“That is Snaefellsjokull a mountain about five thousand feet in height, one of the most remarkable in the whole island, and certainly doomed to be the most celebrated in the world, for through its crater we shall reach the centre of the earth.”, Jules Verne – ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’
Breakfast at the Alternative Foss Hotel turned out to be quite excellent with a good selection of hot and cold buffet selection and a waffle making machine that was working very well indeed until Margaret interfered with the cooking process and spilled the ingredients all over the table and left a sticky batter mess that was dripping over the side of the table top for the unfortunate staff to clean up.
It was a rather overcast day as we left the hotel, reunited ourselves with the little Chevrolet car and tentatively made our way out of the city of Reykjavik in a generally northerly direction.
After fifteen minutes or so we left behind the housing estates, the edge of town shopping malls and the car showrooms of the city and soon we were in open country. This was an unfamiliar terrain unlike anything that I had seen before with jagged blackened boulders and deep granite fissures and it reminded me of a tray of freshly baked muffins that had risen quickly due to the heat and had split and cracked as though some mighty force from below and heaved them up through the earth’s crust, which of course it had.
Approximately three-quarters of Iceland is completely barren of vegetation and plant life consists mainly of grassland. The only tree native to the island is the northern birch but most of these are only a memory now because humans of course have damaged the delicate ecosystem as these birch forests were heavily exploited over the centuries for firewood and timber. Deforestation resulted in a loss of critical top soil due to erosion, greatly reducing the ability of forests to re-establish themselves. Today there are very few trees in only a few isolated areas of the island and none where we were driving.
Our plan was to drive north to the villages of Akranes and then Borgarnes and the swing inland and visit the Þingvellir National Park but for now we just kept driving north and keeping the sea close to the left. Eventually we arrived at a decision making point with a road around the Whalefjord or a toll tunnel underneath that would save eighty kilometres or so of hard driving.
So we took the second option through the only underwater tunnel in Iceland, almost six thousand metres long and reaching a depth of one hundred and sixty-five metres. It cost 1,000 Krona at the toll booth, or about £5, which seemed like good value to save the fifty minute alternative drive around the fjord.
The tunnel received a bad rating in the latest European tunnel test (believe me, it’s true), which is carried out annually by the German Automobile Club ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club). Specifically mentioned were poor lighting (it was very dark I have to say), the absence of an automatic fire alarm system and poor ventilation.
We were only underground for a few minutes but in that short time the weather surprisingly improved and when we emerged on the Akranes peninsular the sun was doing it best to elbow its way through the cloud. We took the coast road to the town but only stopped on the outskirts and without giving it the courtesy of a visit carried right on to Borgarnes where we crossed a bridge that had replaced a previous ferry service and from the deserted quay side made our way into the town centre where we found a car park next to a café and a sort of museum called ‘the Settlement Centre’. So we stopped for coffee, cake and WiFi.
After the drinks break we declined the opportunity to visit the rather overpriced exhibition and I was satisfied that I wasn’t missing anything special, it was about the Vikings and I imagine rather like the Jorvik Centre in York or the Norway boat ride at EPCOT World Showcase in Florida but without the ride so instead walked for a while along the coast, next to the black volcanic sand beach and the windswept headland with yellowing grass, deprived of sunlight and chlorophyll blowing helplessly first one way and then another in the strong wind that was buffeting us in all directions.
Across the bay and at a distance of about seventy kilometres we could make out the summit of the mountain and glacier Snæfellsjökull which is the smallest glacier in Iceland but famous for being featured as the entrance to the centre of the Earth in the book by Jules Verne*.
Some people also consider Snæfellsjökull to be an enormous source of energy and it is often visited by those with an interest in the spiritual and supernatural. An Icelandic politician (just before he went off for treatment I imagine) once had a dream about aliens coming to visit Earth on the top of Snæfellsjökull, famously attracting people from all over the world to witness this. I wasn’t surprised to learn that the aliens didn’t show up and let’s face it if Martians or Vulcans or whatever did come to earth then it is rather unlikely (unless they are very shy or have adequate volcano damage insurance for the spaceship) that they would choose this very remote location.
We left Borgarnes across the second longest road bridge in Iceland and instead of making for the tunnel under the fjord decided to drive around it on our way to Þingvellir National Park a little way inland.
First the road took us around the north of the fjord past a fish processing plant and then a whaling station which is still used but where there was no activity today and then next to this the rotting remains of a British Second-World-War naval base where escort ships were stationed for protecting the North Atlantic convoys from the German U-boats. At that time there were two hundred and fifty-buildings here including a hospital, a cinema, a restaurant and a shop but there are few remains now of what was once a British township on the island.
At the end of the fjord we turned west and followed the southern shoreline, past more remains of Second-World-War activity but what we really have liked to see were the Whales that give this fjord its name and where the Whale-watching tourist trips take to the water but by the time we had reached the turning towards Þingvellir we had rather predictably drawn a complete cetacean blank.
The weather had been showing signs of improvement with the strong winds pushing the clouds aside and allowing the sun to peek through but once away from the water and into the Kjósarskarðsvegur valley on the way to Þingvellir the clouds began to gather again and the afternoon became quite gloomy and often a little damp as we crossed through a forlorn and weather weary landscape.
* “The distance from the surface of the Earth to the middle is 6,370 kilometres, which isn’t very far (relative to the size of the Universe)…. Our own attempts to penetrate towards the middle have been modest indeed. One or two South African gold mines reach to a depth of over 3 kilometres, but most mines on Earth go no more than about 400 metres below the surface.” Bill Bryson – ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’.