A Visit for the Curious and Adventurous
As we roll by ‘my uncle*’ points out the quarry.
“It’s filled with stones but there are never any lorries. That’s why we say the trolls are throwing them down from the mountain”.
This is a big part of the magic of Iceland. The way history, saga, Norse myth, and folklore weave together to tell the stories of people and places. How the lines between fact and fiction are blurred. Or perhaps just irrelevant.
The rest of the magic is of course Iceland itself.
If the world was indeed birthed from the giant Ymir through the cunning of Odin, then Iceland was certainly his heart. After just eleven days of exploring bits of the north and south, it becomes quite clear why history and lore are so deeply intertwined. There is simply no better way to rationalize so much unblemished beauty than through fantastical legends. And there are plenty of them! Which is why I feel quite lucky to have ‘my uncle’ give me the insider story of Iceland complete with fact, fairytale, and family anecdotes from his Icelandic childhood and adulthood.
Though they might seem like the runts of a seagull litter, don’t be fooled. ‘My uncle’ shared the raw reality. Adult fulmars spend the first two months of their chicks’ lives helicopter parenting. And after fattening them up, the parents quite literally fly the coop, abandoning their young to learn how to either fly and fend for themselves or become dinner.
As we walk along, ‘my uncle’ spots more native fauna and an opportunity for a folktale about the ptarmigan, which owes its plumed feet to its rebellious, and quite frankly astute, refusal of the creator’s orders to walk through fire. Consequently, it was cursed to a life of evading the falcon, its brother. The latter would forever hunt the ptarmigan, only to realize it had devoured its sister upon reaching its heart. A morbid and unfortunate fate for both ptarmigan and falcon. The Grimm brothers have got nothing on Icelandic lore…
But hundreds of years ago, ships did not fare better. ‘My uncle’ paints a picture of Vík’s early years. When unforgiving surf claimed the lives of many a fisherman and explorer. And a humble farm family might find itself the fortuitous heir of a fine bottle of French cognac washed ashore. One man’s folly…
As mischievous as the North Atlantic Ocean is, it is hardly the region’s only temperamental neighbor. Eyjafjallajökull (yes, that one!) and Katla flank its northern border. As ‘my uncle’ approaches Katla, one of the regions most active volcanoes, he is ready with another tale.
“Every place has its story.”
This folk legend provided the perfect backdrop to my personal highlight of the trip: the crossing between Eyjafjallajoküll and Mýrdalsjökull: Fimmvörðuháls.
Before beginning our drive down the road to the trailhead, ‘my uncle’ warns me that it is “not a good road”. We then spend over an hour traversing 30km as our jeep plunges across one river crossing after another. The Fimmvörðuháls adventure begins way before the trail!
‘My uncle’ calls this hike a “humbling” one. Indeed, it is not for the faint of heart. The views are otherworldly, but the terrain can kindly be described as challenging. And for the few hundred very steep vertical meters we ascended through fine black sand, I’d have to resort to more pejorative language. So I’ll just say that my thighs felt like I had dipped them in boiling lava.
* You might have guessed that my uncle is not really my uncle. He is, however, the father of a dear friend and one of the most engaging, enthusiastic, and informed tour guides I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing the world with. He offers private tours as well as group tours, and an authentic glimpse into the past and present of Iceland. I can not recommend him enough!
If you’re interested in taking a deep dive into Icelandic nature, geology, folklore and mythology, check out these books: Icelandic Bird Guide by Jóhann Óli Hilmarsson, Living Earth by Ari Trausti Guðmundsson, Njal’s Saga, and The Trolls in the Knolls 35 Icelandic Folks and Fairy Tales.
And for those of you who love watersports and surfing, adventure, and a bit of insanity, I highly recommend watching Under An Arctic Sky.