Iceland: back to the land of fire and ice

For those who haven't been, visiting this European island more than 50 times may seen masochistic – but then it's unlike anywhere else on earth

6 mins

I’ve just returned from my 67th visit to Iceland. But when I mentioned this fascinating fact to a friend, he politely pointed out that I was pathetically sad. Don’t I have anything better to do than count how many times I’ve been to one particular country?

Well, actually, I don’t. I’ve kept a detailed record of all my trips since I first started travelling for work in the early 1980s, and could tell you in an instant how many countries I’ve visited and exactly how many times I’ve been to each one. Personally, I think that’s time very well spent.

What does worry me, though, is that age-old conundrum: should I go back to countries I really like or should I strive to visit somewhere new every time I go away? Ultimately, I’d like to have visited every country in the world. But in many ways it’ll be a rather shallow achievement, simply because I’ll have spent no more than a few days in many of the countries on the list. Arguably, getting to know a small number of them inside-out would be a far more productive and satisfying accomplishment.

It would take a lifetime to explore Iceland properly, but I think I’ve come to know it pretty well. Until last week I hadn’t been for several years – in protest at the country’s shocking decision to resume commercial whaling. But I’m keen to support the whalewatching industry that, I believe, offers the best long-term solution to the whaling problem by making the whales worth more alive than dead. And it was good to be back.

In the shadow of the volcano

According to my log, the first time I visited the land of ice and fire was in 1981, and I was travelling with some journalists and a walrus. We called him Wally. He had beached himself at Skegness, of all places, and I became involved in a rather madcap scheme to take him back to his home in Greenland.

To cut a very long and complicated story short, the journey involved persuading Icelandair to provide a one-way ticket to Keflavík for our new-found friend, hitching a three-day ride northwards to Greenland on an Icelandic gunboat, finding some other walruses and, finally, depositing Wally on a comfortable-looking ice floe.

The entire operation was a great success until, two months later, Wally was seen once again – back in Iceland. This time he was languishing on a beach just north of Reykjavík, as if he had been there all his life. No one could understand why, but secretly I had an inkling: after just a few days in Iceland, like so many other visitors before and since, he had simply vowed to return.

Me too. Every time I come in to land there, and stare out of the window at the dark lava fields, rugged mountain slopes and imposing volcanoes stretched out below, I imagine I’m landing on the moon. The feeling of excitement never fades. The whole landscape speaks aloud of the elemental forces that move continents and build mountains.

Dotted with spectacular ice-caps and glaciers, bubbling mud pools, hot springs, active volcanoes, snow-capped peaks, thundering waterfalls and erupting geysers, Iceland is unlike anywhere else on earth.

Like many visitors, though, it is the wildlife that draws me back time and again. Where else can you encounter minke whales in the orange glow of the midnight sun, mingle with literally millions of puffins on rugged islands and islets, and explore wildflower meadows in the shadow of one of the most famous volcanoes in the world?

So I’ll keep going back. There’s just too much to see and do for me to stop. And, of course, I’ll continue to record each visit in my personal log. But please don’t tell my friend.

Mark Carwardine is a writer, photographer and specialist in marine biology

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