I’m stuck in the middle of a glacial river, shoeless and shivering, sharp stones jabbing into the soles of my bare feet. The water is up to my knees, and three of us have linked arms in a human chain to combine forces against the dangerous pull of the current. It’s agony – surely I’m either going to pass out from the cold or from the stabbing pain of the rocks between my toes. “Come on, you can do it!” encouraging voices from the other side shout over the roar of the water. I tighten my grip on my companions and we struggle forward, but my legs have gone numb and are like wooden stilts, slipping and staggering on slimy river rocks. Never has the phrase ‘painstakingly slow’ been more appropriate.
Finally, we reach the edge of the riverbank. Scrambling out of the water, my first steps back on soft grass feel as if I’m walking on air. I’ve heard that those who have nearly frozen to death describe a rush of euphoria near the end. Well, whatever this is, it’s utter bliss. Drying off my tingling toes, placing my feet back into dry socks and the comfort of my trek shoes, I’ve never felt so relieved or so happy to be alive. And I can’t help wondering what I’ve got myself into.
I’m in Iceland and in the middle of a four-hour hiking tour of the Glymur region organised by the Danish shoe brand, Ecco. Having only ever associated the label with comfortable sandals, I had no qualms about agreeing to come on this trip to try out its latest shoe collection.
I’d envisaged splashing about in hot springs in trendy sandals, perhaps a leisurely amble or two – but it turns out the company is actually a specialist in hardy outdoor footwear, and this trek is all in aid of trying out its new Biom Terrain hiking boots.
“We’re the outdoor world’s best-kept secret,” grins Suza, Ecco’s operations manager. I smile thinly, my heart lurching in trepidation as I remember the kayaking trip they’ve got planned for us this afternoon. Watching Suza skip merrily off, my feet now safely snuggled back in the boots, I’m starting to suspect that the barefoot river-crossing trauma was all a ploy to make us appreciate Ecco’s ‘best kept secrets’…
Now I have to confess: I’m no trek aficionado – far from it, in fact, I don’t even own a pair of proper trainers – unlike the rest of the people in our hiking group, who all seem like intimidatingly fit types who do triathlons before breakfast. So while I’m not the most qualified reviewer, I can at least say this: after tramping my way up steep mountain sides, traversing treacherous shingly slopes and scaling sheer rock faces, I’m sure these lightweight, hardy boots must have saved my life on more than one occasion. And they have left me free to appreciate the crisp air and breathtaking views that the stunning natural landscapes afford, which is what any visit to Iceland should really be about.
It’s impossible to forget that Iceland – nicknamed the land of ice and fire – is a country of extremes. One of the youngest land masses, geographically speaking, the 20-million-year-old island was formed from a volcanic explosion, and it continues to be both at the mercy of and to profit from its location on the hot spot – a volcanic region fed by its underlying mantle – that gave birth to it.
Our group met yesterday at the Blue Lagoon, a famous geothermal spa not far from Reykjavik, where we luxuriated in the steaming mineral-rich water, perfectly warm and toasty despite the icy rain flecking our faces. But the same forces that create this healing hot spring and provide plentiful geothermal heating and energy to all Icelanders can also produce an epic ash cloud that lingers for weeks and throws the entire European flight timetable out of whack, as it did following the eruption of EyjafjallajÖkull in 2010.
The landscapes reflect this geological diversity, ranging from spooky black moonscapes to lava fields humped with bright green moss and glassy fjords surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks.
Something undeniably magical
Two-thirds of the way into our trek, we stop for lunch on the edge of a sheer black cliff face with an awe-inspiring view of the Glymur waterfall – Iceland’s highest at 198 metres. Munching well-earned sandwiches to the roar of thousands of gallons of glacial water gushing over the edge of the gorge, our guide Gaddi warns us not to go too close to the edge – not just because of the risk of falling, but because of the nesting gulls, who won’t hesitate to dive bomb if you get too close.
The remaining hour or so of the hike, I’m assured, will be much easier, and as we set off again I relax enough to fall in step with Gaddi, who is telling stories about Icelandic folklore. “Can I ask you a personal question?” pipes up Suza. “Is it true that you all believe in elves?” Gaddi smiles. I can’t tell whether he’s teasing us or not, but he explains that elves are an intrinsic part of Icelandic culture. “Our forefathers believed in them. Who are we to say they don’t exist?” he asks.
Mysterious creatures who can be either well-meaning or mischievous, roads have apparently been built with bends specifically to avoid known ‘elf-dwellings’, and stories regularly hit the Icelandic headlines about houses saved in earthquakes or cars saved from rock falls supposedly due to elvish magic. And then there’s the trolls of course – but Gaddi assures us we need not worry about them. They only come out at night (sunlight turns them to stone) and during our June visit to this northern country just south of the Artic Circle, it is practically 24-hour daylight.
I would be more unnerved that the man guiding us through this perilous countryside landscape is proving himself to be something of a fantasist, except I’m pretty sure he’s being tongue-in-cheek. I think...
However, there is something undeniably magical about the Icelandic countryside, and it’s easy to see why this island and its Norse heritage served as such an inspiration to the fluent-in-Icelandic Tolkien when he penned Lord of the Rings, and why the makers of Game of Thrones decided to set so much of their fantasy series in its bleak and beautiful surroundings.
Finally, we reach the end of the walking segment of our day, and get ready for the thrilling kayaking finale. A five-minute drive later and we are at the shore of Hvalfjörður, or ‘whale-fjord’, so-called because of the large number of whales that used to be found and caught there.
We’re all given a kayak and instructed on how to stay balanced and what to do in the case of capsizing. My stomach lurches again – I really don’t want to become whale food! But once I’m out on the lake, it’s surprisingly easy to stay upright, and I find myself enjoying the feeling of gliding along the water.
Simple farm houses dot the landscape, painted bright blues, reds or yellows like Toytown dwellings, a custom that stems back to Iceland’s poorer pre-war days (although a neutral country, Britain and the US defended Iceland against the Germans during the Second World War, and Icelanders subsequently received by far the most aid per capita in the post-war European Recovery Program) when rust-prone corrugated iron was the cheapest and most available building material. The still water reflects the surrounding snowcapped mountains and the thick denim sky, which is an eerie landscape in itself – bruised-looking clouds gather like tightened fists, mingling with luminous white cirrus and patches of bright blue.
In the middle of the lake, Gaddi asks us all to make a chain of kayaks, lining up and linking oar to oar. Here he explains that the scarecrows that blot the shores of the fjord are put there to protect Eider bird nests, the seaducks that provide the soft feathers that fill Eiderdown pillows and duvets. Farmers must collect the feathers from the nest, wash and sterilise them before selling them on. It sounds like an arduous process, and it’s just one of the ways in which Icelanders are trying to make money in an economy that has suffered terribly in recent years following the 2008 global financial crisis.
It’s almost 8pm, but it is still broad daylight, and we paddle back to shore to get ready for dinner.
Not your normal capital city
We’re taken to a picturesque Swiss chalet-style lodge with stunning river views, where we’re served a sumptuous barbecue banquet. Although puffin and whale make regular appearances in Icelandic cuisine, we are given only tender Icelandic lamb and luscious locally caught salmon, followed by the traditional Skyr, a deliciously creamy yogurt-like dessert.
While the unmatched natural landscapes and wildlife are a huge draw for tourists – I am riddled with envy at another tour member’s tale of eating breakfast to the sight of orca whale pods in a Northern Iceland hotel – the country’s capital is another must-see. So once dinner is over, it’s time for us to bundle into the bus again for a 45-minute drive to Reykjavik (which means ‘cove of smoke’, after the rising geothermal steam spotted by the first settlers).
Walking around the city, which is small enough to cover on foot, it doesn’t feel like any capital I’ve ever been to before. The buildings are quaint and brightly painted, and the main shopping street, which alternates mainly outlets selling wool, wooden souvenirs or food, is smaller than a single section of The Dubai Mall. But with its harbour and the impressive new opera house, it has a lot of charm and character, and we’re happy to spend time in the various bars – me keeping one eye out for Peter Dinklage or any other of the cast of Game of Thrones, who are said to have been spotted relaxing in these parts after a day of filming.
For a country with only around 320,000 inhabitants, there seems to be a high proportion of artistic talent. Original art adorns the walls in every bar and café we visit, and there are more than enough choices of live music on offer. Although Bjork might be its most famous export, Iceland hosts large music festivals throughout the year where homegrown bands with international fame like Sigur Ros play alongside huge international names, and Reykjavik has recently been awarded Unesco City of Literature status – if you like a bit of Lord of the Rings, you should try reading some of the Icelandic sagas, all written between the 12th and 14th centuries.
At midnight I know it’s finally time to drag myself away and go to bed. As I wander reluctantly to my hotel, the sun is still weakly out and the eerie gloam and twittering birds makes it feel more like dawn than the middle of the night.
It’s been a long but fascinating day and even though the hotel curtains can’t block out all the light outside, I know that when my head hits the pillow I’ll fall straight to sleep.
A land of dramatic landscapes, fascinating folklore and amazing people, there is so much more to see and I wish I could stay longer in this incredible country. I came here to try out shoes, but ended up taking back far more than just new footwear. Iceland, you swept me off my feet.