Lava Caves and Icy Adventures in Iceland
Save for yesterday’s foray into the Nesgjá chasm, a four-metre deep, three-metre wide coastal fissure, I’m a cold-water diving virgin. And I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared.
Trepidation courses through my veins as I contemplate plunging into the inky fjord. The Icelandic weather, mostly chilly and drizzly over the past 10 days, has brightened, and the dark swell and surrounding snow-topped ridges sparkle in the afternoon sun. Still, the water looks frigid.
Bogason pulls the inflatable to a halt. I fumble with my equipment and squeeze a rubber balaclava over my head, readying myself to dive on these hydrothermal vents.
We roll backwards into the arctic water, leaving my old mate Phil, who is along for the ride, to captain the boat.
I locate the descending line and begin removing the air from my buoyancy control device and from inside my dry suit. Within a minute I’m 15 metres down, beside Bogason, on a sand patch. I sink to my knees to steady myself and switch on my torch. A dozen cod swirl into view. Then my beam picks out a monster, about a metre long, swimming straight at me.
I gulp air. As it gets closer to me I feel as though I’ve come face to face with a creature from the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch – or hell. Its eyes bulge, pronounced lips and rubbery jowls merge, and razor-sharp fangs gleam from its mouth. It’s Stephanie, a wolffish, come to welcome us to her patch. She’s the weirdest living thing I’ve ever seen.
Bogason uses the beam from his torch to indicate where we’re going next. I try to follow but can barely move for my own weight. I add some air and start finning after him, toward several conical outcrops emerging from the murk.
But as I swim I begin to ascend. I’ve made a rookie error and pumped in too much air. I push hard on the void button on my dry suit but rise uncontrollably. Bogason lunges for my leg to try to anchor me but can’t hold on, so off I go, up and away like Mary Poppins.
I hit the surface and gulp seawater from waves buffeting my face. Bogason bubbles up beside me, asking if I want to give it another shot. I’m trembling and disorientated, but I may never have this chance again.
Finally, I’m kneeling at the edge of a volcanic cone. As Bogason illuminates the vent, I watch hot, saltless water, estimated to be 11,000 years old, belching out. It’s a sight divers travel thousands of kilometres to see; scientists believe, through study of the bacteria and microbes living in its hot springs, that this unique cavity provides clues to life’s origins on earth.
I run my hand through the 78°C water, rendered touchable by the cold fjord. Bogason fills a flask – he’ll use it to make hot chocolate back on land.
As one of the planet’s youngest landmasses, rising up a mere 20 million years ago from submarine explosions in the mid-Atlantic ridge, the island feels like a work in geological progress. Over 12 days I’m road-tripping around this explosive and ever-changing land in the company of Phil.
Some destinations, like Egypt and Italy, lead you into the past; others, like Dubai and Shanghai, make you ponder the future. None, in my experience, plunges you into the present so forcefully or gives you such a sense of the Earth’s elemental power as Iceland.
On a drizzly August morning we roll out of Reykjavík and head west along the country’s ring road, intent on venturing beyond the tourist radar and camping in the wild, which is permitted throughout Iceland. Given this is one of Europe’s least populated nations, with just 330,000 inhabitants, it is rarely hard to find space.
Day one delivers several firsts, beginning with a 35-metre descent into a cave inside a lava flow. Formed 8000 years ago on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula, it’s close to where Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth was set.
That night, after driving through the contorted black rocks of the Berserkjahraun (Berserkers’ lava field), we pull into a farm to sample hákarl, the Icelandic ‘delicacy’ of rotten shark meat. Each year the farm processes up to 80 Greenland sharks – they grow larger than great whites and live at depths of up to 2190 metres – putrefying their toxic flesh over six months to make it edible. It’s a tradition that stretches back more than 400 years. To us, the small cubes of meat taste like old cheese infused with petrol.
During another sunny spell, we pitch our tent in the Westfjords, Iceland’s least visited and populated region. Our campground is an empty field behind a fine sandy beach, with a backdrop of three waterfalls rumbling down a hillside. Once we’ve set up, we huddle by the fire until midnight, the summer light barely dwindling.
The next morning we hike the 300-metre-high cliffs at Látrabjarg, Iceland’s westernmost point, pausing occasionally to watch tiny puffins return to their nests from the snarling Atlantic. Following a mountain pass, we disappear into the clouds before descending to a road curling through glacial valleys and around several fjords.
To reach Ísafjörður, our base for the next few days, we drive into a tunnel that burrows down, almost vertically, more than six kilometres and delivers us onto a spit protruding into a fjord, surrounded by snow-dusted mountains.
It doesn’t take long to walk the length of Ísafjörður. We end up at Tjöruhúsið (the Tar House), where we dip into the seafood buffet to sample cod cheeks and, rather reluctantly, meaty minke whale. It isn’t an endangered species, but eating it still doesn’t sit well.
“This is all stuff Dad used to cook us when we were small,” says the owner’s son Magnus Hauksson, “and when he offered it to visitors it got so popular we had to open a restaurant.”
A boat carries us to the Hornstrandir Nature Reserve for a 14-kilometre trek guided by Vesteinn Runarsson, a young local man with snow-white eyebrows. He takes us up a mountainside covered in streams and wildflowers to a snowy ridge, and down again to a long beach backed by ice-packed dunes.
“We’re nearer here to Greenland,” says Runarsson, as we scramble around a headland, “than we are to Reykjavík.”
Perhaps not surprisingly for such a remote part of an island isolated by weather, winter darkness and geography, witchcraft flourished in the north. We discover this en route to Akureyri, the country’s second largest city, at Hólmavík’s Museum of Icelandic Sorcery & Witchcraft. We also learn that in the nineteenth century most convicted witches were men and wince at a replica pair of necromancy pants. Reputedly made from human skin, they assured the wearer instant wealth.
In Akureyri, we join guide Marino Svensson for a super Jeep tour. The vehicle’s an elevated 4WD with giant tyres that can forge through deep snow. Svensson takes us further east to the Myvatn region, seething with explosive geysers and pseudo-volcanoes, and pock-marked with spirals of solidified black magma.
From the Goðafoss waterfall, rushing down a lava field like a set of billowing curtains, to Hverir, where we walk in a lunar landscape that broils and bubbles with mud pots, to Krafla, an active volcano, where we drive through clouds of steam...it’s an unforgettable journey.
For the next three nights home is a wooden cabin at Ytri-Vik farm, 23 kilometres north of Akureyri, at the edge of Eyjafjörður. Like most Icelandic homes, it has geothermal heating (including the floor) and an outdoor hot tub, fed by a bore. The view across the fjord at sunset, when bloodied clouds cling to the glowering snowy peaks, is entrancing.
On our final night we attempt to camp again beside Iceland’s largest lake, but the tent is buffeted by overnight wind and rain and, at 3am, collapses. We retreat to the car and, at nearby Thingvellir National Park, the site of Iceland’s Viking parliament, dry everything out under the rising sun.
Established in 930AD, this was the world’s first democratic parliament. It saw the adoption of Christianity in 1000AD and the foundation of the Republic of Iceland, after centuries of Danish rule, in 1944. Sitting at the junction of the American and European tectonic plates that run across Iceland, which are cleaving apart at a rate of two centimetres a year, this World Heritage site is a moving setting for the final morning of our trip.
Once a gathering place for peddlers, sword-sharpeners, tanners, brewers and clowns, who performed at extravagant banquets, all is quiet now save for the grumble of shallow falls rushing between high basalt walls in the Oxara River. But, like so much we’ve seen, the site is imbued with a palpable, planet-building energy.
Qatar Airways flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Reykjavík via Doha.
Cottages at Ytri-Vik farm, near Akureyri, cost from AU$260 a night.
Erlendur Bogason’s Strytan Divecentre is at Hjalteyri, near Akureyri, in north Iceland. Two guided dry suit dives start at AU$350.
North Iceland-based Sporttours runs super Jeep, horseriding and helicopter tours, as well as snowmobiling in winter.
West Tours runs trekking and kayaking trips in the Westfjords.