|3D map showing glacial zones in Iceland|
Emerging from the ocean depths a mere 16 million years ago, Iceland is still a living, constantly changing landscape, with more than 300 volcanoes, 30 of them active.
Its location astride the mid-Atlantic ridge, on the edge of two tectonic plates, gives rise to frequent tremors and makes it less than hospitable for human habitation. Rarely do you find shrubs or trees growing beyond 5 feet, except in urban centers where buildings offer young trees a measure of protection from strong icy winds.
|Grass struggling to green on old lava fields in the Þingvellir National Park|
While whales, seals, and other marine creatures have inhabited the cold waters of the northernmost latitudes for millennia, the only indigenous land animals found in Iceland are the Arctic fox and reindeer, although Polar bears from Greenland have been known to visit, hitching a ride on ice floes. All other species were imported by early settlers beginning in the 9th century CE. The good news is, no biting insects or poisonous snakes can survive Iceland’s near arctic winters - although huge swarms of harmless midges occasionally darken the air in some areas.
|Snowcapped moraine hills and glacial ponds|
Given the harsh conditions, it is indeed a wonder that a handful of hardy humans have managed to gain a permanent foothold on this island nearly the size of Great Britain. The population in January 2015 stands at 330,000 – with 260,000 concentrated in and around Reykjavik, the capital, which makes it the most thinly inhabited country in Europe. Yet the United Nation’s 2013 Human Development Index listed Iceland as the 13th most developed nation in the world.
Apart from an unlimited supply of the purest water found anywhere on the planet - icy cold aboveground and boiling hot beneath - the first settlers found resources extremely scarce and confined to specific areas. They shortsightedly wasted no time decimating whatever forest once existed, accelerating soil erosion and reducing arable land to a bare minimum. However, the abundant waters also provided a healthy supply of fish. Norsemen arrived in the middle of the 9th century with horses, cattle and sheep, plus a few basic tools. Driftwood and ship wreckage salvaged from treacherous stretches of the coastline were highly prized and carefully hoarded.
Although the Norwegians claim to be the first settlers (followed by Danes and Swedes), the remains of a few cabins dating back at least a century earlier were subsequently discovered. Nobody knows who built these cabins, though some believe they may have been Scottish or Irish mystics seeking refuge from the Church’s relentless persecution.
A Magickal Mystery Gourmet Tour
|Aesthetic lines of the airport terminal|
We ordered a ham and cheese baguette and were delighted to find it still hot from the oven, entirely flavorful and wholesome. It was evident that those responsible for feeding the passengers’ stomachs and souls on Icelandic Air were empathetic human beings, not cost-cutting, time-serving corporate minions.
The next surprise was the pinewood flooring and human-scale layout of the airport terminal which gave one the impression of arriving at somebody’s home, rather than some impersonal transport hub. Imagine my joy when I suddenly found myself at the exit, having encountered no immigration or customs check. This was the first time I have ever arrived in a country seemingly devoid of distrust and bureaucratic paranoia. There were no security personnel or CCTVs in sight.
|Interior of the Dome at The Pearl|
Ragna Bachmann Egilsdóttir was assigned as our personal guide in Iceland. We couldn’t have asked for a more knowledgeable and passionate person to facilitate a condensed but intimate glimpse into the Icelandic mythos. A 34th generation descendant of the first wave of Viking settlers, Ragna has spent 25 years of her colorful life living and working abroad; indeed, a book has been written about her adventures (which regrettably we didn’t have the opportunity to investigate). Apart from that she happens to be natural-born mystic, folklorist, storyteller, ascensionist and healer whose profound love of her homeland is matched only by her interest in whatever goes on beyond the visible. For me it felt like a reunion of old souls right from the start.
|Ragna Bachmann Egilsdóttir, |
magickal tour guide & storyteller
On our second day in Iceland, Ragna presented me with two paperbacks – one on the Sagas and Myths of the Northmen and the other an English translation of Voluspa (The Prophecy of the Vikings). I reciprocated by giving her a copy of my book, Tanah Tujuh ~ Close Encounters with the Temuan Mythos.
|Captain Palli taking a break|
Where Fire Meets Ice
Driving across mile after mile of lava fields in South Iceland we learn that a catastrophic volcanic eruption in June 1783 went on for more than eight months and left a whole portion of the island (an area roughly the size of Singapore) uninhabitable. For many years afterwards the air was murky with ash and nothing would grow in the sunless haze. A quarter of the population died of starvation and many Icelanders migrated to Canada, Denmark, Germany, wherever work could be found. The eruption affected most of North Europe as sulphur dioxide mixed with rainfall to poison crops and choke lungs (in Britain, an estimated 20,000 died in the summer of 1783 from the toxic atmosphere).
|Driving across the vast tundra of North Iceland|
|Brittle, jagged lava rockpile|
The lava fields of Eldhraun are possibly the most desolate landscape I have yet to experience. Jagged and brittle piles of volcanic rock dot the plains as far as the eye can see, the monotony occasionally broken by smoky plumes where geothermal springs have broken through. It is not a terrain one can easily traverse on foot or even on horseback.
Occasionally a few barren hills come into view, the taller ones still capped with ice even in the late spring. They are mostly moraine deposited by long forgotten glaciers - an accumulation of crumbly, gravelly scree virtually impossible to climb. Indeed, a landscape unfriendly to creatures as fragile as humans – but certainly not so to elemental beings and extradimensional denizens of Tolkienish folklore like trolls, ogres, elves, fairies, goblins, gnomes, dwarves, and undines.
|Dimmuborgir (Dark Castles) where a family of trolls became petrified when they stayed out till dawn|
|100-degree Celsius hotsprings atop a hillock|
Temperature differences between outdoors and indoors in Iceland are extreme. From below zero, you step into rooms warm enough to undress in.
|Farmer's bedroom warmed by body heat|
|Folk museum curator Brooks Walker with|
handwoven horsehair ropes
Every part of the whale was recycled, especially the vertebrae, which were converted into large food containers. Smaller bones from whales and other animals were used as hammers, pounders, grinders, or turned into ornaments. Smaller bones from sheep and pigs were given to children as toys.
At the Folk Museum outside the village of Skỏgar we found a special display of finely crafted tools hand-made by a farmer turned smithy named Sigurjỏn Magnủsson (1889-1969) – a shining example of Icelandic ingenuity, skill and resourcefulness.
Also on display was an exquisitely tailored black gown believed to have been sewn by elves and presented to a human female who helped midwife a difficult birth in the fairy realm.
Rolling With The Punches
|Geothermal pool bubbling with smelly sulphurous mud (where the Devil once pissed, according to folklore)|
|The famous Strokkur geyser erupts every 5-7 minutes|
We arrived in Iceland five days after the devastating earthquakes that crippled Nepal and within 24 hours of setting foot in Reykjavik I got wind of some volcanic activity in the southwest. Our guide expressed a degree of anxiety but I felt certain nothing terrible would happen. When the volcano Eyjafjallajökull erupted in April 2010, the massive fallout of ash disrupted air travel in Northern Europe for weeks. More recently, Bárðarbunga erupted on 17 August 2014 and only quietened down on 27 February 2015. This time there was no problem with volcanic ash, but the massive lava flows released sulphur dioxide fumes which made breathing hazardous in many areas.
Throughout our brief sojourn in Iceland, the skies were mostly a brilliant blue, especially as we headed farther north. Cirrus clouds cavorted in the high winds, forming angels and dragons and mythical creatures: to me, it was a clear sign that Iceland was pleased to reveal her otherworldly beauty and her abiding mysteries to appreciative souls. Within a single week we passed through so many unique, gobsmackingly spectacular landscapes found nowhere else on earth, and saw the most awe-inspiring waterfalls and rivers – but none warm enough to play in comfortably.
“Three minutes,” Ragna solemnly informed us, “that’s how long you can stay alive if you fall into these icy waters, so please don’t try it!”
On the 1st of May, a nation-wide strike began with workers demanding a more reasonable share of the economic pie. The elite had recently given themselves a 30% pay hike and were offering less than 3% to the rest.
|Magnús Tómasson's "Monument to the Unknown Bureaucrat" (basalt on bronze, 1994)|
|500 copies of the first Icelandic Bible were printed in 1584|
|Jónas Hallgrímsson, Icelandic intellectual |
& contributor to the Fjölnir, a journal that
inspired the Independence movement
The building where Ronald Reagan met Mikhail Gorbachev in 1986 to discuss nuclear disarmament and an end to the Cold War is now a tourist attraction. This event put Reykjavik on the world map as thousands of reporters gathered there to document the historic dẻtente between the Capitalist and Communist blocs.
|Icelandic twins in Húsavík|
|Ragna with her Glacier Queen Trophy|
Since the banking collapse of 2008 - which led to a change of government and the jailing of a few bankers - Iceland has managed to pull itself up by its own bootstraps, turning to tourism as a new source of revenue. The climate may be harsh and inhospitable, but the warmth and friendliness of every Icelander I encountered more than made up for it.
|Captain Palli steady at the wheel while Ragna regales us with troll tales|
I dedicate this account to Ragna and Palli, our wonderful guide and driver, who went beyond the call of duty to make us feel welcome and loved. Thanks also go to Karen Sin of the Universal Travel Corporation in Singapore who came along to ensure that everything went smoothly; and, of course, to my adorable travel companion, Adeline “Kimchi” Kang who turned whimsical fantasy into a memorable reality for me.
First posted 17 May 2015. Text & photos © Antares 2015