Wonderland of fire and ice

‘ICELAND? Why the bloody hell would you go to Iceland?’’

It was one of many questions posed by concerned friends, family and colleagues before we jetted off last year.

Sometimes, such comments were accompanied by expressions of actual horror.

‘‘Won’t it be freezing?’’

‘‘What do you even do there?’’

To be fair, we weren’t entirely sure ourselves.

We knew Iceland was, quite literally, on the other side of the world — high in the North Atlantic, almost at the Arctic Circle.

We knew it was similar to Tasmania in size and population, and eagerly embraced its differences from the continental mainland.

We had seen photos of ice-covered volcanoes, bubbling geysers, glacial lakes and roadside waterfalls.

But we didn’t count on the scenery to shift as effortlessly as pages in a book.

We spent two weeks circumnavigating the land of ice and fire in a hire car, following the 1300-kilometre Ring Road around the coastline.

We fell in love with the fast-changing landscape in a country that at different times resembled New Zealand, Ireland, Switzerland or another planet, where rotting shark is a delicacy and 1am summer sunsets are the norm.

Our self-drive tour was organised through Iceland Unlimited, but a number of other companies offer accommodation, transport and activity packages.

We began at the capital Reykjavik, a colourful hub of art and innovation with cafes and bars aplenty.

It’s a harbour town with a rich history that is famed for its nightlife, with the streets in a very messy state early on a Sunday morning.

Nonetheless it is clean, compact enough to navigate on foot and incredibly safe, with its oldest and still-operating jail resembling an average house on an inner-city street.

Particularly impressive is the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral — the country’s second tallest building at 75 metres.

The Reykjavik Art Museum and the iconic Baejarins Beztu Pylsur hotdog stand are also worth a visit.

Iceland’s most popular tourist attractions are conveniently within a day’s drive from the capital.

The 300-kilometre Golden Circle loop takes in Thingvellir National Park, where in the icy Silfra Lake divers don dry suits to explore glacial waters between the North American and Eurasian tectonic plates.

The waters between the plates appear gloomy, but below the surface is a vibrant blue seascape and a striking, neon-green plant life.

Further along the Golden Circle loop, the geysers Geysir and Strokkur provide an explosive introduction to Iceland’s volcanic side, while the multi-tiered Gulfoss waterfall makes for a spectacular snapshot.

But it is worth driving beyond the Golden Circle to explore more of the country.

There was never a dull moment as we drove through the changing landscape, with each kilometre seemingly offering a new waterfall, mountain vista, glacier, lava field or volcano.

No place we visited was like anything we’d seen in the days before.

But more than that, Iceland made us feel that we could see and sense the earth still shifting and evolving.

Nowhere more so than at the Myvatn and Krafla region in the north.

It’s a hotbed of volcanic activity, with fossilised lava fields, jets of sulphurous steam and pools of bubbling earth.

Signs of volatility were there to see in the Hverir and Namafjall mud pots, and the steamy Myvatn thermal baths.

The Sku´ tustathirpseudocraters — giant grassy bowls at Lake Myvatn — are also the product of geothermal rumblings, as are the Dimmuborgir lava fields.

The fields, formed during a large crater eruption more than 2000 years ago, are said to be home to elves and trolls, and visitors are free to traverse the well-worn paths among the hardened lava.

The Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, in the South-East of Iceland, is another spectacular sight and experience.

We had just left the popular Skaftafell National Park, and were marvelling at the strange mix of green, jagged mountains, an enormous glacier and the famous Svartifoss waterfall — distinct for its severe basalt columns — within the one park.

We pulled the car over when  we saw several people climbing a roadside dirt mound, unaware that a stunning blue expanse of water, dotted with hulking, luminous icebergs, was just on the other side.

Over the rest of the trip we got up close with whales on the northern coast, hiked and snowmobiled glaciers, and sampled Icelandic food.

Iceland is big on American fast food, particularly hot dogs, but at restaurants it’s not uncommon to see puffin, whale or hakarl on the menu.

Hakarl is rotting Greenlandic shark, a delicacy traditionally served after it has been fermenting underground for 12 weeks.

Even one small piece requires a vodka chaser just to stop the fumes coming back up your throat, and it can best be described as a rancid sponge of fish soaked in ammonia.

It wasn’t a pleasant experience.

But Iceland is more than the sum of its biggest and best sights.

There’s a thrill in the surprises you encounter every day, on your way to the next big attraction: the unannounced waterfall on the side of the road, the man-made caves built into green mounds and rolling hills, dramatic mountains to rival the Swiss Alps, and the moody black-sand beach in a sleepy fishing town.

We did notice that once we published photos of our trip on social media, we weren’t asked to explain it any more.


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