Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Eggy showers, rotten fish and baths in the mountains...

It’s February in Iceland and the mornings are drowsy. The soft light of dawn only begins creeping across the sky at 9am and the sun remains permanently low in the sky, sinking back below the horizon by 6pm: a natural timetable that favours boozy evenings and lazy mornings. The bar-based routine is encouraged by the fact that venturing outside can be something of a trial: feathery dustings of snow conceal lethal sheets of ice and the climate flits unpredictably between bitingly fresh air with clear skies and blizzard-like conditions with zero-visibility. To leave the city without first checking weather forecasts and road reports is just asking for trouble. Even so, Icelanders have mastered how to live out the winter in style: the island is kept toastie-warm by geothermal energy. Though a slightly eggy smell lingers in the water supply, the bottomless furnace that keeps the indoors warm and welcoming more than compensates. An infinite fuel supply also allows guilt-free decadence using power: heating on and windows open, luxuriously long showers and natural under-floor heating.

Outside of the city however, Iceland is anything but welcoming. Little seems to survive other than the Icelandic ponies who, hard-as-nails, are unperturbed by the most extreme conditions. The countryside, battered by raging winds and arctic temperatures, is inhospitable and unforgiving. The landscape stretches on endlessly in bleak monotones: plains of volcanic black gravel dusted with snow and precipitous snow-covered mountains only just divisible from the white clouds. However, though stark and severe, it is also strangely beautiful. In certain areas, lakes are only part-frozen and patterned with sharp jigsaws of broken ice, while in others, rubble-like rock creates an alien landscape that wouldn’t look out of place in Space Odyssey.

However, stranger than the topography is that, just below the surface, this arctic land is a volatile cauldron of heat. Across the country, flumes of steam spiral from the earth to blend with the snow cover, and you don’t have to venture far into the mountains to find yourself hiking through the stinky sulphurous clouds belched out by hot springs. Craters of gloopy black mud burble suggestively as you pass them, gurgling pools of water bubble furiously at boiling point, and the mountain rivers are so scalding hot that it is preferable to stand barefoot in the snow than paddle.

On my last day, I visited the Kolgrafafjörður fjord on the on Snaefellsnes peninsula. However, what I had thought to be a scenic drive became an impromptu field study when we passed a bay where there had been a mass mortality of fish. I was accompanied by four biologists who, without an inkling of queasiness, made a beeline for the water’s edge. Soon ankle deep in dead herring, they began picking up the least decayed specimens to examine them, one filling up a plastic bag with ten in an opportunist sample collection. I stayed somewhat apprehensively further back. Even so, the mortality was on such a scale that, despite hovering 10m away from the shore, I still found myself squelching through the feathery spines and congealed putty-like fats of rotting fish.

It seems that, as fierce as it is on the surface, Iceland has a vulnerable side. An exemplar in its use of renewable energy, Iceland should be an eco-friendly paradise. However, for 30,000 tonnes worth of dead fish to wash up on the shore, something must be wrong. Then again, my brother, an ardent marine biologist, seemed wholly un-phased, dismissively likening the herring to lemmings. Perhaps it was just a freak of nature rather than a mad-made marine catastrophe…

Either way, from steaming hot rivers that snake through snow-covered mountains, to unexplained natural phenomena, Iceland is full of suprises...

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