I’m drawn to Iceland’s extreme raw nature and the unpredictability of not only the ever changing weather but the knowledge that a volcanic eruption could occur at any given moment.
Crawling through an ice cave inside a glacier on an active volcano feels slightly less risky than being hurtled down a dark, unplowed, curvy motorway, passing large trucks during a sideways snowstorm! Our intrepid and humorous guide seems perfectly comfortable maneuvering the Land Rover with one hand on the wheel, one on his coffee cup and his head turned to my traveling companion in the back seat who kept asking questions, amused at my uneasiness, yet somehow I knew the trip would soon get remarkably better, once the effects of the delicious craft brewed Icelandic beers I couldn’t resist sampling the night before wore off.
Raki, a mountain search and rescue guide, was at the helm of this beefed up Land Rover Defender with massive tires. After visiting two spectacular waterfalls, Skógafoss and Seljalandsfoss, we got to put this rig to its full potential. We stopped in the charming town of Vik for refreshments. Many travelers arrive in Vik by motorcoach and then transfer to large vans with about 20 passengers each to start their off-road expeditions. We chose superjeep.is from Reykjavík, and enjoyed our intimate group of six.
One of Raki’s pals, a van driver, jokes that Raki is going to get stuck in his “little” vehicle. Raki knows to smile silently, sure enough, after expertly maneuvering through rough terrain and freshly fallen snow, we see his pal’s van at an awkward angle, being pulled out! We scoot past with nary a smirk, heading towards the otherworldly Myrdalsjokull glacier, and arrive at our destination; the glacier cave inside Katla volcano that is itching to erupt, hopefully not today.
We’re handed helmets and crampons as we trudge through crunchy snow. Raki enters the cave first to check the conditions. Given the all clear, we make our way up steep, snowy carved out steps.
Entering the frozen cavern, we silently observe the natural surroundings in awe. Brilliant blue colors shine through 800 years of compressed ice.
Flecks of black ask have been trapped in layers of ice, a good reminder that Iceland is one of the most volcanically active spots on earth, as she straddles two tectonic plates over a belly of fire.
We have plenty of time to explore, take photos or just marvel at nature’s powers at work. Future visitors will see a different view, as glacier caves melt, freeze, crack, disappear and reform. I treasure this unique setting.
We exited the cave to fresh scenery. The snow stopped and the mist lifted to reveal stunning views of stark contrast, with the wild North Atlantic Ocean, a dark strip of clouds, pure, white snow and blue glaciers.
Back at Vik, it’s a lovely day at the beach. Reynisfjara beach is black lava and we gaze at the basalt sea stacks called Reynisdrangar, as impressive as their name. I later discover that this beach is on some of the top ten beaches of the world lists.
On the drive home we could see Eyjafjallajökull, notoriously famous for its volcanic eruption in 2010, causing airliners from Europe to be grounded for days, as jet engines are not fond of abrasive, fine, glass-rich ash. The explosive power of vaporized, melted glacial water, created spumes of ash into the jet stream 22,000 feet high.
Raki’s sense of humor was appreciated as we passed a particularly intense geothermal area, the sulphur smell crept into the closed windows, he said if anyone needed to pass gas, no one would notice.
Resourceful Icelanders have long been harnessing the gifts of their land, using renewable and sustainable geothermal energy to heat their water and houses, provide energy, grow vegetables in hot houses and thoroughly enjoy a multitude of natural hot springs. Iceland’s tap water is some of the purest in the world, coming from springs naturally filtered through lava. Which also makes for some awesome beers!
Earning beer calories is always a goal, just walking the streets of Reykjavík can be a challenge. Performing “ice-ometrics” while trying to remain upright on icy sidewalks is a humorous endeavor. In between skidding along like a three year old beginning ice skater, I stop and laugh out loud at what appears on the sidewalk: what is more slippery than a banana peel? A frozen banana peel!
Watching people’s reactions as they gaze into the display window of this small, quirky museum is almost as entertaining as the contents inside. Some rush past red-faced, young boys snicker, but many walk in bursting with curiosity, myself being in the latter group, always curious. Quite a good location, given the long winter nights to study such things. No, not the Aurora Borealis, it’s the Icelandic Phallological Museum, aka the Penis Museum. Reykjavík lays claim to the only one of its kind in the world.
The founder was a history teacher and his son has taken over as curator, displaying over 200 penises and penile parts of nearly all the sea and land mammals that can be found in Iceland. Quite surprisingly, there is a display of a human’s penis from a 92 year old who was happy to have his privates in public after his passing.
After exiting the Penis Museum, we turn up a street to see the iconic Hallgrímskirkja church rising up in all its glory. I can’t help but associate it’s shape with that of an aroused sperm whale!
Time for some serious research, finding a brew pub. Always drawn to water, Reykjavík’s charming Old Harbour beckons. Bryggian Brugghús Bistro and Brewery catches our eyes, the atmosphere is instantly warm and welcoming. Fridrik, the affable bartender, served us information as well as delicious house made craft beer. Fridrik placed a small mason jar in front of us, explaining that in the past, fish was preserved by fermentation, sometimes using human urine. He invited us to try a sample of fermented shark cubes. Politely declining and explaining a preference for plant based meals, Fridrik laughed and said hardly anyone eats like that anymore, especially the younger generation.
Which brings up the astonishing subject of whale meat being offered on menus of some restaurants, as well as puffin meat, when rarely do locals consume it. During the hugely popular whale watching season, misguided tourists get off the boats after photographing and being awed by viewing these magnificent creatures, only to order a whale steak for lunch, mistakenly thinking this is a traditional Icelandic dish. Sometimes whale is not labeled and unsuspecting diners think they are eating fish and chips when in fact it is whale meat.
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) placed a moratorium on killing whales, to worldwide approval, so whale populations could recover. That moratorium is still in effect today, yet three countries blatantly defy that ruling; Japan, Norway and Iceland. Iceland’s Ministry of Fisheries and Agriculture placed self imposed quotas “allowing” the illegal slaughter of fin and minke whales. Sea Shepherd, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC), international Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), the Icelandic Association of Whalewatchers, along with other conservationists and the majority of Icelanders and passionate marine mammal lovers worldwide, vehemently oppose this barbaric practice.
The biggest offender, Icelandic whaling company Hvalur hf, not only slaughtered endangered and pregnant fin and minke whales, they killed an extremely rare blue whale hybrid last season, causing condemnation over this illegal and inhumane practice of harpooning the animals as they die a slow and painful death. The whale meat is shipped to Japan and to local Icelandic restaurants for tourist’s consumption.
What can we do? Go on whale watching excursions, photograph and enjoy nature and wildlife. If you don’t care to put a whale in your mouth, research whale friendly restaurants and support Icelanders who oppose slaughtering whales.
With enough opposition and informed choices, perhaps whaling will end for good!
For more information: seashepherd.org, us.whales.org, iwc.int, ifaw.is, icewhale.is