Travel

Amid the violent geology of Iceland, with its volcanoes and hot geysers it is the stillness that lingers in the memory. By Josephine Rowe.

Finding solace amid Iceland’s tourism boom

The remote Hrunalaug thermal pool, on the outskirts of Flúðir village, Iceland.
Credit: JOSEPHINE ROWE

Mid-July in Iceland, the days are 21 hours long. We stretch them as far as we’re able, across the usual boundaries of sleep. Even in the three sunless hours, it never grows truly dark, but periodically a Skyr-thick fog rolls in to vanish all but the recurring metre of highway, as though we are in perpetual danger of overscrolling the edge of the imagined world. Re-emerging brings a sequence of landscapes continuously revised by earthquakes, volcanic eruptions and consequential flooding glacial melts. The effect of all this upheaval is sometimes contradictory, violence smoothing the edges of things – the passage of lava depicted in the mountains’ gentle contours; beaches of black volcanic sand stretching out from the feet of high cliffs, which not so long ago would have dropped sheer to sea.

Iceland is Europe’s youngest landmass but often feels like the most ancient place on Earth. Perhaps this sense is owing to the raw geology – being more alive to the tectonic goings-on that elsewhere lie hidden. Here, they are unavoidable: the backbone of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is laid open in Thingvellir national park, showing the gradual drifting apart of the Eurasian and North American plates.

Rift is the standard – even the beds here have fault lines; two singles pushed together and retaining their separate covers.

Driving east to south to south-west to a failed attempt at north (no four-wheel-drive) to east again to north to north-west et cetera, the journey is intermittently soundtracked by Colin Stetson’s reimagining of Górecki’s Sorrowful Songs, and The Drones’ Feelin Kinda Free – both eerily apt when comprehending, or attempting to comprehend, the swift recession of glaciers. As a friend put it recently, “glacial pace” can no longer mean what it once did; the past half-century has inverted the definition to “exponentially quickening retreat”.

Amid topography so frequently rearranged by volcanic and seismic disturbance, it becomes difficult to anticipate what preferences one interruption above the next, what separates major tourist attractions from their less-toured cousins. Perhaps answers are to be found in the guidebooks I neglected to read. Hiking to what seems an adequately humbling volcanic crater, we encounter no one except sheep and whimbrels, or what I believe to be whimbrels, during the leisurely two-hour traipse. Elsewhere, nature is presented in partial captivity, penned by chains and boardwalks and gift shops. Warning signs, should people be tempted to interact with it, in one sense or another. Several hundred visitors are scalded annually at the hyperactive Strokkur geyser.

Last year, a Danish-Chilean artist was charged with vandalism after pouring red dye into Strokkur, temporarily colouring its spume a vivid candy pink. “If I love a woman, I give her a diamond ring. That’s why I decorate nature – because I love it,” said Marco Evaristti.

In full view of the highway, an RV driver tips a chemical toilet directly into a fjord, his small son pinwheeling his arms to wave away the smell.

In recent years, tourist numbers have soared to more than three times that of the population. Most come in pursuit of Iceland’s sparsely populated, barely trammelled natural beauty, which inevitably is becoming oft-trammelled, with the most popular destinations being worn of some of their lustre. Is a place altered simply through our observation of it? The answer in this instance is, unfortunately, yes, entreating a lighter tread, and at times a lighter fork. There’s little sign of whale meat being offered outside the chalkboard tasting menus along tourist drags, where minke might be paired with “A Bite of Puffin”, the when-in-Reykjavík attitude prompting many campaigns and petitions. Portraits of Icelanders holding placards: “I’m Icelandic. I Don’t Eat Whale.”

The swell of the past decade is owing to many factors, but visitors have more than doubled since the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull – the volcano responsible for causing the biggest disruption to international air travel since World War II. In spite of widescale disgruntlement, Eyjafjallajökull became an unlikely advertisement for Iceland’s breathtaking volatility. An unlikely boon in the wake of the global financial crisis and Iceland’s catastrophic crash. The eruption piqued international curiosity, sparking travel articles in the vein of “Where Satan Goes Backpacking”, riffing on an association between Iceland and the underworld that has stood for centuries. Mount Hekla, a far more notorious player in Icelandic volcanology and widely predicted to erupt at any moment, was referred to in the Middle Ages as the “Gateway to Hell”, and was name-checked by William Blake in the poem “To Winter” in which the titular monster “is driven yelling to his caves beneath Mount Hecla”.

The land around Mývatn (“Lake of the Midges” – it delivers as promised) is likewise cinematographically Hadean, vapour rising from the many small maws pitted throughout the expansive lava fields. We camp in walking distance of the historically popular, now insanely Game-of-Thrones famous Grjótagjá, a small lava cave housing a thermal pool. In recent decades, volcanic activity has pushed waters in Grjótagjá to scalding point, but neighbouring Stóragjá sits around that of hot-hot bath.

An 11pm visit finds Stóragjá fleetingly empty, but a few moments later a trio of Swiss appear at the mouth of the cave, all three in swimwear.

“Come on in,” I call up reassuringly, as though the cave is a) home and b) definitely safe.

A bikini-clad girl ducks her head in gingerly, then clambers over the rocks, deeper into the grotto, dipping her toes into the water, declaring it perfect. Her friends at the entrance rummage in backpacks. One holds up a large vacuum-packed slab of something.

“Take a look at this steak we got at the supermarket!”

It’s a cut the size of an atlas. I agree that, yes, that must have been some cow. I look from it to the steaming pool. “You’re planning to cook it boil-in-bag style?”

Offstage Swiss laughter. “No, no, of course not. We brought a grill.”

Into the cave comes the grill, the fuel, the barbecue utensils. Bread and beer. While part of me admires their chutzpah, the greater part of me isn’t terribly keen on hot-boxing in the smoke of their monster steak. The morning, then. We wish them a good dinner and retreat to camp.

In the morning, instead of steak smoke: a squadron of tour buses. Instead of three hungry Swiss backpackers: dozens of middle-aged men with competing telescopic lenses and elbowy wives, getting huffy with anyone who steps in the way of the camera, undoing the illusion of secrecy and discovery: You are ruining my photograph.

I miss the steak-toting Swiss. But while I can scoff at the entitled belligerence, I’m in no position to call out the stubborn devotion to a clear shot, having also waited, not quite patiently, to photograph the surrounds without human interference. To lie, basically, strategically placing the camera at a point where a procession of Gore-Tex-clad hikers might be neatly lost within a mountain’s green folds.

Horses, Alice Walker noted, make a landscape more beautiful. This is convenient in the case of Iceland, whose endearing ponies number 80,000.

People, however – it depends on the people.

A different evening, following verbal directions through light drizzle, we reach a tiny thermal pool outside Flúðir, an hour from Reykjavík. The pool is more of a thermal pond, sheltered by the hillside, wildflowers sprouting from moss-furred walls. It would perhaps be overlooked if not for its corrugated tin change shed, the land enfolding it also, turf creeping over the patched roof. Inside, the warm spring runs along the middle of the hut’s stone floor, and the back is left open to a view of blurry hills and insouciant sheep. Rafters studded with old nails for bathers’ towels, a raw pine bench for backpacks and jackets. Someone keeps this, it occurs to me, someone cares for it. I’m put in mind of simple ritual, not so many worlds away from rooms in Japanese onsens.

The only other bathers are a Belgian family who speak in hushed, almost reverent murmurs, as though visiting a foreign church. Our limbs are faintly luminous beneath the water’s surface, taking on the blue of the long gloaming. Stillnesses such as these rarely feel like highlights in their moment. But such interludes gain form and density upon reflection, becoming more than the space between happenings, becoming the thing itself, dreamlike but more vivid for it.

At points we seven are silent enough to hear only the pips of birds, the drips from fingertips and elbows. A field mouse skittering between homes in the embankment. So many of the trip’s enduring treasures are auditory, ephemeral, barely postcard-worthy: waking to children playing games in a language I do not understand. The tent whipping all night like a sail at the foot of Hekla. An invisible bird whose flight makes the sound of a bullroarer, wings beating the air in a fierce purr. A haughty mob of Icelandic horses being mustered along a mountain track, their 200 hooves making a sound like applause, or waves clacking pebbles on a long stony shore, the quiet in their wake a richer, more resplendent one.

The only souvenir I wanted: a jar of black sand from the Reynisfjara beach. And even that came to seem far more than necessary.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 10, 2016 as "Tectonic ideal". Subscribe here.

Josephine Rowe
is the author of two short story collections and a novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal.

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