I stand on the road, listening to the tick of the cooling engine. The crunch of gravel underfoot and the fluttering of my loose hiking pants in the cold, brisk breeze are the only other sounds I can hear. I walk a few steps away, putting some distance between myself and the shoulder of the road where I have parked my car. All about me is a desolate, wind-blasted landscape. There are rocks in all shapes and sizes, from squat troll-like creatures to huge sharp-edged monsters that would cut you if you stroked them. The road itself unfolds like a ribbon into the distance, down the hill I am currently on, and into a valley.
My destination, Lake Mývatn, in the north-central part of Iceland is somewhere beyond the ridge of spiny mountains in the distance and, with the light fading fast, I have to be quick about my stop. Fifteen minutes, no more. When I was planning this driving trip around Iceland, I knew that I would encounter some bizarre and wonderful sights, but even now, after spending a few days here, I’m still overwhelmed by the land.
Elves are important to Icelanders. A survey conducted by the University of Iceland in 2007 found that 62 percent of a thousand respondents thought it was, at least, possible that elves exist. All of Scandinavia has legends and folklore about ‘hidden folk’—fairies, gnomes, trolls and other imaginary denizens of the dark places of the mind—but unlike Norway, Denmark and Sweden, to some Icelanders, these creatures are as real as the land that inspires them.
Iceland has geologists and researchers in its thrall, too, and the scientific reason for its unique landscape has to do with how young it is. Not the political country, which is arguably the oldest democracy in the world. Its parliament, the Alþingi (pronounced ‘Althing’, and literally means ‘all things’), was founded in 930 AD, but suspended between 1799 and 1854 by royal decree. What sets the country apart is that it sits atop the Iceland plume, an area of unusually hot rock in the earth’s mantle. The very oldest rocks were formed only as little as 20 million years ago, a blink of an eye, geologically. While the rest of the earth has been worn away and eroded over millions of years, in Iceland, because of its relative youth, we get a window into the past. We can see how our planet would have looked before the processes of wind, water, ice and sun chipped away and smoothed over the land.
Nowhere is this more visible than in Þingvellir National Park. (The Icelandic character ‘Þ’, sometimes called a ‘thorn’, is pronounced with a ‘th’ sound, and just as how Alþingi becomes ‘Althing’, Þingvellir becomes ‘Thingvellir’.) The park is on a piece of land that shows the continental drift between the Northern American and Eurasian tectonic plates. It is amazing to look out on a landscape and see how two swathes of land once met, but are now separated by a low rift valley, which will itself, over time, stretch out until the seam in the land is unrecognisable.
As I sit watching the road stretch on, pondering the possibility of running into elves on my journey, I glance at my watch and see that my self-allotted 15 minutes of halt time is up. The low sun reminds me that I need to reach Lake Mývatn and find a campsite soon. The other option is to drive in the dark and risk missing some sight or spectacle that I might have otherwise stopped for. Sure enough, as I drive into the road that encircles Lake Mývatn, the sun dips and I have to do the last couple of kilometres in the dark. The steep grades and patches of gravel that sometimes lie on the highway make night driving quite dangerous.
The lake is in a geologically active area, with lots of lava formations from past volcanoes and geothermal springs, because of which the stench of sulphur hangs heavily in the air. The smell is the first indicator that I was finally near the lake. However, I can’t see a thing as the surrounding countryside is pitch black, the sort of oppressive darkness that even a car’s headlamps illuminate only faintly.
I roll into the town, named after the lake, and look for a campsite to stay. In Iceland you can camp anywhere that is not fenced in, or in a national park. I usually camp on public land, but this evening I’m unable to find a suitable spot close to town. I have no choice but to pay for a campsite for the very first time on this trip. Formalities done, I cook a light dinner of Thai food in a kitchen area close to the campsite office that’s included in my rent, and then erect my tent. I bed down immediately after dinner and fall into a deep, dreamless sleep, which has become the norm during my time in Iceland.
I wake up to a view that is almost unearthly in its beauty. The approach road to the town is studded with steaming and bubbling hot springs. They’re far too hot to bathe in—most of them are above 230⁰ C—but the mineral content of the water and the high temperatures have given each of these pools a vibrant, beautiful blue that is stunning to behold in clear daylight. Now, I’m glad that I drove into the town at night. If I had arrived at dusk, as I had intended, I would have seen this approach in the most unflattering light imaginable. By arriving late, I was treated to the more spectacular experience of waking up to this view. There are fields of these pools, a carpet of sapphires stretching between the town and the nearest hill—at least 20 large pools and many more tiny ones. They are all being tapped for geothermal power and the resulting mess where heavy industrial piping (some rusting, others painted in efficient black and brown colours) meets a fractured and torn earth are a steam-punk fan’s dream landscape.