We’re taking you to Iceland

As Sydney enters its 10th consecutive week of lockdown, Melbourne exceeds the 200-something day mark (I’ve actually lost count) and speculation continues to swirl as to when the country will open up again, wild places seem so far away. So…

We’ve decided to bring wild places to you. Over the next few weeks, we’re going to be taking you to some of FWP team member’s favourite wild places from around the world so that you can live vicariously through our travel photos and stories. We also hope that these will inspire some post-pandemic travel plans…once borders re-open. 🤞

This week, we’re taking you to Iceland – the land of Ice and Fire.

“Why Iceland?” you might ask. Well, that’s exactly what my year 7 geography teacher said when I selected Iceland as my first project. My response was “I’d never heard of it before and wanted to learn about it.” Moral of this story – stay curious. The beauty of the Icelandic landscape, folk tales of trolls and environmental initiatives captured by attention and Iceland sky rocketed to the top of my travel bucket list.

Fast forward almost 12 years and I finally visited this spectacular country. At the time I was an enthusiastic landscape photographer, and Iceland seemed like the perfect place to visit (it also seemed foolproof, like, how can you actually stuff up a landscape photo when you’re presented with such stunning scenery?). I visited in late September/early October of 2017 at a time when winter was just starting to set in. The landscape was covered in wild blueberry bushes, whose leaves had turned a bright orange and fresh blueberries and blueberry jam were staples at every breakfast.

Reflecting on my time in Iceland, it wasn’t so much the landscapes that captured my heart, but the way that people, animals and nature seem to live in harmony. It was also the first time that I was really confronted with the impacts of climate change (you’ll read more about this below), which sparked a fire in me that continues – I remain fiercely passionate about climate action.

At a time when there are so many debates about zero-emission policies in Australia (coupled with inaction), it is encouraging to visit a country where green energy and sustainability policies are favoured. In fact, aggressive and innovative carbon policies are the norm – from geothermal energy plants, greenhouses and fisheries that provide sustainable local food sources to carbon capture programs. I remain instilled with a sense of hope and optimism for a future where people and the environment can live in harmony with each other in Australia.

I’m very excited to share with you some of my fondest memories of Iceland. We begin in Gausmyri – the horse capital.

THE GREAT CORRAL

Gauksmyri, Iceland

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Hundreds of Icelandic horses being corralled at the beginning of winter.

As the long winter sets in, the north-western region of Iceland comes alive with the thundering hooves as horses are corralled and returned to their owners for winter shelter. The long-standing tradition of the corral dates back to the first settlers who kept these stocky, distinctive horses centuries ago – allowing them to roam free over the fjords, fields and troll-filled crags for the summer months.

I found myself witnessing this event by accident – a chance invitation from the hosts at Gauksmyri Lodge, and vague directions that had me headed along a pot-holed dirt road to a nearby farm in the early hours of the morning. The sight of hundreds of horses charging along the dirt road against a backdrop of snow-capped peaks was beyond spectacular. I really felt like a cast member in Lord of the Rings (despite being in GOT* territory).

The corral is a four day process of herding, tagging and riding. It culminates in the ‘sorting’ of the horses in large round pens at local farms after their final gallop along the dirt road with cowboy-like locals on horseback catching strays. Quite a crowd had gathered, and I found myself straddling a wooden fence, watching this sorting spectacle, as the trainers, farmers and horses battled it out in the pen.

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Action inside the sorting pen.

Dressed in gumboots, riding pants and a very flash suit jacket that had a whiskey flask snugly fitted in the chest pocket, I’m not entirely sure what I found more impressive – the ability of the Icelandic locals to sort semi-wild horses into their respective pens, or their ability to do so without spilling a drop of whiskey.

*If you haven’t watched GOT, then I think you should be spending your lockdown time a little more wisely 😉

DELICATE ECOSYSTEMS OF ICELAND

Eldhraun lava fields, Southern Iceland

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With lush green moss extending in each direction as far as the eye can see, and a dense grey mist hovering above, the Eldhraun lava fields of Southern Iceland are eerily quiet and breathtakingly beautiful. But beneath this stunning moss lies an ecosystem still recovering from the most devastating basaltic fissure eruptions in human history – the Skraftár Fires. The volcanic eruption lasted for 8 months, from June 1783 to February 1784, and the effects were experienced around the world with weird weather and failed crops.

Following the volcanic eruption, tiny moss spores brought in by strong winds, landed on the lava field and started to grow. There are now 606 different species of moss in Iceland, with the ‘woolly fringe-moss’ dominating these lava fields. Like green clouds resting on the ground, the wonder of the ethereal moss heaths form part of a very fragile ecosystem – it can take a century to grow back after humans step on it (that’s if it grows back at all).

GODAFOSS

The waterfall of the gods

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Starting as a trickle from the Vatnajökull glacier (which translates to “glacier of lakes”, and is Europe’s largest glacier), the salmon-filled Skjálfandafljót river winds its way across the Icelandic highlands, traversing heather-covered lava fields before transforming into a raging torrent, which carves gorges and plummets over numerous waterfalls on it’s race to the Arctic Ocean. The most impressive of these waterfalls is Goðafoss (pronounced goth-a-foss) – a wide, arching curtain of glacial water. The jagged basalt cliffs which form the walls of the gorge provide plenty of unique vantage points. After winding my way northwards along the gorge, through narrow, muddy paths, I stopped to gaze back at Goðafoss – even at a distance I could still hear its powerful, almost hungry, roar. With the river banks lined with the ruddy autumn hues of the wild blueberry bushes, and the mist of Goðafoss beyond, I simply had to capture the moment.

NAMAFJALL GEOTHERMAL FIELD

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Bubbling mud pit of Hverir

The bubbling mud pits and steaming fumaroles of Hverir – a high-temperature geothermal area which is part of the Námafjall Geothermal Field – are unlike any landscape that I’d seen before. The Mars-like terrain is a unique geological phenomenon, stained with stunning colours, from deep earthy reds to steel blue clays. You will smell the area before you actually see it – the gases escaping from the subterranean vents (primarily sulfur) smell like rotten egg. And this smell (unfortunately) isn’t localised to the mudflats. The water in local towns is actually geothermally heated so you actually can’t escape this eggy smell. This area lies above the Mid-Atlantic Ridge – the spot where the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates meet. These plates are divergent, meaning that they are moving apart and magma rises to the surface from below. The area is marked by a belt of volcanic craters, hot springs, steam springs, solfataras and earthquakes.

The Bjarnarflag power station is located several kilometres away and uses naturally produced steam to generate electricity and heating for the local district – a beautiful example of man and earth living in harmony, as the areas natural geothermal power is used.

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Viti crater in Krafla Volcano

Viti means ‘hell’, and there are two of them in Iceland: Viti in Krafla (where I visited) and Viti in Askja. Krafla is one of the most well known volcanoes in Iceland, and (like most volcanoes) is part of a greater volcanic system. It is one of the country’s most explosive volcanoes, having erupted 29 times since settlement. The water in the lake, located at the bottom of the viti crater, is a stunning aqua blue. This colouration is due to natural elements brought up from the geothermal activity in the area.

JÖKULSÁRLÓN

Translates to “glacial river lagoon”

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Jökulsárlón Lagoon (not pictured: a seal rolling around playfully in the foreground)

I had seen so many stunning pictures of the one of the most famous glacial lagoons in the world and, as an aspiring landscape photographer, was keen to capture the natural beauty. I was up early, had my camera gear packed and ready to go, and arrived at the lagoon well before sunrise to make sure I captured the stunning refraction of sky light and the reflections in the ice. However, the excitement and enthusiasm came to a very abrupt halt.

The reality of climate change really hit me whilst I was standing on the nearby beach, witnessing large chunks of the Vatnajokull glacier drifting out to sea. The lake is a devastating consequence of climate change – the lagoon only appeared in the mid-1930’s and is now the deepest lake in the country.

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Melting chunks of the Vatnajokull glacier on a nearby beach

The Vatnajokull glacier is not the only glacier to be feeling the effects of climate change. All glaciers in Iceland are retreating at an unprecedented pace. Despite being one of the world’s greenest countries and at the forefront of eco-friendly initiatives, such as dependence on it’s geothermal landscape to produce electricity, Iceland is not immune from the impacts of climate change. In 2014, the country bid farewell to its first glacier, Okjokull, which was lost to climate change.

MORE ICELAND CONTENT

If you want to continue your virtual adventure of Iceland (that doesn’t include GOT content), here are some recommendations:

Movies/Documentaries

Episode 1 of Down to Earth with Zac Efron

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Ben Stiller

Under an Arctic sky – a crew of devoted surfers chase a storm swell (the biggest storm to hit Iceland in 25 years) to the remote fjords of northern Iceland. The film is captures by outdoor adventure photographer Chris Burkard.

Music/Podcasts

A compilation of music from, and inspired by, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

All things Iceland (learn a bit about geothermal bathing culture)

Books

Names for the Sea: Strangers in Iceland by Sarah Moss

Tales of Iceland: Running with the Huldufolk in the permanent daylight by Stephen Markley

So there you have it folks. A tiny, tiny taste of Iceland – there is so much more to discover. I am so keen to go back and bike pack and/or run around the country during the summer months – if this sounds like something you’re also interested in, feel free to hit me up! Always keen for company on adventures.

Elanor Finch, Friday 10th September 2021