A Postcard from Iceland

Iceland gets much of its heating from geothermal activity; this coupled with electricity is the basis for their energy supplies. Their utility bills are very cheap. At Akureyri, we saw the large metal pipe that runs uphill alongside the road. This pumps hot water into the houses for heating purposes. A pity I didn’t take a snapshot. I thought a pipe a boring thing to take a photo of but later realised that it was a good example of Icelandic life. While these cheap energy bills sound wonderful, let’s not forget they do have a cold climate for most of the year although it is far milder than many expect, but changes quickly. All four seasons can be experienced in one day (so not entirely unlike Britain). They also live with the threat of volcanic activity. At the time we were there, they were awaiting another ‘event’ anytime ‘soon’. During the summer, they have very long days, and during the winter very long nights. During our visit, the sun was setting after midnight and rising about three hours later.

The landscape is one of bleak but fascinating lava fields — there’s a reason many refer to it as a moonscape — and bright green verdant rolling hills up into the mountains. Just to make this clear: Iceland is green. Greenland is ice. Iceland is second in size to Britain as the largest island in Europe, situated roughly 235 miles off Scotland. The land area is approximately 40,000 square miles. Not all of their small off-shore islands are inhabited. The island of Surtsey appeared in 1963 owing to a volcanic eruption, which lasted four years. Largest of the glaciers, Vatnajokull, is eight times the size of Mount Etna in Sicily with ice half a mile thick in places. The coastline consists of numerous inlets and fjords.

There are no trees to speak of. The first settlers made the mistake of not realising their native species were very slow growing and they cut down all their forests. They are making headway into the replanting, but the trees are still young and small. There’s a saying in Iceland: if you get lost in an Icelandic forest, stand up.

Lava Landscapes

Reykjavik is the northernmost capital in the world, and the only capital city in Iceland, holding around one-third of the population of approximately 300,000. Everything in the city is modern — it’s the main centre of government, industry, culture and commerce. The oldest building (originally a storage shed) dates back to 1752. Most places of historic interest can be found in the ‘old’ sector, and the city is overlooked by Mount Esja.

We also visited nearby Halnarfjordur — a town situated on an ancient lava flow. Kleifarvatn Lake is one of Iceland’s deepest and is on the way to the Krysuvik geothermal fields. Here bubbling pools of water and mud, and jets of steam blip and hiss away from a red and grey landscape more suited to a science fiction setting. While visiting the site, the advice is stick to the paths. The ground can look solid where it is not and every year they have incidents of tourists not paying attention or thinking they can go where they like only to sink their feet into acid or boiling water over 200 degrees. This will mean the loss of skin and in some cases even amputation.

The Blue Lagoon is a famous natural hot pool situated on the Reykjanes peninsula near the village of Grindavik and can be visited both to view or to bathe in. We chose not to bathe, but the view of the surrounding lava fields and nearby geothermal power station adds to the feeling of this being an alien landscape. The waters bubble up from 5,000 feet below the earth’s surface with, it is said, excellent therapeutic benefits. The products made from the geothermal mud are extremely pricey. The water looks very pale blue, even blue-grey.

At the Viking World Museum (Vikingaheimar), you can stand in an authentic replica of a Viking ship, Islendingur. The exhibition has been produced with the co-operation from the Smithsonian.

Isofjordur (population 3000) situated in the Westfjords is the largest town of this remote and beautiful region. Indeed, it’s one of the most sparsely populated areas in Iceland with a total of inhabitants numbering under 10,000, and with less than 5% of cultivated land. The town sits on a curved inlet surrounded by towering mountains.

Isofjordur and Hesteyri

Although the Icelandic shrimp industry certainly began here, the fishing industry is in decline (one of the reason the village of Hesteyri, which we visited, became abandoned when the herring up and ‘moved’ as they tend to do). Historically the Westfjords are famous for their witch and wizard trials with the last wizard being burnt at the stake in 1656. It’s a great area in which to spot dolphins, terns and puffins among other wildlife.

Taking a boat from Isafjordur, we were ferried over to The Abandoned Village of Hesteyri, instantly falling in love with the peninsula that many mistake for an island. It is possible to get to Hesteyri by other means, but a boat is the easiest if one does not wish to hike. Back when Hesteyri was occupied a local said he did the hike from the nearest inhabitants in three hours. More recently some extremely fit hikers planned to break this record and took five hours to complete the same walk. The people who originally occupied the area were extremely hardy.

The people lived here without telephone, electricity or roads. They made the united decision to leave in the late 1940s, and the village has been abandoned since 1952. Life here was difficult. There was little to live on — some livestock the people brought with them, ‘sea cabbage’ (aka seaweed), and what little they managed to grow. However, there used to be a herring factory — today only the tower can be seen standing — but the herring has a habit of ‘moving house’. When the herring went away, so did the industry.

There is a cemetery on the headland with the last person to be buried here in 2006 — an original resident who loved it so much she wanted to return even in death. There are other stories like hers, including the one where a cow that was taken from there immediately stopped milking. It’s said the owner returned with the cow and even before reaching land, the cow jumped out of the boat, swam to shore, and immediately began milking again. Whether there’s any truth to the story, it’s easy to see how people could fall in love with the place. It’s simply beautiful, peaceful, and memorable. As our guide said, take a moment to enjoy the silence. Travellers stopping there today are guided by the descendants of the original inhabitants who still own the houses and end their visit with coffee and pancakes at the former doctor’s house. The sand here is black.

Akureyri is 272 miles from Reykjavik and is a thriving centre of commerce. It’s only 60 miles from the Arctic Circle, yet is surprisingly warm in summer and boasts much in the way of industry — a freezing plant and shipyards among others (and an airport landing strip) — with what some would claim a superior economy and sophistication in its selection of shopping, culture, entertainment and sporting facilities. It is here that a large silver pipe can be seen running along the side of the road — this pumps hot water into houses for heating.

Whales and Godafess Falls

Godafess waterfalls are approximately 31 miles from Akureyri. The ‘Falls of the Gods’ can best be described as a mini-Niagara in shape; although the volume of water cannot compete it still has to drop 30 feet and flows in such torrents to make a spectacular sight.

Husavik Harbour sits at the base and length of the pretty town and houses the award-winning Husavik Whale Centre. We often find many museums in Europe quite peculiar; however, this was educational and interesting. It’s also home to many whale skeletons obtained from washed-up and stranded whales who have died. We found these quite surprising — they were very ‘prehistoric’ in appearance, something we would not have discovered had we not visited.

We stopped for a meal in a local seafood restaurant here — just a white fish and rice dish that was delicious. Not sure what the fish was but we were being careful as we had been warned in Iceland they (rightly) waste nothing, so dishes with offal are not uncommon and even broiled puffin can be found on some menus.

The highlight of Husavik was Whale Watching. The area boasts a high chance of seeing whales with over half of the world’s thirty-six species to be found in Icelandic waters. On the day we went out, we were told we had a 98 or 99% chance. We witnessed the rare sight of breaching humpbacks. Then the most amazing OMG extremely rare moment of ‘follow that whale’ — yes, the ‘captain’ of the boat did as good shout we were going to follow that whale when he spotted the air spout from a distance and ‘went for it’ because what he had seen was a blue whale. We saw not one, but two blue whales that day — very uncommon. Though the true heart plummeting moment arrives when you realise how difficult this is to capture on film, no matter how good your camera.