When Jules Verne, the French writer and father of modern science fiction plotted his classic adventure novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864, he chose the most plausible place on the planet he could: untamed Iceland, a mystical, yet very real island at the Arctic Circle. Covered with an eternal Ice Age blanket of snow and ice atop its infernal, fiery underside, this natural Nordic wonder was legendary even in Verne’s time, known for its explosive volcanoes, steaming red lava fields and towering geysers.
The word, “geyser” given to waterspouts worldwide, is derived from Iceland’s most prodigious spout named, “Geysir,” which began its first twenty-story-high eruptions in AD 1294. Recently gone nearly dormant, it has passed its mantle on to its close neighbor Strokkur, now the Icelandic champion with seven-story-tall releases every five minutes around the clock.
What set off Verne’s scholarly characters on their fictional descent into the earth’s subterranean abyss was a mysterious 4th Century Runic parchment they uncovered, translated and deciphered. As an expedition party of only three, they set off to explore the earth’s core from inside the cone of an actual Icelandic volcano, the extinct Snaefelellsjokull (“snow mountain”).
It was in the shadow of Snaefelellsjokull, where I launched my discovery into Iceland’s legendary “Wild Side.” It took me initially eastward over rough narrow rural roads built on beds of crushed lava and at times surfaced with the same volcanic material. My destination was to the Deildartunguhver thermal area. In a nation with 250 hot spring districts, this spa country is in a class by itself: Europe’s largest. Its Blue Lagoon health spa is such a mecca of relief for psoriasis and eczema sufferers, it is Iceland’s top tourist attraction.
Across the countryside you see steam rising naturally everywhere: from streams, farmlands, even from shoulders along the road.
Some 200 miles to the northwest, near the end of my adventure, I encountered one of the earth’s most active volcanic regions around Lake Myvatn. Here Iceland is virtually being torn apart by the relentless stress tectonics of the Mid Atlantic Ridge where the American and European Plates are separating. The good news is the activity crawls at a snail’s pace: just two centimeters a year. So it didn’t prevent NASA from training its Apollo 11 Astronauts on the barren Myvatn landscape for their historic 1969 moonwalk.
As I trekked the area, I reached infernal Havarond, a smoking clay field of boiling steam vents and mud pits. Here, with a single misstep, you can be boiled alive if you should break through its pizza thin crust. Readings taken from a mile below here reach temperatures of more than 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Via raised walkways and viewing platforms and following within roped corridors, I safely transited through this steaming hell on earth.
Just the same, in the ever-changing vapors and fumes, a companion at your side may appear, disappear and reappear in the blink of an eye.
North from hellish Havarond, just 30 miles or so on the shores of Skjalfandi (“shivering fjord”) I arrived in Iceland’s whale-watching capital. Husavik is a picturesque fishing village and harbor with a Whale Museum housed in a huge old wooden waterfront structure I suspect once served as a whaling station. Now run as a non-profit, the museum focuses on the 24 species of whales that frequent Icelandic waters.
At the pier I boarded the restored oaken-hulled Nattafri excursion vessel and donned 66-Degree North (Arctic Circle) storm gear for the voyage out to sea on its open deck. The vintage craft with its 69 foot-long hull and gross weight of 100 tons looked fit enough until I saw the listing in my whale-spotting guide for Icelandic Blues at 90 feet and 200 tons; outweighing the Nattafri two to one!
Only when our spotting guide announced that whales were spotted on 699 out of the last 712 voyages for a 98.2 success rate, did I feel relieved that the Nattafri would return to port unscathed by the breaching Arctic behemoths.
On the whaling excursions, Humpback, Minke and Northern Bottlenose are most often seen as well as porpoises and white-beaked dolphin closer in to shore. My voyage was a total success in calm seas and mostly fair skies with at least a dozen close up sightings.
Inland again, I found myself donning a helmet and life vest to join an inflatable river-rafting trip on the milk-white glacial Hvita River. Here you meet the adrenaline-pumping challenge of waves and rapids as well as enjoying a reflective drift through serene canyons with perpendicular black basaltic walls. As a respite from the first series of rapids, our 25 year-old guide Elvar, beached our raft and took several of us for a climb up a steep rocky path to the top of a canyon wall directly above the river.
Atop the four-story high cliff, he suggested a dive into the calm water below from atop the promontory. Casually he stepped feet first off from the ledge and pierced the water below like an arrow through a bulls-eye. Returning to the top of the promontory, he amazed us with a second dive: this time, a perfect back flip. That was all the inspiration that Tim, a fellow rafter from Dublin, Ireland needed to greet the Hvita below with his own brand of daring Irish bravado.
Further downstream, the Hvita grows into a torrent fed by tributaries to create Iceland’s greatest natural attraction: Gullfoss Waterfall (“golden falls”) which thunders down in two stages producing a deafening roar heard for miles around.
“All good things come to an end,” and my visit to the untamed land of “Fire and Ice” did as well. However, countless fond memories of “Untamed Iceland” discoveries were still fresh in my mind. One I treasure most happened at Helgafell (“holy mountain”) early on my itinerary on the same peninsula that Jules Verne set his 19th Century science-fiction classic.
There I ascended, according to local custom, with the promise that on this, my first climb, I may make three wishes that will be granted …if… I not look back or speak on the way up or ever reveal to anyone any of my silent petitions.
With two of my three wishes already granted since returning home, I’m expecting that the third is well on its way, and will top them all!
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