A Tale of Two Frozen Kiwis
Far in the distance, emerging from the mists, the land took shape. A backdrop of dark clouds churned behind a silhouette of sharp mountains, twisted and gnarled. We had journeyed long, seeing geographies of all kinds, but the island we approached was unlike anything we had laid eyes on. There was something inexplicably wild and untamed about this mysterious land far to the north, and one knew it, like the feeling that something ethereal floated just outside one’s periphery, yet no matter how hard one looked for it, it always remained so. Earlier travelers here named her Iceland, it wasn’t difficult to imagine why.
Stepping onto land, eager to begin our adventure, we sought the one who would escort us to our vessel. It was not our intention to spend too much time in Reykjavik mind you. Despite her charms, we sought to explore what natural beauty hid beyond the clean lines and paved streets. We were brought to where we would find our transportation and before long we had once again embarked; at the same time both elated and anxious to begin our adventure.
We had everything we needed for a journey pushing far into the island’s heart. We were well equipped. A cosy bed to keep us warm, a place to store our food, and the means to contact our loved ones back home. We would be more than glad we had those three by the time our journey came to a close. Throwing our possessions in the back, we started towards Reykjavik.
Before long, we arrived and set up our camp within the city, spending the evening planning the route we would take. The grass was off limits for Henry, the name we affectionately gave our new home on wheels. A sign directed us to avoid the green, telling that the grass nearby was dreaming. It felt easy to believe it – we felt we were in a decidedly magical place. Here, we met another couple of adventurers over dinner. We exchanged stories of our journeys and shared tales of home. They told us of some lesser known locales on the island, secrets that one should strive to see. We added them to the list, bulging already with destinations we were anxious to see.
“We made our own personal nights strapped to our faces.”
Our first night, if that is what you might call it, was strange. From where we came from, night was just as much a part of our lives as day, and punctuated a healthy sleep cycle. Here, it was as though it was a realm where night was afraid to emerge, lest it be scared away by the sun, creeping out only for a peek when the ball of flame grew tired. Yet we had come prepared. Equipped with sleep masks, bulwarks against the sun, we made our own personal nights strapped to our faces. We slept well.
Early the next morning, when the sun was already high in the sky, we embarked with nervous energy eastward, along a path earlier voyagers had named ‘The Golden Circle’. We had heard tales of the area beyond. An untamed land where the rocks themselves were perpetually rending asunder, letting the fires and heat within the the earth emanate forth. Gouts of steam and sulphur belch out in clouds. They had said this place was a rare marvel, where one could witness the fury of the earth tearing itself apart. They were not wrong.
The land around the Flosagjá fissure was a place where the earth felt alive, restless and stirring as if we were mere insects on the blanket of a sleeping giant. Yet despite this, it was relatively painless to leave Henry near the road and explore the area on foot. We passed the ancient Öxarárfoss falls, where placards nearby told of how the ones who lived here long ago used the area as a place of justice, where trials would take place and the guilty would be condemned.
We would later walk around the rim of an ancient and long exhausted volcano, now filled with water. Kerið, with its blood red soil, is younger than a lot of the other volcanic features in the area, but it had unleashed its fury early. It is now filled with water, not from rain, but from the water bubbling up from beneath.
It started to rain, yet we remained in good spirits, safe and warm within our car. We arced around and arrived at Geysir, where the earth, in all its boiling tumult, lets off steam in a spectacular fashion. We have similar geysers where we hail from, yet the outbursts here are frequent, unpredictably so. The great old geyser nearby is resting, it’s last explosion happened years ago. We hoped that we might bear witness to the old one awakening once again. Unfortunately it would not be our day.
The rain abated as we left Geysir. Perhaps it was not rain at all, but the mists left over from the fountains. Regardless, we headed towards even more water – this time, Gullfoss, a place where the earth had seemed to open up and drop down underneath a once calm river. The sound and fury of the falls make the most stalwart of travelers feel tiny and insignificant in its presence. One of the cliffside platforms nearby brings you eye to eye with the beast. We learned that greedy entrepreneurs once came and tried to harness the energy of the falls for their own. A noble-hearted farmer who lived nearby fought tooth and nail against those who would turn the natural beauty into ugly profit. She was eventually victorious, defending the falls, and leaving it in the protective hands of her people. Were those tears on our cheeks, or simply splashes from the churning waters? We couldn’t tell.
All this journeying was tough, as you dear travelers would be aware. Stopping a short jaunt south we rested our aching bones in the warm soothing thermal springs of the Secret Lagoon. So relaxed did we become, that we had to fight to stay awake, lest we be cradled by our pool noodles slowly drifting around the waters. The waters restored us, revitalized us, and although feeling very warm and restful we made our last voyage south to the coast where we would stop and rest for the night.
Many people travel to far away lands with a strict itinerary of touristy sights they work their way through like a shopping list, ticking them off as they go. Sometimes this can make travel almost feel like a chore, to race through sight after sight as fast as one can. The wondrous thing about Iceland is that the entire island is a sight. Merely driving along the road is a visual treat in itself. The slow, winding curves of the asphalt and the long straight expanses offer views unimaginable, majestic and beyond comprehension.
Pictures simply cannot do this place justice, no matter how skilled the photographer – being in this primeval landscape and appreciating the wilds for oneself is a much more rewarding experience. We felt lucky and overwhelmingly humbled being completely immersed in the wilds of this place. The heights of the cliffs that loomed above us could only be appreciated by the small white flecks that flew across their faces, seabirds who made their homes amongst the craggy rocks. The vast empty nothingness of the volcanic deserts seemed blank if one peered across them, yet the expanse could only be truly appreciated if one were to venture out over them on foot.
We stopped for the night at Skógafoss Falls. A little less furious and wild than Gullfoss, Skógafoss is elegant, refined and aristocratic in its own respect. Its cascade fell far, a veil of mist drifting over the black rocks, mirroring the course of its stream down towards the beach. The land was tranquil here; an ideal place to rest for the night, nestled in the embrace of the cliffs. In the strange non-twilight, we ventured up to the top of the fall, to gaze out at the Icelandic horizon.
The next morning, we continued eastward, coasting along the slowly curving roads. Our ride made the journey comfortable as we undulated along the coursing path. We stopped early, admiring the earthen architecture of Hálsanefshellir Cave – basaltic columns here rise out of the black sands like the pipes of a grand organ. But we did not remain here long. Our goal was to make it to the vast glacial nursery of Vatnajökull, where ice as old as time carves its way through the valleys clawing towards the sea. In this vast wasteland of churning ice and stone, we bore witness to one arm of Vatnajökull pushing its way outward.
Up along the face of the cliff, we could see pieces of ice far larger than a man falling off into the lake of meltwater below. Deep rumbling reverberated through our bones and echoed across the land, punctuated by occasional cymbalic splashes – a primeval orchestra, as impressive as it was humbling.
The farthest point we ventured to along the south coast was one we had heard tales about from people who had explored Iceland before, though their stories paled in comparison to the sight we beheld. Jökulsárlón. Nothing could have prepared us for what we encountered here. In the quiet solemnity, where only the soft sound of wind could be heard, icebergs far larger than houses drift by. In the presence of these titans, knowing far more exists below the surface, we were instilled with a deep feeling of insignificance – yet, this graveyard of icebergs has become a playground for seals and birdlife who do not seem to mind awfully much.
It took about five hours to travel back to Reykjavik, where we then headed north, this time towards the West Fjords. In this region, the land itself changed from a place of geological upheaval, to a gnarled arm of ancient valleys and inlets. Again, the drive was a veritable treat. One minute, we would enjoy the sight of coastlines of golden sands meeting icy blue water, the next, we were high in the clouds, straddling sharp and craggy cliffs. Hands gripping the wheel tightly, adrenaline coursed through my veins as we could easily stare down hundreds of meters to the sea below weaving along the tight gravel roads which climbed the faces of these mountains.
We arrived at long last to a sheltered beach campsite. Few others had ventured here and the place felt a lot more empty and lonesome than our time at Skógafoss, though this solitude allowed us a time of peace and tranquility listening to the wind and the caws of seabirds soaring high in the air.
Our sojourn this far north was not without its goal, however. We had driven this far for a singular purpose. My companion had heard word that a strange creature inhabited an area as secluded as it was treacherous to venture to. The next morning we rose early to catch a glimpse of this elusive character. On the westernmost point of Iceland, climbing high into the seaside cliffs, we wriggled on our bellies, poking our heads out over the sheer cliffs. Sitting cheerfully on an outcrop, just out of reach sat the plump, rotund figure of a puffin. Either he was used to seeing beings like us poke their noses over his eaves, or he was as surprised as us to have such an encounter, but he sat quite still, kindly allowing us to take a few pictures of his majesty. Once or twice he flew off in search of snacks, only to return minutes later, plopping himself back on his rock to rest. We felt incredibly blessed to bear witness to such a beautiful creature. My companion squealed in awe all the way back to the car.
Our time in Iceland had sadly come to an end, and as we journeyed back to Reykjavik to return our noble Henry back to his home, we reflected on the wondrous journey we could scarce believe ourselves. It was hard to believe that what we had seen – the tumultuous chaotic churning of the earth in the center of the island, the humbling power of the glaciers in an eternal cycle of life and death, and the soaring cliffs of the West Fjords – was not a dream. And as we boarded our vessel, peering out of the portholes as we took off into the clouds, we took one more look back, lamenting the fact we had to leave, but elated that we were lucky enough to have experienced the unbound beauty of such a place.
Written by Thomas Lazarides. Photos by Melanie McGrath.
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