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Enchanting Iceland: Silence, thrilling experiences and colours

03/12/2012 — 

If you think about it, there is something we have lost since the introduction of modern technologies: the use of our imagination. Today, we do not have to try and picture what a distant place can be like. Take one of those mythical-looking places we heard about from the few adventurous men, who wrote memorable works of ancient literature, or from those, who had the extraordinary chance to visit such a place. Iceland, as the name suggests, is a land of ice, although it is no longer possible to imagine this country only as a white island. Its northern atmosphere and inhospitable land have now become a popular tourist destination constantly receiving travellers. That is how we all learnt, that Iceland is a land full of contrasting elements, rather than an icy island: Iceland shows a continuous and dynamic coexistence between extreme heat and cold, and contrasting elements such as water and fire, the sea and geysers, volcanoes and – finally – ice.

At this point of our considerations, another illusion might turn up. When you think about travelling across Iceland, you cannot just imagine Ring Road – the highway that follows the whole coast of the island measuring 1,339 kilometres – even though, to tell the truth, it offers an excellent and soft way to begin your tour, if you are looking for the comfort found in the main cities, and if you are interested in its cultural aspects. On the other hand, if you think that Iceland is smaller than northern Italy, you will also have to leave any form of prejudice behind, as far as travelling times and ways are concerned, especially if you decide to hire a car, as most people do. As you head inland for a few kilometres, after crossing shallow rivers, mud and dirt roads, you will be able to sink into the most inhospitable side of Iceland. This is the side – to say it straight – people could have imagined a century ago, while reading a few yellowed pages of a book by an adventure novelist.

In Iceland, nature is not only magnificent, impressive and ancestral: it still shows an authentic aspect of its environment, which can be described with one word – an adjective, which is often used inappropriately – uncontaminated. It remained intact, pure. Iceland’s very peculiar geographic position – the island lies between the northern side of the Atlantic Ocean and the Greenland Sea, above a latitude of 65°N, but its weather is mitigated by the Gulf Stream – has made it an inhabitable land, and has also favoured a significant urban development process, which has involved, most of all, the areas close to the coastline. In the inland areas, instead, although a few villages exist and most of the country is provided with a wide public transport network serving also the central plateaus, the landscape is dominated – in the word’s most literal sense – by its primeval nature.

This description of Iceland makes it look more like it was when people first dreamt about it. Volcanoes erupting in the night – in Iceland, summer nights are not dark at all, as the sun hardly sets; – impressive waterfalls rushing down, over green moss and lichen – Glymur, the highest waterfall of the island, is situated in the western Iceland, and it is as many as one hundred and ninety metres high – hot water and intermittent steam erupting from geysers, in a barren and desert land. The Earth’s crust, in this area, is much closer to the surface than in other areas of the world, and for this reason, Iceland’s geothermal activity is intense. The Icelanders’ exceptional awareness of this environmental aspect has resulted in the widespread use of distribution plants providing cities with heating and electricity. Lakes, rivers and rocky formations originating from lava are authentic natural monuments, which also play a part in making the environment so spectacular – quite often, you will come across craters and volcanic ash; moreover, the not always merry “marriage” between the island’s eruptive activity and polar ice causes continuous geological changes.

All these spectacular phenomena are shown in the photo reportage printed within this article. We intentionally took a tour of the heart of Iceland to look at its innermost essence, even though our journey would have been impossible without an appropriate off-road vehicle and without drivers trained for any occurrence. Our crew had not chosen a specific destination: they just decided to head south. And they left from Langjökull, and they journey soon turned out to be like the adventure they had been imagined to experience, both because of the difficulties they had to face on off-road itineraries, that often involved shallow rivers, and because they had to travel on a Jeep – suitably provided with a sleeper cabin – to stay in tents, and to walk along trekking paths.

Then, they arrived in Landmannalaugar, in the south-western area of the country, north of the famous and just as hard to pronounce Eyjafjallajökull volcano which, in April 2010, generated an ash cloud so large that all across central and northern Europe from Iceland to Italy airports were closed, and air traffic was stopped.

Looking at Iceland’s map, our route would seem rather winding and pointless, if our purpose were not that of experiencing the deep solitude of some parts of Iceland, where you will not come across anyone for hours, or even for days, even if you do not travel too far away from the residential areas and from Iceland’s warm welcoming inhabitants.

Let us try and follow our heroes – you will need nerves of steel – as they explore this wild land worn away by the wind, where scattered bushes and spontaneous vegetation are at their best in summer, and where sandy expanses recall extraterrestrial landscapes, whereas contrastingly, moving towards the coast, everything looks very green. It sounds unbelievable, but before you get to the coastline, dotted with charming villages – such as Vik, the final destination of our journey – vast volcanic areas will appear, as well as hot water pools and streams, where you can rest from your tiring trip and enjoy a thermal bath surrounded by nature (a unique experience, that no spa resort in the world could offer). Everywhere else, all you see is yellow mountains – their colour indicates a high concentration of minerals, mostly rhyolite – but also pitch-black lava streams and rocks red with iron and copper; plateaus and rivers, offering new views at every step you take and, finally, the fifth highest waterfall of Iceland: the Skógafoss, which pushes away whoever gets too close with wind blasts, from the impressive height of sixty-two metres.

Proceeding southwards, a different landscape will soon catch your eye, as you see farms, Icelandic horses peacefully grazing and a few small villages announcing your destination: you are getting closer to the coast. Highway 1 will take you to Vik, situated at the foot of the above mentioned volcano, which became known across Europe. Vik is a farming village known for its wool – which was named after it – and most of its inhabitants are sheep farmers, even though the village is situated on the coast. As you cast one last look down the cliffs, you will enjoy an astonishing view over lava-rock arches, which were once touched by the sea. Today, they are natural wharves hanging over black beaches.

Click here to see Mirko Sotgiu photos

Photographer: Mirko Sotgiu