Freezing Iceland

To the ends of the earth with Nick Smith

PIC: Small icebergs or ‘bergy bits’ drifting in a lake in the Vatnajökull (literally ‘glacier of lakes’) icecap that covers almost a tenth of Iceland

With its glacial lakes, volcanic scenery and rugged ice-sculpted landscapes, Iceland is one of the wildest and most remote places on the planet and is literally like nowhere else on earth. Bay’s Nick Smith packs his notebook and cameras and heads deep into the north Atlantic.

Aerial shot of a glacier in the Vatnajökull icecap, criss-crossed with deep crevasses, deep cracks in the ice that are lethal to explorers

I apologise in advance to the good people of Iceland, because I don’t suppose that there are many travellers that will come away from that North Atlantic isle with anything other than the feeling that something very bizarre has just happened to them. But as I sat at the lobby bar of one of the swankiest hotels on the island at a table next to Clint Eastwood the weirdness seemed to be getting out of hand. This was at the end of an adventure in which I’d eaten pickled shark sloshed down with a type of local schnapps called ‘Black Death’, spent the afternoon swimming in a geothermal pool in the shadow of the Svartsengi power station and had driven a skidoo across the Vatnajökull ice cap. This was where, after getting out of a light aircraft that had chugged over the picturesque icescape of Iceland’s southern coast, I’d been met by the mother of the then Chelsea footballer Eidur Gudjohnsen, who took me on a ‘glacier safari’ in a mammoth all-terrain vehicle with the polar explorer Tom Avery. All this, coupled with an evening of drinking free sponsored vodka in an ice cave masquerading as a trendy bar, listening to Icelandic songstress Björk warbling in the background, which was not quite as unpleasant as it sounds once you got used to it.

Top: Headlights of skidoo snowmobiles as they thunder along on the glacier. Not very environmentally friendly, I’m afraid Bottom: A crevasse field at the edge of a glacier. Like virtually everything else in Iceland, it is covered in a layer of black volcanic dust

A massive all-terrain vehicle (ATV) used for ‘glacier safaris’ this one driven by a Chelsea FC superstar’s mother

Nick and Tom Avery (right) posing in suspiciously new clothes

It was the great 20th century poet W.H. Auden who described Iceland as for ‘the tough’ and ‘those with special tastes,’ and so when the invitation came to travel to the Nordic isle to meet up with Tom Avery to photograph him doing explorer-type things, I examined it with mixed emotions. On the one hand here was the opportunity to tread in the footsteps of the late great poet who had famously explored Iceland in the 1930s with his friend the Irish poet Louis MacNeice (as described in their entertaining Letters from Iceland), while on the other, knowing Tom as I did, there would probably be quite a lot of rope-dangling over crevasses in sub-zero temperatures. His endurance adventures in the Arctic, Antarctic and Greenland were the stuff of legend. In the past I’d reviewed his books – Pole Dance and To the End of the Earth – and from what I’d read, he appeared to me to be one of those people that can legitimately claim to have ‘danger’ as his middle name. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been too worried about what lay ahead though, because our trip to Iceland turned out to be an easy-going publicity photocall for an outdoor clothing manufacturer (named after a kingdom of horsemen in The Lord of the Rings), in which the stringent requirements of the company’s wardrobe department outweighed anything else. While Tom spent the best part of his time changing into yet another pristine set of virtually identical clothes for yet another shoot in front of yet another virtually identical glacier or waterfall, I just kept snapping away trying to stay warm in the weak sunlight. Although I can’t remember why, I had decided to take an old-fashioned film camera with me for the trip: a decision I instantly regretted as I fiddled away reloading film cartridges in the icy winds, my fingers stiff like frozen carrots.

Below the snowline Iceland’s scenery is a sombre mixture of greys and dark green, with stunning mountain ranges. Note: Most photos in the article were shot on old-fashioned 35mm film

I knew I was in for a strange time in Iceland – the name incidentally means ‘island,’ not ‘land of ice’ – the minute I got off the plane at Keflavik International airport. This was largely because I was greeted in the customs area by a loud chorus of barking dogs. I’d apparently arrived at the same time as the contestants for one of the country’s three annual international canine shows, who were celebrating their landing with deafening gusto. Relieved to step out into the kind of fresh air that you only get on an island in the middle of nowhere, I hailed a cab. During our drive eastwards along the southern reaches of Faxaflói Bay for the hour or so that it took me to get to Reykjavik, the cabbie pointed out seals lying on distinctive black beaches created by a pulverised volcanic glass called obsidian. He also pointed out a film location unit camped out in the hills, with dozens of trucks and hundreds of people in black jackets and boom mics swarming around looking very important. All the while, we listened to bleak angular electronic music coming from the car’s hi-fi system, which Kristján assured me was the, “authentic sound of Iceland.” Looking at the black, lunar grey and dark green desolation of the surrounding coastline, I could understand how such music could germinate from the landscape, especially when composed by over-achieving undergraduate goths. And yet I also found it hard to like; and when I asked Kristján what he thought of it, he assured me that it was terrible. “But I like to play it to tourists who come from Britain so that they can really feel that they’ve arrived here.” What music did Kristján like? “Björk, of course. Everyone here loves her. She is Iceland’s best singer.”

If you go to Iceland at the right time of year you can also see the Northern Lights (pic: NASA)

Left: The Sun Voyager sculpture inagurated in 1986 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the city of Reykjavik Right: A typical rural parish church, just outside the capital

Reykjavik is a wonderful city, the world’s northern-most capital, and although not quite in the Arctic Circle (although parts of Iceland are), still far enough north to experience near 24-hour sunlight. So, you still get a pretty decent ‘midnight sun’, especially in the days around the Sumarsólstöður or Summer Solstice, meaning that literally any time of day is a good time to explore the city. And it’s just as well, because all the reports you read in the newspapers about Reykjavik being an eye-wateringly expensive place for an evening out, I can confirm, are one hundred percent true. Alcoholic drinks are prohibitively expensive to the British budget, which goes some way to explaining why first, I could be seen wandering around the city in the wee hours of the morning stone cold sober win-dow shopping; and second, why I fell on the free ‘Black Death’ schnapps and sponsored vodka like a man emerging from months in the Kalahari Desert. And yet, the pleasant sunset that never really went away – the sun dips below the horizon for an hour or two, but the sky remains golden all the while – presented a perfect opportu-nity to visit some of the city’s land-marks, such as the extraordinary Hallgrímskirkja, the largest church in Iceland and one of the nation’s tallest buildings. Not far away is the well-named Sun Voyager sculp-ture by Jón Gunnar Árnason, literally a ‘dreamboat’ intended to convey the promise of undiscovered territory, hope, progress and freedom. Walking further afield, it’s not far to the fringes of the city – Reykjavik is only half the size of Swansea – where you’ll see small-er parish churches, wild horses on moors and roads that thread into the landscapes of the Sagas of the Icelanders, which, among other things, tell the tale of Grettir, the Icelandic equivalent of Robin Hood. For the whole of my trip I kept in my pocket a copy of my old Penguin Classic edition of Hrafnkel’s Saga and Other Stories, written by monks in the 13th century, that make up much of the early folk-lore of the island and which are still eagerly read today.

The magnificent 20th century Hallgrímskirkja in Reykjavik, inspired by the natural ice structures and mountains of the island

Clockwise from left: A rickety old boardwalk threads it’s way alongside part of the ‘thermal river’ at Reykjadular Hot Springs, one of the many natural sources of hot water in Iceland / A hole from which boiling mud blasts out from time to time / The sign is slightly unnessary: when you’re there it’s pretty obvious that you don’t want to get any of this stuff on you

The phone rings in my hotel room and it’s Kristján wondering if I need to be taken anywhere in his minicab. Since there is no official photography on the schedule for the day, we agree that it’s time to go exploring along the south coast, starting with a visit to the Reykjadalur Hot Springs ‘thermal river’, the main attraction of which is the bubbling mud. In terms of what we may have grown accustomed to in the digital age of entertain-ment, the idea of watching mud boil may sound just a tad lame. And yet I can reassure anyone who even remotely hankers for the simple pleasures of life, there is nothing like it: you park the car, put on a polythene rain poncho and amble down a rickety old boardwalk, watching steam rising from the hot springs, listening to the vaguely disturbing sound of mud gurgling, all the while choking on comically disagreeable sulphur emissions. But, as hypnotising as the pleasure of watching mud boil might be, all too soon it’s time to head back to the car and off to do some glacial lake sailing, an experience that will take me in and out of myriad small icebergs that provide endless photographic inspiration. As we head around one of the larger bergs, we bump into another tour boat and I can see an on-duty Tom Avery, clad head to foot in sponsor logos, standing at the prow entertaining a cohort of glacier tourists, daring one of them to be the first to try the pickled shark meat. “You eat it first, Tom,”

Under cloud the Vatnajökull icecap can be a dramatic, freezing cold and forbidding place. Here a glacier is breaking up into the lake

I shout from my boat and everyone looks at me. “Don’t eat it until he’s had some,” I continue. An American yells in my direction: “what does it taste like?” I point to Kristján and bellow: “this man is from Iceland. Kristján: would you give it to your children?” He makes the sign of the cross on his chest. “But I will have,” says Kristján, “some ‘Black Death’ if there is any left.”

As the boats separate in the ice lagoon, we set sail for the shore, threading our way through the ‘bergy bits’ as the cold starts to get into our bones. By the time we’ve finished speed-ing across the local glacier on skidoos, we’re so cold we can barely speak, and nothing has ever tasted better than the hot chocolate Kristján produces from a flask in his minicab. For-getting that it never gets dark this time of year, I assume we’re going to head back to Reykjavik. But instead we turn south-west along the coast road to the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa. Located in a lava field near Grindavík, in the foothills of Mount Þorbjörn quite close to the airport, the Blue Lagoon is one of those places that always appears in those tedious ‘bucket list’ books about places that you must go to before you die. I’ve seen the pictures in travel magazines so frequently over the years that I have quite frankly lost interest in the mildly dis-tracting juxtaposition of people enjoying swimming in a hot pool closely proximate to the industrial skyline of a geo-thermal power station. I’ve often thought to myself, quite impatiently, what whimsey it is that on an island where the bulk of its hot water is supplied by the Svartsengi geothermal field, people should enjoy swimming in it, rather than in the adjacent and freezing cold North Atlantic Ocean. But on seeing it for myself – which, after all, must be the main point of travel in the first place – the scales fell from my eyes, along with the cynicism, scepticism and the sarcasm. My mind, broadened by travel, soaked up one of the most intriguing sights I’ve ever seen for all my wanderings across six continents over the past three decades: which is saying something in a land where everything is extraordinary.

Above left: One of the compensations of living on a volcanic island is that there is plenty of hot water to hand all the time. So much so that you can go swimming in it, while the Svartsengi power station in the background provides central heating for all. Right: Only on Iceland could a power station be a tourist attraction

Handing back our towels to the attendant we decide to head back to town to catch up with Tom, who had invited us to a champagne reception at the hotel. I’m not quite sure how, but I find myself sitting at a table next to Clint Eastwood, who is on location directing the movie Flags of Our Fathers. I briefly toy with the idea of going up to Clint and inviting him to ‘go ahead, make my day.’ But I let that one go, thinking that it might, just might, not be such a novelty for him as it would be for me.

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