The Land of Fire & Ice
A version of this article was first published in the Straits Times Newspaper of Singapore on 26 October 2019.
Landing in Iceland makes you feel like you are arriving at the very edge of the world. For avid trekkers, this place is paradise because of the incredibly rich topography and varied landscape. Also known as the Land of Fire and Ice, it has stunning blue glaciers, black sandy deserts, over 130 volcanoes, obsidian lava fields, multicoloured snow-capped mountains, and explosive geysers. Indeed, Iceland’s very existence is a geographical oddity. It marks the point where the European and American tectonic plates meet, and are pushed apart by volcanic activity, making it one of the most geologically active places on earth.
In an area approximately the size of New York, but with a population of just over 360,000, Iceland is the most sparsely populated country in Europe. The first permanent settlement wasn’t established until 874 AD, when a Norse Viking Chieftain called Ingólfr Arnarson arrived off the cost with his family. According to local lore, he threw two carved pillars overboard vowing to set up home where they landed. The pillars washed ashore on a coastline dotted with steam vents, so he called the place Reykjavik, which means ‘Bay of Smoke’ in Norse. His settlement is still the capital today, and home to two thirds of Iceland’s tiny population.
On an August day towards the end of the Icelandic summer, our team of 12 women - part of HER Planet Earth, a Singapore-based NGO that promotes female empowerment and environmental conservation – has just arrived in Reykjavik. We are for the most part based in Asia and no one has ever set foot in Iceland, except one person. The journey ahead is exciting and we look forward to spending five days traversing one of the most active, volcanic and alien landscapes of Iceland, Laugavegur, a trail in the Southern Highlandsoriginally formed by an eruption in 1477.
We chose Iceland because it is one of the countries already feeling the brunt of climate change. In fact, land in Iceland is rising at an average of 1.4 inches per year in certain areas, as a result of climate change. The melting of the country's glaciers reduces pressure on the land below and allows the surface to rise. This changing geography is another tangible showcase of the effects of global warming.
Just a few weeks ago, Iceland held an actual funeral for the first glacier “killed” by climate change - the 700-year-old Okjokull, which is the first of Iceland’s major glaciers to die. If a glacier melts and becomes too thin, it stops moving and then it is declared dead. Actions like Iceland’s glacier funeral are a vital part of the mourning process. As symbols of man’s connection with nature, glaciers have great cultural significance in the Nordic country and at current rates of warming, all of the country’s glaciers will suffer Okjokull’s fate in the next 200 years, one by one.
Our determined team is using this expedition to raise awareness and funds for underprivileged women affected by climate change. We want to highlight that gender often remains the untold story behind climate change. Indeed, in many countries around the world, women are among the most vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation, partly because women make up the larger share of the agricultural workforce and tend to have access to fewer income-earning jobs. While climate change is a global phenomenon, its effects are felt locally, and poor people suffer the most - among the world’s 1.3 billion poor people, the majority are women.
After a bone shattering three-hour drive east of Reykjavik on the rough dirt road, we reach our first camp in the late afternoon, at the start of the Laugavegur trail. The area is only open to trekkers from June to August, because the rest of the year, the weather is simply too ferocious to risk hiking. As we step out of the van and breath in the crisp 6°C air, it’s easy to forget that we are still in the middle of summer. Nevertheless, the camp has a great surprise in store for us - a natural geothermal hot spring for campers to bathe in.
This first evening, the group is in high spirits. In the summer, Iceland never really gets dark so we are tempted to stay up late, despite the early start planned for the next morning. The trail awaits. Considered one of the finest walking routes in the world because of its staggering beauty and diversity, Laugavegur ranks right up there with the Inca trail in Peru and the Milford track in New Zealand.
We set out the next day under clear blue skies, and as soon as we step out of camp, we are greeted by the most extraordinary, heart stopping landscapes. The hills are breath-taking, barren with more than 50 shades of brown. As we climb higher, the wind starts to bite.
This place makes you feel as if you are a character in the Lord of the Rings. It is no accident that J.R.R. Tolkien was fascinated by Iceland. They say this part of the country is as close as you will ever get to Middle Earth, the fantasy land he describes in his novels.
As the day progresses, we make our way to the heart of this geothermal wonderland, and come across stunning sceneries at every turn: incredible lunar surfaces, volcanic rocks, majestic waterfalls and steaming hot geysers with their bubbling sulphuric acid pools. Respect for the landscape grows deeper with every step. It is this otherworldliness that brought Nasa to Iceland on numerous occasions to train astronauts for the geological conditions they would encounter on the Moon and Mars. Across most of Iceland, people live mainly on the coastal areas, because of this, you could walk for miles inland and see no sign of human life, no roads, no houses, nothing.
In the thousand years since Iceland has been inhabited, there have been over 250 eruptions in a volcanically active zone covering a quarter of the country. Our trail runs through the heart of this zone, which makes me wonder just how dangerous it is to trek here. “Surely they would close the trail…” I think to myself, “if there were any signs of an impending eruption.” We soon come across a sobering reminder of why never to underestimate the risks on mountains. It’s a memorial for a young Israeli man called Ido Keinan, a modest pile of stones with a metal plaque that says: “In loving memory of Ido Keinan who passed away in a blizzard so close to the safe hut nearby yet so far at only 25 years old June 27, 2004.” The frightening part is just how close Keinan was to safety when he died. This tragedy took place at the height of summer. We are walking in August and it does not feel like it. Just a few hundred metres later, we reach the Hrafntinnusker campsite for lunch.
Throughout the trek, we camp outdoors and experience a range of temperatures from beautiful sunny days, to cold, windy and rainy spells, with 5-6°C temperatures, for the most part. We hike about 10 hours per day and the team is relieved and joyous when at the end of each day, we finally reach our campsite for the night with warm food and rest.
The landscape is ever changing. Descending into the valley, we go from slopes covered in electric green moss, to lunar landscapes and artic trails, before entering a thick fern and birchwood forest called Thorsmork, named after the Norse God of Thunder, Thor.
As we hike through the woods, our intrepid, experienced guide Helga, shares with us, “We do have trolls who live in these mountains. They only come down to forage for food at night. If they are caught in the sunlight, they immediately turn to stone.” It seems the majority of Icelanders believe in, or at least refuse to deny the existence of elves, trolls, and other hidden beings.
On the third day, the weather catches up with us. The showers come and go as we march on through black volcanic rock covered with a thick layer of dust and sand. But this isn’t any ordinary dust. This is the stuff that caused chaos all over Europe when in 2010 the volcano under a glacier known as Eyjafjallajokul began erupting for the first time since the 1820s, spewing ash 9,000 metres (30,000 feet) into the air and causing the largest international airspace shutdown in years.
On the last day, the conditions worsen. Weather closes in and becomes quite menacing quite fast. The wind and rain are relentless and intensify in strength. This forces us to seek shelter and plan for an early evacuation, as 51km/h gale-force winds start battering the mountains.
Despite the poor conditions, Iceland has drawn us in. The team has covered close to 80km of undulating mountainous terrain, crossing numerous freezing rivers in the processes and enduring unpredictable and capricious micro-climates. The whole experience is surreal, and for many of us almost spiritual. The stunning beauty and dramatic lunar landscapes of Iceland have kept us transfixed throughout the journey. Pushing our limits for a very worthy cause has made the whole experience even more meaningful. We are bonded in our sisterhood and in our common goal. The team returns home with an unforgettable impression of this truly wild and awe-inspiring Land of Fire and Ice.