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A land that runs hot and cold
"Do I believe in elves?" Sveinki repeated my question. Tap, tap, tap, he knocked the ash from his pipe on a chunk of lava. He had done this so often during our four days of hiking together that it had become a comforting soundtrack to our trip.
We were leaning against our backpacks, sipping Danish coffee and eating butter cookies in the sun on the shore of a lake within Tjarnargigur crater.
"I believe they are an early form of urban legend," he said slowly in the tone of the professor that he is, "or a graphic means of passing on to the next generation local dangers, like wells that have gone bad and such." Then he gazed across the landscape, shrugged and hedged his bets: "But you never know."
Tap, tap, tap.
Iceland certainly looks as though it could be Elf, Troll and Fairy Central.
Sveinki and I were surrounded by large pillows of spongy moss that draped grotesque outcroppings of lava. A surreal shade of neon-green grass grew everywhere in exuberant tufts, even on the rooftops of rustic mountain huts. Damp caves provided entrances to tunnels that once ran red with liquefied lava. In some places the ground smoked or sputtered up geysers. Rivers reeked of sulfur. Every year, volcanoes punch holes through the country's icecaps in eruptions of ice and fire, and hundreds of earthquakes rattle Icelandic bones. With all that, the possibility of imps with pointy ears and mischievous intent seems plausible.
It was late August and Sveinn Helgi Sverrisson — nicknamed "Sveinki" — and I were hiking through the lava fields spewed by Mt. Laki's craters in south-central Iceland. Afterward, I would join a group for a week of short treks in remote wilderness national parks and reserves in southern Iceland.
I met Sveinki in the village of Kirkjubaejarklaustur (pronounced Keer-kee-byer-closter), a six-hour bus trip from Reykjavik, the capital. About 80% of Iceland's 290,000 people live in or near the capital, and four-fifths of the island is too rough to be habitable; it's an ideal combination for those who like to hike and climb.
Encircling a rugged interior of glaciers and three massive icecaps, moon-like lava landscapes and craggy peaks is the Ring Road; a fleet of excellent public buses regularly travels the 900-mile paved route. Sturdy four-wheel-drive versions even tackle the wild tracks of Iceland's interior on a timetable.
The buses accommodate the desires of sightseers and hikers, pausing for photo ops and dropping and picking up passengers at waterfalls, roadside shops, historic farms and gas stations. If you want to go hiking without a guide, you have only to ask the bus driver to stop and then head off into the wilderness. When you're ready to return to civilization, all you have to do is wait beside the road and flag down one of the next buses that comes along; they run in both directions several times a day in summer.
Even gas stations are out of the ordinary in Iceland. Because there are few towns along the Ring Road, Esso stations are the local grocery store, outdoor supplier and cafe. They carry items as disparate as headlamps and stacks of thin, dried salted cod, which local kids love topped with a dollop of butter. The cafes offer such surprising dining possibilities as creamy seafood chowder with homemade bread for a bargain $7 or sautéed fish, scallops, freshly baked pastries and caffeinated beverages, including espresso and latte.
The morning after arriving in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, I waited in my hotel lobby for the rest of my hiking group, for a four-day trip I had arranged with World Expeditions, a tour company. A single, fit, balding gentleman with a pipe was the only other person there. He introduced himself as Sveinki. "I am your guide, and I am the group," he said.
The other hikers had canceled at the last minute, so it would be just the two of us. A driver dropped us halfway up a dirt road, and we headed into the Laki lava fields, following a chain of craters that, from 1783 to 1785, erupted 2.9 cubic miles of molten rock to create one of the world's most extensive lava fields. An accompanying plume of toxic gases wiped out one-quarter of Iceland's 100,000 population.
During the last 500 years, Iceland's 200 active volcanoes have belched up one-third of Earth's lava. It is one of the world's youngest countries, geologically speaking, sitting atop a split in the Earth's crust along the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where two tectonic plates are moving in opposite directions; the eastern part of the country is inching ever closer to Europe while the west moves toward Greenland. The last eruption was in 2000.
Hiking wasn't difficult in the treeless landscape, but I had to be mindful of where I stepped because the rough lava rocks made for unsteady walking as they chewed at my hiking boots. In places with the thick moss blanketing the lava I felt as if I were walking across a field of down pillows.
The weather was moody. Bright sunshine shifted to rain before I could unclip my sunglasses. So many rainbows arched across the deep blue skies that by the second day I barely noticed them. One day we waded across a thigh-deep flooded plain, which left us so soggy that the torrential rains seemed immaterial. On another day in bright sunshine we leaped into a frigid stream that flowed out from an underground lava tube.
The moss was a yard thick in places, and at lunchtime I would drop my pack and fall backward into the glorious natural mattress as Sveinki laid out a smorgasbord of salami, pickled herring, creamy Icelandic blue, brie and Gouda cheeses, and an artery-clogging local specialty — butter laced with bacon. Then he brewed tiny cups of high-octane coffee, lighted his pipe and looked thoughtfully at the landscape.
At night we settled into tidy mountain huts used by sheep farmers during the fall round-up. One of the huts is haunted, the locals say, by the ghost of a World War II British military pilot whose bomber had crashed nearby.
Rhyolite and pumice
After my quiet stint with Sveinki, the bustle at the Skaftafell National Park campground was a surprise. I met my new guide, Hjorleifur Finnson — "Hjolli" (pronounced "Hurley" without the "r") for short — 12 hikers from Australia, Canada, the U.S., Britain and Bahrain, and Inge ("Inky"), the driver of the four-wheel-drive bus that transported us during the week for day hikes in parks, reserves and little-traveled tracks through southern Iceland.
That night we camped in Skaftafell at the foot of Iceland's highest summit, Hvannadalshnjukur at 6,992 feet, surrounded on three sides by glaciers. In the morning we strapped on crampons, grabbed ice axes and learned the basics of ice climbing as we walked across the Svinafellsjokull (Sveen-fells-yo-kel) glacier tongue, an icy sculpture garden slashed with crevasses. We all laughed when Geoff, a hiker from Britain, said that, stomping along in our crampons, we resembled Monty Python's John Cleese in his "Ministry of Silly Walks" skit.
That afternoon, in misty rain, we hiked the shoreline of Jokulsarlon, a lake at the foot of a glacier in which a flotilla of icebergs striped with dirt eerily shifted and creaked in the fog.
Heading west from Jokulsarlon, we stopped at the old Nupsstapur farm, where two sheep grazed in knee-deep grass growing on the roof of an old wooden hut.
"They think the best grass is up there, and we don't discourage them," said 93-year-old Eyjolfur as he stepped out of his yellow 1946 Willys Jeep. He and his 96-year-old brother, Filipus, run the farm, which has been in the family for generations.
"How many years?" I asked.
"Since 1550," he replied.
We left the Ring Road and continued to Landmannalaugar hut in Fjallabak Reserve in time for a soak in the natural hot springs nearby. The next day we walked into multicolored valleys of rhyolite, arriving at a field of black, glass-like obsidian boulders that glinted in the sun. Lunch was at the remote geothermal Vondugil Valley, which billowed with fumaroles hissing steam. Ponds of boiling water periodically erupted in tiny geysers as we munched sandwiches.
In the reserve we hiked deserts of black pumice that crunched underfoot like cornflakes; the foam-like pumice danced or took flight in heavy winds. And we traversed verdant valleys where the colors were surreal in their intensity, especially where the indigenous grimmia moss that grows on cooled lava shone a remarkable fluorescent green. Waterfalls were everywhere — long feathery chutes or broad chunky downpours, each sending up rainbows.
Each day by late afternoon we were back at our bus, where Inge stood faithfully alongside. Inge loved his bus. With its 240-horsepower engine and four-wheel-drive, it was game for the worst of Iceland's off-road conditions.
Inge, like Hjolli, was never without a traditional Icelandic sweater. Guidebooks say Icelanders never wear the hand-knitted wool sweaters, but I found they warmed the backs of every farmer and outdoors person I met.
We spent our nights in tents or huts and for dinner were served roast lamb, soup made with freshly picked wild mushrooms, barbecued salmon, sautéed fresh cod and classic Icelandic boiled salted lamb served in soup, all delicious and all created by Hjolli.
He was a tall, handsome 40-year-old with the complexion of an outdoorsman, but we nicknamed him our "philosopher guide" because in winter he teaches existential philosophy at a Berlin university. He was also a witty raconteur and regaled us at dinner and on hikes with discourses on local geology, contemporary Icelandic cinema, existentialism and gory tales of rape and pillage from the brutal Icelandic sagas.
All Icelanders seem to know the tales intimately, and, in fact, the Icelandic language has changed so little in the last millennium that schoolchildren today can read 1,000-year-old Viking texts.
A mysterious light
ON our return to Reykjavik we visited Iceland's most-renowned waterfall, Gullfoss, and also the original Geysir that gave English the word "geyser." We hiked through a natural amphitheater, the site of Iceland's first parliament from Viking times, and from there we followed the tectonic fault line — filled with water — to Lake Thingvellir, where we camped on our last night together.
Dinner was succulent lamb cooked on coals in a pit, but first we sampled a traditional Icelandic delicacy — rotten shark that had been buried in sand for six months before being cooked and served. It was, we unanimously decided with restrained disgust, an acquired taste.
During the night the occasional flashing of an odd green light awakened me, and I crawled outside my tent and awaited it. Nothing. When I was back in my tent the flashing began again. Trolls? Elves? Ghostly British pilots?
I had come to Iceland a nonbeliever but had found a country with a magical aura that challenged my basic notions — such as the permanence of the ground I walked upon. Even the pragmatic Icelandic government, which created a wealthy nation on the back of the earthy codfish, hedges its bets when it comes to the hidden people. At the Iceland Ministry of Transportation is a man whose job is to determine whether the path of a planned road or bridge invades the little folks' privacy. Another investigates possible relationships between elves and car accidents.
As I crawled a second time from my tent to sit beneath a brilliant canopy of stars, I realized I too was hedging my bets. You never know.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
From LAX, United, Northwest, British, Continental and Delta have connecting flights (change of plane) to Reykjavik. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $703 until Oct. 31.
WHERE TO STAY:
Hotel Odinsve is where I stayed in Reykjavik; 011-354-511-6200, http://www.hotelodinsve.is . A quiet residential hotel well located in the city center. Doubles $290, including breakfast.
Hotel Kirkjubaejarklaustur Iceland in Kirkjubaejarklaustur, Iceland, 6 Klausturvegur; 011-354-487-4900, http://www.icehotel.is . I stayed at this quiet country hotel, which was comfortable and modern. Doubles from $160.
World Expeditions, 580 Market St., 5th Floor, San Francisco; (888) 464-8735, http://www.worldexpeditions.net . I booked through this company, which next summer has scheduled 15-day trips similar to mine, with one week of trekking in the Laki Crater Chain and a second week in parks, nature reserves and interior wilderness, including 12 nights in huts or tents and two nights in hotels for $3,290 per person double occupancy but not including airfare to Iceland.
Mountain Travel Sobek, 1266 66th St., Emeryville, CA, 94608; (888) MTSOBEK (687-6235), http://www.mtsobek.com . Has eight-day trips mid-June through mid-September that include four days of moderate hiking and three nights camping or in mountain huts for $3,090 per person double occupancy.
Destination Iceland, http://www.dice.is , operates buses that allow you to travel the Ring Road independently or on bus-based safaris. (Accommodations vary from hotels to camping.) Its Full-Circle Pass, one of many packages the company offers, is valid for one trip around Iceland on the Ring Road in one direction. You can get off and on as you please. No time limit.
There are few formal trails outside the national parks, and there are no animals to fear, but it's important to have hiking experience if you go on your own and to talk with locals about nearby routes. Take rain gear as it's often damp.
TO LEARN MORE:
Icelandic Tourist Board; (212) 885-9700, www.icelandtouristboard.com.