When Jules Verne, the French writer and father of modern science fiction plotted his classic adventure novel Journey to the Centre of the Earth in 1864, he chose what was to him the most plausible place on the planet: untamed Iceland. It was a mystical, yet very real island at the Arctic Circle. Covered in part with an eternal Ice Age blanket of snow and ice atop its infernal, fiery underside, this natural Nordic wonder was legendary even in Verne’s time; known for its explosive volcanoes, steaming red lava fields and towering geysers.
Photo Credit: Dave Bartruff
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What set off Verne’s fictional characters on their descent into the earth’s subterranean abyss was a mysterious 4th Century Runic parchment the fictional scholars uncovered, translated and deciphered. The goal of the tiny expedition party of three, was to explore the earth’s core from inside the cone of an actual Icelandic volcano, the extinct Snaefelellsjokull (“snow mountain”).
It was in the shadow of Snaefelellsjokull, where I launched my own midsummer discovery into Iceland’s legendary “Wild Side.” It is, I assure you, one in which any visitor with a bent for adventure on his or her holiday can share. I got there over rough narrow rural roads built on beds of crushed lava and at times surfaced with the same volcanic material throughout the Deildartunghver thermal area. Across the countryside you see steam rising naturally everywhere: from streams, farmlands, even from the shoulders along the road.
In a nation with 250 hot spring districts, Iceland’s spa country is in a class by itself: Europe’s largest. Iceland’s top tourist attraction, indeed, is its Blue Lagoon health spa, a mecca of relief for psoriasis and eczema sufferers from around the world.
By the way, the word, “geyser” given to waterspouts worldwide, is derived from Iceland’s most prodigious spout named, “Geysir.” Its awesome twenty-story-high eruptions began in AD 1294. Recently dormant, it has passed its mantle on to a close neighbor Strokkur, now the Icelandic champion, with explosive seven-story-tall salutes every six minutes right around the clock.
Some 200 miles to the northwest, I encountered another of the earth’s most active volcanic regions around Lake Myvatn. Here Iceland is virtually being torn apart by the relentless stress tectonics of what geologists call the Mid Atlantic Ridge. This is where the American and European Plates are separating. For good reason, NASA chose this spot on the barren Myvatn landscape to train its Apollo 11 Astronauts for their historic 1969 Moon Walk.
As I trekked the area, I reached infernal Havarond, a smoking clay field of boiling steam vents and mud pits. I was warned here, with a single misstep, you can be boiled alive should you break through its fragile pizza thin crust. Readings taken from a mile below record temperatures of more than 500 degrees F. However, via a raised walkway and following within roped corridors I safely transited through this steaming hell on earth.
Just the same, in the ever-changing vapors and fumes, a companion at your side may appear, disappear and reappear in the blink of an eye.
North from hellish Havarond, just 30 miles or so on the shores of Skjalfandi (“shivering fjord”), I arrived in Iceland’s whale-watching capital. Husavik is a picturesque fishing village and harbor with a Whale Museum housed in a huge old wooden waterfront structure I suspect once served as a whaling station. Now operated as a non-profit, the museum focuses on the 24 species of whales that frequent Icelandic waters.
At the pier I boarded the restored oaken-hulled Nattafri excursion vessel and donned 66-Degree North (Arctic Circle) storm gear for the voyage out to sea on its open deck. The vintage craft with its 69 foot-long hull and gross weight of 100 tons looked fit enough... until I read in my whale-spotting guide that a 90-foot-long Icelandic Blue can weigh in at 200 tons!
On board our guide guide announced that, whales were spotted on 699 out of the last 712 voyages (a 98.2 success rate), I was more than a bit relieved that the Nattafri and its camera-totting passengers would indeed return to port unscathed. Still, the voyage was a total success in calm seas and mostly fair skies with at least a dozen close up but non-confrontational, whale sightings.
Inland again, I found myself donning a helmet and life vest to join river-rafting adventure on the milky-white glacial Hvita River. Here we met the adrenaline-pumping challenge of waves and rapids as well drifting serenely through canyons with perpendicular walls of black basalt. As a respite from the first series of rapids, our 25 year-old guide Elvar, beached our raft and took several of us for a steep climb to the top of a canyon wall directly above the river.
Atop the four-story high promontory, he invited us to join him in a dive into the calm water below from atop the cliff. Casually he stepped feet first off from the ledge and pierced the water below like an arrow through a bullseye. Returning to the top again, he amazed us with a second dive: this time, a perfect back flip.
That was all the inspiration that Ross, a fellow rafter from Dublin, Ireland needed to greet the Hvita below with his own brand of daring Irish bravado. For my part, I deferred to those other more fit or more fool hearty travelers, and remained safely atop the cliff to watch.
Further downstream, the Hvita grows into a torrent fed by tributaries to create Iceland’s greatest natural attraction: Gullfoss Waterfall (“golden falls”) which thunders down in two stages producing a deafening roar heard for miles around.
“All good things come to an end,” and my visit to the untamed land of “Fire and Ice” did as well. It happened at Helgafell (“holy mountain”) on the same peninsula where Jules Verne set his 19th Century science-fiction classic. Here I ascended, according to local custom, with the promise that on this, my first climb, I may make three wishes which will all be granted: if I not look back as I ascend, nor speak to anyone on the climb up to the summit, nor ever reveal to anyone of my silent petitions.
With two of my three wishes already granted since returning home, I’m expecting that the third is now on its way, and will top them all!
Dave Bartruff is an award-winning photojournalist who has traveled to more than
ninety countries. Based in California, he has been a contributor to The World & I