Illuminating Iceland

Situated in the middle of the North Atlantic, Iceland is a ‘Land of Fire and Ice’ where the Mid-Atlantic Volcanic Ridge breaches the surface of the ocean. It’s a geologists dream and one of the youngest countries on earth, still growing a few inches wider each year. As one peace-loving local told me, ‘Why would we need an army? We are gaining new land every day!’

The island is literally being pulled apart as the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates slowly move away from each other and the void is filled by fresh molten lava. But it’s not a continuous process, it’s a violent, erratic one and many of Iceland’s volcanoes explode rather than erupt, firing ash clouds many miles into the sky, disrupting global air travel.

The good news for adventuring motorcyclists is that the Smyril Line ferry sails from Denmark between March and October regardless of eruptions and as it delivered me to Iceland’s eastern shore, I started a motorcycle experience like no other, through a gateway of fjords. Iceland is practically devoid of trees, but what at first glance seems a barren and alien landscape, is exciting beyond measure once you’re fully immersed.

There’s one outer ring road of 1,339kms but not all of it is sealed, and pretty much all other routes are dirt. The land is fragile though, so stick to the tracks that exist, which twist and turn and demand your total attention, as the surface can change from deep volcanic ash, to deep mud hidden beneath a gravel surface. The ring road remains open most of the year, but the central highlands that provide the incredible moonscapes, aren’t generally passable until June.

Rivers are glacial, so alter their path and rise and fall with the temperature, or due to sub-glacial eruptions. For this reason and others, it would be impossible to construct bridges inland, so if you salivate at the thought of river crossings, here’s your nirvana. But being glacial runoff, the rivers aren’t warm and the surrounding weather can change in an instant, so don’t take the whole experience lightly. Iceland’s position at the top of the Gulf Stream means its maritime climate never actually gets that cold and contrary to popular belief, no part of the island falls inside the Arctic Circle, but a biting wind with no trees to break its course, can carry a hail storm at any time of year or wrap you in a thick and disorienting fog. Iceland can be a real adventure, right here in Europe and there’s no special paperwork necessary to take your bike there even though it is not a member of the European Union.
With long days in summer, where it is almost light 24 hours a day, you can ride through the stunning landscape for as long as you can ensure you’ve got enough fuel and make sure you stock up if you’re heading through the island’s interior.

Fortunately, if you need to dry out or warm up, hostels are cheap, plentiful (except in the centre) and good, even in Reykjavik the capital. This is where you’ll discover that socially, Iceland’s an adventure too. Beer was only legalised in 1989 and although it is still heavily taxed, that doesn’t appear to deter revellers, especially at the weekend, where I couldn’t get over the queues to get into clubs, even at 5am, when I was making my merry way home!

I wondered what a nation could do through the long dark winter months, even though the number of lingerie shops gives some clue and the famously liberal Scandinavian culture, another. But this is a people also famous for their storytelling, or Sagas, and their fierce independence. Although the earliest settlers were Irish – the Westman Islands on the south coast are named after them – Norwegians seeking a new life, free of Royal subjugation, were the main settling force. Together they brought their poetry and story-telling and established one of the oldest Parliaments, the ‘Althing’ in 930. By the 14th century Iceland was under the control of Denmark, a situation that was maintained in various forms until Germany invaded Denmark in 1940 and the islanders used the opportunity to retake control, eventually setting up a Republic in 1944.

A uniquely Icelandic trait is the way their names are constructed. A typical ‘nuclear’ family in Iceland will have four surnames, as boys take their father’s name and the suffix ‘sson’ and girls the suffix ‘dóttir’. There is therefore no familial lineage in the same way, so people are listed in the phonebook by their first names. The total population is only 320,000.

For many, Iceland is known for leading the way in the economic crash of 2008, as its reckless banks failed and brought the economy down. Icelanders however, refused to use their public money to bail out the banks and they were permitted to flounder, leaving the country free to slowly get back on its feet without pouring good money after bad as so many other countries chose to do.

As a result, it’s now doing very well and clearly there’s enough spare Icelandic Króna for a few beers! The economy is built on fish and power; hydro and geothermal. Old grandfather Geysir may have given his name to the phenomenon, but the energy beneath the surface that creates an explosive hot shower or boiling mud has been tapped. Naturally hot water is piped to many households and steaming geothermal pools exist in various places across the country for those who want to strip off and bathe amid natural minerals. It’s a novel experience, walking on a glacier and then taking a relaxing outdoor bath. But then so is seeing citrus fruit production this far north.

With geological activity so close to the surface, Iceland’s a virtual explosion waiting to happen on one hand, and a source of free industrial power on the other. The ground and groundwater are superheated, so building glasshouses was just common sense. Combine near 24 hour daylight in the summer with a free underground heating system and you have a recipe for phenomenal plant growth. That underground energy is also what enables Iceland’s biggest onshore industry to flourish; aluminium smelting. It’s a hugely energy intensive process, but if your power is virtually free, why not? Ship in the raw material, do the processing and ship out the refined product and the waste. Perfect.

This is a land of contrasts: light and dark for months at a time; a seemingly barren landscape that contains huge plant variety and furious short-term growth, and volcanos that breathe fire, yet live beneath glaciers. Just one glacier, Vatnajökull, (jökull means glacier) covers nearly ten per cent of the country and its recent retreat from the ocean has created the Jökulsárlón ice lagoon, populated with seals and definitely worth a visit. But the incredible bird life (because Iceland has no large predatory mammals) should be witnessed, the inquisitive wild horses are omnipresent and just off shore you’ll be able to see the majesty of whales.

I stared at the water’s inky blackness, but my mind was fixed on the colourful little settlement of Seðisfjörður, fast receding from the ferry’s stern. I felt the little bag of fresh volcanic ash in my pocket. I’d be back.

Paddy Tyson