Iceland: An Overview

Iceland is a fascinating country. Reykjavik, its capital (and the Northern-most capital in the world), brings to mind some Canadian cities of the East Coast like Halifax, blending mid-sized city convenience with small town charm. Our first couple days were spent exploring the city and included a surprisingly informative bike tour.

Iceland - Reykjavik

We were there in the summer, so we got only about an hour-and-a-half of darkness. The midnight sun is a wondrous and disconcerting thing to behold. Bars seem to never close. When they aren’t serving beer (my favourite was Egils Premium, though Viking Sterkur was also good), they’re serving coffee. The most popular restaurant in Iceland is a hot dog stand—they serve hot dogs and cola, that’s it. The hot dogs are quite good.

Reykjavik also has a few interesting graveyards, including Hólavallagarður. The plots are penned in by stone or cement walls, chains, or even hedges, and tended like little gardens. In some cases, trees are planted in these grave-gardens and left to grow until the trunks and roots push the markers aside. You’ll find countless gravestones toppled over and buried under the roots of a tree.

Reykjavik is both quaint and fun, to be enjoyed by those who love never-ending nightlife (without night time) as well as those who prefer people-watching and walks by the coast.

But to properly experience Iceland, however, one must leave the city and visit the unpopulated areas of the island. It isn’t hard. Roughly seventy percent of Iceland’s 300’000 inhabitants live in the greater Reykjavik area, and about sixty percent of the nation’s landmass is considered desert. Of course, it’s not quite the Gobi and it’s not quite the Arctic. Rather, the Icelandic desert is a wind-blasted expanse of lava rock etched with spongy grey lichen and dotted with glacier-fed lakes. Look in one direction and you think yourself on the moon, but turn around and you’re faced with snow-capped mountains ringing azure waters and candy-coloured homes.

Iceland - rugged terrain

Our first trek to the Icelandic wilds was done on horseback. Iceland is proud of its horses, a breed unique to the island (though exported to other nations). They are a stout, nimble breed, like ponies on steroids. My girlfriend christened my mount Chompy, because he had the rather disconcerting habit of chewing his bit, as though planning escape. Our trek took us into the mountains to visit the hot springs. The waters into which we dipped our toes were 40 degrees Celsius.

The next adventure took us round the Golden Circle, a collection of must-see sites, both natural and historical. We hiked through craggy, rugged terrain to see Gullfoss, the Golden Falls. Our trip then took us to Althing, the world’s first parliament which sat in the year 930 and overlooks Lake Silfra (more on that particular site later). Finally, we visited the Haukadalur valley and The Great Geysir, one of only three similar sites in the world (the other two being in New Zealand and the States’ Yellowstonel Park) and the first such geyser described in a written source.

The following day was spent spelunking and snorkelling. Iceland is riddled with caves formed by thousand-year-old volcanic activity. Unlike the majority of caves in North America, these are not etched into the earth’s crust by water. Rather, they have been carved, suddenly and violently, by flowing lava. At one point, our guide instructed us to switch off our headlamps, plunging us into total darkness and near perfect sensory deprivation. It was a wonderful, soothing feeling and, I swear, I felt I could’ve gone to sleep right then and there, curled up on lava rock with only the distant sound of dripping water to remind me the world was still out there. Fantastic.

Iceland Stream

Lake Silfa, or Silver Lake, sits upon a fault between the American and European tectonic plates and is fed by water that runs down from the glaciers to the north. The feeder streams follow fissures in Iceland’s stony skin, fissures that can be explored while wearing sleeping-bag-like insulator suits and dry-suits. With the rubbery dry-suit pulled over the pillowy insulators, one looks like a cross between a Plushy and a dominatrix, a twisted abomination of kink.

The suits, though, are absolutely necessary. The waters feeding into Lake Silfa hover just above freezing, at around 2 degrees Celsius, and are kept from turning to ice only by a constant current. The water is some of the clearest (and coldest) in the world and, drifting along, you peer into depths hidden only by the limits of sunlight. The cracks, fissures and crevasses buried under those frigid waters are a Lovecraftian dream come true and, of course, had my imagination revving in high gear.

We capped off our trip with a whale-watching tour which turned out to be a pleasantly fruitful excursion.

It was a fantastic trip and I came away from it with more than just experiences, memories and photographs. As mentioned, the caves and fissures in particular have given me a host of story ideas I look forward to getting on paper.