The land that tamed the Vikings

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 May, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 May, 1998, 12:00am

The first surprise about Iceland is that it doesn't look icy at all. Approaching Keflavik International Airport, Reykjanes Peninsula resembles a lumpy moth-eaten carpet that was once green.

There isn't a tree in sight between the airport and the horizon. Instead, a wispy 'forest' of geothermal steam rises from cracks in the lava fields to blend with a sullen fog rolling in from the North Atlantic.

Forty-five kilometres from the capital, Reykjavik, this is the rocky gateway to one of the most unearthly countries on Earth. Yet it has become one of Europe's leading tour destinations.

Around 874 AD hordes of blood-crazed, axe-wielding Vikings landed here from Norway to discover this little green gem set just south of the Arctic Circle.

What they didn't know was that the lively little island sits squarely over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge where the European and American tectonic plates are tearing it apart.

The ridge runs diagonally across the country creating a belt of hot springs, steam vents, earthquakes and about 200 volcanoes. Factor in frequent avalanches, blizzards, floods and rock falls and Iceland can be a rather exciting place, even for a Viking.

But something happened to these marauding ruffians not long after they colonised their new finding.

Maybe the raw beauty of Iceland's magnificent fjords, its waterfalls, pristine lakes, the northern lights, sunny summers and abundant wildlife that bewitch visitors today, had a similar effect on the earlier invaders.

Within a few generations, these women and men o' war had mellowed. They became farmers and fisherfolk and set about creating a democratic parliament, a fair system of land ownership, a judicial system involving local courts and a supreme court, and then they sat down and wrote about it.

Between 1200 AD and 1300 AD they produced a series of historical and romantic novels known as the sagas, still recognised by scholars internationally as literary masterpieces the equal of any classical Greek tragedy - and eminently more readable.

With these thoughts bouncing around in my head, I took control of the rented four-wheel-drive I'd been told can be very useful around these parts and set a course for Reykjavik.

The highway weaves across the lava fields until it suddenly widens into four lanes. This is the outskirts of the northernmost capital city in the world and, as Murphy's Law would have it, it's peak hour in Reykjavik.

More than half the country's population lives here and more than half of them are driving right now. It's only a matter of moments before I'm hopelessly lost.

Street names like Stekkjarbakki and Kleppsmyarvegur are meaningless and the spelling instantly forgettable when compared to a map. No two streets seem to run in the same direction and most are one-way, mostly the other way.

I throw away the map and fall back on instinct. It works. Suddenly I'm in a wonderful old area of town bursting with restaurants, boutiques, nightclubs and bars.

The darkening streets are narrow and cobbled and the traffic bumper to bumper. It's 8 pm and parking is at a premium. There's a hotel. It doesn't look like a hotel but the sign says 'Hotel Odinsve', named after the Viking god Odin.

Sorry, there are no rooms available. However, as long as I don't mind, the penthouse suite is spare tonight and I can have it for the price of a single room. I'm beginning to warm to these Vikings.

Dawn brings a surprisingly sunny Saturday and what I remembered of grey and rainy Reykjavik the night before is now a riot of colour.

Despite its reputation, Iceland enjoys a surprisingly mild, if unpredictable, climate due to the influence of the warming Gulf Stream. In summer, temperatures in Reykjavik can be higher than 20 degress Celsius.

This is no little sub-Arctic outpost. What began as Ingolfur Arnarson's hay farm at the end of the ninth century, has grown into a sprawling, bustling, wealthy and sophisticated city.

It's a jumble of shops, first class hotels, restaurants and haute couture outlets, all with that distinctly Scandinavian feel.

In a bold statement of Iceland's relative wealth, Laugavegur, the long main street that intersects the Old Town, is a magnet for both local and itinerant shoppers.

Any Saturday morning, Cadillacs, Jaguars, BMWs and Range Rovers jostle for parking space so their owners can stock up on those little necessities of life from Lagerfeld, Louis Vuitton, Dior, Benetton, Hugo Boss or Armani.

As ruddy-faced Icelanders delight in repeating: 'If it's seen on the catwalks of Paris or Milan on a Monday, it will be seen on the streets of Reykjavik by Friday.' The streets of this 1,000-year-old place reek of ancient history. Even strolling down Laugavegur on the lookout for a cosy bar is a link with the distant past.

The street was built over the track Viking women used to stroll down to the Laugardalur hot springs to do their washing 10 centuries ago. Now there's a laundromat at the top of the street.

Not far from the old hot springs the Kolaportid flea markets in the customs house building by the harbour are doing a brisk trade in bric-a-brac, antiques, clothing, old postcards, even old personal photo albums.

Food stalls are packed with local fresh and smoked meats, cheeses, fish, fish and more fish.

By 10.30 am on Sunday, church bells compete across Reykjavik. I wander down to the old lake called the Tjorn, where small children have gathered to take advantage of the brief spell of sunshine and feed bread to the birds.

At the massive Hallgrimskirkja (church) that overlooks the city, a few stolid old Vikings and a mere handful of younger ones obey the call to prayer.

These descendants of the warriors who worshipped the likes of Thor and Odin have worshipped the Christian God now for almost 1,000 years. I opt for the tiny elevator that soars almost to the top of the church spire.

From here there's a 360 degrees view of the city and, on a clear day, through this crisp crystal air, even the shimmering glacier on Snaefellnes Peninsula, 128 kilometres to the north, is visible. Iceland's population clings mostly to the coastline leaving the vast interior an unspoiled wilderness that has become the focus for all-season 4WD ecological and adventure tours.

Away from the rainy southwest, Iceland's weather is sweeter but subject to abrupt quantum changes and in the interior, where a sunny day can suddenly become a sandstorm or a blizzard, the expertise of one of a plethora of local tour guides can mean survival.

Here there are few services, just a kaleidoscope of mountains, canyons, waterfalls, glaciers, wetlands, lakes and Europe's only desert that is so other-worldly, the Apollo astronauts trained there to give them an idea what their future moon-walk might be like.

There are geothermal areas like Hveravellir in the north with its hot pools and volcanic steam vents and the Witch Mountains (Kerlingarfjell) where Icelanders flock to ski in summer in the cool glow of the midnight sun.

There's the sky-blue lake Hvitavatn which nearby glacier Langjokull fills with fractured little icebergs, unpronounceable green oases like Herdubreidarlindir and Europe's largest glacier, Vatnajokull, which has an ice cover up to a kilometre thick in parts.

That's the one that began melting in early October 1996 when its sub-glacial volcano erupted underneath, melting the glacial lake, Grimsvotn.

A month later, to the beat of almost continuous earth tremors, the melted ice burst out from under the glacier in a massive flood that peaked at an estimated 45,000 tonnes a second, washing away bridges and roads, luckily in an uninhabited area.

A lesser flood is Gulfoss, the golden falls, where the glacier-fed Hvita River tumbles 32 metres in a spectacular two-stage cascade. They are said to be Iceland's most beautiful falls.

But for sheer exhilaration, the 37 square kilometres Lake Myvatn takes some beating and even a week isn't long enough to explore this fragile ecosystem bordering the black sand deserts of north Iceland.

Myvatn's placid waters are surrounded by distant ice-capped mountains often seen through a violet haze. With an average depth of only two metres, the lake freezes over in winter.

The silence here is touched only by the eerie calls of more than 40 species of breeding birds and the occasional rumble of a tour bus.

It is a region of incredible natural beauty, a national conservation area and it must, you think, be one of the most peaceful places on Earth. It isn't. Sitting over the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, Myvatn is one of the world's most awesome volcanic regions.

The area is a cauldron of hot springs, geysers, bubbling mud, frequent earth tremors and chronic sub-surface rumblings.

Fortunately modern seismological monitoring by the University of Iceland warns if a big bang is building like the large volcanic fissure at nearby Krafla that last exploded dramatically in 1984.

At the head of a brilliant blue fjord called Eyjafjordur, Iceland's northern capital, Akureyri, is a fairyland riot of colour. The northern light is as clear and pure as crystal, its startling brightness making Akureyri seem like a vast movie set bathed in arc lights.

Around September each year, ruddy-cheeked farmers saddle up their squat Icelandic horses for the rettir, the annual sheep round-up that brings the sheep and horses down from the hills into corrals where they are sorted by ownership and kept under close watch for the duration of the winter.

Visitors are welcome to take part in this age-old spectacle and sometimes get free accommodation and meals for their efforts.

Farm stays in fact have become a prime source of income for many farmers who conduct trail-riding expeditions on these gentle pure-bred horses.

Meanwhile at the Rain Restaurant in Keflavik, a waiter called Vifill draws a large glass of the local Viking brand beer and expounds on the idiosyncrasies of his people. He tells the story of an old shepherd who lives alone with his sheep in the Westfjords, a remote mountainous region in the far northwest of Iceland. The farmer had apparently had no contact with the outside world for years until a television crew from Reykjavik, filming something else in the region a couple of years ago, stumbled on the old hermit.

'He'd been up in the hills for about thirty years,' Vifill almost whispers.

'When the TV people tried to interview him, the old shepherd sounded more like a sheep than a human. The story went all over Europe. And they didn't even pay him for the interview.' Iceland is full of surprises.