(The picture shows the gap between the American and European tectonic plates...and the blizzard at full tilt too)
In the face of the weather, Hugger Steward is prepared to reconsider his plan of complete independence and serious cross-country trekking – so on Tuesday we opt for a guided expedition and join a small handful of hardy tourists to see the nearer wonders of this amazing island.
As we board our bus the dance of the snowflakes becomes more urgent and the world shrinks to just a few yards ahead. We’re on the one main road around the country (rather smaller than the road that I take from Cheltenham to Gloucester) where traffic is light, though nobody shows any signs of being deterred by the blizzard. Only when we turn off the ring road onto a narrow road to the world heritage site of Pingvellir does our amiable guide abandon conversation to allow him to concentrate on keeping track of just where the road has gone!
Pingvellir is the site of the world’s oldest parliament, but it’s hard to imagine any parleying going on here as we get off the bus into an almost total white-out….something completely new for HS and me. A few steps and I find myself literally up to my waist in snow, giggling hysterically.
I’m hauled out, still helpless with laughter, and follow the others a few yards to the spot where the rift between the tectonic plates of the American and European land masses are pulling slowly apart – at the same rate of growth, we are told, as human fingernails. The bowl where the parliament met has dropped 4 metres in the past century – hard to grasp for someone living where the land feels very fixed and stable.
The sky clears as we drive through the rift valley, bumping our way across the gap between the continents as I think about the time before those plates moved apart, before the Ice Ages changed the world. In Iceland, despite the huge sense of history, of ancient rocks from before time was, things feel somehow provisional – I’m aware of the earth’s fragility, of the restlessness of daily earthquakes, of hot springs that provide domestic hot water for the whole city of Reykjavik and beyond but whose spouting upwards can stop or start in obedience to the shifting of the earth. The giant sleeps but lightly here, and what would be solid foundations in England seem precarious, still evolving, mutable as the landscapes of home are not.
We move on to Gulfoss, with its incredible waterfall, flowing straight from the glacier. This is the arctic of my imagination (yes – technically we’re well outside the arctic circle, but with a landscape like this, I’m not bothered) and I’m stunned that anywhere can be quite so much like itself.
HS heads off across the snow field to investigate the lower banks…In seconds, it seems, he is just a small black dot against the overwhelming whiteness…He’s utterly content in this deserted landscape, which seems both untamed and untameable, a place where people are just an incidental accident in this land where ice and volcanoes hold sway.
On to Geysir with its steaming pools and sulphorous air. We stand and watch as waters roil and bubble, before bursting upwards in a stunning jet..Again, it is the volatility that impresses most. We listen to the gentle bubbling sound, our voices quiet as if we’re spying on some wild animal whom we could scare with a sudden movement. Perhaps the geysir is teasing us…it appears to gather momentum and then the bubbling dies away again, but if we turn our heads, surely that very instant the sleeping dragon will spring up.
Nothing is quite as it seems, after all.