Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 23, 2017
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All eyes on Iceland

Can't afford the land of hot springs? Think again

“Do I believe in elves?” Sveinki repeated my question. He knocked the ash from his pipe on a chunk of lava. He had done this so often it had become the comforting soundtrack of our week together. We were leaning against our backpacks in the sun on the shore of a lake within Iceland’s Tjarnargígur crater, sipping Danish coffee and eating butter cookies.

“I believe they are an early form of urban legend,” he said slowly. “Or a graphic means of passing on to the next generation local danger, like wells that have gone bad and such.” Then he gazed across the landscape and shrugged. “But… you never know.”

Iceland certainly looks like elf, troll and fairy central. Massive pillows of spongy moss drape grotesque outcroppings of lava. A surreal shade of neon-green grass grows everywhere in exuberant tufts. In places, the ground smokes or sputters up geysers. Where else do rental car companies sell insurance against pumice damage? With all that going on, the possibility of imps with pointy ears and mischievous intent seems eminently plausible.

It was late August and my guide Sveinki and I were hiking through the lava fields spewed by Mount Lakí’s craters in southern Iceland. Afterwards, I would join a group for a week of short treks in the remote wilderness of the south coast as we slowly made our way back to Reykjavik.

I had met up with Sveinki in the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur, a six-hour bus trip from Reykjavik. Eighty percent of Icelanders live in or near the capital and four-fifths of the island is too rough to be habitable — a perfect combination for those who like pristine wilderness.

Ring around the island

Encircling a rugged interior of glaciers and three massive icecaps, moon-like lava landscapes and craggy peaks is the Ring Road. A fleet of excellent buses (including some 4WD) regularly travels the 1450-kilometre paved route. The buses accommodate sightseers and hikers, pausing for photo stops and to drop off and pick up passengers at waterfalls, roadside shops, historic farms and gas stations.

If you want to head out without a guide, simply ask the bus driver to stop — there are few formal trails outside the national parks — and head off into the wilderness. When you’re ready to return to civilization, wait at the roadside and flag down the next bus.

As there are few towns along the Ring Road, humble gas stations have become the local grocery store, outdoor supplier and café. They carry everything from headlamps to stacks of thin, dried salted cod which local kids love topped with a dollop of butter. The cafés offer surprising options like creamy seafood chowder with homemade bread or sautéed fish, scallops, fresh-baked pastries and all the caffeine essentials from espresso to latte.

A driver dropped Sveinki and I halfway up a dirt road and we headed into the Lakí lava fields. We followed a chain of craters in the most extensive lava field on earth: 12 cubic kilometres of molten rock which came to the surface between 1783 and 1785. An accompanying plume of toxic gases wiped out a quarter of the country’s population. Over the past 500 years, Iceland’s 200 active volcanoes have spewed one third of the earth’s total lava. The last eruption was in 2000.

Lava life

Hiking wasn’t difficult in the treeless landscape, but I had to be mindful where I put my next step since the rough lava rocks were uneven. In other places, the thick moss blanketing the lava was like walking across a field of down pillows. Sveinki advised walking flat footed to avoid killing that lush ground cover.

The moss was a metre-thick in places and I would drop my pack at break time and fall backwards into a glorious natural mattress while Sveinki laid out a smorgasbord of salami, pickled herring, creamy Icelandic blue, brie and gouda cheeses and an artery-clogging local specialty — butter laced with bacon — for lunch. He would then brew tiny cups of high-octane coffee, light his pipe and look thoughtfully at the landscape.

The weather was moody. Bright sunshine shifted to rain before I could unclip my sunglasses. So many rainbows arched across the deep blue skies that, by the second day, I barely noticed them.

One day we waded thigh-deep across a flooded plain which left us so soggy that the torrential rains seemed immaterial; another day, we stripped off our jeans in bright sunshine and leapt into a frigid stream that flowed straight out of an underground lava tube. We passed red-roofed farm houses, endless dots of sheep and stout horses. In Iceland, even the horses are blonde.

Sveinki is one of four mountaineers who formed a local company to lead full-scale mountaineering expeditions, ice climbs or just day hikes. Silent much of the time, he proved fascinating when he did talk. He had an architecture degree from Paris and spoke four languages. His stories ranged from working a Danish military patrol in remote Greenland by dogsled to operatic sagas of Iceland’s turbulent Viking history.

At night, we settled into tidy mountain huts used by sheep farmers during the fall round-up, one of them haunted, the locals say, by the ghost of a WWII British military pilot whose bomber crashed nearby.

Sheep on the roof

After my solitary stint with Sveinki, the bustle of activity at the Skaftafell National Park campground was a shock. I met my new guide Hjölli (pronounced “Hurley” without the “r”) along with a group of 12 hikers from Australia, Canada, the US, UK and Bahrain, and Inge the driver of the 4WD bus who, over the following week, would take us to parks, reserves and right off the beaten track in southern Iceland.

That night, we camped at the foot of Iceland’s highest summit, the 2119-metre Hvannadalshnjúkur, surrounded on three sides by glaciers. In the morning, we strapped on crampons, grabbed ice axes and learned the basics of ice climbing as we walked across the Svinafellsjökull glacier tongue, an icy sculpture garden slashed with crevasses.

That afternoon, in misty rain, we hiked the shoreline of Jökulsárlón, a lake at the foot of a glacier in which an eerie flotilla of icebergs striped with dirt shifted and creaked in the fog.

Heading west, we stopped at the old Nupsstadur farm where two sheep grazed in knee-deep grass growing thickly on the roof of a sod-roofed hut. “They think the best grass is up there and we don’t discourage them,” said 93-year-old Eyjólfur. He and his 96-year-old brother, Filipus, still run this farm that has been in the family since 1550.

We left the Ring Road and continued on 4WD tracks to Landmannalaugar hut in Fjallabak Nature Reserve in time to soak in the natural hot springs nearby. The next day, we headed into multi-coloured valleys of rhyolite to arrive at a field of black, glass-like obsidian boulders that glinted in the sunshine. Lunch was at the remote geothermal Vondugil Valley that billowed with fumaroles hissing steam; ponds of boiling water periodically erupted in tiny geysers as we munched our sandwiches.

We hiked black pumice deserts that crunched underfoot like corn flakes — the Styrofoam-like pumice dancing or taking flight in heavy winds. And we traversed verdant valleys where the colours were surreal in their intensity, especially where the indigenous grimmia (dry rock moss) that grows on cooled lava shone a remarkable fluorescent green. Waterfalls were everywhere; long feathery chutes or broad chunky downpours, each sending up its own private rainbow.

Each day, by late afternoon, we were back at our bus. Inge, like Hjölli, was never without his traditional Icelandic sweater. Guidebooks told me Icelanders never wear these hand-knitted wool sweaters. They may not be worn by city folk, but they certainly warm the backs of every farmer and outdoor lover.

Rotten shark, anyone?

We spent our nights in tents or huts and were served massive dinners of roast lamb, freshly picked wild mushroom soup, barbecued salmon, sautéed fresh cod and even classic Icelandic boiled salted lamb served in soup, all delicious, all created by the excellent chef Hjölli.

Hjölli, a tall handsome 40-year-old, had been nicknamed our “philosopher guide” since he headed every winter to Berlin to teach existential philosophy at university.

He was also a witty storyteller and discussed everything from local geology and contemporary Icelandic cinema to existentialism and really gorey tales of rape and pillage from the brutal Icelandic sagas which all Icelanders know intimately. The Icelandic language has changed so little in the past millennium that schoolchildren today can still read the 1000-year-old Viking texts.

As we neared Reykjavik, we visited Iceland’s most famous waterfall, Gullfoss, the original geysir that gave us the word “geyser” and we hiked through a natural amphitheatre that is the site of Iceland’s first parliament from Viking times.

From there, we followed the tectonic fault line — filled with water — to Lake Pingvellir where we camped our last night. Dinner was lamb cooked to perfection on coals in a pit, but first we sampled a traditional Icelandic delicacy — rotten shark that had been buried in sand for six months before being cooked and served. It was, we unanimously decided with restrained disgust, an acquired taste…

That night, the occasional flashing of an odd green light awakened me. Unable to sleep, I crawled outside my tent and waited. Nothing. Back in my tent the flashing began again. Trolls? Elves? Ghostly British pilots? I remembered that even the famously pragmatic Icelandic government hedges its bets when it comes to “the hidden people” as they’re called. On staff at the Ministry of Transportation is a man whose job it is to determine if the path of a planned road or bridge invades the little folks’ privacy, while another investigates possible relationships between elves and car accidents.

I’d come to Iceland for the hiking, but found a country with a magical aura that challenges basic notions like the permanence of the very ground you walk on. I had arrived a non-believer, but as I crawled a second time from my tent to sit beneath a brilliant canopy of stars, I realized I too was hedging my bets as I waited for that next mysterious flash of green light. You never know.

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