Iceland: Experiences of a lifetime

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Iceland: Experiences of a lifetime

Seeing the moon still perched boldly aloft at 9:30 in the morning is a shock to the system. The rising sun sends splashes of pink and yellow across the darkness and the transition leaves me gawking foolishly as the volcanic landscape of Iceland reveals itself.

Arriving in this remote land feels as if you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and landed in a different world entirely. Rocky clusters of volcanic ash on the ground and undulating hills in the background create the illusion of the lunar surface, while the capital Reykjavik is a reminder that over 300,000 people call this country home. You could still be forgiven at times for expecting Gollum to skulk down one of the rocky hill faces as the landscape is reminiscent of Middle Earth from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Iceland’s contrasting scenery and global location means visitors have the opportunity to explore the country literally around the clock.

DAY TIME

Similar to Africa’s Big Five, Iceland has its very own top three, known more commonly as the Golden Circle. It is a popular tourist route that loops from Reykjavik into central Iceland and back again, covering 300 km of land in the process. The three primary stops along the way are Thingvellir National Park, the impressive Gullfoss Waterfall and the erupting Geyser Geothermal Field. Tours take groups out on the circle (www.extremeiceland.is) or car rental is available for those who want to hit the open road alone.

You can hear the roar of Gullfoss Waterfall before you see it. The wooden staircase down to the viewing platform provides an unobstructed view of the three-tiered monster. It looks like Niagara Falls, only stacked on top of itself at curious angles. The waterfall is part of the Hvita River and 140 cubic metres of water pours over the edge every second. Be warned that mist covering the staircase freezes in winter, and that a painfully hard landing claims many in their haste.

A visit to Iceland’s geothermal spa, the Blue Lagoon, is also a must for visitors. The pool of six million litres of natural seawater maintains an average temperature of 37 to 39 degrees celsius. As a mixture of fresh water and sea water two kilometres beneath the surface travels upward through lava, a mineral exchange occurs that turns the water an aquamarine colour.

The spa is known for its active ingredients and healing power. Being submersed in the velvety water and digging your feet into the soft minerals covering the ground certainly has a calming effect. Metal pots full of silica are located around the pool for guests to slather on their faces, topping off the invigorating experience.

While travelling, it is common to come across one or two glaciers where people climbing the frozen ice look like ants scurrying over the surface. The coolest visual experience though, Vatnajokull Glacier, is the largest glacial mass in Europe, covering an area of roughly 8000 square kilometres. The frozen mass is hard to miss and can be seen from a long way off. From a distance the blocks of ice look smooth and unimpressive. Once up close the jagged edges and turquoise blue blocks rise above you and occasional cracking and splitting sounds are a reminder of the pressure exerted on them.

NIGHT TIME

If there’s no rest for the wicked, then Icelanders must be pure evil. When the sun goes down, another side of the country comes to life, so saving some energy during the action-packed days is a wise move.

Iceland is a perfect spot to view the Northern Lights, which are best seen from September to April. Tours, of course, operate to see this spectacular occurrence (www.icelandtotal.com) and take guests inland, away from city lights.

Staring into the darkness, waiting for the faintest tinge of colour to appear, does require some patience. When a hint of colour does eventually lap at the horizon, you know the wait has been worth it. Sometimes it isn’t much and doesn’t last for long, but watching the colours dance across the sky is a mesmerising experience. The impatient few who trudge back onto the bus after half an hour often end up missing the full splendour. It is little wonder that years ago the lights were thought to be spirits, as the phenomenon appears to be s omething more than the science of particles and molecules.

Back in the city, Iceland’s nightlife adds to an endless list of surprises. After returning from a Northern Lights tour, guests shouldn’t miss the chance to head into Reykjavik. What appears to be a sleepy town during the day is turned upside down once the clock strikes midnight. Step into one of the clubs in the town square and you’re met head on with a frenzied scene. Fake tanned girls dominate the dance floor and lines at the bar never seem to get shorter. So pack your dancing shoes to boogie the night away, but just remember that during the winter it’s a long time until morning.