Iceland

A lovely few days spent in Iceland with more than a few photos to mull over. The beauty of the place is undeniable with its bizarre volcanic landscape contrasted with stunning snow-capped peaks. It seems very prone to rainy weather, which we certainly encountered. But we got some absolutely beautiful sunshiny days as well and that certainly made up for anything else. I can imagine winter there would be especially grim. Possibly it brings a better chance of seeing the northern lights, which we didn’t.

The downsides? It is horribly expensive. This may be a matter of knowing the place better and how you could find the cheapest possible alternatives for food. Accommodation is dear and while there is Airbnb, it is also pretty expensive and some of the places would be in some studenty spare room. These days I’m not really interested in that and our dumpy Airbnb in Dublin made me think I should be a bit more discerning.  Not that either of us need luxury, basic comfort is fine. We stayed in hotels which were by and large fairly bland and a little disappointing. The Base, near Keflevik airport, where we first stayed was very good and by getting a free upgrade we were pleasantly comfortable. It’s an old army base but they have converted it very well. It is first and foremost a backpacker hostel, which these days would make me run a mile, but it is not all dorms, so we managed to get a comfortable room and as cheaply as you could hope for.

The trip was not a triumph of research and organisation on my part. Thinking the Golden Circle (an abbreviated tourist route taking in some geothermal stuff and the stunning Gullfoss falls) would take over a day to explore, I booked two nights at a dull place called Selfoss. In the end it didn’t matter too much as the rain would have put paid to the best sightseeing plans. We still did some interesting exploring on that extra rainy day with a visit to the Kerid crater and photographed some of the interesting beach houses down on the black sandy beaches around Stokkseyri. As it was, we were fortunate to enjoy mostly good weather days and made the most of them.

The drive out to Diamond Beach was a bit of an epic in the end. It was a 320km return drive from Vik and it took a bit of effort to fit that in to an afternoon. I probably drove 450km that day which you might not have thought possible in a place like Iceland. But it was certainly worth it! We were wowed by the amazing backdrop of glaciers and massively towering dark volcanic and weirdly shaped green hills.  The light on the golden grass, the moss-covered volcanic rocks on the ground and the black sand beaches with crashing waves on the other side of us. We had to drive back the same way but the light had completely changed by then, so we were treated to a different version of the same spectacle. But the place itself with it’s stunning lagoon full of icebergs and those on the beach were also quite breathtaking. There were a few tourists around but enough space to escape them.

The wind was as good as anything Wellington has dished up I think. Firstly, at Dyrhólaey on the cliffs and then at Jökulsárlón, as we approached the icebergs. The gusts could sometimes be outrageous and knock you sideways but there has always been wind in my soul and this kind of weather made me smile and laugh. My £15 Primark winter jacket was brilliant for the conditions. It provided protection for some of the bitingly cold wind blasts and was waterproof too.

Hörse. You can’t help but be struck by the number of horses in Iceland. I have read that they eat them but that is not their primary purpose. Which is for riding it seems. Apparently, part of their unique attributes is that they have an extra gait. This is beyond the normal walk, trot, canter and gallop. They add a lölt to this which is some sort of fancy lateral step or something. Of course, they came to international prominence in 1955 when a team of Icelandic horses stunned the world by sweeping all before them at the England Ballroom Dance Championships in Blackpool. But seriously, they must be hardy souls as they can be seen standing out in the fields in the most cold and blustery conditions. There are cross-like fences in many fields that would provide some shelter from the freezing winds.

On the last night in Reykjavik we finally treated ourselves to a decent meal. This was a bit overdue as even the most awful food was costly. Iceland supposedly has the healthiest diet in the world, but I can’t say much that was unique seemed to be available. No pots of Icelandic yoghurt with rolled herrings. We largely snacked on supermarket food and even went to a KFC one night.  Our final night’s meal was delicious and not too bad really for about ISK9,770 ($A110, £52) for two mains and a beer. The bonus was that it came to the exact amount of Icelandic krona cash I had. Reykjavik also appeared to be overrun by tourists – loud American was the main language that could be heard in the streets. It was a struggle to get a table at most restaurants in the city and there was a weird way they liked to make people queue for them. We managed to get in a on a table by co-opting a young American woman to share ours. She, like more than a few people had dropped into Iceland to visit the Blue Lagoon.

Ah yes, the Blue Lagoon. On our way back to Reykjavik from the south we visited it, that is we had a look at it. Jackie is not a huge fan of thermal pools and after a lifetime of sitting and swimming in them in New Zealand (of course), Indonesia and Japan, I am rather underwhelmed by them. We could see what was on offer, the place is built nicely but it was a run through of the usual lot ticking things off the bucket list. Interestingly, no one seemed to be walking out with a big smile on their face. The basic entry price of $100+ just didn’t seem worth it, especially as would have paled into insignificance after the other sights we would have seen. Even our young dinner companion had said the whole constant push to upsell stuff to the tourists there was a turn off. Clearly it is on some must do tourist circuit somewhere. I would think New Zealand is a better bet for that stuff.  To give everyone their due as well, many would never have seen anything like it before.

Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of visiting Iceland was the lack of insight I really managed to get into the place itself on a social level. We tended to have little conversation with locals. I always like to talk to people about their country and what life is like for them. From my own perspective I think if I grew up in a place like Iceland I would have wanted to get the hell out of it. With only 350,000 people it is tiny. This is also its charm of course. There is a bit of similarity with New Zealand here despite that country being larger in area as well as population. There is always the opportunity to talk with staff in hotels, restaurants etc but most of these were foreigners – large numbers of east Europeans who are found everywhere these days, so little interaction with locals.

Iceland interested me as a small island that is relatively isolated and how plays out in the lives of ordinary people. It must be stultifying on one level as everyone would always know your business and there would be limited opportunities in many areas of work and life. But it one of the wealthiest countries in Europe by GDP per capita and wages are high. That flows into prices too but with most things needing to be imported and a small market with limited competition that it always going to be a fact of life. I never knew any Icelanders in London, I’m sure that’s where I would head first off if I had grown up in Iceland. So, I never really got the chance to understand the thinking that pervaded those who did.

While I have spent most of my life out of New Zealand, it still exerts a strong influence on my consciousness. The physical memory of the country never leaves you and of course the childhood memories. For Icelanders I would expect this would be very much the same with even a stronger influence of the very small population and the unique language. It would be in many ways hard to just leave it all behind. As we drove around we would often see houses standing alone in a huge, imposing area of green fields interspersed with black volcanic rocks and earth. There was a haunting beauty in the absolute desolation of it. But I always asked myself: could I stand living there?

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