Iceland: Land of fire
One volcano seethes and the world shudders, yet for Iceland it's just another day, writes Christine Salins.
The ground belches with bubbling mud and hissing steam vents as I tread carefully, one eye looking through my camera, the other focused squarely on my feet. You have to keep to the paths at the Geysir geothermal field. One wrong step and you could find yourself in hot water.
Suddenly there is rumbling, followed by a loud whoosh. One of the vents erupts, shooting boiling water into the air. This spectacular natural phenomenon has given its name to hot springs around the world and it serves as a constant reminder of nature's incredible force.
As air travel to Europe is restored after the recent volcanic eruption in Iceland and airlines and their passengers count the cost, Icelanders could be forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. The country's location on a fault line where two tectonic plates meet means geysers, volcanoes and earthquakes are to be reckoned with on a daily basis. Its pristine landscape makes Iceland one of the world's most exciting travel destinations, yet few Australians include it on their European itineraries.
When we arrive at the ultra-modern Keflavik airport, the customs officer asks us if we are from England. It's a cold winter's night and he is incredulous to learn we are from Australia. "Why are you coming here? Do you have family here?" He is so excited he waves us through without a baggage check.
We've had a good feeling about the place right from the start. After a nightmare experience with British Airways that left us stranded at Heathrow for nine hours, the friendly Icelandair crew is like a breath of fresh air. The in-flight magazine points to a sophisticated and cultured nation.
Our missed connection in London means we are arriving in an unfamiliar country after midnight with no one to meet us and no cash, so it's a relief to find the "flybus" meets all flights, regardless of how late, and there is an ATM that works just fine.
During the 45-minute drive from the airport to downtown Reykjavik, there's much excitement as we spot our first geyser. In the wee hours of the morning, the capital - home to just over half of Iceland's 320,000 people - is as quiet as a church mouse, blanketed in snow and beautifully illuminated.
It's 3am before our heads hit the pillow and we sleep like babies, easy when the sun doesn't rise till after 10. Even then it's a filtered light, fading gently from dark to light mid-morning and then back to dark by mid-afternoon. It's a good thing the country generates so much electricity from geothermal power because the lights need to be on for most of the day.
Iceland's location, where it is literally being forced up out of the ocean, gives it a unique and dramatic landscape. Our guide on Reykjavik Excursions' Geysir and Gullfoss tour tells us the country experiences an earthquake, or at least a minor shake, nearly every day. Volcanic eruptions are never far away.
Eighteen of its 130 or so volcanoes have erupted since the country was settled in AD874. In the 1960s, an entirely new island, Surtsey, was formed from a volcanic eruption, providing fodder for scientists researching the origins of life.
The Eyjafjallajokull volcano, the one that caused so much recent disruption, last erupted in the early 1800s, when it rumbled for more than a year.
Within minutes of leaving Reykjavik, the landscape is saturated with lava hills and craters, including the massive Kerio Crater formed 6500 years ago and now filled with 10-metre deep water. Astronauts were sent here to get a feel for what it would be like walking on the moon.
We pass a number of rocks painted with red and blue doors - home to elves, according to our guide, Jon. He tells a long, convoluted story about God, Adam and Eve and the elves but I struggle to get the gist of it and suspect I'd need a few stiff drinks to do so. "Only people with a second sight can see elves," he says. "We do have a high number of people in Iceland who can see them."
It's snowing heavily and the road is slippery, a collection of white crosses providing a note of caution and a protest about the state of the road. From October to April, everyone has to drive with spikes on their tyres. Our tour winds its way past hothouses growing fruit and vegetables. Luckily, there's no shortage of electricity for that, either.
A snowstorm creates an ethereal pink glow over a small white church, while horses huddle together in the snow. Nowhere are horses as beautiful as they are in Iceland: pure breed, disease-free and protected from the outside world. We see many on our way to Gullfoss, a spectacular waterfall that cascades into the mighty glacial Hvita River.
The power of nature is again apparent on the beaches around Vik, where volcanic activity has left a legacy of fine black sand against a backdrop of giant towers of basalt. I carelessly let the surf wash over my shoes but it's not as icy-cold as I expect, with the Gulf Stream moderating the temperature.
Iceland's number one attraction is the Blue Lagoon, a vast pool of geothermal seawater loaded with mineral salts, silica and algae - all good things for cleansing and rejuvenating the skin. It's surreal to enjoy a warm outdoor bath while snowflakes are falling around us.
It's still dark when we depart our hotel for the trip home. At the airport, we hear Morning Has Broken for the fourth time in four days. Perhaps the song takes on special relevance in a country where daylight struggles to arrive for much of the year. It strikes me that all we have seen is a monochrome landscape of jet black beaches, grey skies and pristine white snow. Yet it is so impossibly beautiful.
The writer travelled with the help of My Planet.
Qantas flies daily from Sydney to London, priced from $2391 return. See qantas.com.au. Icelandair flies daily from London to Reykjavik, priced from $350 return. See icelandair.com.
WHERE TO STAY
Fosshotel Baron, Baronsstigur 2-4, Reykjavik, is a comfortable, central, three-star hotel, from $191 a room. Phone +354 562 3204, see fosshotel.is.
Hilton Reykjavik Nordica, Sudurlandsbraut 2, Reykjavik, is rated four stars and has one of the country's finest restaurants, VOX. Priced from $115 a room. Phone +354 444 5000, see www1.hilton.com.
Reykjavik Excursions has a great selection of tours that can be booked on arrival. Phone +354 562 1011, see www.re.is.
My Planet-Bentours International can make all arrangements for travelling to and within Iceland. Phone 1800 221 712, see bentours.com.au.