Iceland. Land of Ice & Fire
Considered the second roughest patch of sea after the drake passage, we head to Iceland through the Denmark Strait. We are very lucky, as we are travelling with the waves, it doesn’t feel as rough as expected.
Perhaps some of us have also developed our “sailor legs”. In any case, I was able to stay on the bridge and draw, trying to capture the incessant movement of the sea, as we dipped into swells, and surfed along the crests.
Soon, we could distinguish bits of land in the distance. A silhouette devoid of trees and human presence. Travelling with the weather, we arrive at port at 21:00, and stay on board overnight, awaiting the disembarking for the next morning. It so strange to see street lights, cars, roads, concrete….. “humans”! Many of us wonder if we stay on board, but the draw of this unique island is too strong. The tectonic hyperactivity here has lead to 130 active and extinct Volcanoes!
Ice cave tour on a glacier. Travelled over some lunar landscapes, until we changed over to a 8 wheel vehicle: Ex- army trucks from Poland, initially designed to carry missiles, now with a glass box. As we left rock for snow, we stop as a mechanised deflation of the tires is necessary, to have better grip on the glacier.
A 45mn climb, we reach the hole in the ice, resembling the entrance to an old mine. These corridors have been carved through the ice artificially, with interesting lighting, and even a room set up like a chapel . But the artificiality of it is glaringly obvious, but to peer into a glacier crevasse from below, is undeniably novel, and offers a curious view.
With only a few days to see what this place is about, I have to calculate a trade-off between places to see vs. distance travelled; Ice-cave, geysers, waterfalls. I grab my sketchbook, and tag along with a group who are travelling by car, and I try to compress this over-whelming wilderness into the pages.
At Thingvellir, we look across lake Þingvallavatn (where you can swim between continental plates). We look across a land barely touched by man. At our feet, the earth is cracked open. This is not slow erosion like the Grand-canyon, but brute force, where nature seems impatient and pulls gigantic earth plates apart. The whole valley is lined with these cracks in the earth, where black rocks seems to jut up towards the sky, like open wounds.
In the distance, more evidence of this splitting earth: just beyond the lake, steam marks the spot where the depths of the earth are creating the geothermal magic that this country enjoys: Thermal springs. Without much human scale reference, one can’t understand the proportions here. So I try my best with a road here and there, or a house, or a person.
Iceland is like a land where nature hasn’t stopped creating. A place where the elements are still being flung together or split apart, in a constant state of creation. It looks like nature’s ongoing laboratory or creative playground, where you can walk through open cracks in the ground, and witness water boiling from the ground, as the steam towers above you.
We get to Geysir, and boiling hot rivers trickling past the road. On the top of a hill, looking across the landscape, I feel like I’m looking at a model of a landscape. This is where Iceland reveals itself to be a living illustration of my old geography schoolbooks. From the hill behind Geyser I sit and sketch for a while.
Next stop: Another humbling experience in this land of giants. From a seemingly flat land, we come across a river that has torn itself through this landscape, thundering down with overwhelming spray, and offering us the infamous “double-rainbow!.” The waterfalls of Gulfoss. I try, once again, to squeeze this raw power of iceland into some small pages with a pencil!
Eager to see more, the next day I borrow a car from my Icelandic artist friend Halla, who also spent time at the florence academy in Florence. I'm heading up the coast towards the western peninsula. As soon as I’m out of the town, the rain stops thankfully. But what replaces it is no better; wind. But not just any wind. I realize very quickly that there will be no outdoor painting today.
All I can do is get a few snapshots. I’ve never experienced wind like this before. No Wonder trees don’t grow taller than people here, and that animals don’t get very big. One example is the icelandic horse. Despite their size and the fact they were bred from 9th century ponies, Iceland refers to this specie as a horse. And here in Iceland, evolution favours the small.
The classic Icelandic joke: “what do you do when you get lost in an Icelandic forest?... You stand up”
At times, when I get out, I can barely keep my camera steady. There are moments when I think this was a bad idea, as the gusts almost blow me off the road. But I grip the wheel, and keep going. As if the open expanse here wasn’t already overwhelming enough, the occasional small human reminders put things in perspective.
The land and the sky mix together here to offer dramatic scenes, mile after mile. It’s difficult for me to get anywhere here, without stopping every 5 minutes.
It is bleak, but rich at the same time. Some people would interpret this experience like their worst nightmare. But for me, the unforgiving elements somehow feel invigorating. The raw aggression of the elements that sculpted this land make you feel alive. The strength of nature is somehow contagious, and draws you in.
Suddenly I find myself driving through what looks like the edge of a solidified lava field. On either side of the road, razor sharp rocks littering the surroundings, but conveniently covered in moss for your walking pleasure. The volcanic cone in the near distance (Eldborg) doesn't seem to be directly responsible for this, but something similar up the valley
Soon I realised my time was up. With all my improvised photo stops, I had used up my allocated time sooner than expected. I needed to turn back, but everything around me was telling me to stay. I look north and see the swirling clouds above this land. I look left and I see the road home. It wasn’t an easy choice, but I wasn’t going to risk being out here at night, especially after hearing all the stories of trolls and the like.
The wind got worse on the way back, and there was no more stopping for pictures, just gripping the wheel and focusing on the road.
There is no polished romanticism in this land, no postcard prettiness of an organised landscape. Iceland doesn’t care for prettiness, it’s still work in progress. This is raw nature, and pure natural inspiration. Wherever humanity came from, or where life first began, Iceland certainly looks like the eve of day 1 of creation.