Into the (Icelandic) Wild

My thoughts for our entire time in Iceland can be summarized into one sentence… “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” Yeah, I know that doesn’t make it sound like there’s much going on in my mind, but oh well. I could NOT get over the landscape. Everything looked like nothing I had ever seen before and was completely baffling to me.

Mike on the moon

Many things seem to defy logic. When Mike and I were trying to put together plans for our first day (okay, to be fair, any credit for the miniscule amount of planning that happened belongs to Mike), we looked at going to the Blue Lagoon. If you’ve ever seen the pictures of people in massive hot springs with seemingly unnatural blue-green water, that’s probably where they were. So the question is, “Hmm. Do you want to put on a bathing suit and go outside in this place where a winter coat is much more appropriate? Don’t worry, the water is warm.” Right but then there’s the air. Which is NOT warm. At all. “Want to go sit in some lava-heated water?” LAVA?? Does that really sound wise?

We ultimately decided to skip it (not because of any of my questions) because it’s not cheap (nearly $100 each) and neither of us had any strong feelings about going. The Blue Lagoon takes the output water from a nearby geothermal power plant and feeds it into a man-made pool. I was more interested in hunting down some natural hot springs (because going in unregulated lava-heated water sounds like a much better idea, doesn’t it?). Fun facts though: the mineral-rich water at the Blue Lagoon is thought to help with certain skin conditions like psoriasis (there’s even a research facility there). Icelandic doctors will literally prescribe visits as part of treatment, and patients visit for free.

What is this place??

Instead, we went in a completely different direction (geographically and conceptually) and made our way to Garður, once the most populous town in Iceland… but definitely not anymore. Now, the population is around 1,500, and as far as we could tell, the major (only) sights there are two lighthouses. The first was built in 1897, replacing a giant, 50-year-old pile of stones that was used for wayfinding. The second was built in 1944 and is much taller than the first – 28m compared to 12.5m. That makes it the tallest lighthouse on the island, and according to a survey, it’s the second most favorite lighthouse of the Icelandic people. No, I didn’t make that up. These are the divisive questions facing the people of Iceland.

Very confusing beach-scape

Spot the lighthouses! The one on the right is the second favorite. Can you see why? (Don’t ask me, I have no idea.)

When we got out of the car, we 1. almost blew away because the wind was completely out of control, and 2. got our first glimpse of the Icelandic terrain. Well, make that Icelandic terrain type 1 because as we soon learned, nowhere looks like anywhere else on the island, but everything looks weird. In Garður, there are white sand beaches… but they’re spotted with big black lava rocks, in case you managed to forget for a second that you’re on a volcanic island. If I wasn’t worried about unintentionally taking flight, I probably would have spent longer admiring the combination of pretty blue water, dark lava rocks, and light sand. Fair warning that I’m going to completely overuse the word “weird” anytime I try to explain what anything looked like. But like… weird.

Blowing away

From there, we went to a bridge that’s probably not what you imagine when you think “bridge”. This one doesn’t span a river… nope, it spans the gap between two tectonic plates. Like I explained in my Iceland History post, Iceland is along the ridge between the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates, so there are a few places on the island where you can see a gorge that I guess is basically a giant earth crack. How weird is that? (I know, I said it again.) This was also where we had our first experience with black sand. I was completely fascinated by it and took a picture of my feet, kicking off my trip-long obsession with Icelandic groundscapes.

Headed to the bridge between continents…

Black sand!

The bridge!

Mike is hiding again. Also, this sign makes it seem like you’re standing on two continents at once, but really, you’re on neither.

Spot camouflage Mike in the earth crack!

During his research, Mike spotted some craters on Google satellite view, so that was our next target. The only issue was that he wasn’t sure exactly where they were along the road or what they were called… good, right? And you might think that it would be clear, but there are pull-offs and places to turn to see different things about every 5 feet, so the chances of you finding what you’re looking for are slim. We saw a car pulled off the road somewhere, decided to check out whatever they were checking out (this is like 90% of our decision-making process, “Oh, there are a lot of people there so it must be something cool. Let’s go.”), and realized it was Mike’s craters. Of course they have a name, the Stampar craters, because everything in Iceland has a name. Again, weird and spacey, but this time a different planet. There were some places where the rock looked like it had been liquid lava only seconds before. It was cool to be able to see so clearly how it was formed. Also, totally insane because like… lava.

Crater field

Colorful!

Me and some craters

LAVA!

We were exploring the southwest corner for the day, and there’s another popular lighthouse in the area called Reykjanesviti. Let’s take a moment to talk about Icelandic names. I mentioned this when talking about my first impressions of Iceland, but they’re ridiculous so I’m going to rant again. I don’t know much about Icelandic, but it’s one of those languages where they like to mash things together, especially in names, so instead of it being Reykjanes Lighthouse (yes, I realize that’s longer but SHH!), they just put their word for lighthouse, viti, onto the end. That leads to a lot of incredibly long names and a lot of laughing while attempting to pronounce ANYTHING correctly. Usually you get halfway through the word, reach the point where you’re just tired of making so many sounds, and give up. When you’re driving, you read about half of the word and then you’ve driven past the sign so it’s a lost cause anyway.

Reykjanes Lighthouse

Anyway, as I was saying. Reykjanesviti. It was built to replace the island’s first lighthouse because they were worried it was going to fall into the sea. So, they blew it up (you can still see the foundations) and built a new one farther inland. The same erosion (caused by a combination of storms, the sea, and earthquakes) that threatened the first lighthouse formed cliffs, Valahnúkamöl (see what I mean about the names??). They are beautiful! We climbed up to the top of one of the cliffs and were mesmerized by the sight and sound of the waves crashing into the rocks. We were also absolutely freezing, and it was windy enough to make you think you were going to get blown into the ocean. On the positive side, it wasn’t raining at that particular moment (it was off and on all day).

Valahnukamol cliffs

View from the cliff

The coastline was really pretty, so when Mike suggested we follow some ATV tracks that went out in that direction, I was all in. We walked through expanses of colorful ground plants (I’m not sure if those are natural or if they were planted as part of the efforts to stabilize the soil to eventually reforest) and finally made it to the lava-rocky coast. Again, baffling. I’m not going to waste my time trying to describe it and instead will just direct your attention to the pictures.

Views from our walk

The coastline

Other-worldly

When we’d had enough of getting drenched with sea spray, we kept moving. I think Mike was getting annoyed at me because I was walking like a lost child. I was definitely not going quickly because how was I supposed to walk and take in the fascinating landscape at the same time?? Like I said, every other thought was, “WHAT IS THIS PLACE??” I stepped off the path to see what the ground felt like where the plants were (I know, you’re probably not supposed to do that but I was curious!), and it was like stepping on a pile of cotton balls. No impact, just a slowww sink of your foot.

We eventually ended up at a crater where Mike found a cave opening with ropes hanging down. I’m sure there’s some technical name and explanation for what it is and how it was formed, but I’m going to call it a cave because I don’t know any of that. We couldn’t see very far because it was pitch black. If we wanted to know what, if anything, was down there, our only choice was to go in. We looked at each other, the question hanging between us. I, for one, wasn’t worried about the cave or what was in it. I was primarily concerned about having to trust the sufficiency of my upper body strength to get back out because I haven’t done a rope-climb since elementary school. I don’t know what Mike was thinking, but he didn’t come up with a quick answer either. Explore or play it safe? What do you think we should have done? What do you think we did?

The crater where we found the cave

The cave in question

This is a PERFECT time to leave you with a “to be continued…” cavehanger (it’s like a cliffhanger but this was a cave, soo…).

Check out the continuation post HERE!

Iceland History

Iceland is the world’s largest volcanically-formed island. Like other volcanic islands, it’s located on a “hot spot” on the earth’s surface. These hot spots occur where magma from the earth’s mantle layer (the one between the crust and the core) breaks through the crust. In the cases of islands like Hawaii, the hot spot is in the middle of a tectonic plate (the big pieces of the earth’s crust that the different land masses are attached to), and as the plates shift, the hot spot leaves a trail of islands behind it. In the case of Iceland, the hot spot coincides with a ridge between two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. There are a few places on the island where you can actually go and stand between the two continental plates! They continue to drift farther and farther apart, moving at a rate of about 2cm per year (a little less than an inch). That maybe doesn’t sound like much, but we’re talking about massive portions of the earth’s crust. That’s insane!!

This is one of the areas where the Mid-Atlantic Ridge is visible on land. The North American plate is on the right, and the Eurasian plate is on the left. I’m standing on a bridge that spans the gap between the two.

Here’s a helpful sign showing the locations of the tectonic plates with a star on Iceland

According to estimates, the island started to form around 20 million years ago when magma broke through the earth’s crust, came up through the seafloor, and quickly cooled and hardened. This area grew and grew over time, and due to its location on the ridge line, there are a lot of earthquakes, geysers, and volcanoes. The volcanoes grew the island even more, adding new land with each eruption. On average, there’s a volcanic eruption in Iceland every three years! One-third of the lava that has reached earth’s surface in recorded history has come from eruptions in Iceland.

It looks like this lava could have cooled about 5 seconds ago…

Iceland is considered very young in the scheme of the world’s land masses, but get this: between 1963 and 1967, a new volcanic island was formed about 32km (20mi) off the coast of Iceland! It’s called Surtsey, and it was quickly claimed by the Icelandic government. In 1967, it was about 2.7km2 (1mi2) in area, and now, less than 50 years later, it has eroded to half that size. It’s really cool because it’s completely uninhabited by humans, and scientists are using it to understand more about how plants begin to grow on new land and how animals move in and affect its development. There are currently more than 65 plant species and 16 bird species found on the island! In some places, the land is still incredibly hot. Temperatures can be as high as 100 degrees C (over 200 degrees F) just slightly below the surface!

There are plenty of places where you can see steam rising up from the ground in Iceland. They have an abundance of geothermal heat! That’s the primary source of energy for heating homes and water, and there are some geothermal power plants. They also produce a lot of hydropower from all of the glacial rivers and waterfalls on the island.

The first serious settlers came to Iceland around 870AD. Before that, Nordic Viking explorers came and went, learning more about the island and seeing if it would be feasible to settle there. It started with just a couple families, and at the end of the 9th century, there was an influx of settlers from the British Isles and the Nordic countries, especially Norway due to the oppressive and barbaric king at the time.

This is a statue of Ingolfur Arnarson. He and his crew were the first to settle in Iceland, specifically in the now-capital, Reykjavik. They named it Reykjavic, or “Smoke Cove”, after the steam coming from the hot springs. The statue also depicts various figures from Norse mythology.

People were free to claim land as they came, and within about 60 years, the habitable land on the island was fully settled. During this time of settlement, the people were mostly led by various chieftains, but by 1930, they recognized that there needed to be greater coordination to establish order. As a result, the “Althing”, the world’s oldest nationwide parliament, was formed. It met each summer at Thingvellir to make laws, settle disputes, and organize trade.

The settlers arrived as pagans, mostly worshipping the Norse gods (you’re probably familiar with at least one of them, Thor). When a new king came to power in Norway in 995AD, he decided to make a project of converting the people of Iceland. He sent missionaries who were semi-successful, and this led to conflict both on the island and between Iceland and Norway. To avoid civil war, the pagan Law Speaker (responsible for reciting the laws at Althing sessions) at the time was given the authority to decide the official religion. He concluded that Iceland should become Christian, mostly to avoid further conflict, but people should be allowed to continue their pagan worship practices in private.

This flagpole marks the believed location of Law Rock, where the Law Speaker would stand to read the laws to the attendees at the beginning of each annual Althing session.

This picture (from a sign at Thingvellir) shows the Law Speaker standing on Law Rock. He is reciting the laws to the people standing below.

The rocky area near Law Rock.

This picture (from a sign at Thingvellir) shows a meeting of the Law Council. This was the time when new laws were enacted and legal disputes were settled. The people were then responsible for the enforcement of the laws. The Law Speaker was elected by the chieftains and served as the moderator.

And so, all was generally calm for a while. Writing was introduced in the early 12th century, and this led to the Age of Writing. A written lawbook came first in 1117 and was followed by various history books and sagas. Then, in 1220, the peace was broken when power struggles arose between one of the most powerful clans on the island, the Sturlung clan, and others. During this “Age of Sturlungs”, the clans fought each other in a bloody civil war. Even after the Sturlungs were defeated, fighting continued sporadically for years and years. Finally, in 1262, the Althing signed the “Old Covenant” with Norway, agreeing to become a province of the Kingdom of Norway and ending the clan conflicts.

Iceland was part of the Norwegian kingdom until 1380 when Norway, Sweden, and Denmark were unified. Denmark was the dominant power, and unlike Norway, it didn’t have a need for Icelandic goods, and it didn’t care much about Iceland. Without this trade, the Icelanders struggled, and the next few centuries under Danish rule were difficult. The Black Death and other widespread diseases wiped out large portions of the population. A climate shift made it difficult to grow crops. Hundreds of people were kidnapped into slavery by pirates from North Africa. A volcanic eruption killed thousands, eliminated most of the livestock, and caused the eventual starvation of thousands more. A trade monopoly implemented by Denmark made it impossible for the economy to grow.

Finally, in 1843, Iceland started to make moves towards independence again. The Althing, which had been virtually powerless for centuries and shut down in 1800 by the Danish king, was reestablished. In 1874, Denmark granted the Althing limited power and allowed the creation of a new constitution! One thousand years after Iceland’s settlement, the people were finally back on track to become independent. In 1904, Denmark recognized Iceland as a sovereign state, and Iceland continued to use Denmark for defense until World War II when Denmark was occupied by Nazi Germany.

Iceland was declared neutral and was determined to stay out of the war. After the occupation of neutral Denmark by the Nazis, the UK worried that Iceland was next. Despite Iceland’s insistence that they be left alone, British troops were sent to occupy the island. Iceland protested the invasion for violating its neutrality but cooperated under the assurance that the troops would leave after the war.

This sculpture, Sun Voyager, is located in Reykjavik and is “a dream boat and ode to the sun”. It symbolizes “the promise of undiscovered territory, a dream of hope, progress and freedom.”

Interestingly enough, the war helped to turn Iceland’s economy around. The occupiers flooded the economy with foreign money and hired locals to work on their projects, dramatically lowering the unemployment rate. Meanwhile, the people voted to become a fully independent republic in 1944. After the war, Iceland received aid that the new government used to improve the country’s industrial infrastructure, ensuring that the prosperity and high employment levels enjoyed during the war would continue.

I don’t know about you, but my head is just about spinning. It’s crazy how quickly Iceland’s luck turned around! Within 100 years, it went from poor and weak to thriving and independent. Now, it has booming tourism, aluminum, and fishing industries, among others, and is in no danger of returning to its pre-WWII economic struggle.

Usually, historical context is helpful for understanding the sights in a place. Since Iceland’s most well-known features are primarily natural, that doesn’t necessarily apply as much in this situation. Even so, I think it’s interesting to see how different countries have gotten to where they are today and how they’ve interacted with the countries around them in the past. Recently, I’ve changed the way I think about history, seeing it as a big, complicated story instead of just a school subject where you’re forced to memorize lots of dates and names. It’s changed everything for me because who doesn’t like stories?? (I know, it’s right there in the name. Silly Lara.) Now, when I go to a new place, I can’t wait to learn another part of the story of the world.

Welcome to Iceland!

My flight to Iceland left London Stansted at 6AM, so I decided that there was no point in paying for a hostel the night before because there was no chance I’d go to bed early enough to make it worth it. I took the tube to a bus to the airport, and that whole adventure took close to two hours. I was pretty darn tired by the time I got on the bus and fell asleep the instant I sat down. That was a solid 1:15 of sleep, plus the hour and a half maybe that I slept at the airport… So I was running on about 3 hours as I attempted to navigate my way to the gate which may not sound like a big deal, but I am a zombie mess without enough sleep.

Stansted does the same stupid thing as Heathrow where they don’t just announce your gate when you get to the airport. Instead, they wait until ~ 45 minutes before to release that information. My flight was at 6, the board said that the gate info would be up at 5:15, my ticket said that the gates close 30 minutes before the takeoff time, and the airport estimated that it would take at least 10 minutes to get to my gate. Does that not sound like maybe they should come up with a new system?

As usual, there was someone sitting in my seat on the plane. I thought that everyone consistently had this problem, but it seems to be just me. On at least 4/5 flights, someone is either in my seat or asks me to trade from my carefully-selected window seat to a middle seat. I like to sleep against the side of the plane, so unless my neighbors are cool with me drooling on them, it’s best if I’m left to the window.

Getting off the plane in Iceland, I was super excited about the fact that someone was waiting for me! I met my brother Mike there, and it was a nice change to see a familiar face in an unfamiliar place.

Reunited! And both practically falling asleep but not Mike because he was driving…

We picked up our rental car and headed out into the weird alien landscape that is Iceland. Here are some of my first impressions/random observations:

      1. Groundscape – I think I spent 90% of my time in Iceland staring at the ground. No, it’s not because I have terrible self-esteem. It’s because the ground is so freaking cool-looking, and in every place we went, it looked completely different. The colors, the plants, the rock formations… they’re like nothing I’d ever seen before.

        Try to tell me this isn’t awesome

      2. Prices – This is something that everyone who’s ever been to Iceland will mention. The prices are incredibly high. I’m used to going to countries where the US dollar is stronger than the local currency, but that’s totally not the case in Iceland. $1 is about 100 krónur which sounds nice, but when the cheapest meal you’ll find is 1600 krónur ($16), it’s a little less so. And that was the price for essentially ramen noodles with some chicken. An actual restaurant meal would be at least 5000 krónur ($50). I bought a 1000 krónur ($10) magnet for my cousin’s magnet collection.

        Front of Icelandic money

        Backside


      3. Language – Icelandic is VERY low on my list of languages to ever try learning. Partly because it’s almost completely worthless if you’re not in Iceland (about 90% of speakers live in Iceland), but also because it’s one of those languages where the names of things are so long that you need to stop halfway through to take a breath. Most of the letters are the same as the ones we use in English, but there are enough accented letters and extras like ð, þ, and æ to make it look very foreign. Mike and I never got sick of laughing at each other’s attempts to read the street signs.

        Here’s a good example of the kinds of place names we were dealing with. I would get as far as like “Kirkjubae…” and then shake my head and say gibberish because trying to sound out the entire thing is hopeless.

      4. Trees – Namely that there aren’t very many, and the ones that do exist are planted in VERY natural-looking rows. The island used to be about 25% forest, and after it was settled in the 9th century, the trees were gone within 300 years. They’re working on re-planting trees, but it’s an incredibly slow process because they have to stabilize the soil with smaller plants first. At the rate they’re going now, estimates are that it will take 150 years to reforest to just 5%.

        Reforestation. The trees are very well-organized

      5. Wind – I’m sure that the wind isn’t helping with the reforestation efforts. I’ve never been somewhere so consistently windy, and not only is it consistent, it’s STRONG. There were plenty of times that Mike and I had trouble even walking through it. The rental car doors had warnings on them telling you to hold on tightly when opening so that they don’t blow open too far and get damaged.
      6. Rain – Constantly. I’m sure this depends on the season, but we were there in April, and it was always raining. Usually it was a light rain, but still. Always. Raining.

        Smiling despite the wind and the rain

      7. Credit cards – You can use credit cards everywhere. Even the bathrooms that cost 100 kroner ($1) had credit card machines outside. I was especially thrown off by this because I was coming from 9 months of living in a completely cash-based culture, and we would have been almost completely fine without ANY cash in Iceland (we only needed cash at one campsite).
      8. Landscape – Even though the entire island looks like another planet, it doesn’t all necessarily look like the SAME another planet. In one place, you have black sand beaches. In another, there’s white sand. There are mountains and craters, black rocks and red rocks, glaciers and geysers. And waterfalls everywhere. I kind of thought that we were going to get tired of seeing the same thing over and over again because it’s just a little island and how much variety could there be? But no matter how many similarities things had, they were also COMPLETELY different.

        Alien. Landscape.

        Another planet.
        Can you spot Mike in this picture?

        Like… what is this place???

        Stairs at one of the random sights we stopped at along the road

      9. There are things to see everywhere – Literally. We had pretty loose plans, so a lot of the things we checked out were just what we happened to be driving past. It seemed like there was a sign announcing something to see every two seconds, so we had to start filtering some out because otherwise we’d never make it to the things we planned.
      10. Well-maintained – And despite the fact that there are things to see everywhere, it’s not like they’re falling into disrepair or there’s no tourist infrastructure there. I seriously don’t know how they keep up with maintenance. Everything we stopped at had a parking area, a path with those plastic ground-grate things to keep it from getting slippery, and a built viewing area if necessary. And nothing was falling apart or looked like it had seen better days, even at the tiny little sights that weren’t super popular.
      11. Everything has a name – Like EVERYTHING. This mountain range has a name, and so does every single mountain in it. This rock has a name. This little trickle of a waterfall. That crater… and the other one and the other one. They all have names. Probably, when they reforest, they give each tree a name too. And each blade of grass and ant and so on.
      12. Legends – Similarly, everything has a legend for how/why it exists. I loved the legends in Armenia, but honestly, I think Icelandic folklore is even a step above that. It’s filled with stories of elves and trolls, and I couldn’t get enough of it.
      13. People names – Obviously all of the people have names… that’s not what I was going to say. But people names are taken from lists of pre-approved boy and girl names, unless their parents go through the process to submit a new name that must meet all of the criteria, such as: names must be grammatically compatible with Icelandic, girls must be given girl names and boys boy names, names must not cause the bearer embarrassment. Also, for last names, people generally don’t use family names. Instead, last names depend on the person’s parents’ first names; for example Jónsson “Jon’s son” or Jónsdóttir “Jon’s daughter”. Sometimes, mothers’ names are used. In the phone book, people are listed by first name, and first names are used almost exclusively for addressing others. Even when speaking to someone like the president, you would use his first name.

I could probably write 20 pages about my first impressions and things that I thought were absolutely fascinating, but I’ll leave you with these for now. Next time, I’ll get into a little history before taking you along with us on a sightseeing tour of the island!