Just look at how the mountains so very mighty be Sharp as razors at the top they span the land + sea But don’t forget that though majestic spires, capped with snow… From each and every single grain of sand is [how] they grow — Reykjavik street art
In my first post on Iceland, I described its volcanic origins and some of its most famous sites. In this post, I continue to describe the landscape we saw as we took our adventures further off the beaten track. Iceland is covered in basalt everywhere. It is thick, dark, and jagged. Few plants can grow on it this far north, and few of those are visible in March. To my eyes, raised in the green parts of England and the US, the island looked like a remnant of the apocalypse.
Wandering the southwest
Our journey was unplanned and mostly dictated with the weather. We rented a car in Reykjavik, then scrapped our initial plan to drive around Iceland’s ring road when we realized that our automatic two-wheel drive could easily get stranded in the north if we were hit by a sudden storm. We bought a roadmap and plotted paths through the southeast instead. We planned to spend five days driving, hiking, and sleeping in local campgrounds. Our final route is marked in purple below, with a marker on Skaftafell National Park. The southwest region around Rekjavik is Iceland’s flattest and most fertile area. We drove past small towns, advertising billboards, and the industrially-sized greenhouses that grow the island’s fresh produce. Our first stop was my first sight of a volcano: Hengill. This volcano’s area of activity is 100sq.km, and the volcanic hills stand in sharp relief to the surrounding lowlands. It was a beautiful spring day, so we set out to climb the highest one in sight of the road. The majority of Iceland is public land, and open to exploration as long as you’re careful with the vegetation. The island’s growing season has always been short, and repeated glacial advances in the past five million years eliminated many species. Birch and willow survived until human settlement began in the eighth century, when over-use and grazing wiped out 95% of the woodland. Today, many rocks are covered in springy moss which takes decades to grow in the harsh climate. Driving on the moss is strictly illegal. The plume of steam in this photo is produced by a geothermal power plant. We were almost disappointed to see this. The Iceland of our guidebooks was a free land with a natural hot spring at the end of every hike. Iceland’s exploitation of their energy resources, however, is admirable. With abundant geothermal, hydropower and wind resources, they generate only 0.02% of their energy from fossil fuels. This places them among the top ten cleanest countries in the world (possibly better, as some of their competitors don’t have centralized grids and may be keeping inaccurate records). In contrast, the USA only generates 12.6% of its power from renewable sources, despite great wind resources in the Midwest. The UK does slightly worse at 12.0%.
Trolls in the hills
The highway pressed closer to the sea as we continued east. Cliffs rose higher and higher to our left. The flat land was filled with narrow pastures full of sheep and herds of ponies. The houses were tucked under the bases of the cliffs. To my alarm, we saw many houses surrounded by fallen boulders as big as cars. Some of the clifftops had been carved into eerie curves and pinnacles by the wind. It seemed natural that the people living in their shadows would scare their children with stories about stone trolls. We saw our first official trolls in the coastal town of Vík. Vík is famous for its black sand beaches, made from its black cliffs. In the back of the photo are the three trolls of Vík. We passed the trolls again on our return to Reykjavik, and found them looking a little less forlorn in the sun. This light shows that the cliffs are topped by a particularly steep and cohesive layer of basalt. Where that layer is missing, the weaker lower layers slump rapidly into the sea. Only the trolls remain.
Waterfalls and basalt columns
Although we hadn’t yet seen any glaciers, we knew from our map that many of these cliffs were topped with ice fields. It was March, and they were melting. Sparkling waterfalls poured over the cliffs. We stumbled across the cascade of Skógafoss, which falls a full 60m: As well as several beautiful little falls too common to be named. But we found the most outstanding waterfall inside of Skaftafell National Park. Skaftafoss cuts straight through a tall layer of basalt columns. As basalt cools, it contracts slightly, and cracks at 120◦ angles. If the cooling is rapid, this process forms tall networks of hexagonal columns. These are found all over Iceland, but are particularly dramatic where they are cut and by the waterfall.