• Monday, November 24, 2014

Straight Talk

Iceland A Hidden Treasure

Nadia Kabir Barb
Iceland – aerial view of landscape. Photo: Nadia Kabir Barb
Iceland – aerial view of landscape. Photo: Nadia Kabir Barb

"Iceland?” I queried. “Yes, Iceland,” said my husband looking hopefully at me. Iceland was not exactly the destination I had in mind while trying to organise our summer holidays. Morocco, Greece, Hawaii were more like the places I was thinking of, not a small Island in the middle of the North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean. After a bit of resistance to the idea, I capitulated. It would be an adventure. My spider senses should have tingled when my travel agent advised us to take walking boots and rainproof coats but I remained ever hopeful that this was just a precaution.
One of my major character flaws is that I fall in love very easily. There have been so many times I have visited a country and promptly fallen in love with it. Turkey, Zanzibar, Italy, Spain are just a few places that have claimed a piece of my heart. However, with Iceland it was not love at first sight. In fact it was quite the opposite on our arrival at Keflavik airport. Let's just say I was not having particularly charitable thoughts about my husband nor the country as we walked from the shelter of the terminal to the car. While other 'sane' people were heading off to warmer countries I was standing in the cold getting soaked in the rain which I might add was falling almost laterally due to the strong wind buffeting around us! Not quite what I had envisaged.
As we drove from Keflavik airport to our hotel in Reykjavik, our guide told us that the weather was unusually bad and some of our excursions might be cancelled due to the unfavourable wind conditions. We were just unlucky.  By this stage my holiday spirits were sagging considerably. Thankfully for us this was not the case and actually ended up having an activity packed few days.
My knowledge of Iceland was rather limited prior to my visit and I was grateful to our guide for giving us a brief overview of the country. He informed us that Iceland only had a population of just over 325,000 people making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe and almost two thirds of the people live in the capital Reykjavik. Having been home to some Irish monks or hermits, it was only in the 870s that Norse settlers came to the country.
Iceland was also under the rule of Norway and then Denmark from 1262 to 1918 when it attained independence. What surprised us is that Iceland has no army, navy or air force and according to the Global Peace Index is said to be the most peaceful country in the world with low crime rates and socio political stability. Having spent a few days there, it really was not hard to believe.
After being dropped off at the hotel my husband and I decided to make the most of our time and donned our walking boots and rain proof coats and headed out into the rain to explore the city. It was quite a change from the bustling metropolises we are used to. Hardly any high rise buildings, very little traffic, no crowds and no major high streets that we could see. We walked around the harbour, saw the houses of parliament and found the only remaining Catholic Church. Although Christianity was adopted in Iceland in 1000AD, it reverted from Catholicism to Lutheranism in the 16th century.
The following day we were thrilled to find that our whale watching trip had not been cancelled and made our way back to the harbour. It was quite amusing that at the ticket booth, they had a bowl of anti-sickness pills instead of sweets and we were advised to take one each as the sea was said to be quite choppy. Once on the boat, we were all given thick waterproof overalls and I was literally drowning in my oversized one. Definitely not a glamorous look! As the boat moved out into the bay, we realised how windy it really was. The waves were tossing the boat and I seemed to be one of the few people enjoying being thrown about the place. It was exhilarating feeling the wind in my face, getting soaked in sea water and just looking out onto the coastline of Reykjavik in the distance.
I was obviously made of sterner stuff than most of my fellow passengers who became sea sick and retreated to the downstairs seating area. After three hours we headed back to shore though disappointingly did not encounter any whales. It appeared that the weather was still not on our side. We may not have seen Minke whales or porpoises but we did see our fill of puffins and arctic birds and I found myself in high spirits after our rather exciting boat ride. It was more wave surfing than whale watching.

The general diversity of the landscape is breathtaking. Photo: Nadia Kabir Barb
The general diversity of the landscape is breathtaking. Photo: Nadia Kabir Barb

Our third day was probably my favourite as we finally got to see the natural beauty this country has to offer. We were taken on a drive through the South of Iceland on a tour of what is called the Golden Circle. Our first stop was Thingvellier National Park. It is strange that this peaceful and peace loving country sits on an active system of volcanoes and lies on the boundaries of the North American and Eurasian plates. Thingvellieris geologically significant as a rift valley caused by the shifts of the two tectonic plates. It is also historically significant as the site where parliament was first held in 930AD. According to our guide the acoustics in the valley was ideal for parliamentary oratory sessions. He joked that it was a natural surround system.
The next destination was Gulfoss (Golden Falls), a magnificent waterfall. The sheer beauty of this area left us in awe. We managed to climb right to the top and it was humbling to feel the raw power and thunderous force of this natural phenomenon. I could have spent hours just watching the water crash down sending sprays of water metres high into the air.
Finally we were driven to Stokkur, a hot spring that lies to the east of Reykjavik and erupts every few minutes sending boiling water almost 30 – 40 metres into the air. Iceland has taken advantage of its unique geological phenomenon and harnessed its geothermal energy to provide hot water and heating to most of its residents.
During our drive, we passed lava fields covered by a light carpeting of moss with a backdrop of glaciers and volcanos including the now famous Ejyafjallajökull that erupted in 2010. There were streams, glacial rivers, lakes and small waterfalls dotted around. The general diversity of the landscape was breath taking. Parts of the countryside looked desolate and barren giving it an almost melancholic air while other parts were vibrant and lush. Even the weather was as changeable as our surroundings. Cold and windy one minute, bright and sunny the other and then overcast and rainy in the next five minutes.
I would describe Iceland as a photographer's paradise, a geologist's treasure trove and a weather man's nightmare! Over the four days this small country wooed me with its dramatic landscape, stunning scenery and friendliness of its inhabitants. I found myself not impervious to its charm and by the end of our trip was deeply smitten. I concede that Iceland has made a conquest of me and I cannot wait to be reunited with this exciting, beautiful and unpredictable country.

Published: 12:00 am Friday, July 18, 2014

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