Iceland is — exciting! (1)

By Frederic Friedel

Iceland is an island in the North Atlantic Ocean. It was settled by Norwegians in the 9th Century, and today has a population of 330,000, making it the most sparsely populated country in Europe. But it is certainly geologically the most interesting place in Europe, sitting on a hotspot on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. It basically rose out of the sea, in volcanic eruptions, and is highly active, with volcanoes and geysers — the most famous one being Geysir, from which the English word derives.

Well, my geologist wife has been dying to visit the place for a long time, and she convinced me to take my first real holiday in 16 years to the place. We booked a fairly luxurious round trip with a German group and spent a week circling the island on the Ring Road N1, which connects all the inhabited parts of Iceland and passes the most interesting geological places.

So let’s dive in. The flight from Hamburg was comfortably short — just over three hours, and after an evening in the capital Reykjavik we embarked on the Ring Road trip, clockwise. In the following pictorial part you can click the images for a larger view — wait a second or two for it to resolve.

First stop: Grabrokargigar (Grabrok Crater), a small volcano you can climb and walk around the crater at the top.
A minor crater on the way up. You can do the climb even after recent knee surgery, as I conclusively proved.
Late that evening we went riding on docile Islandic horses. In the end, when dismounting, I fell off, severely fracturing my pride and self-esteem. Two young ladies helped me back to my feet — can you imagine how painful that is?
Did I mention: it never gets really dark in the summer months. The above picture is after 11 p.m. in the “night”.
Second day: click on the image for a panoramic view of Mývatn, the “Mosquito Lake” we visited.
Thankfully the “mosquitoes” are a kind of gnat that roost on the lava underground — and don’t appear to be able to sting.
A crevice, like the ones you find all over the island. They are caused by shifting plates and volcanic activity.
Goðafoss, “waterfall of the gods”, the first of many very impressive places we visited.
Dinner with the travel group, and after that, late in the evening we are off to…
… whale watching. I inquired about whale hunting, but apparently that is no longer an option in Iceland.
You sail out into the fjord, on a whale spotting ship with a marine biologist guide, and very soon…
… you encounter your first humpback. There were about eight of them we saw, feeding in the fjord.

The Humpback (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a species of baleen whale, about 15 meters (50 feet) long and weighing around 35 tons. They migrate up to 25,000 km (16,000 mi) per year, coming to the polar waters in the summer to feed and then swimming to tropical waters in winter to breed, there subsisting wholly on fat reserves.

Baleen whales, who are the biggest creatures to ever have inhabited the earth, feed exclusively on tiny krill and small fish. They do this by gulping huge quantities of water which they then press out of their mouths with their gigantic tongue, forcing the water through strong, flexible filters, baleen, made out of keratin (like the material in your hair and fingernails). Humpbacks have several hundred baleen plates hanging from their upper jaw.

The humpbacks came up fairly close to show us how they do it — very impressive indeed. An average humpback will eat 2000 kg of krill and small schooling fish each day during the feeding season in cold waters.
When they breach or dive under you see their tails, and, I kid you not, our marine biologist recognized half a dozen by the individual marking of the tail fins. She had names for each of them and treated them like old acquaintances.
Even the geologist is awe-struck: a vast lava field we traversed on the third day. It led to …
… another incredibly impressive waterfall. Click to enlarge and spot the people, to correctly gauge the dimensions here.
A beautiful blue lake filling a crater.
Look at the two people on the top right — that gives you an impression of the size of the crater.
A geothermal field, where you must stick to the designated paths. A Japanese lady, we were told, did not and had to be rushed to hospital with severe foot burns.
Hot thermal pools of bubbling mud and sludge
Steam vents all over the place. Mind you, the air temperature is just a few degrees above zero…
… which makes the contrast of cold and internal heat even more impressive.
Florian checking out a vent. We rushed him to hospital — no, just kidding, he was careful.
A stop in a motorway station — actually a lovely little café and gift shop, built in older Icelandic style.
Normally you have kings and queens, famous places or personalities. Guess what the Icelanders have on their coins.
The island is covered in — sheep, hundreds of thousands of them. They come in groups of three, a mama and two baby lambs. They are unbearably cute and (I feel really bad about saying this) absolutely delicious. In our hotels we were constantly served lamb, which does not have the typical mutton taste that many do not like.
Finally a view from our hotel, with an ominously advancing glacier.

This is roughly half the Iceland trip — here’s part two of my report. I would like to mention that on our first evening in the capital Reykjavik we explored the location of the chess Match of the Century, between Boris Spassky and Bobby Fischer, which happened almost exactly forty-five years ago. I am writing up reports commentating this great event. This is the first part — more will follow in the series, each article appearing 45 years to the day after the events took place.