A cir­cum­nav­i­ga­tion of Ice­land re­veals tales of trolls and elves

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - Mike Unwin

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



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