According to the big bang theory, the earth is 4.54 billion years old. Iceland, the youngest land mass to emerge out of the Atlantic Ocean floor, formed by volcanic eruptions, is between 16 and 20 million years old.
This was not in my knowledge when I boarded the flight from London to Reykjavik. In fact, there was little apart from Iceland’s location on a world map that I knew prior to my departure – except that there are no McDonald’s or Starbucks in the entire country.
|Iceland’s landscape is dotted by volcanoes, glaciers, rivers, small villages and farms.|
I arrived at Reykjavik, the smallest big city or a big village depending on how you look at it, to a cold spring and endless daylight. Reykjavik, literally meaning the ‘smoky bay’ or ‘steamy bay’ (named after hot springs located around the city), is the world’s northernmost capital, lying just below the Arctic Circle. It is home to about two-thirds of the country’s population, estimated at over 320,000.
To give you a rough idea, the entire island has fewer residents than Karachi’s NA-246.
|View of Reykjavik from the Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral. Colourful rooftops dot the picturesque city and can be spotted from various locations given the hilly terrain.|
|Hallgrimskirkja Cathedral is a landmark in Reykjavik and also one of the tallest buildings. Icelanders avoid building skyscrapers to preserve the scenic landscape that ribbons the city.|
Reykjavik’s old harbour opens up the city to the North Atlantic Ocean, from where tourists can indulge in various boat tours. Here, travellers are ideally positioned to take day tours around the southern and western coasts, or, if feasible, rent a car and drive around the ring road that circles the island.
|Reykjavik’s old harbour overlooks the North Atlantic Ocean.|
|The Settlement Exhibition is a must-see for history buffs. The exhibit tells the stories of Iceland’s first settlers, the Vikings.|
My first trip outside Reykjavik took me hiking around The Golden Circle, a popular route for travellers as it’s close to the capital and encompasses three core destinations: Thingvellir, the Gulfoss waterfall and the Geysir. Thingvellir or the 'Parliament Plains' is where the world’s oldest parliamentary assembly (Althingi) was formed in AD 930. It moved to Reykjavik, nine centuries later.
Iceland was initially ruled by Norway and then Denmark, gaining full independence on June 17, 1944. Iceland has no standing army, but under a defence agreement, an American military base was present from 1951 to 2006.
The Parliament Plains has a location colloquially referred to as ‘no continent’s land’. Iceland is the only country on the mid-Atlantic ridge, divided between the American and European continents. But at one spot on the Plains, neither continents lay claim.
|The Parliament Plains, where the oldest parliament was formed in AD 930.|
|Gulfoss waterfall, part of Iceland’s Golden Circle.|
|The ‘Geysir’ is a popular attraction on the Golden Circle.|
Black sandy beaches, high tides, wicked lava rock formations intruding into the ocean, gales strong enough to cause road blocks, and mountain glaciers towering over the beaches make a visit to Iceland’s shores an overwhelming experience. Next on my hiking trail was Iceland’s southern shore, together with an afternoon of glacier hiking – a first for me.
Icelanders learn fairly early on in their lives to wrap ‘clamp-ons’ under their shoes and walk the glaciers, with blue ice-caves and fresh spring water flowing underneath. Ice axe in hand, I am guided by an experienced climber – a young, self-trained Icelander with a flair for picking routes at random.
Approximately one per cent of Iceland’s population volunteers for search and rescue operations across the island. One of my hosts, a local Icelander, is also a volunteer, as is our guide on this glacier hike. He asks me if there are any glaciers in Pakistan. I tell him about the highest battleground – the Siachen glacier. He nods solemnly.
My next stop is the Seljalandsfoss waterfall. I hike up to the middle of the waterfall, walk behind it, get generously sprayed upon and drenched, and return feeling victorious. We drive by Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced: eh-ya-fyat-la-jo-kutl). It is referred to by some as simply ‘E-15’ (the letter E followed by 15 other letters), since very few non-Icelanders can pronounce it correctly.
Eyjafjallajokull is famous for its 2010 eruption that resulted in volcanic ash disrupting thousands of flights across the European continent. On average, there is a volcanic eruption in Iceland every four years.
|Litla-Hraun is Iceland’s oldest prison formed in 1929. There are reportedly 150 prisoners in Iceland’s prisons. Some can have a waitlist of up to 5 years.|
|A view of Eyjafjallajokull, a volcano that erupted in 2010, causing thousands of flight disruptions around Europe.|
|The Skogafoss waterfall is one of the biggest in Iceland with a drop of 60 metres.|
|Glacier hiking on Solheimajokull glacier on the Katla volcano. Much of this is expected to melt away by July. More than 10 per cent of Iceland is covered by glaciers.|
My host recommends I visit the the Snaefellsness Peninsula, a less-visited detour off the ring road. Viking villages, homes and burial grounds encompass this western leg of the island. Irish monks were present in Iceland when Viking explorers arrived. Due to the ruthless aggression of the latter, the monks fled. The Vikings stayed, becoming the oldest settlers on the island. Their origins date back to AD 871.
|Black-sand beaches on the south coast.|
|Spot the rainbow: Seljalandsfoss waterfall.|
|Hiking up and behind Seljalandsfoss waterfall shown in the picture above.|
|A 19th century home allegedly constructed by the Vikings in Borgarnes, near the Snaefesllness Peninsula.|
Legend has it that when Adam and Eve lived in Iceland, they had a lot of children. One day, God announced that He wanted to visit the family. Eve began preparing a feast and bathing all the children, but she did not have time to bathe them all. When God arrived, Eve hid the dirty ones. When God asked Eve if these were all her children, she lied. And God said, ‘Well, so it shall be!’ And these unbathed children are today known as the elves that live in hills and stones in Iceland. It is best not to ask the locals if they believe in Icelandic myths and legends. They probably don’t, but they’ll seldom admit it.
|Stunning rock formations layered with moss are home to seagulls on the west coast of the Snaefellsness Peninsula.|
|Viking horses are the only breed of horses allowed in Iceland. Once a horse leaves, he cannot be brought back. Over centuries, Viking horses have adapted to the island’s versatile terrain.|
|After hours: the Blue Lagoon. Noted as one of the 25 wonders of the world, the Blue Lagoon is dense with silica mud and minerals, it is said to have naturally healing effects.|
On one occasion, while preparing to embark upon a Viking horse just outside of Reykjavik, I am told by the stable owner that while she had never had a Pakistani visitor before, she once owned a saddle that was made in Pakistan.
Given that there are just three Pakistani families in the country, some Icelanders confessed they had never before met a Pakistani. It was humbling to see the excitement locals depicted upon hearing that I am from Pakistan.
One day, I was pointed in the direction of the only Pakistani restaurant in Iceland, Shalimar. The owner and head chef is from Lahore. He greets me warmly, offers a strong cup of doodh patti on the house, and proceeds to tell me about his own love affair with Iceland. It began with his realisation, fairly early on during his stay, at how pleasant and peaceful the Icelanders are.
There is no competition and nobody is status conscious, he tells me. Connivance and corruption are not traits you will find amongst the locals here.
|Taking a break on a cliff on the south-western coast.|
|Pass the word: Keflavik International Airport is decorated with Icelandic sayings and quotes. Here, songwriter Bjork’s lyrics are a perfect away to wrap the trip.|
For fellow travellers adding this island to their bucket list, my advice would be to get out of your comfort zone, but do not get lost. Iceland’s topography is constantly changing because of its extremely active geology, which means it is still forming and there will be hidden locations across the island that are yet to be discovered. You don’t want to be stuck on unmarked off-road trails with unpredictable weather conditions. Keep multiple maps handy and talk to the locals (almost all Icelanders speak English and are incredibly trustworthy people).
Cities and villages are great for wandering aimlessly. Enjoy the solitude. Don’t fret over maxing out your cameras’ memory cards, which is a real possibility; turn off the gadgets and take in some of the most naturally stunning environments you might ever find yourself in. Pictures just don’t do it justice.
In the words of one local, ‘everything here is on a small scale, except for the beauty of this country’.
—All photos by author
Zoha Waseem is a doctoral student at King’s College London and a senior editor for the Strife Blog.
She tweets @zohawaseem.