Nordicaa: Travels in the Nordic Lands Suðurland and Reykjanes

Crepuscular light creeps over the ridge from the North American plate to the Eurasian. It bounces gently across the lapping waves, catching the crests. All colours can be found here, in this crisp, cold sky. In a few hours stripes of blue will illuminate the scene, but for now there is red amongst the blue; orange inside the green; black subsuming the white; everything else dances between the poles.

The shore of the lake is home to countless communities like this. The Icelanders do so love their country houses. You fumble with a fob in the darkness, trying to find the right key for the electronic gate. You press, you press, you press, and it rises. A gravel track wends through outcrops of self built cabins and their miniature counterparts. Somewhere towards the centre, after a long day of driving and hiking, would be your respite: a comfy sofa, a working kitchen, and a full bottle of Brennivin.

Our first nights had been in the capital, but that was not why we were in Iceland. We laid down the gauntlet to ourselves: over a series of holidays we would traverse the four corners, the quadrants, of Iceland. The first on the list was the south west: Suðurland and Reykjanes. In holidays to come we would focus on Ísafjörður, Akureyri and Egilsstaðir. But not this time. This was all about the south.

The waterfall lashes my face and freezes my bones. I can feel the mist coming through my failing waterproofs. Clothes are no match for the power of Skógafoss. My phone screen is so wet that I can’t open it; I can’t get to my camera to document where I am. I open my coat, and rub the screen on my fleece. I am standing at the base of a waterfall; far too close to be advisable: I am humbled by the crushing force of the rushing screen of water. It hits the pool like a brick hitting concrete.

The steam catches in my nose. I struggle not to gag. It is sulphur, and it is everywhere. I bask in the warmth of the air, trying to push the smell of the bubbling pools from my nose. Geysir is no longer as wretched as this; its smells seem to have worn off over the years. Not so for Krýsuvík: the bubbling pots, the solfatara, pump out wet, sticky, eggy fumes; an assault on the senses. We leave in haste.

Reynisfjara has changed since I was last there. That time there were a dozen people, and a great deal of peace; this time there was an ugly landscape of potholes, muddy water, buses and a café. We were feeling sullen and dejected. The black beaches were crowded with people taking selfies and filming each other. The basalt columns soared overhead in their hexagonal glory, oblivious to it all.

The rock is slippery and the fall is huge, in to the roiling pool below. I had thought it would be a good idea to bring our child behind Seljalandsfoss; there weren’t too many people here; there are paths to guide you around the pool. Not true. The path stops suddenly, only to be replaced by wet rocks, mud and slippery death. The people are a constant, selfish crush for continued existence. We carry her as we make our way through the walls of rock, hopping from pitfall to pitfall. Why didn’t we turn back?

It’s the fall that’s gonna kill you! You are standing on the crater of an extinct volcano, as a group of North American and Irish teenage girls prance about, taking selfies and filming amateur music videos with seemingly no awareness of which country they’re in. Their oblivion is infectious; you look down, down, down the scree slope and wonder why you climbed so very high, blinded by a setting sun.

The darkness is absolute. The shimmering light you can see is the nerve cells of your eyes begging in sheer desperation for some kind of input. But there is none. This deep in to the cave system there is no light but that which you bring with you. The nervous laughter ripples through the group, like waves on an inky black pond. This is purely a demonstration, but you ache for the lights to come on.

The building is little more than a prefab hut, clad in the ubiquitous corrugated iron, sitting behind a suburban plant nursery. The steam above, filling the brightly lit air with a thermal haze, is the only hint that the hut holds more than it initially seems. Separate the sexes; strip off, wash thoroughly: the diagram shows where, in a variety of languages. This is not a drill. You are soon out in the cold Icelandic air, a steaming pool in front of you. You can only climb in to ward off the chill. Black sand underfoot, picking at the toes. You understand now why so many people are drinking beer.

I find myself wondering at what age Icelanders realise that sand isn’t black everywhere. That the land beneath the feet of most people is not one of several types of lava – A’a or pahoehoe, for instance – and that the rest of us have sedimentary rocks, and layer upon layer of soil, clay and shell. The geologist laughs: shells in the ground in Iceland. That is a thoroughly ridiculous notion to him.

There is a delta of black sand, just beside seljalandsfoss which feels like the dawn of time. It switches and slides, drawing patterns in the dark ground below. My foot pushes down on a stone; it is pebble smooth, and the size of a grapefruit. It makes its way easily in to the soft grey sand. Water crashes.

In the supermarket I am bewildered. I understood that the prices of anything in a recyclable vessel do not include the recycle value. That that is added at the till. Absurd, but commonplace. What I had not grasped was that not all items are priced. Their price is displayed as a per kilo value; the weight of the item is put on the thing itself. I’m surprised that Icelandic shoppers do not walk around shops with pocket calculators with which to calculate how much they’ll pay. Instead they walk around with cups of coffee. Supermarkets give away free coffee to their patrons. This should catch on elsewhere.

The trail from the opening of Almannagjá to Öxarárfoss was actually more pleasant than you had expected. The Law Rock elicited the required sensations of awe in all but the youngest of the group. She would only be satisfied by the production of a stash of food from the depths of the pack. We were passed by a flood of tourists, walking zombie-like from one car park up to another, as part of an excursion. They have been freed from their cocooned luxury for a few minutes. Heaven help them if they get lost. We turn a corner and see the falls, our first of the trip, crashing thunder down.

I am deeply offended about how expensive cheese is in Iceland. Was it my mind? Was I hallucinating?