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Of Vikings and Elves: Intriguing Iceland

A 10-day road trip in Iceland reveals an ancient world of exaggerated landscapes and rock formations—a place where history and myth find common ground

Published: May 29, 2015 06:22:42 AM IST
Updated: May 29, 2015 01:01:25 PM IST
Of Vikings and Elves: Intriguing Iceland
Image: Vahishta Mistry
How cool: Ice floes on the Jökulsárlón glacier lake in Iceland. The Svínafellsjökull glacier is visible in the background

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.

Curves ahead: Iceland’s Highway 1 runs straight for miles and then you encounter curves like these. So, even if you’re gawking at the scenery, it is advisable to keep an eye on the road

It is striking how very little life is visible around me. Only a few lichens and low grasses survive. In the west, in line to catch the rays of the setting sun, is a tiny burst of bright silver flowers that clings to life in this otherwise barren place. Cocooned in my car driving down Iceland’s Highway 1—the ring road that circumnavigates the country—I am insulated from the sheer starkness of the landscape. The thrum of the car’s engine fills the remarkable silence and the windows block out the wind. The countryside is demanding of attention, though. You can’t drive in Iceland and not encounter a stop-worthy sight every now and then; a phenomenon that sends carefully-planned schedules into purgatory, never to be seen again. Each time I stop, the vastness of the land gets to me, and suddenly my car and all its insulation seem like a dreadfully thin skin, easily punctured and deflated. This must be how astronauts feel about their even more fragile spacecraft, but on a further magnified level.

I am on the fifth day of my 10-day trip around the country. Unlike conventional travellers, I am driving anti-clockwise from my start in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital city. My trusty Toyota Yaris hatchback has been eating up the miles. And every single mile I go, I can’t help but think about how everything in Iceland is so impressive: The ancient Icelandic people, the Vikings, had a rich and dramatic mythology, and a tradition of sagas that were epic. And looking at where they lived, I can see why. It seems as though the land forged and inspired those tales. This tradition of storytelling and sagas is alive in present-day Iceland, where it makes itself felt in the most surprising ways. In 2013, construction work on a highway project was halted when a group of locals felt that the proposed route, from the Álftanes peninsula in the south-east to the Reykjavik suburb of Garðabær, would pass through an elf church and thus disrupt an elf community. Elves or alfar (in Icelandic) are a regular feature of the Viking sagas, and while more modern-minded locals cite not-so-insignificant environmental reasons to halt the project, the elves are the cause that most people rally behind. The project was halted until the Supreme Court of Iceland could rule on the case.

Of Vikings and Elves: Intriguing Iceland
Image: Vahishta Mistry
Lakeside view: Steaming sapphire pools at Lake Mývatn. The water was 150 degree Celsius when it entered the pool in the image below. Not pictured is the heavy industrial piping from the geothermal power plant next door, or the million midges (small biting insects) after which the lake is named

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.

Of Vikings and Elves: Intriguing Iceland
Image: Vahishta Mistry
On the edge: A few miles outside the southern town of Vik is the promontory of Dyrhólaey—or the hill-island with the door-hole—where two tourists venture on to a lava rock arch that’s been worn away by the pounding sea

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.

Rocking location: (Clockwise from right) Lichens are the only life forms that seem to grow on freshly formed lava rock. The spongy surface makes clambering over these rocks feel like walking on the moon, or a plush carpet; the Svínafellsjökull glacier at the Skaftafell National Park is part of Vatnajökull, the largest glacier in Iceland. The training sequence for Batman Begins was shot there. Volcanic eruptions from under the glacier give rise to dreadful floods; the water in the pools at Þingvellir National Park is so clear that one can see right to the bottom, 10 feet below the surface

Driving along further, I pause next at a rock formation called Dimmuborgir. I’m highly amused at the fact that a Norwegian black metal band has chosen its name after an Icelandic volcanic rock formation, the name of which means ‘dark castles’ or ‘dark cities’. Pop culture references aside, there are many reasons to visit Dimmuborgir, and they all have to do with the eerie, evil-looking lava spires left over from old eruptions. The lava cooled unevenly and some of the resulting rock chipped away leaving the stronger bits in place, but in strange and otherworldly shapes. It appears as though an ancient battle-field of monsters has been frozen in time, and you can now wander about the frozen grimacing warriors caught in the act of rending each other to bits. It is special because while this phenomenon occurred all over the world many ages ago, the Dimmuborgir is the only remaining site where you can see the effect clearly.

The lava rock is so brittle that it takes just a few hundred years to break down and disappear into the soil. Iceland’s youth means that while this extremely fleeting formation is still visible, we are able to witness it.

Ultimately, Iceland’s legacy lies in its ability to glimpse the past. It offers a fascinating window into a world gone by: Politically, through its ancient government; geographically, through its landscapes and unique rock formations; culturally, through its tales of Norse heroes and hidden folk. For a raw, primal setting or an adventure or even a movie production (its glaciers are incredibly popular in Hollywood as backdrops for ads and action sequences), go to Iceland.

(This story appears in the May-June 2015 issue of ForbesLife India. To visit our Archives, click here.)