When my plane came in to land at Reykjavik airport it felt like I was arriving on the moon. A low, undulating landscape shrouded in mist and pockmarked by broken rock, colourless and lifeless. But as we got closer to the land I could see the ground was in fact covered with a lush carpet of blue flowers and green grass.
It was midnight and to the west a glimmer of red shone through the thick cloud. In midsummer the sun takes all night trying to set and never quite manages it. Twin silver ribbons of road snaked away into the distance as we drove towards Reykjavik. On the horizon an occasional hill emerged from the mist and the sunset became intensely purple in the eerie stillness.
Driving towards Hafnarfjordur the land is broken and fissured, like cracked skin, giving an impression of restlessness and an indication of the untameable landscape of Iceland. It is a 900-year-old lava field, scattered with craters and surrounded by black, lava-covered mountains veined with green grass.
Iceland is a country ruled by the forces of nature, with the volcanic eruptions that made the news only a recent reminder. But the land and the people are resilient – they have to be. They claim to believe in elves, trolls and ghosts – the hidden people living in the lava fields. But perhaps this is a way of explaining a history of natural catastrophes and loss.
Positioned on the Atlantic Ridge, the crust of bedrock is very thin here and continental drift is approximately two centimetres per year. Volcanic eruptions occur every for to five years and everything in Iceland is pretty much built on a lava field.
The landscape looks bleak but closer inspection reveals a carpet of soft and bright colours and textures, with mosses and purple lupins growing lushly. A huge ‘lava tube’ has shiny, dark red walls with blobs of what looks like liquid – as if someone has squirted ketchup on the floor of the cave. Stumbling over the heaps of scoria I can understand how people could just disappear. Yet there are exquisite arctic plants, cushions of purple and white that are springy underfoot.
The architecture is spare, utilitarian, and of course built to withstand earthquakes. Despite all this people in Iceland have a warm and quirky sense of humour. The crime rate is extremely low and they enjoy cheap energy from the geothermal activity. They are unworried and perhaps even phlegmatic about life in such a precarious landscape.
But what can I say, I was in Iceland for around 38 hours and did sleep for a few of those hours. The weather was cloudy and rainy the entire time I was there. These are the only photos I took. I think Iceland and I have unfinished business.
By Natasha von Geldern
Have you been to Iceland? What were your impressions?