I CELAND: FROZEN WONDER
A circumnavigation of Iceland reveals tales of trolls and elves
It must be the elves, I think, as I stumble towards Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, warding off a blizzard of beating wings and stabbing beaks. The little demons have it in for me this morning; a lost lens cap and a yoghurt disaster at breakfast are surely more than a coincidence. Now it seems the elves have sent their winged emissaries in the form of this squadron of Arctic terns, to teach me a lesson. Logic, of course, suggests the notoriously feisty birds are simply driving an intruder from their breeding colony. Yet Iceland defies logic. This is a land that can belch out enough ash to shut down Europe’s air space overnight. Small wonder, perhaps, that its more credulous inhabitants still fear malign powers. The one thing you must never do, apparently, is upset an elf.
Terns are still swooping overhead as our cruise ship’s amphibious Zodiac landing craft noses into the lagoon. This frozen wonderland of sculpted icebergs was born just 80 years ago, when Vatnajokull glacier, Europe’s largest, began its retreat. Inland, we see the glacier’s fissured snout looming up into a duvet of cloud. The ice at its centre may be an impregnable 1000m thick, but its slow demise lies around us like a mini-Antarctica. “This water is two degrees Celsius,” says guide Ruiz Oliver. “You can survive for 10 minutes, so if you want to swim, please do it for only nine.” He tells us more about the ice and how the vivid blues reveal water inside and how the dirtier-looking slabs are dusted with volcanic ash. Air bubbles trapped inside some chunks have taught scientists about air pollution 1000 years ago. The lagoon visit marks day eight of our Iceland Circumnavigation cruise aboard Ocean Diamond, an ice-strengthened ship chartered for the first time this northern summer by Iceland ProTravel. With 130 passengers aboard, the ship is threequarters full. The inaugural voyage, a few weeks earlier, was a great success, so anticipation runs high.
I suspected there might be surprises in store back in Reykjavik on day one, when expedition leader Orvar Mar Kistinsson welcomed us aboard in a soaring baritone. One of three opera singers on the team, he closed our briefing with an Icelandic aria. “We’re having a party and I’ll be first to dance,” was its message in translation.
Our cruise has followed a clockwise circuit, sailing overnight then docking each morning for shore excursions. First port of call was the Snaefellsnes Peninsula, on the west coast, where a caterpillar-track Snowcat hauled us up the Snaefellsjokull glacier volcano for jaw-dropping views. The next day we rounded a fractured coastline of cliffs, islets and waterfalls to enter the tiny fishing harbour of Ísafjordur, at the heart of the Western Fjords.
At the Sigurdsson museum, overlooking Eagle Fjord, we learnt all about Jon Sigurdsson, Iceland’s founding father, and the blood-soaked clan warfare that preceded him. On this cruise we also learn how Iceland’s history is shaped as much by volcanoes as politics. In the “haze famine” of 1783, ash blocked out the sun for so long the crops failed, 70 per cent of livestock died and 10,000 people, 20 per cent of the population, perished. What we don’t learn in museums, we pick up on our tour-bus commentary. Excursion guide Hermann is an authority on everything from elves and Icelandic horses (never call them ponies) to the production of geothermal power, at which Iceland excels. And when I gaze out of the window, snowy peaks and sparkling fjords dazzle with the improbable beauty of a digitally enhanced backdrop.
On board Ocean Diamond I find it equally hard to
drag myself from the view, especially as the midnight sun gives little incentive for bed. With tranquil seas and whales to be spotted, deck seems the place to be. Even late into the evening, the glorious light draws me back outside. Indeed, our most memorable meal is a barbecue on deck with kittiwakes wheeling overhead.
Iceland’s north coast brings new landscapes and a taste of small-town Iceland. At Siglufjordur we visit a herring museum; a herring “gold rush” had transformed the fortunes of this region until 1969, when the fish failed to show up. From the northern capital of Akureyri we explore the volcanic moonscape around Lake Myvatn.
There are bubbling mud-pools, sulphurous geysers and twisted lava formations that loom over the trail like petrified trolls (and, according to legend, they petrified trolls). At Myvatn we join a throng of locals to steam gently in the warm, milky waters of a geothermal lagoon. Afterwards, we gawp at the rather colder waters of Godafoss waterfall and visit the nearby plate boundary, where a long, narrow chasm reveals the dividing point between the American and European continental plates, each jutting up like broken pieces of toast. For bird lovers, Lake Myvatn brings a pageant of northern waterfowl, from gaudy harlequin ducks to golden-tufted Slavonian grebes. The avian agenda intensifies the next day when we moor in Skjalfandi Bay and zip by Zodiac to the delightful Flatey Island where puffins line the cliffs, rednecked phalaropes pirouette in the shallows and ptarmigans strut along the low roof of the schoolhouse.
But the birds are trumped that afternoon as Akureyri Harbour brings humpbacks spouting along the horizon. Now, even taller spouts lead us to blue whales, the biggest of all. We nudge slowly towards the leviathans as they dive for krill in the bay.
And so we round the east of Iceland, stopping at Seydisfjordur, where some of us attempt to burn off the ship’s immense breakfast with a hike into the hills before hitting the south coast, where the Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon brings us those icebergs and Arctic terns. By now the weather is turning; the dazzling Arctic sunlight replaced by a more brooding cloudscape. And this certainly captures the mood when we reach Heimaey on the Westman Islands, our final stop. “In the Westman Islands we talk a lot about before and after,” says guide Gulli Arason. At 2am on January 23, 1973, he explains, this fishing port was awoken from its slumber by the thunderous pyrotechnics of a volcanic eruption. Within five hours the entire population was being evacuated to Reykjavik on trawlers. When the lava finally stopped flowing, the island was 20 per cent bigger and the harbour entrance half its former width. Today the town is rebuilt. If the islanders had done something to offend them, it seemed that the two parties have since made up. I wonder whether that same spirit of reconciliation will extend to me.
The answer, I like to think, comes on deck on the final evening as we sail westward to Reykjavik. The clouds clear for a farewell panorama, the sun nudges the horizon, the sea is a gleaming satin. The stage seems set for something dramatic, which duly arrives — a hydraulic puff, one tall dorsal fin, then a flotilla of black-and-white bodies arching from the water. Killer whales appear from nowhere and, three minutes later, are lost in our wake. A peace offering from the elves?
Jokulsarlon glacier lagoon, above; geothermal baths at Lake Myvatn, centre; and Ocean Diamond, top right