First published on Helter Skelter
Fire and Ice
By Sangeeta Mulay
It is not very often that you come across a destination that jolts you out of your slumberous existence. And if you are a cynical traveller, driven by the urge to seek something different, then Iceland provides just the right kind of kick.
The country is located to the south of the Arctic Circle, and while this certainly conjures up images of icy cold and harsh winters, the truth is that there isn’t much ice in Iceland. The climate is, to a large extent, temperate. Legend has it that a Norwegian discovered Iceland and on noticing some icebergs in the ocean, decided to name the island Iceland, a name that has survived over the years.
I had heard about Iceland’s famous Blue Lagoon well before my actual visit. Something about Blue Lagoon appealed to my hedonistic sensibilities. The first sight of the Lagoon mesmerises—a rocky, black, lava field filled with steamy, hot water, with a milky white blueness often found in a child’s painting. The white vapours rising from the water make the scene even more incredible. If you visit on a cold day, after a rackety, boring flight, like I did, the steamy water will certainly tempt. Certain areas of the lagoon are allocated for swimming and bathing and the temperature of the water is somewhere between 37 to 39 degrees Celsius. Icelanders are very particular about hygiene and it is mandatory to take a shower, totally in the nude (this is important), before you get in. It was therefore with some trepidation that I entered the changing rooms. All the natural, geothermal swimming pools in Iceland (and Iceland has plenty) have this rule and it is a common sight to see fully nude Icelanders walking about with gusto in the changing rooms. Thankfully, cubicles are also provided for those of a demure constitution, desirous of some privacy.
One step into the hot, steaming waters of the Blue Lagoon and I was smitten. I could have lived in there forever. The water is extremely hot in some places (a blessing for tired, aching backs) and you can move around until you come to a comfortable spot with just the right temperature. The water, being rich in both sulphur and silica—supposedly therapeutic—is extremely good for the skin but terrible for the hair. Though the blue lagoon gives the impression of being a natural wonder, it is actually man-made. It is located in a natural lava field but is fed by waters from a nearby geothermal plant. A hefty price has to be paid to get in and in spite of this, it is the most visited and impressive attraction in Iceland.
If you are a fan of waterfalls, volcanoes, and glaciers then Iceland will certainly appeal to you, as it has several of each. The Gullfoss waterfall is one of Iceland’s most famous natural landmarks and is everything that a waterfall should be—forceful, noisy, and very white. ‘Gullfoss’ means gold and you are guaranteed to see a rainbow each time you visit. Since there is always a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow—you get the drift—this is how the waterfall got its name. Even the cold tap water available in Iceland is some of the purest in the world, with no additives—not even chlorine. The hot tap water, though, smells of rotten eggs due to the high sulphur content because of its geothermal origins. The smell of the hot water can sometimes get overpowering, especially in small, closed bathrooms, and taking long, hot showers may differ from the usual experience.
The entire Icelandic landscape is rocky, stark, and lunar in nature and you would be lucky to come across a single tree. This is because the largely volcanic area does not encourage plant growth. What you see is dark volcanic rock with a few shrubs scattered here and there, for miles together. The stark, rugged landscape is still beautiful and will appeal to the rebellious traveller, who is tired of constantly being served the same kind of picture postcard scenery that one normally associates with popular, scenic destinations. The capital Reykjavik is dotted with tiny, colourful houses, which look like they have been put together with Lego bricks. The rivers, I was fascinated to learn, are full of Salmon. It is almost like finding a different wonder at every turn.
Though Salmon is found in its rivers, the food item most widely sold in Iceland happens to be the meek hot dog. It is served almost everywhere and Icelanders are fiercely proud of their hot dogs. There is one particular kiosk (ask anyone in Reykjavik and they will tell you the location) where you get the best hot dogs in all of Europe—even good old Bill Clinton has paid it a visit. The hot dogs, served with fried and raw onions, mustard, and relish, are absolutely delicious.
Along with Gullfoss, the geysers form a part of what is known as the ‘Golden Circle’ of Iceland. It was on a very cold day that I set off to look at the geysers. On arriving at the geothermal field, I could see numerous natural hot water springs behind a fenced area. There were signs stating that the temperature of the water was between 80 to 100 degrees Celsius and to not insert fingers, or eggs (!), or anything else inside the boiling water. There were several small pits with water boiling away merrily, reminding me of a witch’s cauldron.
The great geyser or the ‘Strokkur’ erupts once every few minutes. The performance starts with the water making loud, squelching, bubbly noises. The water then starts to collect at a central point, the pitch along with the pressure (and the tension in the audience) starts to rise until in a show of magnificence, the geyser erupts to a height of almost 30 metres, to loud shouts of appreciation from the audience, with water and steam sprayed high into the air. It is all a lot of fun! We waited for the geyser to erupt again and again. It was one of those surreal and memorable experiences that life sometimes throws your way. The weather was freezing cold, the mountain-tops were clad in snow, and yet, here was water boiling, bubbling, and erupting from the ground. There was no doubt that nature was showing off. With all my cynicism wrung out of me, I felt humbled to be surrounded by this magic.