A rock and a far place

Stay at a light­house in mys­ti­cal Ice­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Europe - JADE CON­ROY

As my part­ner and I sit on the black sands of Reyn­is­f­jara Beach, lis­ten­ing to our guide tell the tale of the Reynis­dran­gar rocks, a 20-strong Ja­panese pho­tog­ra­phy group wan­ders past, tak­ing pic­tures of the other-worldly basalt rock for­ma­tions, the oil slick-like pewter sea (and fi­nally us) with their tele­photo lenses. It is 9pm, and the sun still hangs high in the sky, cast­ing a golden haze over ev­ery­one. It is a sur­real scene. The rock for­ma­tions are (the story goes) trolls who waded out to sea to help a dis­tressed ship and were turned to stone when struck by the first rays of sun­light at dawn.

Le­gends such as these come up of­ten in Ice­land. The Sagas tell tales of not only the tri­als and tribu­la­tions of the first set­tler fam­i­lies but of elves, trolls, sor­cery and magic. They are Bi­ble-like in their rel­e­vance, used to ex­plain the coun­try’s dra­matic land­scapes; its glaciers, rivers and vol­ca­noes are wo­ven into folk­lore.

It seems fit­ting, then, that our home for the night is in the fairy­tale-like Dyrho­laey light­house. Dyrho­laey, or “door-hole is­land”, is so named be­cause of a huge arch of cooled lava that ex­tends into the sea un­der­neath the house. Placed on the edge of a promon­tory, it’s sur­rounded by nat­u­ral as­sets — the black beach to the east, the Vest­man­naey­jar Is­lands to the west and the Myrdal­sjokull Glacier in the north. Puffins fly around at dusk.

It’s the most south­ern point in Ice­land, and for us to be spend­ing the night here is a first. While the light­house is still fully func­tion­ing, it has never been in­hab­ited, and cer­tainly not on the radar of tourists. For just two months this year, Septem­ber and Oc­to­ber, it is be­ing trans­formed into bou­tique ac­com­mo­da­tion run by a ho­tel from the nearby town of Vik.

In Ice­land to preview what forth­com­ing guests can ex­pect to ex­pe­ri­ence, our three-day trip be­gins in Reyk­javik, where we take a he­li­copter flight, de­spite whip­ping Arc­tic winds. Up and away we climb, over the Lego-like houses of the low-rise cap­i­tal, all pri­mary colours lined in neat rows. Build­ings de­signed to re­sem­ble nat­u­ral forms stand out; we see the stepped frame of Hall­grim­skirkja, a jagged, con­crete church inspired by lava rock and dystopian in ap­pear­ance, and the new Harpa Con­cert Hall, with a fa­cade inspired by the crys­tallised basalt col­umns found in Ice­land.

We glide north­west, away from civil­i­sa­tion. Rust- coloured lava fields, still dusted with snow in spring, un­furl be­low and the all-white out­line of Vat­na­jokull Glacier is de­ci­pher­able in the dis­tance. I see the Ice­land of the big (and small) screen through my win­dow as our pi­lot tells us of the films and tele­vi­sion se­ries on which he has worked, fly­ing cam­era­men around for aerial shots: Game of Thrones, In­ter­stel­lar, Thor. We land in a crater, geo­ther­mal steam en­velop­ing our chop­per, and as we step out on to the lu­nar-like land the sul­phuric smell of bub­bling gey­sers is strong. This is the clos­est I’ve come to the un­in­hab­ited plains in the cen­tre of the coun­try. It is hard to com­pre­hend just how iso­lated we are.

Our sub­se­quent tour by land is sim­i­larly spec­tac­u­lar. We spend most of our time on Route 1, the sole ring road cir­cum­nav­i­gat­ing the coun­try, although we fo­cus on the Golden Cir­cle loop, where the coun­try’s moniker “land of fire and ice” is per­haps best il­lus­trated. We en­ter Thingvel­lir Na­tional Park, known not only for the Alth­ing, where par­lia­men­tary ses­sions were held un­til 1722, but as the site of the mid-At­lantic ridge, where the North Amer­i­can and Eurasian tec­tonic plates meet. Nowhere does the sense of Ice­land’s in­trin­si­cally con­nected history and na­ture be­come more ap­par­ent.

From there we veer south, to­wards the coast, see­ing mod­ernist churches sur­rounded by rolling hills, the farm that sig­nalled the alert when the Ey­jaf­jal­la­jokull vol­cano

Dyrho­laey light­house stands on a rocky head­land; Sel­ja­lands­foss wa­ter­fall, above left; the light­house, above right

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