After a good night of sleep in our lovely hotel Mum and I rose nice and early to begin our first day tour of exploration. There’s nothing like a good bout of snow and a humungous Land Rover to make you feel like an adventurer, and Iceland Rovers‘s Vidar was certainly the man to get us into the spirit of things. We were the first of four more to be picked up, our company being two lovely American girls who were utterly chatty and bubbly, Jennifer and Ashindi, and a newly married German couple called Schmidtt. (We never learned their individual names.)
I came to learn with each excursion that the tour guides didn’t merely explain the sights we were to see, they were deeply involved in the history and culture of Iceland, offering us conversation about the land we’d visited as the journies took place. It was wonderful, not only as each destination is between 40-100 minutes away (sometimes more), but because they weren’t simply reeling off a script. The guides are passionate about the country and keen to talk politics and culture. Vidar himself is an Icelander, but all our guides – no matter what their nationality was – were as fervent as each other.
Vidar told us about many things as we powered through the snow, which was thick and fast at that time, explaining that in Iceland surnames are not passed on as in most Western culture – the men become their father’s son – and so his son would be Vidarsson, and so on. The women do not change names when they are married either, which feels so wonderfully progressive. (I didn’t get to find out how their surnames are given/taken.) Vidar also told us about religion in Iceland; back in time Iceland was having trouble trading with the other countries nearby as they weren’t Christian and so built a number of churches all over the land, adopting the faith in around 999, in order to trade. Even now, despite the vast number of churches dotted about the country, although they are officially a Christian country hardly any folk are committed Christians, visiting the churches mostly at Christmas – where they often get reprimanded by the pastors for not coming more often!
Vidar also told us about their Yule Lads, and we discussed the recent banking crisis and also Iceland’s situation regarding joining the EU. From what I could glean, at present Iceland has restricted trade exports to the EU as they are not a part of it, however joining would mean they would have to import goods from other EU countries – given that Iceland’s farmers produce more than the country needs it would be senseless for them to import meat and dairy, as they can already more than sustain themselves. Of course, it’s more complex than that. Their exports are largely related to the fishing industry, and most anti-EU MPs are concerned about their control over the natural resources being lost should they join – the fishing industry (inland, at least) is hugely controlled to stop over-fishing, and apparently only celebrities can afford the humungous fee required for a fishing trip. It’s likely though, that Iceland will be energy -independent by 2050, since over 80% of their energy comes from natural sources (geothermal, etc.) with the remainder being fuel for transport and fishing.
Our first stop was Thingvellir National Park, the very site in which, arguably, the first democratic parliament was held. The Althing general assembly was established around 930 and the meetings, to discuss political matters, continued here until 1798. Although on this day we could barely see a thing through the heavy fog and snow, we were told the site was chosen due to the fantastic natural acoustics – the politicians could discuss matters and be heard across the valley, so regular folk could keep abreast of what was going on. Here is where we discovered that the country is not only the youngest, in terms of their people, but the youngest geologically. Thingvellir is a spectacle, not simply because of the human history surrounding it, but it lies on a geological rift which is slowly tearing apart 2cm every year. The country is effectively part North-American tectonic plate and part Eurasian tectonic plate, and they are separating.
We picked up some lunch after Thingvellir and stopped for a coffee in a small garage, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. Vidar picked up a thick block of Icelandic cheese, which Mum partook of, and I grabbed a coffee and a cigarette outside. It was literally an oasis of life in a long stretch of snowy road, surrounded by fields – some lava fields, many with grazing Icelandic Horses. We learned that these horses are something of a sui generis, and not merely for their miniature stature. (Don’t ever refer to them as ponies in front of an Icelander, they won’t be best pleased.) They have a unique gait, and being isolated over the years of breeding, means that there are no other horses like them across the globe. They were specially bred for their stamina, for they can travel miles across such changeable terrain, at speed and run in a very individual way; their fifth gait – the tölt – means that they can run at speed using the left legs then the right, effectively. (It’s the same as the walk, left hind, left front, right hind, right front, only much faster.) They also stay outdoors all winter, warmed by thick coats. My only regret is that we didn’t get to ride one!
On our way to the next destination we paused briefly on our journey, partly for a small break, but also because Vidar is a keen ice climber and so wanted to quickly check out some of the climbing opportunities. We’d driven around what seemed to be a huge and long lake, although this was the edge of the Atlantic Ocean, and stopped just by a huge cairn – most of these being landmarks so you don’t get lost. Traditionally, each time you pass one you’re to add another rock to the cairn so that they grow and grow, a habit I picked up where I could. Vidar told us that nearby, which we were to pass, was a recently vacated area where the American army had a small base with ships and submarines. This is where they set up during the second world war, I believe. After a few photo opportunities, and a few laughs with the American girls, it was time to set off once again.
We came to discover that Iceland has no army, although their police force includes a specially trained unit, who can carry guns. They also have a huge unit of people who are special mountain rescuers, many of whom include the tour guides who lead the glacier walks and other hikes, and even those retired from the list leave their contact details for instances of national emergency. This must go toward explaining how good the welfare seemed to be in Iceland, given that the income tax rate is roughly 22% across the board, as there’s nothing going toward an expensive army. I asked Vidar about the homeless, as I’d not seen anyone begging in the streets, and he simply said that the welfare system looks after them very well, with hostels set up for those without shelter. (As I understand it.) Another striking thing was the lack of pollution and violence – I didn’t see a single fight break out, in spite of the Icelanders’ love of a good session, and only once did I spot some discarded rubbish in the streets. And that was a few beer cans, which could have easily been from British tourists. Although, that’s a total guess. Also, only once did I see a police car, and they appeared to be nonchalantly making their way through Reykjavik.
After this we headed out to Barnafoss, one of Iceland’s magnificent waterfalls. Apparently, the waterfall is named thus because, years ago, there was a naturally formed stone bridge that crossed it. A lady came home one day to find her children had not returned home and so, asked around, only to find that they’d been spotted near the waterfall.
On approaching the stone bridge she found that part of it had collapsed and her children were nowhere to be found. She destroyed the remainder of the bridge so that no one else should suffer this plight. (Barna = children [or pregnancy, I think.], Foss = waterfall.) It was a fantastic sight, even through the heavy snow, and so strikingly blue in places. There was a cove, where the water had carved its path, so awash with movement, fury and foam that it was almost terrifying to focus on – my recurring thought was how futile it would be to try and survive should one fall in at that point.
Although the tour we were on should have included visits to geysirs and a glacier, the weather was simply not permitting. At this point it hadn’t stopped snowing all day, and in some parts it was at least three feet deep, so Vidar decided to see if we couldn’t manoeuvre the jeep across some of the roads to the lava caves. Although we’d missed out on some aspects of the tour, the rough ride and thick snow more than made up for it as we traversed the treacherous roads to the caves. At points the wheels simply span in the snow, and we had to keep a keen eye on the road markers, lest we got into some real trouble off the path. Vidar, who by now appeared to us as some kind of Icelandic He-Man. He was constantly nipping outside in a single layer, sans gloves and hat, and – in spite of being what we guessed to be about 45-50 – he was the fittest man I’ve ever known.
A true adventurer, and a wonderful conversationalist, even admitting to us that he must be crazy to do ice climbing – I believe his words were something along the lines of, “I don’t even know why I do it, it’s horrible! Even when I’m up there and it’s dangerous, I think to myself why am I doing this, this is awful!” Anyway, on a particularly tricky incline we almost got beat. Vidar lowered the tyre pressure to .1 (or something, the lowest possible in any case) and made several reverses to clear a path. Forwards, bounce up! Swing back down. Back again. Forwards, bounce up! Swing back down. Back again. And after four goes, we suddenly broke the barrier and made it up and over the hill, which was about a metre incline. The snow was that thick. We were delighted, it was amazing.
My Mum was vaguely concerned with the attempts, reminding me that Vidar had mentioned whilst re-telling a story earlier, that if he was ever nervous about something we’d not know it as his fears wouldn’t show, but I was just overjoyed to see more of Iceland. The story he told, in any case, was about a two day hike he’d been on with two Spanish tourists and they’d been trapped in a snow storm. He was genuinely worried, as should any of them panicked and tried to flee that would have been the end of them, but fortunately they were most sanguine and trusting of him and his guide friend, and so they made it through the night by remaining in their tents whilst the storm passed. Incidentally, whilst I remember, Vidar is also a friend of Simon Yates and made a film with him called Ama Dablam. I intend on seeing it sometime, but you should too.
Anyway, we’d finally made it to the lava caves. With signs up declaring certain paths ‘impassable’ the danger of the natural world felt clear at this moment – with so much snow, there was a chance we’d not be able to drive out. As we approached the mouth of the cave a tiny wave of fear hit me. It was almost a sheer drop, the opening being barely three people wide. I asked Vidar if he was certain that we’d all be able to climb back out, and he said, “I don’t know, maybe. Maybe not. Maybe we spend the night in the caves!” There was a delightful glint in his eye, but he knew how to shake things up and make them a little more exciting. The very fact that he’d said so made me go into Frodo-mode, and I felt we were all entering some ancient Helm’s Deep. Only on a much smaller scale.
After Schmidtt and Vidar had descended, I came next and chose to slide on the snow rather than crawl downward. It set a trend, it being easier for the rest of the party to shoot down, and we all made it into the caves in one piece. The ceiling from there on in became very low, and although none of us were too claustraphobic, once it receded upward again I breathed a sigh of relief. Crawling through we’d occasionally knock ice stalactites onto the floor, which echoed like broken slithers of glass throughout the cave. They were truly beautiful, and I did my best to photograph what I could. The entire caves had formed from lava and volcanic rock, I believe they’re more lava tubes – formed when low viscosity lava channels through under the ground and forms a crust, which thickens to create a ceiling. (Although, for these particular caves, I couldn’t tell you precisely how they formed – I’d not really much of an idea exactly where we were in Iceland at the time!)
We reached a large open space and took a minute to sit and turn off our torches, to take in the true darkness. There being absolutely no natural light, it couldn’t get much darker, and we tested our eyes to see if we could see our hands in front of our faces. It was remarkable; despite the fact that there was no light, and so you simply couldn’t see your hand, I almost felt as though I could see it as my brain knew it was there. It was as if my eyes were creating the form of my hand in blackness, like a shadow hand, as they knew it was there even though there was no light to reflect its presence. Vidar then told us a little about the elves, of which there are many stories in Iceland, and then an old ghost tale about the caves. Once there was a woman who had gotten pregnant, and for reasons along the lines of – the baby was illegitimate, or she couldn’t care for it – she wrapped it up in special cloth and took it to the lava caves to leave it there. Apparently even now if you listen carefully you can hear the sounds of children crying, coming from the caves. Of course, the crying is usually the wind, although historically women did leave children in the caves were they not able to look after them.
After a little more exploration we started heading back and Vidar decided to take us via a new exit. He did a test to see if we had our bearings, which I utterly failed, and we came to a slightly less (although still rather steep, and much narrower) hole to the surface. I made fast work of the climb, hoping to make up for my shameful lack of directional navigation, and swiftly made it to the top in a surge of victory. Soon enough we were all ready to head back to the vehicle and journey home. It was a magnificent day, and one I shall remember for a long time to come.
We grabbed a bite and a beer, but swiftly retired after such an excursion, keen for the next trip out.
If you wish to see the full story, in pictures, here’s the set:
Thingvellir, Barnafoss and Lava Caves.