is actually happening is that the water is running down its side, and the angle of the mountain is exposing the water to winds that turn it to droplets and send it rising back into the air. This means the waterfall is actually turning upwards in the direction from which it has come. Several of these “upside down” falls exist in Iceland.
Early Environmental Activism
In contrast to looking up at a waterfall, we looked right down upon the Gullfoss or Golden Waterfall, north-east of Reykjavik. Later, we learned its remarkable history. In 1904, the Fall Company sought to harness the waterfall for electricity. Farmer Tom, upon whose land it was built, signed the contract but his 20-year-old daughter, Sigriour, objected. She convinced him to try to break the contract and she made several trips to Reykjavik on foot—which was no mean feat in a time of no transport and in a place of terrible weather—to visit the Fall Company. But Sigriour met with no success. Sigriour eventually threatened to throw herself into the waterfall if the project went ahead, and her quest succeeded. The legacy of environmental protection continues to this day, with Iceland ranked 13th in the world by Yale University’s Environmental Performance Index of 2012.
Tips for Visiting Iceland
- Bring sturdy footwear and waterproof clothing.
- Cards are taken in most places, but if you are staying in the country for more than a few days, consider changing currency into Icelandic Krona, as the card charges do mount up.
- Take the weather forecast into account before making a countryside excursion.
- Have a wonderful time!
Mary Phelan (author) from London on October 26, 2018:
Thank you, Liz. Disappointingly, my travel buddy and I did not get to see "the lights" - but I will definitely go back, one day.
Liz Westwood from UK on October 26, 2018:
This is a very interesting and well-illustrated article. Iceland has grown a lot in popularity as a holiday destination in recent years. We have relatives who saw the Northern Lights there recently.