Exploring Iceland

October 15, 2013 7:53 pm

Just before your visit to the Moon, there is one landscape on Earth where you can familiarise yourself with the lunar terrain. The Apollo crews used it before their expeditions, or if you’re Ridley Scott and need an alien world for your next film, replete with angry volcanoes and spectacular waterfalls, the same landscape will meet that task. That landscape belongs to Iceland.

Whether I’m riding a beautiful Icelandic horse through an Arctic blizzard, or gazing at the Northern Lights, my trips to this small volcanic island in the North Atlantic have reminded me that we were meant to be at one with nature. Whatever artificial frontiers we create for ourselves in our cosy little civilisations, nothing compares to the raw energy of our planet. Few places on Earth demonstrate the range of this energy like Iceland.

Iceland nestles on the join between the North American and European tectonic plates, suffering 1200 earthquakes per year (ok, so most of them are barely felt, but come on – 1200 of them!) and one-third of all the lava flow on Earth. The weather can bring all seasons to just one day, and yet despite being in close proximity to Greenland and the Arctic, the warm gulf stream currents manage to keep the island relatively temperate. Mount Esja

Essentially across between a glacier and the lunar surface, Iceland has so many surprises. The geysers will gush at you, the mighty waterfalls like Skogarfoss and Seljalandfoss with roar at you, the minerals in the Blue lagoon will soothe you; all will impress you. The Myrdalsjokull Glacier is massive enough to make you feel truly insignificant, until you realise that man-made climate change is causing it to retreat each year (glaciers usually advance forwards). Take a jeep to the coast and see the incredible rock formations and spot the feeding puffins (although their numbers are on the decline). As a volcanic landscape, Iceland is growing in size by a few centimetres every year, so if you’re into real estate, it could be a worthy investment over a few millennia(!) Geothermal activity keeps the water in the taps warm, and the country has embraced hydrogen fuel, which is presently free of charge for drivers of hydrogen cars.

Despite its heritage as being once part of both Norwegian and Danish monarchies, Iceland was one of the world’s poorest nations on Earth, until the Marshall Plan after World War II brought development to its shores. By the 90’s, it was one of the world’s wealthiest countries.

Reykjavik is the charming capital of Iceland, a city replete with both history and modernity, and flanked by Mount Esja on one side and the wilderness on the other. A walk-able city, with many distinct landmarks, wonderful views over the colourful rooftops can be had from the top of the towering Hallgrimskirkja Church and Perlan (The Pearl), a structure built aloft four huge water storage tanks.

Down by the shore, the new concert/conference building stuck out a little on the water’s edge, but it is a magnificent building to photograph, especially at dusk when the multitude of glistening colours shimmer against the cobalt blue sky, or at sunrise when the glass panes imbibe the golden hour shades. Further up the shoreline is Hofdi House, an utterly unassuming but historically significant little house that staged the beginning of the end of the Cold War when President Reagan and Secretary Gorbachev met there in October 1986. I briefly popped into the National Gallery too, but was surprised to find only one room with art in it. No wonder it was free entry!

Reykjavik,_IcelandThe city centre is small but quaint, and the streets are relatively tidy and clean. In fact, during the months of June and July, the teenagers are invited to spend time cleaning litter and planting trees, something that obviously fosters a sense of community spirit and social responsibility. There are plenty of places to eat, especially if you like seafood (I don’t), and I even tried some Minke whale meat (strictly speaking that’s a mammal, so I don’t think of it as seafood). It is somewhat paradoxical that on either side of a jetty in the harbour are ships for both hunting whales and for taking tourists out to spot them.

Reykjavik is apparently known for its nightlife, but I found it a little restrained by the standard of European cities. The music was never too loud.

The 320, 000 Icelandic people, warm and friendly, have taken this geologically young land, just 60 million years old, and made it their own. Despite all the hardships their land throws at them, they do not complain or moan, but make the best of their habitat. They exemplify how humans can successfully harness the resources available to them while still embracing and preserving the delicacy and beauty of their natural wilderness.

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