We are in the middle of a vast plain of jagged gray and green lava rocks over miles-long gashes in the Earth’s crust, where two continents (Europe and America) are slowly tearing apart.
And I’m right next to the oldest parliament in the world, dating back to 930, listening to a story about witch baking.
If that sounds a little dramatic, that’s because it is. This is Thingvellir, a huge natural amphitheater, full of moody volcanoes, belching mud puddles and steaming lakes (hence the witches), in the southwestern tip of Iceland, about an hour from the capital, Reykjavik.
I’m in a special New Scientist Tour of the geology, history and ecology of this unique island, and I’m already learning that everything in Iceland comes with a dash of outlandish horror, and that includes the price of alcohol (best tip: buy your liquor from the government-licensed one).
From Thingvellir we headed to Geysir. This is the original “geyser”, although today it is Geysir’s sister, Strokkur, that drives tourists crazy. About every ten minutes, she erupts into fountains of hot steam and liquid.
Blow out: Sean joins a special New Scientist tour showcasing Iceland’s unique geology, history and ecology. Stops on your tour include a visit to the Geysir geyser (pictured)
It shouldn’t be as fun as it is. Sometimes Strokkur makes you wait a few minutes longer, which adds to the tension.
Then: wham! From time to time, as if for a change, he has a squirt and makes a couple of squirts ten meters high in a few seconds, drenching the unwary.
Every time Strokkur does his trick, the crowd bursts into happy laughter and then we all march towards the modern, airy cafeteria for a much-needed snack. Try thyme-fed lamb soup, perhaps with a chilled Einstok Arctic Pale Ale.
From here we headed to a nice, stylish four-star hotel in the small town of Vik, on the south coast. We received a lecture on magma, as well as delicious cod, plus skyr cake with red fruit sauce, and a precious opportunity to see the ethereal green curtains of the northern lights, best seen from the pretty church at the top of a hill.
Above is Thingvellir, a “huge natural amphitheater, full of moody volcanoes, belching mud puddles and steaming lakes” in the southwestern tip of Iceland.
Be sure to bring a hot toddy, a warm hat and gloves, and a specialized northern lights phone app, such as My Aurora Forecast. Bring a lot of patience too.
The next day, we head inland aboard an Icelandic Superjeep, passing bitter farmland, steaming geothermal power plants, and the occasional notable Lava Center-like museum, complete with “earthquake corridors” and powerful 3D models of “mantle plumes”.
We also contemplate the evocative and bloody history of Iceland. The old church of Hofskirkja, for example, with its turf roof, eerie graveyard, pagan foundations and stone sacrificial altar.
Sean (not pictured) describes the Vatnajokull Ice Cave, which is located on Europe’s largest glacier, as a “wonder”.
Then we will get wonderfully lost in the central wilderness of waterfalls and dwarf glaciers. As we bask in the grandeur, we drink the local perfumed brandy, called Brennivin, to accompany chunks of fermented shark meat known as hakarl. The liquor is good…
After this, the days blur into a brilliant whirlwind of awe-inspiring and horrifying wonders.
First comes Reynisfjara, a kingdom of towering dark sea stacks, elegant expanses of coal-black sand and hexagonal terraces of basalt cliffs. It’s as if Ibiza has been redesigned by the devil.
Above, a seal is seen in the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, a scene that is “especially striking” at sunset.
Sean explores Reynisfjara Beach (above), a kingdom of towering dark sea stacks, elegant stretches of coal-black sand and hexagonal terraces of basalt cliffs.
Above is a bottle of Brennivin, Iceland’s signature drink, which helps accompany the deliciousness of the fermented shark meat.
Not far away is the Jokulsarlon glacial lagoon, where seals frolic among white, gray and turquoise icebergs. At dusk, Jokulsarlon is especially striking, when the northern sunlight shines slanted through the ice, turning them into miniature Taj Mahals, translucent and illuminated in blue, floating dreamily towards the darkening sea.
Now comes the greatest wonder of all: the Vatnajokull Ice Cave, located on the largest glacier in Europe.
We crossed the moors to get there. Then we put on the helmet and obligatory flashlights (ice caves are dangerous) and begin the walk through the black sand of Mordor. An hour later we faced a momentous cut in the grey-white glacier. This is the huge entrance to the ice cave. Inside, we make our way along wet trails, before the guide tells us to turn off the headlights, letting the darkness descend. Because? Because it is not true darkness. As our eyes adjust, we realize that we are surrounded by thousands of years of frozen time.
Above us, beside us and around us are walls, floors and ceilings of ice, all shot through with the ancient blue light of day, even as the cave moves and melts in a million tinkling waterfalls.
It’s like a surreal, crystalline hallucination. It is terrifying, strange, moving and tremendous.
It’s the glorious, frozen heart of the land of ice and fire, and it’s worth it, despite the fearsome price of beer.
new scientist You have places left on your seven-night trip starting October 27, 2023, from £3,099 per person, based on two shared spaces, including bed and breakfast, guides, conferences, all internal transport and four dinners. The single supplement is £700.
International flights not included. Registration for the October 2024 expedition is now open. Visit newscientist.com/tours.