Monday, December 1, 2008


Iceland is unlike anywhere else, an incongruous mix of sublime scenery and few resources, writes David Marr.

Some countries start badly. We're driving over lava flows under a low sky in a taxi that might as well be eating our money. It's a grim scene. Reykjavik looks like a row of sheds impossibly far away. The driver is taciturn. On this bleak summer afternoon it's 11 degrees outside. In the distance by a range of grey hills, steam is rising from the landscape. We shell out kronur to the tune of $140 and find ourselves dropped on the footpath at the wrong address. In the rain.

But at about 9.30 that night, the sun comes out. We are wandering back to the apartment after a plate of fish and chips when, for a few miraculous minutes before the sun sets, the street is washed with light. On the far side of the harbour, the mountains turn soft green and seem to float in the sky. It's a brief, uplifting moment: a promise of what's to come and a warning to be patient. Iceland isn't meant to be easy.

No one can really explain why anyone came here in the first place. Weren't there other islands without volcanoes further south? Islands where Vikings in the ninth century could take their sheep and stolen Scottish brides? Tourists face the same question: why here?

A part of Iceland's powerful draw is the sheer incongruity of the place: a toy-box civilisation built on one of the least hospitable stretches on earth. The women are beautiful, the men are plain, the scenery is sublime, the roads are dodgy and everything is expensive. Iceland has no military, no railways, no forests, no weeds, no safety railings and no lifts. The population is smaller than Tasmania's and most people speak English. This is one of those relaxing countries where there's no expectation visitors will learn much beyond a few polite phrases: yes (ja), no (nei), hello (hallo), thanks (takk). It's not hard.

One useful word, not apparently found in dictionaries, sounds like yay-ja and is heard all the time. It's a gap filler that means "yes" but also "give me a minute to think" or "I'm getting bored" and, when inflected with purpose, "I think you're a bit of a dickhead". It's a one-word demonstration of the Icelandic way of making do with few resources.

The sun shines brightly in Reykjavik for days. It's a pretty town. The houses clad in corrugated iron are painted bright pink and blue and lavender and rust red. Along fashionable Laugavegur where rainbow flags are still flying after Gay Pride, turf is being laid in shops and galleries in preparation for Culture Night. Turf matters in Iceland; it's a land of turf walls, turf roofs and, in 2008, even turf art.

The streets are crowded with American vulcanologists. Famous as the setting of the Fischer-Spassky World Chess Championship of 1972 and the Reagan-Gorbachev summit of 1986, Reykjavik is hosting a world gathering of volcano watchers. Anything could erupt at any moment. Iceland's city power, earthquakes, perpetual hot water supply, geysers and lava fields come courtesy of a rip across the landscape where the Eurasian and American continental plates are coming apart.

At some point Iceland is going to split in half. Fish, aluminium and tourism have made it one of the wealthiest countries in the world, although that wealth is falling apart due to the global credit crunch.

Before setting off on our trip round the country, we hear many warnings. "Roads are a new thing in Iceland," warns the woman cutting my hair. "Before the war we only had horse tracks but the Americans came and brought roads." Roads avoid known "elf habitations" - true.

Other big safety issues are blind crests, precipitous drops and gravel. Iceland is a major gravel nation. Rent-a-cars get about looking as if they're sprayed with gun shot. The firms just flag the holes with little yellow stickers - and you head out of town, soon leaving behind both sunlight and the BBC World Service.

Somewhere ahead is Snaefellsnes, a mighty glacier-capped mountain, invisible in the murk and driving rain. We retreat to the swank Hotel Budir and eat lobster and sheep's head pate in the middle of the wilderness. Next morning the sun is shining and I ask the woman at the desk if it's always like this: a burst of sun in the morning and rain for the rest of the day. "No," she replies. "There is no pattern. It's random."

The sky lifts and we begin a long day driving north through the fjords. You have no idea how beautiful this country is unless you've stood on one of these hillsides and stared almost to infinity across fjords and bare mountains out to sea. Photographs give the colour but can't convey the scale. Iceland is elemental, mysterious and huge.

We miscalculated. Fjords take time. We drive a long way in and out to make headway along the coast. On the few short cuts over the mountains, the roads are gravel, the drops terrifying and railings rare. There are huts in the passes tethered to the ground by steel cables to shelter stranded travellers. Road signs give gradients up and down. The worst we face that day - 18 per cent - may not sound steep but the descent in failing light is heart-stopping.

We should have arrived hours ago when we round another headland and see yet another long climb ahead. It's almost dark and raining again. But in no time we're looking down into a perfect little fjord before slithering down into Djupavik with its ruined herring factory and one rough, good pub. It's late but they open the kitchen for us and the food is good.

We're learning the rules of the road. When you're exhausted, when you just want the day to be done with - Iceland offers something more, something unexpected and wonderful. I find myself swearing all the time. Often the only right response to the jaw-dropping surprises of this country is that one sharp word that may, come to think of it, be Icelandic in origin.

The land is gentler as we follow Route One towards Akureyri, the only other town with claims to be a city. We see red-roofed farmhouses in windswept valleys, each with a flagpole and a waterfall and a few fields of mown hay.

We learn to read the rivers: the smoky green of snow melt; muddy purple where fields of lava are being torn away; and creeks so pure the water seems invisible. Nailed on bridges is one of the strangest signs in the world: a red stripe across euros, dollars, pounds and kronur. It means: this stream is not a wishing well. Don't throw money.

Forests of birch and poplar are being planted. Iceland was denuded about seven centuries ago and has been naked since. Global warming is one threat to this country - glaciers are retreating and a hottest-ever 26.2 degrees was recorded in Reykjavik this summer. But a greater threat to its unique look is reforestation. It should be stamped out before Iceland loses its picture-book nudity.

No trees will ever grow in the lunar hinterland of boiling mud pools, geysers and fields of sulphur that haven't quite cooled since eruptions centuries ago.

All's quiet on Iceland at the moment but a magnificent film installation of Surtsey appearing out of the sea in 1963 can be seen at Reykjavik's Culture House and there is a mesmerising video at the Skaftafell National Park Visitors Centre of the 1996 eruption under Vatnajokull's mighty ice cap.

Why do we find hot rock being flung around so fascinating? Or water falling over cliffs? This is a place where the crust is thin, rivers are new, glaciers run to the sea and, depending on the season, the sun barely sets or barely rises. Iceland is one of those places we come to watch nature break the rules.

We didn't hire horses or take snowmobiles on the glaciers; we didn't go whale watching - two pilot whales came to us, cavorting one morning in Akureyri harbour - and we didn't go fishing or hike across the mountains. But we did just about everything else. I even got booked for driving at 110kmh. After a solemn interview in the back of a police car, payment of about $300 and being handed a ticket that detailed the exact longitude and latitude of the offence the officer said: "We now consider the case closed."

Reykjavik seemed tame when we returned but that Friday night it erupted as, we're told, it always does at the weekend, with the runtur - a pub, bar and club crawl that roars through until breakfast. On those last days we drove through a wild storm to eat lobster, spent a fruitless afternoon looking for puffins and ended the holiday on a lava field basking in the misty waters of the Blue Lagoon in Grindavik.

Iceland had one last surreal experience for us before our midnight flight. It was cold, it was dark, it was raining and the pool was nearly empty. A young attendant in full arctic gear stood on the boardwalk arguing with a couple of Americans who, it seemed, wanted to have sex in the swirling steam. They were stridently claiming a right to privacy. "That's what they all say," said the attendant and with perfect good humour threatened to see them jailed for breaking the decency laws. We left them to their argument.

In a country that has seen everything, not quite everything goes.

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