Exploring the Land of Fire and Ice

I’ll be the first to admit that flying over a volcano that’s spewing red-hot fountains of molten lava hundreds of feet into the air, never made it onto my bucket list. In truth, it wasn’t even a consideration.

But as fate – or the volcano trolls – would have it, two adjacent craters in Bardarbunga, the biggest of Iceland’s 30 or so volcanic systems, started to erupt two weeks before I was planning a visit. Within a week, Saga Travel, a leading Icelandic tour company, was scheduling ‘Eruption Sightseeing Flights’. Icelandic entrepreneurs, it seems, waste no time in turning eruptions into unique-opportunity tourist attractions. The chance to fly less than a half-mile above a record-breaking eruption called for an instant bucket-list edit.

Two days after arriving in the northern town of Akureyri, along with a dozen inquisitive, thrill-seeking tourists, I boarded a small, twin-engine Otter for the 30-minute flight to Bardarbunga. We were only cleared for takeoff after a report on the latest wind direction and the level of expelled gases gave the thumbs-up. Halfway to the site, we could see the flames lighting up the horizon. Once there, the pilot made figure-eight passes above the eruption so that passengers on both sides of the plane could have photo-op sightings. We were witnessing the biggest continuous volcanic eruption at Bardarbunga in centuries – one that months later was showing no signs of letting up.

Molten rock belched out of the ground, spraying 300 feet up into the air through enormous red flames. The flames, the pilot told us, covered a mile-long strip, while a glowing river of lava ribboned across the landscape for 10 miles. With cameras poised, we were all glued to our own little windows. “Don’t forget to just look,” the pilot hollered at us from the cockpit. “You’ll never get a better opportunity to witness the fearsome power of nature.”

But Bardarbunga wasn’t the only amazing natural display that Iceland had in store for us.

From Akureyri, the country’s second largest city (population 18,000), we drove out into the countryside the next night, hoping to see the aurora borealis. It was overcast and Blackie, our driver, made no promises. “We can’t order them out, like pizza,” he said. But, after parking in a field and huddling for half an hour in the crisp night air, we watched as the clouds moved off as if by magic. The vast, light pollution–free sky became a blaze of neon green and brilliant gold. We were treated to an awesome show in glorious technicolour. I could have watched them dance all night. Then, just as quickly as the sky had cleared, a curtain of cloud rolled in and the show ended.

If the eruption was fearsome, the neon lights were hypnotic. Witnessing these otherworldly events, it was easy to understand why so many Icelanders believe age-old folktales that say they live among elves, trolls and hidden people.

It’s also easy to understand why the island’s extreme landscape and insanely breathtaking scenery have captured the attention of filmmakers, lending the required otherworldliness to shows such as Thor: The Dark World, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Game of Thrones.

Following in the footsteps of the Game of Thrones cast and crew, we drove Beyond the Wall –through broody, dormant lava fields, past the frothing Strokkur Geyser and around Lake Myvatn with its eerie rock formations and nearby bubbling mud pits. We visited Godafoss, the thundering, horseshoe-shaped Waterfall of the Gods, and heard the saga of how the waterfall’s name comes from the momentous occasion when, in the year 1,000, the chieftain, Þorgeir Ljósvetningagoði, threw idols of his pagan gods into the falls to demonstrate his conversion to Christianity.

Whether we were flying low over the land, touring by car or horseback riding, we experienced the contrast and contradiction that is Iceland. Fire and ice; bright green mosses that thrive in stark, black fields of lava; breathtakingly beautiful scenery alongside eerie other-world vistas.

I fell in love with the adorable Icelandic horses – small, gentle and affectionate nuzzlers with short legs, impossibly long, flowing manes and expressive eyes. Thanks to their fifth gait (the tölt), they treat riders to the smoothest ride imaginable.

Norwegian settlers brought the first horses to the island in the 9th century. Ancient laws restrict the import of any other breeds, so the Icelandic horse has remained pure ever since. For generations they were the only means of transportation and the essential working animal.

Icelanders are devoted to them. Today there are 80,000 horses – an incredible number for a nation with a population of only 320,000. People keep them mainly for riding, competition and simply the pleasure of their company.

Iceland is consistently listed among The Happiest Countries in the World. The horses may be one reason, but others include the high standard of living here and a comprehensive health-care system. Every Icelander we met talked about tight family ties and strong social bonds with friends and neighbours. The country is so safe that it is not uncommon to see babies sleeping in their strollers outside cafés, while their parents relax inside. Even in Reykjavik, the capital city, (population 120,000) homeowners don’t bother to lock their doors.

And then there’s the national ritual of communal bathing in geothermally heated pools, the world-famous Blue Lagoon near Reykjavik holding the honour of the country’s number-one tourist attraction. Virtually every town in the country has one of these outdoor hot pots. They’re where the locals gather in the evening to meet friends and unwind, gossiping or debating the news of the day over a beer – even on cold winter evenings when, if you’re lucky, you can gaze at the northern lights. Icelanders believe this geothermal stewing is a crucial element in staying healthy.

Iceland – it’s all enough to make anyone happy.

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