The Land of Ice and Fire: Iceland

Before there was earth or sky or anything green, there was only the abyss. This darkness and silence lay between the land of fire and the land of ice. The frost and the flames blew towards each other and when they met at the abyss, the fire melted the ice and the drops formed giants.

As the ice continued to melt, a cow emerged from it. The cow nourished the giants and herself by licking the ice, revealing Ymir, the first of the gods. The gods mated with the giants and their half-god half-giant children, Odin and his brothers, slew Ymir and created the world from his corpse. From two tree trunks, they created the first man and woman.

This is the Norse creation myth.

Iceland is a land of legends and it only takes a glimpse at the landscape to see why. It is a place of extreme geological contrasts, a land of ice and fire, home to glaciers and some of the most active volcanoes. Long summer days fade into dark winters.

Cheap flights from its neighbouring countries on both sides of the Atlantic make it less isolated than it looks on the map but the prices in Iceland are enough to deter a lot of tourists. Iceland is expensive. The standard of living is very high but it remains one of the most sparsely inhabited countries in the world. It is this isolation and the extreme nature that shaped Icelandic culture through centuries, ultimately resulting in a nation that values family bonds, tradition, and a strong bond with nature.

This summer, I was fortunate enough to have found a long lost connection, a childhood friend from a summer in Philippines almost 10 years ago. He remembered me and my family quite well and when I asked if he could host me for a couple of nights, he was eager to do so.

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Me & J, after 9+ years, on Esjan

Flying to Keflavik on a clear day, it is impossible to miss Esjan, a mountain range 10km north of Reykjavik. Icelanders have a special bond with this mountain, and as a friend said, it is only when they see it that the feeling of ‘home’ finally kicks in.

Of course I had to spend my first afternoon in Reykjavik hiking up Esjan. There is an extensive network of hiking trails and a bunch of Reykjavíkians go up there everyday. We didn’t get very high up though as the setting sun beat us to it. There was an aurora forecast for that night, and on our descent, we passed by people who were still making their way up.

Around 10pm, we drove to Seltjarnarnes, which, at the western end of Reykjavik is not Reykjavik at all due to some politics. It was so windy and cold. We parked our car by the road and waited for the aurora to be visible, but gave up after half an hour because we were so hungry. We decided to go home and finish the night with Berliner Luft and karaoke, because if there is one thing all Filipinos share no matter where, it is their inherent need to sing.

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The wasteland outside of Reykjavik

On my second day we drove the famous tourist route, the Golden Circle. At only 300km and passing through major sites without much walking, you can think of it as hors d’oeuvre. It is what people who don’t have much time to explore the country will most likely see… the standard tour bus package. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful.

The landscape is incredible. The miles of wasteland made me feel like I was on a different planet. Sometimes only the vacation homes punctuating the landscape reminded me otherwise.

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Kerið

For whatever reason, we drove counterclockwise from the normal route and our first stop was Kerið crater, just one of the volcanic craters in Iceland’s south. There is an oval lake in it and you can walk around the rim and go down and walk the small circle in it. It’s a short stop where you can stretch your legs a bit. Nothing spectacular, but nice. Like a lot of places in Iceland, they now charge an ‘upkeep fee’ (400 ISK, September 2017) although a little Icelandic warranted us a free pass.

We drove on to Haukadalur, home to the most famous sights in Iceland: the geysers. I had never seen one before and it was awe-inspiring. The biggest geysers are Strokkur and Geysir (where the word ‘geyser’ comes from). The Great Geysir was the first geyser described on a printed source and the first known to modern Europeans. Its eruptions have been infrequent. Only 50m away, the smaller Strokkur draws the tourist crowds as one of the few natural geysers to erupt frequently (every 5-10 minutes).

Since we were exploring the area, we missed two eruptions but were lucky to have been standing right by it for the big one. Everyone went silent when the pool started getting wavier and then a big bubble formed and in a split second shot up. I was so caught up in the moment, looking up at the steam that rose high up until reality started raining down on us onlookers. Some tried to run away. Luckily I had my rain jacket on and all I could do was crouch down to keep my camera dry. I was drenched and it was a cold day. J and I had a good laugh and decided we had seen enough geysers for the day.

We drove 10km ahead to Gullfoss ‘Golden Falls’, which got its name from the golden hue on its waters during sunset. It is one of Iceland’s most popular waterfalls, hence the crowd. As you first approach the falls, the edge is obscured and it looks as though the river simply vanishes into the earth.

There are short trails for walking where you can learn a bit more about Gullfoss. Back in the 20th century, there were some people who wanted to use the falls to generate electricity. It was indirectly rented by its owners to foreign investors. Sigríður Tómasdóttir, the daughter of one of its owners, though uneducated, sought the help of a lawyer and brought the matter to court. She threatened to throw herself down the waterfall if they didn’t preserve its condition. Eventually, one of her family members sold Gullfoss and the surrounding area to the Icelandic government. Just like that, Iceland had its first victorious feminist.

We drove on to Þingvellir National Park, a rift valley where the North American and Eurasian plates diverge at a rate of 2.5 cm a year. We arrived in what I think is the most beautiful time of the day: just before sunset. Seeing the landscape of Þingvellir basked in golden light was breathtaking. Even J2 who had been to the place countless times could not help take a picture.

A few kilometers away is the Silfra fissure where you can stare in awe at the clarity of glacier water and even go snorkelling or diving in a drysuit. Overall, the Golden Circle is touristy, but it does cover sights you cannot miss. The most valuable insight I got from this trip is that I would definitely skip the tour bus and explore it at my own pace.

I spent the next two days hiking and exploring more of Iceland’s diverse offerings. I did an easy hike to a hot river where we had to pass a bridge over boiling water, and make our way through the mist to be rewarded with one of the most relaxing hiking bonuses ever.

Since it was not that late yet, we decided to drive further south to Vik where the scenery made for a very exciting roadtrip. We passed by majestic waterfalls and glimpsed distant glaciers. Guest houses, cottages, and small wooden churches periodically dotted the landscape. Unfortunately for us, when night completely fell  in Vik, there was no cheap place to stay. We briefly contemplated sleeping in the car but the lack of toilet and the fact that I have a pea-sized bladder in that cold and windy night made us drive back to Reykjavik.

It was not for naught as I got to see the Northern Lights to old rock songs blaring on the radio. Returning to Reykjavik meant we were back to mile 0, and so we decided to drive north the next day.

I was up for more hiking and picked Glymurfoss because it was only a 40-minute drive away. J had spent 15 years in Iceland and had not once been to Glymur. We had a change of roles and I guided him through Hvalfjörður. He arrived in Iceland a little late. Until 1998, people getting to the town of Borgarnes from Reykjavik had to make a 62-km detour on the fjord. The opening of a tunnel cut travel time by an hour and Hvalfjörður has become quiet.

The fjord itself is beautiful and the hike up to Glymur was by far the best I had done. There was so much variety of landscape – even rivers to cross. Even counting the part where we got lost on our way down (we followed a sheep’s trail, don’t ask why), it was a mighty fun hike.

I spent my last morning hunting for kitsch in downtown Reykjavik. The weather had gone absolutely sour, and the rain battered our car as J and J2 drove me back to Keflavik. I had grown quite dear to them in my sojourn. We were strangers when they picked me up only five days before. We said our goodbyes, and I got myself a big bottle of Brennivín for when the winter blues hit. I have barely seen Iceland yet it has already cast a spell on me.

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Here’s to the Viking spirit and the day I come back!
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