15th Dec 2016 10:02am | By Jahn Vannisselroy
From volcanoes and snorkelling in crystal-clear water to caving and ATV riding along rugged beaches, Iceland offers non-stop action
The water’s two degrees and my mouth, the only part of me exposed, is now numb. It’s of no mind, though; the extreme environment is too beautiful to be worrying about small uncomforts. I lie still, occasional wafts of my flippers my only movement, drifting in a current through the thin beginning of Iceland’s Silfra Fissure in Thingvellir National Park, as I prepare to glide between the Eurasian and North American tectonic plates. It’s a tranquil time, silent and pure. I’ve managed to get ahead of the rest of the group, so no flippers in the face can ruin my view, which extends all the way to the bottom, 100m in some places. Adjusting my snorkel causes an intake of half a mouthful of water, but swallowing it solves the problem and is probably good for me; the liquid that fills Silfra is melted ice from a glacier 50km away, filtered through the country’s porous lava fields for many years before arriving at the north end of Thingvellir lake through underground wells. It’s likely the cleanest on earth.
Above me, the sun has failed to pierce the brooding sky and the water’s surface remains unmolested by wind; perfect conditions, as shards of light and the slightest gust would affect the stunning clarity, rated among the world’s very best for diving and snorkelling. I float on, taking care not to touch the sides, lest I stir up the plant life, ruining the view for those behind me. Below me lies the Cathedral, an area where the Icelandic diving club holds its annual Christmas ball. Regrets at not having got my PADI certificate surface, as my snorkelling dry suit is too buoyant to delve any further than the surface.
Before reaching the lake proper, I take a left turn and enter the lagoon, an expansive area in which our guide lets us roam as we wish. Snorkelling from one side to the other, then paddling along the banks, I marvel at the rock formations and strange, placenta-like growths and in places reach out to touch the bottom, only to be reminded that it’s too far down, the immaculate visibility fooling me yet again. It’s been 15 minutes since my last conversation with anyone and I pop my head back up into reality to find the rest of the group is out of the water already. The guide motions to me to join them, and I begin a slow drift to the other side, still finding new angles and unexplored territory to keep me enthralled.
Silfra in Thingvellir National Park credit: Richard Parsons
Back on dry land, we return to the fissure’s beginning and the adventurous are invited to hurl ourselves from the banks into the freezing waters below. I leap, piercing the grey surface, adrenaline rushing as the cold stabs my skin, surfacing to scramble up the craggy banks and race up to the next- highest ledge – just because I can. It’s a harsh environment, but one providing plenty of adventure. But then Iceland is well versed at finding the silver lining in uncomfortable situations.
Perhaps best known for the colourful Northern Lights, the nation wasn’t really on the travel radar before the 2008 credit crunch, considered by all but the most intrepid as too out of the way and too expensive. But as the country’s currency lost 44 per cent of its value in a nationwide bankruptcy, news editors around the world featured it high up in their bulletins and editions. The problem for them (or blessing in Iceland’s case) was that the stock images of the nation consisted almost solely of its splendid wildlife: Icelandic horses roaming on verdant fields, geysers exploding, rugged scenery and the beautiful Blue Lagoon were beamed into the international consciousness. Suddenly, Iceland became an option for adventurous, budget-aware travellers.
And then, in 2010, Eyjafjallajökull, the volcano that caused the infamous ash cloud, erupted, bringing Europe’s airways to a halt. Google searches on Iceland quickly reached into the millions, again highlighting the remarkable wilderness and adventure the nation offered (when it wasn’t accidentally causing the rest of the world major problems). Silfra is just one of those amazing natural experiences on offer and thankfully I’m soon to taste plenty more.