I recently visited Iceland on a five day Road Scholar trip led by a delightful guide named Harpa (who is also an artist) and a wonderfully capable woman bus driver named Steinunn (who also cooks meals for children at a school). I thought you’d be interested to learn a bit about this fairly new country.
Iceland is a beautiful, Scandinavian country with hardy people. The land itself is harsh but the inhabitants have made it work for them. It’s one of the windiest places on earth, has relatively few roads (quite narrow), and is prone to earthquakes and volcanic activity. Yet, ever since Justin Bieber made a video in Iceland (2015), tourism has increased greatly. Lots of young folks from all over the world visit, wanting to see what Justin saw and do what he did. In fact, one estimate is that tourism increased 82% over the following two years. Ah, the power of celebrity!
Under Norwegian or Danish rule for centuries, Iceland formally separated from Denmark in 1944 to become a Republic. They have a President whose role is largely ceremonial. In the 80’s-90’s the President was a woman. The Prime Minister (currently a woman) is the head of government. The country’s population is roughly 350,000, two-thirds of whom live in the capital, Reykjavik.
The Eurasian and North American tectonic plates run through Iceland and separate about 2 centimeters each year. This leads to many earthquakes. Volcanic systems dot the landscape and about 30 of the approximately 130 volcanos are active with an eruption roughly every four years. These eruptions can cause havoc with international travel by spewing silica and ash into the atmosphere. One finds geysers and geothermal pools everywhere. Icelanders have taken advantage of the enormous sustainable earth energy and harness it for electricity and home heating. Geothermal plants dot the landscape and the geothermal Blue Lagoon is a spa goers paradise. On the day we visited, it was snowing a bit and as I walked slowly through warm, mineral-laden water I heard many languages and saw many people with mud masks on their faces merrily taking selfies and pictures of their friends. We were advised not to get our hair wet as it would become stiff and sticky because of the silica and other minerals in the water.
Magnificent waterfalls, steaming geysers, and beautiful ice formations greeted us all along the southern coast. We could even walk in the fissure created by the separation of the two tectonic plates in Iceland.
The Arctic fox is the only indigenous mammal and early settlers brought sheep, cattle, goats, and chickens when they immigrated during earlier centuries. I was fascinated with the Icelandic horses who roam freely. They are small by horse standards and very hardy. Some live to be in their 40’s and many have 5 natural gaits. This video shows these gaits. Notice how smoothly the Tolt and Pace gaits are for the rider. Some horses can reach speeds of 30 mph. In fact, one sporting race requires the rider to hold a full glass of beer while racing around the track. A decision was made early in Iceland’s history to ban other breeds of horses and sheep from entering Iceland in order to keep the herds pure and healthy. When a horse is taken out of the country to compete in races or shows, it cannot return as they might bring back disease for which the native population has no immunity.
The gentleman on the book cover at the left is now in his 90’s, still driving. When he was a teenager, he went to various farms asking for things people were ready to get rid of. He continued asking and gradually built a fascinating museum that records much of Iceland’s history. There are even houses showing earlier ways of life. The mitten has two thumbs because fishermen rowed out into the sea. When one thumb covering got too worn, the rower could just switch to a fresh thumb cover. You can see the oil skin coveralls draped over part of the boat. These were made of animal skins and to make them pliable, the men rubbed the skins with cod liver oil, thus the word “oilskins”. The smell was so nauseating that no one ate before going to sea. A HARD life.
Seeing the Northern Lights when you visit is a matter of luck. The sky must be clear and dark (often not the case). AND, the sun must have shot off magnetic particles about 18 hours before you are watching for the lights to appear. Although I didn’t get any pictures due to “operator ignorance about camera settings”, our group lucked out and saw the lights. The first night there were faint green streaks arcing across the sky for about 20 minutes. It was freezing cold with a strong wind. The second night the moon rose late and we were entertained with dancing green lights for about an hour. A wish fulfilled for me!