Time and time again, I am astounded by the sheer number of activities available in Iceland, despite the size of the place. Having been there twice now, my initial list is diminishing somewhat, but I never feel as though I’ll run out of things to do.
I had previously decided that on my second visit to the country, I would finally go do the sacred tourist loop of the Golden Circle. When I got there, I immediately changed my mind and booked onto a tour that took us to not one, but two waterfalls, a black sand beach and a hike across a glacier. Gulfoss could wait.
We saw our first waterfall, Skógafoss, early on in the day. Iceland, land of ice, fire and rainbows, was already keen to put on a show.
Then it was onto Mýrdalsjökull glacier, where we disembarked from our tour bus and were passed over to a couple of young Icelandic men who would be our guides for the hike. They presented each one of us with an ice axe and crampons (the spiky devices you strap onto your shoes to better enable you to walk across ice). We were then directed down a path, at the end of which we would be instructed in how best to use our gear, in order to avoid grievous injury and/or death.
I was walking next to the tour guide, P (I say so because it seems rude to identify people without their permission, but mostly because I couldn’t for the life of me figure out the proper spelling of his name). We chatted as we strolled, until we happened upon a lone tissue that some grotesque individual had discarded onto the ground. P picked it up; I thought to pocket it, until he found himself within the vicinity of a bin later on that day. Instead, he stuffed it under a nearby rock. Out of mind, out of sight, I suppose.
“It used to be the cigarette butts that got to me,” he said, as we resumed our walk. “Now it’s the tissues. Tourists leave them everywhere!” He clenched his fists as he continued. “We just suck it back up our noses,” and here he demonstrated, making a large snorting sound. “We call it brain juice.”
“I just use hankies,” I shrugged. He looked at me, somewhat visibly disgusted, I suppose because I wasn’t a five year old attending my first day of kindergarten. Whatever. They’re better for the environment.
“Where are you from?” He asked.
“Australia,” I replied.
“You live in London?” He inquired. I nodded. P shook his head.
“I don’t understand it,” he continued. “Why do you leave heaven to go to hell?”
I thought carefully about my answer. “Heaven is isolated.”
We got to the bottom of the glacier, engaged in the business of strapping on the crampons and then we were off, marching across a chunk of ice that was around 500 years old. Not a hugely staggering number in terms of the age of the planet, but impressive nonetheless.
It was peaceful, out on the Mýrdalsjökull glacier. The ice stretched on for miles and was white, imbued with shades of a delicate light blue. We were told to take great note of where we were walking, in order to avoid stepping on disguised crevasses, formed by rocks, which find their way onto the ice. The glacier then melts around them and if one were to step on the surface, they would find themselves falling to what would probably be a very painful death. Our guides chose this moment to further educate us in the subterranean activities of this particular glacier, the information of which would haunt my dreams for my last remaining nights in Iceland.
The eruption of Eyjafjallajökull (try saying that fast), a volcano in southern Iceland in 2010 was hardly a forgettable event. The output of volcanic ash was so extreme that all air traffic across Europe and North America was suspended for five days, costing the airline industry billions of dollars and upsetting the travel plans of thousands of people. Turns out Eyjafjallajökull is a small player, compared to the volcano that resides next to – Katla, which was incidentally located underneath the glacier we then stood upon. When Katla erupts, it will be what is known as a sub-glacial eruption. It will melt a large part of the Mýrdalsjökull Glacier, causing a flood, the discharge of which will be comparable to that of the planet’s four major rivers (the Nile, Amazon, Mississippi and Yangtze) combined. It runs the risk of devastating nearby Vik, which was allegedly constructed with not very much of a volcano-savvy game plan in mind. Scariest of all, throughout history Katla has had a habit of erupting shortly after Eyjafjallajökull- usually mere months later. If has of course been five years now since Eyjafjallajökull blew and 97 since Katla last did.
Katla’s eruption is not only imminent – it’s overdue.
Fortunately, it had the good grace to spare us from any sort of volcanic activity that day (and has continued on with a similar effect – keep up the good work, Katla!)
I came away from the tour with much food for thought and a bit of a crush on our two charming guides. Looking out across the expanse of the glacier, I was saddened as they explained to us the extent that the ice had melted in recent years, an act that has been undeniably triggered by man.
Yet the Mýrdalsjökull glacier is on borrowed time, regardless of our actions. And when Katla finally erupts, leaving destruction in her path, it will be yet another reminder of who is boss – who runs the world? Why, Mother Nature does and we are kidding ourselves if we believe in anything otherwise.
Iceland is a dangerous little country. And for me, coming from a land where everything from the spiders to the midday sun is making every attempt to kill you, this only adds to its appeal.