Here, there be Giants...and Elves, the Little Folks, Trolls and Dragons. Iceland. Known as the Land of Fire and Ice, Iceland embodies both these elements and so much more. It's an unforgiving land, vast and empty, yet full of the dynamic forces of the earth. It's a raw and young land, showing its birth scars even as the ground still trembles from the forces ripping it apart. The separating of two tectonic forces; the North American and European continental plates, creates geysers and volcanoes, immense glaciers and lonely, sweeping lava fields.
My family and I traveled to Iceland this summer, along with millions of our closest, tourist friends. There are 337,780 people living in Iceland who were visited by 2.24 million tourists in 2017, with 75% of them sighting the Icelandic nature as their main reason for visiting. It's a staggering number of people for an island that doesn't have the infrastructure in place to accommodate them all – almost 10 visitors for each resident!
It isn't that tourism is a foreign concept to Icelanders. However, the sheer number of people flowing through Keflavik International Airport, Iceland's main airport, and onto tour buses, to be disgorged on-mass at the most popular natural wonders of southern Iceland, is unprecedented.
We thought we knew what we were getting ourselves into before we arrived. We'd done our research, watch the documentaries and followed the travel guides on You Tube. Iceland would be expensive, crowded and barren of trees. It would also be stunning, striking and inspiring. It was, and it wasn't each of these descriptions. In many ways, it was so much more than can be put into words, but I'll do my best.
First, I think we did it the right way. We were fortunate to be invited to Iceland by a dear friend, whose parents and she opened their home to our family. Accommodations are in short supply and we were grateful to be staying in the beautiful town of Hafnarfjordur, also known as the Town of Lava and Elves, just south of Reykiivik. Their house sits on a field of pillow lava and her mother's flowers poke through and spill over lava tubes and boulders of glass. The landscape is stunning.
My friend's parents took us under their wings and shared with us their personal experiences of being Icelandic (they can trace their ancestry back to the first Norwegian families to settle on the island). We learned their history of the area, what is was like growing up there, living through volcanic eruptions, fishing booms and busts and the modernization of Iceland. We learned things and heard stories most tourists don't get to know.
They also drove us around their Iceland; the favourite places of their youth when there was no one else around for miles. It was magical and poignant as we traveled off the beaten track while feeling their pain at how trampled their backyard has become. The most popular tourist sites today in The Golden Circle were once their playgrounds. I felt myself deafened by the trample of so many feet, including my own, and I couldn't hear or feel the energy of these beautiful places for all the selfies that were being taken and what we took to calling The Tourist Forests, crowds 3 to 4 people deep all taking photos of themselves with Iceland's beauty in the background.
This is not how we like to tourist. And again, why we were so grateful to know some of the personal side of Iceland, to see it before the walkways and fences go up to keep the tourist safe from the sheer cliffs, boiling, spouting geysers and rough waves.
Iceland is a land and culture in transition, changing more quickly than the population can keep up with. There are not enough employees for all the gas station truck stops, tourist shops, restaurants and accommodation which are popping up all over the south part of the island. Workers are arriving from other parts of Europe, especially Poland, to fill the tourist jobs. Housing is going up at neck-break speed; in fact, we started to refer to the construction sites as where the flocks of cranes gathered – we saw over 16 construction cranes at one site! The lava fields are being flattened and the Elves are not happy! They, at least, still have a voice and none may build until the Queen of the Elves has been consulted as to their wishes for development. To ignore this custom is done at one's peril and according to many we spoke to, an Elf Vendetta is a serious thing to invite.
Which brings me back to the Giants, Elves, Little People, Trolls and Dragons. Here they be! We saw them everywhere, even in our friend's back yard. Out of the corner of our eyes, hidden in the shapes of the lava rocks and flows, we saw them. The landscape of Iceland lends itself to these mythical, magical and, to some, very real creatures.
After a week of exploring and experiencing the south of Iceland, we packed our rental car, one of about 20,000 on the roads, and set out on our epic, five-day drive circumnavigating the whole island. 1900 km over and across some of the most striking scenery I've ever seen. The geologist geek in me was ecstatic to see the clearest details of pillow lavas, ancient geyser fields, sheet lava, pyroclastic and mud flows and some of the largest strata volcanoes in the world. Everything laid bare for the discerning eye!
There were places we visited where the din of tourist feet and conversation died away on the winds that sweep across the land and through the fjords and valleys; where we were the only people for miles around and, hidden in the rocks and lichens, the Elves and Giants watched us with weary and suspicious eyes. Iceland is an unforgiving place, the land is not easily walked and there are places that have never felt the footsteps of women and men and have therefor kept their secrets, and their inhabitants, safe from progress and modernization, for now.
Even as the hydro towers march across the north of the island, bringing light and warmth to the residence of the Northern and Easter Fjords and cable is laid across the barren wastes of lava fields so that high-speed internet can reach the smallest hamlets, I had a sense of a land holding its breath. Holding its breath as the next volcanic eruption pushes out of the mountains, the next earth quake shakes the valleys and the glaciers flood the lowlands. It's as though everything and everyone in Iceland is waiting; waiting to see what happens next – with the land, the industry, the tourists, the legends. Indeed, here there be Giants