Interesting Conversations with Icelandic Savants: On the Road with Jules Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth

November 23, 2018

I am the only living thing in the world: all life is concentrated in my beating heart alone. – JCE, p. 171

Geological Studies in Situ

I gazed upon these wonders in silence. Words failed me to express my feelings. I felt as if I was in some distant planet – Uranus or Neptune – and in the presence of phenomena of which my terrestrial experience gave me no cognisance. For such novel sensations, new words were wanted; and my imagination failed to supply them. – JCE, p. 158

Long ago, we crawled from the sea to terra firma. You feel it in Iceland, the primal connection to and appreciation for the cold salty sea and the solid earth. Our early ground may have been metal gray, dull black, iron red, knotted, gnarled, roped, or pebbled. You see for yourself that after all this time still the ground moves and shakes and spews. It creeps and bellows. It is alive. You know for sure that we are it and it is us but it will outlast us. To be this acutely aware of Earth’s and therefore our own origin story, that is the gift of Iceland.

What then would be those convulsed regions upon which we were advancing, regions subject to the dire phenomena of eruptions, the offspring of volcanic explosions and subterranean convulsions? – JCE, p. 70

Interesting Conversations with Icelandic Savants

It’s hard to imagine that not long ago Iceland was a poor country. Many Icelanders used to lived in cramped, damp sod houses and struggled to eek out a living fishing or sheering parasite-infested sheep. Now, the Icelandic people enjoy a high standard of living and have rapidly become one of the most advanced and progressive countries in the world. This wee island of 340,000 citizens, 217,000 of whom live in the Reykjavík metro region, is food and energy independent. Let that sink in. Food and energy. Independent.

Before I went to Iceland I feared I wouldn’t be able to eat fruits and vegetables for five days, presuming incorrectly that all fresh produce would need to be imported. With Iceland’s ample geothermal and hydroelectric power greenhouses are feeding not only the Icelandic population but the throngs of tourists that over the course of a year outnumber them three to one.

Since the “bank bomb” in 2008 and ensuing inflation everything is expensive in Iceland. Lodging and meals cost a pretty penny. Like several other travelers I met, I planned two low-budget meals a day from grocery stores and one splurge meal at dinnertime. Consider this your warning regarding US$30 burger and fries. You can find joyful exceptions such as a quiche and salad entrée found for less than US$20 and Thai noodles at the fabulous Noodle Station in Reykjavík for around US$15. I felt I had won the lottery.

Be prepared to see Americans, so very many Americans, on your travels in Iceland. Who knows, you may run into a neighbor. I estimated that around 60% of the tourists I ran into were Americans. Thankfully they tended to be on the better-behaved scale of Americans, perhaps being more of a more seasoned variety. It struck me that the American who chooses to go to Iceland is the same person who vacations in Northern California. Iceland is like Sausalito, hippie-ish and eccentric but with a thicker wool sweater.

Don’t expect super friendly people in Iceland. They’re Scandinavian, it’s cold outside, and the poor folks are rained on incessantly. They can be a bit reserved. They are a matter-of-fact, hearty group, as you would have to be to live on a small volcanic island close to the Arctic Circle. Keep in mind that a ridiculous proportion of Icelanders play an instrument and publish their own books. Modern Icelanders have found a way to thrive on the lava fields.

Snæfell at Last

For six hundred years Snæfell has been dumb; but he may speak again. Now, eruptions are always preceded by certain well-known phenomena. I have therefore examined the natives, I have studied external appearances, and I can assure you, Axel, that there will be no eruption. – JCE, p. 81

If your stay in Iceland is under one week, it’s likely you are not planning to travel the circumference of the island. That being the case, you’ll need to decide where to explore besides the charming city of Reykjavík and environs. In my case, I chose to head northwest to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.

Bring along the book Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne, or better yet buy a copy while in Iceland. Having not been a geeky lad growing up, I missed out on the joy of this Jules Verne saga. The improbable plot of the book is a descent to the center of the Earth by an unlikely trio of two Germans and their stoic Icelander guide. After solving an elaborate puzzle it was determined that the center of the Earth could be accessed through Snæfellsjökull, the looming mountain and glacier at the western tip of the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Drama of an unlikely nature ensues.

Driving Snæfellsnes is a dream. For three days I drove to a small scenic lookout on the north side of the Peninsula close to where routes 56 and 54 meet to view 180 degrees of pure Icelandic magic. To my left was a gray-green series of solid rock mountain, center was a winding river in front of a distant red-black volcanic cone, and to my right glowed a large cone beaming red in the sunlight.

I’m still not sure what happened to me at this one location but now, weeks after returning home, I think of it almost every day. It was my moonwalk, my step into another dimension, similar to an experience I had in Death Valley many years ago, that feeling of being big and alive and powerful and infinitesimal and small and inconsequential at the same time. It’s a spiritual awakening that seems to dawn only during a lonesome, thrilling moment in a barren landscape. It’s one of the closest feelings I’ve had to bliss.

The Wonders of Terrestrial Depths

We pushed on, impelled by our burning curiosity. What other marvels did this cavern contain? What new treasures lay here for science to unfold? I was prepared for any surprise, my imagination was ready for any astonishment however astounding. – JCE, p. 208

Wherever I go I seek caves. I’ve seen my fair share of caves but never lava tube caves so I decided to make up for lost time by visiting two such caves in western Iceland.

First I enjoyed a brief tour of the Vatnshellir cave in Snæfellsjökull National Park. It cost US$33 including helmet and flashlight. After walking down rickety wooden steps we opened a door on an enlarged tin can helpfully marked Underworld in Icelandic and descended towards the center of the Earth. Our delightful guide, Gunnar, regaled us with tales of trolls holding court in caverns and at the end of the tour switched off the lighting. He asked everyone to be absolutely still and silent. A few nervous nellies eventually settled down and we enjoyed a full minute of total blackness, unable to see our hands in front of our faces, and the only sound being the drip-drip of water falling from the cave ceiling. If we’d been there eight thousand years earlier, we’d have heard and not seen the exact same thing.

The second lava tube cave I visited was Víðgelmir, northeast of Reykjavík near the town of Húsafell. Víðgelmir is a cave system running below a massive lava field. Of course one lava tube cave is going to be similar to the next but here I was able to view ice stalagmites and cave walls that appeared to be dripping with chocolate ganache. It seems Iceland knows how to hire lovable and eccentric tour guides and again we had a lovely young fellow leading the way, including the compulsory one minute of blackout and silence at the end of the route. I felt every bit of my 3% Neanderthal heritage.

Water Discovered

You will, and you should, go to the Blue Lagoon. The guidebooks probably don’t mention one of the best parts of a trip to the Blue Lagoon – driving there. The otherworldly scene of black, jumbled blocks, chunks, and irregularly-shaped hunks of lava covered with moss and draped in mist is a landscape I’d never fathomed before stumbling upon the Icelandic crime show Lava Field. Driving to the Blue Lagoon was the first thing I did after an early arrival at Reykjavík and it catapulted me into a sense of awe and mystery that didn’t leave until departing the country.

I suggest taking the earliest appointment possible at the Blue Lagoon. I arrived at 9.00 a.m. and left just before noon and was pleased to avoid the afternoon crowds. Despite Disneyfication the Blue Lagoon is still a magical place. In addition to exploring the nooks and crannies of the massive Lagoon, be sure to visit the steam cave and wet and dry saunas near the locker rooms. I bought the basic package at around US$90 that included one drink and a silica mask. Would you like the algae mask? Plan to pay extra for that or anything else you might want. Not to worry, you’ll be wearing a nifty hi-tech bracelet that allows as many visits to your locker as needed and doubles as your water-resistant credit card.

A Blue Lagoon tip, primarily for the ladies, but really for anyone with hair. Everyone is asked to bathe naked before going into the Lagoon. I can’t stress how specific the instructions are about this. It is recommended to leave an ample amount of conditioner in your hair because silica can be very hard on it, quite literally very hard. I silently judged the women who didn’t follow these instructions, with their dry hair in ponytails or wearing ridiculous shower caps, perched prissily above the water. I righteously followed instructions, in fact went back to the showers midway through to add more conditioner to my hair, but still it was a hot mess at the end of my visit and for several days afterward.  I was convinced my hair would crack off into my hands, but after a few days and a full bottle of hair conditioner, I was back to semi-normal.

Et quacumque viam dederit fortuna sequamur: Wherever fortune clears a way, Thither our ready footsteps stray

I don’t think there is any other way to see Iceland but by driving and for visitors that means renting a car. It is expensive but worth it. If you can, get a four-wheel drive. Expect to pay, at a minimum, €28 a day for the auto insurance you will need – basic, windshield, lights, and gravel protection – which says all you need to know about the unique conditions you will be driving in. I paid for an insurance package via an online service that I later regretted. Wait until you pick up the car to make your insurance selections, and suck it up by saying yes to every type of insurance that is offered.

Driving around Iceland is a magical experience. I couldn’t imagine myself as a tourist crammed into one of the buses zipping around the countryside. You will want the freedom of being able to stop wherever you’d like to take photos or veering off onto gravel roads towards beaches or hiking trails. Be sure to have a robust guidebook. On my drive from Reykjavík to the Snæfellsnes Peninsula my eyes were glued inland to the dramatic mountains and plateaus. I didn’t realize there were beautiful beaches and crazy rock formations to my left.

If you will, let me save you some trouble with Iceland’s complex gas station protocol. There are no give-you-backsies in the gas pumping world of Iceland. Don’t use your credit card at the pump. You risk losing money if you guess your tank size or currency estimate incorrectly and it’s likely you will. Instead, go into the gas station, usually an N1, and buy a prepaid petrol card. Depending on how long you will be driving in Iceland, you can buy one for 5,000 krona, roughly US$45 at time of writing, or 10,000 krona. You may need to buy a second card if you stay longer.

You quickly learn when driving in Iceland that it is impossible to stop and view every beautiful lava field, mist covered plateau, errant sheep or waterfall or you would be stopping every half-mile on a quick trip to nowhere. There are not many places to park on the side of the road to take photos and side roads are easy to whip by before you have time to brake. I often felt like I was driving through Wyoming, New Mexico, or the plains of Texas, and at times a treeless Hawai’i.

A quick note about restroom access. Pretend you are in New York City and that public restrooms are at a premium. Use every one you see at all times without hesitation. I found myself on long drives with not a single restaurant, cafe or gas station on the horizon and plenty of wide-open views for passers-by to watch me take care of business on the side of the road or in an empty sheep pasture. You must know, and this will be no surprise, that the locals hate that tourists do this. Hopefully Icelanders are actively planning ways to either provide additional facilities or limit us from coming to their country at all.

Hospitality Under the Arctic Circle

My iPhone worked 95% of the time in Iceland, with map apps working fine. I paid Verizon an extra US$10 a day for unlimited cell service. Wifi is plentiful in Iceland and I could surf the web and text from almost everywhere, but I was not able to make a phone call the whole time in Iceland, not even local calls.

Plan on using your credit card. There’s very little need for Icelandic krona and even toll booths accept cards. Be sure you have a card with no international transaction fees. When you can, shop smartly in select stores rather than small purchases in multiple shops. If you spend a minimum of around US$60 in a shop, you may be able to receive a tax refund. Plentiful signage will show you which shops offer this perk but if you don’t see signage be sure to ask. Keep the receipts and fill out the required forms. You’ll get those stamped at the Reykjavík airport on your way out and eventually see nice little credits on your credit card invoice.

Iceland! but what Next?

And yet, now that I can reflect quietly, now that my spirit has grown calm again, now that months have slipped by since this strange and supernatural meeting, what am I to think? What am I to believe? I must conclude that it was impossible that our senses had been deceived, that our eyes did not see what we supposed they saw. – JCE, p. 211

At the end of every vacation, I ask myself what I would have done differently or what I’d like to prioritize the next time I visit. On my next trip to Iceland I will plan more geothermal pool excursions. The geothermal fields and pools of Iceland are a unique experience and a daily part of the average Icelander’s life. These treasures are located in just about every town. Ask the locals or use The Google to find pools near you.

On my next trip, I will head up rather than down. To the mountains and glaciers I will go.

Most importantly, on my next visit to Iceland I will bring a sturdy old-fashioned digital camera (DSLR). As wonderful as my iPhone 8 Plus’s camera is, it couldn’t capture the Icelandic scenery to my specifications. I found myself envious of the tourists traipsing around with their elaborate equipment and tripods. Bring a hefty zoom lens.

Four full days in Iceland was enough to give me a taste of what the northwest of Iceland has to offer but there is much else to explore. A two-week vacation around the entire island would give one a robust taste and feel for the land, people, and culture of Iceland.

However, it’s fine to start small. It’s likely you’ll be back.

All’s Well that Ends Well

Get your little butt out there!