Sunday, 16 September 2012

A Land of Fire and Ice: Iceland First Impressions

Iceland is a unique landscape, primeval; a glimpse into the early days of our planet when the globe was ruled by fire and water. Although raw, barren, and at times bleak the landscape of Iceland is dynamic and alive like few places on earth. Rising from the cold waters of the proto-Atlantic Ocean a mere 16 to 18 million years ago the land is still alive with the fires of creation, vast fields of lava, towering volcanic icecaps, bubbling hot-springs and great glacial rivers carving down from the interior.

A landscape so new, feels angular and stark compared to home, the fields of dark black lava riven with deep fissures covers huge swathes of land. Little can live in this environment, no plants or trees can find root as a fertile soil has yet to emerge requiring coming eons of weathering and organic decay. Instead the lava is coated with a blanket of green moss the first stages of life, simple and hardy.

A highland lava field.

More lava!

From these barren plateau, to the green river valleys, and the towering highlands of dark basalt the landscape unfolds slowly from the saddle of a bike. On my cycle tour I had originally wanted to cross the interior by the F35, generally regarded as the easier of the two main gravel roads over the highlands (because you don't have to ford any rivers!) before returning by the ring road to Reykjavik. However the purchase of a house earlier this year left me with neither the time nor the resources to mount such a trip. The fall back option was to tour the south west corner of the island which contains many of Iceland's tourist showpieces and would allow me a slightly more gentle introduction to cycle touring.

Iceland is still being born, situated above the Mid Atlantic Ridge volcanoes pour forth brand new land at regular intervals, the most spectacular being the appearance of the island of Surtsey from the depths of the Atlantic in the mid 70's. Signs of the tremendous heat just below the surface is evidenced by the clouds of steam which billow up from the hillsides tendrils of white against the green and black of the earth. With the engine house of the Earth so close at hand Icelanders have harnessed this geothermal warmth against the chill of the ice which forms this lands other creative force.

The latent heat of creation

Geothermal pools at Geysir

With such and abundance of geothermal energy, almost every small settlement I visited had a hot tub or pool fed by waters from deep within the earths crust. The experience of swimming in water which possibly only hours earlier was deep within the surface of the planet is a strange experience but perfect for relaxing and allowing the muscles to recover at the end of a long day in the saddle; hidden within the interior a myriad of hot pools dot the landscape offering respite to the traveller. Icelanders have taken geothermal energy much further, Reykjavik the capital pipes the hot waters beneath the roads and pavements ensuring they stay ice free in the bitter chill of the Icelandic winter.

Iceland, it's people and it's landscape are also a product of the atmosphere, close to the Arctic Circle and in the middle of a great ocean it's at the mercy of huge weather systems and a kaliderscope that even makes the UK look dull and conventional. During my six days on the bike I enjoyed clear blue skies and warm sunshine, torrential rain, fog, mist, and a wind which roared down off the interior and almost stopped my bike when cycling downhill! Coupled to this the strange distortion of time which comes of living so close to the Arctic Circle and the realm of the midnight sun, bitterly cold winters, and brief stormy summers and it's easy to see have the Icelanders have developed a deep bond with their landscape and a hardiness and resourcefulness like few nations.


Meandering glacial rivers in Posrmork National Park

Ice or more truthfully water, is the force which had carved and sculpted the land risen by fire. Iceland is covered by icecaps which cap the summits of her volcanoes, the largest of these the Vatnajokull is the size of the English county of Yorkshire. From the glaciers and icecaps flow long meandering rivers which meander back and forth across wide river plans of black volcanic sand and gravel carrying these fragments down into the fertile plains in the south  west around Selfoss where they form Iceland's best and richest farmland. Waters falling from the the icecaps also make this a land of waterfalls; hills which rise almost vertically out the plateau forming a rampart over which water cascades in a myriad of different falls from the thin tendril of Seldjandfoss, to the white wall of Skogafoss, and the roaring chasm of Gullfoss.

I spent six days scratching the surface of this land, looking through the prism of it's weather. My overriding impression is one of space, big skies which open out above you, horizons dotted with the shadows of distant mountains. I only really caught glimpses of the spectacular interior,  the last true wilderness in Europe; a road winding away to a distant high white icecap, plenty of reasons to return.

Skogafoss (Wiki Commons image)

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