THE BEAUTY OF ICE​

Iceland in January; Cold yet inviting with glorious sights, gushing geysers, lunar la​ndscapes, warm pools and outside baths bubbling from the ground in an envelope of steam, guided tours on horseback, Snowmobiles, skis and foot. You will not forget it 
Cold but nice. Well that just about wraps up a three day trip to Iceland in late January.
As a travel writer and news journalist I am afraid this piece it is a bit sparse in details, but it is also stunningly accurate.
For those who have never been, Iceland in winter is cold with minus degree temperatures and apart from mountains and frozen lakes, the only familiar item I could relate to was the slush covered roads and pavements reduced to a grey clinging mush by pedestrian feet and traffic wheels.
Also unlike other countries I have visited, I found getting from A to B quite a challenge. The Scandinavian based language is difficult to understand. It uses words of known letters but does not transfer well to our speech and leaves an embarrassing  silence of bemused shock in answer to a question. Shouting the question does not work either; The Englishman abroad?






























​Fortunately, the Icelanders are a well educated and understanding nation who have adapted to dealing with tourists from all over the world, even those who once sent their Navy to wave a big stick.
Which is surprising they speak to us at all. Remember the Cod Wars?
That was when we sent Royal Navy warships to protect our fishermen in 1975 while doing their job to fill the English tables. It all came about because the Icelanders claimed our fishermen were stealing their fish from their water.
The confusing events filled endless paragraphs in both country's newspapers. The English claimed anything lurking within the depths were anybodies along with the stretch of water they swam in. Then Icelanders went a step too far for the English by extending their authority from a few miles from their shores to 200 miles then harassing the fishermen by playing dodgems with their boats  and cutting fishing nets.
The outrage was palpable and the answer was a well used solution of centuries, send in the Navy!
Like pouring high octane aviation fuel on troubled waters both countries squared up to each other in the North Atlantic where howling gales and seasick TV crews sent back pictures of boats seemingly doing handstands on the water with both sets of sailors clinging dangerously to parts of their boats   wildly gesticulating and shouting extreme abuse at their opposite numbers.
 Some of this behaviour was emphasised by hurling any close to hand item, which on occasions turned out to be fish and in a strange way totally defeating the object of the argument.
My thoughts at the time were why should our boys drop their nets, just go alongside the Icelanders boats  and shout insults and they fill their quotas.
Feelings ran high in both countries and it was noticeable in our house the TV ratings for the very popular children's program 'Sagas of Noggin'  and Icelandic born historian Magnus Magnusson's superb historical series, took a knocking for a while.
So it was against all this, my daughter Lara arranged a three day soiree to see the Northern Lights and any trepidations of 'Fish Hate' turned out to be benign with age and not even mentioned.
We found Iceland a fascinating place for a first holiday visit, all be it quite short stay, though standing in a blizzard with snow clinging to the top of the sock line did not exactly inspire the wish to engage in communal high-five joy among us.
One note that visitors are made aware of is the effort and expense to see the lights is not always guaranteed. The display is literally a phenomena that happen at irregular intervals.
It is apparently caused by the interaction of particles from the Sun with the upper atmosphere near the North Pole, the spectacular display of lights dancing around in fantastic colours across the sky quite something to be seen if not understood.
However simple words do not prepare the visitor for the spectacular, and eye popping wonder soon outweighs the frost bitten toes.
On a personal note and by way of an admission, as a professional photographer on a family outing, I took a tripod to capture the display. Perhaps it is my advanced years as I do suffer from the cold and as soon as I got off the tour bus my little metacarpals froze almost solid. A simple task of opening up the tripod and tightening the extending legs pushed my strength to the limits and to the great amusement of my fellow tourists, the sight of a heavy professional camera on a tripod slowly sinking into a four foot snowdrift was better than a hot toddy.
Consequently, by the time I had dug the camera out and dried it off, the bus had to leave without time to try again and I did not get my own picture of the Aurora Borealis.
As The Icelandic economy now relies on these displays to encourage sightseeing; tourism is now the mainstay of the Iceland economy, which despite the still active fishing industry, keeps Iceland financially afloat.
A fact recognised nationally with the superb organisation now in place where the traffic infrastructure and arranged guided tours are almost as impressive as the lights.























​From Lava Caves, to Snowmobiling, Swimming in the hot open air baths to climbing over glacial Lagoons, you certainly don't stand still for long.
Every activity is organised with matching transportation including eating and enjoying the local cuisine to mountain walks, climbs, swimming in hot rock pools and all at a tempo where you never get that cold.
Though the trip was short it could easily be extended as there is so much to see, though I did get the feeling the expense might outweigh the attraction.
The Island stands on big jagged rocks in a space twice as small as the UK. The last population survey totalled 338,340, about the peopled size of Croydon, and a single lane road that circles the island measuring 828 miles that reaches most of the important parts that others do not reach.
Starting late in necessity to see the lights as darkness falls, the first impression does bring questions of 'what and why' but the mountainous interior reflects the lack of level surfaces to build a good flat straight road.The views on the more aggressive parts are quite simply  stunning.





















  

The idea of a trip to Iceland in January was to see the Aurora Borealis of Northern Lights - said to be astonishing, magnificent, stupendous 

Waiting in the freezing cold for the Northern Lights to show

Daughter Lara wondering if it was a good idea

Hot spring and gushing geyser in the Pingvellir National Park 

The thundering Gullfoss waterfall constantly filled by the melltwater of the Langjokul glacier

The invitation to swim  outside in bubbling hot springs is one to think about particularly in below zero temperatures, it was fun but the screaming sprint getting out of the water was another matter

Though car hire is available, for the nervous driver a fleet of buses abound from Reykjavik with a list of tours to the popular sights, all numbered and bookable under Reykjavik Excursions Day Tours and highly recommended, though an untimely television news report showing an overturned bus on the very road did not exactly inspire confidence.
Arriving on a Tuesday evening the first item on the agenda was the pro-active imagination's first victim, Northern lights and a dip in the hot springs. Dumping our bags in the hotel, we were marshalled outside in the snow in what I suspected was a sort of pre-conditioning preparation and waiting for the first tour bus in the cold.

Geological wonder from an observation platform of  the two tectonic plates of America and Eurasia parting  at two centimetres a year 

I had no intention of divesting any clothing 

As I had no intention of divesting any item of clothing in such intemperate conditions, it took some persuading and accusations of spoil sport from the grand siblings to purchase a pair of brilliant orange shorts in the Stansted Airport shop. The logic was the colour would act as a beacon in the swirling mists of condensing steam and aid rescue even for the short sighted.
Protestations of unfairness or even tears did not work, and entering the hot spring in the bright shorts took a certain amount of false manly ardour, as the following line of male chests temporarily thrown out, were hit by minus 17degree  snow-ridden gusts of wind and the battle line of marching men degenerated into the equivalent of an infant playground screaming match.
I imagined it was how a thermometer felt when plunged into a bowl of boiling chilli in the fridge ice box compartment.
Restorative hot showers did little to address the temperature imbalance and on evacuation from the springs, the two non-used parts of the male anatomy on the upper chest froze solid and became an extended danger to those walking in front or someone shutting the door too quickly.
But as you would expect it was all treated as fun in public despite the hysterical stampede of elbow thrashing and later apologies to the fallen in the fight to get back to the warm interior of the coach.
The group atmosphere improved when the bus stopped at the next platform on the scenic night tour, that of the Aurora Borealis, viewed from a totally desolate and isolated exposed Lunar landscape in an area of Bingvellir National Park and close to the famous Blue Lagoon. It was for the world an impressive film set for Peter Cushing types ready to be explored.
The tour guide/driver had warned the passengers that the lights, being a natural phenomena, might have taken the evening off, but the company would transport the disappointed tourists back again free the following night, which was what happened. My first night picture shows just about every constellation and no Northern Lights.
A mixture of extremes of anticipation and fear of the unknown had a happy ending to the long day for the  soggy socks and shivering party that returned to the warm hotel close to the witching hour.             The other tours we had lined up next day came under the title of Golden Circle, a collection of visits to see the Geyser geothermal area, Gullfoss waterfall and back to Bingvellir National Park and the promised return to the Northern Lights, making it a very full day.
In terms of historical value, the National Park is the site where early settlers founded a parliament in 930.ad. giving the Island the oldest place of governance in the world; it is also the place to go to see the large split in two tectonic plates where American and Eurasian platforms are moving apart  separating  at the rate of two centimetres a year. With echoes of Jules Verne the intrepid James Mason, Peter Ronson and his duck, have turned the story into a Hollywood inspired maelstrom of frightening creatures, strange tribes of pygmies hidden in the depths and all desperately trying to make a meal of explorers. Rest assured they do not exist or if they do we did not see them.
Whole childhoods have been enriched on less and the Journey to the Centre of the Earth or days on Mars are celluloid legends that make peeking over the edge of the waterfalls at Gullifoss a risk too many.
The same caution concerned where you stand when visiting the Geyser in the geothermal area. Without warning,  a hot spring shoots a massive column of steaming water into the air varying in height every four to eight minutes.

































It is best viewed from ground level and not 40 ft in the air giving some nasty moments on the way back down so be careful where you stand.
It was fascinating to watch with something of a magic thrill waiting for the next gush accompanied by a startled Oooh from the cowering audience.
The next stop was one that defied description, the Gullifoss waterfall, spectacular just about covers the first reaction. Constantly filled with melt water from the Langjokull glacier, the exploding waterfall hurls itself over the edge into a deep crevice.
One of the stranger elements includes a visit on the itinerary to the Frioheimar greenhouse where the Icelanders proudly display one of the by products of all the hot springs and falling water - Tomatoes to die for.
The heat loving vegetable not only flourishes in the geothermal heat, the growth rate and size are such that the world's Ketchup bottles probably contain a fair proportion of the annual crop. The one thing not fully explained is how they gather them and the expected life span of the pickers. Those crevices are monumental.
Not fully explained but one must-see sight concerns herds of little horses. Apparently they are a unique feature being a breed known for its sturdiness and easy temperament.
The herds roamed the tundra for centuries and have been centralised in the Eldhestar riding centre close to Reykjavik and the Geyser area, where organised pony rides to the sights are a huge attraction and include lunch at Hotel Eldhestar close by.
The day was not finished as there are Lava Caves and Ice Caves to explore and the black lava sand in South Iceland visited on the Quad Bikes.
Passing quickly by and at a gentle gallop on the Sotheimajokull volcano with crampons supplied for a walk on the ice, the volcano erupted in 2010 with such a thunderous bang that apparently had the tea cakes falling off the plates in Southend.
The Lava Tunnel in Raufarholshellir close to Reykjavik is a striking display of cooled lava flow that erupted thousands of years ago. Thirty metres wide and ten high, the explosion carved out columns of light in a  fantastic range of colours in the tunnel wall caused by different minerals embedded in the rock.
In short you need more than three days to appreciate the beauty and mystery of Iceland. It has a lot to offer and most of which is so magical, it would be a great pity to do the Golden Circle in a rush.
Just by typing in 'Three day tour of Iceland' on the computer, full pages of offers spring up on the screen.
The Icelanders have it all sorted so logging onto an official sites in January like Reykjavik Excursions or www.re.is will get you a trip to talk about for ages while you try to get warm again. Talking to other fellow travellers, some were on their second trip as they missed the snow the first time out.

Be careful where you stand as the hot spring geyser erupts every few minutes

Swimming in the Blue Lagoon natural steam baths. It was minus 17 degrees at the time

The sprint back to the warm bus after waiting for the Northern Lights to show

Always time for a 'selfie' for Victoria, Lara and Rebecca

Another attraction; the herds of Ponies that wander the tundra in all weathers

It was a fascinating trip all be it for only three days and the hospitality of the Icelanders was really wonderful, no mention of the 'Cod Wars' the organisation of getting tourists round all the sights and a lot more important

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