Iceland – Land of Whales and Volcanoes

If my Instagram feed is anything to go by, there isn’t a mossy rock in Iceland that some influencer in a yellow raincoat hasn’t already stood on. I was, therefore, all the more surprised when, shortly after leaving the city limits of Reykjavik, I had the road all to myself. I was on my way to visit friends who had emigrated to the Westfjords of Iceland.

mountain lake iceland

The passing scenery was exactly like the beautiful images you scroll through on your phone while sitting in the subway bored on the way to work. All the while, you think, “Why am I not there right now?” Along the way, there were vast lava fields that had solidified long ago. High green covered hills dotted with grazing sheep and mountains with a gushing waterfall every few hundred meters – so much scenery that I no longer stopped to take photographs. And, nonetheless, I still stopped downright too much. So often, I was wondering if I would ever arrive at my destination. Here an abandoned fisherman’s hut on the rugged Atlantic coast, there a lonely red-painted cottage amid a herd of Icelandic horses stoically standing in the rain. Here a postcard idyll, there a backdrop from the Game of Thrones. Both a curse and blessing for a photographer. And so I followed the winding roads along the fjords in a self-imposed stop-and-go routine until I came across a huge whale carcass by the wayside. I had just returned from an expedition in the Mediterranean on marine mammals, so I was all the more interested in the final chapter of their lives. Curiosity led me to take a closer look at the skeleton, although the smell of decay was practically unbearable. This was one of those rare moments in life when I could count myself fortunate to have a stuffed-up nose from a cold.

For some years now, whale stocks in the world’s oceans have been recovering. It is one of the few success stories in international environmental policy. And although Iceland has never recognized the moratorium on commercial whaling, in recent years, whale watching tours have contributed to maintaining their numbers and the increasing popularity of the world’s largest volcano island. During the Corona crisis, in particular, Icelanders have come to understand how much the prosperity of their country depends on tourism. Suddenly, they were virtually isolated and left on their own. The government chose to make a virtue out of necessity and distributed travel vouchers to all its citizens, thereby allowing them to discover their island for themselves.

the outdoors manolo ty iceland landscape

Even my friends received the vouchers, although they really did not need to leave the Westfjords. They only have to step out their front door to enjoy the incredible grandeur of nature. Ísafjörður is beautifully situated on a peninsula in the middle of a fjord. Despite a population of barely 3000, the town is the regional capital with all that this status entails. The town actually seems quite busy. Here you will even find what is probably one of the most remote universities in the world, where, a few days later, I held a lecture on sustainable developments.

While the locals were still indulging in a Saturday soccer game, I walked through the fishing harbor and the old town center, which consists of just a few houses. The Danish Consulate here attests to the international importance of the local fishing industry. Yet, long after the collapse of the herring stocks in the 1960s, the situation has finally stabilized. Fishing quotas are intended to make the fisheries, the pride of many Icelanders, sustainable again. So it was fitting that we spent the evening at Tjöruhúsið, my friends’ favorite restaurant, and sampled some fish freshly caught by local small-scale fishermen. It was a true feast.

island jakuzzi view

One night a few days later, as chance would have it, I met an old fisherman in a hot pot at the far end of the Westfjords. Hot pots are small pools filled with hot thermal water, and not only can they be found everywhere throughout the country, but they also serve as a gathering place for the locals. It is the perfect place for a traveler like me to learn more about the country and its people and have a chance to chat with them. The old man told me it is next to impossible to live from fishing alone. To make a living all year round, he also works as a shepherd, and, in the winter when the community is snowed in, he looks after the airport, the only lifeline to the outside world during the cold months. After taking a final gulp from his beer can, he said goodbye. The next day he had to participate in the local sheep roundup with the community. So I was left alone in the hot water with a clear starry sky above me. My thoughts slowly drifted as I listened to the waves of the Arctic Ocean just a few steps away. Then a faint light began to dance above my head. There it was – the famous northern lights. And like all distances I had to cover while in Iceland, my way home took over half the night. Despite the icy cold, I was wholly absorbed in photographing the northern lights, which gradually became brighter.

polar lights iceland

By the end of my trip, I had covered 4000 kilometers in my rental car – a journey over seemingly endless gravel roads, over barren mountain passes, across green valleys overgrown with blueberries, and through dense fog banks. Just a few days ago, I stood before calving glaciers, from which shining blue icebergs drifted out into the open sea. The evening before my return flight, I spotted a column of smoke high in the sky. I was overcome with deep joy. The Fagradalsfjal, which had remained quiet for several days, had erupted again. This was my chance to experience up close one of the most spectacular wonders of nature before my return flight.

vulcano lava at night

In next to no time, I found myself climbing up the mountain alongside countless others who had joined this pilgrimage on short notice to watch as the boiling lava poured down into the valley. The lava hissed and bubbled. The wind was bitterly cold, but the closer you got to the lava, the more you were warmed up by the flowing liquid rock. As if in a trance, I gazed for hours at the red, bubbling streams and followed the ever-recurrent eruptions. Yet, it came time for even this journey to end. Heading to the airport, my rearview mirror reflected the glowing red light of the volcano illuminating the night sky. It was like a scene out of the Hollywood film Dante’s Peak. People were stopping alongside the highway and getting out of their cars to watch. The blue lights of the police were flashing everywhere as they hopelessly attempted to regulate the traffic. But even they were under the spell of the volcano.

iceland the outdoors vulcano