Not so terra firma
Dipping into hot springs and tackling tough volcano treks, Tom Kellytakes a trip across Iceland's incredible landscape
Iceland can seem daunting and impenetrable. And that’s just placenames which are as much of a challenge as the topography. While trekking one of the world’s greatest trails, one struggles for the vocabulary to do justice to a breath-taking land thrown up – literally – by its precarious perch on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Volcanoes and geysers, tumbling waterfalls and bubbling hot springs, the terra is far from firma. And trolls seem to have as much substance and often better press than Icelandic bankers.
I was there with a group of hikers who spend most Sunday mornings on the Wicklow Mountains, followed by a spicy goulash in the Roundwood Inn. We’d been tempted to the Laugavegur, a world-famous walk of some 55km from Landmannalaugar to Þórsmörk in Iceland’s southwest.
First, however, there was the not insubstantial matter of duty free. As intimidating as the hiking was said to be, talk of the price of drink had prompted much pre-trip speculation. But we’d discovered duty free can be bought in Reykjavik’s Keflavík airport on the way in. Moreover, it can be ordered in advance. The spartan practicality of huts along the route was to be somewhat ameliorated by a couple of trolleys of wine and beer. There was the risk of dehydration for 16 thirsty walkers after all.
The following day we were to tackle Mount Hekla, which last erupted in 2000. Before that, a stop-off at the Blue Lagoon geothermal spa, Iceland’s most popular tourist attraction. Described as “one of the earth’s most awesome places” by National Geographic magazine, it’s a smoky-azure blue lake with frosted edges of crusty silica, whose water is a bath-like 37 degrees.
Reputed to have all sorts of beneficial skin effects, the greatest surprise of this fabulous natural wonder is that it’s not at all what it seems. The hot geothermal saltwater which feeds the lagoon has actually been cooled before its arrival by a visit to the local geothermal power station which initially uses the super-heated steam surging up from 2km underground to drive turbines and harvest heat. Iceland’s perception-twisting begins.
“The Gates of Hell” is how Mount Hekla was known for centuries, with up to 30 eruptions in recorded history and goodness knows how many unrecorded. We climb it on an unseasonably gorgeous day, while our expert guide, Jon – who along with our driver, also Jon, meant the entire gang totted up no less than eight “Jons” – casually gave us geology 101.