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Why go to Iceland

By Thomas E Fletcher.

I am delighted to print the following article and would welcome more of a similar nature.  Ed.

I was invited to join a party of there Cambridge undergraduates going to Iceland this summer.  The aim of the expedition was primarily scientific – studying aquatic insects and making a botanical collection in the northern part of the island bordering on the central desert, for which we gratefully received a grant from the University.  However each member was keen to explore and learn about the country as much as possible and a great deal of time was devoted to this end.  We spent some four and a half weeks there and really got to know the limited area around Lake Myvatn and around Askja, Europe’s largest volcano, some fifty miles to the south.

Everyone knows Iceland is a volcanic island, but did you know it still has active volcanoes – Hekla last erupting in 1947-48?  Volcanic country has to be seen to be believed.  It is a land off great contrast – a land of barren lava deserts and lush green valleys, a land of majestic snow and ice capped mountains and gushing hot springs, a land of magnificent waterfalls and of shimmering calm lakes, and to crown it all, a land of 24 hours daylight in midsummer.  We spent three of our weeks around Myvatn with our base camp in the crater of a small ash volcano.  Myvatnssveit, as the area is called, contains practically every sample of volcanic action, cinder cones 50 feet high and no larger that half an acre in extent to great volcanoes long since eroded into mountains 3,000 ft. high.  Spouts of steam some 50 feet high with boiling and mud pools nearby were not far away over the ridge of a red burnt-out looking mountain with great patches of sulphur occurring on its slopes.  Great lava fields extend to the south west, sometimes with smooth expanse like boiler plates called stratified lava, and sometimes with block lava the other extreme, where it is twisted into all sorts of weird shapes like rock seracs, and impedes progress so that 2 miles an hour is extremely good going.  Often great rock crevasses occur anything up to 30 yards across and 100 feet deep though generally not so spectacular.  Lake Myvatn is quite shallow and has many attractive islets and abounds in trout and ducks.  It is the breeding ground of tens of thousands of wild duck of probably some 20 or more species of which some are North American, and attracts such people as Ludwig Koch and Peter Scott, and is in fact an ornithologist’s paradise.

We took all our food with us and lived on Arctic regions pemmican, porridge oats, margarine, sugar, biscuits, chocolate, etc., to the extent of 1½ lbs. each per day.  This was essential when we went to Askja 50 miles away across uninhabited and often waterless desert.  We were interested in the fauna of the crater lake to see if life had started again since the last eruption in 1922.  We found the water still sulphurous and without insect life. The crater lake is 9sq. miles in extent surrounded in part by 150 foot basalt cliffs and is in places over 1,500 feet deep.  The crater itself is 25sq. miles in extent and is surrounded by mountains and is extremely seldom visited.

In a country practically devoid of sedimentary rocks there are of course no caves of the limestone variety.  However, I spent some few hours caving in the lava.  When there has been a vast outpouring of lava it slowly cools and crusts over and then sometimes the reservoir is broken and the lava starts to flow out leaving an air space up to 3 feet beneath the crust.  Solidification of the newly formed surface starts anew and the process sometimes repeats.  Where the crust is too thin it collapses and then one finds the entry to a magnificent system with several floors.  Around Myvatn there are several acres of such formations and partly filled with water – an ideal place for a speleaologist searching for aquatic insects.

However there are other good reasons for going to Iceland. A delightful 2½ day sea voyage of over 1,000 miles each way for £17 return accompanied by some of the finest food I have ever eaten.  What an advantage it is to have a rest period on board after all the mad rush of finishing off work, organising and packing before the vigorous weeks ahead. Similarly on the return, a rest before the everyday routine starts again is ideal.  The mountains are good from the snow mountaineering aspect, but being made up of layers of basaltic lava, they are very rotten and are not suitable for rock climbing.  I shall go back again sometime taking a vehicle like a Land Rover for the extremely rough roads, and spend some time in the mountains around Akureyil, crossing one of the smaller ice-caps such as Myradalsjokull in the south or Hofsjokull in the centre, and climbing their most beautiful mountain Herdubreid as well as looking at the magnificent fjords of the east coast.

So instead ‘Why go to Iceland?’  I say, ‘Why not go to Iceland yourselves and experience the contrasts of scenery, enjoy weather as hot as Northern Italy with magnificent sunsets and surprises rolled into one and meet some of the most kind and hospitable people in the world?’

Thomas Fletcher.